NFL Handicapping: Biggest Surprises
by Trevor Whenham - 10/6/2011
We’re a quarter of the way through the NFL season. As with most years, a good portion of the teams in the league are performing pretty much as you would expect them to based on how they looked coming into the season. They might be a bit better or a bit worse, but they are within range. There are some teams, though, that are either much better or much worse than seemed likely. Here’s a look at five such teams so far this season:
San Francisco 49ers
I knew that Jim Harbaugh was going to have a big impact on the culture of this team. He’s a warrior and has proven to be a heck of a coach -- at least at the college level. More than other college coaches who are looking to make the leap, he also has a long and successful NFL career to his credit, so he’s not leaping into the great unknown.
What I certainly didn’t expect, though, is that he would get his culture in place so quickly -- and without an offseason to work with. This team has had all sorts of talent for the last several years, but a string of horrific coaching has limited their capabilities. This year the team looks relaxed and focused. They seem to know what they are supposed to be doing, and they are managing to get it done more often than we have become used to from them.
Can you seriously imagine any of the San Francisco teams for pretty much the last decade pulling off that comeback in Philadelphia last week? I sure can’t. This team is tough and confident, and that has translated to a league best 3-0-1 ATS record.
Perhaps the most impressive feat Harbaugh and company have pulled off, tough, is with Alex Smith. Smith has gotten a lot of grief for his play over the years, so he deserves real credit for what he has done this year. He won’t threaten for the MVP or anything, but he’s protecting the ball, making things happen, avoiding a lot of mistakes, and giving his team confidence. With him playing well this team can continue to lead their division all year.
I’ll admit that I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong about Cam Newton. I was worried about his arm. I questioned whether his swagger would translate to an NFL huddle. I wondered f he could embrace an NFL playbook without a lot of preparation. I was skeptical that he would ever totally figure it out, and I was certain that he wouldn’t do so this year. Oops.
Sure, the Panthers are running a simplified playbook, and the offense isn’t exactly balanced, but the guy is still putting up video game numbers. I mean, the guy is 22 years old, surrounded by a team full of issues, and he’s third in the league in passing.
His bravado hasn’t led to as many wins as he would like, but it sure has impacted the confidence of this team, and made them much more difficult to play against than they should be. He has also quickly mastered the art of the back door cover, and that has led him to a juicy 3-1 ATS record so far.
I think Marvin Lewis is the worst coach in football, and that hasn’t changed this year. Still, given the stunning lack of talent this team has and the mess that their QB situation is, I can’t help but be surprised, and even a little impressed, with the fact that they have won two games and covered three spreads already. Frankly, I wasn’t totally sure they would win two games all year.
I still don’t think that they are a great team by any means, but they are playing with more toughness than they have in years. Maybe Carson Palmer was the problem after all.
The first three teams have been pleasant surprises. These last two -- both coincidentally from Pennsylvania -- have been less than pleasant.
I’m not surprised that the Eagles aren’t living up to the “Dream Team” hype -- I never really bought into that from the start. What I am surprised about, though, is just how bad they have been.
Michael Vick has been very good at times, but he’s just not getting any help. The defense was supposed to be a major asset, but so far it really hasn’t been.
Most surprising of all, though, has been the lack of heart. Have you ever in your life seen more whining and finger pointing this early in the season? The risk when you put together a lot of big-name players is that their massive egos will limit their ability to work together. That sure seems to be the case here.
A team with this much talent should not be just 1-3, and they should not blow leads at home to anyone -- never mind a West Coast team with a brand new coach.
A lot of the problems for the Steelers have been on the offensive line. While some of the problems are just bad luck and an injury bug that is out to get them, I find it hard to comprehend how a team that is generally run as well as this one is let themselves get into the mess on the line that they have.
The line was a problem last year, but it held up. This year it really hasn’t. They just re-signed Max Starks and brought him off his couch at home to try to plug some holes, but the fact remains that they have yet to start the same line in two games all year.
Until they get stability there, Big Ben is going to continue to get killed, and the team is going to struggle. I’m truly surprised that the team let things get this bad.
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