Neither Matt Cassel nor Philip Rivers have impressed at this point in the 2012 season.
The NFL season is now at the halfway point, but almost every team still has a few question marks that leave me unsure about their capabilities.
For some, this uncertainty revolves around a key player who is falling short. Mario Williams is one of the first to come to mind.
Others teams have less individual problems, and as a result, these may be more difficult to resolve. Can New England’s secondary be average? Are Indianapolis’ troubles stopping the run going to ultimately eliminate it from playoff contention?
These are just a few of the biggest question marks midway through the 2012 NFL season.
Biggest Question: Are the Cardinals officially in a complete free fall?
There are always a few unexpected teams that make an early-season splash, and it’s usually pretty easy to spot the “pretenders.” Arizona, though, seemed to be legitimate.
The defense looked like one of the league’s best—they allowed less than 16 points per game through the first four weeks of the season. More importantly, Arizona’s victories came over preseason contenders (Seattle, New England, Philadelphia).
With the exception of their Thursday night loss to St. Louis, Arizona hasn’t actually looked all too terrible. Its defense continues to be dominant against the run. Week 9 marked the first time it allowed over 24 points.
Arizona appears to be an average team in the very deep and talented NFC. Unfortunately for it, the schedule does not get any easier. The Cardinals still must face Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco.
Biggest Question: Can Atlanta continue to win every close game?
Make no mistake, the Atlanta Falcons are clearly the best team in the NFL.
Whereas some see their propensity for nail bitters as a weakness, the reality is, grinding out regular season games makes them that much more prepared to make the first postseason run of the Matt Ryan era.
They may not have the typical characteristics of a 16-0 contender (transcendent quarterback, recent postseason success), but Atlanta is actually in a great position to run the table. Its remaining opponents have a combined record of 22-27. New York is the only team left on the schedule that is currently over .500.
So, can they continue to produce dramatic wins? Consider that Mike Smith’s Falcons have won every game in which they held a lead of six or more points in the final quarter.
Biggest Question: Can Baltimore resolve its injury situation in time to win the division?
Pittsburgh is closing in on the AFC North lead. Baltimore and its injury-ridden-turned-downright-bad defense looks completely incapable of holding the Steelers off.
Panicking would certainly be premature, but the Ravens did not look good in either of their last two games. Prior to their game with Houston, I wrote that some midseason struggles would be understandable—that is, so long as Baltimore can eventually find a way to stop allowing 386 yards of offense.
It takes on Oakland next before facing Pittsburgh twice over the course of three weeks.
Biggest Question: Mario Williams?
Forgive me for beating a dead Texan, but hiding from public scrutiny is difficult when $50 million in guaranteed money brings marginal results.
In fairness to Williams, he has looked like a top end in two of his last three games (two sacks against Arizona, seven tackles against Houston).
The reality, however, is that (brace yourself for this one) the Bills made a mistake. Buffalo fans can be disappointed in Williams’ production, but let’s not forget that he hasn’t posted double-digit sacks since 2008—4.5 midway through the season is right on track with his more recent efforts.
Biggest Question: Just how bad do DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart need to be before people stop blaming Cam Newton?
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart averaged a combined 100 yards per game in 2011. This year? Sixty-six. Cam Newton is Carolina’s leading rusher.
Newton’s biggest drop-off has been in the touchdown department. It’s difficult to get the ball in the end zone when your running backs net just 3.5 yards per attempt.
Biggest Question: Will Chicago’s defense continue to make game-changing plays amidst a brutal second-half schedule?
The Jay-Cutler-Brandon-Marshall connection has been harmonious for both, but Chicago’s defense is playing at a historic level. It has eight defensive touchdowns on the year.
But can the defense continue to win games/bail out the offense during periods of inconsistency? Game-changing defensive plays will be less common against teams like Houston, San Francisco and Minnesota (Chicago’s next three opponents) than against inferior ones like St. Louis, Jacksonville, Carolina and Tennessee.
Biggest Question: Can BenJarvus Green-Ellis provide any relief for Andy Dalton?
The Bengals have shown moments of promise in 2012—the most recent being their near-victory over the fourth-quarter-invincible Denver Broncos.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was supposed to compliment Andy Dalton by providing a balanced, turnover-free running game, has been one of the largest reasons for Cincinnati’s sub-stellar first half. Green-Ellis had a grand total of zero fumbles over his first four NFL seasons, but has put the ball on the ground three times in 2012.
His yards per carry (3.4) has been even more costly. Among players with 70 or more attempts, only Darren McFadden and Green Bay’s Alex Green average worse than the Law Firm.
The Bengals are averaging 15 fewer yards on the ground in 2012 than they did in 2011.
Biggest Question: Will Week-17 Brandon Weeden look noticeably better than the Week 1 version?
