The Daily Briefing Monday, September 10, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

The thought in the DB’s circle of acquaintances has been that NFL Sunday ratings will be okay, but the primetime packages might suffer.  So far, spot on per Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The NFL’s closely watched television ratings were a mixed bag on the first Sunday of the season.

 

On Sunday afternoon, ratings were up from Week One last year: The late afternoon window on FOX (mostly Cowboys-Panthers) drew a 15.7 overnight rating, an improvement over last year’s 15.6 in the same window last year, which was mostly Seahawks-Packers. And in the early afternoon, CBS was up with a 10.6 this year compared to an 8.6 last year, and FOX was up 8.8 this year from an 8.4 last year.

 

But in prime time, ratings were down, with a 14.4 for Bears-Packers on NBC, compared to a 15.8 for Giants-Cowboys last year.

 

Ratings were down for the Thursday night opener, so the league has so far seen improvement in three broadcast windows and a decline in two broadcast windows.

 

The league’s television ratings, which once looked unstoppable, have steadily declined in the last few years, although NFL games are still the most popular programming on American television.

 

The DB thinks that one show that will defy the primetime trend will be the FOX Thursday package once it gets rolling. 

 

– – –

And for Week 1, the new helmet rule was a non-factor.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Thursday night’s opening game between the Eagles and Falcons featured 28 penalty flags, but none of them were for violations of the league’s new rule governing the use of the helmet.

 

None of the games on Sunday involved that many flags, but the lack of outsize impact from the rule change was the same. Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com reports that there was only one penalty for lowering the head to initiate contact across 13 games on Sunday.

 

Chiefs safety Ron Parker was flagged for a hit on Chargers running back Austin Ekeler in the first quarter of Kansas City’s win, but the rest of the games were free of flags for violations of the new rule. That includes Bengals safety Shawn Williams‘ ejection for a hit on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck as the league deemed that an unnecessary roughness foul rather than a helmet foul.

 

The lack of penalties continues the trend that started midway through the preseason when the NFL clarified the rule did not cover inadvertent contact and flags stopped flying as regularly as they had in the first two weeks of exhibition games.

 

NFC NORTH

 

GREEN BAY

Peter King does his thing on the big comeback and QB AARON RODGERS:

 

At halftime in Wisconsin on Sunday night, after an entire state finished hyperventilating and began to come to grips with the notion that, My God, Aaron Rodgers might be gone again, Randall Cobb walked into the Packers’ locker room at Lambeau Field. The veteran receiver was looking for Rodgers. He wanted to tell him to hang in there. He wanted to tell him he loved him.

 

But no Rodgers.

 

“Where is he?” Cobb asked.

 

“Working out, testing the knee,” one of the trainers told him.

 

Early this morning, in his car on the way home from the game, Cobb told me: “I was confused. He was what?”

 

Rodgers, in the second quarter of the first game of the Packers’ 100th season, collapsed in a pile of players and immediately grabbed his left knee. He tried to get up but couldn’t walk, and fell back to the field. A few minutes later, a cart came to take him off the field and you just felt with that cart there was something more than Rodgers riding away. It was the Packers’ season. Right? MCL, ACL, whatever. Not good. Could this be the second straight season that ended way prematurely, with The Franchise out for some or more of the season, and the Packers’ hopes down the tubes again? Sure looked like it.

 

So Cobb said a couple of positive things to the shaky backup, DeShone Kizer, before the Packers went back on the field to try somehow to get back into it. Chicago led 17-0, and new Bear Khalil Mack was absolutely wrecking the game.

 

“We went out for the second half,” Cobb said, “and Aaron’s walking out too. He’s in uniform. Looks ready to go. I asked him if he was okay. He said, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ So he got to the sidelines and starting talking ball, like normal. And I’m like, Well, I guess he’s playing.”

 

At one point early in the half, Rodgers said in the huddle: “Do your jobs, and I’ll handle the rest.”

 

Wishful thinking. When it was over, someone asked Rodgers what he was thinking when he looked up and saw the score in the third quarter: 20-0.

 

“Seven times three,” Rodgers said.

 

Maybe he’d get the ball four more times on one leg, and he knew he needed three touchdowns at least, and maybe one more score. These are the things great players think, even when they’re not sure how they’re going to make it through the next 23 minutes of gametime because they really can’t protect themselves.

– – –

I wonder sometimes, after covering sports for almost 40 years, what happens when a player who shouldn’t be on the field or the court or the ice begins to play. Do his teammates really elevate their games? Or at least try their damndest to do so because they know they have to or The Franchise could really be lost for the year.

