Long-suffering franchises finally experiencing some good times
Bills, Lions, Browns are finally rewarding fans with surprisingly good starts
Big increase in passing numbers will create a WR logjam for the Hall of Fame
Without Miles Austin tonight, Tony Romo should look often at Jason Witten
So what do you want? The good news or the bad news?
I'm a glass-half-full guy, so here goes: The NFL's Terrible Trio, the despondent Rust Belt franchises in Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, are 8-1. Over the last 10 years, since 2001, these three teams have combined for three winning seasons. "Our fans have been starving for this,'' said Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita after the Browns beat Miami 17-16. If Cleveland's been starving, what about Detroit and Buffalo giddily celebrating 3-0 starts?
The bad news: The Vikings have been ahead by 10, 17 and 20 at halftime in their three games -- and lost every one. Imagine outscoring teams 54-7 in the first half and being outscored 67-6 in the second half. Six points in six quarters ... all that's going to do is increase the cries for Christian Ponder to replace Donovan McNabb. Too early now, but coach Leslie Frazier will have to do something if the Vikings keep wasting credible defensive efforts like they've had so far. Great line by columnist Jim Souhan in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this morning: "It's time for the Vikings to start thinking of "Ponder'' as a noun, not a verb.''
Much more where that came from on a weekend where we learned a lot about the NFL, and it only served to make blurrier the picture of who's good and who's not. Before we get to the sad story of Orlando Brown, and why passing is up, and why the problem of passing eternal judgment on receivers is only going to get tougher (thank you, Wes Welker), and why you need to get to know Henry Melton, and why we should all feel punched in the gut this morning by the Steve Gleason story, play along with me for the Seven Things I Learned in Week 3:
Revelation of the day, Buffalo division. I can remember only two Buffalo crowds as giddy and loud as Sunday's -- though I'm sure I'm missing some. The 2007 Monday night crazyfest with Dallas, won 25-24 by the Cowboys, is one, and the comeback from a 32-point deficit in the 1993 playoff game against Houston the other. "Great game, great fun, great team we beat, great crowd," Fred Jackson said from Buffalo afterward. "It felt like we had the entire city behind us in the stadium today." Fred Jackson can really play. He had 17 touches for 161 yards and a touchdown against a team that knew he was coming. Now, he joins Ryan Fitzpatrick as a player the Bills have to sign -- Fitzpatrick's deal is up after this season, Jackson's under contract through 2012 -- to ensure the offense stays explosive. "I want something done, because I'd love to stay here,'' said Jackson. Good players like to stay with winners, and now the Bills are a game ahead of the Jets and Patriots in the AFC East.
Revelation of the day, Detroit division. You know the difference in these Lions? They got behind by 20 on the road by halftime, and they didn't think the game was over. This is a team that's been through 0-16. The Lions are going to fret over behind three scores down with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson getting the ball six times in the second half? No. By the way, two quarterbacks in Lions history have twice rallied the team from 20 points down or more to win; Stafford and Bobby Layne -- the last quarterback to lead the Lions to a championship. In the shameless plug of the week, it looks like I'll have plenty to talk about with Detroit coach Jim Schwartz this week on the "NFL Podcast with Peter King.''
Revelation of the day, Cleveland division. There was something I liked about the Browns post-game Sunday, after escaping with a 17-16 win over the Dolphins. With the players screaming for a "Victory Monday,'' a day off that normally follows a win, which then is followed by the normal day off on Tuesday, coach Pat Shurmur told the players he'd get them in and out as quick as he could on Monday, but it wasn't going to be a full day off because next week is the bye, and a game with Tennessee awaited this week, and he wanted to do everything he could to make sure they prepared fully for this game against a non-division foe. And not a peep was heard from the players. "Multiple reasons why that's an important game,'' said receiver Muhammad Massaquoi. "You don't want to go into a bye with a loss, and you want to be sure you keep a good thing going. We still have work to do here.'' Of the three Rust Belters not accustomed to feeling so good on a Sunday, Shurmur's idea was not only the right one, but one his players embraced. And that's the kind of team that can grow into something.
Revelation of the day, good: Darren McFadden. The Oakland running back had the best day a back's had against a Rex Ryan-head-coached defense -- 19 carries, 171 yards -- in the Raider win over New York, and he proved he belongs in the discussion as the best back in football. He's averaging 131 yards per game, with the kind of speed and power very few backs have. Adrian Peterson is probably more sudden, with a better quick-twitch change of direction, but for power and speed, McFadden is at least Peterson's equal.
Revelation of the day, bad: Starting to wonder if Chad Ochocinco has Steve Sax or Chuck Knoblauch disease. When I saw the Patriots in practice this summer -- one practice -- Ochocinco dropped three easy catches. He had a bad one in the opener at Miami. And Sunday, in Buffalo, Tom Brady laid a touchdown right in his hands late in the game. Couldn't have thrown a more perfect ball. Doink. Another drop. What is it with this guy? Stage too big for him after playing a career in nowhereland?
Revelation of the day, mysterious. I don't know what a catch is anymore. I've watched and listened to the NFL explain how three things have to happen for a catch to be valid. One: Firm grip and control of the ball must be established; and if the receiver goes to the ground, he must maintain control. Two: The receiver must have two feet down, or one foot and another body part like an elbow or shoulder. Three: The receiver must make a football move, or turn upfield with the ball. That changes around the goal line, however, which is where the problem came into play Sunday. Wide receiver Victor Cruz of the Giants leaped for a ball with two Eagle defenders near him. Cruz caught it in the heavy traffic and reached for the end zone, and either as he pierced the goal line or just after that, the ball came loose and it fell to the ground in the end zone. The play was ruled a touchdown on the field and upheld by referee Jeff Triplette. I'm told Triplette made the right call according to the rules, which say a catch at the goal line need only pierce the goal line; if, after that, the ball is dropped or the act not completed ion some other way, it doesn't matter.
Compare this to the Calvin Johnson catch in the end zone last season, where he basically danced a minuet before steadying himself on the ground with the ball and it spun away, and the pass was ruled incomplete. The difference: The Johnson catch needed to be completed because it didn't happen at the goal line, while the Cruz catch doesn't need to be completed because all a receiver has to do at the goal line is get the ball over the line while possessing it. I understand the difference. And it is absurd. What sport makes a different rule for a ball that's caught at the one-yard line and a ball that's caught six yards deep in the end zone? Even the catcher in this case, Cruz, told me after the game: "Yeah, I still get confused by that rule.''
By the way, rule or no rule, this was a superb day for Cruz, a kid raised seven miles from the Meadowlands in Paterson, N.J., who took advantage of his chance because of injuries to have the game of his life: 74- and 28-yard touchdown catches to help beat the arch-rival Eagles. "Not in a million years did I think this would ever happen,'' he said on the team bus back to north Jersey. "To do it against these guys was special.'' And to score both while either breaking a Nnamdi Asomugha tackle or beating him in coverage has to be more special.
Revelation of the day, Vick category. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick suffered a broken right hand on a second-half hit in the pocket, and he may not be able to play Sunday against the Niners. "I felt I got hit late. No flag.'' Vick said, repeating his refrain of last December, when he was sure he wasn't getting the same calls as Tom Brady and Drew Brees. "At some point something catastrophic is gonna happen. Not to blame the refs, but more precautions should be taken. I'm on the ground all the time in the pocket. I don't know why I don't get the 15-yard flag like everybody else does. I'm not trying to blame the refs. I just want them to take notice."
I thought there was one call Vick should have gotten -- a high hit from Chris Canty that may have caused his broken hand. By the letter of the rule, he was hit high, after the release. But the problem with Vick is that often he's hit as a runner, not as a passer, and the rules are different. A quarterback in the pocket is treated altogether differently than a runner who's left the pocket. And many of the hits Vick takes come after he takes off running.
Why the passing frenzy? Look to the colleges.
On Saturday, two top-10 college teams, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, met in College Station. The quarterbacks in the game combined for 112 pass plays (107 attempts plus five sacks), and two first-round NFL prospects -- Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon and A&M's Jeff Fuller -- had 17 catches and three touchdowns between them.
On Sunday, two prolific former college passers, Cam Newton of Carolina and Andy Dalton of the Bengals, started their third pro games. Newton won, Dalton lost. What's interesting with the two kids is this: Whereas lots of young quarterbacks over the years have been handed jobs and their coaches didn't really know how long they'd play before they'd have to be pulled because of poor play or information overload, the Panthers and Bengals honestly believe Newton and Dalton are in for the long haul. The very long haul.
Part of the reason is that many college teams today are playing what pro teams play -- a form of the spread offense -- and so when young players move up, it's not like moving from the wishbone to the classic pro style offense. Dalton threw more than 1,300 passes in four years at TCU, in a short- and medium-throw, quick-decision offense in which Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden found similarities to the pro game he'd be teaching Dalton.
"I don't really know what offense is anymore,'' Gruden said with a chuckle the other day. "I saw tape of Andy going 22 of 27 against Baylor, throwing the ball on time, with good balance, to receivers who never seemed to have to strain to catch the ball. How do you not like that?''
Dalton, he said, showed the poise of a veteran from early in training camp. "The good thing about him is I know he won't panic,'' Gruden said. "In our second preseason game, at the Meadowlands against the Jets, it was raining, and he throws a pass that bounced off A.J. Green and was picked off. You'd think a young guy would be affected by that, but he was calm on the sidelines. Just got ready for his next series. And he faced an all-out blitz from Rex Ryan. He saw it at the line of scrimmage, audibled to a better play, and completed the pass. On the road, against the things the Jets do. Ice water in his veins.''
Dalton is so advanced in offensive football that teaching him a new system, with some new terminology, was easy. "At the beginning of camp,'' Gruden said, "we had a team starting from ground zero, and they've really taken to it well. Right now, Andy's the least of my concerns. I can throw anything at him and he gets it. I could have him run the no-huddle with everything we use, and he'd be able to run it, no problem. That's pretty good for a rookie in his first month or so playing at this level.''
The young quarterbacks aren't being babied; the Panthers are calling passes on 62 percent of their snaps so far, Cincinnati on 59 percent. The last game of September will be played tonight in Dallas, and it's possible that when the weather turns bad, the game plans will turn conservative. But the young guys are leading the way in making the league much more pass-happy so far.
Check out the percentage of pass plays in the NFL from 2000 through Sunday's 15 games. By pass plays, I mean pass attempts plus sacks.
To get the percentage, I've divided pass attempts plus sacks by the number of total plays each season.