A decade ago, then ESPN analyst Sean Salisbury perfected the art of the 20-20 hindsight back track. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, all sports analysts end up being wrong on a regular basis; it goes with the territory. But they rarely admit to it over the public airwaves. “Losing is bad for the image, dude. Nobody buys Hot Tips from Losers. Remember that.”
Salisbury’s back-track baton has been passed to Cris Carter, who suggested in August that an all too obviously unstoppable Calvin Johnson is “very, very good at ‘Madden’ and ‘Tecmo Bowl’ or whatever they’re playing now. But on film, when I watch film, and I break down the film, he’s not to the point of these guys yet. That doesn’t mean he can’t play. He's just not there yet.” Carter added at the time, “We’re trying to determine greatness and impact on the NFL game. Calvin Johnson, you don’t have to double-team him to take him out of the game.”
It was odd for Carter to cite game film and Johnson’s inability to beat double coverage when offensive coordinator Scott Linehan actually noted last season that opponents were using triple coverage to contain Megatron.
By last week, Carter was still refusing to puclicly acknowledge Johnson as an “elite” receiver, leading to retorts from Matthew Stafford and DC Gunther Cunningham. Much like Trent Dilfer brings an inherent bias toward intelligent and scrappy but physically limited quarterbacks, perhaps Carter simply places a higher value on boundary receivers with sticky hands and precision route running than vertical threats who can take the top off a defense.
Whatever the case, Carter finally changed his mind after Johnson tied his record with multiple scores in four straight games. The highlight was a 23-yard touchdown in triple coverage after Stafford pointed upward with his index finger at the line of scrimmage. "It was Shawn Kemp pointing to Gary Payton to throw it up for a dunk," explained Nate Burleson. That play was pivotal in overcoming a 24-point deficit against Dallas, tying the record for the largest road comeback in NFL history.
By Monday morning, Carter was finally singing a different tune. “Right now, Calvin Johnson — there’s a king in every crowd,” said Carter, “and he’s the king of the National Football League as far as wide receivers.” Carter’s colleague Merrill Hoge went on to call Johnson the NFL’s early-season MVP. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady may be the favorites, but Hoge is on solid footing. The 4-0 Lions average 5.6 yards per play and allow 5.2 while the 0-4 Vikings average 5.4 yards per play and allow 5.6. “Put Calvin Johnson in purple and white instead of silver and blue,” writes Jonathan Comey of ColdHardFootballFacts.com, “and you might be looking at 2-2 for both, or maybe even 3-1 for the Vikings and 1-3 for the Lions.”
Through four games, Megatron is on pace for 96 catches, 1,284 yards, and 32 touchdown catches. Not to be outdone, Stafford is on pace for a 44:12 TD-to-INT ratio to go with 4,868 passing yards as the undefeated Lions head into their first Monday Night Football game in a decade. Detroit is the center of the football universe this week.
Now that we’ve reached the season’s quarter pole, let’s take a look at some other “on pace” numbers.
Fun with On-Pace Numbers
Aaron Rodgers - The first quarterback in history with 400+ yards, four passing touchdowns, and two rushing scores, Rodgers produced 53 standard-scoring points to vault past Tom Brady as the No. 1 fantasy QB. The Packers’ 148 points through four weeks are a franchise record. Green Bay is on pace to break the Patriots’ 2007 record for most points (589) in a season while adding the most yards in the NFL since the Greatest Show on Turf Rams’ 7,075 in 2000. Rodgers is completing 73.1 percent of his passes, which would better Drew Brees’ record of 70.6. His passer rating of 124.6 is slightly higher than Peyton Manning’s record of 121.7 from 2004. Rodgers has now thrown for at least 297 yards in each of his first four games, setting a pace for 5,300 yards and 48 touchdowns. As crazy as it may sound, that’s a reasonable goal for 16 games.
Tom Brady / Wes Welker - Welker’s 158 yards on Sunday were responsible for 70 percent of Brady’s total one week after hogging 56.0 percent of the Patriots’ passing yards. With Aaron Hernandez sidelined, Deion Branch struggling to get open, and Chad Ochocinco an afterthought, Welker has 25 receptions compared to 21 for the rest of the team over the past two weeks. Just 21 months removed from a torn ACL and MCL, Welker is as quick and dangerous as ever -- perhaps more so than any receiver in the league. He’s on pace for an other-wordly 160 receptions, 2,464 yards, and 20 touchdowns. While that’s unsustainable, Welker should remain an elite fantasy receiver all season. … Despite an “off” week, Brady still managed two passing scores for the 13th consecutive game while the Patriots offense cleared 30 points for the 12th straight regular-season game. Brady is on pace to better his historical 2007 season with 6,212 yards and 52 touchdowns.
