1. No sense debating the Lions’ fourth down gaff – it wasn’t supposed to happen.
One of the hot topics around your water cooler this morning will be the Lions’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime instead of attempting a game-tying field goal from the Titans’ 7-yard line. But there’s no sense debating the decision because the play was never supposed to happen. Following the game coach Jim Schwartz said that Detroit was trying to draw Tennessee offsides. Whether or not the Lions would have still gone for it had the offsides attempt not worked is unknown, but the most controversial play of the day wasn’t controversial at all. Shaun Hill (who came into the game after Matthew Stafford suffered a leg injury) and the Lions just blew the task at hand. The bigger worry for Schwartz should be the fact that his team has yet to play well. The Lions arguably should have lost Week 1 to the Rams, were dominated by the 49ers in Week 2, and allowed 44 points to a Titans team that had been outscored 72-23 coming into Sunday’s action. For a team coming off a postseason berth a year ago, the Lions look every bit a sub-.500 team.
(For what it’s worth, I thought the Lions should have gone for it on fourth down in that situation. Their defense and special teams were brutal all afternoon and they were playing on the road. But you don’t put the ball in the hands of Hill with the day Mikel Leshoure was having.)
2. So far the NFL’s gamble hasn’t paid off.
One of the biggest reasons why Roger Goodell and the NFL hasn’t given in to the demands of the locked out officials is because the league assumed that the replacements would get better each week. But just six nights after the replacement officials contributed to a first quarter between the Broncos and Falcons that took over an hour to complete on “Monday Night Football,” this was the scene on Sunday night: Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb throwing his helmet in disgust, New England’s Vince Wilfork screaming at an official in the end zone following Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal, and Bill Belichick angrily chasing down line judge Esteban Garza and yanking his arm as he tried to run off the field. Following the game, you had linebacker Brandon Spikes tweeting, “Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they’re needed Back at work !!!!” It wasn’t just the Baltimore-New England game either. The Detroit-Tennessee contest was a mess as well, as the replacement officials gave the Titans an extra 12 yards following a penalty in overtime (which eventually led to the game-winning field goal). Is this the vision that Goodell has for his league? The fans, which allow the NFL to be the most popular game in America, deserve better than this. It’s not like the regular officials don’t blow calls, make mistakes, or factor into wins and losses. But the NFL has become a punch line because of these replacements.
3. The jury is still out on the Cardinals, but not their defense.
Are the Cardinals for real? Even after they crushed the Eagles 27-6 on Sunday, skepticism remains. They’re essentially two plays away from being 1-2 instead of 3-0, so let’s wait a few weeks before we assume we misjudged Ken Whisenhunt’s team in preseason. But one thing’s for sure: The Cardinals’ defense is for real. Players were confused and often caught out of position when Ray Horton took over as defensive coordinator last season. He runs the same defensive scheme that Dick LeBeau uses in Pittsburgh, which means every player has a specific role that must be executed or the entire defense may struggle. But in Year 2 of Horton’s scheme, his defenders have a firm grasp on what their responsibilities are and at least three through weeks they’re thriving in their roles. They held Michael Vick to just 217 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced three fumbles on the day. Daryl Washington is becoming a star, Patrick Peterson is on the fast track when it comes to his development, and Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes are steady veterans. The offense remains a huge concern thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in football, but Horton’s defense is going to keep Arizona in most games going forward.
4. The Vikings’ upset of the 49ers was easier to spot than you think.
The biggest shock of Week 3 came in Minnesota where the Vikings upset the 49ers, 24-13. The Vikings, who barely got by the Jaguars at home in Week 1 and who were beaten by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 2, were 7-point home underdogs against a San Francisco team that was regarded as the class of the NFC – if not the entire NFL. But the 49ers were also coming off wins against the Packers and Lions and were due for a letdown. Their offense is also very methodical and lacks explosion, so once they get behind by a couple of scores they’re not prone to stage comebacks. Now, did I see Christian Ponder completing 21-of-35 passes for 198 yards with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing)? No. But his ability to scramble proved to be a major weapon against a stingy San Francisco defense, which couldn’t limit the big play. Throw in the fact that Minnesota won the turnover and time of possession battle and it all adds up to one of the bigger upsets of the year thus far.
