The NFL tends to operate with the same basic barometer — Al Davis’ “Just win, baby!” — thanks to the parity that results from a hard salary cap and an annually impactful draft. The reality is, unless your name is Jeff Fisher, you have to make the playoffs in your first two years as a head coach or you’ll be looking for work.
But success can still be relative for teams that are either rebuilding, ascending or ready to contend. The strength of the division as well as the conference, and a team’s schedule can help determine how high the bar can realistically be set.
All22.com is taking a close look at each of the division races to see which teams have a legitimate shot at the postseason.
In this installment, the NFC East.
Washington Redskins (9-7, first place, lost to Green Bay in wildcard round in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Redskins win at least 10 games as well as a playoff game, and quarterback Kirk Cousins sustains his late-2015 success. The schedule is significantly tougher, and so is the division, so it won’t take a giant improvement in its record for Washington to take an enormous step as a franchise. That would come by securing a franchise quarterback, something Cousins toyed with becoming in a closing 10-game stretch that featured 24 touchdowns to three interceptions. But he failed to beat any team with a winning record.
Why it should happen: After slapping the franchise tag on Cousins, the Redskins will have 16 games and a few marquee matchups to figure out if their quarterback is worthy of franchise money. Games against four division winners, as well as four against the improved Cowboys and Giants, should present plenty of tests. And if Washington is to return to the playoffs, it’ll come behind Cousins and a deep receiving corps, because the running game is even thinner than it was last year. Similarly, the defense, despite adding cornerback Josh Norman, still has holes at safety and up front.
And if it doesn’t: Washington might have to hit the reset button at quarterback again, which would be better than investing millions of dollars in a guy who failed to deliver at a key point in his and the team’s development.
Philadelphia Eagles (7-9, second place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Eagles win six games, finish in the top 16 in defense and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz doesn’t see the field. It’s hard to see Philadelphia having a winning season. It’s a team in transition — both in personnel and in scheme — that does not plan to force-feed its rookie class. The Eagles’ record won’t be as telling as the overall direction of the franchise at year’s end. If defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has successfully improved the 30th-ranked defense behind, and if Wentz is afforded the comfort to sit back and learn the nuances of playing quarterback in the NFL, coach Doug Pederson and executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman will have to feel as though Year 1 of the rebuild was a success.
Why it should happen: The only way to justify paying $34 million guaranteed to two veteran quarterbacks is to use that bridge to develop the raw, talented rookie. Whether Pederson will feel comfortable enough to keep such an investment on the bench in high-pressure Philly will come down to how Sam Bradford or Chase Daniel perform. Both are capable, with Bradford still possessing all the tools and Daniel holding experience in Pederson’s quick-strike system. Schwartz has a proven record of elevating defenses overnight, as he did when he took Buffalo’s 10th-ranked defense to No. 4 in his one year there in 2014. Newly signed Fletcher Cox gives Schwartz a Ndamukong Suh-like presence up front to build around as he transitions the unit to a 4-3. If he can develop some linebacker play, this group could be a formidable one in 2016.
And if it doesn’t: Most first-round quarterbacks have to play as rookies, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the Eagles turn to Wentz. It would be far from ideal, given Philadelphia’s lack of weapons around him. The Eagles don’t have a first-round pick in the next draft, so if the quarterback position is unsettled and the defense doesn’t make strides, Roseman could be looking at a much longer rebuild than he imagined.
New York Giants (6-10, third place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Giants win at least 10 games and reach the playoffs. The expectations aren’t much different than they were a year ago when coach Tom Coughlin’s group choked away numerous potential wins in the fourth quarter. The difference is new head coach Ben McAdoo won’t have a lack of defensive talent to blame for the collapses. The Giants added defensive end Olivier Vernon, nose tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins, among others. Ten wins and a low seed in the playoffs has been the familiar lot for the Giants in recent years, and it would be welcomed in 2016.
Why it should happen: McAdoo had the Giants offense humming by end of the year, averaging 28 points a contest over the final nine games with a surprising amount of balance. Quarterback Eli Manning and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. should pick up right where they left off last season, and if the offensive line and running game continue to ascend, this offense could be a top-five unit. It’s never wise to expect a bunch of free-agent acquisitions to play together overnight, but the Giants have always lived and died with the success of their front four, and they’re back to having dominant talent up front in Vernon, Harrison, Jonathan Hankins and a recovering Jason Pierre-Paul.
And if it doesn’t: Fingers will be pointed even more at general manager Jerry Reese, whose wild spending to fix the No. 32 defense will appear even more desperate if the results aren’t there. The Giants appear to have a solid core, but if the egos don’t mesh, a retooling of the roster could be in order.
Dallas Cowboys (4-12, fourth place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Cowboys win at least 10 games and a playoff game behind a healthy Tony Romo. The former is dependent on the latter anyway, as last year’s 1-11 mark without Romo showcased, but the Cowboys desperately need to get through a year without more damage to their starting quarterback. Keeping him upright and winning the organization’s third playoff game since the 1990s would make for a nice season considering the issues Dallas is trying to mask on defense.
Why it should happen: The Cowboys have done just about everything personnel-wise to ensure a safe environment for Romo, from building an offensive line full of first-round picks and drafting Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall to trying to negate how much Romo has to throw the ball. Still, with suspensions eroding their pass rush, they’ll need Romo to do a lot more than hand off to get to 10 wins. An offense with Romo, Elliott, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and an outstanding line can do that.
And if it doesn’t: Jason Garrett might be out of chances, and Dallas will have to get serious about replacing its injury-prone 36-year-old quarterback. It won’t be the easiest thing to do and also find a legitimate pass rush in the same offseason. As long as Elliott is running behind that offensive line, no alarms need to sound in Dallas — although you can bet they will anyway.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at email@example.com and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.