NFL's Top Performers: Week 1
0:45 | NFL
NFL's Top Performers: Week 1
Monday September 12th, 2016

Welcome to Week Under Review where we span the league on and off the field, present some new ideas and try to have a little fun. Luckily the NFL helped us along in its opening weekend…

The first week of the NFL’s 2016 season, its best Week 1 in recent history, has overflowed with drama. Four games were decided by one point—Panthers-Broncos, Bengals-Jets, Raiders-Saints and Giants-Cowboys—for the first time in NFL kickoff weekend history. The Chiefs engineered their largest second-half comeback in history, with an exhilarated Alex Smith leading them to a 33–27 OT win. A never-ending cascade of spectacular catches punctuated games, highlighting the many beasts that will burn you if allowed to float downfield with single-coverage. The number of intense game finishes may be an anomaly, but the number of intense catches most certainly is not.

Following a remarkable opening weekend for the wide receiver position, it was the NFL’s best who shined the brightest on Monday night, in one of the few games that didn't come down to the wire. Antonio Brown worked it and twerked it on his way to 8 catches, 126 yards and two electrifying scores to lead the Steelers to a relatively painless 38–16 win over Washington.

Targeted 11 times, Brown caught almost everything thrown his way, even if it wasn’t a perfect strike. His connection with Ben Roethlisberger is so smooth and second nature at this point it is jaw-dropping when the two don’t connect.  A speedy, instinctual route-running guru with sure-fire hands, Brown has become the quintessential NFL receiver. And if you think I’m gushing, here are the highlights of a long-winded soliloquy from ESPN’s Jon Gruden toward the end of Monday Night’s broadcast:

“He practices 100 mph Every. Single. Day. Year. Round.”

“This guy's recliner at his house is a treadmill.”

“He eats dinner on a roman chair while doing abdominal crunches.”

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Not that Brown needed much help headed into Monday night, but he was certainly aided by the fact that he lined up across from poor Bashaud Breeland, and not Josh Norman.  Norman only plays one side of the field, which is a huge problem when he’s the only player in the secondary with a sliver of hope of covering the likes of a Brown.

Brown’s nearly perfect night came with an interesting twist when he garnered a suspect excessive celebration penalty for twerking after his second touchdown, a beautiful 26-yard haul vastly worthy of celebration. When you can almost hear the collective “huh?” chances are the NFL is to blame.  As USA Today’s Tom Pelissero quickly pointed out the NFL’s bylaws prohibit “sexual suggestive” celebrations.

So just to be clear, players can’t exhibit dances too sexual in nature but the NFL is fine with its teams housing players arrested for domestic violence?  A player can’t playfully thrust his hips a few times, but the league dresses most of its sidelines with scantily clad cheerleaders and pumps its viewing audiences with endless erectile dysfunction ads?

OK, got it. Glad to know the NFL has its priorities in order.

Let’s continue with more adulation for the league’s most ample position.  

Here’s an industry secret: At SI (and many other outlets follow suit) we spend a large chunk of Sundays in the fall looking for highlights of the day’s best plays. At one point, that included a near-even mix of crushing hits, running backs taking off to the races and, of course, a smattering of improbable catches. Now it’s just a cavalcade of improbable catches, like A.J. Green’s sick one-handed catch while (mostly) being smothered in Revis Island. Or Larry Fitzgerald’s stunning diving catch for his 100th career touchdown. Or a first-quarter jump ball to Alshon Jeffery that the brooding 6' 3" receiver is going to win every time. I’m running out of adjectives here.

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As Week 1 only reinforced, the NFL is now a WR-first league. For a period long enough to be considered an era, it was all about the QB effect—Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers making stars out of Marques Colston, Wes Welker and Greg Jennings. Now we’re seeing the inverse as bigger, stronger receivers take advantage of coverage mismatches, and one-handed catches become commonplace. Players like Blake Bortles, Matt Ryan and heck even rookie Carson Wentz get to look very good at their jobs.

The numbers bear this upward trajectory. In Week 1 to date, 14 wideouts have topped 90 receiving yards… with Antonio Brown still to play. Even more telling is that eight of these receivers had at least one catch that went for over 40 yards. These are the kinds of the flashy moments that tap into the emotion of both fantasy players and anyone with a pulse. That the NFL is presenting them in such mass these days should only increase its viewership.

