Things we know (or at least think we do) one month into the NFL's regular season....
• Despite the hand-wringing and dire predictions, the New York Giants definitely have enough receiving talent. And for that matter, so do the Colts and Bears. The Giants, Colts and Bears have won 11 of a combined 12 games, and all of them have gotten bountiful contributions from their young receivers after enduring questions about the position throughout the offseason.
In New York, they're not paying for the decision to release veterans Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, the starting receivers on their 2007 Super Bowl championship team. The Giants and their 8th-ranked passing game are getting big things out of Steve Smith (team-best 34 catches, 411 yards, four touchdowns) and Mario Manningham (18 for 306, 2 touchdowns), with rookie Hakeem Nicks healthy again and starting to contribute (three catches for 72 yards and a touchdown).
In Indianapolis, even without Marvin Harrison or the injured Anthony Gonzalez, Peyton Manning leads a Colts passing game ranked best in the NFL with 330.2 yards per game. Along with stalwarts Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, Manning already has developed nice rapport with both Austin Collie (12 catches, 131 yards, 1 touchdown) and Pierre Garcon (10 for 207, 2 touchdowns).
And in Chicago, where the lack of proven receivers was a steady drumbeat for months, the Jay Cutler-led Bears are 3-1 thanks in part to the reliable play-making of rookie receiver Johnny Knox (14 catches, 190 yards, two touchdowns) and second-year man Earl Bennett (15 for 200). As is the case elsewhere, in Chicago, the no-name receivers are rapidly becoming known as dependable threats.
• By my count, there are 20 ex-NFL head coaches currently serving as assistants throughout the league (excluding those who have been only interim head coaches). The ex-head coach job market has become a particularly rich source of coaching talent, with a surprisingly high number of them growing into roles that are critical to their team's success.
This season, new Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan (formerly Niners head coach) and new Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (Bills) are earning plaudits for their work in helping turn underachieving Denver and New Orleans into winners. In Chicago, assistant head coach/defensive line coach Rod Marinelli (Lions) has been responsible for a noticeable upgrade of the Bears pass rush and overall defensive line play.
Last year, the Ravens offense benefited greatly from the skill of coordinator Cam Cameron (Dolphins), who got lots of credit for Joe Flacco's development. The story was roughly the same in Atlanta, where new offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (Bills) helped steer the Falcons offense and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan to first-year success, and in Miami, where offensive coordinator Dan Henning (Falcons, Chargers) was instrumental in the Dolphins' resurgence.
Be it Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau (Bengals), Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride (Chargers) or Eagles assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg (Lions), ex-head coaches have become a valuable resource around the league, and many have rehabilitated their coaching reputations in the process.
• Vince Young and Matt Leinart were big winners in college, but that isn't helping them fight their way back onto the field in the NFL. The Titans are 0-4 and the Cardinals are 1-2, but they're not benching the 36-year-old Kerry Collins or the 38-year-old Kurt Warner and giving the ball to Young or Leinart yet.
There are 14 quarterbacks drafted in the past five years who are currently starting in the NFL, but just one of them is from Young and Leinart's 2006 Class: Chicago's Jay Cutler (first round).
The 2005 class features Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Washington's Jason Campbell (both first round), Denver's Kyle Orton (fourth), Cleveland's Derek Anderson (sixth) and Kansas City's Matt Cassel (seventh).
The 2007 contingent is Oakland's JaMarcus Russell (first) and Buffalo's Trent Edwards (third). In 2008, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco (both first round) started as rookies, and Miami's Chad Henne (second) and Tampa Bay's Josh Johnson (fifth) made their debuts in the lineup last week. And this year, of course, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and the Jets' Mark Sanchez (both first round) are rookie starters.
• The Cowboys new $1.15 billion stadium is a marvel, but the Cowboys themselves aren't substantially different than the disappointing 9-7 team that we watched last season. Even without Terrell Owens around, there's still much divided opinion about Tony Romo's game, and the new, tougher, all-business version of Wade Phillips still doesn't seem to be able to do anything but stand back and watch his team ride the weekly rollercoaster.
• Buffalo, Kansas City and Tampa Bay, the three teams that fired their offensive coordinators just before the season began, haven't exactly fixed their issues. The Bills, Chiefs and Bucs are a combined 1-11, with that lone win coming in head-to-head play (Buffalo beat Tampa Bay). Turk Schonert, Chan Gailey and Jeff Jagodzinski obviously weren't the whole problem.
• If I had drawn up a preseason list of quarterbacks who were most likely to get hurt at some point this year, Chad Pennington, Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck and Mark Bulger would have been my top four choices in some order. And for good reason, as it turns out. All of them went down in September.
• With one sack and nine tackles through three games, Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, he of the $1 million-plus salary per game, isn't worth his paycheck. Spectacularly.
• Roy Williams hasn't made anyone think he's a No. 1 receiver in Dallas so far. His 11 catches for 219 yards and one touchdown through four games puts him on pace for a 44-catch, 856-yard, four-touchdown season.
• Buffalo stirred up plenty of fan interest when it signed Terrell Owens, but the excitement ended after those early days of training camp. There was an awful lot of fuss over a player who has just eight catches for 158 yards and a touchdown through four games. The Bills could have started 1-3 with or without him.
