$.01--Football is back! And it’s back because the players, coaches, teams and all their families have done a fantastic job at getting it there. In the midst of a global pandemic that has largely ended entertainment as we know it, the NFL has done an enviable job of keeping everyone safe and ready to roll.
The league released its COVID-19 testing results prior to Week 1. The lack of positive tests for infection is a tremendous positive for the NFL. Remember, the NFL tests everyone on the team and in direct contact with anyone on the team, six days a week. The latest testing data, tracking the period from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, saw 44,510 tests administered to 8,349 people (2,641 players and 5,708 team personnel). In that broad swath of humanity not isolated in a bubble, one player and seven team personnel returned positive tests. Eight out of 44,510 is a positive test rate of .000179. Your odds are better for picking the Daily 4 in the lottery two days in a row than that measly NFL positive rate.
The protocols in place are working, but give the players and the teams themselves credit. They’re not getting caught in risky situations. They’re being responsible. Coming together for the greater good, even if it’s a collective business interest, is not something America is very good at these days. Bravo to the NFL.
$.02--The first game action came Thursday night in Kansas City with the defending champion Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans. In a terrible week for all things Houston sports, the Texans were an overdose of rotten cilantro. Andy Reid’s Chiefs avoided the indigestion and feasted on the visitors, 34-20.
It was a triumphant return to the field for Patrick Mahomes. The $500 million man was methodical in throwing three TDs. Ho-hum. The real star for the Chiefs was first-round rookie RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who totaled 138 yards on 25 carries in his NFL debut. Adding the ground attack to what Mahomes and his cadre of speedy receivers already offers is almost unfair for Kansas City, but that’s where we are with the reigning champs.
Deshaun Watson, freshly paid hundreds of millions of his own, rallied the Texans to keep the score respectable. It wasn’t a respectable effort otherwise for Watson or his teammates. Will Fuller dropped Watson’s first pass of the season. Right tackle Tytus Howard got caught standing still on a pass rush rep. Watson struggled to get in rhythm and, as he is wont to do, held onto the ball too long, too often. Fuller did rebound for a great game (8 catches, 110 yards) after the early gaffe, and the Texans got a nice look from David Johnson, the bounty for the (still asinine) DeAndre Hopkins trade. But the Chiefs managed to build upon their 51-7 run in the AFC Divisional Round matchup with Houston by tackling another 31-7 on top of it.
It was a fun return to some semblance of NFL normalcy, one we all sorely needed.
$.03--The Tom Brady show in Tampa Bay didn’t produce the results the Buccaneers hoped for. Brady and his Bucs got roughed up in their debut, falling 34-23 in New Orleans.
Brady had a rough day. Some of that is absolutely on his inadequate offensive line, notably left tackle Donovan Smith. His receivers are culpable too, unable to consistently get separation or get in sync with Brady. But TB12 had some ponderous throws, some wild misses and one of the worst throws he’s made in years on the pick-6 to Janoris Jenkins that was late, off-target and lacked zip.
The Saints deserve credit, though I suspect much of the national focus will be on Brady and the high-profile Bucs. They brought that upon themselves by making the all-in move with Brady, Gronk and friends. New Orleans was the better team on both lines of scrimmage, another facet of the Saints that never gets enough credit. They were my preseason pick to win the NFC and I saw nothing but reinforcement of that position in the Saints impressive win.
As FOX commentators Joe Buck and Troy Aikman repeatedly cried--I thought Aikman was in actual tears at one point in admitting he’s rooting (in a broad sense) for Tampa Bay--there will be better days for Brady and the Bucs. They have too much talent. But it’s perfectly fair to question just how much Brady has left after watching that uninspiring performance.
$.04--Week 1 saw the debut of several new head coaches around the league. Four new head coaches, two rookies and two retreads, led their teams onto the field with very divergent results.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski got flat-out embarrassed in his head coaching debut at any level. His Cleveland team was woefully underprepared for what was about to steamroll them in Baltimore, where the Ravens won 38-6 in a contest that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate. It’s not one bit surprising the Ravens won, they’re very good. It’s not surprising the Browns lost in Week 1, something they’ve done every year but one this century. It was startlingly surprising just how bad Cleveland looked in all phases of the game.
The Panthers’ Matt Rhule got closer than Stefanski in his NFL debut, but his Panthers fell at home to the Raiders, 34-30. Carolina scored on its first four possessions but couldn’t stop the Raiders, who scored on six of their seven drives in one stretch. It helped Rhule a lot that his team has Christian McCaffrey and what looked like a good offensive line to execute his college-centric scheme.
