Almost from the moment the confetti started falling to commemorate the New York Giants' stunning Super Bowl XLII upset of the New England Patriots six months ago, the ever-expanding community of people who follow the NFL – and the far more select group of players, coaches and team employees who live it – have been trying to get a handle on the 2008 season.
We've seen power rankings and Super Bowl predictions; draft analyses and free-agent roundups; training-camp blogs and strength-of-schedule breakdowns. Now, here we are on the first Monday morning of the season, and all of it is as out-of-date as Rolodex.
Twenty-one minutes. That's how long we were allowed to maintain the illusion that what we thought would happen in '08 would have any bearing on the way it will actually play out. Twenty-one minutes into the first Sunday of the regular season, and Tom Brady planted his left foot to throw downfield to Randy Moss, absorbed a lunging hit from grounded Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard and fell to the ground in pain.
Brady's left knee wasn't the only thing blown up. So, too, was the Patriots' presumed status as favorites to return to the Super Bowl. So were a whole lot of people's fantasy teams.
And so was any sense of order that permeated locker rooms throughout America. "Our team was taking a survey in the locker room the other day: Which team is the most likely to go to the Super Bowl?" Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said Sunday night. "I said New England, as did most people. To hear about this, it shows you how delicate it all is. How many players would predict them to win now? Probably none."
It's true that when Brady's backup, Matt Cassel, makes his first start since high school against the rival New York Jets at Giants Stadium next Sunday, the Patriots will appear far less formidable. But, in fairness, they're not the only ones. The Colts, in Peyton Manning's first game back since having surgery to remove an infected bursa sac from his left knee in mid-July, got smoked by the Bears, 29-13, at home on Sunday night. Manning missed six weeks of practice during the summer and it showed, from the wasted timeouts to the lack of timing with receivers.
The Colts had won 21 consecutive games in September and October, but on Sunday they looked like a team playing its fifth preseason game. Whether or not they'll snap out of it remains to be seen.
"You see what happened to (Brady), and you realize how volatile it all is, especially for people in our position," said Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who had a solid day in guiding Arizona to a 23-13 victory over the 49ers in San Francisco. "Look at Peyton – he wasn't with the team for all those weeks, and it didn't look the same tonight as it usually does. I even felt it today, after not playing much this preseason. I never really felt like myself until the second half. You like to think you can just pick up where you left off in no time, but it just doesn't work like that."
The way it works, for the most part, is that the team best equipped to handle its bad luck – or, in some cases, which simply is spared misfortune – finds a way to persevere. If the Patriots or Colts have had a common weakness during this era, it's that neither has treated backup quarterback as an important position. Consequently, the possibility of losing Brady or Manning took on an even grislier overtone than it otherwise might have. For both franchises, it is simply the unthinkable.
The folks in Green Bay know how that feels. For 16 seasons, there was never any sense that Brett Favre wouldn’t be the quarterback, and thankfully for Packers fans, he wasn't. But now Favre is with the Jets, tossing up that patented fourth-and-13 prayer, as he did Sunday under heavy pressure (and, in fairness, because kicker Mike Nugent was too hurt to kick a field goal) and watching a guy named Chansi Stuckey come down with the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter of a 20-14 victory over the Dolphins in Miami.
Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers makes his first career start Monday night at Lambeau Field, and if he gets injured, how many people will second-guess general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy for not finding a way to keep Favre around?
That wouldn't be fair, but neither is football in general, as Brady's injury reminded us. Sometimes, guys like Warner (Rams '99) or Brady (Patriots '01) are forced into action because of unexpected injuries to starters and become stars. Other times, things don't play out so magically. Often, success comes down to which team had the better contingency plan in place.
Take the Tennessee Titans. Last year, coach Jeff Fisher guided his team to a surprising playoff berth despite a shaky second season from quarterback Vince Young. For the second consecutive summer, Fisher made sure that veteran Kerry Collins, who got shoved out of the lineup early in Young's rookie season because ownership mandated it, would be comfortable hanging around in the backup role.
Last year, Collins came through in a season-ending victory over the Colts to get the Titans to the postseason. On Sunday, after Young went down with a sprained left knee in the fourth quarter of a tight game with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Collins came in and coolly led a touchdown drive that pushed Tennessee to an emotional, 17-10 victory over its AFC South rivals.
"Every year is different," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said Sunday night. "You've just got to keep plugging away and give yourself a chance to be there in the end."
Remember, in the beginning of the '07 season, the Giants suffered back-to-back thrashings by the Cowboys and Packers and came out just fine. That should provide comfort to the Jags and Chargers, a pair of other presumed AFC powers who got taken down hard on Sunday.
Things played out a bit more predictably in the NFC, though the Seahawks, who have won four consecutive NFC West titles, looked utterly lost while losing to the Bills (the new favorites to win the AFC East?) in Buffalo.
The Steelers, conversely, won their sixth consecutive season opener with minimal stress, destroying the Houston Texans at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh is a franchise that knows how to survive a season-long quarterback crisis. In 2004, starter Tommy Maddox went down in the opener and was replaced by a rookie named Ben Roethlisberger, who did reasonably well (the Steelers went 15-1) that season and beyond. Granted, Maddox is no Brady, but the Steelers did a nice job of plowing through and making Roethlisberger’s job as easy as possible.
"We definitely had to deal with what the Patriots are dealing with," Pittsburgh wideout Hines Ward recalled Sunday. "You're not asking the quarterback to go out and win the game for you; you're telling him to control the clock, keep it close and don't turn the ball over.
"I like Brady – he's a good guy, and as players we don't want to see anybody go down for the season. You take him away, just like if you took away Peyton, that changes the whole dynamics of one team. But that's part of football. The other guys on (the Patriots) are going to have to step up their game."
Yeah they are – just as exactly no one saw coming.
STORY OF MY LIFE
Last February, as I paced around the University of Phoenix Stadium press box before Super Bowl XLII, the hot topic wasn't the Patriots' shot at history or the potential for a Giants upset. Instead, word had spread that two veteran football writers, espn.com's Len Pasquarelli and my good friend and former SI colleague Peter King, had been hospitalized. King, who had bronchitis, was able to make it back in time to watch the game on TV from his hotel room and file a column; Pasquerelli underwent heart bypass surgery and was sidelined for months. Earlier that week TV personality and longtime Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon had suffered a mild heart attack. What was going on in our little world? That night, I made a vow to myself: As much as we, as journalists, are programmed to suck it up and do our jobs, I'm not going to try to be a hero. If Peter King can miss a Super Bowl, I can also know when to say "when." It's easier said than done, and part of the problem is the sport we cover. This isn't like baseball, a sport in which players suffer injuries because they slept in the wrong position or stepped off the mound in an awkward manner.
I remember back in my newspaper days, one of my colleagues was off the job for months with a series of painful, repetitive-stress-type arm injuries that ultimately resulted in surgery to repair nerve damage. I had no doubt that her ailments were legitimate, but I told her I couldn't imagine being in her predicament and facing the people I covered, for fear of being laughed out of the locker room. For example, that summer 49ers offensive linemen Roy Foster had just suffered a torn biceps muscle – and went on to play the entire season without pausing to rest or repair it. Roger Craig once gutted out a playoff game with a separated hip. Ronnie Lott once had part of his pinkie amputated so he wouldn't have to miss a playoff game. I was younger then, of course. Now I'm either much wimpier or much smarter – or both. So it was that, after traveling to New York for Thursday night's season opener, I flew home on Friday, went straight to the doctor's office and didn't leave my house again (except to watch each of my three kids rip it up in their respective soccer season debuts) for the rest of the weekend. I'd been diagnosed with strep throat, a painful abscess in the back of my mouth and a persistent fever, and the doctor told me I couldn't travel. And I didn't argue, which I consider a sign of progress. No, I didn't get to see Favre's Jets debut in person or talk to the people who experienced it, but thanks to DirecTV and some good medication, I was able to avoid the physically unable to perform list. Hopefully, when I do get back on the road, I'll be thinking a bit more clearly than I was last Thursday, when I managed to combine Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie and Cardinals rookie corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into a single person (since corrected) and proclaim that the Texans would upset the Steelers.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• When Gregg Williams, after getting passed over for the Redskins' head coaching job, left Washington to become the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator, Fisher's stomach dropped. Williams, Fisher's ex-defensive coordinator and good friend, would now be a twice-annual opponent in the competitive AFC South, and he knows Fisher's tendencies as well as anyone. That can work both ways, however, as Williams learned on Sunday. As the Titans, leading 10-7 over the Jags with 4:14 remaining, lined up for a third-and-15 from their own 30-yard line, Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger – back in that role after having run the Titans' offense from 2000-04 – consulted with Fisher about what play to run. With Young having gone out on the previous play and Collins coming in cold, the thought was to be conservative. Even given Williams' blitz-happy mentality, the coaches believed he was likely to play it safe in that situation.
"It was the game behind the game," Fisher explained as he drove home from the stadium. "What happens is you look at each other on film in the preseason and you see things – and then you don't see things. You see tendency-breakers that are designed to trip you up. Gregg and Dinger know each other so well. I'm sure Mike was thinking initially, 'Hey, there's no way he's gonna heat up Kerry.' But then he thought, 'He might just try.' We figured if he did blitz, he'd cover the back to prevent a screen, which would be the obvious place to throw hot. So Dinger switched it up and went with a tight end screen, and it caught them off guard."
Sure enough, the Jags blitzed and smothered the area where a halfback screen could be caught. Collins' inside screen to tight end Bo Scaife worked beautifully, resulting in a 44-yard gain that set up Tennessee's clinching touchdown. Meanwhile, the Titans' defense, now guided by the equally capable Jim Schwartz, had an effort that would have made Williams proud: seven sacks, including a forced fumble of quarterback David Garrard, and two Cortland Finnegan interceptions against a passer who threw only three last season. Oh, and the Jags ran for just 33 yards on 17 carries, which is almost inconceivable given their talent at running back. I'm one of the many people who went into this season believing the AFC South is the best division in football. One week into the season, the first-place Titans are the only team with a winning record.
• You have to admire the huevos on Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox. After wideout Steve Smith sucker-punched teammate Ken Lucas during a training camp practice, Hurney and Fox suspended the team's most prolific offensive player for the first two games of the season. Given that both men are presumed to be in danger of losing their jobs if the Panthers don't have a big year, it wouldn't have been surprising to see them come down less harshly on Smith, if only out of self-interest. Now fast-forward to Sunday afternoon at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego: Two seconds to go, ball on the Chargers' 14-yard-line, Carolina down 24-19. Quarterback Jake Delhomme dropped back to pass. Think he'd have like to have had Smith in the pattern? Oh well. Delhomme, coming off reconstructive elbow surgery that cost him all but three games of his '07 season, pump-faked and calmly found tight end Dante Rosario in traffic in the back of the end zone for the winning score.
• Coming off their surprising NFC Championship game appearance in coach Sean Payton's first season, the '07 Saints were a trendy Super Bowl pick that bombed from the outset. On Sunday at the Superdome, against the Tampa Bay team that dethroned them as NFC South champions last season, the Saints made a defensive stand they hope will have a similar carryover. With 44 seconds remaining, the Bucs trailed 24-20 and faced a fourth-and-6 at the New Orleans 24. "We wanted it on us," Fujita said later from his penthouse flat in the Warehouse District. "The last two years, we've been like a red-headed stepchild, and we're trying to get into the position where we're able to hold up our own end. This was a big start." Fujita, who had been deployed as a "spy" charged with guarding against a Garcia run, looked like the oversized Tony Romo in that soft drink commercial as he pulled down the game-clinching interception. Added coach Sean Payton: "I like the fact that the defense came through. I haven't seen the film, but it looked to me like five or six different times our corners got their hands on the ball cleanly and broke up a pass. I could count on one hand the amount of times that happened all of last year."
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Wow, Patriots. Wow. I totally understand how it's hard to get an accomplished quarterback to come serve as a backup behind the greatest player on earth, one who to this point has been exceptionally durable. But it always bothered me a little that Matt Cassel, for all his potential, hadn't even been a starter in college. He was impressive when thrown into the fray on Sunday, but expect him to struggle as opponents begin to adjust their game plans to allow for Brady's absence. I suppose it would have been nice if Cassel had been able to acquire more experience in blowout situations last year, but … nah, let's not go there. And I don't want to hear that Brady's injury has anything to do with "karma," even from the most strident of Patriots-haters. He's way too good of a guy for that to be possible.
