The first quarter of the NFL season is over and blaming the lockout for a poor start doesn't really hold water. NFL teams had four preseason games and four regular season games to get things right. This week, a few players who got big contracts finally lived up to the money. A few pleasant surprise teams made some adjustments to improve. There is panic in one state where football is very important and winning is a way of life. We also saw two of the dumbest plays of the year, and two teams that should be considering a change.
Time for a change?
Cam Newton looks fantastic as the new leader of the Panthers. Andy Dalton led the Bengals to a win over the undefeated Buffalo Bills. Blaine Gabbert is starting to show some promise under center for the Jaguars, and I wonder if it's time for a few other teams to think about a change at quarterback. The Vikings are 0-4 and maybe it's time to see Christian Ponder. He can't do any worse record-wise, especially since the Vikings just lost to the previously winless Chiefs. Ponder needs to acquire experience sometime, and the division race is starting to get away from Minnesota with Green Bay and Detroit undefeated.
Meanwhile, I didn't think Tim Tebow was an option this season after visiting the Broncos this summer and seeing him really struggle in practice. But now I wonder if he should get some playing time. At the end of the third quarter of the Broncos' game Sunday against the Packers, the score was 42-17; it looked like the perfect time to send Tebow in for a quarter of work. Kyle Orton threw 10 passes in the fourth quarter, and it might have been interesting to see Tebow get those throws.
Panic in Pennsylvania?
There are mounting questions about the Eagles and Steelers. The Pennsylvania NFL teams lost this weekend with the Eagles now 1-3 and the Steelers 2-2. Both teams have issues keeping their quarterbacks upright because the offensive lines are shaky at best and this week was no exception. Both run defenses are porous. The Eagles are trying to play with inexperienced linebackers and gave up 164 yards on the ground while the experienced Steelers surrendered 180 yards on the ground.
Last year after the first four games, the Steelers run defense had defended 95 run plays, giving up 249 yards at 2.6 per rush. This year through four games, the same defense has defended 98 runs, giving up 478 yards at 4.8 per run. Teams are not afraid to run at the Steelers.
The Eagles spent a lot of money on the secondary but have given up 10 touchdown passes (tied for most in the NFL), which is the most alarming issue of all. Teams are not afraid to throw at the Eagles.
Finally, they deliver
In the Week 4 previews, I targeted three running backs who received big contract boosts this year and had not delivered a thing in the first three weeks. DeAngelo Williams (Carolina), Chris Johnson (Tennessee) and Frank Gore (San Francisco) came into the weekend with a combined 307 yards rushing at 2.3 yards a carry and one touchdown in nine games. It was starting to look like the contracts were a mistake, but things look a whole lot better now. The three combined for 48 carries, 310 yards at 6.4 yards per carry and a touchdown. All three men are legitimate 1,000-yard runners now that they are back on track.
Ironically, it was the Carolina-Chicago game last year that turned the Bears' offensive philosophy around when Mike Martz finally stopped attempting to throw the ball 70 percent of the time. Entering this weekend, Martz was back to the pass-happy ways that got him in trouble in early 2010, with a 28.5 percent to 71.5 percent run-pass ratio. Whether or not Lovie Smith ordered a more balanced offense, it happened -- and I wonder where the Bears would be if they were balanced all season. Chicago ran the ball 51 percent of the time for 224 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-29 win over Carolina. They came into the game with 161 yards and zero touchdowns on the ground in three games. Beyond the terrific run production, Jay Cutler was only sacked once after 14 sacks in the first three games. Trust me, the Bears' next opponent -- the Detroit Lions -- would much rather see a one-dimensional pass package from Chicago than a balanced offense.
Didn't think they'd be outrun
Mention the New England Patriots to any football fan and the conversation goes right to Tom Brady and the most prolific passing attack in the NFL. After four games, Brady is averaging 388 yards and three touchdown passes a game. Brady is on pace for 6,200 yards and 52 touchdowns. I know the Patriots really want to run the ball well, but I never thought they would outrush the Raiders this weekend. Teams playing the Raiders only averaged 21 run plays a game and passed it 48 times per game. Of course, when you think you have New England figured out they surprise you. The Pats (30 rushes for 183 yards and two TDs) outrushed the Raiders (27-160-1).
New England still has problems with its defense, but now that the offense is multidimensional they will be giving their opponents far more problems all season long.
Head-scratching plays, and one big regret
Every week, there are plays that make me wonder what a player was thinking. Here are Week 4's "head-scratchers":
Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones, on the last play of the game in a fourth-and-20 situation, steps out of bounds after a 7-yard catch. ... Eagles running back Ronnie Brown, on a second-quarter inside run play that was going nowhere, attempts to throw the ball, which turns into a fumble recovered by the 49ers. That play happened on the 49ers 1-yard line!
As for the one regret, that also came from the 49ers-Eagles game. David Akers was the Eagles kicker for 12 years and was released after the team drafted Alex Henery last spring. Henery missed two field goals Sunday from less than 40 yards, while Akers kicked the game-winning extra point for San Francisco. Henery is obviously much younger and should be a solid kicker for years, but Akers is 2-for-2 this year from 50-plus yards.