The False Start is a weekly football column consisting of nonsensical analysis about how we, as consumers, think about the New England Patriots and the NFL – excuse me, THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE. This week’s title:
“25% of Something Is 75% Short of Everything Else”
PREGAME: The title of this week’s False Start column could easily just have been “I Hate Weekly NFL Power Rankings Because They Are Very, Very Stupid.” But I’m not sure that entry into our diary would have sounded very elegant.
We’ll get to the meat of what we know (and don’t know) from three weeks of football in a second, but for now, as always, let’s dive into every football fan’s mental state. Today’s thought: IF YOU WANNA CROWN THEM, THEN CROWN THEIR ASS!
KICKOFF: We’ll get to the Flying Elvis in a few hundred words. First, dear reader, we need to talk about Peyton Manning’s greatness, and how to react to expectations when they are met.
It’s no secret that, at this point, Manning is well on his way to breaking all the football records. Each one. Week by week, play by play. The dude is on pace for 64 touchdown passes, a number that would shatter Tom Brady’s record-setting 2007 season. He’s doing it with precision that demands even the biggest Manning-basher to take a moment and appreciate what we are witnessing. His completion rate stands at 73 percent, which is crazy, and, if maintained, would edge out Drew Brees’ 2011 mark of 71.2 percent for best all-time.
This is a torrid pace that’s not probable to be sustained. Frankly, he’s playing on another planet that only exists in the heads of science-fiction writers. Think about it this way: Through three games, Manning has tossed 12 touchdown passes. For perspective, that’s the same total as Ryan Tannehill tallied in a full season of work last year, or what Mike Vick managed in 10 games, or, even more impressive, two more than Jake Locker amassed in 11 games.
All of that is well and good, but let’s relax.
Replay that video of Dennis Green’s rant about the Chicago Bears in 2006. Maybe it was comical and scary and perplexing, but the missive was also accurate. You can’t win the Super Bowl in September, you can only lose it (MEMO to Redskins, Giants, Jaguars and Bucs fans: You guys, sadly, have already lost it. Sorry.).
A fourth of the season is in the books. There’s evidence to go on, but that still means 3/4s have yet to be played (MATH!). And really, this is why reading the overload of power polls that will come out next week is a meaningless exercise. There’s too much placed on too little evidence.
This is especially the case for Manning and the Broncos, for two undisputable reasons:
Even as a 37-year-old, Manning’s freakish numbers are hardly shocking. He’s old, but you could make the argument that Peyton’s second best season was just last year, in his first run with the Broncos, when he threw 37 touchdowns while completing over 68 percent of his passes. Were we expecting his skill to deteriorate THAT much since the Ravens eliminated him from the playoffs last January?
And now, given that he’s had a full offseason to acclimate to the offensive scheme, the arrival of Wes Welker, and the continued growth of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, the notion that this historical season could happen is hardly a STEAMING SPORTS TAKE. Heck, throw in the continued the unexpected rise of tight end Julius Thomas, and I’d almost expect this output from Manning. Yet we’re overreacting to the impressive numbers, because, in 2013, patience for things to play out isn’t tolerated.
Here’s the bigger issue: Manning looks as good as ever. No one is arguing any different. It’s a consensus opinion, in a fragmented sports landscape, and that’s scary. But you know what’s not scary? The opponents the Broncos have defeated so far.
Let’s review: The chatter OUT THERE extolled Manning’s seven touchdown passes opening night as the Broncos manhandled the defending champion Ravens. But don’t forget that the Ravens team that took the field was not the same group of players who hoisted Vinny Lombardi’s coveted trophy in the winter. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and Cary Williams were all were key figures in last season’s playoff run, but each were watching on television when the Broncos faced off with the Ravens in Week 1. And despite that caveat, and having home field advantage, Manning and the Broncos still trailed at halftime, 17-14. In the second half, the Broncos hit another gear and won handedly, but the final score, 49-27, didn’t reflect the game’s overall competitiveness.
The next week, Peyton and his troops traveled east to take on his brother and the Giants. Like the Ravens, New York kept things interesting in the first half, but fell victim to the same fate, being blown out in the second half. This was sort of impressive -- well, up until last Sunday when Big Blue fell to 0-3 after being embarrassed 38-0 by the lowly Carolina Panthers.
So, yeah – watching Manning stomp all over the hapless Raiders Monday night was impressive, and I’m not one for killing a team because of something they can’t control (e.g. their schedule), but in a larger context, wasn’t this start expected?
HALFTIME: Just like the Broncos very well may falter, the Patriots could – and likely will – improve. For now, we’re mucking around in uncharted waters in Foxboro.
The good: The inverted narrative has the oft-maligned defense currently ranking fourth in Football Outsiders’ excellent Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) statistic. Just like the Broncos, considering the competition – two rookie quarterbacks and Josh Freeman, who lost his starting job after his dismal performance against New England Sunday -- there is reason to look at the unit with a jaundiced eye. While that’s absolutely fair, it appears that Aqib Talib is the first competent No. 1 cornerback to suit up for the Patriots since Asante Samuel left after the 2007 season, and Chandler Jones looks like the Chandler Jones who tormented opposing quarterbacks last year before his production dropped off due to nagging injuries (all while sporting a wildly entertaining array of celebratory sack dances). At the very least, the defense is passable.
The bad: Tom Brady and his “weapons” are playing an uneven brand of football. Execution is poor. Timing is off. F-bombs are being visibly expressed on a weekly basis. Put lightly, this has been a period of transition. The running game is just as strange. Stevan Ridley’s lack of usage and overall production is concerning. Conversely, LeGarrette Blount’s increased involvement is even more concerning. Everyone seems to agree that “body language” is the most overrated and over-discussed detail in the history of sports -- yet here we are, still talking about it. (I just dropped a f-bomb writing that sentence, discuss! No, don’t. OK – actually, yeah, go ahead. Do it.)
GAME-WINNING FIELD GOAL: The Patriots face a brutal stretch of games, beginning this week in Atlanta against a Falcons team that wants no part of starting the year 1-3, then traveling to Cincy to face the playoff-bound Bengals, before coming back home to face off against the undefeated Saints.
The prognosis: With Gronk and Danny Amendola reportedly close to returning, the Patriots will regain much-needed offensive firepower. Will it be enough? Who knows? For this squad, nothing is given, everything is earned. And between the odd series of events it took to get here -- with the Welker debacle, the Tebow debacle, and the Hernandez DEBACLE -- to the general uncertainty of how far this team will go, this has been the most interesting Patriots season since 2007. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, or a bad thing, but it’s a something.
Follow Ryan Hadfield on Twitter @Hadfield__