Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 14, 2010

Early In The NFL, Two Big Disappointments

Five weeks into the NFL season, and it’s apparent that parity is the order of the day. Just three seasons ago the New England Patriots chased perfection all the way into the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Last year the eventual Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints started 13-0; while the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts went a week longer before losing a game.

But there will be no heated debates later this year about whether this or that team with a spotless record should be trying to run the table or resting its starters for the playoffs. Dreams of perfection have already gone a glimmering for all 32 NFL franchises. The four teams that contested the conference championship games last January are collectively 11-8. The three of those teams not named the New York Jets are collectively right at .500.

Unexpected seasons are underway in city after city. The results so far are bringing surprising joy to some fans and deep concern to others.

Last year the aforementioned Jets got hot late and just squeezed into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. They stayed hot through the post-season and came within a half of making an improbable trip to the Super Bowl. But a flat opening game loss to Baltimore left one wondering whether it had all been smoke and mirrors. Instead Rex Ryan has boasted less, coached more, and his team is now 4-1 and has already beaten each of its three division rivals.

The last team with a chance at a perfect season was Kansas City. No, that’s not a typo. While that unlikely dream ended at the hands of the Colts last weekend, the Chiefs are still 3-1 and well in front in the AFC West, where they are the only team with a winning record. If they win just one more game, the Chiefs will have matched their win total for all of last season.

The Washington Redskins are another squad one win away from matching their 2009 production. Their 3-2 record has them locked in a three-way tie with New York and Philadelphia for the NFC East lead. A team with a horrible penchant for beating itself in recent years has shown far greater discipline under new coach Mike Shanahan.

On the other hand, there is obvious concern among fans of the two teams that produced an exciting Super Bowl less than nine months ago. Both New Orleans and Indianapolis already have lost twice. The Colts find themselves in a division in which all four teams have identical records. With a matching 3-2 record, the Saints are looking up at both Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the NFC South. Last year the Colts ran away with their division by 5 games, and the Falcons and Bucs together won 12 games, one less than New Orleans.

But my guess is that the angst among Colts and Saints fans is nothing compared to what exists in Minnesota and Dallas. The two teams that faced each other in the divisional playoff round last season are both 1-3 and in serious danger of losing touch with the leading teams in their respective divisions.

For the Vikings, it looks to be a case of expecting one season too many of quality quarterbacking from future Hall of Famer Brett Favre. Favre missed most of training camp while deciding yet again whether or not to retire, and so far he has shown little of the accuracy which he displayed last year. His quarterback rating is an anemic 67.0. Early on Minnesota relied on a run-heavy offense behind Adrian Peterson, hoping Favre would play himself back into game shape. But that Plan B isn’t working particularly well. The Vikings are 29th in the league in average points per game. That’s not a ranking likely to lead to a playoff berth.

But one could easily argue that Minnesota should have seen this coming. Relying on a 74-year quarterback in the modern NFL is probably not the best strategy. Okay, I know Favre isn’t that old; it just seems like he must be given the number of times he’s retired. The immediate question for number four is whether his remarkable streak of 289 consecutive starts is about to end. Tendinitis in his right elbow may force him to sit this coming Sunday. The surest sign that Favre has stayed too long is that the larger question for the Vikings is whether that would hurt or help their chances.

Meanwhile there is absolutely no city more shocked by their team’s bad start than Dallas. With the Super Bowl scheduled for Cowboys Stadium next February, owner Jerry Jones has openly talked about being the first team to have home field advantage. But the Cowboys increasingly look like a team that has great marketing but not much of an actual product. Despite the gargantuan new stadium and “America’s Team” image, last year’s Wild Card round playoff victory over Philadelphia was their first playoff win since 1996. This year through four games they are winless at home, stuck in the middle of the league in points per game, and have surrendered more points than they have scored.

The Cowboys have always been defined by their quarterback, and Dallas has had some great ones. Current QB Tony Romo is certainly marketed as a great signal-caller; and has the requisite good looks and celebrity girlfriends. But in the end greatness is about winning, as the likes of Don Meredith, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman all know. The more I see of him, the more I think that Romo is not in their league.

It is of course still early. Despite their success, the Jets are still led by a second year quarterback. The Chiefs and Redskins both have negative point differentials, giving up more than they’ve scored; a testament to their anemic offenses. On the other hand I don’t for a minute believe that the Colts and Saints will spend the season languishing around the .500 mark. Over sixteen games, quality or the lack thereof generally wins out. And the Vikings and Cowboys face each other this weekend, so one of the two is virtually guaranteed to finally get a second win. Still, Brad Childress and Wade Phillips might want to start polishing up their resumes. In the NFL as in every professional sport, when great expectations turn into deep disappointment, the coach is usually the first casualty. When Yogi Berra was asked about the shadows in left field during day games at the old Yankee Stadium, he famously said, “it gets late early out there.” Well out there in Dallas and Minnesota, it’s getting late early.

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