• If one bounce of the ball goes differently, the Bengals are the surprise 4-0 team in the league, not the Broncos.
• The "Wildcat'' formation hasn't given us one big highlight moment yet this season, has it? Other than, in our minds, the night Michael Vick signed with the Eagles.
• It's very, very hard to follow up on success in the NFL. Last year's two Super Bowl teams, the Steelers and Cardinals, are a combined 3-4 so far. And six of last season's eight division winners are at .500 or worse through four games. Tennessee and Carolina are winless, Miami and Arizona own one win, and San Diego and Pittsburgh are 2-2.
Only the Giants and Vikings have returned strong so far, at 4-0.
• The transition from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis has been as seamless as anyone could have dreamed. The transition from Mike Holmgren to Jim Mora in Seattle has also been seamless, but only in the sense that the Seahawks are the same injury-plagued team this season they were last season.
• Denver's switch to the 3-4 defense is working wonders. Green Bay's remains a work in progress.
• Carson Palmer is back, and unsurprisingly, that means the Bengals are too.
• If you have to start more than one quarterback in the season's first month, you're probably losing. Of the seven teams that already have started multiple quarterbacks -- Miami, Cleveland, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Seattle and St. Louis -- only one of them has a winning record: the 2-1 Eagles. The Browns, Chiefs, Bucs and Rams are all winless at 0-4, while the Dolphins and Seahawks own just one victory.
• Jason Campbell and Jim Zorn are still tied at the hip in Washington. And I wouldn't give you $5 that either one of them are Redskins again in 2010.
• Brett Favre still has it. Other veteran faces in new places do too. If you thought Tony Gonzalez, Brian Dawkins, Fred Taylor, Darren Sharper and Orlando Pace were washed up, you were misinformed.
• This season's new crop of head coaches has a real boom-bust quality to it. Four of the league's 11 new head coaches are a combined 14-2 thus far: Denver's Josh McDaniels and Indy's Jim Caldwell are each 4-0, while the Jets' Rex Ryan and San Francisco's Mike Singletary are both 3-1.
The NFL's other seven new head coaches are a combined 3-25: Cleveland's Eric Mangini, Kansas City's Todd Haley, Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris and St. Louis's Steve Spagnuolo are all 0-4. Seattle's Jim Mora, Oakland's Tom Cable, and Detroit's Jim Schwartz are each 1-3.
• The Saints and the Vikings both can thank the deferral of any StarCaps suspensions for a good chunk of their 4-0 starts. New Orleans defensive ends Charles Grant (four sacks) and Will Smith (two sacks, one fumble forced) have both been big playmakers for a Saints defense ranked 7th in points allowed (16.5 per game). Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams have done their usual work for a Vikings run defense that ranks 9th in the league with 89.5 yards allowed per game.
• In terms of their high-profile returns from knee injuries, Tom Brady is far more back than Shawne Merriman, but maybe not quite as far back as Cadillac Williams.
• If you believe in the power of coaching trees, Tony Dungy's (Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell) is currently tops in the NFL, narrowly besting Andy Reid's (Brad Childress, John Harbaugh, Steve Spagnuolo), and by a healthier margin, Bill Belichick's (Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, and by the loosest definition, Jim Schwartz).
• The first-place teams in the AFC West and NFC West are off to great starts -- Denver is 4-0 and San Francisco 3-1 -- but the rest of the weakest two divisions are the same mess they've been in recent years.
In the NFC West, Arizona (1-2), Seattle (1-3) and St. Louis (0-4) are a combined 2-9, with the only non-division win being the Cardinals' victory at Jacksonville. In the AFC West, San Diego (2-2), Oakland (1-3) and Kansas City (0-4) are a combined 3-9, with the only non-division win being the Chargers' home win over Miami.
That's good news for the teams in the NFC North and the AFC South, which both play all four clubs in the NFC West this season, and for the NFC East and AFC North, which have games against the AFC West this year.
• The Bucs and Browns were the teams that had the highest level of indecision at quarterback throughout the long offseason, and that's almost always an indication a club doesn't like any of its choices. Despite months spent pondering their QB situations, both Tampa Bay and Cleveland reversed their opening-day starting decisions after just three games, benching former first-round picks Brady Quinn and Byron Leftwich in favor of late-round QBs Derek Anderson and Josh Johnson.
And here's a prediction you can take to the bank: Those won't be the last moves the woeful Bucs and Browns make at quarterback this season.
• Neither the 49ers or the Raiders have had a winning season since 2002, when both won their division and went to the playoffs. Last year, they both fired their coaches in midseason, with the Raiders canning Lane Kiffin after four games and the 49ers axing Mike Nolan after seven.
Both of them gave their interim head coaches the fulltime gig this offseason, and both men promised to change the culture of defeat in the Bay Area. But that's where the similarities end.
In San Francisco, the shenanigans and the losing has ended with the no-nonsense Mike Singletary leading the 49ers to a 3-1 mark and first place in the NFC West. In Oakland, the beat (and the beatings) goes on. The Raiders are 1-3, in third place in the AFC West, and head coach Tom Cable has made headlines for the kind of nonsense Oakland is known.