It feels like it was just yesterday that we were all moaning about the officiating and sloppy play in a sideways Thursday opener at Lincoln Financial Field.
And then Aaron Rodgers happened.
Somehow, on Sunday night at Lambeau, Rodgers went from riding a cart towards an uncertain future, after an inauspicious start to this particular game, to slicing and dicing a loaded Bears D and announcing his return to the NFL in the most emphatic way possible. He wasn’t just getting by out there, either. After his knee crumpled in a pocket collapsed by Khalil Mack and Roy Roberson-Harris, he got better.
“It would have had to take something really catastrophic injurywise to keep me off the field in the second half,” Rodgers told NBC’s Michelle Tafoya at the gun. “I went in the locker room, did all the tests, and then I was in the indoor facility, trying to loosen up. But I knew once I got back on field, the adrenaline would start flowing, I’d be able to hang in there.”
He did more than that. Like, a lot more than that …
At the time of his injury: three for seven, 13 yards, 50.3 rating; Packers down 10-0.
After post-halftime return: 17 for 23, 273 yards, three TDs, 152.7 rating; Packers outscore Bears 24-6.
The capper was a play where, as he said, he hung in, moving in the pocket long enough for his receivers to go into a scramble drill. Randall Cobb, sitting down right in Rodgers’ sightline, broke off his route. And with most of the defense following the quarterback shuffling to his left, Cobb raced up the right sideline for 75 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
Week 1 got off to a bumpy start on Thursday, but now we’re off and running.
In this week’s MMQB, we’ll look at Ryan Fitzpatrick, on his seventh team in Year 14, outgunning Drew Brees in a shootout at the Superdome; we’ll give you Tom Brady’s motivation as he ripped apart the Texans to kickoff Year 19; we’ll explain how Ron Rivera’s sturdy operation in Charlotte has its foundation; and we’re going to Miami to show how the longest game in NFL history revealed the difference in the Dolphins.
But could you start anywhere else but with the Packers on the first full Sunday of the NFL season?
The great thing about this game was that, over the first half or so, the story seemed pretty unlikely to be the one we’d be discussing on Monday morning. At that point, Packers-Bears was playing out like as if we were all watching a real-time referendum on the Raiders’ decision to trade Khalil Mack.
First there was the pressure on the play on which Rodgers got hurt, with 9:22 left in the second quarter. A few minutes later Mack came free, sacked backup DeShone Kizer, and ripped the ball from the QB’s hands. And finally, with 27 seconds left in the half, he picked off a bungled Kizer screen pass and ran it in for a score.
At that point, some Packers figured they’d seen the last of Rodgers for the night. The cart coming out to get you is typically a good sign of that a player is done for the day. Kizer even addressed his teammates at halftime, telling them he needed their trust. Then they went out to warm up for the second half, and you-know-who snuck on to the field behind them.
“He was in the back as we came out and we heard the crowd,” veteran tight end Lance Kendricks told The MMQB’s Kalyn Kahler. “And we were like, ‘Oh, there he is.’ It was cool.”
And then, everything changed.
The Packers made a slight adjustment—snapping Rodgers the ball out of the pistol, to limit how much he’d have to move—but the rest was business as usual.
Shut out in the first half, the Packers scored on all four of their meaningful second-half posessions. The three touchdown drives were of 81, 75 and 75 yards. It was one of those nights.
“Aaron Rodgers was remarkable,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I just can’t tell you how proud I am of him.”
The NFL should be too. Because of him, we’re all waking up on Monday morning with a pretty different feeling about pro football than we did on Friday. And given all that’s happened the last few months, the folks at 345 Park could use that.
WATCH: THE MONDAY NIGHT KEY
Albert Breer breaks down a critical factor in the Raiders-Rams Monday night game.
At dinner a few hours after the Patriots beat back the Texans by a 27-20 count, someone in Tom Brady’s party asked the question that a lot of people have over the last few years: “The end of this game, Tom’s fresh as a daisy. How does that work?”
