Once Eli Manning hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in January the rest of the NFL were off to the races in putting together the next package of talent that would dominate the headlines. Some moves received huge media coverage and overkill, such as Peyton Manning's move to Denver, Chad Ochocinco's to Miami, and the drafting of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. These three players may all do well, and then again they may leave the same mark in coming years as Brett Favre did after joining the Vikings and Vince Young with the Eagles. As of right now, Manning, Luck, and Griffin are all playing with full decks, whereas Ochocinco has reverted to being a Johnson and got himself booted from the NFL for a domestic violence charge against his basketball wife.
Other off-season moves received almost none of their due attention. Brandon Lloyd's landing in New England was by no means the filling of a gaping hole, but he's already become a well-used tool in Tom Brady's strategy. BenJarvus Green-Ellis left Foxboro and now seems to be one of the key reasons that the Bengals are set to leapfrog up the power rankings after Andy Dalton's similarly ignored rookie debut, which I raved about in last season's final post. I decided to do this evaluation now, even though the season is still young and the players mentioned may yet redeem themselves or perhaps go down in flames or injury, God forbid. Maybe this is bad timing, but far be it for me to be buried in all of the off season and preseason prognostications.
The NFC East
The performance of the Eagles may not be as dismal as it was at this point last season, but in one respect they have not moved one inch: Protecting their smartest and most talented player, Michael Vick. Last September Vick was escorted off the field spitting blood at the Georgia Dome allowing a very different but also skilled QB, his Atlanta successor Matt Ryan, to seize back control of the game. So far the green birds are solid as far as defense is concerned, not allowing opponents to reach 30 points in any game so far. Last season they were similarly in front, but were at a disadvantage in the games that Vick missed. Vince Young was supposed to be his understudy last year, playing the role that Vick himself had played under Donovan McNabb. This season VY departed for Buffalo with no accomplishments, and Vick's top back-up on the depth chart is rookie Nick Foles.
Fortunately, LeSean McCoy has picked up the pace from the halfback position, earning 96.0 ypg, and 4.1 yards per rush. He has three fumbles in the first four games as well. At 20.8 points allowed per game the Eagles lead the NFC East on defense, and with 6 INTs were tied for third in the NFL until the Bears leapfrogged everyone during the Monday Night meltdown.
On offensive line the Eagles have the most room to improve as Vick has been sacked 11 times and fumbled five times with three lost, a situation that allowed the Cardinals to devour them in Week 3.
On the field the Eagles' roster has only failed them once, and Vick has outfoxed two marquee playoff defenses, the Giants and Ravens, while their defense did not buckle against Flacco and Manning. On special teams DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin have not been the return threats they were in the past.
Key match-ups left: Atlanta, Oct. 28, Cincinnati, Dec. 13, and Dallas, Nov. 11 and Dec. 2. Most Important: At Washington Dec. 2, MV7 must outplay the newest upstart RG3 in a battle of mobile QBs with Star Wars worthy abbreviated nicknames. This means a lot also for Philly's defense which will be tested by the league's latest playmaker. Dec. 30 at NY Giants, Like last year, the last game of the season could determine the division title. In this case, the Eagles are currently on top in the battle for the tie breaker after their Week 4 victory in Philadelphia.
The G-Men were brought back down to Earth fast after their post-title honeymoon. In front of a loaded stadium of home fans New York was simply outplayed by a Dallas team that was determined to erase the images of their failures last November and December. But by the next week they proved that the players that sustained an improbable drive against Atlanta, Green Bay, San Francisco, and New England last year were still capable of mounting comebacks and shutting down offenses.
Eli Manning remains a definite positive in almost every outing he has, and suffers from the most consistency of any of his rivals, especially in our division. He lost a major target when Mario Manningham bolted for San Francisco through free agency. Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck have not had the penetration they had last year, but remember that they only really went on a tear in the last month of the season, and that proved to be the difference. The only notable free agent acquisition was DT Rocky Bernard.
Besides the above observation on Eli Manning, the Giants still have excellent receivers in Bear Pascoe, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Andre Brown has been a good supplement to Ahmad Bradshaw in the running game after the departure of Brandon Jacobs for the 49ers.
