The Colts are not a team in chaos, but a win would put everyone in a better state of harmony. Plus, the 10 things I’ll be watching for this weekend and a look at the Aaron Rodgers-Alex Smith showdown
Fact one about Indianapolis Colts these days: They are not in chaos. This is not the 2015 version of the 2014 San Francisco 49ers, with the coldness between coaches and the front office and ownership.
Fact two: The Colts, though 0-2, should get better over the next three weeks. They may not sweep the next three games—at Tennessee, against Jacksonville at home, and at Houston—but the schedule is set up for them to get better, fast … assuming the offensive-line problems are not lethal, and the secondary gets healthy.
Fact three: The Colts have some issues that the passage of time probably can’t fix. When the Colts offered coach Chuck Pagano a one-year contract extension after last season, at a middling sum for a coach with three playoff appearances in three years, he was affronted. Hadn’t the mayhem of 2011 dissipated, and weren’t the Colts now a legitimate annual contender? Why only a one-year extension—and did that offer insult Pagano to the point where it would drive a wedge between him and the team, and to the point that it might lead to a post-2015 divorce between a playoff coach and his team?
All of those facts considered, no prominent contender west of Philadelphia is struggling as much as the Colts headed into the weekend. And so I got to thinking…
Think of being owner Jim Irsay these days. This is what you must be thinking:
We hired a defensive coach 50 regular-season games ago, and though our team has won 11 games in each of the three regular seasons, we’ve allowed 44, 43 and 45 points in three of his five playoff games. We’re not in the same league with the team that stands between us and another Super Bowl, the Patriots. Shouldn’t a defensive coach have a better defense after 50 games? And how can any rational person think we’re in position to take out the Patriots if we get steamrolled by the Jets?
Think of being general manager Ryan Grigson these days. This is what you must be thinking:
I keep hearing the stories of discord inside the team, and I’m dealing with the coach and the owner every day, and we’re all OK. We followed the draft board pretty much to the letter, as good, long-term general managers are supposed to do, and though receiver wasn’t a need, Phillip Dorsett was far and away the best player on our board late in the first round, and there was no great dissent in the draft room when we picked him. We got the defensive line help we needed with starters in rounds three and five (defensive end Henry Anderson and nose tackle David Parry). Our offensive line is struggling badly. In retrospect, we should have done more work there, and maybe free-agent guard Todd Herremans is done. But we can win with this team.
Think of being Pagano. This is what you must be thinking:
We haven’t built the defense certainly to my standards, and we don’t have the kind of offensive line we need to protect the franchise quarterback. I’ve got no excuses for how we performed against the Patriots the last few times we’ve played them. But it’s like Bill Parcells once said: If they expect you to cook the meal, you should be able to buy the groceries. Or at least, in this case, address with more seriousness the gaps on the roster. Regardless of how the roster is constructed, I should be getting more respect for the job this staff has done under some trying circumstances—coming off a 2-14 season before I got here, with the health problems I had in year one, and building the dominant team in our division.
The endgame here cannot be known now. If the Colts recover from their dark period against the AFC East to start the season—not even the Patriots, just the Bills and Jets—and make a strong playoff run, maybe the bridge can be patched together and Irsay, Grigson and Pagano can work together again. As I’ve said, I believe the biggest problem here is not any issue between Pagano and Grigson. It’s that Irsay doesn’t know if he wants to get married to a coach who has the best young quarterback in the game but hasn’t been able to get the defense constructed. As one veteran Colts-watcher said this week, Irsay had significantly more trust in Tony Dungy early in his Colts’ reign than he has in Pagano now. And winning one Super Bowl, only one, while Peyton Manning was a Colts employee wasn’t enough. Now, with Luck, Irsay is bent on making sure he maximizes his second straight franchise quarterback—and maximizing Luck’s career, Irsay believes, is not winning one Super Bowl. That’s not enough.
This is why we’re hearing about discord that at first had been kept behind closed doors at the Colts’ facility. The early returns for the Colts are poor, and it’s hard to imagine the team we’ve watched through the first eight quarters of the season turn it around and go 11-3 the rest of the season. But anything less than that, and Pagano may indeed get to test the coaching free-agency waters after another unsatisfying end to a season in Indianapolis.
About Last Night …
New York Giants 32, Washington 21.
We learned five things about the Giants on Thursday night:
1) The outside world freaks out when football teams do dumb things, like lose double-digit leads in two straight fourth quarters on the way to losing two games. Most players don’t. Eli Manning certainly doesn’t. Manning to Odell Beckham Jr. happened seven times for 79 yards, with a pretty touchdown pass that Beckham snagged over Washington’s Bashaud Breeland in the end zone. Still so strange to realize Beckham and Victor Cruz have played the grand total of one full game together. The Giants have no bad-game hangover from the first two weeks; Thursday night proved that.
2) Two young revelations in the Giants’ secondary: Safety Landon Collins played with abandon and forced Kirk Cousins into a couple of errors. And in-and-out cornerback Prince Amukamara was outstanding, with a pick and three passes defensed, and a great sense of where he was at all times. He’s never been any kind of shutdown corner, but this was about as competitive as I’ve seen Amukamara.
3) The Giants drafted Justin Pugh, they hoped, to be a left tackle. And he came up big subbing for Ereck Flowers.
4) More Shane Vereen, please. Six touches (zero of them catches) is just not enough.
5) Impressed with the Giants’ punt team. Not only did starting running back Rashad Jennings block a Washington early punt, but also Zak DeOssie downed a Brad Wing punt at the half-yard line in the second half. Though the Giants surrendered a 100-yard kick return with three minutes left to Rashad Ross, the punt team was very good.
Player You Need To Know This Week
Jacquies Smith, defensive end, Tampa Bay (number 56). His first name is pronounced ja-QWEESE, and you’re going to need to get to know that. The NFL’s sack leader after two weeks, with four, Smith laid the Hit Heard ’Round Louisiana on Drew Brees last Sunday, injuring the quarterback’s throwing shoulder and making the vital Saint an injury question mark for the first time in his 10 seasons in New Orleans. On the play, Smith beat stalwart tackle Zach Strief around end for a sack that bent Brees’ arm and left him with a bruised rotator cuff. Though he was released by the Dolphins, Jets and Bills before finding a home as a rush end last season with the Bucs, Smith’s quickness and strength makes him a rush end to watch.
Fantasy Player You Need to Know This Week
Dion Lewis, running back, New England. Amazing that the fifth-highest scorer in fantasy football among running backs is Lewis, whom the Patriots signed as a future free-agent late last December. He’s actually in the exact same position as Jonas Gray was a year ago, when Gray exploded for 201 rushing yards against the Colts after being a futures signing the previous winter. Lewis, only 5-foot-8, has become the receiver out of the backfield the Patriots were looking for after Shane Vereen signed with the Giants. Lewis has 149 receiving yards and 109 rushing yards, and should continue to hear his number called by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Stat of the Week
Ten years ago, the 49ers took Alex Smith with the first pick in the draft, and the Packers took Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick. The 49ers were choosing between the two quarterbacks, and then, as it happened, the next 22 teams didn’t want a quarterback—or didn’t want Rodgers at least.
Since that day, Smith had a middling eight-year run in San Francisco and is now in his third season as Kansas City’s quarterback. Rodgers, of course, sat for three years behind Brett Favre in Green Bay. It seems odd, with both players in the same conference for eight of the 11 seasons they’ve been in the league, that Monday night will be only the third time Smith and Rodgers have faced off on the field.
Both previous games were 49ers-Packers games at Lambeau Field, the site of Monday night’s Chiefs-Packers game. And the numbers from those two games show Smith and Rodgers to be virtually even. Combined score of the two games: Smith’s 49ers 54, Rodgers’ Packers 52. The rest of the Rodgers/Smith head-to-head numbers:
Quote of the Week
“What for? That’s my job to go out there and play as hard and as fast as I can with their direction.”
— Miami defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, addressing reports that he is freelancing and ignoring the direction of his defensive coaches on his new team, the Dolphins.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1) Whether the Eagles lay another egg, or whether they save their season in the Meadowlands. “We’re all frustrated,’’ Sam Bradford said this week, and it’d be stunning if they weren’t. The 0-2 Eagles are the biggest bad story in football through the first eighth of the season, and things didn’t get better Wednesday when DeMarco Murray (season totals: 22 carries, 11 yards—and that is not a misprint) tweaked a hamstring at practice. It won’t help that the struggling offense is going up against the frighteningly good Jets defense—17 points allowed, 10 turnovers forced. Who’d ever have predicted two weeks ago that the Eagles would be a three-point underdog at the Jets in Week 3?
2) The beginning of the Brandon Weeden Era in Dallas. I say that with not altogether a straight face. Good news: Weeden went 7-for-7 in his relief job of Tony Romo last week. Bad news: Now he’s got to play seven weeks in a row. (Unless Matt Cassel becomes the apple of coordinator Scott Linehan’s eye in the next couple of weeks.)
3) The specter of a Post-Brees Life in New Orleans. Though there’s a Kremlin-like news blackout on All Things Drew Brees’ Shoulder emanating from New Orleans—I’m pretty sure it has something to do with spiting Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, who reported this week Brees is likely to miss time with a shoulder ailment—there’s a chance Luke McCown of Verizon commercials fame will carry the Saints’ hopes this weekend in Charlotte against the 2-0 Panthers. “I have every intention of playing,’’ Brees said on Wednesday, “but I do have to take it day to day and be smart.” The Saints have played 156 games (regular- and post-season) since Brees signed as a free agent in 2006, and Brees has started 155 of them. McCown and rookie Garrett Grayson (who’s not ready for the big leagues yet) are Brees’ backups. Pretty bad timing for a Brees injury, seeing the Saints are 0-2 and have looked awful so far.
4) How many people don’t take New England or Seattle in their knockout pools this weekend. Not saying either Jacksonville at New England or Chicago at Seattle is a gimme, but let’s just say the earth will stop spinning if Tom Brady stumbles against the Jags, or if Jimmy Clausen beats the 12th Man.
5) Kam Chancellor’s return. I assume he plays, lighter in the wallet, Sunday against the Bears. You almost want to tell him if you’re Pete Carroll, “Hey, we got this one. Get ready for Matthew Stafford next week.” The biggest thing for Seattle this week, really, is to get Jimmy Graham involved in the offense. “That’s what we’re trying to get done,’’ Pete Carroll said.
6) The return of Richie Incognito to Miami. Not the dominant story line of the week, but an interesting one nonetheless. Incognito, 32, was out of football last year, jobless because of his role in the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal of 2013, when both were on the Dolphins’ offensive line. Incognito did his penance last year in exile from football and was given a chance to win a job this season in Buffalo. He won the left guard job in camp, easily, and through two weeks he’s the second-rated guard in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
7) The interior of the Colts’ offensive line at Tennessee. Guards Todd Herremans and Lance Louis have been nightmares in the first two weeks, and center Khaled Holmes not much better. If Frank Gore can’t run, and if it’s always second-and-9 for Andrew Luck, you’re going to see more games like the one Indy played Monday night against the Jets. Tennessee’s defense isn’t New York’s, but Jurrell Casey and Brian Orakpo are major threats in that Titans front seven.
8) How Peyton Manning plays—and, as importantly, how he is allowed to play—Sunday night in Detroit. The Lions’ home-opener is more important to them, really. But lots of the drama for Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth to discuss will be centered on Manning, who simply shouldn’t be an under-center quarterback any more, or a mobile one. He saved the game against Kansas City by doing things from the shotgun, his way, on a final touchdown drive. Nothing against Gary Kubiak or his scheme, but he’s got to let the 39-year-old Manning be Manning.
9) Josh McCown trying to hold off Johnny Manziel in Cleveland. I thought it was the right call, going back to McCown. Manziel did well last week—but remember, he completed eight balls last week, the second long touchdown on a playground “scramble drill,’’ on which the receivers are told to find an open space and the quarterback picks one who is open. McCown was the better quarterback for six weeks this summer, and Manziel didn’t do enough, in my opinion, to make McCown lose his job after one quarter.
10) Kansas City trying to break Aaron Rodgers’ ridiculous home efficiency streak. It’s only slightly insane that Jeff Saturday was the center the last time Rodgers threw an interception at Lambeau Field … and Saturday retired 30 months ago. (The last pick was in late 2012, by safety Harrison Smith of the Vikings.)