Point 1: After an erratic start, the Dallas Cowboys offense is doing plenty of things right.
Earlier this year, the Cowboys offense was a bit out of synch as their running backs were sidelined by injuries and quarterback Tony Romo got off to a roller coaster-like start.
But at the midpoint of the season, Dallas now sits atop the NFC East.
So what's fueling the offense's success as the team has gotten healthier, discovered rising stars like wide receiver Miles Austin, and Romo has seemingly settled in a bit?
The Dallas offense is consistently getting off to a good start on first down, gaining 4-plus yards nearly 51 percent of the time. That's the sixth-best mark in the league. Romo is completing 70.3 percent of his throws on first down to contribute to that success. That success has certainly contributed to the Cowboys having the lowest rate of three-downs-an-out possessions in the NFL at 13.3 percent.
Wide receiver Miles Austin provided a spark to the Dallas passing game.
Al Bello/Getty Images
On second- and third-down situations where they need less than four yards to move the chains, the Cowboys convert 78.3 percent of the time versus an NFL average of just 58.7 percent. And when they've pushed their way down the field into a goal-to-go situation, they are third-best in the league in capitalizing on those opportunities, scoring 12 touchdowns in 19 trips and only settling for field goals on six of those occasions.
Thanks largely to Romo's new connection with Austin, Dallas is fifth in completions of 20-plus yards with 31 this season for an average gain of 35.9 yards. Austin has 11 of those catches while Roy Williams has five, Patrick Crayton and Jason Witten are at three each, and five other backs and receivers share the balance. Those receivers deserve a lot of credit for the team's success in moving the ball, ranking third in the NFL in yards after the catch with 1,218 while the NFL average lags far behind at 896.
Also noteworthy is Marion Barber's efforts in the fourth-quarter, rushing for 173 yards on 28 carries — 6.2 yards per carry while Romo is the only quarterback at this point in the season to have over 1,000 passing yards in blitz situations.
Point 2: Tom Brady needs to grow up.
There's no doubt that Tom Brady is one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. He's one cool dude in the pocket and has the focus, field intelligence and steel-willed determination to be a consistent winner. He should be attracting a huge following of fans — even outside of New England — who admire him and respect him, even if he doesn't play for their favorite NFL team.
But until he can show more class as a person, that's never going to happen. And that's a real shame.
Brady's latest immature gaffe probably went unnoticed by most people who watched the Patriots defeat the Dolphins last week. And while it wasn't a headline-making transgression by any means, it just left me scratching my head wondering why it's so hard for him to conduct himself in a manner that is more reflective of a true professional and a more likeable human being.
With New England holding a ten-point lead and just 28 ticks left on the clock, Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne tossed a short pass to Ronnie Brown, who ran out of bounds around the 50-yard line. After his momentum carried him past Brady and a few other Patriots, Brown turned around and started to trot back onto the field, carrying the ball in both hands in front of him. As Brown passed by, Brady attempted to swat the ball out of his hands, but the running back noticed the move, pulled the ball away and continued onto the field.
While it wasn't an action worthy of an unsportsmanlike conduct flag, Brady's action was not only unsportsmanlike, it was childish — especially for a highly successful, 32-year-old man. And it sets a poor example for younger players who look up to him based on his talent. It wasn't a playful move made with a grin on his face or during a light-hearted exchange between him and Brown. In fact, the veteran quarterback almost appeared to be doing it absent-mindedly with a deadpanned expression on his face, which leaves you wondering what was going through his head. It was something that you'd expect to see from a high school player, not a future Hall of Famer.
Honestly, can you imagine Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, or any number of other classy NFL quarterbacks doing something so silly?
Maybe he just wanted the game to be over and was disgusted that the Dolphins were still running plays. Or maybe he has a personal axe to grind with Ronnie Brown.
Or maybe he just needs to grow up and stop behaving like a spoiled, self-centered rich kid.
Point 3: The Colts have plenty of reasons to try to unload safety Bob Sanders, but it's not likely to happen until 2011.
