EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The NFL is a league that adapts with unforgiving ease, a fundamental truth that was hammered home in an opening-night slugfest that offered a loud glimpse at what it is going to take to win the NFC East this season.
Last year, the Giants and the Cowboys combined to score 116 points in the eight quarters they faced each other. On Wednesday night, they spent the first two quarters of 2012 battering each other into the MetLife Stadium Turf, the front sevens of both defenses dictating the action.
We all know that the current era of the league belongs to the quarterbacks, and we all know that the preferred remedy among defensive coordinators is to pressure the quarterback. What we don't know is how prepared the Eagles are to deal with all of it. But deal they must.
All of the hand-wringing about Michael Vick's ability to avoid injury has somewhat overshadowed the fact that when he was healthy, he wasn't very good. At least, he wasn't good in the way Tony Romo was good on the Cowboys' first drive of the second half, rolling right away from the Giant pressure and lofting a 40-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Ogletree to give Dallas a 14-3 lead.
The numbers say that Vick was one of the least efficient quarterbacks in the NFL when he was under pressure last season. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he completed just 42.4 percent of his passes and threw as many touchdowns as interceptions when he was pressured. In fact, his numbers in 2010 were nearly identical.
Before the game, the Giants lined up all four of their Lombardi trophies on a stage at the center of the field, the last two providing a most abhorrent sight for an Eagles fan base that would sell most of its earthly possessions just to have one. As you looked at the metallic gleam of the fluorescent lights, you wracked your brain for some explanation for the Giants' good fortune. This, after all, was a team that went 9-7 during the regular season, that allowed the eighth-most points in the league, that endured many of the same criticisms as their division rivals to the south, who, by the way, have won six of the last seven regular-season meetings between the two teams.
And then you look back at the Super Bowl box score and you see the numbers next to Eli Manning's name. It's the quarterback, dummy. It has been the quarterback for the last decade, and it will be the quarterback for the foreseeable future. And of all the plot lines that we can create to drive the narrative of this 2012 season, the referendum on the coach and the defensive coordinator and the personnel philosophy, it is going to come down to the quarterback. Not whether he can stay healthy. But what he is able to do if he does stay healthy.
Last year, the league showed that it had adapted to Vick. He was blitzed more often, confused at the line of scrimmage, forced out of the comfort zone that he had inhabited for a 10-week stretch during the 2010 season. The league does this to all quarterbacks. It will do it to Cam Newton, to Andy Dalton, and it will try to do it to Andrew Luck.
The good ones are quick to counter. Last season, Romo and Manning were two of the four most accurate quarterbacks in the face of pressure. The other two - Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger - have a trio of Super Bowls to their credit.
In an Eagles season that has been labeled Super Bowl or bust, the determining factor is the diminutive playmaker under center. If last night was any indication, the going is not going to get easier. Adapt or die.
Contact David Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org