Rhule’s Panthers predecessor, Ron Rivera came up a winner in his debut at the helm of the Football Team. It certainly didn’t look promising early on; the Eagles raced out to a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter, but Rivera’s Football Team rallied strong. Washington reeled off the final 27 points of the game and ended in victory formation. The Eagles were definitely complicit in their own demise, but give Rivera credit for leaning on his team’s strengths, namely the defensive front. His Team (is that even the right shorthand?) sacked Carson Wentz eight times and completely smothered the Philadelphia ground attack.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy fell in his debut as Dallas’ leader. The Los Angeles Rams opened their gorgeous new stadium (empty of course) by holding off McCarthy’s Cowboys, 20-17. A banged-up Cowboys squad was largely game but couldn’t quite send their new coach home a winner in an evenly-matched game that dragged offensively in the second half.
The New York Giants and rookie head man Joe Judge kick off their season on Monday night as decided underdogs against the Pittsburgh Steelers
$.05--I’ll state it right off the bat: I’m a Joe Burrow fan. I think he’s going to be great. So I watched as much of his Bengals debut as I could.
I was not disappointed. Burrow looked legit as the No. 1 overall pick while also still showing that he’s a rookie making his first start. His Bengals lost 16-13 to the visiting Los Angeles Chargers, but don’t blame the new Cincinnati kid.
Burrow, playing behind an offensive line that could charitably get labeled inadequate at best, made several impressive throws. He missed a couple too, notably a wide-open A.J. Green down the seam in the third quarter where he led the former All-Pro just a little too much. One play earlier he just missed John Ross open in the end zone too, though Ross didn’t exactly try hard to haul it in, either. He did make the biggest throw he needed, finding Green in the front right corner of the end zone with under 10 seconds to play to give the Bengals a comeback win. Except Green (rightly) got called for pushing off. Bengals kicker Randy Bullock then yakked on the potential game-tying FG, injuring himself in the process of missing a 31-yard field goal by about 30 yards.
Like most of America watching the game, I let out a loud “Oh no!” followed by a guffaw at Bullock’s wildly errant effort. We laugh because we can’t always cry. I still like what I saw from Burrow and I’m excited to get an even closer look when the Bengals visit Cleveland on Thursday night.
$.06--Any Given Sunday, Week 1 edition went down in Jacksonville. The Jaguars, the trendy pick to be the worst team in the league, won 27-20 on the scoreboard over the Indianapolis Colts, one of the trendy sleeper playoff teams.
The Jaguars didn’t win the game on the stat sheet, not even close. The Colts won on yards (445-241), first downs (27-17), time of possession (by almost 7 minutes) and held a lead in all four quarters. But the Jaguars and feisty QB Garnder Minshew won where it counted.
Minshew is quickly establishing himself as one of the best young leaders in the NFL. On Sunday, he was also one of the NFL’s best passers. Minshew completed 19 of his 20 pass attempts. He only netted 173 yards but three of those receptions went into the end zone. Minshew’s willingness to throw any pass to any receiver was a massive problem for the Colts defense. The Jaguars buying into Minshew’s testicular fortitude and playing better than the sum of their parts is something the Colts sorely lacked around newcomer Philip Rivers.
The Jaguars won’t win many games getting smoked on the stat sheet the way they did in Week 1. Jacksonville needed Minshew to be perfect and the Colts to commit more penalties, turnovers and miss a field goal to make it happen. It’s a feel-good start for Duval, where the loyal fans have had very little to cheer about lately.
$.07--There is a fierce debate on Twitter, and it spills into Reddit and sports talk radio a lot too, over the value of paying a premium for running backs in today’s NFL. In general, the analytics crowd and the new-school approach to team building would rather have a snapping turtle clamp onto their left nipple than pay more than the bare minimum for a running back, no matter the running back’s accomplishments.
Two NFL teams unleashed the turtles this week by spending serious cash to lock up their star running backs. Minnesota ponied up $63 million over five years to keep Dalvin Cook in the purple uniform. The $12.6 million per year average is a hefty raise for Cook, who more than doubled his career output from his first two seasons in a breakout 2019.
Not to be outdone, the Saints gave even more to Alvin Kamara. A five-year, $75 million deal is a huge figure for a running back, even one as dynamic and diversely talented as Kamara.
Those deals highlight the disconnect between the spreadsheet crowd and the state of where many NFL front offices still are on the RB issue. Running backs might not matter to the wonks, but the coaches and front offices still apparently feel otherwise. I tend to lean towards the analytical end of things here. I wouldn’t pay that much for either Cook or Kamara despite the fact I think they’re both very good players and still ascending talents. The difference between what a team can get for $12M a year and $2M a year at RB is a smaller spread than at any other position of the roster. But for some teams, even that small margin is worth overpaying for in hopes of boosting a playoff run. If it doesn’t work for the Saints and Vikings--two of the most cap-strapped franchises--the chorus of “don’t pay running backs” will grow even louder.
