The Super Bowl-winning seasons of 1990, '91, '93, '93 and '95 are history. The NFL's strongest division has become the ... NFC Least Football: Poor coaching, bad drafts and free agency have combined for a downturn in the fortunes of former powerhouses.

October 09, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In 1992, Joe Gibbs took the Washington Redskins to the playoffs for the third straight season, Randall Cunningham bounced back from knee surgery to throw 19 touchdown passes for the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson coined the fractured phrase, "How 'bout them Cowboys?"

It was a very good year in the NFC's Eastern Division. Three teams -- the aforementioned three -- made the playoffs. The following January, Johnson won the first of back-to-back Super Bowls in Dallas.

It was truly a golden era for the division that dominated the NFL. There were four straight Super Bowl victories, six in eight years. From 1986 to 1995, nine NFC East teams played in the NFC championship game. Seven won. An eighth lost to another NFC East team.

Today, the division is hardly recognizable for all of its flawed components. The Redskins visit the Eagles in a battle of the lame and winless Sunday, and both coaches are scrambling to save their jobs.

Without question, this is the worst division in football -- worse, even, than the NFC West, which at least has the San Francisco 49ers.

Consider this: the NFC East is 7-18 overall, 2-13 outside the division and 1-10 against the AFC West. It has three teams in the bottom five in total offense. It has two teams (both winless) in the bottom seven in total defense.

And this: The five head coaches have a combined three playoff berths. And one win. And one division title. Four of the five quarterbacks who'll start in Week 6 have 15 or fewer career starts and nine or fewer wins.

And this: Division teams have won one playoff game, total, the past two years.

How did the NFC East go from the best division to the worst division in such a short time?

By mismanaging the draft and free agency, by picking the wrong coaches and quarterbacks, by the natural progression of things in the NFL.

The descent took root as early as 1992.

There was the death of Philadelphia's Jerome Brown in an auto accident in June. Brown was a Pro Bowl tackle on an Eagles defense that ranked No. 1 in total defense, rush defense and pass defense in 1991.

There was the stunning, off-season retirement by Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with the Redskins.

And even in Dallas' Super Bowl season of 1992, the seeds of dissent were sewn. There wasn't enough credit to satisfy both Johnson and owner Jerry Jones, and the two split after their Super Bowl victory a year later.

When full-fledged free agency hit in 1993, the division was in retreat. Here are three reasons each of the division's four dominant teams dropped precipitously after the golden era. (As always, the Arizona Cardinals are excluded from this discussion.)

Dallas Cowboys

1. The Jimmy factor. Without Johnson's ability to evaluate talent, the Cowboys drafts have produced one Pro Bowl player the last four years. And tackle Larry Allen was a second-round pick in 1994. Since Johnson left, the team used first-round picks on defensive end Shante Carver, tight end David LeFleur and, this year, defensive end Greg Ellis. That hardly made up for the front-line players they lost.

2. Free agency. The Cowboys lost linebacker Ken Norton in 1994, wide receiver Alvin Harper in 1995, defensive tackle Russell Maryland in 1996, linebacker Darrin Smith in 1997 and safety Brock Marion this year, and struggled to replace them all. They've also had a hard time replacing defensive end Charles Haley and tight end Jay Novacek, who retired in 1997. Their best free-agent buy was all-around performer Deion Sanders in 1995.

3. Barry Switzer. On Switzer's loose watch, the Cowboys slid from Super Bowl champion to fourth place (6-10) a year ago, before he was finally removed as coach.

Washington Redskins

1. Gibbs' retirement. The Redskins not only lost the man who won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, but the league's best defensive coordinator as well. Richie Petitbon lasted one year as head coach (1993), then was fired. Not coincidentally, the Redskins have been terrible on defense ever since. Norv Turner hasn't exactly reinvented the offense, either.

2. The draft. Desmond Howard in 1992. Heath Shuler in 1994. Michael Westbrook in 1995. Andre Johnson in 1996. They were all first-round picks, all busts. They should be the core of the team. Instead, they're all gone, except Westbrook, who's still trying to reach his potential.

3. The quarterback quandary. Shuler was the quarterback of the future when he was drafted, but the future never arrived. Gus Frerotte arrived, but only briefly. Now it's Trent Green's turn. Whatever magic Turner had in developing Troy Aikman in Dallas was lost in the move.

New York Giants

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