The 2012 NFL season is a rebuilding one in Cleveland. Then again, the same could have been said for its last 10. Still, things look generally positive.
Trent Richardson appears to be a future All-Pro, and the defense would post far superior numbers if it was accompanied by anything resembling a mistake-free offense.
Brandon Weeden, however, has looked less impressive. Declaring Weeden a bust or campaigning for Colt McCoy would be premature, bordering on moronic. But, Cleveland does want improvement. Weeden is yet to have consecutive games with a QBR above 50, which is considered average.
Biggest Question: Will Dallas find a way to come out on the right side of bang-bang moments?
Dallas fell to Baltimore 29-31 in Week 6 when a two-point conversion went through Dez Bryant’s hands and Dan Bailey missed a 51-yard field goal.
Two weeks ago, Bryant was an un-filed nail from a game-winning score.
Missing this tackle against Atlanta took away an opportunity to contend for the lead.
Whatever the situation, the Cowboys seem unable to make that one final play/catch that one final break. It’s lazy and flat-out wrong to throw all the blame on Tony Romo.
Biggest Question: Can Denver obtain a first-round bye?
OK, so maybe this isn’t really a “question mark,” but I guess that just shows how much I like this Denver team at the moment. Peyton Manning is my midseason MVP.
The defense is good in every department. It is especially dangerous with the lead (which they have been getting more often recently) because Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller can enter pass-rush mode.
Its Week 15 game at Baltimore is the only one left against an opponent with a winning record.
Biggest Question: Can Calvin Johnson return to his 2011 form in time for a Detroit postseason run?
Calvin Johnson has seen double and triple coverage an inordinate amount this year, and the Lions have been, on many occasions, too willing to say, “OK, we’ll go elsewhere.”
Even with this approach by opposing defenses and the submission of the Detroit attack, Johnson has managed to have the type of season that would be categorized as “great” for almost any other receiver. He’s still the seventh-most targeted wideout, and his 767 yards off those looks are third most.
Johnson still needs to do more, fair or not. He is Detroit’s best player and must be the dominant receiver of a year ago, especially in the red zone—it’s the only way Detroit can snag a playoff spot in the NFC.
Biggest Question: Will injuries on the defensive side of the ball turn the Packers into the Ravens of the NFC?
Charles Woodson will be out for at least another month. Clay Matthews will be joining him on the sidelines. Never mind their wounded receivers.
Thankfully, Green Bay has Aaron Rodgers, who is still clearly the league’s best player. Rodgers was able to hide his team’s defensive issues in 2011, and he will need to do it again down the back half of the season.
Biggest Question: Can Houston maintain its current play all the way to the Super Bowl?
Houston is the most balanced team in the NFL.
Are the Texans better than the NFC’s best? I’m not so sure—the Green Bay thrashing is still fresh in my mind. Pittsburgh, New England and Denver appear to be hitting a stride, and until Houston can grab a few more “signature wins”, I reserve the right to be a bit skeptical.
With remaining games against Chicago, New England, Minnesota and Indianapolis (x2), they will have many opportunities to eliminate uncertainty.
Biggest Question: Is the run defense good enough to put the Colts in a position for an improbable postseason berth?
Any discussion of the Indianapolis Colts has to start with Andrew Luck, but let’s put him aside for this one.
The Colts have the No. 25 rush defense in the NFL. That’s a problem for any team trying to grab a playoff spot, but one that is especially dubious when you look at Indianapolis’ second-half schedule.
Five of their final seven games are against top 10 rushing offenses. After their game with Jacksonville, its remaining opponents average 131 yards on the ground.
Luck can do a lot, but an early deficit may be impossible to overcome if Indy can’t get the other team off the field.
Biggest Question: Does Blaine Gabbert deserve to start for the duration of 2012?
Blaine Gabbert threw for 200 or more yards three times in 2011 and never reached 300. He has already matched that total in 2012 and posted his first 300-yard performance in Jacksonville’s loss to Green Bay.
Gabbert’s completion percentage is up seven points from his rookie year. His touchdown-to-interception ratio has gone from 1.1 to 1.8.
All of this has come without a consistent running game due to the injury to Maurice Jones-Drew.
The problem is, of course, that Gabbert still has a long way to go before he can be considered even an average NFL quarterback.
He remains inconsistent from play to play and week to week, which is reflected in his QBR. His score of 41.8, which is up from his tragic 20.6 in 2011, is lower than that of 29 other quarterbacks.
Gabbert’s garbage-time touchdown to Justin Blackmon was refreshing, but he still has a long way to go to expunge talks of Matt Barkley and Geno Smith.
Biggest Question: Just how bad are Matt Cassel and Romeo Crennel?
Blaming the quarterback and head coach for a team’s struggles is the stock media explanation, but it’s hard to find someone else to target.
