The Best and Worst of the NFL at the Season's Quarter Mark
The NFL season is four weeks old, which means that most teams—thank you very much, unnecessarily early bye weeks—have reached the quarter mark of a year that feels like it's already flying by.
Let's look at the best and worst of the early part of the season, then, shall we?
Rather than break down everyone from the best punter to the worst safety, I'm focusing on the positions with the most compelling storylines.
Best: Peyton Manning
This isn't even close. Through four games, the elder Manning brother is having a season that might be up there with some of the great performances in the history of the game. Yes, it's still early, but keep in mind that he's only played four games with Wes Welker as part of a dynamic receiving corps, and his tight end, Julius Thomas, had one career catch coming into this season.
Will Peyton Manning break Tom Brady's mark of 50 touchdowns in a season?
Let's not forget that the Broncos offensive line has been destroyed by injuries this year, and the team's leading rusher, Knowshon Moreno, started the season as the third back on the depth chart.
A makeshift offensive line, a running back by committee and two of his four primary targets in the passing game are new this year? Yeah, passing for 1,470 yards through four games while completing 75 percent of his passes including 16 for touchdowns with no interceptions makes Peyton the best of the best, by far.
To be fair, while Manning has just 39 incompletions on 156 passes this year, his third-down completion percentage does dip just below 65 percent. He is human, folks. Still, that's a better percentage than all but 10 quarterbacks have in the league…on all downs.
Honorable Mention: Philip Rivers
Rivers is having one of those early starts fans in San Diego always expected him to have. While I don't want to throw cold water on his insane 73.9 completion percentage and 118.8 passer rating, he has faced two teams in the NFC East, which is clearly the worst division in football. It's as bad as some of those legendary NFC West divisions a few years back.
Rivers' completion percentage against a top defense in Week 1 versus Houston was under 50 percent, despite four touchdown passes in the loss. Rivers could be having a career year, or he could be fortunate enough to have faced some horrible defenses early.
However, coach Mike McCoy is a quarterback-maker. If Rivers can play how he has through four games this season, the Chargers will be right there come playoff time, even in a division as deep as the AFC West.
Worst: Eli Manning
Eli's quarterback rating of 69.1 is around half that of his brother's, and his completion percentage of 56.3 is one of the worst in the league—better than only Michael Vick and the quarterback tandems in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
Manning leads the league in interceptions with nine to go along with his two lost fumbles this season. He has been under constant pressure, having been sacked 14 times through four games.
Still, there is no excuse for some of those turnovers. Another loss this week, and Manning may need to start looking over his shoulder, and I don't mean at his horrible running backs.
Dishonorable Mentions: Christian Ponder, Matt Schaub
It's hard to blame Christian Ponder for the Vikings' early-season woes, because, well, he's probably just not an NFL-caliber quarterback. Clearly someone in Minnesota thinks he is, and that someone will either be right at some point soon or out of a job.
As for Schaub, it's hard to think of him as one of the worst in the league after four games when you see how productive he was in Week 1. But since then, he hasn't been very good, throwing as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns.
The Week 4 loss to Seattle was one of the worst performances in the history of football for a guy who tossed for 355 yards and two scores. Fantasy and reality don't seem to be on the same page with Schaub right now.
Best: LeSean McCoy
Which running back will finish with the most rushing yards in 2013?
The Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia has gotten off to a slow start in terms of wins, but not in terms of yards. If Kelly can figure out a way to turn yards into points, the Eagles offense will be as potent as people expected. But a lack of touchdowns should not be a knock on the crazy season LeSean McCoy is having so far.
He is averaging 117 yards per game and six yards per carry, which is only slightly skewed by four runs of 20 yards or more, one of which is over 40 yards. (By comparison, Adrian Peterson is averaging 4.6 YPC but has five rushes of 20 or more including two of 40 or more.)