The hard-hitting, yet freakishly fragile safety recently saw his season come to an abrupt end after just two game appearances. After bouncing back from offseason knee surgery, Sanders reportedly tore a biceps muscle and has been placed on the injured reserve list.
Sanders is a huge physical presence packed in a small body.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Thanks to a renegotiated contract he signed back in February, Sanders is hitting the Colts cap for $6.1 million this season. That's roughly $2 million each for a pair of tackles and the one interception he logged before being sidelined once again by an injury.
While the tremendously talented defender has a heart of a lion when he's on the field that inspired his teammates, it's hard to imagine that Indy's front office hasn't recognized that his 5-foot-8, 206-pound frame just doesn't hold up when put under the duress of his all-out style of play.
Over six seasons, Sanders has appeared in just 47 regular-season games, including 45 starts. That's an average of just under eight games per season. In four of those six seasons he's played in six games or less, and he's never appeared in all 16 contests in a single year. His injury history, in addition to his current biceps tear, includes knee, foot, shoulder and ribs problems.
But here's the other fact that the Colts can't continue to ignore — no matter how enamored they are with Sanders as a player and a person. While he's only been able to play in eight contests since the start of the 2008 season, the Colts have posted a 20-4 record, including an 8-0 run this year. Fortunately for Indy, safeties Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt have played at a high level — especially Bethea, who's numbers match up well to Sanders' contributions on a per-game basis since signing with the team back in 2006. And when you consider that Bethea is a former sixth-round pick and Bullitt was an undrafted free agent who are both earning bargain-basement salaries, it's hard to justify Sanders' drain on the Colts' salary cap.
But Sanders' contract for 2010 will likely lock the Colts into holding onto him for one more season. According to a league source, he still has $5.7 million in deferred bonus money pending versus a scheduled cap hit of $7 million in 2010. While it may seem to be more economical for the Colts to cut him loose so they could save $1.3 million, for that small of a differential it's likely that they would take the risk that he might stay healthy next year, boosting his trade value.
Additionally, Sanders also has a $5 million deferred roster bonus that is due to be paid out next March that appears to be guaranteed money, according to the same source. If it is guaranteed, the Colts are really stuck until 2011 when they could gain $4.4 million in cap space by releasing him if they can't find a trading partner.
Point 4: Three undrafted receivers are on pace for 1,000-yard seasons.
While teams scramble each year for top receiver talent through the NFL Draft process, clubs also find overlooked talent in the undrafted pool of players. Sometimes these players take a few years to move up the depth chart, while others are cut by the team that initially signed them, excelling at a later date with a new club and coaching staff.
Chargers tight end Antonio Gates already has 590 receiving yards after eight games.
Nick Laham/Getty Images
Austin, a fourth-year receiver out of Monmouth, has appeared in 45 games for Dallas since his rookie season, but logged his first three NFL starts this year. He's become the big-play receiver that Dallas has lacked, averaging 22.7 yards per catch this season. Quarterback Tony Romo has targeted him 46 times and Austin has responded with 27 catches for 612 yards and seven touchdowns. And 81.5 percent of his catches have moved the chains for Dallas.
Meanwhile, Gates is off to another strong start in his seventh season with the Chargers, catching 42 of the 64 passes thrown in his direction. The veteran tight end has rolled for 590 yards while averaging 14 yards per catch and scoring twice. He's averaging 73.8 receiving yards per game, has caught seven balls for gains of 25-plus yards, and 71.4 percent of his catches result in a first down.
Although Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker has only started in six games due to being hampered by an injury earlier this year, he's had 72 balls thrown to him and has grabbed 55 of them for 568 yards. The speedy slot receiver is averaging 10.3 yards per catch, earning a new set of downs for his team on 60 percent of his catches. While he's only caught two passes for 25-plus yards, Welker is averaging 94.7 yards per game and has scored four times.
Point 5: Some people think Vince Young has put it all together in Tennessee. He hasn't.
A couple of weeks ago, the media and the fans were buzzing about 49ers quarterback Alex Smith after an impressive stint in relief of Shaun Hill, nearly bringing San Francisco back from a large deficit against the Texans. Smith was handed the starter's role while optimism spun out of control that he had finally found his groove.
