III followed in Cam Newton
’s footsteps with a dazzling Week 1 rookie debut Sunday against New Orleans. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)
First Down, Fourth Down takes a weekly look at the good (First Down) and bad (Fourth Down) from NFL Sunday.
The only thing keeping the Robert Griffin III hype in check heading into the NFL season was a Week 1 Redskins' trip to New Orleans. The Saints were favored by a touchdown or more all week and all signs pointed to a rough debut for Washington's newest savior.
Well ... you may commence with the excitement, Redskins fans. Griffin III turned in arguably the most impressive performance of the first Sunday of the season, and his Redskins followed right behind for a surprising upset win.
RGIII wasn't alone in opening eyes on Sunday. Nor was it all smooth sailing for those in the spotlight -- be it Griffin's fellow rookies or some teams with high hopes for 2012.
Here's the best and worst from Week 1:
First down: Robert Griffin III
A rather obvious place to start. RGIII was brilliant in his NFL debut, hitting on 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns, and running for 42 more yards, as the Redskins hung 40 on the Saints in New Orleans. Give credit to Washington's coaching staff too, which outcoached the Sean Payton-less Saints by working to Griffin's strengths with a variety of screens and short passes. Griffin completed passes to eight different receivers in an incredibly balanced performance. Just how balanced? Washington scored exactly 10 points in all four quarters.
Fourth down: The non-RGIII rookie quarterbacks
Griffin finished with two TDs and no interceptions (and a win, most importantly). The other four rookie QBs who started Sunday -- Andrew Luck, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson -- put up an 0-4 record with two touchdowns and 11 picks.
Wilson came closest to orchestrating a victory, missing on three straight passes to the end zone in the closing seconds at Arizona. Tannehill and Weeden combined for no touchdowns and seven picks. Luck, taken one spot before Griffin in the draft, did throw a touchdown pass but also turned it over three times, albeit against a Bears defense that looks much more formidable than the one Griffin saw in New Orleans.
First down: Greg Schiano
Schiano got to work changing the culture in Tampa Bay immediately after taking the job, his dismissal of Kellen Winslow Jr., the most high-profile of his moves. It's only one week, but Schiano's efforts to make the Buccaneers a tougher, more disciplined group appear to have paid off. The Bucs got 95 yards rushing from rookie Doug Martin, a solid effort from QB Josh Freeman and a physically dominating performance from their defensive front to slow Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Fourth down: DeAngelo Williams
And speaking of the Panthers ... yuck. Newton put up 303 yards and a TD through the air, but he also tossed two INTs. The Panthers had no choice but to put the ball in his hands and look for big plays, though, because their run game was an unmitigated disaster.
With Jonathan Stewart (and his huge new contract) sitting home injured, Williams stepped into the No. 1 RB job. He produced minus-1 yards on six carries and caught just one pass for five yards. Carolina's leading rusher on Sunday? Unknown second-year man Kealoha Pilares, who picked up five yards on one carry.
First down: Alex Smith
Despite helping the 49ers to a 13-3 mark last season, Smith still had a large number of detractors heading into 2012. Outplaying 2011 MVP Aaron Rodgers in a 30-22 win at Lambeau Field might change that.
Smith turned in a smart and effective game, completing 20 of 26 passes, and he found the end zone twice -- once to Randy Moss, then to Vernon Davis. He also protected the ball, unlike Rodgers, who committed a pair of turnovers. With a full compliment of weapons at receiver and tight end, Smith might be on the verge of a big year.
Fourth down: The replacement officials
Most of Sunday's officiating mistakes were limited to minor inconveniences -- crews huddling for extended periods of time to discuss calls, temporarily misspotting the ball after penalties, etc. But things got progressively worse as the day went on.
The officials called 18 penalties in the San Francisco-Green Bay game, enough to have both sidelines screaming at them. But they also picked up a flag, for no apparent reason, allowing the Packers to keep a Randall Cobb punt return touchdown on the board. And even FOX analyst Troy Aikman commented on numerous occasions about how long it took pass interference flags to fly -- implying that the officials were being influenced by the crowd or coaches.
The problems culminated in Arizona's win over Seattle, when the Seahawks were granted a fourth timeout in the closing seconds. Seattle had been charged (or should have been charged) with a third timeout earlier when one of its players went down with an injury.
First down: The Jets' offense
So much for all those preseason jokes about New York's putrid attack. The Jets hung 48 on the board Sunday, with Mark Sanchez throwing 3 TD passes. Almost all of the Jets' offensive outburst came with Tim Tebow on the bench, too, a sign that this team may not have to resort to trickery and wildcat formations to move the football.
Fourth down: Buffalo's revamped defense
On the other side of the field ... a nightmare. Buffalo spent big bucks this offseason to add Mario Williams and Mark Anderson while transitioning to a 4-3 defense. The Bills came up with exactly zero sacks in Week 1's debacle and could not get their defense off the field in the first half, as New York built a 27-7 lead. Ryan Fitzpatrick's three-INT day didn't help, but Buffalo surely expected more on D.
First down: Julio Jones
Throughout the preseason, Jones appeared ready to build on his 959-yard, eight-touchdown rookie campaign. He's off to a good start. Jones torched the Chiefs for six grabs, 108 yards and two touchdowns in Atlanta's 40-24 win Sunday -- game one with Atlanta employing its new, up-tempo offense that could push Matt Ryan to the next level. Jones and Roddy White may be as good a receiving duo as there is in the NFL.
Fourth down: Tennessee Titans
Tennessee had a chance to make a real statement in Week 1. Instead, Jake Locker faltered and left his first career start with an injury, Chris Johnson heard boos after racking up a whopping four yards on 11 carries, and the Titans' defense had no answer for Stevan Ridley or the Patriots' passing game.
Tennessee's next three games: at San Diego, vs. Detroit, at Houston. If the Titans can't rebound from Sunday's 34-13 drubbing in a hurry, this season could get away from them quickly.