Extending The Play – Week Eleven

We’ll avoid touching on the two officiating issues dominating the headlines after the NFL’s eleventh week, or the constant deluge of Richie Incognito stories.  Instead, here are five other topics that seem relevant as the season hits its final quarter…

1)  Robert Griffin III’s star sure dimmed quickly.

Amidst a 3-7 season, inexorably the discontent from a fan base is usually directed at one of two people: the quarterback or the head coach.  In this case, both are getting their comeuppance from supporters invigorated by an NFC East title and playoff appearance last season.  After an offseason in which Griffin had knee surgery and publicly lobbied to play while Coach Mike Shanahan insisted he wait until the opener, the Redskins look to be in total disarray following a disheartening loss to the Eagles on Sunday.  Perhaps worse, Griffin seems to be blaming the coaches in his appearances with the media while players like Santana Moss are insinuating he start sharing the blame.  There’s even talk of  whether Shanahan will survive to see the final year of his contract next season, with many saying his seeming disillusionment with his quarterback could seal his demise.  What a public relations tumble for everyone’s golden boy of last season, RGIII.

2)  Last year’s Super Bowl participants are about to get key members of their offense back.

Word is that tight end Dennis Pitta is set to begin practicing again for the Ravens, and not a moment too soon.  Joe Flacco has looked lost at times following his ascendancy to Super Bowl champ last year, mostly because he’s really only had one viable throwing option in Torrey Smith.  As a result, teams have largely shut down Ray Rice (though he appeared to have a nice bounce-back game against the Bears this past Sunday).  Pitta will help the offense loosen up a bit and hopefully make Flacco more confident in his pass-catching corps.  The San Francisco 49ers just got Mario Manningham back and Vernon Davis is finally (seemingly) healthy again.  While it didn’t lead to a win over the Saints on the road, once Michael Crabtree returns as expected in the coming weeks Colin Kaepernick will finally have his full complement of passing weapons for the first time all year.  Both Baltimore and the Niners are making playoff pushes for the Wild Card, so these players’ insertion into the lineup comes at a crucial time in helping to decide whether they earn a chance to repeat their feats from last year.

3)  The San Diego Chargers are still the same ol’ Chargers.

After a solid 4-3 start to the year and talk of the revitalization of Philip Rivers, the team has gone out and lost three consecutive games.  Mike McCoy replacing Norv Turner was supposed to open up the offense and make it less stagnant, so how did they blow several chances at the one yard line to beat Washington or lose to the eternally distracted Dolphins this past Sunday?  While the Denver loss sandwiched in the middle of those games is understandable, this is a team that needs to show a killer instinct when it has a chance to make a playoff push.  Much like their counterparts, the Dallas Cowboys, they just don’t seem to have the “it” factor.  You can’t blame Rivers this year, but you have to blame someone don’t you?

4)  That was a bad loss for the Detroit Lions.

After leading the Pittsburgh Steelers late and with Matthew Stafford having no problem dicing up the Steeler secondary, the Lions ran a mind-boggling fake field goal attempt up by three early in the fourth.  It failed, and so did their chance to earn a solid non-divisional win.  The Lions are still in the driver’s seat in the NFC North thanks to a tiebreaker they hold over Chicago and the fact that Aaron Rodgers is still injured.  But this team has to close out the season on a high note, not go stagnant like they have in the past.  Their schedule the rest of the way out is a fairly easy one, so they must take advantage.  The playoffs are a good bet, but losses like this one Sunday also speak to a team that may not have what it takes to make much noise in the postseason.

5)  Matt Schaub’s era has to be over in Houston.

This had to be expected when Schaub returned from injury and was still looking up at Case Keenum on the depth chart.  His early-season interception issues were well-chronicled, but it was the scene of he and Andre Johnson having it out on the sideline that is a true microcosm of Schaub’s standing with the Texans.  Johnson has performed far better with Keenum under center, who seems perfectly happy throwing to him early and often no matter who’s in coverage.  Coach Gary Kubiak, once a very staunch Schaub supporter, is going back to Keenum this week with the season in the tank and needing to analyze the quarterback situation long-term.  Even the hometown fans prefer Keenum.  It’s a perfect storm for the once ascending Schaub, and he will likely be on his way out after this year.

