NFL Week 1: The Art of the Comeback
Sunday was a remarkable day for comebacks in the NFL. Last year, there were 15 instances of a team coming back from a halftime deficit of 10 points or more to win, so right around one every week. During Sunday’s 13 games, there were three comebacks of 10 points or more in the afternoon alone. Throw in a 24-point Cleveland comeback that was turned away at the final buzzer, a 15-point Baltimore comeback that was washed away on a moment of A.J. Green magic, a 10-point Chicago comeback that was Conte’d in overtime, and a pair of double-digit comebacks by Tampa Bay and Indianapolis that fell narrowly short, and you ended up with a wildly watchable Week 1.
Let’s run through those three successful comebacks and get a better idea of what they mean, if anything beyond a win or a loss, for the teams involved:
Atlanta 37, New Orleans 34 (OT)
The afternoon’s marquee matchup delivered yet another competitive game from the classic rivalry of Drew Brees versus Matt Ryan, a series that has delivered one-score games seven of its last nine times out. The Saints led this one 20-10 at halftime, and even that was a bit of a miracle for the Falcons; New Orleans scored a touchdown with 24 seconds left in the first half to go up 20-7, only for Ryan to take over after the ensuing touchback with 20 seconds left and drive 58 yards on two plays to set up a Matt Bryant field goal.1 Atlanta then scored with the first possession of the second half to make it 20-17. The teams traded scores in the second half before the Saints took a 34-31 lead with 1:24 to go, at which point Ryan drove the Falcons 47 yards in 76 seconds to set up a 51-yard Bryant field goal, which tied the game. Once Marques Colston fumbled away a reception on the second play of overtime, Bryant hit from 52 yards four plays later to give Atlanta an upset victory and fire a shot across the bow of the NFC South. After a year off, the Falcons are back.
Matt Ryan may never have left. The Boston College product was an afterthought during 2013’s lost season, but he still finished 12th in passer rating despite losing his two top receivers and various offensive linemen while playing what Football Outsiders noted to be the seventh-toughest schedule of opposing defenses any quarterback has faced in the past 25 years. Nobody will ever accuse Ryan of being the most graceful quarterback, but against the Saints, little grace was required. Ryan finished 31-of-43 for 448 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions, including 116 yards on throws to returning superstar wideout Julio Jones. Jones caught seven of the nine passes thrown to him, but he fumbled on the New Orleans 5-yard line during a tackle by former Bills playmaker Jairus Byrd, with the Saints recovering in their own end zone for a touchback. The Falcons would later get the Saints back when dime corner Robert McClain, a disaster last year, exhibited excellent trailing technique while picking off a Brees pass intended for the impressive Brandin Cooks in the Atlanta end zone.
While Byrd forced that key turnover, it’s hard to argue that the Saints defense lived up to expectations in Week 1. Byrd’s arrival was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle for a defense that showed impressive signs of growth during its first year under Rob Ryan in 2013. Their defensive backfield features three Pro Bowl–caliber players in Byrd, second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro, and cornerback Keenan Lewis, but secondaries require four players, and that is an unfortunate problem for the Saints. New Orleans cut future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey last week and turned the starting job over to former first-round pick Patrick Robinson, who was making a comeback from a torn patellar tendon. Robinson was … just know he had nightmares about Jones last night, and they weren’t unfounded. Nickelback Corey White admirably took some of the heat off Robinson by letting the Falcons torch him too. Ryan had little trouble repeatedly picking on the weakest links in the Saints secondary, and despite losing left tackle Jake Matthews to an ankle injury just before halftime, an offensive line anchored by punch lines Gabe Carimi (left tackle) and Lamar Holmes (right tackle) helped limit the Saints to just one sack and three quarterback hits on 46 Ryan drop-backs. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was rightly afraid to put his cornerbacks on an island against the likes of Jones, Roddy White, and Devin Hester, which limited what he could do with blitzes, but it was an inauspicious debut for what was supposed to be one of the NFC’s best pass defenses.
