Fresh off a jam-packed opening slate, Marc Sessler dishes on what’s hot — and what’s not — in the NFL:
- The first Sunday creates fools. Bloggers, bloviators and Fantasy Heads who spent the past three months inside an information vacuum are exposed as early results roll in from across the land. EXHIBIT A: The Washington Football Team. A summer’s worth of dug-in takes over the inept nature of the roster became dust on Sunday, thanks to Ron Rivera. Washington’s multi-hat-wearing coach is cut from something greater, cheering on his players after watching a 17-0 nightmare turn into a 27-17 win over the favored Eagles. Stories filter down from there: Rivera spending halftime hooked up to a precautionary IV to keep his struggle with cancer at bay while standing upright for hours along the sideline. Or second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins delivering a “ruckus” of a speech in the coach’s place at the break, saying of the fawned-over Eagles: “There’s no reason to be little bro to them.” Finally, Riverboat Ron dialing up another post-epiphany lever-pull on offense: With the game notched at 17 apiece and WFT sitting at fourth-and-1 from Philly’s 4-yard line, Washington’s coach eschewed the gimme field goal for a 1-yard Peyton Barber rumble that set up the go-ahead touchdown two plays later. Rivera’s defense did the rest, blasting away at a battered Eagles line en route to eight sacks of Carson Wentz. It was the kind of outing that would have made Rivera’s old ’85 Bears teammates proud — and a fitting opener for an old-school-yet-enlightened coach who can single-handedly oversee a culture shift inside the building while putting the NFC East on notice.
- Speaking of those ’85 Bears — a cast of frolicking, music-video-making revolutionaries — Jon Gruden pointed back that far to find a comparison for his most talented Raider. Measuring a day that saw Josh Jacobs blister Carolina’s defense for 139 total yards and three touchdowns, including the first score in Las Vegas Raiders lore, Gruden gushed over his rugged back, saying: “That was a little bit like Walter Payton used to play. It was hot as hell. He got beat up early. He insisted on coming back. He insisted on getting the ball as a runner and as a receiver. He’s special.” Jacobs showed the same powerful gallops and acceleration to the edge that made him an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate a year ago. He’s bloomed in the passing game, though, as evidenced by a 29-yard catch-and-scorch act that saw him deliver a pristine route into the belly of Carolina’s defense, grab a Derek Carr dart and leave Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson broken down beside the highway. The “Sweetness” comparison is rich, but we bask in the early days of a brewing wonder in Vegas.
- When Green Bay traded up in the first round of April’s draft, it landed two quarterbacks. The first was rookie Jordan Love; the second was A-Fire-Lit-Under-His-Buttocks Aaron Rodgers. The first did nothing on Sunday; the second transformed an offseason of slings and arrows and sobering questions over his Packers future into a quarter-by-quarter dismantling of the Vikings. Unpacking Aa-Rod’s 364 yards with four scores against a bitter division rival, I’m left pondering whether Green Bay’s brain trust (A) has no idea what it’s doing or (B) cunningly tapped into some sort of Tony Robbins-esque motivational technique that used the Love pick — lodged as dark fodder in the recesses of Aaron’s active brain — to create a Sliding Doors scenario where Rodgers goes Late Period Elway and gallops into the dusk with multiple Lombardis.
- Or maybe Rodgers meets his match all over again in Russell Wilson, who neutralized Matt Ryan‘s 450 yards through the air by hitting 31-of-35 passes in a wire-to-wire disassembly of Atlanta’s lost-at-sea defense. Seahawks Corner was seen fanning itself as run-obsessed coordinator Brian Schottenheimer ushered in the #LetRussCook movement. Seattle’s play-caller dialed up 28 lobs over the team’s first 38 snaps. Wilson boasts the right ingredients, too, with second-year wideout DK Metcalf showing flashes of dominant play, the underrated Tyler Lockett generating a league-leading 147.6 passer rating when targeted over the past two seasons and workhorse Chris Carson giving Mr. Unlimited a spicy target out of the backfield. What’s hotter than a coach exchanging weather-worn philosophies for a scheme that fits what his players do best? Schotty for the win — but will it continue? Act 2 comes Sunday in a prime-time clash with Bill Belichick‘s Patriots.
- Our friends at NBC are billing that tilt as a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX, akin to rebooting Mad Men with Michael Cera in the role of a young Don Draper. Those old teams are lost to us now, with Tom Brady leaving Foxborough for Tampa Bay and Marshawn Lynch narrating Frito Lay-inspired fireside chats. The Legion of Boom is fresh-faced, too, with Jamal Adams hitting the scene as a do-everything, quarterback-crushing tackle droid ready to tangle with Patriots passer Cam Newton. It’s a scramble of new faces, but there’s your matchup: Seattle’s traded-for scenery-altering safety against Ace Boogie, who piled up a team-leading 75 yards and two scores on 15 carries in a smothering of the Dolphins. Adams will be less cooperative:
- Gardner Minshew stole my heart in last year’s opener, which saw him replace a banged-up Nick Foles and pepper the Chiefs with a variety of aggressive throws. He hasn’t changed much since, but Minshew Mania appeared to have short-circuited inside a Jaguars organization widely pegged for a top-two pick in 2021. Ever the individualist, Minshew lit fire to the critics — and the Colts — on Sunday with a 19-for-20 outing that saw him throw a trio of touchdowns in a 27-20 mega-upset. He isn’t Lamar Jackson on the ground or Patrick Mahomes through the air, but Minshew offers accuracy, smarts and bravado while keeping the turnovers low. Draftniks don’t want to hear it, but he’s outplayed Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold over plenty of his 13 starts.
- So has Kyler Murray, who silenced summertime distress signals over his lack of training camp reps with traded-for star wideout DeAndre Hopkins. Hubbub over Hopkins being lost in a flurry of four-wideout sets feels suspect, too, after he pulled in 14 catches for 151 yards in a 24-20 nipping of the Niners. Murray diced up San Fran for 100 ground yards, too, before a string of late-game kneel-downs pushed him back to 91 on the day. If the statistical adjustment peeved fantasy types, Arizona will take it every time.
- I’m butting heads with purists, coaches and a flood of roster-fringe hopefuls, but I can’t help but ask: Does Earth really need another preseason game? Ever? I feel like we’re good.
- Joe Burrow unfurled darts against the Chargers, committed understandable rookie errors and rumbled for a pretty touchdown in his Bengals debut. The first overall pick is playing behind a wanting front five and paid the price with a few chilling hits, but Burrow also drove Cincy to the Los Angeles 13-yard line with seven ticks on the clock. Trailing 16-13, veteran kicker Randy Bullock hit the stage and totally forgot his lines, flubbing a 31-yard field-goal try before hundreds of agitated cardboard cutouts to sink the Bengals into an 0-1 hole.
- Speaking of 0-1 outfits hailing from Ohio, the Browns struck me as a team that might be happier on sleepy Zoom meetings than playing an arch nemesis. The Ravens looked months ahead of Cleveland in every imaginable category during a 38-6 drubbing. First-year head coach Kevin Stefanski deserves plenty of time to see his vision through, but Browns fans are allowed to ask: Where was Myles Garrett? What’s with Odell Beckham Jr. dropping catchable tosses? Will Mayfield and the Browns morph into fodder for Burrow’s Bengals on Thursday night? Similar questions linger around a Jets team comprehensively bullied by the upstart Bills. While Buffalo’s coaching staff and front office have assembled a contender in short order, Gang Green resembled a cadre of youths experimenting with bath salts on yet another lost Sunday. Same old story for two teams stuck in a rinse-and-repeat gridiron hellscape.
- Lions fans know the feeling, observing a 23-6 fourth-quarter lead over the Bears turn into a Mitchell Trubisky festival of cuteness. Chicago’s tough-to-watch quarterback shut this typist up in a hurry with three touchdown darts over the final 14 minutes of play capped by a pristine 27-yard laser to Anthony Miller for the win. The worst thing about consistently bad teams like the Lions: They lack originality. We’ve seen this paint-by-numbers matinee from Matt Patricia a bazillion Sundays in a row.
- I hate the Leighton Vander Esch injury for the Cowboys. A broken collarbone suffered against the Rams will keep him shelved for six-to-eight weeks, per Mr. Rapsheet. The mind drifts back to his dominant prime-time performance against the Saints as a rookie in 2018. One of the league’s most intriguing young linebackers missed seven games a season ago with a neck injury — and now this. A torn ACL for emerging tight end Blake Jarwin only adds to the energy-suck of Sunday’s frustrating loss to Los Angeles.
- “One of the strangest experiences I’ve had in the NFL,” is how Aaron Rodgers described playing before zero humans on Sunday. When Belichick was quizzed about a silent Foxborough, he equated the fan-free tilt to one activity: “Practice.” Our Around the NFL Recap Show — normally laced with the cries of distant play-by-play veterans detailing game-winning scores above the din of a freaking-out stadium — featured radio calls on Sunday seemingly taped from the nonfiction section of a local library. We’ll take football in any form during a hot-and-way-cold 2020, but players and coaches are operating on alien terrain. From another angle, it’s just as strange to imagine a future where everything veers back … to how it used to be.