Wednesday, October 3, 2012
NFC North first quarter Stock Watch
By Kevin Seifert
Some of you have noticed the absence of a weekly Stock Watch report. Over the years, I thought the post had a tendency to get repetitive. This season, I wanted to try taking watch of our stock once every four games or so. We've reached the first quarter post of the NFL season, so let's take a look at who has impressed and disappointed thus far:
1. Detroit Lions decision making: Almost without fail, general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz have made smart decisions while rebuilding from 2008's 0-16 debacle. Their goal during the 2012 offseason was clear: To maintain the nucleus that reached the playoffs last season, and in the end they brought 21 of their 22 starters from 2011 to training camp. Their draft class, led by offensive lineman Riley Reiff and receiver Ryan Broyles, brought long-term promise but no indication of immediate impact. Hindsight allows us to view that approach in the context of a 1-3 start. Should the Lions have been more aggressive in adding to their roster for the short term as well? Their biggest omission might have been standing pat at running back amid uncertainty about Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure. A weak running game (3.6 yards per carry, nothing longer than 19 yards) is the primary reason opponents have been successful in playing deep safeties to take away the downfield passing game.
2. Green Bay Packers downfield offense: We noted in Week 2 a stunning trend the Packers carried over from the end of 2011. They had fallen from the most to the least explosive passing offense in the league, dating back to Week 15 of last season, and things haven't gotten much better since. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has completed only 28.6 percent of throws (6-of-21) that have traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage in 2012, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Last season, Rodgers completed almost 50 percent of those attempts, including at least three in 12 of his 15 starts. There are no easy explanations, but for now the Packers appear set on fine-tuning other ways to move the ball. They have fed opponents a steady diet of tailback Cedric Benson, who has 33 carries in his past six quarters, and Rodgers was near perfect (30-of-34) on passes that traveled fewer than 15 yards last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
3. Stafford-Johnson in end zone: Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson is tied for the NFL lead with 13 field goal attempts, a dubious distinction that illustrates the team's inability to finish drives with touchdowns. There are many factors involved, but one obvious explanation has been a decrease in the end zone shots to receiver Calvin Johnson. Through four games, Lions quarterbacks have targeted Johnson twice in those situations. One was a touchdown, and Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith broke up the other. Around the NFL, 21 receivers have been targeted more in the end zone than Johnson. Last season, quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted Johnson 22 times there, the second-highest total in the NFL. There are other ways to score, but the way the Lions are built, their best chance by far is to feed Johnson in the end zone.
1. Leslie Frazier, Vikings coach: For months, three things seemed certain in this world. You had death, taxes and the Vikings finishing in fourth place in the NFC North. Their youth at key positions, most notably quarterback, made 2012 appear an obvious rebuilding season. Given Frazier's 6-16 career record entering this season, it was fair to question whether he would survive another losing season. To his credit, however, Frazier never once accepted those narratives. He has repeatedly told players and media members alike that the NFL is a year-to-year proposition and noted that preseason predictions are never 100 percent accurate. With attention focused elsewhere, Frazier has guided the Vikings into a more competitive place than anyone considered possible. They are 3-1 with an offense that fits their personnel perfectly, a defense that is notably more aggressive and competitive in the back end and a special teams group that has made major contributions to all three victories. All of this has come with a second-year quarterback, a rookie left tackle and new starters at nose tackle, middle linebacker, free safety and place-kicker. As crazy as it sounds, the Vikings have already have exceeded external expectations for this season.
2. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears quarterback: Yes. You read that correctly. Cutler is the NFC North's lowest-rated quarterback (75.3), has thrown the third-most interceptions (six) in the NFL and has taken 13 sacks, also the third-highest total in the league. But I really think Cutler turned a big corner, both in terms of his play and his perception, in Monday night's victory over the Dallas Cowboys. We saw how good Cutler can be when he has half-way decent protection and a rhythm going with receiver Brandon Marshall. Based on efficiency statistics, it might have been the best game of his career. We also saw the first collective public yawn at his more-than-occasional boorish behavior. For better or worse, the realization has sunk in that it's part of his makeup now and moving forward. Cutler will have to lower himself to a previously inconceivable lack of decorum to cause the Bears another distraction anytime soon. That's progress!
3. Clay Matthews, Packers linebacker: Matthews promised this summer that the Packers' pass rush had returned, and he has held up his portion of that bargain. Matthews has already exceeded his 2011 sack total and ranks second in the NFL with seven. His rush was perhaps the single biggest factor in the Packers' Week 2 victory over the Bears, and he has been effective even on plays that haven't resulted in sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Matthews has 11 separate quarterback hurries -- the third most among 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL. The Packers' defense has had its ups and downs, but through four games, Matthews has played as consistently well as he has at any point in his career.