 

That’s how it looked Sunday night. The line that allowed Rodgers to be hit consistently in the first half got better. Even with Rodgers basically stapled to the pocket because his usually fluidity was gone, he seemed to have a second more per dropback. And he knew he couldn’t afford to waste a series. It felt like a waste when he settled for a field goal with just over 18 minutes left in the game. Chicago 20, Green Bay 3 meant he still needed three scores.

 

“The protection was really good, and obviously, being more of a statue back there, I had to deal the ball on time and make sure we had guys getting open,” Rodgers said later.

 

They had maybe three series left. On the first came a throw that will have to go on the Hall of Fame reel. A minute into the fourth quarter, unable to plant with his right leg and fire forward with his left leg (the damaged one), Rodgers somehow wrist-flicked an arcing ball 52 yards in the air, to the right side of the end zone, to a covered Geronimo Allison. Allison made the contested catch and tumbled out of bounds. Chicago 20, Green Bay 10.

 

Three-and-out for the Trubiskies. Rodgers, again with good time, took three minutes to go 75 yards, Davante Adams finishing it with an effort TD at the left pylon. Chicago 20, Green Bay 17.

 

Great clock management by the Bears then. They held the ball for almost seven minutes, Trubisky consistently snapping the ball with less than five seconds on the play clock. With 2:39 left, a Cody Parkey field goal made it Chicago 23, Green Bay 17.

 

Now Rodgers had enough time. He didn’t have to hurry. Maybe it was the Lambeau Karma God interceding, but Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller—the cornerback Green Bay almost stole in free agency last March—dropped the easiest interception of his life on the first snap. Life, precious life.

 

Third-and-10. Green Bay 25.

 

The protection was really good, Rodgers had said. And now, on the next play, the line, so leaky early, had its best play of the night. Rodgers took the snap, and I timed how much time he had before the ball left his hand. 4.35 seconds. Luxurious for your average passer. For Rodgers, an eternity.

 

“I was running my route,” Cobb told me, “and I didn’t get the ball in rhythm and timing like I usually do. So in that case, we go to scramble mode. You look for an opening. So I looked for one, then looked back to Aaron and the ball was already in the air. I’m like, SHOOT! Ball’s coming! Here it comes.”

 

Safety Eddie Jackson, playing Cobb, dove for the ball, trying to flick it away. He couldn’t get to it. Cobb grabbed it and turned to run upfield.

 

“Nothing but green grass,” Cobb said. “Just run. I felt like I was back in my track days.”

 

“When you watch the replay, you’ll be amazed,” I said. “Khalil Mack ran practically the length of the field. He almost caught you at the 1-yard line.”

 

“Well, I was weaving,” Cobb said, and laughed.

– – –

“I had a little moment with Aaron,” said Cobb. “Told him I love him. He’s such a warrior. It was amazing having him out there, after we thought he was done. He figured exactly how to play too: short, quick throws, rhythm and timing. That just reinforced what I already knew about him. I’ve seen it for years. But this was special.”

 

“Where does this game rank for you in your career?” I asked.

 

“I would say it’s probably the greatest,” said Cobb, in his eighth year with the Packers. “My wife and I just had a son. This is the Packers’ 100th season. It’s the Bears. This was a big night.”

 

Brett Favre had his moment in Oakland, the night after his dad died, when he played an impossible game with some great throws. This is Rodgers’ 14th season, and this might be his moment, the moment we’ll all remember when he’s on stage in Canton one day and the question is asked: What was Aaron Rodgers’ best game?

 

He’ll have gaudier games, and he’ll have a Super Bowl MVP game (at least one). But will he have a game when he had to play mostly on one leg and come back from a 20-point deficit? Will he, while hobbled, do something no Packers quarterback in 111 tries had ever done—win a game when trailing by at least 17 points starting the fourth quarter? Will it be against the team he loves to beat the most, the rival Bears, on a similarly historic night at Lambeau Field?

 

No. Aaron Rodgers is 34. He’s one of the best quarterbacks ever to play. And we just saw the best game of his professional life.

 

Despite Rodgers’ competitive bravado in the postgame, Coach Mike McCarthy would not on Monday commit to a start for ARod on Sunday.  Nick Shook of NFL.com:

 

Aaron Rodgers’ latest spectacular display, returning from injury to lead the Packers to a 24-23 win, came complete with a confident capper.

 

“I’m playing next week,” Rodgers said firmly when asked about his Week 2 status immediately after the game by NBC’s Michelle Tafoya.

