Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 2 that was as troubling and tumultuous a seven-day span as the NFL has ever experienced ...
• For now, with the news still sinking in, it’s fair only to say the 2014 season just changed dramatically in Washington on what was a sun-splashed, winning Sunday afternoon at FedEx Field. But in time, perhaps we’ll realize considerably more than just the season was altered. Will this be the day we look back on as the beginning of the end of Washington’s Robert Griffin III era? Did backup quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was brilliant in relief of the injured Griffin, take the first step in climbing his way to the top of the depth chart for good?
Griffin suffered a non-contact dislocation of his left ankle that could have season-ending implications. While it’s not yet known how long Griffin will miss (an MRI is scheduled for Monday), this is clearly Cousins’ team for the foreseeable future, and the third-year Michigan State product made a bold opening statement for why it should stay that way in Washington’s 41-10 demolition of the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars.
Coming off the bench, Cousins instantly looked comfortable in head coach Jay Gruden's version of the West Coast offense. He completed a crisp 22-of-33 passes for 250 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the team’s most explosive offensive showing since 2012. Cousins led Washington to touchdown drives on his first three possessions, building a commanding 21-0 lead, and helped roll up a gaudy 449 yards of offense despite missing playmakers like tight end Jordan Reed (hamstring) and receiver DeSean Jackson (shoulder) for most or all of the game. Washington topped 40 points for the first time in two seasons, and finished with 32 first downs and more than 39 minutes of possession.
It’s too early to know where this story might lead in Washington and whether this could mean a changing of the guard at quarterback. But on this day I couldn’t help but remember another franchise that had its history altered by a Week 2 quarterback injury, which sidelined a star and paved the way for the surprising emergence of a young face who would go on to an unanticipated level of success.
Thirteen years ago, on the NFL's first Sunday of action after 9/11, New England’s Drew Bledsoe went down in a Week 2 loss to the Jets, and the legend that is Tom Brady was launched. That doesn’t make Cousins the next Brady, of course; it only serves to remind us that we don’t always know the road ahead as well as we presume to, and how firmly an opportunity may be seized. Cousins’ chance is now before him.
Like Cousins, a 2012 fourth-round pick, Brady played collegiately in Michigan and didn’t enter the league with great fanfare, lasting until the sixth round. But he was ready when his number was called in September 2001, and it’d be a far less implausible turn of events to see Cousins replace the twice-injured Griffin in Washington when compared to the ascension of the little-known Brady to No. 1 in New England, where he replaced a beloved veteran who had quarterbacked the Patriots to the Super Bowl just five years earlier.
That kind of storybook rise may never be matched in the NFL, but Cousins now seems to have his first legitimate shot of making Washington reconsider its future at the game’s most crucial position. If Cousins plays as well as he did against Jacksonville, and Washington continues to win, how could Gruden take the ball away from him and re-insert Griffin? Cousins could greatly complicate the quarterback situation in Washington, and it might not take much more than another couple strong showings to build his case for the full-time job.
Yes, we’re getting ahead of the story, but stranger twists have unfolded. This season was supposed to be about Griffin’s re-invention under Gruden, and the quarterback’s maturation as a pocket passer after the debacle of 2013, but the script just got changed early in his comeback story. Griffin was a promising 2-of-3 for 38 yards passing, with 22 yards rushing, when he got hurt, landing awkwardly on his left ankle as he delivered a jump pass near the Washington sideline. He now may face his second lengthy rehabilitation in three years and another significant chunk of lost time.
Instead of Griffin’s expected return to prominence, it’s Cousins who will play the lead role in wherever his team winds up going this season, after two-plus years of filling in and serving as an insurance policy behind Griffin. His opportunity has arrived, and what Cousins makes of it could make for an unexpected development in D.C. Only time will tell, but Sunday might have changed everything in Washington.