And yet, after all of that, there was a sign the old snakebitten Falcons might still be around. When the Saints turned the ball over to Atlanta in overtime on Colston’s fumble, Atlanta took over on the New Orleans 38-yard line, needing only a field goal to win. Atlanta head coach Mike Smith has a well-deserved reputation for getting too aggressive and too conservative at exactly the wrong times, and here, he stuck with the conservative coach’s credo of treating field goal range like a binary yes/no question. On the very edges of what would be considered Bryant’s range and with his franchise quarterback tearing apart New Orleans’s defense, Smith suddenly tightened up. Atlanta ran the ball with the laborious Steven Jackson on first and second down for a total of four yards before bringing in a power formation and throwing a play-action pass to Levine Toilolo on third down, setting up Bryant for a difficult 52-yard field goal. He hit it, but Smith was presented with a gift and made things far more difficult than he should have.
Miami 33, New England 20
Speaking of shots being fired across bows, the Dolphins staked their claim to an AFC East race that had seemingly been decided before a game was played. With the Patriots as heavy favorites, their ascension to the top of the division might be inevitable, but that didn’t come in Week 1. Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal just before halftime gave the Patriots a 20-10 lead, but Miami battled back by scoring 23 unanswered points in the second half to beat its divisional rival, 33-20. It is, amazingly, the first time during Tom Brady’s 14-year run with the Patriots that an AFC East foe holds a regular-season winning streak of any kind over Brady, with the Dolphins now having beaten the Patriots twice in a row.2 Even more amazing was how they pulled it off: with a far superior offensive line.
Miami had to invest heavily in its offensive line for all kinds of reasons this offseason. Washing the taste of the Richie Incognito hazing scandal away might have been motivation enough, but the hope of keeping their quarterback from being sacked a league-high 58 times pushed the Dolphins into the offensive line marketplace. They came away with arguably the market’s best lineman in left tackle Branden Albert, who bookends the line alongside rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James. In the middle? A bunch of question marks, especially until lone holdover Mike Pouncey returns to his spot as the starting center after offseason hip injury.
The likes of Daryn Colledge and Shelley Smith are at least different question marks from last year’s mess, and for one day, they excelled. Ryan Tannehill took just one sack and was knocked down twice on 33 drop-backs, and while the new offense was still sloppy during a stuttering first half, halftime adjustments from offensive coordinator Bill Lazor seemed to pay off. Miami started the half with a 24-yard catch-and-run to tight end Charles Clay and never looked back. Mostly, that came in a newfound running game, as the one-two punch of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller (… Lightning and Lightning?) ran the ball down New England’s throat, picking up 126 second-half yards on 24 carries (5.3 yards per carry). The Dolphins finished with 191 rushing yards, more than they had in any game last season.
It has to be a scary sight for the Patriots, who ranked 27th in run defense DVOA last year after losing star defensive tackle Vince Wilfork in Week 4. Wilfork was back in name Sunday, but he was too easily pushed off the ball amid a defensive line that didn’t play very well. Although at least one was probably a miscall, there’s no excuse for the New England front seven picking up three roughing the passer penalties during this game. Maybe the Patriots were going on muscle memory because of how many times they had hit Tannehill in the past, but nobody ever talks about Bill Belichick’s defenses and remarks on how undisciplined they were. Those penalties will go away in weeks to come.
A porous offensive line, though? That might not be such an easy fix. When the Patriots traded Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay in August, the surprise wasn’t that they would move on from a popular veteran before anybody expected. The surprise was that they were getting rid of a veteran lineman and replacing him with a much younger player without having Dante Scarnecchia around to teach him the ropes. New England’s much-celebrated offensive line coach retired this past offseason, and it seemed likely the win-now Patriots would do whatever they could to keep as many of Scar’s veterans in the lineup before having to cycle through younger talents.
Against the Dolphins, Mankins was replaced by a player making his first NFL appearance at the ripe old age of 26. Jordan Devey was an undrafted free agent in 2013 after going to Memphis and serving a two-year religious mission in Costa Rica. Devey was the sort of raw, unhyped talent Scarnecchia spent the Belichick era molding into a useful interior lineman; hell, given that Scarnecchia had turned college wrestler Stephen Neal into an above-average guard without Neal having played a down of college football, Devey would probably have been a walk in the park for Scar. New offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo is a respected veteran, but on Sunday, he was no Scarnecchia and Devey was no prodigy. He was beaten badly on the interior by a Dolphins defensive line that was inconsistent last year, and Devey wasn’t the only one. Ryan Wendell offered little help to Devey from center. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer even had bad days, repeatedly losing one-on-one to Dolphins ends Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake. And I have no idea what Michael Hoomanawanui was doing with this block attempt besides apologizing. The tackles aren’t going anywhere, but it’s hard to imagine the Patriots sending the same starting five out to protect their star quarterback next week.
The line troubles left Brady a frustrated, furious mess. After a 187-yard first half, Brady had one of the worst second halves of his career, going 10-of-27 for 62 yards while being sacked four times and fumbling twice. Even when Brady wasn’t sacked, a receiving corps that included a returning Rob Gronkowski and a finally healthy Danny Amendola struggled to create separation, even with the Dolphins down all three of their starting linebackers by the end of the game. It’s hard to imagine that the Patriots will be that putrid throwing the ball with Brady and those weapons around all season, and they still managed to average 4.5 yards per carry before abandoning the run in the second half, but it’s also hard to imagine their offensive line suddenly looking great the way it did with Scarnecchia at the helm.
Philadelphia 34, Jacksonville 17
Perhaps the most painful loss of the day belonged to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who blew a 17-0 lead and a 95 percent win expectancy so thoroughly that they didn’t even cover the 10.5-point spread. The Jaguars weren’t just beating the Eagles; they were playing them off the field in their own stadium, ripping them apart with big plays from unheralded rookie free agent Allen Hurns, who had four catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns by halftime. Perhaps even more impressively, their new defensive weapons delivered under impresario Gus Bradley, with free-agent acquisitions Chris Clemons and Ziggy Hood involved in creating and procuring two first-half fumbles.
Those fumbles were two of three first-half turnovers by Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who also gifted an interception to Alan Ball on an underthrown loft to the end zone. It would be an understatement to say Foles was acting out of character, given how incredible he was at protecting the football in 2013. In 10 starts last season, Foles threw just two interceptions and fumbled four times. During the incredible seven-game stretch that won Foles the job for good, Philly went 6-1 while turning the ball over just five times, never more than once in any game.
To turn the ball over three times in a single half, then, must have been distressing. Many (myself included) expected Foles to regress toward the mean a bit in terms of that outlandishly low interception rate, but three turnovers in the first 30 minutes of football was hardly in anybody’s cards. Even worse, Foles really looked out of sorts on the plays when he wasn’t turning the ball over. He spent far too long meandering around the pocket waiting for plays to develop and receivers to get open while showing little aptitude for feeling and intelligently reacting to the rush around him. There were even concerns that he had a hand injury toward the end of the first half, leading backup Mark Sanchez to put on his helmet, but the Sanchize was not needed on this day. Instead, it was the Eagles offensive line that needed help; already missing right tackle Lane Johnson to a four-game suspension after lining up as the same five-man starting unit for all 16 games last year, Philly’s depth was tested when star left guard Evan Mathis and Johnson replacement Allen Barbre went down during the first half with injuries.
