The conventional wisdom of many league observers entering the season was that the Carolina Panthers would try their best to insulate top pick Cam Newton by leaning heavily on a running game that included solid tailbacks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and would take some of the pressure off their rookie quarterback. But that's hardly been the case.
New coordinator Rob Chudzinski has called pass plays on nearly two-thirds of the team's snaps through five games, with Newton already throwing 194 passes. The league record for attempts by a rookie is 590, by Sam Bradford of St. Louis last year, and Newton is on pace for 621. With 1,610 yards, Newton could also obliterate the rookie record for single-season passing yards (Peyton Manning, with 3,739 yards in 1998).
"His arm strength is so phenomenal," wide receiver Steve Smith told The Sports Xchange, "that you've got to let him put it up. There have been times when he's just throwing with his arm or wrist, not really stepping into it for various reasons, and the thing comes out like a rocket."
Chudzinski isn't just putting the Carolina offense in Newton's hands, but on his feet as well, at least when the Panthers are deep in the red zone. Newton has rushed for five touchdowns, all for four yards or less, four of them for two yards or fewer. Williams and Stewart have combined for one TD, and that was a long-distance score, on Williams' 69-yard dash against New Orleans last week. Newton could threaten Steve Grogan's record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (12 in 1976) and will almost certainly smash the rookie mark, seven by Vince Young in 2006. When the Panthers are in close, they frequently use the "spread" in which Newton played at Auburn.
Said Chudzinski: "It gives defenses one more runner than they're used to, in the quarterback, and we think it's very effective."
The 69-yard run by Williams last week, on a whirlybird option play, is another example of how Chudzinski has tried to adapt some of the Auburn offense to the Carolina playbook.
On this site in the past, but not in recent months, we've reported about how federal law enforcement authorities were snooping around purported activities of some fairly well-known NFL player agents. One reason for the lack of news of late is that the feds, who don't like to act unless an indictment is a slam-dunk, had hit a bit of a wall.
But there is news this week that federal agencies again have at least one prominent agent with Southeastern roots back under their microscope, in part because of some alleged fiduciary irregularities, and because of the representative's supposed ties to a Florida businessman. The name of the businessman, who is not a certified agent, appears on some representation documents of at least two current players.
Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is under fire from fans in Atlanta for his unit's hibernation last week, after scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions against Green Bay, and for the maddening "lulls" that have frequently beset the Falcons the past couple seasons.
The bothersome part is that there is also a whisper of criticism from within the franchise, with some players suggesting that the team's no-huddle offense should be used more. Mularkey often breaks out the no-huddle as a change-of-pace mechanism, but there is some sentiment that it can be used more. Players were more guarded in their comments about the no-huddle in speaking to the local media about it, but have been more in favor of it, seemingly, in non-attributed remarks.
Atlanta has scored just three second-half touchdowns in five games. More notably, despite all the talk of improving explosiveness this year - one of the key factors in the expensive first-round trade-up for wide receiver Julio Jones in the draft - the Falcons haven't been getting as many big plays as planned.
According to some statistics, the explosiveness that served as the club's mantra for most of the offseason has been there. Atlanta, for example, has 13 pass plays of 20 or more yards, a pace well ahead of last year's 32.
But here's another metric that is troubling: Quarterback Matt Ryan is averaging 6.64 yards per attempt - a number that is used by many scouts to assess how the ball is going up the field - and is averaging just 6.50 yards per throw after a mark of nearly 8.0 yards per attempt as a rookie. Ryan's accuracy has also sputtered in the deep game, and there is concern that, while he is superb in short and intermediate ranges, he misses way too many receivers when throwing deep.
Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, the transfer from North Carolina State, doesn't have the stature of Stanford's Andrew Luck or Landry Jones of Oklahoma, arguably the top signal-calling prospects for the 2012 draft. But because of his leadership, and his improvisation abilities, Wilson is at least starting to garner a little bit of interest from NFL scouts.
It's not certain yet if Wilson will even be interested in a football career -- he was essentially released by N.C. State because his baseball skills and potential Major League potential kept him from making a full-time commitment to the gridiron -- but that hasn't stopped some NFL scouts from at least evaluating him. The drawbacks are that Wilson is less than 6 feet tall and lacks some arm strength. But a few scouts with whom The Sports Xchange have spoken are intrigued enough by Wilson's intangibles that they are keeping tabs on him.
Said once scout from an NFC franchise: "The comparisons to (Drew) Brees that a lot of people mark are (overstated), and I'm not sure at all the guy can play in the league ... but he might be worth a look. He's like (Tim) Tebow in terms of having guys rally up around him."
Not just the slot
Although coach Bill Belichick is principally known for his defensive expertise, the New England offense seems to come up with a new wrinkle every season, largely at his prodding. This year: Utilizing wide receiver Wes Welker outside the slot, and as more than just a short- or intermediate-range target.
