Amazingly, the most embarrassing thing about the opening week of the NFL season wasn't the refereeing, though it was close. It was almost the moment that Browns' rookie QB, Brandon Weeden, got sacked in pregame warm-ups, engulfed by a giant American flag, as if he were a mid-east country in some CNN victory animation.
Embarrassing as Weeden's banner malfunction was, he then had to actually play. Against the Eagles he threw four interceptions, and registered a passer rating of 5.1. As I said on our show, earthquakes have gotten higher ratings than that. What made it worse was the Eagles and Mike Vick (four picks of his own, and another one dropped cold by Browns' rookie LJ Fort) tried hard to hand Cleveland the win, but the Browns just wouldn't take it. As usual, week one was full of surprises, but although Peter King predicted a Niners-Patriots Super Bowl based on the Sunday's results, then didn't, then did again ('I kid. Or do I?' he wrote) Mike Tanier put it better when he reminded us to beware of the Immediacy Bias, and the resultant Primacy Effect, which worked well for cavemen threatened by mastodons on the hunt. Which is, after all, very close to what you get on sports talk radio. My take on week one is that it pays to put it into the context of last season, and note that the best-balanced teams from 2011 both won, two of the three offensive machines lost, and the only one that won was the one who went out and consciously tried to rebuild their defense, and the law of competitive balance certainly looks to be holding true in the NFC East.
THE ABOMINATION THAT IS THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL (Live on Sky):
Chicago (1-0) at Green Bay (0-1): I have detailed many times before why I hate games played on short rest, but my voice seems to be a lone audible dissenter. At least the Bears don't have a long flight, but I have the feeling Dom Capers can make more adjustments quickly than Mike Tice will. The Bears passed a lot better against the Colts once Dwight Freeney went out. They smartly rested Brian Urlacher during their win over Indy, while the Pack, of course, were busy trying to run the ball against the Niners' D. I'd look for them to be a little more successful against the Bears, but a lot better in the air. Indy showed you can still put Cutler off with pressure, and I'd expect Dom Capers to dial up a lot against the Bears' O line. I also expect it to work. Pick (made Thursday): Pack
Kansas City (0-1) at Buffalo (0-1): Chan Gailey Bowl! Today's assignment will be to compare the careers of CJ Spiller and Dexter McCluster. Note that with Fred Jackson already out, Spiller becomes the Bills' main buffalo, while McCluster appears to be functioning primarily as a WR. Not that it matters, as between Matt Cassel and Mark Fitzpatrick you'll find more bad decision making than at a certain gathering of angry pale people not far from Raymond James Stadium a few weeks ago. My rule of thumb has always been to go with the home team, unless there's a good reason not to. The best reason not to in this case is that these are the Bills. Pick: #shudder# Bills
Cleveland (0-1) at Cincinnati (0-1): I was trying to figure out why Pat Shurmur didn't go for two after scoring for a 15-10 lead over the Eagles? After all, they don't miss many extra-points in this league. Then I remembered he's a graduate of the Andy Reid school of game management. The Browns' D could pose some problems for the Bengals' offense, but the Browns' offense could pose some problems for the Browns' offense. Law Firm ran pretty well as a bell-cow back. Pick: Bengals
Minnesota (1-0) at Indianapolis (0-1): The Colts' new 3-4 was a lot more effective before Dwight Freeney got hurt, but with a sprained ankle I wonder how effective he'll be even if he plays. Winston 'Sid' Justice may also be out, which is better news for Jared Allen & Co. Andrew Luck threw three picks, but a lot of the time was under severe pressure playing catch-up, and the Colts' O line may be one of the few in the league that can let the Bears feel good about what they've got. Matt Forte and Mike Bush, the new Bush you can support, combined for 28 carries and 122 yards, thus proving the new adage that you pass to take the lead and run to hold it. Christian Ponder lacks a real 'go-to' receiver, but he ought to get enough time to find what he does have. Pick: Vikes
LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 3: New Orleans (0-1) at Carolina (0-1): DeAngelo Williams seven carries for minus one yard? Even with that bizarre stat, and the turning away from the run game against the Bucs, you have to think they can get their offense balanced out. The same applies to the Saints, who seem to have forgotten how their passing sets up the run. It may indicate the difference between executing the offense and planning it, and they may be missing Payton. Last year the Saints beat Carolina twice, but that was with the Bounty Hunters playing. Now Steve Spagnuolo is calling the signals, and I wonder if last year's tape was on the menu. Hoping it was. Pick: Saints
