I love Halloween. When I was a kid, I loved to hit the houses that passed out the big candy bars -- at least twice. Why waste time on getting the small bars? Find the homes with the extra-large candy and things were good. No fruit for this fat treater.
So here's my NFL version of Halloween. I'll pass out the big bars to the players and teams who have treated us thus far, while the ones who have tricked us get nothing. Let's go trick-or-treating:
» 49ers LB Aldon Smith has been the best defensive rookie. Smith has Charles Haley-like qualities -- he can turn the edge, come off the block with a burst and has the strength to tackle a quarterback in the pocket. Ryan Kerrigan of the 'Skins has played well, as has Denver's Von Miller, but give Smith the edge for now.
» The best coach has been Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers. Taking a team that has struggled over the past few seasons and finding ways to win on the road has been really impressive. Harbaugh has brought toughness to the team and has managed the offense, allowing the 49ers to feature a great defense that can control the line of scrimmage. With road wins in Cincinnati, Detroit and Philadelphia already, Harbaugh has his team in prime position to win the NFC West. Chan Gailey deserves a candy bar for his work with the Bills, too. Gailey has built a system of offense that hides the sins of the Bills' talent base, but highlights the strengths of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
» The best comeback player has been Panthers WR Steve Smith. He has always been incredibly talented, but has suffered in Carolina without a legitimate quarterback. All that changed when Mr. Newton came to town. Smith runs his own style of routes -- I call them Steve Smith routes. They are not for everyone and they are tough to cover. When he gets the ball in his hands, he is explosive.
» The most disappointing teams, the winless trio of Indy, Miami and St. Louis, don't even deserve fruit at the door. Indy is a mess. Team President Bill Polian told SiriusXM NFL Radio recently, speaking about coach Jim Caldwell, "You can't hold him responsible for injuries. You can't hold him responsible for an unforeseen surgery [to Peyton Manning] that no one anticipated would happen. The things that he can control, I think he's done a terrific job of, given where we are from a standpoint of personnel." My response: If Caldwell is doing a great job, then how are things so bad in Indy?
Billick: 3 coaches in tough spots
» As for the Dolphins, how could anyone expect this year to go well? Once owner Stephen Ross stepped on his plane to recruit then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, the Dolphins' short-term future was in serious trouble. The offseason was a mess, including their failure to get a quarterback to at least compete with Chad Henne for the starting job and the decision to make Reggie Bush their featured back. It was not hard to predict things were not going to go well this season.
» The most disappointing player has to be Vikings QB Donovan McNabb. He has not been able to revive his career in Minnesota after a disastrous season in Washington and doesn't appear to be a viable starter in the NFL anymore. If he wants to continue to play, it might only be as a backup. McNabb denied my report last week, questioning his work habits, but I firmly stand behind what I wrote.
The list of tricks could be way longer, but since only seven games have been played, there is time for disappointing teams and players to turn things around. Now, let's turn our attention to Week 8.
The First 15
- Matthew Stafford has really struggled the past two games, both losing efforts. His struggles have occurred mostly on third down; in the past two games, the Lions are 3 for 27 on third down. In that stretch, Stafford also has been sacked eight times, is averaging 5.79 yards per attempt and his completion rate is right around 50 percent. These are not winning numbers. The Lions must get back to being more diversified in their attack and give Stafford more confidence in the pocket.
- The Ravens had a terrible offensive performance in Jacksonville last Monday night, but the good news is the Cardinals come to town on Sunday. The Ravens have major issues on offense. Two of the past three weeks, their offense has been dreadful to watch. Joe Flacco shoulders most of the blame, but the problems run deeper than just the quarterback. When Ray Rice does not carry the offense, or when offensive coordinator Cam Cameron decides not to use Rice, the Ravens are a bad offense that gets worse. After last season, Cameron was in meetings with coach John Harbaugh with orders to get the offense fixed. So far, Cameron's offense looks the same to me. I can call most every play before it happens, just like I did last year. These offensive problems only look better when the Ravens play teams with bad defenses -- like the Cards.
- Did anyone in the NFL listen to Cubs president Theo Epstein's introductory press conference? He talked about building an organization that has "sustained success," essentially borrowing many of the virtues of the Patriots. Epstein also quoted Bill Walsh which made me an instant fan. If any NFL owners were watching, Epstein's vision is worth duplicating in the NFL.
- The Eagles signed Nnamdi Asomugha for games like this one against the Cowboys and their big, physical receiver, Dez Bryant. Bryant does not always play well against tight press, and Asomugha is at his best when he is re-routing and jamming receivers at the line. It would be a waste if Asomugha did not follow Bryant all over the field Sunday night, especially in the red zone.
- Week 7 was the best the Jets offensive line has played all season. Right tackle Wayne Hunter has shown great improvement and their entire line is coming off the ball with excellent pad level, playing a physical style.
- Going through the statistics this week, it jumped out to me that Eli Manning is having an incredible season. The Giants QB is cutting down on his turnovers, making plays down the field with a 9.1 average per attempt and has a quarterback rating of more than 100. He has quietly played well.
- John Beck is now the starter in D.C. and he must get the 'Skins back in the win column this week as they face the Bills in Toronto. The game figures to be a shootout. If Beck does not play well against the Bills defense, then he might not ever play well. Cross your fingers, 'Skins fans. I am not optimistic.
- Kevin Kolb is 4-9 overall as a starter and just 1-5 on the road in his career. Sunday he returns to Baltimore, the place where he first saw legitimate action in 2008, replacing Donovan McNabb midway through an Eagles-Ravens game. But Kolb threw an interception to Ed Reed in the end zone. McNabb went on to keep his starting job that year, but both he and Kolb have struggled ever since.
- I cannot tell if Blaine Gabbert is good, because the Jacksonville offense is so bad. I am not sure Joe Montana could look good playing in that system with those wide receivers. I am reserving full judgment on Gabbert until later.
- Last week, the Saints scored on their first nine possessions against the Colts. Another bad defense is up next, the Rams, so no telling how many points New Orleans might score this week. Darren Sproles has been sensational all season. I wonder why the Rams did not sign Sproles to complement Steven Jackson. I wrote last spring it would be the best move, but clearly the Rams did not agree. Wonder if they do now after watching the tape of Sproles?
- The way the Lions play up front, it will be hard for Tim Tebow to run the edges of their defense. He will be forced to make plays in the passing game because he won't have much room to operate and will need to be decisive and precise with the ball. It will be an interesting game to watch.
- Peyton Hillis has had a tough time lately. He fired two agents in search of a new contract, has had strep throat and now is dealing with an injured hamstring. Browns president Mike Holmgren has stopped all contract extension talks, which I would have done. Clearly, Hillis is more into getting paid than duplicating his success from last year. Players get paid the big money for consistency, not for just one great year.