Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Two Minute Drill: First Impressions Aren't Everything

First impressions are important but sometimes they can be misleading. Consider the New York Giants. They lost their first two games by a combined score of 80-48 and seemed to be headed for a disastrous season--but since then they have reeled off four straight wins, including Monday night's 31-10 rout of the hapless Atlanta Falcons. Also, New York's two losses do not look quite so bad now considering that they came at the hands of Dallas and Green Bay, each of whom is currently 5-1. Here are some brief thoughts about several other NFL teams after week six.

1) The Michael Vick-less experience in Atlanta is less than thrilling. Leaving aside Vick's legal problems for a moment, from a purely football perspective his absence has been disastrous for the Atlanta Falcons. Any idea that the Falcons would not miss him that much because they were only 7-9 with him last year looks patently absurd now; Atlanta fell to 1-5 after losing to the Giants. As Micheal Ray Richardson once famously said of his New York Knicks, "The ship be sinking" (Richardson's reply to the question of how far it could sink was even more priceless; "The sky's the limit"). People seem to have forgotten that Vick led the Falcons to a road win at Lambeau Field in the 2002 playoffs and then carried Atlanta to the 2004 NFC Championship Game; in 2003, an injured Vick only appeared in five games and the Falcons dropped to 5-11, so what is happening now really should not surprise anyone. Vick's deficiencies as a pure pocket passer are well documented but his impact as a runner and playmaker is undeniable. This is a case where Atlanta's record very much speaks for itself. Getting back to Vick's legal issues, Atlanta's tumble in the standings not only proves Vick's value but reinforces the correctness of the arbitrator's ruling that he must pay back signing bonuses that he received from the team; that money was paid for services that he was expected to render in upcoming seasons and since he will not be around to do so he absolutely has no right to keep that money.

2) The Cleveland Browns improved to 3-3 by beating the winless Miami Dolphins, 41-31. This is the latest point in a season that the Browns have had at least a .500 record in quite some time; as I previously noted, the last time the Browns even made it to 2-2 was 2005, Romeo Crennel's first season as head coach. The Browns went 4-8 the rest of the way. After the Browns got embarrassed by Pittsburgh in week one I thought that they were heading for another 4-12 season but the Browns have finally started to demonstrate some signs of legitimate progress--mainly at the offensive end, where the team has several playmakers. Derek Anderson looks the part of a prototypical quarterback--big, strong armed, confident--and his performances are starting to catch up with his appearance. He ranks third in the league with 14 touchdown passes, trailing only Tom Brady and Tony Romo. The Browns have averaged 32 ppg in his five starts, winning three of them. The last time the Browns averaged that many points in a five game span was weeks 8-12 of the 1968 season.

4) In my 2007 NFL Preview, I listed several reasons why NFL teams are more likely to go from worst to first (or vice versa) in one season than teams in other sports. This season, several teams seem poised to undergo tremendous changes in fortune. Three of the NFC's four division champions in 2006 are currently in last place (technically, the Saints are a half game ahead of the Falcons at 1-4). The Chicago Bears had the best record in the NFC in 2006 and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. This year, not so much: at 2-4, these Bears are dangerous only to themselves. New Orleans went 10-6 last year, winning the NFC South and making it all the way to the NFC Championship Game. This year, the Saints are 1-4 and all but out of playoff contention. The injury to Deuce McCallister obviously has had an impact but their problems go deeper than just that. The Philadelphia Eagles went 10-6 last year but are 2-3 in 2007. Meanwhile, Green Bay (from 8-8 to 5-1) and Tampa Bay (from 4-12 to 4-2) appear to be much improved and are currently leading their respective divisions. The changes in the AFC are much less dramatic. The Patriots and Colts are still on top in their divisions. Pittsburgh is in the process of bouncing back from a rare non-playoff season but Baltimore is right in the hunt to repeat as the AFC North champion. San Diego got off to a horrible start but is now 3-3, which is good enough to tie for first place in the AFC West. The New York Jets have dropped from a solid 10-6 record and a Wild Card berth last year to 1-5 this year. The Cincinnati Bengals were only 8-8 in 2006 but many people--including me--expected a better result from them in 2007; instead, they are 1-4 and going nowhere fast. As I mentioned above, the Cleveland Browns--about whom I have been more than a little skeptical--are showing some signs that they may actually be a surprise team in the AFC this year and perhaps meet the Bill Walsh "deadline" that I have referenced here on several occasions: Walsh maintained that, done right, it should only take three years to turn around even the worst NFL team. The Browns are in year three of the Romeo Crennel era and perhaps progress has finally shown up just in the nick of time. The defense has still not improved and it remains to be seen if the Browns can beat good teams but no one expected them to be 3-3--not even people in the organization. Until fairly recently, the Miami game was spoken of as an opportunity to make rookie Brady Quinn the starting quarterback. As the Browns head into their bye week, any talk of Quinn replacing Anderson has been completely silenced.

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