Cincinnati at Washington Sunday: Andy Dalton, 24, with the weight of a franchise on his shoulders in Cincinnati; Robert Griffin III, 22, with the weight of a franchise (and, some might think, the world) on his shoulders in Washington. That's not the only matchup of young guns this weekend in the NFL. Three other games match 25-or-younger passers and kid cornerstones of anxious franchises:
• The Jets' Mark Sanchez, 25, at Ryan Tannehill, 24, in Miami.
• Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert, 22, at Andrew Luck, 23, in Indianapolis.
• Detroit's Matthew Stafford, 24, at Jake Locker, 24, in Tennessee.
The world is changing. No, it has changed. And Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis knows why. He believes it has taken less than one decade to flip a switch at the most important position in sports. The Bengals drafted Carson Palmer out of mighty USC with the first pick of the 2003 draft, and sat him for a full season. The Bengals drafted Andy Dalton with the 35th pick of the 2011 draft, and played him 96 percent of the offensive snaps as a rookie.
The best player in college football in 2003 sat a year. The fifth-best quarterback in the draft eight years later was immediately the most important player to the success of the same team ... and played immediately after the sixth-month NFL lockout.
"Look at Andy, and look at RGIII,'' Lewis said Thursday night from Cincinnati. "They're where they are because they played in college, played a lot and played in a way the NFL could judge them well. When we scouted Carson, we had to cut up three years of Carson's offensive snaps at USC to give us the equivalent of one year of Andy or Christian Ponder or Blaine Gabbert -- because they threw it so much, and they played in more of a pro offense.''
As Lewis said, it's not just because of the different throws they can make. It's the fact that pro teams now have embraced what colleges are doing on offense, not eschewed it. Remember when Andy Reid hated the shotgun and Donovan McNabb played exclusively under center? Look at Mike Vick now.
"It used to be, just very recently, that when scouts would see college quarterbacks line up so much in the shotgun, the attitude was, 'They can't take a snap under center. That'll really hurt them in the NFL.' Well, so what? Eventually it got to be that the shotgun was an advantage, as we see now.''
I asked the career defensive coach what he thought of the move-heavy offense Washington has put together for Griffin. "They've done a really good job of constructing an offense it looks like he's comfortable with,'' Lewis said. "It's sort of a veer option, with movement and things like wide receiver screens. I like it for him. He's not going to have 50 drop-backs a game now. His confidence in the game is so impressive, and his demeanor at the end of the game -- so calm, like he knows he can make any play he's asked to make. But he took a couple of pretty big hits last week, and I don't know as time goes on that you can afford to sustain those kind of hits.''
That's the danger, obviously, of having a 218-pound mobile quarterback. You love the fact he can get out of trouble. You hate the fact he is exposed to so many big hits.
As for Dalton, the Bengals get excited by things like his 15-of-17 second half last week against Cleveland, and by the fact that, even though he doesn't have a cannon for an arm, he's found A.J. Green 77 times in 17 career games for a 15.4-yard average. That average should climb as they get more in rhythm with each other.
"Andy took a big jump for us last week, and he knows the expectations are different now," said Lewis. "I think he'll continue to make that climb."
Enjoyed interviewing San Francisco safety Donte Whitner, FOX officiating analyst and columnist Mike Pereira, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Albert Breer of NFL Network for my third podcast of 2012. All the subjects were good, and Whitner, I thought, was as insightful a player as I've had on the podcast in the time I've done it. As usual, it's available on SI.com and on iTunes.
Whitner, on cheap shots and bounties: "You can go in there, form-tackle and tackle the way you've been taught since you were a kid. And that's what we honestly believe in. We don't believe in bounties ... You don't go into the game and intentionally aim to take people out because this is the way they feed their families. This is their profession, and morally, it's just not correct.''
Whitner, on playing within tighter hitting rules: "You can make legal, good, hard hits and make the offensive guy feel that. You don't have to lead with your helmet, you don't have to hit anyone helmet-to-helmet. It's actually a thinking man's game right now in the National Football League. When the ball is thrown to a guy on offense, you have time to understand where to hit the guy, how to use your shoulder pads. You have time.''
