Five observations from a sloppy, safety-filled, rookie-loaded, turnover-tastic opening week in the NFL.
- Week One leaves writers, analysts, and fans with only two default opinion modes. There's: a) Leap-to-Wacky-Conclusion Mode (the Lions will beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl! Peyton Manning will throw 112 touchdowns!) or b) Knee-Jerk Contrarian Mode (the Patriots' narrow win over the Bills is actually proof of their greatness, not a reason for concern).
The middle path -- measured opinions and cautious conclusions based on available evidence -- is not only murder for headline writers (Dolphins Look Kinda Good does not generate clicks) but contrary to human nature. We like to react quickly and emotionally to immediate events. It's an evolutionary trait that dates back to a time when "immediate events" were battles with wooly mammoths, not Giants turnovers. And it's fun to go over the top, or under the basement, after a big win or loss.
If you really want to take a Goldilocks approach to Week One results, think of them as early election results. When 6.25 percent (1/16th) of precincts have been counted, voters have meaningful data about the candidates, but the scant results may have come from rural counties, retirement communities, the Diversityville Organic Produce Collective, or some other percentage-skewing locale. Similarly, this week's results came against great, terrible, or middling opponents, and we won't know for weeks which is truly which. A handful of fluky plays (and Week One was teeming with strange safeties, tip-drill interceptions, and other anomalies) can further cause wide swings.
So win-loss records and final scores cannot be taken as meaningful indicators of how the other 93.75% of the season will turn out, but Week One can reveal surprising strengths, troubling weaknesses, or other trends that need to be noted and followed.
In short, overreacting to Week One makes you Chicken Little, but pretending it is meaningless makes you Karl Rove. And yes, I am just trying to get a taste of that sweet, sweet Nate Silver money with this intro.
- It is encouraging to see great teams carry over last year's strengths into Week One. It is discouraging to see weak teams carry over last year's problems. That brings us to the Seahawks' 12-7 win over the Panthers.
The Seahawks looked like the September-through-November version of their 2012 selves (the December Seahawks looked like the 1992 Cowboys scrimmaging a jazz band; no team could sustain that for very long). Russell Wilson did his Fran Tarkenton impersonation, the Seahawks secondary clamped down on everything deep, and the team held on until its opponent made a mistake. There were problems -- the offensive line looked terrible against a very good Panthers defensive front -- but the 2012 Seahawks had problems, too. For a team missing most of its best passrushers, the Seahawks played a solid game.
The Panthers, meanwhile, did many things right, but they also made some of the same terrible mistakes that plagued them last year. A punt return fumble took away a Panthers possession. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a Panthers punt gave the Seahawks good field position that led to a second-half field goal. DeAngelo Williams fumbled in the red zone to kill a Panther comeback. These were the 2012 Panthers, ill-timed turnovers and special teams blunders, back for an encore.
The Panthers coaching staff also took a bow. On third-and-1 at the Seahawks 34, midway through the third quarter, Ron Rivera and Mike Shula took Cam Newton out of shotgun, lined Williams up in the backfield, and executed the most predictable, stoppable off-tackle run imaginable. The Panthers punted, setting up the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that allowed the Seahawks to get their offensive act together. Rivera is perpetually flummoxed by things like short-yardage strategies and when/where to punt/kick/go for it (he also blew a timeout on a challenge that had little chance of succeeding), and Shula appears determined to run away from the things his quarterback does best, like use his rushing ability as a short yardage weapon (or at least decoy).
I thought the Panthers took a big step forward in the offseason, the Seahawks a tiny step backward. That could still be true, but early returns suggest that neither team has changed much, which is bad for one of them.
- The Lions looked much better against the Vikings than the 34-24 final score indicates, but they also looked very leonine. (That means "lionlike," Mr. Millen). Early in the game, they seemed determined to treat fans to the Ultimate Lions Red Zone experience, which consists of:
- A Calvin Johnson touchdown nullified by the fact that Johnson does things humans should not be capable of doing, which therefore exist on the outer fringes of rulebook definition.
- A botched, muffed, or otherwise mutilated field goal attempt. Don Muhlbach delivered a sloppy snap, and rookie punter Sam Martin reacted like he was picking turnips instead of picking up a football, reaching out clumsily for several times and coming up with handfuls of nothing.
