We’ve reached the quarter pole of the NFL season. I don’t really know what a quarter pole is, and I’m not sure of the specific sport in which a quarter pole is used. I think it’s horse racing. It could be car racing.
Or maybe it’s fishing.
Either way, that’s where we are right now. Every team has completed 25 percent of its schedule, and now the fantasy-football frustrations of the bye weeks begin. Here are 10 takes from the largest slate of Sunday games that will be played until the last Sunday of the regular season, on January 1.
1. Big deficit? Big deal.
In the old (i.e., last year and before) NFL, a 20-point lead almost always translated to a victory. In the new (i.e., this year) NFL, when a team falls behind by 20 points, the reaction of the players on the losing team apparently is to rub their hands together and say, “We’ve got them right where we want them.”
Last week, two teams clawed their way out of 20-point deficits: the Lions at the Vikings and the Bills versus the Patriots. This week, two more teams came back from 20 or more behind: the Lions at the Cowboys and the 49ers at the Eagles.
It’s not as if the Vikings, Patriots, Cowboys, and Eagles are each constructed like the Oilers of the early ’90s. (OK, the all-pass, no-defense, weak-running-game Pats are close to being the Oilers of the early ’90s.) But in this throw-happy NFL, it seems as if teams have lost the formula for holding a 20-point margin when fewer than 30 minutes remain to be played.
For the teams that have pulled off what was once unthinkable, the jury remains out on the long-term value of that extra shot of confidence. The Bills followed their feat by laying an egg in Cincinnati. The Lions clawed out of a 20-point hole one week only to see the 20 and raise it by four the next.
Regardless, what we’ve seen this season is great for the game. What once was enough to get fans to change the channel no longer can be regarded as a done deal.
In other words, it truly ain’t over until it actually is over.
2. Roughing the passer should be subject to replay review.
During overtime of the first round of the 2009 playoffs, referee Scott Green was so focused on the question of whether Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ arm was moving forward on a fumble that resulted in the game-winning touchdown for the Cardinals that Green didn’t notice a blatant pull of the face mask of Rodgers’ helmet.
During the second quarter of Sunday night’s game between the Jets and Ravens, referee Mike Carey was so focused on the question of whether Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez’s arm was moving forward on a fumble that resulted in a touchdown that put the Ravens up by 20 that Carey didn’t notice a blatant placement of defensive tackle Haloti Ngata’s helmet into Sanchez’s back.
It shouldn’t have happened that way. The flag should have been thrown, and the touchdown should have been wiped off the board. Ngata engaged in a clear violation of the rule against hitting defenseless players with a helmet, even though he didn’t hit Sanchez in the helmet. (Last year, Steelers linebacker James Harrison was fined $20,000 for a similar — but less forceful — hit on Saints quarterback Drew Brees.)
So when the play was being reviewed, why didn’t Carey throw a flag then? It didn’t happen because whether or not roughing the passer occurred isn’t something that is subject to the replay rules.
That needs to change. Apart from what should be a stubborn desire to “get it right,” the NFL should have an even keener interest in ensuring that the safety rules are enforced. Since the question of whether a defensive player hit the quarterback in the helmet or with a helmet isn’t a matter of judgment or discretion, this important aspect of the league’s efforts to protect defenseless players should be added to the litany of passing-game particulars that can be reviewed via replay.
3. It’s time to bid farewell to McNabb.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier isn’t ready to bench quarterback Donovan McNabb. Frazier may be resisting because Frazier knows that, if/when McNabb is benched, he’ll also have to be cut.
McNabb won’t want to play second fiddle to a rookie on a rag-tag team. If Donovan is going to be a backup, he’d rather be a backup on a team that has a chance of playing in January. Or maybe he simply won’t be able to accept the fact that he’s no longer good enough to be anything more than a backup.
Either way, having McNabb around won’t help the development of Christian Ponder.
And even though plenty of blame can be placed on plenty of people in purple other than McNabb, the reality is that McNabb has led the team to zero wins in four tries — and in each game McNabb has presided over a blown lead.
Though the lead blown on Sunday was never very sizable, he still failed to hold it. Then, when there was a chance to win the game late, he threw four straight incomplete passes in Kansas City territory.
With the Vikings possibly on track to pick quarterback Andrew Luck, the Vikings need to figure out whether they need him. And the only way to do that is to figure out whether they want Ponder.
4. Luck sweepstakes feature a team that doesn’t need a quarterback.
If the 0-3 Colts end up with the first pick in the draft, they may or may not take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The presence of the first pick in the 1998 draft, Peyton Manning, will be a major factor in the decision-making process.
If the 0-4 Rams — who are now destined to go 0-7 with upcoming games against the Packers, Cowboys, and Saints — finish in the top spot, they surely wouldn’t take Luck only two years after landing Sam Bradford.
Or would they? Widely regarded as the best quarterback prospect since Manning (if not even better), a complete meltdown in St. Louis could cause owner Stan Kroenke to re-evaluate every job in the organization. If Kroenke decides to hire a new head coach and/or G.M., all bets would be off on Bradford, the last of the draft-day lottery jackpot winners.
Of course, Luck has some say on this one. With another year of eligibility remaining at the college level, he could decide to renew his disability insurance policy and wait one more year before jumping to the next level, if he’s not happy with the prospect of playing for the team that holds the first overall pick in the draft once the 2011 season ends.
