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Brandt NFL.Com: Exceeding expectations


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Exceeding expectations

By Gil Brandt

Special to NFL.com


(Sept. 30, 2003) -- Six teams are undefeated, six more have winning records (three in the same division) and four teams have not won a game yet. A rookie leads the league in receiving, a running back who tore his ACL two years ago leads the league in rushing, and three of the top four leaders in passing yards were considered "scrap heap" material at some point over the past three years.

What did you expect, a boring NFL season?

Several teams and players have gone above and beyond anyone's wildest expectations this year. Not only should they be commended for their work, but also their coaches, trainers and teammates should share in the praise.

But the truth is that more than 50 players should be complimented for their efforts. However, we really wanted to focus on the top guys and their teams. The really big surprises. For example, the Buccaneers defense is outstanding once again, but we all knew it would be. So that's not a surprise. The same can't be said for the Vikings defense.

Let's take a look at the teams and players making waves so far this year:

Minnesota Vikings

After four weeks in 2002, the Vikings were 0-4, gave up 141 points and finished the season 6-10. During the offseason there was the question as to how long head coach Mike Tice would keep his job. The team was reportedly up for sale. Oh, and don't forget about Michael Bennett's foot injury and the team's draft day problems in 2001 and 2002.

The cure for their problems? First, they changed defensive coordinators. After four games George O'Leary's defense has given up 58 points. Second, Tice has changed the way they practice, opting for tough and long sessions. Then they signed several unrestricted free agents such as LB Chris Clairborne and CB Denard Walker to help on defense and OT Mike Rosenthal to bolter an already strong offensive line. This team has surprised a great many people; we should take our hat off to Norman 'Boomer' Esiason for being one of the first to recognize that this would be a good team in 2003.

Seattle Seahawks

After three games in 2002, the Seahawks were 0-3, had given up 64 points and could not stop the run –- they gave up 664 yards rushing in the first three games! On offense, they scored just 36 points and people wondered just how long head coach Mike Holmgren would keep his job.

During the offseason they hired a new defensive coordinator in Ray Rhodes, and after three games this season, the unit has allowed just 33 points and 377 yards rushing. Now that's progress! The team also hired Bob Ferguson as their GM, which helped produce a very good draft that included two starters on defense. Offensively, Holmgren's guys have produced 89 points after three games. The free agent signing of Chike Okeafor (2.0 sacks) and the trade for Norman Hand were great moves. The players also love the new airplane being used for road games (as luxurious as a five-star penthouse suite). The team has skilled players and quarterback depth. A semi-surprise to some, the Seahawks have a two-game lead in the division. Since 1970, 75 percent of the teams starting 3-0 went on to the playoffs and 19 of 37 Super Bowl winners started 3-0 while 20 of 37 Super Bowl losers started 3-0. Good omens for a team that did an excellent job in the offseason.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs scored a great deal in 2002 (467 points), but also gave up more points than 27 other teams (399) and ranked 32nd in total yards given up. After four games in 2002, they had given up 143 points. After four games in 2003, they have given up a measly 58 points.

The Chiefs landed defensive players Shawn Barber, Vonnie Holliday and Dexter McCleon, all solid moves. The return of Jerome Woods and Ryan Sims from injured reserve helped a bunch too. McCleon was signed to be a third corner, but now he starts and makes big plays. And don't forget Carl Peterson's role in re-signing Priest Holmes, which got him on the field happy.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos finished 9-7 last season, but missed the playoffs for the second straight year. The signing of Jake Plummer was questioned by some and after Week 1, there were even more questions. Head coach Mike Shanahan makes a lot of good moves, but this may be one of his best ever. A lot of people have Denver ending up with a losing record or finishing third in the division. Those people will probably wish they hadn't made those predictions. However, they play a very tough schedule -- Kansas City twice, at Minnesota, at Indianapolis, at Baltimore, at Green Bay, plus New England and Pittsburgh at home.