- An apparent Pick-6 called back by a senseless, unnecessary penalty on the return by … three guesses … first two don't count … Ndamukong Suh.
- A tip-drill interception by Matthew Stafford after staring Johnson down for a pass.
- A fumble by a backup running back going over-the-top and reaching out with the football.
As fate would have it, backup running back Joique Bell's fumble was reversed and ruled a skin-of-the-plane-of-the-goalline touchdown, and the Lions' red zone dopey demons were exorcised. Sort of. Reggie Bush scored two apparent touchdowns, but both were reversed because he did not quite cross the plane (and nearly fumbled on the second one). But Bell and Joseph Fauria cleaned up behind Bush, who also contributed the longest offensive touchdown of his career (77 yards; you would think ol' Reggie had some 109.5-yarders in there, from the days when that was all he was good for). Anyway, the Vikings ran out of ideas after Adrian Peterson ran 78 yards on his first touch, so the Lions only had to beat themselves, something they practice often.
Did the Lions get the wacky out of their system in the first half? Did they prove in the first half that they still have a full wacky payload? Or did they prove that they can now reach the red zone so often that they can afford sloppy penalties and special teams whoopsies? Early returns are too close to call. But the Vikings really need to come up with a second offensive play.
- The 49ers looked great in their 34-28 win over the Packers. The Packers looked better than they looked in the playoffs against the Niners. One of the biggest factors in the game was field position. Packers return man Jeremy Ross brought kickoffs out to the four and nine-yard line, and the Packers started seven other drives at or inside their own 20.
Driving 80+ yards against the 49ers is nearly impossible for most teams, and the 49ers know it. Last year, they led the league in "net line of scrimmage per drive" at 6.25. In other words, their average drive started at the 31.15 yard line (third in the NFL), while opponent drives started at the 24.9 yard line (second worst). The field tilted 6.15 yards in the 49ers favor, and the 2011 numbers were even more drastic: the Niners led the NFL with 9.39 net yards per drive.
So field position is something the 49ers focus on, from signing good returners to retaining punter Andy Lee to keeping the special teams stocked with quality gunners. Early returns suggest that they "galvanized their voting base" on Sunday. And that the Packers need a smarter kickoff returner.
- As Walter Mondale can tell you, early returns really are sometimes harbingers of complete catastrophe. Maurkice Pouncey's ACL-MCL tear is like a political opponent is carrying your home district by 10 percentage points.
The Steelers' entire 2013 philosophy hinged on Pouncey. They installed a zone-stretch oriented offense, which hinged on Pouncey's quickness and ability to make calls. They elevated inexperienced second-year linemen Mike Adams and David DeCastro to the starting lineup, banking on Pouncey's leadership and his ability to handle defenders in pass protection with minimal double teams.
Without Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times. The Steelers ran 15 times for 32 yards. After their opening drive, the Steelers did not reach midfield until their final drive, when the Titans were leading 16-2 (yup) and in prevent mode.
Worst of all, the Steelers left themselves with a galling lack of depth behind Pouncey. Backup center Cody Wallace, signed a few days ago, was deactivated for the game. Kelvin Beachum, a 2012 seventh-rounder who bumbled through a handful of starts at right tackle last year, replaced Pouncey. Wallace will no doubt be activated next week, but it is hard to tell what to expect from a player bad enough to be deactivated in Week One when he was the only real backup at his position. The Steelers did not bother to bring back Doug Legursky, their backup center for years, even though he was out-of-work through most of camp and the Steelers were thin behind Pouncey. Legursky is now with the Bills.
The Pouncey injury should be thought of like a quarterback injury. His absence changes everything for the Steelers. Not to jump to conclusions, but they should prepare their concession speech.
Bonus: So much happened in the Cowboys' 36-31 win over the Giants that we would need another half dozen subheadings to sort through it. But early returns indicate that the NFC East is going to be terrible. Committing six turnovers, as the Giants did, is horrible. Allowing a team that would end up committing six turnovers to stay in the game until the final minutes, as the Cowboys did, is also pretty horrible. Giants-Cowboys was exciting in the way all close, messy games are exciting, but it was not a battle between two contenders. At least, that's not how it looked in the early returns.
