Bob Ford: Sloppy play is putting NFC East in a muddle

Jeremy Maclin pulls down Dallas Cowboys' Mike Jenkins by the face mask after Jenkins' third quarter interception on Sunday night. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

Midway through the third quarter last night, when the Eagles lined up for what should have been a simple quarterback sneak on fourth and inches, they tried to outsmart the Dallas Cowboys instead of merely settling for beating them.

You know what happened next. Instead of drawing the Cowboys offside with a stutter count, someone on the offensive line flinched as the Dallas defenders danced in and out. What should have been easy turned into a 5-yard penalty, and what should have been a first down turned into a punt.

It was sometime around then - or maybe when the Cowboys did absolutely nothing with the momentum-changing opportunity handed them by the Eagles - that you had to wonder whatever happened to the NFC East.

This was such a proud division not that long ago. At the start of the regular season, the division had what were considered three legitimate contenders in the Eagles, Giants, and Cowboys, and, of course, the Washington Redskins as The Beaver.

Still, it was pretty good. Three legitimate quarterbacks, three credible defenses, three teams with great histories and high expectations.

Yesterday was not a good day for the division. The Giants coughed up a dreadful loss at home against the Chargers, their fourth straight defeat; the Redskins continued their systematic withdrawal from the NFL; and then the Eagles and Cowboys played a sloppy, uninspiring game that wouldn't have been worthy of also-rans, let alone contenders. In fact, it was a stinker.

The national prime-time audience was treated to an array of penalties, poor throws, bad tackles, dumb play-calling, and - this wasn't the fault of the teams - lousy officiating. Andy Reid likes to trot out the aphorism that a team is never as good as it looks when it wins or as bad as it looks when it loses. The Eagles had better hope that's true. They looked awful in the 20-16 loss to a team that could barely get out of its own way.

As if to prove that having a false start and then a punt on what should have been a simple quarterback sneak isn't so bad, the Eagles went to the line with the same situation in the fourth quarter, didn't mess around with the snap count, but also didn't gain the inches necessary for the first down.

Reid burned his final timeout of the half challenging the spot - which did appear miserly - but the Cowboys got the ball in good field position, anyway. Dallas committed the obligatory holding penalty just out of habit and put themselves in a tough spot, but Tony Romo threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin on a third-and-14 play that gave the Cowboys the lead, 20-13, and ultimately the game.

The refs didn't help the Eagles on the spot, but if you put the officials in a position where they can beat you, that's bad football. Reid wouldn't comment on the officiating, but said he thought it was a representative game, all in all.

"We battled our tails off," Reid said. "It was two heavyweights swinging at each other, a tough, hard-fought game."

That might be how he saw it, but the two teams combined for three turnovers, 11-for-27 third-down efficiency, and more than 150 penalty yards. These teams looked like welterweights at best.

It has been difficult all season to figure out how good the Eagles might be. Until last week, when they thumped the Giants, their only meeting with a legitimate opponent had ended in a loud defeat against the New Orleans Saints. They also managed to lose to the Oakland Raiders along the way, which is the textbook definition of being unpredictable.

The Cowboys split their first four games, losing to the Giants and the Denver Broncos, and have now won four straight. The Giants, meanwhile, won their first five games, have lost their last four, and head into their bye on fumes.

The question is whether these are three very good teams taking turns pounding each other, or whether these are three inconsistent teams that show up sometimes and not others. Watch a game like last night's and it's tempting to say the latter. Apologists and head coaches will tell you that tackle football is a messy business and that motivated opponents can make any team look sloppy. There's some truth there, too, but it doesn't account for stupid penalties and unimaginative play-calling. (And let's take a moment here to say, "Wooo-hoooo," for the Eagles' Wildcat package. That baby has set the league on its ear.)

Donovan McNabb had a poor night, throwing two interceptions, taking too many sacks, and completing barely half his passes. This doesn't all rest on him, however. Reid didn't stick with the run when it was working, and the secondary had a disappointing day. Bad tackling is almost expected back there now, but poor coverage can make even a slingshot artist like Romo look good.

The incredible part of it is that the East is probably still the best division in the NFC, although that's not saying much. Three teams are still above .500 in the East, and the South is the only other division that even has two winning teams.

Does that mean the East is a sleeping beast, just hanging around through the middle of the season before hitting its stride at the end? Maybe, but all day yesterday, and particularly last night, it just seemed to be sleeping.


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