Pleasant: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has progressed to the point that he is a better cornerback than Nnamdi Asomugha. Unfortunately for the Eagles, DRC is set to become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. Unpleasant: Michael Vick’s quarterbacking struggles have continued in 2012. Vick (pictured) has more turnovers (14) than touchdown passes (10). Playing behind an offensive line that has lost four of five starters isn’t helping matters.
Welcome to the surprise party. Regardless of record, every NFL team has experienced the expected and unexpected midway through the 2012 season. Here’s a look at the most pleasant and unpleasant surprises for each franchise so far: - Alex Marvez
AFC West: Denver (5-3)
Pleasant: Peyton Manning (pictured) isn't the only veteran making a successful comeback. Wide receiver Brandon Stokley's career appeared over after he spent most of last season out of football. But the four seasons that the 36-year-old Stokley spent as Manning's main slot target in Indianapolis (2003 to 2006) paid dividends. Stokley joined Manning in Denver and has scored on three of his 24 receptions. Unpleasant: The Broncos having gotten outscored by a 108-69 margin in the first half. Such slow starts played a big part in Denver's three losses. When the Broncos do finally get warmed up, there are few teams better. Denver has enjoyed a 103-23 advantage in the fourth quarter.
Pleasant: Running back Darren McFadden (pictured) almost made it through a half-season without getting hurt. McFadden sprained his right ankle in last Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay and is likely to finish his fifth NFL season without having ever played in all 16 regular-season games. Unpleasant: Even after a year-long bloodletting by new general manager Reggie McKenzie, the roster needs more retooling in 2013 than what I thought entering this season. Two of the biggest concerns: The defense is a mess and Carson Palmer looks like a stop-gap rather than the franchise quarterback Oakland thought it was getting last October when trading first- and second-round picks to Cincinnati.
Kansas City (1-7)
Pleasant: I’ve got nothing. It would be disingenuous to proclaim anything “pleasant” about anyone working for a franchise that hasn’t led for a single second in regulation. Unpleasant: How about everything? I was among those NFL reporters who tagged Kansas City as a playoff team entering the season. I guess it’s good that I made an even bigger mistake in 2008 when predicting that the 0-16 Detroit Lions would reach the postseason. Kansas City’s offense has committed a staggering 29 turnovers with poor play across the board. The defense withered under head coach Romeo Crennel (pictured), who couldn’t juggle a dual role as coordinator. Crennel fired himself Monday from running the D in favor of assistant Gary Gibbs. The next step off the ledge: Crennel’s outright firing at season’s end.
San Diego (4-4)
Pleasant: Defensive end Corey Liuget (pictured) is legit. After taking licks as a rookie, the 2011 first-round choice leads all of San Diego’s defensive linemen in tackles (22), sacks (two) while adding four quarterback hits and a fumble recovery. Liuget is becoming the play-making 3-4 end the Chargers have lacked since Luis Castillo’s demise. Unpleasant: A nine-year veteran as talented as Philip Rivers shouldn’t be pressing to the point it affects his performance so adversely. Rivers played poorly in consecutive losses to Denver and Cleveland before reverting to form last Thursday against Kansas City. Consistency at quarterback will go a long way toward determining whether head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith return in 2013.
AFC South: Houston (7-1)
Pleasant: With how strongly he finished last season, we knew defensive end J.J. Watt (pictured) would be good in 2012. But not this good. Watt is a frontrunner for both NFL Defensive Player of the Year and even Most Valuable Player honors with 10.5 sacks and 10 tipped passes, four of which have gotten intercepted for the AFC East-leading Texans. Unpleasant: The Texans gave up too soon on kickoff returner Trindon Holliday when his preseason success didn’t translate quickly enough to the regular season. Now with Denver, Holliday’s world-class speed was on display last Sunday during a franchise-record 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Cincinnati. As for the Texans, they rank 32nd in kickoff return average at 17.8 yards.
Pleasant: It took no time at all for the Colts to rebound from last year’s 2-14 season thanks to the rapid development of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck (pictured), standout play from wide receiver Reggie Wayne and a bend-but-don’t-break defense that has allowed 20 or fewer points in three consecutive wins. The fact that Indianapolis is doing so well after massive offseason change and with an interim head coach (Bruce Arians) who is juggling offensive coordinator duties makes such success even more remarkable. Unpleasant: The horrific news that new head coach Chuck Pagano was suffering from leukemia. Although ongoing treatment will keep him from a quick return to the sideline, Pagano’s doctor announced Monday that he was in remission. Arians said he hopes Pagano – whose visits and pre-game messages have helped inspire the Colts -- will be back for the season-finale against Houston.
