Biggest Takeaways at the Quarter Mark of the NFL Season
Our journey through the center of the sports universe is a quarter of the way done as the 2014 NFL season heads into Week 5, full steam ahead. The offseason lust for football has been quenched, though it's hard to believe we're already this far into the regular season.
The first four weeks of the NFL season have been rife with drama, on and off the field. While it is a relatively small sample size, there is plenty to glean from the first quarter of action.
What did the NFL show us in the month of September? Click through to find out.
Free Agency Means Nothing
Tampa Bay won the annual rite of free agency this year. Just look at how far it's gotten them.
The Buccaneers stumbled to an 0-3 start that included a 56-14 mauling at the talons of the Atlanta Falcons before eking out a last-second victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in improbable fashion.
Their horrendous start came after spending exorbitantly on free agents such as defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and center Evan Dietrich-Smith, not to mention new and theoretically improved head coach Lovie Smith.
Verner took over for departed demigod Darrelle Revis, who promptly signed a massive one-year deal with the New England Patriots that made it seem like that defense would return to great heights under defensive-minded head coach Bill Belichick.
The Patriots just gave up 41 points to the Kansas City Chiefs, and Revis has been a mere mortal this season.
Then there are the woeful Oakland Raiders, who went into free agency with the most cap space and apparently spent it in owner Mark Davis' fireplace.
NFC Least No More
My, how far the NFC East has come.
Billed as the NFL's worst division by some heading into the 2014 season, the resurgent division is making plenty of unexpected noise through the first four weeks.
No team has been more shockingly good than the Dallas Cowboys, who looked like a train heading for a collapsed bridge this season. The defense was awful in the preseason, a bad unit gutted by free agency. The offense was led by an embattled quarterback coming off back surgery.
Yet here they sit, perched tied atop the NFC East alongside last year's champions and 2014 favorites, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Perhaps an even bigger surprise comes from New York, where Giants quarterback Eli Manning completed his metamorphosis into a highly efficient quarterback after looking like a shell of one in the new offense Ben McAdoo installed as coordinator.
A tough schedule helped put the Giants in an 0-2 hole, but they have been impressive over the past couple of games in climbing back to .500.
The NFC East is shaping up to be a fun battle.
The AFC East, on the Other Hand...
Time marches on and cares for no one.
Not even Tom Brady, the future Hall of Fame quarterback for the Patriots who has seemingly been sacked by Father Time. New England is floundering, in large part because Brady is no longer the quarterback he was in his sparkling youth.
Reminiscing about the old days won't do much to stem the bleeding for Patriots fans, whose team is fortunate to be 2-2. A 41-14 throttling at the hands of the once-hapless Kansas City Chiefs has the team pointed in the wrong direction, however.
The loss may have been the death knell for the Bill Belichick era as we know it, as elucidated by Bleacher Report's Ty Schalter, but it was also an example of deep rooted issues pervading the entire AFC East.
The division wasn't exactly a power house heading into the 2014 season, but few expected the start we have seen in 2014. Granted, three teams are currently sitting at .500, but records can be deceiving—the East has benefited from playing the Oakland Raiders three times already, after all.
Quarterback controversy engulfs three of the teams, and the pitchforks have even begun to come out for Brady in some circles.
Most of the divisional games are still to come, and it's feasible the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo bills and aforementioned Patriots will beat up on each other while taking licks from superior non-divisional foes like the Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers.
It won't quite be like the Seattle Seahawks making the playoffs at 7-9 a few years ago, but it could be close.
The NFL Has a Prime-Time Problem
When was the last time we got a good prime-time game, an instant classic?
Thursday Night Football has been particularly brutal, as Chris Chase of USA Today mused:
The problem is that Thursday games aren’t played on paper. They’re played four days after Sunday games, leaving teams injured, tired and without much practice time to make adjustments.
The result, so far, has been three blowouts by a total of 93 points (or 31 points per game). None of the games have been necessary to watch after halftime. The Falcons-Bucs blowout (during which Atlanta held a 56-0 lead) wasn’t watchable after two series. At 10 p.m. on Thursday, there were at least five more interesting things on television than Redskins-Giants. I watched out of obligation rather than desire.
