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Aaron Rodgers, Geno Smith put QB pictures in perspective

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Aaron Rodgers told everyone to R-E-L-A-X last week, and that turned out to be good advice. After all, even in the eternally unpredictable NFL -- the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals, once league laughingstocks, are now the only undefeated teams of 2014, for instance -- some things don't change all that much.

Every year, September is the month that fools us more than any other. Rarely do teams go wire to wire with their dominance, as the Seahawks and Broncos did last season. Much more common is the sort of stomach-churning unevenness we've already seen in 2014: how the Dolphins will look dominant in one game, disoriented the next, and then dominant again in London after an oddly tumultuous week; or how Kirk Cousins can spark and extinguish a quarterback controversy in Washington within the span of four days.

But while teams are still figuring out their identities early in the season, quarterback is the one spot at which snap judgments are unavoidable -- and, perhaps, the closest to reality.

Here are a few early conclusions about some of the NFL's most closely watched signal-callers:

They are who we thought they were

The good (Rodgers), the bad (Jay Cutler) and the ugly (sorry; that's you, Geno Smith). Packers fans can afford to take a deep breath and say "om," even though nobody seriously thought Rodgers was going off a cliff in the first place. Against the Bears on Sunday, Rodgers produced five touchdowns (including four touchdown passes) on seven drives, generated the second-best passer rating of his career and pulled a victorious Green Bay back from the brink with him, returning some normalcy to the NFC and to the natural order of quarterbacks.

Andrew Luck should have quieted doubters by now, too. After opening the season with two straight losses, the Colts are back to 2-2 because Luck has thrown eight touchdown passes in his past eight quarters. As for Philip Rivers, he doesn't really have doubters, mostly because he's been overlooked since last season. No drama, no problem; he just posted his third straight game with a completion percentage of 72 or better, and the Chargers are keeping pace with the Broncos.

The quarterback Rodgers defeated Sunday remains as much of a sure thing as Rodgers. Cutler is a beguiling talent, possessed of one of the game's great arms, a capacity for making big plays and an ability to beat just about any team -- except for the squad he has to beat the most. Cutler remains maddeningly erratic when he plays the Packers especially (Sunday's stat line of two touchdowns and two interceptions is Cutler boiled down to his essence), and until he can defeat Green Bay regularly, it will be hard to take the Bears seriously as championship contenders. In his lifetime, Cutler is 1-10 against Green Bay (including playoffs), with 13 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.

The opposite of R-E-L-A-X, though, is another five-letter word (P-A-N-I-C) that is now in play after Geno Smith unleashed a four-letter one at a fan, a sign of the Jets' growing frustration. Smith is responsible for seven turnovers (five picks and two fumbles lost) in four games this season, and after Sunday's loss to the Lions (which included five straight three-and-out drives), Smith shot back at a heckler as he left the field at MetLife Stadium. He apologized quickly, but the loss of composure, along with the play that led to it, speaks to a larger issue.

The Jets have something worse on their hands than a quarterback crisis. They have a non-quarterback crisis -- neither Smith nor Michael Vick is the answer to all their problems, a situation that is almost exactly the same as the one they created for themselves two years ago, when they brought Tim Tebow in to back up Mark Sanchez. They have a lightning-rod understudy they refuse to -- or feel they can't -- go to, even as the season devolves around them because of myriad deficiencies that undermine their quarterback.

The Jets have been steadfast about wanting to give Smith time to develop, and that is the smart play, if winning this year is not the point. On Sunday, Rex Ryan said it was a matter of when, not if, for Smith. But in the first month, Smith has not shown the improved command of the offense the team thought it had detected in training camp. The late-season surge of 2013 now seems like an aberration, not the norm the Jets were hoping it was.

Vick, of course, is also prone to turnovers -- and to injuries, to boot. But regardless, the Jets have dug themselves a deep hole. They're lacking talent on both sides of the ball after a curiously inactive free agency period. Their only win so far came against the worst team in the league. They have a coach with a short-term contract who is facing a fourth straight playoff-less year. And with the Chargers, Broncos and Patriots on tap for an upcoming 12-day span, they're staring 1-6 in the face.

There are no easy answers for the Jets, and time is against them. Ryan is eternally boosting his team, but just as the Packers could chill out because they know who they have at quarterback, the Jets might have to finally confront an uncomfortable possibility: Suppose they are seeing what they have right now, and it's just not very good.

Will the real quarterback please stand up?

Joe Philbin's odd handling of his quarterback situation last week managed one positive: It made Ryan Tannehill look very steady in comparison. But keep Sunday's trouncing of the Raiders in perspective. Oakland is the NFL's worst team, and Tannehill's early-season inaccuracy was cured only by an opponent who had appeared to give up.

After a Week 5 bye, the Dolphins will face the Packers, Bears, Chargers, Lions and Broncos, among others. Switching to backup Matt Moore would have been wildly premature last week. But if Tannehill doesn't perform better against the top-flight competition to come, Philbin's own uncertain future could impact his decisions regarding the starting quarterback.

Say this for Nick Foles: He is physically tough. The Eagles' signal-caller took his lumps in last week's victory over Washington and was running for his life again against San Francisco on Sunday. The problem for Philly: The 49ers' defense is much better than Washington's, and Foles couldn't overcome the considerable holes in his offensive line.

Chip Kelly noted that help is on the way for the battered line -- someone is probably going to throw a parade for Lane Johnson's return from a four-game suspension -- but the slow starts have caught up to the Eagles. And for that, Foles comes under the microscope. His completion percentage is at around 58 percent this season, and he has thrown six touchdowns against four interceptions. Is that a product of the offensive line's troubles and the complete absence of a running game, or is Foles reverting to the mean after a sterling 2013? A better read will come when he has better protection.

The kids are all right

There hasn't been much to be happy about in Oakland, Jacksonville or Minnesota this year. But the rookie quarterbacks for the Raiders, Jaguars and Vikings -- Derek Carr, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater, respectively -- have at least given those teams' future some sparkle, Carr's ankle and knee injuries from Sunday aside. The Raiders and Jags remain winless through four games, but casting their lots with Carr and Bortles was clearly the right decision for the long term. As for the young quarterbacks who actually won, Week 4 looked even brighter.

In his first career start, Bridgewater showed his oft-overlooked mobility, and he also opened up the Vikings' passing game in a rather shocking rout of the Falcons. With Adrian Peterson's future uncertain, Bridgewater is already the face of the team, and the offense's new identity. He suffered an ankle sprain, but the Vikings have the spotlight game on Thursday against Green Bay, and the bad times have suddenly turned pretty good for this group.

And in Pittsburgh, second-year pro Mike Glennon, who lost his starting job this offseason when the Buccaneers signed Josh McCown, probably regained it with a stunning come-from-behind victory over the Steelers. For all the tumult his tenure produced, former coach Greg Schiano left Tampa Bay with one parting gift: a young quarterback in Glennon who already had plenty of game experience and some promise.

One of the reasons Lovie Smith wanted McCown, whose finger injury might keep him out longer, is that he is an excellent teacher who willingly embraces that role. The Bucs did not plan on turning to Glennon this quickly, but during the offseason, they made it clear they thought he could be their quarterback of the future, with McCown helping to guide him. After seeing the spark Glennon brought to an offense that had not eclipsed 200 yards passing or 17 points in any of the Bucs' first three games, it seems the future with Glennon might be upon them.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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