Pleasant: Out of football in 2011, running back Darius Reynaud didn’t let a second chance pass him by. Reynaud set a franchise record in Week Three with a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Detroit. He also threw a lateral to teammate Tommie Campbell that resulted in another score during the same game, a wild 44-41 overtime victory. Reynaud is averaging 24.8 yards on an NFL-high 35 kickoff returns and 7.7 yards on punts. Unpleasant: After a 9-7 record during his first season as head coach, Mike Munchak (pictured) now runs the very real risk of being fired at the end of 2012. Titans owner Bud Adams delivered an ultimatum for immediate improvement last Sunday with comments made through the Tennessean newspaper after an embarrassing 51-20 loss to Chicago. Even if Munchak survives, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray may not with the Titans ranked 30th defensively.
Pleasant: First-round 2009 pick Eugene Monroe (pictured, No. 75) has improved to the point that he deserves mention among the NFL’s best left tackles. Monroe held Chicago’s Julius Peppers and Minnesota’s Jared Allen without a tackle and kept NFL sack leader Green Bay’s Clay Matthews from getting to quarterback Blaine Gabbert in a Week eight matchup. Unpleasant: The Jaguars have what can kindly be described as home-field disadvantage. Jacksonville has gotten outscored by an average margin of 19 points in four games at EverBank Field. The Jaguars are rebuilding with an improved Gabbert and running back Maurice Jones-Drew is out with a foot injury, but it isn’t good when a new head coach hired for his offensive prowess (Mike Mularkey) is fielding the NFL’s 32nd-ranked unit.
AFC North: Cincinnati (3-5)
Pleasant: Vontaze Burfict’s (pictured, No. 55) pre-draft reputation was so toxic that the linebacker wasn’t selected in April despite being considered a potential first-round pick entering his junior season. Burfict, though, landed with the perfect franchise when it comes to giving second (and third and fourth) chances. A model citizen and player so far, Burfict has 51 tackles while starting the past six games. That includes a monster 15-tackle outing in a Week Seven loss to Pittsburgh. Unpleasant: Carolina’s Cam Newton is taking the brunt of the criticism, but he isn’t the only quarterback slumping in his second NFL season. Andy Dalton has thrown an interception in every game this season and matched his season total in fumbles from last season with two through eight games. Adding to his problems: Dalton has gotten sacked 22 times, which is just two less than all of 2011. Looks like Dalton has more growing up to do than we thought entering the season.
Pleasant: Even as many of us had serious doubts, Terrell Suggs (pictured making tackle) was always adamant that he would return from an offseason Achilles tendon injury to play in 2012. Baltimore’s top pass rusher did just that in Week Seven against Houston. Suggs has notched eight tackles and one sack in the past two games while working his way back physically into “T-Sizzle” form. Unpleasant: Ray Lewis may have played his final football game. The future Hall of Fame linebacker suffered a triceps injury in Week Six against Dallas that is likely to sideline him for the rest of the season. The 37-year-old Lewis hasn’t said whether he plans to attempt a comeback in 2013. But even if he does, would the Ravens be willing to bring Lewis back? And, if so, would they be willing to pay his scheduled $5.4 million salary?
Pleasant: In July, using a second-round supplemental draft pick on Baylor’s Josh Gordon (pictured) seemed like a desperate reach to augment a shoddy wide receiver corps. It wasn’t. Although he’s had some costly drops, Gordon is the big-play threat that Cleveland’s offense has needed. Gordon has four touchdowns and is averaging 21.9 yards on his 19 receptions. Unpleasant: The future of the organization is uncertain once again with Jimmy Haslam buying the team from owner Randy Lerner in October. The Browns are on their fifth head coach without a playoff victory since returning to the league in 1999. That number will jump to six if Pat Shurmur isn’t retained after just two seasons in Cleveland.