5. League’s concussion procedures continue to cause skepticism.
Time and again, we see a player who apparently has suffered a concussion, but whose injury receives a different label altogether. Whether it’s neck or head or jaw, teams know that mere utterance of the “c” word knocks a guy out for the entire game.
On Sunday, the Steelers said that linebacker James Harrison suffered an eye injury. Harrison insists that he didn’t suffer a concussion, claiming that the forehead pad in his helmet hit him in the eye after he made a tackle.
The only problem with this is that the injury appeared to happen on a helmet-to-helmet hit from Texans left tackle Duane Brown, and the video doesn’t show any padding sliding into Harrison’s eye. And he didn’t make the tackle on the play.
Though it could be a matter of semantics, a football player’s desire to play football — coupled with a team’s reluctance to apply a tentative diagnosis that could shut him down automatically — surely influences the handling of borderline cases. Mild concussions can’t be diagnosed with an X-ray or any other medical instrument. It’s a judgment call, and it would be naive to assume that decades of the exercise of medical judgment in a manner that allows football players to play football would go completely out the window, especially in close cases.
As a result, truly independent neurologists should be making the assessment of players who may have concussions, and all doubt should be resolved in favor of keeping the player out, unless and until there is clear evidence that no concussion has been suffered.
Of course, that procedure should apply only during a game. At some point, a lucid player who is suffering some post-concussion symptoms should be permitted to assume the risk of incurring another concussion. But in the heat of the battle, any player who possibly has had a concussion should be yanked from the game and prevented from returning without proof that he’s indeed concussion-free.
6. Cris Carter was right, after all.
When ESPN’s Cris Carter inadvertently omitted Lions receiver Calvin Johnson from an off-the-cuff list of the top five receivers in the NFL and then opted to dig in his heels instead of admitting his error, Carter was right. Sort of.
Johnson isn’t one of the top five receivers in the NFL. He’s in the top one. He’s the best, without question.
In his first three seasons, Johnson’s talents had been obscured by the fact that he was the lone bright among Matt Millen’s cruel joke of a football roster. But there was no denying his potential, even though the Raiders haven’t received nearly the level of criticism they deserve for passing on the guy who already is better than Fred Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch, Tim Brown, and every other standout Raiders wideout combined.
Johnson now has four straight two-touchdown games, tying Carter’s record and putting Johnson on pace for 32 in 2011. And yet he still sees periodic single coverage.
Then again, it may not matter. Single, double, triple. It doesn’t matter. He’s Randy Moss with more meat on his bones and a better attitude. (Can you imagine how Moss would have pouted and moped and metastasized his way through a 0-16 season?)
Johnson is, simply put, the new standard for NFL receivers. We all want to witness something historic. Right now, in Detroit, we are.
7. Giving thanks for Thanksgiving.
For years, the early game on Thanksgiving has featured the Lions playing at home. For years, the game has been inconsequential.
This year, it could be the biggest game of the season.
The 4-0 Packers and the 4-0 Lions won’t meet until the fourth Thursday in November. There’s a chance (slim, but a chance) that they’ll both be 10-0. Even if they aren’t, there’s a good chance that they’ll both have a lot more wins that losses — and that their pair of holiday games (Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day) will be the difference between the No. 1 seed in the NFC and a wild-card road trip to San Francisco.
Speaking of San Francisco, the Harbaugh family reunion set for Thanksgiving night should be a pretty good game, too. If only the Dolphins weren’t playing at Dallas, it would be the best tripleheader the NFL has ever seen.
8. So much for the Romo re-set button.
After Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo led his team back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against the 49ers in Week Two, I said that I wanted to see him do that against an eilte team before I’d declare his late-game demons exorcised.
He got his chance against the Lions. And what happened was so much worse than failing to deliver in the clutch.
There would have been no need for clutch play at all if Romo hadn’t collapsed under the weight of a 24-point lead. Even then, he had a chance to save the day, and he didn’t get it done.
Romo surely will have more good days and bad days over the course of the season, but it’s impossible to shake the sense that they’ll win just enough times so that he can deliver defeat when the chips are down in the postseason.
9. Bengals end a long streak of Buffalo futility.
The last time the Bengals beat the Bills before Sunday, the man who wears No. 14 in Cincinnati was only 14 months old. Between January 8, 1989 and October 2, 2011, the Bills had beaten the Bengals 10 straight times.
It was the longest streak of futility by one team against another team.
Of course, it only became the longest streak last Sunday. After the Bills beat the Patriots.
What could be more fitting in this crazy, upside-down season than the Bills beating the Pats for the first time in 16 tries than the Bills then losing to an inferior team that had previously lost 10 straight to Buffalo?
10. Victor Cruz call was the right one.
Sunday’s most controversial call came in Arizona, site of one of the biggest wins in Giants’ history. Receiver Victor Cruz fell down, got up, and left the ball behind.
Cardinals defenders, who foolishly failed to touch Cruz while he was down given that he could have gotten up and kept running, recovered the ball.
Though many disagree with the decision (some, like Tony Dungy of Football Night in America, strongly), the rules support the decision that was made. A play ends when a runner “declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance.”
That’s what Cruz did. He fell to the ground, and he made no effort to advance. Play over.