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Giants' Smith among the new breed of NFL playmakers

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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The New York Giants are 4-0 for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that they don't miss Plaxico Burress.

And the reason they don't miss Burress is that they have another wide receiver, Steve Smith, providing the same lofty production that Burress did before putting an abrupt end to his Giants career last November when a self-inflicted gunshot wound led to a two-year prison sentence on a weapons charge.

Smith has been the Giants' most consistent playmaker. His 34 receptions are the most through the first four games by any player in the franchise's long and rich history. He's proving to be a smart, reliable target for Eli Manning by running precise routes and making the proper adjustments when necessary, as he did Sunday when he caught 11 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns in the Giants' 27-16 win at Kansas City.

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At one time, the only Steve Smith in the NFL who put up those sorts of receiving numbers played for the Carolina Panthers. But the Giants' Steve Smith is having a far better year, and his performance is indicative of a new breed of stars taking over for the ones that have faded or disappeared within the last few years.

For instance, consider what has happened to the top receivers from 2006. Marvin Harrison, who ranked third in the NFL that year with 95 catches for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Indianapolis Colts, doesn't have a team and is probably headed for retirement. The Colts determined he no longer could help them after injuries limited his effectiveness in '08, and he has drawn zero attention on the open market. Two other top 10 receivers from that season -- Torry Holt (93 catches for 1,188 yards and 10 scores for St. Louis) and Terrell Owens (85 receptions for 1,180 yards and 13 touchdowns for Dallas) -- are virtual non-entities in Jacksonville and Buffalo, respectively.

Two of the league's upper-echelon rushers from that year -- San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns) and Kansas City's Larry Johnson (1,789 yards and 17 touchdowns) -- are with the same teams, but also on the decline. Ditto for Pittsburgh's Willie Parker (1,494 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook (1,217 yard and seven scores). Travis Henry, who had 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns for Tennessee, had a stint with Denver before winding up in prison.

Of the top passers from '06, St. Louis' Marc Bulger (4,301 yards and 24 touchdowns) is fast becoming an afterthought, and Detroit's Jon Kitna (4,208 yards and 21 touchdowns) is backing up Tony Romo in Dallas.

Some teams have done well -- or at least appear to be on the right track -- in finding replacements.

The Colts, for instance, are still every bit as effective through the air with Peyton Manning throwing to Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez, second-year man Pierre Garcon, and rookie Austin Collie. The Chargers have put more of their running game in the hands of speedy Darren Sproles. The Steelers have found a more powerful alternative to Parker in Rashard Mendenhall, while the Eagles have an explosive rookie to turn to in LeSean McCoy.

Other clubs haven't been so fortunate. The Seattle Seahawks continue to search for a way to plug the hole left behind by Shaun Alexander, the NFL's 2005 Most Valuable Player who has not had a team since a brief stint with the Washington Redskins in 2008.

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Observation points

» Never again am I going to utter this phrase: Brett Favre should have stayed retired. Nor will I ever again say the Vikings didn't need him this year to be a contender because they already had the necessary ingredients with their defense and Adrian Peterson, and only needed a good "manager" at quarterback. That wasn't a manager who made his former team look silly for saying goodbye to him. That was someone with incredible talent and a body that can't be slowed by the fact that it turns 40 years old on Saturday and needed surgical repair in the offseason. That was a magician who can scan the field with laser-like vision and -- with a healthy right arm/shoulder -- can throw with tremendous velocity, touch, and accuracy. That was the leader who, as he has on so many occasions, took over when the running game wasn't doing the job.

» By the way, Aaron Rodgers is still a tremendous quarterback and the Packers have no reason to regret that he is their starter. Could the Packers have hung onto Favre and still won? Probably. However, given how poorly Green Bay's offensive line protects the passer, you wonder if he'd have the same kind of success he enjoyed behind the air-tight protection he received Monday night. The fact Rodgers is younger presumably allows him to better withstand the pounding he took from the Vikings. Of course, I have a hard time doubting Favre's ability to do anything on the football field, regardless of his supporting cast.