An incomplete set of first looks at rookies, old faces in new places, new regimes, and other long-anticipated debuts.
Geno Smith: Smith was the best thing about the Jets' offense in their 18-17 win over the Buccaneers. The Jets game plan was the worst thing about the Jets' offense. Rex Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg were determined to "protect" Smith by preventing him from getting any momentum or rhythm.
Smith started the game with a 26-yard pass and a three-yard scramble; for the Jets' offense, that's the equivalent of a 94-yard drive. But then came Happy Smile Silly Wildcat Time! A Bilal Powell direct snap play on second down. Some funky Jeremy Kerley rollout option thingy on 3rd-and-3. Drive stalled, early Smith confidence … well, certainly not increased.
In the second quarter, Smith completed a 21-yard pass on third down. Ding! Ding! Ding! Happy Smile Silly Wildcat Time! Direct snap play to Powell for a loss of one. Smith opened the third quarter with a methodical drive, completing passes to Kellen Winslow and Stephen Hill to get the Jets to midfield. Ding Ding Ding! Another deep dig into the back of Tony Sparano's fridge yielded a Powell Wildcat on 3rd-and-1. Powell broke some tackles to convert the first down, but Smith looked out-of-sync when he returned, and was sacked on the following play.
The Jets faced 3rd-and-1 to start the fourth quarter. Was it Happy Smile Powell Time again? What about an appearance by Chris Ivory, the power back who would look swell in a read-option wrinkle with Smith? Wrong and wrong. It was time for Jeremy Kerley to motion his 185 pounds of skinniness into the backfield and try to muscle for the first down. Nope.
The Jets won despite their offense, and Smith generated some offense despite his game plan. Mark Sanchez has put up with the same nonsense; the Jets made sure every Tom, Dick, and Joe McKnight got direct snap opportunities in games like the Texans loss, where Sanchez actually looked smooth for stretches. It makes you wonder what would happen if Ryan and his strangely-interchangeable offensive assistants just left their quarterbacks alone and let them be quarterbacks.
Darrelle Revis: The Bucs defense looked great, but see above. Nothing will matter if Josh Freeman plays the way he did on Sunday, and if the game-plan consists of so many force-feedings of Doug Martin that defensive ends stop rushing Freeman and start shadowing Martin into the flat on every pass play.
EJ Manuel: Manuel played the greatest game ever played under the circumstances he faced:
- Rookie quarterback
- Who missed much of the preseason with knee surgery
- Facing a perennial powerhouse coached by one of history's greatest defensive minds
- In a game where both his running backs and one receiver would fumble, and his go-to receiver would led a third-down pass bounce off his hands.
Manuel followed a pretty tight script, though it was nothing compared to the two-inch leash the Jets kept Smith on. He got better as he grew comfortable, and of course the Bills came within one Tom Brady drive of winning. It was an incredibly auspicious debut.
One lingering image from Manuel's effort in a 23-21 loss was a maneuver I will christen the "EJ Fitch." After handing off on a read-option play, Manuel likes to roll to the outside and fake a pitch to a teammate. It does not matter if there is a teammate or six defenders to that side; Manuel will still press the left bumper button on his video game controller and fake the pitch. It may not fool anyone, but it looks cool.
Eddie Lacy: Lacy's 31-yard reception on a screen pass, which set up an early touchdown, showed what he can do for the Packers' offense. He breaks tackles and weaves through traffic better than any back they have had since Ahman Green. Unfortunately, he got stuffed by a great defense behind a patchwork line too often, and the Packers are still getting used to this whole "quality running back" concept, giving Lacy just 14 carries.
Lacy also fumbled, and it was a true NFL Welcoming Committee fumble: Justin Smith held Lacy up and kept him from dropping to the ground while wrenching the ball away, with two 49ers teammates wrapped around Lacy's legs. Yes, SEC defenders are good, but not that good. Lacy needs to learn from his mistakes, and get the ball a little more often.
