Commentary

Help wanted at receiver

WRs missing in action, the predictable Boys and must-win games highlight Week 9

Originally Published: October 31, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The receiver position took some major injury hits in Week 8.

Sidney Rice and Travis Benjamin suffered season-ending ACL injuries. A knee injury put Miami slot receiver Brandon Gibson on the shelf. Detroit receiver Ryan Broyles blew out an Achilles tendon. Tampa Bay's Mike Williams tore a hamstring and ended up on injured reserve. A week earlier, veteran Reggie Wayne tore his ACL on a non-contact play.

What became clear this week is there are few options on the street to replace the wounded wideouts. If Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson were to get another chance, this would have been the week. But nothing happened. Brandon Lloyd could have changed his mind about retirement, but he didn't.

The limited resources at receiver hit the New England Patriots in training camp, and the team is still reeling. Bill Belichick knew there would be an adjustment period for Tom Brady, who was practicing and preparing to play without his five top pass-catchers from last year. Though New England's personnel office worked the phones, the options weren't great. Eventually, the Patriots brought in Austin Collie, but he's recorded only three catches in a Patriots uniform.

San Francisco would love to upgrade its No. 2 and 3 receivers behind Anquan Boldin. Halfway through the season, the Niners still haven't found an answer, so they'll wait for Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree to come off the physically unable to perform list.

Even the trade market offered nothing. No receiver was traded as the trade deadline quietly passed Tuesday afternoon.

The Dolphins brought in a road show of available receivers. They looked at Mohamed Massaquoi, Mike Thomas, Matt Willis and Ben Obomanu. Cleveland signed Armanti Edwards, while Seattle added Ricardo Lockette from the practice squad.

Since the start of the regular season, the only receiver signed off the street to catch more than six passes for a new team is Baltimore's Tandon Doss, who was only a couple weeks removed from being cut by the Ravens. Kevin Ogletree caught eight passes for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being released. He has five catches for the Lions and figures to get more with Broyles down for the season.

The message is clear: If you don't get your receivers through the draft or acquire a veteran in the offseason, you're not going to have much hope replacing anyone once the regular season starts.

Here are the top 10 trends going into Week 9.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsTheir record may not reflect it but the Cowboys have been one of the most entertaining teams this season.

1. Unpredictably predictable Cowboys: While many outside of Dallas might not like the Cowboys, they are an interesting show. Last Sunday's 31-30 Cowboys loss to the Detroit Lions was perhaps the best game of the season. While the quality of play was great on the field, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant twice started yelling at teammates and coaches near the benches. Jerry Jones and the players involved defended Bryant, but the scene was pretty crazy. That's the unpredictability of the Cowboys. Until they win a close game against a winning team on the road, there also is predictability to the franchise. At least they admit it. As Jones and several players said after the loss, until they win games like last Sunday's, they are doomed to mediocrity. Look at the record. Since 1997, the Cowboys are 132-132. They can't seem to get out of the .500 rut and here's the reason: They struggle against winning teams. Since 2011, the Cowboys are 4-19 against teams that finished the season with winning records. They are 16-1 against teams that finished the regular season with losing records. That helps and hurts for the second half of the season. On Sunday, the Cowboys host the 2-5 Minnesota Vikings, a team struggling to figure out what it has at quarterback. The Cowboys should win. Next week, they travel to New Orleans, one of the best teams in the NFC. That should be a loss, and the Cowboys will be back to .500. But they are in the NFC East, a division that has three teams with losing records and a division that should belong to Dallas this year. If the losing trend continues in the NFC East, the Cowboys may win the division with an 8-8 or 9-7 record. Unfortunately, the playoffs probably won't have any weak teams for them to feast on.

