As we move into November and the NFL season reaches its midway point, the campaign is more and more coming into focus. If Week 8 reminded us of anything, it’s that there are pros playing on all 32 teams, and even the supposed worst of the lot can rise up when least expected.
Still, there were various developments worth noting from the past weekend. Following are some of the storylines out of Week 8 that we want to note as the calendar turns to November.
1) Washington is in big trouble.
The Redskins’ season has gone as pear-shaped as Michele Bachmann’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, with three losses on the trot and little relief on the horizon. It is becoming apparent that Mike Shanahan is losing his offseason gamble of entrusting QB duties to Rex Grossman and John Beck; recent efforts confirm how little "The Shan" really has to work with at QB this season.
But the Redskins’ problems run deeper, with injuries to RB Tim Hightower and WR Santana Moss robbing the strike force (or what’s left of it) of key components. The offensive line is suddenly a mess as well after allowing a hard-to-comprehend nine sacks vs. the Bills’ defense last week in a numbing 23-0 defeat.
Although Washington has generally played better on defense in the second year of coordinator Jim Haslett’s 3-4 looks, the stop unit is not dominating enough to camouflage the offensive shortcomings. NFC East sources suspect impatient owner Dan Snyder is about to begin meddling once again, and that Shanahan’s honeymoon period in D.C. is a distant memory.
2) St. Louis still has some life.
The Rams were a snakebit team in the early going this season, with RB Steven Jackson going down with a quad injury on just his second carry of the year, and trusted WR Danny Amendola out since midway in the opener with an elbow injury. Those developments helped to impede the progress of second-year QB Sam Bradford, who quickly began to lose confidence before being sidelined with an ankle sprain in mid-October.
Jackson, however, returned to the lineup and finally began to resemble his old self last week vs. the Saints when cracking the century mark for the first time with a blistering 159-yard rushing performance. And serviceable backup QB A.J. Feeley kept the offense enough afloat in Bradford’s absence to help end the 6-game straight-up (and spread cover) losing streak last week vs. New Orleans.
Bradford could return this week at Arizona, and will be passing to a WR corps fortified by the trade deadline addition of Brandon Lloyd, the ex-Bronco who has caught six passes in each of his first two games wearing a Rams uniform. Meanwhile, Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, which had been buckling under the weight of compensating for the dreadful offense, still owns playmakers and is better than some of the numbers it posted in the first six weeks. Many NFL insiders believe the Rams could have more than a few wins left in them for the second half of the campaign.
3) Tim Tebow in Denver.
That the ex-Florida Gator Heisman winner has remarkably emerged as the most-polarizing figure in the NFL speaks more to a social and political climate that has curiously taken sides in Tebow debate. We’ll leave the grandstanding to others while pointing out what is really going on in Denver.
First, coach John Fox had little choice but to give Tebow a look after the Broncos continued to sink under QB Kyle Orton, who had lost 22 of his last 28 starts before finally being pulled after the October 16 loss to San Diego. Second, with nothing to lose this season, Fox and team prexy John Elway realized they might as well find out what Tebow could do before abandoning one of the first-round draft picks from 2010 inherited from the preceding Josh McDaniels regime.
That Tebow remains a raw and still-unrefined talent is common knowledge; whether that can be harnessed and channeled around his competitive fire remains to be seen. Tebow was roughed up last week by the Lions and looked very subpar for the first 56 minutes of his October 22 start at Miami, but his 2-3 record in five starts since last season suggests the experiment ought to continue for a while longer. Tebow is hardly the only young QB to ever struggle in the NFL, but we suspect that Tebow can be best used situationally at QB, perhaps in short-yardage or goal-line situations, and his eventual NFL career might feature him in something of a hybrid H-back/QB role. We’ll give the current experiment a while longer before making any further judgement.
We do suspect, however, that Tebow might only have the month of November to demonstrate significant progress, as sources say Fox might opt to give this third QB option, Brady Quinn, a shot in December before deciding which direction the Broncos take in the future, which includes a hefty QB bounty in next April’s NFL Draft.
4) The race for Andrew Luck.
Most NFL observers are 99% sure that the Stanford QB will declare for next April’s Draft. Luck confounded some "draftniks" last winter when opting to stay in Palo Alto for another year, and he would have one more season of college eligibility in 2012 if he chooses. But since he is on course to receive his architecture degree in spring, and fulfilling his own personal commitment to classmates he entered Stanford with in the fall of 2008, the overwhelming consensus is that Luck will come out after this campaign.
