Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a Week 1 in the NFL that’s always rife with the potential for overreaction...
• Week 1 offers no guarantees of anything, but we can say this with an air of confidence on the first Sunday night of the regular season: If you thought Marcus Mariota’s outstanding preseason showing was a fluke, you got that one flat wrong. In the historic first season-opening meeting ever of two rookie quarterbacks who went 1-2 in the draft, Tennessee’s Mariota and Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston played a little role reversal Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
On this day at least, Mariota, the No. 2 pick, was tops. By a mile. Mariota threw more touchdowns (four) than incompletions (three) in his first NFL start, and his four scoring passes all came in the first half, to four Titans receivers. Winston by comparison threw a pick-6 on his first attempt of the game— becoming the first quarterback to accomplish that dubious feat since Atlanta’s Brett Favre in 1991— and did not inspire confidence on the ball security front with two interceptions and two fumbles (both of which he recovered).
Tennessee’s 42-14 blowout win over the Bucs was as resounding a success for Mariota as anyone could have imagined. He became the first quarterback to ever throw two touchdowns in the first quarter of his first start, and then he doubled that total in the second quarter. He was so good and so effective that Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt took him out early in the fourth quarter, with Tennessee up 42-7 and in complete command.
Mariota entered the league back in April with the critics talking about what he can’t do, and what part of his game wasn’t NFL ready. But those question marks and that chatter has faded quickly, and he continues to prove that he can play under center or in the shotgun, has all the leadership skills his position demands in the NFL, and is as accurate as any rookie quarterback to hit the league in a long time. He finished Sunday 13 of 16 for 209 yards and those four touchdowns, and never came close to throwing an interception.
Mariota’s eye-opening game wasn’t a surprise to the Titans, who have seen potential greatness in him from almost the moment he arrived in Nashville. When I went through training camp in early August, team officials were almost giddy about Mariota’s particular blend of talent and demeanor, and the feeling was that the game would not overwhelm him at any point this season.
If anything, Mariota made it look easy against the Bucs, and that’s probably not helpful for his development. It’ll raise the expectation level all the more, and will crank up the amount of hype that surrounds him to new levels. But as he showed on Sunday, Mariota seems unfazed by much of anything. He handled everything Tampa Bay threw at him, and led his team to a point total that was two touchdowns more than the Titans’ highest-scoring game of 2014.
Winston will no doubt have better days this season, and the Bucs are convinced that he’ll be a difference-making quarterback in time. But Mariota has already reached that status almost overnight. And as he proved again Sunday, a team’s draft order assures little once the games start counting.
• Well, that’s not going to help anyone get past the Super Bowl hangover in Seattle. Seven months after losing the big game in the final moments against New England, another late-game meltdown doomed the Seahawks, this time in St. Louis. And after the 34-31 overtime loss to the Rams, Seattle doesn’t even have time to conduct another team-bonding trip to Hawaii to help ease the sting of its latest defeat.
There was irony aplenty for the Seahawks on Sunday. They seemingly paid dearly for safety Kam Chancellor’s holdout, because his replacement, Dion Bailey, slipped and fell on Lance Kendricks’s game-tying 37-yard touchdown catch in the final minute of regulation. Then trailing 34-31 in overtime, the two-time defending NFC champs needed one yard to convert on fourth down and keep the game going. This time, they actually did opt to hand Marshawn Lynch the ball on a short-yardage run, but he was stuffed for a two-yard loss, setting off bedlam on the Rams sideline.
Add in the Seattle onside kick that wasn’t supposed to be an onside kick at the start of overtime—kicker Steven Hauschka said he mis-hit the kick and was intending to bloop it down field—and the Seahawks’ penchant for recent self-destruction got re-enforced on Sunday rather than erased. And with that kind of ill-fated start to the 2015 season, nothing about the specter of how last season ended is going away any time soon in Seattle.
• We knew the Rams defense was legit, but six sacks and an interception of Russell Wilson underscored how disruptive St. Louis can be on that side of the ball. The better news for St. Louis was finding a way to score 34 points and beat Seattle even without sidelined running backs Todd Gurley and Tre Mason, as well as receiver Brian Quick. That the Rams showed the resiliency to not fold when Seattle put on an 18-point fourth-quarter run was even more impressive.