Houston (1-0) at Jacksonville (0-1): Amazing that reporters were asking JJ Watt if the Texans would miss Mario Williams this season. The reason they let him walk was that they hadn't missed last year, when he was injured! Meanwhile, the Jags re-enacted the Blair Walsh Project, as they appeared to win the game on a Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts TD with 25 seconds left, only to lose to a 55 yard FG as time ended by Walsh, and another to beat them in the new two-possession OT. Even Jack Del Rio didn't lose them like that! Pick: Texans
Oakland (0-1) at Miami (0-1): The bookies have the Raiders as slight favourites on the road, which is saying something. Like maybe home field advantage doesn't help that much when your fans think your team is being run by incompetents? It's more the travel for the west coast visitors, I suppose, and I also suppose Carson Palmer would be happier if his was less of a WCO and maybe more of Al Davis style vertical football. Oakland didn't show much on Monday night, but the whole long-snapping debacle twisted that game around. Maybe the Dolphins could move the game to a baseball stadium? Pick: no one. OK, Dolphins.
Arizona (1-0) at New England (1-0): It's Kevin Kolb's team now! Pick: Pats
Tampa Bay (1-0) at New Jersey Giants (0-1): Greg Schiano returns to Jersey, where he coached Rutgers, coming off a fine defensive performance, playing the kind of football you'd associate with coaches like, uh, Tom Coughlin. The Giants, meanwhile, are at home, and have had the extra three days to prepare, yet another reason to dislike The Abomination That Is Thursday Night Football (TATITNIF?) They made all sorts of mistakes against the Cowboys, and short of a refereeing meltdown, they ought to be able to put some of them right. Pick: Giants
Baltimore (1-0) at Philadelphia (1-0): I wrote last week that Cam 'Cam' Cameron needed to open up the Ravens' offense, and the no-huddle did just that. Enough to make the Ravens slight favourites on the road. The Eagles made it look hard against the Browns, throwing 56 times—though Shady McCoy did carry 20 times in the end. Still, their best hope against the Ravens is pressure, and their defense is one that can bring the blitz from base formation, so the no-huddle ought to bother them less than most teams. But if Reid refuses to run, I can see the Ravens' baiting Mike Vick into another disaster. Pick: Ravens
REMEMBERING ART MODELL
Most of the obits of Art Modell concentrated, justifiably, on moving the Browns to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens. But here's something else to consider. If you're naming the greatest coaches in NFL history, Paul Brown and Bill Belichick both rank in the top 10, maybe even the top 5. Art Modell fired them both. In Brown's case he needed control, and he soon won an NFL title with Brown's longtime number two, Blanton Collier. He also won a Super Bowl with the Ravens, with a team built by Belichick and his protégés, most notably GM Ozzie Newsome, but coached by Brian Billick.
He had his reasons for both firings, but there were two sides to Modell. One was creative, loyal, and funny: Modell is the guy who spearheaded the NFL's TV business under Pete Rozelle, and did it well: he could hardball the networks because he understood their world. He pioneered Monday Night Football, which is why the first-ever MNF game was in Cleveland (against the Jets, because Joe Namath was still a draw). In many ways, Modell was the NFL's equivalent of the AFL's Sonny Werblin, who owned the Jets: a guy from the entertainment business who saw himself as an entertainer: reporters loved him because he was funny and always good for a juicy quote and he usually treated his players very well. But in many ways the prototype of the modern NFL owner, Modell didn't buy the Browns to make his living from the team, but because he wanted to indulge himself, and when his debts outside football began to pull at him he moved the team to make a quick financial gain.
The city of Cleveland had to sue him to keep the Browns' name, and legacy—that's one of the NFL anomalies: the Irsays relocated Johnny U to Indianapolis, while Jim Brown stayed in Cleveland. And eventually Modell had to sell the Ravens when he went into debt again. The move will always sit on one balance scale, with TV deals, MNF, and personality on the other one. And I doubt the latter will outweigh the former in Hall of Fame terms until some memories fade.
