NFL marks 9/11 anniversary with stirring tributes, entertaining open
NFL teams did the country proud with their well-presented 9/11 tributes
Kickoff rule not exactly a debacle; don't underestimate Bears
Tony Romo a fitting goat of the week; Ten Things I Think I Think
NEW YORK -- We'll get to what was great in the first NFL weekend (Cam Newton in a exhilarating loss, the Ravens in a monkey-off-their-backs win) and what certainly was not (Tony Romo in a fourth quarter of doofus proportions and my Super Bowl-pick Falcons flopping at Chicago), but first, and I don't want to overdo the emotion of the day, a few thoughts on the 9/11 tributes.
Normally I think the NFL overdoes some of these "cause'' things, but Sunday, in 13 stadiums around the league, the message was proper and done well. Remember our history, honor those who died and remember what a time of renewal can do in what can be such a divided country. Then play ball.
Ten years ago, there was such a we're-all-in-this-together feeling in the country. I remember going to Kansas City to cover the Giants and Chiefs 12 days after 9/11, being on the field to do a TV appearance before the game and listening to "The Times They Are A-Changin' " by Bob Dylan. I saw Giants and Chiefs fans hold hands before the national anthem, and as I entered the Giants locker room, I saw tears from more than one player, totally washed out after all the emotion.
On NFL Network yesterday, Steve Mariucci, who coached the 49ers to a win over the Jets in Gang Green's first post-9/11 game in the Meadowlands, got emotional talking about the game in the studio. I thought his words were a window into what so many felt after the attacks and conveyed what can be a tiny bit of salve for the country. "That night,'' Mariucci said, "for once in my life it wasn't us against them. We were all on the same team. It was an honor to be in that game.''
When events happen that rock the country, football "has a role to play, a small role,'' Dallas coach Jason Garrett told me this summer in Texas. "It's a unifying role. Rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, love football. We just need to show we're all together.''
On with Week 1. On with what should be a fun season.
Eleven headlines for 9/11:
1. That lockout and the weird offseason really hurt the game. Some teams with new coaches struggled (Cleveland, Tennessee), but some teams with established coaches and programs were even worse (Atlanta, Kansas City, Pittsburgh). Maybe the one-sidedness of so many games says something about the lack of cohesion and long period of inactivity through the spring; time will tell. But it's been a pretty entertaining weekend with two games to go. New Orleans-Green Bay Thursday night was the second-highest-rated prime time game since 1999. Amazingly, the rookie who should have been the most skittish with the most pressure on him, Cam Newton, had the best game a first-game rookie quarterback ever had.
2. Peyton Manning might win the MVP of the league without playing. Things will get better for Indianapolis without the invaluable Manning; either that or they'll be in the UFL by mid-October. But the most striking event of Week 1 was how bad the Colts were in falling behind to Houston 34-0 at the half. Indy and the Texans had met 18 times before Sunday, with the Colts winning 16. In none of those games had the Texans exceeded 34 points, but they had that in 30 minutes in this season's opener for both teams.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint,'' coach Jim Caldwell said bravely afterward, but I don't know how anybody can buy that the Colts will contend with Manning possibly out for the year after Thursday neck surgery. More about this later, but the fact that president Bill Polian was watching Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck play at Duke on Saturday is a harbinger of an autumn where the Colts will do due diligence on every quarterback that might come out in the draft next April.
3. The Rams and Chargers got really beat up. St. Louis got run over in a disappointing home opener by Philadelphia, 31-13, and lost top wideout Danny Amendola (dislocated elbow) and running back Steven Jackson (pulled quad); quarterback Sam Bradford is due for an MRI on his hand today after banging it on an oncoming Eagle rusher.
"It's not broken, but they think it's a nerve issue,'' coach Steve Spagnuolo told me. "And with Steven, he's a running back with a quad injury; that's not good. Those are our three most productive offense players. So I'll be praying all night.''
San Diego lost defensive lineman Luis Castillo to a broken leg, and there are suspicions that the league's most accurate kicker, Nate Kaeding, has a torn ACL. Running back Mike Tolbert, who scored three touchdowns in the win over Minnesota, has a sore knee but should be OK.
4. Tony Romo had some help in blowing a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead and losing to the Jets. But the way he played in the last 10 minutes, he can retire the Goat of the Week Award. With the Cowboys ahead by seven with nine minutes left, he foolishly dove for the end zone -- the traffic was way too heavy to think he had a prayer to make it -- and got stripped of the ball, losing it.
With a minute to go and the score tied, only the Lord knows what Romo was looking at. He badly underthrew Dez Bryant, and the interception into the waiting arms of Darrelle Revis led to the winning field goal.
Trying desperately to rally with eight seconds left, Romo wasn't ready for the shotgun snap, which hit him in the chest in a fittingly Keystone Kops moment to basically end it. I've defended Romo for a long time. He has some extended stretches of brilliance, throws a great ball, is accurate enough to be one of the great ones ... but Sunday night has to make the biggest Romo boosters question his judgment. How could he take such a huge risk on a third-and-goal dive that he could not deliver a touchdown on, and to follow that by hand-delivering the interception to Revis -- and the game to the Jets. A total, absolute, utter debacle for Romo.
