Commentary

Denver's destination still unknown

Originally Published: September 30, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

September offered only a three-game picture of this 16-game season.

Obviously, there were surprises and disappointments. The New York Jets lived up to every boast coach Rex Ryan made about their defense and rookie quarterback (Mark Sanchez) in getting off to a 3-0 start. The Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans disappointed everyone with their 0-3 starts after playoff appearances last season.

So, as we open this edition of the mailbag, let's look at some things we've learned so far and what to expect in the final 14 weeks of the regular season.

1. Jury still out on Denver: Settle down, Broncos fans. I know I predicted a 3-13 season for the Broncos, but October will be the true test to see where this team is heading. The Broncos will play Dallas, New England and San Diego in October. In November, they'll face Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Washington, San Diego and the New York Giants. That's the gauntlet I used in making the 3-13 prediction. Where will the Broncos get their wins during this stretch? Their initial test will be the next two home games against the Cowboys and Patriots. They might reach six or seven wins by the end of the season if they win one of those games. It's pretty clear the Broncos have established themselves as a better team than the Chiefs and Raiders in the AFC West.

2. Panthers' QB quandary: Now I know how Jake Delhomme feels. Last week, I suggested that the Panthers could use their first-round draft pick in 2010 on a quarterback. My thought, as many of you were polite in reminding me, was intercepted by fact. The Panthers traded their 2010 first-round pick to the 49ers. The Panthers, at 0-3, are in a tough spot. To replace Delhomme next year, they might have to make a trade or look to free agency. That's never easy.

3. Bengals making strides: Injuries have hampered the Seattle Seahawks' start, but at least the Cincinnati Bengalshave come through as one of my surprise teams. The Bengals probably will at least double the four wins they had last season. At 2-1, they have a chance to make the AFC North race more interesting. I'm not ready to put them in the playoffs yet, but the Bengals have a chance to do some good.

4. Texans an enigma: I still can't figure out the Houston Texans. They have a talented, young defense yet give up a lot of big plays. Their offense is built to run the ball, yet their running attack has been inconsistent. With Jacksonville rebuilding and and the Titans struggling at 0-3, the Texans have a chance to make some noise in the AFC South. But they're 1-2 and trailing the Colts by two games. Unless they show some consistency, the Texans won't get to nine wins, and major changes could happen after the season.

5. Zorn on shaky ground: After Washington Redskins' 1-2 start, coach Jim Zorn is on the hottest seat of any coach in the league. The Redskins squeaked by the hapless St. Louis Rams 9-7. Then they lost to the moribund Detroit Lions. To right the wrongs of the slow start, the Redskins have to beat the Tampa Bay Bucs, Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs to head into their Monday night game against Philadelphia with a 4-2 record.

Let's go to the mailbag.

From the inbox

Q: There's been a ton of passing early on, and this has been a big story (especially with the Steelers). But isn't there always more passing in the first few games? How do league pass-to-run ratios evolve over the course of a typical season, with weather becoming a factor? You'd think teams would run more in November and December.

Chris in Ann Arbor, Mich.

A: After three weeks of this season, the pass-to-run ratio is 56.7 to 43.3, which is high. Quarterbacks are throwing 33.55 passes a game. Last year at this time, the average was 30.47. Surprisingly, there isn't much of a drop-off later in the season. I don't have the ratio numbers, but over the final five weeks of 2008, quarterbacks averaged 31.85 passes a game. Remind me later in the season; I will do a complete breakdown.

Q: Hey, John. During the Cowboys' home opener against the Giants, Kenny Phillips caught that wacky interception off the foot of Jason Witten. The official, who blew the play dead, was standing right in front of the two players. The call caused Phillips' return and touchdown to be called back. Will any actions be taken against that official?

Kevin in Miami

A: The officials were downgraded for making the mistake of blowing the whistle. Once the whistle is blown, the play is dead. During the past couple of years, the league has been trying to get officials to be more cautious in blowing whistles when there is a chance that the play may be alive. This was a tough one because the ball bounced off Witten's foot. You can understand why an official might have thought the ball touched the ground. Every play is reviewed in New York. It was a mistake, and it was included in the grades for the officials involved. Good question.

Q: With more and more teams trying to use the Wildcat offense, is there a push to change the rule about the substitution of QBs? From what I understand, if a third-string QB enters the game before the fourth quarter, the first- and second-stringer can't re-enter the game. Why does this rule exist, and will there be a push at season's end to get it changed so that teams can carry a "specialist" QB like a Pat White or Michael Vick without ruining their overall offensive strategy? Thanks.

Christopher in San Jose, Calif.

A: To my knowledge, there is no push to change the quarterback rule. I'm sure you saw what happened in Week 3 in San Diego. Chad Pennington of the Dolphins injured his shoulder and was done for the game. Chad Henne, the designated third quarterback, entered, making Pennington and White ineligible. As you probably can guess, I'm not a big fan of the Wildcat. Each week, I'm growing less tolerant. I don't think the NFL -- a passing league -- needs to move backward to the single wing formation. Defenses are doing a better job of stopping the Wildcat, but more problems are cropping up with the expanded use of the formation. One of the reasons there is no need to change the rule is the Wildcat doesn't have to be run by a quarterback.

