Adrian Peterson, Drew Brees not the only Week 1 impressive outings
Sanchez provides more evidence it's OK to start a rookie quarterback
Stokley's miracle touchdown reception just what the Broncos needed
The Fine 15, MVP Watch, Awards section and 10 Things I Think I Think
Football Insiders: Click here to read Stewart Mandel's College Football Overtime.
NEW YORK -- It's like we never left. We all have springs in our steps this morning, don't we? Football's back, and it's good. Very good in Week 1.
Trends: The NFC is catching up. The Wildcat suddenly looks old. Whatever the Saints are doing is working. We're getting bludgeoned over the head with reporting about labor that none of you want to hear.
Stories: Kyle Orton's 1-0, Jay Cutler 0-1. Rex Ryan is winning, and throwing zingers. Mike Singletary might know what he's doing. Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin both outgained Brett Favre Sunday -- and that might be the key to his survival, as long as he doesn't do much more tackling of kids young enough to be his sons in the end zone.
The two successors to Favre, Mark Sanchez (Jets) and Aaron Rodgers (Packers), are doing just fine, thank you. Better than fine. So fine that no one in New York or Green Bay seems to miss Favre. And speaking of people not missed in New York, Jeremy Shockey has come out of the witness-protection program to be a factor again. For now. That's more than I can say about Brian Urlacher. And Michael Crabtree.
My five observations with a little depth about Week 1:
1. It's not a sin anymore to play a quarterback young. Did you watch the USC-Ohio State game Saturday night? If you play at that level of football, with that intensity, and you have a pro-level arm and head, why can't you play early in your pro career? Mark Sanchez played at that level, and we shouldn't draw too many conclusions based on one game, but he was one cool cucumber on the road in Houston Sunday.
"We've got Cool Hand Luke back there,'' Rex Ryan told me from Houston after the game. "Our offensive line protected well, and he converted some really good third-and-longs. Mark's kind of like our team: I've been telling people about us all along, that we're pretty good. Nobody listened. Now maybe they will.''
What was impressive about Sanchez, I thought, was his ability to stand confidently in the pocket with traffic around him, or move out of the pocket while keeping his focus downfield and not on the rush. He was uncanny on third-and-medium-to-long. Watching the game, I kept think, He's converting a lot of thirds. Then I went back and looked at the gamebook. On the first seven third-and-seven or longer situations of his NFL career, Sanchez was seven of seven, converting five for first downs. He converted third downs with 10, 10, 9, 8 and 10 yards to go -- in succession. For the game, Sanchez was 18 of 31 for 272, with a touchdown and an interception.
Now, Matthew Stafford struggled Sunday at the Saints, but you figure Unitas and Montana would struggle with that group in Detroit. Did you notice the two other rookie starters from last year, Joe Flacco (Baltimore) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta) won by double-digits in Week 1? The momentum might be shifting to not put rookie quarterbacks with a ton of high-quality college experience in mothballs to start their careers.
2. The Vikings are going to be a pick-your-poison team. Two things happened this weekend that are very good news if you bleed purple. One: Defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams, the great wall of the Twin Cities, will be able to play the season because their Starcaps case is being continued 'til after the season. Two: Coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have figured a good way to preserve Brett Favre -- don't expose him to the kind of hits a quarterback normally takes. Favre, who turns 40 in four weeks, still got hit six times in Cleveland (including four sacks), but he did manage to stay out of the way effectively and help the Vikings to a 34-20 win over the Browns. "I had a lot of fun today,'' he said afterward.
More importantly, he mostly stayed out of harm's way, and if he can keep doing that, maybe he'll be able to last the season. Maybe. And maybe it'll be different when the Vikings play some good teams. In the opener, the best thing for Minnesota was the all-purpose yards by Adrian Peterson (198) and Percy Harvin (157); Favre threw for 110 yards, his lowest total for a full games in three years. I'm serious when I say that Favre's biggest physical contact of the day might have come when he smashed into Harvin in celebration in the end zone. "I saw him coming at me,'' Harvin said after the game, "and I was hoping he'd slow down. I said, 'He's coming pretty fast,' and bam, he slammed right into me.''
They lived. It's going to be interesting to see if Childress and Bevell can continue to manage Favre's exposure. In many ways, it's the key to the Vikings' season.
3. Josh McDaniels can exhale now. "We know what would have happened if we lost,'' Brandon Stokley was saying from Cincinnati after the game. "Everybody would have piled on. It might have gotten ugly.''
You think? Here's what I think: McDaniels deserved some magic in his life. A head coaching job is supposed to be a reward for a long apprenticeship of hard work. And ever since McDaniels got this job, the Broncos led the league in headaches. But with less than half a minute left and the Broncos trailing 7-6 with the ball at their 13, quarterback Kyle Orton went back to pass, aiming for one of the headaches (a former headache, maybe), Brandon Marshall. Cornerback Leon Hall of the Bengals leaped high to deflect the ball, and the would-be duck fluttered into the air. "I was a spectator,'' Stokley said. "All the defense went to [Marshall], and it just came down toward me.'' So Stokley grabbed it and started sprinting ... 50, 45, 40, 35 ... McDaniels said: "I was sure they'd have someone chasing him, a defensive back, but when I looked, all I could see was [linebacker] Dhani Jones. I was shocked.
McDaniels has gone over lots of odd game situations in practice. One of them is using the clock at the end of half the game, and having a sense how much time is left. When Stokley got near the goal line, he looked behind and saw there wasn't a Bengal close to him, so, with about 17 seconds left, he got to the two-yard line and took a slow right turn, burning six seconds before going into the end zone. "What a smart play,'' McDaniels told me.
That's an understatement. That stalling gave the Bengals one fewer play to run on their last-gasp drive. McDaniels, by the way, wouldn't be drawn into the oh-we-really-needed-this-one discussion. "The players deserve this win,'' he said. "To get a reward like this is a great thing because of how hard they've worked.
4. Jeremy Shockey lives. Shockey hadn't caught a touchdown pass in 22 months. In the span of three minutes against Detroit, he caught two. "Reminds me of my buddy Derek Jeter, trying to get that hit the last week or so [the hit that propelled Jeter past Lou Gehrig as the Yankees' all-time hit leader.] You just want to get it so people stop asking you about it." Shockey said. "I can't tell you how many times people have said to me, 'So, you ever gonna score a touchdown again?' ''
The story of this great drought by a former star tight end, and how the drought ends, is a cute story, but the Saints aren't looking for a one-hit wonder. They're looking for consistency out of Shockey, which they haven't gotten since they dealt for him 16 months ago. Shockey uses words like "humbled'' and "embarrassed'' when talking about last year, when he was never healthy. He went to work this offseason on his core. "I've come to realize that being healthy in this game is a privilege,'' he said. "You've got to work on it to earn that privilege.''
Time will tell if the 29-year-old Shockey, who likes the good life, will keep himself in great shape so he can validate the 2008 trade to the Saints.
5. Atlanta stopped the Wildcat, and stripped the Dolphins. Miami coach Tony Sparano is maniacal about turnovers. He knows the exact percentages of chances of winning if you have one or two or three turnovers less or more than your foe. Miami turned it over four times, and it didn't help that their three Wildcats plays generated exactly four yards. I'm not saying the Wildcat's dead, because we saw Josh Cribbs run it effectively in Cleveland Sunday, and we will see Percy Harvin and Michael Vick run it later this month in Minnesota and Philadelphia. But defenses might be gaining.
The Falcons spent two training camp periods on the Wildcats this summer, then spent some significant refresher time last week in practice preparing for Ronnie Brown or Pat White to run it Sunday. "Philosophically,'' coach Mike Smith said, "it's all about gap control. You cannot be a gap short against the Wildcat because the runner can change the angle or cut back quickly, and you won't be able to recover.'' When the field was spread Sunday, you could see the Falcons pointing and communicating, making sure there wouldn't be any spaces. For one week, anyway, it worked, and shutting down the Wildcat helped Atlanta to a 19-7 win.
Finally, because it wouldn't be a 2009 NFL column without one paragraph of gloom-and-doom about labor: NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith told me Sunday that player reps around the NFL voted over the weekend to start a strike/lockout fund, of sorts, for 2011. Smith said the player reps authorizes the union to divert all royalty payments from the union's marketing division, Players Inc., to a fund that the union hopes will total about $60,000 per player. "It's for health care and player emergencies,'' Smith said. "And if there is football then, we'll just give the money back to players in a lump sum.'' The union has also asked players to set aside 25 percent of their take-home pay this season as a personal strike fund. Oh happy day.
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