Extending The Play – Week Ten

Last week, Jacksonville and Tampa Boy both won.  It shows the unpredictability of the National Football League, and also helped answer some questions.  Will a second team go 0-16?  No.  Is the Miami locker room scandal a HUGE distraction for the Dolphins?  Oh yeah.  Here are five other key points after ten weeks of professional football…

1)  Don’t look now, but a 32-year old is leading the NFL in sacks.

Often overshadowed in Indianapolis by the now-departed Dwight Freeney on the defensive side of the ball and the star power on the offensive side of the ball (Manning and Harrison, now Luck and Wayne pre-injury), Mathis has always been a steady force on Indy’s defensive line.  But this is a sort of renaissance season for the 11-year veteran.  Out of Freeney’s shadow, Mathis leads the NFL with 13.5 sacks.  It’s often said this is a young man’s game where careers are short and consistently productive careers even shorter, but Mathis is proving a grizzled veteran can still get to the quarterback in impressive fashion.  There’s plenty of tape on a guy who’s been in the league for 11 years.  Doesn’t mean you can stop him.

2)  The Broncos may be facing the Chiefs at the wrong time.

Much has been made of the vanilla offense of the Chiefs (Jamaal Charles left, Jamaal Charles right, checkdown to Jamaal Charles), essentially dooming them to the now-heinous moniker of a “defensive team.”  So surely they can’t keep pace with the prolific Broncos offense this week, right?  Well, their defense is that good, and Peyton Manning is now banged-up with ankle injuries that have plagued him for weeks.  If the Chiefs are able to keep long, sustained drives and hit Manning early and often, this game may be a lot closer than people think.  Kansas City isn’t 9-0 for no reason, even if they have faced less-than stellar quarterback play most of the way.  If their pass rush forces Manning to keep his passing short and they again play mistake-free football, don’t count out the possibility of this team going 10-0.

3)  Mike Munchak has to be on the hot seat now in Tennessee.

There are a couple of things that one can often point to when a coach is being talked about as possibly losing his job.  One is an inability to compete in the division; the Titans are now 0-2 in the AFC South.  Another is the inability to groom the quarterback of the future; Jake Locker is hurt again, placing Ryan Fitzpatrick behind center and generating more uncertainty about Locker’s ability to lead this team in the years to come.  Yet another is an inability to get consistent production out of a superstar; Chris Johnson has shown flashes this year, but still is nowhere near the back he was when he ran for 2,000 yards a couple of years ago.  Throw in the fact that Tennessee became Jacksonville’s first victim of the season (in Tennessee no less) and Munchak has some work to do to ensure his third season is not his last.

4)  San Francisco may be slumping, but help is on the way.

Colin Kaepernick’s numbers are plummeting, and the 49ers offense as a whole is punchless.  Many pundits and fans are saying this is an overrated team that made poor personnel decisions in the offseason, dooming it to underachieve the year after making the Super Bowl.  Yes, the Niners did overestimate the potential impact wide receivers Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore(now both cut casualties) and trade acquisition Jon Baldwin could make as a second receiver.  Yes, teams can focus on Anquan Boldin as the only true receiving threat due to Vernon Davis’ injury-plagued year.  But Davis is going to return, and so is Michael Crabtree.  If this team’s wide receiver corps opens up their passing attack and, by extension, allows Kaepernick to use his legs at times like last year, don’t underestimate the potential this team has to cause havoc in the postseason.  Unfortunately, they’ll likely be trying to do much of it on the road.

5)  The NFC’s final weeks should be awesome.

While much of the NFC playoff picture appears clear (Seahawks in the West, Lions likely in the North, Saints in the South, some putrid team from the East, 49ers as the first wild card), home field and the final wild card spot will play out in spectacular fashion over the coming weeks.  Carolina, the odds-on favorite to snag that last playoff spot, still has New Orleans on its schedule twice and also faces Tom Brady and the Patriots at home this coming Monday night.  San Francisco plays at the Saints this Sunday; New Orleans takes on the Seahawks in Washington state two weeks later; and Seattle and the Niners tangle the following week.  It should be a great final few weeks of football that should help clarify who has the inside track to home field, and likely the Super Bowl, in the NFC.

Extending The Play – Week Nine

Nine weeks in the books.  Here’s some analysis of the NFL storylines I found interesting following this latest string of games…

 

1)  The Detroit Lions have a chance to seize control of the NFC North.

