Big weekend for stars. Charles Woodson schooled Cam Newton, though I have a feeling Newton's going to be doing a lot of the schooling in the coming years. Ben Roethlisberger experienced a moment of season-ending panic when his knee got caved in. Tony Romo, goat last week, played John Wayne in San Francisco. Tom Brady did it again. Matt Ryan put up. Michael Vick shut up.
I always judge the quality of the game day by the volume in our NBC viewing room, and Sunday was a pretty loud day where the Football Night in America staff watches football. For a Sunday with only a couple of marquee matchups, the day was lots of fun.
I'm going to get to the best story of the weekend in a moment, but I'm struck by how lucky the National Football League is. Here's the league, coming off a nightmare offseason, and you don't need DirecTV or the Red Zone Channel to be magnetized to the league. You can be watching the old-fashioned way and still have experienced a blazing start to the season.
The prime-time games so far:
• Green Bay 42, New Orleans 34. The Saints, down a touchdown and two-point conversion, go the length of the field frantically with no timeouts. Running back Mark Ingram gets stuffed at the goal line on the last play of the game.
• New York Jets 27, Dallas 24. For the first time in franchise history, the Cowboys blow a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and lose. Tony Romo melts down. The Jets block a punt and score on it, and kick the winning field goal with 22 seconds left. Much weirdness.
• New England 38, Miami 24. This is the NFL's 92nd season, and never before had such an aerial show been played. Tom Brady and Chad Henne combine to throw for a league-record 933 yards. The Pats run a spread formation at their half-yard line ... and Brady hits Wes Welker on a 99-yard touchdown pass.
• Oakland 23, Denver 20. Neither artistic nor great. But there were moments: a 63-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski, a 90-yard punt return by Eric Decker for a touchdown, a 150-yard rushing game by the underrated Darren McFadden.
• Atlanta 35, Philadelphia 31. Crazy game, Michael Vick returns to Atlanta, gets concussed, the Falcons rally with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and the quarterback with the literary name, Mike Kafka, almost used literary license to drive the Eagles to the winning touchdown. But no.
It's Sept. 19, and the league's already four-for-five on ridiculously compelling national TV games -- and the fifth was at least interesting.
But I'll start with a story that, for better or worse, will feed into the Great American (NFL) Dream. It's the story of the man who won an NFL game on Sunday, Jesse Holley of the Cowboys, and the man who gave him the chance, Michael Irvin.
"After all my mess in life,'' Irvin told me late Sunday night, "God still used me to influence somebody's life for the better. This is such an incredible story no one should believe it.''
Irvin and Spike TV had this idea three years ago: give every red-blooded American who thought he could play in the NFL a chance to. Irvin got Dallas owner Jerry Jones to agree to reserve the 80th spot on his 2009 training camp roster for the winner of a reality TV show they'd call 4th and Long. Irvin would have six receivers and six cornerbacks compete against each other in a 10-show TV series, with the last man standing going to camp with the Cowboys in 2009.
First, the interested contestants -- hundreds of players -- were thinned out at a scouting combine in Los Angeles. One of those, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Holley, a former basketball and football player of little renown at North Carolina, came from a job working security and selling cellphones in North Carolina. But he made the cut to be one of the six receivers. He'd been cut by both the Cincinnati Bengals and BC Lions of the Canadian Football League, and was moving on with his life when he heard of the opportunity with the TV show. "He was tall,'' Irvin said, "and I know the Cowboys like tall receivers.''
So Irvin put Holley in competition with five other receivers (coached by former Cowboy coach Joe Avezzano) and six corners (coached by ex-Cowboy Bill Bates), while he -- Irvin -- oversaw the series and workouts. They taped 10 episodes of the show in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. "I worked them harder than they'd ever have to work in the NFL,'' said Irvin, now an analyst for NFL Network. "I wanted to see who wanted it, who would survive.
"One time I put them all at the bottom of the Cotton Bowl and told them to run the stairs," he added. "They were going to run the stairs, up to the top, down to the bottom, 'til one of them quit. I told 'em: 'Go! Go 'til someone quits!' That's how you tell who really wants something. Jesse wanted it. You know, whoever won this, the only shot they'd have right away is playing special teams. So you've got to want it.''
As Holley said via a crackling cell from the Cowboy locker room Sunday: "All I ever wanted was a chance. I thank God for Michael Irvin giving it to me. I thank God for Mr. Jerry Jones giving it to me.''
That desire won Holley the job. "There's no way I'd ever be here right now without that show,'' Holley said.
Holley got cut by the receiver-full Cowboys in 2009 and 2010, and was signed to the practice squad each year. When Dallas let Roy Williams and Sam Hurd go this offseason, Holley capitalized and made the roster as the fifth receiver. When Dez Bryant couldn't go Sunday because of a quad injury, Holley became the Cowboys' third wideout for the game in San Francisco. "I tell guys all the time, 'It's going to take all 53 on the roster to win,' '' coach Jason Garrett said.
Often, that's pie in the sky. On Sunday, it was real for Holley. He caught his first two NFL passes in the fourth quarter. And when Miles Austin strained a hamstring late in the fourth quarter, Holley was in the lineup for overtime.
