We’re back for another season! Week 1 saw some interesting storylines and laid the groundwork for what figures to be a wild and unpredictable 2022 campaign.
$.01--It was one of the lesser games on the Week 1 docket, but the Browns visiting the Panthers in Charlotte was eagerly anticipated by anyone and everyone in Northeast Ohio. Baker Mayfield versus his former team in his first game in Carolina? Oh yeah, it’s on.
Things did not go well for Mayfield early. He was 5-for-11 for 15 yards, one INT and two fumbles (bad snaps) in Carolina’s first four drives. The Browns own offense wasn’t sharp either, about the only saving grace for the Panthers. Cleveland ran the ball without a lot of resistance, but replacement QB Jacoby Brissett couldn’t connect in the passing game any better than his Browns predecessor.
As he is wont to do, Mayfield heated up. The plucky Progressive pitchman rallied his new team to a late lead, scoring a cathartic rushing touchdown on his own. Cleveland has seen this movie before, way too many times.
The Browns had a winless streak on Week 1 dating back to 2004. They’ve found creative ways to drop games along the way, but none would be more humiliating than having the QB they couldn't exile fast enough leading the opponent to a big comeback. Was this karmic retribution for Cleveland?
The Browns benefitted from a couple of interesting officiating decisions and got just close enough for rookie kicker Cade York to try a game-winning 58-yard field goal attempt. York’s kick started out wide right but faded back well inside and above the upright to give the Browns a comeback win of their own.
(About those controversial calls: I thought the roughing the passer on Brian Burns was a letter-of-the-law call sold very well by Jacoby Brissett. I thought the spike/grounding no-call was a flat-out whiff by the officiating crew.)
The bad blood between the Browns and Baker isn’t likely to end with this one game. Make no mistake--several Cleveland players wanted this one very badly. Snapping the historical Week 1 drought and winning behind good defense, a sound ground game and an amazing kicker was exactly what the doctor ordered for a weary Browns fanbase. No fans needed a win more.
$.02--Week 1 kicked off in Los Angeles with the reigning champion Rams hosting the betting favorite to win it all this year, the Buffalo Bills. Hopefully you got your bets in on the Bills before the game, because their utter dominance in dethroning Sean McVay’s Rams was a massive statement for the opening night.
There are two ways to look at this game. The Bills were very sharp on both sides of the ball, playing like a good team already in midseason form. Josh Allen looked like an MVP front-runner in leading the BIlls’ 31-10 romp. He completed 26-of-31 passes for 297 yards. Two of the five misses were INTs, but Allen was phenomenal as the master of puppets, pulling strings and smashing Rams dreams.
Then there’s the Rams' side of the coin. Matthew Stafford looked off all night. The QB didn’t have the usual zip on his throws, nor did No. 9 make great decisions. Buffalo’s defense was a step ahead all night and Stafford and his Rams had no answers. Von Miller tore apart the pass protection from his old team in his Buffalo debut, and an active Bills secondary blanketed everyone but Cooper Kupp effectively all night long.
Stafford’s lack of manly vigor in his throwing is concerning. The team spent all summer trying to convince everyone that his right elbow was fine, begrudgingly acknowledging he had a procedure to help fix it. It did not look fine on Thursday. Then again, nothing much looked anything close to fine for the Rams. I have a feeling the Bills are going to do that to a lot of teams this fall.
$.03--The NFL tries very hard to give Sunday Night Football an appealing matchup, a compelling game between two good teams. In Week 1, we instead got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys.
Sure, that game sounded good on paper. So did “Dude Where’s My Car”, a terrible movie that was more entertaining than watching the punchless, weaponless Cowboys offense against a good-not-great Buccaneers defense. Dak Prescott fought valiantly but had next to nothing to work with behind a battered OL and a depleted receiving corps.
Dallas scored a field goal on its first drive. The next five full drives netted 29 yards and 2 first downs, along with four offensive penalties and an interception.
