What we learned from reading this week's mailbag was pretty simple: Three games is enough time for panic and despondency to set in. Consider the New York Giants, who, at 0-3, already have sent at least a few fans peering into the abyss. Like Closet Righty here:
Remain calm, everybody, at least for one more week. Coaches like to divide the season into quarters, and they haven't even gotten through the first one yet. With that in mind, let's proceed with more questions.
I really don't think this is a problem with either the locker room or with Tom Coughlin. I think this is a problem with talent.
The offensive line has gotten old and injured, and the domino effect is obvious. The Giants can't run the ball, so Eli Manning is dropping back more than ever, and certainly more than the Giants' ideal formula for winning would suggest. And the struggling O-line also can't pass protect, so Manning is frequently under duress. You know the rest: interceptions, which lead to the need to pass even more, which leads to more bad plays and ... blech.
Making matters worse, the defense isn't sacking the opposing quarterback, the linebackers were a guessing game from Day 1 and the secondary looks like a sieve.
I know we all like it when players look angry as things fall apart around them because we think that means they care. The Giants care, but they seem bewildered by how wrong everything has gone at once. The risk is that this does become a psychological problem -- that as soon as one thing goes wrong in the next game, players will think, 'Here we go again,' and the floodgates will open.
It is not reassuring that left tackle Will Beatty admitted he became fixated on the first sack he gave up to the Carolina Panthers and couldn't get past it. You have to wonder if those kinds of issues become more common if this slide snowballs.
I'm not sure if it's better or worse that I don't think team chemistry is at the root of the Giants' stumble. Chemistry is tricky, but finding better players at this point in the season is impossible. With the Kansas City Chiefs' very impressive defense up next, the Giants might have the opportunity to ponder that question.
The flipside of despair is overzealous optimism, so let's take a crack at knocking some of that off. I don't think any of them will crash completely, but there are a few that I think will come back to Earth.
The New York Jets are 2-1 -- surprising just about everybody -- but their two wins have come against similarly shaky teams (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills) and by the skin of their teeth. They have faced just one top-level team, the New England Patriots, and they lost to them despite Tom Brady having one of the worst games of his career. Unless they clean up their mistakes -- penalties, turnovers, etc. -- it is hard to imagine the Jets consistently winning against better teams. Plus, they now face back-to-back road games against the Tennessee Titans and Atlanta Falcons. That's not easy.
The Miami Dolphins are 3-0, including two very impressive wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons. But while the 'Fins look like they could challenge the Patriots right now, things might look very different by the time Halloween is over, given this tough stretch on the horizon: at New Orleans, home against Baltimore, then a few weeks later, at New England and home versus Cincinnati back to back. That span of games will determine Miami's season, as the schedule eases up in the second half.
I would put the Dallas Cowboys (2-1) in this group, too, just because I don't know if they are as good as they looked against the St. Louis Rams last week. Yes, they have the advantage of six games against the rest of the NFC East, which should help them fatten their record and win the division. I still have my doubts about that, though. Road games against Detroit and New Orleans, as well as a homer versus Green Bay, should give us a better read on how the 'Boys really stack up.
And now we're back to optimism again. I have two answers, but I'm not tremendously confident in either one.
The first is the Pittsburgh Steelers, because their defense is still good, if not as dominant as it was before. Ben Roethlisberger is still good (he's completing 60.4 percent of his passes, a higher mark than I expected to find when I went to look it up), the turnovers will level off, and maybe the Steelers will start to get their non-existent running game going with Le'Veon Bell's return (although the injury-depleted offensive line is going to be a problem for the season). But it's all relative -- turning things around could mean 8-8 at best. The Cincinnati Bengals appear to be so much better right now in the AFC North. And with the Baltimore Ravens coming on after that impressive thumping of the Houston Texans, it's hard to imagine the Steelers making the playoffs, especially considering four of their next five games are on the road. Of course, a .500 record is not something that will thrill a franchise that is used to playoff participation.
The second is the Washington Redskins, and this is a reflection of the weak division they play in, not any belief that Mike Shanahan's team is very good. Robert Griffin III certainly will get better -- I try to keep reminding myself that he is still, essentially, in training camp right now. He will start to run with more confidence, which will allow Washington to run more read option. That doesn't solve the rather humongous issue of their horrible defense, but again, I'm counting on the NFC East being so weak that every team will be able to hang in for a while.
Basically, this boils down to one question: Are you convinced the Cowboys are so good that the division is out of reach? As I alluded above, I'm not -- not yet, at least. So that gives Washington at least a theoretical chance of hanging around long enough for RGIII to get back to his old self.
No! You want to give up on a first overall draft pick after just three games this year with decent receivers? You can't expect Tavon Austin, a rookie, to make that kind of immediate impact.
If you're basing your concern off the Dallas debacle, well, it was a debacle for the entire St. Louis Rams team. I know the offense was miserable, especially on third down, but you can't pin the entire dumpster fire on Bradford any more than you can on, say, special teams.
I still think Bradford has what it takes, but we have to give the offense more time to develop now that the quarterback has some weapons around him. And think of how much better you'll feel if the Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers at home on "Thursday Night Football."
Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy both were frustrated, and they both are under pressure; I would be stunned if it goes any further than that. Think of all those great NFL Films clips of Bill Parcells and Phil Simms yelling at each other. It all worked out fine.