Week 1 is nearly in the books; the brightest star might have been Marcus Mariota, who announced his arrival in a huge way against fellow rookie Jameis Winston. (Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt pumps the hype brakes a bit.) Plus notes on Rex Ryan, Tony Romo and more from a wild first Sunday
Now that was quite a way to end the first Sunday of a blessed-relief NFL Week 1. (Blessed relief because we’re not talking much about inflation of footballs … just 359 words here on the Brady vs. Goodell mess this morning.) Eli Manning giveth. Arts-and-Craftsy Tony Romo taketh away, deliriously.
Can I start the 19th season of MMQB by telling you an observation I had Sunday evening about the incredible closeness of this game? Of these games?
Seattle has lost two games in a row—the Super Bowl and Sunday’s overtime loss at St. Louis. In February, with Seattle one yard from a game-winning touchdown, undrafted free-agent rookie Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson with 20 seconds left to win the game for New England. On Sunday, with Seattle up by seven with 59 seconds to play, undrafted second-year safety Dion Bailey slipped in coverage and let tight end Lance Kendricks get by him for a 37-yard touchdown to tie the game. The Rams won in overtime.
Plays of the game, two games in a row, made or not made by players who weren’t deemed good enough to be drafted, who came off the street to make teams and play huge roles in games at the highest level of the biggest sport in America. And it happens everywhere. Lance Dunbar, the former undrafted free agent in Dallas, with 40 yards worth of catches on that final crazy drive Sunday night. The games are so close, and they’re sometimes decided by the craziest of breaks, and human foibles, and mind-boggling decisions.
That’s a big reason, collectively, why America keeps coming back for more, no matter how fist-shaking angry it gets at the commissioner or the owners or players who mess up.
America also came back Sunday for:
• The show put on by the new quarterback from Hawaii.
• The Bills, and the fans who over-filled the RV parking lot at Ralph Wilson Stadium 26 hours before Sunday’s opener, and those who stood for three hours to see the first win of the Rex Ryan Era. “I kept thinking, ‘Siddown!’ Jeez! It’s a long day! I’ve never seen that before,” Ryan said from Orchard Park.
• One of the strangest and most magnetic Sunday night games in a while. “We got a break,” understated Tony Romo.
• Soon-to-be household names like Tyrod Taylor, Aaron Donald, Tyler Lockett, Travis Kelce and, well, we shall see. Two more games tonight.
We start this morning with the first-ever opening-week duel of rookie quarterbacks drafted with the first two overall picks. Jameis Winston (Tampa Bay) versus Marcus Mariota (Tennessee) kind of snuck up on us, as it was eclipsed by the never-ending drama on Ted Wells’ field of play.
“I thought it deserved a little more attention,” Tennessee coach Ken Whisenhunt said from Tampa on Sunday night. “When we first saw the schedule—Week 1, 4:25 game—it seemed like they planned this because of the spectacle of it. And because we had the late game, I’m watching some of the pregame shows this morning. They didn’t talk about it very much. I didn’t get that. This was a pretty big deal.”
For both teams, in different ways.
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You could hear it in Whisenhunt’s voice, and see it on his face. It’s the kind of thing you’ve heard from Bill Parcells a few dozen times if you’ve been paying attention. Let’s not put this guy in Canton yet. Or, So, you’re fitting him for his gold jacket already? That was Whisenhunt. The Titans had lost 14 of their previous 15 games coming into Sunday, and Mariota just had a four-touchdown-pass first half to win his debut, on the road, by 28 points.
“Hopefully we’ll clean up some of our mistakes” is one of the things Whisenhunt said to the media post-game. Another: “We still have a lot of things to work on.” Another: “Just keep our heads down and keep working. We’ve got a long way to go.” Forty-five minutes later, after more of the same with me, I got the message. Whisenhunt knew no good could come of over-loving Mariota after one game. But he did want to make a point.
“You may not hear it in my voice,” he said, “but I’m really, really excited to have this kid.”
Whisenhunt began to see it on the fourth play of Mariota’s career. The Titans were backed up, third-and-10, at their 26. Under pressure, Mariota zipped a quick throw into a tight window to tight end Delanie Walker for 22 yards. Next play: play-action, then one of the oddest throws of the day. Mariota never even came out of his play-action stance. Standing sideways, not moving his front foot, he threw a quick line drive 17 yards in the air into the hands of a sprinting Kendall Wright. He ran up the left sideline for a 52-yard touchdown. Midway through the quarter, Mariota rolled right at the Tampa 12 and looked downfield; Tampa gave him a look and a rush he wasn’t expecting, so he hit his hot receiver, running back Bishop Sankey, just beyond the line, and Sankey beat linebacker Lavonte David to the pylon for the second score.
Whisenhunt got angry at Mariota with four minutes left in the half. Trying to extend a play from the Tampa 1-yard line, Mariota rolled right, rolled some more … and took a three-yard loss out of bounds. “That’s the one decision I got mad at him for today,” Whisenhunt said. “Instead of throwing it away, he took the loss. I told him, ‘You can’t do that!’ then he made up for it.”
Next play: Harry Douglas burst from the slot past a good corner, ex-Titan Alterraun Verner, and caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Mariota. Easy stuff. At least it looked easy. Three minutes later, near the end of the half, after Winston's second interception, Mariota flipped a quick curl to Walker for the final touchdown from a yard out.
Winston edged Mariota, 210 passing yards to 209, but that was an empty stat. Mariota owned the first game in the rivalry. Unless they meet in the Super Bowl, the next matchup between the two 2015 draft titans will be in 2019 … assuming each is still on his current team.
It’s totally unfair to draw conclusions based on four quarters (three, really, for Mariota, who was pulled for his own protection in the fourth quarter because it was a rout), but you can say this about the two players. Mariota moved between shotgun and under-center snaps freely. He was comfortable throwing fast and throwing with time. He was extremely accurate. He looked so comfortable, as though this was the first game of his sixth season, not his first. Winston made a poor decision and throw on his first pass of the game, a pick returned 26 yards by Titans corner Coty Sensabaugh. Winston was pressured more than Mariota, and he didn’t always respond to it well, going 16 of 33 with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Mariota: 13 of 16, four touchdowns, no interceptions.
