|Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy have been looking for answers early this season. (Getty Images)|
There has been nothing more disappointing ... or surprising ... this season than calls made by replacement refs, with Monday night's game the exclamation point.
Or is that the boiling point?
Anyway, as the saying goes, they are what they are ... and let's be honest: The replacement refs aren't very good.
But you knew that. Or you should have. What we might not have anticipated are some of the highs and lows from areas that extend beyond the officiating crews ... and, yes, I'm talking about teams and players.
I'm sure you can recite some of them right now. But if you can't ... well, that's why I'm here. Here are five of the most notable disappointments and surprises that aren't related to this year's lockout of officials.
1. New Orleans: These are the guys who were going to fight back from Bountygate and show us they were bigger, stronger and mightier than any scandal the NFL dreamed up -- at least, that was the intention. The sad reality is that the Saints are one of two winless ballgames, and the numbers don't lie. In the words of Bill Parcells, they are what their record says they are, and that's not very good. In fact, their three losses were to opponents who haven't beaten anyone else, with two of them at home where the Saints didn't lose in 2011. That makes them 3-0 vs. the New Orleans and 0-6 vs. the league. I thought the Saints had an abundance of talent to overcome a brutal offseason, but I was wrong. Their offense stinks. Their defense stinks. And their quarterback? Don't get me started on Drew Brees. He ranks 25th among quarterbacks -- or right behind the Jets' Mark Sanchez -- with a passer rating of 77.0 and has nearly as many interceptions (5) as touchdowns (7). Not good. Now let's look at his last performance. The Saints were up 24-6 vs. winless Kansas City and blew it. Worse, Brees couldn't produce a first down on the last five series and amassed a grand total of ... --16 yards? The Saints are paying Brees megabucks. It's time he started earning it.
|More on NFL season|
2. Chris Johnson, running back, Tennessee: I don't know what's wrong with the guy. I just know he's not an elite running back. Not anymore he's not. In fact, he's not even a middle-of-the-road running back, and if you don't believe me ask any of those Fantasy-Football owners who couldn't wait to draft him. In three games, he has 45 yards -- or less than 10 quarterbacks and Cleveland wide receiver Travis Benjamin; averages 1.4 yards per carry; has no rush longer than 13 yards and ranks 65th among the league's top 50 rushers. Johnson suggested that he's not the problem; that his offensive line is, and maybe he's right. All I know is that there's something terribly wrong with this guy. Only three years ago he eclipsed 2,000 yards. Now, he's on track to finish with 240. Pathetic.
3. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense: There was no better quarterback last season than Rodgers, the league MVP, and there was no more dangerous offense than the Packers -- with Green Bay scoring a league-best and franchise-record 560 points. OK, so the Packers couldn't play defense, ranking last in the league in yards and pass defense; it didn't matter. When you have a quarterback pushing the envelope with a passer rating of 122.5 and 45 touchdown passes and an offense that averages 35 points a game, you still hammer 15 of your 16 regular-season opponents. So what's happened this season? Nothing, that's what. The Packers rank 25th in offense and 26th in scoring, with Rodgers 16th among quarterbacks, throwing fewer touchdown passes (3) than Sanchez (5), Tennessee's Jake Locker (4) or Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman (4). Worse, the poor guy's been sacked a league-high 16 times, including 8 in the first half vs. Seattle. The Packers first-team offense has been in a funk dating back to preseason games, and sooner or later they better get this thing figured out. I know why the Packers lost Monday night. I don't know why they're struggling to get untracked on offense.
4. Michael Vick, quarterback, Philadelphia: Once I insisted the Eagles had to do something, anything, to keep this guy on the field. Now, I'm not sure that's not the problem. Vick is a dynamic playmaker -- when, that is, he's making plays instead of mistakes. That hasn't been often, and you can look it up: He has six interceptions and three lost fumbles this season and 28 turnovers dating back to last year. The Eagles' 38 turnovers in 2011 were supposed to be an aberration. Now, it looks as if they were on their best behavior. Already they committed a league-leading 12 that led to 40 points for opponents, with Vick committing more than all but one team (Kansas City). Nope, I don't know what the problem is, but it can't continue if the Eagles are going to push the Giants in the NFC East. "When you're in the moment," said Vick, "you have to eliminate the turnovers." You're in the moment, Michael.
5. Jason Witten, tight end, Dallas: A seven-time Pro Bowl choice who caught at least 79 passes in each of the past five years, Witten suddenly and inexplicably can't hold on to the football. He has six drops in his last two games and has been so dreadful that he atypically stiffed reporters after last weekend's game, disappearing from the locker room without being seen. A day later, he reappeared to tell listeners that his performance lately is "unacceptable," and I'd say that about sums it up. Witten is one of the game's premier tight ends and a security blanket for quarterback Tony Romo ... only not this year he's not, fighting the football when it is aimed in his direction. It would be easy to blame his shortcomings on the lacerated spleen he suffered in training camp, but the classy Witten refuses to offer that as an excuse. So what is the problem? Nobody knows. "He has dropped the football the last couple of weeks in ways we've never seen," said coach Jason Garrett.