Andy Reid: The Chiefs called 22 passes and 12 runs in the first half, even though they had a 21-2 lead over the Jaguars by halftime and could have started milking the clock right after Blaine Gabbert's second turnover, which occurred with 2:22 to play in the first quarter. Even in a high holy rout, the Chiefs still passed 60% of the time, once you reclassify Alex Smith scrambles as pass attempts. This is Andy Reid football, ladies and gentlemen. Jamaal Charles had better be ready to catch slant passes (he appears to be ready for just that).
Kenbrell Thompkins: Our narrative may have gotten slightly ahead of reality for this young man. All of us were excited about his potential in the preseason, but when every writer in the football world files a "Thompkins is a very good prospect" story, the net effect is "Thompkins will surpass Jerry Rice by halftime of Week One."
Thompkins slipped coming out of his break on one play. He failed to get both feet down on a sideline catch. He dropped a potential touchdown in the third quarter. He caught just four of the 14 passes thrown to him. On the other hand, Brady did throw him 14 passes, and he came within inches of a clutch touchdown, a tough sideline grab, and other plays. This was an undrafted rookie's first game, and he was his Hall of Fame quarterback's favorite target.
The Patriots wide receivers, who combined for 21 receptions, looked pretty good overall. The tight ends caught just one pass for five yards. The solution to that problem will return to the field soon.
The Rams Offense: Jared Cook caught two touchdown passes and had a third one batted from his hands Leon Lett-style as he was about to cross the plane. Tavon Austin caught six short passes and drew pass interference from the Honey Badger, who saw Austin sprinting past him and just shoved him. Daryl Richardson got the Steven Jackson treatment with 20 carries and five catches, though there was a difference: the new receiving corps had the defense stretched far enough that Richardson did not look like he was being shoveled into a coal furnace.
Sam Bradford still stares down too many receivers and is too reluctant to throw downfield, but the Rams offense actually won a game for them, something that hasn't happened much since 2006.
Anquan Boldin: You know what, he was probably worth more in a trade than a sixth-round pick.
Terrelle Pryor, the Bears offensive line, the Dolphins offense: Sorry, cannot watch every game! It looks like they all did well.
The Jaguars: If I could erase all memories of their offense and replace them with any of the three things just mentioned, I would happily do it.
Evil Deeds and Weasel Words
The NFL would be better off without hits like the one Clay Matthews delivered out-of-bounds to Colin Kaepernick in the second quarter of the 49ers-Packers game.
And the NFL would be much, much better off without remarks like the ones Jim Harbaugh made about Matthews last week.
The NFL clarified its rules about tackling option quarterbacks. Specifically, the league stated that a quarterback sprinting away after a handoff, acting as much like a ball carrier as possible to fool the defense, could in fact be tackled like a ball carrier. The clarification was a concession both to common sense and the defensive player's right to do his job. It was not a backslide in the effort to make the game safer: option quarterbacks cannot be hit in the chin or the knees, they can still slide, they can still perform a Peyton Manning backpedal after a handoff to avoid contact, and so on. But if they pretend to have the ball and charge toward daylight, they must prepare for clean contact, just as they had to do in college and high school, and as they must do when they actually have the football.
Matthews, whose defense never came within a country mile of hitting Kaepernick in last year's playoff loss, was asked specifically about the rule clarification and generally about getting a lick on Kaepernick. "We think our game plan fits within the scheme of the officials and what we want to do," he said. "You do have to take your shots on the quarterback, and obviously they're too important to their offense … I think that's exactly what we're going for. So you want to put hits as early and often on the quarterback and make them uncomfortable."
Harbaugh, meanwhile, spent last week decrying the new rules as "flawed" and "biased." Harbaugh pounced on Matthews' remarks. "You're hearing some intimidating type of talk, kind of things we were hearing a couple years ago … [It] sounds a lot like targeting a specific player," Harbaugh said. "You definitely start to wonder. A man usually doesn't tell you his bad intentions. You know what's being said publicly, not what's being said privately. I hope their intent is not going to be anything that's not within the rules."
Now, let's unpack a bit.
While all of us want the NFL to reduce injury risk, Matthews' profession and livelihood are predicated on his ability to sack quarterbacks. "Sacking" involves striking them bodily and bringing them to the ground. It often causes physical pain, which is different from causing injury, as any nurse who has inoculated a child can attest. When asked specifically about striking quarterbacks, Matthews is likely to give an honest, open answer about his desire to strike them frequently, because he is not a mafia enforcer planning something illegal, and neither his intentions nor his intended target are secrets.
