- Ashley Fox
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No one is safe, nor should they be.
What was once the best division in football is at its lowest point since the league realigned its two conferences to have four divisions of four teams in 2002. Its teams have so underperformed that, in the conference, even the lowly NFC West has a better overall record -- 22-26, compared with 21-27 -- despite St. Louis' 2-10 record and Seattle and Arizona's 5-7. You can thank 10-2 San Francisco for that, or you can blame the men who have run the NFC East into the ground.
There isn't a dominant team in the division. There isn't a contender. One will get a home playoff game, but only in the wild-card round and only by default. The others will spend the postseason at home, either looking for answers or looking for a new coach.
Tom Coughlin, Jason Garrett, Andy Reid and Mike Shanahan are all educated, competent men, but each has played a major role in his team's failure. Although unlikely, it is not out of the realm of possibility that each will lose his job at season's end. They essentially run billion-dollar corporations. A sub-.500 return on investment is hardly acceptable.
These are smart football men. Reid is the longest-tenured coach in the league and has been to five NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. Coughlin has won a Super Bowl, and Shanahan has won two. Garrett is in his first full season as the Cowboys' coach, but he has spent his career in the NFL, and he went to Princeton. A Princeton man should know when to call a timeout and when to clock the ball.
But here they sit, on the edge of football obscurity. What should be a highly anticipated divisional game between the Cowboys and Giants has been reduced to a clash between teams trying to stay relevant. Dallas is coming off a ridiculous loss to Arizona. The Cowboys had a victory in hand before Garrett inexplicably got scared. He coached not to lose instead of going for the win.
Garrett so distrusted his team that he grounded the offense. Instead of calling a timeout and trying to get a few more yards to make a potential game-winning field goal a chip shot, he decided that a 49-yarder from his rookie kicker was a better option. Better to kick long than to risk losing yards.
Talk about a vote of confidence.
And then Garrett did the unthinkable. Right before Dan Bailey booted the game-winner through the uprights, Garrett called a timeout, essentially icing his own kicker. Garrett said he was afraid the play clock, which had ticked down to 6 seconds, would expire, when in fact it would not have.
Garrett didn't trust his team, and he didn't trust himself. His team lost the game in overtime and lost a chance at wrapping up a weak division title this weekend.
Not that Garrett's divisional coaching peers have been much better.
In Philadelphia, Reid has made a series of off-the-field mistakes that have led to the worst collapse of his tenure. He made changes to his coaching staff, most notably promoting his offensive line coach to defensive coordinator, even with the lockout looming. Then he discarded veteran locker-room leaders, including safety Quintin Mikell and middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, and brought in a series of high-priced free agents.
Team chemistry in football doesn't just happen. It takes vocal, accountable, productive leaders. For leaders, Reid banked on Michael Vick, who has been injured throughout the season, and Asante Samuel, who chafed at being trade bait and said that the Eagles' front office, which includes Reid, was playing "fantasy football" instead of building a team.
Reid also completely mishandled his mercurial star wide receiver. He knew DeSean Jackson was unhappy with his contract, yet he brought in another receiver, Steve Smith, and paid him nearly five times what Jackson is making this season. Reid ignored Jackson instead of taking care of him, and now no one should be surprised that Jackson is more concerned about his health than the health of the team.
Shanahan's biggest mistake of 2010 has continued to haunt him through 2011. He has misjudged four quarterbacks now: Jason Campbell, Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck. He discarded Campbell after trading for McNabb last season and then benched McNabb 13 games in after finally figuring out that McNabb's weaknesses outweighed his strengths.
The fact that Shanahan went into this season with Grossman and Beck, rather than trying to sign another quarterback, looked asinine in August. That he has shuttled between the two and the Redskins have lost six of their last seven games is no surprise.
Quarterback is the most important position in football, and Shanahan, who is supposed to be an expert at evaluating the position, has been unable to find one. It has set the Redskins back two years and counting.
Coughlin has actually done the most with the least, and he still might lose his job because of his team's habit of collapsing down the stretch and missing the playoffs. The Giants started 5-0 in 2009 only to finish 8-8, and missed the playoffs in 2010 after losing two of their last three to finish 10-6.
This season -- despite losing defensive back Terrell Thomas and middle linebacker Jonathan Goff in the preseason, among others -- the Giants started 6-2, but they have lost four straight -- to San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Green Bay.
The Giants' remaining schedule includes two games against the Cowboys, Washington at home and the Jets at New Meadowlands Stadium.
New York or Dallas will end up winning the division. Someone has to.
The NFC East has become the NFC Least. The division's only signature win came when the Giants beat the Patriots. Dallas beat San Francisco in Week 2 before the 49ers got rolling. The Eagles' only win outside of the division came in Week 1 over St. Louis. The Redskins got blanked by Buffalo and couldn't beat Carolina.
These are proud, storied franchises with demanding owners who have made a lot of money marketing their teams. They expect better from the men whom they have chosen as their leaders.
Given the results this season, the question now is: Will any of the head coaches get another shot?
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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