• What was the name of that Browns rookie quarterback again? Johnny something? The name to remember in Cleveland on Sunday belonged to Brian Hoyer, who led his 1-1 Browns to the upset of the day, a 26-24 conquest of visiting New Orleans in the franchise’s first victorious home-opener in 10 years.
Following up his strong second half of work in last week’s 30-27, last-second loss at Pittsburgh, Hoyer kept the arrow pointing up for these Browns, driving Cleveland 85 yards in 14 plays in the final 2:46 to set up Billy Cundiff’s game-winning 29-yard field goal with three ticks remaining. The winning march started on the Browns' 4-yard line, a daunting proposition that Hoyer overcame.
That ought to keep the Johnny Manziel hype well below the mania level for a while. Hoyer has helped the Browns outscore their opponents 50-27 in their past six quarters, and his efficient play over that span has quickly validated why rookie Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine opted for him instead of Manziel as the team’s starter early this season. Going head-to-head against a pair of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks the past two weeks in Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees, Hoyer has acquitted himself well. He’s now 4-1 in his career as the Browns' starter, turning in a solid 24-of-40 passing day, for 204 yards and one touchdown against the Saints.
I thought Hoyer was the right choice to start early this year, and now he has proven he’s better than the journeyman status some assigned him. And his Browns are exceeding expectations, too. Cleveland has served notice that it will be competitive this season, pushing the Steelers to the limit and beating the Saints on Sunday, despite playing without receiver Josh Gordon (suspension), tight end Jordan Cameron (shoulder) and running back Ben Tate (knee).
• With Cousins’ heroics in Washington, Hoyer’s star turn in Cleveland and Drew Stanton’s impressive relief win for Arizona against the Giants, it was a pretty heady day all around for ex-Michigan State quarterbacks. The Spartans aren’t really known as the quarterback factory of the Big Ten, but 3-0 in Week 2 speaks volumes. And as some have pointed out, Eagles starter Nick Foles passed through East Lansing before transferring to Arizona. Philadelphia plays at Indianapolis Monday night. (Where have you gone, Jeff Smoker?)
Stanton didn’t have gaudy stats in Arizona’s 25-14 win: 14-of-29 for 167 yards and one touchdown. But he took care of the football and won a road game in getting his first start since December 2010, for Detroit. He kept the train moving in Carson Palmer’s absence (shoulder injury), and the Cardinals are suddenly 2-0.
• Speaking of Arizona, it’s time to admit a lot of clubs missed the boat for years when they didn’t hire Bruce Arians as their head coach. Arians is 12-6 in his first 18 games with the Cardinals, and this year’s team is unbeaten at 2-0 even though the defensive talent drain has been substantial.
Arizona has knocked off Philip Rivers and Eli Manning so far this year, two of the most celebrated members of the 2004 quarterback draft class, limiting San Diego to 17 points Monday night, and the Giants to 14 on Sunday. I really don’t know how the Cardinals are doing it without linebackers Karlos Dansby, Daryl Washington and John Abraham, as well as defensive lineman Darnell Dockett. But I’m done doubting them.
• It’s no big deal that Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan are getting loud in each other’s general direction on the sideline, because that’s how both of them coach. Being demonstrative and emotional is their style. But I get that the strain is starting to show in New Orleans, where the Saints have started 0-2, losing by a field goal on the road to the Falcons and Browns.
New Orleans' defense was thought to be way better than this. Atlanta had 568 yards of offense last week, and Cleveland marched almost the length of the field against the Saints in the game’s final three minutes, with the key play on the drive being a 28-yard Hoyer pass to a wide-open Andrew Hawkins, setting up Billy Cundiff’s game-winner from 29 yards.
The Saints are still a playoff-bound team and the eventual NFC South champion in my mind. I picked them to claim the NFC and win it all this season. But it is worth noting that only one team in the past five seasons has overcome an 0-2 start to make the postseason, the 2013 Carolina Panthers, who went 12-4 and won the NFC South.