5. The Texans and Falcons look like the class of each conference.
With all due respect to the 3-0 Cardinals, the Texans and Falcons look like the class of the AFC and NFC through the first three weeks of the season. Houston has outscored opponents 88-42 and its first trip out West proved to be a successful one, as the Texans beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos 31-25 on Sunday. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 2-0 on the road and had no trouble with previously unbeaten San Diego despite coming off a short week of rest and preparation following their Monday night win over Denver. No quarterback has been more efficient than Matt Ryan through the first three weeks of the season and Mike Nolan has transformed Atlanta’s defense into a top 10 unit. One other thing the Falcons have done well is blend Mike Smith’s philosophy on ball control and Dirk Koetter’s desire to throw the ball vertical. Atlanta’s offense is still very methodical but the difference now is that the scheme is built around Ryan and the no-huddle, compared to Michael Turner and the ground-and-pound philosophy that Mike Mularkey implemented the past four years. Both Atlanta and Houston play keep-away better than any team in the league, with the only difference being that the Texans have a legit running game to compliment their passing attack. Both defenses are also built to confuse opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers, which the Falcons and Texans have been able to do thus far.
6. The Ravens come up huge.
The Ravens exacted a small measure of revenge last night on the Patriots, who beat Baltimore in the AFC title game just a few months ago. The replacement officials marred an otherwise terrific night for the heavy-hearted Torrey Smith, who played less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother. He caught six passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a beautiful 25-yard grab in the second quarter. Joe Flacco also impressed one week after struggling against the Eagles, as he completed 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The win was huge on a couple of different levels for Baltimore. First and foremost, the Steelers lost to the Raiders earlier in the day so the Ravens and Bengals are now tied atop the division at 2-1. The victory also guaranteed Baltimore a leg up against New England when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the year. Even though they’re 1-2, Bill Belichick’s Patriots will bounce back and be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. So it’s huge for the Ravens to have a head-to-head win over a team that they always seem to meet in the postseason.
7. There’s a good chance the Saints will head into their bye week winless.
I guess we all should have seen this coming. No team could have gone through what the Saints did in the offseason and now suffer any residual affects. Not only was New Orleans marred in the bounty scandal, but don’t forget that Drew Brees missed significant offseason time while battling with the front office over his contract. In losing Sean Payton the Saints not only lost their head coach but their playcaller as well. Talk all you want about Pete Carmichael being a reliable fill-in but through three weeks the Saints’ offense has yet to develop consistency. The biggest problem, of course, might be on the defensive side of the ball as Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme has yet to sink in. In their 27-24 victory on Sunday, Kansas City was able to play keep-away with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for over 200 yards on the maligned New Orleans defense. Through three weeks Spagnuolo’s unit has allowed 40 points to Washington, 35 to Carolina and 27 to Kansas City. And with Green Bay and San Diego coming up, there’s a very realistic chance that the Saints will be 0-5 heading into their Week 6 bye.
8. The Steelers’ defense is getting exposed.
We’ve reached a point when it’s no longer surprising that Pittsburgh’s defense allows a 100-yard rusher, isn’t able to generate pressure, and allows big plays when one of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitzes backfires. The problem is that James Harrison and Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy. The bigger problem is that the Steelers haven’t drafted well on that side of the ball in a long time. Younger players have failed to step up and there’s no new wave of brilliant Pittsburgh defenders coming down what used to be an endless pipe of production. The unit is old, tired and now, underperforming. The Steelers’ defense used to dictate games and now opposing quarterbacks are outsmarting them, even aging signal callers like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. If you’re expecting the Steelers’ defense to all of a sudden flip the switch and go back to being the dominate force that it’s been for over a decade, you might be waiting awhile. Re-enforcements are not on their way.
9. The Jets are in trouble.
A team source told Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports! that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis “probably” has a torn left ACL. If “probably” turns into “confirmed,” New York is in major trouble. Revis means everything to Rex Ryan’s defense, so much so that the Jets’ entire season could be lost without him locking down one side of the field. Mark Sanchez completed 21-of-45 passes for 306 yards with one touchdown but his numbers are misleading. Against Miami’s weak pass defense, Sanchez routinely missed open receivers, struggled under pressure and threw two interceptions. If Revis is indeed lost for the season, the Jets will quickly find out what they have in Sanchez, who doesn’t handle pressure very well (on or off the field). It could wind up being a long year in New York.
10. Cowboys once again disappoint.
They may have earned a hard-fought victory but the Cowboys didn’t exactly send fear into the hearts of the NFC elite with their 16-10 win over the Bucs on Sunday. Dallas only racked up 297 yards of total offense, which featured six false start penalties and a couple of Jason Witten drops (including one would-be touchdown). Credit Tampa Bay’s defense for coming to play but 2.1 yards per carry out of DeMarco Murray isn’t going to cut it either. Through three weeks the Cowboys have one impressive performance (the opening win against the Giants), one dud performance (the Week 2 loss at Seattle) and one blasé performance (Sunday vs. the Bucs). We’ll find out a lot about Jerry Jones’ team when it hosts Chicago next week before visiting Baltimore following a bye in Week 6.
Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will share his quick-hit observations from the week that was in football. This week he hands out 10 observations from Week 2 of the 2012 NFL preseason.
1. The Jets’ offense is troubling.
Mark Sanchez is already in mid-season form. In two preseason games, he’s 13-of-17 for a dismal 80 yards with no touchdowns and one 77-yard pick-six against the Giants on Saturday night. But it’s unfair to be overly critical of Sanchez’s performance when he’s consistently on his back or starring out of his ear hole. The Jets’ offensive line has been a disaster to this point and how can anyone expect that Sanchez will take that next step if right tackle Wayne Hunter acts as a turnstile instead of a brick wall? Sanchez has been sacked six times in 23 dropbacks in preseason and Hunter allowed four sacks in total on Saturday night. The fact that the Jets tried to trade for Carolina OT Jeff Otah back in July is all you need to know about the team’s confidence in Hunter. (The trade eventually fell through after Otah couldn’t pass a physical.) But it’s not just Hunter – the entire New York offensively is struggling, so much so that Tony Sparano’s offense has yet to score a touchdown in two preseason games. Forget Sanchez and ESPN’s lovechild Tim Tebow – if the Jets don’t get their offensive line straightened, the 1960s version of Joe Namath could step off a time machine and struggle under center.
2. Let’s keep Peyton’s “struggles” in proper context.
Following the Broncos’ loss to the Seahawks on Saturday night, the headlines on Sunday focused on Peyton Manning’s two interceptions. In two games this preseason, Manning is 20-of-30 passing for 221 yards, no touchdowns and three picks. Ever consumed by projections and predictions, many message board fanatics and media members are clamoring about how Manning doesn’t look like the Peyton of old. Really? The guy didn’t play a down last year and his career appeared to be in jeopardy. Twelve months ago many said he was finished. Now, because he’s thrown three interceptions in his first two preseason games following multiple neck surgeries, everyone is concerned? Relax. Jacob Tamme dropped an easy touchdown versus Seattle and Eric Decker also put one of Manning’s passes on the ground as well. His velocity isn’t there yet and may never return. But it’s only the second week of the preseason. Give him time to get his feel back for the game before we chastise him about his numbers.
3. It’s great to see Atlanta and Baltimore open things up.
The paths of the Falcons and Ravens have run parallel to each other since 2008. Mike Smith and John Harbaugh were both hired that year, while Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were both selected in the first round of that draft. Both teams have also been on the cusp of big things, although Baltimore has been closer to fulfilling its promise than Atlanta, which is 0-3 in the playoffs under Smith. One other key similarity between these two teams is their offensive philosophy, which is to keep the ball on the ground and play a physical brand of football. Or, should I say that was the teams’ philosophy until this year. Flacco was inconsistent against the Lions on Friday but for the most part he looked smooth running Cam Cameron’s no huddle offense. He often got the Ravens set before Detroit’s defense was settled and while he attacked with mostly underneath routes, the takeaway is that he looked comfortable. Ryan, meanwhile, has looked like a different quarterback in new OC Dirk Koetter’s system. He’s no longer just a game manager that is afraid to fit the ball into tight windows. He’s confident, he’s standing strong in a muddied pocket and he has developed a great rapport with Julio Jones. In what has become a passing league, it’s good to see that two contenders have finally come to grips with the fact that they need to adjust.
4. Enough about Bradford’s ankle.
CBSsports.com’s Jason La Canfora released a report earlier this week that stated there’s a “definite possibility” that Sam Bradford will need ankle surgery after the season. I’m not here to discredit La Canfora’s report, which was validated a day later when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirmed that the team does have concerns about Bradford’s left ankle holding up for the entire season. But the bottom line is that he didn’t miss one rep in mini-camp, hasn’t missed one rep in training camp, and has yet to be affected by the ankle in preseason. In practices he hasn’t had issues rolling out of the pocket and hasn’t as much as limped around the field. Saturday night versus the Chiefs, he completed 6-of-9 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. From the very first snap of the game when he hit Danny Amendola on a long crossing route for a 35-yard gain, Bradford consistently went through his progressions and found open receivers. He’s primed for a bounce back season.