Tom Brady and the Buccaneers weren’t exactly great in their own right. Mike Evans was, well, Mike Evans, but beyond him the receiving corps and Brady were more workmanlike than dynamic. They were bad in the red zone and underwhelming on third downs. Leonard Fournette’s physical play worked well against the speed-based Cowboys defensive front, and that proved more than enough for Todd Bowles to earn the win in his first game as Buccaneers head coach.
It’s important to not overreact to one game, but these Cowboys look like they’ll struggle to find paths to victories against any team that can score more than twice against them. The injuries, the attrition, the flatline coaching from Mike McCarthy--it’s not looking good for Dallas.
$.04--Any Given Sunday, Week 1 edition
Week 1 is all about preconceived notions, and it’s notorious for flukish outcomes. But this year took it to extremes. We’ve got several candidates for the surprise upset win.
There’s Chicago, which stunned visiting San Francisco 19-10. The Bears scored touchdowns on three straight possessions to start the second half after both teams swam in utter offensive futility in the waterlogged first half. Justin Fields outplayed Trey Lance in the battle of 2021 first-round QBs, though neither completed half their pass attempts.
The New York Giants are a worthy candidate too. The G-Men snuck past Tennessee 21-20 when Titans kicker Randy Bullock missed a 49-yard FG attempt as time expired. Saquon Barkley had his best game in three years (164 yards, 1 TD) and Daniel Jones was as sharp as Daniel Jones can ever be.
But my choice is the Minnesota Vikings for utterly destroying the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay was my preseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but their North rivals were the far better squad on Sunday. The Vikings rolled to an almost too-easy 23-7 win in a game where Kirk Cousins emphatically outplayed Aaron Rodgers. No, that’s not a misprint or hyperbole. Cousins was great, Justin Jefferson was even better in torching the strong Packers secondary at will. Minnesota’s lines won the battles on both lines of scrimmage, too.
The trick for the upset winners is to carry over the surprise success into next week. For the losers--especially San Francisco--getting off the struggle bus is a Week 2 imperative.
$.05--Lamar Jackson is still the quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens. However, there is some uncertainty as to how long that will last now that Jackson has rejected the Ravens’ last-ditch offer before the season to lock him up prior to his final season under contract.
The offer, reportedly $290 million total with at least $133M fully guaranteed, was not enough to convince Jackson to eschew the potential of open market free agency. It’s not terribly surprising Jackson rejected the deal, not after seeing what Deshaun Watson got from the Browns and Russell Wilson recently received from Denver.
Watson’s deal is a major elephant in the NFL’s room. Fully guaranteed deals of that magnitude simply do not happen. That Watson earned it despite all the consternation about his off-field status and after not playing for a year is something of a revelation for players that it can be done. Jackson acting as his own agent removes the intermediary in the negotiation, the voice in his ear that he can’t ask for too much or risk injury.
Baltimore can control Jackson for at least two more years with the franchise tag. Based on his expected asking price, the Ravens slapping the tag on Jackson is cheaper for the franchise than paying him the contract and guarantees he wants. The tag value will likely be around $31M in 2023. Jackson is asking for at least $45M. That’s where it’s a very dangerous game for Jackson--the Ravens have no incentive to pay him more than the franchise tag until 2024 at the earliest. Stay tuned…
Oh yeah, the Ravens played a game. Jackson was quietly effective in Baltimore’s 24-9 win over Joe Flacco and the Jets, who did a good job taking away Jackson’s running options (17 yards on 6 carries) but couldn’t stop his aerial attack (3 TDs, two to Devin Duvernay).
$.06--It happens every year, but it’s a tradition that needs to end. The NFL needs to stop with the cruel and unusual practice of cutting players the day after they survive through to the 53-man roster.
There are a number of reasons why it happens, ones that barely elicit a shrug anymore. But there’s one the NFL can control. Teams can claim a player off waivers they like better or feel helps them more. This year, that happened to 31 players--six of them in Chicago.
I’m not suggesting the NFL end the waiver claim process after the cutdown deadline to 53. But instead of whacking players who survived the roster bubble and earned a spot on the team less than 24 hours later, how about creating a roster exemption for the newly claimed players?
