Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Quick Thoughts After the First Quarter of the NFL Season

New England's 27-13 victory over Cincinnati on Monday Night Football means that the NFL season has now reached the quarter pole. Here are some things to consider about what we've seen so far.

1) The Cleveland Browns' 27-13 win over the Baltimore Ravens--who went 13-3 and won the AFC North last year--has raised a lot of eyebrows and apparently even convinced some talking heads that the Browns might be for real this year (whatever that means). There are definitely some things to like about this edition of the Browns: Jamal Lewis' hard nosed, tough running, the down field threat posed by Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards and the kick return skills of Josh Cribbs. However, lost in the euphoria of the Browns' victory on Sunday is the fact that Baltimore did not punt even once. In other words, the Browns literally could not stop the Ravens' somewhat anemic offense. Fortunately for Cleveland, two Ravens' drives ended in missed field goals and a third was short circuited by an errant Steve McNair pass that was picked off. However, Baltimore running back Willis McGahee gashed the Browns (104 yards on 14 carries), which should not surprise anyone since the Browns are 30th out of 32 teams in rushing defense. If you cannot stop the run then you will not win consistently in the NFL. The Browns have done a poor job defending against the run for years and until that changes victories like Sunday's will be the exception, not the rule.

2) After the San Diego Chargers fell to 1-3, a mournful-looking LaDainian Tomlinson said that his team had done too much talking early in the season and now was the time to stop talking and start producing. He is right--and he should have delivered that message to his team a month ago. I expected the Chargers to fall off a little bit after firing Coach Marty Schottenheimer but this team has too much talent to be in last place. When the talent is present and the results are lacking that suggests an absence of leadership...

2b)...which leads us straight to Norv Turner, Schottenheimer's replacement. Anyone who doubts the importance of coaching or who believes that anyone can be successful as a coach if he has a talented roster needs only to watch Turner transform a 14-2 team into a complete train wreck (or watch Flip Saunders inherit a championship-level Detroit Pistons team and lose earlier and earlier in the playoffs each year).

3) During Philadelphia's 16-3 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football, NBC analyst John Madden repeatedly noted that none of the Eagles' receivers were able to gain any separation from their defenders and that this was part of the reason that the Giants recorded 12 sacks. I realize that Brian Westbrook was out and that he is a big part of the Eagles' offense and I know that just a week before the Eagles put up 56 points--but it was not too long ago that the Eagles had a receiver who certainly could get separation and make plays: Terrell Owens. When the Eagles got rid of him, Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, then an analyst for ESPN, said that Philadelphia was trying to save face but that sometimes when you save face "you lose your ass." Not the most delicate way to put things, to be sure, so let's look at this from a numerical perspective: Owens' Cowboys are 4-0, the Eagles are 1-3 and Owens ranks eighth in the league in receiving yards while also ranking in the top ten in yards per catch, receiving touchdowns and first down receptions.

4) Owens had a quiet day statistically in Dallas' 35-7 win over St. Louis on Sunday but Patrick Crayton had seven catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. That gives Crayton 83 receptions and nine touchdowns in just over three seasons in the league, so it does not appear that he is a superstar in the making. How did he get so open? Teams have to roll their coverages over to Owens, which creates opportunities for other players. If you saw the highlights of one of Crayton's touchdowns then you noticed that he beat one on one coverage on the play--and you also caught a glimpse of Owens racing downfield to make a block, one of the underrated aspects of his game. Also, on the touchdown run by quarterback Tony Romo the middle of the field was wide open in part because of all of the attention that Owens draws. Yeah, it sure is a good thing that the Eagles got rid of Owens--well, it's a good thing for Dallas.