McCoy also has seven catches in the Eagles' read-option offense for 140 yards, putting his total yards from scrimmage at 608 through four games—good for 152 yards per game and the best of any skill-position player to play more than one game this year.
Honorable Mentions: Adrian Peterson, Reggie Bush
Peterson is second in the league in rushing, but he's tops for all running backs with five touchdowns. He isn't yet on pace to eclipse his near-record-breaking season from last year, but he actually got off to a slower start last season than he is on now. It's amazing to think what might happen if Peterson gets hot.
While the Detroit Lions offense seems to go through Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, it's been Bush who looks like the offense's most valuable player. Bush is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and has 11 receptions in addition to his 48 carries through three games played. Most importantly, Bush is finally providing the balance Detroit needs to compete.
Worst: David Wilson
David Wilson was handed the Giants' starting running back job this season and has floundered, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry with no touchdowns in four games (granted, one was called back for a penalty last week).
Wilson hasn't amassed more then 55 rushing yards in a game this season, thanks in part to his limited carries after two lost fumbles on seven carries in Week 1 despite no viable backup on the roster.
It's not necessarily fair to consider C.J. Spiller or Ray Rice the worst through four games because both have been hurt, but neither has been as productive as his team—or fantasy owners—would have liked.
Both feature backs need to get healthy quickly. Rice also needs to get the ball more, as he's carried just 30 times this season, including two rushes in the second half against Buffalo last week. Two.
Update: Spiller had 66 yards on eight carries and one touchdown in a 37-24 Week 5 loss to the Bills.
Rashard Mendenhall went to Arizona to rejoin his former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, and he was placed in the starting rotation to start the season. The first-year head coach already seems to be regretting that decision.
Best: Kansas City Chiefs
It's early, so a lot can change, but Andy Reid has his defense playing insanely smart football. The Chiefs are giving up 10.3 points per game through four games—best in the NFL. They also have a league-best 18 sacks and have forced eight turnovers.
Now for the caveat: The Chiefs have had the easiest early schedule of any team in football. The combined record of their four opponents in games other than against KC is 3-9.
Still, the Chiefs shut down the Eagles in Week 2 after an amazing offensive output the week before, potentially showing the rest of the league how to stop Chip Kelly. That deserves top honors in and of itself.
Honorable Mentions: Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans
The Panthers have given up 12 points per game, which is pretty amazing considering how pedestrian the offense has been. If it weren't for a horrible final drive against Buffalo, a lot would be different in Carolina.
As for the Seahawks and Texans, well, everyone expected them to be two of the best defenses in the league so far. To be fair, the Texans aren't giving up a lot of yards per game, but they are giving up a fair number of points, thanks in large part to the offense surrendering short fields or worse (points) to the other team.
Seattle shut down the Panthers offense and decimated the 49ers at home, but it did essentially get a week off when it played Jacksonville. I suppose the same can be said about the Chiefs, too. Put the Seahawks as the best defense, if you like—I'm sure not even the Chiefs will complain.
Worst: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles may have the worst defense of all time in the history of football. No, I'm not overstating that.
Dishonorable Mentions: New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Giants probably have a better defense than their 36.5 points per game indicates, but all of the Manning interceptions and Wilson fumbles in the world can't account for giving up 384.2 yards of offense on top of those 36.5 points.
Still, the Eagles are giving up 446.8 yards per game. It's the worst defense in the history of football.
Unless, of course, you look at Jacksonville's defense, which is giving up 32.2 points and 387 yards per game even with teams taking the foot off the pedal.
The Jaguars have lost the last two weeks by a combined score of 82-20, with most of their own points coming in garbage time—not to mention points left on the field by both offenses they faced.
Best: Sean Payton
What a difference a coach makes. The Saints were 7-9 last season in the wake of Bountygate, and already they have four wins in 2013. Sean Payton has to be getting much of the credit. Oh, and he is.