You’ll read more about the game and the two players in Jenny Vrentas’s story for The MMQB. My takeaway: Relax about Winston if you live in Tampa-St. Pete. Rejoice about Mariota if you live in middle Tennessee—or Hawaii. All of Mariota’s games are on TV in Hawaii, so be ready at 7 a.m. in Honolulu for the encore: Mariota is at Cleveland on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, and the week after comes an interesting battle-of-the-saviors against Andrew Luck. From what we saw Sunday, Mariota could soon become must-see TV everywhere.
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Rex: ‘Holy S---. I Can’t Wait’
Rex Ryan coached six years in New Jersey, and so he heard the cacophonous noise around the Meadowlands on occasion. But a couple of things he hadn’t seen. One: Fans in the stadium standing for most of three hours, which they did Sunday, so as not to miss anything in a 27-14 Bills’ victory over the favored Colts. Two: The RV parking lot adjacent to Ralph Wilson Stadium full late Saturday morning. He talked to the players post-game about the fans. He talked in his press conference about the fans. He talked to me about the fans. “As good as our players played,” Ryan said, “our fans were better. They never stopped. They really impacted the game.”
One of those fans, Luke (son of the late Tim) Russert, said Sunday night he didn’t think he sat down all afternoon. “I didn't think anything could top the energy from last year's home opener against the Dolphins. Remember, the sale to the Pegulas was announced in the media and Jim Kelly was honored before the game for beating cancer. Believe it or not, today's energy was 10 times that of last year. On one third-and-long the stands were literally shaking.”
This was a revelation game for Buffalo. In a game between Tyrod Taylor and Andrew Luck, who do you think would have the 63.6 passer rating and who the 123.8 rating? “Not only did Tyrod have a 123 rating,” Ryan said, “but he ran for 41 yards too.” Percy Harvin was back after a shaky summer with his bum hip, and he streaked downfield for a 51-yard touchdown catch from Taylor to open the scoring. Rookie fifth-round back Karlos Williams, at 6-1 and 230 pounds, looks like the kind of power runner (six carries, 55 yards, one touchdown) who will be able to wear down defenses late in games. And Ryan’s and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman’s defense shut out the explosive Colts for the first 44 minutes of the game. Of the 26 teams that played Sunday, no defense had as many passes defensed (12) as Buffalo. The coverage was good; the pressure was better.
“I think we made a statement today,” Taylor said.
This one: We’re pretty good now, and we might get better, and we just might petition the league to play all 16 games at home.
“We’re gonna be tough to beat at home, I’m telling you,” Ryan said.
Judging by the first week of the season, they’d better be good at home—and on the road. Standings of the AFC East this morning:
New England: 1-0
New York Jets: 1-0
The one thing you don’t know entering a season is how the enthusiasm of an off-season is going to translate when the games start. The Bills sold more than 60,000 season tickets for the first time in their history, a tribute to the undying optimism of a region on the longest playoff cold streak of any team in the league. (It’s been 15 years.) The defense is the real thing. If the offense can hold up its end—and really, you can say the same thing about any of the three AFC East challengers to New England—Buffalo will be in it until the end. That’s a big if, of course. It will depend on the maturation of Taylor.
But on Sunday, Ryan wasn’t looking too far ahead. He was looking at next Sunday. Some old friends are coming to town: Bill Belichick. Tom Brady. The schedule-maker came up with an unlikely AFC Game of the Week in Week 2.
“Wait 'til next week,” Ryan said, chuckling over the phone. “Holy s---. I cannot wait.”
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A Giant Mistake
You might have gone to bed by the time the Giants and Cowboys reached the final two minutes Sunday night in Texas, so let’s recap: Giants up 23-20, third-and-goal from the Dallas 1-yard line, 1:43 left. No timeouts left for Dallas.
The play here is to hand the ball off, hope the back scores, but if not, make sure the back doesn’t run out of bounds to stop the clock. If the back doesn’t score, let the clock run down to, say, one minute, and on fourth down do the same thing again. If he’s stopped, the Cowboys would get the ball at their one-yard line with about 55 seconds left.
Or, the Giants could choose to run on third down and, failing to score there, kick a field goal. That would mean Dallas would have to take the ensuing kickoff and score a touchdown in about 55 seconds (kickoff return included).
The one thing that seems totally illogical is what the Giants did. Eli Manning rolled out and threw to the back of the end zone, to no one. The Giants kicked a field goal to go up 26-20. And the Cowboys got the ball after the kickoff at their 28-yard line with 1:29 left.
Let’s see: Giants 23, Cowboys 20, Dallas ball at its one, approximately 55 seconds left … Giants 26, Cowboys 20, Dallas ball at its 28, approximately 50 seconds left ...
… Or, Giants 26, Cowboys 20, Dallas ball at its 28 with 1:29 left.
“That was a bad decision on my part,” Tom Coughlin said.
“It’s 100 percent on me,” said Eli Manning.
With Manning manning up, and Coughlin doing the same, we at least know the Giants have standup guys. What we don’t know is why they would do something like this. Were they so confident in a specific play they had called? Did they think they’d catch the Cowboys loading up for the run and sneak in a quick touchdown pass?
Whatever it was, it wasn’t smart. And it led to the kind of loss from which it will be very difficult to rebound. Hand it to Tony Romo (11 of 12 for 147 yards and two touchdown passes in the last eight minutes of the game) for driving 76 and 72 yards, respectively, in the last two series for the win. But this one’s on the Giants. If Coughlin and Manning each want half the blame, it’s theirs.
