Quick Hits Around the League
1. Drew Brees did it again. First, two historic preambles: Devery Henderson caught the pass Brees threw to break John Unitas' 52-year-old record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Henderson wears No. 19. Unitas wore 19. And the only team in history to start 0-4 and make the playoffs was the 1992 Chargers. The 2012 Chargers were in the house Sunday night, and the Saints -- formerly 0-4 -- scratched and clawed and Breesed their way to a 31-24 win, with the savvy QB throwing four touchdown passes in all, three to Marques Colston.
So Brees has the record, but the headline had to be shared with the odd atmosphere in the Superdome. Understand something about Brees: He feels inextricably tied to Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis, because in 2006, when Nick Saban's Dolphins were skeptical about Brees' preparedness for the season due to major shoulder surgery, they stuck their necks out and committed $60 million over six years to sign him in New Orleans. That's why Brees emailed Commissioner Roger Goodell eight days ago, asking for papal dispensation so Payton and Loomis and the also-suspended Joe Vitt could attend this game.
The three sat upstairs, Payton with his son Connor (wearing a Darren Sproles jersey), and after the game, Brees was ushered into owner Tom Benson's office for a short meeting with the four men -- Benson, Payton, Loomis and Vitt. "They had a chance to share in that moment,'' said Brees.
The rest of this year won't be easy, because of the schedule -- two games left with 5-0 Atlanta, the Giants and Cowboys on the road, the Niners and Eagles at home -- and because the Saints likely have to go 9-2 to have a good shot at the playoffs. How often will Brees take the Saints on his back and lead them on a survival trip? Pretty often, they'd better hope ... because the defense isn't ready to win any games yet.
2. The 49ers are some scary dudes. Until San Francisco's 45-3 rout of the Bills, no team in NFL history had ever rushed for more than 300 yards and passed for more than 300 yards in the same game. The Niners rushed for 311 and passed for 310. Watching bits and pieces of this game, the one thing you can tell is how varied Alex Smith's weapons are. He's so much more equipped to run a diverse offense than he was last year.
With the addition of Mario Manningham and Randy Moss at wideout, the return to health of Ted Ginn Jr., and the different styles of backs on the roster, Smith just sits back and picks the defense's poison. His wideouts caught 13 balls for 200 yards, his two main backs (Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter) ran for 187 yards, and tight end Vernon Davis had a 106-yard receiving day. No wonder Smith is completing 69 percent of his throws.
The Giants fly to San Francisco for a rematch of the NFC title game last winter, and they come with a beat-up team. As Tom Coughlin will discover when he watches the tape of these Niners, he'll need all the reinforcements he can get.
3. The best division in football? Don't laugh. Every team in the NFC West is above .500, and the composite record of the division is 14-6. No other division is close. I thought the NFC South could be a powerhouse. Nope; 8-11. Now that the Rams have a defense, all four teams out west can hold teams down. Good defense travels. I can see the West keeping it up the entire year.
4. Welker slams Belichick ... or did he? Really: You be the judge. Watch this clip on Comcast SportsNet New England and see Wes Welker, prodded by host Mike Felger, answer how it felt catching 13 balls Sunday against Denver, versus the three he caught when it looked like the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick were featuring others in Week 1. "It's kind of nice to stick it in Bill's face every once in a while,'' Welker said. "So this is definitely a good one." You see Welker wink at the camera slightly.
I'm inclined to think he definitely has some hurt feelings over how he was used in Week 1 (five targets, three catches, 14 yards) and as one Patriot press box wag suggested: "The truth is often spoken in jest. Not sure Belichick will find it as funny.''
5. The story in Kansas City is the treatment of Matt Cassel as much as the play of Matt Cassel. No NFL quarterback is slumping quite as badly as Cassel, who has been rated lower than 84 (which is mediocrity) in all five games of the 1-4 Chiefs start. So when he went down with a concussion, felled by a hard hit from Baltimore defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in the second half Sunday, the Chiefs heard some fans cheering. That prompted this from K.C. right tackle Eric Winston:
"When you cheer someone getting knocked out ... it's sickening. It's 100 percent sickening. I've been in some rough times on some rough teams, and I've never been more embarrassed in my life to play football than in that moment right there ... We're not gladiators. This is not the Roman Coliseum. It is not OK [to cheer a player getting hurt]. It is not OK."
I'm glad to hear a teammate say that instead of robotically saying the fans pay their money and they can do what they want. But as for the football side, Cassel is playing shellshocked right now, and Romeo Crennel should start backup Brady Quinn, who was 3 of 3 in brief duty Sunday, when the Chiefs go to Tampa Bay Sunday. The Chiefs need to see if they can get anything going on offense while their season has a glimmer of hope left.
6. Tony Gonzalez keeps going and going and going ... Gonzalez, 36, hadn't had a double-digit-receptions day since coming to the Falcons in 2009 -- until Sunday. His 13 catches gave him 39 for the season, good for the league lead, and 1,188 for his career, which is 86 receptions more than any receiver not named Jerry Rice in NFL history. "I didn't realize that,'' he said after Atlanta won in Washington to stay unbeaten. "But it makes me happy to hear it. I feel good. I don't ever want to look like I've lost a step, and so I work hard and eat all the right things, to make sure I stay in the best shape I can be.''
Before the season, Gonzalez said there was a 95 percent chance this would be his last year. I asked him if he was likely to change his mind because he's playing so well. "No, no, no,'' he said. "Not at all. I'm sticking by what I said.'' But he did say I should ask him after the season if he still felt that way. Hmmm.
7. The NFC North is not exactly what we expected. The Bears are not a big surprise, particularly when you consider they have the most opportunistic defense in football -- as many touchdowns on interception returns (five) as their backs have rushing touchdowns. Wait until Jay Cutler gets hot.
But the real story in the division is Minnesota. Percy Harvin's a legit every-down threat at wideout, Christian Ponder's completing 69 percent of his throws, and the D has allowed 11 points a game in the last three weeks. All you who thought the Vikings would be two games up on the Packers after five weeks, raise your hand. (Wilfs, you don't count.) Minnesota has a tolerable schedule too. That division is going to have a riotous pennant race.
8. Robert Griffin III didn't know what the score was when he got kayoed Sunday. Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon plowed over RGIII in the second half at Washington, and it looked like Griffin might have blacked out for a few moments. "He wasn't sure of the score or what quarter it was,'' Mike Shanahan told me afterward. Now the Redskins will have to follow the league protocol about players returning to play after suffering head trauma. "We should have a good idea by Tuesday,'' he said.
Here's the problem with Griffin as I see it: The Redskins can't keep him in the pocket because the line isn't good enough to develop a consistent and safe cushion. By making him a pocket passer, they'd be going against the grain of what made him great at Baylor, and they'd be subjecting him to more punishment by making him a sitting duck. At least that's the theory. But in five games, he's had 42 rushing attempts and been sacked 11 times. Not including pressures or knockdowns, that's an average of 10.6 exposures to hits per game. And no 218-pound quarterback is going to be injury-free being tackled that many times, most often by men much bigger than that.
9. The Danny Amendola story made Kevin Demoff faint. You probably heard the story that Rams Chief Operating Officer Kevin Demoff fainted during a staff meeting Friday. He was hospitalized and found to be in fine health. A fluky thing. Demoff said Sunday night he actually fainted because he became ill when hearing the lurid details of how the team planned to operate on a dangerous clavicle injury suffered by wideout Danny Amendola.
As Jay Glazer reported on FOX Sunday, when the clavicle was dislocated, it popped inward instead of outward, endangering his heart. Demoff told me the last thing he remembers is the stark detail about how the clavicle could have punctured the aorta and how the surgeon was going to do the risky operation. "I'm just not someone to tolerate Pulp Fiction,'' he said.
