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My Fine 15; Players of the Week; Ten Things I Think I Think
Ten Things that surprise me about the NFL at the quarter-pole:
1. The Lions can't lose. With 25 minutes to play last week, they trailed at Minnesota by 20. With 25 minutes to play to play this week, they trailed at Dallas by 24. Won both. They won their last four last year, their only four this summer in the preseason, and their first four this year in the regular season. Just what kind of alternate universe are we living in where the Lions are undefeated and Matthew Stafford is healthy?
2. Cam Newton. Phenom. I find myself reaching for ways to describe what we're seeing in Newton -- the confidence, the downfield throwing ability, the command of an offense early, the knowing when to throw and when to tuck it and run. And I find this to be a way to explain his instant impact: Newton threw for 374 yards in a loss at Chicago Sunday. Last night, it was barely a blip on the highlight shows, including our Football Night in America show on NBC, because of Newton throwing for more than 400 yards in his first two games as a pro. But 374's not bad. In John Elway's first 170 NFL games, he threw for 374 yards or more once.
3. The Eagles, the greatest team assembled since the '27 Yankees, are 1-3. Some things are just plain weird, like Ronnie Brown, a very smart football player, turning around in the middle of the line of scrimmage and throwing the ball away as if it had herpes. He did that Sunday in Philadelphia's 24-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. After 16 quarters, they're tied, 101-101, in points scored with the opposition. One more scene none of us ever thought we'd see: A free agent from UMass, Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, beat and out-leaped Nnamdi Asomugha to grab the winning touchdown pass last week. Smart cap money can't buy everything. It's early, and the Eagles are talented enough (on both sides of the ball; new defensive end Jason Babin is on pace to get 28 sacks), but maybe the moral of this story is the same as it's been for the uneasy 18-year marriage of pro football and free agency: Money can't buy championships. More bad news could be coming today. Ace defensive end Trent Cole limped off against the Niners with a calf injury that had the Eagles concerned last night.
4. Dallas could be 4-0. Dallas could be 0-4. Dallas is 2-2. Tony Romo handed the Jets a win in Week 1 with two fourth-quarter blunders, and handed Detroit a lifeline Sunday with two third-quarter blunders. I know what it's like to fall off a cliff following a team, because I'm a Red Sox fan. The 2011 NFL version of the Sox is the team Roller Coaster Romo leads.
5. Lots of players are on pace to do ridiculous offensive things, and then there's Wes Welker, who has 40 catches in four games. Reggie Wayne, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes have 40 too. Combined. Wes Welker's average 2011 game: 10 catches, 152 yards. Average yards after the catch: Welker 7.1, Steve Smith (Panthers) 6.9, Julio Jones 5.6, Andre Johnson 4.6, Larry Fitzgerald 4.0, Greg Jennings 3.6, Calvin Johnson 3.2. And that is all for the Amazing Wes Welker Stats of the Day. The Raiders tried to combo-cover Welker with four different defensive backs Sunday, playing some man and some zone. He caught nine balls for 158 yards.
6. Washington can play defense. The Redskins had seven sacks Sunday in St. Louis, nearly a quarter of their 2010 total (29). If Cam Newton is the best offensive rookie through the first quarter of the season, the most valuable defensive rookie is Ryan Kerrigan, who has given Brian Orakpo a guy opposite him who can take some of the pressure away.
7. The new coaches aren't lost sheep. Jim Harbaugh changed everything in San Francisco with no offseason program; the Niners, coming off a two-game sweep back East, are 3-1. Same thing with Mike Munchak in 3-1 Tennessee. The Panthers have gone from moribund to thrilling on offense under Ron Rivera, and the Browns, though still struggling on both sides of the ball, are 2-2 under Pat Shurmur. If you'd told me on Labor Day those four teams would be 9-7 this morning, and Atlanta, Pittsburgh, the Jets and Philadelphia 7-9, I feel pretty sure I wouldn't have believed you.
8. Of the top 40 rushers in football, guess who's the least efficient? Chris Johnson, at 2.88 yards per carry. But of course the holdout had nothing to do with that.
9. Tim Tebow is lost at sea in the Rocky Mountains. Tebow's total offensive output in the first quarter of 2011: minus-one yard. No passes. One rush. I continue to be mystified that the 23rd-ranked offensive team in the NFL cannot find a package of plays for a fullback/wingback/quarterback/wildcat-quarterback with the determination of a Brahma bull.
10. Let's see how my mighty Super Bowl picks are doing. Uh-oh. More reinforcement of my all-seeing brilliance. Foes 190, Atlanta/San Diego 181.
Now for a few awards after the first 25 percent of the year. For those you in Washington, Houston and Detroit, and for you fans of Andrew Luck, more news about your teams and the first pick of the 2012 draft at the top of my Tuesday column.
MVP of the Quarter: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. Rodgers, of course, won the Super Bowl last year and had a terrific, borderline MVP season. Look how much better he is this year. He's on pace to be six percent more accurate, with 20 more touchdown passes, while throwing for almost 1,400 more yards. He's in the Brady-Brees-Manning pantheon now, except he has the ability to run and make tacklers miss. You don't want to blow too much smoke at Rodgers, but even if he falls off some, and just has average (for him) numbers the rest of the way, his season will be, across the board, 15 to 20 percent better than any of the three MVP seasons of Brett Favre.
2. Tom Brady, QB, New England; 3. (tie) Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit; Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit.
Rookie of the Quarter: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina. Carolina put up 543 yards on Chicago, in Chicago, Sunday. I can't fathom these video game numbers that Newton is making possible. There has been no quarterback who has entered the league in its 92-year history and had the impact Newton has had in his rookie quarter-season. With passing games of 422, 432 and 374 so far, Newton is erasing the stigma that young quarterbacks -- even rookies without the benefit of an offseason program to learn the offense instead of having it force-fed in six weeks -- can't be ready to take the reins of a bad team in the first game of their pro careers.
2. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati; 3. (tie) Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Washington; Dan Bailey, K, Dallas.
Coach of the Quarter: Mike Munchak, Tennessee. He'd never been a head coach before, at any level. He'd never been a coordinator before, at any level. He was adopting a new offensive system, coached by Chris Palmer, who he didn't know well. Munchak was bringing on a career West Coast quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, who, without benefit of any offseason minicamps to learn a totally new system, would be asked to start 46 days after signing with Tennessee. He had to deal with the ugly holdout of running back Chris Johnson, the only offensive weapon he could count on. This season had 4-12 written all over it.
Munchak did things like make practices more competitively fun (receivers versus corners, best of five) because, as he said, "When I played, the worst thing was letting teammates down.'' Tennessee has responded superbly. Hasselbeck's on pace for the best year of his career, and the defense is a top-five group so far. The Titans are 3-1.
2. Jim Schwartz, Detroit; 3. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco.
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