The eight-year veteran has compensated nicely for the Pats' lack of a viable perimeter deep threat -- Chad Ochocinco has been a disappointment and there is speculation that his tenure in New England is dicey -- and demonstrating after five games that he may be more than just a one-trick pony.
"I'm getting to do a lot more things, and it's been a good change," said Welker, who through five games has 45 receptions for 740 yards and five touchdowns, and who is on pace to establish new league single-season marks for catches and receiving yards. "I'm expanding my role a lot."
The Pats continue to use a two-tight end set much of the time, and that has morphed into a set that allows Welker to venture outside of the slot, where he is making use of surprising speed. Always regarded as more quick than fast, Welker has surprised some defensive backs with his ability to get up the field. Welker is averaging 16.4 yards per catch, easily a career best. In his four previous seasons as a starter, he only once averaged more than 10.5 yards per catch, and his career average entering the season was 10.7 yards. Welker already has 13 receptions of 20 or more yards, only one fewer than he registered in 2009 and 2010 combined. His two catches of 40-plus yards are half as many as he had total over the past two seasons.
No sunshine state
The three Florida teams have combined for just a 4-10 record and two of the franchises, Jacksonville and Miami, figure to have new coaches in 2012. But if Tony Sparano is ousted in Miami and Jack Del Rio gets the boot from the Jaguars, there is little chance the two franchises will have similar short lists for potential replacements.
Word is that Dolphins' owner Steve Ross could target a high-profile guy, like Jon Gruden, for the job. And that Wayne Weaver of the Jaguars, perhaps with an eye toward the pocketbook, will prefer a lesser known coach, as when he hired Del Rio, for the job. His club's collapse at San Francisco last week aside, Raheem Morris of Tampa Bay appears to be safe.
By the way, the slump in The Sunshine State seems to have extended to the colleges as well, with none of the Florida schools ranked in the top 25 for one of the few times in recent years.
-There has been essentially nothing from Cincinnati about dealing the "retired" Carson Palmer before Tuesday's trade deadline -- owner Mike Brown this week declined to even discuss the status of the reluctant quarterback -- and it will be a bit of an upset if the Bengals swap him. There have been people critical of Brown, but one Cincy team official noted to The Sports Xchange this week that, while rookie Andy Dalton has struggled at times, the Bengals probably wouldn't be any better than their current 3-2 if Palmer was playing.
-Last week in this space, we detailed the lack of big plays by former Seattle first-round choice Aaron Curry, and the error of the Seahawks in making him the fourth overall player chosen in the '09 draft (and paying him so much money). Now, the Raiders, who dealt for Curry this week, may experiment with him playing inside on some occasions. Curry will most likely play, though, at strong-side 'backer. At either spot, the three-year veteran won't be expected to make many game-altering plays.
-A name that keeps coming up in reports about who might take the lead in football matters for Oakland, with the passing of Al Davis, is former Raiders defensive end Sean Jones. But the onetime NFL standout has some warts on his resume that might give Raiders' ownership some pause. Look for new owner Mark Davis to lean on longtime Oakland scout Jon Kingdon for counsel, at least for the next few months.
-Despite the denials in recent days from Philadelphia coach Andy Reid, word from Eagles insiders is that the club at least internally discussed the possibility of adding a defensive consultant to assist first-year coordinator Juan Castillo.
-Packers football officials had some concerns last week when starting left tackle Chad Clifton went down with a hamstring injury that could sideline him for a while. But the team and coaches were more than satisfied with the performance of little-used tackle Marshall Newhouse, who started a second straight week at right tackle, then moved to the left side when Clifton was injured. The cousin of former Dallas fullback Robert Newhouse, the former TCU star played well. In fact, the Packers' brass is very optimistic about the long-range viability of both Newhouse and first-round rookie Derek Sherrod, who had been a disappointment in camp.
-First-year San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is getting plenty of credit for rehabilitating quarterback Alex Smith, but 49ers players claim that he has exerted his presence throughout the locker room. "Some guys just have 'it,' and he's one of them," said tight end Vernon Davis.
-Perhaps if the Vikings continue to play poorly, the team will switch to first-round quarterback Christian Ponder over Donovan McNabb, but the possibility hasn't been widely discussed by the Minnesota staff so far.
The last word
"For it to be a rivalry, you have to win meaningful games. They're just another opponent. They have a long way to go. I wouldn't talk like this, but when people don't respect you, I don't take it lying down. Those people don't respect us, so in turn, I'm not going to give them any respect." - Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji, after his team's 25-14 victory at the Georgia Dome last Sunday night, on the Falcons, and the Packers' perception that Atlanta is a cheap-shot team
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.