Look For Commanders to Pound the Rock

Not since 2009 has an NFL team had two running backs gain 1,000 or more yards in a season.

They were Jonathan Stewart (1,133 yards) and DeAngelo Williams (1,117 yards) of the Carolina Panthers, becoming the fifth running back tandem ever to do so — after Larry Csonka (1,117 yards) and Mercury Morris (exactly 1,000 yards) with Miami in 1972, Franco Harris (1,128 yards) and Rocky Bleier (1,036 yards) with Pittsburgh in 1976, Kevin Mack (1,104 yards) and Earnest Byner (1,002 yards) with Cleveland in 1985, and Brandon Jacobs (1,089 yards) and Derrick Ward (1,025 yards) with "the New York Football Giants," as Chris Berman constantly referred to them, in 2008.

All five of these teams made the playoffs, of which the '76 Steelers made it to the conference championship game, and the '72 Dolphins, of course, had a perfect season and won Super Bowl VII.

When the newly-renamed Washington Commanders drafted Brian Robinson Jr. of "Power Back U" — also and perhaps better known as the Alabama Crimson Tide — with the 98th overall pick in April's draft (why don't most NFL teams draft running backs even this "early" any more?), it signaled a clear intention on their part to break the aforementioned 13-year drought.

The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Robinson figures to be used concomitantly with the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Gibson to give Washington "double-barrel action" in the backfield — leading to many more gambles on the part of "Riverboat Ron" Rivera, most of which Rivera figures to win.

After all, if your starting quarterback is Carson Wentz, wouldn't you want to run the ball as many times as possible?

And if this approach does prevent Wentz from losing too many games, the Commanders will have a tremendous trend in their favor: Since the Eagles won the NFC East four times in a row starting in 2001, no team in the division has even won it twice in a row.

The Commanders, then known as the Washington Football Team, who finished 7-10 and third in the division a season ago — largely because of the injuries that wreaked havoc on their offensive line, and even more so, their defense (which went from ranking second in the league in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed in 2020 to 22nd and 25th, respectively, in 2021) — are looking up at two deeply-flawed division rivals.

After winning the NFC East and posting a 12-5 record, during which they went undefeated within the division, the Cowboys went one-and-done in the playoffs, losing to 10-7 San Francisco at Jerry World, raising questions as to whether Dak Prescott is a clutch player (he's now 1-3 in the postseason) — and then proceeded to go virtually missing in action in free agency, followed by what was widely panned as, to be nice about it, an unenlightened draft. As Philadelphia wheeled and dealt and Washington got what could prove to be the steal of the entire 2022 draft in Robinson, Dallas just stood by passively and watched it happen.

As for the Eagles, their elephant in the room remains in that room — their total lack of an "elephant" in their backfield, which clearly cost them their Week 2 game against the 49ers. Plus, they lost two starters in their secondary via free agency — cornerback Steven Nelson and safety Rodney McLeod — signing ex-Giant James Bradberry to replace Nelson, and apparently intending to replace McLeod with any of several undrafted rookies (in typical fashion, the Eagles did not draft a power running back, a cornerback, or a safety).

With the four NFC East teams having the four easiest schedules in the NFL in 2022, using the 2021 standings as the standard (mainly because the NFC East will be playing the NFC North and the AFC South, the two weakest divisions in the NFL), Washington's schedule is not only tied with Dallas for the league's softest, but only the hapless Giants are taking a steeper year-to-year drop in strength of schedule than the 67-percentage-point drop that the Commanders will enjoy. By contrast, the Cowboys will only see their schedule ease by 26 percentage points, and the Eagles, by a statistically-insignificant five percentage points.

This is why the division's recent recovery figures to continue: After having gone 17 games under .500 in 2020 — with Washington winning the division at 7-9! — and improving to just four games under .500 a year ago, the NFC East figures to poke its collective nose above the break-even mark this season for the first time since 2016.

And just as the late Buddy Ryan wouldn't even recognize today's soft, undersized Eagles, so the late George Allen would not recognize the youth movement that his team has become: the oldest projected starter on the 2022 Commanders, tight end Logan Thomas, will turn 31 on July 1. Hell, half of Allen's starters were older than that throughout most of his seven years as head coach of the team!

The proverbial planets appear to align in such a way that the Commanders, not the Eagles, will keep the "No Repeat Jinx" in the NFC East alive.

And with such a hard-nosed running game — with Wentz relegated to a "game manager" role, to which he has been best suited all along — "Hog Heaven" will recur in the nation's capital.

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