Surprises and disappointments in 2011

BY Alex Marvez • October 4, 2011

Predicting an NFL season is never easy. Doing so after a four-month lockout that barred offseason workouts, prohibited player-coach contact and delayed free-agent signings made it even more difficult.

In that regard, the 2011 campaign hasn’t disappointed.

Here is a look at the five biggest surprises and five biggest disappointments with the season now 25 percent complete:

Surprises

The newbies

Remember the belief that first-year coaches would suffer most from the NFL lockout early in their tenures? It hasn’t happened that way.

Tennessee’s Mike Munchak, San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, Cleveland’s Pat Shurmur and Oakland’s Hue Jackson stand at least 2-2. Denver’s John Fox (1-3) and Carolina’s Ron Rivera (1-3) are experiencing growing pains in their rebuilding projects. But they’re not doing much worse than two other head coaches (Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier and Dallas’ Jason Garrett) who at least had the luxury of holding the position on an interim basis in 2010.

“The most ideal situation is you have a bunch of years and a bunch of time together (with your players),” Shurmur said during his Monday news conference. “The real situation was we didn’t and we need to go out and perform.”

With the Titans and 49ers at 3-1, Munchak and Harbaugh have fared the best. Munchak is benefiting from the offseason signing of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who has Tennessee’s offense rolling despite the slow start of star running back Chris Johnson (see below) and season-ending knee injury suffered by wide receiver Kenny Britt.

Harbaugh has helped build confidence that was sorely missing in San Francisco after eight seasons without a playoff berth. Harbaugh, though, did express concern Monday about all the positive things now being written about his squad.

“I’m starting to get the feeling there’s too many nice things coming our way here,” Harbaugh said. “My coach in college said, ‘When people start talking nice about you, kick them in the shins.’ So let’s stop.”

Fair enough. But since the 49ers have gotten their tails kicked for so long, a 3-1 start has made San Francisco one of the NFL’s early feel-good stories.

Speaking of which …

The Detroit Lions

Detroit’s first "Monday Night Football" game in a decade, against Chicago, will showcase just how far the Lions (4-0) have come. But let’s not forget it was horrific play in recent years that has helped this franchise get off to its best start since 1980.

The Lions would have never been in position to draft their three cornerstone players — quarterback Matthew Stafford (2009), wide receiver Calvin Johnson (2007) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (2010) — without finishing as one of the NFL’s two worst teams in the previous season. Even more important, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew didn’t screw up his high picks like predecessor Matt Millen repeatedly did during his disastrous tenure. (Millen was GM when Johnson was selected.)

The Lions are still a flawed team, especially along the offensive line. But Detroit’s growing confidence is reflected by two second-half road comebacks of at least 20 points the past two weeks against Minnesota and Dallas. That’s something no NFL team has ever done, although Lions coach Jim Schwartz is trying to downplay an accomplishment that reflects well upon his team’s resiliency.

“Maybe to people that are outside they’ve learned something about the football team,” Schwartz said during his Monday news conference. “But I think that it’s just more of a continuation of where we’ve been.”

And a harbinger of where the resurgent Lions are headed.

Cam Newton

Among players, rookie quarterbacks were supposed to suffer most from the lockout since they couldn’t conduct supervised workouts with their new teammates or learn the playbook with coaches. Newton’s development was expected to take even longer after a shaky preseason and his inexperience playing in a pro-style offense.

Newton has instead become the kind of myth-buster that Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage would love to profile. He passed for 422 yards on the road against Arizona in the season opener and has kept rolling.

The top overall pick in the 2011 draft, Newton is still far from a finished product but his improvement is evident each week. Newton’s accuracy is better than expected, and he has yet to appear overwhelmed by what NFL defenses are throwing at him. He also has given long-term hope for a Panthers franchise that had slid into irrelevancy following a 1-15 season.

Peyton Manning

Indianapolis’ 0-4 start without Manning was predictable. Manning’s uncertain NFL future is something nobody saw coming.

In May, Colts owner Jim Irsay said he was certain Manning would recover from offseason neck surgery in time for training camp. He didn’t.

Manning was taken off the physically unable to perform list in late August under the assumption he would soon be ready for practice. He wasn’t and had to undergo another neck surgery.

Manning hasn’t landed on injured reserve yet, leaving the door open that he may be able to return by season’s end. But that seems more like a respectful nod to the Colts’ franchise quarterback than a realistic assumption he will play in 2011. In fact, it’s fair to ponder if the 35-year-old Manning will ever regain the form that made him a future Hall of Fame selection.

If they finish with the NFL’s worst record — and that isn’t a far-fetched possibility, the Colts are in a quandary. Do you select Stanford’s can’t-miss quarterback, Andrew Luck, with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft or address another position in the hope that Manning can regain prior form?

Irsay and the Colts’ front office can only hope they aren’t put in that untenable position.

The NFL becoming the Arena League

Ok, we’re not at that point yet. But teams are throwing the football like never before.

Numerous passing records were shattered in the first four weeks. Among them: Overall net passing yards (31,446) and individual performances of 300 yards (44) and 400 yards (eight). Paced by a 7,946-yard total in Week 2, passing yards in each of the first four weeks also represent the four highest-weekly totals in league history. Scoring (2,916 points) and touchdowns (321) have reached new four-week highs, too.

Six quarterbacks, led by New England’s Tom Brady, are on pace to shatter Dan Marino’s single-season NFL passing record of 5,048 yards set in 1984. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is the early season Most Valuable Player favorite with a 73.0 completion percentage (which would set another NFL mark), 12 touchdowns and two interceptions for the unbeaten defending Super Bowl champions.

On the flip side, Green Bay and New England are ranked 31st and 32nd in pass defense. Both teams, though, remain the Super Bowl XLVI favorites among oddsmakers. That stems from the “if you can’t stop ’em, outscore ’em” capability the Packers and Patriots each have.

Gaudy aerial numbers are nothing new. The NFL was labeled a “passing league” years ago. It just has never become so apparent than in 2011.

Unfortunately for Minnesota fans, that makes quarterback Donovan McNabb’s struggles even more disheartening on the 0-4 Vikings.

Disappointments

The Dream Team

Or as they’re otherwise known, the Philadelphia Eagles.

The 1-3 Philadelphia Eagles.

Don’t blame the media for generating all of the hype that the franchise has yet to fulfill. Vince Young and Jason Babin were the ones who made allusions to the Miami Heat shortly after signing with an Eagles team that made the NFL’s boldest offseason personnel moves.

Although they fell short of an NBA championship, at least LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh helped lead Miami to the finals. At this rate, the Eagles will miss the playoffs.

The offensive line can’t adequately protect quarterback Michael Vick, who has taken an early season beating. The linebacker corps is among the league’s worst. Injuries have hit key positions. Juan Castillo has done nothing to lower the eyebrows raised when the longtime offensive line coach was shifted to defensive coordinator by head coach Andy Reid during the offseason. And the next two Eagles games are at Buffalo (3-1) and Washington (3-1).

What a nightmare.

Big-name running backs

Tennessee’s Chris Johnson is taking the most heat from fantasy football participants for his slow start. But he isn’t the only rusher having trouble getting out of the blocks.

Atlanta’s Michael Turner is the only one of the NFL’s top four rushers from 2010 in the top 10 this season. Defending champion Arian Foster has been slowed in Houston by a strained hamstring. (Ben Tate has done a nice job picking up the slack). Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles is out for the year after suffering a knee injury in Week 2. The production of Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall, St. Louis’ Steven Jackson and Cleveland’s Peyton Hillis also has taken a dip because of injuries and/or their teams’ offensive problems.

Oakland’s Darren McFadden leads the NFL with 468 rushing yards. Foster had 539 at this point in 2010.

Plus, just one of the current top seven rushers (Buffalo’s Fred Jackson) plays for a team with a winning record. In 2010, none of the top six rushers played on a team that won or reached the postseason.

Once again, it’s a passing league.

Defending division champions

New England (3-1) is the only one of last year’s eight division winners with a winning record. The drop-off in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Kansas City (1-3) and Seattle (1-3) is especially steep. The Chiefs have a chance to get back into the AFC West race by winning Sunday at Indianapolis but seem unlikely to seriously contend with three top players (Charles, free safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki) already on injured reserve. Seattle’s attempts to reconstruct its offense under new quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has gotten derailed by injuries across the board.

The Pittsburgh Steelers

One of those defending division kingpins, Pittsburgh failed to reach the playoffs in the season following its two previous Super Bowl appearances under head coach Mike Tomlin. Unless there is significant improvement, the Steelers (2-2) are headed toward the same fate.

What could be a high-powered passing game is being crippled by a lack of protection afforded to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. His status for Sunday’s home game against Tennessee is now in question because of a foot injury.

And despite their No. 2 statistical ranking, this year’s version of the Steel Curtain defense looks tattered. One of the NFL’s top pass-rushing duos — outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley — has only 3.5 sacks combined. Harrison is now out indefinitely with a fractured orbital bone, forcing the team to move Lawrence Timmons to outside linebacker.

Teams also are averaging 119.5 yards rushing against the Steelers, who have also forced an NFL-low one turnover this season. That puts Pittsburgh on pace for its worst mark since 1999.

The NFL Players Association

Two functions of a union: Protecting every member’s interests and striving to provide a safe working environment. The NFLPA has failed on both accounts since the new collective bargaining agreement was completed.

The NFLPA sold out eight of its members by agreeing they would be susceptible to NFL discipline for off-field violations committed during the lockout while 25 others who weren’t considered repeat offenders received a free pass. Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson, understandably, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against the NFLPA when he received a three-game suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Benson is allowed to play while his case is pending.

The NFLPA also refuses to help the league in its safety initiatives by stalling implementation of the Human Growth Hormone testing it agreed upon in the CBA as well as fighting rules that would force players to wear protective equipment (notably thigh and hip pads) and mouth guards. The NFL is trying to ensure a future generation of retired players doesn’t face the same health issues as their predecessors, as well as set an example for youth players. It’s pathetic that the NFLPA hasn’t hopped on board.
 



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