The missing pieces for New York are not borne out by statistics or positions. Unfortunately, they are a team with lots of subtle and intangible talent that often seems to conceal it until they are up against the wall, as happened in both of their recent Super Bowl seasons. This year Manning oddly enough persevered when trailing by multiple touchdowns against a vastly inferior Tampa Bay team that shredded the Giants' vaunted defense. The next week the same defensive starters who almost lost their second home game traveled to Carolina and handcuffed last years prodigy, Cam Newton. In their two losses New York simply was not able to come on top against divisional rivals that were dead set on not appearing lacking against the defending champs. This is to their credit, but Eli, JPP, Victor Cruz, and co. must overcome their efforts in the rematches in order to improve on last year's finish. Ahmad Bradshaw does have fumble issues as influenced in their home game against Cleveland, but more than makes up for it with his bruising and physical presence.
Key match-ups left: At San Francisco Oct. 14, at Dallas, Oct. 28. The Giants will have rematches with all three of their play-off opponents, hosting Green Bay (Nov. 25), visiting Atlanta (Dec. 16), and SF. On Dec. 23 they visit Baltimore in what would be the most challenging road game of all, and there is of course the above-mentioned finale at home against the Eagles. The Barnburner: At Cincinnati, November 11, the Giants' defense will be challenged by a young team that's just beginning to show its teeth. Eli and Cruz will have to put on some salsa dances.
The world has been turned on its head in the nation's capital, but for once it's a source of optimism for a fan base that seemed to be losing steam to neighbouring Baltimore. Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen reached for the brass ring in the off-season, and found a quarterback in Robert Griffin III with the talent, intelligence, and daring, to warrant his play book. Griffin has an unexpected boost in the running game from rookie Alfred Morris from tiny Florida Atlantic, who is fifth overall in yardage, and has a seasoned veteran in the receiving corps, Pierre Garcon, who has weathered an injury but played in Week 4.
The Redskins offense has become the polar opposite of what it had been last year when it was led by Rex Grossman (or John Beck depending what week it was). Many of last years receivers, TEs Terrence Austin and Chris Cooley for example, were disposed of, while holdover Fred Davis remains the team leader in yardage. This indicates that as far as the offense is concerned Washington did right by drafting a QB in the first round and struck it rich with Alfred Morris.
It takes a lot to get a Dallas blogger to heap praise on our sworn enemies' new rookie sensation. RGIII does need some better pass protection though, and he must hold on to the ball better and not add to his five fumbles.
That being said, I waited until now to mention the Redskins' other revolution, this one on defense which has gone on the complete opposite heading. Washington won in a horse race in Week 1 against a New Orleans team with a debilitated defense, and has given up more than 30 points in all but one game through Week 4, when they gave up an 18 point lead to the Bucs. What has happened to Jim Haslett's squad? Unfortunately a few of the solid players found better deals elsewhere as a result of the off-season salary cap punishment levied by the NFL. Among them are LaRon Landry, now of the Jets, who was often injured but played at an all-pro level when he was active. Brian Orakpo has fallen for the season with a ligament tear, an injury that creeps in its seriousness almost as far as Darrelle Revis's in New York. Adam Carriker, a key D-lineman, is also injured. But the most yawning deficiency was in a secondary led by DeAngelo Hall, which also was inadequate last year. It was proven how lacking that area is in DC in Week 3 when the Bengals charged into FedEx Field and completely scorched D Hall, Josh Wilson and the other Redskin DB's.
This past week RG3 hurt his cause significantly during his ugly sideline slide leading to a concussion against Atlanta. His subsequent removal instantly plummeted Washington's chances of pulling out a W, and they are still winless at home.
Key match-ups left: At Giants, Oct. 21; Philadelphia, Nov. 18. Barnburners: Everybody waits for Dallas week in DC. That's Week 16 this year at FedEx, and Nov. 22 in Dallas before that. If the Griffin-Dalton match-up wasn't enough of a nail biter two weeks ago, mark this one on your calendar, November 4, hosting Carolina. RG3 is off to a better start than Cam Newton was in the win column, after debuting to similar rave reviews and predictions. Washington seems to have more advantages in this one. Oct. 14 RG3, providing he stays in the game, will face off against the Vikings' Jared Allen and Chad Greenway and duel their sophomore gunslinger Christian ponder.
