x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Start to NFL season stranger than fiction

Top sides, such as the Eagles, Jets, Cowboys and Steelers, have had surprisingly poor starts to 2011/12 so far, owing to poor form, injuries and mistakes.

When the Philadelphia Eagles players, the New York Jets coach and the Dallas Cowboys owner ramped up the expectations for their teams, it seemed reasonable. All had the talent to challenge for a championship.

It turns out, through the first month of the NFL season, that the bluster was just that - all hype. None of those teams have shown much substance in the first four games.

Throw in the Atlanta Falcons, a fashionable pick to represent the NFC in next February's Super Bowl, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending AFC champions, and the opening quarter of the schedule has been full of disappointments for some ballyhooed teams.

No one has been more disappointing than the heavily hyped Eagles, who quickly have driven their supporters to concentrating on the Philadelphia Phillies in the Major League Baseball play-offs. The squad, Vince Young, the backup quarterback, dubbed a "Dream Team" after all their off-season acquisitions, are keeping supporters up all night trying to figure out what has gone wrong.

The Eagles have lost three successive games and are at the bottom of the NFC East. Their latest flop was the worst, as they blew a 23-3 second-half lead and fell to San Francisco - despite a sensational performance by Michael Vick.

But Vick doesn't play in the secondary that, despite some hefty price tags for Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel, has been a sieve. And Vick isn't a linebacker - in fact, some in Philadelphia wonder if anyone on the roster actually is one.

And Vick doesn't placekick, although he might have made one of the two field goals from inside 40 yards that Alex Henery missed in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

What is going on in Philadelphia is anything but dreamy, and the problems are drawing an even brighter spotlight because of pre-season proclamations that the Eagles were going to be something special.

"We've got the people to do it, but we're just not doing it," said the defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, one of several high-priced additions through free agency or trades.

"Maybe having this label of having so many good people is hurting us, because maybe people are standing around waiting for someone else to do it. Or expecting that someone else is going to come in and make the play instead of people going out and manning up and making it themselves."

It sounds a lot like the Jets, whose recent success - trips to the AFC title game in the last two years - has faded under the ugliness of losses to the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens.

With Nick Mangold, the All-Pro centre, sidelined by a right ankle sprain, the Jets (2-2) as a whole forgot how to block. Their defence played decently in the loss to the Ravens, but it has been mediocre in a lucky win over Dallas in the opener, and was miserable in the defeat at Oakland.

Mark Sanchez was supposed to take the next big step in his development as their quarterback in his third professional season. Instead, he has regressed as the offensive line has collapsed.

All of which has made Rex Ryan's boastful declarations nothing more than ... hype.

"We've had some ups and downs before," Ryan said. "We've had one worse than this one, believe it or not. We're just the men for the job, we'll get this thing fixed."

Better do so soon - next up is a visit to New England.

Dallas fell apart in similar fashion to their NFC East rivals the Eagles on Sunday. While Philadelphia couldn't hold a 20-point second-half lead, the Cowboys (2-2) were up 27-3 over the Detroit Lions. Then they reverted to recent woes, getting sloppy in pass coverage and sloppier with the ball.

Tony Romo has rightly been praised for his courage in playing while injured, and for his leadership skills. He also has been lambasted for his penchant to turn over the ball, with both Dallas losses directly attributable to his interceptions or fumbles.

And maybe the Cowboys have been overrated, in great part thanks to their owner's willingness to cast them as something more than they really are.

Not that Jerry Jones should be downgrading the roster he has put together. But asking this group, which would have trouble covering Jones himself on a pass route, to be exceptional might be nothing more than, well, hype.

Regardless, Jones isn't abandoning his quarterback and longtime pet project.

"I view the success we have, I view what he does well and I put the mistakes right in with what he does well and don't in any way get discouraged about our future with Tony," Jones said.

"There's no issue about faith in Romo, any place in this organisation, period. If you're going to try to make plays, then you've got a chance to have some bad plays. But however we go, we'll go with Tony. As Tony goes, we'll go."

There is no such angst over the quarterback in Atlanta, where Matt Ryan is a lot steadier than Romo. What has been the problem is too much average football, and in a division with the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that's treading dangerous waters.

And the struggling Steelers (2-2) do not look anything like the club that lost to Green Bay in last February's Super Bowl. All that talk about veteran outfits with well-established regimens surviving the lockout at best has, in Pittsburgh's case, been a lot of hype, compounded by injuries. Considering the Steelers' blue collar history, that's strange.

Of course, it has already been a strange season.