Sunday and Monday night tilts haven't been much better. Even the close games haven't been very good.
The San Francisco 49ers bled a big lead away against the Chicago Bears in Week 3's Sunday Night Football matchup with an awful second-half performance that just plain stunk.
The Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints briefly made things interesting against the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys, respectively, after racing out to big deficits in Sunday night matchups, only to falter in the end.
We just got done watching the New England Patriots get demolished by the Kansas City Chiefs 41-14 on Monday Night Football. For anyone beside Chiefs fans and, perhaps, gleeful Patriot haters, the game bordered on unwatchable in the second half.
Things don't get much better on paper in Week 5 as the Minnesota Vikings square off against the Green Bay Packers on a short week with, perhaps, Christian Ponder under center. Sunday night will feature the wounded New England Patriots on a short week up against a hot Cincinnati Bengals team rested from a bye week.
When will the boring bloodbaths end?
The Heinz Field scoreboard read 27-3, a walk in the park for the home-town Pittsburgh Steelers. It was Week 1, and the perennial doormats of the AFC North—the Cleveland Browns—were in town. It was a bit lopsided, but unsurprising given the disparate modern histories of the two franchises.
Then a funny thing happened—the Steelers nearly lost.
Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer brought his team all the way back to tie the game at 27—with plenty of help from his defense and backfield—before Pittsburgh rallied for a game-winning field goal as time expired.
The near-miss was a harbinger of their Week 2 shellacking at the hands of the division-rival Baltimore Ravens, a 26-6 waxing that preceded a 37-19 win over the Carolina Panthers.
The roller coaster took another dive last week after the Steelers gave up another big lead to the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, this time losing the game in the final seconds.
The Steelers are the weirdest team in the NFL.
Yes Country for Old Men
The advent of the rookie wage scale has put a bigger premium on youth than ever in the NFL.
Instead of spreading the wealth from the cost savings on rookie contracts, much of the money has flowed to a couple of positions: quarterback and cornerback.
Some players are proving that the NFL is still a country for old men, however.
Just look at 35-year-old wide receiver Steve Smith, who nearly leads the league in receiving. The old man just got done delivering on his promise to eviscerate his old team, scoring a pair of touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers.
Or how about defensive end Dwight Freeney, resurgent pass-rusher for the San Diego Chargers at age 34? Running back Fred Jackson continues to be a thorn in C.J. Spiller's side in Buffalo at 33 while 28-year-old Ahmad Bradshaw is stealing time from Trent Richardson in Indianapolis.
Then there is the grandaddy of them all—Peyton Manning, the reigning league MVP playing at a high level at 38. Manning could well repeat as the most valuable player, though he has plenty of competition for it this year.
Granted, some may not be so fortunate—we've already talked about Tom Brady, and there are plenty of guys who have been flushed from the league—but it's clear that talent trumps youth, money notwithstanding. More teams could stand to take chances on established veterans instead of unproven athletes.
NFL Public Relations Staff Either Need a Raise or the Ax
Scandal and controversy pervaded the NFL—that corpulent and indefatigable entity enjoying federal anti-trust protection and nonprofit status—through the first four weeks of the season.
Much of the backlash has centered around its reactionary and insufficient policies surrounding domestic violence. The Ray Rice debacle and Adrian Peterson saga have chipped away at the shield, and some of the decisions made by the NFL and relevant teams have been head scratching, to say the least.
Why penalize Rice just two games, and why glorify him during the preseason? How did Adrian Peterson get reinstated and essentially suspended with pay within a few days of each other after his arrest on allegations of child abuse?
These are nuanced issues, of course, but it's inarguable that the NFL and the teams involved botched the situations, creating a massive backlash in the process.
Just when it seemed like the furor was dying down, the NFL gaffed again by penalizing cornerback Husain Abdullah for praying after his pick-six celebration. This latest mistake hasn't risen to the level of the other off-field issues, but the NFL is having trouble catching a break.