The race for the chance to draft Luck, the most pre-cooked QB for the NFL we have seen since Peyton Manning 14 years ago, has already been a topic at NFL stadiums this season. Results last week indicate that Manning-less Indianapolis, at 0-8, and struggling Miami, also winless at 0-7, are the pole-sitters in the race for the top pick. St. Louis, at 1-6, could certainly still get in the mix, although the Rams would be more likely to trade a top pick as they already believe Sam Bradford to be their QB of the future. Meanwhile, Colts president Bill Polian has indicated he wouldn’t hesitate to take Luck and let him learn the ropes behind he aging Manning (if Peyton returns to action from neck surgery), much as Aaron Rodgers looked and learned in Green Bay behind Brett Favre. Miami would also be likely to take Luck and use it as a carrot to lure a top head coach, with Tony Sparano highly unlikely to be retained beyond 2011 (if he even reaches the end of this season).
Still, there is a bit of intrigue regarding both the Colts and Dolphins as the 2011 campaign progresses. First, what if Manning, as he has hinted, gets medical clearance and announces he wants to play in December? Would Polian and HC Jim Caldwell risk blowing the number one pick by activating Manning? And what of Caldwell’s future as the coach at Indy? Second, will Dolphins owner Stephen Ross hit the eject button on Sparano while the Dolphins are still losing, risking the chance the team could make a temporary rally behind an interim coach and perhaps blow a chance at drafting the apparent best "franchise QB" of the past decade?
5) Andy Reid off a "bye" week.
Despite all of the Eagles’ problems this season, coach Andy Reid still proved worth gold off of a bye week, winning for a 13th straight time in that role on Sunday vs. Dallas. Of bigger excitement in Philly is a recent rejuvenation of a defense that looked hopelessly out of sorts with new d.c. Juan Castillo in the first month of the season. Reid has made some staff assignment adjustments for the stop unit and things seem to be clicking over the past two games, when the Birds allowed just 20 points total to climb back into the thick of the NFC East race.
6) Christian Ponder is the QB of the present and future in Minnesota.
Ponder has hit the ground running with a couple of impressive efforts in his first two starts for the Vikings, looking a lot better than Donovan McNabb did earlier in the season. Barring injury, it’s Ponder’s job for the rest of 2011, which also begs the question if McNabb really is beyond his sell-by date as a featured NFL signal caller, and where he might end up in 2012.
7) Pittsburgh is rolling again.
The defense is compensating for a variety of injuries, the offensive line has stabilized, and Big Ben seems beyond the foot problems that hampered him in the first month. Last week’s win over the Patriots was also the Steelers’ first over a New England team with Tom Brady at QB since the 2004 regular season.
Pointspread hot streaks. Wins...5-San Francisco (6-0-1 last 7), Kansas City; 4-Cincinnati; 3-Buffalo. Losses...5-Cleveland, 3-NY Giants, Washington. ‘Totals’ streaks: ‘Over’...3-Cincinnati; 2-Arizona, New Orleans. ‘Under’...6-Miami; 3-Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Jacksonville, Oakland; 2-New England, Philadelphia.
What to watch in Week 9
1) Can Carson Palmer and Oakland bounce back?
Palmer, not unexpectedly, struggled in his Raider debut on October 23 vs. the Chiefs. Now the ex-Bengals QB has had two more weeks to learn the Oakland system, and might get a bonus if coach Hue Jackson signs Palmer’s old and familiar Cincy target, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, as expected this week. Getting a healthy RB Darren McFadden (ankle, check status) back into the lineup might be even more important, as the Raiders have been able to manhandle upcoming foe Denver in the pits lately, gaining a whopping 256 ypg on the ground in the last three wins and covers vs. the Broncos.
2) Do the Saints recover?
New Orleans’ 31-21 loss at St. Louis was not only the shocker of the season to date, but brought the Saints back to the pack in the NFC South, just a half-game up on both the Falcons and Bucs, the latter visiting the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. But the Saints have bounced back with a vengeance from their previous two losses, taking out frustrations on the Bears and Colts, and Sean Payton’s team is 3-0 vs. the line at home in 2011. New Orleans is also seeking to avenge a 26-20 loss at Tampa Bay on October 16, and Bucs QB Josh Freeman (just 7 TD and 10 picks) has been struggling. Tampa Bay is also dangerously depleted at RB with Earnest Graham now KO’d for the year and LeGarrette Blount’s status questionable.
3) Can Green Bay keep winning?
Off of a "bye" last week, the Pack enters November as the NFL’s only unbeaten team at 7-0, and must travel to San Diego to face a Chargers team hungry for a win after two straight road losses has dropped them into a tie atop the AFC West with the Raiders and surging Chiefs. Green Bay hasn’t started 7-0 since Vince Lombardi’s second title team in 1962, a year in which the Pack didn’t lose until it traveled to Detroit on Thanksgiving.
Forgive us for looking ahead just a bit, but Green Bay will also be at Detroit on Thanksgiving this season, just three weeks down the road.
Another subject, however, for another day.