Taking stock of the top stories in the season's first four games
Matt Ryan, J.J. Watt two of the most impressive players at season's quarter pole
In the end, refs were smart to play hardball with the league in labor negotiations
Fine Fifteen; Awards and Stats of the Week; Ten Things I Think I Think; more
The NFL at the quarter pole: strange days indeed. Cards and Vikings, a combined 7-1. Saints and Lions, a combined 1-7. Rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck are plugging away, playing well, but the best rookie of the first quarter of the season is a kicker from Missouri Western. The refs are back, and guess what? They're not perfect. Your NFL receiving leader after four weeks: Brian Hartline, with more yards (455) than Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Crabtree combined (443). And referee No. 99, Tony Corrente? Alive and well, to his own surprise.
The stories after Week 4:
Best offensive player: Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. After the embarrassment of the 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants last January, the Falcons imported offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who had more of a downfield eye than predecessor Mike Mularkey. While lengthening his average throw, Ryan's become more accurate too. His 69.4-percent completion rate is 8.1 points better than last year, his quarterback rating (112.1) almost 20 points higher.
On Sunday, he showed his confidence in Koetter's offense by waiting until he was in mid-sack before dumping the ball off on a key fourth-quarter drive to convert an impossible play into a first down that helped Atlanta beat pesky Carolina. "I think as the pocket closes I've become a smarter player,'' Ryan said afterward. "I know exactly where my options are, and I trust my guys that they'll be exactly where they're supposed to be. They also know that as the game progresses, the ball's going to find everyone. Overall, I'm as confident as I ever have been playing the position."
Best defensive player: Houston defensive end J.J. Watt. Not easy for a 3-4 defensive end, particularly one in the first month of his second year as a pro, and particularly one playing with a nagging elbow injury that requires the elbow to be braced, to lead the NFL with 7.5 sacks and five passes batted down at the line. He makes it clear, correctly, that being on a defense with a great young cast has been a huge assist for him. But the way he can speed about the edge and bull-rush inside with equal skill has made it impossible to block him one-on-one consistently.
He's had at least one sack in every game this year, and dating to last year's two playoff games, Watt has 11 sacks in his last six games -- insane for a 3-4 defensive end. Notified of this incredibly prestigious honor, being named the best defensive player of the first month of the season, Watt said after his two-sack game against Tennessee Sunday: "I appreciate that, but it's only one quarter of the season. We've got lots to do.''
Best special-teamer: Tennessee running back Darius Reynaud. For throwing a 28-yard backward lateral on a punt return for a touchdown in Week 3 against Detroit ... and later in the game for running a kickoff back 105 yards for a touchdown. Cool thing about it: In 11 years of high school, college and pro football, Reynaud had never thrown a football in a game -- and this one, by the southpaw, was a spiral that looked like Steve Young threw it.
Best rookie: St. Louis kicker Greg Zuerlein. Rams GM Les Snead gave special teams coach John Fassel (son of Jim, ex- of the Raiders) one big job when he took the job: find a kicker to replace veteran Josh Brown, who had made just 75 percent of his field goal tries last year. Fassel worked out Zuerlein -- who transferred from Nebraska-Omaha to Missouri Western when the program went belly-up -- before the draft on campus, and the very low-maintenance Zuerlein didn't think he had exactly aced the test. "I didn't kick anything too far that day,'' Zuerlein recalls. "The furthest kick, I think, was about 60 yards.'' Greg, in the NFL, that's good enough.
The Rams picked him the sixth round, 171st overall in the April draft. In camp, he started kicking 58-yarders halfway up the net behind the goalpost. And he never stopped. On Sunday, he became the first kicker in the NFL's 93 seasons to make two kicks of at least 58 yards in a game (60 and 58), and he's perfect on his first 12 kicks -- seven of them from 46 yards and out. I asked him when the last time was that he was nervous before a kick. "Nervous, I don't know,'' he said. "I was pretty excited before my first [preseason] game, in Indianapolis. But I wouldn't say nervous. I don't really get nervous. There's no reason to get worked up about kicking a football.'' Out of the mouths of rookies ...
Best team: Houston. San Francisco looked like it Sunday in the 34-0 rout of the discombobulated Jets. Atlanta looked like it in the 27-3 beatdown of the Chargers in San Diego in Week 3. And the Patriots looked like it rolling up 45 points in the last 25 minutes at Buffalo Sunday. But the Texans were September's Team, winning by 20, 20, 6 and 24 points.
I don't want overestimate the pluck of the quarterback, but who survives the two hits on consecutive plays that Matt Schaub took last week in Denver, a $15,750 whack by Von Miller and a $50,000 (plus suspension) helmet-to-helmet ear-eater by Joe Mays? (Schaub, by the way, told me the death of his earlobe has been greatly exaggerated. "My ear's fine,'' he said dismissively Sunday. "That thing got blown way out of proportion.'')
Watt told me he thought the Texans were the best team in the league right now. Said Schaub: "We're a team that's built to win many different ways. If we need to win 10-7, we can. We can run if we have to. We can throw. And our defense can win a game. Our defense created 14 points today.'' And there's depth at running back and all over the defense. This is a team that should be built for January, finally.
Best coach: Mike McCarthy, Green Bay. The coach of the year shouldn't always be the winningest coach, or the coach who brings a team from poor to contender. McCarthy gained my everlasting respect when, in the face of the rage on his sideline and in his locker room, he managed the post-debacle situation in Seattle with aplomb, sending his extra-point team back on the field when the players were venomous in the postgame locker room, then making no excuses in his remarks to the press.
Last Wednesday, he told his players they weren't going to be making any excuses about the officials. "The refs are human too,'' he said, according to wideout James Jones. He told them to keep fighting, regardless of whatever was called on the field. That became a mantra during the week -- a cliché, of course, but if you've been around sports, you know clichés work sometimes, like this time -- and on Sunday, late in the fourth quarter, when it looked like a ridiculous official's call negating a Saints' fumble on a kickoff return might again cost the Packers, the players didn't lose it. "Even after that bad call,'' said Jones, "everyone on the sidelines was saying, 'Keep fighting, keep fighting.' You know, what we realized after last week was we were 1-2 whether we were bitter or not, so what good did it do to be bitter? We just had to focus on football and forget all the other stuff." McCarthy did an excellent job making sure the other stuff didn't ruin their game Sunday.