Manning, Griffin steal show with stellar performances in Week 1
Breaking down Robert Griffin III's confident, efficient pro debut against the Saints
Replacement refs' Week 1 performance sets up an interesting week of negotiations
Week 1 Awards & Fine Fifteen; Stat of the Week; Ten Things I Think I Think; more
I'll take you through the stories of an eventful Week 1 of the NFL season, but shouldn't that be singular? As in, "story?" Peyton Manning turned the clock back Sunday night, and he got the Super Bowl express rolling in Denver. He had help -- his weaponry on offense, and Tracy Porter's first interception return for touchdown since the Super Bowl-clincher off one Peyton Manning -- but it was a night to revel in the return of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.
The headlines of a compelling weekend:
Manning Returneth. At 36 and still working to regain his in-the-prime fastball, Manning survived a strange bout of in-game inaction -- he ran two non-kneel-down plays in about an hour of real time, and in 21 minutes of game-clock sandwiching halftime. He used the no-huddle in vintage Manning brilliance, had three consecutive 80-yard touchdown drives, the second ending in his 400th career touchdown pass, and made every fan in Indianapolis who'd been fine with the Manning-for-Andrew Luck tradeoff think, "My Lord, can we have this guy back?''
The win makes Manning 7-1 lifetime against defenses run by Hall of Fame corner/coordinator Dick LeBeau.
RGIII wins the rookie quarterback derby. "I don't know how it could be much better,'' Griffin told me from the 'Skins' bus to the airport after he shredded the Saints. "Winning your first game, on the road, against a Super Bowl contender that won a Super Bowl, in my hometown. It's pretty great.'' As was Griffin's play -- 320 yards passing, a 139.9 rating and the poise of a player who looked like he was nine years removed from football at Baylor University in Waco, not nine months. The other four rookies lost. Andrew Luck had his moments but also four turnovers at Chicago, Russell Wilson was mortal in Arizona and Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden were advertisements for rookies who played too soon, combined for zero touchdowns and six interceptions in losing to Houston and Philadelphia.
San Francisco and New England, Super Bowl bound. I kid. Or do I? Alex Smith outplayed Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field; tell me -- did you ever think you'd read that sentence? And the Patriots look rejuvenated by a young defense. The Niners, looking like the best team in the league after one week, are now 7-2 on the road under Jim Harbaugh.
The regular officials might want to go to Wikipedia and read about Ronald Reagan firing the Air Traffic Controllers 31 years ago. Not saying the NFL's on the verge of whacking Ed Hochuli and 119 of his officiating peers. Just saying that after 14 of the 16 games of Week 1, the replacement officials have done an adequate job. "We've seen nothing that stood out as a glaring mistake,'' NFL VP Ray Anderson told me at halftime of the late afternoon games.
Of course, then there was one -- the crew in Arizona giving the Seahawks a fourth second-half timeout, instead of three, and the NFL observer on site not straightening out the mess when he had the chance. Bad error. Luckily for the league, the Cardinals hung on to win. Even with that error and game times that dragged, the league's not likely to give much ground if and when talks with the regular officials resume.
Recovery of the Year. Thirty-six weeks and two days after reconstructive knee surgery, Adrian Peterson rushed for two touchdowns and 84 yards in Minnesota's win over Jacksonville. Looked absolutely the same as pre-injury AP in doing it, too.
The first fair overtime game ever is played in Minnesota. Vikes get the ball first, and rookie kicker Blair Walsh kicks a 38-yard field goal. In past regular seasons, that would have been the game. Minnesota 26, Jacksonville 23. But the Jags, because Minnesota hadn't scored a touchdown on the first possession of OT, got the ball with a chance to score a touchdown and get a walkoff win or a field goal to extend it. But Blaine Gabbert went four-and-out. Ballgame. Equitable ballgame.
Tim Tebow. Meh. Jets kept the wraps on Tebow (five rushes, 11 yards, zero passes, zero funny stuff on the punt team) because they didn't want to take them off. "We had a good package ready,'' offensive coordinator Tony Sparano said last night, "but we just felt like it wasn't necessary to use it.'' Instead, Mark Sanchez played the role of a franchise quarterback as the Jets rolled over Buffalo.