Tom Brady’s dad, Tom Sr., certainly understood where that was coming from, after his son threw for 277 yards, three touchdowns and one pick (off a deflection) on 26-of-39 passing against a Texans defense welcoming J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus back to the lineup. Brady didn’t just make throws we’ve never seen 41-year-olds make before in the win. He made throws very few guys on the planet can.
“It just stuns me,” the elder Brady said from his car, late Sunday night. “It’s been an amazing ride.”
It wasn’t always smooth over the last few months. There was tension at Gillette Stadium at the end of last year. Brady kept away from all voluntary parts of the offseason program for the first time in his career. There was plenty of parsing of his social media activity, and questions on whether he’d come back again.
But what Brady’s dad saw through it all was that his kid’s passion for football hadn’t gone anywhere. Brady Sr. has said he’d be fine with Brady Jr. retiring—and he fully understands why No. 12 won’t.
“He absolutely loves football,” Brady Sr. said. “He’s said it, after watching 50,000 or 60,000 hours of film, it’s not hard anymore. The only thing that’s hard—mentally, intellectually, it’s not hard for him; physically, it’s hard. That’s unless you’re in spectacular physical condition, which he’s able to achieve through all the work he’s done with his body coach.”
That body coach, Alex Guerrero, was at the center of the ongoing storyline over the last year. And while Tom Sr. wouldn’t say it, and his son himself has been a little less outspoken about it of late, this has to be satisfying for all of them, to continue to defy Father Time. Brady’s top receiver on Sunday, by the way (seven catches, 123 yards, one TD), happened to be another Guerrero devotee, Rob Gronkowski.
It’s tough to argue with the results. I’m not sure there’s another quarterback in football who makes the throw Brady made to Gronkowski for 28 yards down the seam with 1:05 left in the first half, setting up New England’s third touchdown. Nor is there one, if you listen to him, who felt as good as he did going out to eat after the game was over, part of why his dad gets a different feeling watching him play now.
“Twenty years ago, 18 years ago, I couldn’t eat two days before a game,” Brady Sr. said. “Now I’m eating without a nervous stomach an hour before the game. I guess I’m conditioned to having a very successful son. I don’t have the same fear I had 15, 20 years ago, and that’s because I’ve seen how he’s done things, prepared, and been able to perform.”
Lots of questions around Brady these days revolve around finding signs that the end might be near. I’ll just say that that there weren’t many out there on the Gillette Stadium turf on Sunday afternoon.
FITZMAGIC FALLOUT: A QB QUESTION IN TAMPA?
Chris Godwin didn’t take the bait, just so you know. I did ask the Bucs’ second-year receiver if it could be a little awkward when Jameis Winston returns from his three-game start-of-the-year suspension, given how Ryan Fitzpatrick played in New Orleans on Sunday, and that coach Dirk Koetter has made it clear that Winston isn’t guaranteed his job back. Godwin at least acknowledged that the question make sense, but went no further.
“That’s not something that we worry about, honestly,” Godwin said after landing back in Tampa. “We got a really big win today, and the next task at hand is to learn from this and go play the defending Super Bowl champions. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Right now we’ll enjoy this win and prepare for the big challenge ahead.”
That bridge will be crossed soon, though, and it looks a little different than it did 24 hours ago. Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 28 for 417 yards and four touchdowns in winning a 48-40 defense-optional war at the Superdome. It was Fitz’s first four-touchdown game in three years, and his 156.2 rating was a career high. As Godwin noted, the Eagles are next. After that, the Steelers.
What if Fitzpatrick keeps crushing it? Would Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter actually leave Winston, the quarterback they tied their futures to in 2015, on the bench? That would be hard. But it’d also be hard to see the Bucs moving away from what we saw on Sunday, given everything that’s on the line for the GM, coach and everyone else in football operations in 2018.
What’s interesting is that while Sunday’s performance will be tough to duplicate, it’s understandable why the players aren’t totally slack-jawed over it. Mike Evans is a star. DeSean Jackson is a scary downfield weapon. Godwin and fellow 2017 draftee O.J. Howard have high-end potential. Licht has invested high draft picks on the offensive line and imported tough-guy center Ryan Jensen from Baltimore in March.
