Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we run down the winners and losers in the all-important (OK, more important?) Week 3 of the NFL's preseason. The games don't count, but the perceptions sure do ...
•Winner -- Every once in a while, perhaps Michael Vick can almost convince himself that his personal nightmare of 2007-08 never really happened and he's right back atop the NFL world, with the magazine covers and the $100 million contract to prove it. It's an amazing riches-to-rags-to-riches story, but it's far from over. Now Vick has to try once more to live up to the out-sized expectations that come with his fame, and hopefully not squander the opportunity that is the remarkable second act of his career.
One word of caution seems entirely appropriate: Vick's play before 2010 at times left us breathless as well, but he has been a 16-game starter just once in his first eight NFL seasons. At 31, he may be better than ever, but he's not an indestructible quarterbacking machine. He can't keep getting hit like he did against Cleveland last Thursday night. The Eagles had best protect their big investment, in any number of ways, on any number of fronts.
•Loser -- Cam Newton looks considerably more comfortable so far running the ball than throwing it, and I guess that's to be expected given the unique circumstances of his first NFL offseason. But the reality is this: We won't grade him on a curve for long, because the recent run of successful first-round rookie quarterbacks (see: Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford) has set the bar of expectation extremely high, and it's not getting lowered any time soon.
Patience really isn't part of the equation any more for first-round QBs, and Newton won't be allowed to have too many regular season games that look like his ugly and inaccurate Week 3 showing at Cincinnati (6 of 19 for 75 yards, with four rushes for 49 yards) without setting off alarm bells far and wide. In other words, Newton can't afford to get anywhere near Tebow territory in terms of the tone and tenor of his early-career critiques.
•Winner -- Antonio Brown's monster game against Atlanta on Saturday night (four catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns, plus a 51-yard kickoff return) only underlines how good Pittsburgh has been of late at finding receiving talent in the middle to later portions of the draft. Brown was a sixth-round pick in 2010. Mike Wallace was a third-round pick in 2009. And Emmanuel Sanders was a third-round selection in 2010. Add it all up and we can just about forgive the Steelers for the Limas Sweed blunder in 2008's second round.
•Loser -- At the risk of a classic preseason over-reaction based on a painfully small sampling, the sight of Eli Manning throwing a pair of picks Monday night against the Jets in the Giants' "dress rehearsal'' game can't make anyone wearing blue feel too comfortable. Not with Manning coming off those career-worst 25 interceptions last season, which he acknowledges can't happen again if he's going to lead New York back into the NFC playoffs. Manning looked hesitant and threw off his back foot at times against the Jets, and he has yet to have a game this preseason with more completions than incompletions. It's too early to worry about Eli, but being a bit wary seems like the right call.
•Winner -- We all regularly poke fun at Al Davis' need for speed in Oakland, but the Raiders' owner might be in line for the last laugh in the case of fourth-round rookie running back Taiwan Jones, who burst, and I mean burst, onto the scene Sunday night against New Orleans. The Eastern Washington product left some Saints defenders looking like they were standing still en route to gaining 81 yards on 13 carries (6.2 average), including a pretty 22-yard scoring run on which he exploded around right end. Jones also caught a pair of passes for 18 yards, and the three-headed Raiders backfield of Darren McFadden, Michael Bush and Jones suddenly seems stacked. If Oakland can routinely get Jones into the open field on third downs, there will be some chains definitely on the move.
•Loser -- If either the Jets or Giants start the regular season off with a whimper, one of the culprits might be Hurricane Irene. Because of the storm, the New York-New York showdown got yanked around all weekend before finally moving to Monday night. Understandable, but that means both teams will end the preseason with a pair of games in the span of 70-something hours (the Giants are at New England Thursday night, while the Jets stay home to face Philly). I know, I know, most of the starters won't play in the preseason finale. But somebody's got to suck it up and play those 60 minutes, and you can't rest everyone except the guys who aren't going to make the final 53-man roster. There's going to be some wear and tear absorbed somewhere, because two football games in four days just isn't an ideal situation. Player safety anyone?
•Winner -- It's not often you can get an accurate reading on a team being really ready to roll based on the preseason, but I've got that feeling this year about the Saints, who seem perfectly positioned to do some damage in 2011. Without the burden of defending a championship, New Orleans is slightly under the radar, and yet still loaded on both sides of the ball and re-energized after the disappointing first-round playoff loss at Seattle.
