Tom Brady dominated, Rob Gronkowski was unstoppable and the opponent accused New England of subterfuge. Same song, new season for the reigning champs, who opened their title repeat quest with a 28-21 win over the Steelers. Plus a Week 1 preview, including 10 things to watch
FOXBORO, Mass. — This was a different kind of NFL opener, with a different kind of strange, almost angry pageantry. Not from the six New England states. Well, you wouldn’t understand. Throughout the day in downtown Boston, Tom Brady love was in full force. At a Verizon store in Back Bay, three clerks wore Brady jerseys to sell phones. One customer wore a “Brady Vs. Everyone” T-shirt; another had a “No Good in Goodell” shirt.
At 4 in the afternoon, a state highway traffic sign, the kind that usually flashes something like No Texting and Driving, was in Deflategate form as traffic began to converge on the stadium of the world champion New England Patriots. It read:
Tonite’s 4 U
In brief: Brady was ridiculously good, winning the 161st regular-season game of his Patriots career, a record for one quarterback with one team, with a four-touchdown, 25-of-32 ball-control game. The crowd was adoring, from Brady’s first fist pump on the field about 60 minutes before the game to the “WHERE IS RO-GER?” chant midway through the rainy fourth quarter. Rob Gronkowski was in impossible-to-cover mode (made possible when the Steelers, on one of his three touchdowns, actually didn’t cover him). And the 28-21 victory over the Steelers wasn’t really that close.
It wouldn’t have been a perfect Patriots’ night if subterfuge hadn’t reared its head, and it did, midway through the first quarter. Al Michaels informed America on the NBC telecast that the Steelers’ coaching headsets—used for coaches upstairs to communicate with colleagues on the sidelines—had gone out, and the coaches were actually hearing the Patriots’ radio broadcast of the game. A clearly steamed Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said: “That’s always the case,” echoing the charges of several unnamed club officials throughout the league regarding the communications systems at Gillette Stadium in a Sports Illustrated story this week. Tomlin’s clear implication was he thinks the headsets go out consistently when the Steelers play here, and not nearly as consistently in the other 30 NFL road venues. “We were listening to the Patriots radio broadcast for the majority of the first half … on our headsets,” Tomlin said indignantly.
But coach Bill Belichick said the Patriots had issues with their communications too. “It was a problem all night," he said. League spokesman Michael Signora blamed the situation on “a stadium power infrastructure issue, which was exacerbated by inclement weather … Once the power issue was addressed, the equipment functioned properly with no additional issues.”
It’s doubtful that explanation will mollify Tomlin, or the Steelers. Or the rest of a suspicious NFL. Wasn’t all of that supposed to be over Wednesday? Wasn’t this supposed to be “Back to Football” night? In almost all other ways but on the headsets, it was. Thursday was an absolutely predictable three hours, showcasing the ways New England continues to beat up the rest of the NFL.
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Three rookie offensive linemen, including an undrafted center, played guard-center-guard for much of the night. That’s called a major storyline when it happens in Denver; in New England it’s just what they do. An abandoned running back, signed to a futures contract late last December (the exact same way Jonas Gray was acquired before emerging to smite Indianapolis for 201 rushing yards last November) had a respectable 15-carry, 69-yard game. The train just keeps rolling. As long as Bill Belichick is there to coach and put blinders on 53 guys, as long as Brady’s there to do things like completing 19 throws in a row in the rain, and as long as the team stays on point and avoids the dreaded “things we can’t control” (and you will not play for the Patriots if you cannot ace that class), this team’s going to contend to win a title.
Thursday night, Brady was Brady. Let’s start there. “A pretty special night,” he called it, downplaying every reference to anything that didn’t have to do with this game and this night. Though how he couldn’t hear and see the differences would be imagination-stretching. Like the big sign in the stands in the lower bowl: “Mr. Trump, Make Brady Your VP.”
