In his robust Inside The NFL notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):
» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 4.
» The NFL's new black-and-blue division.
» A potential defensive counter to the NFL's tight end revolution.
» And much more, beginning with the hottest quarterback in the NFL ...
"Yes," Smith answered, without skipping a beat. "I do believe that."
Three games don't make a season, much less a legacy, but as starts go, Matt Ryan is on his way to proving his coach clairvoyant and following in Manning's footsteps as a questioned quarterback taking his game to another level.
With games against Kansas City, Denver and San Diego under his belt, Ryan leads the NFL with a 114.0 quarterback rating, has a sparking 8-1 TD-to-INT ratio and, most importantly, has won all three of his starts in impressive fashion. Moreover, as the offense has shifted its philosophy -- moving from Mike Mularkey's ground-heavy system to spread-influenced coordinator Dirk Koetter's scheme -- Ryan has started to really look like the type of quarterback who can completely control a game.
"I haven't seen all the quarterbacks play this year, so I can't rank him," Smith said. "But I know that through the first three weeks of this season, he's played the best football of his career -- by far."
Smith and Ryan arrived together in Atlanta, each hand-picked by GM Thomas Dimitroff, so their successes, failures and general lines of progression are fairly similar. Accordingly, as Smith is marked by his 0-3 playoff record, Ryan is, too. But the last of the three defeats -- an embarrassing 24-2 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants -- might be as responsible for setting the stage for this September as anything.
"Once the game ended," Smith explained, "it became a learning experience for all of us, and it allowed us as a team, as coaches and players, to take a good hard look at how we had to improve."
Through that playoff demise, Dimitroff and Smith recognized the team needed more swagger, and had to play with more of a gunslinger mentality in big spots, which led to the hires of Koetter and veteran defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Meanwhile, Ryan figured he had to put himself in better position to be at his physical best in January, so he gained 5-7 pounds of muscles and dropped 2-3 percent body fat with the idea that a leaner, stronger quarterback would withstand the rigors of the season better. As it turns out, there have been more immediate returns, as well.
Jeremiah: Birds of a feather?
"I see an increase in arm strength," Smith said. "It's not necessarily how far he's throwing it. In this day and age, with the spacing passing game, you have to have velocity on your 10- and 17-yard throws. That's where it shows up. You definitely see that. And then his decision making has improved, just because of his experience. I know he'd like to have that (lone) interception back, but he's been very efficient through three weeks. The numbers are right there."
Smith says it's always been Ryan's offense, but the truth is that the Falcons leaned fairly heavily on Michael Turner and the running game in the quarterback's first couple years. That's changed with Turner wearing out the tread on his tires, as well as an increased emphasis on improving the options in the passing game -- most notably, the blockbuster 2011 draft acquisition of the matchup-busting Julio Jones. And this year, with the addition of Koetter and ascension of Jones, that shift has pushed into high gear.
It's not by mistake, either. In Dimitroff's vision, Jones was brought in to give Roddy White what Marvin Harrison got in Reggie Wayne in 2001 -- and give Ryan what Peyton Manning had in them both. A year later, Smith had Ryan sit down with Koetter (whom Smith had worked with in Jacksonville) as part of the process of interviewing for the coordinator job, with the idea of forming a partnership. As Smith says now, "They've hit it off, which we could see then."
"It is a quarterback-driven league, and Matt is coming into his own in Year 5," Smith said. "Chronologically, he's not old. But when it comes to football snaps? He's taken a lot of snaps and that bodes well for everyone. It's about the experience he's had. Matt's a smart guy, so once he sees things once or twice, he gets them. And he's seen a lot of things now."
It's interesting, too, to look at this from Smith's point of view. Brees' fifth year was 2005. He was still a Charger and had yet to win a playoff game. Aaron Rodgers' fifth season was 2009, and he was just a year removed from taking Brett Favre's job, having yet to even play in a postseason contest. Both those guys are champions now, so it's easy to forget those days.
Smith sees Ryan making strides in every area of quarterbacking, from an improved internal clock to better pocket presence to a more thorough understanding of defenses to an enhanced ability to protect himself when he tucks and runs.