• ROCKY START FOR PEYTON’S NEW OFFENSE: Peyton Manning’s diminishing arm strength and lack of mobility were issues in Week 1, but if you look closely enough you can see why the Manning-Kubiak marriage can work
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Without Chancellor, Seahawks Slip
The MMQB’s Robert Klemko was in St. Louis Sunday and filed this about the backup for holdout strong safety Kam Chancellor…
Seattle safety Dion Bailey looked up from his hands and knees to confirm what he already knew. After he’d tripped and stumbled to the turf, Rams tight end Lance Kendricks caught Nick Foles’ lob and took it to the house, a 37-yard touchdown that sent the season opener into an overtime the Seahawks would lose. Outside of injury, it was quite possibly a worst-case scenario for Bailey in his first game as a starter while Chancellor continues his holdout for a restructured contract.
Dejected, Bailey sat upright in his locker, located between Richard Sherman’s and Earl Thomas’s, in the visitor’s dressing room at the Edwards Jones Dome. He draped several towels over his head and closed his eyes. He felt as though he’d not only lost the game, but tarnished his family name. “I’ve got to go 100% on my opportunities,” Bailey said quietly while teammates dressed. “I missed a big one today. I’ve got to learn from it and represent my family name better next week. The play didn’t surprise me or anything. I promise you it will never happen again.”
Bailey knows as well as anybody that there may not be a next week for him, and his performance may even have hastened that prospect. The Rams demonstrated how much Seattle’s defense needs Chancellor if it is to achieve its 2014 form; Nick Foles went 18 for 27 for 297 yards and that late, game-tying touchdown in his first start for the Rams.
That wasn’t all Bailey’s fault, or even mostly Bailey’s fault. And that’s what teammates told him, one-by-one, in quiet visits to his locker after the game. The majority of the room had watched him earn a special teams role as an undrafted rookie in 2014 before shredding his ankle that August. The Seahawks waived him only to add him to the practice squad later in the 2014 season. They re-signed the 23-year-old the day after Super Bowl XLIX. Pete Carroll recruited Bailey to USC in 2010 before agreeing to coach the Seahawks that season. More than five years after he signed a letter of intent to play for Carroll, he finally got the opportunity to do so.
“The hard part is seeing all the trust the guys instilled in me,” Bailey said. “Guys let me know not to put the game on myself because a lot of people made mistakes. I will be better next week.”
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End of a (PR) Era
Joe Browne announced last week that he will retire at the end of this season. He was most recently a senior adviser to Roger Goodell, but for years he headed up the NFL’s PR efforts as vice president for communications and public affairs. When he went to work at the league office in 1965, he was one of 11 employees. Now there are some 1,100.
The reason you should know Browne, and the impact he had on the game, is that as much as any single person in the league he was responsible for imagining and putting into play the NFL as a year-round venture. In the ’70s and ’80s, as Pete Rozelle’s PR man, Browne envied the kind of off-season heft baseball had, with its hot stove league keeping trades and later free agency on the sports pages from November to February. Browne, unlike some of his football peers, didn’t think free agency would kill the NFL (it hasn’t) and thought there was a way to make events like the scouting combine, the draft and off-season workouts more media-friendly. It wasn’t all Browne, but he played a big role.
Browne also deserves kudos for understanding that, in his job, he couldn’t always influence what those in the media wrote or put on the radio, the TV or the internet. Or, now, on social media. The best thing I can say about him is that he understood the line between what he wanted to read in the paper and what he was going to read in the paper—and he was never overly bitter or scolding about it. In a column last week for Sports Business Journal, Browne wrote about what he learned under Rozelle starting in 1965: “Working for Pete was like getting a PhD in sports business, management and promotion. It was no coincidence his initials were PR. ‘If you understand that the clubs get the credit and our office the blame, you may survive in this business,’ he told me one day at lunch. Pete drank Coke in the morning, smoked Marlboros at all hours, hated staff meetings and hardly ever lost his cool.” Something to be said for all of that.
“He never has been a yes man,” former commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Sunday. “He could be very disagreeable if it was called for—and sometime it was called for. When it was required, he could tell the kings they had no clothes on. I remember his bringing in White House press secretaries to talk to the team PR people—Ari Fleischer, Jody Powell—because, as he said, ‘This is where we want to be. This is the level we want to be on.’ He always reached for the gold standard.”
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The PAT revolution? Not quite, but wait.
Imagine this scenario, painted for me by Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano:
The Colts score a touchdown to go up nine points with 45 seconds left in the game. Now Pagano has to decide whether to go for the point-after touchdown, basically a 33-yard field goal, or to go for two, from the 2-yard line.
Or, as Pagano suggested, neither.
“Because the defense can score on the PAT or two-point conversion now, why would I go for either one?” Pagano told me. “Why wouldn’t I just take a knee and not go for anything?”
Suppose, Pagano went on, he tried to kick the PAT to go up 10, and it’s blocked and returned for a defensive point. Or the Colts went for two, it was fumbled or picked, and returned for a two-point play by the defense. Then the Colts would be up by either eight or seven—and have to kick off to a team that now would have a chance to tie the game and force overtime.
So imagine a team, late in a game, up by four or nine, lining up to go for two and then the quarterback simply takes a knee to kill the play. I’m not saying it positively will happen. But I am saying it makes zero sense for a team up four or nine in the last minute or so to attempt either the one- or the two-point conversion. There’s nothing to gain. That’s Pagano’s opinion. Chip Kelly’s too. “We felt that way at Oregon, because the defense could score points,” the Eagles coach said.
“I think you’ll see a change in the mentality, with more thought being put into the fact that the defense can return it now, and what impact that has,” Mike Pettine of the Browns said. “We already have a chart made.”
On our training camp trip, The MMQB asked head coaches if they planned to treat the PAT any differently this year with the line of scrimmage moved from the 2 to the 15-yard line—and with defenses now being able to score either one or two points on a failed conversion try returned to the far end zone. We got no sense that there would be a mass change from the one- to two-point tries, and only a few echoed what Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy told me: In some games, depending on the defensive matchup, he could see the Packers going for two after every touchdown.
But most coaches were like Kelly. “The percentage in kicking from the 2 versus kicking from the 15, I think, goes from about 99.6 percent to 95.5 percent,” said Kelly, referring to the percentage of extra-point success in 2014, versus the percentage of field goals made from the low 30-yard-yard area. “The league wanted to encourage coaches to think about going for two, and I said you needed to change where you went from two from. [Kelly proposed moving the two-point line of scrimmage from the 2 to the 1-yard line.] I said, ‘It’s been on the 2-yard line and people haven’t gone for two, so why moving it back and changing four percentage points do you think that’s going to make a coach go for two?’ I don’t see the system really moving people much to go for two.”
