Three Weeks Down...
The NFL has this “Back To Football" saying at the start of the season, emblazoning it on press releases and passing out T-shirts with the phrase on it. But the first three weeks of the season this year have been more “The NFL Is On Fire." This is the first weekend I’ve felt the game is the bigger headline, and not the “Fire Goodell” movement or domestic violence or child abuse or who-saw-the-tape-when with Ray Rice. Because, simply, there’s not much new on the off-field stuff right now.
So let’s catch up, shall we, on where we stand with the football season as 26 of 32 teams finish the first quarter of their schedules this weekend:
It’s even-Steven. No team in the NFL is more than two games out of first place. No first place team has more than a one-game lead. Twenty-six teams are 2-1 or 1-2, the second-most after three weeks since 2002.
Holy crappola with the byes this weekend. The top four teams in my Fine 15 this week—Seattle, Cincinnati, Denver, Arizona—are off, along with the Browns and Rams. I know Howard Katz and his schedule-makers have much bigger fish to fry than to worry about when byes fall, but I wouldn’t have both Super Bowl teams off in Week 4. Other than Philadelphia-San Francisco (the Eagles are good and Niners desperadoes) and maybe Carolina-Baltimore (The Revenge of Steve Smith), there’s not a game you have to see this weekend.
Dean Blandino was right about penalties not overwhelming the game—so far. The two “illegals"—illegal contact and illegal hands to the face—are up quite a bit. There were 38 illegal contact penalties called all last year; 28 through three weeks this year. And after 75 hands-to-the-face calls last year, there have been 35 already this season. But overall, total penalties per game (including declined and offsetting fouls) are up but it’s not an epidemic: 12.7 per game all last year, 13.8 this year.
Emerging star: Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell, the AFC’s leading rusher (315 yards). He’s improved his stamina, his blocking ability and his outside running ability from his freshman year. Who’d have thought he’d lead Pennsylvania in rushing (LeSean McCoy: 175 yards) after three weeks? Now, with his August marijuana bust hanging over his head, the question is whether he’ll be around for all 16 games.
Emerging star II: Denver wideout Emmanuel Sanders, first in the NFL in receptions (25) and third in receiving yards (334). In August, he wasn’t practicing much because of a nagging quad injury, and he’s also battled a thigh bruise. But as offensive coordinator Adam Gase has found out, Sanders is more of a gamer than was his reputation from Pittsburgh. Sanders told me in training camp: “I don’t want to be known as a wide receiver. I want to be known as a football player."
The team in the biggest trouble: 0-3 Tampa Bay. With apologies to Jacksonville; no one thought the Jags would be better than 6-10 this year anyway. The Bucs could be 0-6 in 17 days (at Pittsburgh, at New Orleans, Baltimore at home), and no one thought their season would be over by Columbus Day. Such is life when you’re outscored 79-14 in the first three quarters of the first three games. Now Mike Glennon takes over at quarterback with Josh McCown sidelined with a hand injury. He would have had to be replaced anyway, because he played far too tentatively in his first three starts. But the blame, too, should go to a terrible secondary, where both the high-priced Dashon Goldson and the high-drafted Mark Barron has been poor so far.
The unit in the biggest trouble: New England’s offensive line. When one of the best NFL assistants ever, Dante Scarnecchia, coached the group, you’d always think if they were going through a rough patch that he’d fix it. And he would. But he’s retired now, and first-year Patriots assistant Dave DeGuglielmo inherited a group that’s getting overpowered and out-quicked on the edges. Don’t take my word for it after the horrible day against Oakland; the Raiders rag-dolled Tom Brady all day. Take Pro Football Focus’ word. PFF has left tackle Nate Solder rated 65th of 68 offensive tackles, starting guards Marcus Cannon (55th) and Jordan Devey (69th) near the bottom of the 70-player guard pool, and center Dan Connelly 22nd out of 33 pivotmen. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is 21st out of the 68 tackles. The next four games, starting with Kansas City in Arrowhead on Monday night, figure to be troubling. Arrowhead’s a tough place to hear anything as a visiting quarterback, then 3-0 Cincinnati comes to Foxboro, and then defensive-matchup-problems Buffalo and the Jets are up.
The unit that’s the biggest surprise: Detroit’s back seven. (I cheated, lumping in the Lions’ linebackers and secondary.) Linebacker DeAndre Levy is a rising star—as The MMQB’s Robert Klemko wrote this week, and cornerback Darius Slay, after a slew of drafted corners busted with the Lions, is playing great too. The Lions throttled the Packers last Sunday, and I’m stunned to report that a healthy Packers skill-player group managed seven points and two drives of more than 40 yards all afternoon against Detroit.
The team that’s the most pleasant surprise: 3-0 Arizona. I thought the Cardinals oversold John Brown in training camp. But the fact is, the 91st pick in the draft—out of Division II Pittsburg (Kans.) State—has been terrific, and his two Speedy Gonzalez moves at the line of scrimmage led to two touchdown receptions against San Francisco in the Cards’ decisive win. What a trade this could turn out to be. Arizona traded the 20th pick in April to New Orleans for 27 and 91 … and took Deon Bucannon at 27 and Brown at 91. (New Orleans didn’t do so bad either, taking Brandin Cooks.) Bucannon has been a quick study playing safety (and some linebacker in nickel situations), and Brown looks like his adjustment period is already over. I wrote earlier this week about both the Arizona defense (defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has adjusted after some huge off-season losses) and the quarterback (Drew Stanton has been a B-plus player in relief of the nerve-damaged Carson Palmer the past two weeks). Everything’s been good for the Cards heading into their bye.
So the last 14 weeks should be fun. Of the 1-2 teams, I expect New Orleans, still adjusting to life without so many prime veterans who departed in the off-season, to be the best in the last three regular-season months.