The short of that: Smith isn't surprised this step has come. In his mind, it was only a matter of when.
"He made strides from Year 1 to Year 2, Year 2 to Year 3, so we've seen it. We felt like he was gonna have a big year," Smith explained. "The ceiling's very high for Matt Ryan, and I believe that he's not even close to reaching it. He's gonna be an outstanding player for a long, long time in the NFL."
If he keeps this up a few more months, all that will be left to settle is that pesky playoff thing.
Four things to look for in Week 4
1) Peyton Manning's arm strength. Was minding my own business after covering the Kansas City Chiefs' overtime win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, when a text came across from a veteran scout: "Peyton Manning can't throw the ball anymore." After some prodding, the scout continued, "I would put my professional reputation on this -- he cannot throw with the velocity he could a couple years ago. He just can't. He's still as smart and accurate as anybody, he just can't sling it the way he used to." Another scout, asked if he'd rubber-stamp that assessment, said, "For sure. A lot weaker. It doesn't come out the same." The Broncos' home game with the Raiders this week -- against a struggling Oakland defense -- is a big one. Denver can't go into Foxboro in Week 5 limping along at 1-3, even if it doesn't look like anyone's gonna run away with the AFC West. The Raider game will be interesting in that it will give us all a chance to see if Manning can adjust to what he is now -- colleague Jeff Darlington wrote about how Chad Pennington once pulled this off -- rather than try and be what he was. I thought there were good signs in Week 1 that he was doing just that. Signs haven't been as promising since.
2) The Jets without Darrelle Revis. Timing couldn't be worse here for New York. The struggling Jets offense gets an angry 49ers defense coming off a bad loss in Minnesota. Normally, that'd mean Rex Ryan's crew would lean on its own defense's ability to get nasty. But that group suddenly lacks its most impactful player on the roster, regardless of position. How impactful is Revis? I asked a personnel executive from a rival team on Monday if Revis is to the Jets what quarterbacks are to most other teams. "For that D?" responded the executive, "Yeah." The exec continued, "This is a significant blow anyway, but even worse because it's a possible scheme changer. Their pressure scheme is directly tied to their ability to play lockdown, one-on-one coverage, and also to their depth to do it. Their reserves beyond (Kyle) Wilson are special teams guys. ... (Revis') skills are such a commodity because they're not a commonality. He's certainly the best corner in football." It'll be fascinating to see how much the Jets change. And playing San Francisco is no soft landing in a time of adjustment.
4) Proving ground for the Bears and Cowboys. Chicago and Dallas (combined playoff wins since 2007: two) both have enough potential to make you refrain from completely ruling out a Super Bowl run. What's great about their forthcoming showdown on Monday night is that each team should test the other in areas where questions have arisen. The Cowboys' offensive line should have its limits pushed by Julius Peppers and Co. Dallas' reworked cornerback position, built to play man, will be tested by one of the game's best one-on-one receivers, Brandon Marshall. On the flip side, seeing Chicago's offensive line try to deal with DeMarcus Ware will give us all a better idea on how well the Bears can mask their problems. And Chicago's safeties will be tested by Dallas' deep passing game. Gotta preface everything I say here with "It's only Week 4," but still: This seems like a great place to learn a few things about both teams.
1) Fans have every right to be angry about the officiating, and not just because of Monday night. To me, the real travesty in all of this goes back to the period between the opening of training camp and Labor Day weekend, a six-week span in which there were virtually no talks between the league and officials. The important question to ask when examining that: Were the referees and the NFL doing what's right for football or trying to win a negotiation? Yes, there is a way to attempt to accomplish both. But over that quiet time, the league and referees put all their eggs in the "deadlines make deals" basket, wasting valuable man hours that could have been used to further identify differences and bridge gaps. That is what would have been good for the game. What was better as a negotiating tactic, however, was to try and gather leverage, which is what both sides did. The league was pushing closer to taking real money off the table for the NFLRA, as a method of applying pressure. The refs were waiting for their replacements to embarrass the league in the preseason, as a way of emphasizing the need for proper officiating. The league and referees then hit stumbling blocks over Labor Day weekend, and have hit more since. It's certainly fair to ask whether or not they could have gone through this fight back in August, rather than engaging in the staring contest that's caused this mess.