"I wasn't supposed to be the guy Tony [Romo] was going to on that play in overtime,'' Holley said.
Well, you weren't supposed to even be in the stadium now, were you?
On Dallas' first possession of OT, when the safety over the top of him bit on play-action, Holley was the open man. Romo found him. Perfect throw, easy catch. If he hadn't showboated a little around the five-yard line, he'd have taken it in for a 78-yard touchdown. Instead, he was knocked out at the one-, and a chippy 19-yard field goal won it. The Cowboys, in desperate straits after blowing the game last week in New Jersey, were 1-1.
After the game, Irvin texted Holley thusly: "Man, that's an SS.''
"What do you mean?'' Holley texted back.
"A season-saver,'' Irvin texted.
As Irvin told me: "Every kid has the dream in the backyard of one day lining up and catching the big pass in the NFL. Today, Jesse lived it. I still can't believe it. Can you believe it! It's better than the Vince Papale story! [That's the story of the Philly-area Eagles fan who made the roster as a special-teamer under Dick Vermeil.] This one tops it. This guy won a game for the Dallas Cowboys! What a story! If he keeps playing and the Cowboys go on to the Super Bowl, this is a movie! This is Hollywood!''
Not so fast. But for one day in California, the kid from the reality show played in the reality sport -- and he played big.
The Bills are impossible to not root for.
The next three games should tell us whether the 2-0 Bills have a prayer of playing meaningful games in January. They host New England Sunday, then travel to Cincinnati, then Philadelphia comes to Orchard Park. If they're 4-1 after five games, they could well be a factor in the last month. For now, though, can't we just enjoy the ride?
But this is why you root for the Bills: Their most important offensive players are everymen, and they can really play. Last year, Buffalo hung up 30 on New England, 34 on Baltimore, 49 on Cincinnati ... lost on a heartbreaking dropped pass against Pittsburgh for what would have been the winning touchdown ... and after starting 0-8, won four of their last eight with nothing to play for.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, the quarterback, a seventh-round pick of the Rams six years ago, played at Harvard and is singing for his supper in the last year of his contract. The winning touchdown pass in the 38-35 win over Oakland Sunday was caught by David Nelson, an undrafted wide receiver who wasn't even a full-time college starter. Their touchdown leader, tight end Scott Chandler, was a waiver pickup from Dallas last December. And their starting running back, Fred Jackson, also undrafted (isn't everyone on this team?), went to mighty Coe College, enrollment 1,300, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There is one key receiver who was drafted -- Stevie Johnson. In the seventh round of the 2008 draft.
"I think our guys don't know any better,'' Fitzpatrick told me after the game. "They're just out there playing. And them being naive, I think, really helps. They're gaining so much confidence right now because I think they're understanding, 'Hey, it's just football.' I just try to tell them they're good and I want to them to know they're definitely good enough. By the end of this game, the confidence we had in the huddle was just unbelievable. We knew we were going to score every time we had the ball. It almost felt like invincibility.''
As the clock ticked down Sunday in Orchard Park, Fitzpatrick had the Bills at the six-yard line with 18 seconds to play. Fourth-and-one. Decisions, decisions. Of course, Fitzpatrick, who does not play shy, threw it into the end zone -- to a stunningly uncovered Nelson. "I was in disbelief,'' said Fitzpatrick. "I had to do a quick double-take. They were either misaligned or a corner got picked. I don't know. But we'll take it. Last year those are the kinds of games we lost.''
The fans have taken to Fitzpatrick in Buffalo. He got serenaded with a standing O when he left the field Sunday. He's also a free agent after the season, and I don't expect him to ever get there. The coach, Chan Gailey, loves him, and he should be fairly reasonable to sign -- if the Bills do it soon. "I hope we can work it out,'' said Fitzpatrick. "I would love to stay. I don't get caught up in any of the contract stuff, but I love the city and I love the team, and I love coach Gailey.''
Gailey made it clear after the game he wasn't the negotiator, but he'd like to see Fitzpatrick stay. Buffalo, this is the quarterback, and the team, that's made for you.
There's a problem with instant replay. Again. I might have a solution.
Two ridiculous things happened Sunday with instant replay, one with the new system that has the men in the replay booth looking at every scoring play upstairs; if there's reason to have the ref go under the replay hood on the field, the replay official signals down to the field the same way he'd signal down to the ref in the final two minutes of a half that a play should be under review. On Sunday, the system showed two very big flaws.
In Buffalo, on the final play of the Bills' 38-35 win over Oakland, Raider quarterback Jason Campbell threw a Hail Mary into the end zone. Buffalo's Da'Norris Searcy leapt with Oakland receiver Denarius Moore to get it; Searcy came down with it, apparently, with Moore clutching at it as they fell to the field. The officials on the field ruled it a Buffalo interception, correctly, and the two teams left the field.
Somehow, as the teams filed into the locker rooms and the officials prepared to leave the field too, replay official Al Jury mistakenly signaled referee Mike Carey to look at the final play under the hood. In at least one of the locker rooms, Buffalo's, an official ran in to tell the Bills to return to the field -- saying the game might not be over. Bills coach Chan Gailey told me he didn't make his players go back out. "The game was over one way or the other,'' Gailey said. "Either the interception stands and we win, or they rule it's a catch for Oakland, and they win. Made no sense for us to go back out there.''
