KENT BROCKMAN: Hordes of panicky people seem to be evacuating the town for some unknown reason. Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it's time for our viewers to crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside?
PROFESSOR: Yes I would, Kent. (From “The Simpsons,” “Homer the Vigilante”)
Week 1 of the NFL season is a time to throw away an offseason of careful analysis, decades of dedicated study and all vestiges of common sense, and replace them with wild speculation based on 60 minutes of evidence, preferably while waving your arms and screaming like a maniac. In that spirit, I offer the following knee-jerk opinions and breathless overreactions:
The Jets have become an offensive juggernaut to rival the 1999 Rams! Robert Griffin III will win Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, the Super Bowl and possibly Wimbledon! The Saints are so lost without Sean Payton that they drove the team bus straight into Lake Pontchartrain after Sunday’s loss! Greg Schiano has made the Buccaneers defense impenetrable using only his World’s Greatest Guidance Counselor motivational tactics! The Packers? They are finished, finished, FINISHED!
Logicians call our impulse to react strongly to new stimuli as the Immediacy Bias and our tendency to remember and emphasize what happened first in a sequence of events as the Primacy Effect. Both fallacies got wired into our brains in the “escape vicious animals” era of human development, when they were no doubt much more helpful than they are in the modern “discuss the Packers defense” era. So, when the Jets score 41 points, our modern brains say, “It’s only one game,” but our primal brains say, “You just stepped out of the cave and got gored by a mastodon.”
Logicians, it must be pointed it, are rarely welcome on sports talk shows.
Now that we understand how our minds can play tricks on us during Week 1, let’s take a more rational look at some of Sunday’s biggest surprises:
In a week when most rookie quarterbacks looked like rookie quarterbacks (the other four rookie starters combined for a 48.7 percent completion rate, two touchdowns and 11 interceptions), Griffin completed 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns in a 40-32 upset of the Saints, a game that was not as close as the score.
The takeaway: Griffin looked excellent, though the stat sheet hid two dropped interceptions, a fumble and a handful of other rookie moments. Give Mike and Kyle Shanahan credit for an exceptional game plan: Griffin operated out of Pistol formations, executed options and designed runs, and benefited from clever gambles such as a fourth-and-one bomb that drew pass interference and set up a short touchdown. Before the Redskins bandwagon finds fourth gear, however, it’s important to remember that this team beat the Giants 28-14 in the season opener last year.
The Saints Go Slouching Out
New Orleans’ defense appeared baffled by the Redskins’ quirky formations. Its offense looked like all of the best plays were still locked in Sean Payton’s file cabinet. The Saints were 2 of 11 on third-down conversions, in part because they kept facing third and 20, and in part because of uncharacteristic carelessness with the football.
The Takeaway: Give the Redskins’ front seven some credit for stuffing the run and forcing some shocking Drew Brees miscues. Both the coaching turmoil and some hurricane-related confusion took their toll on the Saints’ efficiency, but don’t think for a moment that they will not bounce back.
The Buccaneers’ Granite Defense
The Panthers, who rushed for a third-best 2,408 yards last season, rushed 13 times for 10 yards against the Buccaneers, who allowed a league-worst 2,497 rushing yards last season. That’s a little like an 18-wheeler getting stopped in its tracks by a patch of daffodils.
The Takeaway: Schiano and his staff called a great game defensively. Cam Newton’s option plays went nowhere, and Tampa was ready for backdoor screens and other Carolina wrinkles. The Bucs have better defensive personnel than they had last year (rookie Lavonte David played well, and a healthy Gerald McCoy had a sack and a stuff for a loss), but the Bucs are still on track to be the best last-place team in the NFL. As for the Panthers, put them on a list with the Packers, Saints and Eagles, all offensive powerhouses that spent much of Sunday afternoon getting in their own way.
The 49ers rushed for 186 yards against Green Bay. Alex Smith completed 77 percent of his passes. The Packers rushed for 45 yards, 27 of them by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Like the Saints, they stayed within striking distance in a 30-22 loss, but the game was not really that close. The 49ers were slightly better than expected, the Packers much worse.