The Saints demolished the Raiders 40-20 in Oakland Sunday night, and the New Orleans offense was machine-like at all times, rolling up 514 yards and 29 first downs. I don't care if it's preseason or Pop Warner, that's a boatload of production. A trip to powerful Green Bay looms in next week's Thursday night opener, and Atlanta and Tampa Bay are going to be formidable in the NFC South, but look out for these Saints. I think their mojo is back.
•Loser -- Speaking of the ways in which the Saints have improved, Reggie Bush amassed all of minus-1 yard on five carries in the Dolphins' loss to Tampa Bay Saturday night, with a long gain of five yards. That quintessential Bush rushing line -- as much time spent in reverse as in drive -- really should serve to remind Miami why so many folks are skeptical of Bush ever prospering as a team's lead runner. Bush had an impactful game last week at home against Carolina, but I still can't see him fronting anyone's running game, and the Dolphins will come around to the same conclusion soon enough.
•Winner -- I'm making Houston running back Arian Foster one of my winners this week, and it's got nothing to do directly with the state of his now-problematic hamstring. I just happen to agree with Foster's wildly unpopular take on the all-out-of-perspective world of fantasy football, and I have for years. Everything I have issue with in regards to the fantasy game, I put in this top 10 list years ago (six years ago this month, to be exact). I've received more reaction to this piece, both good and bad, than any other in my 11-plus years at SI.com. In case you missed it, don't remember it, or just care to re-read it, here's the link.
•Loser -- I'm starting to think I way over-estimated the first-year potential impact of new San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh. I thought the 49ers would get an instant burst of energy, enthusiasm and productivity upon Harbaugh's arrival, but I was apparently misinformed. The 49ers look lost, their first-team offense remains beyond anemic, and if anything, Harbaugh has been a bit humbled by this inauspicious debut.
Against the visiting Texans Saturday night, the 49ers in the first half scored no points on offense, rolling up just 50 yards and three first downs. They followed that up in the second half with zero points, 55 yards of offense and three more first downs. At this point, Seattle getting to open the season at San Francisco next month seems like the league handing the Seahawks an extra bye week.
•Winner -- When the preseason opened, the Ravens seemed foolhardy to not dip into the veteran backup quarterback market in an effort to replace the retired Marc Bulger. But now I'm not so sure. Maybe Baltimore knew what it had in rookie sixth-round quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who likely will enter the regular season as the Ravens backup. The more you see of Taylor, the more impressive he is, and it's noticeable that he doesn't have that deer-in-the-headlights look that so many rookie QBs wear.
The kid from Virginia Tech is a playmaker, and I liked the moxie he showed in leading Baltimore to that late touchdown in its entertaining, come-from-behind 34-31 win over Washington Thursday night. Taylor threw for 125 yards and a touchdown on 11 of 18 passing, and ran twice for 31 yards. The Ravens seem to have growing confidence in him, and even though they have Super Bowl aspirations, I'm not sure an injury of any sort to starting quarterback Joe Flacco would be the season-ruining disaster many of us assumed.
•Loser -- So much for that building aura of invincibility in New England. The Patriots got their tri-cornered hats handed to them in Detroit Saturday night, and for once Bill Belichick wasn't mumbling just coach-speak when he said his team "obviously has a lot of work to do.'' We've seen the Patriots bounce back from humblings before, of course, but this clearly wasn't the Week 3 warm-up for the regular season opener at Miami that anyone in Foxboro was looking for. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford shredded the New England defense, and Detroit's defensive front basically manhandled the Patriots offensive line. The next couple weeks figure to be long ones until New England can get the taste of the debacle in Detroit out of its mouth.
•Loser -- Detroit's lopsided 34-10 victory wound up being the last game ever covered by Tom Kowalski, a longtime and incredibly well-respected Lions beat writer who died Monday at age 51. Nicknamed "Killer,'' Kowalski was a friend since my days covering the Bucs and Vikings in the old NFC Central, and his tenure on the Lions beat extended over the past three decades, first for the Oakland Press and later for Booth Newspapers and MLive.com. Irreverent and informative, Kowalski was an original in every way, and all of us who read and enjoyed his coverage over the years consider ourselves to be the losers today.