Sunday September 7th, 2008

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we were witnessing the winning, but at times sloppy beginning of the Jets' Brett Favre era.

• It's not supposed to work this way, folks. It's not supposed to look so easy. When you consider what rookie quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco accomplished Sunday in their NFL debuts, remember this:

Prior to this year, there were 21 quarterbacks drafted in the first round this decade. Of those, exactly one -- Houston's David Carr in 2002 -- started and won his team's season opener as a rookie. For Carr, it was all downhill after that memorable opening-night defeat of visiting Dallas, in both the first game in Texans expansion history, and first game in Houston's spanking new Reliant Stadium.

But that list of rookie Game 1 winners got tripled in size Sunday, thanks to Ryan and Flacco, who respectively led the downtrodden Falcons and Ravens to comfortable upset wins at home against teams (Detroit and Cincinnati) that were expected to rough up and maybe even expose the youngsters.

Guess not.

The Falcons rolled to a 34-21 win over the Lions thanks to a 318-yard rushing performance that was led by Michael Turner's eye-popping, team-record 220-yard showing in his debut as a No. 1 back. But don't overlook the job that Ryan did in going 9-of-13 for 161 yards, with no interceptions, one sack, one touchdown and a cool 137.0 passer rating.

On his first pass attempt as a pro, the ex-Boston College star connected on a 62-yard touchdown pass to receiver Michael Jenkins, getting the Falcons off to a flying start on the third play of their opening drive. It made him the first quarterback to throw a touchdown on his first NFL passing attempt since New England's Michael Bishop turned the same trick against Indianapolis in October 2000.

Flacco wasn't quite as spectacular as Ryan, but his handprints were nonetheless all over Baltimore's 17-10 defeat of Cincinnati, giving rookie Ravens head coach John Harbaugh his first career victory. Getting better as the game wore on, Flacco finished 15-of-29 for a modest 129 yards, but he led Baltimore on three scoring drives, didn't take a sack, didn't throw an interception and, surprises of all surprises, used his feet to score the eventual game-winner. That came on his 38-yard scramble with just seconds remaining in the third quarter, a touchdown that gave Baltimore a 17-3 lead it would never lose.

It's only Week 1, and the overwhelming recent history of the league says that starting rookie quarterbacks leads to lots of losing and, at times, ghastly performances. But for a pair of teams that combined to go 9-23 last year, finishing last in their divisions and losing their head coaches in the process, there's now some fresh hope in Atlanta and Baltimore.

Ryan was the third overall pick by the Falcons, and Flacco went 18th to the Ravens. But what really mattered on Sunday were the decisions that Atlanta and Baltimore made to start them both in their first NFL games ever. Turns out, those were the best choices of all.

• Harbaugh, of course, wasn't the only rookie head coach to get a W in his first game. Like Flacco, Ryan helped his first-time head coach start off on a winning note, with Atlanta's Mike Smith improving to 1-0 in the defeat of Detroit. Congrats to both Harbaugh and Smith, who are two of the more refreshing first-time head coaches to hit the league in quite some time.

The NFL's other two rookie head coaches didn't fare as well. Washington's Jim Zorn dropped to 0-1 when his Redskins got dominated by the Giants on Thursday night, and Miami's Tony Sparano fell just short at home against the Jets on Sunday. Zorn was the only one of the league's four rookie head coaches who had to start his career on the road.

• What does Tom Brady's injury mean? Well, besides the obvious end of New England's Super Bowl dreams if he's gone for the year, for one it means the New York Jets now have the best quarterback in the AFC East, in Brett Favre. That's a staggering turn of events for a team that reported to training camp with Chad Pennington and Kellen Clemens set to fight it out for the starting job.

I'm not saying that New England can't still win the division, but it would seem that a lot would depend on which veteran quarterback the Patriots bring in to fill his roster spot. New England isn't just going to go with Matt Cassel, rookie Kevin O'Connell, and re-sign the waived Matt Gutierrez. Chris Simms and Joey Harrington would seem possibilities, or maybe the Pats would still make a bid to acquire Damon Huard -- who nearly helped upset them on Sunday -- from Kansas City.

Any way you look at it, the Brady-less Patriots just got eminently more beatable.

• Just last week I predicted that this would be the year that New England's luck ran out and it would have to make due without Brady for a time. (Don't go putting a bounty on my head, Patriots fans. It was the law of averages and your shaky offensive line that led me to that conclusion. But if Brady needs season-ending surgery, I say no team in the NFL will benefit as much as San Diego's Super Chargers.

The Chargers were already my pick to win it all this season, but I don't have to remind you that they have become obsessed with beating the Patriots the past two years, after New England ended their 2006 and 2007 seasons in the playoffs. Without Brady, the task of toppling the giant of the AFC just got a whole lot easier.

• Within 20 minutes of the opening of the NFL's first regular-season Sunday, we had Brady knocked out of the game, Matt Ryan and Michael Turner absolutely blowing up in Atlanta, Donovan McNabb returning to his 2004 Super Bowl form and Favre throwing his first touchdown pass as a Jet.

Is there anything quite like that first full rush of Week 1 action in the NFL?

• Any chance Brady doesn't get his job back once he's healthy? In five years, will be talking about Brady's left knee injury like Mo Lewis's hit on Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 of 2001? Will it be legend that Patriots backup Cassel took over for Brady at his own 2 and drove New England 98 memorable yards for its initial touchdown of the season, completing a 51-yarder to Randy Moss on his first throw, a gutsy third-and-11 call from the Patriots 1?

