Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we run down the winners and losers in Week 1 of the NFL preseason. The games don't count, but the perceptions sure do ...
LOSER: Chad Johnson -- Uh, yeah. Let us count the ways. Johnson might have torpedoed his NFL career and his new marriage in one fateful swoop last Saturday night. That's quite the quinella. And no gimmicky name change, or orchestrated return to his former push-the-envelope persona will help him un-do this self-inflicted damage. He was a guy already on a short leash who made the mistake of believing he had all kinds of stored up capital in the bank. Productive players can usually survive off-field issues that bring embarrassment to the organization. But not players who receive no signing bonus, and who keep finding teams willing to give up on them. Johnson is now up to three on that count.
WINNER: HBO's Hard Knocks' reality series -- And I thought the Miami Dolphins would make for boring subject matter. I guess you almost can't go wrong if you stay in the AFC East for headline material these days. I know I'm watching Tuesday night's episode.
WINNER: Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin -- Some new coaches create an "I'm-in-charge-here'' moment to send an early authoritative message to their teams (think Greg Schiano trading Kellen Winslow in Tampa Bay), and some coaches have the potential for such messages thrust upon them.
Philbin didn't go looking to make an example out of Johnson, but I think he dealt with the situation wisely, teaching his team there are consequences for bad decisions. Especially bad decisions made just after a warning shot of sorts had been fired in the general direction of the player (the "watch your mouth'' advice Philbin offered Johnson last week). For a coach with a fairly laid-back personality and a low profile prior to this job, Philbin getting his team's attention (not to mention a little fear-based respect) with a bold move might be a good thing in the long run.
WINNER: Rookie quarterbacks far and wide -- Can't anybody look like a rookie quarterback any more? Andrew Luck is now eligible for Canton enshrinement. Russell Wilson can do anything he wants on a football field. Ryan Tannehill may need another 15 minutes before he wins the starting job in Miami. Robert Griffin III just had a statue commissioned in his honor somewhere near the Lincoln Memorial. And even Brandon Weeden and Nick Foles gave fans in Cleveland and Philadelphia a glimpse of something to believe in. Who said this was the hardest position to play in all of professional sports? Probably a sports writer.
LOSER: The notion that quarterbacks have to be at least six feet tall to see the field -- Finding his throwing lanes didn't seem to be a problem for the Seattle rookie quarterback Wilson Saturday night against Tennessee. Neither did finding running lanes for that matter. The ex-Badger threw for one touchdown and ran for another, and in general looked like the dangerous playmaker he was in college at N.C. State and Wisconsin. Wilson didn't prove anything definitively with one preseason game of action, but do the people who were certain he went too high at No. 75, in the third round, still feel that same level of conviction today? C'mon, be honest.
WINNER: Cedric Benson -- On the same weekend one ex-Bengals playmaker with some track record of trouble was getting shown the door in Miami (Chad Johnson), another ex-Bengals playmaker with some track record of trouble got welcomed back into the league, and specifically on to Green Bay's injury-ravaged running back depth chart. There's no guarantee Benson will still be a Packer in Week 1, but with James Starks, Alex Green, Brandon Saine, John Kuhn and Du'ane Bennett all either injured or being eased back into practice after an injury rehabilitation, Green Bay had to sign someone to help carry the football. As opportunities to re-start one's career go, Benson could have done a lot worse. He's on a very good team, and one that's desperate for rushing options.
LOSER: The NFL's credibility -- Commissioner Roger Goodell likes to remind us that he cares deeply about the game and its welfare, and for the most part I accept that on face value. But it's tough to jibe that sentiment with the current messy state of affairs regarding the locked out game officials and their replacements. The league maintains this is not an integrity of the game issue, just a negotiation that needs to run its course. But anything that reflects poorly on the NFL is ultimately about the integrity of the game, and no one can say the replacement refs have enhanced the league's product these past two weeks.
I don't blame the replacement refs for not doing an A-plus job; they're simply not as adept or qualified to handle their assignments as the men they're replacing. They're trying, but some of them are making some glaring mistakes. Big surprise. Film at 11.