Add a tough camp (the Bucs were in pads pretty much every day allowable this summer) in the Tampa heat to the equation, and the result is what you saw against New Orleans.
“After the training camp we had, we really felt like we could come out and put on a show,” said Godwin, who had three catches for 41 yards and a touchdown. “You have so many weapons that Fitz had the ability to throw to. And he did a great job of spreading the ball around and getting guys involved, and the offensive line did a really good job blocking. Just the confidence we had from training camp, with the talent we have in the room, the combination of all of that, we ended up with the result we had.”
There are other factors, too, of course. It’s Week 1, so new play-caller Todd Monken had the advantage of holding stuff back and springing it on the Saints.
That said, you’ll notice that Godwin mentioned Fitzpatrick as one element of the operation that he expected big things from. The receiver added that the only thing that surprised him about Fitzpatrick’s performance was the 12-yard run on third-and-11 with 2:42 left in the fourth quarter, which sealed the win. “I didn’t know he was that fast, man,” Godwin said of the 35-year-old QB. “Fitz was moving!”
Clearly the guys in the locker room think he can play. We all need to stay tuned to this one.
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THIS TIME, THE STORM DOESN’T UNSETTLE THE DOLPHINS
Some nuts and bolts on the weather-addled Titans-Dolphins game in Miami:
• At 7 hours, 8 minutes, it was the longest game since the merger.
• The first lightning delay came with 1:11 left in the second quarter and lasted 117 minutes. The officials cut halftime down to three and a half minutes as a result.
• The second delay came with 6:47 left in the third quarter and lasted 122 minutes.
• The temperature at kickoff was 89 degrees, with a heat index of 99, which makes it the hottest game the Titans has played in since becoming the Titans in 1999.
• Food consumed by players during the downtime: barbecue.
• That’s right, barbecue. Seeing it out, in fact, was the one thing that caught coach Adam Gase off guard.
“The only thing that I thought was weird, when we came back in the second time … we’d been waiting for an hour, maybe hour and a half, and I just saw all these Mission BBQ boxes out,” Gase told me from his office a couple hours after the game finally ended. “And I’m going, ‘We’re playing a game.’ I think it was 5 o’clock. It was crazy, considering our guys had been in there and had their pregame meal at 10.”
The food and the weather delays weren’t the only weird aspects of the day. The score was 7-3 when the game was stopped the first time, and it was 7-3 when it was stopped the second time. From there, over the final 21:47, all hell broke loose.
Each team scored a kickoff return touchdown (Jakeem Grant for Miami, Darius Jennings for the Titans) in the fourth quarter, and Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills’ second touchdown catch of the day, also in the fourth quarter, was good for 75 yards. Back-to-back drives ended in picks (one from Blaine Gabbert, in for a nicked up Marcus Mariota). And the Dolphins survived, scoring 20 of the 37 post-delay points.
The best news? Well, the 27-20 win also was a nice validation of the retooling that Gase, GM Chris Grier and EVP of football ops Mike Tannenbaum undertook this offseason. Part of the reason for it was that last year’s Dolphins had trouble steering things back on course when they went awry (Hurricane Irma, Chris Foerster’s video, Ryan Tannehill’s ACL).
So they went about trying to build a sturdier locker room with better leaders, letting Ndamukong Suh and Jarvis Landry (among others) walk, while bringing in guys like Danny Amendola, Josh Sitton, Frank Gore, and Robert Quinn. At least for one day, all THE change seemed to have the intended affect: Weird circumstances (and the team has had plenty in recent years) didn’t affect the ’18 Dolphins quite the same as they had in the past.
“These guys hang out off the field, they like being around each other,” Gase said. “And I think today was one of those times where these guys being around each other as much as they have been probably paid off, because they were able to stay engaged and juice it back up when we went back out there the first time and then did the same thing the second time.”
Which is why, when everything was going down on Sunday, Gase said, “I was never worried about it, just because this group, there’s a lot of veteran presence, and guys that have been through a lot of things in their career, both good and bad. So I felt good about where our leaders were at.”
Whether it means more than just a win on Sept. 9 remains to be seen. But I’d say getting this sort of result would have been far from a sure thing last year.
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THE PANTHERS D IS THE FOUNDATION
I’m guilty of the same thing most everyone else is regarding the Panthers. A lot of the focus in Carolina this offseason centered on two issues: David Tepper buying the team, and Norv Turner being hired to work with Cam Newton.
It was really neither of those things that won Tepper his first game as owner and Turner his first game as OC yesterday, 16-8 over Dallas. It was, instead, what it’s often been throughout Ron Rivera’s eight years in charge: the defense. And that’s notable because the Panthers are now on their third coordinator on that side in as many years.
Sean McDermott the head coach in Buffalo now, and Steve Wilks has the Arizona job. Successor Eric Washington didn’t miss much of a beat on Sunday. Carolina held the Cowboys to 232 yards and just 4.1 yards per play.
Washington has been groomed for this for a while. Like McDermott and Wilks before him, the new DC had a long history with Rivera (he was Rivera’s intern in Chicago for the Super Bowl season of 2006, when Rivera was the Bears’ coordinator). And as was the case with his predecessors, Rivera has given Washington full play-calling authority for a defense that he and McDermott designed back in 2011.
But more important than any of that is that he’s passed along a certain standard that a lot of people have had their hands in establishing, and not just coaches. Four or five years ago, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly told me he wanted to build a legacy defense in Charlotte, like the Steelers and Ravens have. By maintaining their level over the course of different play-callers, it seems Kuechly’s group is close to achieving that.
“One of the biggest things I do, and this is in all phases, they need to take ownership, they need to understand what the standard is,” Rivera said over his cell last night. “Set the standard, and hold everyone accountable to the standard, and if it slips, they’re the ones that have to be responsible to get it back on track. I tell the guys, I shouldn’t have to cheerlead every day at practice.
“It shouldn’t be me running around, yelling and screaming constantly. If they see something, correct it. And that’s been one thing that’s helped us as a football team, the willingness of our guys to take the standard, understand what it is, and then hold each other accountable.”
Never was it more apparent than at the end of the game. The Cowboys finally looked to have gotten their offensive act together early in the fourth quarter, with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Rivera’s radar was up, at that point, for any sign of trouble within his ranks. Instead, he looked at the bench and saw a poised and calm group.
That unit closed things out from there, generating a turnover on downs, then a strip sack from Mario Addison (a Panther since 2012) to end the Cowboys’ final drive.
“Great effort,” Rivera said, “And Mario’s one of those guys who’s been here the whole time. He understands what our standard is and what kinds of things are acceptable and what aren’t.”
I expect we’ll see Newton get better in the coming weeks, because I do believe that Turner and his son, quarterbacks coach Scott Turner, have made progress with Newton that will take root on game day soon. But they do have a little time, because of the margin for error the defense gives them, and has always given the offense.
As for specifics, Rivera said Washington brings a mix of the hyperaggressive Wilks and the more conservative McDermott from a play-calling standpoint. And yes, he sees Washington as getting his head coaching shot at some point too, which is why he’s already looking at who might come after that.
He’s also shown that whoever does will get to put their own mark on the job—Rivera gives the DC full autonomy, only making suggestions periodically and never in front of players or assistants—and probably get the same familiar results.
… OF THE WEEK
Hard not to be classy if you’re wearing a monocle. Just ask Mr. Peanut. We’ll have more on this in a bit.
At least those poor people in Cleveland have Ohio State football. And it’s true, the Browns last won their opener in 2004. Before that? A win over the Bengals in 1994, with a Bill Belichick-led Cleveland team surviving two Vinny Testaverde picks to prevail 28-20.
