NFL Week 1 Winners and Losers: Welcome to Marcus Mariota’s LeagueJoe Robbins/Getty Images
Stuffed into a dark wool suit, Marcus Mariota daubed the sweat away from his forehead with the white towel in his right hand. It was a muggy afternoon in Tampa, which is another way of saying it’s September. After lowering the rag, Mariota paused, sighed, and confessed. “You know … I … yes,” he conceded when asked if the debut exceeded his expectations.
Sunday was a meeting of franchises with renewed hope — the top two picks in the draft, both quarterbacks, were squaring off in Week 1. One game in, the hope in Tennessee looks more than warranted. Mariota was nearly flawless: 13 of 16 for 209 yards and four touchdowns. In jest, tackle Taylor Lewan chided his young quarterback after the game — “He missed three passes,” Lewan said. “That’s not perfect.” With Mariota’s 158.3 rating on the day, the architects of passer rating would certainly disagree.
Tennessee’s fireworks started early. On the Titans’ fifth play, Mariota lingered on a play-action fake to Dexter McCluster, yanked the ball back, and flicked a dart to Kendall Wright tearing up the seam. Faced with a sea of green, Wright made a single cut and scampered another 40 yards for the score. “I don’t think the guys guarding me could guard me on that play, really,” Wright said afterward. “Not being arrogant … The defense that they ran, there were a lot of holes in the defense, and we worked on those plays all week for that Cover 2 defense.”
Everything about the play was straight from an Oregon game in 2014. An extended mesh from the shotgun followed by a quick strike is second nature for Mariota, and all game, concepts from his Duck days were showing up. Late in the second quarter, with the Titans pushing deep into Tampa Bay territory, Mariota faked a handoff, sprinted left, and dumped the ball to Anthony Fasano near the left sideline. Fasano barreled 18 yards and nearly punched the ball into the end zone.
“It was a concept we ran at the University of Oregon,” said Mariota, who might actually believe people don’t know where he went to school. “It was very comfortable for me to go out there and do that.” All game, Mariota looked as bored as someone carving up an NFL defense could, and that extended to his postgame presentation.
Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt tried to seem just as casual as his quarterback, but he admitted that there’s no feeling like a regular-season win. Plays like the touchdown to Wright and the throw to Fasano were absent from the Titans’ preseason, all part of an effort to show as little as possible in meaningless games. But Whisenhunt knew from the start that his offense would incorporate elements that made Mariota the force he was in college. He’d be foolish not to. “I was asked when we drafted Marcus if there would be some things that we did that he had done, and I said, ‘Yeah, we would incorporate some of those things.’” More than once, though, Whisenhunt cautioned against painting Mariota’s early success as a product of providing him with familiar choices. He singled out a third down on the Titans’ first drive, when Mariota stood in the pocket and delivered an on-target throw to Delanie Walker for a 22-yard gain that kept the drive moving.
Tennessee got good news postgame when it learned that Walker’s hand wasn’t broken, as was originally feared after the tight end took a hard shot in the second half. Walker caught four passes for 43 yards and one of Mariota’s touchdowns. He represented just one of the overlooked Tennessee skill players who have a chance to truly emerge if this version of Mariota becomes the norm. Wright, who finished with four catches for 101 yards, is another. He flashed a knowing grin when told after the game that with Mariota, his time had finally arrived.
But Wright mostly maintained the same tempered tone that most of the Titans, including their head coach, had after the game. Tennessee won its first game last year, too — a 26-10 victory over Kansas City — and it hasn’t forgotten the 14 losses that followed. “Just shut it down right now,” Lewan said. “Shut all that B.S. down. It’s one game. I think we played well. I think there are so many things we need to improve on. But if you guys say we’re back, I’m going to kick somebody in the knee.”
Lewan can threaten all the bodily harm he wants; there’s no denying that yesterday was different. Mariota may not be a star yet. But he sure looks like one.
The takeover has begun. Donald was unstoppable for stretches his rookie season, but even in the preseason, it was obvious this year might be something different. One game in, it sure looks that way.
After yesterday, Donald will be taking up permanent residence in J.R. Sweezy’s nightmares. Donald finished with nine tackles (three for loss), two sacks, and, just for kicks, another quarterback hit. But not even those numbers do justice to how dominant he was. He shot by, shoved back, and just generally terrorized anyone tasked with slowing him down. Robert Quinn added two sacks of his own, but it’s already clear that the best player on the St. Louis defense — a defense that gave up just 4.3 yards per play and looked every bit as good as advertised — is Aaron Donald. And when Seattle needed just a single yard to keep the game alive in overtime, there was never much doubt who would help seal it for St. Louis.
Third-Year Tight Ends
Maybe all Andy Dalton ever needed was Tyler Eifert. The word on the 2013 first-round pick before last season was that he was set to be a significant piece of the Cincinnati offense, but before we got a chance to see it, a nasty elbow injury and eventual surgery sent Eifert to the shelf for the year. If his day against the Raiders was any indication, it’s easy to see what the Bengals were excited about.
Eifert — and not A.J. Green — was the centerpiece of the Cincy passing game, corralling nine passes for 104 yards and two scores on his 12 targets. A serious problem for Oakland in the red zone, he was too fast up the seam for a linebacker to keep up on his first score, and poor D.J. Hayden could do nothing when Eifert and his 6-foot-5 frame simply reached over him for the second.
Eifern having lost his entire sophomore campaign made it easy to forget about him heading into the season, but he’s still just two years removed from going 21st overall. Green is sure to have bigger days as the season goes on (dropping a pass in the end zone didn’t help), but this is still a passing game that has never found a true second option under Dalton. Eifert can carry that mantle.
The setup is similar in Kansas City, where Jeremy Maclin got a dump truck full of cash to be the Chiefs’ top receiving option. Even so, Travis Kelce was the one responsible for lighting the Texans’ defense aflame yesterday, to the tune of six catches for 106 yards and two scores.
More importantly, though, he took back his rightful place on the touchdown-celebration throne. Kelce was a force after the catch last season (his 7.31 average yards after catch was third-best among non–running backs), and he kept that going in Week 1. The Houston linebackers didn’t have a prayer on Kelce’s second score, which saw him streak across the field and take a short Alex Smith throw 42 yards to the end zone. Like Eifert, Kelce will get his share of looks in Kansas City, and it looks like both know what to do with them.
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Jets Coaches Past and Present
An underrated aspect of watching multiple games at a bar is that without sound, there’s no context for some of the visuals that get thrown onscreen. Occasionally that’s a negative, but with moments like the random appearance of high school Todd Bowles, it makes them even better.
Some cursory research reveals that Bowles is from Elizabeth, New Jersey, which means that taking the Jets job doubled as a homecoming. That homecoming got much sweeter yesterday. The final score — 31-10 — makes it look like the Jets trounced the Browns from the start, but Cleveland hung in for much of the first half. Cleveland actually moved the ball well on its opening drive but came away empty-handed after Josh McCown attempted the Josh McCown version of John Elway’s helicopter toward the goal line. This one ended with a fumble, a touchback, and Johnny Manziel taking over at quarterback. Manziel managed an early touchdown, but the Jets suffocated Cleveland’s offense for the entire second half. That was easy to see coming. A reasonable showing from the Jets offense wasn’t. Ryan Fitzpatrick was as advertised, and the Jets’ running game gashed Cleveland all afternoon, with Chris Ivory doing most of the heavy lifting.
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It was a convincing win for Bowles in his debut, but no one had a better Sunday than the man Bowles replaced in New York. Rex Ryan’s Bills didn’t just beat the Colts yesterday. They beat ’em up. A couple of late scores made the final a little less ugly, but for most of the day, the Colts had no answers when they had the ball.
Buffalo’s front four were their typical, pocket-crumbling selves, bothering Andrew Luck even if they weren’t taking him to the ground. But the player who defined the Bills’ statement win was the one who seemed least likely. All week, there was talk of second-round pick Ronald Darby being thrust into action and not being ready for Luck and the Colts, but when the lights came on, Darby was everywhere. He was dropping receivers over the middle, planting ball carriers at the line of scrimmage, and picking off the MVP favorite. Darby’s afternoon is proof of what’s going to make Buffalo the league’s most frightening defense: Even their weak links look like they play for Rex Ryan.
Plenty of wacky stuff happens every year in Week 1, but as of today, the Tennessee Titans are in sole possession of first place in the AFC South, and two of the consensus best teams in football are 0-1. The Colts and Seahawks are sure to have better days, but the imperfections of each were on full display yesterday. Indianapolis bottled up LeSean McCoy fairly well, but every time Karlos Williams got the ball, it looked like the rookie was being shot out of a cannon. And Tyrod Taylor going 14 for 19 while averaging more than 10 yards per attempt is a tough blow for a defense that has to lean on its ability to stop the pass.
It’s hard to blame the Seahawks offensive line for the beating Russell Wilson took yesterday (six sacks, nine hits). St. Louis’s front four was sent here from a distant galaxy to destroy football and, if necessary, save Earth. But Seattle still had a hell of a time moving the ball, and even against less-talented groups, that offensive line may prove to be a problem.
I feel bad including Tony Romo here, but that’s where we are with Romo: Even when he’s leading yet another comeback win, he still can’t have nice things.
As Romo delivered his postgame press conference in a shirt-tie combo that appeared to be selected by a person working in a pitch-black room, the news came down that Dez Bryant would miss the next four to six weeks with a broken foot. This means that for the next month we’re robbed of watching Bryant, and Romo is robbed of his top receiver and one of the most dangerous weapons in football. Someday, Tony, you’ll catch a break.
During my time in the NFL, I played football and still hold two league records: most times suspended by the league, and the only guy to take off someone’s helmet and try to slam his head into it.
How Pacman Jones didn’t get unceremoniously booted from the field after this is beyond me, but it would be shocking if he didn’t get at least a game off to go think about what he did. This was an all-time dirty play, and it’s the only reason Ndamukong Suh kicking off Alfred Morris’s helmet wasn’t talked about more yesterday. The other reason is Morris’s reaction, which is a perfect mix of anger and “Wait … seriously?”
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Offensive Football in Denver
Gary Kubiak had to enjoy his first win as Denver’s coach, but I’m guessing at least part of him was pained to see the efficient offense he’d built in Baltimore crumble before his eyes. It probably didn’t help that his new one didn’t fare much better. Yesterday’s game in Denver was difficult to watch — the Broncos and Ravens failed to manage even a single offensive touchdown. Both defenses are sure to be among the best in football (although losing Terrell Suggs for the season is a serious blow for Baltimore), but what we saw yesterday was more than just good defense.
Peyton Manning could do next to nothing through the air, and C.J. Anderson’s 2.42 yards per carry probably isn’t what Kubiak envisioned when he got to town. Yet somehow, Joe Flacco and the Ravens were even worse. With left tackle Eugene Monroe out with a concussion, fill-in James Hurst was roasted all game by Von Miller. He and DeMarcus Ware accounted for nine hits on Flacco, who finished a Gabbert-esque 18-of-32 for 117 yards and two picks.
“When you make some changes, everybody’s just kind of feeling their way out, it’s just going to be a work in progress,” Manning said postgame. “We’re going to try to get better throughout the season.’’ That’s true — because they couldn’t really have been worse.
All of the Bucs
Ninety minutes. That’s all it took for the Buccaneers’ outlook to go from reasonably optimistic to flat-out disastrous. When Jameis Winston took the field to an array of pyrotechnics just before kickoff, Raymond James Stadium was nearly full, and his ovation dwarfed the introduction of any other Buc. By halftime, half the upper deck had bolted for the exits, and those who stayed were raining boos on Lovie Smith’s team.
Winston’s debut, especially in the shadow of Mariota, was undeniably disheartening. His two interceptions, including the early pick that Coty Sensabaugh walked 26 yards into the end zone, were mind-boggling. Even his first few completions were rough. His longest of the first half was a ball that slid through a defensive back’s hands before it could reach Austin Seferian-Jenkins. But that’s to be expected from a rookie quarterback who wasn’t known for protecting the ball even when he was winning national championships.
The Bucs weren’t supposed to be a mess on defense, where Smith was assuming play-calling duties for a team that finished middle of the pack in DVOA last season. Somehow, that side of the ball was more of a debacle yesterday. Mariota was a buzz saw, but that doesn’t explain the Bucs letting Bishop Sankey and Terrance West stampede them.
Through the air, the same issues that allowed teams to carve up the Bucs pass defense last season had returned. Receivers ran open. Zones were easy to spot. It looked yet again like Tampa Bay was losing each play before the ball was snapped. Today, Smith is probably wishing he hadn’t let the world know he was taking ownership of this defense. Bucs fans were right to be excited about landing Winston, but there should have been just as much disappointment when Smith failed to lure Rod Marinelli from Dallas. Marinelli taking over as Smith’s defensive coordinator in 2012 helped to save a sliding unit in Chicago. In Tampa, Smith is on his own, and there may be no coming back.