Flying back from the Falcons-Eagles game on Monday, I studied team schedule breakdowns, statistics and roster charts. As you probably guess, the in-flight movie was too sappy to watch. That's normal.
Somewhere over the Rockies, I figured out why the 2008 season has been so unpredictable and strange. It's a year in which only a few teams that improved at quarterback and had easy schedules actually got better. More teams got worse.
It's not surprising. Free agency in football has lost its appeal. No matter how much a team spends in the open market, financial green can't inject life into this dying tree. Only a few impact players are going to slip away from teams, and if you don't get the best, don't even bother. Because most teams didn't get much in free agency or the draft this past offseason, their rosters went backward instead of forward.
So who has actually improved from last season?
In a season in which home teams are winning 63.7 percent of their games -- truly the byproduct of too many teams having to play games after traveling across three time zones -- a two- or three-game homestand can inflate the rating of a team.
Nine of the 16 teams that went 8-8 or better in 2007 -- the four teams in the NFC East, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Arizona -- are faring well so far in '08 . The eight new teams .500 or better are Carolina, Buffalo, Baltimore, the New York Jets, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta and New Orleans.
Not all of these early season success stories are built to last.
The Broncos are 4-3 because of Jay Cutler's development, but their shaky defense could pull them back under .500 in the second half of the season. The Ravens and Falcons are 4-3 because Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan aren't playing like normal rookies and appear to be the real deals. Still, I think both teams will level off in the second half.
So even though the standings might indicate that several teams have made strides, the truth is most either stayed the same or got worse.
Let's dive into the mailbag:
From the inbox
Q: John, in light of the reports about Tom Brady undergoing more operations on his knee and possibly not being ready for the 2009 season, should the Patriots take a serious look at signing Jeff Garcia in the offseason?
Dominic in Calgary
A: They should seriously evaluate the backup quarterback market and see if there is an upgrade out there. I'm encouraged from what I'm seeing in Matt Cassel, though, and I am actually starting to believe he might be the guy to re-sign. First, I think Brady will be back. The infection medicine seems to be winning the battle in his knee. Even if he needs a second reconstruction surgery, I still believe he has enough time to get back for the 2009 regular season. Philip Rivers made it back from a February operation. If Brady has one in January, he can still be ready for the regular season.
Quarterbacks who aren't mobile can make the recovery in six months, particularly if they are hard workers like Brady. The drop-off from a good starting quarterback to a good backup is almost 10 points a game. Cassel is starting to look like a young Kyle Orton, and that's a positive. That said, if it looks like Brady won't be back by the 2009 regular season, I'd look for an upgrade at quarterback. The Patriots will have a tougher schedule in the years ahead.
Q: The missing piece, in my mind, for the Eagles is a marquee WR. Why have the Eagles not made a major move to acquire another T.O.-type of WR? In your opinion was a poor WR corps the main reason the Eagles fell short time and again in those NFC championship runs?
A: Clearly that's the reason. With only six Pro Bowl receivers developed between 2002 and 2007, there haven't been a lot of elite pass-catchers on the market. The Eagles have tried. They traded for Donte' Stallworth. That didn't work out. They signed Kevin Curtis, but he's only a good No. 2. I think they hit the jackpot with DeSean Jackson, but you wonder if he's big enough to be a No. 1 flanker in the West Coast offense. When it comes to personnel, you can't create what's not available. You can only jump on opportunities. They did that with Terrell Owens and had joy and pain. Roy Williams is a No. 1-caliber WR talent, but the Cowboys beat them to the punch. The Eagles tried to trade for Anquan Boldin and Chad Johnson, but they couldn't make it happen. If I were the Eagles, I'd keep in touch with the Cardinals to see if they would ever trade Boldin. Top receivers get $9 million to $10 million a year, and I don't see the Cardinals paying Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.
Q: OK, let's assume that the Browns' season is cooked. Who do you see as the coach to take over for Romeo Crennel? Also, does Derek Anderson get shipped out of town? We Browns fans are dying to have Bill Cowher come in, but is that a reality?
Brenin in Thornville, Ohio
A: The Browns, thanks to their win over the Jaguars, could salvage something this year. But let's say everything falls apart. I still figure them to be in the Cowher mix even though he prefers to stay out of the Steelers' division. The Browns offer everything he is looking for. They have an owner who will pay his salary demands. They have quarterbacks. They have a 3-4 defense. It's the right fit. If there is change, I believe they would trade Anderson and give Brady Quinn the chance. If the season falls flat in the second half, Quinn will get a chance to play. He's a fan favorite and a hard worker. I'm not counting the Browns out yet, but I could see them being a Cowher team.
Q: Since Steve Spagnuolo seems to be loved by pretty much all Giants fans, is it possible he could succeed Tom Coughlin?
Mike in Far Rockaway, N.Y.
A: Coughlin is 62, but the Giants' ownership will let him coach as long as he wants to coach. He earned that. Sure, Spagnuolo is in a great spot. Clearly, the Mara and Tisch families could promise him that job, but this is his time to get a head-coaching job. If eight to 10 open as expected this offseason, Spagnuolo is too hot a candidate to turn down offers. In the long run, maybe it would serve him well to stay with Coughlin and continue to grow as a future head coach. It would provide him more time to figure out his dream staff of assistants. It would allow him to stay with a solid ownership and a great franchise. It would allow him to stay with a franchise quarterback, Eli Manning. But Spagnuolo has worked hard for this chance to become a head coach, and he's never going to be hotter in the free-agent market than he will this offseason.