LIVE ON SKY SPORTS 3: Washington (1-0) at St Louis (0-1): Interesting that the Skins play two on the road while the Giants have two at home to start the season, and interesting that the bookies have made them 3 point favourites on the road. In general when I look at spreads, I assume the home team gets about 3 points automatically, which may be silly of me, and may be why I never bet! But what I liked best about RG3's performance last week was the way he stayed within the framework of how the Shanaclan offense is supposed to work, while still showing wrinkles that the coaches added from his college experience. What this shows is how quickly college offensive schemes are infiltrating the NFL. You could ask for better receivers, but the Rams' don't offer much for Sam Bradford either. Pick: Skins
Dallas (1-0) at Seattle (0-1): Romo's Return! Remember Tony Romo and the North Dallas 40 dropped hold? This will be a real test of Rob Ryan's ability to pressure a rookie quarterback and keep a potential game-breaking runner in check. I think he can do that, and I think the Cowboys may have too many weapons for the Seahawks' D. It's too tempting to say Dallas will wipe the Seahawks, but Pick: Cowboys
New Jersey Jest (1-0) at Pittsburgh (0-1): The Jest put all the carnivals of pre-season behind them and took Buffalo apart—helped by a Jeremy Kerley punt return and Mark Sanchez's TD passes to Kerley and rookie Stephen Hill. Hill was always going to be a great fit for the Jets' philosophy, and if they can use Kerley in the slot it will help Sanchez a lot. But the key thing is getting out to a big lead, letting them run Shonn Greene more ( and he delivered) and in turn it lets Rex Ryan gamble more on defense knowing the other team needs to score quickly. The Steelers had trouble running in Denver, and no trouble running out of gas, but really I thought their biggest problem was having to play Troy Polamalu at free safety much of the game. You'd think they'd look for a backup with more range to avoid just such a thing. With Ryan Clark back, Polamalu can freelance more, and I would not be surprised if this makes Mark Sanchez somewhat less comfortable than Peyton Manning. Pick: Steelers
Tennessee (0-1) at San Diego (1-0): If the Chargers are going to win games because of the other team's failures on special teams we might as well send Tim Tebow to search Norv Turner's locker now to find the contract he made with Satan. Pick: Chargers
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LIVE ON CHANNEL FOUR: Detroit (1-0) at San Francisco (1-0): You wonder why the NFL media is so weird? Check out this week's biggest stories: Jerry Jones' son-in-law's Jerry Wipes, Tim Tebow's non-effect, and whether or not Jim Harbaugh will kiss and make up with Jim Schwartz after this game. What I like about this matchup is the test it will pose Matt Stafford, because you'd think his receivers could win some battles against the Niners' secondary, but you also wonder if he'll get time to exploit those wins, and if Vic Fangio might be scheming to give his corners help. Otherwise, with the Niners looking extremely balanced last week, and their O line really manhandling Green Bay's D, you have to like them at home. Pick: Niners
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LIVE ON BBC RED BUTTON: Denver (1-0) at Atlanta (1-0): All of a sudden this one is close to being the game of the week, and with Atlanta losing Brent Grimes for the season, it's looking like a lot tougher game than they had last week on the road, where they were impressive in a way the Falcons haven't been in recent years. They are usually impressive at home, and the matchups to watch will be Bailey and Porter vs White and Jones. The Falcons have veteran corners of their own in Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel, both of whom are gamblers. Trying to outguess Manning is a lot like trying to count cards against a dealer with a marked deck. With Grimes out the nickel corner will be either Dominique Franks, whom they cut two weeks ago, or more likely Christopher Owens, neither of whom could beat out an undrafted ex NFL Europe player. Nickel's crucial because you have to play in a sub package most of the game against Manning. I don't like the Falcons' O line against the Broncos' rush—although as we saw against Pittsburgh (and as was true in Indy) that rush is a lot more formidable when Manning's given them a lead and they know you have to throw. Pick: Broncos
LAST WEEK: 10-6