As of this moment, no NFL team is .500 except the Monday Night combatants. That must mean that it is Week 3, the Jets-Dolphins game eventually ended in a non-tie (my DVR gave up when its "record with extended time" feature rammed straight into a rerun of "The Mentalist") and no games were postponed because a replacement officials' brand new smartphone map sent him to Pitcairn Island instead of Qualcomm Stadium.
Percentages can be harsh mistresses, as some newsmakers recently learned. By tomorrow, every NFL team will have won 100 percent (watch out '72 Dolphins!), 66.7 percent (twice as many wins as losses!), 33.3 percent (when does hockey season start? D'oh!) or 0 percent (help me string this Mike Holmgren effigy over the pile of burning jerseys) of its games. The wide splits between team fortunes create a sports-talk paradise in which fence sitting is impossible: No team can be described as "average" when it has won or lost at least two-thirds of its games, right?
Not that the records themselves have that much meaning yet. Quirks of scheduling guarantee odd results after three weeks. The Vikings, Colts and Jaguars played a mini round-robin in their first three games. They each managed to go 1-1 in this Tournament of Futility, which is depressing when you think too hard about it, but at least everyone got a chance to feel included, like unpopular kids dancing with each other at the prom. Meanwhile, the Broncos played through a brutal three-game slate (Steelers, Falcons, Texans) that was fated to be one long referendum on Peyton Manning but instead became three short ones: He is back, he is toast, he is toast and on his back.
Scheduling peculiarities help to foster some of the jaundiced pessimism that too often pervades sports coverage: Face a tough foe and slip against a weak one, and us experts will grab the shovels. The tagline for one Ravens-Patriots preview read: "Which team will be the first to lose two games?" That sounds a little like the world's worst wedding toast: "How will this marriage end: disappointment or death?" Various harsh columns in the Kansas City press called out Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, coach Romeo Crennel and quarterback Matt Cassel (the football blame trifecta) after two losses. A high burn rate of blame like that leads to "Fire the Towel Boy" demands by the bye week. Luckily, the Chiefs beat the Saints, proving that a beleaguered general manager and head coach are better than no general manager or head coach.
Once schedules are factored in, most teams' records are not too surprising after three weeks. The Patriots are 1-2, but since their only satisfactory record after three games is 5-0, it is hard to get too worked up about it. (Unless you are a Patriots fan, in which case you get worked up over all sorts of things.) The Bengals are tied for first place, but a) they aren't bad, and b) unlike the Ravens and Steelers, they have used up one of their Browns coupons. Week 3 brought plenty of reality checks: The 49ers aren't quite that good, the Titans aren't quite that bad, the Eagles can't cough up four turnovers per game and keep winning.
Still, there have been a few shocking developments in the League of No Middle Ground. Let's count down the five biggest surprises of the year so far, with optimistic, pessimistic and realistic takes on how each team's season will play out from here.
Surprise No. 5: The 2-1 Vikings
Optimistic: Christian Ponder to Kyle Rudolph makes fans forget Montana-to-Rice.
Pessimistic: Ponder, Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson get injured on the same play when they all crash into a heap in the backfield during an elaborate fake end-around. Joe Webb replaces all three of them in the lineup.
Realistic: It's only three games.
Surprise No. 4: The 3-0 Falcons and 3-0 Texans
Optimistic: These are only "surprises" because both teams have faced tough schedules and, despite their success in 2011, are rarely mentioned among the league's top contenders. They will face off in the Super Bowl, ushering in a new era when analysis is based on overall talent, coaching, quality of play and matchups, not on who "wants it more" or possesses the throbbing heart of a champion.
Pessimistic: Nah. They will both do something stupid in the playoffs and we will go back to writing about Tom Brady's hair.
Realistic: It's only three games. Well, six games.
Surprise No. 3: The 1-2 Lions and 1-2 Steelers
Optimistic: The Lions allowed touchdowns to Tommie Campbell, Darius Reynaud and Alterraun Verner on Sunday. The Steelers gave up a touchdown to Richard Gordon and important pass plays to Derek Hagan and David Ausberry. Both teams will start winning again when opponents will run out of obscure players to throw at them. Also, Jim Schwartz will give kicker Jason Hanson a chance to tie the next game in overtime, because it is always wise to trust your elders.
Pessimistic: Insanity has finally crept into both coaching staffs. Schwartz will become enamored with the Shaun Hill sneak; when Matthew Stafford (leg) returns, Hill will have a special package as a short-yardage running back. The Steelers' (read: Todd Haley's) obsessive-compulsive running-back juggling will mean even more carries for Baron Batch, who as we all know is just Charlie Batch wearing a monocle and an aviator's helmet.