The thing I’d heard while here preparing for the game with NBC was that Brady never brought his problems into the building, or into his workouts, or into his team meetings or practices. “I worked out a lot with Tom this off-season,” prime wideout target Julian Edelman said after the game. “He’s the same guy he’s always been. It just shows you how mentally tough he really is to be dealing with what he’s dealt with in the past and to be able to come out here and lead us. Tom never has a down day. You see 12 [Brady’s number] … It’s like he’s been there 30 years pretty much.”
I wondered if Edelman saw anything different in Brady this off-season.
“Well,” Edelman said, after a pause, “I saw him do a little more band work. Working on his mobility.” Resistance training, using heavy rubber bands, Edelman meant. That’s it. No Can you believe how they’re jacking me around?
You’d think with the rancor and the anger that courses through Brady’s veins—he insists that he did not tell any Patriots employee to tamper with footballs so they were below the minimum air-pressure limit—that occasionally a little venom would seep through the Brady filter machine. But if it does, we haven’t seen it, or heard it, yet. On Thursday, we just saw the same old Brady. Touchdown drives of 90, 64, 80 and 79 yards, all ending in scoring passes to tight ends: three to spikeaholic Rob Gronkowski, one to new backup Scott Chandler. Brady, though, was an equal-opportunity distributor: 16 throws to the wideouts (14 complete), nine to tight ends (six complete) and seven to backs (five complete).
I would have expected Brady to play with more gusto. But his emotions were pretty in-check through the evening. Maybe he was wrung out by the time the game started, from the events of the past seven months—and the prospect that it’s not over, as the league is appealing U.S. District Court judge Richard Berman’s erasure of his four-game suspension for the purported ball-deflation scheme in the AFC title game last January.
Brady and the coaches have to be happy overall with what they got from a very green front line. The Patriots will want to run better than they did against Pittsburgh—24 carries, 80 yards, 3.3 per rush—but most everything else about the line’s play was solid. Brady got sacked twice, for seven yards, and 23-year-old center David Andrews, the undrafted free agent from Georgia, stood up Steelers defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Steve McClendon on a few snaps. Along with 22-year-old rookie guards Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson, who were in a guard rotation with Josh Kline, the kids were more than all right. The Steelers would have had to pressure Brady from the middle, with that inexperience—but couldn’t.
“We've worked pretty hard getting David up to speed, and he did a tremendous job,” Brady said. “I think all three of those rookies that played on the inside did phenomenal. It's a tall task to get them up to speed with all different variations and protections and adjustments that we tend to make, and I thought they really hung in there. They played with a lot of toughness … It really allowed us to get some guys open down the field.”
I spent a few minutes with Andrews after the game. He’s small for an NFL center these days—6-2, 288 pounds—but plays country-strong. In the Patriots Factory of Player Psyche Manufacturing, Andrews is the perfect specimen.
Asked about his adjustment from being an undrafted free agent to starting opening night, he said: “At the end of the day, it’s just playing football.”
Asked about the honor of starting his first NFL game, and snapping to Tom Brady, he said: “I just do what I’m told. They tell me to go out and play, I go out and play.”
Asked if he was nervous snapping to Brady, he said: “I don’t care who it is, Tom or Jimmy [Garoppolo]. Whoever’s back there, I just snap it.”
Asked about the emotion of this week, and what it was like inside the team with the Deflategate controversy hanging around, he said: “I’m not from here. I’m from Georgia. So I don’t know much about it, and really, my job is just to go out and play football.”
From Belichickian Central Casting.
And he can play. Once again the Patriots keep finding guys—the David Andrews of the world—and plugging them in, and winning. When Brady and Belichick are in the house, even when brush fires are raging outside, all things are possible.
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Game of the Weekend
Tennessee at Tampa Bay, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. (CBS). The Bucs are slight favorites (well, someone has to be) in the battle of 2-14 teams from 2014. This is the first time in the 96-year history of the NFL that the first game of the season matched quarterbacks picked 1-2 in that year’s draft. The shame of this distracting week—as Don Banks wrote for The MMQB this week—is that we’re not nearly focused enough on one of the most interesting stories of the season: the attempted revival of two struggling franchises (both over .500 just once since 2010) in the classic way. That’s by drafting and developing a young quarterback, Jameis Winston number one by Tampa Bay, Marcus Mariota number two by Tennessee.