About Last Night …
New York Giants 45, Washington 14. Five days ago, before the Giants scored 75 points in games against Houston and Washington, the NFL world was counting the days to Tom Coughlin's unemployment. This morning, we're wondering what offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's secret is. It's pretty simple: The Giants have taken advantage of an opportunistic defense--four interceptions of Kirk Cousins in the final 23 minutes Thursday night--and a smart quarterback learning a smart offense before the season got too old. What was missing for the Giants entering the last two games was Eli Manning meshing with receivers he didn't know well. He now officially knows his tight ends for the first time since Martellus Bennett left after the 2012 season. The tight end is so important to any scheme, particularly one that longs for the short pass to be executed well, and Thursday night, Manning threw four touchdown passes to tight ends in the first 41 minutes, three to Larry Donnell and one to Daniel Fells. For the Giants, the season has been resuscitated, while 1-3 Washington has Seattle at home, then a trip to unbeaten Arizona. Could Washington possible recover from a 1-5 start? Could any team in a division with red-hot Philadelphia?
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Steve Smith Sr., wide receiver, Baltimore (number 89). With a team-high 18 catches (at a surprisingly high 16.1 yards per catch), Smith has rebounded from a slow end to his tenure in Carolina to be a pleasant surprise so far for the Ravens. On Sunday, he faces the only NFL team he ever knew before this season: Carolina. “Similarities: 89’s making plays. Difference: I’m in Maryland," he told the Carolina press in a conference call this week. Watch Smith against his old mates. He’s going to do something in this game—I have no idea what, but something—that will be on every highlight show Sunday night. Joe Flacco said this Wednesday: “If I pay attention to that maniac, who knows how I am going to play."
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
Before the Chargers' 22-10 win over the Bills in Buffalo last weekend, San Diego safety Eric Weddle gathered his defensive back teammates in the tunnel and said:
“Every snap, play with passion. When your boy makes a play, you hype him up. When he gives up a play, you pick him up. Every play, huh? Every play could be the difference between winning and losing this game. On the road against a good football team, we have to be on par. We have to play at a high level. All right? Rely on each other, communicate, and play the best game you’ve ever played in the National Football League. If we do that, we’ll go out and win this game. Put a smile on your face baby! DBs on two! One, two ... (whole group) DBs!"
Regular Old Quote of the Week
“Here's what you want. You want due process, you want a fair process and you want a transparent process. Because too many times, especially over the last few years, a punishment's been handed down, and nobody has really seen the evidence except for those in the league office—supposedly. So decisions were made in kind of a, 'Hey, trust us.' But did the public see any of the facts? Did the accused see any of the facts? In most cases, no."
—New Orleans quarterback and union leader Drew Brees, urging commissioner Roger Goodell to overhaul the league’s discipline process to take the appeals out of the purview of the commissioner’s office.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The latest in Goodellgate. Any more investigative stories coming? Any more strong denials after investigative stories coming? Any more profane calls for Roger Goodell to walk the plank? We shall see.
2. The Packers, in uncharacteristic offensive trouble. Green Bay at Chicago. High noon. Soldier Field. Pack has won four straight in Chicago. But an offense uncharacteristically 24th in the league in yards per offensive snap, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers need to get their protection fixed and he has to be more accurate to turn things around. On his ESPN-Milwaukee radio show this week, Rodgers said: “Five letters for everyone out there in Packerland: R-E-L-A-X." They will, when the Packers start playing like the Packers.
3. The Cowboys’ Romo regimen. Romo practiced each day before the first two games of the year and was shaky. He sat out Wednesday last week and was very good against the Rams. Coach Jason Garrett made the call to sit him out Wednesday again this week. The Saints await. Let’s see if the new way works again.
4. The Lions, trying to fill a big hole. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch suffered one of the more bizarre injuries in years last week, tearing his ACL in an on-field celebration. The inexperienced Tahir Whitehead takes his place—not DeAndre Levy moving from outside to inside, even though Levy has the size and play-making ability to make the switch. Coach Jim Caldwell reserved the right to switch Levy this week or anytime soon, but Whitehead gets the first shot against the Jets on Sunday.
5. Geno Smith, on the hot seat. The Jets can say what they want about Smith not being endangered entering the game against Detroit. I can’t believe if he throws two or three picks that Rex Ryan won’t make a move, either in this game or next week at voracious San Diego.
6. Devon Still news. The world knows the story of the Cincinnati defensive lineman and his cancer-ridden 4-year-old daughter, Leah. She had a tumor removed Thursday, and more news should be forthcoming this weekend about one of the most touching stories of the year.
7. The Bortles Era begins. He played the second half last week in the Jags’ debacle loss to Indianapolis, and now he has his first start at San Diego. Have mercy, Dwight Freeney. He’s just a kid.
8. The Eagles and Niners, in the game of the weekend. In three previous seasons as the San Francisco coach, Jim Harbaugh has never presided over a three-game losing streak. This could be it. The Eagles have a weapon-filled hot offense and a coach not afraid to call anything. Usually the 49ers, when backed into a corner, come out with a strong performance, and I expect one Sunday.
9. Another London game, and not a very good one: 1-2 Miami versus 0-3 Oakland. But 80,000 tickets have been sold at Wembley for it, and our Jenny Vrentas is on site for it—so it must be a big event! The Raiders have gone 15 straight East Coat trips without winning. Could they actually go eight time zones and be better?
10. The “A Football Life: Sean Taylor” doc tonight on NFL Network. I feel sure if you watch, you will not be dry-eyed. I wasn’t. What a sad, sad, sad story, not only that Taylor is gone, but how he was killed. Just a waste. Good job by NFL Films capturing the emotion from so many people around him, and the love in Miami and Washington for Taylor that remains to this day.