10. Another young quarterback's adjusting to the league quickly. Remember when the draftniks said it'd be a smart idea for whoever picked the inexperienced Ryan Tannehill to stash him on the bench for a full season so he could learn the position better? What you see in Tannehill now, after a two-week stretch in which Miami lost in overtime at Arizona and won at Cincinnati, is a confident player who doesn't get flustered when the pocket breaks down -- as it did under pressure from Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins Sunday in Cincinnati.
The rookie out of Texas A&M has been a 64 percent passer in the two games, and you can see he doesn't get jittery when he feels pressure. "It's not that complicated,'' he said from Cincinnati after the 17-13 Miami win. "I'm just getting more comfortable as the weeks go on. What I was happy about today was I was able to make some good checks at the line [audibles], and I like the fact we made good decisions.''
The best decision by Miami may have been trusting Tannehill with a big job.
Mr. Khan goes to London
The owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan, flies to London this week to begin the serious business of promoting his team to a British audience. This is not just a lark, his plan to play one home game per season in London for four consecutive seasons, beginning in 2013. Khan is determined that the Jaguars become England's NFL team, and perhaps Europe's, over the next few years, and he sees it as part of the plan of the Jaguars' long-term future in Jacksonville.
"This past game,'' Khan told me Friday, "I met half a dozen fans who came from England to Jacksonville for our game, just because of the announcement that we'll be playing there for the next four years. I'm hoping that we establish ourselves as the NFL team people follow in London. We view it as a way to grow our fan base.''
It seems outlandish to think of Londoners taking road trips to Jacksonville to see an American football game. But what if it's a Jacksonville-golf-Disney World-South Beach combo platter week of fun? Who knows if the Jaguars can dent the English sports scene, or the European one. But the Pakistani-born Khan's going to try.
He will make BBC and Sky Sports appearances while in England, and he'll meet members of Parliament anxious for an influx of American sport. He and kicker Josh Scobee will be guests at England's World Cup 2014 qualifier against San Marino Friday night at Wembley Stadium. Scobee will have some sort of kicking exhibition at halftime of the game, and he'll be in England to help promote the team in this, the Jags' bye week. On Thursday, Khan and NFL executive Mark Waller, a London native, will announce the Jags' opponent for the Oct. 27, 2013 game.
Khan is so bullish on the prospect of the team's reach into Europe that he told me it's "highly likely'' Jacksonville may eventually play two home games a year in Europe. Now, if you're a Jaguars fan, before getting apoplectic over the prospect of losing a second home game per season, understand that this is all about fanbase-building, revenue generation and, eventually, free agent and guaranteed-money competition with the league's haves.
"I think our fans understand we're trying to grow our brand and grow the Jaguars,'' Khan said. "Look at anything in life: If it's not growing, it's dying. Check the statistics. Last year, I believe 23 of our top 25-rated TV programs were NFL games. In the United States, football is reaching the point of saturation with its 360 million people. The global population is 20 times that, and we have to tap into it.
"You saw what happened when the Premier League [the professional soccer league in England] started to tap into the international market; it exploded. It behooves the NFL fan and the NFL owner, if you're going to grow the sport and continue in an upward trajectory, to mine the un-mined areas.''
Will it work? Will London or Dublin or a city in Germany -- or more than one of those -- support a full-time NFL team? I'm dubious. But the Khans and Bob Krafts and Roger Goodells are intent on finding out. As Khan says, "It is not without risk, let's face it."
His home market won't take kindly to losing a second home game, and he's going to have to find a way to finesse that to his fans. But I look at it like I look at the market closest to Jacksonville (TV market size: 47), which is 51st-rated Buffalo. Bills fans have to accept that to have a chance to keep the franchise in Buffalo long-term, cultivating the Toronto market is vital. The Jacksonville dalliance with London is totally different, obviously; fans in Buffalo can drive two hours to see a game in Toronto; fans in north Florida can't do that to see the team in London. Khan's outside-the-box thinking is a double-edged sword. But I'm not sure the Jags are in Jacksonville in 15 years with conventional thinking.
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