5. Outside of Urlacher, optimism continues to build in Chicago.
Looking back, the Bears had one of the better offseasons of any team in the league. Had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not gotten hurt last season, the Bears were on a collision course with the fifth playoff seed in the NFC. So what did they do? They signed a quality player in Jason Smith to backup Cutler and added Michael Bush to help take some of the rushing load off of Forte. Of course, Chicago’s biggest and best move was trading for Brandon Marshall, who finally gives Cutler a bona fide No. 1 target. The Bears also drafted South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery, who has caught seven passes for 97 yards this offseason. The offensive line is the biggest concern, but the unit looked good on Saturday night. The other question mark is obviously Brian Urlacher, who likely won’t be healthy all season. But while the defense is getting long in the tooth, the Bears have everything they need to make a deep postseason run this season.
6. The Cardinals are in trouble.
If I were to pick one defense to improve the most from 2011 to 2012, I would choose the Arizona Cardinals. Last year coordinator Ray Horton implemented the same defense that Dick LeBeau runs in Pittsburgh and while the Cardinal defenders were often caught out of position last season because of their unfamiliarity with the scheme, they improved throughout the year. With a full offseason to grasp Horton’s scheme, Arizona’s defense should be quietly consistent all season. Then again, it better be because the offense could be a total disaster. The offensive line was already struggling before Levi Brown suffered what should be a season-ending triceps injury on Friday. Not only that, but Kevin Kolb has been a train wreck in preseason and while John Skelton has displayed a little magic before, he’ll eventually succumb to the pitfalls of the offensive line. Thanks to Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells, Michael Floyd and Ryan Williams, the parts are there. But Wells and Williams are injury concerns, the Cardinals are bringing Floyd along slowly and the greatness of Fitzgerald is nullified by a bad situation at quarterback and along the offensive line. It could be a long season in the desert.
7. Locker is keeping Hasselbeck in the running.
With an opportunity to perhaps widen the gap between he and Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker really struggled in his second preseason game on Saturday might. He completed just 4-of-11 passes for 21 yards and one interception and he struggled mightily in his first NFL start (preseason or regular). And because he had so many issues, coach Mike Munchak wasn’t able to declare Locker the starter this weekend. It makes sense that the Titans want Locker to emerge as the starter. After all, he’s the future and while the veteran Hasselbeck can keep Tennessee in most games, Locker is the superior athlete and has the ability to produce more big plays. But if the second-year quarterback can’t seize the opportunity in front of him, then Munchak has no choice but to allow the two signal callers to keep battling.
8. The Seahawks have an underrated battle at quarterback.
Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports joined Tony Softli and myself this morning on 101 ESPN radio in St. Louis and noted that at least one team would have drafted Russell Wilson ahead of Ryan Tannehill if Wilson weren’t as short as he is. But as SI.com’s Peter King said earlier this week, Wilson didn’t have one ball knocked down at Wisconsin. He’s a smart, instinctive kid with excellent fundamentals. If Matt Flynn didn’t sign that free agent deal this offeason, I’m not so sure Wilson wouldn’t have been named the starter by Pete Carroll at this point. Granted, Wilson has played against the second and third-teamers in preseason but that doesn’t negate the fact that he’s still making the throws, still making sound decisions, and still forcing Carroll from naming Flynn the starter heading into the third week of preseason.
9. The NFL hasn’t made the referees a priority, which is bothersome.
A couple of days ago NFL executive Ray Anderson made a comment on the locked out officials saying, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game.” That’s true, I’ve never purchased a ticket to a NFL game hoping to a see a Pro Bowl-caliber performance from a referee. But I have paid to watch a professional NFL game, which should include professional referees. I get that the NFL is in the middle of a labor dispute and is therefore downplaying the value of the regular referees. But Anderson shouldn’t insult the intelligence of fans with comments like the one above. It’s a different game with replacement refs, and that much has been proven the past two weeks. I have no doubt that these replacements will improve with each week but it’s going to be a long time before they reach the level that the regulars are at. The NFL is not putting a high value on the regular referees, and that’s not fair to fans.
10. Questions surround Bowe.
As a whole, the Chiefs had a poor showing in their 31-17 loss to the Rams on Saturday night. But Matt Cassel did some good things, especially when he was allowed to open things up and target the middle of the field (which happens to be St. Louis’ weakness save for MLB James Laurinaitis). Jon Baldwin has also drawn rave reviews in training camp and Jamaal Charles appears to be recovering nicely from ACL surgery. Another piece of positive news is that Dwayne Bowe signed his franchise tender and has been cleared to practice. But will he learn new OC Brian Daboll’s scheme in time for the regular season? Imagine trying to master a new language before having to take the final exam in just two weeks. While there’s plenty of optimism growing in Kansas City, there’s a realistic chance that Bowe will be slow out of the gates until he can learn Daboll’s offense.
RGIII impresses in preseason debut.
What teams essentially look for out of a rookie quarterback making his NFL debut (preseason or otherwise), isn’t that he completes most of his passes or leads his team on a touchdown-scoring drive. Those things are nice, of course, but what is most important is that the young signal caller has command of the huddle, displays composure, and is calm throughout. Robert Griffin did all three of those things as well as completing 4-of-6 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut on Thursday night. He also showed rapport with Pierre Garcon and took what the defense gave him when dropping back to pass. Granted, the Skins relied on a run-based offense and kept Griffin’s passes in the short-to-intermediate range. But it nevertheless was a promising debut performance by a player that has high expectations to succeed right away.
Ryan looks like a different quarterback.
It’s expected that Matt Ryan look comfortable in preseason. He’s entering his fifth season in the pros so if he looked uncomfortable running a vanilla offense against a Baltimore defense that didn’t have Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in uniform, then there’s a problem. That said, he had to learn a new offense for the first time since his rookie season and he’s working with a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter. And if Thursday night was any indication of how Ryan will perform during the regular season, then the Falcons have to be ecstatic. “Matty Ice” has never lacked confidence in his abilities but on Thursday night in the Georgia Dome he looked like a quarterback that knew he was going to score on every drive. He didn’t hesitate when finding open receivers, even when two defenders were draped over Julio Jones (who, by the way, is in store for a monster season himself). Granted, Ryan did make a rookie mistake when he locked onto Roddy White in the red zone and was picked off by a linebacker dropping into coverage, but that was the only error he made on the night. If the Falcons are to finally win a playoff game under coach Mike Smith, Ryan has to be more gunslinger and less game manager. He’s off to a great start.
Steelers still have O-line issues.
On paper the Steelers have one of the more talented offensive lines in the NFL. David DeCastro was touted as a pro-ready prospect and while Mike Adams slipped into the second round, that had more to do with his off-field history at Ohio State than his talent. That said, Ben Roethlisberger was constantly under duress during Pittsburgh’s preseason debut on Thursday and it was a reminder that talent doesn’t always equate to performance. Adams also suffered a knee injury during the game and hasn’t practice since, leaving Marcus Gilbert and Trai Essex as the team’s next-best options at left tackle. It’s early, but the days of Big Ben scrambling for his life don’t appear to be behind the Steelers.
The Eagles will have to hold their breath all season.
The swelling on Michael Vick’s injured throwing thumb has gone down and he’ll be fine after leaving the Eagles’ preseason opener on Thursday. But it was yet another painful reminder that Vick is highly injury prone and questions remain about whether or not he can stay healthy for an entire season. Even if he plays 15 or 16 games, will he be healthy enough to lead the Eagles deep into the playoffs? Andy Reid has a Super Bowl-caliber roster on his hands but regardless of whether they win double-digit games and streak into the postseason, Vick will always be one play away from suffering an injury and derailing Philly’s title hopes.
Packers’ defense suffers huge blow.
There’s little chance that Dom Capers’ defense will rank 32nd again in the NFL but he and the Packers were dealt a huge blow on Thursday night when linebacker Desmond Bishop suffered a hamstring injury. Bishop is scheduled to undergo surgery and will likely miss the entire season, which thrusts D.J. Smith into a starting role. The addition of Nick Perry will greatly help Clay Matthews and the Green Bay pass rush but Bishop was a physical defender that consistently made big plays. He will be missed.
All things considered, Manning looked good for Denver.
Considering he didn’t take a snap last season, is coming off several surgeries and was playing for a completely different team in a completely different offense, Peyton Manning was solid in Denver’s preseason opener. Many of his throws wobbled in the Chicago air and he did throw the one interception in the red zone, but that was hardly his fault as the pass skipped off his receiver’s hands. The key was that he moved around well inside the pocket, he surveyed the field in typical Peyton Manning fashion and he seemingly has great rapport with Eric Decker. The question of whether or not he can absorb a hit and get right back up remains but all-in-all, it was a positive first-showing for Manning the Bronco.
Shocker: Tim Tebow has a very Tim Tebow-like performance.
ESPN should be embarrassed with the non-stop reports from Jets camp the past two weeks. It’s covering everything and anything just hoping to justify being stationed outside of Jets camp when there isn’t a storyline to be followed. This much was confirmed when Tim Tebow turned in a very Tim Tebow-like performance against the Bengals on Friday. He dazzled people with his runs and threw at least one pass where he resembled a NFL quarterback, but he also locked onto a receiver and was intercepted by a dropping linebacker. Hey, what else is new? Nothing has changed, even if ESPN wants you to believe otherwise.