Now that Aaron Rodgers will be sidelined at least three weeks with a broken collarbone and Jay Cutler’s status as the Bears’ starter is up in the air due to injury as well, it’s the Lions’ time to wrest control of the division.  They’ll start by meeting Chicago this weekend (with or without Cutler) and could be well on their way to creating a little distance from their rivals.  As long as the offense keeps humming along and the defense can at least keep opponents honest, this is a team that looks like a definite contender to claim the division or at least challenge for a Wild Card if they stumble down the stretch.

2)  Revisited: why are the Cowboys throwing the ball so much?

While Tony Romo is having a great year (one play versus Denver notwithstanding), the team’s run-pass balance continues to be wildly out of whack.  DeMarco Murray, when healthy, has been very productive for this team on the ground.  Yet, there they were throwing the ball 87% of the time in last week’s matchup with the Vikings.  If the team is struggling running the ball or finds themselves behind, that’s one thing.  But Dallas has been in just about every game this season, and one has to wonder if Romo’s new-found control over playcalling at the line and the disparity in run versus pass means that he doesn’t trust his running game or offensive line.  When Bill Callahan, an offensive line coach, took over playcalling duties in the offseason, one was led to believe this would be a running team.  Instead, it appears Romo’s influence on or impression of the offense keeps leading to an offensive attack geared towards throwing the football.

3)  The Miami controversy shows that football locker rooms are a different work environment than almost any other.

When the details of Richie Incognito’s texts and voicemails to Jonathan Martin became public, the immediate outcry around the country was not surprising.  What may surprise some is the way the players, past and present, seem to have reacted to the story thus far.  Many of them, including Antrel Rolle of the New York Giants, have even gone so far as to say that Martin was at least partially to blame for not standing up for himself and not having “thick skin.”  While many, including Rolle, agree that Incognito’s “motivational tactics” went entirely too far, it’s still obvious that the NFL locker room is nothing like the workplace most of us experience.  It’s a macho world, and when grown men appear mentally or emotionally incapable of taking jokes, however abhorrent they may appear, others on the team consider them weak.  We may not understand this, and we certainly don’t need to condone it, but the realization of how different the professional sports world and its expectations are are only exacerbated by this story.

4)  Rex Ryan is making a strong claim to at least be considered to be the head coach of the Jets next year.

This is a team that’s over .500 now, and is playing like a Rex Ryan team.  The defense is formidable, the game versus Cincinnati notwithstanding, and it’s keeping this young team in games.  Even without playmaker (and diva) Santonio Holmes available at wide receiver and with a running game by committee that doesn’t always show up, the offense seems to make enough plays at the end of games to put the team in position to win.  If Geno Smith finishes out the year on a good, successful note, then Ryan can lay claim to having put his defensive imprint on this team and helped develop his quarterback of the future.  With control of the locker room to boot, Ryan may be tough to force out in New York.  A playoff spot would make it nearly impossible when you consider the preseason predictions for this roster.

5)  NFL coaches need to be monitored more closely for workload and health.

Anyone who watched Gary Kubiak collapse at halftime of the Texans/Colts game Sunday night or heard about the heart surgery Broncos coach John Fox had to undergo this week realizes that this is a job that can really push the limits of the human body.  It requires extensive hours that means minimal sleep and exercise.  After watching the same thing happen to Urban Meyer in college, clearly there needs to be more significant oversight of the coaching staff’s health and hours spent.  Owners, if no one else, should be all in favor of maintaining the health of the most important member of their staff.  Sometimes you have to save people from themselves, and if the league is doing it with players, they should be doing the same with their head coaches.

Extending The Play – Week Eight

Midway through the NFL season, plenty to talk about.  Let’s get to five storylines garnered from week eight of the football season…

1)  Divisional games are just different. 

Anyone who watched the Seahawks nearly get shocked by their divisional foe St. Louis Rams, despite a less-than-stellar home crowd due to the World Series being played nearby, knows these games require a heightened sense of preparation and intensity.  By all accounts, Seattle, picked by many as a Super Bowl favorite, should have throttled a team with no discernible offensive identity and starting a backup at quarterback.  Instead, St. Louis, using its familiarity with its divisional foe, capitalized on the backup tackles Pete Carroll was forced to trot out against them and harried Russell Wilson all night with constant pressure.  While they weren’t able to capitalize on a chance to win the game from inside the five in the waning seconds, a slumbering St. Louis pass rush awoke and the offense found a ground game to keep them in it.  Many divisional games appear to be mismatches on paper: don’t overlook the familiarity factor.