And that was the Tavon Austin the Rams told me in training camp that we’d see this season. Head coach Jeff Fisher said the receiver-return man would be heavily involved and making plays all over the field, in a variety of roles. Austin had a 16-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter, and later added a 75-yard punt return score in the third quarter, looking very comfortable and confident under new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti.
• For a week at least, everything worked exactly as Rex Ryan planned for the bully he’s building in Buffalo. And score one for the new-look Bills, who got strong play from quarterback Tyrod Taylor in his first career start, with Taylor throwing for 195 yards and a touchdown on 14 of 19 passing, and running for 41 yards in his crisp, in-control performance. Rookie cornerback Ronald Darby had a key interception of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, and rookie running back Karlos Williams dented Indy’s defense for a 26-yard touchdown burst. Throw in new receiver/return man Percy Harvin’s 51-yard, first-quarter scoring bomb from Taylor and almost all of Buffalo’s new toys on offense were an early hit. Only running back LeSean McCoy failed to join the highlight reel, running for 41 yards on 17 carries and catching three passes for 46 more.
Give Ryan full credit for going with the athletically-gifted Taylor and his upside over the safer choice of veteran Matt Cassel at quarterback. Buffalo played aggressively on offense and set the tone from the start against a Colts team that won 13 games last season (including the playoffs) and is favored by many to get to the Super Bowl this year. The Bills said they could win big this year with steady quarterbacking, along with their stellar defense and running game, and that victorious blueprint was nicely on display in Week 1.
• If you’re scoring at home, the Colts have now been trounced to the tune of 72-21 in their past two meaningful games, with Sunday’s 27-14 loss at Buffalo providing no salve on the wound that is Indy’s 45-7 AFC Championship Game debacle in New England last January.
The Colts still don’t look tough enough up front on either line. They got pushed around for the most of the game, trailing 24-0 in the third quarter, and Indy’s troubling run defense showed no improvement, giving up 147 yards on the ground to Buffalo. Frank Gore and Andre Johnson? Not much impact in Week 1. Gore left the game in the second half with cramps in his calf, after gaining just 31 yards on nine carries, and Johnson had a meager four catches for 24 yards, and couldn’t hold on to a two-point conversion pass that hit him in the hands.
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• The Patriots’ three AFC East foes all spent lavishly and swung for the fences this off-season in an attempt to narrow the gap between themselves and the defending Super Bowl champions and perennial division powerhouse. So far, so good. The Patriots won in Thursday night’s opener at home against Pittsburgh, of course, but the Bills, Dolphins and Jets all kept pace with Week 1 victories. Not sure the last time the division started 4-0, but New England appears to have some legitimate competition for the first time in quite a while, with the Patriots at Bills one of the highlights on the Week 2 schedule.
• But about that AFC South...yuck. It got off to a embarrassingly bad start, with the Colts, Texans and Jaguars all coming up small on Sunday. Indianapolis got manhandled on the road by the fired-up Bills, but Houston and Jacksonville lost in particularly galling fashion in front of their home crowds. Only Tennessee did the division proud, dismantling Tampa Bay 42-14 on the road in that unprecedented battle of first-round quarterbacks who went 1-2 in the draft.
• Tell me again why James Jones was deemed not good enough to make the Raiders or Giants, two teams that haven’t sniffed the playoffs in a while? Because Jones always seems to become a pretty handy weapon when he dons the green and gold and starts playing catch with Aaron Rodgers.
Jones caught two touchdown passes in Green Bay’s 31-23 conquest of the Bears, and that’s how the Packers plan on making up for the loss of the injured Jordy Nelson—by spreading the ball around and finding different ways to skin the cat. I think that should settle it: Jones would be wise to never play anywhere but with Rodgers in Green Bay.
• It’s never a good look for a coach to hold a preseason-long quarterback competition, declare a winner, and then bench him in the second half of the opener. But that’s where things stand in Houston for Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and Brian Hoyer, who didn’t even last the game before giving way to Ryan Mallett. It makes everyone think O’Brien didn’t pick the right guy to begin with, and Mallett didn’t do anything to hurt that perception, at least helping Houston make a game of it after he entered the 27-20 loss to Kansas City.