» I don't know whether the Dallas Cowboys are as bad as they looked in losing at Denver or the Broncos are as good as they seemed in victory. It's hard not to have respect for the Broncos' 4-0 start and especially for their smothering defense. Still, it's also hard not to wonder why the Cowboys look so sloppy. They're called for too many penalties. They make too many mistakes in general. One question that begs to be answered: Why was offensive coordinator Jason Garrett so determined to attack the Broncos through the air? Why not lean more heavily on the NFL's top-ranked running game? You begin ask whether it is wise to put so much trust in Tony Romo, who doesn't always seem that comfortable running a wide-open game plan.

» It would be wrong to look at the final stats and assume the Miami Dolphins were afraid to let Chad Henne do anything with his passing arm in his first NFL start Sunday. Sure, the Dolphins ran 45 times for 250 yards in their 38-10 pounding of the Buffalo Bills. However, coach Tony Sparano did not have his dynamic backfield duo of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams take control of the game from the start. He and offensive coordinator Dan Henning made a point of having Henne come out throwing. That was designed to help build the confidence of the second-year quarterback, as well as trust among his teammates who, before Chad Pennington's season-ending shoulder injury last week, had only worked with the highly efficient veteran behind center. Another reason for letting Henne come out throwing: Even though he took them nowhere in his first two drives, the Bills were forced to respect the passing threat and were sufficiently softened for a Brown-Willams beatdown.

They've got answers ...

» The Pittsburgh Steelers, because when they needed a powerful running game to close out their Sunday night victory against the San Diego Chargers, Rashard Mendenhall was able to provide it. After getting in trouble for being admittedly ill-prepared for practice before a loss to Cincinnati, he ran like a man on a mission to convince coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians that he could be trusted to carry a significant share of the load. Mission accomplished.

» The Chicago Bears, because in addition to Jay Cutler's passing prowess, they rediscovered something that was supposed to be a given -- a strong running game. Matt Forte, who had been mostly invisible since his standout rookie year in 2008, ran for a season-best 121 yards on 12 carries to help the Bears beat the Detroit Lions. After averaging a mere 2.5 yards per carry in the first three games, he wound up with a 10.1-yards-per-carry average against the Lions, thanks largely to a career-long run of 61 yards and a 37-yard touchdown dash. One more for the Bears: Even with Devin Hester injured, they have speed to spare in the return game -- as well as at wide receiver -- with rookie Johnny Knox.

» The Jacksonville Jaguars, because despite missing rookie starting offensive tackles Eugene Monroe (flu) and Eben Britton (knee injury), they still managed to produce 442 yards of offense, their highest total in two years. David Garrard threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns. Yes, the Titans' secondary was depleted by injuries, but that doesn't diminish the Jaguars' accomplishment, especially when they heard from so many fans and media types that their season was already over.

They've got questions ...

» The Kansas City Chiefs, because with former Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley as their coach and Patriots 2008 backup-turned-successful-starter Matt Cassel as their quarterback, they shouldn't look as horrendous as they do on offense. As Cassel told reporters after Sunday's loss to the Giants, "I don't know what you'd say we're hanging our hat on right now."

» The San Diego Chargers, because not only do they still have a gaping hole in the middle of their defense after losing nose tackle Jamal Williams to a season-ending injury, they also have no playmakers in their secondary.

» The New York Jets, because after going through the first three games of the season without any disastrous plays, rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez had four turnovers against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, including an interception that Darren Sharper returned for a touchdown. For three weeks, Sanchez was admired for his remarkable poise. Now, we're going to see how well he can bounce back from a game like that while also dealing with the prime-time spotlight in the Jets' Week 5 Monday Night Football game at Miami.

Four intriguing games for Week 5

» Cincinnati at Baltimore: Surprise, surprise. The Bengals are in the thick of the AFC North race. They've already stunned the Steelers. Now, we'll see how they're able to deal with a Ravens team seething from that loss to the Patriots.