Realistic: It's only three games, each.
Surprise No. 2: The 0-3 Saints
Optimistic: No opponents were intentionally injured in the making of this debacle.
Pessimistic: The Saints go 0-16 this season, and the highlight of the year becomes Jed Collins' booty-shakin' touchdown dance in yesterday's game, which is the closest the NFL must ever comes to rhythmic gymnastics.
Realistic: It's only three … well, even those of us who are loathe to credit success or failure to intangibles or distractions have to admit, after watching the offensively asynchronous, defensively befuddled Saints, that an offseason of litigation, suspensions and holdouts may have had a wee effect on the team's preparation.
Surprise No. 1: The 3-0 Cardinals
Optimistic: The Cardinals go undefeated and inspire a new football paradigm, in which teams build around a turnover-happy defense and strive to sign two lousy quarterbacks instead of one great one. (The Jets will try to take credit for this, but no one will listen, because they will finish 8-8.) Ray Horton will turn down a dozen head-coaching jobs, saying that he is happy being the Cardinals' defensive coordinator forever and ever.
Pessimistic: Investigators discover that Kevin Kolb and actor Jeremy Renner are the same person: They look alike, they both became quasi-famous at about the same time and they both possess the same B-minus talent and charisma. His dual identity exposed, Kolb Renner will be banned from future starting jobs or "Bourne" movies, though he will be allowed to back up John Skelton and do voice work on "Avengers" video games. Horton becomes secretary of state.
Realist: It's only three games, though three wins can go a long way in the NFC West.
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Gridiron Gangnam Style
If you love Internet fads and Asian synth-pop -- you probably don't, but play along -- you are familiar with "Gangnam Style," the smash international hit by Korean sensation PSY that combines the best elements of "Puttin' on the Ritz" and the soundtrack to a "Sonic the Hedgehog" video game. To do things Gangnam Style is to mix sophistication with flash, savoir-faire with sex appeal, and to strut around like a bowlegged Canali model in celebration of upward mobility.
Not many NFL players can dance like PSY, and after watching Jed Collins, we will be better off if none of them try. But many teams, coaches and players have a panache all their own. One of the following trends is bound to pose and vogue its way into a worldwide sensation, just as soon as we set it to an obnoxiously pulsating beat:
What it involves: Being a 260-pound fullback rescued from the Indoor Football League and given a major role in the Dolphins' offense. Bulldozing into the end zone for a short-yardage touchdown against the Jets. Having a name that brings to mind both a favorite quarterback/analyst and what a Russian mobster's wife demands she finds that he has been fooling around with a blyat.
Style points: Everyone loves a roly-poly fullback, and the name Jorvorskie promises to bring accordions and balalaikas to the dance floor, like Cee Lo Green covering "Who Stole the Kishka?"
What it Involves: Losing a piece of your ear while the Broncos defense dances around singing "Stuck in the Middle with You." Making like Vincent Van Gogh and shaking off severe ocular trauma to create a masterpiece, throwing for four touchdowns against a tough conference foe.
Style Points: The severed ear is more David Lynch than dance pop: Imagine "Blue Velvet," only peppier. A few more losses like the one the Broncos suffered in the past six days, and John Elway could go Dennis Hopper nutty.
What it involves: Watching a listless, moribund offense go through the motions for 59 minutes of a lackluster game. Nearly punting while down by nine points before the two-minute warning, then remembering that your motto is supposed to be "play 'til the gun" and sending your offense back onto the field. Turning the final minute into an inane exercise in hammering your "go after the kneel" concept into the ground, calling timeouts and giving the defense an angry pep talk that might have done some good earlier in the afternoon.
Style Points: "Schianoing" will go viral after his Buccaneers have had 20 or 30 good opportunities to stop opponents' end-of-game kneels.
Raiders Sand-Trap Style
What it Involves: Using the Oakland Athletics infield as a 12th man. Recovering two Steelers fumbles at the about the spots where Stephen Drew and Cliff Pennington stand on weekdays. Making a late-game third-and-one stop when Isaac Redman tries to drive on the beach without first deflating his tires.
Style Points: There is nothing hip or stylish about multi-purpose stadiums. But when they step onto the Athletics' diamond, the Raiders channel the "Moneyball" spirit of Billy Beane, allowing them to play high-percentage football whenever their cleats touch dirt. Then, they leave the infield and become the Raiders again.
