NFC East back in business

The NFC East was once the most powerful division in the league, producing eight Super Bowl champions in 14 seasons. From the 1990 through '93 seasons, the NFC East won four straight titles. At one point, NFC East franchises took home the Vince Lombardi Trophy in five of six years. And in the first 11 seasons of the 12-team postseason format, the division had multiple playoff entries nine times. In the first three years of the 12-team playoff bracket, in fact, the NFC East twice provided three qualifiers.

The division has fallen, though, on hard times. Not since Dallas won Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season has a team from the division captured the title. Only two teams since then, the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV and the Philadelphia Eagles last year, have appeared in the title game. And the once-fierce competition in the division has given way to Eagles dominance, with Philadelphia taking the last four NFC East crowns, by an average of 3½ games.

The Sunday results, with victories by all three division teams that were in action, don't necessarily augur a resurgence by the NFC East. Not yet. But the events of the day suggest that the division could produce at least two playoff teams in 2005 and that Philadelphia, which won the NFC East by seven games last season, might actually have to wait until mid-December to begin plotting its postseason plans.

No matter what transpires Monday night at the Georgia Dome, the Eagles remain the team to beat in the NFC. But the road might finally be a bit more difficult for a team that has won 22 of 26 games in the division over the last four seasons, and hasn't had more than one defeat in the NFC East since 2001.

Dallas and the New York Giants both played very well Sunday. The Redskins' victory? Hey, it was a Chicago team starting a rookie quarterback, plus Washington coach Joe Gibbs might be ready to start his quarterback roulette wheel spinning already. We want to see the Skins at least score a touchdown -- please, Washington fans, none of that a-win-is-a-win stuff, OK? -- before we agree there's any improvement in that anemic offensive attack. The Giants, though, displayed some resourcefulness. The Cowboys, in beating a very good San Diego team on the road, demonstrated grit. If Bill Parcells can keep ol' Drew Bledsoe upright, and keep him from throwing interceptions, the Cowboys might be a little better than we originally anticipated. And the NFC East might actually have some remote semblance of a divisional race again.

Off and running
On the opening day of Tampa Bay Bucs training camp, even though first-round tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams didn't arrive at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex until 2:30 a.m. after signing his contract, you could tell the guy is a player. Yeah, even without pads and simply in no-contact drills, his skills were that obvious. And so, beyond the stunning fact that Williams got enough blocking from one of the NFL's least talented and least experienced offensive units, there wasn't really all that much surprising about his 148-yard debut.

That the Bucs' defense, even with the pride it still possesses, could shut down the Minnesota offense and thoroughly embarrass Daunte Culpepper, now that was surprising.

But coach Jon Gruden knew, as far back as the Senior Bowl all-star game in January, where the Bucs' staff coached Williams, that he could be a special back. And he will be. Williams has size, for sure, but he also runs with deceptive power. He's nifty enough to make a tackler miss but strong enough to run through him. On a day when many of the plaudits went to Steelers second-year tailback Willie Parker, and justifiably so, since he ran for 161 yards and added a reception for 48 yards, it was still hard to overlook what Williams accomplished. And harder still to imagine that he was only the third tailback chosen in the 2005 draft.

Switching up the defense
Don't be surprised to see the New England Patriots rely a little more this season on the 4-3 front, the defensive alignment to which Bill Belichick switched in the second half of the Thursday night victory, and which shut down the Oakland Raiders' offense. One of the many things Belichick is about is playing to the strengths of his team.
For years, the unit that made Belichick's defense work was the linebackers, usually highlighted by at least one standout hybrid-type player. But the strength of the New England defense might have shifted to its front four, where Belichick and vice president of personnel Scott Pioli have assembled a group of terrific young players. And, to be candid, with the absences this year of Tedy Bruschi (stroke), Ted Johnson (retirement) and Roman Phifer (not re-signed), the Patriots' linebacker corps is neither as deep nor as talented as in recent years.

But look at the defensive line the Pats put on the field Thursday: Ty Warren and Jarvis Green at ends and Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork at tackles. A trio of first-round picks and an overachieving fourth-rounder. None is older than 26, and none has been in the league for more than four seasons.

Between 2001 and 2004, the Pats invested six picks, from the first round through the fourth, on defensive linemen. Perhaps the lone miss was on Dan Klecko (2003), who has been more a utilitarian player than anything else. But in the four guys who lined up against the Raiders for most of the second half, plus backup end Marquise Hill, the Pats have five keepers.

We can recall Seymour's telling us last season that his favorite position wasn't at end in the 3-4 front but actually playing the "under" tackle in the four-man alignment. Seymour is a monster no matter where he plays. But working inside against guards, where he can use his strength and quickness against blockers who aren't going to be nearly as athletic as he is, means a lot of mismatches.

New England still has three excellent hybrid 'backers in Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and Rosevelt Colvin, as well as a promising youngster, Tully Banta-Cain, at the position.

But the Pats aren't quite as solid inside with the newcomer tandem of Chad Brown and Monty Beisel. That's not to say the veteran free agents won't improve the more they work their way through the nuances of a very complicated scheme. But the Raiders had early success running inside in the opener and the run wasn't successfully slowed until New England switched to a four-man line. We might see more of it as the season goes on, and perhaps more of Vrabel's moving inside, as well.

