Through 10 Sundays, the two conferences couldn’t be any more different. The best teams in the NFC are obvious; in the AFC, the proposition changes on a weekly basis.
So let’s take the current temperature of the entire league by looking at the 10 story lines that caught our attention on Sunday.
Or at least the ones that caught my attention.
1. Jim Harbaugh needs to teach John a thing or two.
It’s impossible to know whether the 49ers would have won their third through ninth games if they hadn’t lost to the Cowboys in Week Two. Safety Donte Whitner recently pointed to the blown lead against Dallas as the biggest moment of the year for the Niners, propelling them to their string of seven straight wins, and counting.
Along the way, the 49ers have had plenty of chances to lay something other than a golden egg. But stubbornly obsessive head coach Jim Harbaugh won’t let his team have a letdown.
And John Harbaugh would be smart to ask his brother how in the heck he does it.
John’s Ravens follow big wins with flat performances, losing winnable games after signature victories. Beat the Steelers? Lose in Nashville. Beat the Texans? Lose in Jacksonville. Beat the Steelers again? Lose in Seattle, um, ville.
Though I’ve previously blamed the inability to avoid playing down to the level of the competition on linebacker Ray Lewis, given that he’s the guy who has assumed the responsibility for ensuring that the dogs are indeed in the house, the head coach is responsible for finding ways to get grown men to take care of their business.
Yes, the Seahawks are hard to beat at home. But when Jim Harbaugh goes there on Christmas Eve, a week after facing (and perhaps beating) the Steelers, he’ll likely make the locals feel like the unsuspecting residents of Whoville.
2. Despite down year, DeSean’s absence hurt the Eagles.
Some Philly fans likely shrugged at the decision to deactivate receiver DeSean Jackson. Since he’s having a down year and given that he primarily runs one route (i.e., deep), the Eagles had the weapons to win without him.
After the game, running back LeSean McCoy confirmed that the Eagles missed DeSean. “With the type of player he is, he plays a big role for this offense,” McCoy said, via comments distributed by the team. “Any player that says we didn’t miss him is not being honest.”
Quarterback Mike Vick agreed. “Anytime you [don’t] have one of your premier players, one of your go-to guys, it does, yeah it does,” Vick said, via comments distributed by the team. “But we have to respect the decisions that are made. We wish it never had to come to that, but it is what it is and you still have to go out and win the football game.”
Per a league source, Vick privately expressed after the game that his 128-yard passing effort resulted from an inability to find a rhythm early. So can any of that be blamed on the absence of Jackson, given that he wasn’t exactly having a Pro Bowl season?
To quote one of the most famous residents of Philadelphia, “Absolutely.”
In the West Coast offense, a receiver who can run fast in a straight line and pull both a corner and a safety deep helps open up the various underneath routes for guys like Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, Jason Avant, and Riley Cooper. Even if Jackson doesn’t catch a single pass, his presence helps fuel the overall passing game by creating passing lanes for his teammate, and for his quarterback.
What else can explain the curious career of Todd Stinkston?
For DeSean and the Eagles, the long-term relationship took a major hit on Sunday based not on what he would have done with the ball in his hand, but based on what his presence would have meant for the ability of his teammates to get the ball into theirs.
3. Schedule makers stick it to the Jets.
This year’s Thursday night schedule omits a quirk that had worked to the disadvantage of past teams operating on a short week. In the past, road teams in a Thursday nighter sometimes played a road game the preceding Sunday, requiring them to travel home and then travel to another city between the end of the Sunday game and the start of the Thursday contest.
This year, every Thursday road team will have played at home the prior Sunday. (Ideally, every home team on a Thursday would play on the road the prior Sunday, balancing out the time lost to travel on a short week. But we’ll fight our windmills one at a time.) The Jets, for example, played at home in Week 10 before going to Denver on Thursday night to kick off Week 11.
But the Jets still got shafted by the league office.
By playing a Sunday night game that ended close to midnight in New York, the Jets have eight hours less to recover and refocus than they would have had if the game had begun at 1:00 p.m. ET. Though it may not seem like much, every minute counts when there are only 92 hours between the end of one game and the start of another.
Though the flexing dynamic can’t completely erase this possibility, Sunday night games should be scheduled with sensitivity to the Thursday night schedule, and decisions to slide games to Sunday night should take into account whether either of the teams in the late Sunday game will have to hit the road for another one only four days later.
4. Deja vu for Kolb.
Last year, a concussion for Kevin Kolb in Week One opened the door for Mike Vick in Philly. Though Kolb was assured by coach Andy Reid that Vick wouldn’t keep the job, Reid thereafter decided to stick with the hot hand — which eventually resulted in the Eagles giving Kolb the cold shoulder.
Now that he’s the quarterback of the present and future (supposedly) in Arizona, another injury has allowed another quarterback to go on another hot streak, and it could be another long year on the bench for Kolb.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated said during Sunday’s edition of Football Night in America that John Skelton will get at least another start, as the Cardinals try to topple the 8-1 49ers. While it may be difficult if not impossible for Skelton’s redbirds to beat San Fran at Candlestick Park, the fact that Skelton has led the Cards to a 2-0 record after a 1-6 start under Kolb can’t be disregarded.
The key figure in all of this could be receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Though the trade for Kolb surely helped Fitz decide to sign a long-term deal in lieu of hitting the market in 2012 (the Cardinals had no ability under his prior contract to use any tags to hold him in place), it hadn’t been clicking for Kolb and Fitzgerald, prompting Fitzgerald to recently complain about the absence of a high-end receiver who could absorb some of the attention.
On Sunday, operating against a defense that features Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Fitzgerald had seven catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns. (He arguably had a third score late in the game, but coach Ken Whisenhunt opted not to challenge the ruling that Fitzgerald was touched before sliding across the goal line.)
Though it’s not Fitz’s style to make power plays, the powers-that-be in Arizona are smart enough to know that keeping their key player happy is one of the team’s top priorities. And if Skelton, despite throwing more than a few ugly passes that looked more like volleyball serves, can deliver victory and energize Fitzgerald, Kolb will get extra time to recover from a stubborn case of turf toe.
In fact, team doctors may give the front of the foot an extra twist or two every time they examine it.
5. Mike Smith makes a contract extension decision.
Some agree with the decision by Falcons coach Mike Smith to roll the dice on fourth and short from his own 29 in overtime. Some don’t. Regardless of whether Smith is compared to the genius Bill Belichick circa 2009 or the jester Barry Switzer circa 1995, the move took a lot of guts. (Actually, Switzer had the last laugh in 1995; the Cowboys rebounded from that blown game against the Eagles to win the Super Bowl.)
It took the kind of guts that become much easier to muster when a guy has received a contract extension.
And that’s likely one of the reasons why Smith felt sufficiently comfortable to do it. Signed to a new three-year extension in February, Smith has the kind of security that lets him take the kind of chances that would be hard for a lame duck to take.
Maybe Smith would have done the same thing if he was seven games from becoming a coaching free agent. The point for now is that a guy who believes the front office believes in him will be more likely to take a big risk.
That said, Smith now has to persuade the locker room that he opted not to punt not because he lacks belief in his defense, especially since Smith explained after the game that the move was motivated by a fear that the Saints would put together a game-winning drive on its next possession. Though that can be regarded as respect for the New Orleans offense, it also could be viewed as a diss of the Dirty Birds’ D.
6. Glimmer of hope for Tebow.
Lost in the laughable stat line for the Broncos (55 runs, eight passes) is the significance of the 56-yard, on-the-money touchdown pass from quarterback Tim Tebow to receiver Eric Decker.
Apart from Tebow showing uncharacteristic, based on past performances, accuracy on the throw, Tebow delivered the ball without his characteristic catapult-style throwing motion. The ball come out high and tight and it showed that the thousands of reps spent trying to reverse his muscle memory could be starting to work. Though it doesn’t mean he’ll never revert to that looping Leftwich launcher, it’s a sign that, in time, Tebow has the potential to become a better passer.
And if he can become a better passer, he’ll become an unprecedented run-pass threat.
7. Reid still needs to fear getting fired.
Three years ago, with his back pressed firmly against the wall following a dreadful performance in Baltimore that included the benching of Donovan McNabb, Eagles coach Andy Reid got it together on a short week, blasting the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night, 48-20.
With the Cardinals back in town after another sluggish, postseason-jeopardizing performance by the Eagles, the table was set for Reid to lead another late climb out of an unexpected hole. Indeed, as the Giants faced the prospect of losing in San Fran (and the Giants did), a win would have given the Eagles a chance next Sunday night to close the NFC East gap down to one game.
In the days before what became a deflating defeat, a report surfaced that Reid basically will remain the head coach of the Eagles for as long as he wants to remain the head coach of the Eagles.
