Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we run down the winners and losers in Week 1 of the NFL's preseason. The games don't count, but the perceptions sure do....
• Winner -- It was only a glimpse of what might be, but you could already see the impact of new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in Houston Monday night.
The Texans' transition to the 3-4 defense is in its earliest stages and Pro Bowl defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Mario Williams looked a little lost in space against the Jets. But you also saw an aggressive and attacking Houston defense that accounted for seven sacks of New York QBs and didn't give up anything cheap, and those are hallmarks of Phillips' turnaround work.
Limiting the Jets' first-team offense to three points is a hopeful enough start for a Texans' team that opens 2011 in win-now mode, with the only thing blocking Houston's path to its first playoff berth being improvement on defense.
• Loser -- The Jets offense managed 310 yards, 21 first downs and 16 points against Houston, but New York looked sloppy and had more than its share of penalties and sacks, struggling to find some offensive cohesion throughout the game.
True, that really wasn't the Jets attack we'll see in Week 1 of the regular season, but compared to that hated AFC East rival to the north -- who happened to hang up 47 points, six touchdowns and 476 yards against Jacksonville while playing mostly reserves -- the initial gap between New York's and New England's offense was fully on display. Super Bowl dreams don't get derailed in a preseason opener unless your starting quarterback goes down, but the Jets have some corrections to make if they're going to keep the Patriots within sight.
• Winner -- Pretty smart move by Osi Umenyiora, reporting back to the Giants practice on Monday, two days after watching second-year defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul turn in an eye-opening performance in the preseason opening loss at Carolina. Osi who?
Pierre-Paul had two sacks, and also helped force a Michael Boley interception that led to the Giants' only touchdown in the Panthers' 20-10 victory. None of which spelled increased leverage for Umenyiora's contract demands, thus the wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment for New York's unhappiest of campers. Now get back to work, Osi, before we drop a Wally Pipp reference on you.
• Loser -- Lots of teams looked beyond shaky at starting quarterback in Week 1. Miami, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Seattle come quickly to mind. But did anybody get more sobering results at the game's premier position than 49ers rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh?
Where does San Francisco go now on the Alex Smith front, after the seven-year veteran produced just two first downs on his five drives of action in a 24-3 loss at New Orleans? How many times can you put Humpty Dumpty back together again in 49er-ville?
Smith was harried by constant pressure from the Saints and wound up just 2 of 7 for 10 yards, with two sacks and a fumble. And rookie QB Colin Kaepernick didn't fare much better for San Francisco, which went kicking the tires on Daunte Culpepper Monday in response to its early quarterback crisis.
• Winner -- It was only a 14-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of the Saints' preseason opener, but you have to admit it looked like the start of something big in New Orleans when Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram spun his way into the end zone, leaving a tackler or two grasping at air. Quick feet, great balance, makes people miss, with a nose for the end zone. Yep, there's absolutely nothing to all those Emmitt Smith comparisons in Ingram's case.
• Loser -- Maybe Olin Kreutz was the lucky one. He got out. The Bears beleaguered offensive line is even more suspect than we thought, with Chicago quarterbacks absorbing an astounding nine sacks in a 10-3 win over visiting Buffalo on Saturday night. When the Bills defense pulls a jail break on you, you have issues. The Bears O-line wasn't to blame for all nine sacks, but it looks like Mike Tice is going to earn his coaching salary again this season, with his unit immediately placed under the microscope in 2011.
• Winner -- It wasn't mop-up time and those weren't the Bengals that Colt McCoy went about carving up Saturday night in Cleveland. The Browns' second-year quarterback was razor sharp against the defending Super Bowl champion Packers, finishing 9 of 10 for 135 yards, a touchdown, and a 152.1 passer rating in Cleveland's 27-17 conquest of Green Bay.
The Browns appear to be third-place material in the AFC North no matter what happens this season, but their young franchise QB looks like, you know, the real McCoy. Which is what Browns president and noted quarterback guru Mike Holmgren has been quietly telling folks for a while now.
• Loser -- The Colts just don't do preseason (they're 4-24 in their past 28 exhibition games), but sooner or later they have to find a capable backup quarterback for Peyton Manning and get him ready to play in case the worst should happen.
I mean, No. 18 is 35 and coming off neck surgery, so now would be a good time to identify someone who can win a game for you if Manning ever has to miss a week or two. Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky clearly aren't the answer. The tandem faced St. Louis Saturday night, and they combined to go 7 of 16 for 166 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. And that's no aberration. That's the same story their career track records tell.
• Winner -- Wow. Just imagine if Josh McDaniels had all offseason to install his offense. The Rams new offensive coordinator might have presided over an 83-10 butt-kicking of the visiting Colts, rather than the impressive and multi-faceted 33-10 victory that ensued.
Ten Rams caught passes, seven players rushed at least once, and St. Louis kicker Josh Brown even found the time to nail a 60-yard field goal. The Rams have more weapons than they know what to do with right now, but it's McDaniels' assignment to figure out that happy problem.
• Loser -- The whole new rule mandating kickoffs from the 35-yard line just hasn't gained much legitimacy yet. It was a fairly rough debut for the new edict, what with touchbacks predictably being fairly common, and the Bears somehow being allowed to kick off a couple times from the 30 against the Bills to evaluate their coverage unit (how does that ruling slip through the cracks?). As changes to the game go, it does seem a bit drastic, and perhaps hastily conceived and approved. But anything put under the heading of player safety initiatives these days is almost bullet-proof in the eyes of the league, whether the players like it or not.
• Winner -- Looks like the Packers definitely have another play-maker in second-round receiver/return man Randall Cobb. Green Bay lined Cobb up in the slot against Cleveland, and the Browns couldn't cover him, giving up a Packers-best three catches for 60 yards, all of them good for first downs on gains of 13, 19 and 28 yards.
In addition, Cobb is going to add some juice to Green Bay's return game, which was one of the few weak spots in the Packers' arsenal last year. Cobb had two kickoff returns, of 26 and 32 yards, and cleanly handled his only punt return. The ex-Kentucky standout adds an explosive element to Green Bay's already-deep receiving depth chart.
• Loser -- Matt Gutierrez has been stuck at various times behind the likes of Tom Brady, Matt Cassel and Jay Cutler in his four-year NFL career, but there was never any indignity to those depth-chart realities. Then came last week, when the former Patriot, Chief and Bear reserve quarterback was signed by Washington. Not only is Gutierrez looking up at the trio of Rex Grossman, John Beck and Kellen Clemens -- not exactly a who's who of NFL quarterbacks -- but also the Redskins made him take the field for pregame warm-ups Friday night against the Steelers with a jersey that read "Gutierriz.'' A name quarterback, he's not.