Strangely, despite all of that, the Eagles could not be stopped after halftime. Mathis replacement Andrew Gardner struggled in his predecessor’s stead before moving, because of Barbre’s injury, to right tackle, where he played better (fourth-quarter holding penalty aside). David Molk, now Philly’s eighth lineman, was serviceable at left guard. The Jacksonville pass rush unquestionably tired out; after sacking Foles five times on 28 drop-backs during that stunning first half it failed to sack him once in the final 30 minutes. And while Foles’s numbers after the break were much better on paper — 15-of-21, 183 yards, two touchdowns, zero picks — he still didn’t look anywhere near his best. The Eagles scored first when Chip Kelly decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 and Darren Sproles ran up the gut for a 49-yard touchdown. Foles then took advantage of a short field after a Sproles punt return to the Jacksonville 40, hitting Zach Ertz up the seam for a 25-yard score. After tying things up in the fourth quarter, Philly took a lead it wouldn’t relinquish when a horrifically blown coverage left Foles to hit Jeremy Maclin for the easiest 68-yard touchdown pass you’ll ever see. A Chad Henne strip sack added insult and defensive fantasy points to injury for the Jags.
Even if the pass rush sputtered, the Jaguars should have been able to take a 17-point lead and done something to remain in the game. Instead, after the two early touchdown passes to Hurns, the Jacksonville offense simply came to a screeching halt. New halfback Toby Gerhart lived down to expectations, as the bruising back Jacksonville signed in the hopes of protecting leads carried the ball 18 times for just 42 yards. Even worse, with a three-score lead, the offense got depressingly conservative on a pair of drives that loomed large later in the game. On third-and-1 up 17-0 on the Philadelphia 31-yard line, the Jags handed the ball to Denard Robinson, who was stuffed; with a full yard to go, Jacksonville decided against going for it and trotted out kicker Josh Scobee, who had been hampered by a groin problem, but who had also hit from 49 yards out on the previous drive. Jacksonville’s costly kicker was wide left from 50 yards out, only for Foles to respond with an interception and for Henne to drive the Jaguars back into Philadelphia territory. After failing on a third-and-4 pass to Marqise Lee, the Jaguars then decided to try another Scobee field goal from 36 yards out, only for Eagles lineman Brandon Bair to block the kick. As often happens when a team passes up a very makeable (or pair of makeable) fourth-down opportunity early in the game, it’s stuck going for it in a much more uncomfortable situation later in the game, and sure enough, that’s what happened to the Jags. Down 24-17 with 6:01 to go and no timeouts, Jacksonville was basically forced to go for it on fourth-and-inches from its own 29-yard line, only for Henne to miss on a pass to Marcedes Lewis. That was the right call, but had the Jaguars been more aggressive with the lead two hours earlier, they might not have needed to go for it deep in their own territory at all.
As for the Eagles? It’s still too early to say. Foles looked bad, but it’s not inherent proof that he’s about to lose his job or that Sanchez is the better option at quarterback. Even good quarterbacks have bad games, and once the pass rush slowed down, Foles played better. I would be more concerned about the injuries and absences the Eagles are dealing with on the offensive line, because they may be more important to this Philadelphia offense than the identity of the quarterback,3 even if that wasn’t the case this week. A Robert Mathis–less Colts defense might be the perfect elixir for Foles in Week 2.
Oh, but there’s so much more to say about comebacks! Andrew Luck slicing up Denver’s soft zones and missing pass rush during the second half of that Sunday Night thriller! Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell running through Pittsburgh’s run defense! Steve Smith spiking Pacman Jones like he was the physical manifestation of the Panthers organization en route to a 48-second lead for the Ravens! And the actual physical manifestation of the Panthers organization right now, Derek Anderson, playing well before nearly capping a Bucs comeback with a terrifyingly ill-considered dropped pick-six! We’ll get to some of these games during Monday’s Grantland NFL Podcast, but it’s also worth talking about one of the few games from Sunday that required no comeback at all …
The Chiefs’ Titanic Loss
After a 26-10 victory at Arrowhead, Titans fans may be feeling some semblance of déjà vu right about now. Chiefs fans might also be feeling a sense of having been here before, too — but not in a good way.
Ken Whisenhunt’s debut game with Tennessee was a comfortable win, as the Titans scored 23 consecutive points after going down 3-0 early. Their final tally included four Ryan Succop field goals, which would have been delicious revenge for the kicker after the Chiefs cut him this offseason if we ever gave kickers the agency to enjoy revenge. Perhaps more notably and memorably, a Titans defense that had been mightily struggling in transitioning from the 4-3 to the 3-4 delivered an impressive performance, holding the Chiefs to an early field goal before a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Four different Titans sacked Alex Smith, who was intercepted three times after being picked off just seven times during the entire 2013 campaign.
It was the most impressive performance by the Tennessee defense since, well, Week 1 last year. It was playing a similarly middle-of-the-pack offense in Pittsburgh, and after going down 2-0 when returner Darius Reynaud accidentally kneeled his way to a safety on the opening kickoff of the season, the Titans held Pittsburgh without any points until a Steelers touchdown made it 16-9 with 1:26 left in the fourth quarter. That game, unfortunately, also should remind Titans fans of just how hard it is to use Week 1 as proof of a bright future; the soon-to-be-lowly Texans scored 30 points on Tennessee the following week, as the Titans failed to hold a single team to a single-digit total the rest of the way. Tennessee allowed 24.8 points per game from Week 2 onward, a rate that would have dropped them from 16th in points allowed per game to 22nd.
As with the Steelers game, it’s fair to wonder whether the Titans took advantage of a weakened opponent. That Pittsburgh team last year was without Le’Veon Bell or Heath Miller, and perhaps most crucially, it lost star center Maurkice Pouncey to a season-ending injury halfway through the first quarter. This Chiefs offense isn’t in much better shape; with wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and right tackle Donald Stephenson suspended, Kansas City shifted offensive players all around, giving a start to journeyman Mike McGlynn at left guard while turning over a starting wideout’s spot to undrafted free agent Frankie Hammond, who was making his NFL debut. It was also without returner De’Anthony Thomas, who has a hamstring injury.
More worryingly, the Chiefs came in with a thin defense and left with it sliced apart. With inside linebacker Joe Mays on IR-backsies and cornerback Marcus Cooper inactive with an ankle injury, Kansas City could hardly afford to see another starter go down on defense. Instead, it lost two. Defensive end Mike DeVito and star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson each tore Achilles tendons during Sunday’s loss, injuries that will end their respective seasons after just a single game. It’s a brutal double blow to what had been football’s healthiest team in 2013, one from which it simply won’t be able to recover. With Johnson and Mays both out, the Chiefs are down to special-teamers and practice-squad guys at inside linebacker until at least Week 9, when Mays is eligible to return after wrist surgery. Even then, losing Johnson — a workhorse and defensive leader — has to be heartbreaking.
If you’re a Chiefs fan, this has to invoke echoes of the 2011 campaign, a season that seemed to fall apart as quickly as it began. After a stunning run to the playoffs under coach Todd Haley in 2010, Kansas City began the year with an embarrassing home loss to a lightly touted conference opponent, losing 41-7 to the Bills. That game saw them lose irreplaceable safety Eric Berry to a season-ending torn ACL after starting tight end Tony Moeaki went down with his own torn ACL in camp. The following week, the most painful torn ACL struck when Jamaal Charles ripped up his knee on the sideline against the Lions during a 48-3 loss. After avoiding giveaways with Matt Cassel at the helm during that remarkable 2010 campaign, with just 14 turnovers in 16 games, the Chiefs turned the ball over three times in Week 1 of the 2011 campaign and six more times in Week 2 before finishing the year with 28 giveaways. You can see the similarities to the current unit, thankfully without a Charles ACL tear.
That season felt over the moment Charles tore his ACL. For the Chiefs, things already feel dead and buried. This was the one game they were supposed to win during a brutal start to the season; now, before their Week 6 bye, the Chiefs travel to Denver and then to Miami before hosting the Patriots and finishing up with a trip to San Francisco. Their schedule will be easier after the break, but at 0-1, they seem closer to 0-5 than any other team in football. Andy Reid has done some coaching magic in the past, but even if this job doesn’t require turning to Mike McMahon or Kevin Kolb, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Chiefs have enough in the cupboard to compete in the difficult AFC West. After one week, their season already feels over.