Both quarterbacks were pocket guys in the preseason, but I suspect in the case of Mariota that was because Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt didn’t want to give away in games that don’t count what he plans to do in terms of quarterback mobility. “During the preseason, there weren’t opportunities for me to run,” Mariota said this week. “There was a lot more down-the-field throwing and trying to stay in the pocket.” If history is a good predictor of future results, there’s a good chance one of these quarterbacks will make it big, and one will struggle, because of their own ability, and because the pressure on a young quarterback to be good immediately for a bad team can lead to stifling demands. Hope that doesn’t happen to either player, but in this win-now league and win-now culture, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t.
Player You Need To Know This Week
Haloti Ngata, defensive tackle, Detroit (number 92). He’s 31 years old. The Ravens chose to let him go rather than pay him big dough. He didn’t practice in any Lions team drills at training camp. He didn’t play in any of the four Detroit preseason games. And yet Ngata is a huge factor in whether Detroit makes the playoffs or not. The 6-4, 345-pound run-stuffer will start at Ndamukong Suh’s old left tackle slot Sunday when the Lions open at San Diego. “We like where he is,” said coach Jim Caldwell, on the subject of Ngata’s health. If you look at the game summary after Lions-Chargers and see San Diego has run 28 times for 70 yards, the debut of Ngata will likely be a huge success. But in truth, the Leos have no idea what they’ll get out of Ngata on Sunday, and that’s why he’s such an important player in Week 1.
Fantasy Player You Need to Know This Week
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay (at Chicago, Sunday). As Aaron Rodgers told me in camp, he doesn’t feel he has a single “go-to guy.” True, because he prides himself on hitting the open man and not being blinded by any star system that says a certain receiver has to get X opportunities every game. But Jordy Nelson got 151 of Rodgers’ 520 pass attempts thrown his way last year. Nelson’s out for the year with a torn ACL. In steps Adams, a 2014 second-rounder from Fresno State, and I have little doubt he can do the job. When the Patriots mostly took away Nelson last year, Rodgers looked at Adams heavily, targeting him 11 times and completing six, for 121 yards. Adams had other games of nine, eight and seven looks from Rodgers. So this is not going to be foreign for Adams on Sunday, when he starts and figures to get a heavy dose of targets against the Bears. “He has a lot of confidence,” Rodgers said this week. “And he’s had a good preseason.” I’d have Adams active in any game, until Rodgers shows a preference for James Jones.
Stat of the Week
A good one, from longtime Broncos beat man Mike Klis, as a warning shot to the Ravens as they invade Denver for the opener Sunday afternoon: Peyton Manning is 3-0 in his Denver openers, and has put up an average of 37.0 points per game.
Touchdown passes: 12. Interceptions: 0.
Quote of the Week
“The only distractions, like I said, are made out here. We don’t feel like he’s a distraction at all. We feel like he’s a quarterback that’s young and talented and done some great things. You can never have too many quarterbacks in your building. It’s very important. We learned that the hard way last year. You never want to use three, but this is a violent game and quarterbacks are at risk back there so it’s important to have three good quarterbacks. When you have three, you want to hold onto them.”
—Washington coach Jay Gruden, on why the team kept Robert Griffin III on the roster, despite the fact that the 2012 NFL offensive rookie of the year was demoted earlier in the preseason.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The Fangio Factor. While the defensive coordinator at San Francisco, Vic Fangio orchestrated a defense that frustrated the Packers. Notice I didn’t say, “shut down the Packers,” because though the Niners were 4-0 in those games, Green Bay averaged 25.3 points per game, and Aaron Rodgers completed 64 percent of his throws. Rodgers did throw three picks in those games, more than his average of about one per 2.5 games. But as Fangio, now the Bears' defensive boss, told the Chicago Sun Times this week, “Obviously, they’ve been pretty bad here for two straight years defensively. We’ve made some changes, but that’s an ongoing thing.” It’s probably more applicable here that Green Bay has scored 42 points per game, on average, in the past three meetings with the Bears. Fangio clearly knows ways to put roadblocks up for Rodgers. Will he have the talent to do it in Chicago?
