Option 1, Week 1’s Burning Question: How will Tom Brady look in Buccaneer red?
Seeing Brady outside of New England and in Tampa Bay colors looked pretty spectacular after years of him beating up on AFC opponents in navy and red. His arm? Not so great. Brady threw two interceptions, one due to a miscommunication with megareceiver Mike Evans and the other a poorly thrown out-route that was returned to the house by Saints corner Janoris Jenkins. Throws that Brady would typically make sailed over receivers’ heads, and outside of the Bucs’ first touchdown drive in the first quarter, he looked uncomfortable against a very good Saints’ defense. On national TV, the Saints showed Brady and the Bucs that they have miles to go before reaching New Orleans level.
At the same time, Brady’s Buccaneers had perhaps the least to lose Sunday, and I wouldn’t sell my Brady stock after Week 1. It’s no secret that it’s going to take time for a new quarterback to acclimate to the Tampa Bay system (a 43-year-old one, at that) in a coronavirus-affected offseason, and the Saints defense is a very difficult first test for even a Hall of Fame quarterback. Tampa Bay has four very winnable games against the Panthers, Broncos, Chargers and Bears coming up for Brady to right the ship. The key for the Bucs is just surviving the gauntlet and making it to January, because once there, they have the talent and quarterback to make noise.
Option 2, Week 1’s Huge Performance: Minshew Mania as Jags upset Colts
After massive personnel losses, many experts (myself included) pegged the Jaguars as having the worst roster in football and a lock to finish at the bottom of the AFC South. One week in, they’re at the top, thanks to a legendary performance from quarterback Gardner Minshew and the greatest Week 1 upset in recent memory.
In my NFL preview last week, I wrote this about Minshew: He has little in terms of a supporting cast (running back Leonard Fournette, his last true offensive weapon, was cut), but the guy has made a lot out of the little lot he has been cast in his career and done it in style. Judging from his Week 1 performance, you’d think Minshew was playing down south in Tampa Bay. Minshew was deadly accurate, completing 19 of 20 passes with three touchdowns. By NFL Next Gen Stats’ metrics, he completed 16.4% more of his passes than would be expected, tops among all Week 1 starters and fired those passes in a Mahomes-esque 2.34 seconds on average (3rd best). He spread it around, too, finding 10 different Jaguar receivers (and, in true Minshew fashion, none of the Colts’).
In terms of situational football, Minshew lived up to the moment. With the Jaguars down three with nine minutes left, Minshew found breakout running back James Robinson in the flat and watched as Robinson hurdled a defender and added 28 yards. A couple plays later, Minshew stayed calm in the face of a blitzing defender and connected with fullback Bruce Miller for a third-down conversion. Then, the dagger — a 22-yard toss to a wide-open Keelan Cole for the go-ahead touchdown, giving the Jags a lead they would not surrender.
Give credit to new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who played to Jacksonville’s strengths (Minshew’s short-to-intermediate accuracy) while moving off the weaknesses (offensive line, downfield weapons). The run-first formula wasn’t flashy but frustrated the Indianapolis defense and helped the Jags come away with a gutsy win. The Jaguars will be a team that bears watching the rest of the season, a team of no-names propelled by a sixth-round QB and an undrafted rookie rusher that could steal a couple wins here and there.
Option 3, Week 1’s Crucial Decision: Mitch Trubisky rallies, throws three 4Q touchdowns
Chicago coach Matt Nagy’s decision to start maligned quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the Bears’ road opener against Detroit seemed uninspired at best, disastrous at worst. And two quarters in, the doubters had even more fuel for their fire. Trubisky wasn’t awful (Jimmy Graham missed a touchdown catch), but he struggled to find a rhythm and entered the break with a 8-for-20 passing clip and just six points to show for his efforts. You could hear the calls for backup Nick Foles from across Lake Michigan, and with them the conclusion of Trubisky’s days as Chicago’s guy and potentially as an NFL starter. Nagy stayed the course, and Trubisky rewarded him with his finest half of football as a pro.
Down 23-6 going into the fourth quarter, Trubisky finally got the offense moving. His fourth quarter statline: 8 for 10, 3 touchdowns, and a 143.3 rating along with a 20-yard rush as the Bears staged a furious rally to defeat their NFC North rival. Sure, the Lions did themselves in with a missed Matt Prater field goal and a Stafford interception, but Trubisky more than earned the win. His accuracy on the Bears’ final drives was on point on both rollouts and from the pocket, and his go-ahead touchdown heave to Anthony Miller deserves a spot in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Nagy’s decision to stick with Trubisky paid dividends, giving the Bears a divisional win in a division in which they’ll need all of those they can get. In coming up big late, Trubisky staved off the Foles talk for another week and should give Bears fans hope that their team can contend for a playoff spot after a year on the outside.
Checkdown: Return of the Smack
It’s good to be back. I was very much back on Sunday, as my quarantine gave ample opportunity for a 12-hour NFL viewing marathon (plus three hours Monday morning and the TNF game). Watching football again without the transition of preseason football and college football was surreal and overwhelming. But some things, like Lamar Jackson embarrassing the Browns, never change.
What I found most remarkable about Week 1 was the physicality. This could have stemmed from a variety of factors: a seven-month imposed sabbatical from football, echoes of vicious hits reverberating around empty stadiums, players ready to hit after only having an abbreviated training camp, simply watching more football. Regardless, I was shaken up as a viewer watching, hearing and feeling these collisions as they happened on the screen. The contact in the trenches, the blocking assignments, the linebackers blowing up plays, the blind-side sacks — there were more awe-inducing hits than I can ever remember from watching football. Thankfully, the unique circumstances didn’t lead to a rash of injuries (my Cowboys had it rough, though), but man, Week 1 was an eye-opener for me for something that can feel ingrained in the game.
