Reporting David Elfin
After playing six non-division opponents, the Redskins visit the New York Giants Sunday in their first NFC East game of the season.
How weird is it for Washington to wait so long to face a division rival? So weird that the Redskins opened the past four seasons against an NFC East foe, hadn’t gone past Week 2 before doing so since 2003, and hadn’t played so many games without facing the Giants, Philadelphia or Dallas since 1952, eight years before the Cowboys were born and 18 years before the NFC East was created.
Weird enough for you?
However, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan is happy with this bizarre scheduling because it postponed the division debut of quarterback Robert Griffin III – Washington’s first rookie opening day starter in 51 years – until Week 7.
“It’s always an advantage if you’re going to play within your division if it’s little bit later than earlier, especially with rookie players,” Shanahan said. “I think it is a big benefit for us with Robert and a kid like [rookie running back] Alfred [Morris].”
Griffin has already faced 2011 playoff teams Atlanta, Cincinnati and New Orleans, but his veteran teammates say that NFC East battles take game days to a whole different level.
“It’s gonna be a slugfest,” said right guard Chris Chester, who experienced similar intensity while playing for Baltimore against AFC North archrival Pittsburgh.
“It’s about four quarters of hard-nosed football,” said nose tackle Barry Cofield, who’s in his second season with the Redskins after playing his first five with the Giants and is an amazing 11-1 in the 80-year-old rivalry.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin is as hard-nosed as they come and he certainly has an appreciation of the division after spending 16 of his 26 NFL seasons trying to win its title.
“It’s a knock-down, drag-out division and the games are so competitive and so close,” said Coughlin, who’s 29-24 against Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington during his nine seasons in command in New York. “The division itself is something that any of us that are in it are really proud of. If you can somehow emerge in this division, then you’ve gone through many, many battles and hopefully you’re battle-tested for about anything anyone can throw at you.”
Indeed, the Giants’ triumph in Super Bowl XLVI back in February improved the NFC East to 12-8 in the big dance. The 12 victories top the Super Bowl appearances by all of the other divisions except the AFC East, whose teams are 6-11 while playing for the Lombardi Trophy. Incredibly, NFC East teams won seven of the 10 Super Bowls from 1986-95.
“We only had one playoff team last year, but the Giants won the Super Bowl,” noted Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson, who played for Baltimore and for Seattle in the NFC West before coming to Washington in 2011. “They were [just] 9-7, but they ran through everybody else like it was nothing. You’re gonna have to give it everything you’ve got to win this division and if you do, other games seem easier. It’s a blessing for Robert that he was able to get comfortable in the offense and have a little confidence going before we started playing in the division.”
Griffin performed so well at Baylor last year that he won the Heisman Trophy. Under incredible scrutiny in Washington from the moment he was drafted second overall in April – President Obama talks about him for crying out loud – Griffin is the NFL’s third-ranked passer behind Super Bowl winners Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning as well as its 15th-leading rusher.
But as Wilson said, the NFC East is a different animal than other divisions in part because its teams play in three of the top eight markets.
“It’s definitely different playing here than in the NFC West,” Wilson said. “When I was there, it was a lot of passing, not too many top running backs. San Francisco was the only really run-oriented team. The AFC North was hard-nosed football. They were gonna run the ball every week. It was gonna be a grind-out game. In the NFC East, everybody can pass and run. It’s more of a challenge. You can’t focus on the pass or focus on the run. And you have to be ready to play on a national stage. You don’t see too many rookies other than our guys that can perform on this kind of stage because you’re gonna be in the limelight. You’re gonna have the pressure on you so you have to be able to handle it.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin