Vick's turnovers woes becoming a dangerous trend; Week 1 notes
Of all the troublesome Week 1 developments in the NFL, none have the potential to prove more costly to a team's 2012's plans than the reappearance of a turnover-prone Michael Vick in Philadelphia. The Vick who showed up in Cleveland on Sunday is the one the Eagles can least afford to see, because that Vick will get Philadelphia beat again this year.
Yes, the Eagles managed to overcome Vick's four-interception day and squeak out an uglier-than-ugly 17-16 win over the Browns, thanks in large part to the even more ghastly passing performance of Cleveland rookie Brandon Weeden. The latest Browns hope had his own four-interception afternoon, in addition to completing just 12 of 35 passes for 118 yards and a 5.1 passer rating that read like a typo. But he can at least take heart that it was his first career regular season start, while Vick has no such luxury on a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
The numbers don't lie. Vick set a career high with 14 interceptions in 13 games last season, and you can do the math to see how a four-pick day to start 2012 sets him up to blow past that low-water mark. Using his four-interception game at Buffalo in Week 5 of last year as a bookend of sorts, Vick has now thrown 15 picks in his past 10 games, and lost a fumble as well. In his previous 17 games with the Eagles, including a playoff game, Vick threw just 10 interceptions, with a seven-game pick-less streak to start his stellar 2010 season.
To give you a little historical perspective, Donovan McNabb never had a four-interception game in his entire 11-year tenure in Philadelphia, but Vick has now logged two in 10 games.
When I visited Eagles training camp this year, Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid downplayed the concern about Vick's propensity last year to get sloppy with the football and force throws, saying "He's not been a turnover guy in his career. That's not been his deal.'' But it has been lately. And after an offseason of optimism regarding the state of Vick's game and where it's headed in 2012, the dual issues of whether Vick can stay healthy and protect the football are right back at the forefront.
Watching Vick's erratic play against the Browns, it's fair to question whether he'll ever truly fit in Reid's West Coast offense and play efficiently enough within that pass-first system, which requires and rewards accuracy and timing. He's still forcing throws no veteran quarterback should attempt, struggling to settle for what a defense gives him and absorbing way too much contact despite repeatedly talking about his need to limit such pounding. At this point, was the aberration Vick's effective 2010 showing, or everything that has come after it? Maybe Vick is what he has been of late, and the reality of that is just slowly sinking in.
This week's home opener against Baltimore should be an interesting (read: immediate) test of Vick's discipline and decision making. The Ravens defense thrives on takeaways, with Baltimore icing their impressive 44-13 season-opening rout of Cincinnati Monday night with an Ed Reed pick-6 of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Vick certainly won't have the same margin for error he had in Cleveland. His turnover spree has to end, or the Eagles' Super Bowl hopes quickly will.
• It was a brutal opening week for the new head coaches around the league. The fresh faces in the headset crowd went a discouraging 1-7 in their debuts with their new teams. Only Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano got a W, courtesy of the Bucs' 16-10 conquest of visiting Carolina. The rest of the newbies took the collar.
At least Jeff Fisher's Rams and Mike Mularkey's Jaguars made it very, very close in dome-field losses at Detroit and Minnesota, respectively. The news wasn't as hopeful for the likes of Indy's Chuck Pagano, Miami's Joe Philbin, Oakland's Dennis Allen, Kansas City's Romeo Crennel and New Orleans' Aaron Kromer, with the last three losing their home openers.
So much for the honeymoon.
• Speaking of Tampa Bay's opening effort on Schiano's behalf, the turnaround seasons in San Francisco and Houston last year started with vastly improved defenses, and it looks like the Bucs are going to try to follow that blueprint as much as anyone this season.
Getting Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman-led offense back on track this year obviously is a huge priority as well for Schiano and staff, but the Bucs defense clearly set the tone against the Panthers, making a convincing opening statement that it will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Facing a Carolina team that embarrassed the Bucs by a combined margin of 51 points in two wins last December, Tampa Bay's defense punished the Panthers physically and allowed them a franchise-tying low of 10 yards rushing on 13 attempts. Keep in mind Carolina ranked third in rushing per game last year with 150.5 yards, and led the league with an average run of 5.4 yards. The Bucs defense meanwhile gave up an NFL-worst 156.1 rushing yards per game last year, and also ranked 32nd in points allowed, with 494 (30.9).
But that was then, and this is now, and Schiano has instilled a mentality that his defense will dictate the pace of the game and impose its will on opponents. Third-year Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy took a big first step toward a much-needed breakthrough season, spending a good bit of the day in Carolina's backfield. McCoy, who has seen his first two seasons cut short by injury after being drafted third overall in 2010, had a sack, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits in Tampa Bay's dominating defensive performance.
Ten years ago, the Bucs won their only Super Bowl ring with that kind of defense-first mentality. Tampa Bay isn't ready to punch in that weight class just yet, but these Bucs will hit you, and that's an encouraging first step in the Schiano era.
• No one in the league will be under more pressure to win in Week 2 than the Bills, whose deflating performance against the Jets might as well have been the proverbial balloon flying around backwards as it furiously loses air. Buffalo plays host to Kansas City in its home opener, and it's already must-win time for Chan Gailey and his players.