Hoyer was besieged by that fearsome Kansas City pass rush, taking four sacks, throwing a pick and losing a fumble. He looked overmatched, and I would expect O’Brien will turn to Mallett next week at 1-0 Carolina. O’Brien said Hoyer wouldn’t be on a short leash this season, but they don’t get a lot shorter than getting yanked before the year is even four quarters old. The team that entertained us on Hard Knocks this summer is quickly facing a close to must-win game in Week 2.
• If you’re Kansas City, who cares if none of your passing touchdowns go to any wideouts? Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is probably sick of hearing about that trend, and it’s a meaningless bit of information if he keeps throwing the ball like he did in Houston. Smith found tight end Travis Kelce for two scores and running back Jamaal Charles for another, and those three first-half touchdowns were really all Kansas City needed to beat Houston.
• I can’t see into Ndamukong Suh’s head or heart and determine intent, but like the Patriots, he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt any more when it comes to questionable actions. Suh, Miami’s new big-money free-agent addition, was involved in a play on Sunday where he appears to have kicked off the helmet of Washington running back Alfred Morris. He also poked Washington offensive tackle Morgan Moses in the eye while shoving his hands into and under his opponent’s face mask.
Both plays could certainly be viewed through the prism of Suh’s controversial past when it comes to his penchant for dirty play. And rest assured, they will be by many. Linemen do get poked in the eye somewhat routinely during the trench warfare that rages in each game, but Suh’s kick to Morris’s helmet looked a little dubious to me. After the game Suh was asked about both plays and told the media he didn’t even know what they were talking about specifically.
• The Dolphins rallied from a 10-0 deficit to win 17-10 at Washington on the strength of a nifty 69-yard punt return by Jarvis Landry, and that’s the good news. But if Miami can’t beat this dreadful Washington team, on the road or otherwise, it has no business dreaming of ending its six-year playoff drought.
• How quickly do things change in the NFL these days? Three years ago Washington gave up a boatload to draft Robert Griffin III in the first round, and two years ago Buffalo selected EJ Manuel in the first round. Both quarterbacks spent Week 1 as their team’s No. 3 inactive passers, and were just mere afterthoughts on one of the league’s biggest days of the season.
• It really doesn’t matter who plays quarterback for the Browns, because they’re going to lose their opener no matter what. That’s an NFL-record 11 consecutive opening-week defeats for Cleveland, but the bigger story was the unexpectedly early dose of playing time for Johnny Manziel in the Browns’ 31-10 loss at the Jets. Replacing starter Josh McCown, who left the game early in the second quarter due to a concussion, Manziel treated us to the good, the bad and the ugly in less than three quarters of action.
Manziel hasn’t practiced much lately because of his elbow soreness, but he did manage to throw for 182 yards and rush for 35 more while playing more under control than at any point during his rookie season. But he was also way too careless with the ball at times, throwing an interception and losing a pair of fumbles. All three turnovers came in the second half, and blunted some of the positives of his first-half work, which included a pretty 54-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin on 3rd-and-19, on just his second throw of the game.
Manziel didn’t do enough to make Browns head coach Mike Pettine think about replacing McCown as the Browns’ starter, but we could see much more of the 2014 first-round pick if McCown’s concussion symptoms linger. Either way, Cleveland appears headed for another season of uncertainty and instability at the game’s most important position.
• You can always see the vast difference when the intensity rises to a regular-season level, because the injuries can come in waves. And what a brutal Week 1 it was on that front.
The Jets probably got hit the hardest in the injury department, with rookie linebacker Lorenzo Mauldlin being carted off the field and immediately hospitalized with a serious neck injury, just after veteran cornerback Antonio Cromartie suffered what appeared to be a significant knee injury.
The Colts lost receiver T.Y. Hilton to a knee injury, and quarterbacks McCown and Derek Carr (hand) of Oakland were forced out of their games in the first half. Washington receiver DeSean Jackson, the oft-injured veteran, is again sidelined, leaving his team’s loss to Miami in the first half with a hamstring problem.
But the most costly loss might have been Carolina’s, with All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly leaving just before halftime with a concussion. Kuechly is the most valuable member of the Panthers’ stout defense, and he can’t be replaced as a play-maker or a team leader. Carolina awarded him with a five-year, $62-million contract extension last week, and if he’s out of the lineup for long, the Panthers’ chances of winning the NFC South for a third consecutive season will be dramatically reduced.