Weeden off to an inconsistent start.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter that Colt McCoy was 6-of-8 for 88 yards and Brandon Weeden was 3-0f-9 for 62 yards with a pick in the Browns’ preseason opener on Friday. Weeden is going to be the Week 1 starter if he completes all of his passes from here on out or throws eight interceptions and insults Pat Shurmur’s wife. That said, the Browns couldn’t have been thrilled with Weeden’s uneven performance against the Lions. The night started off well, as Weeden connected on his first two passes but everything unraveled from there. Lions’ rookie Bill Bentley disrupted several of Weeden’s throws and wrestled the ball out of Greg Little’s hands for an interception. Weeden’s performance under pressure was also inconsistent, but it’s important to note that this was his just first game. Plus, while McCoy has fewer tools he’s been in the league for a couple of years so he should look more comfortable than Weeden. Still, Browns fans will hope to see some progression from their rookie QB over these next few weeks.
Kolb may force the Cardinals to start Skelton.
Without saying the words “the job is yours” the Cardinals have handed Kevin Kolb the starting job. They’ve practically begged him to take it, in fact. But thus far Kolb has been brutal in preseason and he’s created zero separation between himself and John Skelton, who has played somewhat well. Even though Kolb has the big contract, Ken Whisenhunt may not have a choice but to start Skelton Week 1. If Kolb isn’t going to put a stranglehold on a job that was placed in his lap, then he doesn’t deserve to start.
Don’t assume Locker has lead in Tennessee.
If you just looked at the numbers from the Titans’ preseason opener on Saturday, who would surmise that Jake Locker is now the favorite to start at quarterback in Tennessee. He completed 7-of-13 passes for 80 yards while Matt Hasselbeck was 5-of-9 for 45 yards and two interceptions. But one of Hasselbeck’s picks came on a fluke bounce and the other was on a deep pass when he was just trying to make something happen down field. Locker was more mobile, more athletic and made more things happen, which is something he already had over Hasselbeck coming into the contest. Locker also played against Seattle’s twos and threes, where Hasselbeck started. The point is, Locker will likely have an opportunity to start next week and then we’ll see if he can create some separation. The key will be who starts at that third game, which is essentially a dress rehearsal for Week 1. As of right now, it would appear Locker has a slight lead but this is going to be one of the better camp battles for the next two weeks.
Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter provides his quick-hits from the week that was in the NFL.
+ Curtis Martin’s induction speech at the Hall of Fame this weekend was fascinating. He admitted to not wanting to play football after former Patriots head coach Bill Parcells called him on draft day back in 1995 and also lamented on how he didn’t have a strong passion for football, specifically running the ball. How naturally gifted do you have to be to rank fourth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list despite not being passionate about the game? That’s incredible. I’ve always felt that Martin never really got his due. He wasn’t the biggest or the fastest back but when only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders are listed ahead of you on the all-time rushing list, you could play the game. And Curtis Martin could play the game, regardless of how passionate he was about the sport.
+ Roger Goodell made a great point recently about the situation with the replacement referees. Said Goodell, “You know, we had this experience in 2002, and the big impact we had in 2002 when we had the replacement officials was, you didn’t get a lot of the holding calls and some of the other calls.” First of all, who remembers that the NFL used replacement officials in 2002? It completely slipped my mind, which goes to show you that this situation isn’t as big a deal as some have made it. Yes, whether or not these replacement refs will be able to keep the peace is a major concern. Whether or not they’ll be abreast of all the rules is a key factor as well. But blown calls are going to happen whether there’s replacement refs or not. They’re part of the game. But as Goodell pointed out, the game might actually be more fast-paced because there will be fewer holding and pass interference calls, which are the two penalties that affect the game the most. Nobody wants to see a bunch of missed calls and rule-breaking but how many times have fans said, ‘Let the guys play!’ following a costly penalty? Well, those fans may get their wish thanks to these replacement officials.
+ The Cleveland Browns remain a fascinating story, although mostly for wrong reasons. Randy Lerner sold the team to Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam for more than $1 billion this week and as someone put it so perfectly on Twitter, who knew that the entire city of Cleveland was worth $1 billion, let alone the Browns? Now Haslman has to decide whether to make tweaks to the front office or completely gut the thing and start over. Granted, Mike Holmgren has had a rocky two-plus seasons as team president but it’s not as if he took over a playoff contender or even a franchise that was trending upwards. It’s as if the Browns have been stuck in purgatory for the better part of a decade and while some men enter, no man gets out alive. The thought of the Browns starting over yet again must frustrate fans. It would be nice to see Holmgren have at least another year or two to finish what he started but it would appear as though he won’t receive that opportunity. Then again, when you spend $1 billion on a football team you can do whatever you want with it. Browns fans can only hope that Haslam has a clear vision for what he wants the team to accomplish in the next three to five years because if not, this franchise will continue to flirt with the very definition of insanity.
