Thinking back hard now, because August was such a long time ago. But that's when roles were assigned for the 2011 NFL season. Roles like: Dream Team. That's when clubs were categorized as contenders for the Super Bowl or contenders for Andrew Luck. Or something in between. That's when story lines were framed that supposedly would last the season, so that franchises could be neatly defined as surprises or disappointments (based on predictions made before any games were played), and squeezed into a weekly narrative that allows any matchup to be distilled into a single sentence or a quick television tease.
There's a problem with this tradition. The public and media order up sustainable hype, but the NFL dishes out only week-to-week servings of cold-blooded reality. Games that look like upsets (another buzzword) are in fact just this week's measure of the new normal, and teams that appear to be rushing in one direction (toward Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, like the Bills three weeks ago) or another (toward old age and irrelevance, like the Steelers after Week 4) can turn abruptly. The Bills have lost two of three, and the Steelers have won two in a row. Outsiders demand order of the NFL, and the NFL vigorously resists it. Expectations is a one-word punch line.
Hence you could find Eagles guard Evan Mathis towering over a pile of dirty laundry in the visitors' locker room at FedEx Field in suburban Washington on Sunday afternoon, explaining the difference between presumed greatness and actual football success. The Eagles had inartistically beaten the Redskins 20--13, for their second win of the season and their first since a Week 1 victory over the woeful Rams. The four consecutive losses that followed had produced panic in the streets of Philadelphia. Or so it was rumored.
"We were aware that nobody was going to give us the Lombardi Trophy in September," said Mathis. "This happens all the time. Somebody gets all the hype and they don't live up to it. All it did was put a target on us."
The Eagles owned the postlockout summer with a flurry of big acquisitions that included defensive linemen Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and, the coup de gr√¢ce, All-Pro corner Nnamdi Asomugha. Quarterback Michael Vick would be in his second full season postprison and surely could only get better. Babin tweeted, "we are the Miami Heat of the NFL," and Vince Young, signed in career free fall to back up Vick, used the "dream team" phrase to reporters.
Coronation swiftly followed. (Cue clip of coach Dennis Green in 2006, chastising reporters for famously "crowning" the Bears after his Cardinals had handed them a Week 6 Monday-night win.) The Eagles were indeed football's Miami Heat—all they needed was a superstar predicting multiple titles, LeBron-style.
But of course it wasn't just the Eagles who were put in a box. The Lions were a year away, and the 49ers many years away. Now both are 5--1, and their coaches spent Sunday evening, following San Francisco's 25--19 victory in Detroit, explaining why they nearly wound up wrestling on the Ford Field turf in the aftermath. Nutshell: because Lions coach Jim Schwartz didn't like San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh's aggressive handshake and backslap and probably liked blowing a fourth-quarter lead and losing his first game of the year even less. But at least Harbaugh and Schwartz are relevant; two years ago the teams' coaches could have jousted at midfield and not trended.
The Bills, meanwhile, were just the Bills, consigned to battle the Dolphins for third place in the AFC East. Instead, behind Harvard-bred quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick they won three straight, knocking off the Patriots after trailing by three touchdowns. But just as NFL Nation began believing, Buffalo lost to the hapless Bengals, who let franchise quarterback Carson Palmer retire and now might not get anything for him. But wait—that victory started a three-game streak for Cincinnati, which on Sunday beat the winless, Peyton Manning-less Colts to go to 4--2. The Bengals are tied with the Steelers in the AFC North, just behind the 4--1 Ravens.
All of which means that the Bills exceeded expectations, creating new expectations that they have failed to meet. And that the public will need at least two more wins from Cincinnati before getting on board, though the bandwagon will have to wait because the Bengals have a bye this week.
Two of last year's playoff teams, the purportedly ascendant Chiefs and the very fortunate Seahawks, are 2--3. Cam Newton, the No. 1 pick in April's draft, wasn't supposed to be ready to play quarterback in the NFL. He most definitely was, but his Panthers are 1--5. Donovan McNabb was supposed to get new life in Minnesota. He hasn't, and might soon lose his starting job to rookie Christian Ponder. The Raiders, so bad for so long, are 4--2 and fighting the Chargers at the top of the AFC West. But on Sunday they lost quarterback Jason Campbell for the season, and by that night they were rumored to be pushing for—Carson Palmer.
Has anyone met expectations? The defending Super Bowl champion Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers were supposed to pick up where they left off in Dallas last February. They have, with a 6--0 record, the last unbeaten team in the league. They are the calm at the center of the storm.
