Before the season begins, figuring out surprise teams can be fun.
You start with teams that have easier schedules. Then you see if there are upgrades or improvements at the most important position -- quarterback. John Elway gambled on greatness and signed Peyton Manning, who helped the Denver Broncos clinch the AFC West on Sunday. Rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III have made enough of an impact to make their franchises playoff contenders.
But what about this season's disappointments? Four games remain but the postmortems have begun. Some were predictable. I looked at the 2012 New Orleans Saints like I looked at the 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes: The Buckeyes lost their head coach and five key players, including Terrelle Pryor, and went 6-7. The bounty allegations cost the Saints head coach Sean Payton and created a distraction that contributed to them dropping to 5-7.
No team has been a bigger disappointment than the Philadelphia Eagles. Andy Reid is undoing many of the moves from last year's Dream Team. They've cut Jason Babin. They fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and defensive line coach Jim Washburn. They've sacked the "wide-nine" scheme. They've benched a banged up Michael Vick in favor of rookie Nick Foles. Last year's 8-8 season was bad enough. To be 3-9 now is painful.
Many saw the fall of the Detroit Lions coming. They went 10-6 last year but had four double-digit comebacks to get to 10 wins. Like Tampa Bay after its 10-win season in 2010, the Lions put the pursuit of free agents on the inactive list. All the Bucs added was a punter. All the Lions added was cornerback Jacob Lacey. The Lions needed help on defense, and didn't get it. The result so far is a 4-8 season.
In Carolina, disappointment settled in early when owner Jerry Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney. The 2012 Panthers were supposed to be a version of the 2011 Lions, a team with a talented young quarterback who got hot at the end of the previous season. The Panthers, however, didn't advance. Cam Newton couldn't win the close games and the defense got worse, not better, this year. Ron Rivera needs a strong finish to keep his job.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has had quarterback problems since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season. Last year, Whisenhunt put aside the Cardinals' problems and finished a respectable 8-8. This year, he's gone through John Skelton, Kevin Kolb and Ryan Lindley and is 4-8 with an eight-game losing streak. Wasted was the improved play of a 3-4 defense in its second season. The Cardinals have been a major disappointment.
Finally, when did the AFC West become the NFC West? For years, the NFC West was the doormat of the NFL. The hiring of Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher changed that. The NFC West is a respectable 17-15 in non-division games. Now, the AFC West is a joke. The San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs are a combined 9-27. Outside of the division, those teams are 5-19, and each team has a high-priced quarterback.
From the inbox
Q: I'm a huge 49er fan and I am torn between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick. It's obvious that the 49ers are going to move on from Alex after the end of the season. My question is what's the possibility of the Cardinals firing coach Whisenhunt and bringing in Greg Roman as the new HC and Alex as the new starting QB? With the defense that the Cardinals have and the talent at the WR position I could see the Cardinals replicating what the 49ers did with Alex last year. The big knock on Alex is that it takes time for him to adjust to a new offense but if the Cardinals hire Roman, then Alex would be in the same offense for three years and the sky would be the limit for him.
Ayaz in Dallas, Texas
A: It's possible. Smith would come to Arizona as a stopgap, which was his role in San Francisco. Even though Smith was the first pick in a draft, he is known more for game-management than exceptional skills. Thanks to the coaching of Roman and Jim Harbaugh, Smith won 13 games last year and took the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game. Smith could get the Cardinals back to 8-8 or better with their defense. Still, the Cards might look to finding someone better than Smith because if the Kaepernick experiment works out for the 49ers, the Cards would be getting the 49ers' second best quarterback.
But that would be a temporary upgrade for the Cardinals under the current circumstances.
Q: I wonder if there are any financial reasons for the 49ers to exclude Alex Smith from playing any more games this season. His contract seemed to have about $3-plus million in incentives and although that may not seem like much, it still is money that could be taken off of the table if the team thinks it could win games with either quarterback.
Ian in Winnipeg, Manitoba
A: There's no financial issues whatsoever. Sure, Smith loses incentives if he doesn't play, but Jim Harbaugh would gladly pay them if Smith produces. Harbaugh wants to win. That's what he's all about. He's making this gamble on Kaepernick because he believes Kaepernick can take this team to the Super Bowl. It's a gutsy call.
Q: I know in the past you've discussed the trend of positional players wearing less and less in the way of pads (such as thigh, knee, etc.). My question involves mouth guards. It appears to me from TV that a lot of players don't wear them. With the spotlight on concussions, I have trouble seeing why this is the case. It's proven that mouth guards help prevent concussions and, at a minimum, I think it undermines the players' complaints about safety and concussions. If they have an easy option to take to reduce concussions to themselves, and don't, how can they blame league for failing to protect them?
Brendan in Anchorage, Alaska
A: Next year, the league is going to mandate more leg pads, and I can't imagine any player not using a mouth guard. It may not look as though they aren't using them, but I venture to say some might not be visible on television.
