The months leading up to the start of the 2017 season weren't exactly filled with unbridled anticipation.
This year, the NFL remains dogged by concerns over long-term brain health and the league's inability to adjudicate domestic violence with any consistency or clarity. Add to that the outrage over Colin Kaepernick being blackballed for starting a protest that draws attention to racial inequality and the NFL is, in many circles, now perceived as a regressive force in mainstream culture.
Going into the first Sunday of the regular season, the best development for the NFL, at least from a competitive standpoint, was the fact that the Patriots had lost the kickoff game days before. Thanks to shrewd offseason maneuvering, the defending champs had been looking like such prohibitive favorites that many analysts were speculating on their chances to complete the perfect season they were narrowly denied in 2007. It's fair to say more than a few fans are tired of the Pats at this point, and the prospect of another NFL season of the league under their bootheels hardly seems appealing to anyone outside of New England.
If one regular-season loss creates a power vacuum, or just the appearance of one, no team was willing to occupy it on Sunday. The defending NFC champion Falcons beat the lowly Bears by the thinnest of margins. The Steelers struggled with the Browns. The Packers and Cowboys notched key conference/division wins, though both were playing at home and hardly put together brilliant performances. This isn't terrible, per se -- there need not be a runaway favorite after one week of play. That said, it would be nice if the good teams looked, y'know, good.
In recent years, the opening month of the regular season has been marked by sloppy play. It was certainly no different in Week 1 this year. This is attributed to a number of factors, including decreased practice time allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement and the fact that teams have increasingly eschewed keeping veteran players in favor of cheaper, more easily expendable young talent. Teams have always improved and adjusted over the course of a season, but even more so than in the past, September is reserved for getting your bearings. Mix in the usual assortment of injuries and frustrating calls by the refs, and you've got yourself a pretty lackluster Week 1.
Let's go to the tape.
Good seats still available
The 49ers are doing a Hall of Fame ceremony and it is sad. pic.twitter.com/L3vfrWvQTi- Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) September 10, 2017
We won't know until ratings are reported over the first few weeks whether masses of people are sincere about boycotting the NFL, but we do know there was clear disinterest from several markets during this opening weekend. While the above photo was taken during halftime at Levi's Stadium, when some fans are on the concourse getting food or going to the bathroom or just trying to stay out of direct sunlight in 90-degree heat, the overall turnout in San Francisco and Los Angeles on Sunday (for the Rams' opener) was decidedly poor. Those are two teams that were not expected to do well this year, so it's not surprising that casual fans would stay home. Still, the images of quarter-filled huge stadiums doesn't speak well for what Las Vegas will reap by spending $2 billion to lure the Raiders to town.
Pagano: Who did we play again?
Now three years removed from the Colts' last winning season, time is growing increasingly short for head coach Chuck Pagano. NFL pundits were floored when he wasn't fired at the end of 2016. Yet another chance doesn't seem to have done the coach a world of good. Sure, Andrew Luck's absence compounds current problems. Pagano is doing nothing to help the situation.
On Sunday, the Colts were throttled by a Rams team that won four games last year and was debuting a 31-year-old head coach. Pagano carelessly declined to challenge a would-be touchdown in the first quarter, costing his team four points when it might have been able to stay competitive. And it might have been just a speaking flub, but it still doesn't instill confidence that Pagano namechecked the wrong opponent after losing by 37 points.
Chuck Pagano says the Colts got their ass kicked by the 49ers... they played the Rams pic.twitter.com/fX89OhdRiB- CJ Fogler (@cjzero) September 10, 2017
Kevin White: repeat victim of an uncaring universe
The Bears receiver, selected seventh overall in the 2015 Draft, broke his collarbone on Sunday, ending his season in only his fifth career game in three seasons. It's been a frustrating start to White's career. His rookie season was thwarted by a stress fracture suffered during OTAs. His second season was done after four games when he fractured a fibula. This time, it's an upper body injury that will sideline him for at least most of the season, if not the entire thing. Chicago already lost fellow starting receiver Cam Meredith in the preseason, so it's reasonable to conclude the Bears should just avoid passing the ball forever.
Beast Mode: still doing it so he won't get fined
However you feel about Marshawn Lynch being used by the Raiders as a hometown draw before the franchise ditches Oakland for Las Vegas, it's hard to deny that it's fun to have him back in our lives. Marshawn showed he still has the goods in the win over the Titans, barreling over defenders and sealing the victory with a few late, punishing runs (collecting 76 yards rushing). Also still true to form: his disinterest in providing the media with sound bytes to stupid questions.
Marshawn interrupts Del Rio presser to say that he was available for 3 minutes, and is leaving. "I'm good, right?"- Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) September 10, 2017
Tony Romo leads the league in broadcast kudos
With all the criticism of the NFL, there were a few minor positives to take away from Sunday. For one, the games moved pretty quick. If they're gonna be slogs, at least they're quick slogs. A sloggette? Also, Tony Romo is already an upgrade over Phil Simms on CBS' top broadcasting crew with Jim Nantz. A small sampling of plaudits tossed his way on Sunday:
In the five total minutes I've heard Romo on Red Zone today he's added more to a broadcast than Simms did in 20 years. https://t.co/Pnc1Vj5RNp- Kirk Minihane (@kirkmin) September 10, 2017
Very impressed by Romo as analyst. Not at all surprised. He has soft voice so needs to project when crowd gets loud but he'll figure it out- Chuck Cooperstein (@coopmavs) September 10, 2017
Maybe Big Ben isn't such a great guy
Roethlisberger with the flop, ankle lock combo pic.twitter.com/zkuF7oNz8r- Mike Tunison (@xmasape) September 10, 2017
In the second half of the Steelers win in Cleveland, Ben Roethlisberger was shoved away from the play by Browns defensive lineman Emmanuel Ogbah. Roethlisberger sells it a little bit by going to the ground in dramatic fashion, which is fine. No harm in trying to draw a penalty if given the opportunity. But instead of leaving it at that, the Steelers quarterback decided to escalate the situation by diving at Ogbah's ankle, twisting it and bringing the lineman to the ground, where he continued to turn the ankle. Roethlisberger was not flagged on the play. Should he not be fined it would serve as ammo for fans of a certain AFC North rival who like to imagine the reaction if, say, Vontaze Burfict were guilty of a similar move. For what it's worth, Antonio Brown found it amusing.
hey that's my quarterback 😂 pic.twitter.com/bSx73wS8fJ- Antonio Brown (@AB84) September 10, 2017
Your first place Bills, Jags and Rams
Be sure to treasure those images will you can. They may not be long for this world. That said, the AFC South looks once again so roundly subpar that discounting the Jaguars' chances of winning the division is likely foolish. The Titans did give the Raiders a decent game on Sunday in defeat, but until they actually start piling up wins, it's fair to question whether they're the new force in the division. It's all well and good that the Bills, Jaguars and Rams started the season on a rare high note. They all were victorious over the Jets, Texans, and Colts, respectively -- decidedly flawed teams that look as though they'll be among the worst in the league this season.
Fans of the week
Speaking of the Bills, even when they're mired in struggle, you can always count on their raucous fans to keep it interesting. A Buffalo home game is a thing to cherish, for it means tailgate mayhem to consume for days and days. But what's this? From that boozy powerbomb-packed soil, a lasting love has bloomed! Indeed, a couple decided to get married in the parking lot before Sunday's game with fellow tailgaters on hand to witness, and maybe remember it the next day. Rest assured all the lovey dovey stuff didn't deter the usual chaos, as there was a man trashing a jet cabin set up in the parking lot, and the usual array of fold-up table destruction.
5 players who "did good" and should "feel good"
Quarterback wins is easily the most cited dumb stat in NFL discourse, and hell, even I'm guilty of using it from time to time. Goff was 0-7 as a starter in 2016, but isn't as damning as many think, especially given that the Jeff Fisher Rams did next to nothing to help him on offense. Nevertheless, there was undeniable pressure for the 2016 No. 1 overall pick to impress early in his second season. He had the best outing of his young career on Sunday, throwing for 306 yards on 21-of-29 passing. He looks like he's already developed a nice connection with rookie receiver Cooper Kupp while managing to still spread the ball out as well.