 

Ah, if only it were that simple.

 

Packers coach Mike McCarthy took the podium for his usual Monday media availability and wasn’t nearly as sure about his quarterback’s status for Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings. The coach told reporters the Packers are still gathering information on Rodgers’ knee, acknowledging Rodgers’ desire to play but also staying far from leaning one way or the other.

 

McCarthy said no decision has been made on if Rodgers will play.

 

@RapSheet

 #Packers coach Mike McCarthy told reporters he’s still gathering info on Aaron Rodgers’ knee, and I’m told, that includes seeing if the swelling goes down and how it responds. Rodgers is clearly pushing to play, but too early to declare he can do so.

Rodgers, fresh off a new contract extension and the latest chapter in his long book of heroics, will do whatever he can to play. Any professional athlete would do the same.

 

But he was also essentially playing quarterback on one leg for much of Sunday night, launching throws off one foot and very visibly avoiding pushing off on his left leg when possible. Rodgers admitted after the game that he requested to run the offense out of strictly shotgun and pistol formations due to not feeling comfortable under center, and could be seen limping off the podium after the win.

 

We’ve seen these situations before from essential players. Philip Rivers played an AFC Championship Game with a torn ACL. Ben Roethlisberger has had about 30 dates with an oversized shoe due to ankle and foot injuries.

 

In Week 2, though, it’s a little bit different. There’s time to take off if necessary. Green Bay would be ill-suited to succeed without him, but 17 weeks is a long season, making this worth monitoring all week and perhaps beyond.

 

Remember, it was the Vikings who sent Rodgers to IR last year with a slam on the shoulder.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Charles Robinson of YahooSports was not taken with what he saw from the Cowboys.

 

Maybe it was the loss. Or the offensive line playing like a poor facsimile of itself. Or the quarterback looking like a guy who might belong in the lower-third of the starters at his position. Or maybe Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn’t want to be asked about Randy Gregory, yet again.

 

Whatever the case, Jerry did a rare opening-night sidestep out of Bank of America Stadium after his Cowboys lost 16-8 to the Carolina Panthers in an uninspired start to the season. As his team showered, Jones headed for a black SUV – apparently with no answers for the media members eager to pick his brain.

 

But that was a Dallas theme for the night: After an offseason of questions about the offense, the first chapter of the season provided no answer key. Just a bunch of blank spaces that are already being filled with plenty of negative data.

 

The offensive line? Bad. Six sacks. Ten Dak Prescott hits. Shadow of itself.

 

The quarterback? Shelled. Out of sorts. Inaccurate. Does not look like a progressing player.

 

The wide receivers? Just a bunch of average guys. Subtracting Dez Bryant may not have hurt the Cowboys’ group, but it didn’t make it any better, either.

 

The running back? Rarely used creatively, but the offense is definitely built around him. Can the supporting cast function better when opponents remove him?

 

That’s a rundown that should sound familiar. As problems go, it was basically the majority of the “to-do” list that spanned spring and summer. Now it has officially lingered into the regular season, where it will tend to be far more problematic if things don’t get resolved quickly.

 

Of course, the rationale will get sliced and diced, and consumed a variety of ways. The lack of talent at wide receiver will get blamed. The offensive line will get raked for lacking chemistry with rookie Connor Williams starting at guard and center Travis Frederick out of commission. There will be questions about not playing the veterans enough in the preseason. Dak Prescott’s development will be a big thing in Dallas again. Ditto for the play-calling of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

 

All of that is worthy of consideration, of course. And it’s also worthy of considering this was just one game and one bad start – on the road, no less.

 

But there was one thing that came out of the locker room Sunday night. One thing that is worth absorbing and focusing the rest of the season through one reality: The Dallas offense is built around Ezekiel Elliott; every single opponent knows this is the design. If the Cowboys can’t learn to function without Elliott being the primary breadwinner every single week, this offensive mediocrity will never change.

 

Teams aren’t afraid of Allen Hurns or Terrance Williams or Cole Beasley beating them. And they know Prescott, who ran five times for 19 yards, isn’t going to morph into a run-pass option monster like Cam Newton.

 

That means the offensive line has to get back to being the earth-moving unit it was in 2016. This, frankly, might never happen. In hindsight, that unit had far more experience and chemistry with Ron Leary and Doug Free starting alongside Tyron Smith, Frederick and Zack Martin (not to mention La’el Collins providing some spot depth). Maybe if Frederick returns this season – which is completely up in the air – this unit can galvanize and meet expectations. But if Sunday night was a hint at things to come, it’s going to be a long season for the group. The same can be said for the wideouts and Prescott.