Back on the field, to a 90-percent empty stadium a couple of minutes later, Carey announced the call on the field had been upheld.
In New Orleans, the final score of the Saints' 30-13 victory over Chicago came on a Darren Sproles 12-yard touchdown catch. He ran down the right sideline and appeared to step out of bounds at the two-yard line with his right foot. Watching the game in the NBC viewing room, we waited and waited ... and no call from replay official Bill Spyskma to ref Walt Coleman. The Saints kicked the extra point, and the insurance touchdown counted, bizarrely. Now, it could be that Coleman wouldn't have found indisputable visual evidence that Sproles' foot was on the white boundary -- though I don't see how -- but Coleman never got the chance. After the game, I heard Spyskma actually tried to signal down to the field, but the communications system failed.
So in one case a call that should never have been called down for review was, and in another case, a call that should have been reviewed wasn't.
As my NBC partner Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com said Sunday night, there's a danger here of the replay official having too much power. He's supposed to buzz down to the field when there's reasonable doubt about the on-field call on the scoring play. What is reasonable doubt? And shouldn't the buzz-down happen where there's remote doubt? The officials are under pressure to keep games moving; the NFL wants games played in as close to three hours as possible. But no official, either in the booth or on the field, wants to get a play wrong, or wants to signal down to the ref that a lock play should be reviewed.
There were all sort of technical snafus when the coaching challenge first came into play with replay reviews, leading to the rudimentary system of a coach throwing a red flag on the field when he wants to review an eligible play. My suggestion is that the league goes back to something rudimentary. Put a pair of lights, one red and one green, outside the replay booth in the 31 NFL stadiums. On a scoring play, the replay official would have two ways to signal down to the field -- by signaling the referee the way it currently is done, and by illuminating the green light outside the replay booth; that would mean a replay review was needed. If no review was needed, the replay official would illuminate the red light.
I know, I know -- it's getting too complicated. But the point is, the system worked wrong twice Sunday. One of the non-reviews would likely have resulted in a reversal. If there's a replay system in play, the league needs to do everything it can to be sure the public can trust it works the way it's supposed to.
Something's happening here ... What it is ain't exactly clear ...
The Detroit Lions have won 10 games in a row. Well, only six of them count. Four, shown below in italics, come from the 2011 preseason. But you can look it up: The Lions have not lost since Dec. 5 of last season, when Drew Stanton, now the third-string quarterback for Detroit, lost a fourth-quarter lead to Jay Cutler in Detroit and the Bears won, 24-20. Check out the Lions scores over the last nine months, beginning with the kayoing of the 2010-season Super Bowl champs-to-be at Ford Field:
Detroit 7, Green Bay 3Detroit 23, Tampa Bay 20Detroit 34, Miami 27Detroit 20, Minnesota 13Detroit 34, Cincinnati 3Detroit 30, Cleveland 28Detroit 34, New England 10Detroit 16, Buffalo 6Detroit 27, Tampa Bay 20Detroit 48, Kansas City 3
I have no pithy conclusion to this. The Lions are a threat as long as Matthew Stafford stays upright. They suffocated the suddenly pathetic Chiefs Sunday at Ford Field, raising hopes of an awakened fan base. As long as I'm on the schedule page, look at what they have before their bye: at Minnesota, at Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, at Denver. The Lions could build up a legitimate head of steam, which they'll need once Thanksgiving rolls around. Starting then, Detroit has Green Bay (twice), New Orleans and Oakland on the road and the Chargers at home.
I am dreaming of a Lion Christmas. You never know.
Five quick takes:
1. Ben Roethlisberger is okay. "Anytime your knee gets rolled up it's very scary,'' Roethlisberger said last night, recalling Raheem Brock falling into his lower right leg and caving it in during the first half of the Steelers' win over Seattle. "But the good thing was I didn't feel anything pop. And the doctors examined it and moved the knee around and everything was stable.'' Look for Roethlisberger to miss no time and be ready to play next Sunday at Indianapolis -- albeit with some knee swelling or soreness.
2. The roof is caving in on the Chiefs. Has there been a playoff team in recent history (ever?) that's had the kind of player losses (tight end Tony Moeaki, safety Eric Berry, and now running back Jamaal Charles with a suspected torn ACL, to be confirmed by an MRI today) and the on-field losses of these Chiefs? In two games, they've been outscored 89-10. Yes, 89-10. I don't see any way they come back from this, particularly this week, with a game at San Diego. It's only a matter of time before questions start piling up about the jobs of president and GM Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley. Though I suspect owner Clark Hunt will give Pioli at least one more coach to hire; Hunt and Pioli are close.
