Teams’ hopes float or drown with QB play
Force-fed into the second half of a butt-kicking by the Chiefs on Sunday that few NFL fans saw coming, Palmer wanted to give his new team a jolt befitting that of a talented quarterback who’d been the subject of a blockbuster trade five days earlier.
Instead, as he zipped what he thought was a quick out to rookie wideout Denarius Moore(notes) in the right flat, Palmer saw Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers(notes) lurking directly in the ball’s path and wondered, Can you read my mind?
The inevitable interception and 58-yard touchdown return Flowers completed 40 seconds into the fourth quarter was a killer, providing the final points in the Chiefs’ 28-0 victory and temporarily demoralizing all of Raider Nation.
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By game’s end Palmer had completed eight of 21 passes to his own receivers and three to Chiefs defenders, a dubious turnover tally which, combined with the three meatballs served up by starter Kyle Boller(notes), gave Kansas City a stunning Pick Six on a glorious Bay Area afternoon.
And while Boller was exposed as a substandard signal-caller, and all hope continues to revolve around Palmer as a potential season-saver, the quarterback whose reputation got the biggest boost on Sunday was neither of those men, nor was it Chiefs starter Matt Cassel(notes).
Rather, it was a guy on the Oakland sidelines with his right arm in a sling and the subdued expression of a man who’d learned of the Palmer trade while recovering from surgery to repair a broken collarbone and knows he will soon be job-hunting.
“I think Jason Campbell(notes) was a big part of this [Raiders] team really playing good,” Chiefs coach Todd Haley said afterward in his dressing area in the visitors’ locker room. “So, as a team coming in, I was happy we didn’t have to face him. That kid’s done a terrific job – he was really playing at a level that suited that team and what they do.”
As the Raiders (4-3) and some other NFL teams were reminded Sunday, nothing is more unnerving than a sudden lack of presence and proficiency at the most important position in American team sports.
No greater evidence exists than the current incarnation of the Indianapolis Colts, who have found life without future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) to be as humbling as the Chicago Bulls did after Michael Jordan’s departure. With Manning likely sidelined for the season (and perhaps forever) following neck surgery, the Colts have abruptly gone from perennial contender to among the league’s worst teams.
They were the worst on Sunday night at the Superdome, suffering a 62-7 defeat – no, that’s not a typo – to the New Orleans Saints and falling to 0-7, officially eliminating Indy from playoff contention. (OK, that last part is an exaggeration, but not much of one.) If Manning, the only four-time MVP in league history, were to get some votes without playing a down in 2011, it would be tough to argue the logic.
It’s hardly surprising that the current focus of many Colts fans, and those of similarly sorry teams like the Dolphins, Broncos, Seahawks, Cardinals and Vikings, is rooting for the team they revere to lose as many games as possible. The mantra: “Suck for Luck,” a reference to Stanford’s Andrew Luck, widely considered one of the top QB prospects since Manning went first overall in the 1998 NFL draft.
Whichever franchise plucks Luck will feel immediately empowered, as the St. Louis Rams did a year ago after taking Sam Bradford(notes) (today, not so much), and as the Carolina Panthers currently do with standout rookie Cam Newton(notes) under center. For even when the presumptive savior is learning on the job, having a strong, stable and commanding quarterback can compensate for a lot of flaws, enabling an otherwise average team to be playoff-caliber and allowing reasonably good teams to envision themselves as champions.
Just as Oakland coach Hue Jackson, the driving force behind the decision to surrender a conditional bounty of two first-round draft picks to the Cincinnati Bengals for the allegedly retired Palmer, believes the move will position his team for a playoff run in 2011 and beyond, franchises from coast to coast are caught up in a hunt for a golden arm.
Seven weeks into the NFL season, we don’t know for sure which teams are true Super Bowl contenders, but it’s not hard to identify the ones who can’t be counted out until they’re officially eliminated.