“Just felt grateful and appreciative to be here. This may sound a little cheesy, but I was so excited to get to run on the field as a Colt, and to get to play with T.Y. and Jack and Vinny ... ”
Colts QB Andrew Luck on being back out with teammates T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle and Adam Vinatieri. The sentiment is genuine. One thing you realized if you were around Luck this summer was that when he was hurt—and a lot of players go through this—he felt like he wasn’t even on the team anymore. That’s over now. And despite the loss to the Bengals (remember, he looked to have converted third-and-15 before tight end Jack Doyle was stripped of the ball at the Cincinnati 15 with under a minute left), there were plenty of good things to build on. But Luck is being real when he says he’s just happy to be throwing the ball around with his buddies again, and that’s very much the way he sees all this. Which is pretty cool.
The guys in Baltimore are clearly amateurs, and this is a blatant insult to the table-wrecking game. #BillsMafia
SIX FROM SATURDAY
A look at the college football weekend from an NFL perspective:
1. All eyes remain on Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who orchestrated a blowout of Chip Kelly and UCLA on Saturday. And now, for his NFL admirers, it’s how Riley adjusted his offense for new starting QB Kyler Murray, the Oakland A’s first-round pick who’s in his last year of football before embarking on a baseball career. Murray is shorter than Baker Mayfield, with more athleticism and less arm talent, but the Sooners haven’t missed a beat. “Lincoln has an answer for everything,” one personnel exec said. “If he knows what you’re in defensively, it’s a wrap.”
2. Talking to SI’s Ross Dellenger, USC coach Clay Helton compared his star linebacker Porter Gustin’s build to that of a “Marvel superhero,” in explaining the benefits of his very strict diet. Of late, Gustin’s game has matched his physique. Scouts took note of how disruptive he was in a loss to Stanford.
3. An up and a down from Georgia’s win over South Carolina … Up: LB D’Andre Walker is starting to look like the star he’s been projected to be, though he got nicked in the game … Down: CB DeAndre Baker. Yes, he had a near pick-6, but he also drew two PI calls, and scouts are growing a bit concerned about his physicality.
4. I tweeted it Saturday so I’ll write it here: I think Nick Bosa is better right now than Joey Bosa was at any point in his three years at Ohio State. He looks borderline unblockable and put Rutgers freshman QB Art Sitkowski out of commission on Saturday.
5. Clemson has built quite the rep for developing receivers (DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, etc.), and the next great one there might be true sophomore Tee Higgins.
6. Speaking of impressive performances in the Clemson game, Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond put on a heck of a show—and might have gotten the upset if not for the dumbest rule in football.
1. The lack of an anthem policy, for now, seems to be a non-issue, and so I’d expect the union and league to do what they’ve done the last few weeks—not much—about it. The reality is that there was support from some corners of NFL ownership for leaving the policy as it has been, and the players would certainly be for that, and so my sense the sort of wink-wink agreement to drag the talks out a little makes sense. This way the owners and players get a chance to give the “do nothing” solution a test drive, and the rest of us get to see if the conventional wisdom that this was the way to go all along is correct.
2. Le’Veon Bell’s monocled emoji after the Steelers’ mucked-up tie in Cleveland was another example of the star back twisting the knife on the team in a “You’ve made me uncomfortable the last two years, so I’m not doing you favors now” kind of way. Do I think staying away is smart for Bell? No, I don’t. He’s losing $855K a week, and that money isn’t coming back—and most NFL people I talk to aren’t so sure there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow waiting for him. He has four things working against him in that regard. First, his age. He’ll be 27 in February and going into year seven of his career, which is pretty far down the line for a running back. Second, he has a suspension history. Third, he’s been hurt (sports hernia, MCL tear, etc.) Fourth, teams have taken note of how his teammates reacted to Bell not reporting last week. Again, Bell’s a great, great player. But if I’m another team, I’m not sure I wouldn’t just look to the draft for younger, cheaper running backs.
3. No getting around it—Nate Peterman was awful on Sunday for Buffalo. But I’ll repeat what I’ve said before in this space. My belief is, based on the investment they’ve made, the priority in the Bills’ handling of the quarterbacks this year has to be what’s best for Josh Allen. And I have a hard time seeing where playing behind the Buffalo line is what’s right for Allen’s development right now.