3. My takeaway from Atlanta 35, Vick-free Philly 31. Interesting, really, that Michael Vick went down in a collision with his own right tackle, Todd Herremans, while staying in the pocket, not fleeing it. This was a frenetic game, captured well by our Don Banks' story from the Georgia Dome posted early this morning. The Eagles will follow league protocol with the concussion Vick suffered, and so we'll have to see if he'll make the start Sunday in Philly's home opener against the beloved Giants. If not, at least Philly confirmed what Andy Reid has been saying about backup Mike "Don't Call Me Franz'' Kafka: He can play a little bit. For the Falcons, there couldn't have been a better jolt of good feeling about Matt Ryan and in Matt Ryan. His toughness was on display Sunday night; he took three (that I counted) near-kill shots by a potent Eagle rush. And he responded to the pressure of dueling Vick with a four-touchdown-pass performance. All in all, a good night for my predicted Super Bowl winner.
4. Mike Munchak has some good sense about him -- not that it's going to make Chris Johnson fantasy owners very happy. Munchak's first NFL coaching victory was a sign of things to come, I believe. Chris Johnson rushed 24 times for 53 yards Sunday, and rather than continue to beat his head against the turf with something that wasn't working, Munchak (and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer) used Javon Ringer (who rushed for a touchdown) and the arm of Matt Hasselbeck, who threw for an uncharacteristic 358 yards on Baltimore. "This is how we have to play,'' Munchak said. "We have to be balanced. We have to win games in a lot of ways, not just with Chris.'' Good philosophy, as long as Hasselbeck can stay healthy and wings it the way he did Sunday.
5. Does anyone have any idea how valuable Charles Woodson is to Green Bay? He played a phenomenal game Sunday, one of those games where you realize how vital a great cornerback is to a defense. With Cam Newton looking to extend a 13-7 lead late in the second quarter, Newton trusted his freakishly strong arm and threw a pea 30 yards down the right sideline for Steve Smith. Woodson zipped in front of Smith at the last second and plucked it out of the air. On the first Panther series of the third quarter, Woodson made a more impressive pick, again in front of Smith, catching a line drive on the edge of his fingertips; watching the replay, it's hard to imagine how Woodson held on.
"The thing you've got to do in that case is make sure you don't jump the route too early,'' Woodson said last night. "He [Newton] has a strong arm. Very accurate. He's not afraid to put the ball anywhere. When you go for it, you have to be careful you don't run into the receiver and get an interference call.'' There can't be anyone better at it than Woodson. He turns 35 in October. He's playing like he's 25.
1. New England (2-0). Any arguments? Didn't think so.
2. Green Bay (2-0). Notice how calm the Packers were, down 13-0 to the Panthers with the crowd going nuts in Charlotte. That's how winners approach hard times.
3. New York Jets (2-0). Shaky in Week 1, dominant in Week 2. But beware the Nick Mangold high ankle sprain. If he's out for a month, the Jets will be put to the test in protecting Mark Sanchez, starting Sunday in the Black Hole.
4. Baltimore (1-1). Ravens fans shouldn't panic after a bad loss at Tennessee just as they shouldn't have waved the purple towels so confidently after the Ravens whipped the Steelers so decisively. This is a very good team.
5. Detroit (2-0). No other team in the NFL is close to the Lions' plus-52 point differential. And yes, the earth is off its axis.
6. Pittsburgh (1-1). Defense sure didn't look old Sunday, though to be fair Tarvaris Jackson is Tarvaris Jackson.
7. Houston (2-0). Not really tested yet, but I like a defense that makes it hard for a quarterback to breathe.
8. New Orleans (1-1). There's a lot of evidence suggesting the Drew Brees contract will be done by the end of the month.
9. Atlanta (1-1). The Falcons gained a huge edge Sunday night when Mike Vick went out, but they might well have won this game with Vick on the field. Atlanta was determined last night.
10. Philadelphia (1-1). The offense will undergo a metamorphosis if Vick is out against the Giants this week with that concussion.
11. Buffalo (2-0). Love everything about the offense, obviously. But I don't know if they can come close to stopping a good offense, and Tom Brady's coming to town Sunday.
12. Washington (2-0). Not a believer yet. A win in Dallas a week from tonight would help.
13. Tampa Bay (1-1). Good comeback, Josh Freeman. The Bucs had to have that one in Minnesota.
14. Dallas (1-1). The Cowboys are a MASH unit right now. But given the way the defense smothered Niners quarterback Alex Smith, they'll be in every game as long as they don't make mega-mistakes in the passing game.
15. Chicago (1-1). Offensive line looks like big trouble now, and right tackle Gabe Carimi limped off and didn't return Sunday in New Orleans. More trouble.
Offensive Players of the Week
New England QB Tom Brady. Think about this: A week ago this morning, Tom Brady was a walk-in Hall of Famer if he never played another snap. And in the next six days, he went out and had two of the most explosive offensive days of his career. After his 31-of-40, 423-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception performance to beat San Diego, check out his two-game numbers:
One other thing: In the last 18 regular season games, Brady has thrown 43 touchdowns with five interceptions.
Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. Many others had better numbers than his 17-of-28, 195-yard performance. But he threw four touchdown passes, a career best, with two interceptions, while getting the tar beat out of him. "What poise,'' Tony Gonzalez told Michelle Tafoya on the field after the game. Agreed. With the Vick shadow hanging over him, Ryan came out and played a strong game against some pretty intense pressure.
The starting Tennessee offensive line(Michael Roos, Leroy Harris, Eugene Amano, Jake Scott, David Stewart). What did we all think before the game? That Baltimore would abuse Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and the Tennessee running game. Well, the Ravens had zero sacks and two quarterback pressures, Hasselbeck threw for 358, the Titans gained 471 while turning it over once, and scored 26 points against a premier defense. The Tennessee front was borderline impenetrable.
Defensive Players of the Week
Green Bay CB Charles Woodson. Welcome to the NFL, Cam Newton. Woodson made two superior veteran plays in a game against rookie phenom Cam Newton in his second NFL game. Woodson twice leapt in front of Carolina receivers to make interceptions to stunt Panther drives, including a diving fingertip grab that will be on his retirement highlight reel, for sure. He also was in the right place at the right time after a careless Steve Smith fumble, recovering the ball to stop a third Panther drive. Games like this one will make Woodson an even stronger candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Philadelphia DE Trent Cole. Maybe this year, now that the Eagles have all these stars, Cole will get the credit he deserves. He was dominant Sunday night, with one sack, two hits of Ryan, three additional tackles for loss and one pass batted down. And about 16 gee-whizzes from Cris Collinsworth in the NBC booth, justifiably.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Denver P Britton Colquitt. It wasn't only the six punts for a 55.8-yard average, with an amazing 51.0-yard net. It was the fact that he had no bad punts. How many times has a punter punted six times in a game, with the worst one being a 49-yarder? His punts traveled 57, 58, 59, 49, 57 and 55 yards in a 24-22 Denver win.
Coach of the Week
Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. For a fairly seamless transition to a new defense and a 2-0 start for the Texans. Houston outscored Indy and the Dolphins a combined 50-3 in the first half, while holding Kerry Collins and Chad Henne to 46 percent completions. The Texans have a much tougher road from here on out, but the start under Phillips has been terrific.
Goat of the Week
San Diego RB Mike Tolbert. Pats 20, Chargers 14, 10:35 left in the fourth quarter, Chargers at the Pats' 34. Tolbert took a handoff from Philip Rivers, the Chargers' goal to eventually score but also to take some time off the clock so the explosive Patriots would have fewer touches in the last 10 minutes.
Tolbert shot into the line, met middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, who dislodged the ball, and Rob Ninkovich recovered. Four plays later, the Patriots had another touchdown and a 28-14 lead, and the Chargers were desperadoes. San Diego made too many mistakes in a big-time game to be on New England's level.
"I am still chewing on last week. That's just the nature of this thing. It's not going to be just one performance to take that stench off of us.''
-- Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, after the Steelers skunked the Seahawks at home Sunday. The stench-filled game to which he referred was the resounding loss to Baltimore in Week 1.
"It's baffling to me. I don't have any answers.''
-- Miami coach Tony Sparano, after the Dolphins lost their second game in six days at Sun Life Stadium Sunday, this one to Houston.
"When Mike really needed them, they turned their back on him in my opinion. They could have been a big supporter and they let him go. I wasn't there so I don't know the organization's standpoint, but I thought they could have been more supportive and instead they severed ties with him.''
-- Former Falcons coach Dan Reeves, who drafted Michael Vick to play for the franchise in 2001, to Tim McManus of Philadelphia Sports Daily.
In 2008, after Vick lied to owner Arthur Blank, GM Rich McKay and commissioner Roger Goodell about his involvement in dogfighting, and was sitting in federal prison after being sentenced to 23 months plus three years' probation, and the Falcons were coming off a 4-12 disaster of a season in which the quarterbacks were Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich, and Vick was at least two seasons away from being prepared to resume his career, and a Minnesota judge had ruled Vick could keep $16.3 million of his $20 million bonus in his Atlanta contract while sitting in prison, and while Blank was exchanging letters in prison with Vick -- telling him he hoped he could turn around his life -- the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan to replace Vick at quarterback.
I think all of that just might have led to how the Falcons, in Reeves' eyes, "turned their back'' on Vick. Might.
"I spent a lot of time in those funky months, when I was painting fields and smelling awful ... and sitting down at lunch time with paint all over me, just thinking about how incredibly downtrodden my life was at this time, thinking that my life was supposed to be so much different from it was at this point.''
-- Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff, on my podcast with him this week, on beginning his NFL career as a Cleveland Browns groundskeeper in 1992.
What a difference two decades make.
I wrote something in SI's pro football preview issue that is coming to life in New England. Actually, it started coming to life long before I wrote that story about defenses morphing from one thing to another on a play-by-play basis, rendering the 3-4/4-3 discussion of what a team runs pretty much moot.
Last Monday, the supposedly 3-4 Patriots lined up on defense 77 times (73 official plays, four nullified by penalty) and this is how often they played a 3-4: zero times.
According to the film analysts at ProFootballFocus.com, who look at every one of a team's offensive and defensive snaps, these are the formations used by New England in the 38-24 victory over Miami (first number, of course, the linemen, second number the linebackers, third the defensive backs): 3-3-5 ( used 22 times), 4-2-5 (20 times), 4-3-4 (15 times), 3-2-6 (14 times), 2-3-6 (4 times), 5-4-2 (once), 6-3-2 (once).
