I spent Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field, finishing off a Cam Newton feature for the Pro Football Weekly print edition that I had worked on for a few weeks. And I thought, through that process, I was getting a good idea of who Cam Newton was.
Most of the people I talked to spoke openly of Newton's hatred for losing, his incredible athleticism and the hard work he has put in since being the first pick in the draft. Really, even before that, too.
But I had to see it up close for myself to really understand. And let me tell you: Cam was miserable Sunday. Absolutely looked like someone vomited in his pants pockets during the game and criticized his mother after it.
So you have to keep this in mind when you read what happened after the game while the media milled through the Panthers' locker room. TE Greg Olsen came over to Newton and tried to pick him up after his sometimes brilliant play wasn't enough in the Panthers' 34-29 loss to the Bears in Chicago.
"Way to play," Olsen said to Newton. "You gave us a chance to win."
"(Expletive) chances, man!" Newton shot back, pushing Olsen's arm away.
"Man, don't take it out on me," Olsen said.
I chalk that up to a few things. One, Newton's utter disbelief that he just lost his third game in four weeks in his NFL career after having lost one game in two seasons of college ball. Two, I think it's a small sliver of immaturity. But three — and this is the one that Panthers fans will love — I think it means that Carolina has a competitor of a rare caliber who will carry this team on his extremely broad shoulders until the Panthers win a Super Bowl. Or two or three.
His mind knows no differently. Check out what he said when someone asked Newton what he was most upset about after the loss.
"This loss, man ... I never settle for a loss," Newton said. "I should not have reacted like that. Greg is an excellent player, and I don't ever question a person's effort like that on the field. It's just that sometimes I feel like I can ... think too much, and that was the wrong thing to do."
The Panthers are better than your average two-win team from the year before, and with Newton they have a chance to win the NFC South in a year. This season, the story will be the shorthanded defense, and Sunday the special teams (two long returns allowed to Devin Hester and two missed field goals, one of which was blocked) were just awful.
With a good offensive line, two quality running backs, two good tight ends (yes, Newton likes Olsen, and he looked for Jeremy Shockey a lot Sunday), and WR Steve Smith still very much in his prime at 32, the Panthers have the makings of a great offense.
But better than that, their quarterback will not accept losing in any form. Still wonder if the Panthers made the right call at No. 1? Consider me convinced.
Controversial call of the week
This one stings for the Cardinals. With about three minutes left and a 27-24 lead over the Giants, the Cardinals watched Giants WR Victor Cruz catch a pass from Eli Manning for 19 yards down the left sideline and then inexplicably leave the ball on the ground.
The Cardinals pounced on it and recovered. Cruz had broken through a tackle attempt, but when he went down to the ground, it appeared to the naked eye that he had stumbled and was by no means tackled.
The refs saw it their own way. They ruled that Cruz gave himself up willingly, and in doing so, it was not a fumble. The kicker of the whole deal? Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt couldn't even challenge the play (which almost certainly would have been overturned had it been) because of the fact that Cruz went down by his own volition.
One play later, Manning hit Hakeem Nicks for a 29-yard TD that would prove to be the game-winner. Before the Cardinals' recent wave of success (which feels like half a decade ago), wasn't this exactly the kind of play that marred — defined, even — their franchise?
They have to feel like they were jobbed. This might even be something that the NFL looks at and changes the rules on.
The wow factor
In what was considered a substandard week of action because of the matchups, we had three of the strangest results imaginable — two blown leads and a 51-point defensive domination:
There will be talk this week of benching Juan Castillo. He's the Eagles' defensive coordinator, mind you.
There might be talk of finding a way to reel in Tony Romo or Jason Garrett, or maybe Romo and Garrett.
And both the Jets and Ravens seriously should look hard at their passing games — if not benching their quarterbacks, then seriously changing the designs of what they are asked to do — after Sunday night's defensive debacle.
Let's tackle these in order.
If there ever was a helpless-sounding quotation from a head coach, it was this from the Eagles' Andy Reid following Sunday's loss, which once was a 21-point lead, to the 49ers: "If it was just a defensive game, I would tell you yes," Reid said in response to a question as to whether the defense was to blame for it. "But it's an offensive game, too. Nobody is pointing fingers at anybody."
Well, isn't that nice? Yes, Jeremy Maclin fumbled at game's end, and the Eagles most certainly left points on the board, with two missed field goals contributing. But there is a serious problem with the Eagles' makeup right now.
They went out and signed a slew of talented defenders, handed them to Castillo and expected him to know what to do with them. The problem is that he hadn't coached defense since 1989 (when he was coaching high school) and that the offseason was a total wipeout from a preparation standpoint. You can't say they'll figure it out over time because time is a-runnin' out. And you don't sign all those guys if you don't think you are going to compete now.