Indianapolis Colts

After last season's 41-0 playoff loss to the Jets, a lot of people couldn't figure out this team. They have played better defense than most people thought they would, and some of that can be contributed to rookie Mike Doss' big play at safety. Second-year linebacker David Thornton has been outstanding in place of Mike Peterson. Tests come in games at Tampa Bay, at Miami, Buffalo and Tennessee -- all outside on grass. But perhaps the biggest key is Peyton Manning, who is playing like an MVP after four weeks.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers started 3-0 in 2002 and then lost the next eight games. Most people thought they would be last in their division and right now -- surprise! -- they're in first. Stephen Davis was a great pickup and Jake Delhomme has done a good job managing the offense. Special teams coach Scott O'Brien is outstanding and head coach John Fox is special. Both of them do a great job of putting people in the right places.

Dallas Cowboys

Two words tell all: Bill Parcells. After three games (two on the road at Giants Stadium), the team is playing well on offense, defense and special teams and they have a chance of ending up with a winning record after most people picked them to most likely win only four or five games. Special mention to Sean Payton, who has done a great job with quarterback Quincy Carter.

Washington Redskins

The Redskins finished 7-9 in 2002 and Steve Spurrier was criticized both in the NFL and outside about his coaching abilities. In the offseason, they did a great job of signing free agents Laveranues Coles, Chad Morton, Randy Thomas, John Hall and trading for Trung Canidate. If not injured, Brandon Noble would have helped on defense too. But above all, Spurrier has done a great job with Patrick Ramsey. I thought Washington did well in the Atlanta game after being down 17-0 to come back and win on the road because of some offensive adjustments they made. People looked at the Redskins schedule and thought they could go 2-5 or 1-6 before the Oct. 26 bye date. They're wrong. One thing to remember: three of Washington's first four games have been at home.

Now let's gander at the players who are playing better than expected. These are players who are not household names but have played well for their teams.

David Thornton, Colts: A fourth-round pick in 2002, the Colts let LB Mike Peterson leave after the 2002 season so Thornton could play. And play he's done -- he had 12 unassisted tackles against the Saints in Week 4 and 10 unassisted against the Titans in Week 2.

Lenny Walls, Broncos: An underrated free agent out of Boston College, Walls replaced Denard Walker, who left for Minnesota. He's the tall corner everyone is looking for.

Brian Williams, Vikings: A fourth round draft choice in 2002, Williams started the final seven games of last season at left cornerback and is playing well now both on D and special teams.

Jerome Woods, Chiefs: Missed the entire 2002 season with an injury. The former first-round pick in 1996 plays safefty, but moves to slot corner when the Chiefs go to five DBs, and he is good against the pass and run.

Ladell Betts, Redskins: A second-round pick in 2002, Betts played in 11 games and returned kickoffs. He's a power runner who can avoid people. His best game in 2002 was against Houston when he had 20 carries for 116 yards.

Anquan Boldin, Cardinals: A second-round pick in 2003 (54th overall), Boldin has exploded on the scene, catching 30 passes in four games, the most ever by a rookie wide receiver in NFL history (Terry Glenn holds the season record with 90 in 1996). While he is strong with athletic abilities, Boldin did not run well at the Combine or school workout.

Will Witherspoon, Panthers: Third-round pick in 2002 who started seven games (eight total) as a middle backer and played on special teams. Witherspoon can play in space because of his speed. As a side note, he spent eight years on his life in Germany.

Ellis Johnson, Falcons: Former first-round choice who was picked up by the Falcons after being waived by the Colts. Plays his position very well in the Falcons 3-4 defense.

Langston Walker, Raiders: Walker was a second-round pick in 2002 and started two games (one at left tackle and one at right). Started against the Chargers at right tackle in place of the injured Lincoln Kennedy. Walker, who wears No. 66, has amazing feet for his 6-foot-8, 345-pound size and ran 5.05 in thr 40-yard dash. He can play left tackle and is a future Pro Bowler.

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I can see the headlines on Monday already...Redskins take advantage of Eagle injuries on defense and poor early season production by Donovan McNabb to sneak by this obviously terrible team. Just accept it guys, the media will never admit that the Skins are good. They will always say that the Skins need to win one more game to start getting respect. That is fine, we know what we got and the longer they stay out in the cold the more the skins keep making them look like a bunch of punks.

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