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“Sophomore slump” an NFL quarterback phenomenon or does it just sound good?

Andy Dalton and Cam Newton are going through sophomore slumps but that doesn’t mean “sophomore slump” is an actual thing. It really sounds like one of those snappy phrases that morning television programs use a topical springboard from presumed truth.

But “sophomore slump” is an interesting idea, especially after briefly thinking about the regression of Dalton and Newton in year two, how Matt Leinart actually looked promising at times during his rookie season, along with the two-win drop-off suffered by Baltimore (Flacco) and Atlanta (Ryan) in 2009.

It’s hard not to think: Is there anything to this?

A quick Google query found a helpful piece by Cold Hard Football Facts that — while I would make some significant tweaks to the parameters of their study that I will detail — draws some insightful conclusions. The gist of it is basically that the trend of rookie quarterbacks playing worse in year two after getting significant starting experience in year one stopped being true decades ago, in a completely different NFL era.

They gather their information back to 1950 which provides good research for their investigation, but I think it’s more useful to exclude everything before the tipping point in the proliferation of passing, which differentiates today’s game from the past: 2004 marks the year of both the QB Draft of the Millennium and critical pro-passing rules changes, two major factors in why trying to evaluate NFL QBs today compared to the 90s, 80s, etc etc Terry Bradshaw etc etc Sid Luckman….and it just starts to get wildly subjective.

Cold Hard Football Facts concludes that for awhile, including this 2004-present interval, that the whole sophomore slump theory is a fallacy. To me, it doesn’t make sense logically either. Why would a position that relies so much on learning, seasoning and experience in a pro-style offense see a trend of decline after getting that crucial first pro year under the belt?

Looking at it extrinsically, you could start to rationalize Newton’s slump and reframe the entire discussion. Defensive coordinators adjust and this doesn’t apply only to “sophomores” but to any quarterback coming off his first season of significant work as starter. It’s not going from age 22 to age 23, year one to year two — it’s giving all that pro game-film to the schemers on your schedule for an entire offseason. It’s how rounded a quarterback’s skill set currently is, and how they team with coach and coordinator to avoid their passing offense from getting effectively game-planned or even “blueprinted” in their second season under center, and struggling despite improving over the offseason.

When “sophomore slump” applies to second-year starters and not just second-year pros at the quarterback position, then the discussion at least becomes somewhat more intuitive. But does it have legs?

Parameters: QBs eligible for second-year slump dating from 2004-present must have started at least 5 games the previous year and entered the following season as opening-day starter.

YES for qualified as significant regression in year two, NO for did not, HAH for very much the opposite my friend. You can find stats on all these quarterbacks at ProFootballReference.com

Rookie starters to sophomore year since 2004. Significant regression?:

Bradford YES
Ryan NO
Roethlisberger — NO
Flacco — HAH
Leinart — YES
Young — YES
Cutler — HAH
Edwards — NO
McCoy — YES
Manning — NO
Sanchez — NO
Freeman — HAH

First seasons weren’t exactly ….promising, but was there a regression in year two?:

Gabbert — NO
Ponder — NO
Russell — YES
Smith — NO

IN PROGRESS:

Newton — YES
Dalton — YES

Non-rookie second-year starters:

Henne — NO
Boller — NO
Losman — NO
Fitzpatrick — YES (but also did change teams)
Palmer — HAH
Anderson — YES
Romo — NO
Stafford — HAH (actually, has slumped from his first full-season of action in 2011 to the current in here in 2012, though that Seattle game might change the path. Either way, hard to mark him down as a second-year slump.)
Rodgers — NO
Schaub — HAH
Garrard — NO
Croyle — ??(hardly played due to injury in year two as starter)
Cassel — NO (stat regression hard
Campbell — NO

Takeaways? Well, the non-rookie second-year starters appear more likely to make a jump in year two than the sophomore second-year starters.

Meanwhile, the sophomore slump really only hit Derek Anderson among second-year starters, while with rookies you have significant sophomore regression Sam Bradford, Matt Leinart, Vince Young, Colt McCoy, Jamarcus Russell and — in progress — Cam Newtown and Andy Dalton. Matt Ryan could qualify here but his rookie year was such an all-time great and his sophomore year marred by injury to both him and an in-his-prime Michael Turner — not too mention that he didn’t play dramatically worse than his rookie year — that the statistical regression doesn’t quite qualify as a “slump.”

However, since 2004 no quarterback that has gone on to any success (or any “good” quarterback) has regressed dramatically in their second year as starter — sophomore or no.

Now, that does not mean you can expect huge leap in year two for either classification with only Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Carson Palmer, Josh Freeman and Joe Flacco improving by a large margin in year two as starter. From non-busts, you see almost entirely moderate gains or losses in the battle between sophomore quarterbacks and intrepid defensive coordinators.

This makes what is happening to Dalton and Newton not just part of a trend or the normal sophomore growing pains. Panthers and Bengals fans should be very concerned that these young signal callers at least hit close to their rookie form over the second half of 2012.

Note: This article appeared in abridged form in the USA Today World Series Preview glossy magazine. Interview conducted the week before the World Series began.

Unconventional twists and turns have carved a unique path to the coming Fall Classic.

The MLB postseason has changed dramatically since Mitch Williams took the mound as closer in the 1993 World Series, but he has closely monitored the playoff transformation in his ensuing career as one of the more insightful straight shooters in baseball media.

Williams now brings the heat as an MLB Network analyst and is thrilled to have additional banter courtesy of this year’s inaugural two-wild card structure.

“What it does is take the most exciting part of our game, which is elimination games, and take them from six to now there’s eight of them,” Williams said. “And that’s the most exciting part of baseball so I love the new system.”

This comes without reservations in determining the best possible teams for the league championship series.

“The best team’s not always going to win,” Williams said. “It’s the team that’s playing best that’s going to win. That’s not going to change. It’s always been that way.”

Williams points out that there are things Bud Selig and Co. still need to tweak, having taken notice of Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s recent candor on expanding instant replay use.

“Fair or foul and game-ending plays,” Williams said. “It needs to be a headset from an umpire in the booth to the home-plate umpire. It does not slow the game down, it speeds the game up. It eliminates manager-umpire arguments that take 10 or 15 minutes. … Baseball has nine innings, you get four opportunities to challenge. If you’re wrong you lose another opportunity and that brings the strategy of it into the game.”

USA TODAY went 3-up, 3-down with the hurler as Williams offered his praise and critiques of this year’s World Series participants and award candidates.

Award Candidates

Up  — Miguel Cabrera for AL MVP, Down — Mike Trout for AL MVP

MW: For the American League that’s not even a question, Miguel Cabrera hands down. It should be unanimous vote. … I love Mike Trout, Mike Trout is probably, since I came into the big leagues in 1986, the best young player I’ve seen. That’s Ken Griffey, Jr., all of them. … But if he wasn’t a rookie this year, it wouldn’t even be a conversation of whether or not Cabrera’s the MVP or Trout’s the MVP.

These writers, all these sabermetrics or all this other crap that people are such big believers in — the name of the award is Most Valuable Player. Would the Angels have taken third in the AL West without Mike Trout? Yes they would have. Would Detroit have been a .500 team without Miguel Cabrera? Absolutely not. … It’s simple.

He’s a Triple Crown winner, hasn’t been done since 1967. It’s not even a discussion. And if it does come out and they do vote Mike Trout MVP I will lose all respect for the sports writers that cover our game, because they don’t know the game.

Up — Wade Miley for NL Rookie of the Year, Down — Rest of the NL ROY field

MW: (At the beginning of the year) I picked (Bryce) Harper to be the NL Rookie of the Year and he had a great rookie season. But 17 wins for the Arizona Diamondbacks, for me, makes Wade Miley Rookie of the Year.

And what Todd Frazier did that’s great, but he’s not an everyday player. He filled in and did an unbelievable job. But when it came down to crunch time postseason he’s not in the lineup. It’s hard to vote a guy Rookie of the Year who’s not an every day player, unless he’s a pitcher.

Up — R.A. Dickey, Tampa arms for Cy Down — Justin Verlander, Kris Medlen

MW: It’s going to come from Tampa. It will either be David Price or Fernando Rodney.

(Verlander’s Cy Young follow-up) wasn’t significantly worse, it’s just that there were other guys that did things. If I’m picking I’m picking Rodney for the simple fact: Those numbers are just plain stupid. And he affected way more games than any starter affected. When you have an ERA below one over the course of a season and you save the number of games he saved, in my opinion that’s the Cy Young. …

R.A. Dickey in the National League. … (The knuckleball is not a factor but) the fact that he won 20 games on a horrible baseball team is a factor in that. His strikeout numbers are up there with everybody’s across the board.

World Series (more than three to account for both Giants and Cardinals)

Up — Max Scherzer’s stuff Down — Max Scherzer’s consistency

(Max) Scherzer has been the biggest surprise because he’s been able to repeat his mechanics. I’ve said for the past four years that if he would emulate mechanically what Verlander does with his hands, Max Scherzer would win 20 games every year.

His stuff is that good, but when he gets in trouble he takes his hands over his head in his windup and that means there are times when he separates his hands in different points in his delivery, and that’s when he gets wild. And by wild I don’t just mean wild out of the zone, but wild in the zone.

Things flatten out because his lower half is rushed down the mound. His arm’s stuck behind him and that fastball that has hop on it now is just straight as a string and flat. Same thing with his breaking ball. When this guy repeats his mechanics and gets to his backside and stays back, he is no day at the beach.

Up — Stepping up sans Melky, Down — Upsetting the apple cart

MW: They haven’t missed a beat, but I can’t sit there and say they couldn’t use him. They could absolutely use him, but they have guys that have stepped up. … They managed to get through the rest of the regular season and win the division, so why upset the apple cart and bring him back and take a guy’s job away that had to replace him. That would’ve caused more upset than anything. Then you’re going to have a guy like (Marco) Scutaro who says, “Look I came over here, I’ve hit .350 since I got here and now a guy that chose to break the rules is eligible to come back and I’m going to lose my job?”

Marco Scutaro has been huge for them … but the way that (Angel) Pagan has stepped up at the top of the order and hit a couple of leadoff home runs to give that Giants pitching staff a lead early in the game. People don’t understand that when a pitcher takes the mound and he’s got a lead, that takes a lot of pressure off him.

Up — Lincecum in bullpen, Down — Valverde’s mechanics

MW: Lincecum’s lost velocity, but I don’t think he’s ever gone through any arm problems. Watching him warm up in the bullpen and come out of the bullpen, it doesn’t look like it’s a problem for him.

It gives (Giants manager Bruce) Bochy the flexibility much like in the Zito (Game 4 ALDS) start, where you send Barry Zito out there hoping to get five or six innings out of him. But if you can’t, you have a guy like Lincecum you can go to immediately before the game is out of hand. So I think Bochy has a great weapon in having Lincecum down there. …

(Valverde) blew the game in Oakland. He blew the four-run lead the other night … and for Miguel Cabrera to slam the water cooler and show emotion like that, there is nothing more demoralizing than blowing a four-run lead in the ninth inning. It will completely demoralize a team. I know; I’ve blown them.

The first thing I’m doing if I’m Papa Grande, is I’m going in the video room and I’m seeing why, why am I getting hit? Why is my split hanging in the middle of the plate. And it’s simple: He’s underneath the baseball. … It’s all about getting to your backside and allowing your arm to catch up to where you can throw the ball downhill. That’s why they put you on a 10-inch mound, to create angles.

When your lower half rushes out, that means your arm is stuck behind you and you’ve got to blow your front side open to get your throwing arm through. When it comes through it’s coming through underneath the baseball, which takes all downward movement off the ball.

When Valverde’s good he’s on top of the ball throwing the ball downhill and his fastball’s at 95-96, and then he’s throwing his split off that. But when you’re underneath the split — the split that he gave up the home run to (Raul) Ibanez on (in Game 1) — there was no movement whatsoever on that ball. None. It just hung in the middle of the plate and that’s all caused by his lower half.

My NFC pick reflections might have come off self-congratulatory but on the AFC side I erred far too much for that to be the case.

Norv Turner bamboozled me yet again. Time will tell more about my AFC West predictions, but I do know that Monday night was yet another indicator that life without a healthy Jared Gaither at left tackle is a near-death knell for the San Diego Chargers and Philip Rivers’ consistency.

Also strange but unsurprising, Turner’s outright refusal to put Ryan Mathews in the game during the final two minutes of a half, instead electing to dump off several passes to the vastly inferior Ronnie Brown. This quip from a friend about summed it up:

As I’ve covered here at Insert Sports Word, my expectations were very low for the Denver defense but they’ve actually been surpassed somewhat. Justin Bannan and others have contributed at defensive tackle while Von Miller has continued his tear from last season. Not good but not terrible on defense, and fairly tough to throw from behind against thanks to the edge rush.

Then of course there’s Manning who, despite that brutal first quarter in Atlanta and a few slow starts, is back to striking his typical fear in the opposition hearts. Ball might not have the same mustard but it gets in on time and so does his blitz recognition. Also absolutely critical is that Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker aren’t just another example of Manning-made productivity — in both skill set and performance they are the best 1-2 receiving combo in the AFC West.

My other AFC division standings don’t need a mulligan yet. Thanks to the utterly inferior level of play the AFC has shown against The Power Conference this season, both the South and East play out as one good team and a bunch of mediocrity. If you took Patriots or Texans to win the division, you didn’t make out great on moneyline but can already start celebrating.

Buffalo landing at second in the AFC East still looks all good and fine after Buffalo won in the desert, but my wild-card pick leaves me with little confidence at this point. That 3-3 mark seems decent but the teams that have got ahead and can run have absolutely brutalized the Bills.

Perhaps if that uber-hyped dream unit of Mark Anderson, Marcel Dareus, Kyle Williams and Mario Williams meshes and plays as a composite of their individual ability at some point….but we’re already almost halfway into the season and it looks pretty underwhelming.

The AFC North remains tough to gauge, with Pittsburgh tallying an 0-3 road record and 2-0 home record. At the time they dropped the Thursday night shocker at Tennessee, the Steelers three road losses had come to teams that were a combined 5-10. And they’re offensive line and running backs continue to drop like flies.

Maurkice Pouncey, Rashard Mendenhall, Troy Polamalu and and their mates must get healthy, pass protect a little better and establish some semblance of a run game to keep up with Baltimore. However, over the past couple years they seem to be developing into a Seahawks- or Cardinals-esque home team, where the difference between level of play home-away has gotten rather extreme relative to the league. That’s why I take Cincinnati at home over Pittsburgh on Monday, but won’t change my Bengals-in-third call.

Andy Dalton struggled mightily down the stretch last year and has remained very inconsistent this season. Couple that with a defense that isn’t living up to 2011 standards and a running game that’s somehow managed to become even less threatening without Cedric Benson, and Cincy feels really 8-8.

The Baltimore Ravens are extremely tough to pin down with the loss of their most important member on the field in Lardarius Webb and most important voice on the field in Ray Lewis. But if Terrell Suggs can near 100 percent soon, suddenly Baltimore has the AFC’s best defensive player back on the field. Until more becomes clear, I’ll continue riding my PIT-BAL-CIN call.

Then there’s the AFC South, which of course is Houston followed by a crap-shoot. The Jaguars played pretty stingy on defense last season but have fallen to 29th in yards this campaign. However, unlike they Ravens, they now return their best player AND most important voice this week in Daryl Smith, one of the best linebackers out there.

Via AP in The Washington Post:

“It changes everything,” fellow linebacker Russell Allen said. “He’s our best player on defense. Anything that you ask a linebacker to do, he’s the best we have at it. He’s our best blitzer. He’s our best cover linebacker. He’s stout against the run. He’s smart. You name it, he brings it. We get better at everything with him on the field.

Andrew Luck and the Colts have seen extreme highs in comeback wins over Minnesota and Green Bay, and horrifying lows in the Colts getting Gabberted by the Jags and Greened by the Jets. He’s a rookie, as you’re surely aware.

And the Titans might be the most confusing of all this lower-AFC South mediocrity, facing utter destruction for weeks on end before toppling Big Ben and the Steelers in primetime.

In the AFC’s most underwhelming year in decades, it’s hard to feel confident about anyone through six weeks besides Houston and the teams quarterbacked by the two stalwarts transcending decade, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

This is not me bragging or me (gasp) humble-bragging but plainly put: While the predictions above have proved relatively accurate so far, matters will and do change dramatically between early October and late December.

These picks are not drastically different or wildly alternative yet don’t take the boring route of basically trotting out last year’s playoff entrants. That involves minimal critical thinking, perhaps of a fear of looking foolish, and there’s typically a turnover of about half the teams anyways.

Five weeks provide just enough a sample to dramatically change opinions on the success of an NFL squad without running the very real danger of #OVERREACTIONTHEATRE. I would not lower my opinion on a team like Seattle after their Week 1 loss to Arizona but will after five weeks of painfully clear limitations shown by Russell Wilson.

As you can see above, I had Seattle as an underdog to win the NFC West, which takes a leap of faith with San Francisco playing the Vegas Super Bowl favorite. I would not at this point put my money on Seattle winning the division, and if I were coerced into placing any sort of NFC West bet it would now fall on the 49ers.

The Seahawks currently sit but one game behind San Fran in the division and I still like Seattle for the wild-card, and still like Seattle’s chances of winning the home side of the 49ers-‘Hawks battles this season. If Wilson showed the ability to open up the offense half as much as Andy Dalton did with Cincy last year than I might stand behind by the Seattle call. But for crying out loud Wilson’s 29th in yards, yards per pass and quarterback rating, and the Seahawks fellow skill position players certainly aren’t the league’s worst.

Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and Coach Pete Carroll obviously are asking Wilson to stay conservative, but it’s clearly a chicken-egg situation; and not conservative-effective in a Christian Ponder or even Ryan Tannehill manner. It’s too an extreme detriment.

I’ve written and tweeted (@thomasemerick No. 3 in Forbes’ Underrated Follow 500) my love for Seattle’s elite defense all summer and that was a major force behind my taking them in the West (obviously that was a joke Forbes earlier please don’t sue) but San Francisco’s defensive unit remains at  the very least a match. Alex Smith has significantly grown as a passer while Wilson has looked more like a third-round rookie than a hidden gem. And that’s mostly the difference.

(Not saying Alex Smith has moved into the Top 5 QBs, or even Top 8 really….in the NFC. But pleasantly surprised with his improvement, and he’s certainly superior to Wilson at this point.)

There’s little reason to rearrange my outlook on the rest of the NFC, with Green Bay’s regression and Atlanta’s ascension accounted for, and Chicago remaining an enigma that piles up wins long as a Jay Cutler is quarterback.

It’s incredibly difficult to draw any confident conclusions from the NFC East per usual, though I have to admit Washington is not the basement-lock I expected.

New Orleans, Carolina and Tampa Bay all possess just one win. However, Cam Newton’s three terrible performances implore me to switch the cats from second to last while bumping up both the Saints and Bucs.

Many wondered if Newton’s freakish combination of size, speed and arm strength combined with his record-setting rookie season put him above the sophomore slump’s suffered by Matt Ryan and others. While there is plenty of football to be played and change fortunes, the 2012 season now has a sufficient amount of snaps under its belt to answer “no.”

Right now the NFC West possesses the best composite record and it’s not even close. Long, long gone are the days of 6-9 Seattle and 7-8 St. Louis battling for the division crown — but are they suddenly the NFL’s best division?

The NFC West currently sits at 11-5 and next closest is the 9-7 mark shared by the NFC East and NFC North, if any more reason was needed to confirm blue as the best conference currently.

While composite division records do not tell even close to the whole story and neither do records compiled solely from September, this narrative still has some clarity to it. The question is whether the West’s key weakness is fatal.

Before the word “quarterback” pops in your head you might have thought about the dominant defensive lines across the division, the slew of underrated secondaries, San Francisco’s wrecking crew of backers and the recent revelation (well, more primetime publicizing than revelation) that the NFC West has become the NFL’s preeminent hotbed for young defensive talent.

It can be quite comfortably argued that each team has the league’s best “something” on defense: San Francisco (linebackers with Wills/Bowman/Smith/Brooks and 34 ends with Smith/McDonald), Seattle (quality line depth and also starting secondary with Thomas/Chancellor/Sherman/Marshall), Cardinals (34 ends with Campbell/Dockett and rising shutdown corner with Patrick Peterson), and even the Rams (most versatile elite corner in Cortland Finnegan and young starting 43 bookends with Quinn/Long).

And with the most defensively savvy head coach in the division in Jeff Fisher, the rapid ascent if this Rams unit should only continue on this young season’s promising course. Thursday night’s matchup with the Cardinals shouldn’t be lacking in punts, throwaways, sacks and backfield penetration.

And these are the very reasons the NFC West holds a two-game lead for the NFL’s best record, including wins at Green Bay, vs. Green Bay, vs. Washington, vs. Dallas, vs. Philly and at New England. But there’s worry as to whether they possess the formula to make late-season noise or a playoff push.

San Francisco rolled into the season as the Vegas darling for a Super Bowl shot, but I believe they may too have the fatal flaw of the 2012 NFC West — quarterback play. It cost San Fran the NFC title last year far more than Kyle Williams as that game doesn’t even go to overtime if Alex Smith showed remotely capable of hitting a receiver downfield in that day’s inclement conditions. There were plays to be made, field to be stretched, aggression to be asserted and a game to be won, and Smith couldn’t do it despite an embarrassment of chances.

Russell Wilson has proved completely in over his head and, despite being propped up with a conservative approach even by Carroll-era Seahawks standards, is proving to be a quarterback Seattle just can’t score enough to win consistently with right now. You won’t close many tight games without hitting at least two bills through the air.

In Arizona, despite my support of Kevin Kolb over John Skelton both here and in USA Today, I think it’s safe to say the jury is out on whether his two fourth-quarter comebacks are more indicative than the rest of his Cardinals resume, though between Kolb and Skelton Arizona has gone a mind-boggling 10-1 in their last 11 one-score games.

The biggest reservation for Kolb is basically the same for Bradford, as over the past two years these two have received arguably the NFL’s worst pass protection (Eli Manning’s pass pro has gotten better this year so he may drop to third in that regard). And for two quarterbacks that still had plenty of developing to do coming into 2011, the sheer lack of talent and health up front has more than hindered.

It’s my theory — and I’m sure many others subscribe or have come to this conclusion on their own — that teams with stellar defenses, good coaching and at least a few good pieces can rack up regular season wins with anyone but that the playing field is handicapped by elite quarterbacking in the postseason.

Think about every Super Bowl in recent years: Eli vs. Brady, Rodgers vs. Roethlisberger, Brees vs. Peyton, Roethlisberger vs. Warner and Eli vs. Brady Part I (remember Eli Manning’s coming out party was that playoff run).

Sure, you can get through the wild-card or maybe a divisional round game at home with defense, ground game and conservative-to-mediocre quarterback play, but stringing together postseason wins in that fashion has been unheard of for a long time.

At this point, the only team in this division widely being given a chance at a deep playoff run is San Francisco. While this group as a whole is playing at a very high level, there’s trepidation about jumping on bandwagons for the Cards, Seahawks and Rams, and understandably so.

But as implied my preseason predictions and decision to omit NFC East and South squads in favor of a West wild-card, I’ve been on that bandwagon for a few months and believe it will carry this quartet to the NFL’s best composite record this year. But unless Alex Smith, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Sam Bradford, Russell Wilson or Matt Flynn takes a major leap by January, I plan on leaping from that bandwagon just as it crashes into the postseason.

By the way @ThomasEmerick, you can say you followed him before he got too mainstream!

The phrase “identity crisis” has been thrown around a lot in nearly every Dallas Cowboys conversation over the past week, a theme present pretty much since the moment Jason Garrett turned from Jerry’s beloved offensive guru to head coach of an NFL team. But the search for an identity Dallas can win consistently behind could form around Rob Ryan and the personnel on defense.

While offensive coordinator and play-caller under Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett was viewed as the rising star of offensive minds. The next Sean Payton. Since becoming head honcho, he’s spurred perhaps more criticism and head-scratching than adulation, despite his play-calling role remaining basically the same.

The Cowboys are passing too much. The Cowboys aren’t passing enough. What was Garrett thinking in the fourth quarter? Is Tony Romo a Super Bowl quarterback? #tweetsfromeveryear

It’s absurd to say Romo can’t start for a Super Bowl winner, but whether or not he does will be seen, and I believe their chances are greater if they take a little off his plate. And this is not a criticism of Romo, but a criticism of everything to the right of Tyron Smith on this line. It’s also Dez Bryant clearly lagging miles behind his vast potential, while acknowledging he’s only 23. Miles Austin eternally battles his hamstring. It’s Kevin Ogletree torching Giants No. 35 corner Justin Tryon but no one else.

For all the talk of RG3, Michael Vick and Jay Cutler taking a licking, I would put the level of harassment Romo is forced to deal with up there. He makes the most of it — he might have the greatest discrepancy between stats and quality of play of any quarterback in the NFL this season up to the start of tonight’s Bears game — but I’m not sure Dallas can live with that much longer, for the health of both the quarterback and offense.

I’m not claiming to have some sort of solution that Jason Garrett can’t come up with, but I’m predicting a shift in how aggressive the Cowboys play offensively, and for the better. Shorter drop-backs, more runs, less reliance on Romo scrambling for his life. And more reliance on this filthy defense.

Brandon Carr, what a gem. That honestly looks like a better signing than the Eagles grabbing Nnamdi Asomugha. Morris Claiborne looks like he could garner some Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration. Good rotation on the defensive line. Sean Lee as one of the league’s fastest rising stars at inside linebacker. DeMarcus Ware….is DeMarcus Ware. Oh yeah, and the defensive coordinator any team with a vacancy would kill for in Rob Ryan.

The Dallas Cowboys entered Week 4 as the NFL’s lowest-scoring team. Extrapolate stats through three weeks to add Week 4 and the Cowboys would have the NFL’s 30th-ranked pass-blocking unit according to Pro Football Focus, while dropping back the eighth-most times.

Romo is too good to be reduced to an Alex Smithi-type role, and it wouldn’t be smart to dissuade him from improvising or going downfield. But perhaps it is time to get a bit more conservative in Dallas, which with a defense like that can be a recipe for that elusive steady success.