• OK, so perhaps I overestimated the progress of the Houston Texans, who managed to avoid a losing season for the first time in '07 and seemed ready for a breakthrough in '08. If that's going to happen, they'll have to play much, much, much better than they did on Sunday at Heinz Field, where they got manhandled by a Steelers team that, to coach Mike Tomlin's credit, had a much sharper sense of how to open a season. "Our offensive line just got stronger and stronger as the game went on," Ward said. "We may not be the flashiest team out there, but we like it that way." Next week the Steelers travel to Cleveland for a Sunday night clash with the Browns – speaking of trendy AFC playoff picks that looked flat in their first game. Will the pattern continues across conference lines? Watch out, Vikings, on Monday night at Lambeau.
• Is it too early to start contemplating which team will be this year's Miami, which lost its first 13 games in '07, triggering a complete front-office and coaching overhaul? I didn't think so. The nominees: First, the Detroit Lions. Buoyed by the usual big talk from quarterback Jon Kitna, the Lions opened against the Falcons in Atlanta Sunday and got blown off the field by a team that went 4-12 last season and was starting a rookie quarterback. The Lions, who lost by a 34-21 score that could have been worse, allowed the Falcons to run for a franchise-record 306 yards. Detroit is now 31-82 since the start of the 2001 season, and it appears that number could get even more lopsided in the weeks to come.
Second, how about those Cincinnati Bengals, who were limited to 154 yards and eight first downs in a 17-10 defeat to the Ravens? The Cincy defense did score the team's lone touchdown, on a 65-yard fumble return by Jonathan Joseph, but the Bengals also gave up a 38-yard rushing TD to rookie quarterback Joe Flacco – 13 yards longer than his longest run in college. Forget Chad Ocho Cinco; everyone on the Bengals' roster is probably fantasizing about an identity change right about now.
Third we have the St. Louis Rams, who started 0-8 in '07 and are well on their way to a similar nightmare. After the Rams were pummeled by the Eagles, 38-3, I asked a St. Louis player what he thought was wrong. His one-word answer: "Everything."
Finally, it would be a disservice to count out the defending chumps. Though the Dolphins battled gamely against the Jets, the sight of new quarterback Chad Pennington throwing a potential game-winning pass in the direction of wideout Ted Ginn Jr. (it was defended beautifully by New York cornerback Darrelle Revis) brought back memories of the inglorious Cam Cameron era and one of my favorite video clips of all time.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Why cities like Daytona Beach, Fla,, allow the grossest possible machines (automobiles) to be driven on their most pristine real estate (public beaches).
2. Why, if the wideout we once knew as Chad Johnson went to the trouble of legally changing his name to Chad Ocho Cinco, the NFL insists on calling him by his boring, old moniker. Wait, I know why – because the NFL considers itself above the law, a mindset that, in fairness, has been supported by certain arbitrators and judges in recent years, including the federal appeals court that essentially allowed the league to age-discriminate by restricting entry to anyone who isn't three years past his high school graduation. But I digress. Would it really be so horrible to let the man wear "Ocho Cinco" on the back of his jersey? Face it, guys – Johnson … er, Ocho Cinco outfoxed you. Please don't make him sue to get his way.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
Terrell Owens has done a lot of ridiculous things during his career, but the touchdown celebration he unveiled after catching a 35-yard pass from Tony Romo in the second quarter of the Cowboys' 28-10 victory over the Browns Sunday wasn't one of them. Owens, after impersonating a sprinter preparing to enter the starting blocks, received a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and will likely be fined by the league – because, you know, stunts like that send such a bad message to the NFL's impressionable young fans. Doesn't T.O. know by now that football is not supposed to be fun? It's a business, by gum, and the only creativity the consumer should notice is supposed to come from brainy coaches and witty announcers. I'm sure LeBron James, who schmoozed with T.O. on the field before the game, was truly appalled by Owens's homage to the Olympics. Uh yeah. All of this, of course, is preposterous. Let T.O. and his peers have some fun in the end zone, within reason, and Santa will still arrive as scheduled this year.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Yeah, it was tough. We WILL bounce back STRONG."
– Text from Jags halfback Fred Taylor after his team's defeat to the Titans
"Even older dudes rule!"
– Text from Brenda Warner, updating her text of the week from last season, after watching her 37-year-old husband guide the Cardinals to victory in San Francisco