2. Whether Odell Beckham Jr. can take the heat. Beckham has played all of 12 professional games, and the hype surrounding him entering this season is almost Rice-ian. With the Giants struggling to get a running game going in the preseason (prospective mail-carriers Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams averaged 3.1 yards per rush), and with Victor Cruz still not 100 percent returning from a major knee injury, I see defenses—like Dallas on Sunday night—being physical and doubling Beckham consistently.
3. Sam Bradford’s debut. Monday night game one: Philadelphia at Atlanta. I remember sitting in the office of the NFL exec who runs the schedule-making process, Howard Katz, in April, hearing him explain how the sausage got made this year. One thing he was clear about was that the league wanted a national window for Chip Kelly’s Eagles season-opener.
4. Adrian Peterson’s re-debut. Monday night game two: Minnesota at San Francisco. Another flashback, this time to the Vikings' first training camp practice in Mankato, Minn. I saw offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and he said, “I can’t wait to coach Adrian Peterson. I really wish I had the chance to do it last year, obviously. But he’s the kind of player who can win three games by himself.” That’s why I say Peterson is my favorite to lead the NFL in rushes—and rushing.
5. Whether Jarryd Hayne can leap tall buildings in a single bound. If you haven’t been fascinated, yet, by the story of an Australian Rugby League star (last year’s co-most outstanding player there) quitting in mid-career just for the challenge of trying to make it in a sport he had never played, you should be. Coach Jim Tomsula has played it very close to the vest regarding his plan for Hayne, and for the punt-returning spot on his team, but it makes sense after watching Hayne return punts for an 18-yard average in the preseason. I’d be surprised if he was inactive Monday night against the Vikings.
6. The left side of the Denver offensive line. The Patriots played three rookies on the line Thursday night and survived it fine. Denver was going to start a center, left guard and left tackle with no prior NFL experience in front of Peyton Manning, until signing veteran Pro Bowler Evan Mathis late in camp—and Mathis will try to be a calming presence Sunday against the Ravens, between tackle Ty Sambrailo and center Matt Paradis. Is Mathis ready? “He’s told me over and over, ‘Coach, I’m good,’” said coach Gary Kubiak. He’d better be, or Manning could be running for his life.
7. The back end of the Seahawks secondary. Free safety Earl Thomas is preparing to hit someone for the first time in 32 weeks Sunday at St. Louis, having rehabbed from post-Super Bowl shoulder surgery; he hasn’t played any full-contact football this summer. And the Kam Chancellor holdout, as I said on the NBC pre-game show Thursday night, is worrisome. I do not believe Seattle will listen to trade offers—at least now—and I also do not believe the two sides are very close in talks, contrary to reports saying otherwise. They’ll miss Chancellor, for sure, on the field, but they’ll miss him quite a bit as a team influencer too. He’s a vital locker-room presence.
8. The commissioner’s presence. He skipped the Thursday nighter—I agree with that move, because nothing good would have happened had Roger Goodell been in Foxboro on Thursday night. He’ll be in Chicago for the 189th Packers-Bears meeting. Were I him, I’d have been in Tampa on Sunday to see the future of the game in the two rookie quarterbacks.
9. What Rex Ryan has in store for Andrew Luck. Excitement’s at a fever pitch in Buffalo, and the Bills get a very tough opener: the high-scoring Colts. Will Ryan play move coverage than pressure? That’s a big question coming into a game that’s the most anticipated opener in western New York in years.
10. News. DeMaurice Smith, the NFL Players Association executive director, with Mike Florio on “Pro Football Talk” on NBC Sports Network, said of the league’s refusal to give up neutral arbitration in commissioner discipline: “That’s really a non-starter … The role of the league office as a neutral arbitrator just hasn’t worked.” That’s the first newsy bit out of the box on the first weekend of the season. I’m looking forward to some good reporting Sunday and Monday.
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