Coming Soon To A Sunday Near You – Chris Thompson, FSU

Blair Miller > COMING SOON TO A SUNDAY NEAR YOU

Throughout the college season TFQ will look past the Heisman hopefuls and surefire NFL players to examine a lesser-known prospect who could later rise through the ranks and make an impact in the pros.

Chris Thompson, Senior RB, Florida State

After several years of merely average seasons, the 2012 Seminoles are evoking memories of past glory in Tallahassee.  Entering this weekend FSU is ranked 4th in the country and lighting up scoreboards in a way not seen since back in the heyday of the mid-1990s when the football program was one of the best, led by Heisman-winning QB Charlie Ward (who went on to an NBA career), LB Derrick Brooks (later an All-Pro with Tampa Bay in the NFL) and RB Warrick Dunn (also of NFL fame).  Florida State is 4-0 to start the season – 2-0 in the ACC – averaging 56.2 points per game and the running game is largely responsible for this success.  In just four games the ’Noles have equaled last season’s total of 20 TDs on the ground and put up 281 yards/game.  QB EJ Manuel has 7.8 yards per carry.  Sophomore RB James Wilder Jr. has 7.0.   Hell, even third-string back Devonta Freeman is averaging 6.4.  It’s like this program thinks it’s Georgia Tech all of a sudden.

But the brightest star among this constellation of productive runners is tailback Chris Thompson.  At 5”8”, 187 lbs., the diminutive senior is drawing comparisons to Dunn.  In fact, Thompson has a great chance to be FSU’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Dunn did it 3 years in a row, from 1994-96.  As a sophomore, Thompson won the Chick-Fil-A Bowl offensive MVP in 2010 and was penciled in as the first-string back in 2011.  Then he broke a vertebra in his back on the first carry of the fifth game last year, against Wake Forest.  Amazingly enough, Thompson was back to full strength to start the ’12 campaign.

The FSU coaching staff has been easing Thompson into duty early this season – partly because of concern for his injury, partly because they have a deep backfield, and partly because they weren’t in any close games against solid defenses until last week against Clemson.  But the results thus far have been staggering.  If Thompson had any demons in his memory from his injury against the Demon Deacons last year, he exorcised them with a 197-yard outing on 9 carries against Wake two weeks ago.  Then, last week he carried 15 times for 103 yards  (6.9 AVG) against the Tigers.  To date this season, Thompson has:

33 ATT, 357 YDS, 10.9 AVG, 5 TD

11 REC, 121 YDS, 11.0 AVG, 0 TD

The rushing numbers are impressive, to say the least.  Perhaps just as impressive though, are the 11 receptions in such a run-heavy offense – and that he’s averaging 11 yards on what are likely short passes.  But consider both lines combined and note that through 4 games Thompson is averaging first-down yardage every time he touches the ball.  Wow.

So, what might pro scouts think?  First there is the concern for Thompson’s back, which seem to be an issue for him yet.  In fact, front offices often regard impressive rehabilitation efforts as a plus that can, in a sense, cancel out the injury concern.  And, if Thompson keeps up his production, they might overlook it anyway.  (Witness when the Bills took former Hurricane RB Willis McGahee in the first round round in 2003 despite gruesome knee injury in one of the best title games in college history – Ohio State won vs. Miami in double overtime, 31-24  – fully expecting McGahee to miss his entire rookie season.)

Next, there is the size concern.  That’s not really a concern anymore.  Players like Dunn have helped override the traditional stigma against smallish backs, and Thompson hasn’t been shying away from contact at all this season by often taking on linebackers.  Furthermore, one needs to look no further than C.J. Spiller or Dexter McCluster to understand that undersized backs are seen in a new light – one that values them as jacks-of-all-trades who can produce in both the passing and rushing game.  A player needs speed for that, and Thompson’s fastest known 40-yard dash time is a blazing 4.32.  And he’s showing the footwork in crowded spaces to match.

In other words, Thompson’s skill set should transfer to the NFL.  He’s only starting to show up on the draft radar this month, but don’t be surprised if he’s showing up on Sundays soon.

UPDATE (Oct. 22, 2012): MRI results revealed that Thompson tore the ACL in his left knee Saturday vs. Miami

WHAT I SAW, Wk 3 2012

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW IN WEEK 3, 2012

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

This is What I Saw from the past week’s action.

( A list of TFQ’s PROPS from this column will be posted monthly.)

Away from the game(s)

I SAW the summer breeze leave North America on Saturday and usher in a smelly autumn Brees.  The plight of the Saints quarterback and his winless team is but one of the many examples of the zany and wild ongoing transitory state that is the NFL.  Nothing is the same, except for the fact that last year was like this too.

Sunday’s action brought fans the first crazy four o’clock close-game madness of the year with three games going into overtime and several others ending with close margins.  The first slate of games started off with an unconventional big play (See: Cincinnati wins @ Washington, 38-31) and ended with the most exciting four quarters in recent memory.  (See: Tennessee wins vs. Detroit, 44-41(OT))

Beyond Sunday afternoon’s heart palpitations, even the overall landscape of the league is typically wacky.  The Texans are arguably the best team in the league with their first ever 3-0 start.  Houston is joined by the purposeful Falcons and the upstart (not flukey) Cardinals as the only unbeaten teams left.  New England and its suddenly handsy head coach trail both the Jets and Bills in the AFC East.  (Speaking of transitory, is N.Y. head coach Rex Ryan losing weight every game?)  The Vikings lead the NFC North.  Breathe…Yes, the Vikings lead their division, and the Lions and Packers sit in the basement of the same foursome, at 1-2 and nursing the confidence of star QBs Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers (not to mention Stafford’s leg – see: Tennessee wins vs. Detroit, 44-41(OT)).  There’s some familiarity in the NFC East, with a close-fought 3-way tie for the division lead, but all three teams – the Eagles, Giants and Cowboys – are doing it in different ways than fans are used to seeing.

The best part: 27 teams are one game away from a .500 record so all of this could change very quickly…

But be warned, Saints and Browns: The last team to make the playoffs after an 0-3 start was 14 years ago.  (The 1998 Bills were led by QB Doug Flutie and one of the best receivers ever at snagging balls on underthrown fade patterns – Eric Moulds.)

I SAW – and I wish I hadn’t – the scab referees get noticeably worse in week 3 than they were in week 2.  They’ve now reached the stage of nervous overreaction by making more bad calls while still missing important others.  And all the while the players and coaches crank up the pressure on the zebras.  Former Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick made a good point on NFL Network’s Total Access about the constant berating the scabs receive during games: All the yelling and bullying might accomplish is putting the scab officials in a state of stress that could actually lead said replacements to make bad calls that hurt those same coaches and players.  In other words: It’s one big shit sandwich and we’re all taking a bite.

There were just too many scab mistakes this week to cover all of them in this column.  Many of the worst calls – or non-calls – will be touched upon below in their respective games.  There are two glaring instances that are particularly concerning because they are so easily avoidable – and they implicate the booth officials who are not scabs.

Example 1: Minnesota wins vs. San Francisco, 24-13.  Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh was given two extra challenges he shouldn’t have had.  Late in the game, Harbaugh burned his last timeout and during it he asked scab ref Ken Roan to challenge a potential fumble by the Vikings.  Presto!  Roan conjured up a challenge for San Fran despite the fact that a coach cannot challenge a play without any timeouts. Moments later Harbaugh somehow challenged another play.  Ridiculous.  During any replay challenge the referee must confer with the booth officials.  How did the guys upstairs miss this while fans in couches and bars all over the continent knew it was a mistake?   

Example 2: Tennessee wins vs. Detroit, 44-41(OT).  This blunder came in overtime – no big deal or anything.  Titans TE Craig Stevens made what was initially called a completion and was then the victim of a personal foul penalty from Lions LB Stephen Tulloch.  As with any questionable play during OT the call was reviewed, and subsequently reversed – incomplete pass.  But the 15-yard flag still had to be marked off.  The problem: instead of enforcing the 15 yards from the Titan’s own 44-yard line where the original line of scrimmage was, the scabs did so from the Lions’ 44-yard line.  That’s twelve free yards!  The Titans would later score the winning TD on that drive.

Again – the on-field officials had to confer with the booth during the review, and in almost any case I can remember, there is noticeable delay while the refs take time with the people upstairs to determine the spot of the ball.  How was this missed?  It’s unforgiveable.  (It’s also the last time I complain when the regular officials come back and they take “too long” to accurately spot the ball after a booth review.)

One has to wonder if the people in the booth are bumbling calls to make a better case for the locked-out officials.  I’m not saying that’s what’s happening and thus trying to cook up a conspiracy theory.  It’s just that these recent mistakes are true head-scratchers with no sensible explanation.

Nonetheless, the intractable insufficiency of the scab refs became impossible to deny when ESPN’s Human Handjob, commentator Mike Tirico followed his appraisal of last week’s officiating during Monday night’s game as “embarrassing” by stating during this week’s Packers-Seahawks debacle that the scab refs are “making it hard to watch, every single game” and wondered aloud when the NFL owners are going to step in to help force a settlement between the league and the locked-out refs.  (And Tirico’s comments came minutes before the already-infamous final play on MNF.  See: Seattle wins vs. Green bay, 14-12).

The scabs are in tough spot – patsy-esque, even.  They are just not qualified to deal with the NFL stage.   I’ve heard NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci and some others offer the same hackneyed defense of the scabs, saying that they “are doing the best job they can do.”  It’s true.  And that’s exactly why the league needs to give ground and end this work stoppage: Because doing a shitty job is clearly the best the scabs refs can do.

I SAW a need, before a look at the games, to be more positive.  Bored of your conventional tailgating sexual innuendos?  Fear not – the folks at Neal Brothers Foods have come to your rescue:

Image

Mmmmm.  Organic Rods.  So good.

TNF-New York Giants(2-1) win @ Carolina(1-2), 36-7

I SAW the Giants put up 405 yards on offense against the Panthers Sunday after racking up 604 in a tough shootout win last week against the Bucs.  (It was the second-highest output in franchise history, to 609 against the NY Yankees in 1950.)  In a way, the 405 this week is more impressive because it was done without WR Hakeem Nicks and RB Ahmad Bradshaw.  The standout performances by Manimal wideout Ramses Barden (6’6”, 225 lbs. and promoted by head coach Tom Coughlin and TFQ in our NFC East preview) and the eight-times-cut RB Andre Brown in supporting roles off the bench made the difference on offense and serve as further examples of how well-structured New York’s depth chart is.  Barden and Brown combined for 268 yards rushing and receiving in a game that never was a game.

I SAW the Panthers take a serious step backwards in their plan for division ascension by getting blown out by the G-Men.  The worst parts of this loss were the two worst things that could have happened for Carolina (apart from injury).

First, both offensive and defensive lines were exposed as very weak.  As noted in What I Saw, Week 1, the Panthers’ O-line continually got blown back at the line of scrimmage and on Thursday night it was more of the same – with the D-line following suit.

Second, Carolina QB Cam Newton seemed palpably mindfucked by being taken out to the woodshed by Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul & Co.  (You down with JPP?  The third-year rush end was all over the field.)  Newton really got his mope on after the blowout loss, to a concerning degree.  Getting caught up in the emotion of the moment and crying after mistakes is not ideal, but slamming yourself and the “product” you put out on the field once you’ve had (albeit brief) time to reflect is more concerning.  An NFL QB is defined just as much by how he handles failure as he responds to success.  In a way his response evokes some positive memories I have of the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who, after losing his first career playoff series (after winning 3 NBA titles in a row) was awkwardly emotional and admirably inconsolable during the postgame press conference, saying rash things like “I will never feel like this again.”  But Kobe has felt that way again – more than once – and he’s somehow learned not to let it consume him.  Newton should draw from that.  He has too much pressure and hits being put on him to be administering them to himself too.  Let’s hope that the young wunderkind QB doesn’t overextend himself and/or burn out while trying to make up for his performances in losses.  It would be sad to see him become another over-emotional Mike Vick type.

I SAW, elaborating on the point made above, Carolina has to beef up the talent on its two lines – especially the defensive line.  The Giants have been scrambling to cobble up an O-line unit in front of QB Eli Manning, but the Super Bowl MVP still had time for tea in the pocket throughout the game.

I SAW Giants S Antrel Rolle hurt his knee in the fourth quarter by banging it on an end zone camera while defending Panthers TE Greg Olsen.  According to ESPN on Tuesday, Rolle’s knee is “feeling better.”  Let’s hope so, for New York’s sake.  The eighth-year DB was their leading tackler last season and is the do-it-all glue guy that holds an already-depleted defensive backfield together.

Tennessee(1-2) wins vs. Detroit(1-2), 44-41(OT)

I SAW the most exciting regular season game I’ve seen since a Bills-Niners puntless masterpiece in 1992 that Buffalo won, 34-31….

To pause in nostalgia, what a game for the ages that ’92 classic was!  (I remember being lucky enough to see it because I was at my uncle’s house in another TV area that covered the game; I would not have seen it at home back in the archaic pre-Sunday ticket days.)  The best WR ever, Jerry Rice, left the game for San Fran in the first quarter and madness ensued.  Bills Hall Of Fame QB Jim Kelly led Buffalo’s famed K-Gun offense up and down the field, and his counterpart, fellow Hall Of Famer 49ers Steve Young, did the same.  It felt like there was a 20+yard play every few snaps, and wild turnovers and special teams plays only added to the delightful mayhem.  1,086 total yards on offensive and 51 first downs later, the game that I didn’t want to end ended.

For a synopsis of that historic gem, check out: 

http://fs64sports.blogspot.ca/2012/09/1992-bills-defeat-49ers-in-game-of-big.html

That was how this Lions-Titans game felt, all 1,020 combined yards of it.  Niners-Bills was replete with star players on both sides of the ball, but Sunday’s game arguably tops the ’92 showdown because of a 46-point fourth quarter that had it all, including one of the best catches in recent years, a Hail Mary tip catch by Detroit WR Titus Young to force overtime – and a crazy ending to that extra session….