As for the Cowboys, I admit to being something of a Romo apologist this season. And though I did not watch Sunday's meltdown, I can tell you that I still believe that the man is a great quarterback ... when he's not trying so hard to make the hero plays he loves to make. It's baffling how he can be so brilliant one series and so train-wreckingly awful one throw later.
And how many more throws to the wrong zip code do Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez have to make against good defenses that their offensive coordinators, Cam Cameron (Ravens) and Brian Schottenheimer (Jets), have to dial things back? Both men are smarter than I when it comes to football, yes, but my goodness, can we invoke some common sense? Neither man could airmail it within a neighborhood block of their receivers downfield, and yet both the Ravens and Jets kept throwing and throwing.
It's not often you look at a 51-point game and talk about how purely bad the offenses were. But this was indeed the case in the Sunday-night showdown.
It's a quarter of the way through the season, and we still have some really strange things going on in football games.
Entertainers and icons
This week's edition goes to three wide receivers who are just on a ridiculous pace right now:
Patriots WR Wes Welker: Tom Brady called him the "heart and soul" of the Patriots after Sunday's 31-19 hard-fought victory over the Raiders. I would argue he's the unquestioned glue of this team. Take him away and what do you have? I try not to do the "on pace for" thing too much, but we might as well do some fun math. Forty catches, 616 yards and five touchdowns all suggest career numbers are in the offing, especially in the latter category, where he only needs four more to set a personal mark. But keep up at this rate, and Welker is set to roll for 160 catches. (And 2,464 yards and 20 TDs, but those just aren't realistic totals.) A reminder: Marvin Harrison has the all-time mark with 143 grabs in 2002. That record is most certainly within reach. Welker, mind you, had the second-most catches in a season with 123 during his tremendous 2009 campaign.
Panthers WR Steve Smith: Right behind Welker in receiving yards on the NFL leaders list is Smith, who has a lofty 530. It's especially lofty when you consider he had only 554 in 14 games last season, easily one of the more miserable in his career. But watch him Sunday and it's easy to figure out that Smith hasn't lost a step. He was croaked twice by Brandon Meriweather after catches, and both times Smith popped up as if he invited the hits, relished them even. The way the Panthers are throwing the ball down the field, Smith might approach his 2005 (1,563 yards) or 2008 (1,421) totals.
Lions WR Calvin Johnson: About as tall as a Welker stacked on top of a Smith. Or so it seems, as every week Johnson is Evel Knieveling his way over a defensive back to catch a TD pass. He's up to a ridiculous eight — two in each game — which includes Sunday's game-winner against the Cowboys. Through four full seasons plus four games, Johnson has 41 TD receptions. See, this is where guys like Welker (28 TDs in seven full seasons plus four games) and Smith (54 in nine seasons plus four games) get jealous. Johnson just turned 26. You have to think he could play another eight, nine seasons. Jerry Rice's 197 TDs would seem untouchable, but what about Randy Moss' and Terrell Owens' 153? With years of playing with Matthew Stafford in this offense, Johnson will have a chance.
Ten takeaways of the week
Here are 10 things I took from Week Four:
1. There is a difference between coming back to win 30-28, or turning a nine- or 10-point lead into a two-point victory and then falling on an onside kick, and doing what the Falcons did Sunday. First off, yes — they won. That's good. And winning in Seattle this season, last season, any season is not easy. But blowing a 20-point lead and winning should be almost as alarming as what the Cowboys did against the Lions Sunday. Julio Jones looks terrific, but any defense that makes Tarvaris Jackson look that good needs some help. The Falcons are a very flawed 2-2 team right now.
2. I told people, "No, not this Bills team." I said they would not lose Sunday, and yet I have to give credit to two personnel people in the NFL I talk to who said the Bills would lose at Cincy. "Classic trap game," one said. "This is where they (pee) down their legs," the other so eloquently stated. I told them they were wrong. Turns out, I was the one who gave them too much credit. I hate, hate, hate the term "quality loss," but I think the Bills can learn a lot from this one. They let a rookie quarterback whom they had on the ropes get back into the game and win it. They lost in a road game that had the fewest fans in Paul Brown Stadium history. This should have been floor-mopping material, but the Bills mailed this one in. Way too early for a team with this kind of offensive talent and hunger for winning.
3. And now for some positive material. We have to credit the coaching job to date of Jim Harbaugh, who has endured some injuries at receiver, some occasionally horrid OL play and some very mediocre returns from much of the rest of his offense to go 3-1, with only one of his victories coming against the milquetoast NFC West. The Niners easily could be 4-0 had Romo not pulled his superhero routine two weeks ago. And check it out: They get the Bucs at home, catching them on a short week, in Week Five. I can't exactly tell you, beyond playing 60 full minutes and having a resilient defense, how the 49ers are doing it. But I can tell you they have gotten my attention.