It's wrong to say that Pats have abandoned the three-man front. Clearly, by running 22 nickel snaps with three linemen and five defensive backs, they haven't. But it's also clear that with the addition of bigger and penetrating defensive tackles, like Albert Haynesworth (and the versatile Shaun Ellis), Bill Belichick feels comfortable running the four-man lines much more. Half the game, basically, the Patriots lined up in a four-man front.
This isn't to say some teams aren't keeping with tradition. The Steelers played 3-4 on 48 of 66 snaps in the opener against Baltimore, for instance; Tampa Bay played a four-man line on 65 of 75 defensive lineups against Detroit. Just be careful of labeling any team exclusively one way.
In the fourth quarter eight days ago, Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress caught four passes for 72 yards and a touchdown against Dallas.
In the seven other quarters this year, Burress has no receptions.
Talked to Buffalo tight end Scott Chandler the other day, and he mined this nugget about what happens to an athlete who scores two touchdowns in the first game of the season: "I went from 12 followers to 1,200 on Twitter, basically overnight.'' He was up to 2,067 followers just after midnight this morning @scottchandler84.
On the Acela moving south from Boston Friday morning, the man across the aisle was talking to his daughter (from the sound of it). "Honey, you can't take Elmo to school. You know that ... I promise. Yes, I promise ... Mommy will give you that with your lunch ... Right ... No, no. I'm on the train. I can't sing to you right now. Mommy will sing to you in the car. She sings nice.'' And so forth.
And I thought: I miss having kids running around the house with various minor phobias.
All from Jets wide receiver Derrick Mason, after the mini-tempest that flared Thursday night when the Belichick special aired on NFL Network.
The special profiled Belichick's 2009 season, when he allowed NFL Films cameras to follow him through the season. In one incident, Mason, then a Raven, ran by Belichick and said something to him (you can't quite make it out, but it was offensive to Belichick), causing the coach to say: "Oh, [bleep] you, Mason. Why don't we talk after the game, all right? Just shut the [bleep] up. Can you look at the scoreboard?''
That led to these Friday tweets from Mason (@deemason85):
"Just saw that belichick video things all u ppl are commenting about. He might As well called me boy! Lol total Disrespect.''
"Ppl I'm not the least bit upset with coach messiah excuse me I mean coach bb .. Lol I didn't remember the incident until today.''
He won't forget it for a long time. Neither will Coach Messiah.
"Just saw 10 deer cross the road. How magical! Going to Starbucks?''
-- @nprscottsimon, National Public Radio host Scott Simon, on Sunday morning.
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 2:
a. Catch of the Week: Brandon LaFell, well covered, jumping at the back of the end zone to catch Newton's first touchdown pass of the day and then getting both feet barely in for the score. (The touchdown catch by Oakland's Denarius Moore in double coverage was amazing too.)
b. Pregame story of the week: FOX's Jay Glazer reporting Peyton Manning went to Europe for stem cell treatments on his ailing neck before undergoing surgery back here. Great item. Glazer's on HBO Real Sports this week! Looking forward to it.
c. Amazing interception of the day: Vince Wilfork's batted left-hand-to-right-hand-to-both hands job against Philip Rivers. Terrific hand-eye coordination there.
d. Good for Warren Sapp, laying it on the line about how the Steeler D is too old. He showed a good piece of video Sunday on how Casey Hampton got pushed around in Week 1, and said plainly he thinks the Steelers are too old to be great anymore.
e. You go, Mike Reiss. Way to be a TV guy!
f. Chris Mortensen's right: The Eric Berry injury will cause the NFL to look at whether cut-block-caused injuries could make cut blocks endangered -- and make downfield block only legal from the waist up. The Competition Committee will surely look at that.
g. Seattle safety Earl Thomas provided the only Seahawk highlight Sunday, busting through the line on a goal-line run to wrap up Rashard Mendenhall.
h. Can't make a nicer throw leading Devery Henderson, Drew Brees.
i. What a weapon that Rob Gronkowski is.
j. Tony Romo's guts in getting a cracked rib on the third play of the game, then throwing for 320 yards and leading the Cowboys to an overtime win at the Niners. As Rodney Harrison said on NBC last night: "Tony Romo had every excuse to give in. I missed two weeks with a cracked rib.''
k. Fred Jackson, you're trying to make C.J. Spiller redundant, and doing a good job of it.
l. Newton throws such a good fastball when off-balance or on the run that it's scary.
m. I give Leslie Frazier credit. He went out on a limb to get Donovan McNabb in the fold in Minnesota, and he's not giving up on him after eight mostly "D'' quarters. "This game wasn't his fault,'' Frazier told me. "He's our quarterback.''
n. Dwight Freeney's pass-rush and mauling of Colt McCoy on one early Browns-Colts play -- past tackle Joe Thomas -- was textbook.
o. Matt Forte's a slightly stronger Brian Westbrook.
p. As is LeSean McCoy. Two very good backs.
q. Pay Matt Forte, by the way, Jerry Angelo.
r. For years, I didn't think you could win with Rex Grossman. Too early to say definitively you can, but the first two games are a good start.