Since then, he's 1-2 as a starter, including a narrow 10-6 win on Thursday night over the Bears in which he passed for just 118 yards. He's thrown three touchdowns against five interceptions and has been sacked ten times.
It's likely that many of those same people who had high hopes for Alex Smith a few weeks ago are now wondering why he's not playing like he did against the Texans.
It's because Alex Smith is still Alex Smith — a quality, second-string quarterback.
The Titans are winning with Vince Young at quarterback, but will it last?
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
So now that the Titans are 2-0 with Vince Young as their starter, voices are being raised hailing his return, questioning why head coach Jeff Fisher didn't switch to Young before Tennessee had dug themselves deeply into an 0-6 hole.
The answer is simple. Vince Young is still Vince Young — an inconsistent performer who is at best a second-string quarterback in this league.
While some are blinded by the euphoria that winning brings after a six-game losing skid, here are some facts from Young's performance over the past two weeks. He's completed 73 percent of his throws, but has only moved the ball through the air an average of 149 yards per game and thrown one touchdown pass. He's run the ball 17 times for an average of 2.6 yards per rush, scoring once.
Pretty mediocre stuff, to put it nicely.
And to reinforce the fact that he hasn't shaken his inconsistency at the position, check out these stats. Young's completing nearly 77 percent of his throws in the first half versus just 44 percent in the last 30 minutes. When the team has a lead, he's completing nearly 85 percent of his throws, but just 38.5 percent when they trail in a game. Worse yet, he's completing just 45.5 percent of his third-down passes.
Those trends don't bode well for the Titans as they show that Young is at his worst when the leader of the offense is needed the most.
The Titans' victories have come at the expense of two very inconsistent teams — the Jaguars and the 49ers — who have a combined record of 7-9. Tennessee takes on the Bills this weekend and could nab a third victory in that game. But then they face Houston, Arizona and Indianapolis on consecutive weekends — which will likely be the stretch where the wheels will more visibly fall off of Young's current bandwagon.
Point 6: I was wrong about Bengals RB Cedric Benson.
Prior to the start of the season, I saw plenty of reasons for the Bengals to be optimistic about their chances of returning to the playoff picture. But the big question mark I called out was their rushing attack, spearheaded by fifth-year back Cedric Benson.
It just didn't make sense to me that they were entrusting him to provide a much-needed balance in the running game to help take full advantage of their passing attack.
After four seasons in the NFL, the former first-round pick by the Bears still hadn't made his mark and appeared to be on a slide after consecutive seasons where he averaged roughly 3.5 yards per carry. But this year, in his second season in Cincinnati, Benson has rolled up 837 yards in eight starts, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. His six touchdown runs during the first half of the season ties his career season- best mark that he set during 15 games for the Bears. Benson has notched four 100-yard games this year, including a 189-yard performance against his former employer's team back on October 25. He's shown an explosive burst through the hole with 22 runs of 10-plus yards. And he's only fumbled once during his 198 carries.
Benson looks like he's finally applied himself fully to his trade, and the results are speaking volumes about his ability to be a starter in this league. If he can stay focused and avoid the lapses in work ethic that sometimes accompany success, Benson will help make Cincinnati a team that other AFC clubs won't want to face when the playoffs kick in.
Point 7: On third down, nobody blitzes more than the New York Jets.
Out of 82 third-down pass plays that they've defended this year, the Jets have blitzed 63 times for a league-high 76.8 percent. That pressure has yielded five sacks, resulting in a 7.9- percent sack rate.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are second in blitz frequency on third down at 67.4 percent, tallying a sack on 6.5 percent of those plays. And although the Philadelphia Eagles are third at 55.2 percent, their efforts have resulted in the best success rate of the three teams at 12.5 percent.
In terms of total sacks logged on third down, the Arizona Cardinals lead the league with seven, followed by Philadelphia's six. But in terms of percentage of success, the Oakland Raiders are the NFL's best with a 17.2-percent success ratio, logging five sacks on 29 attempts during their 75 third-down pass plays — which leaves you wondering why the Raiders don't blitz more frequently on third down.
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