Pleasant: Despite all the offseason media doom-and-gloom, Todd Haley’s hiring as offensive coordinator wasn’t such a bad thing after all. The short passing game Haley installed has paid dividends for Ben Roethlisberger (pictured, right, with Haley). Through eight games, Roethlisberger is on pace for his best season yet with a 67.1 completion percentage, 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions. And although he’s gotten sacked 17 times, that is still less physical abuse than Roethlisberger has taken for most of his NFL career. Unpleasant: One of the NFL’s most dynamic defensive players – strong safety Troy Polamalu -- has barely touched the field this season because of a lingering calf injury. The Steelers have won three straight games without him, but the defense will be better when Polamalu returns.
AFC East: Miami (4-4)
Pleasant: The job being done by first-year head coach Joe Philbin and his staff. After watching the team’s relative inactivity in free agency and rough showing on Hard Knocks, the Dolphins appeared headed toward a Cam Cameron-esque start to the Philbin era. But a slew of young players that Philbin inherited – notably wide receiver Brian Hartline, cornerback Sean Smith and outside linebacker Koa Misi – are on track to enjoy their best seasons. Excellent special-teams play under coach Darren Rizzi heavily contributed to two victories. And the best news of all -- the quick development of rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill (pictured). Unpleasant: Maybe injuries have taken a toll or he isn’t a good fit to Miami’s new zone-blocking scheme, but left tackle Jake Long has slipped from elite status. Depending on how offseason contract negotiations unfold, the Dolphins may have to make a difficult choice between franchising Long – which was once considered a no-brainer – or using the tag on Smith, who is clearly the top cornerback in a thin secondary.
New York Jets (3-5)
Pleasant: Second-year wide receiver Jeremy Kerley (pictured) is taking advantage of the opportunities created by the season-ending foot injury suffered by Santonio Holmes. Kerley leads New York in receptions (30), yards (478) and per-catch average (15.9). Kerley also has expanded his game beyond the slot role he was expected to play in 2012. Unpleasant: Nobody could have predicted the injuries that would cost New York the services of Holmes and the NFL’s best cornerback (Darrelle Revis). But the inability to successfully incorporate Tim Tebow into the offense is self-inflicted. I’m not saying a two-quarterback system with Tebow and Mark Sanchez could work. But to trade a fourth-round pick to Denver for Tebow and spend so much time working on gimmick packages during the preseason with so little to show thus far is a major failing of both the team’s front office and new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.
New England (5-3)
Pleasant: New England’s ability to dominate on the ground. As if the Tom Brady-led passing game (pictured) wasn’t enough of a headache for opposing defenses, the Patriots are now on pace to finish with their highest rushing average (149.6 yards per game) since 1983. Stevan Ridley (716 yards, five touchdowns) has proven an upgrade to 2011 rushing leader BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who left via free agency in the offseason to Cincinnati. Danny Woodhead, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen also contribute in a rush-by-committee approach. Unpleasant: After swinging what proved unsuccessful trades for Albert Haynesworth and Chad Johnson, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick took another chance on a player with major character issues last week when acquiring cornerback Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay for a 2013 fourth-round draft pick. Talib, who still has to sit out one more week while serving a four-game NFL suspension for barred Adderall use, has a history of off-field issues that have overshadowed his on-field efforts. Making this deal shows Belichick’s desperation to upgrade a secondary that has surrendered a season-high 38 completions of 20-plus yards.
Pleasant: C.J. Spiller (pictured, No. 28) showed signs of being a dangerous rushing threat during Weeks 15 and 16 last season, but nobody could have expected the giant leap he has taken. Spiller already has more rushing yards (562) than last season and has gained them at a ridiculous clip of 7.2 yards per attempt. Buffalo’s offensive line also deserves credit for paving the way for such success. Unpleasant: The free-agent signings of two ballyhooed ends (Mario Williams and Mark Anderson), the first-round selection of a projected shutdown cornerback (Stephon Gilmore) and switch to Dave Wannstedt as coordinator were supposed to fix Buffalo’s long-standing defensive woes. Hardly. The Bills rank among the NFL’s bottom two units in total yards allowed (417.9), per-carry rushing average (5.7) and third-down efficiency (46.1 percent).
NFC West: St. Louis (3-5)
Pleasant: If the rest of the NFL knew what a weapon he would become, there’s no way that kicker Greg Zuerlein would have lasted until the sixth round of April’s draft. Zuerlein has exhibited the kind of leg strength that makes him a strong candidate to ultimately break the NFL-long field-goal record of 63 yards. Unpleasant: The Rams spent a second-round pick on Isaiah Pead and seventh-rounder on Daryl Richardson. In retrospect, the roles of both running backs should have been reversed. Richardson is cementing himself as the heir apparent to Steven Jackson, while Pead has only earned four carries. Pead must step up his game if the Rams are going to bid adieu to Jackson in 2013.