No team has experienced more unrest than Philly. After opening with a 31--13 road win over the Rams (a team that seemed playoff-bound in the preseason and is 0--5 now), the Eagles lost on a Sunday night to the Falcons in Vick's second NFL return to Atlanta, blew fourth-quarter leads against the Giants and 49ers and fell short in a late rally against Buffalo to drop to 1--4. "At 1--2 there's a mentality that says, We've got to turn this thing around," said Mathis. "Then there's the same mentality at 1--3. It starts to get heightened when you don't actually turn it around and you're 1--4." Under the current playoff system, no NFL team has made the playoffs after starting 1--5.
No opponent could have better demonstrated the league's formlessness than the Redskins. Seemingly without a viable quarterback in training camp—McNabb was gone, and vice president--coach Mike Shanahan decided not to draft a replacement—Washington had gone 3--1 with the enigmatic (or worse) Rex Grossman at the controls, and on Sunday, FedEx was filled and rocking with acolytes desperate for a winner. To review: The very talented Eagles were playing for their football lives, and the theoretically outgunned Redskins were playing to maintain their lead in the NFC East. It was common sense turned inside out, yet perfectly emblematic of the modern NFL. (Oddsmakers are the one populace unswayed; they made the Eagles a 1½-point favorite.)
A week earlier, before the loss to the Bills, Vick had publicly retired the Dream Team label. Before the Redskins game the approach was more pragmatic. "The coaches showed us our mistakes on film," said wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. "They were big mistakes. Turnovers, missed assignments, all across the board. But they were mistakes. It's not like we weren't good enough. We had to bring the intensity back to practice."
It's a part of football mechanics at all levels that when a play is executed poorly in practice, that play is run again, repeated until it is done correctly. This goes for the defense or the offense. "This week, we didn't have any repeats," said Babin. "Those plays that we repeated in the first five weeks, we didn't repeat. Everything was crisp and clean. We blocked out the losses and concentrated on our individual goals."
Vick spoke to the team. Several defensive veterans spoke to the team. "There was an urgency, for sure," said Rodgers-Cromartie. "If you had a chance to make a play in practice, you made it."
The Eagles had a 20--0 lead in the second quarter and essentially hung on for the rest of the afternoon. "Kept our foot on them, instead of letting them come back," said Rodgers-Cromartie. Vick was respectable, throwing for 237 yards with a touchdown and a pick, and LeSean McCoy ran for 126 yards and a score. The most pertinent statistic, though, was the four interceptions thrown by Grossman, who reverted to the worst of his always inconsistent form and was benched for John Beck in the fourth quarter. It was Vick who said afterward, "This is a tough game; it's not as easy as it looks from the sideline," but it was Grossman who best illustrated this by making it not look easy at all from the sideline.
And like this, the roles abruptly change again. The Redskins, facing road games against the Panthers and the Bills (in Toronto), suddenly look desperate for a win and a quarterback. The Eagles, with a bye week ahead to help heal their wounded offensive line and get defensive end Trent Cole healthy (out since Oct. 2 with a strained right calf), are revitalized and sailing on newfound momentum. It's only a matter of time until the Dream Team name resurfaces.
At least one of Philly's players understands the foolishness. In a corner of the locker room on Sunday, Babin passed on the postgame spread in favor of a chalky protein shake. At first he spoke with a single reporter, but then a small crowd formed, and Babin amped up his storytelling. The big moment of the week, he said, was when defensive line coach Jim Washburn brought in a guest speaker to inspire his troops. "Mr. Dilligaf," said Babin, as if serious, even shouting to a teammate for effect, "Hey, when did Mr. Dilligaf speak to us? Wednesday?" Later, to finish the joke, Babin tweeted: "Thanks to Mr. Dilligaf... . Great dude."
Dilligaf is two things—a persona Babin employs when addressing his D-line brethren and an acronym you won't hear in church. It means: Do I Look Like I Give A F---? It's not deep thought, but it captures a slice of NFL truth: Don't take this week seriously, because it won't last.
THE PUBLIC AND MEDIA ORDER UP SUSTAINABLE HYPE, BUT THE NFL DISHES OUT ONLY COLD-BLOODED SERVINGS OF REALITY, WEEK TO WEEK.
Photographs by SIMON BRUTY
HANDS OF FATE Grossman (8) reverted to more recognizable form against Philly, while Brent Celek and the Eagles redeemed the dream—for one game at least.
RICK OSENTOSKI/AP (HARBAUGH/SCHWARTZ)
PASSION PLAY Babin, one of Philly's high-profile newcomers, may feign indifference to the fervor surrounding the team, but with seven sacks through six games he, for one, has lived up to his billing.
ROB GRABOWSKI/US PRESSWIRE (MCNABB)
CRAZY TIME While Harbaugh (above, in cap) and Schwartz (white jacket) turned their postgame handshake into a national incident, McNabb (5) took the Vikings in the wrong direction and wideout Stevie Johnson (13) watched his once-surprising Bills thud back to earth.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (BILLS)
[See caption above]
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
[See caption above]