I SAW the Lions commit the biggest head-scratcher of the season so far that hasn’t been provided by the scab refs.  The moment occurred in OT.  Under the new overtime rules, if the team that receives the kickoff scores a field goal – which Tennessee did in this case – their opponent gets a chance to try and tie or win the game with a drive of their own.  Detroit made it inside Tennessee’s 10-yard line and was faced with 4th-and-inches when they ran the ball and were stuffed by the Titans’ D for the loss.

Confusion and incredulity ensued.  Why not take the chip-shot kick to at least continue the game instead of risking a loss?  According to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz offered an explanation for the seemingly inexplicable:  “Miscommunication…  We were trying to draw them offsides, not go for it.”

Whoops.  It’s hard to understand how such a plan couldn’t be communicated to the quarterback on the field.  But then again, Detroit didn’t have their usual starter out there…

I SAW, despite allowing the oopsie-doodle fourth down run to lose the game in OT, Lions backup QB Shaun Hill remind people why he’s the best second-stringer in the NFL.

Yes, one could argue that the Titans’ own Matt Hasselbeck is a more able QB but he’s more suited to the nuances of a starting job, not relief appearances.  And one of the most memorable relief appearances in history is what Hill stepped in and put up against Tennessee Sunday.  When starter Matt Stafford added to his early-season frustration by tweaking his hamstring while chasing after CB Alterraun Verner on a fumble-return TD (see below), in came Hill.  The two-minute warning had already come and gone but that didn’t stop the backup pivot from airing it up for an eye-popping 172 yards before all was said and done.  It’s not the first time Hill has pulled his team’s ass out of the fire (well, almost), but it’s arguably the most impressive one.

I SAW the winner of this week’s Thief In The Night Award:

Alterraun Verner, CB, Titans

In the closing minutes of the game the Lions had driven into Titans territory while trailing by seven points.  Backup QB Shaun Hill connected with Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew, who hit Verner head-on and landed on his ass.  To add insult to injury, Pettigrew didn’t have the ball when he hit the turf.  Along with schooling the Detroit tight end at contact, Verner stripped the ball from Pettigrew and took it 72 yards to the house.  NFL Network’s Deion Sanders said it best after the highlight played on Gameday: “How can you let a man take your ball?”

Yes, the Lions continued an improbable comeback to force OT.  But let it be known that for one crucial moment passage through the Alterraun System was harder to pull off than a simple cruise on hyperdrive in the Millennium Falcon.

I SAW PROPS to Titans WR Nate Washington for making one of the best catches in recent memory in the fourth quarter.  With the game tied at 27 inside of 4 minutes in regulation Tennessee QB Jake Locker underthrew Washington on a seam pattern.  Poor Lions CB Jacob Lacey was running step for step with the Titans wideout but never turned around to see the ball, which was heading straight for his lower back.  At top speed, Washington jumped and reached over Lacey’s shoulders, plucked the ball out of the air and took off for a 71-yard TD upon landing.

Washington displayed great hops in elevating high enough at a sprint to turn around and seemingly pull the pigskin out of Lacey’s ass while still being able to get his arms up and over Lacey on the way down so that the ball didn’t get jarred loose before landing.  What a beautiful catch.

One of the lesser-appreciated moments of the play is Lions WR Calvin Johnson on the Detroit sideline in the background, throwing a towel to the ground and stomping his foot in frustration as Washington runs down the field after the grab.  It was a telling moment because while the Lions’ offense is sputtering, they sure aren’t getting any help…

I SAW that the Titans become the first team in NFL history to put up up 5 TD plays of 60+ yards in a game after struggling through weeks 1 and 2.

Kudos to Tennessee, but even though two of the Titan scoring plays were on kick returns the game says measures about how much of a problem Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has on his hands with his defense.  The Lions’ D doesn’t have the push at the point of attack that they have had the last two years and that exposes the flaws at the other two levels (LBs, DBs), which had been hidden until this point…

Paging Ndamukong Suh…Ndamukong Suh, your team is desperately waiting in week four….Ndamukong Suh, please report to week four…

I SAW PROPS to Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry and his new not-so-secret weapon, RB Darius Reynaud, for an unforgettable special teams performance Sunday against the Lions.  Lowry was the special teams coach at Tennessee in 2000 when he was the architect of the famous Music City Miracle, during which TE Frank Wycheck drew the coverage on a kickoff and threw a long lateral pass across the field to an overlooked WR Kevin Dyson who then took it 75 yards for the winning TD in a wild card playoff game against the Bills.

On Sunday against the Lions it was future shock, deja-vu all over again, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  It was an idea so crazy it just might work – and it did.  Lowry called the play again – this time on a punt return near the end of the first quarter.  Reynaud – a fourth-string tailback – threw the ball for the first time in his organized football career and found Tommie Campbell on the right side of the field just like Wycheck had found Dyson twelve years ago (but in reverse).  It worked like a charm this time too, for a 65-yard TD and the first of many wild touchdowns in the game.

Unbelievable.

But Reynaud wasn’t done.  In the fourth quarter he returned a kick 105 yards for a game-tying TD.  It’s safe to say he’ll never have another day like Sunday.

I SAW Titans QB Jake Locker’s potential coming-out party.  He had 378 yards, a 113 rating and no interceptions in a game that was a conduit for big plays.

In his first 300-yard game as a pro the second-year pivot showed some of the athleticism that led Tennessee to take him in the first round out of University of Washington.  In the first half he took off on a scramble up the middle.  Lions LB Stephen Tulloch had an angle on Locker, but the quarterback shifted into another gear and left the LB grabbing at air.

By the way, the 31-yard run was the Titans’ longest rushing play of the year…

I SAW Titans RB Chris Johnson continue to suck.  CJDeuceK keeps on providing steamy stool samples with his play.  On 33 rushing attempts in ’12, he has 45 yards – a corn-filled 1.4 average per carry.  Johnson was critical of the offense around him last week, but there was no excuse for his poor production in this game.  At times the line looked weak, but Johnson’s effort looks lacking.  His cuts and field vision just aren’t vigorous.

I SAW…  Just look at this game!  Two PROPS and another TFQ weekly award… What a game.  If you missed it, check it on NFL Replay.  But they don’t have enough time to include all the great plays from this one for the ages.

Kansas City(1-2) wins @ New Orleans(0-3), 27-24(OT)

I SAW the Saints match their loss total (3) from 2011 in as few games as possible.  What’s more, ’Nawlins was 9-0 at home in 2011 and they’re 0-2 there to start this season.

Not much is going right for this team.  It’s early, but QB Drew Brees’ completion percentage (54.7) is his lowest compared to any full season he’s had and his YPA is 6.6 – his lowest as a Saint.  The offensive line is getting beaten up and down the field.  And the defense… Oh, the defense.  On Sunday the latest get-well beneficiary was Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles who was back to Charles In Charge after a tough knee injury last year – in a big way.  Charles looked Nicole Eggert-hot en route to 233 yards rushing and 55 yards receiving…

I SAW Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles start his team’s comeback from being down 18 points late in the third quarter with a 91-yard run on which he was barely touched.  (A Saints defender dove to get a hand on Charles’ knee near the line of scrimmage, but that was it.)  An equivocal play: Great to see Charles back up to speed – literally – and embarrassing for New Orleans’ defense.  As NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk pointed out on Gameday, going 91 yards untouched on a run to the outside is almost unheard of.

I SAW that the Chiefs coaching staff can take a break from worrying about how to get RB/WR Dexter McCluster involved in the offense after the third-year pro’s arm bent backwards in a gruesome McClusterfuck of an injury.   When he planted his left hand on the turf to regain his balance, McCluster did his best impersonation of a nameless bad guy in a Steven Segal movie when his elbow turned into a painful reverse-hinge.  That sort of injury can take a long time to recover from.

I SAW this game had more scab referee calls reversed upon review (5) than touchdowns (4).  Just sayin’.

Minnesota(2-1) wins vs. San Francisco(2-1), 24-13

I SAW Niners QB Alex Smith do as his team did and come down to earth a bit.  His franchise-record streak of 249 straight pass attempts without an interception came to an end at a crucial point in the fourth quarter when Vikings rookie CB Josh Robinson picked him off, and CB Donte Whitner dropped another one minutes earlier.  However, in the Bizarro game of the week, Minnesota’s QB did just fine…

I SAW genuine need to ponder just how good Vikings QB Christian Ponder is at this point.  Through week 3 the Florida State alum is bucking the perceived trend of sophomore slumps for NFL quarterbacks.  He’s fifth in the NFL with a 104.9 passer rating and second with a 70.1 completion percentage.  And he just played a great game against the best all-around defense in the league.

Ponder represents a good example of the shift in the pro passing game that is happening across the land: You don’t have to have a great arm, you just have to have a good arm and solid decision-making skills.  (Being mobile doesn’t hurt either, but it isn’t mandatory.)  While a lot of Ponder’s numbers look surprisingly good, they don’t tell the whole story.  For instance, consider that the new style of offense sweeping through NFL playbooks is what can be considered the West Coast offense on steroids – even more receivers running even more short routes across the field and/or into the flats in order to stretch the defense and isolate quadrants of the field within which defenders get outnumbered and must make a decision about whom to cover and who to leave open.  As such, leading an offense down the field often involves making the right reads, having patience against the pass rush and making use of one’s speedy decision-making capabilities in order to see which receivers are lost in the shuffle and get them the ball.  Often the task of making a high amount of completions involves passes no longer than 7 yards and letting the receivers gain the rest of the yardage.  That’s why Ponder’s 7.4 yards per pass attempt (T-11th in the NFL) gives the impression that Minnesota isn’t relying on a dink-and-dunk style when, in actuality, they could be – and are.

This gives a glimpse into how QBs like Ponder are tough to appraise because running an offense the way he has been can actually have more in common with a game manager (just make the easy throws and take care of the football) than a wunderkind pivot who is optimizing his physical talents.  In other words, Ponder is playing well.  But he’s also merely playing within a conservative-minded passing system.  Yes, the passing game has become conservative.  That’s the point.  Is Ponder really an impressive QB?  Or is the contemporary passing game becoming the great leveler?  The debate will go on for some time.

I SAW Niners WR Randy Moss play his first game in the Metrodome as a visitor.  In homage to his time there, Moss gave up on a few catchable balls.  Clap…clap…clap.

I SAW…I can’t help it.  I will never be able to take Vikings owner Ziggy Wilf seriously because I keep waiting for him to act out a scene from the classic film Duck Soup.  Wilf’s a dead ringer for Groucho Marx.

I SAW what the 49ers can tell you: reality’s a bitch.  You just can’t be the hardest hitting team every week.  This week San Fran was not that team, and they have a loss to show for it.

The defense allowed 146 yds rushing – the most against San Fran since week 11 of the 2010 season.  Okay, that was mostly against RB Adrian Peterson.  And maybe Vikings QB Christian Ponder is turning into the latest incarnation of the successful “Plug QB.” (Translation: Give a studious quarterback a safe, read-heavy contemporary short passing game to run and watch the numbers come.  See above.)  But one gets the impression he wouldn’t look so good against the defending NFC finalists in a rematch…

What was particularly striking was how San Francisco gave up the game during crucial moments in the fourth quarter.  RB Frank Gore fumbled the ball on the team’s first play of the 4th, QB Alex Smith was picked off in Vikings territory in the closing minutes (see above) and Minnesota All-Pro DE Jared Allen recorded his first sack of the season one series later while forcing Smith to fumble the ball away as part of three SF turnovers in the contest.

But hey – shit happens.  You can’t win them all (usually).  But this loss to Minny could come back to beat San Fran.  The Niners have so many tough games left within their division that they didn’t have last year so any loss has more significance than they did in ’11.  For what it’s worth, SF isn’t even leading the division right now…

Arizona(3-0) wins vs. Philadelphia(2-1), 27-6

I SAW that the Cardinals lead the NFC West, going 3-0 for the first time since 1974 – when they were still the St. Louis Cardinals.  As mentioned above at the outset of this column, Arizona is better thought of as an upstart team, not a fluke.  After all, ’Zona is 10-2 since week 9 of 2011 and no other team has a better record over that span.

I SAW Cardinals QB Kevin Kolb get some sweet revenge against his old team, the Eagles.  But he’s going to need to stay consistent to keep his starting job once John Skelton is healthy.

I SAW the Cardinals defense conjure up memories of head coach Ken Wisenhunt’s former team – the Steelers when their defense was ruling the league.  In the second quarter on Sunday ’Cards S Kerry Rhodes forced Eagles QB Michael Vick to fumble inside the Arizona red zone.  S James Sanders scooped up the ball and took it 93 yards for a score.  Once it was clear that Sanders had the ball, his defensive mates immediately looked for Eagles to block – particularly LB Daryl Washington who made the key block at the sideline to spring Sanders for the TD.

It’s the kind of innate camaraderie and heads-up play that the Steelers defense often shows when they’re healthy, the pinnacle of which came in the form of LB James Harrison’s famous INT return TD in the 43rd Super Bowl against – you guessed it, Wisenhunt and the Cardinals.

New York Jets(2-1) win @ Miami(1-2), 23-20(OT)

I SAW the first crushing injury to a star player this season happen when Jets CB Darrelle Revis went down with what appears to be a season-ending ACL tear after a non-contact injury in South Beach.  (Apparently the All-Pro is seeking a second opinion…What that will accomplish after a torn ACL diagnosis is anybody’s guess.)

The loss of Revis is so simplistically huge for New York that it doesn’t take many words to describe.  Few single defenders mean more to their team than Revis.  He is the first true shutdown corner since Deion Sanders.  Now Gang Green can’t assume half of the field is covered.  Their defense was already teetering on the edge of a blade and now it’s all eyes on third-year CB Kyle Wilson.

