This NFL half-season is the Super Bowl gone topsy-turvy. It looks like a frolic for the Denver Broncos, 6-1, the only loss being on that most foreboding of fields, Seattle’s CityLink, which subsequently became strangely less foreboding. Since then, the Seahawks, the reigning kings of the sport, have established that they are just a shell of what they were a year ago.
They’re 4-3 after a late-game rally against so-so Carolina. The Seahawks won 14-9 on the road but benefited from an untimely and clumsy interception by Cam Newton, whose accuracy was sporadic. So was Russell Wilson’s, but fortunately for Seattle, Wilson ran better than he passed, and that could not be said of the ankle-stricken Newton.
As for the Broncos, they’ve come a long way since the Super Bowl in which they were outplayed from, literally, the first snap to the last,
Their general manager, John Elway the two-ring champion quarterback, upgraded his defense since the Seahawks picked it apart like clams on the Jersey Shore.
DeMarcus Ware, cast off by the Cowboys – who clearly miss him now – has brought a ferocious pass rush to the left end. It complements the one on the other side by Von Miller. And Elway added Pro Bowlers Aquib Talib and T.J. Ward to the secondary, which should allow them to defuse the bombs of Joe Flacco.
The Broncos have no running game, but that’s not important in today’s NFL, where it’s all about having an accurate quarterback who’s well protected. The team that has this, along with a defense that pressures the opposing quarterback, is almost impossible to beat. That team is Denver.
The Broncos easily withstood the challenge of the San Diego Chargers, whose quarterback, Philip Rivers, is very close to being Manning but doesn’t have the receivers or the defenders or even the blockers to support him the way Manning’s minions serve him.
After the Broncos’ 35-21 victory on one of those dread Thursday nights, the only thing Peyton had to complain about was the scoreboard operator, who sometimes incited the fans in Denver to make noise, as fans are wont to do, at times inconvenient for Prof. Manning. Such as when he was trying to yell his Omahas and such to his blockers and receivers.
“I’ve got a problem with the scoreboard operator,” Manning said in his postgame media conference. “I’ve got to have a little talk with him.”
Mike Kils of the Denver Post offered this: “Sometimes you wish Manning had a little more Aaron Rodgers in him and he would just learn to R-E-L-A-X.”
Then again, those of us who watched Rodgers in the New Orleans Superdome on Sunday wondered why he couldn’t follow his own advice. He looked far from relaxed, hampered by a tight hamstring and an O-line that couldn’t block Cameron Jordan. The Green Bay Packers, who had won four in a row without beating anybody good, were overwhelmed — 44-23 — by New Orleans, which up till then had been a disappointment, losing four of its first six games.
Venerable quarterback Drew Brees was no longer so venerated, at 34. Ron Jaworski, for one, suggested he was in decline, citing a string of errant throws and faulty decisions. But Brees has never been better than he was Sunday night, 27 of 32 for 311 yards, 3 TDs, no picks. You could say it had Jaws dropping.
So if you’re looking for the most disappointing team of the half season, it no longer can be New Orleans but might be the Chicago Bears,3-5 at the midpoint and no longer feeling secure about the future of sophomore – and sophomoric — head coach Marc Trestman and quarterback Jay Cutler.
Statistically, Cutler is playing above-average ball with a passer rating of 94.4. But anyone who viewed any part of the New England Patriots’ 51-23 destruction of the Bears would have to agree with the doubts expressed by ESPN’s Brian Urlacher, who started for them two years ago. You have to think he’s as wired into the Bears’ den as anyone.
Urlacher says forget the stats, Cutler doesn’t lead the team, doesn’t rally it, doesn’t move the ball against tough defenses. Appearing on WFWF-FM (87-7) in Chicago, he said: “If your quarterback can’t make plays in certain situations for you to win games, he’s not getting the job done.”
Urlacher resents Cutler being paid $22.5 million for the season – highest salary in the league. The implications go far beyond personal but into long-term business.
