Give the Cowboys credit. They are 2-1. They won a lopsided 31-7 game against a Rams team that looks pretty solid on paper. The Cowboys and their fans have a lot to be excited about after three games.
Unfortunately, they are not a great team, or even a very good one. They are just the least-worst team in an awful division.
The Cowboys beat the Giants, which would be more impressive if the Giants were not 0-3 and coming off a 38-0 loss to the Panthers. The Cowboys lost to the Chiefs, who won two games last year. The Eagles also lost to the Chiefs, and while the Chiefs are obviously better than they were last season, c'mon. The Eagles lost to the Chargers, who went 7-9 last season and have since lost to the Titans, who are the Titans. The Redskins lost to the Eagles, then were blown out by the Packers, then lost to the Lions, who won four games in 2012.
To summarize, the NFC East is 3-9, with two intra-division wins and five losses to non-division opponents who were below .500 last year. The division's most impressive win was the Cowboys' victory over the Rams on Sunday. It was dominating, but it is hard to describe just how unprepared the Rams looked. If we find out that the Rams discovered a time machine at the end of last week, accidently transported themselves back to 19th century China, spent two days in an opium den, got caught up in the Boxer Rebellion for a spell, got shipwrecked on the Paracel Islands for a day or two, then repaired their TARDIS and rematerialized at Cowboys Stadium eight minutes before kickoff, it would be a more logical explanation for their performance than "we were out-executed."
The NFC East really shouldn't be this bad. Two of the coaches have won two Super Bowls apiece. Chip Kelly can reportedly bend spoons with his mind, though only during two-point conversions. The least talented quarterback in the division, at least from an arm-and-legs perspective, is the guy with two Super Bowl rings. These are historic franchises in huge media markets with established ownership and money to spend. But a combination of rebuilding programs, championship cycles running their course, growing pains and wishful thinking have turned the most prestigious division in the NFL for decades into the weakest.
Will the NFC East get better soon? Probably not. A deeper look at the four teams reveals a lot of old weaknesses and only a handful of new strengths. Someone's going to win the NFC East. But it's not necessarily going to be someone good.
What's Going Right: The front four looks amazing. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are thriving in their new 4-3 roles. George Selvie sounds like a guy who posts pictures of himself on Instagram, but he is a revelation: a hard-to-block defensive end who has suddenly emerged with his fourth franchise in three seasons. Tony Romo is completing 72% of his passes, and all of the Cowboys' front-line offensive stars -- Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, and Miles Austin -- are healthy and productive at the moment.
What's Going Wrong. The offensive line looked great against a very good Rams front four but was awful against the Chiefs and a little of both against the Giants. The secondary played poorly against the Giants and had too many lapses against the Chiefs. The Cowboys looked about like the same team that has gone .500 or worse for three years until the Rams made them look like it was 1992 again.
Short-term Prognosis: The most encouraging thing for the Cowboys this season has been the team's quick transition to Monte Kiffin's 4-3, Cover-2-heavy scheme. The emergences of Hatcher and Selvie suggest that there may be more to this year's Cowboys than the Romo-Ware same-old. Chargers, Redskins, Eagles, Lions, and Vikings games all loom on the schedule, plus one probable reality check from the Broncos. The road to a 6-2 Cowboys start is paved with opponents far more screwed up than they are.
What's Going Right: LeSean McCoy is the second best running back in the NFL right now, and the apparent ACL-MCL-amputation he suffered on Thursday night turned out to be a minor sprain that only sidelined him until halftime. Many of Chip Kelly's diabolical plans are bearing fruit: losses to the Chargers and Chiefs took air out of the "THEY RUN SO MANY PLAYS THEY CANNOT BE STOPPED" balloon, but the no-huddle and read-option one-two punch are clearly stressing defenses.
