And at the End of the First Quarter, the Score is...
The football season always flies. (Easy for someone writing on a laptop, not tackling someone, to say.) But we’re already through 24 percent of the regular season, and this column will focus on some truths—bitter, euphoric, surprising, real—and some consequences after four intriguing weekends.
• New England is the best team in the league. Tom Brady has come back with a vengeance, and I’d be surprised if the Patriots finish worse than 14-2. Toughest games left: Jets in October, Broncos in November, Jets in December.
• In the NFC, Green Bay is the best. Four wins by at least eight points, a quarterback who will never throw an interception the rest of his life, and a sneaky good defense averaging 4.3 sacks a game.
• While we’re at it, here’s the First Quarter MVP ballot.
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England. No franchise wideout, and running backs Bill Belichick picked out of a hat.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. Value increased by playing so well without Jordy Nelson.
3. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Denver. Reborn under Wade Phillips. Watt-like impact, with so much help from his mates.
4. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati. Stop laughing. Average yards per pass play: Dalton 10.2, Rodgers 8.1.
5. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta. Classic case of “makes everyone around him better.”
• Kickers now fail, just like real people. PATs missed in 256 games last year: eight. PATs missed in 62 games this year, with the scrimmage line moved back 13 yards: 17. This was a particularly brutal weekend, with 10 kicks (six field-goal attempts, four extra points) missed from 40 yards and in. Missing two on Thursday night cost Josh Scobee his job in Pittsburgh, and don’t be surprised to see rookie Kyle Brindza, who missed five in the past two Bucs games, walk the plank in Tampa. I think the trend has to do with the youth at the position—12 of 32 teams are using kickers in their first years with their teams—and the mental game that the longer PAT has forced kickers to deal with. Kickers are lottery tickets. You just pick one and pray.
• Joe Philbin has to go. One of the nicest coaches I’ve ever met, with a team that’s killing him. Count the ways: Outscored 37-3 in first quarters this year, a defensive front making a jillion dollars with one measly sack in four games, a quarterback playing tentatively, and losses by a combined 40 points the past eight days to the two division teams—the Bills and Jets—that their owner was counting on Miami to have vaulted past.
• Colin Kaepernick’s playing like a lost sheep in the pasture of life. DO NOT read this, Niners fans, if you feel a certain burning rivalry with the team across the Bay. Passer rating through four games: Derek Carr, Raiders, 97.7 … Colin Kaepernick, Niners, 67.7. Either his psyche or his mechanics, or both, need major surgery. Stat.
• The Eagles have (crash-) landed. Chip Kelly overestimated a few things and/or people: Sam Bradford’s ability to resume his career at a high level after two bad knee injuries; DeMarco Murray; the smoothness of Nelson Agholor’s transition from college to pro football; new faces adjusting quickly on the offensive line; and the ability of ex-Seahawk Byron Maxwell to be a shutdown cornerback for $10.5 million a year. Don't listen to WIP this morning, Chip.
• A mortal Manning. Pretty weird to see Peyton Manning rated 25th in the league, with six touchdowns and five interceptions. His arm’s not what it was even last October. But the Broncos are 4-0, and Manning finds a way to throw enough completions. He’ll be favored, incredibly, to enter November 6-0, with the Raiders, Browns and the bye coming the rest of this month.
• The disappearance of RG3. In 2013, NFL players voted Robert Griffin III the game’s 15th-best player for NFL Network’s top 100 players series. Today he’s 25, healthy, and a healthy scratch. His status for the four Washington games so far: inactive, inactive, inactive, inactive. Coach Jay Gruden has Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy ahead of Griffin on the depth chart. Someday, this will be a Coen Brothers movie.
• The receiving boom. Last year, two receivers averaged 100 yards per game. This year seven are doing so. It’s very early; weather and injuries tend to knock down prolific receivers as the year goes on. But Julio Jones (478 yards), Antonio Brown (478 yards) and Larry Fitzgerald (432 yards) look as special as ever.
• Adrian Peterson, at 30, looks like Adrian Peterson, at 23. See him burst through the stout Denver front and sprint for an uncontested TD Sunday? His 372 rushing yards lead the league. This is a bit of a surprise: He’s won only two rushing titles, in 2008 and 2012, in seven full seasons. My guess is Peterson is pretty well aware of that, and wants to make it about seven before he retires.
• We still have no idea who’s moving to L.A. News bulletin: Owners will meet in New York this week, with the future of the league in Los Angeles the biggest item on the agenda. For the 68th time, owners will be briefed on the status of the San Diego, Oakland and St. Louis bids to move to Los Angeles. Expected to happen: nothing.
• The Colts are a hot mess. They’ll also be over .500 if they win at Houston on Thursday. The owner and coach and GM are not in love, and Andrew Luck has a bum shoulder. Fun times.
• Roger Goodell is still commissioner, and the league is still trying to censure Tom Brady. Deflategate is out of sight, out of mind, sort of … except that the league will continue to press its case to suspend Tom Brady for four games, only this time the case will be heard in 2016. The logical sentiment is to say, “Drop it.” Goodell, but the league won’t do it, because so many teams around the league think Brady did something. But the league hasn’t proven its case. And stretching the battle into 2016 is not going to find the league more answers.
• Four most surprising teams (good):
1. Atlanta (4-0). A year and a half ago no one in Atlanta had heard of Devonta Freeman and Dan Quinn. Times change.
2. New York Jets (3-1). And they get Sheldon Richardson back today from a four-game suspension. What a scary D.
3.Carolina (4-0). Not a shocker, but surprising given the dearth of weapons for Cam Newton.
4. New England (3-0). Not because they’re here and they’re good … but because they’re hammering teams as they did in 2007, and Tom Brady is quarterbacking like he did in 2007.
• Four most disappointing teams:
1. Philadelphia (1-3). Stunning how bad the offensive line looks, not to mention the man it's protecting.
2. Kansas City (1-3). Over the last three weeks, the Chiefs have surrendered 35 points a game.
3. Baltimore (1-3). The gift of Josh Scobee won’t help against Seattle, Arizona and Cincinnati down the stretch.
4. Miami (1-3). Here because of apparent utter hopelessness.
Now we know why Gurley went 10th
Thirteen games Sunday, and the most compelling thing I saw was Todd Gurley’s fourth quarter. About 10 months past the reconstructive knee surgery that put the draft status of this Adrian Peterson run-a-like in doubt, here was the quarter-by-quarter performance of Gurley in his second game as a professional:
First quarter: One carry, minus-3 yards.
Second quarter: Three carries, 5 yards.
Third quarter: Six carries, 38 yards.
Fourth quarter: Nine carries, 106 yards, all in the final 12 minutes of the game.
Total: 19 carries, 146 yards.
Final score: Rams 24, previously unbeaten Cardinals 22. At Arizona.
“I got one game ball!” St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher said in the Rams’ locker room. “Where’s 30? Thirty! Come up!”
Fisher handed Gurley, No. 30, the football.
“This is just the beginning,” Fisher said.
Afterward, what everyone was marveling about was the eight yards Gurley didn’t gain. On his last carry, the Rams were nursing the 24-22 lead. Arizona was hoping to make a stop at the Cards’ 38 on third-and-12 with 1:17 left in the game. The Cardinals had no timeouts left, but if they could stop the Rams and force a punt, they’d get the ball back deep in their territory with maybe 30 seconds left, and maybe Carson Palmer could pull out one stunning drive to a winning field goal.
Gurley took a handoff from Nick Foles and darted left, through some traffic around the end and down the field. He didn’t need an escort. He broke into the clear past some exhausted but pursuing Cardinals, and as he galloped down the left sideline—looking so much like the man he was compared to a hundred times pre-draft, Peterson—teammate Tavon Austin started waving him downfield toward his first NFL touchdown. An Arizona safety, Tony Jefferson, was all that stood between him and the touchdown.
Then Gurley slowed a bit. He didn’t appear hurt, but maybe he tweaked something as he slowed some more and lowered himself to the ground inside the 10, falling at the 8-yard line.
He wasn’t hurt. He was smart.
Before the play, Gurley knew Arizona had no timeouts left, and he knew if he could get the first down and kill some clock, the Rams could run the clock out without Arizona touching the ball again. If he scored with 65 seconds to play, what would happen if the Rams missed the extra point? They’d have an eight-point lead, and would be kicking to one of the most explosive offenses in football. Lying down inside the 10? A no-brainer.
“The way I’ve been coached here,” Gurley said over the phone after the game, “I know in a four-minute situation at the end of the half or the end of the game, if you have the lead, you don’t go out of bounds, and you don’t stop the clock. On that play, I didn’t care about the touchdown. I just cared about the win.”
Gurley shouldn’t get a medal for that. He should get some appreciation for making the smart play in that situation. It capped an impressive quarter, with runs of 52, 20 and 30 yards (the final carry) that only emphasized to the Rams that picking him, higher than virtually any other team would have, paid off, at least on a day when the Rams pulled the upset of Week 4. Gurley, from the University of Georgia, talked some SEC trash with LSU product Tyrann Mathieu after Mathieu hogtied him down to halt the longest of his runs. But for the rest of the day, he let his legs do the talking.
“Oh man, it feels great to have a day like this,” Gurley said. “It definitely means a lot to me, and to us. Some of these runs give me confidence that I can really do this here. I definitely knew what I was capable of, and I felt the support from the coaches and my teammates.”
And the knee? “It’s fine, fine,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. I keep up on my ice, my cold tubs, whether I think I need it or not. I feel fine now, no pain. I’ll probably feel it tomorrow.”
After his debut—six carries, nine yards last week—Gurley was hearing from those around the team not to worry, that better days were ahead. He knew it. The lack of impact wasn’t a big deal to him. “Listen,” he said to one team employee, “nobody’s gonna remember my first four games. What’d Adrian Peterson do his first four games?”
Peterson, in his first four games in 2007: 76 carries, 383 yards.
Gurley’s right: No one remembers. But for the record, Gurley has 228 yards to gain in the next two games if he wants to catch up. I doubt he's too concerned with chasing yards like that—he gave up eight, and a touchdown, that he could have had pretty easily in his coming-out party.
The last hurrah for Hasselbeck—unless, of course, there’s another
Until Sunday in Indianapolis, Colts backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hadn’t started an NFL game since Nov. 4, 2012, when he quarterbacked Tennessee to a bit of an ignominious loss—51-20 at home to Chicago. Sunday’s start, against Jacksonville, was a little different. He was keeping the seat warm for Andrew Luck while the young phenom sat out the game with a shoulder injury that made it painful for him to throw. That’s a span of 1,064 days between starts, if my math is correct. A local reporter actually asked Hasselbeck about whether he’d be ready to play Thursday night at Houston if needed, and told him it’d been 1,062 days between starts. When I asked him the same question Sunday night, Hasselbeck gave me the same answer: “It might be another 1,062, 1,064, whatever days, until I’m ready again. This isn’t easy.”
Hasselbeck had his 40th birthday 10 days ago, and he knows he’ll have only three days to be ready if Luck’s not ready to go. “Everyone in our locker room, and everyone in the state of Indiana, hopes he’s ready to go,” Hasselbeck said. “Everyone expects him to be ready, including me. I’ll probably be playing scout team quarterback again this week.”
No one knows if Luck, a surprise non-starter after coach Chuck Pagano said twice last week he thought Luck would be ready to play, will improve enough in rehab and exercise this week to face the desperate 1-3 Texans. He actually was getting treatment on the shoulder after Sunday’s game, and though I was told it’s no better than 50-50 he’ll be ready to face Houston, it is also in the Colts’ best interests to throw a shroud over Luck’s availability so the Texans will have to prepare for two different styles of quarterback. Both are pocket guys, but Luck, certainly, can move around the backfield more at this stage of his career than Hasselbeck can.
Hasselbeck felt sick Sunday, both before and after the game. He said he threw up—maybe from something he ate. So it wasn’t an ideal situation to get his first start in almost three years. “I for real did not know when I went and saw some of the reporters on the field—Stacey Dales, Bob Holtzman. She told me Ian Rapoport was saying I was starting, but I really didn’t know yet,’’ Hasselbeck said.
“Well,” I told him, “Adam Schefter tweeted pretty early that your brother [ESPN’s Tim Hasselbeck] picked you up for his fantasy team.”
That actually happened at 8:38 a.m., according to Schefter. “Well,” said Matt Hasselbeck, “he didn’t know. At least I didn’t know until shortly before inactives were announced [11:30 a.m.].” Whatever the case, Matt Hasselbeck said once he saw Luck in shorts and sneakers on the field after he’d gone in to discuss the situation with the coaches, he knew he was starting.
“It was really fun running out of the tunnel,” Matt Hasselbeck said. “I was so jacked up. I felt like William Wallace in Braveheart. I sort of lost my composure, and the first two passes I threw were waaaaay off-target. I got to the sideline and said to myself, ‘Dude, you need to CHILL OUT!’ ”
He settled down, and though he wasn’t the mad-bombing Hasselbeck of old, he completed 30 of 47 for 282 yards, with a touchdown and no interceptions, and, after Jacksonville rookie kicker Jason Myers missed 53- and 48-yard field goal tries to give Indianapolis a chance midway through overtime, Hasselbeck responded. He drove the Colts 53 yards in six plays, dropping in a 28-yard pass to tight end Coby Fleener to get the drive started. Adam Vinatieri, a fellow 40-something Colt, drilled a 27-yard field goal to win it, 16-13.
“The crowd was so into it; it was awesome,’’ Hasselbeck said. “I am playing with guys closer in age to my kids than they are to me, but I love being around them—Donte Moncrief, Phillip Dorsett, Fleener. The one thing I regret a little about the game is I had Coby on a corner route—I signaled him at the line [an audible] and he ran the perfect route, and we had him, but the ball got knocked out of my hand. That would have been a big play.”
The only other problem: In Seattle and Tennessee, his previous two stops, the quarterback always entered the huddle next to the left tackle. In Indianapolis, the quarterback enters the huddle always so that he is on the side of the Colts’ sideline. “Get in the right place!” Hasselbeck was told a few times.
“But,” he said, “it felt good to be starting again.” Even if it’s just for one time, he can say he started, and won, a game in his 40s.
Questions about the league’s international zeal
… with Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president/international, after the Jets-Dolphins game at Wembley Stadium Sunday.
The MMQB: How was this weekend, the first of three games in a month, different from other weekends in which you’ve had regular-season games in England?
Waller: This was our first division-rival game, so this game definitely had a different feel. It felt louder, more intense. There were visibly more Dolphins and Jets jerseys in the crowd. Overall, it was a great weekend for us because of everything happening in the area this weekend. The Rugby World Cup is here, in full swing. That’s a very big deal. And of course, the Premier League has games all weekend. Our ability to sell the game again and hold our own on a weekend with so much happening here, with beautiful weather, makes us feel legitimately valid.
The MMQB: The owners meet this week in New York. Will you announce your schedule of games for next year—and will that include a game somewhere other than London?
Waller: We aren’t ready to announce the schedule quite yet. Our current agreement with the owners expires in 2016 for international games, so we’re going to ask them this week for an extension of the current agreement through 2025. On top of that, we’ll be asking for a resolution to allow the International Committee the ability to schedule games in other countries without going back to owners for approval. For next season, we could realistically look at four, or potentially five, [regular-season] games outside the United States.
The MMQB: Germany, Mexico and Brazil, among other countries, have been mentioned. Any decisions?
Waller: Those are all good candidates. We have visited those places. Germany is helped by the infrastructure from the World Cup [Germany hosted in 2006], and Brazil is helped by that too. Brazil also has excellent facilities with the Olympics being there [in 2016]. Both of those places have world-class stadiums. There is probably a little more work to be done at Azteca Stadium [in Mexico City], which needs some work on locker rooms and other facilities. The level of interest [outside of the U.K.] is exceptionally high. But teams, when they are going to give up a home game, have to be assured they are going to have a first-class experience where they go.
The MMQB: People around the league I speak to seem really hesitant about putting a franchise in London for a lot of the logistical reasons you’d expect. What’s your gut feeling about the future in Europe—a team or teams there, or a series of games every year?
Waller: I think the nervousness about putting a team there is that you can’t really test it out first—you’ve just got to do it, and then you make it work. Our appeal as a league is that all 32 teams can win. All 32 teams, every year, have a chance. We’d have to make sure in anything we did that we had that principle in mind. Week in and week out, can this team compete with every other team in the league? And the only way you can know that is by putting a team there. But I would say this. When we first put regular-season games here, there was a lot of skepticism about whether this was sustainable. But now [including this year, 13 of 14 Wembley games have been sellouts], whether we put a team in the U.K. is now a legitimate conversation and not the pipe dream it was in 2007.
Intriguing Team of the Week
Smart teams survey their situation every week and understand that their roster is a living being. Take the Ravens over the weekend. Baltimore was given life by the Steelers (and Josh Scobee) Thursday night, and the Ravens, even with the lowly record of 1-3 at the one-quarter mark of the season, know they’re very much alive in a flawed AFC.
One problem: Baltimore’s group of receivers is decimated, even after Saturday's trade of a seventh-round pick in 2018 for St. Louis wideout Chris Givens. With Torrey Smith gone in free agency before the season, and the top three receivers on the preseason depth chart all hurt, the Ravens might have to use some of their draft capital—or maybe even a relatively superfluous good player—to get another receiver before the Nov. 3 trading deadline. In fact, much sooner than that, probably. It’s not that GM Ozzie Newsome would be in panic mode. It’s more like realism mode.
Four reasons I would not be remotely surprised if the Ravens’ weekend trade is not their last deal for a receiver this month:
1. Baltimore’s not afraid. The Ravens have made nine player trades in the past 29 months, including the deal for starting tackle Eugene Monroe two years ago this weekend. If they have a hole, the way they still do at wide receiver, they usually try to fill it, even during the season.
2. The receiver depth chart is the worst in the league right now. Would you believe Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown starting at wideout, with sixth-round rookie Darren Waller number three? The only other healthy body against Cleveland next Sunday would be Givens, assuming the Ravens get him up to speed at practice this week. Rising star Michael Campanaro herniated a disk against Pittsburgh and was placed on IR. Real star Steve Smith Sr. suffered multiple microfractures in his back against Pittsburgh; he’ll miss at least one game. First-round receiver Breshad Perriman hasn’t played or practiced hard since hurting his knee on the first practice of camp in July; he just had arthroscopic surgery Thursday and won’t play for a while. I believe GM Ozzie Newsome will try to fix the position—if he can.
3. The Ravens have to think they’re still in the race. Next two games: Cleveland at home, San Francisco on the road. Then Arizona on the road. If the Ravens are 3-4 then, with an advantageous November (San Diego at home, bye, Jacksonville at home, St. Louis at home, at Cleveland) coming, you can see why Baltimore would look down the road and think the season is very much alive.
4. Look at Baltimore’s draft depth it can deal from in 2016. The Ravens, if compensatory pick projections are correct, have four fourth-round picks in the 2016 draft. That allows Newsome to be free now to improve his team. They have a projected 12 picks in the seven-round 2016 draft. Four of those should be compensatory picks for lost unrestricted free agents—in the fourth, fourth and fifth rounds, and one other undisclosed round depending on the performance of quarterback Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo. (The other fourth-rounder came in a package from Denver in exchange for center Gino Gradkowski in the off-season.)
So what does Baltimore do? Look for a forward-thinking GM with receiver depth, or in selling mode, such as Chicago GM Ryan Pace, with wideout Eddie Royal; Seattle GM John Schneider, with Ricardo Lockette; Washington GM Scot McCloughan, with Andre Roberts (a surprise inactive Sunday because of two recent drops). Draft picks, especially mid-round ones, are gold these days, and the Ravens have seven pieces of gold in the first four rounds next spring to use. Newsome has shown he’s not afraid to do it.
Quotes of the Week
“No. Not at all. I’m worried about getting this team straightened out, fixed.”
—Miami coach Joe Philbin, asked if he was concerned about getting fired in the bye week after his team started 1-3.
“I’m disappointed in me as a head coach. To go out there and perform like that, it’s on the head coach.”
—Houston coach Bill O’Brien, after the 48-21 loss to Atlanta, dropping the Texans to 1-3.
“We deserve better than mediocre.”
—Miami fan Casey Trigiani, who ran into special adviser to the president Dan Marino in London on Friday in advance of the Jets-Dolphins game at Wembley Stadium, according to the Palm Beach Post. Trigiani said he was not pleased with the status of the team.
“I know, I know. We’re working on it,” said Marino.
“We give you scholarships, we give you stipends and meals and a place to live! We give you nice uniforms! I can’t give you guts, and I can’t give you heart! Tonight, it was BYOG! Bring your own guts, and they brought some guts and some heart!”
—Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney, in a barely audible-above-the-din ESPN on-field interview after Clemson 24, Notre Dame 22.
“I don’t care what sport, what competition it is. I want these players to see there’s usually another level you can make yourself go to. It’s in you. Find it.”
—Falcons coach Dan Quinn, in my story about his motivational techniques, including “Finish Fridays.”
“USFL owners probably were doomed the day a flamboyant owner strutted into their lives and said: ‘Hi, I’m Donald Trump.’ ”
—The words of late, great sports writer Ken Denlinger of the Washington Post after the United States Football League lost its legal battle with the NFL in 1986, as relayed Saturday by Washington writer and peer Dan Daly.
Denlinger died of esophageal cancer Saturday. He was 73. He wrote about pro football, and other subjects, with clarity and great description. After nine-time all-AFL tackle Jim Tyrer, a 6-7 giant, killed his wife and then himself in 1980, Denlinger wrote: “In addition to helmets, so many NFL players wear unseen masks that hide their feelings from even close friends. Mostly, they offer a brave, haughty, sometime clownish front to maintain the proper macho air, to keep us from knowing that, as a lot, they are among the most insecure workers on the planet … The largest Chief was the weakest, the most outwardly secure the most inwardly bedeviled.”
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Drew Brees, quarterback, New Orleans. He picked a heck of time to craft his 400th career touchdown pass. Playing with a bum shoulder, moments after the Saints’ kid kicker missed the chippiest of all field goals that would have won the game at the end of regulation, on the second play of overtime, on a drive that would either save or doom their season, Brees hit C.J. Spiller streaking down the right sideline past blown Dallas coverage for the winning touchdown. New Orleans 26, Dallas 20, on Brees’s historic throw. For the night, Brees went 33 of 41 for 359 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Todd Gurley, running back, St. Louis. After Gurley’s inauspicious debut last week, coach Jeff Fisher said that trained eyes could see he was close to breaking some of his runs. Fisher evidently knew what he was talking about. Gurley owned the previously unbeaten Cardinals on the road Sunday. He ran 19 times for 146 yards, and did the smart thing on the final insurance drive, going to the ground instead of running into the end zone. Gurley knew the Cardinals wouldn’t get to touch the ball again if he played it that way. The Rams drafted Gurley 10th overall last spring, when he was only five months removed from reconstructive knee surgery. For one day at least, it looks like a brilliant pick.
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington. Down 20-16 to Philadelphia with six minutes to go, Cousins took the ball at his 10-yard line, knowing a field goal wasn’t going to be good enough—and knowing, too, that he’d prefer not to give the ball back to the Eagles with much time left on the clock. Cousins completed six of nine passes on the 15-play, 90-yard drive for the winning touchdown, finishing it with a four-yard strike to Pierre Garçon for the game-winner. Washington 23, Philadelphia 20. Life for 2-2 Washington. Big trouble for 1-3 Philadelphia.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
T.J. Ward, strong safety, Denver. A great pass rush needs not just a speedy front seven but also the ability of players in the secondary to make the occasional impactful blitz. That’s one of the reasons GM John Elway imported Ward from Cleveland a year and a half ago, and it really showed at the key moment of Sunday’s 23-20 survival test at home against Minnesota. With the Vikings driving at their 47 with 35 seconds to go and down a field goal, Ward sprinted in from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s right and strip-sacked the quarterback, forcing the ball to go bounding away into the hands of Von Miller. That was Ward’s second sack of the day—the Broncos had seven, and lead the NFL with 18—and he added six tackles and a batted pass.
Josh Norman, cornerback, Carolina. For the second straight week, Norman wins this incredibly prestigious honor, and will have to clear a second spot on his mantel for the invisible plaque that goes with it. On the first Tampa Bay series of the day, Norman picked off Jameis Winston and returned the ball 46 yards for a touchdown. On the next Tampa series, his blanket coverage on third down shut down a potential Winston-to-Mike Evans long-gainer. Five minutes into the third quarter, with the Bucs trying to make one last gasp, Norman picked a ball intended for Vincent Jackson, returning it 34 yards to set up the insurance touchdown. Norman has a league-high four interceptions after four weeks. He’s a bold, athletic and confident corner with great ball skills.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Cairo Santos, kicker, Kansas City. What more can one player do? Santos booted field goals of 22, 40, 51, 34, 40, 29 and 51 yards, accounting for every Chiefs point in the 36-21 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. On a weekend when accuracy was optional for NFL kickers, Santos was superb.
Sean Spence, inside linebacker, Pittsburgh. Midway through the third quarter of a huge rivalry game (Steelers-Ravens always comes down to big plays in the second half), Spence made the best special-teams play of the season so far. Pittsburgh led 20-14, and Baltimore had fourth-and-2 from the Pittsburgh 20. Justin Tucker was lined up to try a 38-yard field goal. Holder Sam Koch took the snap and, immediately, left-wing player Nate Boyle, a backup Baltimore tight end, went into motion to the right and took a shovel pass from Koch. Spence knifed in through a slight gap in the Ravens’ line and dove at Boyle, tackling him for a three-yard loss. It was as though Spence knew exactly what was coming. That’s the kind of play that doesn’t happen without great instincts by players, or without attentive coaching. Special-teams coach Danny Smith, the 21-year NFL coaching veteran, clearly got his field-goal defense team ready to sniff out possible fakes. Beautiful play.
Justin Tucker, kicker, Baltimore. Tucker scored the last nine points of a game the Ravens needed desperately, and he did it in a stadium that is notoriously rough for kickers. With 10:14 left in the fourth quarter, his 40-yard field goal brought Baltimore to within 20-17. With three seconds left in the fourth quarter, his 42-yard field goal tied it. And with 5:08 left in the game, his risky 52-yarder was a strike, right down the middle, to win it. “We were having a conversation about maybe trying to draw them offside, get a little closer and get the first down,” coach John Harbaugh said after the game. “Joe Flacco comes over to me and says, ‘Just let him win the game.’ Good call.”
COACH OF THE WEEK
Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator, Cincinnati. I love the symmetry Jackson has created with the Bengals offense. On Sunday, Cincinnati ran 50 plays (26 rushing plays, 24 passing) and rolled up 445 total yards, for a gaudy 8.9-yard average gain per play. He’s finding a way to feature two very good backs, Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill, who combined for four rushing touchdowns against the Chiefs. And he's keeping Andy Dalton productive and clean. For the game, Dalton was not sacked by the usually ransacking Chiefs rush, and he was hit on only two of his 24 pass-drops. There’s a reason Cincinnati is 4-0, and it’s because of the balance and efficiency on both sides of the ball. It’s a tribute to Jackson that he’s able to keep a lot of talented players seemingly happy—and very productive.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle and the Miami defense. From the Jets’ first snap of the game—a 59-yard bomb up the left sideline to Brandon Marshall—to the Chris Ivory trucking of the lavishly expensive and ineffective Ndamukong Suh, to the four scoring drives in the first half, to allowing 47 points and 552 yards in the last two first halves, to the incredibly ineffective pass-rush (one sack in the first four games of the season), the Miami defense has been the league's most embarrassing unit on either side of the ball over the first quarter of the season. Not that the unit is the worst defense in the league. But with the talent and the money the front office has spent on this defense, it’s awful how poorly it has played in losing to the teams Miami must beat in the AFC East to have any chance at a playoff spot. Playoff contention at this point is a dream, and probably a new coordinator away.
* * *
Stats of the Week
Last week, on the heels of his team being penalized a heavy 30 times in the first three games, Buffalo coach Rex Ryan said, “We want to be the least-penalized team in the league. No team spends more time looking at the rules than we do, I promise you.”
Buffalo, playing in friendly home environs on Sunday, was whistled for offensive holding four times (once declined), unsportsmanlike conduct twice, false start three times, unnecessary roughness twice, illegal formation once, defensive pass interference once, defensive holding once, offensive pass interference once, running out of bounds on a punt once, an illegal pass once, and a chop block nullifying a touchdown that would have cut the Giants’ lead to 24-17 in the fourth quarter.
For the game: 17 accepted penalties, 135 yards. Both were Week 4 highs. Giants 24, Bills 10.
“I’ve been a part of a 20-some penalty performance by the Ravens, okay? And we went on and fixed it. We’ll fix it here,” Ryan said.
It was supposed to take Jim Harbaugh a while—or, at least longer than five games—to turn around the Michigan football fortunes.
• Michigan, 2014: 5-7. Average score: Opponents 22.4, Michigan 20.9
• Michigan, 2015: 4-1. Average score: Michigan 27.8, Opponents 7.6.
* * *
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Atlanta has the most advantageous remaining schedule of any team in the NFL. The Falcons do not play a team with a current winning record for the next nine weeks, and only one of their remaining foes (Carolina, twice) has a winning record this morning. The Atlanta slate:
Week 5: Washington (2-2)
Week 6: at New Orleans (1-3)
Week 7: at Tennessee (1-2)
Week 8: Tampa Bay (1-3)
Week 9: at San Francisco (1-3)
Week 10: Bye
Week 11: Indianapolis (2-2)
Week 12: Minnesota (2-2)
Week 13: at Tampa Bay (1-3)
Week 14: at Carolina (4-0)
Week 15: at Jacksonville (1-3)
Week 16: Carolina (4-0).
Week 17: New Orleans (1-3)
* * *
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
This will be Ross Tucker’s travel note of the week, seeing as I did not travel anywhere in the past seven days. Tucker, the former NFL offensive lineman and current NFL media impresario, does a Sunday game as a color analyst for Westwood One radio, and during the NFL's Week 3 games found himself in Nashville to do Colts-Titans. Tucker is the second-most famous person from Wyomissing, Pa. The first is Taylor Swift. And the night before the football game, lo and behold, Swift was playing Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Tucker knows Taylor Swift’s father, and texted him, and they met up. Scott Swift gave Tucker and his wife tickets and backstage passes, and they met Taylor Swift before the show.
“Most surreal moment of the night was walking by Mick Jagger in the hallway backstage,” Tucker said.
Two other Tuckerian notes …
1. Twitter followers for the two Wyomissing natives, as of 6 p.m. Saturday:
• Taylor Swift: 64,289,150.
• Ross Tucker: 141,058.
Still plenty of time to catch up, Ross. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.
2. Weekend in the life of Tucker: He worked in the booth for Columbia at Princeton on Friday night and William & Mary at Delaware on Saturday night, drove home to Harrisburg after the game, slept a few hours, drove five hours to Orchard Park, N.Y., did Giants-Bills on Sunday afternoon, and drove home to Harrisburg post-game. Now there’s a football weekend.
* * *
Tweets of the Week
I'm in https://t.co/Vz1GS83ENy— Landon Donovan (@landondonovan) October 2, 2015
The longtime U.S. soccer star was responding to a tweet suggesting that Donovan replace Josh Scobee after the Steelers kicker missed two field goals in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter Thursday, and the Steelers lost to rival Baltimore.
Sources: Jim Tomsula did not pass loud gas during his presser Wednesday. The sound came from a reporter sitting in leather seat near mic.— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) October 2, 2015
Getting Akiem Hicks for Michael Hoomanawanui is the most lopsided straight player-for-player I've ever seen. Advantage #Patriots.— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) October 1, 2015
Football just means more in the south. In Cali we hesitate to show up if we need a jacket. Not an empty seat at UGA mid hurricane— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) October 3, 2015
* * *
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 4:
a. Devonta Freeman. What burst and power.
b. The fight of the Rams.
c. J.J. Watt, in what was an unfair matchup against undrafted Atlanta free-agent right tackle Ryan Schraeder from Valdosta (Ga.) State. Watt ran around Schraeder for a pretty easy sack, then batted down a Matt Ryan pass.
d. Block of the day: Frank Gore’s blitz pickup.
e. Excellent reversal in Chicago by referee Jeff Triplette, seeing that Amari Cooper got both feet in bounds on his touchdown in Chicago.
f. Latavius Murray’s hands out of the backfield for Oakland.
g. Terrific run-support by rookie cornerback Ronald Darby of the Bills.
h. Great stat pointed out by Ben Volin of the Boston Globe: Through four weeks, there were three player trades in 2014 and 18 in 2015.
i. This enlightening story by Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News, on former quarterback Kevin Kolb and his history of concussions, and how former players are coping post-career.
j. Scariest thing Kolb said to Dunne: “I could have hid every one of those concussions and tried to play through it. So if it’s a contract year, certain guys are going to choose that … You can’t blame the coaches for putting the pressure on the players because in the end they want to put the best players on the field to further their career. So who’s at fault?” All the more reason for the unaffiliated neurological consultants at every NFL game, and the eye-in-the-sky spotter who looks for woozy players on the field trying to play on through that kind of shakiness.
k. Oakland running back Roy Helu, deking two Bears, changing course, and darting in for a touchdown.
l. The vanquished Carson Palmer with this line on the Rams’ defense, which was formidable: “Very good front, very good defense. They do just enough to keep you on your toes every snap.”
m. The Baltimore personnel department, with undrafted free agent James Hurst doing a good job—including a crushing block on Cameron Heyward on a first-half third-and-1 conversion in Pittsburgh—and 2013 fifth-rounder Ricky Wagner, the right tackle, saving a touchdown on a Steeler interception return.
n. Best two plays in a series this weekend: Ravens rookie defensive end Za’Darius Smith (fourth round, Kentucky), a starter, sacking Mike Vick twice on successive plays, for losses of six and seven yards.
o. Justin Forsett looking like the 2014 Justin Forsett: 27 carries, 150 yards.
p. Chicago defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, with good penetration on a hefty sack of Derek Carr of the Raiders.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 4:
b. The Miami offense and Ryan Tannehill. Yeesh. Week 4, and the Fins looked like Dead Men Walking in London. Averaging 16.3 points a game.
c. Miami offense: 0-for-16 on third and fourth downs.
d. Ndamukong Suh. Check out when Jets running back Chris Ivory muscled through Suh at the line of scrimmage in the second quarter and ran for a gain of 17 … and watch Suh jogging after him, not sprinting.
e. That Kansas City offensive line, which is going to get Alex Smith hurt at some point this year. It’s the land of leaks.
f. Eric Fisher’s performance at tackle. He just doesn’t look quick enough to handle speed.
g. Oakland’s defense, with no one covering Martellus Bennett on the easiest touchdown catch of his life, at any level.
h. Nigel Bradham of the Bills, whiffing on a tackle of Giants running back Rashad Jennings on what would have been a zero-yard gain. Instead, it was a 51-yard touchdown catch and run that sealed New York’s 24-10 victory in Orchard Park.
i. There’s a reason Caleb Sturgis was unemployed. In his first game as an Eagle, Sturgis hooked a 33-yard field goal wide left as the clock ran out in the first half, Philly trailing 13-0. Thirty-three yards. That’s the distance of an extra point now.
j. A couple of Buffalo personnel decisions: Cutting Jacquies Smith last year in Week 1; he has four sacks in the first four games for Tampa Bay. And cutting cornerback Ross Cockrell, who was a defensive stalwart (interception, fumble recovery) for Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
k. The madness of this concept of “giving Mike Vick confidence” by having him throw microscopically short at the start of the Thursday night game. Vick is 35. He has been in the NFL for 13 seasons. This was his 147th NFL game. If the Steelers have to “give Vick confidence” by having him throw two-yard passes at the start of the game, that’s not a quarterback I want playing for me.
l. Understand what I’m staying: I don’t blame Vick. I blame the perceived mentality that a guy who has played 146 NFL games has to be coddled at the start of No. 147 just because he’s starting with a new team. I just think that line of thinking, if it truly exists in the minds of coaches and not just announcers, is wrong.
m. The tentative quarterback sneak by Joe Flacco with four minutes left in the Ravens’ season.
n. Obviously, the Steelers bypassing Le’Veon Bell on both fourth-and-short conversion shots in overtime.
o. I guess “Tyrod Taylor: A Football Life” is on hold by NFL Network.
p. Trying to read Bill O’Brien’s mind. My best guess would be: “Perhaps I made a mistake, yanking Hoyer five games too soon.”
q. I mean, Brian Hoyer’s warming up and it’s 35-0 Atlanta, and O’Brien keeps Ryan Mallett in for the next series.
3. I think the worst nightmare of Jerry Jones has been realized. Sunday night in New Orleans, a loss to the previously 0-3 and fairly defenseless Saints, was the kind of game that, when Jones looked at the schedule after the losses of Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, he had to think, “We’ve got to win that one.” And last week’s home game against Atlanta too. With New England at home, the Giants on the road and Seattle at home the next three games, the Cowboys could be 2-5 and in danger of making the return of Bryant and Romo in two months borderline irrelevant. Dallas does get ace pass-rusher Greg Hardy and solid run-playing linebacker Rolando McClain back from suspensions this week. Doubt that means all the difference when Tom Brady squares off against Brandon Weeden in six days.
4. I think I love the three 9:30 a.m. ET starts this year. The next two London games are at that time—Buffalo-Jacksonville Oct. 25 (live-streamed around the world in all but the home markets), and Detroit-Kansas City Nov. 1. It’s like a free game to watch. But you know what I loved? That 11:35 p.m. ET San Diego-Oakland game a couple of years ago, giving the West Coast a real prime time game—and giving the nocturnal fans on the East Coast one last bite of the apple before Monday morning. It’s not likely to ever return, though, because the national ratings for the game aren’t as good late at night as they would be at other times of the day.
5. I think, for $114 million, Ndamukong Suh could make more of an effort to help the Dolphins get out of the rut, both on an off the field. On the field: According to Pro Football Focus, he’s been on the field for 129 passing downs, and gotten zero sacks and one quarterback hit in four games. He is playing the run well (despite Chris Ivory mugging him Sunday in London for a 17-yard gain). Off: No interest post-game in defending his coaches or providing any public leadership at a time of crisis for his team. Just a bad look. You can say, “He’s not getting paid to be a cheerleader.” And he isn’t. But there are times when you have to step up and be accountable and support your team, and Suh didn’t do much of that yesterday.
6. I think congratulations are in order for one of the best NFL-related charities I’ve come across, the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund, which had its annual gala Friday night in Manhattan. The fund honors Jay McGillis, a safety at Boston College when Coughlin coached there. McGillis died of leukemia eight months after his diagnosis at BC, and Coughlin saw the immense need for families who have to drop everything and oftentimes quit their jobs to support children who contract cancer. The Jay Fund helps families with related expenses when they are caring for a sick person in the family. Coughlin told his board he wanted to raise $10 million so that the charity, which is continuing it annual fund-raising attempts, could be self-sustaining. “We’re at $5 million, halfway there,” he told me at the event Friday night. And by the end of the night, through donations and an auction, approximately $1 million was added to the fund. I run into so many worthy charities, and I’d never prioritize one over another, because money is needed for so many causes. But I know how good this one is. Coughlin should be lauded for doing something that matters to so many people.
7. I think this is what I hear from a longtime NFL scout who has been to Columbus, Ohio, in the first month of the college football season: “Depending on who comes out, they could have eight first-round draft picks. I honestly believe that could be the most talented college team I have ever scouted.” Maybe not if the guy watched Ohio State 34, Indiana 27 on Saturday.
8. I think Mike Mayock made a great point to Rich Eisen the other day about the reaction of the NFL if, say, LSU back Leonard Fournette skipped a year of college football so as not to get hurt before his NFL career began. That’s a thought making the media rounds—that Fournette, not eligible for the draft until 2017, is so good he shouldn’t risk injury in 2016, and simply spend the year training to be an NFL player in ’17. Said Mayock: “I feel very, very, very strongly that for every Leonard Fournette who may be ready, there’s 100 kids who think they’re ready and they’re not. Most [19-year-olds] … are not men yet—physically, emotionally, psychologically.” Mayock said he thought the majority of NFL talent evaluators (and I agree) would be against Fournette sitting out. “But another core group would say, there’s less tread on the tire. He didn’t take the beating of 12, 13, 14 games in the SEC.”
9. I think if the Steelers miss out on the playoffs by a game, or even two, they’ll be right to blame the revolving door of kickers. They’ve had four regular kickers in the past two months. Remember when Roy Gerela was their kicker for eight years? For 143 straight games?
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Week, from Dan Barry of the New York Times, on the important pleasure of going to a baseball game with a sturdy friend diagnosed with ALS.
b. Terrific piece, by ESPN The Magazine’s Tim Keown on Raiders owner Mark Davis. Some odd routines for Davis, plus an odd vehicle for the owner of an NFL team.
c. I suppose it’s too soon, and too political, to suggest that we as Americans have an open and constructive dialogue on gun violence, after the 141st school shooting incident since Newtown (less than three years ago) took nine lives at a community college in Oregon. I don’t know when the right time will be. All I know is, we’re a supposedly intelligent life form, and the same thing happens over and over again, and we don’t do a thing about it, ever.
d. But okay, it’s too soon? Then “thoughts and prayers to Oregon.”
e. That’s all we can do, right?
f. When I tweeted about this the other night, I got hit with a swarm of, “Give us a plan, genius. What’s your suggestion to stop all the shootings?” I don’t have a plan. It’s not my bailiwick. It’s like this: There’s global warming, and it’s not my field, but I sure want the leaders of the world to do something about it. With the gun violence, it seems like we should make it harder for sick people to get guns; the man who killed in Oregon, Christopher Harper-Mercer, had six guns with him when he laid siege to Umpqua Community College, and seven more were found in his home. Are we as a society fine with that? I know I’m not. We need a way to make it harder for people who either are deeply troubled or show signs of being deeply troubled to build up a cache of 13 weapons. That I know.
g. One heck of an October baseball game, the Angels-Rangers tension-fest with the season on the line and the Rangers up 10-6 entering the ninth, and the Angels facing wild-card elimination with a loss, and the Rangers needing one win to clinch the AL West. The Angels got five runs on seven hits, the tying run on a broken-bat blooper to center, and Mr. Allie LaForce (Joe Smith) getting the save against the deflated Rangers in the bottom of the ninth. Angels, 11-10.
h. There were 368 pitches in the game. The winner was a reliever named Jo-Jo Reyes. He threw one.
i. Each team used nine pitchers in a nine-inning game.
j. The game ended when Texas’ Elvis Andrus, the potential tying run, overslid second base and was tagged out by Erick Aybar.
k. Max Scherzer. Wow is about all you can say. Nine innings, no hits, no walks, 17 strikeouts. Two no-nos in one year. And look at his totals in those two games: 18 innings, no hits, no walks, 27 strikeouts. No walks. Two perfect games spoiled by a very, very shaky hit-by-pitch against Pittsburgh and a throwing error on a routine grounder by third baseman Yunel Escobar.
l. Feel this way at the end of every baseball regular season: I’ll miss 15 baseball games a day. This is the last morning to pore over a full page of box scores in the paper for the next 26 weeks.
m. I’m really old. But what can I say? Baseball and football are the two games I grew up with, and when each is finished for the year, I know how much I’ll miss them.
n. Amazing to see the symmetry in Blue Jay home runs: Josh Donaldson 41, Jose Bautista 40, Edwin Encarnacion 39.
o. Said it last week, so I’ll use just one sentence for emphasis: The fact that the teams with the second-best and third-best records in baseball—the Pirates (98-64) and the Chicago Cubs (97-65)—are meeting in a sudden-death wild-card playoff game this week instead of a real series is just stupid, and blatantly unfair to two of the three best teams in baseball.
p. Beautiful job by the Giants, taking Tim Hudson out at home, allowing him to be feted by an ovation from fans, and then hugging all his mates while the game was stopped. Perfect way to finish a career—and then, with a ceremony with his family there, in front of packed home park Saturday. The Giants really do things right.
q. Great turnout in Montclair, N.J., last Tuesday for the last rites of Yogi Berra. Sandy Koufax came. Jim Bouton drove in from Massachusetts. And Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte (from Texas), and Yogi's good friend Ron Guidry (from Louisiana), so choked up he couldn’t speak at the funeral. Joe Torre was wonderful with his eulogy. Cardinal Dolan of New York was wonderful. And good job by the YES network, televising it.
r. Last Week Of The Season Quote Of The Week, from Twins color man Bert Blyleven, in the third inning of the first game of a Thursday doubleheader at Cleveland, acknowledging that Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson wouldn’t be nibbling in the strike zone with a 3-0 count early in the game: “I think all 12 people in the ballpark know he’s gonna throw a strike here.”
s. Good Luck Wednesday To The Buccos Dept.—Earned runs allowed in Jake Arrieta’s 12 starts since Aug. 1: 0, 0, 2, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 0, 0, 0.
t. I’d probably take Zack Greinke as the Cy Young winner in the National League. Better WHIP, better ERA (his 1.66 ERA is lowest in the National League since 1995), three fewer losses—despite three fewer wins. Arrieta, it seems strange to say, was good but not great for the first 10 weeks of the season (6-5, 3.40 ERA on June 20) and simply had an incredible last two months of the season. It was a Bob Gibson-in-1968 stretch. But for the season, Greinke was consistently pretty great. It’s like saying you’ll take Rodgers over Brady, though. Both were ridiculously good, and deserving.
u. Coffeenerdness: You know you’ve lived in your Manhattan neighborhood for a long time (four years this month for us) and frequented the same Starbucks for a long time when you walk in on a Saturday morning, as I did two days ago, and there’s a long line, and you just wait to get to the head of the line and there, the barista/register person says, “Here you go, Peter—your drink,” and scans my phone for payment. Never even had to order it! Thanks for the great service, people.
v. Beernerdness: For a beer note this week, instead of picking a beer to highlight, I’ll pick a Boston Globe story to illustrate how difficult it is becoming to actually pick a beer to drink. I mean, it’s amazing that craft beer is only 8 percent of the United States beer market. Seems like it's 28 percent.
w. Send your favorite pumpkin beer suggestions to email@example.com this week. I’m going to try a few new ones this fall, and I’ll take your ideas.
x. I guess the moral of the story in Athens, Ga., on Saturday was this: It’s probably never a good idea to make Alabama the underdog.
y. My heartfelt best wishes to all the people of South Carolina—and the neighboring states too—struggling so much after the endless rain that has pelted the area. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Good luck to all.
* * *
Who I Like Tonight
Seattle 23, Detroit 16. The news was all Marshawn, all the time in the Pacific Northwest, a week after the iconoclastic Marshawn Lynch was late coming out on the field for the start of the game against Chicago, a week after he strained a hamstring in the game, a week after he got dressed post-hamstring and watched the end of the game from a box upstairs, two days after coach Pete Carroll said he’d be a game-time decision, and now one day after Seattle declared him out for tonight's game. The Lions, who have monstrous problems of their own (that comes with making the playoffs one year and starting 0-3 the next), would be pretty embarrassed if a free-agent rookie from Central Michigan, Thomas Rawls, ran the Seahawks to victory tonight. Rawls and 34-year-old Fred Jackson will be the Seattle ground game with Lynch out. Either way, I like Seattle to get to 2-2.
* * *
The Adieu Haiku
Kickers. Tough life. But
Steeler fans say to Scobee:
“Dude, YOU HAD ONE JOB!”
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