Cam Newton / Steve Smith - At this point, the only quarterbacks I’d start over Newton on a weekly basis are Brady, Rodgers, Michael Vick, Drew Brees, and perhaps Matthew Stafford. Coming off the best month in rookie history, Newton is on pace for 5,544 passing yards, 532 rushing yards and 36 total touchdowns. … Revitalized with a quality passer, Smith has topped 150 yards in three of his first four games, putting him on pace for 2,120 receiving yards. That’s obviously not sustainable, but Smith certainly has the talent as well as the situation to finish as fantasy’s top receiver this year. His yards will go down while his touchdowns elevate.
Michael Vick - Buoyed by a career-high 416 passing yards, Vick became the first player in NFL history to pass for 400 yards and rush for 75 yards in the same game. He’s now the second quarterback in NFL history with 4,800 rushing yards, needing only 71 to bypass Randall Cunningham’s 4928 for the most ever by a quarterback. Though he’s been labeled an early-season bust, Vick is still on pace for a career-high 4,084 passing yards and 24 touchdowns to go with 912 rushing yards. The ground scores will come.
Matt Forte - Former Rams coach Dick Vermeil used to stroll past pass-happy coordinator Mike Martz muttering “28” as a reminder to keep Marshall Faulk involved in the offense. It’s a good bet that Lovie Smith gave Martz the same mandate this week after Forte saw just a dozen rushes the past two weeks. Martz called seven straight running plays to start Sunday’s game, and an explosive Forte responded with a career-high 205 yards. His last six regular-season games have produced 954 yards -- an average of 159 per week. The NFL’s best receiving back is on pace for 2,536 total yards and eight touchdowns. The yards will come down from the Chris Johnson of 2009 pace, but Forte should remain a clear-cut RB1 all season.
Darren McFadden - Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for taking away the other team’s top weapon, forcing offenses to go away from their strength. McFadden didn’t find the end zone against Belichick, but he did rack up 123 yards on 18 touches. Fantasy’s No. 1 back is on pace to essentially replicate Arian Foster’s 2010 season, with 300 carries, 1,872 rushing yards, 60 receptions, 528 receiving yards, and 16 touchdowns.
Ryan Mathews - Norv Turner plans to keep repeating this line every week: Ryan Mathews is getting "better, better and better." Already one of the most effective per-touch backs in the NFL, Mathews is averaging 4.72 yards per carry and 13.36 yards per catch through four games. Heading into a dream matchup with the Broncos, Mathews is on pace for 244 carries, 1,152 rushing yards, 76 receptions, 1,016 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns. Those receiving yards will go down, of course, but Mathews will counter that by increasing his rushing numbers at Mike Tolbert’s expense.
Jimmy Graham - Formerly a power forward, Graham is on the verge of passing Jermichael Finley as the most dangerous combination of size, power, and speed among NFL tight ends. Like Finley, he can threaten a defense vertically while also representing a mismatch in the red zone. "This is the greatest time I've ever had in the sport," Graham said after posting 132 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches and 14 targets at Jacksonville. After two straight 100-yard games, Graham is on pace for 1,468 yards and 12 touchdowns. He won’t hit that yardage total, but the dozen scores are within reach.
Larry Fitzgerald - Perhaps the one player on this list with the best chance to hit his on-pace numbers, Fitz’s first-month production projects to 92 catches, 1,444 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s flying well under the radar while Welker, Megatron, and Steve Smith steal the show.
Julio Jones / A.J. Green - Jones has back-to-back 100-yard games heading into a Week 5 matchup against a Packers defense on pace to surrender 5,327 passing yards -- 831 more than the record-holding 1995 Falcons. Perhaps not coincidentally, the defenses ranked in the bottom-three in the NFL in yards per play allowed are the Patriots (Brady), Panthers (Newton), and Packers (Rodgers). Through the season's first quarter, No. 6 overall pick Jones is on pace for 1,368 yards on 96 receptions. … In the Bengals’ ball control offense, Green is on pace for 76 catches and 1,248 yards. Fantasy owners will be happy if either rookie clears 1,000 yards. Both have emerged as every-week fantasy plays through one month of action.