4. Matt Hasselbeck, captain of my All-Revived Team. With Kenny Britt out, I said Chris Johnson needed to step up. And he did, with 101 yards on 23 carries, a nice game from him. But Hasselbeck cranked up the deep ball, and there is a great irony that it happened on the day after Mike Heimerdinger, the Titans' former offensive coordinator, passed away after his battle with cancer. Heimerdinger was the master of the vertical passing game, and he was a beloved figure in the Titans' and Broncos' organizations. Hasselbeck never played for Heimerdinger, but he certainly channeled some of that magic in the first half without the team's best deep threat. What an interesting team the Titans are becoming.
5. Has Leslie Frazier joined Tony Sparano on the hot seat? Not yet, I am told. Frazier promised to "re-evaluate everything" following their 22-17 loss to the formerly winless Chiefs, and it seems like a good idea. Where to start? All the Vikings needed to have done was look across the sideline to the Chiefs' side of the field. Yeah, they're bad. They're not making the playoffs. But at least there was some fire. Matt Cassel hates losing and taking the blame. Ditto Todd Haley. So what happened? They got into it after a failed offensive series. Maybe the mild-mannered Frazier could spice things up a bit with Donovan McNabb (or someone), if for no other reason than to get players on their toes a bit and show them their performance is not good enough. It's worth a shot, anyway, although supporters of the Tony Dungy School of Thought might be emailing me and kindly telling me to suggest alternative methods to find success.
6. I think it's fair to say that the Lions have something special going on. You have to have a little luck to go along with your talent. (Right now, prides of Lions fans are asking, "Luck?! What the heck is that?!") And things certainly fell into place in Sunday's incredible comeback victory, with Romo helping fan the growing flames a bit. This, of course, was a week after the Miracle in Minnesota. That's two weeks, two 20-point comebacks, an NFL first. I venture to suggest that Jim Schwartz on Monday will mention his blood pressure and the need not to stake teams these kinds of advantages, especially on the road. But a 4-0 start (that's 12 straight wins, including preseason, dating back to 2010) with two classic comebacks on the road is even beyond what ESPN execs could have imagined as they get set next week to host Detroit's first Monday-night game in 10 seasons. The Lions still have lots to work on, yes, and we remember how bad they were not that long ago. But it's safe to say there is quite the spark in the Motor City right now.
7. In the most predictable of ways, the Chargers beat the Dolphins by 10 points in a game where the Chargers (as they always seem to do) played down to their competition and the Dolphins (in classic Dolphins fashion) played better than the score would indicate but still never really gave you the sense that they were going to actually win the game. So my question to you: Who did the better coaching job Sunday, Sparano or Norv Turner? To be fair, both teams were gashed by injury in the game: Chad Henne for the Dolphins and Vincent Jackson for the Chargers.
8. I am calling it: After his second pick this season (and adding 19 return yards against the Raiders, for a total of 47 now), Patriots NT Vince Wilfork will get an end-of-season goal-line rep at tight end, a la Bill Belichick letting Doug Flutie dropkick an extra point. Said Belichick, "Vince has got great hands. People don't realize that because he's not a skill player, but he can catch the ball, catch punts and everything else. When he gets his hands on it, he's like a vacuum cleaner. He sucks it right in there. It was a big play for us and great awareness on Vince's part. He's a hard guy to bring down. You have to gang-tackle him."
9. Has Matt Forté made his claim properly now? Has Mike Martz changed his stripes? A definitive yes, followed by an assertive no. Forté is elite; statistics tell you only part of the story with him because of how he's used, but watching him, you know he has upper-echelon balance, vision, power, shiftiness and burst. He truly is a great player, and I suspect the Bears don't fully appreciate what they have. As for Martz, he did his stubborn about-face routine, running the ball on the first eight plays of the game against the Panthers. Guess what? It worked. The Bears had scored 24 points with Jay Cutler throwing only four passes — thanks, special teams! — which seems to at least prove some points about the silliness of turning the Bears into a 45-pass team. But I absolutely do not expect this approach to continue for a second straight week. Why not? I don't think Martz can help himself, I really don't.
10. Ryan Torain lives — and thrives. And it wouldn't stun me if the Redskins use all three backs going forward, with a healthy Torain, a shifty Roy Helu and a tough but somewhat limited Tim Hightower all able to fill roles on this offense. The Redskins' talent suggests they are a seven- or eight-win team, and maybe that's where they end up. But it wouldn't stun me if Mike Shanahan's good coaching (in case you forgot) squeezes out a few more victories, especially in a season in which the NFC East is down (in case you didn't realize it yet).
Early Week Five teasers
The top five story lines heading into the first bye week of the season: