After the offseason lockout, George Morahan reveals that all seems the same in the NFL

The ugly realities of the NFL lockout have begun to reveal themselves four weeks into the 2011 season. After the long-running dispute between the owners and players was settled in late July, concerns about lack of practice time and substandard performances were muffled by the excitement surrounding free agency, and general relief that the season had been ensured.

At this early stage of the season, the defensive cracks have been exposed and ruthlessly exploited, as many teams tipped to make progress this year have taken a step back, due to momentum and practice time lost due to the strike.

Much of the offseason chatter revolved around the Philadelphia Eagles as they went about assembling the ‘Dream Team’. After an unconvincing win in St. Louis, they slipped to consecutive losses against the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants, and the sheen has quickly worn off.

It’s become clear that the Eagles have just thrown a lot of money at problems they didn’t even have, while neglecting positions of need. They have a stable of decorated cornerbacks, as well as impressive depth at skill positions, but investment in their run defence or their offensive line, (to protect the explosive, yet fragile, quarterback, Michael Vick) would have been the more prudent course of action.

The Falcons were another trendy pick this year after leading the NFC with a 13-3 record in 2010, but their success was based on their superior coaching and a great team ethic. Big name additions such as Julio Jones and Ray Edwards haven’t been able to make up for a fractured offseason schedule.

Although some supposed contenders have faded, perennial forerunners such as the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers appear unaffected by the offseason drama. Led by quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers respectively, these two historical franchises have picked up where the left off in 2010, and are making a mockery of the league’s rusty defences. The aura of bland certainty surrounding the Patriots was disturbed with a shock loss to the upstart Buffalo Bills two weeks ago, but they are sure to canter into the playoffs, along with the Packers and other usual suspects, including the Saints, Jets and Chargers.

As inevitable as the success of some teams has become, the lockout has certainly shaken up the fortunes of the Bills and the Detroit Lions, who have both gotten off to unbeaten starts, while it has also upended some traditional, widely-held beliefs. Rookie quarterbacks are meant to flounder upon entering into the league, but Panthers QB Cam Newton has taken advantage of his superior athleticism and improvisational skill to become the most prolific first-year passer in years.

Carolina doesn’t have a lot to show for Newton’s impressive start, but they certainly look more dangerous than the turgid pushovers of last year. Andy Dalton on Cincinnati has shown promising signs of development as well, but very few other new players have been able to establish themselves so far.

This looks to be the year of the unexpected, but in actuality, it’s pretty straightforward: the most talented players and teams are thriving, while those more dependent on strategy, intelligence and routine, look to be regressing in this most exciting of seasons.