 

All of which brings this back to Elliott. This offense was constructed to run through him. The Cowboys know it. Opponents know it. That means this offense is fundamentally solvable because it’s dependent on using Elliott in a head-on brute-force approach. And if Dallas can’t win with that kind of will and punishment every single week, the offense must grow into a more creative entity than it is right now.

 

As Elliott said Sunday night: “[The Panthers] didn’t run anything new [on defense]. They didn’t run anything we haven’t seen. We’ve just got to keep working at the offense. … They loaded the box, but you guys keep bringing it up. That’s every week. There’s no point in even talking about it anymore. Every week they’re going to load up the box. We know they’re going to load the box. … We’ve got to start faster. We can’t come out there and lay an egg in the first half.”

 

That’s a mouthful of true statements. Not exactly answers, but definitely some truth. Since 2016, the Cowboys have engineered an offense that lives and dies with Ezekiel Elliott. In 2016, it thrived with him. In 2017, it tanked in a stretch without him. And all the while, opponents discerned a fundamental fact about this team. Elliott is the driving force the offense still hasn’t learned to live without. Remove him any way you can, limit his opportunities, force the play-calling toward other pieces.

 

Do this as an opposing defense, and teams have solved a Cowboys offense that can’t seem to solve itself first.

 

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

Peter King identifies an Achilles heel for the Giants – with the emphasis on the “heel” for not talking with the Knights of the Keyboard.

 

It’s going to be a loooong year for Ereck Flowers, the new right tackle for the Giants, and he handled his awful game against the Jags’ front with not much class; he was the only one of five offensive linemen to not be available to the press post-game.

 

 

WASHINGTON

Albert Breer:

 

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.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

It occurred to Peter King that the Falcons have a lot of money tied up in an unproductive Week 1 offense.  Then he crunched some numbers:

 

Let’s see how the Falcons’ big-money guys on offense compare to the other big offenses in football. I used Over The Cap, and added the cap numbers of the seven highest-paid offensive players on some of the best offensive teams in football.

 

• Atlanta’s top seven adds up to $67.61 million … and that’s with a reasonable $17.7M this year for Ryan. His cap hit in two years will be $31.8 million.

 

• The Saints, fourth in the NFL in points scored last year, and with Drew Brees counting for $24 million this year: $65.46 million for the top seven.

 

• The Eagles, third in the NFL in points scored last year: $53.44 million for the top seven.

 

• The Patriots, second in the league in scoring last year: $53.38 million for the top seven.

 

• The Rams, first in scoring last year: $50.95 million for the top seven.

 

 

CAROLINA

For those who wondered, new OC Norv Turner is not looking to rein in the rushing of QB CAM NEWTON.  Jordan Rodrigue of the Charlotte Observer:

 

When new Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner met quarterback Cam Newton, there was an immediate understanding between the two about one major facet of Newton’s game.

 

He would still be utilized as a rushing threat, Newton said after Carolina’s 16-8 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the season-opener.

 

“It was as simple as ….”

 

Newton, at the podium after the game, tucked his chin in a little and launched into a gravelly voiced Turner impression.

 

“’Hey baby,’” he cracked, “’I’m-a let you be you now, baby.’”

 

“I said, ‘OK, Coach.’”

 

“’All right now. Just let it go out there today, baby.’”

 

It’s seems laughable for anyone to question whether Newton should continue to use his legs, though coaches did limit his carries and designed runs early last season to keep him from taking the harder “running back” hits after offseason shoulder surgery in 2017.

 

But in case anybody needed to be reminded, Newton showed right away on Sunday why his ability as a runner is such a game-changing threat. He broke off a huge 29-yard rumble in the first quarter during which he threw Dallas safety Jeff Heath to the ground, and the crowd lit up — as did Newton’s teammates. He led both teams in rushing by halftime and finished with a team-high 58 rushing yards and a touchdown.

 

That never gets old, said veteran center Ryan Kalil.

 

“It helps us out tremendously,” he said. “He’s a special player, and he’s someone you have to account for. It adds another element to our offense. … He can make guys miss, he can extend a play.”

 

Newton had the energy going early. He wore cleats with silver-starred sheriff’s badges painted on them during pregame warmups on Sunday, a sly nod and perhaps a reminder to the Cowboys whose waterin’ hole Bank of America Stadium is.

 

“You missed the spurs,” joked head coach Ron Rivera after the game.

