First Down/Fourth Down: The best and worst of Weeks 1 through 4
J.J. Watt is the best player in football right now. Period. End of discussion.
Others may have a case for the quarter-mark MVP -- The MMQB's Peter King gave the nod to Philip Rivers, with DeMarco Murray second and Watt third. A defensive player has not won the MVP honor since Lawrence Taylor in 1986, so the tendency for voters is and likely will be to lean toward offensive players, and quarterbacks in particular.
"One of the keys was to make sure that he wasn't going to make that big disruptive play, and he did," Bills coach Doug Marrone said of Watt following Houston's 23-17 win on Sunday. "He made a lot of plays."
The latest highlight: an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown. The pick-six was Watt's second score of the year, following his touchdown reception against Oakland in Week 2. He is sitting on just two sacks through four weeks, a pace down from last season's 10.5-sack total and light years off the 20.5 he posted in 2012.
He impacts the game in so many ways, though, that the sack statistic barely scratches the surface in quantifying his effort. A better gauge may be the 13 hurries and 16 quarterback hits he's already racked up, according to Pro Football Focus. Watt finished with 36 quarterback hits in 2013, more than any other defensive end; the next closest 3-4 defensive end, Calais Campbell, had 17.
Watt has been unstoppable through four weeks of the regular season. Well, really, for the past two seasons plus four weeks of 2014. His 2012 Defensive Player of the Year award will have some company soon if he keeps playing at this level.
And now, with four weeks in the books, First Down/Fourth Down takes a run through the rest of the best and worst of the NFL regular season's first quarter.
Circling back to Murray: He's sitting on 534 yards rushing, an average of 133.5 per game. Just four other running backs have accumulated 300-plus yards on the ground this season; none outside of Murray have hit 400.
He is on pace to finish with 2,136 yards, which would make him the third player this decade to top 2K, joining Adrian Peterson (2012) and Chris Johnson (2009). Clearly, Murray deserves a ton of the credit here. He should share it with his offensive line.
The Cowboys have been obliterating defenders up front, led by soon-to-be perennial All-Pro Tyron Smith at left tackle. Smith was a first-round pick in 2011, and he has been joined by 2013 first-round pick Travis Frederick at center and 2014 first-rounder Zack Martin at guard. Add in the steady play of veteran right tackle Doug Free and rapidly improving left guard Ronald Leary and you have arguably the most dominant line in football at the moment.
Tight end Jason Witten deserves a mention, too. His pass-catching numbers have dropped (15 receptions so far), mainly because the Cowboys have been so effective on the ground. Witten has played a huge role in helping to seal the edges.
Everything is clicking in big D.
Fourth Down: Struggling running backs.
Not every star back enjoyed the same luxury as Murray in September. Eddie Lacy, LeSean McCoy and Reggie Bush were among those scuffling in the early going; others, like Jamaal Charles, Knowshon Moreno and Doug Martin, have been held back by injuries.
For McCoy and Lacy, Nos. 1 and 5 respectively in rushing yards last season, the prevailing issue has been the same: O-line injuries. Both the Eagles and Packers have been shorthanded up front -- the problem in Philadelphia exacerbated by the four-game suspension Lane Johnson served out of the gate.
Lacy (3.0) and McCoy (2.7) have two of the worst yards-per-attempt numbers of any starting backs. Jacksonville's Toby Gerhart, a disappointment in his own right, is at 2.4.
First Down: The ageless Steve Smith.
A lot of attention was paid this offseason to Baltimore's addition of Gary Kubiak as its offensive coordinator, and rightly so. His presence was expected to kick-start a run game that imploded in 2013.
There have been obvious signs of life in that area lately, but it is Smith's addition to the Ravens' receiving corps that has elevated the offense thus far. Smith currently sits in the NFL's top 10 in receptions, with 25, and he's third in receiving yards. Sunday, he worked his former team (Carolina) to the tune of 10 catches, 139 yards and two scores.
"I’m 35 years old," he said afterward, "and I ran around them boys like they were school-yard kids."
Fourth Down: Robert Griffin III's future.
The question here is not so much "Is Griffin done as an NFL quarterback?" as it is "Is Griffin done as Washington's quarterback?"
A dislocated ankle suffered in Week 2 was the latest hit to RGIII's development. It came seven days after he completed 78.3 percent of his passes but hung just six points on the scoreboard at Houston, a game in which Griffin played like a pared-down version of his former, electrifying self.
Kirk Cousins may have blown his chance to take the Redskins' starting job for good by turning the ball over five times against the Giants last Thursday. Still, Griffin's place in the franchise pecking order is far from secure.