In 2013, Pierre Garcon led receivers with 113 receptions, while Josh Gordon racked up 1,646 receiving yards. (Oh yeah, we get to add Gordon to the mix of must-watch receivers in three weeks). Last year both Antonio Brown and Julio Jones hauled in 136 catches and both topped 1800 yards. It’s early and overreactions are prevalent today but judging by what we saw in Week 1 the WR numbers, including a regular slate of high degree of difficulty catches, are only trending upwards. That’s great news for the NFL.

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Other thoughts from Week 1

• Kate Upton got the buzz yesterday when she blasted players opting to protest the anthem on 9/11. But I saw a number of fans on social threatening to boycott the NFL because some players have chosen to exercise their right of expression. Seriously, boycott the NFL because the anthem represents different narratives to different people but not because the league has been on the wrong side of domestic violence and health and safety? What is wrong with people? I guess the NFL really succeeded in its role as a bastion of propaganda intertwining the anthem and military.

• Adrian Peterson finished Week 1 with 36 yards on 19 carries. For those without a calculator, that’s a paltry 1.6 yards per carry. Much credit should be directed to the Titans front and the perennially underrated DE Jurrell Casey, but Peterson looked pedestrian. Not a lot of explosiveness or intricate footwork, and Vikings fans should be concerned. (Now watch AP rattle off 150 yards against Green Bay next week.)

• ​Allow me to be the millionth member of the Jack Del Rio fan club. I love Del Rio’s gutsy decision to go for two and put away the Saints, rather than put the ball in Drew Brees’s hands and hope for the best. When you’re the Raiders and known for perennially losing close games, you have to do something to change the narrative. Del Rio did that. I also love that had it not worked out the blame would have been placed on him and not his less-than-impressive defense or any one player. But mostly I love this tweet from Del Rio in response to the ESPN’s number crunchers.

• Of course the Patriots are alone in first place, and Jimmy Garoppolo has already secured Matt Cassel money. Watch this team go 16–0. (We all get one free overreaction, right?)

• At various points during Week 1 I couldn’t help but think the NFL is simply filler content while the networks cue up the next Peyton Manning commercial.

Raiders' victory against Saints exemplifies what's to come from Jack Del Rio's team

Logical idea of the week

Well into the beating that Cam Newton’s brain endured last Thursday we suspected it. After a crushing helmet blow by Broncos safety Darian Stewart in the game’s final minute we strongly felt it. Newton looked concussed and how could he remain in the game not having passed the NFL’s supposedly thorough concussion protocol? It felt like sheer negligence of Case Keenum proportions coupled with a bias toward a massive athlete who can glide across the field like a slight running back

After mass criticism, the NFL later issued a statement declaring that the game’s independent neurotrauma consultant and a team physician watched video during a stoppage and declared Newton free of a concussion.

But viewers had no clue because while this check was occurring the broadcast booth was blathering on about something unrelated.

Crushing blows to Cam Newton expose how poorly the NFL treats one of its biggest stars

There is a simple solution: any time any player endures a hit violent enough to warrant a review of the play for concussion, broadcast the outcome. Is he fine? Is he headed for concussion protocol? This seems like a suitable enough task for a sideline reporter. Viewers may not believe the report, per se, but at least there’s some information. No information and the mind can really get creative.

This notion comes with precedent. In fact, in the third quarter of the Dolphins-Seahawks game, CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn appeared to let viewers know that Ryan Tannehill had been cleared for concussion after a monster hit from Bobby Wagner in the third quarter.

But the reporting has to be consistent. And given how motivated the NFL is these days to be on the right side of health and safety, they should want this information out there. 

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Tom Brady’s suspension, Week 1

In the least surprising news ever Brady was omnipresent this week, so much so that Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels were seemingly contractually obligated to mention his name a minimum of 285 times during the Patriots-Cardinals broadcast.

(Collinsworth: “Deflategate was bad.” Michaels: “It was bad. It was boring.” But hey, let’s talk about it for five minutes!)

A few other happenings during Brady’s first “off week”:

1. He was the butt of a not-that-funny joke delivered by Peyton Manning at the Rob Lowe roast.

2. He was the hero of a hilarious joke delivered to Peyton Manning at the Rob Lowe roast.

3. He started his own newspaper and hired the best headline writer ever.

4. He converted the coolest actor on the planet into an Uggs wearer.

5. His supermodel wife showed off her flexibility but guised it as suspension humor.

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