Harbaugh, meanwhile, went all "Godwin's Law" on Matthews. Godwin's Law states that all Internet arguments end with someone comparing his or her opponent to the Nazis. The NFL version of Godwin's Law is to invoke BountyGate the moment an opponent says something like "we want to be physical." That's what Harbaugh did, in the most weasely way possible. He ignored the fact that Matthews stated clearly that he wanted to operate "within the scheme of the officials," made it clear that he had no inside information, and just dropped a vague, passive-aggressive allegation about "things we were hearing a couple of years ago" and "bad intentions." With a broad smear, Matthews' desire to legally tackle Kaepernick was compared to a systemic plan to injure players for cash rewards. It would have been slanderous, but Harbaugh was too coy to directly state what he was publically, recklessly implying.
Now, Harbaugh did not really believe that Matthews was involved in some kind of bounty situation or was sitting around plotting ways to break Kaepernick's jaw. Harbaugh hoped to accomplish three things with his barbed little innuendo:
- He hoped to goad the officials so calls would go his way.
- He hoped to goad the officials so calls would go his way.
- He hoped to goad the officials so calls would go his way.
In the name of possibly coaxing a 15-yard flag on a borderline hit or two, Harbaugh was willing to twist innocent remarks and compare them to a scandal that rocked our perception of the NFL and will forever taint the careers of some players and coaches. Classy stuff.
Fast forward to the second quarter, and Harbaugh's gamesmanship appeared even less necessary, as Kaepernick rarely optioned. But Kaepernick scrambled on third down in the red zone, and Matthews drew a bead on him as he ran out of bounds. Matthews hammered Kaepernick, too high and far too late. It was a terrible play, though nothing criminal: the kind you see about once per game, the kind that was legal 20 years ago. Flags flew.
Then came a gratuitous fracas. Joe Staley arrived and started shoving Matthews. Anquan Boldin raced into the fray. Kaepernick stayed in the middle, giving as much as he got. A nasty scrum broke out. It was almost as if the 49ers thought there was more to Matthews' late hit than a routine late hit. Where would they have gotten such an impression?
The scrum caused offsetting penalties, negating the late hit. It should have been fourth down, but the referees got lost in the rulebook labyrinth and declared a replay of third down. Instead of kicking a field goal, the 49ers used the extra down to score a touchdown. A call went Harbaugh's way, albeit indirectly.
There was pushing and shoving on the next kickoff. A later Matthews sack of Kaepernick went by-the-book and drew no extracurriculars. Later in the game, NaVorro Bowman drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after chasing Aaron Rodgers out of bounds. It could have gotten ugly, though cooler heads prevailed.
After the game, there was a lot of chatter about "intimidation" and hitting the quarterback on purpose. "Intimidation" was Harbaugh's term, and anyway, it is not exactly a bad word, right? Defenders are still allowed to intimidate, or try to intimidate, or talk about trying to intimidate. The kindergarten anti-bullying policies have not yet been enacted in the NFL.
But Harbaugh steered the narrative, and he steered it into an awful place where a defender's statement about doing his job becomes "intimidation," and intimidation becomes "secret intention to injure someone on purpose." This self-serving rhetorical creativity gets in the way of actually making the game safer -- when people cry wolf, we may start to ignore the real howls. It can also lead to fights like the one on the sideline in the second quarter. It disparages the reputations of innocent players.
But the biggest problem with Harbaugh's remarks is that they were cheesy lies. Matthews' shot on Kaepernick was not premeditated. Harbaugh's shot on Matthews was. Sneaky allegations are unbecoming of a successful leader; they are the stuff of slip 'n' fall specialists and system beaters. A shove out of bounds is a necessary part of football. Nasty innuendo is not.
Reputations are not as fragile or as crucial as health, but they must still be respected and protected, and sometimes the damage to them is irreparable. Harbaugh should remember this -- or at least remember the 15-yard penalty he lost to a sideline shoving match -- next time he instigates a conflict that isn't there.