» Atlanta at San Francisco: The Falcons have had two weeks to think about their eye-opening loss to the Patriots. Matt Ryan faces an enormous challenge trying to solve the 49ers' aggressive, physical defense, which is hard to run against. On the other hand, the 49ers figure they'll be able to have some success pounding the ball on the ground.

» New England at Denver: Another week, another game involving the Patriots to help determine who occupies the penthouse of the AFC. The Pats' offense is beginning to get its act together, but the Broncos' defense is capable of making it look as discombobulated as it often did in the first two weeks. At this point, it doesn't look as if the Pats have anyone who can cover Brandon Marshall.

» Indianapolis at Tennessee: If any team is capable of going on the road and delivering what would figure to be a knockout blow to the Titans' 0-4 season, it is the Colts. It would seem that the Titans have no prayer of stopping Peyton Manning and Co., but nothing motivates better than desperation.

Top five teams

1. N.Y. Giants: Eli Manning is downplaying his heel injury, but you can bet the Giants are a little nervous about it. With him, they're the NFL's best team; without him, well, they're not.
2. Indianapolis: The way the Colts' offense is rolling, the only thing that looks capable of stopping it is the NFL schedule, which gives this team a bye in Week 6.
3. New Orleans: After two weeks of appearing to be carried only by Drew Brees' golden passing arm, the Saints continue to prove they're a pretty balanced bunch.
4. New England: They've worked out some kinks and are mostly back to elite status, although their Week 5 encounter at Denver is another opportunity to reinforce that status.
5. Baltimore: How about a Ravens-Patriots rematch in the playoffs?

Top five offensive players

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis: Seattle coach Jim Mora put it best when he said his team "played greatness" Sunday.
2. Steve Smith, WR, N.Y. Giants: He's giving Peyton's younger brother the productive receiver he no longer was supposed to have when Burress left the roster.
3. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh: If you only focused on his passing skills, you'd have one of the very best quarterbacks and playmakers in the game. But no one is his equal when it comes to combining strength and the sheer will to make something happen even when it looks nearly impossible.
4. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota: Through the first three weeks of the season, he was mostly kept from doing a whole lot with his passing arm, except for that almost incomprehensible winning touchdown throw he made to beat San Francisco. Now, it's clear the Vikings are as dangerous through the air as they are on the ground.
5. Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego: He's capable of taking over a game at any time, as he proved in the late stages of the nearly miraculous comeback vs. the Steelers.

Top five defensive players

1. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco: There isn't a more dominant, game-changing defensive presence in the NFL, as his 2.5 sacks and interception return for a touchdown vs. St. Louis further verified.
2. Elvis Dumervil, LB, Denver: He has become a fierce pass-rushing force on what, surprisingly, has become as dominant a defense as there is in the league.
3. Darren Sharper, S, New Orleans: He has been a major factor in the Saints' perfect start, taking another interception back for a touchdown vs. the Jets.
4. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota: Brett Favre might have owned the night, but Allen was a pass-rushing beast vs. the Packers.
5. Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis: Apparently, he didn't get the message that he was supposed to miss two weeks with a quadriceps injury. Seattle's Seneca Wallace sure wishes he did.

Top five coaches

1. Tom Coughlin, N.Y. Giants: His club does what it's supposed to do versus the NFL's bottom-dwellers, and Week 5 presents yet another with Oakland.
2. Josh McDaniels, Denver: Who would have thought the offensive whiz kid would have such a strong defense ... and a 4-0 record?
3. Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis: So much for all of those concerns about a first-year coach being able to replace the legendary Tony Dungy.
4. Sean Payton, New Orleans: He recognizes what it will take for the Saints to have sustained success, and that's why, besides a prolific passing attack, his team plays strong defense (nice job hiring Gregg Williams to guide that side of the ball) and runs the ball well.
5. Mike Singletary, San Francisco: After a crushing loss to Minnesota, he promptly got the 49ers back on track to pummel the lowly Rams.

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