2) The Saints' acknowledgment that they're different without Sean Payton is a good first step. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael told me last week, "I think we're going to feel the loss of Sean all year. He's a special guy." And after New Orleans fell to 0-3, a Saints vet explained it like this: "Of course, we miss Sean. It'd be naïve to think we don't. He's one of the best coaches in the league." As I could gather in speaking with players, the two places Payton is missed most relate to his adaptability. First, it's hard to replace how agile Payton's mind is on Sunday, and how the Saints could always adjust in-game as a result. Second, Payton's intimate understanding of all the players -- who he needed to go after, who he needed to put his arm around, and when to do either -- is less quantifiable, but just as important. Anyway, my feeling is that by acknowledging that there is, indeed, a void, the Saints can better attack the problem. Doesn't mean they'll win at Lambeau in Week 4, or do the near-impossible and make it to the playoffs after an 0-3 start -- just that they're a self-aware bunch, and that helps in a situation like this.
3) The NFC West is emerging as the NFL's new black-and-blue division. Through three weeks, the Seahawks and Cardinals have the two best scoring defenses in the NFL, having held opponents to a meager 39 and 40 points, respectively. The Niners aren't far behind, even after an off Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis, with 65 total points against. And there isn't a ton of fluff to these numbers, either. The Cardinals stifled the Patriots (18 points) and Eagles (6) in back-to-back weeks. The Packers scored just 22 points on the Niners at Lambeau, and seven of them came on a punt return. Two weeks later, Aaron Rodgers and Co. could only muster 12 points on a Seahawks defense that had just held Dallas' offense to a single touchdown in Week 2. There's still every reason to believe that the Niners have the best defense in the league, the Viking blip notwithstanding. Still, the Cardinals' front is fearsome and the secondary is ascending. Meanwhile, Seattle might have the best secondary in football and also boasts a suddenly-ferocious front. Looks like it's time to take the NFC West a bit more seriously.
Two college players to watch Saturday
1) Texas S Kenny Vaccaro (at Oklahoma State, 7:50 p.m., FOX): The evolution of the tight end position in the NFL has sent talent evaluators in search of defensive counterparts, and Vaccaro could potentially be one. At 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, the senior packs a punch and is athletic enough to run with guys like Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham (though he'd be at a height disadvantage against the latter). "Could be a first- or second-round pick," said one college scout. "He can cover, play the run and he's a big hitter. He'll take your head off. He's got all the skills we look for at that position in today's game. A new-age safety." On matching up with NFL tight ends, the scout said, "He's that type of athlete." With bigger safeties, coverage is always the question. So pass-happy Oklahoma State will provide a nice proving ground. "I'd look to see if he's consistent start to finish against them," the scout said. "He'll be tested."
2) Tennessee WR Justin Hunter (at Georgia, 3:30 p.m., CBS): There might not be a receiver in America with more potential than this Volunteers junior. But even at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, and with plenty of production early this season, he has questions to answer after tearing his ACL last September. "I loved him before he got hurt," said a college scout. "He doesn't seem as explosive now." But he has produced. Hunter is seventh in the country with 30 catches through four games, good for 410 yards and four touchdowns. Last year, in the three games leading up to his knee injury, Hunter went for 17 catches, 314 yards and two touchdowns, so his numbers are up to par. This matchup against Georgia -- maybe the SEC's best team outside of Alabama and LSU -- provides scouts a chance to judge how real his rebound has been.
Absent an agreement to end the referee lockout, an ugly scene promises to unfold on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
On one side, you'll have the Saints, who sit at 0-3 and have been through six months of tumult that has put the players at loggerheads with the shot-callers at 345 Park Ave. On the other, you've got the Packers, now 1-2, largely because of a call made by a replacement official on Monday night, creating a new issue between their players and the NFL.
And don't forget, this represent the first chance for one of the league's best fan bases to voice its displeasure over the Seattle spectacle.
Chances are, when the dust settles, the league won't have lost much money (and may have gained some on the flipside) through its dispute with the NFLRA. But what happens Sunday at one of football's most iconic venues very well might be the best representation we've seen yet of the collateral damage caused.