The Takeaway: Two Packers problems carried over from last year: major defensive lapses and a complete lack of talent at running back (Cedric Benson looks like he is running through oatmeal.) Rodgers’ brilliance overcame both problems last season, but he looked very mortal on Sunday. Factor in a solid victory by the Bears, and the Packers have some legitimate reasons to worry, if not panic.
The Jets Do Not Offend
Sure, 14 of the Jets’ 48 points came on interception and punt returns. But 34 points sound like a month’s work for the Jets offense, and they came by those points the honest way: long drives, offensive balance and a shocking 10-of-14 third-down conversion rate.
The Takeaway: The Jets offense is not as bad as it looked in the preseason, but peewee soccer offenses are not as bad as the Jets looked in the preseason. The biggest shock may be that the Bills collapsed so completely in this game, when they usually wait until early October to collapse completely.
Peyton Manning’s Barely Hit Parade
It’s going to be a while before we get used to Peyton Manning in a Broncos uniform. It will take even longer before he drops back to pass and we don’t hold our breath in anticipation of a gruesome injury. The Steelers can pummel the youngest, fittest quarterbacks into submission. What would happen when they faced a 36-year old who spent 2011 walking the hallway between the X-ray and MRI labs?
Well, Manning not only survived on Sunday night; he thrived, completing 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. And after a shaky stretch in the second quarter, the Steelers barely laid a finger on him. In fact, you could count the number of times that Manning got hit on one hand:
First hit: Early in the first quarter, the Broncos’ plan to protect Manning with seven blockers backfired when one of those blockers turned out to be Knowshon Moreno. Linebacker Larry Foote brushed Moreno aside en route to a sack.
Severity of hit: More of a manly hug.
Second Hit: Jason Worilds and Lawrence Timmons blitzed off the left side. Manning read the blitz pre-snap and gestured to Moreno in a way that suggested, “You must block those two guys.” Moreno gestured back in universal sign language for, “How on earth do I do that?” Moreno did his best with Timmons. Worilds leveled Manning.
Severity of Hit: Pretty intense. But Manning popped up.
The scramble: Midway through the second quarter, Manning rolled out after a play-fake, saw Lawrence Timmons closing on him and sprinted up the sideline for a first down. You could almost hear Timmons thinking, “I cannot believe I am losing a footrace to Peyton Manning!”
Severity of hit: Does not apply.
Third hit: Later in the second quarter, Foote blitzed from the left while Willis McGahee fanned out to block on the right before running a pass route. The Broncos running backs looked mixed up in pass protection, as if they spent last season running options or something. Manning got the pass off, but McGahee dropped it.
Severity of hit: Like the rodeo calf before getting roped.
Fourth hit: A few plays later, Timmons blitzed and hammered Manning, getting out some of his frustrations from being outrun in the open field. Manning still completed the pass, because he’s still Peyton Manning.
Severity of hit: Ouch. But Manning got right up, and Moreno escaped the doghouse to score a touchdown soon after.
Sudden Silence: That was it. Manning was untouched by Steelers defenders for the entire second half. He was never even pressured. The Broncos switched to a no-huddle offense, and Manning became his old self, changing to running plays when the Steelers showed blitz and making all of his goofy shrugs and gestures at the line of scrimmage. (At one point, he motioned with his fingers as if playing a video game, perhaps a flashback to last season.) It also helped that the Steelers had the ball for all but two plays of the third quarter, and you can’t pressure a quarterback who’s standing on the sideline celebrating a 71-yard touchdown off a screen pass.
The Broncos produced 30 minutes of cringe-free football in their second-half comeback. If they can repeat that 30 more times, they will have one heck of a season.
Featured Runner Feature
Opening Sunday was a day of doubt for many of the league’s best running backs. It was impossible to tell whether stars such as Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch would play, or how much they would play, until the games actually started. If you’re a fantasy owner, you felt the pinch the worst. You probably spent the final seconds before kickoff sweating over your starting lineup, trapped in an unwinnable either-or scenario, certain that whichever choice you made would be the incorrect one. Well, this is an election year, so get used to that feeling.
Nearly all of the “game-time decision” backs ended up playing. As the following rundown reveals, life is full of uncertainties, but Adrian Peterson is not one of them.