2. Is the AFC West really that good? Kansas City is unbeaten. Denver sits at 7-1. San Diego is 4-3 and Oakland is 3-4. The combined record of the four teams in the division is 22-8 -- the best nine-week record of a division since the merger. A 9-1 record against the horrible NFC East is one of the reasons, but those games are drying up. The Broncos went 4-0 against the East, while the Chiefs are 3-0 with only the Redskins left to play. Sunday will be a good test to see if the trend holds up. The Chiefs travel to Buffalo, hoping the Bills won't be a trap game. If the Chiefs win, they will be 9-0 heading into a bye in advance of a Nov. 17 must-see contest against the Broncos. Bills starting quarterback EJ Manuel won't play because of a knee injury, and Thaddeus Lewis is questionable to start with a rib injury. The Chargers have a chance to go 3-0 against the NFC East if they can outduel Robert Griffin III and the Redskins at FedEx Field. The Oakland Raiders, much improved on defense and energized by quarterback Terrelle Pryor, host a Philadelphia Eagles team that hasn't had a 300-yard total offensive output in two weeks.

3. Seasons on the brink: Coaches may tell players and the media not to panic about slow starts, noting the second half of the season is at hand and plenty of good football is ahead. But the clock is ticking on some franchises and several coaches. Greg Schiano heads the list. He's 0-7, fans are unhappy, players are unsettled and the Bucs travel to Seattle with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon under center. The Bucs have been blown out by 18 or more points in three of their past five games. If Schiano can't make them competitive quickly, ownership might consider making a coaching change. In the past two weeks, Schiano has lost halfback Doug Martin and wide receiver Mike Williams. Guard Carl Nicks is out after recent surgery.

Leslie Frazier is also running out of time. The Vikings are 1-6 and Frazier has a mess at quarterback. They could be easy prey for the up-and-down Cowboys. And then there's Mike Tomlin and the Steelers. A loss to the Patriots on Sunday could drop Pittsburgh to 2-6 and all but end the Steelers' season.

4. Houston, we have too many problems: Since coming into the NFL as an expansion team in 2002, the Texans have been staring up in the standings at the Indianapolis Colts. A neck injury to Peyton Manning in 2011 gave the Texans an opening, and they captured the division crown in each of the past two years and were the favorites going into this season. Sunday night could signal the close of that short window of hope. The Texans host the first-place Colts and emerging QB Andrew Luck. A loss would drop them four games behind Indy and point to major changes in the offseason. Houston coach Gary Kubiak has a mess at hand. The defense fell apart last year after losing Brian Cushing for the season, and this week is the first game the Texans will play since Cushing suffered his latest knee injury. Matt Schaub is now a benched starting quarterback coming off an injury, and Kubiak is hoping Case Keenum can reinvigorate the squad. Kubiak doesn't know if his top two running backs -- Arian Foster and Ben Tate -- are healthy enough to play. The Colts have been good closers with their defense and with Luck behind center. That's yet another problem for the Texans.

[+] EnlargeNewton
Jeff Siner/Getty ImagesCam Newton is playing the best football of his short career and could be pointing Carolina toward a postseason berth.

5. Teams on the rise: San Diego and Carolina have risen from the ranks of the NFL's below-average teams. Each squad sports a 4-3 record, putting each in position to challenge for a wild-card spot. Sunday could determine if their playoff threats are for real. The Panthers host a beat-up Falcons team that is down at receiver and has a banged-up running back,  Steven Jackson. Carolina QB Cam Newton is playing his best football over the past four games. Falcons QB Matt Ryan is struggling with the limited weapons he has around him. Still, this is a good rivalry that usually has close, good games. If the Panthers can win this game, they can make the claim they are legit playoff contenders after years of frustration. Ron Rivera has assembled one of the best defensive front sevens in football. That will cause problems for a Falcons offensive line that hasn't been great at blocking anyone. In San Diego, Philip Rivers has revived his career under new coach Mike McCoy. In his past three games, he's completed at least 20 passes at around an 80 percent clip. The Chargers play Washington hoping to get to 5-3.