• For those who believed quarterback Blake Bortles and the Jaguars were ready to take a step up in competitiveness this season, Sunday’s home-opening 20-9 loss to Carolina was an eye-opening disappointment. Bortles was just 22 of 40 for 183 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown, and his pick-6 to Panthers cornerback Josh Norman in the third quarter was the big play in the game. The Jaguars produced a puny 75 yards in the second half, and Bortles absorbed five sacks.
Until further notice, the Jaguars are who we thought they were.
• I wasn’t in favor of changing the PAT rules, because I thought it was a solution in search of a problem. But with four point-afters missed or blocked on Sunday, it does seem to add a degree of difficulty to a play that had little or no drama in the past. Only eight PATs were missed all of last season. Houston’s Randy Bullock was the first kicker to blow the new 33-yard PAT, and with the Texans losing at home by seven points to the Chiefs, that missing point could have wound up being very important.
And even when the kickers don’t miss, the play has become more of a must-see entity, because there are now circumstances like the one faced by Cleveland kicker Travis Coons on Sunday against the Jets. Coons made his 33-yard point-after following the Manziel-to-Benjamin 54-yard touchdown pass, but the Browns were called for illegal formation on the kick. Coons made the 38-yard try, but saw the Browns called for holding on that one, costing another 10 yards. Coons, on his third attempt, nailed the point-after from 48 yards, setting a perhaps never to be broken (until next week) NFL record for longest PAT ever.
• The loss of Terrell Suggs for the year due to another Achilles tendon tear makes Baltimore’s potential path to the Super Bowl much more difficult. Until his injury, Suggs was the Ravens defender that opponents had to account for, and his absence will be felt both on the field and in the locker room.
Suggs tore his other Achilles in the spring of 2012, but it was early enough in the year for him to rehab and be back on the field in at least a limited manner in Baltimore’s Super Bowl season. That is not the case this time, and it’s difficult to imagine what he’ll have left in terms of explosiveness by the time the 2016 season rolls around, at which point he’ll be 33.
Without Suggs in the lineup, there will now be an even bigger burden placed on linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw in the Ravens defensive game plan.
• Our first glimpse of Peyton Manning in the offense installed by new Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak wasn’t very familiar, but it was a successful debut in a bottom-line sense. The Broncos outlasted visiting Baltimore 19-13 in game that featured no offensive touchdowns, and for Denver, it had been since 2006 that the Broncos last won without one.
Maybe this is how victory is going to look like this season for the Broncos, whose defense could be among the league’s strongest. Manning finished 24 of 40 for just 175 yards, with a pick-6 interception thrown to Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith. It’s different given the offensive-minded formula that has been in place for so long, but that doesn’t mean Denver can’t adapt and thrive playing this style of game. With Sunday’s showing, Manning didn’t prove last year’s late slump was a just a blip, but he and his Broncos are 1-0. And for now, that’s the only statement that matters.
• The Chargers never do things the easy way, and Week 1 fit the pattern perfectly. A 21-3 deficit against visiting Detroit turned into a 33-28 win for the team I picked to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, and that comeback included a 30-0 run by San Diego.
And what a return to form by Chargers receiver Keenan Allen after a so-so showing in 2014. Allen had a monstrous career day, catching 15 of the 17 passes he was thrown, for 166 yards. With San Diego playing without the suspended Antonio Gates, quarterback Philip Rivers locked in on Allen and stayed there for most of the game, finishing with 35 completions on 42 attempts, with 404 yards and two touchdowns.
San Diego has the best offense in the AFC West. It's better than fellow playoff contenders Denver and Kansas City. And even down 18 points in a game, the Chargers are never out of it.
• Arizona had Carson Palmer playing on Sunday at home against New Orleans, so of course the Cardinals won. With Palmer in the lineup, Arizona is darn near unbeatable. Without him, the Cardinals are unwatchable. Palmer threw for 307 yards and three touchdowns, and was at his best late in the game, when the pressure was on, tossing a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns that helped the Cardinals to a 31-19 win.
Palmer is back after last year’s ACL injury. and that means so are the Cardinals as Super Bowl contenders. In Arizona, it’s as simple as that.