Focus is on passing with more efficiency

Beyond the four dead presidents carved into Mount Rushmore, guys whose craggy visages are forever fixed, is there a more "old school" foursome than the quartet of NFC East head coaches for 2004?

In Andy Reid of Philadelphia, Dallas' Bill Parcells, the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin and Joe Gibbs of Washington, the NFC East features four coaches who philosophically and ethically represent the term "throwback." The stark irony is that, to end the division's Super Bowl drought, the head coaches and their offenses might actually have to throw the ball more this season.

Or at least throw more effectively.

For the NFC East, a division which has historically claimed more victories with its foot soldiers than its air corps, that might seem heretical. But in the glory days of the division, a stretch in which NFC East franchises won seven Super Bowl titles over 10 seasons, the significance of the passing game always outdistanced the credit that it merited. For the NFC East in 2004, having its first Super Bowl qualifier since 2000 and its first champion since the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX in 1995 might well depend on the efficiency with which its teams throw the ball.

"The perception (of the NFC East) has always been that it's a 'run first' division, and that seems true, but you don't win in the NFL if you can't throw the ball well when you have to," allowed veteran quarterback Mark Brunell, who figures to be the Washington starter. "That's just a fact."

And the fact is that, collectively, the NFC East wasn't a good passing division in 2003.

Only one team, the 11th-rated Giants, ranked in the top half of the NFL in passing offense. The four franchises averaged just 17.8 touchdown passes, three fewer than the average for the 28 other teams in the league. Washington was the lone offense that had more than 20 touchdown passes. No starting quarterback posted more than 17 touchdown passes, the division's highest-rated passer ranked just 16th leaguewide, and the NFC East had just one wide receiver with more than 70 catches.

Little wonder that two division teams, the Giants and Redskins (no, we don't buy into the rhetoric that '03 starter Patrick Ramsey will be afforded an opportunity to retain his job), will have new starting quarterbacks in 2004. Or that Parcells imported venerable Vinny Testaverde to either win the No. 1 spot in Dallas or prod Quincy Carter to the next level of excellence to keep his starter spot. The only returning starter with security is Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia and, in his five seasons in the league, he has never thrown more than 25 touchdown passes in a campaign.

The division has also seen the offseason addition of two big-time wide receivers, with the Eagles acquiring Terrell Owens, and the Cowboys getting Keyshawn Johnson. In much less celebrated deals, Washington reacquired James Thrash and the Giants signed former speedster James McKnight.

But the NFC East, one might suggest, has never needed to employ air traffic controllers for games within the division. So why the sudden emphasis on opening up passing games that historically have been more high school than high-tech? Because even at a time when the division was defined by its power offenses, and by running attacks that bludgeoned opponents into submission, its best teams deftly mixed in solid passing games.

"The offenses back then were probably more balanced than people realized," noted former Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien. "It wasn't as one-dimensional as some people might have thought. When we really needed (to throw), we could, and we were very productive doing it. I mean, I think the numbers would bear that out."

Indeed, the statistics confirm the NFC East offenses of the mid-80s to mid-90s were solid through the air. The seven Super Bowl champions from the NFC East in a stretch from 1986-1995 featured attacks that five times ranked statistically in the top half of the NFL in passing offense. Four times, those offenses were in the top seven in passing, and in three Super Bowl years they were among the top five passing attacks.

In those seven championship seasons, the Super Bowl title team featured a quarterback who ranked in the top 10 in efficiency rating six times. Five times the quarterbacks were rated in the top four in the league. Notable is that, in the eight seasons since an NFC East team claimed a Super Bowl championship, the division has had a quarterback among the top six in passer efficiency only three times.

Consider this: In the three seasons in which the Cowboys won Super Bowl titles during the '90s, quarterback Troy Aikman rated either No. 2 or No. 3 in passer efficiency each of those seasons. Given that he averaged just 18 touchdown passes in those championship seasons, Aikman wasn't especially prolific, but he was productive and consistent. That is precisely the kind of play NFC East teams need from their quarterbacks in 2004 if one of the four franchises is to represent the conference in Super Bowl XXXIX.

That is not to say there won't be focus on other areas.

The Cowboys and Redskins will have new starting tailbacks. The Eagles, who have advanced to the conference championship game each of the last three seasons, opened up the checkbook in the offseason to acquire Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse. New York made the bold draft day move to acquire quarterback Eli Manning, signed two-time most valuable player Kurt Warner to tutor him, and Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi has adroitly used his salary cap room to bring in a bevy of veterans who will help overhaul the defense. Redskins owner Dan Snyder was again very active in the trade and free agent markets.

And, of course, there is now the sudden confluence of superior coaches in the division. Every divisional game, and justifiably so, figures to be hyped as a battle of wits.

Hall of Fame member Gibbs left the NASCAR pits following an 11-season hiatus, to attempt to extricate the Redskins from, well, the pits. After a one-season exile, former Jacksonville coach Coughlin resurfaced with the Giants. Parcells improved Dallas by five games in his debut season with the Cowboys and his track record demonstrates he is always better in his second year with a club.

Throw in Reid, whose team has won more games over the last three seasons than any in the league, and it is a murderer's row lineup of combined coaching genius. The quartet totals five Super Bowl wins and, maybe more impressive, 14 appearances in conference title games. If it isn't quite the cradle of coaches, the NFC East suddenly is embedded with proven and powerful sideline bosses.

In a league that has become the consummate coach's domain, and where sideline decisions and game preparation often decide outcomes, the foursome is certain to make a major difference.

But to make the kind of difference that elevates one of the NFC East teams to Super Bowl status, the coaches can forget about all the Mount Rushmore allusions. They'll have to pass more effectively in 2004 to reach the NFL summit.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.