The yawning gaps in the secondary that ended the Wade Phillips era in Dallas and hounded Rob Ryan are history, as Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr played admirably in all but a few cases. Nonetheless, the Seattle game exposed the lack of physicality on both sides of the ball, and DeMarco Murray has not panned out as the new Tony Dorsett/Emmitt Smith. Tony Romo a great fantasy quarterback, unless you are his actual coach. Criticisms of him, even if they are exaggerated, do have their salient points.
Who will step up to take the place of Laurent Robinson? Last year no one would have asked that question. But within one week it was a non-issue as Kevin Ogletree became the #3 receiver after a career game in New York. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant WILL be in the forefront soon, but up until now haven't been the game changers that Dallas has needed. The Cowboys defense was responsible for allowing Romo to win in both victories. Letting Martellus Bennett go to the Giants has allowed the more focused John Phillips to step up behind Jason Witten.
Romo has to learn when to give up on a play and chuck it towards the sideline. If not now then when? The running game has taken a step back every year since 2009; Murray and Felix Jones will need to change that. And both of these problems are the result of an offensive line that is not up to the levels of talent of either its QB or running backs. Losing SS Barry Church to injury will open a hole in the secondary that was just improved by off-season acquisitions.
Key match-ups left: The body slam by the Bears makes Oct. 14 at Baltimore and Oct. 21 vs. NY Giants at home crucial for getting back on track. Besides the usual crucial divisional games against Philadelphia and Washington (Dallas was swept by the Eagles last year) all four December games (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Washington) will once again be the Cowboys' make or break dates this year. The entire coaching staff and Tony Romo are under more pressure than ever to redeem last year's forgettable finish. Either way, I cannot rule out Dallas trading up to gain the draft rights to Matt Barkley or Geno Smith in the draft.
Most Improved: Seattle Seahawks
There are a lot of teams that added blockbuster off-season free agents and draft picks. In some cases they led to instant metamorphosis of a team. Others, like Jacksonville 5th overall Justin Blackmon, haven't even put a dent in their team's troubles. But Russell Wilson has captured the essence of Seattle with his underdog training camp overtaking of Matt Flynn. This shouldn't come as a surprise: Wilson almost lost his scholarship when he left NC State in 2010 to try playing baseball for the Colorado Rockies, and then had to transfer to Wisconsin, which he nevertheless led to a victory in the first Big Ten championship game. Marshawn Lynch and Golden Tate have both been integral to aiding this undersized play caller in adjusting to the new challenges of the NFL.
Wilson is only the most recent augmentation of a team that's been due to succeed for years. Another new face is rookie DE Bruce Irvin who helped his opposite number Chris Clemons terrorize Aaron Rodgers in Week 3. And let's not forget one of the most physical secondaries I've been witness to, featuring CB Brandon Browner and SS Kam Chancellor.
Honourable Mentions: San Francisco (adding Brandon Jacobs, Mario Manningham, and Randy Moss). Indianapolis (Andrew Luck). Washington (see above). Denver (Peyton Manning).
Biggest Step Back
Carolina Panthers: Okay, so they haven't lost anybody major, but the Panthers are currently in a position where they are likely to lose by an average of almost a touchdown per game based on their offensive and defensive rankings. Unfortunately, GM Martin Hurney saw fit to use only one draft pick, 4th rounder Joe Adams of Arkansas, on a receiver or tight end. They showed in their home debacle against the Giants that DeAngelo Williams cannot be the pressure release that Cam Newton needs in order to march down field. Their lone victory, and highest scoring game, was against a New Orleans Saints team that has suffered from unparalleled league penalties.
Runners-up: Kansas City Chiefs (Brady Quinn II era starts Sunday @ Tampa Bay. Don't expect a big highlight reel.); New Orleans Saints (What hasn't happened to this team? And how can the NFL expect it to function without its head coach?); Miami Dolphins (Sorry Phins Phans. Ryan Tannehill may be a legit pick, but he's canceled out by the Chad Johnson saga that may have buried his chances for a smooth rookie season); Jacksonville Jaguars (Blaine Gabbert and MJD may be the loneliest people in the NFL).