Friday, October 19, 2012

Random Mid-October NFL Thoughts

By Charlie Scaturro

Work is busy and time is at a premium, but here are a few random mid-October NFL thoughts I've had on my mind recently.

Source: Brian Bahr/Getty Images North America
Did the Giants really discover the “blueprint” to beat the 49ers?

After the Giants resounding 26-3 victory over the 49ers in Week 6, many people started asking whether Tom Coughlin and the rest of his coaching staff had crafted the “blueprint” for beating a San Francisco team that looked as formidable as anyone through the first few weeks of the 2012 season.

During their impressive win, there’s no doubt that the Giants did things to the 49ers that many teams would like to do; they ran the ball effectively, forced Alex Smith to lead San Francisco from behind, and they prevented a fearsome 49ers front seven from wreaking havoc. But the thing that always gets me about these so-called “blueprints” is that any coach not named Norv Turner already knows how you want to attack the opposing team, it’s a matter of executing such a plan.

Clearly, you’d like to get out to a nice lead against a team like the 49ers and force Alex Smith to have to pass them back into the game, while Frank Gore gets all of eight carries. Clearly, you’d like to get your ground game rolling against the 49ers usually stout front seven so your defense can stay off the field and you can control the clock. Clearly, you’d like to prevent Justin Smith and Aldon Smith from repeatedly slamming your multi-million dollar quarterback to the turf, while your defense piles up six sacks and nine quarterback hits. All of these things are what every team wants to do to their opponent every week of the season.

Did the Giants formulate a blueprint that all other teams can copy going forward? No, they simply executed a plan that most teams knew was there all along but didn’t have much luck executing themselves.

That being said, this is still the same old Giants team of the last decade or so

Between everyone condemning Alex Smith’s lackluster day and buzzing about Colin Kaepernick possibly taking over as the 49ers starter (which actually might happen at some point), the Giants suddenly jumped back into the conversation of “best team in the NFL.” And it’s pretty easy to see why.

When you go to San Francisco and beat the 49ers the way the Giants did, it’s hard not to get excited about a team that has time and again shown that they’re capable of playing with, and beating any team in the NFL. But if I know one thing about the Giants from watching pretty much every game they’ve played in recent memory, it’s that you can’t get too high or low on this team based off one game. As we’ve all seen with the Giants, this team is truly the NFL’s version of Jekyll and Hyde. One week they’re falling behind 14-0 to the Browns at home and looking completely lifeless in the process, and the next week they’re bullying the 49ers on the road and looking like a team that has a serious chance to repeat as Super Bowl champs (so much for getting too high or low on this team based off one game).

Their first quarter effort against the Browns just reinforces the idea that you can’t expect the Giants to be consistent for a full game let alone a full season. Playing consistently well for a full season is a tall order for any NFL team, but it’s not uncommon to see the Giants look disinterested and downright terrible for random stretches of a game or even a few games, only to watch them flip the switch and reel off four straight impressive victories in a row.

So which team will we see this weekend against the Redskins? I have no idea, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost by 20 or won by 20.

I’m still not buying the Atlanta Falcons 

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images North America
Because we’re just six weeks into the football season and we’ve already seen every team besides Atlanta lose a game, you could certainly make the case that the Falcons are the NFL’s best team right now.

Sure, they’re the NFL’s only undefeated team at 6-0, and Matt Ryan’s numbers (and overall performance save for an inexplicable 3 interception half against the Raiders of all teams) place him amongst the NFL’s elite quarterbacks thus far. But let’s be honest, not only has Atlanta’s schedule been soft through the first six weeks, the Falcons haven’t exactly embarrassed the teams they’ve played either.

Here’s a quick breakdown of their first six games:

Defeated Kansas City 40-26: Knowing what we now do about the Chiefs, beating them in Arrowhead by 16 isn’t terribly impressive.

Defeated Denver 27-21: The Falcons dominated this game for the first three quarters, and rode a combination of Peyton Manning interceptions and a rabid home crowd to what looked like an insurmountable 27-7 lead midway through the 3rd quarter. But, much to the delight of Jon Gruden, the Falcons watched as Peyton Manning cut the lead to six late in the fourth quarter and the Falcons converted a crucial 3rd and 5 with 2:35 left in the game to put it on ice.

Defeated San Diego 27-3: Can’t take anything away from the Falcons here, they crushed the Chargers (whose fans are apparently being urged to “take a chill pill”) and made Philip Rivers look terrible.

Defeated Carolina 30-28: This was a close game throughout and one that saw the Falcons surrender nearly 200 rushing yards to Cam Newton and Co., while Atlanta needed two Matt Bryant field goals late in the fourth quarter (the second of which came with five seconds left on the clock) to best the 1-4 Panthers.

Defeated Washington 24-17: Another close game throughout that saw Kirk Cousins enter the game for the Redskins after RG3 got hurt and nearly pull off the upset

Defeated Oakland 23-20: The aforementioned three interception first half authored by Matt Ryan put the Falcons in an early hole against the Raiders, but lucky for Atlanta, Carson Palmer is still Oakland’s quarterback, and Matt Bryant continues to be one of the most clutch kickers in the NFL

Considering how lethal Roddy White, Julio Jones, and the ageless Tony Gonzalez are through the air, and how quickly this trio and Matt Ryan can move the ball down the field, there’s obviously a lot to like about the Falcons. The addition of Asante Samuel to their secondary has also improved Atlanta’s defense from where they were a season ago, and it’s hard to question that this team is in a better position to defend against the pass in 2012.

At the same time, it’s hard to have too much confidence in a team that needed a 55-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Raiders at home, and one that isn’t having much success running the ball or stopping the run at the moment (even if the NFL has become a passing league). I won’t even throw out the fact that we’ve seen the Falcons sputter in the playoffs in recent years, because their soft schedule and close calls have told me all I need to know about this team right now.

