One quarter through the 2008 season, NFL continues to surprise
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.''
NEW YORK -- The NFL at the quarter mark teaches us one thing, and it's the same thing the league teaches us every year but we always refuse to learn.
Check out the eight division winners in 2007, and how they compare to the leaders after the fourth Sunday of the 2008 season:
AFC East: 2007 winner, New England; 2008 leader, Buffalo.
AFC North: Pittsburgh; Baltimore.
AFC South: Indianapolis; Tennessee.
AFC West: San Diego; Denver.
NFC East: Dallas; N.Y. Giants.
NFC North: Green Bay; Green Bay/Chicago (tied).
NFC South: Tampa Bay; Carolina/Tampa Bay (tied).
NFC West: Seattle; Arizona/San Francisco (tied).
Six of the eight divisions this morning are led by different teams than the ones that won divisions last year. That could go down to five tonight, if Pittsburgh beats Baltimore and regains the lead in the AFC North, but you get the point. The story of the NFL's first quarter -- superpowers New England and Indianapolis falling back to the pack -- is a stunner, but it's really no different than any other year in the recent history of the league.
This is the statistic that tells the story of the NFL better than any in the free-agency era, which began in 1993: In the past 15 seasons, 66 of the 100 division winners have been different than the season before. There's never been a year when less than half of the division winners changed. Not once. Yet, when we all picked the league a month ago, who had Buffalo over New England? Tennessee over Indy? Not me. Not many.
That's not to say it's going to end up that way, but when you realize that the league has had, on average, just two repeat winners per season over the last 10 years, you realize there's nothing fluky about what we're seeing. It's why TV ratings are up double-digits without Tom Brady, why the Dallas-Philly Week 3 Monday-nighter had the highest rating of a cable program ever. We don't know what's going to happen -- either from week to week or year to year. There's something enticing about that.
So the world is right where it belongs. I know it seems like the season just started five minutes ago, but 23 teams have finished a fourth of their schedule. How the NFL stands at the quarter point:
The best team: New York Giants. Somewhere in between the Cowboys giving up 37 points to the Eagles and 381 yards to the Redskins -- both at home -- and listening to Terrell Owens complain last night that he's not getting the ball enough, I came to realize the team with the best talent is not the best team. At least not now.
The Giants have retained the hunger of a team on the verge of winning a Super Bowl -- not of a team that just won one. In training camp, Justin Tuck told me the defensive linemen were sitting around at the team's Super Bowl party in Phoenix, three hours after the game last February, all talking about winning another one instead of how they were going to celebrate this one. The Giants are deep at running back and wide receiver (even with the Plaxico Burress fireworks), have a workmanlike and versatile offensive line, are surviving the losses of Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora and are maturing in the secondary.
Will they win again? If they don't get a big injury on defense, and if Eli Manning continues his steady climb as a passer and leader, the answer is yes.
The best team we don't appreciate: Tennessee. I love a team that knows what it is. I love coaches who know who they are. Most of all, I love teams unafraid to admit their mistakes.
Tennessee has had three picks in the top half of the first round in the past seven years -- Albert Haynesworth, Pacman Jones and Vince Young. They've worked hard to make all three contributing members of the team. With Haynesworth, it's working; after the Andre Gurode stomping incident two seasons ago and some other maturity issues, he's emerged as the best defensive player in the NFL this year. The patient hands of coach Jeff Fisher, line coach Jim Washburn and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, in tandem, have been vital in Haynesworth's rise.
Pacman was an idiot in Tennessee and had to be dumped. Stupid draft pick, but at least the Titans realized it -- maybe too late, but they realized it. Vince Young? Square peg, round hole. As my buddy Andy Friedland at NBC said last night as we put Football Night in America to bed, "Imagine how good the Titans would be if they'd picked Jay Cutler instead of Vince Young three years ago.'' Young three. Cutler 11. Now look at them.
And the Titans should have known Cutler fit them better than Young. (I don't care what Fisher or anyone there will ever tell me -- I'll always believe this was a Bud Adams idea, picking the University of Texas kid so the owner could have a trophy quarterback, instead of choosing the best quarterback for the kind of offenses his coaches want to run.)
Having said all that, I think Fisher is smart enough to know he's got a potential Super Bowl team if he just puts a smart game-manager with a good arm under center. Thus we have Kerry Collins, who might be writing one of the best scripts of the season. Young's a concern, but not for this year, unless Collins gets hurt. One more thing: Any team that gives up 11.5 points a game is going to be in every game through January.
