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Serious football-heads wasted no time pointing out potential pitfalls for Joe Gibbs after 11 years away from the NFL. The returning coach will have to find his bearings in a subtly but definitely altered league. Free agency requires teams to reassemble their rosters on the fly, rather than clinging to a core group of players. The salary cap forces veteran stars to take a pay cut or leave town. The go-to play on third and short isn’t the fullback up the gut, but the fullback pass-blocking for a quick throw. And instead of merely grumbling at the refs, coaches are now outfitted with flags of their own to throw in protest.

But perhaps the greatest challenge to Gibbs’ old formula for victory has nothing to do with personnel or tactics: It’s that he no longer gets two games a year against the St. Louis/Phoenix/ Arizona Cardinals.

In 1981, Gibbs lost to the Cardinals in St. Louis, 40-30, as his team went 0 for 4 in his first pass through the NFC East. But in Week 9, with the Redskins at a lowly 2-6, the Cardinals came to RFK and got drilled, 42-21. That taste of divisional victory would become a familiar one: Gibbs went on to play the Cardinals 22 more times, and he collected 19 more wins.

As the accompanying chart shows, Gibbs never quite got the hang of beating the Cowboys, and he labored to break even against the Giants. (He did more than hold his own against the Eagles.) But twice a year, he got to play the Cardinals, and twice a year—nearly every year—he beat them. Now that the Cardinals have decamped to the more geographically logical NFC West, the coach is going to have to either find a new patsy or figure out how to beat Bill Parcells. —Tom Scocca

Regular-season record against NFC East teams, 1991-1992

Eagles 16-8

Giants 12-12

Cowboys 11-12

Cardinals 20-4