By David Mullen
A team with no name but a lot of heart won the NFC East. A team with a famous name and no heart played like the division title wasn’t worth fighting for.
At 7-9, the Washington Football Team (WFT) bested three division rivals in a battle of utter futility.
The WFT had a winning record only once in 2020, when the team started 1-0. Washington seemed like the least likely winner of the NFC “Least,” yet persevered behind the inspiration of cancer-surviving head coach Ron Rivera and surgically repaired quarterback Alex Smith.
As division winners, the WFT earned the right to host Tom Brady and the reimagined 11-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday, Jan. 9. Facing the seemingly insurmountable hurdle, the squad from the Nation’s Capital may have wished they had entered the season with the moniker Washington Team Football.
It would have created a more appropriate acronym.
As for the Dallas Cowboys, they had played and coached their way into a near impossible situation in their final game against the New York Giants during a season that ranks among the lowest in their 60-year history.
Forget about their meager 6-10 record. This team ranks as one of the worst in their history. Even when they went 1-15 in 1989, the team had a coach (Jimmy Johnson) dedicated to winning and a franchise quarterback/wide receiver tandem (Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin) being groomed to take them to the top.
There are plenty of excuses within the division for the bad football. The Cowboys lost quarterback Dak Prescott earlier in the year and had to turn to journeyman Andy Dalton. He runs like he has shackles on his ankles, yet still outrushed teammate Zeke Elliott and his $9.6 million 2020 contract, 48 yards to 42 in the 23-19 loss to the Giants.
The Giants were without superstar Saquon Barkley most of the year. The WFT cut franchise quarterback Dwayne Haskins because he couldn’t spell COVID and had to turn to Smith, a 36-year-old coming off of 17 different surgeries. The Philadelphia Eagles couldn’t decide between overpaid Carson Wentz or top draft pick Jalen Hurts at quarterback, causing irreparable team confusion. Then, coach Doug Pederson decided to stop caring in the fourth quarter of their final game versus the WFT, a game the Cowboys had hoped they would win after they knocked off the Giants. As it turns out, neither happened.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy must be blamed for providing little direction, motivation and poor decision making throughout the season. It was as if McCarthy was always bucking tradition instead of making sound football choices, like challenging an obvious non-catch or kicking a game tying field goal in the final game when the outcome was still in question.
But the worst example was when the Cowboys entered MetLife Stadium. They appeared to be a team that didn’t want to be there. They got down 20-6 late in the second quarter, looked to McCarthy and saw a man acting like he was focused on an early vacation. It reminded me of a story about former NBA guard Nick Van Exel.
During a series where his Los Angeles Lakers team was being swept by the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Western Conference Finals, the team huddled for their typical “One … Two… Three … Team” chant. Van Exel, feeling that the end of the season was near, cried out “One … Two … Three … Cancun.” Van Exel was traded. Dallas owner Jerry Jones, loyal to a fault, is not going to dismiss McCarthy with four years remaining on an exorbitant contract, although he has earned an extended vacation.
The best teams should survive the first round of the playoffs. A new profit-driven format added a seventh team and gave the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs a first-round bye for securing the best record in their respective conferences.
In the NFC, in addition to the Tampa Bay versus WFT game, the Los Angeles Rams face the Seattle Seahawks, and Chicago Bears play the New Orleans Saints in “The Big Easy.” Tampa Bay takes Brady’s experience and their superior talent to the next round. New Orleans, in what may be quarterback Drew Brees’ final season, should have no problem with the Bears, who must ask for a miracle from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. It’s a miracle that the equipment manager can spell his jersey name correctly each week.
The Los Angeles versus Seattle game may be the most intriguing. The Rams have always been strong on defense, anchored by superstar Aaron Donald. But injuries have wreaked havoc over a once dependable offense. The Seahawks, an early season defensive sieve, has suddenly found a way to plug the holes. Seattle wins at home.
In the AFC, it is the return of smashmouth football. The Indianapolis Colts go into Orchard Park to face the Buffalo Bills. Suddenly, the team from Western New York has a wing and a prayer to advance to AFC Finals. As one knows, at least Buffalo has a wing. Buffalo’s offense is spiced up by coming-of-age quarterback Josh Allen and a stingy defense. The Colts factor is head coach and former Bills legend Frank Reich. If he wasn’t already a head coach, he would be dubbed “the next head coach.” The Colts play in a dome. The weather in Buffalo will be in the high 20s, and the Bills can be coldblooded. The Bills will move on.
The Baltimore Ravens go into Nashville to face the Tennessee Titans in a ground game battle. The Ravens are on a roll, and should continue a march toward the AFC title game. No slight on a deserving 11-5 Titans team, but the Ravens are peaking at the right time. The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers play again. It seems like they play every week. This is a tough call. The Steelers have shown some vulnerability. The Browns, led by quarterback Baker Mayfield, who was drafted six spots ahead of Buffalo’s Allen, have shown some inconsistency. There is always one upset every year, so I’ll take the Browns.
The offseason begins unexpectedly earlier for the Cowboys as they begin planning for the 2021 season, unsure of Prescott’s intentions, Elliott’s head or McCarthy’s ability to coach. Once restrictions subside, the Dallas brass may want to consider meeting in one of the many conference rooms available in Cancun.