Yeah, I don't think so either.

• After Sunday, I'm more convinced than ever that Huard remains the Chiefs best quarterback, ahead of starter Brodie Croyle, who went out with a shoulder contusion in the second half. Anyone care to disagree?

• That's exactly the formula that I expect Buffalo to ride to victory this season: solid defense, a good running game, its usual standout special teams play and quality quarterback play from second-year veteran Trent Edwards. I'm surprised by the Bills' 34-10 margin of victory over visiting Seattle, but not by the outcome. Dick Jauron's team, especially with Jason Peters back in the fold, isn't going to go away this season.

• Losing Nate Burleson to a third-quarter knee injury was exactly what the Seahawks couldn't afford. Already missing starting receivers Deion Branch (knee) and Bobby Engram (shoulder) in Week 1, Seattle's effective passing game is essentially a gun with no bullets about now.

Reggie Bush touched the ball 22 times against Tampa Bay on Sunday, producing 163 yards and the game-winning touchdown on a 42-yard reception with less than eight minutes to play in the Saints' 24-20 win over the Bucs.

That's 7.4 yards per touch, and that ought to keep the fans and us media-types off his back for a while. Who cares if he runs for the yardage (14 carries for 51 yards) or catches passes (8 for 112) for the yardage? Moving the chains is all that matters.

• Six catches for 54 yards for the Saints' new tight end, Jeremy Shockey. Not a bad debut for the ex-Giant who can't wait to get his hands on the ball in New Orleans' Drew Brees-led offense.

• Wow. Pittsburgh's blowout of Houston has to rate as one of the bigger shockers of Week 1. The Texans defense couldn't stop Willie Parker, Ben Roethlisberger or Hines Ward, and if those three get you, Pittsburgh wins and wins big -- every time.

Texans quarterback Matt Schaub did little to make anyone forget that his veteran backup, Sage Rosenfels, was 4-1 as a starter last year, while Schaub went 4-7 in his own starts. At the end of the third quarter, Houston trailed 35-3, and Schaub had just 97 yards passing, with two picks, and a 35.6 passer rating. He padded those numbers in the fourth quarter, but not when it mattered.

Ben Roethlisberger threw exactly one pass all day that hit the ground, going 13-of-14 (93 percent) for just 137 yards. But I'm guessing Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will take that particular blueprint to victory (183 yards rushing, led by Parker's 138 and three touchdowns) every time.

• Rookie running back Chris Johnson is most definitely the real deal in Tennessee. He contributed 127 yards of offense and a touchdown on 18 touches in the Titans' 17-10 win over Jacksonville, and he's one of those talents who's a threat to score every time they call his number.

• Haven't bought into the Super Bowl buzz that surrounds the Jaguars, and after their rushing performance at Tennessee -- just 33 yards on 17 carries -- it's going to take some doing to convince me. I don't know if the Titans run defense is that good, or was Jacksonville's vaunted ground game just that bad in Week 1?

• Speaking of games in which it was tough to tell the excellence from the ineptitude, the Eagles rolled up 522 yards of offense against the pitiful Rams in their 38-3 opening-day win. I do believe that McNabb is all the way back after his rollercoaster ride in 2007. But St. Louis just replaced Kansas City as the worst team in the NFL in my own personal power rankings.

• Not only could Daunte Culpepper have used an agent in recent years, he could have used a trusted, best friend to proof-read that retirement letter and file it into the waste-paper basket. Talk about having to have the last word, even when no one is listening. Culpepper probably felt better getting that off his chest -- for all of about five minutes. Then he probably realized just how petulant and short-sighted that written rant really was.

It's a shame, because some team will have an injury at quarterback and want to sign him (New England, maybe?). But now that's out, with him suffering a self-sustained injury. Yep, he shot himself in the foot.

• Ex-Patriots receiver Chad Jackson worked out in Miami on Friday, but apparently one of the stumbling blocks standing between him and signing with a new team is his insistence on henceforth being referred to as....Chad Johnson.

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

• Here's the most puzzling of all aspects to Jason Campbell's struggling transition to the West Coast-style offense that Washington is implementing: The Redskins fourth-year quarterback found his team's leading receiver from 2007 -- tight end Chris Cooley -- just once for seven yards in Thursday night's season-opening loss to the Giants.

That's a trend that better not linger. I can't see Campbell having much success this season in Washington without Cooley being heavily, heavily involved.

• Was there any more telling Week 1 picture than that shot of Redskins general manager Vinny Cerrato slumped and leaning way back in his seat in that Giants Stadium suite, a look of dazed disbelief in his always wide eyes? Washington was only trailing New York 13-0 at that point of the first half, but you could almost see the entire Redskins season flashing before Cerrato's eyes.

• As if his situation in San Francisco wasn't depressing enough, Alex Smith's newly disclosed shoulder injury -- which might be very much related to his old shoulder injury that required surgery last December -- could hasten the reality that its curtains for his 49ers career. The NFL's first overall pick in 2005 will be examined this week in Birmingham by Dr. James Andrews, who performed the surgery last winter.

Suffice to say, players don't travel cross-country to see the good doctor unless it's believed to be a serious setback. Isn't it ironic that Aaron Rodgers' starting career in Green Bay is finally just beginning, while Smith, whose fate was linked with Rodgers' in 2005's first round, could already be finished as the No. 1 guy in San Francisco?

• So it's Adam Jones rather than Pacman. And Ocho Cinco instead of Chad Johnson. I think I've got it, but heck, I still have trouble remembering it's Tony Sparano instead of Soprano.

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