So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise. In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 1, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
5 things I care about:
Kellen Moore’s effect on the Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have deservedly taken a beating for their boring, stale, and dated offensive approach the last few seasons. What we saw in Week 1 looked like anything but those negative descriptors.
Dallas threw 32 passes to 26 carries doled out to the running backs. That’s a philosophy shift right there. Yet, it was how they attacked the Giants defense that was more noticeable. We saw the Cowboys mix in vertical shots, rhythm throws, heavy play-action usage and pre-snap motion to wrinkle up their offense. Such things were rarities, if not completely missing from their prior seasons’ gameplans.
The result was a 35-point romping of their division rival, one that saw Dak Prescott more alive and comfortable than perhaps ever before. Prescott was often thrown under the bus by NFL observers without given the clear caveat that he played with one hand tied behind his back under a coordinator stuck in the early 2000s. Sunday offered something different.
It was also quite apparent just how much of a personnel upgrade came along with this shift into the modern NFL. Michael Gallup caught all seven of his targets for 158 yards as the X-receiver alongside Amari Cooper. He looks ready to be the difference-maker he appeared to be as a prospect. Even veterans Randall Cobb in the slot and Jason Witten at tight end made plays with the benefit of schemed open windows.
All of this makes one thing quite clear to anyone who kept an eye on this young coach’s development over the offseason: Kellen Moore may go down as one of the key figures in the story of the 2019 NFL season.
Vikings establishing their identity
Of course, it’s easy to maintain a run-heavy game-plan when you strike down your opponent to the point it’s 28-0 going into the final 10 minutes of the fourth quarter. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the obvious signal coming from Minnesota’s Week 1 win over the Falcons.
Ever since Mike Zimmer sent John DeFilippo packing in the back-half of last year for throwing the ball too much, the Vikings have been screaming exactly who they want to be. Minnesota brought in the Kubiak contingent to lord over the offense, then spent a Round 1 pick on a center and a third-rounder on a backup running back. The Vikings want to be a run-first team. It’s plain as day.
On a day where the team demolished their competition, Kirk Cousins threw just 10 passes for 98 yards. Mike Zimmer may have levitated.
Dalvin Cook won the day on 21 carries for 111 yards with a pair of scores. Rookie No. 2 back Alexander Mattison chipped in with nine rushes and took them for 49 yards. Both backs cleared five yards per carry.
The matchup and game script were perfect for this type of approach but again, this was the culmination of an offseason of evolution. It won’t be this drastic every week but this was a loud and clear message of who the Vikings want to be. Adjust accordingly.
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens eruption
Lamar Jackson’s Week 1 2019 debut was glorious for anyone who was skeptical that his NFL future was already etched in stone after some passing struggles as a rookie. He threw five touchdowns, but more importantly, was hyper-accurate on several downfield throws throughout the game.
The second-year quarterback got all of his receivers involved and made the best use of Marquise Brown. Between him, fellow rookie Miles Boykin, Willie Snead, and Mark Andrews, the Ravens have legitimate weapons in this offense. Brown being healthy to start off this season, in particular, is a game-changer. Expectations need shifting, especially if you were too low on Jackson’s potential.
Yes, all of this was against a Miami Dolphins team that is severely undermanned. Please remember, both things can be true ... for this storyline and many others in the NFL.
T.J. Hockenson emerging
Given how often the Lions told us they, like their division rival up in Minnesota, wanted to be an establish-the-run team, it was surprising to see them throw up 45 passes to 28 carries for the running backs. The matchup certainly could have sent the Lions to the air. Either way, we got a gift from the unexpected: The emergence of rookie tight end, T.J. Hockenson.
The Iowa product offered up a record-breaking performance for a player at his position. Hockenson went wild with 131 yards and a score. His nine targets tied Kenny Golladay for second on the team.
My son #TE1TJH just had the best Game 1 of any TE since AAFC-NFL merger in 1950 with 6-131-1 line vs Cardinals.
Wiping tears from my eyes. Hat tip to @_SteveFrederick for the vid of Hockenson’s #legendary debut.pic.twitter.com/ZVT0R1vlsG
— Thor Nystrom (@thorku) September 9, 2019
Hockenson’s place as a clear starter was a continuation of a drumbeat that began in training camp and crescendoed in the preseason. He will be a clear fixture in this offense going forward, rookie tight end learning curves be damned. Hockenson just gave us a possible every-week option at a fantasy position that sorely needs it.
Watching the Patriots offense
God forgive me, I can’t wait to see every second the New England Patriots offense spends on the field in 2019. New England did what they often do: Curb-stomped the Steelers defense in a primetime effort. That wasn’t new. How they did it was different.
We’re used to seeing the Patriots nickel and dime the Steelers hideous coverage scheme all the way down the field. That happened at times. Julian Edelman had his 83 yards on 11 targets. James White and Rex Burkhead both registered five catches. The new dimension was the vertical ability added by Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett. Gordon made a huge run-after-catch play for a score and caught a 44-yard bomb. Dorsett averaged 23.8 yards per grab and scored twice.
Don't worry, this unit is only adding one of the best route runners in the NFL, a do-it-all receiver with a legendary resume over the last five seasons come Monday. Have mercy on the league, please.
5 things I don’t care about:
Cam Newton’s miscues
For those who expected to see a new of a new era in Carolina Panthers offensive football (like yours truly), Sunday was a disappointing outing. Christian McCaffrey was a monster, leading the team in all receiving categories while dropping 128 yards and two scores on the ground. Cam Newton, on the other hand, was supremely disappointing.
Given that this indeed is undeniably the best offensive ecosystem Newton has ever played in, his 6.3 YPA and goose-egg in the touchdown department were back-breakers. Newton had several missed throws, several in big situations. It was troubling, but not enough to hit the panic button.
Newton attributed his slow day to rust. That’s believable considering he didn’t throw full-bore in camp and then spent time away from practice after a preseason foot scare. His poor outing also had just as much to do with a Rams stop unit that came to play. We forget because Los Angeles’ defense was often a sieve last year but not only do they have a fully healthy set of talented players, they’re operated by one of the best defensive minds of our time. Wade Phillips dialed up several stunts, especially a few with Dante Fowler that completely flummoxed the Panthers.
Cam Newton and this revamped Panthers offense had a mediocre day at the office. It shouldn’t be enough to deter you from the optimism you may have had for these players heading into the season.
Jamison Crowder’s 14 catches
Nothing in fantasy football interests me less than a low volume slot receiver with little touchdown equity and empty reception production. Operating on an offense outside the elite tier only further cements my apathy.
Jamison Crowder might be this year’s poster boy. Nothing about his 14 catches at 7.1 yards per grab clip captures my gaze. Crowder set a new standard for hollow production, as he became the first receiver in NFL history to have 14-plus catches and not earn 100 yards.
Functional offenses don’t run through these type of players. Adam Gase should know that by now based on his Miami days with Jarvis Landry. He had to learn the lesson again after his offense failed to pile up enough points to keep the Bills at bay. If the Jets are going to be a serious scoring unit, they’ll need more dimensions beyond Crowder’s bunny-hop catches. Fade.
Tyler Lockett going full 2018
The Twitterverse was ablaze with concern over Tyler Lockett’s ghosting act through most of Week 1. When the tweets hit a fever pitch, Lockett dropped a 44-yard touchdown score on his first of just two targets on the day.
Unsustainably making big plays on limited volume sounds familiar to anyone who tracked Lockett’s 2018 season. It was not the expectation heading into this season.
Sometimes, “things” happen in our beautiful game of football can be the correct answer. That’s probably the case for Lockett’s output in Week 1. He remains the player in this pass-catcher group with the longest resume and continues to show us with each precious chance that he’s a good player. D.K. Metcalf enjoyed a strong debut but there is room enough for both players here.
It’s hard to say that we learned anything new in our effort to predict how Todd Gurley will be used on a week-to-week basis. He was pulled in scoring position for Malcolm Brown but was deployed as the closer while they iced the win over Carolina. He did play 70 percent of the snaps but split the touches.
One thing is apparent after Week 1; Darrell Henderson doesn’t have a role in this offense. Malcolm Brown registered double-digit touches and plunged in a pair of scores inside the 10-yard line. It’s clear he has the coaching staff’s trust, which is why they moved to retain him when the Lions came calling. Henderson saw one carry and took it absolutely nowhere.
Henderson now has no standalone fantasy value — for the time being at least. That makes him a pure stash to reap rewards only in the event of a Gurley injury. Even then, he’d find himself logged in a committee with Brown. That sounds like a player who should be on waiver wires in shallow leagues.
Efforts to write off the Steelers poor night
No, I don’t care that the Patriots almost always manhandle the Steelers. Attempts to dismiss Pittsburgh's offensive slog on Sunday night simply because of their opponent is foolish.
Not much noise ramped up in the offseason that would suggest anyone was predicting a fall-off-the-cliff scenario for the Steelers offense. I don’t believe what we saw on Sunday Night Football was the beginning of that. Given who quarterbacks this unit and the presence of JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, that take would have been foolish.
With that being said, it would have been just as blind to not acknowledge the severe lack of playmakers on this offense behind those two young players. Donte Moncrief made some noise in mini-camp and James Washington dusted backups in the preseason, but little proven ancillary talent existed on the Steelers offense. In Week 1, neither of those receivers or anyone beyond them stepped up.
If you came into this season with even slight concern about what the removal of a Hall of Fame talent in Antonio Brown would do for this passing game, Sunday night had to scare you. At the very least, this unit needs to be on our radar going forward. It is just one night — there is no denying the minuscule sample we’re dealing with — but it was a truly troubling one. We aren’t there yet, but a redefining of expectations could be on our way if a wildly different unit doesn’t show up in Week 2 against Seattle.