Seattle QB Russell Wilson (No. 3) Last year, Wilson was the second-most beloved quarterback in Wisconsin -- and it was close. As a meteor across the Wisconsin sports sky, Wilson was a one-year wonder for the Badgers, and played so well that Seattle GM John Schneider (a Wisconsin native) overlooked his 5-11-ness and picked him in the third round. Monday night in Seattle, Wilson will give a lot of conflicted people back in Wisconsin some angst. They love him, but want him to fail against Aaron Rodgers and the Pack. Most fun thing to watch: Wilson trying to escape Clay Matthews for four quarters.
1. Acerbic Jay versus Reformed Jay. Lucky for the Bears they're facing the Rams, tied for second-to-last in the league with two sacks. Unlucky for J'Marcus Webb that the man with both of those sacks, Robert Quinn, will line up across from him at Soldier Field Sunday. We'll see if Jay Cutler does a better job keeping his shoving to himself if Webb gets turnstiled again.
2. More officiating fun. Week 1 grade for the replacement officials: B-minus. Week 2 grade: D-minus. Chaos reigned in Philadelphia and Atlanta. The optimistic Mike Tirico called the officials "an embarrassment'' on the Monday night game for ESPN. Can you imagine what Lewis Black would have called that disorganized display. One piece of advice, unsolicited, for times when fights break out, men in stripes: THROW SOMEBODY OUT. STOP CALLING OFFSETTING PENALTIES, WHICH IS THE EASY WAY OUT AND SOLVES NOTHING. Get my point?
3. A flag-fest is coming, I believe.Throw flags early and get control of the games so the players know you're serious. That's very likely the message the replacements are hearing at the 15 remaining games this weekend. As Aaron Rodgers told Jason Wilde on his Wisconsin radio show this week, the Baltimore-Philly and Atlanta-Denver games needed a much firmer hand from the officials.
"There was so much chippiness in those two games,'' Rodgers said. "I would have expected more penalties. On two occasions in the Baltimore-Philly game there were offsetting personal fouls, which really doesn't do anything. It doesn't send any message to the guys and nothing happens. There [are] no repercussions. So there is no 15-yard penalty on Philly and then the guy can come over and get a tongue-lashing from his coach and maybe think twice about doing it again.''
4. Negotiations in this bitter feud. Jay Glazer reported the league and the officials spoke this week for two days. Little progress. Movement's vital on the pension issue, on both sides.
5. The Falcons trying to stay perfect out West. Atlanta at San Diego, Sunday. Since Mike Smith became Atlanta's coach in 2008, Atlanta is 5-0 on the West Coast (Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego), winning by an average of 17 points per game. Atlanta has little tricks that probably don't mean anything -- staying on Eastern Time, traveling on Friday, always practicing in the road city Saturday -- but this week, I bet two things have more to do with the outcome than that: Atlanta's coming off a marathon Monday night fiasco, and the Chargers are 2-0 with a quarterback (Philip Rivers) as hot as Atlanta's (Matt Ryan).
6. Peyton tries to rebound.Peyton Manning is 16-2 lifetime against Houston. Playing at home will help Manning, but a stadium can't zing a line-drive pass. Manning has to do that, under the increasing pressure of people who think his arm's dying, and he'll have to do it on a short week after playing a bad game Monday night in Atlanta.
7. The Cowboys prepare for kneel-down mayhem, so it won't be kneel-down mayhem. I've said all along I didn't like the Bucs pig-piling the Giants' offensive line on the victory formation, but it took exactly one play for the 30 other teams in the league to figure out how to handle it. This week's opponent, Dallas, will block the play like it's a goal-line snap. "We will just be aware of what happened in the past and make sure we handle it the right way on our end,'' said Dallas coach Jason Garrett. See, you don't need a rule to police this. You just need intelligence.
8. The debut of Mikel Leshoure. The Lions' 2011 second-round pick to resuscitate the running game plays his first NFL game Sunday in Nashville. (He missed 2011 with an Achilles tear, and the first two games of this season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.) "We've been waiting to get him on the field for a long time,'' said coach Jim Schwartz. "He can make guys miss, he's good in the pass game, he's a smart guy."
9. And the other running back in the game.Chris Johnson: 19 carries, 21 yards. It's the regular-season, fella.
10. Clay Matthews vs. Russell Okung. Monday nights like this one -- Seattle hosts Green Bay in the very loud Pacific Northwest -- are why the Seahawks drafted Okung over Joe Haden and Jason Pierre-Paul in the 2010 first round. Matthews has six sacks in his first two games and is playing the best football of his life. Okung will have help on some snaps, but you don't draft a guy that high so he can double-team a great pass-rusher. You draft him so he can erase one. Good matchup.