Frankly, the 3-4 that has been the hallmark for Belichick has always been a multiple front, anyway, sort of an amoebalike entity that could morph, because of the versatility of the outside linebackers, into a 4-3 without making substitutions.

Coaching them up
We told everyone back in June (feel free to check the archives), after having watched two practices at a Miami Dolphins minicamp, that Nick Saban could coach. Of course, we also noted that his acumen wouldn't matter very much this season, given the talent-challenged roster the Dolphins possessed.

We're sticking with both assessments for now. Sunday's upset victory over the Denver Broncos and Coach Teflon (does Mike Shanahan ever come under fire after abysmal performances like Sunday's fiasco?) aside, the Dolphins will do well to steal another four or five wins in 2005. But Saban, no matter how he might grate on some people, knows what he is doing, folks. We've noted this before, but it bears repeating: Of the 15 franchises we saw firsthand in training camp, Miami was the best-practicing team of the bunch. Maybe the Dolphins aren't like that every day, but we're betting the timing of practices, the precision and attention to minutiae hasn't changed much, if at all.

It's going to take a few years for Saban to get his people in place. And while he's replenishing the talent base, some of his best current veteran players, such as defensive end Jason Taylor, linebacker Zach Thomas and corner Sam Madison, to cite a few, will be headed toward the ends of their careers. So Saban, in addition to being a terrific coach, is going to have to be successful in the personnel side of the business, too. The hunch here is that he will be.

Plus, for now, he's likely to find ways to get more out of less. Taylor originally balked at playing a hybrid outside spot but quickly warmed to the concept, and on Sunday, he had five tackles, a sack and an 85-yard fumble return for a touchdown. It was his fifth fumble return for a score, tying the NFL record set by former Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle. Saban took New Orleans castoff safety Tebucky Jones and Lance Schulters, who played just three games in 2004, and the tandem combined for 19 tackles Sunday.

So, it seems, it is possible for a new coach to teach some old dogs a few fresh tricks.

Certainly that was the case Sunday for another first-year head coach, Mike Nolan of San Francisco, whose 49ers upset the St. Louis Rams. Kudos to Nolan, as well, for earning his first win. And for taking a player such as Bryant Young, a great 4-3 tackle his entire 11-year career, and finding a way to make him useful in the 3-4. Playing at left end, Young rang up three sacks against the Rams. And hybrid linebacker Julian Peterson, who everyone knew would benefit from the switch to the 3-4, had two sacks.

Not lining up
At some point, Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green is going to have to settle on an offensive line and get the unit playing consistently. It isn't Green's fault, of course, that injuries forced him to start a center Sunday who wasn't even with the Cardinals at the outset of training camp. But the Cards have been playing offensive line roulette for the last couple of years, weeding out the blockers who preceded Green's tenure, and trying to add younger and better bodies.

The results, to date, haven't been good. Think about this: The Cardinals' leading rusher Sunday was quarterback Kurt Warner, with 11 yards. Starting tailback J.J. Arrington, with whom Green fell in love at the combine, had eight carries for 5 yards. Three of his eight attempts were for minus-yardage and three others were for 1 yard or no yards.

Warner was forced to throw 46 times because of the lopsided score, and putting the two-time most valuable player back in the pocket that many times every week is putting him in harm's way, and eventually out of commission. There has to be better balance, and that means a better running game, and that starts up front with the line unit.

Heading into Monday night's game, a total of 22 rookies started in the opening week of play. Eight of the 22 were first-rounders. The lowest-drafted rookie starter was Green Bay right offensive guard Will Whitticker of Michigan State, a seventh-round choice and the 246th player selected overall. There were two sixth-round starters, Dallas offensive right tackle Rob Petitti (No. 209) and Houston strong safety C.C. Brown (No. 188). ... After Sunday's dismal performance, Denver quarterback Jake Plummer has thrown one touchdown pass and seven interceptions in three appearances against Miami. ... Jeff Feagles of the Giants broke Sean Landeta's league record for most career punts. ... Kansas City backup tailback Larry Johnson has had six straight games with two or more touchdowns. ... The Buffalo Bills wanted more of a run dimension at quarterback, and they got it -- with first-year starter J.P. Losman carrying six times for 31 yards in Sunday's victory. In his three years as the Bills' starter, Drew Bledsoe gained only 133 yards on 73 carries in 48 games. His biggest rushing game with the Bills was a 17-yard outing against Oakland in 2002. Losman topped that with just one scramble, a 19-yarder, in his debut start. For his career, Bledsoe has just one rush of longer than 19 yards, a 25-yard romp in 1999. ... The Houston pass rush, the second-worst in the NFL over the last two years, recorded only one sack Sunday. . . . Bills safeties Lawyer Milloy and Troy Vincent combined for two interceptions. ... The three points the Packers eked out in losing at Detroit are the fewest Green Bay has ever scored during the Brett Favre era. ... Vikings safety Darren Sharper has returned each of his last three interceptions for touchdowns. Sharper, by the way, is one of three clients of agent Joel Segal cited by The Wall Street Journal last week as being the highest-paid at their positions. Segal is the lone agent with three clients in the group. ... So much for the Vikings' plan to get back to the power running game they featured a couple seasons ago. Minnesota managed just 33 yards on 15 carries; quarterback Daunte Culpepper led the team in rushing; and starting tailback Michael Bennett had minus-1 yard on six carries. ... Jets quarterback Chad Pennington fumbled six times Sunday, losing one of them.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.