2)  Michael Vick’s era is likely over in Philadelphia.

What was once Vick’s greatest asset is now his greatest liability.  As Vick ages, his body is less and less able to handle the constant pounding he takes as a running quarterback.  Everyone knew that going into the season, and everyone knows it full well now as he continually limps off the playing field fighting hamstring issues.  His reclamation story in Philly was a great story, but now it appears he’s done acting as the franchise’s savior.  While he misses roughly three weeks, coach Chip Kelly will continue to give Nick Foles and (maybe) Matt Barkley the chance to audition for the future role as Eagles starting quarterback.  When Vick returns, if he sees the field it’s likely because of injury.  If the others are ineffective in his absence it will mean the team is well out of playoff contention, and there’s really no reason to put him back out there.  Vick must look ahead to next year, with another franchise.

3)  Kansas City may not be the best team in the NFL…but they’re the best right now.

Everyone is trying to poke holes in the mystique that is the Kansas City Chiefs now that they’re 8-0, focusing on the winning percentages of the teams they’ve beaten (hint: it’s not good) rather than the fact that this team won two games last year.  Yes, the whole offense is Jamaal Charles right now.  Yes, the defense is the primary reason they win games.  Yes, Alex Smith is conservative on almost every throw.  But Charles and the defense are outstanding, and Smith does not turn the ball over and put his defense in tough positions.  Denver may sweep them, and they’ll definitely lose a few before playoff time.  But why not focus on how far this franchise has come from the previous regime’s debacle to the current state of the team helmed by Andy Reid?  They’re a playoff team, which is quite remarkable after last year, and should be celebrated as such.

4)  Who are the Cincinnati Bengals?

After watching this team demolish a surprisingly competitive New York Jets team last week, this is a question worth asking.  We knew the defense would be talented, and we knew that Giovanni Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis would make for an interesting backfield that could be difficult to gameplan against.  Andy Dalton seemed to be the wild card, but he just threw four touchdowns to Marvin Jones last week and looked efficient and poised in the pocket.  This is a team prone to wild momentum swings throughout the season, but with Pittsburgh and Baltimore still trying to right the ship and Cleveland looking to next year as usual, the Bengals don’t have to worry about solidifying their standing in the division.  What they do need is a home-field situation in the playoffs and consistent play from their oft-maligned quarterback through the season’s second half.  Earning a bye would be tantamount to this team living up to its preseason hype.

5)  The Miami Dolphins wasted their fantastic start to the season.

It was discussed earlier on this blog that the Dolphins ability to navigate their early schedule, which included games with Indianapolis, Atlanta, and New Orleans, would be a sign of how their season would shape out.  Well, the Dolphins started 3-0, including wins over the Colts and Falcons.  Even after an expected loss at the Superdome in New Orleans, Miami looked like a legitimate contender in the AFC East, ready to take down their rival Patriots.  Instead, Miami followed the New Orleans loss by bowing to Baltimore, Buffalo, and the hated Pats to fall to 3-4.  The running game with Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller has been a non-factor, and the defensive performances keeping the team in games has been wasted.  Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has no time to pass due to a porous offensive line, and it’s been reflected in his poor decision-making over the last four games in which he’s turned the ball over seven times.  This team doesn’t appear to have the foundation to make a run at the AFC East crown, especially with Tom Brady and company beginning to get healthy.

Extending The Play – Week Seven

Week seven of the NFL season saw numerous injuries to the men who occupy the most important position in sports: quarterback.  Each has put the immediate future of his team, and possibly his future, in question.  Let’s examine five less-than-ideal quarterback situations in the league:

1)  What are the Minnesota Vikings doing?

As if the flip-flopping between Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel wasn’t enough, the Vikings went out and acquired Josh Freeman two weeks ago.  They then trotted him out on Monday night when it was clear he wasn’t ready, and he responded with one of the worst statistical quarterbacking performances in Monday Night Football history.  Now, it comes to light that Freeman sustained a concussion at some point in the game and is likely unavailable on a short week with the Buccaneers coming up on Thursday night.  So who do the Vikings plan to start?  Ponder again, apparently healed from his rib injury, but not Cassel, who owns the team’s only victory this season and was ahead of Ponder on the depth chart for part of the season.  The expression goes if you have two quarterbacks you don’t have any.  What do you have if you have three?