The defending champion Green Bay Packers are the NFL’s sole remaining undefeated team, having improved to 7-0 on Sunday with a 33-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. As has been the case virtually all season, the Pack didn’t look especially elite in most phases of the game. It didn’t matter, however, because no one on the planet is passing the ball like Aaron Rodgers(notes) right now.
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I’m not a big fan of citing single-game passer ratings – at all – but the fact that Rodgers has posted ratings of 110.0 or better in each of his seven starts this season is too ridiculous to ignore. It’s to the point now at which, if Rodgers doesn’t make a great throw, we’re surprised. That’s good.
Similarly, the team with the AFC’s best record, the New England Patriots (5-1), is quarterbacked by Tom Brady(notes), one of the best ever to play the game. Like the Packers, the Pats’ secondary has been downright shaky at times in 2011 – but Brady’s brilliance allows them to get away with it.
Most franchises, of course, aren’t so blessed. When scrolling through Sunday’s games, you saw passers on display like the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan(notes), the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Romo(notes) and the Chicago Bears’ Jay Cutler(notes) who may go from good to great but haven’t yet taken that leap.
Then you saw the less-fortunate franchises trying to manufacture some swagger at the position, with a whole lot of uncertainty hovering over the proceedings.
Rookie Christian Ponder(notes) gave the Vikings a bit of a spark after the disastrous Donovan McNabb(notes) experiment, but in a perfect world he’d be sitting and watching as a still-raw rookie. Seattle Seahawks fans calling for Charlie Whitehurst(notes) to take over as the team’s starter got a lot quieter as Whitehurst, playing for the injured Tarvaris Jackson(notes), led Seattle to a single field goal in a 6-3 defeat to the Browns in Cleveland.
And then there is perhaps the most polarizing quarterback in recent memory, the Broncos’ Tim Tebow(notes). In a storybook setting in South Florida, Tebow took over as Denver’s starter and stunk it up against the winless Dolphins for 55 minutes. Then, as if his body had previously been inhabited by an imposter, Tebow launched an incredible comeback and carried the Broncos to an 18-15 overtime victory.
If you’re Denver boss John Elway, one of the greatest quarterbacks in history, you have to balance Tebow’s mechanical flaws and stunted development with the competitive gifts that seem to propel those around him to unlikely achievements. Consider that on Sunday the Broncos became the first NFL team to come from behind and win a game after trailing by 15 or more points in the final three minutes since 1970.
At this point, until otherwise exposed, Tebow equals hope. The same is true of Palmer in Oakland. His miscues on Sunday can be excused by Raiders fans mindful that he hasn’t been in a football environment since he decided he was done with the Bengals following the 2010 season. After a 4:30 a.m. text message from his agent, Dave Dunn, informing him of Tuesday’s impending trade, Palmer flew to Oakland and was told by Jackson he’d be watching from the sidelines against the Chiefs (3-3).
“I’m not playing,” Palmer told me by phone on Saturday night.
Will you dress? I asked him.
“Um, I’m not sure.”
Well, if you do, Hue might throw you in, right?
At that moment, I wondered whether it hadn’t yet sunk in to Palmer how desperately Raiders fans would want to be reassured that the new marquee attraction was up to the task.
He got the message loud and clear on Sunday, in the form of boos that grew increasingly louder as Boller’s lack of effectiveness became more blatant. With the former Baltimore Ravens starter looking utterly befuddled through the early stages of the third quarter, Jackson pushed up Palmer’s debut, essentially acknowledging to the fans that he felt their pain.
Had Palmer led the Raiders on a stirring comeback, or even a small part of one, they would have left the Coliseum awash in the excitement of his arrival. Instead, they saw what Flowers and the Chiefs saw – a talented player thrust into the mix out of necessity, whose not-so-subtle mission is to help a good team get its groove back, and quickly.
Not surprisingly, Palmer forced the issue, especially on the ball that Flowers devoured.
“I was hoping he wouldn’t pump-fake,” Flowers said, describing his decision to jump Moore’s route. “I figured he wouldn’t. It’s Carson Palmer. He’s a playmaker. He’s going to try to make a play.”
Flowers made one this time, further contributing to an onslaught that only put more pressure on the would-be savior in silver and black.
For as the Raiders realize all too clearly after Sunday, they can’t shine if he doesn’t shine.
Wait, those were the Texans laying waste to their sole competition for AFC South supremacy in Nashville on Sunday? Yep, the franchise that can’t get over the hump, the team that almost never wins a big game on the road, absolutely tore up the Titans 41-7 to take a half-game lead in football’s most dubious division. Houston’s psychological edge, however, is huge. The Texans dominated Tennessee physically and administered a comprehensive beat down that will be hard for the Titans to get out of their minds. It was the biggest margin of victory in the franchise’s 10-year history and, Texans fans hope, the strongest indication yet that this organization is finally poised to reach the postseason. … With five catches for 62 yards in the Falcons’ 23-16 road victory over the Lions, Tony Gonzalez(notes) moved into second place on the NFL’s all-time receptions list with 1,104. Think about that for a moment: Gonzalez is a tight end, yet only one wideout (Jerry Rice) has caught more balls; he’s a freakish athlete who has managed to remain a force at 35 because he takes care of his body, has a tremendous work ethic and is extremely curious about his craft. Oh, and he’s maniacally competitive. Hmmm, who does that sound like? The guy who has 1,549 career receptions, perhaps? … We’ve seen some incredible stories of redemptive excellence on the football field in this era, from Ray Lewis(notes) at the start of the century to Michael Vick(notes) last season. Plaxico Burress’(notes) performance for the Jets in Sunday’s come-from-behind, 27-21 victory over the Chargers doesn’t quite rise to the level of those two stars, but it was still pretty cool. We’ll have to keep waiting to see if Burress becomes a less-reckless citizen in the wake of his conviction on a gun charge and the nearly two years he spent in prison because of it. From a football perspective, however, the Super Bowl XLII hero is clearly back after his three-touchdown effort on Sunday. And if you weren’t at least a little moved by the sight of Burress celebrating the scores by presenting each of those three footballs to his wife, Tiffany, and their two young children, you might be a cynical grouch. … Finally, though the UFL seems headed for extinction after three years and most of us haven’t been paying attention, let the record show that Marty Schottenheimer did win the Big One on Saturday night in Virginia Beach. The Schottenheimer-coached Virginia Destroyers defeated the Jim Fassel-coached, two-time defending champion Las Vegas Locomotives 17-3 to capture the UFL’s likely final championship. Yeah, Marty Ball got it done. And quite frankly, I know Schottenheimer was pretty fired up about the Jets’ victory over the Chargers, too.
TWO THINGS I CAN’T COMPREHEND
1. The dude in the O.co Coliseum parking lot holding a Negra Modelo bottle in his right hand and a Schlitz malt liquor can in his left – and rocking baggy jeans and a white JaMarcus Russell(notes) jersey. He wasn’t the only one displaying his No. 2 with pride, by the way – but he was definitely my favorite. What kind of statement is that guy making? Is he being ironic? Is he simply trying to get as much wear as he can out of an expensive replica jersey? Or perhaps he’s saying to his fellow members of Raider Nation, “Yo, I’m still with JaMarcus. If we’d given the kid a chance, he’d have been a great one.” I don’t know the answer. But whatever it is, it’s awesome.
