The first quarter of the 2011 NFL season is in the books and as usual, there have been a handful of surprises thus far. Here are the five biggest.
5. Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers
Everyone knew the NFC West was going to be a crapshoot this season, just like it was a year ago. While many people thought that the Rams would emerge as division champs, it was easy to predict their horrid start given the difficulty of their schedule. The true surprise is the San Francisco 49ers, who are led by a head coach that was serving in the college ranks last year. What Jim Harbaugh has been able to do so far in San Francisco is impressive. The lockout should have caused teams like the 49ers to struggle early on because they didn’t have enough offseason preparation. But instead of floundering, the Niners have flourished. They’re one bad quarter against the Cowboys from being 4-0 and their come-from-behind victory against the Eagles last Sunday will give this team confidence heading forward. While the offensive line is still a major work in progress, the defense has really performed well thanks to guys like Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis and rookie Aldon Smith. With how poorly the rest of the division is, the Niners may finally claim the top spot in the NFC West again.
4. The high-flying Bills
I happen to think last week’s loss to the Bengals was an aberration and that the Bills will continue to be competitive all season. This team was due for a letdown. They were coming off an emotional win against a divisional opponent (the Patriots, no less) the week prior and had to go on the road to face a Cincinnati team that is better than people think. The loss will prove to be a valuable lesson for the Bills, who aren’t good enough yet to take any team for granted. This is still a squad that has practically done everything right to this point. Their passing attack is solid, their young offensive line is overachieving and their defense has been opportunistic and solid against the run. While they may not make the playoffs this season, Chan Gailey has this team headed in the right direction.
3. The Lions’ early season success
It’s important to note that people were high on the Lions coming into the season. Many felt as though they were a sleeper in the NFC, so it’s almost unfair to even have them listed. But come on, did anyone have the Lions at 4-0 to start the season with trips to Tampa Bay and Dallas on their first half schedule? You may have thought they would be competitive or even finish with a winning record, but you’re lying if you said they would be one of only two teams that remain unbeaten at the quarter mark. While Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh deserve a lot of credit for the Lions’ early success, players like Stephen Tulloch, Willie Young, Bobby Carpenter, Justin Durant and Eric Wright have played key roles in this team’s rise. Tulloch, who might be the most underrated free agent signing of the offseason, leads the team with 26 tackles, four tackles for loss, one interception, one sack, and one fumble recovery. Where he’s helped the most is in run defense, but he’s also been better than expected in pass coverage as well. If the Lions continue to get contributions like Tulloch’s, they will challenge for a playoff spot this season.
2. The Eagles’ struggles
Honestly, No. 3 and No. 2 are interchangeable for me. I actually figured the Eagles would struggle this season but not as much as they have. For them to be a total mess right now is almost unfathomable. Their offensive line can’t pass block, Michael Vick is already banged up, and their defense can’t run block or cover. That last one is pretty shocking when you consider how much money the team threw at free agent Nnamdi Asomugha this offseason in order to team him up with Asante Samuel. But so far, Asomugha has been a complete disappointment. The Eagles also have an excellent pass rush, which makes their struggles in coverage even more perplexing. People may disagree, but I also think it’s troubling that Vick is starting to show signs of the same immaturity that he had in Atlanta. Last week he complained about the refs not doing their jobs. This week he was condescending to members of the media following the Eagles’ meltdown against the 49ers and quit a Philadelphia radio show commitment after failing to show up the last three weeks. The only week he did show up was after the Eagles beat the Rams in Week 1. If things were going his way right now, something tells me he wouldn’t have any problem doing the show so everyone could shower him in praise. The Eagles are falling apart and they have this guy as their leader. Not good.
1. Cam Newton
Forget the Panthers’ record to this point: Newton has easily been the biggest surprise of the season thus far. The fact that he’s third behind Tom Brady and Drew Brees in passing yards is reason enough to be shocked by how well Newton has played. But when you consider just how totally inept the Panthers were last season, it makes you appreciate just how good the Auburn product has been this year. Yes he’s made mistakes and yes he’s already thrown five interceptions on the year. But those are things that are expected of a young quarterback in his first season. The bottom line is that the Panthers have been in every game so far and people were waiting, if not dying for this kid to stumble this season. But he’s not. He’s going to struggle the more film there is on him and he still has a ways to go in his development. But given where the Panthers were last year and where they are now, Newton has breathed new life into a franchise that was craving more production out of the quarterback position. Newton has been shockingly good so far.