The reality is this: The NFL is willing to take a short-term hit to the game's integrity, because it's the preseason and nothing's really at stake in the stare-down with the locked out officials other than a little discomfort on the part of the media, the fans and some players. The preseason stinks anyway as a product, and even Goodell admits that (see 18-game schedule debate). It's why I think no deal gets done until just before the regular season starts, because there's no real pain until then. Remember, everything happens in the NFL right at the deadline.
But there's the business part of the equation, and then there's all that stuff about doing the right thing by the game. If doing what's best for the game always mattered foremost, this situation wouldn't be unfolding in the same manner. I get that it's a negotiation, and most negotiations get ugly at some point. But the NFL can't have it both ways. Goodell and Co. can't take a hard-line stance on the refs and still sound convincing when it comes to putting the game first. In this case, they're choosing to look the other way. At least until September arrives.
LOSER: The forward pass in Arizona -- Where have you gone, Kurt Warner? Cardinals nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo, woo, woo. At this point, veteran incumbent Kevin Kolb has nowhere to go but up. And we mean nowhere. Kolb's passer rating through two preseason games is still 0.0, but only because you can't have a negative passer rating.
Kolb looks lost, has already battled a rib injury, and has to be suffering from an ever-decreasing confidence level. It's only mid-August, but how Kolb fares at home against the Raiders on Friday night in the Cardinals' third preseason game might well determine his QB competition with second-year man John Skelton. Neither option looks too appealing at the moment, but at least Arizona didn't sink a boatload of money into Skelton, or trade a starting cornerback for him, as it did for Kolb.
WINNER: Peyton Hillis -- Which comeback-minded new Peyton in the AFC West had the better Week 1 of the preseason? That's easy. Hillis touched the ball five times for the Chiefs, producing 52 yards of offense, including an 11-yard touchdown catch in Kansas City's impressive 27-17 defeat of Arizona. That Manning guy in Denver was solid, but nothing all that special: He went 4 of 7 for 44 yards on his one drive, with a tipped-ball red-zone interception to end his night.
LOSER: The Chargers' attempt to turn the page on 2011 -- Nothing deflates a football team quite like losing a key weapon on his first touch of the first preseason game, but that was San Diego's fate when 1,000-yard rusher Ryan Mathews broke his collarbone on his initial carry at home against Green Bay. Yes, the Chargers went on to win their game against the sloppy Packers, but the loss of Mathews for four to six weeks casts a pall over San Diego's camp. And after last year's disappointment, the Chargers didn't need any more bad mojo.
WINNER: The Falcons' push to open it up on offense -- Atlanta talked about being more explosive on offense last year, but didn't get it done. But it didn't take long to see the effect new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has had on the Falcons' mindset this summer. Atlanta came out firing against Baltimore's proud defense Thursday night, with quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones clicking in midseason form. Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown, and Ryan was 9 of 13 for 155 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. Four of Ryan's completions went to Jones, for 57 yards and a touchdown, and with that, a tone has been set in Atlanta this season.
LOSER: Jeff Fisher's savior status in St. Louis -- Sure, it's only preseason and the statistics can often get skewered. But a 38-3 beating at the hands of the other team that went 2-14 in 2011, the heretofore punchless Colts? The Rams were outgained 430 yards to 215 (or 2-to-1), surrendered almost seven yards per play to Indy, and denied the Colts on third down just four out of 15 tries (27 percent). Even if there is still nearly four weeks until opening day, time suddenly feels short in St. Louis.
WINNER: Trindon Holliday -- Last week I watched Houston's mighty-mite of a return man (they list him at 5-foot-5, 170 pounds) buzz around the practice field at Texans camp. Then Saturday night at Carolina, I watched Holliday buzz right through the Panthers for a 90-yard first-quarter kickoff return touchdown that gave Houston a lead it would never relinquish. Take that, Jacoby Jones.
LOSER: Tony Romo's ribs -- Somebody tell Kyle Orton to stay loose this season, because he's going to play a bit. There's no way the Cowboys' offensive line keeps Romo upright and active for long, based on Monday night's thriller in Oakland. Dallas' linemen couldn't hold the Raiders pass rushers off for one lousy Mississippi when Romo was in the game, and Jason Garrett calling plays with seven-step drops looks to be out of the question this year in Big D.