These predictions seem ludicrous now, but at the time, Kansas City’s plethora of talented players painted a different image of the future.
Consider this: ESPN Scouts give seven different Chiefs players a rating of 80 or better. There are 13 other teams with seven or more players of that caliber, and their combined record is 66-38.
Biggest Question: Can Miami’s running backs survive the back half of the schedule?
Ryan Tannehill has had a pretty solid rookie season up to this point, but the surprise Dolphins owe even more of their success to the running backs.
Reggie Bush, who has turned into a reliable halfback since coming to Miami, already has 122 carries. At this pace, Bush will finished 2012 with nearly 30 more handoffs than his previous career high. It’s a little disconcerting for someone who hasn’t played a full season since his rookie year in 2006.
Coach Joe Philbin seems to be aware of this potential overload. Bush had less than 15 carries in each of the last three games.
The question is, will they be able to relieve him down the stretch?
Biggest Question: Can the Vikings right their ship (no pun intended) in the face of huge second-half tests?
The Vikings have lost three of their last four games. They face Detroit this upcoming weekend and have a bye in Week 11. What follows is without question, the most brutal schedule in the NFL.
Minnesota has two games against Chicago and Green Bay as well as a fun inter-conference affair with Houston.
Christian Ponder has regressed. His average QBR over the last four games is nearly 50 points lower than that of his first five.
Opposing teams are also getting it done on the ground. The Vikings have allowed an average of 166 rushing yards since Week 6.
Biggest Question: Is the secondary “good” enough to allow New England to make its trademarked late-season run?
New England’s secondary problems have been well-documented. The team has the No. 28 pass defense, allowing an average of 281 yards through the air.
But in answer to the question at hand, New England’s secondary will appear to be improved during the second half of the season. Six of their remaining eight games are against teams that throw for under 222 yards per game.
Biggest Question: What is the biggest question for the New Orleans Saints?
There’s just so many to choose.
Will the defense ever allow less than 400 yards? It's allowed 471.3 per game thus far—nearly 50 yards worse than the current single-season record for defensive ineptness set by the 1981 Colts.
Will Sean Payton be persuaded to return as the New Orleans head coach in 2013?
How long will it be before the Bounty Scandal gets another confusing wrinkle?
And, most bewildering of them all, even with the trainwreck season to end all trainwreck seasons, how in the world is, “Will the Saints make a playoff push?” still a quasi-legitimate question?
Biggest Question: Will Hakeem Nicks return to form?
Injuries have limited Hakeem Nicks’ ability to become a consistent factor in the New York offense, and Eli Manning is beginning to have a difficult time because of it.
The Giants passing game is at its best when Victor Cruz and Nicks are both demanding multiple defenders. Last year, Nicks finished the year with 133 targets, while Cruz had 131.
Without Nicks at full strength, Manning has been forced to adopt a singular first-option. Cruz is already at 100 targets in 2012, but is catching 57 percent of his looks. Cruz reeled in 63 percent of them last year. Nobody has hit the 200-target mark since the stat became official in 2006.
Is Manning beginning to force the ball Cruz’s way? You can’t really fault the Giants for trying to get the ball into the hands of their most dangerous player, but they need to return to the more balanced attack of a year ago.
Biggest Question: Can the Jets just decide what they are trying to do with Tim Tebow already?
If he’s better than Mark Sanchez, make him the starter.
If Mark’s still the guy but NY wants to get value out of Tim Tebow, give the ex-Bronco a legitimate opportunity to run the offense rather than awkwardly come in for a play that nets three yards before sending him back to the bench.
Biggest Question: Does Oakland always need a second highly capable back with Darren McFadden on the roster?
The Raiders have the No. 31 rushing offense, which is almost incomprehensible given the undeniable talent of Darren McFadden.
As usual, though, injuries have followed McFadden, and you have to wonder what Oakland was thinking when it created a situation in which McFadden was going to have the largest load of his career. He’s never played in more than 13 games over the course of a season.
Michael Bush had 43 carries through the first six games of 2011. This year’s McFadden backup, Mike Goodson, has only 17 through eight. McFadden’s high ankle sprain (which Goodson has as well) may be the most predictable thing that has happened in this otherwise unpredictable NFL season.
Biggest Question: Will Andy Reid stop being so Reid-y?
OK, we get it. Andy Reid likes to pass, and he likes to pass it deep. But surely, he realizes this strategy must be amended given Philadelphia’s strengths and weaknesses.
So why make the situation worse by forcing Vick to hold the ball while deep, double move routes develop? Vick currently ranks 10th in air yards. Get the ball into the hands of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin and let them run.
