Work in Sports
No AFC team looks stronger than the Colts
With most teams at the season's quarter pole, there is already much to remember about September. The numbers have come at a dizzying pace. So have the disappointments, in some quarters. With the schedule just beginning to get interesting, here are three burning questions entering Week 5. Sports Illustrated's Don Banks checks in with them every Tuesday of the NFL season:
1. Question: Did the Colts' dismantling of Jacksonville on Monday night tip the balance of power in the AFC back in the direction of Indianapolis?
Answer: You bet your Peyton Manning it did. Four teams in the AFC have more victories than the 2-1 Colts, but none have more weapons or potential. On a night when the Jaguars held Indianapolis receiver Marvin Harrison to just one catch after the Colts' third offensive play, Manning still managed to throw for a franchise-record 440 yards and a career-best four touchdowns in the 43-14 blowout.
But the best news for the Colts came on defense. After two weeks of lingering doubts created by Indianapolis blowing a 21-0 lead at home against Oakland, the Colts shut out the powerful Jaguars in the second half, sacked the elusive Mark Brunell five times, and held running back Fred Taylor to four yards per carry on 14 rushes.
The AFC pecking order is a talented jumble. The New York Jets (4-0) are playing great team ball. Miami (3-1) is outstanding on defense. Buffalo (2-1) does just enough to win. All look capable of making the playoffs from the East. And the Central should be heard from thanks, too, thanks to decent starts by Baltimore (3-1) and Tennessee (2-1). As for Jacksonville (2-2), it already has matched its 1999 loss total and may not be capable of extending its four-year streak of playoff berths.
In the West, Oakland (3-1) and Denver (2-2) will slug it out all season, but that division doesn't appear to be quite up to the pace being set in the other two.
As for the Colts, no team has fewer weaknesses. Even with an upcoming three-game road swing -- to Buffalo, New England and Seattle -- the Colts look poised to make the kind of run that will put them in contention for homefield advantage in the postseason. With a key year of postseason experience under their belts, the Colts shouldn't falter early in January like they did in 1999.
It's early, but the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC should go through the RCA Dome. This is the year that Colts coach Jim Mora finally figures out how to win in the postseason.
2. Question: Now that the Bruce Coslet era has mercifully been brought to a close in Cincinnati, does new head coach Dick LeBeau have a shot to be more than an interim figure in the Queen City?
Answer: If the Bengals respond to him, yes. But given the quagmire that Cincinnati has become, few would consider it a good shot. At 63, with no previous head coaching experience at any level, LeBeau is the league's oldest rookie head coach since the 1970 merger. After a stellar 14-year playing career, and 28 years in coaching, LeBeau undoubtedly is qualified for the job. But plenty of qualified coaches have failed to deliver.
LeBeau was elevated Monday from his defensive coordinator position, becoming the league's first head coach to take over during the season since June Jones replaced Kevin Gilbride after six games of the 1998 season in San Diego. Bengals owner/general manager Mike Brown went this route once before, with mixed results.
When David Shula was canned after a 1-6 start in 1996, it was Coslet, the team's offensive coordinator, who took over and rallied the Bengals to a 7-2 finish and an 8-8 overall record. But Coslet couldn't get it done on his own time, losing 28 of his last 35 games to finish 21-39 overall as Cincy's head coach.
How bad is the mess that LeBeau inherits? The Bengals are coming off the worst shutout loss in team history (37-0 at Baltimore). Cincinnati has scored just seven points in three games and is ranked last overall in offense. Both lines have been physically manhandled this far, their running game is 30th among 31 teams, and the offensive line is on pace to give up 85 sacks.
And don't look now, but the Bengals, they of the one touchdown scored in three games, stay home this week to face Miami, which has surrendered a record one touchdown in its first four games.
LeBeau has been described as laid-back, stoic and somewhat droll, but those close to him say his competitive fires burn deep. He'll need every last ember of that fire to transform the Bengals into a competitive unit. Cincinnati's offense is adrift with two rookie receivers and struggling second-year quarterback Akili Smith. Imagine how bad off things would be if they hadn't come to contract terms with running back Corey Dillon, who has had zero room to run and is taking a pounding (82 yards on 41 carries).
Though Brown deserves much of the blame for the debacle in Cincinnati, he isn't going anywhere. The Bengals are the family business and his family's legacy, and he doesn't see the need to step aside and fill the G.M. job role with a strong, independent person who could oversee the big picture. That being the case, LeBeau might be as set up to fail as his predecessors.
According to reports, LeBeau, who held the title of assistant head coach, might not even have been Brown's first choice for the job. Bengals linebackers coach Mark Duffner, with 11 years of collegiate head coaching experience, is believed to have been first offered the job, but declined based on LeBeau's staff seniority.
Give credit to Duffner, for loyalty, and perhaps wisdom and foresight beyond his 47 years.
3. Question: Through the season's first four weeks, what's the most astounding statistical accomplishment?
Answer: Let's call it a tie. If you like your offense, you have to go with St. Louis averaging a nice, round 40 points per game in the month of September. If defense is your thing, Miami held four opponents to a combined one touchdown, making the Dolphins the first NFL team to ever accomplish that in the season's opening four games.
Both are remarkable accomplishments in this age of high-tech offense. The Rams have racked up 30 or more points in 10 straight regular-season games and are on pace to score 640 points this season, which would obliterate Minnesota's 1998 league record of 556 points. With 1,557 yards, St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner is averaging nearly 400 per game, and that total represents 140 more yards than anybody has ever thrown for after four games (Drew Bledsoe, 1,417).
Warner is also on pace to become the league's first 6,000-yard passer, with 6,228 yards. That would just nose out Dan Marino's 1984 league record of 5,084 -- by a mere 1,144 yards.
On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins' defense has allowed just 22 points in four games, the best stretch of defense to open a season since Atlanta gave up 19 in the first month of the 1977 season.
If Miami can hold to its pace of one touchdown allowed every four games -- a ridiculous notion to be sure -- it would finish with just four surrendered all season, breaking the joint mark of six held by the 1932 Chicago Bears and 1933 Brooklyn Dodgers.