The Bears have mortgaged their future to a laconic airhead who had most of us fooled for several years. Because he came out of Vanderbilt, we assumed he had the brains to guide a team to postseason success, which after all, is what the whole thing is about.
Well, it’s overly clear by now that Cutler is not a franchise quarterback. Unfortunately the Bears are on the hook to him until 2018. The franchise looks moribund at least until then, no matter what brilliant strategy is devised by Trestman to comfort his quarterback.
Can you imagine what Andrew Luck or Tom Brady would do with receivers like Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett? And for that matter, a coach as committed to the passing game as Trestman?
As Urlacher put it: “You look at his contract, he was paid like an elite quarterback. . . . He just hasn’t produced like an elite quarterback.”
As bad as the Bears are – bad in the worst sense of the word – their futility is not attracting the attention it deserves, because there are so many other disappointments:
Being the defending champs, the Seahawks are easily the No. 1 tragedy drama so far. The dumping of Percy Harvin was horribly timed. Yes he creates more migraine headaches than he suffers himself, but defensive coordinators had to double-cover him because of his game-breaking speed. Did you notice how Jerome Kearse and Ricardo Lockette could not separate from the Panthers’ less than speedy corners?
Seattle’s offensive line never was all that good and is further weakened by injuries (Max Unger questionable).
The defensive line has not recovered from the off-season exits of Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Tony McDonald. Those three would not be called impact players, but when worked in rotation, they provided fresh jolts of energy, and Seattle’s defense accumulated 44 sacks last season. This half-season they have seven, while Wilson has been sacked twice as many times.
Sacks were the key to a stunning fall by the Dallas Cowboys – losers on Monday night to Washhington, 20-17 in overtime.
The Cowboys thought they were great guns because they thrashed Seattle at CityLink, and they had football’s greatest running game. Monday night’s game showed what a running game is really worth. DeMarco Murray did his usual: 19 carries, 141 yards, plus 4 catches for 80. It didn’t matter because Tony Romo was sacked five times. No running game can make up that sort of deficit.
Like Rodgers under the Dome, Romo was statistically sharp, but he couldn’t move the team because too often he was lying on his fragile back. As has happened in the past, Romo could not decipher Jim Haslett’s blitzing schemes even though his line won its matchups.
Everybody knows that Romo’s back is the Cowboys’ Achilles heel, and the visitors attacked the weakness, knocking the quarterback out midway through the third quarter. Romo came back after a cortisone injection , feeling better but not quicker, as the assault on his body continued. His future, both short term and long, is, alas, shaky.
Apart from Romo is a weakness Washington exposed: The Cowboys allowed too easy a ride for Colt McCoy. They couldn’t stop him when they needed to. They sacked him three times, but that was more than their usual rush: 10 sacks in eight games
Every team in the NFC seems fatally flawed, though the San Francisco 49ers would be the real deal if they could block for the pass (where have you gone, Joe Staley?) as well as they do for the good but outdated running game.
And if they clear the crime docket and get their best linebackers back, the popularity of the annoying, ill-clad, though thoroughly prepared head coach, Jim Harbaugh, will cease being an issue. We’ll accept him like we do Belichick, grudgingly as hell.
The other conference heavyweights — Seattle, Green Bay, New Orleans, Carolina – all look beatable on any given Sunday. Of non-given, for that matter. Dallas is a tease, and so is Indy, which fell 51-34 to another declining franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The one team in the AFC that seems capable of troubling the Broncos is New England, as long as monster tight end Rob Gronkowski continues the rampage he’s on now. Next Sunday is the game we’ve been waiting for: Denver at New England, Manning vs. Brady.
I look for Denver to prevail. Hey, it’s regular season and it’s not winter yet. Peyton is 38 and as good as he’s ever been. The Best Regular Season Quarterback Ever is sure to be his legacy, one he would never endorse. Even a second Super Bowl championship won’t change that sobriquet.
But as this season plays out, Manning, who has his own safety-stomping tight end in Julius Thomas, will keep his team scoring like no other. The scoreboard operator in Denver will continue to not have an easy job.