The Saints don't get a boost from Legal Land. With the suspensions of Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma vacated by an NFL appeals panel, Smith started at defensive end and Vilma provided an emotional boost inside the Superdome for the opener. But the boost didn't last long, and the Saints missed the order of Sean Payton, getting a ridiculous and costly 12-men-on-the-field penalty when cornerback Patrick Robinson was caught loafing off the field. Washington's points by quarter: 10, 10, 10, 10. Redskins 40, Saints 32.
There's more -- about the life and times of Art Modell, about the apparently no-longer-counterfeit Bucs, about Atlanta's new explosiveness, and about Houston showing Matt Schaub the money. On with the show.
Unveiling a new section of the column: The Deep End.
I asked Neil Hornsby of ProFootballFocus.com, the site that examines plays by breaking down all 22 players' roles and performances on every snap, to look at a matchup of the week for me. He'll provide the breakdown of a specific matchup, or how one player performs in a big game.
For Week 1, fortuitously, I asked Hornsby to provide data for Robert Griffin III's first regular season NFL start at New Orleans. Here's what the ProFootballFocus.com study of Griffin's play showed:
Pressure: Griffin felt pressure on only eight of 31 pass drops, in part because of his quick release. On his drops when he didn't scramble, he averaged 2.1 seconds between the time he got the snap and the time he released the pass. Good game-planning by the Shanahans, obviously, to make sure the suspect Washington line could protect Griffin long enough for him to find an open man.
Rushing: Griffin ran 10 times for 42 yards (an 11th run was negated by penalty). Cam Newton averaged eight rushes for 44 yards last season. Of the 10 runs -- as I suspected after seeing a Redskins training camp practice -- eight were by design. He scrambled once when the pocket broke down and his receivers were covered. That resulted in a 12-yard gain, but also in a couple of hard hits by Saints defenders on the play. His running is a concern. I can't see a 218-pound quarterback being exposed to 160 rushes in a season and surviving.
Passing: He told me after the game he felt calm, like he had ice water in his veins. But on his first drive, he dropped one snap and threw two passes off-target. He hit Pierre Garcon on a cross 16 yards downfield, and Garcon turned it into an 88-yard touchdowns. For the day, the Redskins designed almost all quick-release throws. Of his 26 passes, none was a go pattern or a deep throw downfield, and he threw one post -- an excellent throw under pressure on 2nd-and-13 for a first down to tight end Logan Paulson when Washington was trying to bleed the clock.
In summation: The best thing Griffin did was not make mistakes, and he had only three or four poor throws. He showed confidence, played well within the system, and evaded the really big hit that eventually dooms mobile quarterbacks. It was an opening game in which Griffin played well beyond his 22 years.
After the game, I asked him about the 2nd-and-13 call with just over two minutes left when the Redskins were trying to run the clock out -- a telling call by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, a throw up the seam to Paulson. Big play, because if the ball's incomplete, the Redskins face a 3rd-and-13, and if they don't convert, they give the ball back to Drew Brees with about 1:53 left, and a touchdown/two-point conversion would tie the game. But the pass was perfectly thrown, and Paulson gained 22. Brees got it back with 22 seconds left. Not enough time to make anything happen.
"You can either be predictable,'' Griffin said, "or you can trust your players to make plays. I give a lot of credit to Kyle there for trusting me. When we were on the sidelines before that play, he asked me if I thought I could complete that throw. I said I was confident I could, and he called it.''
Griffin said he was confident even though, as he said, "We never ran anything in the preseason. We didn't want to show anybody anything. But then we went out, weathered the storm with their crowd early and played well. This is the pinnacle. It's what I've wanted to do for so long.''
He did it well. He said he audibled about 10 times, not necessarily to plays he thought would be big-gainers, but "changing from a negative play to a play that had a better chance.'' He didn't turn it over in a hostile environment, and Washington kept the ball for 39 minutes. Hard to think the Shanahans could have drawn it up any better.