Game Notes: Matt Patricia should get fired. The Lions coach has been abysmal the past two seasons. You could come up with excuses, like Matt Stafford missing a chunk of last season and the roster not being up to par with others in the NFC North. But this guy has done nothing to prove he’s a playoff-caliber head coach and has had embarrassing public debacles with players. Surrendering three touchdowns to Mitch Trubisky in the fourth quarter and losing should have been the last straw, pandemic season be darned…I had my sights set on seeing Tompa Bay/Tampa Brady in Week 1, but this Cam Newton-New England marriage has caught my eye. Carolina tried everything to get Cam to be a consistent passer, but Belichick is leaning into Newton’s strengths. I couldn’t tell much from Cam’s obliteration of a weak Miami defense, but NE will be a team to watch…Joe Burrow had as solid a start as anyone could have asked for, leading the Bungles to a near-upset of the Chargers. That’s a tough defensive opponent and Burrow had Cincy in the game until the end, when their kicker missed a chip shot field goal. Even better for Cincy fans, Burrow rated his game a “D”, showing that the fire is still there for the Heisman winner…Aaron Rodgers’ performance was an MVP showing. Against a Minnesota defense that has been top notch the last couple years, Rodgers put up massive numbers: 364 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 43 offensive points. He had a couple pinpoint throws on rollouts, too…Big dub for the Washington Football Team, did not see that coming. Ron Rivera has a huge win under his belt, against a division rival no less. And after letting Philly hop out to a 17-0 lead, the Football Team didn’t let them score again en route to a 27-17 upset. Even if the Cowboys lost, at least the Eagles did, too.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 20 for 25, 275 yards, 3 touchdowns, 152.1 passer rating, 45 rush yards, 38-6 win
The Skinny: Lamar Jackson’s 2019 was so brilliant that I had to coin a new term and metric to measure his dominance: RG3 games. Five times last season, Jackson so thoroughly obliterated the other team that Raven coach John Harbaugh took his starting quarterback out of the game and inserted former Rookie of the Year and fellow Heisman winner Robert Griffin III. A RG3 game is shorthand for a swift defensive destruction that renders further offensive prowess unnecessary.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 2020 Week 1 was an RG3 game. Jackson tossed a trio of touchdowns against a Browns defense with some big names, plus finished as the Ravens’ leading rusher. But the eye test looked the best: Jackson’s agility and jukes of 2019 were back in full force, his downfield accuracy was impeccable (hitting on 6 of 7 passes beyond 15 air yards, per Next Gen Stats), and he improvised and kept his cool when the Ravens’ play designs broke down. Oh, and he led a 99-yard drive, only the third time that has happened in Baltimore history. Two things are clear: Lamar Jackson is really that good, and we’re about to run out of adjectives to describe him.
Gardner Minshew II Watch
Stat Line: 19 for 20, 173 yards, 3 touchdowns, 142.3 passer rating, 27-20 win
The Skinny: See Above.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 23-36, 239 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 78.4 rating, 34-23 loss
The Skinny: See Above
Dak Prescott Watch
Stat Line: 25-39, 266 yards, 1 touchdown, 92.5 rating, 20-17 loss
The Skinny: The Cowboys’ offense showed signs of its 2019 form, when the unit led the NFL in total yards. Unfortunately, it led to a 2019-esque result, as Dallas lost to the Los Angeles Rams despite having the ball in the red zone down 3 in the final minutes. Prescott had a fine game and nearly had a Mile High Miracle-type throw to Michael Gallup in the last minute of regulation, until the referees incorrectly called offensive pass interference due to Rams corner Jalen Ramsey’s flopping theatrics (I’m still not over that, as you can tell).
The main takeaway from Prescott’s primetime showing wasn’t Prescott himself, it was the play calling that put Prescott in precarious and unfortunate situations. He was brilliant on first down, completing 14 of 16 attempts for 152 yards with a 9.5 yard average on that split, but new coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore didn’t take advantage and opted for too many first and second down runs. That set up tough third down looks, where Prescott was less effective, with a 1-7 clip. The pass plays themselves weren’t great looks, with seemingly every one of Amari Cooper’s catches coming off a hitch route. Prescott also overcame personnel switches on the offensive line and handled the pressure of defensive stud Aaron Donald, who was in his face all night long.
Any Prescott performance this season will come in the context of his contract situation, so I’ll go for it here — Prescott looked worth QB1 money. But the coaches need to take a look in the mirror and realize how to best utilize his talents (Ezekiel Elliott’s involvement in the passing game was a big plus).
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 26-40, 230 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 78.1 rating, 91 yards, 1 rushing TD, 24-20 win
The Skinny: Kyler Murray’s sophomore debut is how you start a season with a bang. Murray led the Cardinals to a 1) road win over 2) the defending NFC champs by rushing for 3) 91 yards and a touchdown and 4) getting it done through the air.
Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury eased his quarterback in well with a heavy dosage of screens and short looks early. By the second half, Murray was cooking. The Oklahoma product scrambled for four runs over 10 yards, including an unbelievable 25-yard fourth quarter clinic that put the Cardinals in the lead late. He also found immediate chemistry with recent trade acquisition DeAndre Hopkins (14 receptions for 151 yards) and connected with Hopkins on a 33-yard throw that put Arizona on the SF 1-yard line in the final minutes.
The start wasn’t flawless, but Murray didn’t have to be with Hopkins’ playmaking, Kingsbury’s play calling, and Murray’s own dual-threat ability. Against the number one defense in the NFL last season, that is pretty impressive.