I picked the Bills to snap their 12-year playoff drought and earn an AFC wild-card berth, but I'm already having major buyer's remorse on that one. With Buffalo losing receiver David Nelson to a season-ending knee injury, and running back Fred Jackson to a knee injury that will cost him at least a month, there's already a sense of urgency (and maybe a bit of unexpressed panic?) in the Bills organization. Long losing streaks have been Buffalo's calling card in the past decade or so, so the ability to stop the bleeding is essential if the Bills are to return to relevance after their big offseason shopping spree on defense.
In no particular order of importance, it's a huge week for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, defensive end Mario Williams and rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Neither distinguished himself in the blowout loss to the Jets, and that wasn't how the story was supposed to go this year in Buffalo. Then again, maybe that's how the story always goes in Bills-land.
• The NFC is the league's glamour conference at the moment, boasting four of the past five Super Bowl winners in the Giants (twice), Packers and Saints. And those teams all made the NFC's final four last season, with New York going on to claim its second Super Bowl ring in five years. Not that the supremacy amounted to much in Week 1.
The Giants, Saints and Packers lost home games, a shocking development considering Green Bay and New Orleans went a combined 16-0 at home in the 2011 regular season. Of the NFC's final four from a year ago, only San Francisco started off with a win this season, beating up on the Packers at Lambeau Field.
Things were quite a bit more status quo in the AFC, where the final four from 2011 all won in Week 1: New England was victorious at Tennessee, while Baltimore, Houston and Denver all notched impressive home wins.
• It's early, early, early (there, the disclaimer is done), but the teams that went with rookie or first-year kickers exited Week 1 thinking they've made very good calls. In Minnesota, no one was missing veteran Ryan Longwell after Blair Walsh nailed all four of his field goal attempts, all from the fourth quarter on in the Vikings' 26-23 overtime win at home against Jacksonville. Walsh's 55-yarder tied it at the gun in regulation, and his 38-yarder won in overtime (but not in sudden death, remember).
Justin Tucker was also up to the job in Baltimore's big win over Cincinnati Monday night, going 3 for 3, with field goals of 46, 40 and 39 yards, in addition to five extra points. St. Louis has no complaints about the booming leg of Greg Zuerlein a week into his tenure. Zuerlein converted from 48, 29 and 46 yards in three tries, with the final pressure kick inside the final two minutes, which would have given the Rams the upset win at Detroit if the St. Louis' defense could have held off Matthew Stafford and Co. late.
Carolina didn't win at Tampa Bay, but it wasn't because of first-year kicker Justin Medlock, who also had a cup of coffee in the league with the 2007 Chiefs, making one of two field goal attempts five years ago. Medlock made his only field goal try in the 16-10 loss to the Bucs, and added an extra point. That's an 11-of-11 showing for the newest legs in the league, and not a case of the nerves to be seen.
Even the relocated veteran kicking crowd did fine, with Washington's Billy Cundiff (who lost his job to Tucker in Baltimore) debuting with a cool 4-of-4 day in the Redskins' mammoth upset at New Orleans. Cundiff was a bit shaky on his first attempt, barely making a 37-yarder just inside the right upright on Washington's opening drive. But he steadied and later connected from 41, 37 and 45 yards to help pave the way to the Redskins' 40-32 victory.
In Houston, veteran Shayne Graham got the job when rookie Texans fifth-round draft pick Randy Bullock was lost for the season with a torn leg muscle late in the preseason. Graham was short on a 52-yard attempt in the first quarter, but then knocked home his next three attempts, from 35, 40 and 19 yards in Houston's 30-10 rout of Miami.
• So much for the rust factor at running back. Between the guys coming back from major injury (Dallas' DeMarco Murray, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Chicago's Matt Forte and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles), and the guys playing despite either holdout inactivity (Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew) or a recent injury (Houston's Arian Foster and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch), the NFL's star running back set represented just fine in Week 1.
Murray rumbled for 131 yards rushing and a gaudy 6.6 average in the Cowboys win at the Giants. Peterson looked his old hard-charging self in picking up 84 yards and two touchdowns for the winning Vikings. Forte put up 120 yards of combined rushing and receiving with a touchdown for the Bears. And Foster (25 for 79 yards rushing, two touchdowns) and Lynch (21 for 85 yards, 12 more receiving) didn't look too hurt for the Texans and Seahawks, respectively.
Even Jones-Drew contributed 95 yards of combined rushing and receiving on 22 touches despite not starting in the Jaguars' opener. His contract holdout ended with no success, and MJD and the Jags took another tough loss in overtime at Minnesota.
• The regular season debut of Robert Griffin III has the entire league buzzing, but back on the first day of training camp Redskins receiver Joshua Morgan predicted big things would be coming right away in 2012 in Washington thanks to their rookie quarterback.
"As a team, I know we're going to overachieve,'' Morgan told me. "There are a lot of doubts about us, but we're going to surprise people with RGIII. We're definitely going to surprise a lot of people in this league. He just has great athletic ability, and the sky's the limit for this guy. All he's got to do is keep being professional and he's going to have a Hall of Fame career. He's got arm strength like Michael Vick and he's got the touch like Drew Brees. We're going to be talking about him for a long time.''