I SAW the Jets escape by the skin of their teeth in this game.  New York K Nick Folk missed a 33-yard field goal attempt in overtime, but Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin had called a timeout before the snap in an attempt to psyche out the kicker.  Folk made his next attempt to win it for the Jets.  Ice that, bitch.

I SAW NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin make a harsh but apt point following a highlight of the Jets’ throwing a short pass to Tim Tebow against the Dolphins, stating that the play says New York is “not serious about offense.”

I SAW, speaking of not being serious, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King had something else apt to say about Tebow after another topless appearance from the Second Coming:

“Tebow shirtless again. Come on, Tim. You’re on the verge of becoming the girl who wants to be respected for her brain dressing in next to nothing.”

No one likes a needy Messiah.  Wait…

Oakland(1-2) wins vs. Pittsburgh(1-2), 34-31

I SAW the Raiders and Steelers go back and forth until the final whistle in a game reminiscent of Oakland’s upset in this matchup several years ago.  Unfortunately the game was overshadowed by injuries…

I SAW what might have been the scariest hit on a defenseless receiver since Anquan Boldin had his jaw and sinus broken by Jets S Eric Smith in 2008.  The helmet of Steelers CB Ryan Clark collided with that of Raiders WR Darrius Heyward-Bey in the end zone at top speed.  It was one of those awful see-it-the-moment-it-happened injuries where Heyward-Bey’s body was limp as a rag doll’s before it even hit the turf.  It took many tense minutes just to get him on a stretcher and off the field.  (Good news: Heyward-Bey was released from the hospital Tuesday, and is predicted to make a full recovery.)

Clark was clearly remorseful after the play.  Of course, no flag was thrown…

I SAW another illegal play nearly cause serious injury – and again without a penalty flag.  In the third quarter, Raiders LB Philip Wheeler was pushed in the back while rushing QB Ben Roethlisberger.  Although Wheeler was pushed, he clearly extended his body and lunged at the legs of Big Ben.  It was an obvious roughing penalty.  No call.  Roethlisberger was in obvious pain, limping for a time before gathering himself like he so often does and leading his team down the field for a Mike Wallace TD grab that put the Steelers ahead 24-14.

Clearly calling a penalty on either the Roethlisberger play or the Heyward-Bey play doesn’t go back in time and prevent either hit.  (The same can be said of a no-call on Ravens S Ed Reed when he plastered Patriots WR Julian Edelman in the cranium Sunday Night.)  But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the scab refs are missing more of these calls.  These sort of safety-oriented calls are fairly new to pro players, and as such without being consistently enforced the penalties don’t do their job of increasing player safety because players will continue to fall back on old habits.

I SAW Raiders RB Darren McFadden make a man’s run to try and cut the Steelers’ lead to 3 points in the third quarter.  Run DMC absorbed a big, direct hit from two Pittsburgh defenders and kept going to the outside, lunging powerfully over the goal line with the ball.  However, upon review McFadden’s knee was down early, so the Silver & Black had to wait two more plays before scoring on a short pass to TE Richard Gordon.

The run was the kind of strong and imposing presence Oakland has been waiting to see from him on a consistent basis.  The fifth-year back ran hard all day.

I SAW Steelers DL Ziggy Hood get his leg rolled up on from behind and bent brutally out of shape.  There’s no word yet on Hood’s status, but if Pittsburgh loses him for an extended period of time it’s a very, very underrated loss for that defense.

Cincinnati(2-1) wins @ Washington(1-2), 38-31

I SAW if you took your time getting a coffee down the street or rushed out to place a last-minute Pro-Line bet you missed one of the biggest plays of the weekend.  On the first play from scrimmage in the contest, the Bengals line up in the wildcat formation, with rookie WR Mohamed Sanu lined up at QB.  After a play fake to the RB that was passable at best, Sanu aired it up for WR A.J. Green who caught the bomb for a 73yd TD and a 7-0 Cincy lead.  Washington DB DeJon Gomes looked like a gomer, frozen by the fake handoff like a deer in headlights while Green ran uncovered down the field.  How Gomes could let a wideout of Green’s stature waltz past him is anybody’s guess.  But with some thorough coaching the trick play shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise.  Sanu threw for 4 TDs at Rutgers in similar situations so this sort of play should have been something Cincy defenders were ready for.

I SAW Robert Griffin III’s NFL home debut go poorly.  Yes, RG3 did end up with a 90.4 rating and nearly pulled out a win, but for the first time this season he looked like he was pressing.  Being sacked six times surely contributed to Griffin’s stress but that may have been largely due to LT Trent Williams having left the game early with what has turned out to be a bone bruise.  Those are tricky injuries, but at least RG3’s blind side blocker isn’t lost for the season.  That would have been a tough pill to swallow after losing defenders Adam Carriker and Brian Orakpo for the year last week.

I SAW Redskins CB Josh Wilson embarrass himself by allowing Bengals WR Armon Binns to score up the sideline from 48 yards out to make it 14-7 for Cincy in the first quarter.  Wilson lazily blew his coverage on Binns and proceeded to flop pathetically at the wideout’s feet.  To be sure, players will give up on plays without explanation, but whenever I see missed tackles this season and onward, I’ll wonder if the elimination of so many padded practices during training camp and the regular season is having an effect on the quality of tackling.

I SAW seven straight home losses for the Redskins.  Notoriously uptight owner Daniel Snyder must love that.

Houston (3-0) wins @ Denver(1-2), 31-25

I SAW the Texans win their first game against a respectable opponent this season.  They looked impressive in doing so, too.  It will be easier to get a sense of what this team is capable of as the weeks go by because even though Houston gets to feast on soft division rivals for six of their games their next month and a half is no cakewalk: Titans, Jets, Packers, Ravens, bye, Bills and Bears.

I SAW serious cause for concern with regards to concussion safety in this game.  Broncos LB Joe Mays administered a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Texans QB Matt Schaub that sent Schaub and his helmet flying, tore off a part of the quarterback’s ear, and left him on the ground for a few moments.  (On Tuesday Mays was suspended for 1 game and fined $50,000 for the hit.)

The play itself was dangerous, but what happened next was not right.  Schaub stayed out of the game for just one play.  It immediately brought to mind last year when Browns QB Colt McCoy got smoked by Steelers LB James Harrison and McCoy was cleared to play with what later turned out to be a concussion.  That incident alone should have been enough to scare training staffs across all of football to be ever-vigilant and thorough with sideline concussion tests.  Apparently not.

Maybe Schaub immediately said he was fine and felt no symptoms of head trauma.  But the point of the new sideline safety requirements is to leave that diagnosis up to someone other than the player himself, and there’s just no way that the Texans’ medical staff had enough time to conduct sufficient testing.  What did they do, employ the Snickers test?

Trainer (to Schaub): Are you Batman?

            Schaub (to trainer): No.  Schaub.

            Trainer: Okay.  Get back out there, tiger!

At this point it’s worth noting that the 2012 season was supposed to mark the introduction of an increased role for on-field officials in helping to determine concussion symptoms.  Something tells me the scabs aren’t up to that added task.

Buffalo(2-1) wins @ Cleveland(0-3), 24-14

I SAW Bills RB savior C.J. Spiller (the first back to have 300 yds rushing and 100 yds passing through his team’s first 3 games since Thomas Jones did it with the Jets in 2004) leave the game in the first quarter with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder.  Similar to a collarbone injury, the timetable for return from that injury really depends on the specific case.   But even if RB Fred Jackson can’t make it back from his own injury next week, the Bills might not miss a step…

I SAW that the Bills’ offensive line is experiencing a renaissance.  Spiller came into the game leading the league in rushing, and even while missing the majority of Sunday’s contest he still ranks 3rd in the NFL in rushing with 308 yards.  The whole rushing offense has the same ranking (178 yds/gm).  Replacing Spiller against the Chiefs was as simple as plugging in the oft-disappointing former Cowboy tailback Tashard Choice and watching him rip off 91 yards on 20 carries.

Add to their ground dominance the fact that the hogs allowed their first and only sack of the season in this game, and the Bills’ O-line is riding high.   Sure, they allowed the fewest sacks of any team in 2011 (23) but they’re averaging almost 60 more rushing yards per game than last year’s rate of 120.1 – and they’re doing it with whoever is willing to try and tote the rock behind them.

Chicago(2-1) wins vs. St. Louis(1-2), 23-6

I SAW the Bears win in traditional fashion – crap offense and stifling defense – which isn’t the best news for the Chicago faithful holding out hope that QB Jay Cutler can be their first true franchise quarterback since Sid Luckman.  Cutler will be fine as long as he is protected like he was Sunday against St. Louis.  But it’s not reassuring to see WR Brandon Marshall continue to have issues hanging onto the ball.  At least this week Cutler was able to throw his way – 11 times.  But he had only 5 catches to show for it, and that has to improve.

Dallas(2-1) wins vs. Tampa Bay(1-2), 16-10

I SAW the Cowboys win their home opener thanks to a revamped and imposing defense.  But this team doesn’t quite yet have the ingredients to install a grind-it-out style.  Case in point: Dallas RB “Don Juan” DeMarco Murray’s 11-yd TD run that tied the game at 7 in the first quarter was the ’Boys’ first rushing TD in 10 games.  That has to improve.

I SAW the Buccaneers are in dire need of their offense to put up some yardage before their overachieving defense burns out.  Having QB Josh Freeman complete at least 17 passes in a game would be a great start.

Jacksonville(1-2) wins @ Indianapolis(1-2), 22-17

I SAW Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew show how good a job he did of staying in playing shape on his own while holding out.  On Sunday Pocket Hercules racked up 177 yards on 28 carries (a 6.4 average) – including a 58-yard TD run on the first play of the second half.

Holdout?  What holdout?  There’s only two other holdout cases involving star players when I can remember those guys coming back and not missing a beat: Hall Of Fame WR Jerry Rice, when he held out for 37 days in 1992, and HOF RB Emmitt Smith, when he held out in 1993 as his Cowboys went 0-2 before he signed a deal (forever asterisk-ing the ’93 champs as the first Super Bowl winners to start a season 0-2).

Forget my usual mantra, pray for MoJo.  PAY for MoJo.  Come on, Jags owner Shad Khan.

I SAW Cecil “Jorts” Shorts bail the Jaguars out of a last-minute loss to the Colts when he turned a slant pattern into an 80-yard TD with under a minute left in the game.  If Shorts keep this up, I say pants should be banned in Jacksonville.  Don’t you hate pants?

With that in mind, let’s not give much credit to Jags QB Blaine Gabbert yet.  More than half of his 155 passing yards on Sunday were on that play.

Atlanta(3-0) wins @ San Diego(2-1), 27-3

I SAW that the Falcons look good.  Real good.  On top of their impressive start out of the gates this season, they are now 6-0 in the West Coast under head coach Mike Smith.

But the problem with Atlanta is that they could go 15-1 in the regular season and that gorilla on their back will just keep getting more and more unruly.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it’s a harsh league.  Whatever they do along the way, the dirty birds won’t be fully legit until they can break their 0-3 playoff slump since Smith came on board and they drafted franchise QB Matt Ryan in ’08.

I SAW Chargers RB Ryan Mathews fumble for the 11th time in 27 career games.  This is the bellcow you want to rely on, Norv Turner?  Seriously?  That’s not just a problem to fix anymore; it’s a disease.  Mad Bellcow disease.

SNF-Baltimore(2-1) wins vs. New England(1-2), 31-30

I SAW it was business as usual for the Ravens Sunday night.  They’ve now won 14 straight games after a loss.

This one was bigger than the rest.  To anyone who wants to believe that Baltimore players didn’t have last January’s frustrating AFC Championship loss to New England on their minds, consider that they played James Brown’s The Big Payback during practice all week leading up to Sunday.

And for the Patriots, payback was a bitch – big time.  Not only did they lose on an eerily similar missed field goal on the final play of the game.  (Recall the shank by then-Raven Billy Cundiff in the postseason game last season.  After Sunday night’s contest BAL RB Ray Rice remarked that the two games were “practically identical.”)  To add insult to injury it’s not even clear that the kick was actually good.  There was no head-on camera angle to tell for sure as the ball passed over the uprights, and – get this – a missed field goal below the uprights is reviewable but one that goes above them is not.  There’s talk about putting sensors in helmets, cameras in the end zone pylons, but no plans to have cameras that give a reviewable perspective on the uprights?  Come on.

The ending effectively proved to be a breaking point for Pats head coach Bill Belichick, who grabbed one scab referee in the arm as he tried to leave the field.  (Belichick has yet to be fined, and, frankly, I don’t think he should be.)

Belichick wasn’t the only one fed up with the officials during this game.  His counterpart John Harbaugh drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the game.  It was at that point when NBC commentator Chris Collinsworth declared that the scab refs are “not qualified enough to do this job.  They’re really not.  I mean, that’s become painfully obvious…”

I SAW another streak Sunday night, but this one was snapped.  It’s damn impressive though.  From 2003-12 the Patriots had gone 145 consecutive games without a losing record – the longest such streak in NFL history.  Doesn’t sound that impressive?  Well, the Cowboys from 1965-75 are second, with 115 straight games at or above .500.  That’s over two seasons’ worth of games.

Is it a sign of things to come for New England?…

I SAW that the Patriots are leaving more plays out on the field than they have in a long time.

Offensively, the passing game is sputtering to put it mildly.  After 3 games last season Pats QB Tom Brady led the NFL with 1,327 passing yards and 11 TDs.  At the same point this year he has 887 yards (11th in the NFL) and 4 TDs (T-14th).  The reason is simple: New England’s offensive line is awful thus far.  They’re not allowing many sacks, but that’s to Brady’s credit for getting rid of the ball quick enough.  Remember the old video game Tecmo Bowl?  The playbook for both offense and defense was simply 4 offensive plays.  Each player would pick one and if the defending player picked the same play as his opponent the defense would run over the whole offense and cause immediate disaster.  New England’s O-line is blocking as though their opponents have picked the same play as them in Tecmo Bowl.  It’s hard to see the Patriots turning their season around without fixing that problem.

And though the defensive is improved, they didn’t have a single QB hit on Flacco Sunday night.

I SAW PROPS to Patriots LB Brandon Spikes who, after yet another brutally officiated game by the scabs tweeted:

“Can someone please tell these f—— zebras foot locker called and they’re needed Back at work !!!! #BreakingPoint”

I SAW that Ravens WR Torrey Smith’s 2-TD performance less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother in a motorcycle accident speaks for itself.  Wow.

MNF-Seattle(2-1) wins vs. Green Bay, 13-12…..wait….

I SAW everyone’s worst fears realized Monday night when the scab referees cost an NFL team a game in the most obvious manner to date during the referee work stoppage.

In today’s media climate there is no shortage of opinions and analysis of what happened at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game.  Let’s start with the words form the horse’s mouth – the league’s official statement on the matter, released early Tuesday afternoon:

“In Monday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, Seattle faced a 4th-and-10 from the Green Bay 24 with eight seconds remaining in the game.

“Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass into the end zone. Several players, including Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate and Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings, jumped into the air in an attempt to catch the ball.

“While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay.

“When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball. Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.

“Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.

“Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.

“The result of the game is final.”

Okay…let’s have at it.

First and foremost, note that the statement is very careful to in no way state explicitly whether the league office agrees or disagrees with the verdict.  (I’ve supported someone before without thinking they were right.)

The NFL office admitted that the referees missed an offensive pass interference call.  That’s hardly helpful, since offensive PI is commonplace even with the regular officials and the league knows this, which is likely why they acquiesced to that specific criticism.  Case in point: According to the league’s own TV network, the last 87 such plays (Hail Mary passes with a crowd of players involved near the ball) have garnered ZERO offensive pass interference calls.

In other words, thanks for nothin’, NFL.

What is more harrowing – and a bad sign for any chance of the league giving up ground in negotiations – is that the NFL pointed out that the rule pertaining to a simultaneous catch is indeed reviewable in the end zone and that they stand by the call.  It’s harrowing because a misunderstanding of the rule that had assumed the simultaneous nature of the catch couldn’t be reviewed had been about the only way to even weakly defend the scab refs in this case and now that’s gone too.

One inexcusable aspect of the botched game-deciding call was the impromptu block party – TV cameras, team officials and other players, oh my! – that was allowed to open up around the fighting pileup of the ball at the end of the play while only one scab made an effort to sort out the confusion and see who really had the ball.  What were the other scabs doing?  Sharing the player autographs they’d collected during pregame?

Seriously, though – not making a better effort to maintain order on the field has been a consistent point of criticism against the scabs but in this case a consideration of the need to establish which player maintained possession sheds light on what could be an overlap and/or loophole in the rules governing a play like Seattle’s Hail Mary.

Make no mistake – this call is a hard call.   There seems to be widespread agreement that the regular officials would not botch such a play, but that’s hypothetical (more on that below).  Anyone watching the replay can see that Jennings had much more control of the ball than Tate at the outset of the “reception,” and that Tate also took his arm/hand off of the ball for a moment on the way down, thus ceding (two-handed) possession of the ball.  Cue the pileup mayhem.

Here’s where another part of the rulebook comes in and shows the need to sort out the pileup.  There is what has become to be known as The Calvin Johnson Rule that took a game-winning TD catch away from the Lions in 2010, clarifying what is expected of a player who makes a tough midair catch.  Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 states:

“Player Going to the Ground. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.”

Now, the ball never really touched the ground, so the water is even murkier.  It gets borderline opaque when considering that the action immediately following Jennings and Tate coming to the ground is basically lost in the confusion that the scab refs failed to control.  Who really retained possession in the chaos?  Maybe no one knows.

Would the regular officials have been on top of all of this?  I don’t know.  There is potential in this scandal to deify the regular refs but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the scabs feel less like gods and more like minions of some commissioner-devil who has little to no sense of the sanctity of the game he continues to tinker with.  (Coming soon: Officially Lost: How Roger Goodell Couldn’t Leave Rich-Enough Alone And Usurped the NFL.)

Aligning the scabs with Legion is an exaggeration, but it hints at the core of the issue: Trust.  It’s sadly ironic that during a week of reading a multitude of accounts about how much the late great Steve Sabol engendered trust from the league and its members that those in position to help determine games – the officials – are not trusted.  It’s already started to show itself when truly difficult calls – ones that any experienced referee could have also erred on – immediately serve as cause to berate the scabs.  They have no credibility.  That means the league’s integrity is sullied until the regular officials are back.  After all, the primary definition of integrity is : “The quality of being honest.”  Sure, fans and media never supported the locked out refs wholeheartedly while they were on the job, but at least the true zebras hadn’t lost all trust.

I digress.  Either way, by the time the Tate had fallen to the end zone turf with both hands on the ball again, he was behind Jennings, his arms around him to reach the pigskin – a situation that is never ruled in favor of the player performing the reach-around.

But in the end Green Bay didn’t even get a reach-around from the league and its scab refs.  They just got screwed.

In the mother of all embarrassments, no one was allowed to go home yet.  While scab referee Wayne Elliott discussed the play via headset with the booth the Packers left the field without the PAT kick happening that was needed in order to end the game.  Was that why Elliott looked so surprised at one point while talking with the booth?  “What?  We have to do WHAT before the game can end?  No way!  In all of my years of refereeing lingerie football I’ve never had to do that.”

To be fair, Elliott may not be one of the scab refs who have experience in said league.  But at least some scabs are – and were fired from the Lingerie League for poor officiating!! Witness this mind-boggling release from the Lingerie Football League in the NY Daily news (originally reported by Deadspin):

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/football/replacement-refs-working-nfl-fired-lingerie-football-league-report-article-1.1167796

The biggest kick in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s arse has to be this statement from the, ahem, LFL:

“Lingerie league officials said the refs were fired for shoddy game calling. ‘Because of the LFL’s perception it is much more critical for us to hire officiating crews that are competent…to keep our athletes safer,’ the league said.

Dear god.  Even a bra-and-panty league appears to have higher standards for player safety than the NFL.

If only M.D. Jennings had been decked out in LaSenza instead of pads…

At any rate, eventually Green Bay got enough players back out of their locker room and onto the field to help carry out the final play of the game…

….Aaaand, NOW it’s:

MNF-Seattle(2-1) wins vs. Green Bay, 14-12

I SAW that Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s defense is finally rounding into form in his third season with the franchise.  After Carroll’s success while pumping out high-scoring Heisman candidates as a head coach at USC it’s easy to forget that he made his name as a defensive-minded head coach in the NFL in the mid-1990s (he won the AFC East with a defense-focused Patriots team in ’97).  Seattle is now living up to the hallmark of Carroll teams: Speedy defenders that fly all over the field hunting for the ball.  The defense ranks 4th overall (272.3 ypg), 2nd against the run (58.7ypg), and 1st in scoring (13.0 pts/gm).  They held the Cowboys and Packers to one TD apiece in the last two weeks.  Look out, NFL.  The NFC West is now a hotbed of very tough defenses.

As an aside, I feel like I’ve always liked Carroll because his boyish face and demeanor make him look like he just stepped off a sailboat, handed his scarf to someone and energetically coaches up football players.  Normally I don’t go for that sort of stereotype but it’s refreshing in pro football, where head coaching is a brutal crucible of a job.  And Carroll is no country-clubber.  His charity work in inner city Los Angeles is well-documented and often carried out in person by the coach – even while having since moved to Seattle.

Seattle’s defense plays like its coach – with relentless energy.  That precociousness was on full display in the first half, as the Seahawks sacked Packers QB Aaron Rodgers 8 times in the first half.  Four of them were by DE Chris Clemons, tying the NFL record for sacks in the first half set by the late great Chief Derrick Thomas against the Chargers in 1992…

I SAW an early nominee for one of TFQ’s Upside Down Awards, given following the Super Bowl:

Paper Wall Blocking Award

(You know when college teams come out of the tunnel and burst through a paper banner?  Often offensive linemen or whole O-lines end up barely sufficing as such while getting torn apart by defensive fronts.  This dubious distinction is given for the paper-thinnest protection offered for an NFL QB in 2012)

The Packers O-line

On Monday night against the Seahawks, Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers was sacked 3 times in the first quarter for the first time in his career.  Make that 5 sacks in the game’s first 20 minutes.  Make that 8 sacks in the first half – equaling Rodger’s career high for a whole game.  Pair this collective turnstile job with how often the Bears ran free in their backfield last week, and GB has a very serious problem to address.

 

I SAW that the Packers have only scored 4 offensive touchdowns all season.  Last year Green Bay was the second-most productive offense in league history (to the 2007 Patriots).  As noted above, the Paper Wall O-line has a lot to do with this slump they’re in.  But another issue is that the Packer receivers don’t seem to be winning nearly as many battles downfield this year, as compared to ’11.  Their patterns aren’t being run with as much of an edge and they look a step slower than defenders – especially last year’s burner, WR Jordy Nelson.  It’s too early to write them off yet, but the Packers offense looks legitimately problematic instead of merely catching bad breaks.

 

I SAW another crazy foul-up by the scab refs near the end of the game.  After Packers RB Cedric Benson scored a 1-yard TD to give Green Bay a 12-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter, the Pack tried to throw for a 2-point conversion that would ultimately have tied the game once ’Hawks WR Golden Tate scored his controversial Hail Mary grab.  The throw from GB QB Aaron Rodgers sailed high over WR James Jones.  No good.

Rodgers is adamant that a K ball was used on the conversion.  To explain, several balls in each game are stamped with a “K” and designated for kicking use.  Kickers have numerous tricks they employ in order to make their balls slippery and misshapen so that they can travel farther in the air.  They are separated from other game balls because quarterbacks want nothing to do with a ball that isn’t sticky enough to grip well.

Sure, there are “ball boys” that bring balls out to the line judges for use but when the Packers decided to go for 2 instead of kicking the PAT the scab ref didn’t think to change the ball.  Assuming Rodgers is correct in his accusation, that’s a pretty bad oversight on yet another game-deciding play.

 

I SAW PROPS for Packers G T. J. Lang when he tweeted a superb proposal to the NFL:

“F—k it NFL.  Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs.”

I SAW need for many to echo ESPN’s Mike Tirico (see: Away from the game(s)): Please, NFL owners.  It’s your league, your product.  Make this lockout of the officials end.  Mark my words: Whatever the players, coaches, media and the fans say about how far it’s gone the league won’t budge until you step in.  Please do it before someone really gets hurt.

*UPDATE/NOTE: As of Wednesday, a source for nfl.com has reported that the owners indeed became more active in the prior night’s negotiations and that some concessions have already been reached.  Fingers crossed.

Let’s end this week with a comment made by NFL Network analyst and Hall Of Famer Deion Sanders about the referee lockout:

You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 4, HERE AT TFQ

WHAT I SAW, Wk 2 2012

Aside

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW IN WEEK 2, 2012

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

In other words, we all tend to overrate and underrate by “seeing with our ears,” as another saying goes.

Each week I’ll try to forego being seduced by bandwagons, false praise and knee-jerk reactions to give you my take on what went down each week in the NFL.

(Team records in parentheses include the week’s results.)

( A list of TFQ’s PROPS from this column will be posted monthly.)

 

Away from the game(s)

I SAW serous need to prioritize recent news off the top, and I do so with a heavy heart.  On Tuesday, the President of NFL Films, Steve Sabol died of brain cancer.  He was 69.

Many of you will remember Sabol as the Cosby-sweater-wearing host of NFL Films on the Saturdays of your childhood.   I do.  (In fact, in trying to think of a figure I remember more fondly this side of Jim Henson characters from my childhood weekends I can’t come up with one.)  Steve took over as the head of NFL films in 1985 from his father, Hall Of Famer Ed Sabol, who founded the company, but Steve is widely regarded as the mastermind behind the majority of NFL Films’ innovations.  He won 40 Emmy awards, presided over 107 total Emmys for his company and won the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.

Yet those staggering numbers don’t come close to describing the immeasurable impact of NFL Films.  Put simply, the company the Sabols built shaped the way that we all watch sports in general – not just professional football.  No one had ever wired players and coaches for in-game sound or used ground-level slow motion and various editing techniques such as montage editing until NFL Films came along with the innovation and courage to try them out.  (I still remember Ed telling an old story about how much debt he went into when, after being shown how much film stock it would cost to shoot one of the company’s in-game cameras in slow motion for parts of a game, Ed decided to shoot all of every NFL game in slow motion – just in case.  That’s dedication to one’s artistic vision.)  NFL Films also changed the way that music was used with sports footage.  Steve majored in art history, and it showed.  To sum it up, he had the vision and bravery to bring filmic artistry and creativity to sports coverage.  He was both a top-notch executive and an artist – an example so many TV suits could learn from.  Instead, sadly, Sabol will likely forever be one of a kind.

When Sabol would tell anyone willing to listen how much he loved his job, it was believable.  He worked at almost every position in his company at one point of another – from on-field cameraman to personally cutting film for editing to working behind the head desk.  Last year, already aware of his brain tumor and thus feeling the clock of his life ticking down, Steve was glowingly thankful that he was able to see Ed enshrined into the Hall Of Fame before his death.  (My heart goes out to Ed and the Sabol family.  There are few things worse in this world than outliving one’s children.)  If there’s any justice to the HOF voters’ appreciation of history they’ll someday allow busts of both Sabols to stand in Canton, because you can’t tell the NFL’s tale – or that of TV sports in general – without talking about Steve Sabol.  Rich Eisen put it well, in a feature tribute Tuesday night for NFL Network: “NFL Films is more than a production company.  It’s an institution, the life’s work of Steve Sabol – a football player-turned artist who transformed American television for half a century.”

Best of all, Sabol was a jovial, stand-up guy.  I’ve never heard of anything bad being said or written about him.  Ever.

Last week the NFL lost a pioneer owner, Art Modell.  This week, Sabol leaves us.  Tough two weeks.

I SAW The big reminder of the week:

Week 2 is confusion week, where the surprising results of week 1 often get offset and the water gets muddier.

Were last week’s overreactions warranted at all, or have they been snuffed out by a contradictory performance?  Or has that letdown come against another team about which we as fans are similarly confused?

For example: After Carolina goes off against the Saints Sunday, is Tampa Bay’s run defense really this good, or is NO’s really that bad, and the Giants’ run game (which TB held in check) still in a state of disrepair?  At least with this example, we now have two awful showings from the Saints to perhaps help decipher things.  But other such occurrences aren’t so indicative of trends in the making.

Consider this sequence: The Jets whoop the Bills last week.  Then, this week, New York get beaten soundly by the Steelers (who, last time we saw them, looked uninspiring in a loss to Denver), while Buffalo responds by taking Kansas City out to the woodshed.  Is Kansas City that bad?  Are the Steelers that good?

The parity algebra in week 2 is dizzying.

Still, though, there can perhaps be some clues with which to interpret this madness early in the season.  For instance: No team has made the playoffs after starting 0-2 since 2009.  But then again, the Giants were 0-2 in 2007 – they won the Super Bowl that year.

I SAW that the NFL Network’s Sunday morning show, NFL Gameday, has surpassed the rest of the field as the most insightful and entertaining pregame show in the business.  Somehow some of their NFL players-cum-analysts who were aggravating during their pro days and beyond (see: Deion Sanders, Steve Mariucci and Michael Irvin) have combined well with host Rich Eisen and cohorts Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Warren Sapp.  The show seems to go on forever – in a good way – and there are plenty of zany moments during which the loquacious personalities are allowed to be themselves and get silly, like when one segment played out with Faulk donning a Jeff Fischer moustache (given out to fans on Sunday in St. Louis) and Irvin wearing a Robert Griffin III Superman cape.

Image

Good times.

 

 I SAW a reminder of the concern I’d voiced last year in this column about the fast and furious growth of statistical analysis in pro football.  Hopefully at some point in the future some sort of standard statistical database will be created for situational stats – the amount of which seem to be multiplying at the rate of a wet Mogwai.

         One up-and-coming stats website is ProFootballFocus.  According to Sports Illustrated.com it credited Vikings DE Jared Allen with a tackle and two quarterback pressures in week 1, but the press box numbers listed Allen with nothing in 75 plays.

So, who are these people tabulating the stats from scratch and what do they know about watching tape and/or determining statistics?  (Maybe a better question is to ask the same things about the official NFL box score statisticians…)  As I’ve mentioned before, we’re allowing a LOT of new stats and new stat sites into the vaguely defined canon of NFL sabermetrics.

The issue, as any opposing coach will tell you, is that the pros often can’t get the exact read of another offense/defense on tape because they can’t know if the play was run properly, or if what they’re seeing are player mistakes.  The example I used last season stands:  At one point during the year ProFootballFocus gave the QB Rating allowed by Jets QB Derrelle Revis in man-to-man coverage.  How do they know every play they looked at was supposed to be man-to-man coverage, and not some sort of blown play?  That’s why a lot of these new stats serve as decent pseudo-indicators, but shouldn’t be afforded the status of exactness – yet.  But maybe that’s how we should look at most statistics for football.

I SAW… it’s time to get to the crappiest, most important in-game storyline of the week – the job being done by scab referees in replacement of the locked-out regular zebras.  This week’s column is especially long, in no small part due to the multifaceted importance of this issue.  The rest of Away from the game(s) is devoted to this topic in various ways and the theme comes up again during several of the game sections.  Later this week a What I Saw-Supplemental will be released on TFQ that combines all of these sentiments about the officiating into one article.  So, if you have fantasy lineups to overthink or another HBO series to watch, just scroll down to the games section below and you can read this portion later in the week.

I SAW that before we even need to get into the more nuanced arguments against the scab referees we can start with the most immediate issue: The amazingly brutal job being done on unbelievably easy calls.

It’s doubtful that the league or TV networks will release any data to indicate whether or not more “bad calls” are being made so far this season in comparison to previous years.  Besides, any so-called stat in this vein would be too subjective to value effectively.  But it sure does feel like these scab refs make worse decisions than the regular ones.  A lot worse.

Picking the worst scab referee moment from week 2 is like trying to pick your favorite form of torture to be subjected to of all-time: It’s too hard to pick, and you never wanted to have to be in a position to make the decision.  One fuckup makes a great case, though…

Cue Ravens vs. Eagles in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.  Philly drove inside the Baltimore 5-yard line while trailing 24-17.  Eagles QB Michael Vick dropped back to pass and BAL DT Haloti Ngata hit him while he was trying to throw.  The ball flew forward in the air and landed at the Ravens’ 1-yard line, where DT Maake Kemoeatu fell on the ball.

Replay after replay showed scab ref Robert Frazier standing mere yards away from Vick and Ngata, looking right at them.  He did nothing during the play, seemingly entranced by – by what?  Fear?  Ineptitude?  Complacency?  (Will any of these guys get fired and thus damage the league’s image further?  Not likely.)  Eventually the team of scabs spun the bottle and decided: Ravens ball!

In a move that would be all too common throughout week 2, the TV crew couldn’t contain themselves with frustration at the refereeing job.  In this instance Greg Gumbel of CBS was stupefied at the call.

Thankfully, the play was reversed and the Eagles held on to the ball when Frazier was forced to rule correctly in spite of himself.  (On the very next play Vick would score a rush TD to essentially win the game.)  But hold on here and let the common sense possessed by any layman sink in… How does a man getting hit backwards make a ball that is in his hand upon impact go almost 10 yards forward without a forward arm motion?  Ridiculous.

This leaky scabwork could easily have wrongly determined the outcome of this game.  It’s arguable that this play wasn’t the only one that fits that category.

So even on the surface the scab refs are doing a below-average job of making the obvious calls right in front of them.  However, the negative impact doesn’t end there…

I SAW that the league has taken the referee lockout so seriously that it never even amply vetted its scab workers – a questionable gambit at best, knowing how scrutinized the situation would be…

According to Albert Breer at NFL.com former college official Jeff Sadorus, who worked last week’s Seahawks-Cardinals as a field judge, has a history of officiating Seattle’s practices for the past three years and was paid for the job.  This is an issue because outside of regular season games the regular refs are only allowed to referee training camp practices in an attempt to avoid bias based on money.

Even worse, via Chris Mortensen of ESPN:

“Side judge Brian Stropolo is a fan of the Saints, according to his Facebook page. He was pulled from the assignment Sunday morning and replaced with an alternate, Tim Keese, who travels with the crew.”

Apparently the NFL was unaware of both Sadorus and Stropolo’s allegiances until media sources contacted them for comment.  That is unacceptable.  There is room for argument as to whether an official’s personal preference for a specific team will affect his or her calls during a game.  But the point here is that the league clearly thinks it’s an issue.  If that’s their stance, how the HELL do they not do their homework on the scab workers?  More than other cases, these examples might make one wonder how serious the league is taking this issue.

I SAW, at this point, it’s worth bringing up another problem with the scab refs that was mentioned last week in What I Saw – something that also happened in the Ravens-Eagles game.  But make no mistake – this sort of thing was happening all across the NFL, all week.  Judgment calls that have previously relied upon the unwritten rule of convention when the regular refs were on duty are now cast into limbo with frustrating results.  The best example is offensive pass interference, which to the letter of the rulebook happens all of the time but is seldom called.  Now that flag is being thrown at an alarming rate.

For example, Ravens QB Joe Flacco was leading his team to a potential touchdown that could have sealed the game in the fourth quarter when his receiver Jacoby Jones used a subtle push-off on Eagles CB Nnamdi Asomugha before catching the ball in the end zone.  Such a push is almost never called, but it was on this play.

Again, this interpretative shift on a judgment call isn’t technically a “bad call” in the sense that calls aren’t being made according to the rulebook.  But often the normal call isn’t being made, and that’s frustrating for all involved.

But that merely address the issues with judgment calls, which are more understandable than a lack of ability to control the game and/or effectively ensure the relative safety of the players…

I SAW the scab refs lose control of many games in week 2.

Keep in mind that these are not merely shouts from the peanut gallery.  As has been mentioned above – and will be mentioned below – after a tame first week of the regular season the TV analysts, reporters, and others in and/or close to the league are almost unanimous in their criticism of the scab workers this week.

Monday Morning Quarterback writer Peter King spent time with former NFL ref Jim Daopoulos who was working with the NBC Network.  Daopoulos had this to say after Sunday afternoon:

“Now the players are taking advantage of the lack of experience and the lack of game-control by the replacement officials…They’re just too inconsistent. The players are pushing them. And the inconsistency is natural, because this is not something you can learn as quickly as they have to learn it…”

The only amendment to this apt quote that needs to be made is that the coaches are pushing just as hard – if not harder.  NFL coaches have long had the most leniency among the major sports in terms of abusing refs, but this season has reached new heights, with head coaches walking onto the field to complain as though the turf were a red carpet.  And the way they treat the officials – nay, manipulate – is unprecedented and usually disallowed.  The most obvious such example from week 2 may have come during the first quarter on Monday Night Football after Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno fumbled the ball and relative confusion ensued – along with a scuffle between Falcons CB Asante Samuel and most of the Denver team.  It was hard to maintain perspective but all that happened was a fumble, a resulting pile-on and a scuffle between the two teams near the Broncos’ sideline.  It took well over 10 minutes for the scabs to sort it out.  (The first quarter took an hour to finish.)  After a few other strange moments brought to us by the refs, ESPN play-by-play man Mike Tirico called the game “embarrassing.”  And that was still with 12:08 left in the first half!

The second half saw numerous basic rule errors, such as the wrong amount of yardage awarded on a pass interference penalty.

To repeat, one concern stemming from the whole debacle was how much a screaming John Fox (DEN head coach) and players from both teams continually tried to berate and/or manipulate the referees.  Even more concerning was that those attempts seemed to be more effective than they ever have been on the regular officials.

This was by no means the only game that the scabs couldn’t control.  The BAL-PHI game has already been detailed as such and WAS-STL is another good example. (See: St. Louis wins vs. Washington, 31-28)  But let’s get to the most important problem the referee work stoppage causes…

I SAW screw the bad calls, the lack of control over the game, the scuffles and whatever else.  The most pressing reason for the league to resolve the referee work stoppage is to reestablish player safety.

Ravens QB Joe Flacco spoke in frustration over other specific calls in his team’s loss Sunday, but he could well have been talking about the safety factor as well when he said, postgame, “They talk about the integrity of the game, and I think this is kind of along those lines.  The fact that we don’t have the normal guys out there is pretty crazy.”

Integrity of the game doesn’t stop with the rules, solid refereeing and good sportsmanship.  Commissioner Roger Goodell himself has shoehorned player safety into the integrity of the game and deservedly so, as the long-term physical and mental effects of playing the game become more and more evident.  But beyond the push for an 18-game regular season schedule (at least the preseason would be shortened) and beyond the mass influx of Thursday night games (at least the players who are subjected to 4 days’ rest get at least a 10-day rest afterward), the referee lockout brought about by the league attempting to take money away from the regular officials likely represents the most transparent nonchalance on the part of the league with respect to player safety.

Sure, at first this concern was merely hypothetical.  Now, it’s manifesting itself in reality.  It started with a slow trickle, the increased hard hits allowed in defenseless receivers over the middle that were supposed to be cracked down upon.  (See: PHI TE Brent Celek getting smoked more than once against BAL; WAS TE Fred Davis getting cleaned up in the WAS-STL game, to name but a few.)

It’s time for Goodell to end this debacle and begin anew the attempts to convince us who know better that he truly is concerned for player safety.  (As an aside, he had even made moves to increase the role of officials in helping determining in-game concussion symptoms.  Surely that isn’t happening at this point.)

I’m not the only one that thinks this.  TV analysts were concerned for safety as well.  There was (at least) one unflagged hit on a defenseless player and one such late hit that put Redskin players in harm’s way.  (See: St. Louis wins vs. Washington, 31-28)

The most serious non-call, however, came during the Cowboys-Seahawks game.  Near the start of the fourth quarter, Seattle QB Russell Wilson was flushed out of the pocket and toward the left sideline.  ’Boys LB Sean Lee took pursuit, only to be leveled by WR Golden Tate, who had an angle on Lee for the hard hit that was barely in the linebacker’s periphery vision.  The hit was huge.  It’s the sort of play that tends to get people up and out of their seats because the once-legal block is one hell of a violent hit.  In fact, there has been little criticism of the hit during highlights shows.  Instead there tends to be something like a cry of “Woooo!” in appreciation of the type of hit that has excited fans for years.

That kind of contact isn’t supposed to excite people anymore.  Goodell and the league have been very clear that they must change the culture of the league with respect to vicious hitting and the block on Lee is a perfect example of this.  As per the new directives on head-to-head blocks on a defenseless player the Tate block should have been flagged and player safety continually improved as a result.

But wait – a flag was thrown on the play.  Thank god.  There was a long delay while Lee was down, during which TV analyst (and former 3-time champion DAL fullback) Daryl “Moose” Johnston talked at length about how clearly illegal the hit on Lee was and that it was a good call in the pursuit to implement better player safety.  Eventually the scab refs announced the penalty: A late hit against Dallas LB Bruce Carter for gently shoving Russell out of bounds at the end of his scramble.  Moose proceeded to express justifiable shock at the call.  It didn’t help that the call on Carter was an awful ticky-tack call in and of itself.  With a clear concern for the safety of current players, Johnston said this after the call was made:

“If we’re talking about player safety here – and that was one of the concerns with the replacement officials – are we really going to call THAT [the Carter penalty] over the blindside hit by Golden Tate, going to the head with the crown of the helmet?”

This play is a huge indictment upon the scab refs and also Goodell and the league in their so-called crusade for player safety.  It can’t be stressed enough that this sort of play is mindset-changing.  It was a huge hit.  Fans loved it and players know that.  Fans pay the players’ bills and the players get caught up in the frenzy of violence notwithstanding.  But this play should now be an illegal hit and an opportunity to affect the culture of the NFL to the benefit of player safety.  In other words, this is exactly the sort of play the league needs to prevent but is instead undermining by shortchanging their officials after effectively shortchanging their players after last year’s collective bargaining agreement.

I SAW that the safety factor in the NFL is being threatened, but such moments don’t make up the majority of the issues.  Apart from a general inability to control a game, one of the more prevalent issues with calls is pass interference.  That makes sense – and is all the more infuriating that this lockout is persisting.  After all, the league has been changing rules to favor the offense ever since the Mel Blount Rule in 1978 introduced illegal contact on a receiver 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  Make no mistake – the NFL is fought, won, and these days marketed on the game played on the outside edges.  The players and coaches know it too, while they ensure that receivers and DBs fight and claw for every inch while at top speed.  The league and fans know it.  More to the point, the regular officials know it too.  And they had, for better or worse, gradually imposed a consistent unwritten system that all of the aforementioned parties became used to.  Flacco’s statement about “the integrity of the game” rings just as true here.

The NFL is screwing up the parts of the game that it’s tried to build up over recent years – increased concern for player safety, and an exciting on-field product replete with tons of passes and big plays.  Goodell & Co. had to have at least suspected or feared that these two issues would be among the first elements of the game to suffer.  One way or another, this will blow over and the league will survive just fine.  But this referee work stoppage is bad for everyone and it needs to end.

I SAW an online article worth reading, by former NFLer Nate Jackson about how the replacement refs can be exploited.

The former tight end offers good insights (though he does imply that offensive pass interference could go uncalled more, which I don’t’ see happening) and amusing sentiments, such as:

“…And sure, it’s important to have competent refs. But these ones will be fine if we give them a little breathing room. They don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Roger Goodell’s negotiating tactics are like Kim Jong-il’s. So is his ego. He’ll keep squeezing the refs until they fit in his pocket, and the Goodell-ization of the NFL will be complete. Then he can get to work on his uranium-enrichment facility.”

Seriously, though, there are some good points made by Jackson.  One argument worth noting is that players can be more demonstrative/celebratory during games because the scabs are so busy making sure they get everything right while under a larger microscope.  Check it out:

http://mobile.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/features/2012/nfl_2012/week_1/nfl_replacement_refs_an_ex_player_s_guide_to_exploiting_scab_officials_.html

(As an aside, it’s refreshing to see the proper nomenclature levied at the replacement refs.  This is the only other article I’ve seen yet that calls the new refs scabs, which is more accurate than the other neutral terms more commonly used to describe the inexperienced workers the league has used to scuttle the NFL Referees Association.)

TNF-Green Bay(1-1) wins vs. Chicago(1-1), 23-10

I SAW that the 300th game in the storied history of Lambeau Field was an ugly one, particularly by both offensive lines, particularly by the Bears.  There were more combined sacks (7) than points scored (3) for most of the first half.  It was a jailbreak by both D-lines, led by Packers LB Clay Matthews and DE Julius Peppers.  After an assortment of third down-and-forevers, the average yards to go for Chicago and Green Bay on the penultimate down at halftime was 16.6 and 10.8, respectively.  Bears QB Jay Cutler was sacked four times – and threw 4 completions – before the break.

I SAW an early nominee for one of TFQ’s Upside Down Awards, given following the Super Bowl:

Paper Wall Blocking Award

(You know when college teams come out of the tunnel and burst through a paper banner?  Often offensive linemen or whole O-lines end up barely sufficing as such while getting torn apart by defensive fronts.  This dubious distinction is given for the paper-thinnest protection offered for an NFL QB in 2012)

J’Marcus Webb, OT, Bears – & the rest of the Chicago O-Line

One could argue that all the Bears need to have in order to make the next step towards constant success is a good offensive line, but Chicago’s front office has done next to nothing to address the issue for years now.  This was painfully evident Thursday night, as CHI QB Jay Cutler spent the whole game under duress, getting sacked 7 times and being hit on what felt like every play.

By the time Bears RB Matt Forte left with a high ankle sprain in the third quarter the wheels had come off the Chicago offense, left somewhere on the road, miles back.   Da Bears gained 2.2 yards per pass attempt and 2.9 yards per offensive play for the game.  Football is the consummate team game, but rarely is such ineptitude so clearly to blame on specific players, in this case, the O-line and Webb in specific.  Things came to a boil in the first half on 3rd-and-32 when the third-year tackle did what he does far too often by dipping his head in anticipation of contact while blocking an edge rusher.  Football blocking 101: You can’t keep your body on something you don’t see – especially a speedy rusher like Packers LB Clay Matthews, whom Webb let get to Cutler for a sack on the play.  Walking off the field after the play, Cutler was screaming at Webb and gave him a shove at the end of the lambasting.  Webb just ambled onward to the sideline with a vacant smile on his face, showing the amount of intensity Bears fans have grown accustomed to from him.  That doesn’t bode well.  Teammate and defensive back D.J. Moore criticized Cutler for his public lashing out at Webb, which is understandable, but if you’re getting killed out there and you see a dumb smile on the face of the guy letting people get to you ad nauseum, it has to be pretty hard not to get in his face, cameras be damned.

I SAW Bears QB Jay Cutler as undeserving of too much criticism after that 7-sack, 28.2 rating performance.  Sure, The Nutler had some iffy plays, but dropped balls and constant hits put a quarterback out of sorts.  The violence of the hits and the shortening of the clock a QB has in their head that helps them gets passes off in time both tend to conspire and force pivots into skittish mindsets and poor decisions.  It’s all about stress, and the coolest of cucumbers would likely have wilted under what Cutler was going through.

The biggest individual victim of Cutler’s demise was Bears WR Brandon Marshall.  (In fact, he and the other starting WR, Alshon Jeffery, combined for 3 rec & 31 yds.)  One of the top 5 receivers in the league wasn’t even targeted once until midway through the third quarter – when Cutler found him in the end zone and Marshall dropped the ball.  The second targeting of Marshall didn’t come until the fourth quarter on a badly thrown deep ball that was intercepted by Packers CB Tramon Williams.

There was another possible reason for Marshall being taken out of this game…

I SAW just another day at the office for Packers S Charles Woodson, who got his 55th career interception – and 26th since 2008, most in the NFL over than span.  Aside from – maybe – Baltimore’s Ball Yoda Ed Reed there is no more dangerous big play machine at the safety position than Woodson.  One has to wonder if part of the reason that Bears QB Jay Cutler didn’t try to throw to his All Pro WR Brandon Marshall was because Woodson was often the safety stacked on top in constant double coverage on Marshall.  Generally, a quarterback would feel just fine throwing up a few balls for grabs to the huge, athletic Marshall, but not when Woodson lurks in the picture.

I SAW one hell of a fake field goal TD pulled off by the Packers inside of the 2-minute warning of the first half.  P Tim Masthay shoveled the ball ahead to a sweeping TE Tom Crabtree, who ran through an improbable hole in the Bears line all the way into the Lambeau Field stands past the end zone.

The first impression I had was shock, because Chicago’s special teams coach Dave Toub is the best (and most creative) in the NFL at what he does and to see his squad get caught with their pants down is surprising.  That was followed by the realization during the replay that the play was called on 4th-and-26 in field goal range!  That sort of call takes grapefruit-sized balls.  Sports Illustrated’s Peter King does an excellent job in telling the compelling stories behind the crazy play in MMQB:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/peter_king/09/16/week-2/1.htm

I SAW a word of caution for those labeling Packers LB Clay Matthews as more style than substance after a subpar third NFL season in ’11: Matthews has already equaled his sack total from last year.

I SAW Packers LB A.J. Hawk with short hair.  Weird.

I SAW that the Bears defense, though under the radar, still has it.  It was the lone reason that Chicago was in this game as long as it was.

I SAW Packers WR Jordy Nelson drop two tough catches, but both throws hit the wideout in both hands.  He’s gotta make those catches before he can be eligible for top receiver status.

I SAW the same thing can be said about Green Bay TE Jermichael Finley after dropped TD pass in the third quarter.  It’s been over three seasons of that crap now, Jermichael.  Time to stop talking about cutting out the drops – whether or not you can actually focus enough to put your money where your mouth is.

I SAW Packers FB John Kuhn make a great open-field tackle on Bears PR Devin Hester on a punt return in the third quarter and NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, “How can you not love that Kuhn?”

Really?  Really?

Philadelphia(2-0) wins vs. Baltimore(1-1), 24-23

I SAW that NFL fans have to love getting a knock-down, beat-up game with the feel of a playoff bout as early as week 2 – which is exactly what they got when the Eagles gutted out a win against the Ravens in Philly on Sunday.  The game might have even reminded Baltimore players of their classic street fights against the Steelers, with big-time hitting from start to finish, handfuls of players getting helped off the field and scuffles aplenty.  Mind you, the referees lost control of this game (see: Away from the game(s)) but despite that this game was one of those doozies that can harden both teams going forward.

I SAW the winner of this week’s Thief In The Night Award:

Philadelphia Eagles

According to NFL Network on Sunday morning, Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid opined that last week’s dreadful 5-turnover game en route to a victory against the Browns was the sort of contest that his team would have lost as early as last season.  In other words, Reid believes his team is more resilient this year.

The Eagles justified their coach’s confidence in them by squeaking out another tough win in spite of themselves – this time with 4 turnovers in a slugfest against the Ravens.

Amazingly, Philly has given the ball away nine times in their first two games of the season and come out of it with a 2-0 record.  There’s only been six times in history that a franchise has given up the rock at least that many times and won both their games.  I did some research, and if recent history is any indication, there’s no reason to assume that Philly’s turnovers will persist and/or sink them eventually.  Only two other teams in the Super Bowl era have snuck away unbeaten through week two with as many turnovers and both of them went on to win at least one playoff game that year.

In the end, it’s the crazy NFL, so who knows.  But the 2012 Eagles are already a rarity.  Winning one’s first two games under those conditions is so rare it has only happened 6 times in the history of the NFL, AFL and earlier permutations of the league(s).  Here they are, for funsies:

Team                              #Turnovers            Finish

1983 Los Angeles Rams         10                    9-7  (lost in Div Rd. of playoffs to WAS)

1969 Oakland Raiders             9                      12-1-1 (lost to KC in Super Bowl)

1965 Houston Oilers              9                      4-10  (N/A)

1954 Philadelphia Eagles        11                    7-4-1 (N/A)

1944 Cleveland Rams             9                      4-6    (N/A)

1943 PHI/PITT Eagles/Steelers    9                5-4-1   (N/A)

 

I SAW Eagles QB Michael Vick continue to be undone by his emotions at times.  It happened as early as the first Philadelphia drive of the game when Vick marched his offense down the field with some excited body language, then killed the drive by making an overconfident and bone-headed throw that was picked off by Ravens S Bernard Pollard.  Vick was forced to roll to his right in the red zone on the play, and tried to fire the ball into TE Clay Harbor.  The throw was hard, but made with bad body language, bad footwork and with Pollard standing plainly in Vick’s view.

            Like last week against Cleveland – and so many times before – Vick’s early positivity was fleeting, and as his second game in ’12 continued to get rough, he was filmed talking to his offensive linemen on the bench by NFL films, shaking his head and saying, “I cannot do that to y’all, man….I can’t do that” prompting C Jason Kelce to console him.  It was reported that teammates had to do the same thing with Vick last week as he piled up 4 interceptions.

Last week I already got into how allowing his emotion to affect his play is a big weakness of Vick’s.  It’s not clear that the coaching staff has made addressing this a priority.  In fact, when offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg held Philly’s QB in a long supportive hug once a win was assured in the closing minutes of the game it begged the question of whether or not the coaches might be enabling Vick’s outsized emotion.  Treat the highs and lows the same, and results tend to be more consistent.

I SAW new Ravens WR Jacoby Jones continually tear Nnamdi a new Asomugha.

The Eagles’ former All-Pro CB Nnamdi Asomugha is about as hard to find these days as Carmen Sandiego.  Go looking and all you’ll come back with is a piece of toast.  It wasn’t quite 13 months ago that the former Raider was considered the best cover corner this side of Derrelle Revis while he signed with the Eagles as a highly paid free agent.  But in a stunningly short period of time Asomugha has turned into just as much of a liability as he used to be elite.  He was left grabbing desperately at Jones several times Sunday – on plays that he used to stay glued to.  The easiest explanation is that Asomugha has lost a step.  After all, Jones’ only top-level asset is his speed.

I SAW PROPS to NFL Network anchor Rich Eisen for his comment about gimpy Eagles receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin playing against the Ravens Sunday despite nursing lower body injuries.  Both were shown walking gingerly during pregame footage.  PROPS to Eisen for the goofy line of the day for announcing that both Eagles were active and telling analyst Marshall Faulk that in the earlier footage showing Maclin limping off the team bus Maclin “was pimpin’, not limpin.’”

I SAW Ravens S Ed “Ball Yoda” Reed guide yet another tipped ball into his hands for an interception.  Incredible.

Pittsburgh(1-1) wins vs. New York Jets(1-1), 27-10

I SAW The Steelers hand it to the Jets.  Pittsburgh stymied the New York offense without two key (but aging) defenders – S Troy Polamalu and LB James Harrison – and knocked the Jets around all afternoon.   On the other side of the ball N.Y. looked lost on D without All-Pro CB Derrelle Revis and they were too tentative physically.  This is what the Rex Ryan Jets do – they yell and prance one week, then get physically dominated the next.  Ryan’s style is just too tiring for players who have to grind out year after year with pressure from inside the clubhouse and out.

I SAW Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger put up a 125.1 rating by connecting with 10 different receivers.  Not 3 or 4 seasons ago it would have been unheard of to think of the Pitt offensive being so aerial-oriented – and productive.

I SAW Jets QB Tim Tebow get on the field for 3 offensive snaps.  He has yet to attempt a pass for the Jets.  What, we have to wait 40 days and 40 nights before the messiah gets a chance?

Speaking of which, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin had a telling insight about preparing for Tebow, and he should know – Tomlin’s team lost in the playoffs to Tebow and the Broncos last season.  The Pitt skipper noted that preparing for Tebow isn’t the same (read: challenging) because instead of having to worry about the mental challenges Tebow can cause throughout a whole game, opponents now just have to study a limited situational package like the Wildcat set.  This is a disadvantage for Tebow.

Arizona(2-0) wins @ New England (1-1), 20-18

I SAW the Patriots lose their home opener for the first time since 2001.  (Until Sunday they had never lost their first home game of the year in Gillette Stadium.)

Everyone is calling this game an upset – some even consider it a fluke.  While the Cardinals win may indeed be surprising, it’s not random.  In time people will see that ’Zona sports one of the best defenses in the NFL…

I SAW that the Cardinals defense is FOR REAL.  The unit is SO good that it’s one of those groups that when asked to pick the best player one mentions multiple names: DE Calais Campbell, DT Darnell Dockett, S Adrian Wilson and CB Patrick Peterson.  I know he’s only in his second year, but if pressed I’d go with Peterson.  He’s the Cam Newton of defense – young, with ridiculous size combined with amazing speed and athleticism.

I SAW that New England’s O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia isn’t going to sleep much this season.  And QB Tom Brady will develop a relationship with the ice tub.

I SAW NO reason to allow Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski’s last-minute shank to get Arizona RB Ryan Williams out of the doghouse.  1:10 left in the game and New England had no timeouts with Arizona looking at Arizona 3rd-and-13.  All the ’Cards had to do in that situation was flop down to the turf with the ball, take a tackle, run the clock down and punt to the Pats, effectively giving NE QB Tom Brady about 20 seconds left – and no timeouts – to have to pull off a miracle.  Instead, Arizona elected – after a timeout! – to run a pitch to Williams (put your players in a position to succeed, coach Ken Wisenhunt!), and Williams never put two hands on the ball to protect it.  Patriots LB Brandon Spikes knocked the pigskin loose, and DL Vince Wilfork recovered the ball to give New England new life.  Eventually Gostkowski missed a 42-yard FG for the win.

What came after the fumble didn’t change it.  Williams HAS to hold onto that ball.  To make matters worse, he was seen pulling a David Wilson (the Giants rookie RB who was reduced to tears after fumbling last week).  Get a hold of the ball – and yourself.

I SAW that a 2-0 record is still 2-0 no matter how you cut it, but Cardinals QB Kevin Kolb still isn’t ready to be an everyday starter in the NFL.  He looks every bit as panic-infused as he did in 2011, and though the Patriots defense seems to have improved, 5.2 yards per pass attempt for the game and 1 reception for 4 yards for All-World WR Larry Fitzgerald (on just 5 targets) isn’t gong to cut it.  It makes me throw up in my mouth a bit, but this team needs injured quarterback John Skelton back under center.

I SAW one possible reason for the New England funk: Head coach Bill Belichick is wearing non-torn shirts on the sideline.  It’s been a rumor for years now that the hard-nosed coach used to wear his famous cut-up shirts as a fuck-you to the NFL’s sideline dress code, whereby all coaches are required to wear official NFL apparel.  (As a head coach for the Niners in 2007, Mike Nolan wanted to wear a suit and tie on the sidelines in honor of his late father – who was also an NFL coach and used to do the same.  Hilariously, he had to wait until Reebok made an NFL-licensed suit for him.)  One can only guess as to the reason for Belichick’s decision to acquiesce and don unblemished shirts.

I SAW TE Aaron Hernandez go down with a high ankle sprain after teammate WR Julian Edelman rolled up on his leg from behind while being tackled.  It looked serious.  Word on Monday was that the tight end/receiver/running back could be out at least 4 weeks.  Only time will tell what sort of impact this will have on the Pats’ offense.

I SAW that the Cardinals are 2-0 for just the second time in the last 21 seasons.  The last time they had such a start was in 2008 when they went to the Super Bowl.  Just sayin’.

I SAW that not only was the Gostkowski shank eerie karma for the Pats squeaking into the Super Bowl last year thanks to then-Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missig a gimme game winner.  The New England late-minute loss was also even more rare than it had initially seemed.  Courtesy ColdHardFootballFacts.com: The last time the Patriots missed a game-winning field goal was in an overtime loss to Buffalo on Boxing Day – way back in 1999.  Who was the guilty party?  The game-winning kicker in Indianapolis yesterday …

Indianapolis(1-1) wins vs. Minnesota(1-1), 23-20

I SAW one of the all-time great kickers (and former Patriot in 1999), Indy’s Adam Vinatieri, boot a 53-yard kick with :08 left in the game to beat the Vikes.

The winning FG was made possible by Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck.  The first overall pick got the ball at his own 20-yard line with :31 left in a tied game.  Luck took 4 plays and 23 seconds to take his team to the Vikings’ 35-yard line – and the win.  That’s some cool play under pressure for a rookie.

St. Louis(1-1) wins vs. Washington(1-1), 31-28

I SAW Redskins WR Josh Morgan essentially lose his team the game with an unforgiveable unsportsmanlike penalty.  Washington was facing 3rd-and-8 and trailing St. Louis 38-21 inside of two minutes remaining in the game when Morgan caught a 7-yard reception and was brought down at the Rams’ 29-yard line by CB Cortland Finnegan.  After the play, Finnegan gave Morgan a cheap shot as the wideout got up from the turf.  Morgan immediately lost his cool (clearly this had been brewing – more on that in a moment) and threw the ball at Finnegan’s head, causing the penalty and putting the Redskins in 4th-and-16 at the Rams’ 44-yard line.  So, when the dust settled – after an equally unforgiveable delay while the scab officials tried vainly to remove their own heads from each other’s asses – the ’Skins were forced to attempt a 62-yard FG by Billy Cundiff instead of 47-yarder.

(It should be noted that Cundiff is near-blind-accurate from beyond 50 yards in his career, and as such a 47-yard attempt is no gimme either, but it’s certainly not prohibitive like a 60+-yarder is and it does nothing to downplay the selfish, immense brain fart by Morgan.)

Since this week’s edition of What I Saw is clearly against the scab refs in overall tone I’d like to offer a perspective that, while in no way forgiving Morgan’s gaffe, does once again point to the need for the regular officials to return:

This is Morgan’s fifth year in the NFL.  He shouldn’t be so impressionable.  But for all the (genuine) class that Rams head coach Jeff Fisher displays his teams have a distinguished history of playing until the echo of the echo of the whistle.  (“Playing to the echo of the whistle” being a euphemism for applying hits on opponents as dangerously late as the officials might allow.  Fisher’s players often push this to new limits.)  What’s more, Finnegan has long been his exemplar for chippy play and Morgan isn’t the first normally calm player to take exception.  (Witness the well-publicized fight between Finnegan and Texans WR Andre Johnson 2 seasons ago.)  Hell, even Fisher’s prized pupil, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz isn’t exactly winning any kudos for preaching clean play to his players in Detroit.

There’s no denying that Morgan screwed his team with an unacceptable retaliation.  But as has been the case in far too many games this young season (see: Away from the game(s)) the scab refs have no control over the players.  There had been several moments prior to Morgan’s outburst that should have called for emotion-leveling penalties but were not.  With just under 5 minutes to go in the game, Rams CB Janoris Jenkins leveled a defenseless TE Fred Davis while he was trying to make a catch.  As noted above with reference to several other games (see: Away from the game(s)) the unsafe infraction happened in plain sight of an official and the lack of a penalty flag was roundly criticized by the TV analysts calling the game.  Washington head coach Mike Shanahan stood, arms outstretched, pleading for a call.  On the very next Rams drive, Rams G Quinn Ojinnaka dove at and hit LB London Fletcher after the whistle – while Fletcher was defenseless on the ground.  Again, no flag.  Again, the TV crew calling the game was incredulous.  This time, Shanahan was irate, as was Fletcher.

Understand that none of this serves as ample justification for Morgan’s unjustifiable penalty.  But there probably isn’t a more effective way to get an NFL player’s blood boiling than having either he or a teammate get given a cheap shot that genuinely could cause injury, have no penalty be called to in a sense salve the wound, and then see this happen again.  For the last several minutes of this exciting game, I was largely distracted, thinking to myself, ‘Something bad is going to happen here.  Someone is going to lose their shit.’

As mentioned numerous times above, the safety of the players in the NFL is currently in serious danger because of unqualified scab referees.  We can only hope it the result isn’t an awful injury, a brawl – or both.

 

I SAW a pet peeve manifest itself after the auspicious unsportsmanlike penalty incurred by Redskins WR Josh Morgan (see above).  Recall that Morgan’s awful lapse in judgment was in reaction to the constant shoving after the whistle that Rams CB Cortland Finnegan is famous for.  It’s annoying when players throw cheap shots that could easily be penalties in themselves, bait an opponent into a retaliation penalty, and then mock that player/team for being undisciplined like Finnegan’s teammate, DE Chris Long, did while pointing to his own head as a gesture to the ’Skins sideline after Morgan’ s penalty.  Sure, you guys baited an opponent into a penalty.  By doing illegal stuff.  Well done.  Jackass.

I SAW Redskins QB Robert Griffin III score his first career rushing TD on a designed quarterback carry* in the first quarter to give his team a 14-3 lead.  RG3 calmly – but lightning-quick – cut hard upfield, splitting two Rams DBs after gliding to the edge like a top tailback.  Get used to it.

*- With RG# and Cam Newton I am no longer calling them QB sneaks.  There is nothing sneaky about it.  It’s a carry.

I SAW the Redskins announce on Monday that LB Brian Orakpo will miss the entire season with a torn pectoral muscle.  DE Adam Carriker will do the same, thanks to a torn quadriceps tendon.  Without those two defenders (their 2 most important ones this side of LB London Fletcher), the ’Skins D is going to be the next thing to get torn – by opposing offenses – as an already-subpar defensive backfield is about to get even more exposed.  And it only serves to heap more Pressure onto RG3…

Seattle(1-1) wins vs. Dallas(1-1), 27-7

I SAW that the Cowboys still can’t put more than a few good quarters together at a time.  Their performance might make for the most confusing week 2 mindfuck.  They stood up to the Giants last week (well…kinda) and then they just get totally outmatched and outplayed out west.  Seattle – and not just their RB Marshawn Lynch – looked like absolute beasts against Dallas.

I SAW Seahawks S Earl Thomas continue to show impressive range.  He’s been good from his rookie season until this year, his third.  But now the athletic prodigy has more pieces in place on the defense to help him – namely rookie LB Bobby Wagner, whom teammate FB Michael Robinson said reminds him of Niners All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis, whom Robinson played with in San Francisco.  The improved front seven frees Thomas from the babysitting duties he’s had trying to cover up for teammates.  Now the Seattle safety can focus more on his own job – a job he’s doing extremely well.

I SAW the Seahawks quietly building an identity under head coach Peter Carroll as a hard-nosed team opponents don’t want to play at home.  Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch put up his sixth straight 100-yd rushing game in Seattle and the defense held Dallas to 49 yards on the ground while generally manhandling the Cowboys.

Carolina(1-1) wins vs. New Orleans(2-0), 35-27

I SAW Saints QB Drew Brees make a brutal and uncharacteristic decision while throwing on the run in his own end zone.  Panthers S Charles Godfrey picked off Brees and took it 9 yards back the other way for a Carolina TD that tied the game at 7 and effectively removed any momentum for New Orleans.

Brees doesn’t look like himself.  He’s pressing too much, and it’s only September.  In his defense (ahem, pardon the expression) he must be feeling a LOT of pressure to put points up on the board on virtually each drive because his team can’t stop anyone…

I SAW that though it is undeniable that the Saints dearly miss their suspended head coach Sean Payton, the irony is that the coach ’Nawlins seems to be missing the most is now-infamous defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.  (Williams had already left New Orleans for the same job in St. Louis when the bounty scandal broke.  He’s currently serving an open-ended suspension from the league.)  It’s only been two games, and both have been against challenging dual-threat QBs in Cam Newton and RG3 but the damage has been striking.  Heading into week 3 the Saints’ defense ranks dead last in the NFL in total defense (416 yds/gm), rushing defense (186 yds/gm) and are tied with the Chiefs for the worst scoring defense (37.5 pts/gm).  They also rank tied for second-worst in the league with a -4 turnover differential.  More to the point, they have only one takeaway against two young offenses.  Say what you will about Williams’ tactics, but takeaways used to be the staple of this defense during his tenure and now they aren’t happening.

There are a number of ways to explain this decline (if it indeed turns out to be a decline as the season plays out).  The absence of their leader, suspended/injured LB Jonathan Vilma, is the most obvious.  Other injuries to the linebacking corps still linger.  But as both Washington and Carolina marched up and down the field with the ease of running practice drills, it is becoming clear that either the scheme of new D-coordinator Steve Spagnuolo needs time to improve, or, worse, New Orleans lacks the personnel up front to make it work.  Spags made his name in both New York and St. Louis by wreaking havoc with line stunts and other forms of pressure, generated principally by the defensive line.  The Saints’ best rusher is the recently reinstated (from the bounty scandal suspensions) DE Will Smith, who is slightly above average at best.  After Smith, the drop-off is considerable – the main problem being the interior, where tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis scare no one (they had 0.5 sacks combined in 2011).  The result is a very vulnerable defensive backfield that is getting terrorized and with their schedule it’s not going to get any easier.

Spags had better figure out how to plug the dyke ASAP.  The Saints are the only 0-2 team in the NFC and through the first two weeks they have actually looked like the worst team in their division.

I SAW one of the sexier offensive plays I’ve seen in some time run to perfection by the Panthers leading into the two-minute warning in the first half Sunday.  Carolina lined up in the shotgun, with TE Greg Olsen to the left of QB Cam Newton like a tailback, RB Jonathan Stewart behind both of them while in motion to the left, and WR Brandon LaFell in the left slot.  Immediately after the snap, Newton faked a handoff to Olsen, who proceeded to suck several Saints defenders toward him.  As this happened LaFell came on an end-around to the right side, covertly taking the ball from Newton’s left hand while the QB was faking a screen pass to Stewart in the left flat with his right arm.  (This is what is generally referred to as a Statue Of Liberty exchange.)  Stewart and Newton had done such a good job of convincing the New Orleans D the screen was being run, that any defender who hadn’t bitten on the initial play fake after the snap went after Stewart.  But by then LaFell was already motoring around the right edge en route to a 25-yard run that ended at the NO 33-yard line.

If you’ve never seen all eleven defenders twist and shout like Chubby Checker in sheer disarray, this was the time to see it.  It was an entertaining mix of beauty and hilarity.

The gorgeous play started a drive that eventually resulted in a Panthers TD to put them ahead of the Saints 21-13 – a lead that they would not relinquish.  The series of ball fakes was reminiscent of the dazzling ball-handling of decades ago, when misdirection and sleight of hand made the passing game an afterthought.  It takes deft hands by the QB, and Newton pulled it off to perfection.  Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has hinted in the offseason that he had a number of tricks up his sleeve to take full advantage of Newton’s skills – and the draw of the defense the sophomore pro can illicit.  If this is any indication of what is to come, screw you Terrell Owens – you’re out of the league but my popcorn’s more ready than ever.

I SAW Carolina QB Cam Newton and the Panthers look really good in this bounce-back game after getting manhandled by Tampa Bay in week 1.  But it’s not going to get any easier for Newton & Company.  Their next three opponents prior to their week 6 bye: Vs. the Giants on short rest this Thursday, @Atlanta and Vs. Seattle.

New York Giants(1-1) win vs. Tampa Bay(1-1), 41-34

I SAW the same Sunday that saw a rematch between the Handshake Coaches (Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh) yield another feisty handshake incident – this one between Giants head coach Tom Coughlin and his counterpart, Greg Schiano of the Buccaneers.  The bad vibes were brought about when Tampa Bay defenders lunged through the line at N.Y. QB Eli Manning while he was performing a kneel-down with :05 left in the game.  Coughlin took exception, and made that clear during the postgame formalities and Schiano didn’t back down.  After the game Schiano claimed that his team was just playing hard to the last play, and some have defended him and his players for transgressing a rule of convention – lay off of the other team when they’re in the victory formation.

If you want to instill a tough mentality in your players, fine.  But NO team in NFL history that has been known for playing hard until the end of the game has engaged in a bush league play like that.

Either way, the cruel irony is that the former Rutgers coach might actually be putting his own players at risk of future injury via cheap shots if Tampa keeps up this kind of unsafe hustle-master crap.

I SAW PROPS for the Giants WR duo, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.  In a tough game both wideouts racked up double-digit receptions and over 179 yards.  In total both G-Men did this: 21 rec, 378 yds, 18.0 avg, 2 TD.  Nice.  

I SAW Giants QB Eli Manning remind us of why he is NOT an elite quarterback – yet.  Yes, the 2-time Super Bowl MVP threw for the 8th-highest single game total with 510 yards against the Buccaneers Sunday.  Yes, he gutted out another big comeback win with an eye-popping 243yds and 2 TDs in the fourth quarter.  But like teams that often come back from big deficits we often overlook the shitshows earlier on in the game that required such comebacks.  In this game, Manning threw three first quarter interceptions (like his older bro – see: Atlanta wins vs. Denver, 27-21).  The worst such gaffe came with yet another late-first half boneheaded decision from the defending champ’s QB.  With less than 1 minute to go before halftime, Eli tried to hit WR Victor Cruz after appearing to audible to a short wideout hook pattern.  The problem was that Bucs CB Eric Wright had been standing in the prime position to jump that route well before the snap and moved but two or three steps to make the easiest pick-6 he’ll ever get (60 yds).  How Manning didn’t see Wright is mind-boggling.

Essentially, Not-Eli(te) Manning is simply picking up where he left off with his lopsided play.

Recall TFQ’s 2012 NFC East Preview, where it was noted that although Manning threw a record 15 fourth quarter touchdowns last season, his total for the first three quarters of games in ’11 is 14.  That’s pedestrian production at best.

Manning might make up for his problematic play to start games by closing strong but that can’t last forever.  Even if it does, elite status isn’t a charitable designation by any stretch and QBs worthy of it have to play a lot more consistently than Eli does.

I SAW, despite a Tampa Bay loss and throwing 2 interceptions that Bucs QB Josh Freeman looks like a new man in 2012.  Fresh off having trimmed some 20 lbs from his frame, the fourth-year pivot looked much more aggressive and comfortable than he did during his disappointing ’11 campaign.  Three throws stood out in particular.  Early in the second quarter, with the Giants rush in his face, Freeman put up an arcing deep TD pass for WR Vincent Jackson to give TB a 10-6 lead.  In the fourth quarter, during a back and forth flurry of scoring from both teams, Freeman let loose a gorgeous bomb to WR Mike Williams who brought the ball down at the two minute warning to tie the game at 34.  Lastly, after Giants QB Eli Manning led his team down the field for a TD to re-take the lead with :31 left in the game, Freeman perfectly dropped a sideline touch pass to Williams, past the cornerback and just in front of the approaching safety.  Unfortunately, Williams dropped the ball upon review and the Tampa drive ended with an interception on a desperate deep throw with under ten seconds to go in the game.

All three of these beautiful balls were thrown either with the pressure of a pass rush or the pressure of a close game.  Last season, Freeman would have wilted under either.

I SAW the Giants leave their fourth-string CB Michael Coe on an island with behemoth WR Vincent Jackson of the Bucs on more than one occasion.  That shouldn’t happen even once, Perry “I Make Great Pets” Fewell (N.Y.’s defensive coordinator).  You’ve got the best pass-rushing defensive line in the NFL.  You can’t adapt your scheme a bit by letting DE Jason Pierre-Paul & Co go to work on their own while stacking some deep safeties to help your backup cornerbacks?

Cincinnati(1-1) wins vs. Cleveland(0-2), 37-24

I SAW Browns rookie QB Brandon Weeden bounce back from a putrid week 1 performance with a 114.9 rating against the Bengals.  It was a great example of week 2 confusion.  Does Cincy’s D suck?  Is Philly’s D that good?  Do the Browns still suck, or do the Bengals?  Argh.

I SAW Bengals PR Adam “Pacman” Jones eat up pellets like the ghosts had faded away momentarily while making numerous moves during an 81-yard punt return to start the scoring in this game.  It was a weird flash of forgotten potential…kind of like when Greg Oden walks.

San Diego(2-0) wins vs. Tennessee(0-2), 38-10

I SAW behind all of the other NFL hulalaboo that the Chargers have started 2-0 for the first time since 2006.  That was the last year before current head coach Norv Turner took over, and he has presided over shitty start after shitty start since his arrival.  Could this be the year?  We’ll see.  Beating the Raiders and Titans doesn’t appear to be much to write home about.

I SAW another shit performance from Titans RB Chris Johnson.  CJdeuceK squeezed out another steamy log from his ass in week 2 with 17 yards on 8 carries.  For the year Johnson has 79 total yards on 29 touches.  Jinkies!

Buffalo(1-1) wins vs. Kansas City(0-2), 35-17

I SAW Bills RB C.J. Spiller leads the league in rushing yards, with 292.  That’s very surprising and impressive – both for Spiller and his O-line.  But he’s averaging 10.0 yards per carry.  That won’t last.

I SAW that the Chiefs defense is even more galling thus far than the Saints D, in part because their head coach Romeo Crennel is considered a defensive guru.  It’s a battle to decide who sucks the most when Kansas City and New Orleans engage in a pylon race on defense next week.  So exciting.

Houston(2-0) wins @ Jacksonville(0-2), 27-7

I SAW one of the legit Super Bowl contenders keep rolling.  The competition hasn’t been game yet but in today’s NFL consistently beating the teams you’re supposed to win against is what the big-time contenders need to do.

I SAW Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert lead his team straight into the shitter against the Texans.  Granted, Houston’s defense is among the best in the NFL, but at halftime Jacksonville’s offense had gained -4 net passing yards and were in a 17-0 hole.  Come on.

The good news: Mercifully, Gabbert had to leave the game in the fourth quarter with what head coach Mike Mularkey has since called “a butt injury.”  The bad news: Gabbert is expected to be able to play this weekend against the Colts.  The worse news: Going forward, it’s either Gabbert of Chad Henne at quarterback for the Jaguars.

Might Jags RB Maurice Jones-Drew see twelve men in the box this year?

Pray for MoJo.

Miami(1-1) wins vs. Oakland (0-2), 35-13

I SAW Dolphins RB Reggie Bush rip off a man’s run in the third quarter, making numerous moves and shrugging off several tackles on his way to the end zone to make it 14-10 for Miami.  Bush had 172 yards on 26 carries…  Could it be that the sensitive Bush is born again, knowing that he’s the number one guy all year?

I SAW another quiet performance on the ground for Raiders RB Darren McFadden.

Run DMC has been tricky at best so far this year, with a paltry 54 rushing yards through two games.  In each of the last two years McFadden averaged over 5 yards per carry.  So far in 2012 he’s getting just 2.1.  New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp came to the Raiders from Houston and he’s brought the zone-blocking scheme with him.  It’s too early to tell if the quick read, one-cut-and-go style doesn’t suit the Raiders’ tailback, but he sure isn’t comfortable in it yet.  Nonetheless, McFadden remains upbeat about the Silver & Black’s ground game, saying, “eventually it’s going to start popping.”

I sure hope he’s talking about rushing plays and not his joints, which so far in his career have been made of glass…

SNF-San Francisco(2-0) wins vs. Detroit(1-1), 27-19

I SAW the Niners.  Wow.  Best team in the NFL right now.  Their defense is justifiably regarded as the best in the league.  More to the point, San Fran has the most consistent ingredient for league dominance: The best all-around offensive and defensive lines in the NFL.

I SAW the Niners look great right now.  But things can change on a dime.  (Like they did for the Packers last year after starting the season 15-0.)  San Fran is one of the teams with a target on their chests now, and it’s looking like they don’t have anymore “gimme” games within their division either.  (To wit: the NFC West went 4-0 on Sunday with San Fran’s three rivals beating Washington, Dallas and New England.  Not bad at all.)

I SAW that week 12, 2011 was the last time the Lions rushed for 100+ yards.

And they don’t even seem interested in trying to change that…Forget MoJo – pray for QB Matt Stafford.

I SAW that Niners QB Alex Smith is…excelling!  His passer rating of 115.9 is best among NFL quarterbacks who have started two games this season.  He looks refreshingly confident running a structured scheme imparted upon him by head coach Jim Harbaugh.

If this holds, even partially, has there ever been another situation when a new head coach has had this much of a positive influence on a middling and former high draft pick QB?  I think not.

MNF-Atlanta wins vs. Denver, 27-21

I SAW that this game was the only dome game this year for inside-happy Broncos QB Peyton Manning – and he blew it.  Bad.

Peyton’s arm isn’t shot.  In fact, while he threw 3 first quarter interceptions it wasn’t Manning’s arm strength that was a concern.  I was that he never appeared to see the defenders that made each pick and that two of the turnovers came as a result of near-basic safety rotations that Manning would usually read in his sleep.  It’s worth considering that when the future Hall Of Famer kept warning media and fans alike that we wasn’t yet 100 percent that he might have been talking just as much about his game experience as he was his physical acumen.  If Monday night was any indication, Manning isn’t seeing the field as well as he has in the past but that’s understandable.  After all, the quarterback missed over a year’s worth of football reps. The pro game is SO fast and Manning isn’t up to speed yet.  He will be.  But let’s give credit where credit is due…

I SAW good reason for other teams to take notice of what the Falcons’ defense did to Broncos QB Peyton Manning all eleven defenders standing upright, showing him nothing in terms of what coverage they might be playing.  The offense was discombobulated from the opening drive.  Falcons head coach Mike Smith was the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville for several years when the Jags used to aggravate Manning, so the coach knows a thing or two about throwing the future Hall Of Famer off his game.  Former head coach and current ATL defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is no slouch either.

I SAW Falcons CB Asante Samuel set a bad example for young football players by continuing to throw himself into opponents with his head down.  During the first half Samuel dipped his head when making contact with Broncos TE Jacob Tamme.  Tamme’s leg nailed the cornerback hard, and he had to leave the game for a time.

Give Samuel credit, though – he learned nothing.  Minutes later he returned to the game and upended Tamme and sent the tight end head over heels by throwing the top of his helmet into Tamme.

That is football 101 unsafe.  To make matters worse, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden praised Samuel for his tough play in coming back into the game (and continuing to behave recklessly).  Gruden is a former head coach in the NFL…let’s hope his lack of attention to safe hitting isn’t widespread among NFL staffers…

CHECK OUT TFQ LATER IN THE WEEK FOR A SUPPLEMENTAL ‘WHAT I SAW’ ABOUT THE SCAB REFS, AND STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR ‘WHAT I SAW’ WEEK 3