As Joe Gibbs rang in the new year with that old sinking feeling, Washington's 65-year-old coach suddenly remembered why he'd gotten out of the business the first time around. Why did I take this job? Gibbs must have asked himself as he paced the visitor's sideline of Lincoln Financial Field last Jan. 1, watching as his revived Redskins scrapped for their first playoff berth since 1999.
The Skins had won five consecutive games, including a victory over the NFC East-leading New York Giants the week before; now they needed only to subdue the last-place Philadelphia Eagles to secure their place in the postseason.
On paper, to give an analogy that Gibbs can appreciate, it looked like more of a lock than Ricky Bobby beating Cal Naughton Jr. to the checkered flag. The Eagles' season had degenerated into a nightmare long before, and instead of Donovan McNabb going deep for Terrell Owens, it was MikeMcMahon heaving rainbows for rookie Reggie Brown.
Make that Touchdown Reggie Brown: With two first-half trips to the end zone, he and the Eagles jumped out to a 17-7 lead, and Gibbs -- whose team would ultimately rally for a 31-20 victory -- was reminded what it's like to play in a division in which no game is a breather.
When Gibbs ended his 12-year coaching sabbatical in January 2004, some hinted that the NFC East wouldn't pose nearly as much of a challenge as it had during his earlier stint as Washington's coach. At that point only the Eagles had put together back-to-back winning seasons in the 21st century and were in the midst of a run in which they captured each of four consecutive division titles by at least two games.
Gibbs didn't buy the "NFC Least" propaganda for a minute. "What you'd like to do is be in a division with poor ownership and bad coaching," the legendary coach said earlier this month while reclining in his Redskins Park office after a training-camp practice. "Not this one."
Sure enough, as we head into the 2006 season, the East is a beast once again. Two teams that made the playoffs in '05 (the Giants and the Redskins) and another that just missed (the Cowboys) all seem to have gotten stronger, and the Eagles believe they're a lot closer to the unit that won the NFC in '04 than the one that produced last year's 6-10 disaster.
If you think Gibbs, one of the greatest coaches in modern football history, took an easy path to the Hall of Fame, a quick replay review is in order. While coaching Washington to three Super Bowl triumphs and 11 winning seasons from 1981 to '92, Gibbs routinely battled Giants, Cowboys and Eagles teams that were physical, unrelenting and superbly coached. (The Cardinals were in the division as well, but let's not go there.)
Consider that during a 14-year stretch beginning in 1982, the NFC East produced an astounding eight Super Bowl winners, with the Skins also losing one to the Raiders in '84. In three of those seasons a team from the division fell in the NFC Championship Game.