• Break up the Bills. Make that the alone-in-first-place Bills. Buffalo isn’t winning beauty pageants so far in 2014, but you think they care in western New York? Between last week’s agreement to sell the team to local ownership in the Pegula family, and the victories at Chicago and against Miami, there’s reason to believe again in Buffalo.
This is how the Bills were supposed to win this season -- with defense, a running game and solid special teams. Buffalo thrashed the Dolphins 29-10 on Sunday at a buoyant Ralph Wilson Stadium thanks to four sacks of Ryan Tannehill, two huge plays by running back C.J. Spiller (one of which was a 102-yard kickoff return touchdown) and two more impact plays on special teams (an Anthony Dixon punt block and a Randell Johnson recovery of a muffed punt). The red zone offense needs work, but that’s never as glaring a shortcoming in victory as it is in defeat.
And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the first big game turned in by rookie receiving sensation Sammy Watkins, who grabbed eight EJ Manuel passes for 117 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown, the first score of his career. If Buffalo keeps getting Manuel to take care of the football and find his playmakers like he did against the Dolphins (16-of-26 for 202 yards with one touchdown), the Bills’ horrible preseason showing will soon look like an elaborate hoax designed to lull the rest of the league into a false sense of security.
• Same old Dolphins, right? Impressive one week, underwhelming the next. Miami finished with 290 yards against the Bills, but only 62 of those came in the first half, when the game was still well within reach. No Dolphins receiver had more than five catches or 56 yards (Mike Wallace’s totals), the team lost lead running back Knowshon Moreno for a month with a dislocated elbow on his first carry of the game (so much for the improved running game) and those four sacks of Tannehill gave Miami fans flashbacks to last year’s leaky pass protection.
The tough-minded Dolphins team that dominated the Patriots in the second half last week at home never remotely showed up Sunday against Buffalo. And through two weeks of the new season, that means you again don’t really know what you can count on from Miami.
• As it turns out, Eli Manning isn’t finished as an effective starting quarterback after all. You can’t blame Manning for the Giants’ disheartening 25-14 loss to the visiting Cardinals in New York’s home-opener. Up 14-10 in the fourth quarter, the Giants gave the game away with two costly fumbles and a punt coverage unit that allowed Tedd Ginn to race almost unmolested on a 71-yard return touchdown.
Manning was a very respectable 26-of-39 for 277 yards, two touchdowns and one interception that was deflected, but he couldn’t overcome Ginn’s big play and crushing fumbles by running back Rashad Jennings and kick returner Quintin Demps. One positive to take away from Sunday was the emergence of tight end Larry Donnell as Manning’s go-to target. Donnell has great hands and caught a team-best seven passes for 81 yards, averaging 11.6 per grab. If I’m Manning, I keep feeding him every chance I get, because the rest of New York’s pass-catchers specialize in drops.
You have to wonder if Tom Coughlin is going to make it through this season without his head exploding, given New York’s penchant for self-inflicted wounds. I still say he would have been better off retiring last season and going out on his terms as a two-time Super Bowl champion who deserves a fond farewell. But if things get really ugly for the Giants this season, and Coughlin misses the playoffs for the third year in a row, and fifth time in six years, his glory days in New York are going to seem long ago.
• So that’s why the Jaguars refused to play rookie quarterback Blake Bortles in the season’s opening two weeks. They were being compassionate.
Jacksonville’s offensive line surrendered a team-record 10 sacks in the 41-10 loss at Washington, with QB Chad Henne facing a jail break almost every time he dropped back into the pocket.
Since leading 17-0 at halftime last week in Philadelphia, Jacksonville has been outscored 75-10 over six quarters, and on Sunday, the Jaguars didn’t run a play in Washington territory until midway through the fourth quarter. Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley should ignore calls for Bortles to start until he can put something resembling pass protection in front of him.
• As for my other wild-card playoff pick from the state of Florida, the Bucs have started 0-2, just like the Jaguars -- so I’m looking good on that front. Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Miami are a combined 1-5 so far, and Florida remains in a state of disgrace as an NFL landscape.