The Back: Adrian Peterson
The Issue: Peterson pushed the limits of medical science and human endurance by rushing back from a December ACL injury in an effort to save the Vikings from the ignominy of a 4-12 season and deliver them to the triumphant shores of a 6-10 season.
The Result: Peterson was magnificent, with 17 carries for 84 yards and two touchdowns, including a levitating two-yard dive in which he looked like a Bullet Bill from a Mario video game. The Vikings won a downright entertaining 26-23 game, in overtime, against the Jaguars.
The Back: Maurice Jones-Drew
The Issue: His one-hand-clapping holdout accomplished nothing, but it did earn the sympathy of the entire Jaguars press pool: three interns, the weekend weather guy for a Lake City radio station and one of Fred Taylor’s nephews.
The Result: MJD carried 19 times for 77 yards and ran very hard at times, but the Jaguars refused to hand him the ball near the goal line, giving Rashad Jennings the short-yardage carries. If MJD scored, there might have been controversy, as he previously questioned coach Mike Mularkey’s celebration policy: Jaguars players are expected to hand the football calmly to the referee after touchdowns, both for good sportsmanship and to keep expectations realistically low. By giving other running backs opportunities near the goal line, Mularkey will cleverly avoid the celebration issue altogether.
The Back: Arian Foster
The Issue: Foster mysteriously appeared on the injury list after hurting his knee in practice this week. The extent of the injury, or even which knee was ailing, was never made clear. Information control like that transcends Orwellian and goes straight to Belichickian.
The Result: Foster carried 26 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns, chewing clock like John Riggins in the second half of a 30-10 blowout. Gary Kubiak was just messing with you.
The Back: Marshawn Lynch
The Issue: Back spasms limited Lynch in practice during the week, but he cleared things up with this statement about himself and backups Robert Turbin, Kregg Lumpkin and Leon Washington: "If my situation was to where I wasn't able to play, I would be pleased with what we have going into the game as far as Rob, Lump and Leon toting the pill."
The Result: Lynch’s situation was to where he was able to play, and the Seahawks were pleased to get 21 pill-totes from him and just two each from Lump and Leon. The final carry was the strangest, as Lynch took a handoff up the middle from the six-yard line with 38 seconds to play and the Seahawks out of timeouts. The Seahawks called timeout, the refs huddled and suddenly the Seahawks weren’t out of timeouts, as a previous injury timeout was reclassified as a wrinkle in the space-time continuum, or something.
It could have been worse. Lynch could have tried to explain the rule.
The Back: Rashard Mendenhall
The Issue: Mendenhall recovered from his late-season ACL tear with near-Peterson quickness. He and Isaac Redman alternated practice reps during the week, because offensive coordinator Todd Haley has an obsessive-compulsive need to alternate his running backs.
The Result: Mendenhall was inactive. Haley tried to alternate Redman with Jonathan Dwyer, but it just wasn’t the same.
• Jim Harbaugh has the best flabbergasted facial expression of any coach in NFL history, Tom Coughlin and Jim Mora the Elder included. After a Packers punt return touchdown and some dubious officiating, Harbaugh stalked the sideline with mouth agape and eyes bulging, like a Sesame Street Muppet whose operator had just suffered a seizure. An entire swarm of cicadas could have flown into Harbaugh’s mouth and he would have just stood there fuming. Had the Packers managed a comeback, Harbaugh’s eyes would have popped out of their sockets and rolled away.
• Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson did not have much of a game, but he thumped Eagles safety Kurt Coleman so hard at the end of a nine-yard run that Coleman’s helmet flew into the air like a champagne cork. It was the only thing that happened in the Browns-Eagles game that can honestly be classified as a “highlight.” When Brandon Weeden got trapped beneath the giant national anthem flag during warmups, it appeared to be the lowlight of the game, but both teams were just warming up.
• Seeing Tom Brady with a big gauze bandage over his nose brings to mind an all-time great movie quote: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” As usual, Brady got the last laugh with a 34-13 win. You cannot hurt him; you can only make his face look cooler.
• Kevin Kolb, fourth-quarter hero. If that doesn’t cause your entire worldview to splinter, you are made of some pretty strong stuff.