There's minor hope for the Bears offense! Is it because Mike Glennon looks like a passable caretaker quarterback until Mitch Trubisky is ready? Yeah, sure, I guess. Really, though, it's rookie running back Cohen, one of several young rushers from this year's class who stood out in their pro debut. Cohen had 158 all-purpose yards (66 rushing, 47 receiving, and 45 on punt returns) and scored on a 19-yard catch to make it a shockingly close game with Atlanta midway through the fourth quarter. (The score was 20-17!) Cohen was mostly left out of the game during the final set of downs as Chicago tried for the victory. Head coach John Fox said his absence was a function of regular substitution rotation.
Now that Sammy Watkins is gone, Shady is easily the most talented skill player left on the Buffalo offense. He showed that any big scoring day for the Bills is going to flow through him, as he posted 159 total yards in Buffalo's win. The only concern is whether his output is sustainable. Based on how much he was used Sunday, that projects to more than 400 touches over the full season, a rate little seen in the last 15 years in the NFL. At 29 years old, Shady's durability can be questioned with a workload of that size, though he brushed off concerns after an injury scare early in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
Big brother J.J. wasn't much of a factor in Houston's loss to Jacksonville after he suffered a rather graphic finger injury early in the game. The younger Watt brother meanwhile shined in his debut for the Steelers, posting two sacks and an interception in his first career game. That's a first in Pittsburgh history -- and they've had some OK linebackers.
The Jaguars have had plenty of free agent busts in the recent past, so it's nice that one of them looks like it's going to work out. In his first game in Jacksonville, Campbell registered four official sacks and got in on another with Arby Jones, setting a single-game franchise record.
5 players who "did bad" and should "feel bad"
Based on the frequency of boos that showered Dalton from the home crowd in Cincinnati on Sunday, perhaps we have to start referring to him as an "embattled quarterback" on first mention. He turned the ball over five times in a shutout loss to the Ravens, missed wide open throws and generally lived up to all the negative things he detractors say of him. There's less pressure to make changes in Cincinnati than there are with other teams, but if the Bengals aren't a perennial playoff team anymore, one has to wonder how much longer is Dalton is going to be allowed to struggle like this.
Houston's offensive line
Duane Brown received quite a bit of leverage in his ongoing holdout, as the Texans' offensive line was a disaster without its starting left tackle. The Jaguars totaled 10 sacks on the day, and the Jags' official Twitter account changed its display name to "Sacksonville" to celebrate the occasion. It wasn't all Brown's absence. Based on one review of the game, Houston had to go through four combinations of O-line players due to injuries and poor performance.
Kirk Cousins didn't exactly cover himself in glory in Washington's loss to Philadelphia, and it's less than encouraging that his top wideout continues to struggle with drops. After losing Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in the offseason, the 'Skins need Pryor to excel to have any hope of vying for a playoff spot. In Week 2, Washington has to travel to Los Angeles to play a Rams team that suddenly looks competent offensively under the leadership of Washington's former coordinator. Pryor is going to need to live up to his promise to get better in a hurry.
Effective pass protection continues to elude the Seahawks. Odhiambo gave up a sack and three hurries as Russell Wilson was running for his life from what is usually a fairly average defense at best.
As previously stated, the Colts were an all-around disaster in their season debut, except you don't expect to see Adam Vinatieri get in on the sucking. The future Hall of Famer uncharacteristically missed a field goal and an extra point in the loss to the Rams. Those would have only made the loss look slightly less bad, yet you know when even Vinatieri is struggling, it's bad news all over for the Colts.
Profile in courage: This iron-loined cameraman
Camera guy took it right to the family jewels and didn't flinch pic.twitter.com/NeaoAui2to- Sports Illustrated (@SInow) September 10, 2017
Should you need inspiration to sit through another six or so hours of NFL football during ESPN's Monday night doubleheader, I encourage you to draw from the strength of this camera operator, he of the adamantine undercarriage. It's the carnal equivalent of watching Sam Bradford and Trevor Siemian in back-to-back games.