MVP of the Quarter: Trent Edwards, QB, Buffalo. My MVP is tied for 12th in touchdown passes with four, 10th in passing yards with 930 and 10th in passer rating at 93.5. But the Bills are 4-0, and the difference is an efficient quarterback who, like all the great ones, plays better when the game's on the line than any other time of the game.
The Bills trailed 16-10 at Jacksonville in the fourth quarter, and Edwards threw a beautiful rainbow to James Hardy in the corner of the end zone to win it. The Bills trailed Oakland by nine with six minutes left, and Edwards led scoring drives to win it. The Bills trailed St. Louis by eight at the half Sunday, and Buffalo put up 25 points in the last 30 minutes to rout the Rams. He's got the steady-handed Brady cool about him, too.
Offensive Player of the Quarter: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. You can't play quarterback better than Brees is. I don't know how a quarterback two inches taller than Doug Flutie is playing every week like Dan Fouts, but he is. Brees has put up 343, 216, 421 and 363 passing yards in New Orleans' four games, and he's completing 72 percent of his throws. You're mad I'm giving this to a pilot of a 2-2 team? Well, Brees wasn't on the field when Cutler and Jason Campbell shredded his D.
Defensive Player of the Quarter: Albert Haynesworth, DT, Tennessee. Started the month with two sacks of David Garrard in a 17-10 beatdown of the Jags. Finished the month with two sacks in the 30-17 win over Minnesota. Haynesworth's constant disruption of the middle of the line creates quasi-chaos and collapses offensive game plans every week.
Rookie of the Quarter: Eddie Royal, WR, Denver. "Best receiver in the draft,'' said Mike Shanahan a couple of weeks ago, and if this pace keeps up -- with 27 catches, he's on schedule for 108 receptions, and he just might get there with Cutler throwing to him -- he'll be the perfect complement to Brandon Marshall.
Here's how much the Broncos think of Royal: With the San Diego game on the line in Week 2, they called for him to run a crossing route as Cutler's second option on the play, and Cutler went to him. On the ensuing two-point conversion pass, Denver called the same play -- and Royal shook off the coverage and caught Cutler's winning pass.
Coach of the Year: Jim Zorn, Washington. Think back to when he was picked. "Snyder's a loon!'' you thought. Well, you might still think that, but you can't argue with the results. For the first time in four years, Campbell finally looks like the long-term answer at quarterback, and Zorn's tutelage is a big reason. For the second time in 11 years, Washington won at Dallas. And for the first time in ages, Washingtonians aren't looking for Joe Gibbs to ride in on his white horse to save the season.
Executive of the Quarter: Thomas Dimitroff, GM, Atlanta. He gave the coaching job to a guy who looks and sounds more like a Cub Scout Pack leader than an NFL head coach, but Mike Smith has been smart and steady-handed for a young team. He went against the grain to overpay and select a left tackle (Sam Baker) too high in the draft, but that move is working out. He may have overpaid a running back who'd never been a regular (Michael Turner); Turner leads the NFL with 422 rushing yards. He supported playing a rookie quarterback (Matt Ryan); we'll see how that goes, but the kid, personality-wise, has a lot of Peyton Manning-maturity in him. A very good early run for a man who likes to barbeque tofu, not ribeyes. I'm serious about that.
Team That's Overcome the Most: Seattle. Perhaps a plague would be worse. Or a smallpox epidemic. But the one thing you don't want to be right now is a Seattle Seahawks receiver. If you are, you need to buy lots of insurance. Right now.
"At some point,'' sympathetic Denver coach Shanahan said the other day, "you just have to look up at the sky and say, 'Why?' '' Seattle's strange journey at wide receiver caused the team to bring back wayward former first-round pick Koren Robinson -- who, fittingly, strained a quad a day after signing his contract -- and trade a 2009 fifth-round pick to Denver for Keary Colbert. Speaking of Colbert, after watching him for a few days, coach Mike Holmgren told me: "The guy looks fantastic.'' Fantastic? "It's all relative,'' he said. "Right now, he looks like Jerry Rice.''
That's it for the first quarter. I can't wait to see what the next three quarters -- and overtime, hopefully -- bring.
(Agree or disagree with King's choices for awards four weeks into the season? Share your thoughts here.)