But is that really the smart approach? Though it’s always wise to consider whether a new coach would make the situation better or worse, every football coach needs to fear the ultimate accountability that comes from chronic failure.
Without any real danger of being fired, Reid can continue to repeat the same old sound bites after every loss.
“[T]he way this team played is my responsibility,” Reid said Sunday. “We have to make sure we get it corrected.”
But what if it doesn’t? There’s no “or else” if owner Jeffrey Lurie isn’t willing to hold Reid responsible for failing to ever “get it corrected.”
And since there’s no way to hold Lurie responsible for failing to address the fact that his head coach is failing to correct the team’s problems, Eagles fans simply have to deal with it.
Unless Eagles fans are willing to cast their vote of no-confidence by closing their wallets and turning off their televisions.
8. Niners may not want the top seed.
With the 49ers knocking down every opponent placed in front of them, but for Week Two against the Cowboys, a slip-up by the 8-0 Packers could open the door for Jim Harbaugh’s team to twist the road to the Super Bowl through San Francisco.
But do the 49ers really want to be the top seed?
Though Harbaugh will never entertain the possibility that anything good could come from aiming for anything less than the best possible outcome to the regular season, the 49ers match up better with the Packers in the elements. With Green Bay relying on a finesse passing game and with the 49ers cobbling together the championship formula of running the ball and stopping the run, facing the defending champs on frozen tundra makes more sense than playing them on the relatively pristine playing surface in the home stadium where Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers dreamed of playing as a boy.
Plus, it’ll be easier for Harbaugh to weld a chip to his players’ shoulders if they enter Lambeau Field as the clear underdogs, and it’ll be far more memorable if the renewal of the playoff rivalry features an “Owens! Owens! He caught it! He caught it!” moment on Green Bay’s home turf.
9. It doesn’t take many dots to connect Jon Gruden to D.C.
It’s impossible to know whether Redskins coach Mike Shanahan is in trouble without having access to the thought processes of owner Daniel Snyder. But we’ve seen the manifestations of his mind in the past, with no coach other than Joe Gibbs lasting more than two seasons during Snyder’s time as owner — and with Snyder pursuing Shanahan for nearly a year behind the back of former head coach Jim Zorn.
So it’s more than fair to wonder what Snyder may be doing behind Shanahan’s back as Shanahan approaches the non-Gibbs witching hour for Redskins head coaches with a 3-6 record and five straight losses.
If Snyder has fallen out of love with Shanahan, Snyder could be turning his attention to Jon Gruden. With G.M. Bruce Allen having worked directly with Gruden both in Oakland and in Tampa, Snyder has direct access to a guy who knows what makes Gruden tick.
Given that Gruden won a Super Bowl with a quarterback that the Redskins discarded, Snyder easily could talk himself into thinking that Gruden’s single Lombardi with Brad Johnson carries greater weight than Shanahan’s back-to-back rides on the coattails of John Elway.
Throw in the fact that Philly fans will be clamoring for the Eagles to bring Gruden back to town for an assignment one level higher than offensive coordinator, and Snyder may decide that if he’s ever going to get Gruden, the time to move is now.
Either way, Shanahan has to be wondering if Snyder is currently doing what Snyder was doing when wooing Shanahan.
10. Pay the man, Houston edition.
We’ve heard plenty this year about guys who want new contracts. In Houston, we’re not hearing much about a guy who’ll be a restricted free agent after the season.
A year after leading the league in rushing only a year after joining the Texans as an undrafted free agent, and only two months after it appeared that a hamstring injury would relegate him to one-hit wonder status, Arian Foster looks every bit as good as he was last season. Despite missing two games, he has 740 yards rushing, and 445 yards receiving.
He’s doing it all while getting paid the minimum salary for a third-year player.
Likely motivated by a keen awareness of the fungible nature of running backs, Foster didn’t hold out despite being an exclusive-rights free agent, which means that even though he couldn’t have signed with another team, he could have stayed away without being subject to fines or other penalties for violating his contract.
Unlike Chris Johnson, Foster showed up. Unlike Peyton Hillis and DeSean Jackson, Foster isn’t pouting or moping or missing meetings or disappearing on a treatment day to get married. Foster is simply lining up and doing his job, and if the Texans don’t take care of him soon, teammates will begin to wonder whether the organization is unwilling to reward the men who truly deserve it.