RG3 and Andrew Luck show the evolution of rookie QB’s in today’s NFL 

Source: J. Meric/Getty Images North America
It used to be that the adjustment period for rookie quarterbacks was painfully obvious. The terminology was tougher to get a handle on, the game moved so much faster than college, and defenses ratcheted up the pressure with the intention of putting inexperienced signal callers in tough spots. With all of these mechanisms working against them, you couldn’t reasonably expect much from starting rookie quarterbacks except for them to look lost and generally have their teams picking near the top of the draft.

This isn’t to say that rookie quarterbacks don’t still face a rough time getting their bearings if they happen to be in the fortunate position (or unfortunate depending on how you look at it) of starting right from day 1, but in the past few seasons we’ve seen teams and coaching staffs get creative with their rookie quarterbacks and give them a fighting chance against the uphill battle they're facing.

This means things like tailoring the offensive schemes to their quarterback’s specific talents, opening up the playbook and giving their young quarterback the ability to take chances and make mistakes without worrying about repercussions, and above all, making it abundantly clear that they’re the leader of the team. All of these changes in philosophy have helped rookie quarterbacks look less like rookies and more like guys who have been around the league for a handful of years.

Before I go any further, let’s be clear about the fact that RG3 and Andrew Luck could end up being the two most dominant quarterbacks in the NFL once they hit their prime, so maybe I’m a little off base with using them as examples of rookie quarterbacks who don’t exactly play like rookie quarterbacks, but we’ve even seen guys like Andy Dalton and Russell Wilson have varying degrees of success and look fairly competent and in control in the process.

Just a few years ago, there were very few Ben Roethlisberger’s (quarterbacks who started basically from day one and had success in the process) and a lot more Eli Manning’s (quarterbacks who didn’t start right away and looked like rookies when they did get on the field) when it came to the way teams handled their rookie quarterback. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that either RG3 or Andrew Luck are going to take their respective teams to the AFC or NFC Championship game as rookies, but it’s clear that being a rookie starting quarterback in the NFL doesn’t necessarily mean that your offense will be incapable of moving the ball and your team won’t be able to compete.

At 32-years-old it’s clear that Michael Vick isn’t ever going to “get it” but why can’t the Eagles get hot and win it all? 

Source: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
I won’t rehash the same old storyline about Michael Vick having one of the most unique and dangerous skill sets the NFL has ever seen, but it’s clear that he’s never going to reach his full potential and consistently become one of the most devastating players in league history. His career (and life) was certainly derailed by the time he spent in jail, but he’s now playing in his third full season as the Eagles starting quarterback, and he’s 32-years-old. There’s not much, if any, maturing he has left to do, and what Eagles fans are looking at is a player who still has incredible physical gifts, but one who continues to make too many game-changing mistakes.

Getting hit is certainly a fact of life for all NFL quarterbacks, but Vick’s style of play still exposes him to way too many unnecessary collisions, and it’s fair to question his decision-making. A quarterback who makes questionable decisions and has a hard time staying out of harm’s way might be the two worst traits you could imagine for a player who is so vitally important to the success of his team, but even for all his faults, Michael Vick can still make electrifying plays that win games.

After a disappointing overtime loss to the Lions, Philadelphia is currently sitting at 3-3 and although the firing of Juan Castillo and rumors of Vick being replaced by either Trent Edwards or Nick Foles are revealing a less than harmonious state of affairs, the Eagles have enough talent to be a scary team come playoff time. It’s tough to say which direction this team goes in during the next few weeks, but when you have this many playmakers on both sides of the ball, you always have the capability to get hot and do some serious damage.

This defense has improved from last season, LeSean McCoy is still one of the best running backs in the NFL, and when Michael Vick isn’t turning the ball over, he’s capable of doing things that few players in the NFL can do. It’ certainly doesn’t seem like it will be smooth sailing for Vick or the Eagles during the coming weeks and months, but if this team can secure a playoff berth and Vick gets hot at the right time, what’s stopping the Eagles from doing something similar to what the Packers and Giants have done in the past few seasons?

Philip Rivers is basically useless when he’s forced out of the pocket

When you watch Philip Rivers try to throw the ball under pressure or on the move, it’s hard to believe that he continues to have as much success as he does. This isn’t to say that Rivers is having a career year or that he’s played great thus far in 2012, but that’s how bad he is when he’s forced to throw outside the pocket. I honestly can’t remember if he was any better under pressure when he was younger, but watching him against the Broncos this past Sunday night, and over the last year or so, I’ve been astounded at how poorly he throws the ball when he isn’t able to set himself in the pocket and stay in some kind of rhythm.

Of course, Rivers has never been a threat to run the ball, and the fact that he’s racked up just 307 rushing yards in 106 career games makes that abundantly clear, but I’ve been consistently amazed during the past year at how good he can be when he doesn’t have to maneuver in the pocket (or leave the pocket entirely), and how bad he can be when he has to move his feet to avoid the oncoming rush.

You could certainly say this for a number of quarterbacks in the NFL, and on the surface the idea that quarterbacks under pressure who are forced to maneuver inside the pocket or leave it completely don’t throw the ball as well is far from rocket science.

At the same time, I doubt there’s any quarterback in the NFL who is less effective on the move than Rivers. Even a guy like Peyton Manning, who was never known for his ability to move particularly well, is still able to avoid the rush at age 36 (not to mention a couple of neck surgeries) and be somewhat effective under pressure. Maybe Rivers' poor performance under pressure and outside the pocket has nothing to do with his relatively disappointing 2011 season and average start to this year (by the lofty standards we’ve come to expect from him), but maybe there’s a correlation between the two.

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