Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dives for the goal line to score against… (Scott Strazzante / Chicago…)
With a quarter of the NFL regular season in the books, there are a lot of mouths hanging half-open.
A month ago, who could have guessed that Cam Newton would look this polished? That the league's passing numbers would be so far off the charts? That Philadelphia's "Dream Team" would be unraveling so soon? Or that Peyton Manning would be a spectator, with no clear future, watching the team he built circle the drain?
A look at some of the biggest surprises so far:
Beyond his years — Carolina's 1-3 record doesn't do justice to the spectacular play of Newton, who has pumped life, energy and hope back into that franchise. The rookie has practically been attached at the hip to quarterbacks coach Mike Shula, and it shows. Newton looks completely comfortable with that offense, and his linemen love that he hangs in the pocket and doesn't bail out at the first hint of trouble. "There are some quarterbacks who, as soon as they see color, they're out of the pocket and running away," said Carolina center Ryan Kalil, referring to the color of an opposing jersey starting to break through the protection. "He doesn't do that. And then when it does break down, he waits until the very last second to get his butt out of there. That helps us."
Philadelphia story — The Eagles are 1-3 for the first time since 2007, but this team resembles no other coached by Andy Reid. This team not only loaded its roster with all-stars, but shuffled its coaching staff and changed the club's strategic philosophies. The offensive line got smaller and quicker, which isn't working, and the defense, which once aggressively blitzed, is now a rush-and-cover team that can't stop the run. The biggest signing is the biggest disappointment — cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha has been beaten in coverage and looks even worse when he tries to tackle. Maybe this is why everyone was scratching their heads when Reid promoted offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator.
A numbers game — So far, passing numbers are off the charts. New England's Tom Brady has already thrown for 1,553 yards, the second-most through a team's first four games since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Three-hundred-yard passing games are now an every-Sunday occurrence. That's a big reason eight teams are averaging at least 400 yards in total offense, the highest total through the first month in the modern era. Some things to consider: NFL offenses are becoming more like those used in college, with four- and five-receiver sets and far less running; most rules changes favor offensive players, making it tougher for defenders to rein in receivers; there are relatively few great pass-rushing teams; and a lot of quarterbacks putting up the gaudiest numbers — Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers — have spent years in the same systems.
At a loss — Manning is the league's only four-time most valuable player, and, even though he hasn't taken a snap, maybe this season he's most deserving of another MVP award. Clearly, no player means as much to a franchise as Manning means to the Colts. There was speculation during the summer that he might not be ready for the start of the season, but there was no hint things were this serious. Losing Manning hurts far more than the Colts. The effect has been felt at NFL headquarters on Park Avenue, and on Madison Avenue. After all, we don't just see him in games, we see almost as much of him when those games go to commercial.
Bottom to the top — The rise of the Rust Belt teams, 4-0 Detroit and 3-1 Buffalo, has been well-documented. But what about the resurgence of San Francisco? Had they not lost in overtime to Dallas, the 49ers would be 4-0. Particularly impressive was their win Sunday at Philadelphia, when Alex Smith and Frank Gore came through under heavy pressure. To win on the road is big. To win on the road when you're trailing by 20 midway through the third quarter is huge.
"Just down after down, they never tired mentally or had doubt," Coach Jim Harbaugh said of his players. "They didn't flinch, they didn't get scared, they just kept fighting."