What's Going Wrong: The Eagles have the worst safety tandem of any NFL team that has not suffered an injury crisis at the position. Their cornerbacks are not much better. Michael Vick does not suddenly become smarter or more consistent by making decisions faster. The Eagles receiving corps is weak after DeSean Jackson (another model of inconsistency), so the Chiefs could take their lumps in the option-rushing game and wait for the Eagles to make mistakes in the air. Kelly's "I go for two at weird times" and "I like funky collegiate wrinkle plays" interacted like two incompatible software components, and the Swinging Gate Malware nearly crashed the team's mainframe on Thursday night.
Short-Term Prognosis: The Eagles are a rebuilding team with weak personnel, particularly once you get past McCoy and a few other big names. Opponents will be able to beat them, but they will also have to beware of them because of Kelly's tactics and the Shady-Vick explosiveness factor. The Eagles embark on a three-game road trip, and while two of their upcoming opponents have zero combined wins right now, it's hard to imagine a team with so many flaws and so much to learn putting it all together on the layovers between Denver, New York, and Tampa.
What's Going Right: Robert Griffin is still alive, well, and able to run, sorta. Neither Ndamukong Suh nor Nick Fairley leapt from a trampoline and drove a poison-tipped spear into Griffin's knee brace on Sunday. Nothing has happened in the last three games to suggest that Griffin is anything less than a rusty, hobbly, still-gestating franchise quarterback who will be great again in the near future. DeAngelo Hall is collecting gift-wrapped defensive touchdowns at a faster-than-usual rate, but that is a double-edged sword, because Hall usually follows his touchdowns with rest-of-game braincations.
What's Going Wrong: The Redskins defense cannot tackle at all, though they sometimes compensate by not covering anyone. With his brace on, Griffin runs like a sped-up silent film version of Philip Rivers: defensive ends chase him down with ease, and cutbacks lead to awkward stumbles, which on Sunday led to an awkward fumbles. The Redskins need at least a small dose of the Griffin rushing threat, unfortunately, because their receivers have spent September proving that they can only get open when play-action and rollout threats keep the defense spread thin and frozen. In short, Griffin made a lot of people look good last year, and no one is returning the favor.
Short-Term Prognosis: After the Raiders and a bye week, things get brutal for a few weeks: a trip to Dallas, then the Bears, then a trip to Denver. We all should have taken a closer look at the Redskins overall talent during the offseason instead of studying quotes about knee ligaments for hidden meanings. The Redskins will be lucky to be 3-5 by midseason. The good news is that they were in the same boat last year.
New York Giants
What's Going Right: Couldn't tell ya. Ask Tom Coughlin what is going right. Wait, DON'T! (ducks).
What's Going Wrong: The pass defense has allowed 759 passing yards and seven touchdowns while recording just three sacks. Aaron Ross looks like he is still on his Jaguars vacation, and Terrell Thomas plays like he has missed the last two seasons with horrible injuries. The Panthers front four (which is very good) exposed the Giants offensive line with seven sacks. The running game barely exists. Louis Murphy and Brandon Myers have prominent offensive roles, which is a bad sign: Murphy (who lost a fumbled Sunday) was one of the reasons the Panthers' passing game stalled so often last year, and Myers is a Prevent Defense Vampire who catches a lot of passes in blowout losses to trick you into thinking he's productive. Eli Manning is in high risk-reward mode but experiencing dwindling rewards. With Geno Smith and the Jets off the hook temporarily, Manning had better activate the criticism deflectors on both Super Bowl rings.
Short-Term Prognosis: Just as the Cowboys caught the Rams on their worst day, the Giants caught the Panthers on their best: too much can be made of a lopsided loss or win against a capable opponent. Still, the Giants are starting to look like the Cowboys of the last three seasons or so. They have the front-line talent of Eli, Victor Cruz, Justin Tuck, and a few others, but not enough other blue chips, and the players that got them to the Super Bowl two years ago have either plateaued or started to fade. Recent high picks have not developed, and the Jerry Reese-Coughlin brain trust cannot develop talent on the cheap indefinitely. In other words, the Giants are suffering termite damage beneath their façade. They face the same Chiefs team that frustrated the Cowboys and Eagles next week, then have a pair of Eagles matchups wrapped around the Bears and Vikings. It is not hard to find three wins in that slate, but I dare you to find ten on the whole schedule.