You bring up a good point, though. A couple of years ago, the New Orleans Saints tried a mouth guard that was designed for each specific player to minimize the impact of concussion-like hits. Those appeared to work. The NFL probably needs to show teams how upgraded mouth guards are working. It's probably not at the stage where those mouth guards should be mandatory, but it's an important enough topic to get it to teams.
Q: The extra-point rule in games already decided? Simple fix: if teams would just send their offense out and take a knee the rule would change immediately. There's nothing illegal about going for two.
Mike in Thornville, Ohio
A: You are obviously talking about the requirement of a team to go on the field in regulation and kick an extra point when time expires on the clock. The Seahawks, for example, had to kick the extra point after their controversial last-second victory over the Green Bay Packers. Teams do have those options.
But if a coach has a chance to get a point, he's going to go for the kick. Taking a knee would mean no points, and that is an option. As for actually going for two, though, that would be rubbing it in. It wouldn't be illegal, but it would create an uncomfortable situation for the coaches.
Q: While the Jim Schwartz situation is unique as far as how the league handles coaches challenges, I have always been baffled by why a coach only gets two challenges per game? If a coach successfully challenges an incorrect call he should not be penalized by losing a challenge. I realize the league has to think of how long games will take to play, but from the eyes of a fan it is always disappointing when your team cannot challenge a play late in the game because they had to use them up on bogus calls from earlier in the game. If the call was wrong I do not think it should come out of the coaches two challenges.
Does this ever get brought up at the competition committee?
Michael in Kansas City, Mo.
A: If a coach successfully challenges a call, he doesn't "lose" a challenge. He wins. Also, according to Rule 15, section 9 of the NFL rules: "Each challenge will require the use of a team timeout. If a challenge is upheld, the timeout will be restored to the challenging team. A challenge will only be restored if a team is successful on both of its challenges, in which case it shall be awarded a third challenge, but a fourth challenge will not be permitted under any circumstances."
Also, the league would never add to the challenges because it knows coaches would challenge everything and the games would get too long and too boring.
Coaches have to be smart about how they use the challenges. I'm personally not in favor of more calls being the sole judgment of the referees and replay officials, but the rule change that puts every scoring play and every turnover under review should give coaches the ability to manage their challenges better. If they use their early challenges on placement spots of the ball or minor plays, they leave themselves open to criticism if they don't have a challenge toward the end of the game. People want to see football, not replay delays.
Q: After the string of QB concussions in Week 10 this season, I wondered if the rule to hold out players showing concussion symptoms was fully thought out in terms of the incentives it creates. One can argue, I think, that there is an incentive for helmet contact again, especially against impact players like quarterbacks. While the rule itself protects players who are showing the symptoms from getting back in the game, it also lowers threshold of injury it takes to knock someone out of a game. I think that defensive players know that if they clean a clock well enough, the guy is going to be foggy and will be held out as a result and will worry about fines later. I feel there may be a need for additional penalties where if determined by replay that a defensive player had very reasonable opportunity not to make helmet contact with a player and did so anyway and that it should warrant up to ejection.
Ken in Columbus, Ohio
A: You are where the NFL and the officials are in regard to hits on quarterbacks. Defensive players have known forever the advantage of knocking out a good quarterback. Now, more rules are in place to prevent that.
If a defender crosses the line, he could get suspended. Though Tim Dobbins' hit on Jay Cutler was borderline as far as being fineable because Cutler ran to the line of scrimmage, that hit cost the Bears Cutler and the next game because Cutler didn't play.
I don't think it will get to the point where a team takes a lesser-talented player and uses him like a hockey goon to take out the quarterback, but that incentive is always there.
Q: In your Nov. 28 mailbag in response to a question from Eric in Tampa you supported the trend of referees' not blowing the whistle on close turnover plays and in principle I agree. However, because they have to rule the play a turnover on the field, doesn't this gives an unfair advantage to the defense since there must then be "incontrovertibly video evidence" that there was not a turnover for the offense to keep the ball? Since there has to be a replay, why make a call on the field at all?
Bob in Trieste, Italy
A: A call has to be made on the field because on-field officials need to make a decision. Replay is available to support, but wasn't implemented to be in the front wave of officiating. The NFL and the competition committee pay officials a lot of money to do their work. If officials didn't make decisions and went straight to replay, it would make them less efficient. Officials are human. They will make mistakes. Replay is there to fix that. The NFL teams accepted replay as a support mechanism. Nothing more.
Q: We've all seen an increase in fines for defensive players dealing with player safety. My question is, Why aren't quarterbacks being fined for "hanging their WRs out to dry?" A quarterback knows that he's potentially risking a teammate to be injured. I think it should be a two way road for fines. What do you think?
Alexis in Lufkin, Texas
A: The quarterback who does that pays a bigger price -- he loses the respect of his teammates. If the quarterback does that too often, he's going to lose his job. That's a big enough penalty.