5. I wouldn't go too far in burying Sunday's bad teams. The Manning-less Colts are one thing. But some of the teams we've seen be very good and who haven't had major injuries to sully their seasons --Pittsburgh and Atlanta, for instance -- aren't going 4-12. They had bad Sundays. A Ben Roethlisberger team isn't going to turn it over seven times again this year. The Falcons are going to fix their protection issues. The 2003 Patriots opened with a 31-0 loss at Buffalo, and then won 17 of their final 18, including the Super Bowl. Bury teams at 0-4 or 1-5, not 0-1.
6. Having said that, I do not like what I see out of the Chiefs. Kansas City had a bad summer on the field, never looked in sync on either side of the ball, lost Matt Cassel's best weapon (tight end Tony Moeaki) to a season-ending knee injury, and was powerless to stop the Bills in the worst home-opening defeat, 41-7, in franchise history. Bad signs abound in KC.
7. The kickoff rule probably won't be the debacle everyone thought it'd be. Touchbacks, I'm certain, will be way up on a warm weekend with no bad weather around the country; those are kicker conditions. But as I said Saturday night on NBC's NFL special, a few special-teams coaches I talked to on my camp tour thought the line of demarcation for runbacks might be moved back in the end zone this year.
We saw three returns for touchdowns in the first 14 games, and you saw more players take kicks out from four and five and six yards deep -- and, in the case of Randall Cobb of the Packers, 108 yards for a touchdown Thursday night. If the ball is going to be placed on the 20-yard line after touchbacks, some coaches feel there's a motivation to try to run a kick out if it's five or six yards deep; they think it's worth the risk to try to get the ball beyond the 20-. Plus, I believe when returners choose to take the ball out from five yards deep, we'll be watching and thinking, "Could this be another Cobb return? Another Ted Ginn return? Or will the guy get kayoed at the 14?''
The only way to judge whether the new rule will lead to the decline of Western Civilization is to let it percolate for the season. As Roger Goodell told Bob Costas the other night, if the rule's a debacle, teams can vote to change it next spring.
8. Cam Newton's arm, and his attitude, made him a winner in a loss. "Cam's very disappointed,'' wide receiver Steve Smith said after the Panthers couldn't finish a last-gasp drive and lost to Arizona, 28-21. He shouldn't be, but of course, that's a good sign; the guy's a competitor.
So many wondered if the Panthers were rushing Newton into action too soon, to justify being picked first overall last April. But his 422-yard performance showed that was wrong, as did the words coming out of the Panther locker room. He made the right reads and didn't take off to run at the first sign of pressure. He showed how, in trouble, he could make plays with his arm -- not just his legs.
Maybe being an itinerant has helped Newton. Over the past four falls, he has backed up Tim Tebow at Florida, starred at Blinn (junior) College, taken Auburn to a national championship, and now taken over the Panthers. He's used to change. He's used to adapting, and taking a new team over. Look for offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to add more plays to the repertoire week by week. Should be an interesting matchup this week. The Super Bowl champs come to Charlotte for the home opener, and Newton's performance gives Panther fans reason to think it might actually be a contest.
9. The Ravens got their revenge on Pittsburgh. Terrell Suggs was a beast (three sacks, two forced fumbles), Bryant McKinnie played a creditable left tackle, Lardarius Webb was terrific in the slot, Ed Reed was his usual opportunistic self with two interceptions (the ball just finds him), and Joe Flacco looked like a very big-time quarterback not afraid of sticking the ball into tight spaces. I'll get to Ray Rice later, but I thought he was one of the big stars of the day. He gives the Ravens the best chance, in the running and passing game, of any back in the league. He might not be Marshall Faulk, but he's a tougher inside runner, and he's the Ravens' one indispensable player. Running for 107 yards on Pittsburgh is no small feat.
10. That was a significant win by the Lions. "We didn't play our best football,'' Matthew Stafford told me after the 27-20 win at Tampa Bay. "When you make mistakes on the road and still win, that's the sign of a good team, especially when you come to a place like this and do it.''
With Stafford cramping up on a sunny day in Tampa with a 102-degree heat index, he still managed to go 24 of 33 for 305 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. "The best thing we did was finish drives and get sevens instead of settling for threes,'' he said. The Lions could be America's darlings by the end of the month. They host Kansas City Sunday, and then go to Minnesota in Week 3 -- both, obviously, winnable games.
11. Don't sleep on the Bears. As I have, of course. The Bills and Texans were dominant Sunday, but Chicago's foe, Atlanta, makes its performance -- it was 30-6 after three quarters, ended 30-12, and could have been worse -- so impressive. The Falcons got 386 yards, but the swarming Bear defense, led by Brian Urlacher, pestered Matt Ryan all day. And though Jay Cutler got hit too much and was sacked five times, he had enough time to throw for 312 yards and get the Bears in position to score on five of their first seven possessions. "As long as I've been here, the pressure's been on the offensive line,'' said Roberto Garza. "We know that. We accept it. It's up to us to come through and keep Jay clean. We're ready for that challenge.''