Insider: Seven Points With Charlie Bernstein

In this edition of Seven Points we explore the feel-good story which is Kevin Smith, look at who the Colts are scouting, check in with the underrated Bears, examine the Packers pursuit of perfection, examine some interesting coaching decisions and check out the rookie quarterbacks.

Smith Breaks Out

When Detroit drafted running back Kevin Smith out of UCF, the Lions were hoping that Smith could display some of the record-breaking production he showed in college when he became the Knights all-time leading rusher. It may have taken the better part of four years, but Smith finally had his breakout game.

In the Lions come from behind 49-35 victory over Carolina Sunday, Smith exploded for 140 yards rushing with a pair of touchdowns as well as 61 more yards receiving with another score. The 140 yards rushing and three touchdowns were both career highs.

“I’ve always believed in myself and my abilities,” Smith said following the game. “I’ve had some tough breaks injury-wise, but I’ve always believed in myself.”

Kevin Smith’s career day was about as unlikely as any, as the former Central Florida standout wasn’t tendered a contract this offseason after coming off two knee injuries. Smith wasn’t signed by anyone until roughly two weeks ago, when the Lions finally called after a rash of injuries to their running backs.

“There’s a lot of great stories in the NFL, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better story than Kevin Smith,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “Obviously he (Smith) has a lot of talent. He was set back earlier in his career with a lot of major injuries. With the lockout this year and short training camps and stuff like that it was a difficult situation for him to come back.”

“Obviously, I’ve been playing football for a long time and had two seasons where I got injured and got put on (injured reserve). I feel great, and God’s blessed me with a second opportunity,” Smith explained.

Detroit has one of the top passing attacks in the league but they’ve been looking to be more balanced on offense for the last few years. Jahvid Best is a lighter back who is yet to prove he can handle the bulk of the workload. The team drafted Mikel LeShoure in the second round of April’s draft to team up with Best, but LeShoure was injured early in training camp.

The injuries may have opened up a door for a Kevin Smith resurgence as he’s in a familiar situation and has the support of his teammates.

“People here know he can run the ball, that’s why he came back,” Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson said. “For whatever reason, he didn’t get brought back, but he was one of our better backs last year. I think it was the injury that probably put doubt in people’s minds – it always does. But guys bounce back from that. Kevin’s bouncing back from that.”

Kevin Smith’s future may or may not be with the Detroit Lions as they have younger players at his position, but with his performance on Sunday he’s likely to get a few more calls once he becomes a free agent.

Rookie Quarterbacks Go Winless

Regardless of what Aaron Rodgers says or does, being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a difficult task. Doing it as a rookie is even more difficult, especially when you consider that this year’s rookie class had virtually no offseason of workouts.

There are now four rookie quarterbacks starting in the league- Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder- and each of them have had some successes and failures early on. Each of the four had highlights on Sunday, but none could direct their teams to victory.

Cam Newton started off quickly as he threw for a touchdown and ran for another as the Panthers raced out to a 24-7 lead at Detroit. Unfortunately for Newton, the Lions made some adjustments and although Cam ended up completing 22 of 38 throws for 280 yards, but he was picked off a season-high four times.

“The small things are impacting us in a big way. Finishing, executing, those things you have to master in this league or you’re going to get exposed. In this game I think we put on a clinic in how to lose a game,” Newton explained.

After beginning the season with six wins in the first eight games, Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton is now seeing what life is like playing the AFC North’s elite. The Bengals dropped their second straight game, 31-24 at Baltimore and Dalton tossed three interceptions to go with his 373 yards passing.

Although Dalton has kept Cincinnati competitive in the last two games, five interceptions is not helping the 6-4 Bengals.

“It comes down to the fourth quarter. That’s how every game’s been for us,” Dalton said. “We’ve got to start faster. We can’t wait around until the end of the game to pick it up, come out and get back in it. It’s definitely going to be a focus for us.”

The national perception is that Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert has been the least impressive of the starting rookie quarterbacks, at least his stats read that way. Gabbert has been better than the statistics and he may have had his best game as a pro on Sunday. The Jaguars rookie completed 22 of 41 throws for 210 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions in the team’s 14-10 loss to Cleveland.

With the game on the line, Gabbert led the Jaguars down the field in a two-minute drill and delivered a perfect throw in the end zone that hit wide receiver Jason Hill in the chest before falling harmlessly to the ground.

“It’s not the ending we were looking for,” Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. “It’s not the first time this year we’ve had the opportunity. We’re really looking for that breakout, game-winning drive. We had a chance for our quarterback to take us down. He took us down. We were knocking on the door. We just couldn’t close it out.”

In Minnesota, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder dropped his starting record to 1-3 with a 27-21 loss to the Oakland Raiders. Ponder completed 19 of 33 throws for 211 yards with a pair of touchdowns and three interceptions.

“Bad decisions by me, and I take full responsibility for this loss,” Ponder said. “The defense played unbelievably well and kept us in the game. We just kept making mistakes.”

Brighter days certainly lie ahead for these talented gunslingers, but on this Sunday each quarterback had chances to get their respective teams wins and failed.