The stiffened penalties and condescending hires after the fact were Band-Aids on a gash, though the bleeding might not have been nearly enough to cost the NFL in terms of real revenue. After all, television ratings are actually on the rise, per Eric Kelsey of Reuters.com.
Did the NFL get a publicity bonanza—however negative it was—and simultaneously raise awareness for domestic violence issues? Or was this a loud blip that was much ado about nothing for the amoral, moneymaking machine that is the NFL?
MVP: Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers
It's certainly tempting to put J.J. Watt in here, but the last time a defensive player won the MVP award was Lawrence Taylor for the New York Giants in 1986.
Philip Rivers is playing lights-out football for the second consecutive season, and he is the biggest reason the Chargers are 3-1 and atop the AFC West for the moment.
Offensive Player of the Year: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
The man leads the league in all sorts of quarterbacking categories, and his team has rebounded well from an unexpected 0-2 start.
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
He terrorizes quarterbacks. He catches touchdowns. He intercepts passes and runs them back for scores.
He is the most dominant defender in the league.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
Sometimes winning Offensive Rookie of the Year is all about opportunity. Kelvin Benjamin has all the opportunity in the world right now.
The rookie out of Florida State is currently on pace for 144 targets for the season, which is a big reason why he is on receiver leader boards—fantasy and real alike—in numerous categories.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago Bears
He was exposed a bit against Aaron Rodgers and that vaunted Green Bay passing game, but Kyle Fuller has made a name for himself thus far for the Chicago Bears.
Fuller single-handedly got the Bears back in the Week 2 game on the road against the San Francisco 49ers with a pair of interceptions, then had another in a victory against the New York Jets the following week.
Comeback Player of the Year: Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
Travis Kelce missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury that required microfracture surgery. Now he looks like Rob Gronkowski riding a cruise missile.
Coach of the Year: Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
Your eyes aren't playing tricks. Jason Garrett is receiving praise.
Under public fire for years, Garrett has inexplicably had the steadfast support of owner Jerry Jones. Perhaps we are seeing why this season, as the Cowboys are improbably tied for first place in the NFC East.
Garrett has been able to marshal his troops to a 3-1 record in impressive fashion.
A Super Rematch Is Coming
Do we have any real reason other than "anything could happen" or "history isn't on their side" to say that the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks won't be meeting again in Super Bowl XLIX?
Sure, anything from injuries to a freak playoff performance could happen, and the last championship game rematch in consecutive seasons was back in 1994, when the Dallas Cowboys handed the Buffalo Bills their fourth Super Bowl loss in a row.
It sure feels like we could be seeing a replay of last year's Super Bowl at this point in the season, however.
Both teams have looked like the best of their conferences through four weeks, though they have only played three games apiece thanks to a mutual Week 4 bye.
We got a preview of that rematch in Week 3, when the Broncos looked outclassed for much of the game before roaring back to force an overtime easily won by the home-team Seahawks. If only Super Bowl XLVIII was half that riveting.
Most AFC teams are floundering or paper tigers, and the Seahawks should overtake Arizona in the NFC West without problem—apologies to the Cardinals, who have been excellent overachievers thus far.
The Seahawks should come close to being undefeated with the 12th Man behind them at home, and home field throughout the playoffs will make things difficult for NFC contenders.
The Raiders Will Win the Race to the Bottom
The Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are locked in a heated battle to win the 2014 Toilet Bowl.
Both teams are 0-4, and neither has looked particularly competitive save a single-score loss for Oakland against the New England Patriots. Mired in a black hole of ineptitude and disgrace, the Raiders seem to be the clear favorites to win the race to the bottom.
Oakland's horrible start has already claimed its head coach, as Dennis Allen was fired unceremoniously after the team's blowout loss in London.
The Jaguars will be hot on their heels, but they have a far more favorable schedule with which to contend. The Raiders have a horrific docket the rest of the way, and an 0-16 season is well within reach.
Lurking close behind these two might be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who looked like the worst team in the league for a moment before pulling together an improbable road victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4.
But it will be the Raiders, now led by Tony Sparano—a man used to piloting train wrecks—who will hold the coveted and reviled No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft when the regular-season dust settles.