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The best division in football will be on trial this year. The charge: The NFC East is losing its edge. "No way it's the dominant division it once was," says one of its inhabitants, Cowboy wide receiver Michael Irvin. "We lost a lot of guys who made the NFC East rough on both sides of the ball."
Who can remember a division undergoing more changes in one off-season? Washington lost a Hall of Fame coach, Joe Gibbs. Three teams lost their best defensive player—the Eagles ( Reggie White), the Cardinals ( Tim McDonald) and the Redskins ( Wilber Marshall). The Giants hired a coach, Dan Reeves, who couldn't beat the NFC in the Super Bowl in three tries with the Broncos, and they lost the guts of a coaching staff that had won two Super Bowls. Dallas lost an offensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, who took over the Bears and will be sorely missed. The Eagles lost 11 free agents and a ton of spirit, and they face losing two more great defenders, linebacker Seth Joyner and defensive end Clyde Simmons, to free agency in '94. Phoenix committed $28 million to five free agents, trying to buy respect.
The upshot of all these changes is that Dallas will once again win the division, even if tailback Emmitt Smith continues to hold out into September, and the Giants will emerge as the prime challenger. The Giants' fortunes hinge on the 37-year-old arm of quarterback Phil Simms, but after all of the turmoil of the last two, post- Bill Parcells seasons, Simms, who missed 12 games to injury in '92, is fit and excited.
With a fortified defense and good receivers, Simms should help push the Giants back into double digits in the win column and into the wild-card round come January. "It's amazing how quick this division turned," says Simms. "A couple of years ago everyone was drafting to match up with us, and now everybody's in a race to try to be like Dallas. I know I've got to stay healthy and play smart and not try to hang on to the ball that extra second every time to try to make a play, because that's how I've gotten hurt."
Among the new faces on the Giants is that of Mike Sherrard, the free-agent receiver from the 49ers who is having a terrific camp. In an afternoon scrimmage last week he consistently broke free from young cornerbacks downfield. "He's going to give us something we just haven't had here," Simms says.
If the Giants do falter—either because the aging Simms can't hold up over 16 games, or running back Rodney Hampton misses significant time—Washington will be the best team east of Dallas. But the Redskins must have a superb play-calling year from offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower, who is finally out from under Gibbs's shadow, and a solid year from Jekyll and Hyde quarterback Mark Rypien. Less than a month after he was named to replace Gibbs, coach Richie Petitbon called Rypien into his office and told him, "You've got to step up this year and play better. That's all there is to it." No question about it. Gibbs may have squeezed everything he could out of Rypien in 1991, when Rypien passed for 28 touchdowns, had only 11 interceptions and was the Super Bowl MVP. Did 1992 (13 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and lots of boos) reflect the real Rypien?
"Even with all the injuries we had on the line, I didn't play anywhere near how I could," says Rypien. "It's time I earned my keep around here."
The fortunes of Rypien and Simms should tell all about this division.