NFL Week 1 Highlights: Lopsided Football; Jags, Rams Win Big; David Johnson Injury
I don’t have the kind of memory that categorizes specific weeks of football. So I can’t say this week of NFL ball through 13 games is one of the worst ever. But I can say it stunk.
Week 1 margins of victory, through 14 games in 2016 and 13 in 2017 because of the Tampa Bay-Miami postponement:
2016: 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 7, 9, 9, 19.
2017: 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 20, 22, 37.
There’s no rhyme of reason to it. No trend here. Just a bad week to feed the ratings swoon. Let’s get to what happened in a week of crumminess:
• Up is down: Jags dominate in Houston. Jacksonville ran it better, passed it (slightly) better and rushed the passer lots better, remarkably, than the best defense in 2016—a defense that got back J.J. Watt. Entering the season, I didn’t expect this. The Jags have been like the early-century Washington teams, winning free-agency every year and then stinking. Glad to hear Doug Marrone wasn’t buying claims of preseason greatness either. “I’m tired of hearing how talented we are,” he told me from Houston. “When they say that, you’re usually not winning. I told our team, ‘I’m tired of hearing about our talent. Until you guys win, that doesn’t mean crap.’” They won’t do this every week, to be sure, but Marrone got what he wanted out of the running game with a 65/35 percent run-pass ratio, after physical practices in camp that were designed to get the team used to the pounding of the ground game. First-round back Leonard Fournette had a 26-carry, 100-yard rushing day Sunday. “We’ve worked on that quite a bit,” Marrone said. “We gotta get tougher. This was a good start.”
• David Johnson could miss significant time. The top pick in most fantasy drafts (I guess) after his 2,118-all-purpose-yard, 20-touchdown year in 2016, Johnson damaged his wrist at Detroit, and though X-rays were negative, Chris Mortensen reported that the Cardinals back could miss significant time. There’ll be an MRI on Monday in Phoenix. For you fantasians, pick up rookie Tarik Cohen of the Bears (who might be a revelation) or Johnson’s understudy, Kerwynn Williams. The bad thing, really, for the Cardinals is that the turnover bug that sometimes plagues 37-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer bit him again in a three-turnover loss at Detroit. Now without Johnson, the pressure increases on Palmer. Coach Bruce Arians prefers the pressure to be on Johnson. Arians is going to have to get imaginative with his game plans now, if Johnson misses a few games.
• The Ravens looked like the old marauding Ravens. Cincinnati had won six of the previous seven against the Ravens, and Baltimore (the city and the team) truly hated that kind of failure against a division foe. The Ravens took a rare rich foray into free agency this offseason, signing safety Tony Jefferson, who plays like he has anvils in his shoulder pads, and adding some young speed to the defense in the draft and signing nosetackle Brandon Williams long-term. And back came Terrell Suggs for his 15th year, looking rejuvenated in training camp because he wasn’t rehabbing an injury; he could work out to get stronger and more limber. On Sunday, Baltimore won a 20-0 shutout, holding the Bengals to 221 yards and forcing five turnovers, and afterward Suggs had a veteran’s perspective on the victory. “We were okay,” Suggs told me from Cincinnati. “We could have been a lot better today. We’re gonna enjoy it, but we have a lot of improvement to make. We’re just like every team who won one game. It’s one game.” But I could tell Suggs was excited about the potential of the defense, and about Jefferson, who led the Ravens with nine tackles and had a sack. “In the middle of the game today,” Suggs said, “I said to him, ‘You had a great career at Arizona, but you were meant to be a Raven.’”
• Ezekiel Elliott’s back. For now. Elliott’s grinding 104-yard rushing night was the key to Dallas’ 19-3 win over the Giants—but the Cowboys probably could have won without him. That’s how ineffective the Giants were on offense. Dallas is at Denver and Arizona the next two weeks, then home for the Rams and Packers. Elliott would be vital in all four games. But if the league wins the next battle in court (as early as this week) in knocking down Friday’s U.S. District Court temporary restraining order, Elliott could have to serve his six-game ban at some point this season. He said after Sunday’s game he was relieved “for the fact that I finally get a fair trial. I finally get a chance to prove my innocence.” But would he? There’s no guarantee that he would get a full trial. We’ll see in the coming weeks how the Elliott case gets resolved, but the vagaries of going to court in athletic cases—the league was stunned at the outcome of Friday’s injunction for Elliott—make predicting the outcome exceedingly hard. For now, Elliott plays, and when he plays, Dallas is the best team in the NFC East.
• Worried, Giants? Points per game, last seven games: Giants 13.6, Browns 14.0. Without Odell Beckham Jr., in the lineup (as happened Sunday night with Beckham’s bum ankle), nothing works for this offense. With him in the lineup, it’s still one of the worst offensive lines in football. It’s only one game, but the stench from it will last until next Monday, when the Lions come to the Meadowlands for the New York home opener.
• What was that about waiting a minute until Mike Martz pukes? Remember in August, when the Thomas George book on quarterback success and failure in the NFL came out and former Rams coach Mike Martz questioned the credentials of 31-year-old Sean McVay as a quarterback expert, and Martz said, “Wait a minute while I puke?” (Martz later said his comments for the book, “Blitzed: Why NFL Teams Gamble on Starting Rookie Quarterbacks,” were embellished.) In his first game as an NFL head coach, McVay led the Rams to a stunning 46-9 win over the moribund Colts at a shocked L.A. Coliseum. “A little surreal,” is how McVay put it. This game—with two interceptions of he-doesn’t-belong-there Scott Tolzien returned for touchdowns—is the classic example of coaches who say, It’s one game. But the good thing is that Jared Goff looked competent in his first NFL win, and finding out if Goff can be consistently competent is the most important thing about this season for the Rams. McVay is sort of an excitable darter-around-the-practice-field type, and it was just 11 years ago that he was a senior wideout at Miami of Ohio. So there’s going to be doubt. But just watch the quarterback. Goff’s best throw was a post route, perfectly delivered to rookie Cooper Kupp for an 18-yard touchdown. At the end of the day, Goff had thrown for 309 yards, 72 percent accuracy, and a rating of 117.9. That’s a heck of a start. Mentor Jay Gruden and McVay’s former protégé Kirk Cousins come to the Coliseum on Sunday, and that should be a better test for the Rams and for Goff. But let the Rams revel in their first great moment since the move to Los Angeles 19 months ago.