Aaron Rodgers passed his first test with flying colors, achieving a gaudy 115.5 passer rating by completing 18 of 22 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions as his Green Bay Packers defeated their division rival Minnesota Vikings 24-19 in the first game of Green Bay's post-Brett Favre era. Favre lovers/Green Bay haters in the media will have to look long and hard to find something to criticize about Rodgers' performance. There is obviously a long way to go this season but now the whole nation has had an opportunity to see why the Packers were ready to hand over the reins to Rodgers.
There is beating a dead horse and then there is shooting the dead horse, kicking it 50 times, pistol whipping it and whacking it with a folding chair a la a pro wrestler; the latter is a good metaphor for Tony Kornheiser's commentary during the early portion of the Green Bay-Minnesota game, when every single thing that happened precipitated an overwrought comparison of Rodgers to Favre. After a series of penalties resulted in the Packers facing a first and 33, Kornheiser went too far even for his compliant booth mates Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski when he said that everyone will be watching this play to see if Rodgers can pull off the kind of magic that Favre does in such situations; Tirico and Jaworski calmly noted that teams do not routinely deal with that down and distance.
After Rodgers threw his first touchdown, Kornheiser suggested that the crowd was happy because Rodgers had made a Favre-like throw but Jaworski countered that the fans were merely celebrating the fact that their team scored: "You've got to let it go, Tony," he advised, before adding, "I'll go into the football. Aaron Rodgers did a great job with the play action. Korey Hall was about the fourth receiver in that progression. Great job in that regard by Rodgers." That in a nutshell is the problem with having someone like Kornheiser or Dennis Miller in the MNF booth: Jaworski virtually has to call a timeout to "go into the football"; Kornheiser and Miller are both intelligent and witty but they are not football analysts and their presence takes away air time from someone like Jaworski who can actually analyze and explain the game. I resent that ESPN thinks that it has to "add" something to the telecast in order to attract more viewers, whether that something is Kornheiser or the incessant parade of non-football related guests to the broadcast booth, a practice that mercifully is supposed to not take place as much this season. ESPN should just show the game, using their big budget to provide multiple camera angles and the best commentary from analysts who truly understand the intricacies of the sport; viewers who want to be "entertained" by something not related to sports have the option of switching to non-sports programming, while real sports fans do not appreciate such "extras."
During the Packers' next possession, Kornheiser continued to assault the dead horse mercilessly: "I've mentioned this before, the great gamble here. Not to disparage Rodgers--because he's good--but he was given a 13-3 team, and so the question becomes is this the right year to hand a 13-3 team over to somebody with inexperience, because they are knocking on the Super Bowl door. That is the great question in all of this." Does this add anything to the broadcast? Wasn't all of that pretty obvious even before Kornheiser said it in various ways 50 times? After the camera panned to Packers GM Ted Thompson, Kornheiser continued, "He's the guy who did it--he and (Coach) Mike McCarthy. They made this decision. Brett Favre said that he wanted to come back and they finally said the train has moved out of the station. I question that, because that was in July. They hadn't even loaded up the train yet. There were no passengers on it--"
Jaworski, sounding as exasperated as I felt, finally interrupted to provide some perspective: "I know, but Tony you forget that Brett Favre retired. He quit playing football. What were they supposed to do? Wait for him to come back? You've got to move on." That is good advice for both the Packers and Kornheiser.
Favre's Sunday debut as a New York Jet was impressive (15-22, 194 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 125.9 rating) but it is worth noting that he put up those numbers in a 20-14 win over a Miami team that went 1-15 last year. It was a quintessential Favre performance in every way: he showed off his arm strength, guts and gunslinger tendencies and he also put the ball up for grabs, most notably with his miracle touchdown pass to Chansi Stuckey, a desperation heave that should have been intercepted. Let's see what Favre and the Jets do against some better teams. The most remarkable thing about Favre is his astounding consecutive games streak; his durability is a product of conditioning, toughness and a little luck but I think that Favre also helps himself with his footwork. When he delivers a ball from a crowded pocket he often seems to throw off of his back foot, instead of planting his front foot like most quarterbacks and thus exposing himself to the type of devastating knee injury that Tom Brady just suffered. Throwing off your back foot is not something that coaches teach or that most quarterbacks can do efffectively on a consistent basis but--whether by plan or instinct--Favre seems to have a knack for avoiding the kill shots that have taken out so many quarterbacks.
ESPN's Tom Jackson and Cris Carter are a little too giddy in their predictions of how well Brett Favre will do in New York and how much pressure they think Aaron Rodgers is facing. This is understandable, because Jackson and Carter are former Pro Bowlers who surely identify more with Favre and his struggle with Green Bay management than they do with an unproven, career backup like Rodgers--but just because their take is understandable does not make it objective or correct. Favre is an old quarterback who has been an erratic postseason performer for years and who has annually been speaking about retiring. This summer he actually did retire and the Packers had a succession plan in place. When Favre later said that he could understand that Green Bay had moved on you either had to admire his boldness or wonder at how disconnected he is from reality. What did he expect Green Bay to do after he retired: fold the franchise? Of course they moved on, just like every other team in sports history has done after a great player retired. Jackson and Carter's commentary on this subject seems to be inspired more by bias than by an objective evaluation of Rodgers' skill set or a realistic appraisal of Green Bay's options after Favre flip-flopped; Green Bay management was correct to finally rid itself of the annual Favre retirement drama and to put Rodgers on the field full time before they have to decide whether or not to sign him to a long term deal.
As for the second Monday Night Football game--Denver's 41-14 rout of Oakland--suffice it to say that the Raiders should be sued for deceptive advertising if they don't scrap their "Commitment to Excellence" motto.
Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:
1) The biggest story by far is Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury. Naturally, many people are predicting doom and gloom for the Patriots because New England will be without the services of the reigning MVP, a player who tossed an NFL record 50 touchdown passes last season. Obviously, it is not a good thing to lose the best player in the league but it is very premature to write off a team that went 16-0 last season and is currently riding an NFL record 20 game regular season winning streak. Keep in mind that when Brady became the starting quarterback for New England in 2001 he had virtually the same credentials--or lack thereof--that Matt Cassel currently has: Brady was a 24 year old, sixth round draft pick who had been as low as seventh on the depth chart in college, while Cassel is a 26 year old, seventh round draft pick who spent his college career as a backup to Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Yes, that analogy crumbles a bit considering that Brady did achieve some success as a starter in college, while Cassel has not been a starter since high school, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance that coaching has played in the success that Brady and the Patriots have enjoyed. Brady was well prepared to step in and play because he was well coached and Cassel certainly looked well prepared as he compiled a 116.0 passer rating while completing 13 of 18 passes for 152 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions as New England beat Kansas City 17-10, scoring all 17 points after Brady got hurt. It is important to not just look at those numbers but also consider a couple of the throws that Cassel made, in particular his 51 yard completion to Randy Moss on a 3rd and 11 play from the New England one yard line and his 10 yard touchdown pass to Moss at the conclusion of that drive. The fact that Bill Belichick and the coaching staff trusted Cassel enough to have him throw a bomb out of the end zone--instead of doing a safe running play up the middle and punting the ball on fourth down--speaks volumes and the throw itself showcased that Cassel has a strong, accurate arm. The touchdown pass was also a very well thrown ball, placed where only Moss could catch it.
The bottom line is that Cassel has a good skill set, he has talented players around him and he is being coached by one of the greatest coaches ever. The critics are always looking for reasons/excuses to doubt the Patriots but the Patriots usually come through. Remember when Belichick released Lawyer Milloy prior to the 2003 season? Buffalo beat the Patriots 31-0 in week one and Tom Jackson declared that Belichick had lost the team because the players were so upset by how Belichick had treated Milloy--and then the Patriots made Jackson look foolish by winning 14 of their next 15 regular season games en route to their second Super Bowl victory. Sometimes when people pick against the Patriots I think that they are wishing more than they are analyzing.
2) In the August 25, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jim Trotter wrote about the real Chad Johnson, the Chad Johnson that "Ocho Cinco's" media friends usually whitewash before bashing Terrell Owens:
While football fans were watching Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson become a caricature of himself in the off-season, popping off repeatedly with demands to be traded--or, presumably, to be given a new contract--a small group of Bengals players turned their attention to coach Marvin Lewis. Almost from the moment Lewis took the Cincinnati coaching job in 2003, he assigned Chosen One status to Johnson. The former Oregon State standout could get away with anything. Walk out of a meeting without permission? Walk off the practice field and not return because the quarterback hadn't thrown enough passes his way? Put on a sideline skit after scoring a touchdown during a game? Johnson had done them all without significant consequences.
The Bengals looked terrible in their 17-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, producing just 154 yards of offense. "Ocho Psycho" had one reception for 22 yards. Considering that "Ocho Psycho's" teams have no record of postseason success while Owens has been a major contributor on playoff teams for three different franchises, it would be refreshing--yet unlikely--if the media would report the truth: "Ocho Psycho" is a major problem for the Bengals and a major contributor to the unprofessional attitude that has dogged the franchise for years. Most of the NFL's talented receivers are selfishly interested in their statistics but the great ones also want to contribute to a winning effort; "Ocho Psycho" gives every indication that he is primarily interested in his own numbers and his own drama as opposed to helping to build a winning team.
3) ESPN's virtual reality football field--featured on Sunday NFL Countdown and Monday NFL Countdown--is really cool; instead of having ex-players dressed in suits walking through plays, now Tom Jackson narrates the action as three dimensional versions of NFL players move up and down the field in very life-like fashion. Considering the enormous popularity of video games and fantasy sports, how long will it be before sports leagues are replaced by "leagues" of three dimensional, virtual reality players? Maybe that sounds crazy, but virtual reality players won't get season ending injuries or hold out for bigger contracts or get in trouble at three in the morning.