First Down: Kyle Fuller's Rookie of the Year campaign.
What the Bears value almost above all other traits at the cornerback spot is playmaking ability. Sure, they want to find guys who can hold their own in a variety of coverages, but their defense has lived for years off forcing turnovers.
Fuller has been a perfect fit. He has three interceptions to lead the league and has forced two fumbles, looking every bit like longtime Bears corner Charles Tillman in accomplishing the latter; Tillman suffered a season-ending (and possibly career-ending) injury back in Week 2.
"I can’t say enough about Kyle," Bears safety Ryan Mundy told the Chicago Sun-Times after a Week 3 win over the Jets. "He’s a very hard-working, mature young man who’s doing an excellent job for us. He has excellent ball skills, excellent toughness and he’s definitely a player for us right now."
Fourth Down: All the off-field garbage.
It is probably not necessary to rehash all that has ailed the NFL from the offseason until now. How the Ray Rice situation was handled by the league raised all sorts of red flags, which off-field incidents involving Adrian Peterson, Ray McDonald, Greg Hardy and others have only served to illuminate further.
There was also the rather sudden about-face pulled on the league's drug policy, reducing some of the penalties, including those for players already serving suspensions.
Commissioner Roger Goodell's job may not be in serious jeopardy at the moment, but he has left himself more vulnerable than ever. The ever-developing Rice case may pile on still more discontent in the near future.
First Down: Coaching changes in Cleveland, Detroit, Houston and Minnesota.
The jury remains out on the entire 2014 coaching carousel, so certainly there is no reason yet to write off Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay or Ken Whisenhunt in Tennessee or any other coach/coordinator moves made this offseason.
That said, the improvements displayed to date by the Browns, Lions, Texans and Vikings are noteworthy. Detroit's Jim Caldwell and Houston's Bill O'Brien, in particular, must be carrying awfully high approval ratings into Week 5 -- both the Lions and Texans are 3-1 and alone atop their respective divisions. The Texans already have more wins (three) than they did all of last season.
Meanwhile, the Browns and Vikings at the very least are far more competitive than they were in 2013. Cleveland's 1-2 record does not tell the full story of its play -- Mike Pettine's club easily could be 3-0. Minnesota is at 2-2, despite the Peterson firestorm, and rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is bringing a level of excitement not seen in the Twin Cities in years.
Fourth Down: Whatever Oakland is doing.
Mired at 0-4 and coming off a humiliating loss in London, the Raiders reportedly fired head coach Dennis Allen on Monday ... via a phone call. Who knows what's next for this long downtrodden franchise. The Raiders were 8-28 overall under Allen, have lost 10 straight dating back to the 2013 season and have not finished above .500 since claiming the AFC title in 2002.
The rebuilding process took a rather odd turn in the offseason, as general manager Reggie McKenzie opted to sign a number of veterans nearing the tail end of their careers. Hope for the future rests on rookies Derek Carr and Khalil Mack, but the dysfunction up top leaves them at risk of being dragged down like so many players before them.
First Down: Every division race.
Odds are that at least a couple of teams will separate themselves from the pack over the coming months. As things stand headed into Week 5, however, the league's pecking order is about as jumbled as it can get.
Think about it: Is there a single division race that you could predict today with any degree of certainty? Can't see how. And that goes for the divisions that have stood tall early (AFC North, NFC West, surprisingly the NFC East) and those that are works in progress (NFC South, AFC East, etc.).
Obviously, there is a long way to go, but this season is shaping up to be a thriller.
Fourth Down: The Jaguars' defensive pace.
The 1981 Baltimore Colts own the dubious distinction of having allowed more points than any team in NFL history: 533, during a 2-14 season. The 2012 Saints defense surrendered more yards than any squad before or since: a staggering 7,042.
The 2014 Jaguars could break both marks.
Jacksonville has lost its first four games by an average of 23.5 points, a stat that is embarrassing enough without considering that head coach Gus Bradley is known as a brilliant defensive mind. His team has had trouble proving it.
At 38 points allowed per game, the Jaguars are on pace to give up 608 points for the season -- 75 more than that record-setting Colts team. The 451.25 yards-per-game clip the Jaguars defense is allowing stretches out to 7,220 yards over a 16-game season. If there is any silver lining at all, it is that the Jaguars' points and yards allowed have dropped each week, from a 44-point, 529-yard showing by the Eagles in Week 3 to a 33-point, 407-yard effort from San Diego last Sunday.
That's not much of a bright spot, but it is about all the Jaguars defense has right now.