Q: I notice that when people compare players from the past and the present, almost every time the player from the past is chosen as the better player. Why is that when the game undoubtedly has evolved? Every player is bigger, faster and sometimes smarter.

Nashoba in Marquette, Mich.

A: To be honest, I find the opposite. Normally, the players of the past get forgotten when being compared to current players. It's hard to find people old enough to remember some of the great players of the past. Take the Peyton Manning-Johnny Unitas argument. Sammy Baugh rarely gets mentioned. Newer players aren't slighted, but it is hard to compare players in different eras. Sizes are different. What you have to judge is the impact of what those players did for the game in comparison to the players in their era.

Q: I notice that Drew Brees is on everyone's short list for MVP, and I can't disagree with that. However, Brees needs to be a more consistent winner on the road before he can be compared to Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Agree or disagree?

Craig in Seymour, Ind.

A: I agree 100 percent. Brees needs to win playoff games to be put in Brady and Manning's league. He didn't have great numbers in the road game against the Bills, but they were good enough. The MVP competition -- particularly at quarterback -- is pretty much a stats race. If Brees throws significantly more touchdown passes than his competitors, he'll probably be MVP. If the Saints make the playoffs, Brees will face the pressure of showing what more he can do. Manning and Brady have done it so well through this decade. So has Ben Roethlisberger. It's Brees' time to see where he matches up against the best.

Q: Hey, John, I was wondering about the fines doled out to the Jets. From my understanding, they were fined because Brett Favre wasn't included on the injury list, and the reason that's against the rules is it provides some kind of competitive advantage. If this is the logic the league uses, then shouldn't Bill Belichick be fined every week? He is always vague when talking to the media/fans about injuries and always seems to know more than he discloses.

Arlan in Santa Clara, Calif.

A: Belichick complies with the injury report standards. When he doesn't, he gets fined. The league doesn't give him any edge. All he has to do is put a player on the injury report based on his participation in practice. When asked about it, he can just refer to the report and not say anything else. He doesn't have to say anything about the injury report until it's due on Wednesday. We all hate that, but give the league credit for at least making him give the minimal amount of information. Through sources, everyone dug up that LB Jerod Mayo had an MCL knee injury, which usually takes three to six weeks to heal. At least Belichick put Mayo's name on the report as "Did Not Practice." He also reported that his knee was the trouble spot. Compared to several years ago, that's progress.

Q: Bills wide receivers Lee Evans and Terrell Owens have been used primarily as decoys in the first three games. Is this Dick Jauron's fault, or are there deeper issues with QB Trent Edwards?

Grant in Buffalo, N.Y.

A: It's a byproduct of an offensive line that's too young and an offense that can't figure out what it can and cannot do. The question surrounding the Bills is why they are averaging only about two deep throws a game. Their offensive line has an average age of less than 25 years old, and they are losing a lineman a week to injuries. Edwards has done a great job of throwing short, but he doesn't have the time to go deep. It's hard to evaluate him completely under the circumstances. What can be evaluated is that the organization doomed the offense by firing its offensive coordinator, trading away tackle Jason Peters and then cutting his replacement (Langston Walker) before the start of the regular season.

Q: Is it just me, or has field goal kicking been awful this year? Maybe as a Steelers fan I'm just focused on the woes of Jeff Reed. But it seems as if kickers are missing all over the place right now. Any reason why?

Matthew in Granbury, Texas

A: You've hit on something that has baffled me, so let's get into some numbers. Field goal kickers have been at their all-time best the past three years. After three weeks of the 2008 season, kickers were making 88.1 percent of their field goals. The year before, they were making 80.7 percent. Remember, this is when the weather is good. Where kickers are failing is on the easy kicks inside the 40. Last season, only 38 field goals were missed inside the 40-yard line. After 48 games this season, there have been 13 misses in that range. That's almost double the pace of misses compared to 2008. At the current pace, there will be 69 blown field goals inside the 40. To me, it is baffling.

Q: The past three years, people have been told to look out for an up-and-coming Texans team, yet they continue to be inconsistent. They are having trouble running the ball and gave up 31 points to the Titans. What is holding them back from being a Super Bowl contender?

Jeff in Big Rapids, Mich.

A: I'd have to say what's holding them back is themselves. There is no excuse for losing home games to the Jets and Jaguars. Coach Gary Kubiak is upset with the lack of a pass rush, yet the team has Mario Williams and several high picks invested in the defensive front seven. The team brought back the starting offensive line, yet there are no holes for Steve Slaton to run through. The roster hasn't seemed to have found the right No. 2 running back. Dunta Robinson is a talented cornerback, but he's unhappy with his contract. Tight end Owen Daniels isn't saying much now, but you know he's not happy with his one-year restricted free-agent tender. Something is wrong. Maybe the Jets are a better team than the Texans, but the Texans have more talent than the Jaguars, who are in a rebuilding mode. There is no excuse for Houston to lose to the Jags.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer