The St. Louis Rams. When SI.com approached me about doing grades on Monday, I was not very excited about having to judge my friends and former colleagues by throwing around actual grades. It's not like I'm afraid to call 'em like I see 'em, but when you have been a C student for most of your life, you just have a hard time judging others. But that was then, and this is now.
The Rams made it very easy for me this week, and I'm sure it won't be too hard finding another completely non-competitive performance for each of the next 16 weeks. Do you think the Rams even knew there was a game in Philadelphia yesterday? Their defense surrendered 522 yards and their offense managed eight first downs for the whole game. They even laid a goose egg on third down, going 0-11. Seven of the Rams' 11 possessions resulted in a three and out and their longest drive of the game consisted of seven plays.
Not to be left out, their special teams allowed over 10 yards a punt return, which clearly showed the Rams were a team willing to have every phase play as poorly as possible. I'm not sure where the Rams go from here. The Eagles are a good team, but the Rams were not even a fair competition. It is going to be a long year in St Louis.
The Detroit Lions defense. The Lions spent the whole offseason talking about improving their defense, playing a more physical game and getting rid of the players who didn't fit their style of defense. They wanted to emphasize running the ball and stopping the run.
Last year, they finished in the bottom quarter of 65 defensive stats and the whole agenda of this year was to improve the character and commitment of the team. So when they looked at their schedule to start the season, could anything have been set up better than facing a rookie quarterback and knowing all you have to do to win is to stop the opposition's running game? Who could ask for anything more?
Clearly the Lions could and would like a mulligan on the start of the season. Surrendering 318 yards on the ground, 7.6 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns, the Lions run defense was nonexistent. Between missed tackles and poor execution the Lions let the one guy they had to stop -- Falcons running back Michael Turner -- singlehandedly beat them. I have a very hard time accepting losing in the NFL, but what drives me insane is when you lose to the only player that can beat you.
Don't you think all week long the Lions coaches talked about stopping Turner and forcing the game to be in the hands of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan? And the team comes out with this kind of play? If I were head coach Rod Marinelli, I would be sick to death. And the Lions really deserve an F; they're just lucky the Rams exist.
Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Starting a rookie anything in the NFL is a dangerous proposition, but starting a rookie quarterback can be a disaster. Not since 1971 has the NFL seen two rookies win in their first start. Since 37 years have elapsed since we have seen this improbable feat, you might think I am being a hard grader giving only a C. But what I thought was very impressive was that both quarterbacks did not try to win the game but played within themselves. They worked in the system and did exactly what was expected.
Most of the time NFL games are lost, not won. Ryan and Flacco did not do anything to put their team in position to lose the game. They managed the game well and showed very good poise. Ryan only attempted 13 passes, but made them all count, completing nine and throwing a 62-yard touchdown pass. Flacco threw the ball 29 times, for only 129 yards, but ran for a 38-yard touchdown and could be seen throwing a big block on Marc Clayton's touchdown run.
Both quarterbacks should enjoy the win, but know that the starts will continue to be a little tougher and that they'll have to make a few more plays to lead their team to more victories. But what was very clear is both players can accept coaching and have the poise to get the job done.
John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens coaches. Harbaugh took over a team that was dealing with retirements, uncertainty at quarterback and injuries to several starting players. Yet, along with his staff, Harbaugh devised a game plan that was sound, creative and played into the strengths of his team.
Without Willis McGahee at running back, Harbaugh and Cam Cameron, the offensive coordinator, used former Alabama fullback Leron McClain and second-round pick Ray Rice out of Rutgers to bolster the run game and take some of the pressure off rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens controlled the ball for over 36 minutes and, surprisingly, converted 53 percent of their third downs.
Using deception and creativity, the Ravens found a way to make a few big plays and their defense rose to the challenge, shutting down the Bengals offense completely. The Bengals made only eight first downs and finished with 99 yards passing. This was a great team win by the Ravens, who played hard and with passion. Harbaugh and his staff should feel very proud today winning an AFC North game shorthanded.
Jake Delhomme and the Carolina Panthers. Delhomme's return from Tommy John surgery was a huge success as he led the Panthers to a last-second win over the Chargers in San Diego. Much like Eli Manning in the Super Bowl, Delhomme somehow avoiding getting sacked, and then found tight end Dante Rosario in the back of the end zone for the victory. If the Panthers had been playing at home, that play would have brought the stadium down. Instead, it silenced a capacity crowd in San Diego. That in itself, no small feat.
The Panthers, playing without suspended star receiver Steve Smith, deserve a ton of credit for their toughness, resilience and determination in coming back from a five-point deficit after the Chargers had scored two touchdowns in eight minutes to take the lead with 2:27 remaining. Carolia matched the physical toughness and competitiveness of San Diego and showed everyone in the NFL that it is a team to watch out for in 2008.