This is something of a relief: There were a lot more questions this week about the NFC North than the NFC East. Let's hear it for good teams.
Several of you -- like Eric Speck -- asked if Matt Cassel is the answer for the Minnesota Vikings. (You'll note every team that has an even marginally unsettled quarterback situation now will be asked if Josh Freeman is in play for them.)
We'll get to Freeman a little bit later. But first, the NFC North.
@judybattista How do you see the NFC North shaking out..Seems like Chicago, Detroit, GB are all solid teams.â Stephen Scaffidi (@OCMayorSteve) October 1, 2013
My knee-jerk reaction when I first read this question is that it has to be the Green Bay Packers, because they have the best quarterback. They have a perfect opportunity to get something of a do-over on the start of the season, as they come off their bye with a home game against Detroit this week. Beat the Lions in Lambeau, and everything will look much better.
The addition of Reggie Bush in Detroit has been stunning -- he would be a prime MVP candidate if Peyton Manning weren't currently playing on another planet. And Bush's presence has eased the pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford to do everything. Ndamukong Suh -- say what you want about him -- is playing like the dominant defensive force that he is, despite his baggage.
The Lions don't often beat the Bears, but they did last week. That was in large part because Jay Cutler, with four turnovers, looked like the old Jay Cutler instead of the new, Marc Trestman-enhanced version. The line couldn't protect him, and the Bears were just 1 of 13 on third down.
Ultimately, I give Detroit the edge over Chicago for a different reason: The Bears' defense has been getting gashed. It generates turnovers, but when those don't come, this unit is vulnerable. Chicago's D will be tested again this week by the New Orleans Saints' explosive offense, which boasts matchup nightmares that span the entire field in the bodies of Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham.
Still, there is no way you can eliminate the Packers from the conversation, even with their 1-2 start. In addition to the aforementioned game against the Lions and the fact that, yes, they do indeed have Aaron Rodgers (although the offensive line play has been a little shaky), this team has another positive coming out of the bye: The running attack might be getting on track. Eddie Lacy is set to return from a concussion, and Johnathan Franklin gained over 100 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals.
How does it all shake out? It's hard to dismiss any of these three teams from consideration for the division title. (Sorry, Vikings fans; whether or not Matt Cassel permanently replaces Christian Ponder probably doesn't matter.) If I had to choose right now, I'd say the Lions are the most balanced of the three; they are getting good play on both lines, they have an accurate quarterback, and they possess dynamic playmakers in Bush and Calvin Johnson. That gives them the edge. And if they lose to the Packers this week -- and if the Bears beat the Saints -- I'm probably going to change my mind.
There are not as many candidates as you'd think, for two reasons:
1) NFL coaches typically are not fired during the season, because it's just so short. There is very little time for a turnaround, unlike in baseball, where the calendar can accommodate a midseason manager change.
2) Quite a few of the teams that have gotten off to disastrous starts this year are not going to fire their coaches in the middle of the season, if ever. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin, New York Giants' Tom Coughlin and Jacksonville Jaguars' Gus Bradley -- not going anywhere. Bradley was just hired by an owner who understands the challenges his new coach faces, while Tomlin and Coughlin are Super Bowl champions who work for two of the most stable, big-picture-thinking franchises in football.
That leaves two candidates, and they are candidates in part because of their unpredictable owners: The Oakland Raiders' Dennis Allen, because there is no way to tell what Mark Davis will do; and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Greg Schiano, who has managed to enmesh himself and his team in one controversy after another this season, while also going 0-4.
First, Allen. Everybody knows about the mess general manager Reggie McKenzie and Allen inherited, with a team devoid of much talent or the draft picks to help revive it. Everybody knows it's going to take time -- a lot of it -- to straighten this out. But, well, Davis fired a public relations executive reportedly because he blamed the executive for a Sports Illustrated story that Davis didn't like. That probably doesn't make McKenzie or Allen feel too secure.
As for Schiano ... Considering the Bucs' collapse at the end of last season and their awful start, you'd think the coach would be feeling a warm seat anyway. But don't forget the stories about MRSA and Darrelle Revis' unhappiness with how he's being used, and now the entire Josh Freeman dumpster fire. You have to wonder how solid Schiano's hold on the team is. The Freeman situation is particularly troubling because there has been no shortage of leaks casting the quarterback in a less-than-flattering light -- from one report that he missed the team photo to another that he is in Stage 1 of the league's drug program -- all while the Bucs are shopping him around after benching him.