6. Shaking things up in Baltimore: A couple weeks ago, John Harbaugh called out the Ravens' poor blocking along the offensive line. Afterward, the Ravens traded for Eugene Monroe and then traded Bryant McKinnie, giving him a chance to play in Miami.

This week, Harbaugh shook up the locker room by cutting defensive end Marcus Spears and safety Michael Huff, two of the players brought in during the offseason to improve the defense. Harbaugh is trying to keep the 3-4 Ravens in the playoff hunt. They play the Cleveland Browns, a division opponent they've beaten 11 consecutive times. That's the longest active streak in the league against an opponent.

The Browns are improved on defense and trying to find themselves on offense with Jason Campbell behind center. The Ravens have their own issues on offense. Halfback Ray Rice is averaging only 2.8 yards per carry, and Harbaugh knows it is important to get the running game going. Harbaugh is going to do anything he can to get the offense and defense playing better.

7. Can the Bears stay competitive? Jay Cutler is supposed to miss a month with a torn groin. Starting with Monday's night visit to the Green Bay Packers, the Bears could fall out of contention if they can't compensate for his loss. The Bears play the Detroit Lions, Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams in the three games following Green Bay. Since Cutler arrived, the Bears are 2-6 in games he's missed because of injuries. Josh McCown is a decent backup, but he's a backup at this stage of his career. In their non-Cutler games, the Bears' offensive production dropped almost 10 points per game.

Under Marc Trestman, the Bears are averaging 30.4 points a game. Dropping down to 20 points per game would be a problem because the Bears are giving up 29.4 points a game. If the Bears go 1-3 during the four games without Cutler, it would put them at 5-6, almost knocking them out of playoff contention.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/Brent R. SmithThe Seattle Seahawks are happy that QB Russell Wilson made football his professional sport of choice.

8. A flashback for Russell Wilson: When Russell Wilson was at North Carolina State, he wanted the best of both worlds. He was a good baseball player and wanted to play that sport. He was also a great college quarterback. He wanted to play football, too. Tom O'Brien was the North Carolina State head coach who said no. O'Brien knew he could go to Mike Glennon as his quarterback, so he let Wilson transfer to Wisconsin, where Wilson became an instant team captain and a star.

After being taken in the third round of the 2012 draft, Wilson has helped turn the Seahawks into a Super Bowl-level team. O'Brien lost his job at NC State, but Glennon now has the starting job on the 0-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Glennon will face the Seahawks and Wilson on Sunday.

9. Too bad the game isn't in Nashville: Jeff Fisher won a combined 147 regular-season and playoff games in 17 seasons for the Tennessee Titans. He was the face and hope of the franchise each year. On Sunday, Fisher goes against the franchise he helped groom when the Titans visit the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome.

Titans head coach Mike Munchak is fighting to keep his job, and both Munchak and Fisher coach in similar ways. Munchak and Fisher have gone to more of a power running-type offense in a game that loves to spread receivers all over the field. Meanwhile, the Titans are getting better with Jake Locker at quarterback. The Rams took a huge setback when they lost Sam Bradford for the season with a torn ACL. On Monday night, backup Kellen Clemens couldn't generate a touchdown in a 14-9 loss to Seattle.

10. The Ryans get together: Rex Ryan is the head coach of the New York Jets, and his team has surprised everyone with a 4-4 start despite a lack of talent on offense and starting a rookie quarterback, Geno Smith. Rob Ryan is the New Orleans Saints' defensive coordinator, and he's done a great job turning around the Saints' defense. Rex has won the only two times they've faced each other: once when Rob was in Cleveland and once when Rob was in Dallas.

Rex has to find out what happened to his defense. After fielding one of the best defenses in the first half of the season, last week the Jets' D gave up 35 points to the Bengals in a 49-9 loss. If the Jets suffer the same breakdowns, they could be blown out by Drew Brees, who once again is having a hot year.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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