Players on the first 53-man roster should be ensured they are on that roster for at least two game weeks. During that time, the claimed players are on the roster as well but exempt from counting against the roster limit and also ineligible to play in the first two games. By that point, the coaching staff should know which player they prefer on the roster, or perhaps injuries have created a need and roster space for both the player who would have been cut and the newcomer. It’s the right thing to do.
Exceptions can be made for players who are placed on injured reserve after the 53-man cutdown, an increasingly popular maneuver teams are exploiting to not lose the injured player for the full season--which is what happens when players go on IR before the final cutdown.
$.07--Alabama made a rare trip to play a nonconference power-5 program on the road on Saturday. Based on the outcome of the game at Texas, it might never happen again as long as Nick Saban lords over the Crimson Tide program.
Alabama escaped with a comeback 20-19 win. Saban’s team entered as over 20-point favorites but played one of the worst games you’ll ever see from one of his teams. There were undisciplined penalties, dropped passes, defensive miscommunications and blocking breakdowns littered across the field. Quarterback Bryce Young was not overly impressive until the game was on the line, and then Young--with some help from the officiating crew--showed why he’s the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Young strapped the struggling tide to his undersized back and carried them past the upset-minded Longhorns.
Texas fans have already blamed the officials, and the guys in black and white made a couple of critical decisions that definitely aided in the Alabama win. The waved-off safety of Young was a strange one all around. Then on Young’s late scramble after a masterful duck-under of a CB blitz, two different officials appeared to reach for their flags to penalize a blatant and obvious hold by the Bama right tackle; two hands grabbing jersey and shoulder pad as the defender attempted to chase Young. The play stood with no flags.
But the Longhorns made too many mistakes to seize the victory. A missed chip shot FG, as well as the decision to play for the FG instead of trying for the TD so close to the goal line when the defense was fired up, will haunt coach Steve Sarkisian. It was still an impressive effort, mostly done with a backup QB who couldn’t throw deep. Texas was close, but Saban will take out his considerable frustration with his team as he chomps anxiously on his victory cigar.
--Houston and Indianapolis played to a 20-20 tie. Blame Texans coach Lovie Smith, who opted not to try and win the game late in overtime with a curious decision to punt in Colts territory instead of going for it. His Texans blew a 20-3 second-half lead by managing to gain just 17 yards on their final five full possessions.
--The Steelers pulled off an interesting win over Cincinnati. Pittsburgh cruised out to a big early lead thanks to Bengals QB Joe Burrow forgetting which team he was throwing to, starting with a pick-6 on the first drive. The Steelers offense was largely miserable and that let the Bengals come back to tie the game at 20. Pittsburgh prevailed on Chris Boswell’s 53-yard FG in overtime. But a potentially serious injury to T.J. Watt could make this one the mother of all Pyrrhic victories for the Steelers. If the perennial Defensive Player of the Year front runner is out, it’s apt to be a long year in Pittsburgh.
--The last time the Lions hosted the Eagles was Halloween of 2021. The Eagles won that game 44-6 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. Barometer of progress for Dan Campbell’s Lions: Philly won 38-35 on Sunday. Detroit’s defense still has no answer for a QB that can run like Jalen Hurts. The Eagles defense has no answer for offensive lines that can block like the Lions can, and that’s one big reason why the Lions are a lot more dangerous than a year ago.
--Miami smoked New England, 20-7, extending the Patriots' offensive struggles from the offseason. Pats QB Mac Jones injured his back too. Dolphins counterpart Tua Tagovailoa had an impressive game, avoiding turnovers and smartly using new weapon Tyreek Hill repeatedly.
--Chiefs safety Justin Reid showed off his kicking leg in the preseason as a kind of fun experiment. The practice paid off in the Chiefs’ blowout win in Arizona. Reid nailed an extra point while regular KC kicker Harrison Butker got treated by trainers. He missed the next one before Butker returned, so it’s unlikely to ever happen again outside of emergency duty. Fortunately for the Chiefs, who punted just twice, this game was over in a hurry.