--The 49ers might have fallen at home to the Cardinals, but new San Francisco left tackle Trent Williams proved he’s still got it after missing all of 2019 with a combination of cancer and mistreatment by Washington:
O M G ... Trent Williams at LT. 👀👀👀👀👀👀👀👀— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) September 13, 2020
--Staying with the hit stick highlight, check out Marvin Jones from the Lions welcoming rookie Bears CB Jaylen Johnson to the NFL
Being a Lions fan isn’t easy these days (read: my over 40 years suffering as one) but that’s a keeper moment right there.
--My Lions aren’t the only NFC North team with some issues…Tweet of the Year, Week 1 edition
--I didn’t see one snap of the game, but the Patriots and Cam Newton rolling the Dolphins is an interesting development. It’s patently unfair to compare the two, but Belichick winning with Newton while Brady lost in Tampa is going to make for a crazy week on sports talk radio in the Northeast. Glad I’m not there...
--Louisiana went into Iowa State and recorded the first road win in school history over a ranked opponent. I watched a good portion of the game and hadn’t done hardly any prep work on the game. It’s a great example of why preseason rankings are absolutely worthless, especially in this COVID-19 year. The Ragin Cajuns were better at just about every position group than the Cyclones. I’d have guessed they were the ranked team in watching them with a largely blank slate.
--The Big 10 continues the teasing of tying to play in the fall, only to radically swing in the other direction just as they appear to close in on approval. On Sunday the commissioners of the 14 member schools refused to even vote on the idea of rushing back into playing before November. That ended days of optimistic speculation that the B1G would still get into the College Football Playoff. I said it in June, I’ll say it again: there will be no Big Ten Football in 2020, period. Stop getting teased.
--Arkansas State stunned Kansas State with a comeback win that lifted the Sun Belt to its second win over the Big 12 on the weekend. The Red Wolves were keyed by a fantastic performance from wide receiver Jonathan Adams Jr.. Adams caught three TD passes including the game-winner. Even more interestingly, a different player threw each of the 3 TDs to Adams. The 6-3/220 junior caught my eye in ASU’s loss to Georgia a year ago. He’s got even more of my eye now.
Just for good measure, Coastal Carolina from the Sun Belt rolled into Kansas and dominated the Big 12 Jayhawks. Good weekend for the Sun Belt.
--It was only Missouri State (now coached by Bobby Petrino) as the foe, but highly-touted Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler lit it up in his Sooners debut. Rattler threw for 290 yards and 4 TDs in the first half. We’re going to hear a lot about the affable Rattler over the next few years. He’s got a chance to be the next Sooner QB to go No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft, after Baker Mayfield (2018) and Kyler Murray (2019).
$.10--This week marked the 19th anniversary of 9/11. As I do most every year on the date, I immersed myself in as much 9/11 broadcasting and reminiscing as possible. It’s almost inarguably the single most significant historical event of the 21st century.
One of the documentaries I was watching focused on George W Bush and how the president handled the day and the ensuing events. But in between the segments, I was barraged with political ads. And I noticed a distinct theme that was very contrary to everything we as Americans were supposed to learn from 9/11.
Every single ad, and I do mean every one of them from local to state (I live in Michigan) and national election ad focused 100% on the opponent, not the candidate ostensibly being promoted. It’s especially bad at the national level, and it’s virulent on both sides of the aisle. There is zero promotion of any ideas or plans, only demonizing the other side with stilted facts and unqualified opinions. It’s an exercise in hate speech and division.
I recalled the 2004 presidential election between Bush and John Kerry. In one of the debates, the two combatants were asked to say something nice about one another. I’ll never forget Kerry’s response. He turned to Bush, looked him in the eye, softened his tone and thanked him for how he handled 9/11. And Kerry quite clearly meant it. It was a sincere moment. Bush quietly thanked Kerry, proudly but humbly. He didn’t try to capitalize on it or rub it in Kerry’s face.
That memory flashed forward. There’s no way Donald Trump or Joe Biden even contemplate answering that question. Anything short of calling the other an unfit scourge upon America is unacceptable in 2020. I was not a Bush or Kerry fan, to put it mildly. I never voted for either man. But I respected them and I appreciated their recognition that just because they disagreed on the path to greatness, that America could be great with either in office.
That America was great. The unity, the realization that we’re better together than divided, that was great too. I miss that America. I think most Americans do.