 

Despite the spaghetti-Western storylines, there wasn’t much all-out gunslinging between the two teams in Sunday’s low-scoring game.

 

Newton was 17 for 26 with 161 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions (a 65.3 completion percentage.

 

But Newton and Turner worked pretty efficiently on Sunday, throwing a lot of looks out at the Cowboys defense.

 

“It’s still early, (but) I felt extremely comfortable with what (Turner) was doing,” said Newton. “I understood the game plan going into it, and it’s still kind of give-and-take, knowing how he calls, just the preparation process through this week. … We felt good, and we just want to keep getting better.”

 

In case you were wondering, it was just the 2nd 16-8 game in NFL history.

– – –

Albert Breer points out that Carolina’s defense keeps chugging along without its two most recent coordinators:

 

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.”

 

Is it cruel of the DB to note that while Carolina was winning, McDermott and Wilks were beaten by a combined score of 71-9.  No offense, and not much of their signature defense either.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

Peter King with QB RYAN FITZPATRICK who reminds us that Sunday wasn’t the first good game of his 14-year career:

 

Ryan Fitzpatrick face-timed with his family after the craziest game of the weekend, the 88-pointer (Bucs 48, Saints 40) in New Orleans. His wife got the six kids around the phone, and there was yelling and happiness and a family moment Fitzpatrick will remember for a long time. “We really didn’t have to say much, and I couldn’t say much,” he said. “I was overcome with emotion.”

 

There was also a fantasy football lesson.

 

“So my 9-year-old son, Tate, convinced my 11-year-old son, Brady, to put me on his fantasy team today,” Fitzpatrick told me from New Orleans. “I didn’t even know Brady played fantasy football. I guess it was a good decision.”

 

You tend to win in fantasy football when your quarterback gives you 417 yards and four touchdowns and no picks and a rating of 156.2. Here’s what was so cool about Fitzpatrick after this game: He was totally, absolutely not surprised. He had no interest in going down the can-you-keep-Jameis-on-the-bench-when-he-returns path, because he knows the Bucs play Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the next two weeks, and it’s fruitless to speculate about starting jobs that are three weeks away. His fatalism, his realism … those impressed me.

 

Watch Fitzpatrick’s deep throws on the highlights today if you can—things of beauty. His bomb to Mike Evans for a touchdown couldn’t have been thrown better by Marino or Elway. “I have so much confidence in my ability that a day like today is not a surprise to me—at all,” he said. “I go out there when I start, and I think I’m gonna have this game every week, especially with this team. All offseason, I’ve seen how deep our skill-position group is. We’ve got five or six guys who, if they’re in one-on-one matchups, you know you can win with any of them. As a quarterback, it’s a dream to be in the huddle with these guys.”

 

But he wouldn’t say this was the best game he’d played in the NFL on his long and winding road through St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tennessee, Houston, the Jets and Tampa. “When I was with the Jets, we beat New England [in 2017]; in Buffalo, we beat New England [in 2011]. Those rank right up there. I remember I got benched for Ryan Mallett [in 2014], and when I got back in the lineup, I threw six touchdown passes to beat Tennessee. That was the most satisfying game of my life.

 

“I’m realistic about how hard this game is. I’ve thrown six touchdowns in a game. I’ve thrown six interceptions in a game. How do you come back from those? This game is a week-to-week proposition, and you better understand that. I’ll go home tonight and we’ll feel good about this one because it’s a big accomplishment beating the Saints here. But then I’ll get ready for the next one—the next one will be all that matters.”

 

Lots of stats notes on this one –

 

The 88 combined points were the most in any opening week NFL game.  The old record was 86 was set in 1971 when the Cowboys beat Buffalo, 49-37, for 86 combined.

 

The same day in 1971 was the last and only time a team scored 40 points and lost a game on opening weekend.  The Packers lost to the Giants, 42-20, on that occasion.

 

For the record, the Buccaneers win was the only 48-40 game in NFL history.

 

Fitzpatrick’s performance was the 6th 400-yard passing effort in Buccaneers history – and he is the 6th different QB to have one.  Doug Willilams, Vinny Testaverde, Josh Freeman, Brian Griese and Jameis Winston were the others with Griese’s effort the only other one in a win.

 

The Buccaneers have had consecutive games – Week 17 last year, Week 1 in 2018 – with two 100-yard receivers.  With two different QBs and four different receivers (Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries, DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans).

 

– – –

So what if the Buccaneers go 3-0 against the gauntlet of Saints, Eagles and Steelers the NFL set for them during the absence of JAMEIS WINSTON.  Albert Breer on the once unthinkable idea that Fitzpatrick stays in the lineup:

 

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.