The only hope that the 2013 Giants have is the futility of their division-mates.
Medium-sized Sunday observations that do not fit elsewhere.
- This is the time of year when the Week 1 storylines that did not pan out are buried forever. The Unstoppable Eagles Run a Zillion Plays storyline is toast. The Niners Have Plenty of Offensive Weapons storyline is in the toaster.
Colin Kaepernick threw 27 passes on Sunday: eight to Anquan Boldin (great), six to Kyle Williams (um…) four to Frank Gore (okay), three to Vance McDonald (promising rookie, but …), two to Garrett Celek (uh-oh), and one each to Bruce Miller, Marlon Moore, Quinton Patton, and Kendall Hunter (meh, meh, meh, maybe). With Vernon Davis sidelined, the 49ers have Boldin, Gore, and a bunch of guys who would have a hard time getting touches on the Cardinals.
Tom Brady is in a similar boat, but Colin Kaepernick is not Brady. When he drops to pass and cannot find anyone open, Kaepernick can only manufacture offense by scrambling. Brady can use lightning-fast reads, experience, and adjustments to "create" openness. Also, the Seahawks and Colts are better than the Buccaneers, Jets, and Bills.
The 49ers are still a very good team, Davis will return soon, and a few adjustments can get their offense humming again. But the lack of receiving depth will remain a problem. The Seahawks are already two games ahead of the 49ers in the NFC West, so some problem-solving urgency is prudent. It will be interesting to learn if has a panic button, and how the team will respond if he pushes it.
- Jay Cutler had a miserable second half against the Steelers until late in the fourth quarter, when he scrambled for a first down, then slammed into safety Robert Golden as if he were a tight end throwing a lead block. Golden crumpled backward from the impact, and the suddenly-loose Cutler threw two crisp passes to Brandon Marshall and Earl Bennett to put the game out of reach of the Steelers. The Bears won 40-23.
The body slam will probably get the "Smokin' Jay" treatment on Monday, and it will probably be added to the lore of cocky-petulant-foolish acts of Cutler. And yes, risking injury in the name of proving a point is a bad idea for a quarterback. But imagine Jim McMahon doing it. Or Russell Wilson. Cutler needed to get his frustrations out, but the Bears needed a first down and a momentum-turning play. The Golden slam would be perceived as an act of gutsy leadership if roughly 90% of the quarterbacks in NFL history did it. It looked pretty gutsy on Sunday night, too.
Some quarterbacks just look more comfortable after they have run around a little bit, perhaps taken a hit or two. Tony Romo often does. Donovan McNabb was useless until that first scramble. That extra adrenaline rush can the edge off, make the game more natural and less cerebral. Cutler is not the kind of guy you want dwelling on past mistakes in the pocket. After knocking a defender backward, he was probably done dwelling on anything.
- The Bengals defense may have had the best game in history for a unit that allowed 30 points. To be precise, the Bengals defense only allowed 23 points, with the Packers scoring one touchdown on a fumble return. But even the 23-point figure does not reflect how well the Bengals defense played. Turnovers gave the Packers the ball on the Bengals 26, 37, and 21-yard lines on three straight possessions. They settled for two field goals and a punt. The Packers got the ball on their own 40 and 42-yard lines late in the game. The Bengals defense responded with two interceptions.
Aaron Rodgers took four sacks and had at least three passes tipped at the line. The Packers were 4-of-13 on third downs and 0-of-2 on fourth downs. The best quarterback in the NFL had the ball in good field position all day but produced just 23 points. It was a tremendous effort by Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Leon Hall, Terence Newman, and many other Bengals defenders. The win bodes well for a team trying to prove it is "next step" worthy.