4. While we’re on Peterman, his predecessor Tyrod Taylor didn’t exactly set the world on fire on Sunday either, throwing for 197 yards, a touchdown and a pick on 15-of-40 passing for the Browns against Pittsburgh. Those numbers were a part of why Cleveland struggled to get even a tie despite generating six takeaways on defense. But Taylor struggled a bit with his accuracy from the pocket, which was a problem for him in Buffalo too. We’ll see if he can get back on track in New Orleans on Sunday.
5. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes was mighty impressive in throwing for 256 yards and four touchdowns on 15-of-27 passing. And there were plenty of good signs beyond the numbers that the Chiefs brass took from the 38-28 win over the Chargers. There’s what they knew—Mahomes’ touchdown throw to Tyreek Hill was the kind rope that made him the 10th overall pick in the draft in the first place. And there’s what the Chiefs are still learning—how good he is extending plays in live action. He showed that part of his game in converting a third-and-13 to Hill for 34 yards late in the third quarter. Mahomes is going to be fun to watch from here on out.
6. What I liked about the Eagles on Thursday: It was ugly for a while, and they rode their defense, until the offense got the running game in gear, and they just found a way—which illustrates how they’re a team that wins by a lot of different means. That’s a great sign for Philly, and coach Doug Pederson agreed when I asked him about it on Thursday. “There are a lot of ways to win a football game. That’s a great thing, because until all three phases catch up and click, it’s great to see the defense step up, and it’s great to see the offense make some plays in the second half, the special teams cover some kicks, [punter] Cam [Johnston] kicked the heck out of the football tonight. It’s coming. it’s a slow process, but we’ve got some time and we’ll keep working.”
7. Kirk Cousins looked very comfortable in Week 1, and his numbers reflected that—and he looked a player who doesn’t feel like he has to do everything to win. Vikings safety Harrison Smith wound up as the star of the afternoon, with a fumble recovery, a sack and game-clinching interception, and the run/pass breakdown was pretty close to 50/50, with the Vikings running the ball 32 times for 116 yards. I think all of that is just fine with the $84 million man.
8. I wouldn’t worry too much about Jimmy Garoppolo’s worst day as a Niner. I don’t think anyone paying attention expected John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan to have the team fixed in 20 months, so it should come as no surprised that the roster isn’t quite where they need it to be yet.
9. Case Keenum threw three picks, so his Broncos debut certainly wasn’t perfect. But you have to like the way Keenum kept swinging. His teammates certainly did. “We’re not going to get down, that’s Case, that’s some of us other players as leaders on this team,” receiver Demaryius Thomas told the Denver media. “Forget those things and play on. That’s going to be our personality. We’re not going to carry all that negative stuff around with us.” On the game-winning drive against Seattle, Keenum was nails: 4-for-4 for 39 yards and the clinching touchdown.
10. I can’t believe I’m saying this in 2018: Adrian Peterson looked really, really good in Week 1. His performance—166 yards from scrimmage (on 28 touches)—was one of the better surprises from Sunday.
Two new coaches and a new quarterback get unveiled tonight, but I think it’s the other team in the mix that’s most interesting. The Rams have spent this offseason trying to maximize the window they have while Jared Goff is still on his rookie deal. And so now a splashy offseason is put to the test.
As a result, Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Brandin Cooks are all aboard and will be front and center tonight in Oakland. Of course, we’ve seen these chemistry experiments—adding big-time names/egos to a contender to try to get it over the top—fail in the past.
Why won’t this one? Sean McVay’s track record in Washington and L.A. has shown he has an ability to manage big personalities and different types of players, which has allowed the Rams to cast a wide net for talent. And the best part is that he doesn’t mind much that all the splashy moves put a little pressure on everyone to win now.
“I don’t want our players ever to fear failure,” McVay told me a little while back, when we discussed the moves. “We always talk about attacking success.”
One thing’s for sure, starting tonight, it won’t be boring.
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