If nothing else, this series of events is embarrassing for the franchise -- or at least it should be -- and you have to think someone will take the fall for it. Can Schiano survive a three- or four-win campaign? The perception before the season was that it would take something that bad to get Tampa Bay's owners to think about firing Schiano -- and that was before all of the off-the-field issues developed. For now, Schiano still seems to enjoy the support of the Glazers, but you have to wonder how long that lasts if the record keeps spiraling and the headlines keep embarrassing.
A fair question, although you have to chalk up some of their current woes to injury. The Steelers lost center Maurkice Pouncey -- who, other than Ben Roethlisberger, is their best offensive player -- on the first series of the season. The Giants have suffered a rash of injuries all across the line. Not having quality depth on the offensive line clearly is an issue for both teams -- one that the front offices will be criticized for (and rightfully so). But let's be honest: There is a lot of sub-standard O-line play in the NFL right now (see: the Miami Dolphins on Monday night). So it's probably unrealistic to expect a team like the Giants, which has so many holes to fill, to have a deep bench of backups.
Both franchises certainly knew their respective lines were a concern going into the season. The Giants spent April's first-round draft pick on Justin Pugh, and the Steelers have used two first-round picks and two second-round selections on offensive linemen since 2010.
Obviously, the returns on those investments are not yet appropriate for the Steelers. Left tackle Mike Adams has been woeful so far, though coaches rarely gave him blocking help in last week's loss to the Vikings. The Steelers also have a new position coach (Jack Bicknell Jr.). And it didn't help that tight end Heath Miller, a terrific blocker, was hurt to start the season.
The short answer is that you can't point to one reason to explain why both lines have deteriorated. Various injuries, talent that did not pan out as anticipated -- it's all part of the problem.
First, no, I don't think the Jets would go after Freeman under any circumstances. Given the poisoned relationship between Freeman and the Bucs, I don't know any team out there will give up anything to get him, because it seems obvious Tampa Bay will have to release him if it can't trade him. Remember, Freeman is under contract only until the end of the season, and he is expensive. So any team looking to acquire him now would be doing so either because it is desperate for a short-term solution or because it wants to sign him to an extension. I just don't see many teams being in that position. The Jets don't need a short-term solution; they need to figure out if Geno Smith is their man for the future.
Smith has been exactly what you would expect a rookie quarterback to be when he is thrown into games probably before he is ready: maddeningly inconsistent and mistake-prone while showing flashes of the talent and resilience you want in your starter. Smith definitely has the arm to be their long-term answer. He also has shown an admirable ability to let mistakes roll off him; he can get right back into the flow of the game without becoming gun-shy. Speaking of those mistakes, though: yikes. They have to stop, obviously, but the Jets' offensive coaching staff also probably needs to adjust its play-calling to acknowledge the reality that their quarterback is not always seeing the field clearly and should not be put into disadvantageous positions.
It's not going to get any easier, considering receivers Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill are hurt (Holmes could be out several weeks with a hamstring injury, local reports indicate). I agree with the decision not to bench Smith, though. This is what rookies do. The Jets have to roll with it to figure out if they should take another quarterback next year. Plus, with Mark Sanchez now out for the season, the Jets do not have a better option to turn to.
Expert detailed analysis: They look awesome.
New Orleans is the team that seems to have the best chance to insert itself into the Seattle Seahawks' race for NFC supremacy. Rob Ryan impressively has turned around last year's horrific defense, and Sean Payton is -- well -- Sean Payton. Did you wonder how much this team missed him during last season's suspension? Look no further than Monday night, when his aggressive, creative play-calling and use of offensive personnel was on full display. He and Drew Brees have that whole mind-meld thing going, and Payton never takes his foot off the gas. The Dolphins are a good team with some weaknesses -- like most good teams. The Saints went right at those weaknesses. And then they did it again and again. That is the mark of good coaching and great game management.
Oh, this is depressing. I'm going to have to say the Jaguars (and I'm sorry to good friends of mine who live in the Jacksonville area and are fans of the team). They have absolutely no offensive output. They are at historic lows already, and are so bad that you have to honestly ask if adding Tim Tebow could improve things -- the Jaguars are the only NFL team for whom that is even remotely possible. Just four teams in NFL history have had less offensive production than the Jaguars have experienced in the first four games, and given their dire quarterback situation and general lack of playmakers, there is no reason to think things can improve.
That's why I'd give the Raiders the edge to stay out of the cellar. I'm not sure they wouldn't have beaten the Washington Redskins last week had Terrelle Pryor been able to play. Matt Flynn was not good -- Coach Allen was strikingly blunt about that -- and Pryor has shown an ability to inject energy into the offense (and even some surprising accuracy). That is more than the Jaguars have right now.