Grading at the quarter mark
Chiefs and Texans among A students; NFC East underachieving as a whole
With 13 teams at 2-2, it's easy to give out a lot of C grades at the quarter mark of 2010.
Average is the best way to describe the start. After four weeks, picking a No. 1 team among the 11 teams with winning records wasn't easy. I went with the New York Jets this week because of their recent three-game run through the AFC East, picking them over Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Green Bay. Those teams each lost a game in their divisions.
The overall grades for each division can be found to the right, but here are a few highlights.
Clayton's Quarterly Grades
Was. (B-), Dal. (C), NYG (C-), Phi. (D)
STL (A), Sea. (C), Ari. (D), S.F. (F)
Chi. (B+), G.B. (B-), Mn. (C-), Det. (D+)
Atl. (A-), T.B. (B+), N.O. (B-), Car. (D)
NYJ (A-), N.E. (B+), Mia. (C-), Bf. (D/D-)
K.C.. (A), Den. (B-), S.D. (C), Oak. (D)
Pit. (A), Bal. (B), Cin. (C), Cle. (D)
Hou. (A), Ind. (C), Ten. (C), Jac. (C-)
The Steelers, St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs deserve A grades because their starts exceeded expectations. The Steelers went 3-1 without Ben Roethlisberger. The Texans finally beat the Indianapolis Colts and lead the AFC South. The Rams have already doubled their win total from last season and have the league's next quarterback star, Sam Bradford. The Chiefs have used big plays and strong play at home to go 3-0.
The NFC East clearly underachieved. I gave some C's and a D in the division. The Eagles got the D because of their self-inflicted quarterback mess. Offensive line woes and inconsistent play led to the average marks for the Giants and Cowboys. The Redskins might have done the best job so far in that division, but they got downgraded for losing to the Rams.
The NFC West got horrible grades because seven wins might win that division. The NFC South received above-average grades with the improvement of the Bucs and the Saints and Falcons at 3-1.
From the inbox
Q: I've watched many tacklers lead with the crown of their helmet, especially when the offensive player is on the ground or being held up by another defensive player. With so much concern about concussions, why aren't more spearing calls being made?
Tom in Santa Fe, N.M.
A: The reason there doesn't seem to be as many spearing calls is players are spearing less. Officials are calling those plays closely. Player safety remains a big emphasis for officials. It's so easy to call a spearing penalty because the play is usually so easy to spot.
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Q: How exactly does a team determine whether or not to challenge a call so quickly? Is there a staff member in a room full of televisions with whom the coaching staff converses? What exactly is the process a team goes through when deciding to challenge a call on the field?
Bobby in Orlando, Fla.
A: Like everything else in this league, there is a plan. There are coaches in the coaches' box who watch replays once they are on the television screen and get word to the head coach on the field through the headsets. Assistants and players along the sidelines are watching, too. Thanks to advanced communication devices, word gets to the head coach quickly, the red flag comes out and the challenge is presented. An assistant doesn't want to be the one to spot what should be a challenge and get it wrong. The head coach gets to deal with him on Monday.
Q: Has anyone considered the impact on history and stats if the NFL goes to an 18-game season? Eric Dickerson's 2,105 rushing yards, Tom Brady's 50 TD passes, Dan Marino's 5,084 passing yards would all eventually fall thanks to an 18-game season. How would you compare stats between the 16- and 18-game seasons? Do we asterisk every stat from an 18-game season or do we convert Brady's 50 TDs in a season to "3.125 TD per game" to make comparisons now? Has anyone given serious thought to how this would impact the statistics?
Matt in Pittsburgh
A: Fans and statisticians understand the impact, but owners and the league understand times change. The NFL used to have a 12-game schedule. It used to have a 14-game schedule. The same arguments were raised when the league considered expansion of the schedule back then. What it comes down to is economics and the ability to market the game. The league and owners won't care about the stats, figuring those numbers will adjust and a new generation of fans will understand the differences in the numbers. The league didn't put any asterisks on the stats after the last change in scheduling and it won't now.
