- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The late, post-Labor Day start to the NFL season has seemed to push everything back.
It's October, and we're just now approaching Week 4. The change of the month should be the natural time to make a quarterly evaluation of the season, but that officially can't happen until the completion of Monday's Ravens-Chiefs game. By the way, the unsettling nature of rosters because of injuries and the unpredictability of who's good and who's not going to be good makes a compelling case for flexible television scheduling in the final two months of the season.
The Chiefs won 13 games last year but, with a loss to the Ravens, could face the almost impossible task of coming back from an 0-4 start to make the playoffs. If a 13-win team that lost only one starter on offense can't be assured of being a December contender, how is the league going to assure solid Monday night games in the final months? Like it or not, the NFL goes against one of those CSI franchises, and if their marquee game of the week is DOA by October, it doesn't benefit anyone to not put the best product forward.
Still, the start of this season has been fascinating. Injuries have turned the league into a survival contest. The teams that stay healthy or have the depth to withstand the heavy dose of injuries will be the playoff teams. Three weeks of long injuries lists make those realizations apparent.
Instead of concentrating on one trend, I thought I'd work on a few observations. Some are things that bug me about the start of the season. Others are oddities. Some are just interesting things that are happening.
Too bad the fourth game hasn't been played to make this a quarterly evaluation, but here are 10 thoughts on the opening weeks of the season.
1. No one should be surprised instant replay challenges are up. There were 56 coaches challenges in 46 games and 67 replay reviews overall. Both stats are on record paces. In March, NFL owners agreed to keep replay through the 2008 season. It's here to stay, and officials are adjusting to the technology present. Calls are made knowing the coaches have a chance to challenge them. Tweaks to the system will be made after the season, but more is needed to help the coaches. One of the biggest oversights is the five-second delay on the Monday Night games. The other is what Bill Parcells calls a "home-field advantage" on replay. Remember that coaches must react to the replays put on the Jumbotron or the television sets in the coaches' boxes. In the Vikings loss to Philadelphia, ABC cameras waited for a Terrell Owens' touchdown celebration, which delayed the showing of a replay that had him bobbling the ball. With the five-second delay added on, the Vikings coaches didn't see a replay until a few seconds before the Eagles lined up for the extra point. Either the league has to demand quicker television replays -- which will be hard to do because the league doesn't direct games -- or the league has to consider allowing challenges after plays are run, which would make games too long. Something needs to happen. Parcells' point from the Redskins game is the visiting team doesn't get to see as many Jumbotron replays on plays negatively affecting the home team. It's something to think about.
2. The 3-4 defense is spreading, but why only in the AFC? The Chargers, Raiders and Jets (to some degree) are the latest to join the Steelers, Patriots, Texans and Ravens as teams using three-men defensive lines. There are no teams in the NFC. How strange. The 49ers tried it but found they didn't have the bulkier type of defensive linemen needed, so they have stayed in the 4-3. The NFC remains a West Coast offense conference with so many members of the Bill Walsh coaching tree in charge. The AFC is dominated by defensive coaches, many with backgrounds as head coaches and defensive coordinators well versed in the 3-4.
3. Like Anquan Boldin a year ago, Roy Williams could run away with Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. While great receivers are emerging annually from the draft, it's become clear that the talented receivers who stay for their senior year have an edge. Most underclassmen receivers struggle with routes, drop more passes as rookies and don't seem to be as comfortable as the seniors. Williams, like Boldin, seemed to come into the league like a veteran. He made the transition from split end to flanker flawlessly after Charles Rogers broke his collarbone. The trend won't change as far as underclassman wide receivers turning pro early but when predicting first-year impact, give the edge to that rare senior top-10 pick who stayed one more year in college.
4. Scouts feared the 2004 rookie class was thin, and that fear is becoming a scary reality. Tight end Kellen Winslow, guard Shawn Andrews, quarterback J.P. Losman, cornerback DeAngelo Hall, halfback Kevin Jones and tight end Ben Watson have suffered significant injuries. Rookie offensive linemen who are playing are still works in progress. Dolphins first-round pick Vernon Carey was inactive last week, and Miami has one of the leagues's worst blocking units. That's not to say this class won't develop in the future, but general managers are getting worried. The average turnover of teams was 15.6 new players. With free agency producing less impact each year, teams need instant productivity from their draft choices.
5. The reinforcement of illegal contact penalties on cornerbacks after five yards is working beautifully, and that will be apparent by improved offensive numbers in the weeks ahead. Though scoring is slightly down below 40 points a game, watch the numbers soar in the next month. The biggest improvement is completion yardage. The average completion is 11.8 yards, a half yard better than last year. You have to go back to 1999 to see those types of numbers, ending a four-year decline. Passing yards are up 22 yards a game, 11 per team. The nice part about the transition is the offensive improvements have come without the abundance of penalty flags.
6. Too many teams are gambling on having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man active roster. Someone is going to get burned. The eight-man practice squad created the luxury of stashing a third quarterback during the week and having him available for practices only. But this game is too physical, and one of these teams is going to get two quarterbacks hurt. Injuries have created more of a need to keep an extra non-quarterback active for special teams or backup duty, but no offense can operate without a quarterback. The Colts, Steelers, Broncos, Bills and Ravens are rolling the dice.
7. The league jumped in Monday and told the Titans to stop the worst pre-game hype seen this season. Remember the commercial about the office linebacker who decks people in the office with vicious tackles? The Titans hired him to deck a referee minutes before kickoff of last Sunday's game against the Jaguars. Right in front of the Titans bench, the linebacker flattens the referee and taunts him while he squirms on the ground. The actors face is shown on the Jumbotron, and the crowd goes crazy. The NFL can't allow teams to promote the idea of decking officials. Once the league saw this sorry show, it told the Titans to cease and desist.
8. The Cowboys' signing of pass-catching tight end Mikhael Ricks made it official. For the final 13 weeks of the season, the Cowboys will be a passing team. They lost their best run-blocking tight end, Dan Campbell, for the season. After three weeks, the Cowboys are running the ball only 37 percent of the time averaging 3.5 yards a carry and 82 yards a game rushing. Julius Jones is out two months, so the Cowboys have to manage a running game with a slowed-down Eddie George, third-down back Richie Anderson and ReShard Lee. Walking off the podium the other day after a press conference, Parcells muttered that he can't keep running the ball and going three and out. Despite having a quarterback who turns 41 in November, Parcells is going to pass Vinny Testaverde until he drops.
9. The Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets are the most interesting upstarts of the new season. Jets general manager Terry Bradway did a great job this offseason making his defense faster and adding receiver Justin McCareins and center Pete Kendall. Most people thought the Jaguars were a year away as they developed Byron Leftwich and Reggie Williams on offense, but their defense is fun. The defense hits like a heavyweight street fighter, yet the Jags have surprising speed at linebacker. Not only can they stop teams in the middle on running plays, but they have the speed to shut down the outside game. Cornerback Rashean Mathis and free safety Deon Grant also are playmakers in the secondary. Jack Del Rio's biggest challenge is covering for starting defensive ends who came to camp as third-stringers.
10. Isn't it funny that Ben Roethlisberger was considered the least ready of first-round quarterbacks, and he ends up being first to pick up a win? No one knows when Eli Manning or Philip Rivers will play, but they will play this year. A year ago, scouts thought Leftwich was the biggest project among the first-round rookie quarterbacks because he came out of the MAC and wasn't used to conventional offenses. Leftwich had the best numbers among rookie quarterbacks last year. You just never know.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.