2. That Dolphins coach Tony Sparano went for a two-point conversion with a 12-0 lead over the Broncos and 14:54 remaining – and called the dreaded fade to Brandon Marshall(notes). I’ve ripped the fade pattern before, and I’ll rip it again – it’s a nice call once in awhile under optimal circumstances (like, when you have Larry Fitzgerald(notes) matched up against a short, inexperienced cornerback), but coaches overuse it and quarterbacks repeatedly struggle to put the ball in the tight window that allows the play to work. I don’t know the actual percentages, but I swear it’s not successful nearly enough to justify the frequency with which it is called. Anyway, it didn’t work in this particular instance, and that left Miami with a 12-0 lead, instead of 13-0. Dan Carpenter’s(notes) field goal later made it 15-0, before Tebow underwent his surreal transformation and engineered two touchdown drives in the final three minutes. Because of Sparano’s earlier decision – which happened either because he over-thought it, or because that stupid chart that coaches stick in their spandex pants told him to – Tebow only had to convert one two-point conversion, rather than two, to force overtime. Speaking of which: When Tebow ran the ball into the end zone on the game-tying conversion, didn’t it seem like the 11 Dolphins defenders were the only ones who didn’t expect that call? If Sparano is trying to get fired before the end of the season, he’s doing a fine job. Given that owner Stephen Ross had the wandering eye after last season and Miami is 0-6, we know where this is going. The sight of Ross standing on the sidelines toward game’s end with former Florida coach Urban Meyer probably got some Dolphins fans fired up about the possibility of a midseason switch, but it’s quite possible the owner – who, by the way, is cruising for a bruising upon the resumption of my annual owner rankings next spring – will ride this out to the bitter end of the 2011 campaign. After all, if the organizational goal is to “Suck for Luck,” Sparano seems to the perfect coach.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Football at its highest level is a brutal game, and laying violent hits on opponents is an accepted and encouraged practice. As a means of motivation, players often demonize the opponent and convince themselves that every collision is a referendum on their livelihoods and self-respect. And yet – ultimately, the NFL is a fraternity, and the men who play the game consider themselves brothers in armor who don’t truly wish harm on one another. In the rare cases when they do, they are trained to fake it. Except, apparently, for Lions defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh(notes) and Cliff Avril(notes), who according to a pair of Falcons (wideout Roddy White(notes) and center Todd McClure(notes)) taunted Ryan when he went down with an apparently serious left knee injury with 10:13 left in the third quarter of Sunday’s game at Ford Field. The two Falcons told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jeff Schultz that the Lions players were yelling, “Get the cart” in a mocking manner; White said that Avril was kicking Ryan’s feet, saying, “Get him off the field.” Later, both McClure and White confirmed this to me via text message, with McClure calling the Lions players’ actions “unprofessional and uncalled for” and White saying, “Yeah, I lost a lot of respect for them.” Maybe Suh and Avril thought they were intimidating the Falcons; some might argue they were riling the football gods. If you believe in karma, you are cringing as you read this. And though I am an unabashed Jim Schwartz fan, I believe this behavior speaks to the team’s immaturity – or, to be more specific, its relative inexperience in dealing with life among perceived playoff contenders.
Flash back to the previous week’s defeat to the 49ers, Detroit’s first setback after a 5-0 start. What message did the postgame drama that ensued between Schwartz and Niners coach Jim Harbaugh send to the Lions’ players about the significance of that disappointment? I picked the Falcons to win this game, partly because I felt Atlanta was finally getting its mojo back, and also because I wondered how Detroit would handle the aftermath of the defeat. On Sunday evening White, via text, somewhat confirmed my suspicions: “You’re right, they’re young. A lot of energy. They will get after you but they’re not ready for the big stage yet. They think they’re better than they really are.” I suspect that the Lions will bounce back from Sunday’s defeat and mature on the fly. Schwartz is an excellent coach, and there are a lot of good, intelligent players on Detroit’s roster. However, reveling in the apparent physical demise of a rival is a bad way to behave, for a lot of reasons. Oh, and about that karma thing: While Ryan turned out to be fine, missing only two plays before returning, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) – who was felled by severe shoulder injuries in each of his first two seasons – will reportedly undergo an MRI to his right leg after getting hurt late in Sunday’s game. Ouch.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
“Hoping it was us!”
– Text Sunday evening from Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes), after I asked him if Sunday’s lopsided outcome was based on Tennessee playing horribly or the Texans being that good.
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