2)  The Chicago Bears’ season prospects just became dire.

With Jay Cutler being injured against the Redskins on Sunday, a groin injury that will cost him four weeks, the Bears now must entrust the meaty part of their season schedule to career backup Josh McCown.  Cutler had performed well under the tutelage of new head coach Marc Trestman, and it appeared that this was a marriage made in heaven for the oft-criticized quarterback.  Instead, Cutler now has less time to prove himself in a contract year, and it’s unclear whether Bears brass are convinced he can get them to the next level.  If the team flounders in his absence and his return isn’t enough to spark Chicago to the playoffs, the Bears may have a very difficult decision to make this offseason.

3)  Speaking of difficult decisions…

What are the Rams going to do with Sam Bradford?   Bradford was lost for the season with a torn ACL this past Sunday.  St. Louis will trot out Kellen Clemens for the foreseeable future in his stead.  Bradford was often said to be a victim of a lack of playmakers around him, but this year’s team added Jared Cook at tight end in free agency and drafted the supposedly game-breaking Tavon Austin at wide receiver.  Even though Bradford’s season stats were some of the best of his career (14 touchdowns to five interceptions, 60.7% completion percentage), his team was still only 3-4 at week’s end.  Now, without the chance to spearhead his squad towards a playoff berth, the St. Louis brass will have to determine if Bradford really is their franchise signal-caller.  His contract runs through 2015, but when will the team start considering contingency plans?

4)  The cute story of the Cleveland Browns sure soured quickly.

Brian Hoyer’s meteoric rise over a two-week period in place of an injured Brandon Weeden gave Browns fans reason for hope, especially with wideout Josh Gordon about to return from suspension and in the wake of a deflating Trent Richardson trade.  But Hoyer was lost for the year with a torn ACL, too, and Weeden returned to man the helm.  In his second NFL season, Weeden is still extremely turnover-prone (check out the YouTube video of his frisbee-like interception a week and a half ago against Detroit, it’s AMAZING) and has done nothing to dispel notions he was a poor choice for Cleveland’s quarterback of the future.  Now, head coach Rob Chudzinski has benched Weeden in favor of Jason Campbell, whom third-stringer Hoyer hopped in the pecking order to earn his starts.  Similar to the situation in Minnesota, it seems this team isn’t enamored with any of the QB’s on its roster and may be looking to the 2014 Draft for help.

5)  The Eagles ended up in a quarterback controversy like everyone thought they would.

While most agreed Michael Vick was best-suited to run this team, it was inevitable he would get hurt.  And he did.  In came Nick Foles, a popular fan pick due to some of the success he had in relief of Vick under Andy Reid last year, but Foles had anything but awe-inspiring performances on the field.  Now, Foles is injured after facing Dallas in an ugly loss, and Vick is back in command of the offense.  New coach Chip Kelly said anyone on the roster at quarterback could run his offense, but all of the athletes at the position on his team are having difficulty staying on the field.  At least Matt Barkley is healthy.  Well, maybe that’s not a good alternative, either.

Extending The Play – Week Six

Now six weeks into the NFL season, the injury bug has ravaged several teams and helped us make sense of who to bank on heading into the latter part of the season and into the postseason beyond as actual contenders.  While the must-see Denver-Kansas City matchup is a few weeks away with both possibly 9-0 heading into November 17th, there’s plenty to take away from this past week and look forward to in week seven:

1)  Philip Rivers is rejuvenated under new head coach Mike McCoy.

After a solid if unspectacular performance last night in a win over the Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers looks like a new man now that he’s out from under the play-calling thumb of Norv Turner.  McCoy seems to have Rivers making quicker decisions while also valuing his input on the offense.  In addition, the offensive line is vastly improved this year over last.  In 2012, Rivers absorbed 49 sacks over the course of the regular season.  Through six games this year he’s only been brought down ten times.  His turnover rate is also significantly lower, as Rivers was responsible for 28 turnovers last year (15 interceptions to go with 13 fumbles lost) compared to only five so far this year.  It appears that Rivers has better protection, a more efficient running game, and the input he needs into the offense to make him more comfortable and more secure in knowing he doesn’t have to do everything for his team to have a chance.  The Chargers are sitting at 3-3, so they aren’t going to catch Kansas City or Denver in their division, but with upcoming games against Jacksonville and Washington they could improve to 5-3 before their first meeting with the Broncos.  This could be a team on the cusp of a wild-card berth at season’s end if Rivers continues to fire on all cylinders.