1. Arizona: The Cardinals were supposed to be one of the league's also-rans because A) they didn't have a quarterback and B) they were in the same division as San Francisco. So they were doomed to complete another non-winning season, only this just in: They're one of the NFL's three unbeaten teams, and look whom they knocked off: Seattle, New England in New England and Philadelphia. People keep asking if they're for real, and we're way past that discussion, folks. The Cards won 10 of their last 12, and I ask you to find me someone, anyone, who's better ... because that team doesn't exist. The Cardinals' defense is tougher to solve than the Saturday crossword in the New York Times, but that's no surprise. It hasn't allowed more than 20 points in 10 of its last 12 stars, and Arizona won all 10. But it's the quarterbacking that was supposed to bury these guys, and so far, so good. Kevin Kolb is on a roll. I mean, look at this week's numbers and tell me who's the league's third-ranked quarterback. You're looking at him, folks, and somebody tell me again why Arizona was stupid to make that deal with the Eagles. All I know is that Kolb hasn't committed a turnover in his last five games and has a passer rating better than everyone but Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger. I also know he beat Tom Brady in the Patriots' home opener, and I'll tell you why that's significant: BECAUSE IT NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE. Surprising? You bet. Kolb couldn't beat out John Skelton in training camp. Now he's beaten Brady and Michael Vick in succession.
2. The Dallas defense: Quick, now, name the league's top-ranked defense. Houston? Nope. San Francisco? Uh-uh. Arizona? Seattle? Baltimore? Pittsburgh? Try the Dallas Cowboys, with the Big D standing for defense. Normally, it's Tony Romo and Miles Austin and Jason Witten and the Cowboys' offense that takes curtain calls in Dallas. But not now. Because now the offense can't produce points, and, if you don't believe me, go to the stat sheet. Dallas is tied for 31st. Yet the Cowboys are winning, and they're winning because of a defense that holds opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 78.7 and opposing offenses to 137 yards passing per game. A year ago, Dallas lost twice to the New York Giants because its pass defense was porous ... and I'm being kind. Intent on plugging the leaks, they hired free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr and traded up to choose Morris Claiborne, the best cornerback in the draft. Result: The Cowboys' defense ranks first overall and second vs. the pass. I remember when defensive coordinator Rob Ryan told reporters he wasn't going to be as outspoken as he was a year ago. "It's time to quit talking and to start doing something," he said. Mission accomplished.
3. Christian Ponder, quarterback, Minnesota:When the Vikings made Ponder the 12th pick of the 2011 draft, they were accused of reaching for a quarterback who was destined for mediocrity ... or not. There are two quarterbacks in this week's top 15 without interceptions. One is Kolb. The other is Ponder. His numbers are impressive, including that completion rate of 70 percent, but it's his overall play that's most notable. I think back to the season-opening defeat of Jacksonville when he led the club on a hurried 20-second drive to put kicker Blair Walsh in position for the game-tying field goal. Then the Vikings won in overtime. He did the same thing a week later, throwing two scoring passes in the last 5:07 to rally Minnesota from a 14-point deficit vs. Indianapolis. OK, so the Vikings lost. It had nothing to do with Ponder and everything to do with a last-gasp Andrew Luck push. Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin are the stars of the Minnesota offense, but Ponder isn't far behind. He's better than you think, and he has the Vikings ... yes, the Vikings ... tied for first in the NFC North.
4. Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle: He wasn't supposed to start. Matt Flynn was. But three games into the season, it's Wilson -- not Flynn -- calling signals for the 2-1 Seahawks. Granted, Seattle shouldn't have won that game Monday night, but give Wilson credit. He gave wide receiver Golden Tate a chance to make the play and the Seahawks a chance to win the ballgame. Look, I don't know that he lasts as the starter. There's a reason the Seahawks paid Flynn millions, and it wasn't to sit on the bench. Plus, the odds are against undersized rookie quarterbacks. But Wilson already has beaten the odds by putting Flynn on the bench and becoming the only rookie quarterback this year to win two of his first three starts. Granted, the Seahawks rank 32nd in passing, and Wilson seems more of a threat running than he does throwing. Nevertheless, this wasn't supposed to happen... only it has.
5. Andre Brown, running back, N.Y. Giants: The New York Giants entered this season determined to fix the league's worst-ranked running game, and in Ahmad Bradshaw and rookie David Wilson they thought they had just the guys to do it. They were wrong. Wilson fumbled in the season opener, putting him in Tom Coughlin's doghouse, and Bradshaw bowed out one game later with a neck injury. That left ... well, it left the rushing attack to Brown, a guy cut by five teams -- including the Giants -- before he re-signed with New York last summer. Brown's notable achievement was leading the team in "I Gotta Ring" on the plane home from Super Bowl XLVI and the parade that followed in New York. But that was it ... until now. Because now he has more yards rushing (184) and more touchdowns (3) than Bradshaw and Wilson combined. Maybe, just maybe, Andre Brown is the ticket New York needs to put its rushing attack back together. Hey, it happened a year ago when Victor Cruz emerged out of nowhere. It could happen again.