McCoy played well last night, but once again failed to reach 20 carries. He has 20-plus in Philly’s three wins and under 20 in its five losses. The ease with which he and Bryce Brown ran through the New Orleans defense made me wonder why the Eagles attempted a single pass.
Biggest Question: Will Pittsburgh stick with the running game when it matters most?
The 50-and-over population can rejoice—Pittsburgh has returned to its running game roots… kind of.
Ben Roethlisberger is a legitimate MVP candidate and, surprise, has thrived in Todd Haley’s offensive system. He is currently ranked sixth in Total QBR.
(As an aside, maybe the Eagles should take a page out of the Steelers’ book. The quick passing game has turned a previously questioned offensive line into one of the better units.)
Over the last five games, though, the real story in Pittsburgh has been the running game. It is 4-1 and have rushed for 129 yards per game, up 14 from Pittsburgh’s average over the previous 19. Incredibly, this is all with a banged-up backfield.
Can Big Ben take a back seat to the running game in the critical moments that lay ahead? More importantly, should he?
Biggest Question: Can Sam Bradford prove worthy of the No. 1 overall selection?
Injuries? Check. Woeful offensive line? Check. Limited offense threats? Check.
Sam Bradford has had a slew of obstacles to encounter early in his career, but eventually, he needs to be able to hide them.
The NFC West looks like not too much of a surprise after all. St. Louis and Arizona are both in the midst of major losing streaks. The Rams’ losses have come against good teams, but eventually, Bradford must lead his team to wins against deserving opponents.
Biggest Question: Just how valuable was Vincent Jackson?
Philip Rivers has 15 combined fumbles and interceptions. He has thrown for over 250 yards just twice.
Malcolm Floyd is the only San Diego wide receiver averaging over 30 yards per game! Robert Meachem was supposed to assuage the Vincent-Jackson departure. That has not been the case, be it a lack of chemistry or health issues.
Without the poster boy for the just-throw-it-up-anywhere-near-him strategy, the Chargers offense looks bland and inconsistent.
Biggest Question: How did the beat down at the hands of the G-Men happen, and will we see such a loss again?
Everything seems to be going right for the 49ers.
They have the No. 2 total defense and the No. 1 rushing offense. Alex Smith is on pace to break all of his single-season records. Jim Harbaugh is the best head coach this season not named Mike Smith.
But the Giants loss still looms large. The G-Men recorded six sacks and picked off Alex Smith three times—and they made it look easy.
New York’s defensive trademark has been to generate pressure with just its front four, but it clearly entered the game against San Francisco with a clear plan to rattle Alex Smith with added pressure.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, San Francisco gained only five net yards on the ten plays in which the Giants sent added pressure. Time will tell if opposing teams can apply this strategy effectively.
Biggest Question: Can Seattle win two more road games?
Two road wins may be all it takes to grab a playoff spot.
The Seahawks appear to be the best home team in the NFL—they’ve defeated Dallas, Green Bay (eh), New England and Minnesota in Seattle. However, they’ve won just one away from home.
With San Francisco and Chicago still on their schedule, they cannot afford to lose road games to Miami or Buffalo.
Biggest Question: Is there any hope for a consistent pass defense?
The Bucs have the worst secondary in football in terms of total yardage, which is coupled with a highly ineffective pass rush. Four teams have recorded fewer sacks than the Bucs’ 13.
Thankfully, Tampa has picked off opposing QBs 13 times. Only the Bears and Giants have more interceptions.
There are a lot of things going well for the Bucs. Vincent Jackson is having the best season of his career. Doug Martin is ripping off huge yardage. Greg Schiano looks very NFL-ready.
But, until the Bucs can prevent routine 50-yard gains through the air, they will be unable to beat the upper class of the NFL.
Biggest Question: Chris Johnson?
Chris Johnson has 526 rushing yards over Tennessee’s last four games. He also has three fumbles over their last five.
Probably because Johnson’s game is more about speed and big plays than it is consistent medium yardage, he has been prone to hit major funks over the course of a season. Since 2011, Johnson has had two three-game streaks of fewer than 65 rushing yards and two four-game ones.
(Between Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy, there are only three three-game streaks of fewer than 65 yards since 2011).
This year’s early-season slump was nothing unusual.
Is Chris Johnson back? What is “back” anyway?
Biggest Question: Is there any type of punishment for penalty yardage within the organization?
If there is one, it’s clearly not very effective. Washington has been the most penalized team this year, and it’s really not even close.
The Redskins have been flagged nine more times than any other team. It’s resulted in a league-leading 649 yards of damage.
Josh Morgan cost Washington a win in Week 2 when he threw the ball at Cortland Finnegan with less than 1:30 left in the fourth quarter. The penalty turned a 47-yard attempt into a 62-yarder. Washington lost by three.
A similar fiasco took place the following week.
Robert Griffin III needs all the help he can get—this is not it.