 

When he took over, no one thought caretaker Tom Brady wouldn’t yield back to Drew Bledsoe either.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

Interesting concept by Andy Benoit of TheMMQB.com as he compares QB KIRK COUSINS, once the apple of Kyle Shanahan’s eye, and the guy he ended up with QB JIMMY GAROPPOLO.

 

This time last year, people close to Kirk Cousins were predicting that the then-Redskins quarterback, a looming free agent, would wind up in San Francisco with his former offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan. Cousins knew the intricacies of Shanahan’s cutting-edge zone scheme, and his winsome personality jibed well with Shanahan’s sharp (but lovable) edge.

 

But in October, Bill Belichick called the Niners, asking if they’d take QB Jimmy Garoppolo for a second-round pick. It was like someone offering their timeshare in Maui for your bus ticket to Omaha. It took Shanahan and 49ers GM John Lynch less than 10 minutes to discuss and say yes. Just like that, they had their franchise QB, and Cousins had one less stop on his impending free agency tour.

 

“There were some days that Kyle Shanahan was like, in mourning, because I think everybody knows his master plan was to have Kirk Cousins come in eventually,” Lynch admitted five months later. Garoppolo made that mourning process easier. Despite not yet knowing Shanahan’s system, he went undefeated in his five start last seasons, averaging an NFL-best 8.8 yards per attempt and completing 67.4% of his passes. The hype machine was whistling by early January, and nearly exploded in February, when the Niners made Garoppolo (at the time) football’s highest-paid player.

 

That deal helped set Cousins’s market price a month later, making the 30-year-old—temporarily—the NFL’s new most-hyped QB. Perhaps not coincidentally, the NFL scheduled these two quarterbacks to face off in Week 1. Now that those results are in, their hype is about to travel in different directions.

 

There’s no question the best QB on the field Sunday in Minneapolis was the one Shanahan had wanted before the ’17 season. Cousins went 20-for-36 for 244 yards and two touchdowns, capitalizing on new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s zone-beating route combinations and making plays with his legs both by design and on improvisation. The Vikings struggled against some of San Francisco’s third-down slot blitzes, and with dark horse Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeForest Buckner (2.5 sacks), but Cousins threw well under stressful movement—something many NFL coaches have long believed he can’t do consistently.

 

Making plays under imperfect conditions is why you pay a QB $84 million (all of it guaranteed!). That’s what Garoppolo, on Sunday, too often failed to do. The 49ers, with injuries striking their O-line and taking top receiver Marquise Goodwin out of the equation, were overwhelmed by several of Minnesota’s brilliantly disguised overload blitzes. Yes, Garoppolo still made some plays, flashing his scintillating quick feet and efficient, compact mechanics. His 22-yard fallaway touchdown throw to rookie wideout Dante Pettis was downright artistic.

 

But these flashes didn’t outweigh a handful of mistakes. There was the interception to Xavier Rhodes where Garoppolo was high and wide on a slant to Pettis. There was the loss-sealing pick to Harrison Smith, whom Garoppolo failed to register on the back side in Minnesota’s foundational Cover-4. In between those plays was another throw high and wide that resulted in a missed red zone touchdown to tight end George Kittle. The game’s biggest play, Vikings corner Mike Hughes’s pick-six immediately following a Kittle drop, was a product of receiver Kendrick Bourne falling, but the entire play had a frenetic energy brought on by Minnesota’s blitz. It was an illustration of QB and offense being swarmed.

 

Some of San Francisco’s downfield zone-beating designs worked perfectly on Sunday, creating opportunities for Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, but overall, the offensive execution was too hit or miss to win on the road against football’s best defense. From the QB hype machine comes reactionary articles (like this one), resetting the narrative. Cousins, through (let’s remember, only) one week? Well worth the money. Garoppolo? For the first time in his nascent career, he has something to bounce back from.

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Thoughts on being a head coach from Sean McVay as relayed through Peter King:

 

When I got hired to be a head coach, and I got a chance to hire some of these guys to come on to our staff—guys who I am thinking to myself, ‘I get to coach with this guy?’ Wade Phillips on defense, Joe Barry as an assistant head coach. John Fassel on special teams—I know nothing about special teams, and here’s this guy who’s as good as anyone in the league, on our team. All our coaches, working together. If you get a staff like we had, we all make each other better.

 

“I learned this from Mike Tomlin—who’s been a big help to me: Everybody’s got all the answers and no accountability. I was that guy. Before I called plays or even got into this role, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I’d do it this way.’ Well it’s a little bit different when you actually have to do it.