He's our lead man. I tell you what, from the moment he stepped back in the facility in April, he's been locked in. He's never let an opportunity go by without communicating a message. He has not let anything go unsaid. Maybe that's the perspective coming off last year. Maybe it's just feeling like he hasn't been around, so he wants to make sure everything is communicated, especially to a lot of these young players, about our program and what we do on a daily basis, our work ethic, building a foundation, the history. I feel like we're building some history here.
Honorable Mentions: Andy Reid, Gus Bradley
Andy Reid was a broken man in Philadelphia. The last 14 years hung around his neck like an anchor. He needed a fresh start, and so far Kansas City seems to be the perfect fit. Truth be told, the Chiefs are 4-0 somewhat in spite of Reid's consistently terrible red-zone offense and questionable clock management, but for now, he took a two-win team and doubled that total in four weeks. That's awesome.
Who is the Coach of the Year at this point?
Gus Bradley may not win a game in his first year as head coach of the Jaguars, and with a complete lack of talent on his roster, it's any wonder how long it will take for him to turn Jacksonville into a contender.
But if you listen to the guy's postgame talks with his team, it's clear he's doing the best job he can under the circumstances. (The Jaguars actually pulled down the regular-season speeches, so that link goes to a preseason one. Trust me, they've been more motivational by the loss.)
He's the first head coach I've actually ever felt sorry for.
Worst: Greg Schiano
I worked at Rutgers for most of Greg Schiano's tenure, and anyone who knows him, and knows how much control he demands over everything, could have seen this coming a mile away. A mile away.
Dishonorable Mention: Jeff Fisher
As a head coach, Jeff Fisher has won 22 games since the start of 2009. He did take off an entire season, but since winning 13 games in 2008 with the Tennessee Titans, Fisher's career coaching record is 22-29-1.
Now, granted, the Rams did beat the Cardinals to start the season before dropping a close game to the Falcons, but the last two weeks they have been destroyed, outscored 66-18 by the Cowboys and 49ers.
It's one thing to be a rebuilding team in a tough division, but it's another entirely to get your doors blown off every week. At minus-52 through four games, the Rams have the third-worst point differential in football, ahead of only the Giants and Jaguars.
In Fisher's 20 games in charge, the Rams have lost seven games by double digits, including four by more than two touchdowns. When it gets ugly in St. Louis, it's really ugly.
Best: Denver Broncos
Honorable Mentions: New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints
Right now, the 4-0 teams are clearly the best teams in the league, and there's little indication that will change until one of them loses, which could happen as soon as this week with a few tough games for the current undefeated teams. Hell, in this NFL season, they all could lose this week.
If I had to choose one team to be the best right now, I'd pick Denver because its offense is so incredibly in sync, and the defense, while giving up a fair amount of points through four games, is probably going to get healthier and better soon. None of the 4-0 teams are without weaknesses.
Worst: Jacksonville Jaguars
Dishonorable Mentions: New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins
The Giants and Steelers are horrible, but the Jaguars are on a legendary course of terribleness that should be remembered and studied in colleges for years to come.
Jacksonville has lost the first four weeks by a combined score of 129-31, with most of their own points coming in garbage time and the opponent running out the clock.
Which team was worse: 2013 Jaguars or 2008 Lions?
The Jags have a minus-98 point differential, buoyed by the fact the defense had the only points in a Week 1 28-2 loss to the Chiefs. Truly, the 17 points Jacksonville scored against the Seahawks were a gift, or the point differential could be much, much worse.
The offense has just three touchdowns and has given up two. I can go on, but why? Why?
And yet, somehow, the team having the worst year could be the Washington Redskins. It has to be close, especially when you combine preseason expectations to a level of failure. It must hurt more to be 1-3 in Washington than 0-4 in Jacksonville.
Plus, when you have a nickname controversy that has thrown a cloud over your franchise and turned your owner into NFL Public Enemy No. 1, it's a pretty terrible year all around.
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