Two other factors: Tom Coughlin of the Giants said part of the hesitancy in going for two is the risk of injury, and that would have been exacerbated if the league put the two-point line at the 1. “Do we need four, five extra full-speed plays every game by putting the ball at the 1 and enticing people to go?” Coughlin said. “I don’t think so. Who is going to play in December if these things are allowed to accumulate? You keep a pitch count. Well, you keep a snap count, too.”
But there will be more two-point tries, particularly if the defense jumps offside on the one-point tries. That means teams will have a choice whether to take a five-yard penalty and put the PAT line of scrimmage at the 10-yard line, or go half the distance, from the 2 to the 1, and try a one-yard two-point play. “I can choose to say, I’m going for two now,” said Houston’s Bill O’Brien. Several coaches echoed that.
The opposite of that scenario actually played out in Week 1. The Chargers scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter to go up five points on the Lions, 26-21. San Diego lined up to go for two but committed a delay of game and had to move back five yards. Coach Mike McCoy opted to try the 38-yard PAT (rather than a 7-yard two-point try), and Josh Lambo's kick was no good. It's a good example of the little strategic decisions that the longer PAT now forces coaches to make.
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The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Tennessee. Of all the results we’ve seen so far this weekend, none was as stunning as the Titans’ beatdown of the Bucs in Tampa in the first game of Mariota’s NFL career. This wasn’t Oregon-South Dakota. This was a real, live NFL game, and Mariota had four touchdown passes—by halftime. For the day, he hit the max NFL passer rating, 158.3, and completed 13 of 16 throws for 208 yards, four touchdown passes (to four different receivers) and no interceptions. An exquisite debut for the second overall pick in the 2015 draft. And how about this number: He had more touchdown passes than incompletions.
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. Just another day at the office after being America’s Most Wanted for seven months: 25 of 32, four touchdowns, no picks, 143.8 rating. No quarterback in history has won more starts with a single team than Brady, who has 161 with New England. Brett Favre is next with 160. It took Favre 253 games to reach 160; it has taken Brady 208. Imagine the pressure Brady felt, and that he’s felt for months. And imagine going out under the white-hot lights, on a rainy night with three rookies on his offensive line, and throwing just seven incompletions over four quarters.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, St. Louis. If you didn’t consider Donald to have already broken out after a great rookie year in 2014, welcome to his breakout season. He was tremendous Sunday, chasing Russell Wilson all over the Edward Jones Dome, sacking Wilson twice, totaling nine tackles, pressuring Wilson twice more and recording three tackles for loss … including the tackle that clinched the game, corralling Marshawn Lynch with Michael Brockers for a loss of one on fourth-and-one in St. Louis territory in overtime. Donald is listed as a defensive tackle, but he could play defensive end in a 3-4 or 4-3 if you ask me.
Aqib Talib, cornerback, Denver. It's amazing watching Talib know exactly how much physical contact he can have with a receiver without being called, and to watch him do it while peeking at Joe Flacco on a vital second-half drive. Then to third-and-seven, Steve Smith runs an incut, and Talib jams him perfectly. “You’ve got to throw that ball away,” Tony Dungy said on NBC on Sunday night, and he’s right. But give Talib credit for being just physical enough to make the defensive play of the day in the league.
J.J. Watt, defensive lineman, Houston. (Can’t call him a defensive tackle or end. He lines up everywhere on the line.) Nine tackles, two sacks, six tackles for loss. Lather, rinse, repeat. I know the Texans lost. But watching him work over the Chiefs’ offensive line—which has problems of its own—was just like watching a typical Watt game from last season, one of the best individual seasons by an NFL player in league history.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Brandon McManus, kicker, Denver. A huge day, and much needed, in a game where defense ruled. His 57-yard field goal gave Denver a 3-0 lead. His 56-yard field goal gave Denver a 6-0 lead. His 43-yard field goal gave Denver a 9-3 lead. His 33-yard field goal gave Denver a 19-13 lead, and that was the final score.
Tavon Austin, wide receiver/returner/running back, St. Louis. This was the kind of game the Rams expected when they drafted Austin eighth overall in 2013. His 16-yard touchdown run as a lone back in the second quarter flummoxed the Seahawks, and his 75-yard punt return in the third quarter gave the Rams the biggest lead (11 points) that either team had all day. Could this be the year Austin breaks out, at long last?
Tyler Lockett, wide receiver/returner, Seattle. He is becoming everything the Seahawks hoped Percy Harvin would be—a dangerous returner and effective change-of-pace receiver. On his first career punt return Sunday at St. Louis, he weaved 57 yards through the Rams’ coverage team—untouched, it appeared—for a score. He had 119 returns yards and 34 receiving yards in his first NFL game.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, Buffalo. Even if Roman opened the off-season preferring Matt Cassel as the Bills’ starting quarterback in the three-way derby—and I believe he did—he was very open-minded about it. And by the end of the summer, the coaches felt Tyrod Taylor was better than Cassel and EJ Manuel. Roman loves Taylor’s work ethic, his acceptance of game plans, and how much Taylor loves to be coached. (Sound familiar?) That’s the kind of quarterback Roman loves. And it showed Sunday. All Roman wants out of his quarterback is a guy who wants to be great and won’t look at the clock in an effort to do so—and the work Roman has put in with Taylor showed Sunday. Taylor played smart and composed, in a very emotional stadium.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Steven Hauschka, kicker, Seattle. The play at the start of overtime in St. Louis looked absurd: Hauschka seeming to onside-kick, and the Rams recovering at midfield. What in the world was that? Turns out it was supposed to be a pooch kick, booted sky-high to land at the 25 or 30, so either the Seahawks would have a fighting chance to win a jump ball for it (or capture a bouncer), or the ball would be recovered and not returned. Hauschka simply blew it, and that created a stupidly short drive (six plays, 30 yards) to the Rams field goal that turned out to be the game-winner.
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Quotes of the Week
“It’s 100 percent on me. Bad clock management. I should have taken the sack. That can’t happen.”
—A chastened Eli Manning early this morning in Arlington, Texas, after throwing an incompletion on third down in the final two minutes with Dallas having no timeouts left and the Giants up three.
“It’s my fault. The decision to throw the ball down there was not a good decision … Nobody to blame but me.”
—An equally chastened Tom Coughlin, on the same play call.
“There’s three senses as a quarterback we talk about.
“One: No premeditated decisions.
“Two: Don’t make a blind throw.
“Three: Don’t throw it late down the middle.”
—Aaron Rodgers, in lessons on how to avoid interceptions, to me for my story at The MMQB.
Rodgers has thrown 11 picks in the past two seasons, covering 810 throws. He started 2015 perfect, too, throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions in 23 attempts against the Bears.
“Once you get into this litigation mode, it’s an endless process. I used to use the expression, ‘All’s well that ends well.’ But after I became commissioner, I just started saying, ‘All’s well that ends.’”
—Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, to Scott Price of Sports Illustrated, for Price’s illuminating story this week on Roger Goodell.
Smartest comment I’ve read post-Deflategate.
The endless fighting, the endless investigations, the endless brawling with the union is so fatiguing—and the league never wins. The league may win in a courtroom, but the damage to the game and to the commissioner’s office goes on unabated. Roger Goodell has to give up his role as final arbiter in integrity-of-the-game cases, and in challenges for violating the personal conduct policy. Goodell has refused, and the union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, called any proposal on the commissioner duties that doesn’t include neutral arbitration for appeals “a non-starter” to Mike Florio on Thursday night.
This next one is pretty good too.
“Goodell said he was open to some changes in the system, but he did not endorse the idea of having truly independent arbitrators hear appeals. And yet that change is the only way out of this mess, especially with player and public opinion trending heavily against the commissioner. It's the best way to keep the league out of the courts, to quiet those calling for Goodell’s job, and as the commissioner himself likes to say, to put the focus back on the field.”
—The capper to Bob Costas’ essay on the opening Thursday night game, urging Goodell to give up his authority as appeals officer in many NFL discipline cases.
“To be honest, I haven’t had butterflies for a game since ... I think the last time I had butterflies was my first time playing in high school. I don’t get butterflies for football any more. I’m probably one of the calmest guys you’ll ever see before a game. I don’t really get caught up into the hype and all that stuff.”
—Wide receiver Andre Johnson, before his first game with the Indianapolis Colts, after 173 games and 12 seasons with the Texans.
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Stats of the Week
Two positions, linebacker and wide receiver, have had their salary standings rewritten in the past two months.
In terms of average salary, five of the top six linebackers have signed mega-deals since mid-July. The final man came in Thursday, with Carolina’s Luke Kuechly ($12.4 million per year) becoming the highest-paid inside/middle backer in NFL history. (Justin Houston and Clay Matthews, outside guys, are the only linebackers higher than Kuechly on the list).
And it’s the same number at wide receiver: Five of the top six have signed since mid-July. A.J. Green of the Bengals averages out as the second-highest wideout deal in history (to Calvin Johnson), at $15 million per year.
The fear of injury, and fear of the franchise tag, are such great motivators. In baseball, with no franchise tag and significantly less fear of injury, stars go to market all the time. Stars rarely play the free market in the NFL.
Entering tonight’s Philadelphia-Atlanta season opener, the two most efficient running teams in the NFL since 2013 are Seattle and Philadelphia.
Seattle wouldn’t be a surprise, with the pounding Marshawn Lynch and dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson. But pass-happy Philly? Maybe the Eagles aren’t as pass-happy as we all think.
• Since the start of 2013, Seattle has run the ball 1,034 times for 4,950 yards, a 4.79-yard average.
• Philadelphia has run it 974 times for 4,558 yards, for a 4.68-yard average.
Since opening day 2013, Philadelphia is fourth in total rushes, second in rushing yards and second in yards per carry. And the Eagles, even if Sam Bradford stays healthy all season, won’t be much different this year, I don’t think. You don’t sign the NFL rushing champ (DeMarco Murray) in free agency, backstop him with a former first-round pick (Ryan Mathews), and employ one of the best change-of-pace backs (Darren Sproles) on the planet if you’re planning to be a passing team.
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Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
One year ago today the Minnesota Vikings played New England in Minneapolis. The contrast in offensive lineup could hardly be more stark. Compare the Vikings, one year apart, with the starting offensive players—or number one guys at their position on the depth chart—a year ago today, and tonight at the 49ers:
Sept. 14 lineup of starters who will touch the ball:
|2014 (vs. New England)||2015 (at San Francisco, probable)|
|WR Cordarrelle Patterson||Charles Johnson|
|WR Greg Jennings||Mike Wallace|
|TE Kyle Rudolph||Kyle Rudolph|
|C John Sullivan||Joe Berger|
|QB Matt Cassell||Teddy Bridgewater|
|RB Matt Asiata||Adrian Peterson|
|FB Jerome Felton||Zach Line|
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Tweets of the Week
Jameis Winston, 2013 calendar year: 13-0 Jameis Winston, 2014 calendar year: 13-0 Jameis Winston, 2015 calendar year: 0-2 (0-2 vs. Mariota)— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) September 13, 2015
It’s crazy how the narrative around Romo is that he’s bad in the clutch…he’s literally one of the best in the NFL.— Michael Schottey (@Schottey) September 14, 2015
Steelers need to call @CarliLloyd.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) September 11, 2015
The Bleacher Report writer—and Hard Knocks fan—tweeted this after Josh Scobee of the Steelers missed his second straight makeable field goal in the first half at New England on Thursday night.
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Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 1:
a. What a special-teams tackle Sunday night by Dallas linebacker Kyle Wilber on Giants return man Dwayne Harris, inside the Giants’ five. Whoa.
b. Good to see Darren McFadden with a burst, post-Oakland.
c. Uani’ Unga. He’s the Name of the Week, and he also intercepted Tony Romo and recorded a game-high 12 tackles in his NFL debut Sunday night as the Giants’ defensive signal-caller at middle linebacker, in the absence of the injured Jon Beason. Unga is one of five brothers, and all played major-college football.
d. Great play design by St. Louis offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, putting Tavon Austin as a lone back behind the quarterback and simply handing it to him.
e. Tyrod Taylor, with a beautiful touchdown throw—52 yards in the air—to Percy Harvin to open the scoring in the Rex Ryan era. And later: Very smart play by Taylor in the fourth quarter, batting down a pass that was floating in the air with three Colts having a shot of intercepting it. Good presence there.
f. Great strip of Cleveland safety Tashaun Gipson by Brandon Marshall of the Jets. The foiled interception led to the Jets tying the game at 7 instead of handing the Browns a cheap turnover.
g. Matt Forte.
h. The hustle by Andrew Luck, tackling Ronald Darby of the Bills after a Darby pick.
i. Watching Damon Harrison of the Jets play the run. Just superb.
j. The joyousness in Orchard Park.
k. Washington’s team defense: Miami had one first down in the first 27 minutes.
l. Second-chance safety Mark Barron’s blitz and sack of Russell Wilson on a first-half third down, leading to a Seattle punt.
m. Brian Hartline, you’ll never make a better catch. Kneeling, one-handed, cradling it before he got slammed. Just a terrific sense-of-where-you-are play.
n. Jordan Cameron of the Dolphins—in his first game post-Cleveland—stretching out and making an acrobatic catch at Washington.
o. Percy Harvin: four catches, 76 yards, touchdown … in the first half alone against Indy, after a preseason of persistent questions about the health of his hip.
p. Cleveland linebacker Karlos Dansby, for absolutely stoning Chris Ivory on the goal line in the Meadowlands.
q. Antonio Brown (nine catches, 133 yards) against the tight coverage of Malcolm Butler. Folks, Butler may have given up a bunch of big plays to Brown, but he played well Thursday night. Brown’s just great, with superb concentration and play-making ability.
r. Gronk. You just can’t play him with a linebacker.
s. DeAngelo Williams, who sure didn’t look like an insurance policy against the New England front, with his 127-yard opening night.
t. David Andrews. The rookie undrafted center for New England was superb, I thought, in shutting down the middle from Pittsburgh pressure. The pressure of the night didn’t get to him, either. “At the end of the day, it’s just football,” he said.
u. Really nice blindside blitz by Will Allen of the Steelers, ending in a sack of Tom Brady.
v. Perfect 50-yard field goal by Robbie Gould at the end of the first half, with plenty to spare, against Green Bay at Soldier Field.
w. Washington rookie Preston Smith, with a strip-sack of Ryan Tannehill, then recovering it 20 yards back down the field. You can believe Jay Gruden’s going to show that play to his team a few times this week.
x. Amazing note by Jim Nantz on the CBS telecast of Denver-Baltimore: The first red-zone snap of the game occurred inside of four minutes in the fourth quarter.
y. Jenny Vrentas’ story for The MMQB on J.J. Watt, which contained this nugget from Lawrence Taylor, the last defensive player to win the NFL MVP award: “I thought he should have been MVP. If he stays healthy, he could be an all-timer.”
z. Great call by Marc Trestman, the Baltimore offensive coordinator, with the pitch sweep to Justin Forsett for a 20-yard gain over the right side with 70 seconds left at Denver.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 1:
a. The injuries. Sometime you get numb to it, but you realize with eyes on parts of every game during an NFL Sunday how much a game of attrition it is.
b. Sunday’s big losers on the injury front: Baltimore (Terrell Suggs lost for the year with an Achilles tear) and Carolina (Luke Kuechly with what appeared to be a significant concussion). We’ll see how T.Y. Hilton comes out of his knee injury today when he gets an MRI in Indianapolis.
c. Peyton Manning is 39, and he looked weak-armed on throws to the sideline against Baltimore, and he spent the second half dink-and-dunking an awful lot of throws. Too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but something certainly to watch in the next couple of weeks.
d. The Raiders, in their home opener. “That’s a very disappointing, embarrassing effort,” said Jack Del Rio.
e. The Bucs, in theirs.
f. Combined score of Bucs/Raiders home games: Bucs/Raiders 27 (all but seven points in garbage time), Foes 75.
g. Jameis Winston.
h. Jameis Winston’s protection.
i. Bush league play 1: Adam Jones of the Bengals whacking Amari Cooper, head to helmet. Just wrong.
j. Bush league play 2: Ndamukong Suh—it appeared, though it’s not patently obvious—kicked the helmet of Washington running back Alfred Morris clear off his head.
k. Whoa: LaMichael James of the Dolphins, slipping up on a return at Washington, fumbled without being touched. Not the way to keep a job in this league, LaMike.
l. Cam Newton, for not seeing Paul Posluszny on a first-half pick.
m. The much-maligned run defense of the Colts, beaten by Bills rookie Karlos Williams for a 26-yard touchdown gallop late in the first half.
n. Can’t be missing those 33-yard extra points on a beautiful, weather-less day in Jacksonville, Jason Myers. Hooked it right horribly.
o. Nice win for the Pats, of course, but allowing 464 yards and 7.0 yards per play? That’s not championship defense. But it’s early. The Patriots have often been sketchy early (2014, e.g.) and rebounded.
p. Aldon Smith playing in an NFL game, one year after being suspended for nine games, five weeks after being arrested and later hit with four charges that have yet to be adjudicated.
q. The Steelers’ off-season investment in their defensive backfield. Pittsburgh spent second-, fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round picks on corners (three) and safeties (one) to retool their secondary, and none of them played a defensive snap Thursday night. The draftees: Senquez Golson (on IR), Doran Grant (practice squad), Gerod Holliman (waived). The tradee: cornerback Brandon Boykin, Philadelphia’s nickel last year. He suited up Thursday night but played just special teams. Four picks spent for zero early production.
r. Johnny (Losing the) Football.
s. Don’t want to make too much of the Browns stinking it up at the Meadowlands. But the NFL set up Cleveland to get off to a good start—at the Jets, Titans at home, Raiders at home. And watching the Browns turn it over five times and lose by 21 Sunday, with another day of crisis at quarterback, you just wonder when the black cloud over this franchise is going to go away.
t. Awful throw for Eddie Royal by Jay Cutler on fourth-and-goal midway through the fourth quarter, down eight to Green Bay.
u. Charles Woodson, getting hurt (shoulder) in garbage time.
v. Dez Bryant, dehydrated after one quarter of the first game of the season. Come on now.