 

“I learned how important it is to bring in the right people to influence your team. Andrew Whitworth, Robert Woods. Smart guys, team guys who can help influence and affect the locker room in the right way. There’s real power in that.

 

“Something really important I learned: If I was trying to be involved in every facet of the job, I think I would’ve been really overwhelmed—and I would have done the team a disservice. Defense and special teams … I knew enough so that I could at least communicate to our players. But to try and stick my nose in and be involved in those areas when I had smarter people to do it, that would not have been smart. If there’s a major decision to make, or a [replay] challenge on a defensive play or special-teams play, we’ll talk about it. Mostly, though, I’m not gonna override Wade Phillips’ call. Why would I?

 

“And it’s okay to devote myself to the offense especially when you’ve got a young quarterback who needs me like Jared [Goff]. People might say, ‘Well, why aren’t you standing on the sidelines to watch the defense?’ I think people have the misinterpretation that I don’t care about the defense. Of course I care about defense and special teams. But I just think it’s too hard to call plays in this league and think that I’m not gonna look at what just happened in the previous series when the offense comes off the field. It’s okay to do what’s best for the team that way, even if it doesn’t look like what a head coach should do.”

 

 

SEATTLE

Even Peter King is beginning to wonder if John Schneider is an Uber GM.

 

 Another year, another disaster of an offensive line for Seattle. It’s John Schneider’s Achilles.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

Albert Breer:

 

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.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CINCINNATI

RB JOE MIXON gets off to a good start.  Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com:

 

Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell didn’t make the trip to Cleveland. But a guy that brings the same type of dynamic got on the Bengals’ bus for the drive to Lucas Oil Stadium as they rode on the back of running back Joe Mixon in Sunday’s 34-23 Opening Day victory over the Colts.

– – –

“He made some explosive runs and he is so talented, he can do it all,” (QB Andy) Dalton said.

 

It was an ugly game of adjustments. Dalton’s first pass of the season, a screen to Mixon, was blown up for a pick by rookie center Billy Price letting in pressure as he fell.

 

“We changed the technique and were good to go,” said Price, who then set up Mixon’s 21-yard catch-and-run on the next series.

 

Mixon tipped his hat to everyone from Hubbard to his receivers to his line.

 

“Sam was excited about that package all week. We were talking about it all week. How we would attack it,” Mixon said. “It wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen.”

 

Mixon said they made adjustments at the half that involved mixing up the inside and outside runs.

 

“I kept telling the receivers to keep doing their thing,” Mixon said. “On the perimeter they were running the guys off or keep blocking and holding them off. I’m very excited. Marvin (Lewis) came in here (at half) and told us to settle down. Can’t beat ourselves. We re-grouped and went one drive at a time. The line was great. They were grinding it and pounding it.”

 

It was tough, just the kind of game that is symbolized by a big, hard-charging back they didn’t have last year. It took Mixon three games to get to 95 yards last season.

 

“I think it wasn’t a pretty game,” Dalton said. “There’s a lot that we’re going to be able to look at and we’re going to do better. But to come out with a victory like that, to win by two scores, is big because it wasn’t that way going into that last drive that they had. I think it gives us confidence and we just got to keep pushing.”

 

They kept pushing. Right tackle Bobby Hart gave up two sacks to old friend Margus Hunt, who had 1.5 sacks as a Bengal in four seasons. They kept pushing. Safety Brandon Wilson had a tough penalty in the kicking game. They kept pushing. Green had two fumbles, but a big play and had the look of a man who knows all you have to do is survive openers.

 

“Trying to do too much,” Green said. “Last year we didn’t score until the third game of the season. Now we can go back home without people asking when are you going to score a touchdown. It’s good to get this out of the way.”

 

“I just ran right through the safety and Andy made a great throw,” Green said. “If I’m outside, they can cloud my side or roll the safety over there, so it was just good to move me around a lot.”

 

This is Green’s eighth opener, so he gets it. They usually are ugly and come down to resiliency.

 

“First game. Roller-coaster up and down. It was tough. A lot of adrenaline, emotions running high,” Green said. “You expect that stuff.”

 

Green also gets Mixon after he saw him run for 95 yards on 17 carries and catch five balls for 54 more and a Bell-like 149 total yards.

 

“You mention him with Le’Veon or (Todd) Gurley,” Green said. “He’s there with those guys.”