What it Involves: Going from Heisman Trophy winner and cultural phenomenon to a mediocre H-back. Lining up at fullback running into the left flat so Mark Sanchez can throw to the right. Being as useful as a decoy as a guy sitting in the middle of the lake in a duck costume shouting "quack." Running the most obvious wildcat-style play in human history and losing five yards. Converting a first down on a fake punt, causing the broadcasters to "lose containment" and burble about your wonderfulness for several minutes.
Style Points: Yeah, because this guy hasn't inspired enough mass-media lunacy.
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The Longest Day
Columns like Mandatory Monday are predicated on the idea that Sunday's games will actually be over by Monday morning. As games grow longer and longer, due largely to the sputtering ineptitude of the replacement officials, we may soon be forced to re-name this column Mandatory Tuesday Mid-Morning.
The Steelers-Raiders game did not end until 8:03 p.m. Eastern time. Texans-Broncos ended just a few minutes earlier. Patriots-Ravens dragged into the night as players brawled, coaches jawed and the replacement officials threw random flags and waved their arms to in an elaborate pantomime of competence and control. The clock struck midnight, Bill Belichick angrily grabbed an official and the whole replacement saga turned into a rotted pumpkin.
Day-game comedies became a night-game tragedy. It was funny, unintentionally, when Jets-Dolphins took exactly four hours to complete, ending just minutes after a Saints-Chiefs game that preempted some dinners on the East Coast. Both games were sloppy, drippy and fitful, with inexplicable stoppages and booth reviews that dragged on like doctor's visits.
It was easy to laugh, if you could stay awake. The television directors turned into experimental filmmakers to fill the dead air in the Saints-Chiefs overtime. The Chiefs downed a punt near the goal line, and though the result of the play was obvious, the replay official felt the need to review it. The replacements entered their temporal paradox, and the television crew gamely showed the downed punt from every conceivable angle. There it was from the end zone. From overhead. From Sean Payton's vantage point in his basement, where he was building an HO-scale replica of the Trans-Siberian Railway to pass the time. Here it is in slow motion, slower motion, frame-by-frame, bullet-time, police sketch, dramatic reenactment, and as seen through the Hubble telescope.
Eventually, the replacements confirmed the obvious. A few minutes later, the Chiefs got the ball back, Shaun Draughn caught a short pass and bounced the ball off the turf while getting tackled. Roman Harper scooped the ball up and ran into the end zone and -- this is the funny part -- the replacements actually called it a touchdown. Draughn couldn't have been more down if you buried him at the beach. Off to the replay booth, and cue the poor Kurosawa of the television trailer to fill airtime yet again. Here's Draughn from the sideline. From overhead. From the universe where such a play would be ruled a fumble in the first place …
The replacements cannot take all the blame for the ever-lengthening cricket matches/jam band concerts that were once football games. Serious injuries delayed both the Raiders and Texans games, and overtime is overtime. But combine silly reviews with recurring fights, then sprinkle in routine holding penalties that become 10 minute on-field debates, and you have games which are, frankly, not very entertaining.
It was only a matter of time before tedious became depressing. The Ravens-Patriots game should have been beautiful. It featured an inspirational performance from Torrey Smith, playing just hours after his brother's death and scoring two touchdowns. There were signature plays by some of the game's biggest stars. There was an exciting comeback and a game-winning field goal.
To get to all of that, though, you had to sift through the ugly. No one wants to watch Bill Belichick berate some guy from the temp pool while Haloti Ngata and Logan Mankins rut like mountain goats after the snap. No one wants endless close-ups of vitriol-spewing coaches. And no one wants to see a coach grab an official and scream at him at the end of the game. Bill Belichick did it, and it marred and overshadowed all the wonderful things. The only saving grace for the NFL is that it happened so late that much of the television audience was asleep.
Yes, coaches and players should have more respect for one another. Motorists should have more respect for one another, but because this is an imperfect world, we need those traffic lights. And we need referees who can manage games, control situations, command respect and keep things moving. The issues of safety, integrity and competitive balance are converging with the simple reality of entertainment. Good games are being ruined, and watching the NFL is becoming unpleasant.
Expect the standard barrage of rationalizations from the NFL by midday Monday. Expect a major fine for Belichick. And cross your fingers for a resolution to the referee lockout, but don't get your hopes too high. After another round of warnings to teams about player and coach behavior and some propaganda, Monday Night Football will go on as scheduled, as will Thursday Night Football.
Hopefully, we will get a few hours of rest between the end of the former and the start of the latter.