+ Speaking of The Factory of Sadness, the loss of Chris Gocong is huge. The weakside linebacker has been diagnosed with a ruptured right Achilles’ tendon and is done for the season. He was a 16-game starter each of the past two years for the Browns, whose front seven continues to take hit after hit this offseason. Hopefully Ahtyba Rubin won’t suffer any setbacks after having surgery to repair a slight pelvic tear in June, because if not Cleveland’s run defense will be even worse this year than it was a season ago.
+ Robert Gallery announced his retirement on Saturday. His eight-year NFL career ended with zero All-Pro nominations and zero Pro Bowls. He played for two different organizations including six seasons with the Oakland Raiders, who drafted him with the second overall pick in 2004. Some would say Gallery shouldn’t be considered among the top 20 or 25busts of all time but how could he not? When the Raiders eventually kicked him inside to guard he had a serviceable career. But he was drafted to be a left tackle, one of the most vital positions in football. It wasn’t like Oakland took him in the middle rounds, moved him to guard after he struggled on the outside and were happy they at least got six serviceable years out of him. No, they thought he was going to anchor their O-line for years to come. There have been many draft busts throughout the years and you wouldn’t have to strain very hard to find 25 players that were bigger flubs than Gallery. But he at least deserves mention considering that back in 2004 he was viewed as a future Pro Bowler and a can’t-miss prospect (not that those exist).
+ I had an opportunity to attend the Rams’ “scrimmage” on Saturday. I put quotation marks around the word “scrimmage” because it was more of a practice. While walking out of the Edward Jones Dome the first thing that struck me was how under whelmed I was while watching the workout. Thanks to Jeff Fisher, there’s a lot of optimism building in St. Louis right now and there’s no doubt this is a much improved Rams team. That said, the first-team offensive line looked inconsistent, as did Sam Bradford, rookie running back Isaiah Pead and most of the receivers. Danny Amendola dropped at least three passes during the workout, and he’s normally as sure-handed as they come. But after thinking about it some more, what did I really expect? The Rams have only been practicing for about a week and Saturday was just the third padded practice that the team partook in. Half the roster is new, the head coach is new, the offensive coordinator is new, and the position coaches are all new. That was not going to be a well-oiled machine at the Dome, and it wasn’t. It’s going to take some time but Fisher will put his stamp on things because he’s a good coach and he’s surrounded himself with a great staff. The key is that the Rams are building some excitement around the team and eventually, the roster will be good enough to compete.
+ Mike Wallace’s holdout situation has been the focal point in Pittsburgh this offseason but one of the more captivating storylines is Todd Haley. The former Chiefs head coach takes over for Bruce Arians at offensive coordinator and the early reports have all been positive. Haley is going to allow the Pittsburgh receivers to improvise and react to what the defense is doing, which plays extremely well into Ben Roethlisberger’s freelancing ways. But Haley isn’t exactly a mild-mannered coach. He’s intense and it’s going to be interesting to see how the dynamics play out between him and Big Ben, who has never been afraid to speak his mind when it comes to the way his offense is being ran. The marriage could work as long as the Steelers’ offense doesn’t suffer any hiccups and hey, for the first time in a long time the offensive line is trending up. But the situation could also be a train wreck if the combustible Haley doesn’t mesh with Roethlisberger.
+ There are many signs that point to Chris Johnson having a bounce back year in Tennessee, none bigger than him reporting to camp on time and in shape after he skipped offseason workouts last year due to a contract holdout. But there’s another reason that Johnson should rebound and his name is Steve Hutchinson. Tennessee’s offensive line struggled with run-blocking last year, particularly from the interior. Hutchinson is getting long in the tooth but he’s an upgrade over what the Titans had last year and he reportedly has already made a positive impact on his teammates. Johnson should enjoy running behind the future Hall of Famer this season.
+ Yesterday was a great day for former Saints and Chiefs offensive tackle Willie Roaf, so I hate to focus on the negative. But how in the name of Zeus did it take Roaf two tries to be elected into the Hall of Fame? He was an 11-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro Selection and one of the most dominant tackles to ever don a NFL uniform. He swallowed defensive linemen whole with his massive frame and perfect technique. It’s a sin that he wasn’t a first-ballot selection but it’s great to see Roaf get his due.
