A year ago, it would have been crazy to suggest. All the drops, injuries and sluggish routes – all the times Peyton Manning(notes) tried to force balls in hopes of lighting a fire – maybe Marvin Harrison(notes) was actually holding the Indianapolis Colts offense back.
Maybe the future Hall of Famer was more of a problem than a solution.
How can you not wonder about it when you watch the Colts now? Even among Peyton Manning's great offensive units, there is something special about what Indianapolis is flashing right now. The receivers look young and invigorated. They look quick. Perhaps most important: They are ascending rather than declining with every passing week. And the group doesn't even have No. 2 receiver Anthony Gonzalez(notes), who was expected to blossom this year before going down with a knee injury in the first game of the season.
I'll concede that it's not fair to pin all of last season's struggles on Harrison. Manning's early season rust and lingering pain from offseason knee surgeries had an early impact. Also, ineffectiveness in the running game kept balance from being established all season. But it's a fact that safeties rarely rolled in Harrison's direction – if ever. And that allowed coordinators to cheat with their schemes, with safeties consistently being employed in varying fashions to shut down wideout Reggie Wayne(notes) or tight end Dallas Clark(notes) or give extra run support.
Now you see an explosiveness opposite Wayne (and also in the slot) that almost never existed last season. Playing out of those roles, Harrison had two plays of 40-plus yards last year. Now wideout Pierre Garcon, who couldn't get on the field last season as the Colts' No. 4 receiver, has played Harrison's role, and he already has touchdown catches of 48 and 53, yards plus a 35-yard catch in Sunday's win over Seattle. That deep effectiveness translated into the Seahawks rarely cheating toward Wayne or the line of scrimmage. That's subtle respect for Garcon, and a sign that an already scary Indianapolis offense could become lethal once Gonzalez returns.
Indeed, Garcon's rise makes Manning and Indianapolis' offense the biggest winners of the week. Consider that through four games, Manning is completing 70.8 percent of his passes and he just notched his fourth straight game of 300-plus passing yards. The latter is a first for Manning. Now ask yourself: When was the last time Manning had such an offensive first? The fact that Manning is setting that benchmark in his 12th season says something about both the chemistry of this offense and the group of players with which he's working. Yes, it's been boosted by need, as the Colts' running game has yet to fully develop. But need doesn't necessarily translate into success.
So while the defense has been surprisingly stout and the play-calling has been impressive, the Colts' passing game has been special. Perhaps as good as anything we've seen from Manning in the last several years. We might even have to turn back to 2004, when Manning threw 49 touchdowns, to find something this balanced and diverse.
Certainly, I think we can say after four games that it's the sharpest passing unit in the NFL right now. Better than Drew Brees(notes) and the Saints. Better than Tom Brady(notes) and the Patriots. Better than Baltimore and San Diego and all comers. And in an odd way, letting go of Marvin Harrison might have been the biggest step toward making it possible.
Here is a look at some of this week's other winners and losers:
• Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard(notes)
He's gotten himself together after a bad start. Garrard has always been at his best when he's not being careless with the football. In his last three games, he's only committed three turnovers against six total touchdowns (five passing, one rushing). But Sunday's passing performance against Tennessee was virtually perfect: 27-of-37 passing, 323 yards and three touchdown passes with no interceptions. It helped that he was sacked only twice, despite both of Jacksonville's starting tackles being inactive against the Titans. If this hot streak is a sign of where Garrard is going, this team could go into the bye 4-2 with slumping Seattle and St. Louis up next.
• The Chicago Bears
In the preseason, a Chicago radio station asked me for the over/under on Bears wins this season, and I said seven. Well, Chicago notched its third win Sunday and heads into the bye week an impressive 3-1. The Bears have proven they can be dangerous with Jay Cutler(notes) on offense, and the defense with Adewale Ogunleye(notes) (4½ sacks on the season) falls somewhere between solid and good. But the start was a must if this is going to be a playoff team. The remaining schedule is brutal: Nine of the final 12 games come against teams that will be expected to be in playoff races.
• The New York Giants
Is the defense starting to get healthy and show signs of being the devastating unit we all expected? Yes. With Oakland coming to town next week, is there any way this team doesn't go into its Week 6 showdown with New Orleans 5-0? No. Has the offense shown it can thrive without Plaxico Burress(notes)? Who? The Giants are ready to show they're the best team in the NFC. Period.