2. I think this is what I didn't like about Week 2:
a. Seattle's possessions at Pittsburgh. They ended with a punt, punt, punt, end of the half, punt, punt, punt, punt, surrendered on downs, punt. Charlie Whitehurst anyone?
b. The overreaction to Brady joking about fans getting "lubed up'' for the Pats-Chargers game. As I said on our Friday night Versus show, watching Brady on video, he was clearly joking. To me, it's the PC police gone wild.
c. The overreaction to Chad Ochocinco saying he was "in awe'' of the New England offense, causing ex-Pat Tedy Bruschi to light him up because he shouldn't be in awe of anything; he should be in his playbook learning the offense so he can play more than a quarter of the first game of the year. I like Bruschi, but his reaction was waaaay over the top.
d. How does a team plane get stuck in the mud? That's what happened to the Cleveland Browns Saturday afternoon, making them three-and-a-half hours late on arrival to Indianapolis.
Let's say you got in your car in Cleveland and drove the 310 miles to Indy, all by interstate. That'd take four-and-a-half hours, driving between 65 and 70. By the time you do all the loading and packing and driving to the airport, and then landing and unpacking and driving to the hotel, I doubt the Browns would save much (if any) time by flying anyway.
e. Short career in Denver for Ty (useless $4 million this year) Warren, placed on IR over the weekend.
f. How strong a word can I muster up for the ugliness of the Jets' throwback uniforms, other than to call them throwup uniforms?
g. The same 30-second commercial three times in 53 minutes on NFL Network's pregame show Sunday, promoting part two of Bill Belichick: A Football Life. We get it. Part two of the two-hour show is Thursday at 10. You don't have to Whac-a-Mole us with it.
h. Twitter is "changing the league,'' ESPN? That was the tease from ESPN before a story on Twitter on the Sunday Countdown show. Come on. Coaches don't coach games differently because of Twitter. Players don't play football differently because of Twitter. I sincerely doubt fans watch the game differently because of Twitter. "Changing the league.'' Pfffffft.
i. You had better check that advice you're getting from the coaching booth on replays, Mike Tomlin.
j. Uh, Marv Albert: You called the Browns "the Cavs'' in the second quarter.
k. It's almost unfair to pick on Atlanta rookie punter Matt Bosher, because the Falcons made enough mistakes to go around. Punting from the back line of the end zone with four minutes left in the third quarter and Atlanta trailing the Eagles 24-21, Bosher shanked the ball off the right side of his foot. His 18-yard punt led to an ultra-short field, and the Eagles had only a 20-yard drive to make to lengthen their lead to 31-21.
l. Thirteen catches for Jeremy Maclin. One drop was bigger than them all.
m. Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson's helmet-to-helmet hit in the game Sunday night. No surprise here, but he may be the first player to be suspended for a game under the league's increased vigilance on vicious hits.
3. I think I gained a ton of respect for Julius Peppers and some of his Bear teammates over the weekend. Peppers rented a private plane to fly some players from Chicago to Lovington, N.M., early Saturday morning for the funeral of Brian Urlacher's mother, and after the funeral, flew the Bear contingent from New Mexico to New Orleans for Sunday's game. And Anthony Adams, Charles Tillman, Israel Idonije, Pat Mannelly and Chris Harris went to the funeral and split the cost of another charter. That's class, and love from teammates.
4. I think it's interesting Bill Leavy worked Sunday's Pittsburgh-Seattle game. His crew made some questionable calls six years ago in the Steelers' Super Bowl victory over the Seahawks, which fans in the Pacific Northwest will never forget. The rematch in Pittsburgh was relatively uneventful; six penalties on Seattle, four on Pittsburgh in a 24-0 Steeler win -- but it wasn't the first Seattle game Leavy's done since Super Bowl 40. Matt Hasselbeck pointed out to me Leavy did the 49ers' 23-10 win over Seattle on Sept. 20, 2009, in San Francisco.
5. I think one of the most interesting things I read Sunday came from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn (no surprise there), on Russ Ball, the unknown cap guy and football scouting aide to GM Ted Thompson. McGinn's not one to throw around praise if it's not well-deserved, and the behind-the-scenes Ball comes off as a candidate to be the next top GM candidate in the league.
It was interesting to read the very strong praise from Mike McCarthy, who has known Ball for 19 years. "I'd hire him,'' McCarthy told McGinn. "He's the best I've been around ... Russ manages the cap, but his people skills are second to none. He gives Ted the ability to be a GM and for me to be a coach. He is as involved as he [can be] in the personnel part of it.''
6. I think, just to set the record straight, Carson Palmer never went back to Cincinnati during training camp to plead for his job back, or to plead for them to deal him. Neither did his agent, David Dunn. Nothing's changed there: Palmer wants to play, but not for Cincinnati.
I do not see that changing this season, unless the Bengals choose to trade him before the Week 6 trading deadline. The only way that has a chance of happening is if a desperate team offers the Bengals a second-round pick for him. I don't see that happening, the way Palmer's played the last two years. No one knows if he's a premier player anymore.
7. I think a sucker punch to the gut (by Charles Woodson) should be fined more than a horse-collar tackle (by Troy Polamalu), not less. Woodson got $10,000, Polamalu $15,000. A horse-collar is more dangerous to a player's health, yes. But if you're going to fine one horse-collar, you've got to fine them all.