- The Dolphins remain the hardest 3-0 team in the league to read. The Seahawks are obviously great. The Chiefs are gutting out wins against mediocre opponents and blowing out bad ones. The Saints have traded 20% of their offensive efficiency for 50% more defensive competence. The Bears did the same thing, only vice-versa. The Patriots are bruising it out against bad teams and waiting for the Gronk cavalry.
The Dolphins are … pretty good. They got outgained 377 to 285 by the Falcons and only had the ball for 22 minutes and change, but they stayed in the game, capitalized on some Falcons sloppiness (muffed punt, missed field goal, settling for a field goal at the two yard line), and put together an impressive final drive. Ryan Tannehill looks … good. The overall defense looks … good. You get the picture.
The problem with all of these "goods" is that they don't add up to a great, and there are a lot of reasons to worry. The Dolphins longest passing play on Sunday was 21 yards. Tannehill has taken 14 sacks. He fumbled twice on Sunday, recovering once. Matt Ryan was not sacked at all. Take a 49-yard run out of their numbers, and the Dolphins average 2.5 yards per carry. And so on.
So the Dolphins are 3-0 team that has beaten two 2012 playoff teams, but there are all of these indicators that they lack a deep passing game, consistent running game, or dominating element to their defense. If they were in the NFC East, I would say that they look like a guaranteed playoff team. But the Patriots are 3-0, and the Jets -- my God, the Jets are 2-1 -- so the Dolphins have not gotten any separation.
If the Dolphins beat the Saints in New Orleans next week, perhaps that will make a believer out of me.
That's Not a Thing
As a once-in-a-while feature, Mandatory Monday explores things which appear to be things but are not, in fact, things.
The Jaguars offense is not a thing. The Jaguars generated 265 total yards and 17 first downs against the Seahawks in a 45-17 loss. Those are bad numbers, but not terrible, considering that the 49ers only netted 207 yards against the Seahawks last week. Let's dig deeper!
Oh dear, it seems the Jaguars only netted 52 yards in the first half. Their first four drives produced negative-nine yards. They did not score until Russell Wilson got sloppy with a 31-0 third-quarter lead and threw an interception that gave them the ball on the two-yard line. They did not really move the ball until the Seahawks called off the dogs and called on the Tarvaris Jackson.
Nothing works for the Jaguars offense. Their first play of the game was a botched snap. They attempted one direct snap play to Denard Robinson, and he fumbled. The line is bad, and Maurice Jones-Drew plays like he has carried the ball nearly 1,600 times for a hopeless franchise and now battles constant lingering ankle injuries.
The Jaguars should just shrug their shoulders and call a bunch of fake punts and fake field goals. It worked wonders elsewhere.
Confidence in Josh Freeman is not a thing. Anyone who claims to have confidence in Josh Freeman is lying, especially his own coaches. Greg Schiano's last milligram of Freeman confidence burned off somewhere between Freeman's failed 4th-and-5 conversion and the ugly interception that gave the Patriots a gift field goal before halftime. Trailing badly in the second half of what became a 23-3 loss, Schiano and coordinator Mike Sullivan began using a six-offensive lineman formation and handing off on nearly every first down. Doug Martin was still getting first down carries in the fourth quarter, down by 20 points. Why not? Freeman throws more incompletions out of bounds than any quarterback of the last two decades, so the Bucs might as well go heavy jumbo.
If Mike Glennon is not named the starter by Thursday, it either means that Glennon is in a body cast, Schiano is going Martin Wildcat 24-7, or both.
The Texans-Ravens rivalry is not a thing. Texans fans think it's a thing. Ravens fans wonder when the Steelers arrive. Sunday's 30-9 Ravens win, with 24 penalties and just 28 non-penalty first downs, was a typical Ravens-Texans game. The Ravens are now 6-1 against the Texans in the regular season and 1-0 in the postseason. To be a rivalry, the Texans must actually rival the Ravens somehow.
