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Why are the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East?

The history of the NFC East division of the NFL somewhat explains its geographical inaccuracy with Dallas definitely not being part of the East Coast.

Cowboys, Eagles, Giants y Commanders: la previa de la NFC Este para la temporada 2023 de la NFL

When the Dallas Cowboys played their first game as an NFL expansion team in 1960, the American Football League was just beginning as a rival to the National Football League, with eight different teams. At that time, the AFL teams were divided into two divisions, the Eastern Division and the Western Division. The NFL teams were divided into an Eastern Conference and a Western Conference. And the Dallas Cowboys were part of the Western Conference of the NFL.

So how did Dallas end up in the NFC East along with three other teams that are located on the East Coast?

The history of the NFC East and the Dallas Cowboys

The NFC East was formed in 1967, although it wasn’t yet called that. In ‘67, we still had the AFL teams and the NFL teams. The AFL was divided into East and West, and the NFL had four divisions: Eastern Capitol, Eastern Century, Western Central, and Western Coastal (with the Cowboys in the Eastern Capitol). Here’s how those divisions looked at the time.

1967 AFL Teams1967 NFL Teams
Eastern: Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Houston Oilers, Miami Dolphins, New York JetsEastern Capitol: Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
Western: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego ChargersEastern Century: Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Cardinals
Western Central: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
Western Coastal: Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Colts, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

While some of the teams moved around in the next three years, that structure stayed the same until 1970 when the AFL and NFL merger happened. This is when we started to get a closer picture to what we have today, and the Cowboys became part of the NFC East. At that point, there were three divisions within the AFC and NFC - East, Central, and West.

That year, the Giants were selected from a random draw to be a part of the NFC East, along with the St. Louis Cardinals, Cowboys, Eagles, and Redskins. Dallas and St. Louis were both located further west than almost any other NFC team, yet they remained part of the East division until 2002.

The 2002 realignment and rivalries

In 2002, the NFL realigned the divisions so that there were four in each conference - East, North, South and West. That’s when the NFC East was finally formed into the four teams we know today - the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, and Redskins (now Commanders).

The main reason that the geography doesn’t match the divisions, however, is because of the rivalries. When the realignment occurred, most of the NFL executives thought it made sense to keep the geographical proximity as the main reason to have teams in certain divisions, and they did become much more accurate at that point…but there were a few exceptions - Dallas being one of them.

Joel Bussert was one of the NFL executives who helped with the realignment back then, and he explained that Dallas just always wanted to be in the East, and so they were. He guessed that they enjoyed the exposure of the media in the east. And that perhaps Minnesota, who was in the West, liked going to the East for the warmer weather. And more importantly, the rivalries had already formed by then. So the league allowed teams with rivalries who had moved out of the divisions to play each other every four years.

“I don’t remember any heated discussions,” said former Colts manager and president Bill Polian. “Everybody always wants Dallas because of the notoriety, just because they’re Dallas. But the formula got you there anyway. You were going to play them every four years, no matter what, so you didn’t lose the rivalry.”

Today, the Cowboys are still located further west than only seven of the eight teams in the Western division of both the NFC and AFC conferences. It leaves some scratching their heads as to why, but with all the shuffling around and the random draws, and the rivalries…it was almost a crap-shoot that Dallas ended up in the East. They are the only team in the NFC East that is not in the Eastern Time Zone, but rather the Central Time Zone.

As it stands, they now form part of the most successful division in the league, with a combined 21 NFC Championships and 13 Super Bowl victories, more than any other division. And the rivalries amongst the current four NFC East teams - the Washington Commanders, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys - are some of the most heated in the league.