Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three issues from around the league:
Are last year's major award winners playing under a hex?
Anthony Thomas Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
You could make a pretty strong case for it. Consider the comedowns that have been experienced by the seven guys who took home The Associated Press' big hardware last year:
The reigning MVP, Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, has been the poster child for those who have lost their way in 2002. Once again, Warner has hung up astounding numbers. Just not the ones everyone imagined. He's 0-6 as a starter, with 11 interceptions, just three touchdown passes, and a passer rating of 67.4. He missed almost six full games due to a broken finger, and now he's out for at least two more with a broken hand.
Last season's offensive player of the year, Marshall Faulk, hasn't had it bad by comparison. But the Rams' running back ranks just 14th in the league in rushing with 845 yards, and his 1,293 yards from scrimmage doesn't even crack the top 10. Faulk has won the past three offensive player of the year awards, and his NFL-record streak of four consecutive seasons of at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage looks very likely to end.
Giants defensive end Michael Strahan was last season's defensive player of the year. He's not having a bad campaign by any stretch, given that his 11 sacks rank fourth in the NFL. But compared to his monster season of 2001, when his 22 1/2 sacks set an NFL record and was 7 1/2 more than the league's next most productive sacker, it hasn't been a sterling follow-up.
Last season's offensive rookie of the year, Chicago running back Anthony Thomas, just had his season finished prematurely by injury. And what an underwhelming second season it was: 721 yards rushing (good for 26th in the league), a 3.4-yard average carry, and just six touchdowns. To give you a sense of Thomas' mild impact, consider that Falcons quarterback Michael Vick ranks 27th in the league in rushing, with 648 yards. And Thomas doesn't throw the ball.
On the defensive side, Pittsburgh outside linebacker Kendrell Bell has slumped as an NFL sophomore as well. Bell has struggled with a pair of ankle sprains that cost him four games, but when he has played, he hasn't starred. His two sacks rank tied for seventh among Steelers and are a long way from his nine-sack season of 2001. Bell's 31 stops tie him for ninth place among Pittsburgh's leading tacklers.
Coach of the year? That was Chicago's Dick Jauron, remember? The Bears started 2-0 this season, but have lost nine of their last 10. Whatever magic Jauron had in 2001, it has cruelly evaporated.
Lastly, 2001's comeback player of the year is faced with another comeback of sorts. San Francisco running back Garrison Hearst has been in the news lately, for all the wrong reasons. Hearst has been more noteworthy for his words than his deeds. He ranks 19th in league rushing, with 781 yards and seven touchdowns. Decent numbers. But his recent anti-gay comments have overshadowed any on-field accomplishments.
Whose big offseason gambit has panned out nicely?
Donald Driver Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Credit deserves to go to both teams involved in the Ricky Williams trade, because the Dolphins and Saints have each prospered from the deal. But the safety net that Miami and New Orleans was working with removed some of the risk factor. The Saints knew what they had in Deuce McAllister and the Dolphins knew Williams was a proven commodity.
Such was not the case in Green Bay, where the Packers overhauled their receiving corps to a degree rarely seen in the NFL. The foursome of Bill Schroeder, Antonio Freeman, Corey Bradford and running back Dorsey Levens accounted for 61.7 percent of Green Bay's 3,921 receiving yards and 56.2 percent of its receiving touchdowns last season, and they're all playing for different teams this year.
Still, the Packers have the same 9-3 record they had last season at this point, and already have clinched the NFC North title. Led by the emergence of Donald Driver (58 catches for 935 yards and seven touchdowns) in the No. 1 receiver role, Green Bay is averaging 256.6 receiving yards per game, seventh most in the league. That's up from last year's 245.1-yard average, which ranked fourth overall.
The Packers are producing 12.5 first downs per game via the pass this season, as compared to 11.7 in 2001. Green Bay had 32 receiving touchdowns last year, and is on pace for 31 this season. In other words, it's a virtual statistical wash.
Even though newcomer Terry Glenn (44 catches for 668 yards and one touchdown) and rookie Javon Walker (16 catches for 243 yards and one touchdown) haven't produced as much yardage as expected, the Green Bay passing attack hasn't faltered. As they were last year, running back Ahman Green and tight end Bubba Franks remain key cogs, combining for 94 receptions, 726 yards and eight touchdown catches.
Packers head coach/GM Mike Sherman rolled the dice this spring when he let four of his top six pass-catchers go. But so far it hasn't cost him or his team a thing in the receiving department.
Is there a bigger tease in the NFL than the Browns?
Tim Couch Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images
Nope. Six and six sums them up perfectly. Good enough to be paid attention to, but not ready to be taken seriously. The Browns have won impressively at Tennessee, the Jets, and New Orleans, and are 4-2 on the road this season. But they've reversed that trend at home, beating only Cincinnati and Houston, with losses to the likes of Kansas City, Baltimore and Carolina.
The Browns lost four out of six to start the season, then promptly won four of the next five to save their season. But coming off arguably the biggest win in head coach Butch Davis's first two seasons -- at New Orleans in Week 12 -- Cleveland laid another egg in front of the home folks last Sunday, against punchless Carolina.
In today's rebuild overnight NFL, there has to be no more frustrated group of fans than those who bleed brown and orange. The Browns have been stockpiling talent for four years now, spending big money to do so, and they've still got an unreliable product -- especially on offense.
That tendency is personified in quarterback Tim Couch, the franchise's first-ever draft pick, who remains an enigma. Couch has yet to play a solid game at home since his falling out with Cleveland fans earlier this year, and still must prove he can handle the pressure of a big-game setting. One constant stands out amid all the inconsistency: When Couch struggles, so do the Browns. His three-interception day against the ripe-to-be-beaten Panthers underlined just how far he still has to come.
In Cleveland, practicing patience is becoming ever more difficult. If the Ravens can totally rip apart their roster just 13 months after winning a Super Bowl, and still manage to re-tool fast enough to stick with the up-and-down Browns at 6-6, Cleveland's faithful might be forgiven for wondering if the corner is ever going to be turned.