• The Houston Texans defense
The Texans held the Raiders to 165 yards of total offense and forced three turnovers. Yes, it was against a mortifying Oakland offense, but up until this week, the Houston defense had been just as bad in its own right. Something had to give on Sunday. As usual, it was the Raiders.
• The Cincinnati Bengals
Just think, this team is a fluke touchdown against Denver from being 4-0. It has wins over Green Bay and Pittsburgh. The defense makes big plays and the offense is starting to look a little more effective. Bottom line, the Bengals are significantly better than many thought they could be. But can they really be considered a potential playoff team? We'll find out next week against Baltimore.
• The New Orleans Saints defense
The unit had already gotten off to a fairly strong start in terms of playmaking. However, even with last week's domination of a bad Buffalo team, it still lacked that staple win that pointed to a true ascent into the league's top 10. Sunday's win over the Jets should qualify. Sacking Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez four times and forcing four turnovers, including one returned for a touchdown, was as dominant as it was impressive. The Saints already have an offense that can score and press teams into a passing mode. Just imagine the problems they will create if defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant(notes) (two sacks each against the Jets) get it going consistently. Havoc.
• The Denver Broncos
The 3-0 start was one thing, but Sunday's win over the Cowboys – moving the Broncos to 4-0 – shows that Denver is a legitimate playoff candidate in the AFC. Now that Knowshon Moreno(notes) is healthy, the Broncos have shown some flashes of being explosive both running and passing. Meanwhile, the defense showed it will be a unit to be reckoned with all season, holding Tony Romo(notes) without a touchdown pass and keeping Dallas out of the end zone in the final seconds. That runaway that everyone predicted for San Diego in the AFC West looks more like a 17-week prizefight.
• Broncos wideout Brandon Marshall(notes)
Let's not kid ourselves: The Denver offense needed Marshall to get back to his Pro Bowl form. And he looked more like his old self against Dallas than anytime this season. His 51-yard touchdown catch and run in the fourth quarter looked like something out of a video game. And seeing his emotional reaction on the sidelines with quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) had to leave Broncos fans floating.
• Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn
I don't know if he would have made it out of the week if the Redskins had lost to a winless (and not very good) Tampa Bay team, particularly when the offense and Jason Campbell(notes) looked so poorly. The tide is already turning against Zorn, with leaks coming out suggesting that he can't save his job without a playoff run. Maybe that's legitimate, but there's no way that Zorn can save himself if it appears his team has quit on him. And a loss to Tampa Bay – combined with being held to fewer than 20 points in 11 of the last 12 games – would have started those whispers. With Carolina and Kansas City up next, it's not inconceivable that this team could be 4-2 going into its divisional showdown against Philadelphia in Week 7. (Stop laughing. I'm serious.)
• The Miami Dolphins defense
You knew this defense couldn't stay bottled up forever. Last season's sack-happy unit piled up six on Sunday, including two by Jason Taylor(notes) and three by rookie linebacker Cameron Wake(notes), who helped soothe the loss of an inactive Joey Porter(notes) this week. Buffalo quarterback Trent Edwards(notes) never looked comfortable, Terrell Owens(notes) was basically a non-factor and Dolphins rookie Vontae Davis(notes) returned an interception for a touchdown. It was a dominant performance when Miami's offense needed it most after losing quarterback Chad Pennington(notes) for the season.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib(notes)
You would have thought the Redskins would stop throwing in the direction of Talib after his second interception. But they didn't and Talib showed he was as dialed in as any cornerback in the NFL on Sunday, picking off his third pass. It's a nice silver lining for the Bucs, who have some nice young defensive pieces to build around in Talib and linebacker Barrett Ruud(notes). Take what you can get, Bucs fans. It's going to be that kind of year.
• The San Francisco 49ers defense
Everyone is going to talk about quarterback Shaun Hill's(notes) record as a starter (now 10-4), but this team is going to be driven by its defense. Last week's loss to Minnesota in the final seconds cut deeply because that kind of collapse was a trait of the old guard. You can bet it had something to do with how the defense played this week. Not only did linebacker Patrick Willis(notes) and the rest of the unit destroy St. Louis, it never let up. Not even in the final seconds. You want to see the definition of a team that wants a shutout? Pop in a tape and watch San Francisco's fourth quarter against the Rams.
• The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line
The much-maligned unit played its most complete game of the season in the win over San Diego after showing some brutal power in the running game. The Chargers linebackers will be waking up for days with guard Chris Kemoeatu's(notes) No. 68 bruised into their chests. And while the pass blocking wasn't stellar, it was good enough to afford Ben Roethlisberger(notes) time to go through progressions – or the space to move around and buy opportunities with his feet. If Sunday night was the kind of consistent performance this line turned in every game, Pittsburgh's offense would be simply devastating.
• Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden(notes)
He's the new Reggie Bush(notes), in the sense that he's failing terribly when it comes to living up to his NFL draft hype. Apparently that 4.2 second 40-yard dash speed just means he'll race to "bust" status faster than anyone in history. His six rushes against a mediocre Houston rush defense (OK, a bad rush defense) produced minus-3 yards. McFadden doesn't look nearly as physical as people thought he would be when he runs the ball. Granted, his quarterback is simply awful, but he hasn't shown much to inspire confidence on his own, either.
• Cleveland Browns wideout Braylon Edwards(notes)
He had zero catches and a foolish personal foul penalty in that loss to Cincinnati. Other than Edwards' 92 yards in a Week 2 blowout loss to Denver, he's looked like anything but a No. 1 wideout. Considering he has been among the league leaders in drops since he entered the NFL, you can't blame all of Edwards' problems on who is throwing him the ball. He just looks like an overly emotional player who easily loses his focus, which is why Cleveland was unable to finalize a trade for him last offseason.
• The Fox television crew handling Chicago vs. Detroit
For the life of me, I can't figure out why a bigger deal wasn't made of Bears wideout Johnny Knox pulling a DeSean Jackson(notes) and dropping the football as he crossed into the end zone on his 102-yard kickoff return. After watching the replay about a dozen times, it appears Knox let the ball go at the half-yard line. You wouldn't know it watching the broadcast, which basically ignored that it happened at all.
• Tennessee Titans quarterback Kerry Collins(notes)
He has officially crossed into hot-seat territory with four turnovers in the last two games and a stunning 0-4 start. His numbers in the loss to Jacksonville look more respectable than they actually were, thanks to a pair of touchdowns late in the game when the Titans were already down 30-3. The bottom line: Collins' best currency in Tennessee has always been his ability to play mistake-free football. If he can't do that, it's only a matter of time before owner Bud Adams starts leaning on coach Jeff Fisher to give Vince Young(notes) another look – even if Fisher says that's not happening anytime soon.
• The Kansas City Chiefs
The more I watch them, the more I realize this might be the most talent-poor team in the NFL. There is hope with guys like Dwayne Bowe(notes) and Matt Cassel(notes), but almost every other position needs talent and depth. You just hope Cassel can stay upright long enough for the rest of the team to be built and nurtured around him. How many times did Cassel take hits that made you wince Sunday? Five? Six?
• New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez
The football gods giveth and then taketh away, especially when you get cocky enough to start calling your rookie quarterback "Sanchize." Well, Sanchez's three interceptions against New Orleans (one returned for a touchdown) should tone down the rhetoric for a bit. Yes, Sanchez has been impressive, but this is still a team that should be pounding teams into oblivion with its defense and dominating the clock and tempo with the running game. It's a bump in the road. And frankly, one the Jets probably needed anyway.
• The Detroit Lions
They were competitive against Chicago for three quarters, then let it get away. But the potential knee injury to Stafford could be a serious setback, particularly after he has shown some significant growth the last two weeks. There was a lot of hand-wringing over the Lions' decision to go with Stafford over Daunte Culpepper(notes), but it was paying off. A reversal of fortune this early in Stafford's development is nothing but bad. Even with the brutal schedule ahead.
• Buffalo Bills coach Dick Jauron
His Bills are 3-11 in their last 14, but all three of those wins have come over teams that were either bad (Kansas City and Tampa Bay) or in the midst of a nosedive (Denver). And while that span was marked by injuries and inconsistency, Sunday's blowout loss to a winless Miami team was downright embarrassing. The two biggest offensive decisions by Jauron have been busts thus far – the promotion/firing of Turk Schonert as offensive coordinator and the signing Terrell Owens to be the unit's catalyst. Eventually, Jauron has to be held responsible for a tenure marked largely by failure.
• The Dallas Cowboys
They almost made a spectacular drive to force overtime in Denver, but that only typifies what drives you crazy about this team: We talk about them and say "almost" a lot. There is just far too much inconsistency on both sides of the ball. Pass-rushing demon DeMarcus Ware(notes) still doesn't have a sack, quarterback Tony Romo still can't finish the big drive when it matters most and coach Wade Phillips still can't take one of the league's most talented rosters and get it in sync on a game-to-game basis. The longer the up-and-down nature lasts, the more you just have to wonder if the Cowboys are simply overrated.
• The Pittsburgh Steelers defense
The offense saved their fannies, plain and simple. Sunday was the third straight week they blew a lead, and this one was arguably the worst of all, considering the Steelers were dominating 28-0 midway through the third quarter. To be fair, San Diego is one one of the AFC's best offenses, but Pittsburgh still isn't creating enough turnovers. The secondary's one interception through four games is terrible. And what on earth is going on with linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes)? Four tackles and zero sacks in four games? Apparently his penchant for sack droughts hasn't changed.
• The San Diego Chargers defense
If you ever doubt the importance of nose tackle Jamal Williams(notes), pop in the tape of Sunday's loss to the Steelers. His ability to eat space, occupy two offensive linemen and plug the middle was entirely absent against Pittsburgh. That run defense will struggle the rest of the year without him. The pass rush wasn't terrible, but it didn't finish some of the opportunities after penetration. And linebacker Shawne Merriman(notes) might as well have taken the night off. Then again, maybe he did.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: The Cincinnati defense. Check out the play where Bengals cornerback Leon Hall(notes) rips the ball away from Browns running back Jerome Harrison(notes) and defensive end Robert Geathers(notes) takes it for a 75-yard touchdown. I hate to toot my own horn (but love using that phrase) – I called it with this defense in the preseason. There is just too much young talent for it not to be exciting.
Loathed: The scary moment where Baltimore offensive tackle Jared Gaither appeared to suffer a head and neck injury against the Patriots. The moment gave some flashbacks to the time former Jets Dennis Byrd and Scott Mersereau ran into each other and Byrd was temporarily paralyzed. Thankfully, it appears Gaither will be OK, but those moments always deliver a frightening, sinking feeling.
Loved: Seeing the Pittsburgh Steelers strike a lethal balance on offense Sunday night. If you could have married Pittsburgh's 2004 running game with its 2007 passing attack, you would have gotten Sunday night's juggernaut. And while we probably won't see such a powerhouse consistently, for a few hours we saw the full potential of this offense. Amazing.
Loathed: Seeing Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) kick Chiefs linebacker Demorrio Williams(notes) with 7:30 left in the second quarter. Williams was flagged for a personal foul after the play, but if you watch the replay closely, he was reacting to being cleated by Bradshaw, who was lying on his back and kicked Williams after the play was over. It was a dirty move by Bradshaw, who is one of those players who always seems to be close to going over the edge.
Loved: The way Bears quarterback Jay Cutler surrendered his body on a third-and-goal touchdown run against the Detroit Lions. If you liked John Elway's helicopter dive for a first down in Super Bowl XXXII, you'll appreciate this play. Simply thrilling.
Loathed: Cleveland's horrible attempt at a flea flicker in the second quarter. It resulted in a sack and was a snapshot of the bumbling ways of this offense. Shouldn't you master the basics before resorting to gimmicks? Or is it just that bad?
Loved: Chad Ochocinco's(notes) acrobatic one-handed touchdown catch in the first quarter against Cleveland. One of the best things about the NFL is that we consistently get five or six plays that make us jump out of our seat. The athleticism is almost, dare I say it, elegant at times. After seeing this, how could Ocho not be the next NFL player on Dancing with the Stars? (Which I've never seen. Allegedly.)
Loathed: Seeing the turnover woes of Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell against Tampa Bay. He's got so much skill, but it doesn't matter if you can't be consistent. If I had to pick quarterbacks who I think could change teams and blossom down the line, Campbell would be at the top of the list. As an aside, his pass that spiked off the head of umpire Chad Brown(notes) in the second quarter was good for a gut-busting laugh. That will be on the blooper reels.
Loved: Watching Houston wideout Andre Johnson(notes) turn Oakland cornerback Chris Johnson inside out on a 62-yard gain in the first quarter. Johnson faked a dig, then wheeled into a corner route. By the time the corner realized he had jumped the wrong route, Andre Johnson was in a foot race down the right sideline with a safety. It was a mini coaching clinic on route running.
Loathed: Seeing the explosive return ability of wideout Josh Cribbs and wondering what he might be capable of in a better offense. Maybe he's just a bigger version of Devin Hester(notes) – a special teams ace who will never be prolific as a conventional wideout – but we certainly won't find out with Derek Anderson(notes) and Brady Quinn(notes) throwing to Cribbs.
- Peyton Manning
- Marvin Harrison
- David Garrard