2)  Speaking of injuries, the Packers are facing a serious war of attrition.

Already having lost pass-rusher extraordinaire Clay Matthews for a few weeks with a broken thumb, the Packers saw linebacker Nick Perry go down with a foot injury this Sunday against Baltimore.  That’s just the defensive side of the ball.  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers also saw his two big-play threats, receivers James Jones (sprained PCL) and Randall Cobb (fractured fibula) injured in the contest.  While the Packers were able to grind out a win on the road, they have to be concerned about their offense.  Jones’ injury appears to be the least serious, as he is considered an outside possibility to play this upcoming weekend.  Cobb, however, is gone for 4-8 weeks according to reports.  While Rodgers got by with Jarrett Boykin and Jordy Nelson this past week, along with a solid contribution from tight end Jermichael Finley, much of the quarterback’s vertical attack would be compromised without either receiver (much less both).  The good news is Green Bay seems to have found a reliable running attack, so while the offense undoubtedly will look less electric than in years past for the foreseeable future, it may still remain effective enough to keep this team on the winning track.

3)  Oh look, New England is 5-1.

Just as everyone was wringing their hands over the continued absence of Rob Gronkowski and wondering if even Bill Belichick and Tom Brady could possibly sustain success with this roster full of role players, the Patriots went out and knocked off the previously unbeaten Saints.  Sure, the game was in Foxborough, and sure, they benefited from some very conservative play-calling by Saints coach Sean Payton in the crucial final moments.  But in the end, Brady found whoever was lining up at receiver when he had to and ultimately tossed the game-winner to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins.  Assuming Danny Amendola’s head injury doesn’t sideline him for long, the Patriots will soon have the full complement of offensive characters they assumed they’d have in the preseason (except for that Hernandez guy, who won’t be of much help to anyone anytime soon).  The bonus for this team is how well the defense played against the high-octane Saints offense.  An unsung unit, they’ve quietly played very well thus far and could be one of the better defensive units the team has had in years.  Once Gronk and running back Stevan Ridley return to pair with Amendola and the rookies who’ve benefited from all these early-season reps, watch out for this team as a legitimate contender.  Again.

4)  Colin Kaepernick is being forced to evolve.

The guy who took the NFL by storm last year has come under fire at times this season, with less-than-sterling numbers on the year.  Kaepernick’s eight touchdowns are OK, but he has five interceptions as well and hasn’t been nearly the running threat he was last year.  In addition, his completion percentage of 55.9% to date is nothing to be thrilled about.  The good news?  We had to know defenses would adjust against this guy this year, especially when receiving threats Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham went down with injuries in the preseason.  Nonetheless, the Niners are 4-2.  Kaepernick is doing what it takes to win, whether it’s dialing in on Anquan Boldin in week one or reuniting with Vernon Davis for a monster game this past Sunday with Boldin blanketed by the Arizona secondary.  This guy hasn’t been a starter for long, so his ability to weather criticism and difficult outings is a good sign for this franchise.

5)  Did the Colts really pull off a tremendous coup in the Trent Richardson trade?

The Colts’ rare trade for Richardson from the Browns earlier the season made major headlines, even though doubts persisted over Richardson’s durability and unrealized potential.  Nonetheless, he was a young every-down back who was drafted fourth overall only a year ago.  Through parts of four games with his new team, and even without competition from the injured Ahmad Bradshaw, Richardson hasn’t proven to be much more than average.  He has 61 attempts for 191 yards as a Colt, registering 3.13 yards per carry.  The Colts thought a revived running game would help take pressure off of Andrew Luck, and while Richardson’s blocking has helped with Indy being banged up in their protection units, he’s not striking fear in the heart of rush defenses.  If the Colts are to be legitimate challengers in the AFC, Richardson will need to start looking more like the franchise back he was billed as coming out of Alabama.