Quarterbacks On Aisle 1

The Indianapolis Colts have very little left to play for this season. At 0-10, there will be no postseason for the first time in over a decade. The biggest issue the Colts have is obviously the health of starting quarterback Peyton Manning, who has missed all season recovering from neck surgery.

Healthy or not, the Colts need to find the quarterback that is going to follow Manning and it likely won’t be Curtis Painter. Indy will likely be armed with the first pick in the draft and it’s possible that Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley and/or Robert Griffin will tickle their fancy.

On Saturday, Colts czar of personnel Bill Polian took a trip to wine country and while he was there he took in the California- Stanford game, which featured one Andrew Luck. This was the second time that Polian watched one of Luck’s games in person.

Colts owner Jim Irsay will likely have the final say on their draft selection. Irsay tweeted on Sunday about the rookie class of quarterbacks.

“Yea I saw Barkley n Luck last nite,and there’s others with big time potential..but we want 18 back under center soon/18 now-2012Class future,” the Colts owner said from his Twitter account.

Although there is a certain amount of loyalty between the Colts organization and Peyton Manning, some of that loyalty may have dissipated. Peyton Manning signed a new contract prior to this season in which he will be paid close to $30 million in 2011, seemingly without playing a game. As much as Manning has done for the organization, that contract must rub some people the wrong way considering how everything has played out.

Jim Irsay has said that he believes in Manning and he should. But players don’t get better in their mid-30’s, especially after neck surgeries.

Irsay went on with his Twitter, “It’s very possible 18 back at full strength n we take future QB high in draft…it’s not necessarily 1 or the other…stay tuned4 wild ride!”

Like Jim Irsay said, stay tuned.

Bears Flying Under the Radar

It appears as if every NFL teams fanbase feels disrespected from the impartial media. If you’re a fan of the undefeated Packers you’re taking it personal that someone doesn’t think you’ll go 19-0. If you’re a Colts fan you feel that the last ten years should give your team a pass on this year’s historic futility. Fans of the Chicago Bears may actually have a legitimate reason to feel slighted.

The defending NFC North champion Bears were immediately dismissed as a contender before the season even began. Quarterback Jay Cutler was labeled as soft, the offensive line wasn’t good enough and the defense was too old and slow. After a 24-13 loss to Detroit on Monday Night Football, Chicago sat with a 2-3 record and it appeared the critics had a point.

That Lions game was a turning point in the season as offensive coordinator Mike Martz scaled down his normal game plan which includes deep drops and longer routes after Jay Cutler was critical of the offense.

“In an ideal world, you’d like to have all those guys play just like you had in the opener, and things went well, but that’s not the case,” Martz said as the Bears were shuffling linemen. “So we’ve got to make sure that we’re giving him a chance with some of those quicker throws and things. There’s no question about that.”

Since the offense was re-made, Chicago has won five straight games in impressive fashion including victories over Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Detroit and San Diego.

“We just have to keep playing good ball and getting better and better,” Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. “This is the crunch time of the season, November and December and these games are must wins and we have some tough games ahead of us.”

Jay Cutler has been an integral part of the Bears success. The Bears quarterback has been given time to operate and he’s making throws all over the field. During the winning streak, Cutler has completed 57 percent of his throws for over 1,100 yards with eight total touchdowns and three interceptions. Unfortunately for Chicago, they will likely have to win without Cutler as it’s being reported by several sources that Cutler has a broken hand and thumb and could miss the rest of regular season.

Despite playing with nothing close to a household name at wide receiver, Cutler had fueled a solid Bears passing attack. Chicago is hoping that Caleb Hanie can supply similar results.

Chicago is playing championship caliber football right now and are largely flying under the radar, being that they’re in the same division as the undefeated defending Super Bowl champs. The Bears don’t need any special credit or accolades right now, as they know the most important games are yet to be played.

This Just In: It’s a Passing League

Over the past seven years, seemingly every rule change or enforcement has promoted the passing game. The league wanted scoring and it’s tough to argue that it’s a bad thing, as ratings and revenue keep rising annually.

The teams that have placed significant faith and resources in their running games just might want to rethink their philosophies. Entering Sunday’s action, the league’s Top Five rushing teams (Houston, Denver, Philadelphia, Oakland and Minnesota) had just a .468 winning percentage.

Conversely, the league’s Top Five passing teams (New Orleans, New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and San Diego) have an ultra impressive .702 winning percentage entering Sunday. The saying used to be, “throw to score, run to win.” If you can’t throw now, it’s impossible to win.

The lowest-rated passing teams in the NFL entering Sunday are Minnesota, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Denver and Jacksonville. Those teams have a cumulative .380 winning percentage with the only anomaly being San Francisco, who’s 9-1 while navigating through an NFC West schedule.

We already have three quarterbacks who are already over 3,000 yards passing with 20 touchdowns through 10 games, the most in NFL history. Sure, not every team has a Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but if you can’t throw the ball consistently in today’s game you simply cannot be a legitimate contender.

A Perfect 10

Another game, another win for the Green Bay Packers. The Packers moved to 10-0 with their 35-26 victory over Tampa Bay, becoming just the third defending champ to accomplish the feat (’90 San Francisco 49ers, ’98 Denver Broncos).