5) During the Monday Night Football game, ESPN's Michele Tafoya noted that Cris Carter, Randy Moss' teammate with the Minnesota Vikings, told her that Moss does not want to be a team leader and that he functions best in an environment where there is a lot of structure around him. That sounds awfully familiar; as I explained last week, "Moss is not a leader and his own statements prove that...However, what Moss has demonstrated from day one in New England is that he is a very good follower. Belichick, Brady and New England's Super Bowl veterans set a tone for professionalism and work ethic and Moss has by all accounts completely bought into it. You don't want Moss to be the strongest voice or most dominant personality in your locker room but put him on a team that already has leaders in place and then all Moss has to do is play--and no one questions that he is a very, very gifted athlete." The mainstream media likes to lump Owens and Moss in the same category but they in fact have completely different personalities. Owens is a leader: he is outspoken, self-motivated and has a great work ethic. Moss, on the other hand, kind of goes with the flow; if the guys around him are working hard, then he will work hard but if they are not working hard then his attention tends to drift. When Owens said his piece about Donovan McNabb and the media killed him for it you may recall that the other Eagles' players hardly rushed to McNabb's defense. The fact is that Owens was a leader on that team and he articulated some things that others thought about McNabb--that he is too close to the ownership and that he faltered a bit down the stretch in the Super Bowl--but did not say publicly.

6) While San Diego's Turner is apparently too smart to give the ball to Tomlinson in the second half of a close game--never mind that Tomlinson set the single season scoring record last year--New England's Bill Belichick demonstrated on Monday night the value of simplicity. With the Cincinnati Bengals down to two healthy linebackers--and also very focused on stopping New England's high powered passing attack featuring Moss--the Patriots handed the ball off eight straight times to running back Sammy Morris during a second quarter drive. Once the Patriots got down to the seven yard line, Tom Brady threw a perfect jump ball to Moss for the touchdown. Sometimes being smart simply means not trying to outsmart yourself and not getting away from whatever is working.

7) Everybody loves Bengals receiver Chad Johnson. Tony Kornheiser tells us repeatedly that Johnson's antics are not mean spirited and that they do not detract from his team's focus and Mike Wilbon and others echo those sentiments, all the while portraying Owens as essentially the devil incarnate. Anyone who watched the Patriots-Bengals game knows that Carson Palmer threw an interception just before halftime. The pass was intended for Johnson and it was immediately apparent that there was a serious miscommunication between the two players. Johnson jawed at Palmer all the way back to the bench and gave him an earful on the sideline before walking away. As the players headed to the locker room at halftime, Johnson was in Palmer's ear again. ESPN reported that at least part of his message to Palmer was that he knew what route he was supposed to run and that he did the right thing. After the game, Palmer took the high road and said that the miscue was his fault, though ESPN analyst (and Hall of Fame quarterback) Steve Young insisted that the replay showed that Johnson had made a bad read and that he also should have made a better effort to prevent the pass from being intercepted.

In the locker room, Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis screamed so loudly at his players that his tirade was easily audible through the walls to the reporters outside: "If you don't want to be on this team, please don't show up! You don't call the offense, you don't call the plays. You just play. Nowhere in the NFL do guys act like this. We've got to figure this out." He couldn't have been referring, at least in part, to media darling Chad Johnson, could he? Of course, since everyone at ESPN loves Johnson, his conduct and the detrimental effect that it had on his team was almost completely ignored. A couple times, Mike Tirico made comments to the effect that Palmer and Johnson need to work things out because the game is going forward, time is running out and the Patriots are dominating. Kornheiser had nothing to say on the subject. Imagine what his reaction would be if Owens were to have a similar confrontation with Romo. The point here is not whether Johnson or Palmer is right about this particular play and I realize that sideline confrontations happen all the time in the NFL. The important issue here is how the media anoints favorite sons and then accords them nothing but positive coverage while at the same time deeming certain people to be villains and giving those people largely negative coverage. The reality is that sometimes a heated confrontation between two players can clear the air and ultimately be a positive thing and sometimes a heated confrontation is a symptom of a team that is dysfunctional. Without taking the time to really research what happened it is impossible to know the truth--but that does not stop many media members from reflexively bashing certain players while praising others. Coach Lewis' locker room rant and the fact that he has had to admonish Johnson on previous occasions for being disruptive are two strong indicators that Johnson's confrontation with Palmer was not a positive thing.

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