Great rivalries also generate enthusiasm among football fans who root for neither team. Remember Seahawks-49ers last week? That was like chasing Nyquil with a drill bit to the temple, but you stayed up and watched through the rain delay, because the teams and matchups were so compelling. The pub where I watched Sunday's games had eight televisions to work with for the 1 p.m. kickoffs, but no one selected Ravens-Texans until one small table of fans pleaded with the hostess to turn off Giants-Panthers. Keep in mind that this pub is located one mile from the childhood home of the Ravens starting quarterback. No one thinks of Ravens-Texans as a rivalry outside of Houston, and given exciting options like Saints-Cardinals, no one wants to see them play.
A rolling ball of butcher knives is not a thing. Thank heavens. What purpose would a rolling ball of butcher knives serve in real life? Chuck Pagano called Trent Richardson a "rolling ball of butcher knives," and Richardson responded with 13 carries for 35 yards and no receptions on three pass targets. More like a puttering glob of salad forks.
Actually, Richardson ran pretty hard, and he gave the Colts an effective three-headed backfield along with Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown. Andrew Luck became the fourth head on a bootleg touchdown after a play-fake to Bradshaw. The committee approach makes more sense for the Colts than asking Richardson to slice-'n'-dice for 20 carries per game: Bradshaw is quicker and a better receiver, and there should be plenty of carries to go around in Hamilton's offense. Maybe the Colts need a nickname for the whole backfield. Ginsu storm? Knifenado? C'mon, I can't be the only one making jokes around here.
Was a first-round pick too much to pay for a committee back? The Colts just beat the 49ers. Save those questions for another day.
Carson Palmer, lead blocker, is not a thing. The Saints slowly steamrolled the Cardinals 31-7, and not much happened of interest except for one doozy of a Cardinals call in the second quarter. Carson Palmer pitched to Andre Roberts, who pitched on a reverse to Patrick Peterson, who has been seeing several snaps on offense per game because he is awesome. Peterson sprinted around left end, while the 33-year-old Palmer … blocked? Yep. Are you sure about that call, Coach Arians? The last thing the Cardinals need is to be down to their fourth string quarterback by December again because Arians wants to get the cornerback involved and play all the album tracks in his playbook.
Tavon Austin the Playmaker is not a thing. Austin may someday become a dangerous Percy Harvin-type, but right now the Rams are game-planning to get him the ball in as little space as possible. The Rams opened the game in a two-tight end set with Austin as the lone running back, sending him plunging off tackle in an attempt to confuse the Cowboys by doing something horrendously idiotic. Austin gained three yards. He then caught six passes for 30 yards, the longest a nine-yarder, as the Rams fed him a series of short passes in front of zone coverage between the numbers.
Austin has two touchdowns this year but is averaging 6.6 yards per catch and 2.5 yards per rush, numbers better suited to a Vonta Leach-style fullback than a playmaker. (Leach is at 5.8 and 2.7, for the record). Neither Sam Bradford nor coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have figured out how to use an offensive weapon like Austin yet. The fact that we are unsure what offensive weapons they really DO know how to use is becoming more and more troubling.
Hoyermania is not a Thing. At least, it had better not be.
Brian Hoyer threw three touchdown passes for the Browns in a 31-27 win over the Vikings. He also threw three interceptions. The Browns offense consisted of a fake field goal, a fake punt, a Josh Gordon end-arounds, a Gordon bomb, some fine catches by tight end Jordan Cameron, and a few competent plays here and there. The Browns pulled out every possible stops, and Hoyer responded by playing well enough to not lose to a middling opponent. If Brandon Weeden had this game, no one would notice.
Hoyer might as well start a few more games: he's two years younger than Weeden, and their all-fakes strategy indicates that the Browns are running the Bobby McGee gameplan. (Freedom's just another word for …) But Hoyermania can be dangerous for an organization that got enamored with Kelly Holcomb and Derek Anderson in the past. Weeden-Hoyer is not a controversy, it's a problem that must be solved. Hoyer, a fifth-year NFL veteran, must play a lot better before he can be called a solution.
And Finally …
What do pregnant teenagers and brawling Eagles fans have in common? You must click to find out!