Doug Pederson's first season could see Eagles in contention for division title

PHILADELPHIA -- When he was hired as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Doug Pederson said right away that he believed the team could contend in 2016. This team, Pederson said, has more talent than the 1999 team that Andy Reid inherited (and Pederson played on).

Last week, executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said the Eagles’ offseason might result in a little belt-tightening over the next year or two. The Eagles’ spending in 2016 was about building a core group that could develop into winners over the next few years. It was not about quick fixes that would benefit the team this season.

So which is it? What are the Eagles’ intentions and what are their chances to contend in the NFC East?

That question actually hints at the answer. The Eagles’ intentions may be to build a long-term contender, but the reality of the NFC East is that all four teams have the chance to win the division title in any given year. No team has repeated as division champion since the Eagles in 2003-04.

In that sense, then, the Eagles certainly have a reasonable chance to contend in 2016.

Remember, they were in the tepid NFC East race right up until December, when they lost home games to Arizona and Washington. The second loss gave Washington the division title.

That late-season fade looked bad. It was bad. But the fact remains that the Eagles were competitive until that two-game skid and they still finished ahead of Dallas and the Giants. All of that may say more about the state of the NFC East than the Eagles, but in this case, there’s no difference.

If the NFC East is mediocre, then a mediocre team could win it. So the Eagles, who could be better than mediocre, certainly have a shot.

The other side of that coin, of course, is that any of the three other mediocre teams in the division could also win it. Washington won it last year and has an apparently rising quarterback in Kirk Cousins. But what if Cousins recedes the way Robert Griffin III did (or, more recently, the way Nick Foles did in 2014)? Washington could be 5-11 or 6-10 as easily as 10-6.

Dallas? The Cowboys were in good shape going into 2015. They had won the division in 2014 and had added pieces to their offensive and defensive lines. But Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks broke Tony Romo's collarbone and all bets were off. The Cowboys went 4-12.

But if Romo and Dez Bryant stay healthy in 2016, there is every reason to believe the Cowboys can run away with the division title. If Romo gets hurt again, then the Cowboys could fall apart again. It’s that simple.

The Giants are even more of a mystery than the Eagles. Tom Coughlin had coached them for so long, and had won two Super Bowls, that the team is bound to be very different. If new coach Ben McAdoo can jump-start the team, the Giants could very well be contenders. If the team stumbles in its first steps under McAdoo, it could be another long season for Giants fans.

The Eagles are similar. They re-signed Sam Bradford in order to give themselves a chance to be competitive in 2016. If Bradford thrives in Pederson’s offense -- and two years removed from his ACL surgery -- the Eagles could be better than expected. If Jim Schwartz’s defense gets more out of the talent on hand than Bill Davis’ 3-4 scheme, the Eagles could be much better.

Factor in the advantages of running a standard NFL offense instead of Chip Kelly’s no-huddle scheme, and the Eagles could improve as the season goes on.

There are pitfalls, of course. The lack of weapons on offense, especially at the wide receiver position, could hamstring Pederson’s offense. The transition to a new defense could expose the annually rebuilt secondary. We still have no idea whether Pederson was immune to Andy Reid’s game management idiosyncracies.

The bottom line is that it can be discouraging to go into a season marked entirely as a rebuilding year. The Eagles aren’t putting their fans through that. They took steps to build a long-term winner, but also steps to improve the 2015 team in the short term.

There are no guarantees, but there’s a chance.