The Bucs lost 19-17 to a Rams team forced to start its third-string quarterback in Week 2, but Austin Davis was up to the challenge, completing 22-of-29 passes for 235 yards, without a touchdown or interception.
Tampa Bay is in real trouble now. After losing at home to Carolina and St. Louis, the Bucs face a short week game at Atlanta on Thursday night, then trips to Pittsburgh and New Orleans after. An 0-5 start is not out of the question whatsoever for Lovie Smith’s club, and even more ominously, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy suffered a reported broken hand that looked like a serious injury, forcing him from the game for good by mid-second quarter.
• Carolina’s defense is better than I expected, even without the services of inactive DE Greg Hardy in the lineup Sunday against Detroit. The Panthers shut down the powerful Lions offense throughout almost the whole game, producing three takeaways and four sacks of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.
I legitimately thought the Panthers would sink to third place in the NFC South, but the defending division champions are 2-0 and alone in first place, with a two-game cushion over the Saints and Bucs, and a one-game advantage over the Falcons.
Carolina’s Cam Newton turned in a strong outing in his return from that hairline rib fracture, and how can you not be impressed with rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who is building a pretty good library of spectacular catches in the early days of his NFL career?
• As for Hardy’s situation, good for Carolina that it made the right call. It took about two months too long for the Panthers to arrive at their decision, but at least they gave up their "due process" defense in the face of public pressure. It cost Carolina the price of Hardy’s $772,000 game check, but the Panthers proved you can still win even when you do the right thing.
• Think of all those games the Cowboys let slip away in recent seasons, all because they didn’t or couldn’t run the ball when they needed to kill the clock and protect a lead. If you’re trying to come up with a gameplan to keep your shaky defense off the field as much as possible, riding the running game makes all kind of sense.
Dallas got the job done on the ground at Tennessee on Sunday, rushing for a gaudy 220 yards and keeping the ball for 41 minutes in a surprisingly easy 26-10 upset of the Titans. RB DeMarco Murray had the game placed in his hands, and he responded, gaining 167 yards (the third-highest total of his career) on 29 carries.
Pretty smart, Cowboys. If Tony Romo and that defense got you beat last week at home against the 49ers, why not minimize the damage they can do?
• That was more like the improvement I thought I’d see from New England’s defense in Week 1 at Miami. The Patriots defense stiffened at the line of scrimmage in a 30-7 win at Minnesota, and playmakers like safety Devin McCourty (interception), cornerback Darrelle Revis (interception and shutting down Greg Jennings in coverage) and Chandler Jones (58-yard touchdown return of a blocked field goal attempt) stepped to the fore.
The Patriots weren’t all that effective in the passing game, but the line of scrimmage was where this game was won, with New England liberally inserting 6-foot-6, 325-pound rookie OT Cameron Fleming into the game as a blocking tight end. That helped spring RB Stevan Ridley for 101 yards rushing on 25 carries, with the Patriots rushing for 150 yards on 37 attempts overall.
• The 2-0 Bengals really didn’t even need two of their best players -- Pro Bowl picks A.J. Green or Vontaze Burfict -- or a reliable kicker (Mike Nugent was just 1-of-4 on field goals) to decisively beat the Falcons. Despite the fact that Green (a reported foot ligament strain) and Burfict (stinger) left the game in the first half, and Nugent was a calamity, Cincinnati still cruised to a 14-point conquest of the Falcons.
Then again, the Bengals are going to be difficult to beat any week when Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill combine for 170 yards rushing, and WR Mohamed Sanu puts up a collection of big plays. The ex-Rutgers star caught three passes for 84 yards, with a touchdown, and even threw a 50-yard completion to fellow receiver Brandon Tate.
The loss was a significant step back for the Falcons, who entered the game with momentum after destroying the Saints defense in Week 1 in the Georgia Dome. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was as mediocre this week as he was red hot last week, throwing for just 231 yards with three interceptions, and consistently feeling the heat of the Bengals pass rush.