Matt in Lowell, Ind., is seeing what Romeo Crennel is doing with Kansas City's defense and wonders if he's going to be given another chance as head coach. He's 63. I'd say he won't get another chance. What's great is having him healthy and back in the league doing well as a coordinator. Thomas in Franklin, Vt., wonders if the Saints are thinking about going out and getting help for their defense. Of course, they'd love to, but there isn't anyone on the street that can change things. I'd say their biggest need is help at linebacker. Tony in South Weber, Utah, asks if Carson Palmer is playing injured. That's probably one of the biggest questions in the league. He says he's healthy, but at times, he's not throwing with the same accuracy. This could go back to his elbow problems of two years ago. Give him time to loosen up, but the situation bears watching. Edgar in Guatemala recognizes Kyle Orton is having his best season. So, he asks, will Tim Tebow start a game this year? Unless there is an injury to Orton, Tebow will sit and he should. He's not ready to play at an NFL level. Give him time to learn. Parsa in Irvine, Calif., wonders if Alex Smith will ever become a top-10 quarterback. After six years, he is what he is and that's pretty average. The coordinator changes haven't helped him. If the 49ers season continues at the current pace, the 49ers will be in the market for a quarterback next year. John in Aiken, S.C., is looking ahead to the Falcons' Week 6 visit to Philadelphia and wants to study the matchup problems. If Michael Vick is out with the rib injury, the game could be similar to last year's Saints-Eagles game in Philly. Kevin Kolb started for the Eagles and played well, but couldn't get enough going at the end of the game to beat Drew Brees. The Falcons come in with the quarterback advantage in Matt Ryan. Still, it would have been fascinating to see Vick against the Falcons. MRL in Rochester, N.Y., claims the Panthers look disinterested this season and he can't figure out why. I wouldn't say they are disinterested. They are young. They also don't have many name players. I think they need to go to more three-receiver sets and throw it around more. They play hard, but they just haven't come together as a team yet. Nick in Erie, Pa., has watched Owen Daniels of the Houston Texans and wonders if he is reeling from last season's surgery. Daniels has done some good things but he's not exploding off the line as he has in the past. Give him time. Drew in Daly City, Calif., asked if the 49ers can still make the playoffs despite being 0-4. The answer, believe it or not, is yes. They just have to win seven of their last 12 and be good in the tiebreakers. The division is that bad. Mark in Chandler, Ariz., is a big fan of Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. He's wondering if the Whiz made a mistake in releasing Matt Leinart. It wasn't working with Leinart. It hasn't worked with Derek Anderson. Like most teams coming off a great run with a great quarterback (Kurt Warner), the Cardinals found out how difficult it is to find a quarterback. Chad in Ames, Iowa, wants an update on Larry Johnson, the running back cut by the Redskins. His phone has been pretty silent. There is an outside chance the Redskins could call him back in a few weeks. Until then, he sits. Craig in Bloomington, Ill., would offer Tommie Harris of the Bears in a trade for Albert Haynesworth of the Redskins. Bad trade. Harris is a three-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense and doesn't fit into a 3-4 defense. No trade.
Q: It seems like there's been a drop-off in production from the elite receivers. Maybe it's too early, but guys like Austin Collie and Jeremy Maclin are looking better than Larry Fitzgerald and Chad Ochocinco. Early season fluke or a sign of things to come?
Kristof in Gainsville, Fla.
A: Great question. Understand the newest trend in the league -- the slot receiver. Wes Welker of the Patriots and other slot receivers have changed the game. The slot receiver used to be the No. 3 option. Not anymore. The slot receiver can go 5 yards downfield for a quick catch, or he can go a couple yards behind the line of scrimmage for a quick catch and run. It's the sign of things to come.
Q: What is the etiquette for players who get dropped and then picked up by other teams regarding revealing their former team's play calls and strategies? Trevor Pryce was dropped by my Ravens and has now been picked up by the Jets. They already played this year, but there is a chance they see each other in the playoffs. I'd hope players are honorable in most cases, but is that really the way things go behind closed doors?
Luke in Baltimore
A: Anything is fair game. If the player wants to tell a new team everything about his old team, that's his decision. If a team wants to quiz a new player about his former employer, game on. The game is competitive on the field, and it's competitive for information. There is little that can be done to stop that.
Q: Regarding the Packers' RB situation -- why was there all the speculation on trading for Marshawn Lynch? It seems that there are other decent young backs who, for various reasons, are buried on their teams' depth charts. Steve Slaton, Jerome Harrison and Bernard Scott come to mind. Granted, trades are easier for a fan to imagine than for a GM to execute, but why is all of the focus in this case on one particular player? It seemed to serve the interests of the Bills (driving up Lynch's trade value).
Daniel in Los Angeles
A: The reason Lynch was talked about is the Bills were three-deep at running back, and they needed draft choices. Plus, they aren't expected to win. The Packers could have made a big mistake by letting him go to Seattle. The Packers' running game has been nonexistent since losing Ryan Grant for the season. If you can't generate the ground game internally, it's time to look outside, and the best trade option is now gone.
Q: What are the chances Seattle drafts a high-ranked QB in 2011? Matt Hasselbeck could be a good mentor for a young QB, but he seems to have lost a lot of his game, and Charlie Whitehurst isn't looking like he was worth the draft picks that Seattle gave up to get him.
Josh in Redding, Calif.
A: I'd place money on them taking a quarterback in the first round if things fall right for them. Their problem could be success this season. In fact, winning the NFC West hurts their chances of getting a quarterback. The 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals have quarterbacks in one-year situations. The team that wins the division will fall into the final 12 draft spots of the first round. The runner-ups will get be better position to get the quarterbacks. I could see a half dozen teams that don't make the playoffs in position to draft a quarterback. The long-term success of any franchise in the NFC West rests on the next quarterback. While the Rams may finish last in the division this season, they have the best quarterback for the future, Sam Bradford.
Q: I think the term "curb your enthusiasm" might apply here. Jay Cutler started out this year looking pretty good, but it's only four games. How about we wait until he has, say, one season with a winning record in the NFL, or one playoff appearance before we anoint him as great? Meanwhile, a guy like Kyle Orton, who just wins more than he loses wherever he goes, can't crack your "elite" list.
Mike in Pittsburgh
A: Mike, I'm with you. Cutler was elite for his final season in Denver, but I'm going to wait through this season to see whether I will call him elite again. He'll probably throw for more than 4,000 yards, but will he cut down on the interceptions? So far, balls are being caught by defenders. It concerns you. It concerns me. Orton is making a push for elite status, but I might need to see if he can continue that progression this year and next. It took me until last year to graduate Matt Schaub to elite status. So far, Schaub has confirmed that graduation. What I have to see Orton do is survive those late-season ankle injuries that affect his passing.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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