AT THEHuntersville, N.C., headquarters of Joe Gibbs Racing, where Tony Stewartonesies sell alongside Kyle Busch temporary tattoos, the company's namesakestill marvels at the mayhem of the NFC East. Two days before his old team, theWashington Redskins, was to play the Eagles, Gibbs recalled the many times hetook the Skins to Philadelphia, where the bellicosity on the field oftenspilled into the stands and beyond. "One year they beat up our mascot inthe parking lot," Gibbs said of the more rambunctious strain of Eagles fan."We all had to chip in and get him stitched up." On Sunday at LincolnFinancial Field, the day's heaviest blows came on the stadium floor, where theRedskins displayed a thumping running game, a mauling defense and well-timedgadgetry. Their 23--17 victory was their second straight on the road against anNFC East rival, no small accomplishment in a division rife with talent anddecades of animosity. "Anytime you're winning games, especially in thisdivision, people start talking about you," says Redskins quarterback JasonCampbell. "Now teams are going to put that X on our back." AddsWashington tight end Chris Cooley, "The NFC East is wild rightnow."
It all looks veryfamiliar. Almost every game was like that during the 1980s and '90s, when theNFC East's four powers (the division also included the Cardinals until 2002)knocked themselves silly trying to rise to the top. Large cities, feistyowners, boisterous fans, legendary coaches and gifted, physical players definedthe NFC East in its heyday, when its teams won seven Super Bowls in 10 years,from the 1986 to the '95 seasons. Now the Giants (4--0), Redskins (4--1),Cowboys (4--1) and Eagles (2--3) are harking back to that era, pulverizingopponents and themselves in search of a Super Bowl title. With only one defeatoutside the division—the Eagles' loss to Chicago in Week 4—the East isborrowing the mantra of its predecessors: Give it all in the division, and thelumps will only make you stronger.
"The teamfortunate enough to win this division will be the team best positioned to winthe Super Bowl," says Eagles president Joe Banner, whose club might beamong the best half-dozen in the league even as it sits at the bottom of theNFC East. "Some people think you're going to knock yourselves out, but Isee the highly competitive team rising to the occasion and being better. Thehistory of the division backs that up."
Of the four teamsin the East, the Redskins had appeared to be the least capable of contendingthis year. Coach Jim Zorn is in his first season, having never before run aclub. Campbell is working with his third offensive coordinator in four NFLseasons. In Washington's opening day loss to the Giants, neither the coach northe quarterback looked comfortable.
October 12, 2008
But there theywere on the sideline on Sunday, Zorn jumping up and down even before theRedskins took the field, Campbell standing in front of him, wondering if the55-year-old coach, who quarterbacked the Seattle Seahawks for nine seasons inthe '70s and '80s, wanted a helmet instead of a headset. "I told him, 'Letme know if you want me to swap pads—you look like you're getting ready toplay,'" Campbell said. "He told me, 'Nah, I'm just getting ready forthe game too.'"
After Washingtonfell behind 14--0, the offensive line began channeling the Hogs of old, openinglarge holes for running back Clinton Portis. The Skins methodically forged acomeback, kicking three field goals in the second quarter, then took the leadin the third when wideout Antwaan Randle El took the ball on an end around andfound Cooley for an 18-yard TD pass. "You know how many times we practicedthat play?" Zorn said. "Once."
But the telltaleplay came on fourth-and-one from the Eagles' 38, with the Redskins leading23--17 and 2:48 remaining. Instead of punting and giving Philly one more chanceto score, the Redskins went for the win. From the shotgun formation, Campbellfaked a pass to the right and handed the ball to Portis, who rumbled up themiddle for the final three of his 145 bruising rushing yards. The Eagles,tough-luck losers in Dallas in Week 2, were victims yet again. "This is atough division," said Philly defensive end Trent Cole. "Every play hasto be right. One play can cost you the whole game."
Jon Jansen, theRedskins' right tackle, said the short-yardage call was a lineman's dream."We take a lot of pride being able to pound the ball down the field,"he said. "It's hard to defend us right now."
As the Redskinsdressed for the short trip home, the news from around the division was comingin. The Cowboys had built a quick 17-point lead against Cincinnati, on the wayto a 31--22 win. The Giants had crushed Seattle 44--6.
In Dallas, TonyRomo and Terrell Owens are reviving memories of Aikman-to-Irvin. In New York,power back Brandon Jacobs is Ottis Anderson redux, and the front seven isdominating as it did in the days of Leonard Marshall, Harry Carson and LT. AndPhilly, even with the Eagles battered and bruised, is a place few teams want tovisit.
"Thedivision," says Gibbs, "looks a lot like it used to."
IT'S HARD to sayexactly when these rivalries were born. Perhaps it was the moment Eagleslinebacker Chuck Bednarik laid out Giants running back Frank Gifford in 1960.Or perhaps they were the result of all of those collisions in the Violent Worldof Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker for the Giants and the Redskins. JoeTheismann, the former Redskins quarterback, credits Washington coach GeorgeAllen for adding heat during the '70s, especially to the Skins' rivalry withDallas. "He always had this smile on his face during Cowboys week,"says Theismann. "He'd say, 'Let's punch 'em in the mouth. We want streetfights, they want finesse. They don't want to get their shiny uniforms dirty.Their receivers like to stand with their hands on their hips.' He used itall."
If Allen wasstirring things up in Washington, the former Cowboys president and generalmanager Tex Schramm was his team's catalyst. On game days Schramm couldsometimes be heard in the press box, shouting at the officials. He was aconstant presence in the offices of coach Tom Landry and personnel director GilBrandt. "If you wanted to be around one of the most highly competitivepeople in the world, Tex was it," says Brandt, now an analyst for NFL.com."Tex made daily rounds between Tom's office and my office. He wasn't makingsure we were one step ahead of everyone else. He was making sure we were yardsahead of everyone else."
That attitudefiltered down to the Cowboys' locker room. "As Tom Landry used to say, 'Youcan get away with [certain behavior] and play in the National Football League,but you can't get away with that and be a Dallas Cowboy,'" says formerDallas running back Calvin Hill. "It planted a seed in me. If you were aDallas Cowboy, you had to be exceptional." And for that, the rest of leaguehated them.
By the 1980s, withLandry and Gibbs in place, Bill Parcells coaching the Giants and Dick Vermeiland, later, Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia, the rivalries were well established—andall but interchangeable. In some cases personal style stoked the flames. In allcases, dominating the line of scrimmage was the means of survival.
"We would playWashington, and they'd call it the body-bag game," says former Giantslinebacker Carl Banks. "Then we'd play Philly, and they'd call that thebody-bag game. We knew that if we didn't go out and get them, they'd get us. Noone was left standing with a full roster when the game was over."
Theismann likes tobreak down the NFC teams by fan base, giving highest marks—naturally—to theRedskins for the almost collegiate atmosphere at home games. He's less gushingabout the other three. The Cowboys: "Their fans treat the games like asocial outing. 'Hmm, what jersey am I going to wear...the blue one, the whiteone or the pink one?'" The Giants: "Loud and almost obnoxious. Theywould harass you. You wanted to smile, but you couldn't let them see that. Ihated that place." The Eagles: "Downright cruel. Any stadium that had ajail in it, that says all you need to know."
THEISMANN SAYS aday rarely goes by that a stranger doesn't ask him how his leg is holding up.Two years after winning the league's Most Valuable Player award in 1983, he wasdropping back to pass against the Giants in a Monday Night Football game whenthe force of a Lawrence Taylor tackle snapped the bones in his right leg. Hisfractured tibia protruded through his sock. Few plays have so vividly capturedthe toughness of the NFC East.
For 20 yearsTheismann refused to watch the tape. Then, in 2005, he sat down with a New YorkTimes reporter to see it for the first time. "The first thing that wentthrough my mind was, My God, you can hear the break," he said. "Thesecond thing was, Thank God we didn't have the camera angles we havetoday."
Theismann seesTaylor once a year, usually at a golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, but the injuryis a topic they've broached only once, in 1986, a year after the incident.Theismann had retired; Taylor was still playing. "LT, we're going to beconnected for the rest of our lives through my injury," Theismann says hetold Taylor. "We know how it affected my life. It ended my career. Did itaffect you? And he says, 'Joe, the one thing I learned that night was that nomatter how great you are, it can be over in an instant. You can't take a playor one minute for granted.'"
That could serveas the code of the NFC East, where every yard is contested and every hitcarries conviction. In 2008 a team that survives the gantlet of the NFL's bestdivision will emerge battle-tested for the postseason. "The thing I see inthe division today is the same thing I saw 10, 20, 30 years ago," saysTheismann. "Notice has been served again."
"We'd play Washington, and they'd call it theBODY-BAG GAME," says Banks. "Then we'd play Philly, and they'd callthat the body-bag game."
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