The question that begs to be asked is can they go a perfect 16-0, then 19-0?

Conventional wisdom says no, as the 1972 Dolphins remain the only perfect team in the history of the NFL. In 2007, New England was perfect all the way to the Super Bowl before being upset by the Giants, 17-14. In New England’s recent run, more pressure built up each week and the Pats were very fortunate to avoid upsets as the season progressed.

Green Bay seems to be hanging with the “one game at a time” mantra (or cliche), or at least quarterback Aaron Rodgers is sticking to the story.

“It’s not something that we think about or talk about,” Rodgers said. “We’re just trying to be 1-0 every week and we’ve done that for ten straight weeks and that’s going to be our focus.”

Packers veteran cornerback Charles Woodson “broke the code” two weeks ago when he admitted he liked the idea of perfection.

“We can talk about it,” Woodson said to Yahoo Sports. “I don’t care. We’re 8-0 and love to be 16-0 – love to. It’s a realistic conversation now. We’re halfway there. So yeah, let’s talk about it. I’d love to go undefeated, I’d absolutely love to. Not just the regular season – the whole thing.”

With six games to play, there are a few teams that have a good shot at taking down the champs. An explosive Detroit offense hosts Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day in the most anticipated “Turkey Day” game in years. Matt Stafford could have a field day against the league’s 31st ranked pass defense. If the Packers do survive the short week, they will have a difficult trip to the Meadowlands to face the Giants elite pass rush and clutch quarterback Eli Manning. Following the trip to New Jersey, Green Bay returns home to face the enigmatic Oakland Raiders before traveling to Kansas City. The Packers final two games are of the division variety, with Chicago and Detroit coming to Titletown.

With their difficult schedule, if Green Bay can accomplish the undefeated feat, it will make for one of the greatest accomplishments in modern-day sports.

Extra Points

Locker Makes His Debut

The only quarterback selected in the first round yet to start a game is Titans quarterback Jake Locker. Sitting behind Matt Hasselbeck, Tennessee was planning to use 2011 as a “redshirt year” for Locker, but he was forced into action after Hasselbeck suffered an elbow injury.

In mop up duty, Locker completed 9 of 19 throws for 140 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The former Washington Huskie showed superior arm strength and an ability to escape pressure.

“It was a lot of fun,” Locker said following the Titans 23-17 loss to Atlanta. “I would have liked a better outcome, but it was fun to be out there competing.”

Titans head coach Mike Munchak said that Matt Hasselbeck is the team’s starting quarterback going forward.

Peterson Injured

A bad season become exponentially worse for the Minnesota Vikings as All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson was forced to leave Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. X-rays on the ankle were reported to be negative and there will be an MRI on Monday. If Peterson misses any significant time, the Vikings already sub-par offense will struggle even more.

Stafford Shakes Off Tough Start

In Sunday’s 49-35 victory over the Panthers, Lions quarterback Matt Stafford was intercepted on Detroit’s first two possessions. Instead of the interceptions being the story, Stafford bounced back to throw for 335 yards with five touchdown passes. It was the second-time in Stafford’s career that he threw five touchdowns in a game and he became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to have a pair of five touchdown games in his first 23 starts.

“We were killing ourselves with turnovers,” Stafford said. “We knew that we’d be able to score in the second half if we could just keep our hands on the ball.”

Good Day Off For Houston

Last week, the Houston Texans victory over the Tampa Bay Bucs was marred by the foot injury to quarterback Matt Schaub which will likely cost him the season. Although Houston didn’t play this week they gained ground in the division title race as both the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars suffered defeats. At 7-3, the Texans have a two game lead over 5-5 Tennessee with six games to play. Only a Texas-sized collapse can now keep Houston from the postseason.

Florida Coaches Gone Wild

Although there were no coaching decisions this week which were as second guessed as Falcons head coach Mike Smith’s choice to attempt a 4th-and-1 on his own 29-yard line a week ago, there were some questionable moves.

– In Green Bay, Wisconsin, Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris attempted to steal some possessions as he tried not one, but two onside kicks. Neither worked and the Packers scored touchdowns on both ensuing possessions.

– In Cleveland, Ohio, Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio after some questionable clock management before halftime, decided to punt from the Cleveland 40-yard line on a 4th-and-7 with 15 seconds remaining in the half. Jacksonville could’ve opted to go for a first down, knowing that the odds of Cleveland scoring on a failed attempt would be slim, or they could’ve attempted a long field goal with one of the game’s best kickers, Josh Scobee. In a game that the team lost by just four points, a made kick could’ve cut the lead to one. Jacksonville’s final possession was ended at the Cleveland 1-yard line.

– Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano didn’t do anything crazy or questionable, but he did navigate his Miami team to a 35-8 victory over Buffalo. With the victory, the Dolphins became the first team to win three straight games after losing their first seven.

“This is nice for the guys,” coach Tony Sparano said. “They’re just worried about doing their job and trying to prove people wrong. They make me smile a little bit. I don’t know that I want to show that, though. They’ll think I’m getting soft.”

Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for ESPNFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,