• The first two games of the season (at the Jets in the season-opener and at home against Houston in Week 2) were supposed to be among the most winnable games on Oakland’s schedule. Now what? The Raiders were respectable in some aspects against New York, but the Texans fairly well blew them off the field by winning 30-14, a game in which Bill O’Brien’s 2-0 team led 27-0 into the fourth quarter.
And while we’re at it, maybe O’Brien's team can win with Ryan Fitzpatrick as its starting quarterback, at least against the likes of the Washingtons and Oaklands of the league. Fitzpatrick only threw for 139 yards, but he had two touchdowns and no interceptions, and Houston got 188 yards on the ground, led by Arian Foster’s huge game (138 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries).
Oakland now travels to New England next week, then crosses the pond for its Week 4 "home" game against the Dolphins. There had better be a win in there somewhere, or head coach Dennis Allen could be in danger of losing his job by the club’s Week 5 bye.
I tend to agree with the assessment of Raiders veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, who on Sunday gave a two-word summation of Oakland’s season so far: "We suck," Woodson said, according to CSN Bay Area.
• Was it the heat that beat the defending Super Bowl champions, or a Chargers offense that hogged the ball for 42 minutes? A combination thereof, from all appearances. Seattle’s back-to-back Super Bowl Express was slowed down in the 95-degree heat wave that hit San Diego on Sunday, with field temperatures reportedly reaching a ridiculous 118 degrees.
In the 30-21 defeat of the Seahawks, the Chargers became the first team to beat Seattle by more than a touchdown in 42 regular-season games, a streak that dates to 2011 -- meaning the team’s pre-Russell Wilson era. That should cool off the dynasty talk for at least a week.
Philip Rivers did what Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay couldn’t do in Week 1 -- move the ball consistently and get points consistently against Seattle’s usually stout defense. Blueprint anyone? San Diego abused the Seahawks defense with tight end Antonio Gates, who caught all three or Rivers’ touchdown passes and was not well covered by Seattle safeties or linebackers. Rivers was an efficient 28-of-37 despite the temperature, for 284 yards and those three scores.
The Super Bowl rematch with visiting Denver is up next for the Seahawks in Week 3, and I’m guessing Seattle will prepare for plenty of Peyton Manning-to-Julius Thomas action.
• Some weeks in the NFL are only to be survived, and Green Bay fans know of what I speak about now. The Packers trailed the visiting Jets 21-3 in the second quarter and were on the cusp of an 0-2 start when desperation kicked in. Green Bay scored 28 of the game’s final 31 points, and escaped with a 31-24 victory that only served to prove the Packers never panic.
Green Bay has to be feeling pretty good about the Jordy Nelson contract extension after this one. The veteran receiver had nine catches for a career-best 209 yards, including a go-ahead 80-yard scoring bomb on which he beat New York cornerback Dee Milliner.
With the Packers facing road games at Detroit and Chicago the next two weeks, the necessity for getting to 1-1 in their home-opener might have made Sunday’s win as crucial as they come in mid-September.
• So that’s why you went out and got all those defensive upgrades, Denver. So you could win a game like the one you gutted out 24-17 at home against Kansas City on Sunday. The Broncos had just 19 first downs and a mere 325 yards of offense, with the injury-depleted Chiefs producing 28 and 380 in those categories, but Denver won thanks to a pair of goal-line stands and just enough offense.
Manning threw for 242 yards and three scores, completing 21-of-26 passes, but credit Denver for playing some timely defense. The Chiefs converted way too many third downs (11-of-16), but playing without their home-run hitter Jamaal Charles (ankle), Kansas City couldn’t convert in the game’s most pivotal moments.
Whatever works for the 2-0 Broncos, who have registered a pair of seven-point wins over the Colts and Chiefs, playoff teams in 2013, to open the season. They tried winning every game by 30 points last season, and it still didn’t get them where they wanted to go.