Pleasant: The Cardinals thought Daryl Washington was on the verge of becoming an elite inside linebacker when signing him to a contract extension entering the season. Even so, his 2012 efforts have exceeded those expectations. The 2010 second-round pick has a team-high 8.5 sacks and 75 tackles. Unpleasant: How can Russ Grimm -- an assistant coach who reached the Hall of Fame as an offensive lineman -- field such a pathetic unit? The 41 sacks allowed through nine games are 12 more than the next nearest contender for the league-lead (Green Bay).
San Francisco (6-2)
Pleasant: This applies to those fans and pundits who entered the season still unsure whether Alex Smith could build upon his 2011 breakthrough campaign. The quarterback’s command of the offense was on full display in an 18-of-19, three-touchdown passing clinic against host Arizona in Week 8. Unpleasant: Anyone hoping that Brandon Jacobs, A.J. Jenkins or LaMichael James would do something for their fantasy team is sorely disappointed. All three offseason acquisitions have proven unable to wrangle snaps from San Francisco’s regular skill-position players.
Pleasant: Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson immediately started disproving critics who believed his height (roughly 5-foot-11) would prevent NFL success. Wilson also is validating head coach Pete Carroll’s decision to stick with him through some rough patches rather than resort to backup Matt Flynn. Unpleasant: Think the Seahawks would have paid Flynn $10 million guaranteed to leave Green Bay as a free agent if they didn’t think he was going to start? Me neither.
NFC North: Minnesota (5-4)
Pleasant: Like with Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, I believed it was only fair to temper expectations for him and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson considering the severity of their injuries. As it turned out, both are miracles of modern medicine. Peterson is running as if he never suffered a blown-out knee last December. He leads the NFL with 957 rushing yards after three consecutive 100-yard outings. Unpleasant: Just how much more development Christian Ponder needs before approaching franchise status. It appeared Ponder had turned the corner in his second season when Minnesota started 5-2. But his inability to make plays downfield – which isn’t helped by a meh wide receiver corps outside of Percy Harvin – has greatly contributed to a two-game losing streak.
Pleasant: That the number of Lions players getting arrested during the offseason has plummeted to zero in recent months. Tip your waiters and waitresses! Unpleasant: Calvin Johnson is killing fantasy football league players. His overall receiving numbers (48 catches for 767 yards) are comparable to what he had posted through eight games in 2011. But Megatron’s touchdown grabs have plummeted from 11 at this point last season to just one in 2012. The main reason: Johnson has gotten tackled five times this season inside the opponent’s 2-yard line.
Pleasant: How the offensive line is developing an attitude as nasty as the one that permeates the defense. The unit is far from perfect -- obviously that means you, left tackle J’Marcus Webb -- but the Bears are trying to bully opponents. That can help make amends for other deficiencies. In another sign of progress, quarterback Jay Cutler hasn’t yelled as much at his protectors since a Week 2 loss in Green Bay. Unpleasant: The realization that Cutler really isn’t hitting all those cigarettes in the doctored photos at www.smokinjaycutler.tumblr.com. What a funny, funny website dedicated to a player who truly lives up to the billing as “the most apathetic looking athlete in the history of sports.”
Green Bay (6-3)
Pleasant: The quick development of so many young defensive backs to better what was the NFL’s 32nd-ranked pass defense in 2011. Davon House (NFC Special Teams Player of the Week), Casey Hayward (18 tackles, one interception in three consecutive starts), M.D. Jennings (19 tackles in the past three games) and Jerron McMillan (one interception) are all in their first two NFL seasons. Unpleasant: The injuries that are placing even more weight on quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ back. Almost all of Green Bay’s star players besides Rodgers have spent extensive time in the training room.
NFC South: Atlanta (8-0)
Pleasant: Just how much difference Dirk Koetter has made in his first season as offensive coordinator. Koetter has successfully transformed the Falcons into a pass-first team that is better utilizing the skills of quarterback Matt Ryan (pictured) and his top three receiving targets (Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones). The offensive line, particularly left tackle Sam Baker, also deserves mention for significant improvement under new position coach Pat Hill. Unpleasant: Some Atlanta players bemoaning a “lack of respect” for not receiving more media hype following an 8-0 start. After losing their first playoff game in three of the past four seasons, the Falcons first need to make some noise in the postseason to prove they are real. Win in the playoffs and the accolades will follow.
Pleasant: Charles Johnson (pictured) and Greg Hardy have become quite the pass-rushing duo. No team fields a pair of defensive ends with more combined sacks than the 14 the two have produced. The Panthers have 24 sacks already this season, just seven less than in all of 2011. Unpleasant: The in-season firing of general manager Marty Hurney provided a sobering realization of how much Panthers owner Jerry Richardson thought a team that finished 6-10 last season was ready to take significant steps in 2012. Cam Newton has taken the brunt of the criticism for failing to build off his amazing rookie season and displays of immaturity you simply can’t have from a quarterback. But from embattled head coach Ron Rivera on down, there’s plenty of blame in Carolina to go around.
Tampa Bay (4-4)
Pleasant: Tampa Bay’s top three draft picks haven’t needed much time to make their presence felt. Doug Martin (pictured) is the NFL’s hottest running back with a jaw-dropping 486 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in the past two games. Lavonte David is quickly becoming Tampa Bay’s best outside linebacker since Derrick Brooks. And hard-hitting strong safety Mark Barron is third among all rookie defensive backs in tackles (48) along with eight passes defensed. Unpleasant: When signing cornerback Eric Wright to a five-year, $38 million contract in the offseason, the Buccaneers weren’t expecting him to cause off-field headaches. Wright, though, was arrested on a felony DUI in the offseason and now, as reported by FOX Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer, faces a four-game NFL suspension for illegal use of Adderall. Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib also got popped for a positive Adderall test without a prescription before being traded last week to New England. Tampa Bay ranks last in the NFL in pass defense with a 321.1-yard average.
New Orleans (3-5)
Pleasant: Thanks to legal wrangling and dogged appeals, linebacker Jon Vilma and defensive end Will Smith haven’t missed a game from suspensions handed down by the NFL during the offseason for their alleged involvement in the team’s bounty scandal. Vilma’s return off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list has provided a boost in recent weeks to a lousy defense. Unpleasant: Speaking of that defense, no unit in NFL history has ever allowed more yards in the first eight games of a season. Major off-field distractions continue as well. The latest is Sean Payton’s (pictured) uncertain future with the Saints following news that the suspended head coach’s contract extension was voided by the NFL and a new agreement isn’t in place.
NFC East: Dallas (3-5)
Pleasant: The rapid development of two youngsters on defense – rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne and inside linebacker Bruce Carter. Along with third-year inside linebacker Sean Lee, who is on injured reserve with a toe injury, the Cowboys have blue-chip talent that the unit can be built around. Unpleasant: Wide receiver Dez Bryant’s inconsistency personifies the team he plays for. Bryant (pictured) has too many dropped passes and improperly run routes for someone this athletically talented now in his third NFL season. Bryant’s history of off-field problems is another black mark.
Pleasant: The early stars of the 2012 draft class – quarterback Robert Griffin III (pictured) and running back Alfred Morris. RG3 is even better than advertised coming into the NFL. Despite playing with a banged-up group of receiving targets, Griffin has completed 65.1 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Griffin also leads all quarterbacks with 529 rushing yards. As an obscure sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic, Morris entered the NFL devoid of hype. He has some now, ranking fourth in the league in rushing with 793 yards and five touchdowns. Unpleasant: The defense has tanked amid a slew of injuries. The turnovers being produced early in the season aren’t as plentiful lately, with none in the past two games, both of which the Redskins lost. Jim Haslett should be painfully aware that Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan wasn’t afraid to change coordinators on a semi-regular basis while in Denver.
New York Giants (6-3)
Pleasant: New York’s offensive line is fielding new starters at left and right tackle but the unit hasn’t skipped a beat. Eli Manning (pictured) has gotten sacked fewer times (eight) than any other starting quarterback. New York’s 109.4-yard rushing average is roughly 20 yards better than last season, when the Giants finished last in the NFL. Unpleasant: November hadn’t gone swimmingly the previous three seasons with New York posting a 4-8 record. The swoon may have started again this year with last Sunday’s 24-20 home loss to Pittsburgh. The next two November games are at Cincinnati on Sunday and hosting Green Bay on Nov. 25.