3. I think it boggles the mind to think the Patriots would sabotage the Steelers’ coach-to-coach communications in the first game of the season—a system of communication supervised and organized by the league in all 32 stadiums—minutes after unfurling a fourth Super Bowl championship banner, and knowing that every sporting eye in America was on Foxboro to be sure everything was on the level in the Patriots’ opener. How brazenly stupid for the Patriots to risk the wrath of the NFL, and for Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft or anyone associated with the franchise to risk a career reputation by messing with the communications of the Steelers, which would only mean that both teams’ coach-to-coach headsets would have to be shut off, and really, what kind of advantage would that be then, with two veterans quarterbacks with veteran play-callers on each sideline forced to improvise? If there’s some evidence of funny business, bring it on. If there’s not, let’s move on—and let’s put the onus on the league for the rest of New England’s home games to be absolutely sure that the sound coming into all visiting headsets is pristine, and the only voices heard are the secure voices of coaches and players.
4. I think if that was the last home opener in San Diego, well, the Chargers went out in style. Philip Rivers played one of the best halves of his career, scoring 30 straight points to come back from a 21-3 deficit to beat Detroit. My big takeaway: Last year, when I left Chargers camp, I thought Keenan Allen could become an All-Pro. He was very good last year, but not on that level. On Sunday, Allen (15 catches, 166 yards) looked like he was ready to take the leap. A dominant performance … and Allen’s just 23.
5. I think all of sporting Australia has just one question as they read this late on a Monday night down under: Is Rugby League star Jarryd Hayne going to suit up for the 49ers against Minnesota? San Francisco coach Jim Tomsula has done a great job shrouding the decision as to whether Hayne will be one of the 46 active Niners tonight in his first real NFL game.
Tomsula was asked how much confidence he had in Hayne fielding a punt, if that would be his role Monday night—he returned nine punts effectively during preseason games. “Very much confidence,” Tomsula said. “Very confident in his ability to field a punt. But again, you start talking about the 46. How much can you do? What can you do for the team? The things that we’re doing this week, do they fit your skill set? That’s where that all comes into in my head. Special teams, OK if you can catch a punt, but can you do other things? What else can you do in the special teams area?” The game airs live in Australia near the lunch hour Tuesday for most—start time will be 12:20 p.m. in Sydney—and the Aussie tune-in factor will be great if Hayne is active for the game.
6. I think anyone who likes coaches—especially those who rise through the ranks the right way, and who know how to overcome shortcomings by making smart personnel moves and not excuses—should be happy for the performance of the Jets on Sunday. That was a Todd Bowles game the Jets played. Opportunistic and heady and hard-working. The strip by Brandon Marshall that prevented Cleveland from having the chance to go up 14-0 early was huge, and plays like that are not only a tribute to the hustle of Marshall, but also to the hustle and preparedness drilled by Bowles.
7. I think it’s a story, the problems between Chuck Pagano and the Colts that Jason LaCanfora and then Jay Glazer discussed on the pregame shows Sunday. My feeling is the basis of the problems between coach and organization is not a problem Pagano has with GM Ryan Grigson, but rather an issue at the door of owner Jim Irsay. Irsay likes Pagano. But I don’t think he knows if he wants Pagano to be his coach for the next five years. Here’s why: Pagano came from Baltimore as a defensive coach, and the Colts are still a team that too often has to win despite its defense. Buffalo, on Sunday, gashed Indy for 147 rushing yards on 36 carries, proving the run defense is still a major issue. Three times the Colts have played the Patriots since New Year’s Day 2014, and three times New England has had its way on ground with the Colts. Three games, 657 rushing yards, 130 points, average 35:43 time of possession. That’s why, in my opinion, the Colts’ offer to Pagano was probably a lukewarm one. If the defense lets down Indy again, I doubt Pagano will face much of a roadblock from his owner about leaving.
8. I think the one defensive rookie who caught my eye Sunday was Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters. Clinging in coverage, Peters looked like nothing surprised him in his one-pick, three-passes-defensed game against Houston.
9. I think I got some you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me emails when I wrote Carson Palmer might be the league’s most indispensable quarterback. And I may be wrong. But after Sunday’s win over New Orleans, Palmer can boast some pretty significant numbers to boost my case. He’s 14-2 in his last 16 starts, with 4,466 yards, 30 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. I don’t know how far the Cards will go with Palmer this year, but I do know they can play any team into the fourth quarter, home or road, if he’s playing.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
b. Pet peeve: The phrase “calendar year Grand Slam,” referring to what Serena Williams was trying to do. That comes from “the department of redundancy department.” A Grand Slam in tennis refers to winning all four big tennis tournaments (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open) in the same year. So there’s no need to add “calendar year” to it.
c. Great job by Tom Rinaldi of ESPN with the Roberta Vinci interview on the court after she stunned Serena. To watch the sheer delight and amazement and honesty flowing from Vinci, who admitted she thought she had zero chance to win the match when she woke up that morning, was great to see. It also is a testament to interviewing players as soon after a match as you can, because when you let the moment cool off for 15 or 20 minutes, you don’t get the same raw emotion and feeling. Same thing with the Richard Sherman interview after the NFC title game a couple of years ago, when he exploded on live TV. Good for him. Good for us, to be able to see players act real on TV.
d. In the end, things like that, and those moments of raw emotion by a 32-year-old woman who’d never been to a Grand Slam final, are why we love sports.