+ Chris Doleman was Michael Strahan before there was Michael Strahan. Not a ton of flash to his game ; he just got the quarterback and he did so on a consistent basis. And you know what, defensive ends will always be graded and measured by sacks but Doleman was truly an all-around player. Whether lined up as an outside linebacker or with his hand in the dirt, the guy played the run as well as he did the pass.
+ As the Saints get ready to take on the Cardinals in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame game, the focus will once again be back on the bounty scandal. But keeping it on the field, it’s going to be extremely interesting to see what kind of impact Steve Spagnuolo can make in his first year as defensive coordinator for the Saints. Spags wasn’t a very good head coach but the one thing the Rams did well during his time in St. Louis was rush the passer. Giants fans are also well aware that Spags brought the heat but does he have enough weapons in New Orleans? Will Smith is suspended for four games and unless Sedrick Ellis or Cam Jordan play over their heads New Orleans could have issues generating pressure. And considering the Falcons are installing more of a vertical offense, the Bucs’ offense will be more physical under new head coach Greg Schiano, and the Panthers bring an explosive dynamic to the field thanks to Cam Newton, the Saints’ defense could really struggle this season despite Spagnuolo’s previous success.
Louisiana State University wide receiver Rueben Randle (2) scores on a touchdown pass against the University of Florida during their NCAA football game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)
The Browns’ run defense just got much worse.
The Browns were brutal against the run last season and that was with 6-foot-3, 334-pound Phil Taylor plugging the middle of their line. With Taylor on the shelf for the next 4-6 months (if not the entire season) with a torn pectoral, Cleveland’s run defense figures to get worse. The Browns drafted Cincinnati DT John Hughes and Boise State’s Billy Winn last month, but neither is suited to be a starter. (Winn is the better bet to make an immediate impact, but his work ethic was questioned coming into the draft.) Opposing running backs should find plenty of open running lanes when playing the Browns again next season.
Randle already impressing.
Second-round pick Rueben Randle is already reportedly impressing the Giants. He went up high to catch a pass along the sideline during Friday’s mini-camp and then burned third-round selection Jayron Hosley on a go pattern later in the day. I said it immediately following the draft and I’ll say it again: Randle is the perfect replacement for Mario Manningham in the Giants’ offense because of his deep threat ability. He’ll work the seam just like Manningham did the past two seasons in New York.
Wright never had a playbook at Baylor.
File away as interesting: Receiver Kendall Wright never had a playbook in college. Baylor coach Art Briles used practices, film study and meetings to teach Wright over 300 plays. The Titans’ playbook will be the first-rounders first ever.
No need to worry about 49er rookies being out of shape.
One of the first things out of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s mouth on Friday was that the 49ers’ rookies looked out of shape, specifically first-round pick A.J. Jenkins. But one thing to keep in mind is that all rookies are out of shape at this point. It’s up to the coaching staffs to bring the players along slowly and show them what NFL speed looks like so that when training camp rolls around, they can be in stride with the veterans. Plus, it’s important for these youngsters not to get hurt tweaking a hamstring that could potentially affect them all year.
Burfict the perfect low-risk player for Bengals.
Former Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict says he has a chip on his shoulder after being undrafted last April. That should be music to the ears of the Bengals, who signed Burfict as a free agent following the draft. Burfict doesn’t lack talent, he just bombed pre-draft workouts and was an undisciplined player in college. If he winds up making the roster (and don’t be surprised if he does), then it’s a perfect low-risk, high-reward situation for Cincinnati. Maybe all he needed was a wake up call and some motivation.
Young to eventually be Bills’ starter?
Vince Young was brutal as Michael Vick’s backup last year in Philadelphia and seeing as how he just signed a seven-year, $62 million contract in October last year, Ryan Fitzpatrick will remain Buffalo’s starter. That said, Chan Gailey has always loved mobile quarterbacks so if Fitzpatrick struggles early in 2012, don’t be surprised if Young finds himself in a starting role again.
Jets latest to turn down “Hard Knocks?”
The AP reports that the Jets have turned down a “Hard Knocks” sequel because the team wants to limit distractions during training camp. The Falcons essentially gave the network the same reason as to why they didn’t want to appear on the show, and it’s saying something that HBO can’t even get Rex Ryan to say yes to attention. That said, hopefully the network can find a suitor because the show is great for fans.
A retractable roof for Minnesota? What would the “Purple People Eaters say?”
Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf have hinted that the team’s new stadium will have a retractable roof because they want to make the stadium as attractive to fans as possible. But I say get your ass out in the cold, Minnesotans, and enjoy the game how it’s meant to be viewed: Out in the elements.