 

Mixon, trying to become their first Opening Day 100-yard rusher since Cedric Benson in the first game of the Green-Dalton Era in 2011, just may have given them the momentum on the first play after Vinatieri’s miss. On the last play of the third quarter he bolted behind the left side for 13 yards. That ignited a 55-yard TD drive in which he ran for 21 and caught 15. When he followed rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard playing his first NFL scrimmage snap as a fullback, he scored on a leaping one-yard run on third down that gave them the lead for good at 24-23 with 11:04 left.

 

 

CLEVELAND

A tweet from Bill Barnwell:

 

The Browns are +5 in takeaways today. Since the Browns returned to the NFL, teams with a turnover margin of +5 or better in a game are 132-4-1. The Browns are responsible for two of those losses and the tie.

 

And this sad but true headline from ProFootballTalk.com:

 

At 0-0-1, Browns are off to their best start since 2004

 

The last time the Browns didn’t lose in Week One was in 2004, when quarterback Jeff Garcia passed for one touchdown and threw for another to beat Kyle Boller and the Ravens 20-3.

 

 

 

PITTSBURGH

It’s kind of a Catch 22 for RB Le’VEON BELL.  He has to act like a jerk to get to true free agency but in doing so, he’s hurting the market for the big contract he believes is his right.  Albert Breer:

 

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 get younger, cheaper running backs.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

TENNESSEE

Not an auspicious debut for the Titans, who lose the longest game and lose some key players, including TE DELANIE WALKER.

 

This from Ian Rapoport:

 

@RapSheet

#Titans TE Delanie Walker suffered a dislocated ankle in today’s loss vs the #Dolphins, I’m told. There was also an associated fracture. His season is almost certainly over, a tough injury for an underrated and productive player.

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

This from ProFootballReference.com:

 

@pfref

The #Bills lost by 44 points yesterday. That’s the largest deficit in a Week 1 game in 27 years

 

Washington beat Detroit 45-0 in the 1991 opener.

 

Peter King thinks QB NATHAN PETERMAN should never start again.

 

Nathan Peterman, quarterback, Buffalo. Enough. Forty-to-nothing is not all his fault. But 40-0 in 35 minutes? That’s two incredibly unprofessional appearances in two starts for Peterman. We’ve seen enough of Peterman, Sean McDermott.

 

This is what King thinks is the solution:

 

I think, Bills fans, it’s time to do something you may not want to do but simply must: Flood your team’s switchboard this morning demanding your team sign Colin Kaepernick.

 

We know they just drafted a first round QB, but we think a third for TEDDY BRIDGEWATER might have been a more productive move.  Or hanging on to the serviceable TYROD TAYLOR.

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

QB TOM BRADY threw some love at TE ROB GRONKOWSKI on Monday morning.  Andrew Callahan of MassLive.com listens in:

 

Over the last four years, the argument for Tom Brady being the greatest quarterback of all time has evolved into more of a widely accepted truth.

 

So allow Brady to make the next all-time case for Rob Gronkowski as the NFL’s best tight end ever.

 

Returned to his weekly spot on sports radio station WEEI on Monday morning, Brady spoke to “Kirk and Callahan” guest co-hosts Mike Mutnansky and Greg Dickerson about Gronkowski’s play in Sunday’s season-opening 27-20 win. The All-Pro tight end caught seven passes for 123 yards and a touchdown against the Houston Texans, including a spectacular 28-yard grab against double coverage near the end of the first half.

 

Brady’s pass on that play even made Gronkowski ask, “What is Tom thinking?” In Brady’s mind, he was simply giving an all-time great a chance to make a play.

 

“They did a good job on him, just trying to keep him out of the game. But it is tough because he’s so talented. He’s the best tight end in the league — probably the best to ever play the game,” Brady said. “When you have that guy on your team, you have to give him looks. We did, and he came up big for us.”

– – –

As Josh McDaniels continues to labor as a mere OC, he’s getting plenty of moolah.

 

Very good nugget from Ian Rapoport on NFL Network, with news that the Patriots signed offensive coordinator (and perhaps head-coach-in-waiting) Josh McDaniels to a five-year deal to keep him in New England, and that McDaniels is “being paid like a first-time head coach … At one point his contract eclipses $4 million per year.”

– – –

An injury –

 

Running back Jeremy Hill‘s first season in New England will last just one game.

 

Hill suffered a torn ACL on Sunday and is out for the season, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reports.

 

The 25-year-old Hill signed with the Patriots this year after four years with the Bengals. He had four carries for 25 yards and one catch for six yards before leaving yesterday’s game with his injured knee.