 

Extending The Play – Week Five

Week five in the National Football League solidified some teams as contenders, others as doormats, and left some searching for an identity and consistency at the close of the season’s first quarter.  Here are a few points of note from the season’s fifth week:

 

1)  The Atlanta Falcons are in big, big trouble.  And it’s going to get worse.

A preseason Super Bowl contender, the Falcons find themselves a shocking 1-4 after their Monday night loss to the New York Jets (at home, no less) and a full four games behind division-leading New Orleans.  With news coming out today that wide receiver Julio Jones may miss the remainder of the season with a foot injury, this team is collapsing under the weight of a rash of injuries, an inexperienced and porous secondary, and insufficient offensive line play causing major issues in the red zone.  Matt Ryan, without a solid running game while he awaits the return of the injured Steven Jackson, can no longer rely on the passing game to keep his squad in games.  Roddy White was already nursing a nagging hamstring injury, and now the crucial blow of losing Jones for the season could make this team a shell of the offensive juggernaut it figured to be.  Think Tony Gonzalez is glad he opted to forestall retirement and return for a final season with this banged-up roster?

2)  The 2011 NFL Draft quarterback class is now on a different clock.

It’s hard to believe that the Panthers’ Cam Newton would be facing pressure in his third season after the record-setting numbers he put up as a QB in his first two years  But the team isn’t winning, again, and his demeanor and ability to lead is still in question.  Despite the gaudy numbers, Newton has to be considered somewhat of a disappointment as the team’s efforts to put talent around him have not made the team drastically improved.  Of course, the overall number one pick is not going anywhere after just three seasons.  But his coach may be.  As for the other two first-rounders from 2011, Jake Locker has shown himself to be a middling 50% passer and is now facing the uphill battle from a hip injury.  The Titans may not have much more patience with a quarterback who has done little to electrify their offense.  Christian Ponder, as discussed on this blog last week, is in danger of losing his job to either veteran Matt Cassell or the just-signed Josh Freeman, a Buccaneer castoff.  It’s clear the Vikings brass is losing faith that Ponder will become the franchise quarterback they envisioned three years ago.  All three of these players could cause major turnover for their rosters/front offices if they continue on a mediocre  track.

3)  Jimmy Graham has supplanted Rob Gronkowski as the most dangerous tight end in football.

Sure, you can argue that Gronk’s injury problems of the last season and a half doesn’t really make this a fair comparison, but have you seen Graham’s numbers this year?  He’s on pace for Calvin Johnson-like statistics of 118 catches, 1,897 yards and 19 touchdowns.  He and quarterback Drew Brees connected on ten passing plays in ten attempts this past Sunday.  With the number of weapons the Saints have overall, and the fact that Graham lines up inside rather than out, it’s difficult for teams to contain him with extra defenders.  Gronkowski may return and right the red zone woes of his Patriots, but Graham is the top tight end in the game right now.

4)  Brandon Marshall continues to be a headache, despite his public comments to the contrary.

After Chicago’s loss to the Saints this past Sunday, in which Marshall had only four catches for 30 yards (one of which was a touchdown), the star receiver kept reminding reporters how proud of himself he was for not getting down in a game in which he was only targeted five times.  Never mind that this team hung with the high-flying Saints in a tough loss, or that the receiver on the other side of the ball, Alshon Jeffery, benefited from the extra attention paid to Marshall with a career-high 218 yards receiving on ten receptions.  Every time the Bears lose and Marshall’s output is less than he personally expects, quarterback Jay Cutler has to come out on his radio show on Monday saying he spoke with the receiver and his head is in a good place.  It’s obvious that no matter where Marshall’s playing and how the team is performing, individual stats and performance reign supreme with him.

5)  Terrelle Pryor looks like a legitimate signal-caller in this league.

Pryor’s late-night performance on Sunday (albeit against San Diego and their very average defense) showed flashes of brilliance.  While everyone knew he could scramble and extend plays, Pryor looked very comfortable in the pocket and had a beautiful play in the red zone where he directed his receiver to an open spot and gunned a touchdown his way.  Pryor has had enough time now to digest the system and playbook, and with the team releasing the continually ineffective, but always expensive, Matt Flynn, Pryor can now embrace the job as his.  Raider Nation may finally have a dynamic player to rally behind under center, and if Darren McFadden ever stays healthy, this offense could be formidable in the seasons to come.