Q: John, Ted Ginn Jr. hasn't fit in well with the Dolphins thus far, in part because he is a deep-ball specialist working with the weakest-armed QB in the league (Chad Pennington). However, recently the Fins don't even have him on punt (and sometimes kickoff) return duties, having handed that job to undrafted rookie Davone Bess. Ginn has a tendency to run out of bounds to avoid a hit -- something I'm sure Bill Parcells hates. What are your thoughts on his development with Miami, both in the passing and kicking games?
From Tim in Melbourne, Fla.
A: For all readers, Tim sent this before Ginn's breakout game in Week 8, when he caught every deep ball imaginable. Ginn is starting to emerge, which is a good reason to take him off special teams. I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but Chad Pennington is averaging 8.5 yards an attempt. He's going deep. It takes underclassmen receivers two to three years to develop. Ginn took a big step forward last Sunday. As we've noted so many times, No. 1 receivers are hard to find because most of the top prospects come into the league as underclassmen and then fail in their first three years. Sunday's game might have changed your mind a little. Write back and let me know if it did.
Q: I'm curious to know whether Josh Morgan of the 49ers has locked up the starting WR position over Bryant Johnson? Was he a one-week wonder or does Mike Martz plan to involve Morgan regularly in the offense from here on out?
Eric Z in Belleville, N.J.
A: Morgan can't seem to crack the starting lineup permanently, but Mike Singletary might start to do that in the second half of the season to look forward to the future. During my training camp tour, Morgan was one of the four or five best-looking rookie receivers I noticed. Martz was a big believer in him from the beginning. He reminded me of the Packers' Greg Jennings, who is now at the Pro Bowl level with the Packers. Singletary is sorting through a lot of things during his first bye week as interim head coach. Johnson is good, and the team has to decide if it wants to re-sign him, but I would think Morgan will get plenty of opportunities down the stretch.
Q: Is Jason Garrett the second coming of Mike Martz? In his first start for Tony Romo, Brad Johnson threw three picks, which was awful, while Marion Barber had 100 yards on only 18 carries. In overtime against Arizona, Garrett had Romo come out and just start throwing everywhere, which ended up costing Dallas the game. Every week it seems like he should just run more with Barber and Felix Jones. Is he mainly the frontrunner to be the next head coach so he can be a puppet for Jerry Jones. Bill Cowher to Dallas please!
Peter in Superior, Wis.
A: Saying he's a Mike Martz would be a compliment, but good playcallers have to adjust to what they see on the field. At 40, Johnson, one of the smartest backup quarterbacks in football, doesn't have the arm to go downfield much. Consequently, teams stack the tackle box to take away Barber's threat of running and force Johnson to win the game through the air. They know he's great on checkdowns, so the defenses adjust to that. If eight or nine guys are at the line of scrimmage, only a crazy coordinator is going to keep calling running plays. You're running into a brick wall running against that many defenders. The Cowboys have to get creative to get through the Romo injury. Maybe they should try a few Wildcat plays. Isaiah Stanback is a former college quarterback. He could go in motion and try a direct-snap play. If Johnson struggles against the Giants, I wouldn't be surprised to see Brooks Bollinger get a chance to play a little.
Q: John, what in the world is up with the Hines Ward haters who call a legal crushing block on a run to spring his running back for a big gain "dirty"? It's just smash-mouth football.
Dave in Louisville
A: You are so right, Dave. Ward is a treasure. He brings a defensive mentality to the receiver position. He'll deliver a big shot when he gets the chance and will come back to the huddle smiling. He's not a cheap-shot guy. He's just a great football player. It's just a reality in this league that aggressive players are going to get fined for hard hits. The league is trying to preserve its talent, not lose it. Ward should hang with all the safeties in this league and create a few charity events to pay for all of their fines. Ward will get fined more, but he'll be a fan favorite of those who love hard-hitting football.
Q: What's up with the force-out rule? If a receiver were to jump in the air (close to the sideline or in the back of the end zone) and was physically caught by a defender while coming down and thrown out of bounds (without feet touching), how do the rules affect this play? Also, what if one leg is caught, stuck or obstructed by a defender or someone else in some way that the receiver could not get both legs down without the knee or elbow touching either? Thanks.
Danny in Harrisburg, Pa.
A: Danny, to give you some background, the league changed the force-out rule because it's hard to call. I wish it would do the same with the Tuck Rule, but that's an answer for another time. If the receiver doesn't get two feet in bounds, it's an incomplete pass. If the defender carries out an airborne receiver, it's an incomplete pass. Surprisingly, there haven't been many force-out controversies this year. I'm sure there will be issues down the stretch. Force-outs require judgments of where the receiver would have touched his feet had the defender not carried him out of bounds. If a force-out rule costs a team a Super Bowl, you know there will be a push to change it back. Rules are always meant to be changed.
Q: John, why aren't the Bucs getting any love by the experts? In the ESPN.com power rankings, some even rank the Bucs lower then teams they've beaten.
From Keith in Washington, D.C.
A: Let's start by saying I was one of the first to predict the Bucs would win the NFC South last year, so I obviously believe in the Bucs. The reason the Bucs don't get a lot of national love is because they don't score a lot of points. They win with defense, smart quarterbacking, good running and creative play calling by Jon Gruden. They don't dominate. They just win and play good football.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.