e. Serena Williams is a great champion, and though I don’t know tennis at all, it seems to me she has a great chance to go down when she retires as the best woman to ever play the game. She’s got nothing to be ashamed of. There’s tremendous pressure when the moment gets as big as it got Friday, and humans respond to pressure in different ways.
f. I was born in Springfield, Mass., and lived the first 18 years of my life over the border in Connecticut, in a town called Enfield, just north of Hartford. So I’ve got some New England in my blood. And I get why the region loves the Patriots, a franchise that has brought so much pride to a six-state area. But the venom I heard and felt last midweek, in town to cover the Patriots opener, was over the top. It’s football. It’s not a war.
g. Jim Harbaugh still has the passion, from the looks of that clipboard-flinging in the first half of his first game coaching in Ann Arbor.
h. BC 76, Howard 0. It was 41-0 after 12 minutes … and the average touchdown drive for Boston College on the first six touchdowns was 11.5 yards.
i. MAC roundup: April Goss of Kent State kicked a PAT. Congrats to her … Toledo wins at Arkansas. Bowling Green wins at Maryland. Congrats to them … Go you Bobcats 21, Marshall 10 … A week late on this one, but as a Mid-American Conference school grad, I loved seeing a top-10-caliber school like Michigan State have enough respect for a state school (or whatever the reason was) to travel to Kalamazoo and play Western Michigan.
j. Now, Urban Meyer, how about a road trip to Athens?
k. How about the guts of the Toronto batting order?
2. Josh Donaldson, .372 on-base, 38 home runs, 118 RBI.
3. Jose Bautista, .371 on-base, 35 homers, 100 RBI.
4. Edwin Encarnacion, .365 on-base, 32 homers, 99 RBI.
l. One strange top of the 11th at Yankee Stadium on Saturday in game one of a twinbill. Jays scored four. Yank hurlers walked five—and it would have been six if Kevin Pillar hadn’t swung at ball four—and hit another batter in a half-inning.
m. Saw Papi hit his 498th Wednesday, to dead center. Dude’s not declining.
n. Then David Ortiz hit 499 and 500 Saturday night off a lefty, Matt Moore, in Tampa. Dude’s definitely not declining. Ortiz at 38, in 2014: 35 home runs. Ortiz at 39 this year: 34 home runs, with 20 games left. Congrats to Ortiz—who hit number one as a Twin—and thanks for the memories. Interesting Papi homers, with the overall numbers on the list of 500:
6. Dwight Gooden (Indians).
53. Pedro Martinez (Red Sox).
66, 256. Roger Clemens (Yankees).
69, 79, 91, 132, 134, 308: Roy Halladay (Jays).
145. Greg Maddux (Cubs).
227, 265. Boof Bonser (Twins).
o. That’s right: Papi took out John Paul “Boof” Bonser twice.
p. Speaking of dudes who are not declining: What has gotten into Yoenis Cespedes? Sixteen jacks and 41 RBIs in his first 39 Mets games. I’m beginning to think the Mets are not going to blow it.
q. Incredulousness of the Week: The Nationals are two games over .500 with three weeks left in the season. And this: The Tampa Bay pitching staff has allowed fewer runs than the one with Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann.
r. Ran five miles in 45:25 Saturday, but it was a cheap fiver. On a treadmill.
s. Coffeenerdness: Uh-oh. A five-shot macchiato Saturday. Though the cup was extra large, I thought immediately it’s going to be a long season if I’m getting five shots of espresso on a Saturday morning in Week 1.
t. Beernerdness: Impossible to pick a beer at Eastern Standard, the beer-lover’s paradise of a restaurant around the corner from Fenway Park, because the menu is approximately 765 beers long. But because of the great job Harpoon Brewery did with The MMQB Saison recently, I tried another of the same ilk: Cellar Door Saison (Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Baltimore, Md.). Quite good. A little more coriander than I expected, almost a white beer in that regard. Quite pleasant. One of the best Saisons I’ve had.
u. Some may wonder (some may cheer) about the lack of my rankings of the teams—the Fine Fifteen—in the column today. Many of you over the years have suggested I should wait until every game of the weekend is played before I rank the teams, and I’m stealing your collective idea. This season the Fine Fifteen will be a standalone column on Tuesdays at The MMQB.
Who I Like Tonight
The road teams.
Philadelphia 27, Atlanta 20 (7:10 p.m. ET, at Atlanta, ESPN). The Eagles, before sitting most of their offensive first team in the final preseason game, outscored foes 86-17 in the first halves of the first three exhibitions, playing Chip Kelly-fast every week. What I love about this game is the Eagles don’t know exactly what to expect from the Falcons, under uptempo new coach Dan Quinn, imported from Seattle. “We play a fast style defensively, too,” Quinn said the other day. “We play no-huddle as well.” In other words: Chip Kelly didn’t invent the speed game. Two can play that game.
We’ll see tonight if Quinn can keep up, and if the Falcons can get a pass rush from the three new guys Quinn’s counting on to hit Sam Bradford early and often: top pick Vic Beasley and free-agent outside ’backers Justin Durant and O’Brien Schofield. I think Bradford will shake off the jitters early and make enough plays. He’ll have to, because I also think Paul Soliai and Ra’Shede Hageman will play tough in the middle and not allow defending rushing champion DeMarco Murray to approach his starry 4.7-yard average from last year. Finally, I doubt this means anything—in fact, I know it doesn’t—but the Eagles have won six straight road openers.
Minnesota 20, San Francisco 18 (10:20 p.m. ET, at Santa Clara, ESPN). Niners defensive coordinator Eric Mangini is like the rest of us: He doesn’t quite know how the Vikings are going to use Adrian Peterson tonight. “What you show in the preseason isn’t necessarily what you’re going to do or what you’re going to get,” said Mangini, “and you don’t know what things they like from their OTAs, from training camp, things along those lines. Then you add an element like [Vikings RB] Adrian Peterson, who is a special player. And, what’s the balance going to be? Run? Pass? How are those things going to play out with Adrian back there?”
The Adieu Haiku
With due credit given to The Knack...
Got a song for you.
Ooh you make my motor run.
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