8. I think I think I have ticky-tack problems with the Belichick special on NFL Network. The main one is it's not a true documentary, because it was done by the league's TV-PR arm. That said, the first half of being embedded with Belichick for the 2009 season was tremendously insightful into Belichick the coach.
I remember how snide he could be with his players when I covered him as Giants defensive coordinator in the '80s. When he was unhappy with the work of his receivers in 2009, NFL Films caught him in a staff meeting saying acerbically: "Wednesday practice is over and where do the receivers go? Straight in. We've got it all down. We don't need extra work. That sums it up for me.''
Perfectly snide Belichick, sending a message to his coaches to get on the receivers to run some extra routes after practice. Secondly: Everyone's shocked to see Belichick grant this kind of access. But he has such an appreciation for history, football and otherwise, that he wants the story to be told right. And he wanted NFL Films to have a record of Belichick the coach, the way it had with Vince Lombardi and George Allen and Hank Stram.
I remember in 2004 being assigned a who-is-Belichick story by Sports Illustrated, and calling him and talking to him for an hour to get a list of the people he considered most important in his life. His list, from his youth, where his uber-educated mom helped him become a great reader to his apprenticeship under his father to high school to Wesleyan to his first job with the Colts to the Browns to the Giants to the Pats. He was exhaustive.
I remember him touting how significant Joe Bellino, a Heisman-winner-turned-Boston-businessman, was in helping his young players learn how to take care of themselves financially. His list certainly wasn't everyone I spoke with for the story, but it was a good start. So you can be sure Belichick understands how he wants to be remembered, and he does what he can to contribute to the finished product.
9. I think the NFL Network made a great hire, taking young and hungry Jeff Darlington from the Miami Herald. He'll be a difference-maker nationally the way he was in south Florida.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Carl Crawford in the 18 games against his buddies, the Rays, this year: eight singles, two doubles, no triples, no homers, no RBI, one steal, .208 batting average, .240 on-base percentage. That might be why
b. I had never heard of Desmond Jennings before the last couple of weeks -- he's the Rays' leadoff hitter -- but in a four-game series, he did more damage to the Red Sox than Crawford did to the Rays in a season of games.
c. Today Boston has Kyle Weiland and John Lackey going in a day-night doubleheader against Baltimore. This has to be the first Boston-Baltimore doubleheader in what -- 20 years? 30? -- played at Fenway Park when the Orioles would have the pitching advantage, by far, in each game. And I don't even care who they've got throwing.
d. It was swell to be in the crowd at Fenway the other night when Tim Wakefield, whose career is absolutely on fumes right now, won his 200th game. The crowd stayed for about 10 minutes after the game, waiting for Wakefield, a beloved player in Boston because of his longevity and his team-first ways, to come out of the clubhouse for an on-field interview, and when he did, what was touching was seeing all of his teammates -- I think everyone -- come out with him and watch him from the dugout as he talked and waved to the crowd. Wakefield's total class, even as his knuckle ball maddeningly flattens out and is BP for the AL East.
e. Justin Verlander's the American League MVP and Cy Young winner. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira cancel each other out for the MVP, and Verlander's 24-5 with at least one start left.
f. Thanks for meeting me for lunch, Peter Abraham. The Boston Globe Sox beat man is not only great at his job, but also an excellent storyteller in and out of print.
g. Last week, you made my podcast with Nnamdi Asomugha the number three sports and recreation podcast in the country on iTunes. This week, you made the Thomas Dimitroff podcast number one. Thanks many times over for your support. I truly appreciate it. I want your suggestion to make the podcast better. Send 'em along.
h. Finally caught up on the end of the Curb Your Enthusiasm season. I'd give it a B-plus. Leon and Susan were A-plus characters last year, but there was something about the edge to them this year. They were very good, but not the edgy nut jobs of last season. Love the Bill Buckner scenes, particularly with the rescued baby (see? No spoilers here). Thought the Ricky Gervais stuff was forced and not very funny. But it's still a fantastic show.
i. Coffeenerdness: I committed one of the cardinal sins of the TV business the other night on the Friday night Versus show I do with Mike Florio and host Russ Thaler. I had a cup of Keurig French Roast on the set and put it on a small box, just under the desk, between me and Thaler. When he turned to me, he jostled the table and the uncovered coffee went flying. Idiot me.
j. Beernerdness: Pumpkin Ale is back. Had my first Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat, and though it doesn't have the sharp pumpkin taste of Saranac's pumpkin offering, it was crisp and quite good.
k. Electioneering is upon us. I detest negative campaigning. I should just disappear then, because that's what this one will be all about.
New York Giants 20, St. Louis 13. You might have to start respecting me as a picker of games. I'm 25-6 so far, including 13-2 this weekend (missing on the Houston and Tennessee victories). I wish I felt better about the beat-up Giants. I picked them because I know offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride will be smarter than to give Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs a combined 19 carries and 20 total touches, which is what they had last weekend at Washington. They need 30 to 35 touches, minimum. That'll keep the Ram possessions down, and it'll keep Eli Manning from feeling the pressure of having to win a game with so many receivers either missing or hobbled.