--Ladies and gentlemen, behold Davante Adams in Las Vegas:
--The Marcus Freeman era at Notre Dame is off to a rough start. The Irish lost at home to Marshall on Saturday, dropping Freeman to 0-2 as the head coach. Losing to Ohio State in Columbus is acceptable. Losing at home to the fifth-best team in C-USA last year? Yeah, not so much. I watched a good portion of the game and the Herd was simply the better, more physical team on both offense and defense.
--Notre Dame wasn’t the only big program to go down. Texas A&M fell at home to Appalachian State. The Mountaineers were part of the most entertaining fourth quarter of college football you’ll see all year a week earlier against North Carolina. This App State win didn’t have the crazy scoring, just a better outcome for the faithful back on the Blue Ridge. The Aggies didn’t get 200 total yards of offense on their 38 total offensive snaps, compared to 82 for the visitors.
--Wisconsin losing at home to Washington State, in a defensive struggle no less, was not something I ever thought would happen. Penalties, special teams and turnovers did in the Badgers. My friend Scott, a proud Wisconsin alum, summed it up thusly,
“We played like warm flat beer today”
--Things were even worse in Nebraska, which gave up 45 points at home in a loss to Georgia State. Cornhusker nation revolted and now coach Scott Frost is out of the head coaching job. Had they waited 20 more days, buying out Frost would have been $7.5M cheaper. Didn’t matter. That’s how bad things are in Lincoln.
--Iowa has scored one TD in two games. That’s not going to help recruiting players from outside the immediate area. I watched the first 3 possessions for both Iowa and Iowa State and decided sorting my sock drawer was going to be more interesting.
--Florida QB Anthony Richardson had a phenomenal start against a very good Utah team a week ago. The draft hype for the Gators passer exploded with a truly great game. But Kentucky stuck a pin in the bubble and reminded everyone that Richardson, while gifted, still has a long way to go before he’s NFL-ready. I will re-watch the game with scouting eyes to evaluate both Richardson and Wildcats QB Will Levis, but I can already give Kentucky’s defense credit for taking away the bread-and-butter routes Richardson devoured against Utah.
$.10--I’m writing this on September 11th. Sure, it's the kickoff of the new NFL season and another year where I’m blessed to write about it for a living. But the 21st anniversary of the most significant world event of the 21st century looms large in the background.
This year, more than ever before, 9/11 was a different sort of conversation piece with my kids. They’re 17 and 14, born after the world changed. My oldest took AP US History in school last year and has become a lot more geopolitically aware lately. He asked insightful, important questions about 9/11 and the leadup to it as we drove home from a basketball training session.
I’ll paraphrase the one that stuck with me, because I don’t remember his exact verbiage:
“Was there a lot of anti-America talk in America back then?”
I tried to draw upon my experiences. I have a degree in history focused on post-1914 America. I was a middle-school civics teacher when 9/11 happened. Over the years I’ve consumed as much as I can from voices I respect and reporters I trust on all things 9/11. I like to think I have a pretty informed, balanced view of not just that day but the processes and decisions that led to it.
And I found myself struggling to answer my eager, well-intentioned son. He brought up Oklahoma City, a place that we visited a few years ago. The memorial at the site of the bombing in OKC is incredibly powerful and it clearly made an impact on my boy. Last month we drove by Shanksville, an underappreciated site of true American patriotism and heroism, and he very much wanted to stop. I’ve shared with my kids my deep admiration of Pat Tillman, and they’ve watched and read about my hero--how 9/11 impacted him and how the government used him. We live in a decidedly right-wing area and he is exposed constantly to anti-government sentiment locally. That’s his prism through which he sees the attack on America 21 years ago. His anxiety and confusion is understandable, and it was obvious in our conversation.
The former educator in me wonders how 9/11 gets taught now, if at all. The historian in me wonders how much the story is changing as we become more fractured and siloed. The dad in me wonders how I can teach my kids about it better.
Don’t forget. Don’t let the kids forget what happened, either. Take some time to remember how you felt that day, that week, and what 9/11 meant to you. Remember the unity, the pride, the sense of wanting to be together to achieve something greater than what we had become.