Lessons From Week 1 of the NFL

10
Sep

The first week of the NFL is always an odd one. Seeing veterans suiting up in enemy colors and playoff teams falling to last year’s losers can weird anyone out. Overreactions are plentiful (the Patriots will finish in last place in the AFC East! New Orleans’ defense is worse than it was in 2012! The Titans are a new powerhouse?!), but amid the flukes and panic, there are certainly takeaways from the first week of action.

Here are five lessons from Week 1 of the NFL.

1. Old Habits Die Hard

Seven new head coaches debuted with their new teams on Sunday, and a few were up to their same old mistakes. Lovie Smith’s tenure in Chicago was characterized by lackluster offense, as well as an ineptitude in decisions regarding when to start or sit failing quarterbacks. This weakness of gauging quarterback depth led to Smith’s famous saying “Rex is our quarterback,” as well as his less famous version, “Caleb’s our quarterback.” Smith wasted no time in cementing that reputation in Tampa Bay by immediately announcing that Josh McCown, the recently acquired perennial backup, was indeed his quarterback and would be starting over last season’s rookie standout Mike Glennon. McCown did start on Sunday, and he ultimately lost the Buccaneers the game with his awful pocket presence and two embarrassing interceptions that resulted from panicky releases during pressure.

In Washington, former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden called his first game as head coach of the Redskins. In Cincinnati, he was often criticized for his unimaginative play calling and game plan, and that trend certainly seemed to continue in a Week 1 loss in which his offense was only able to muster six points against hurting Houston defense.

Old habits also plagued players with new teams, as well. Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell left Carolina on a sour note this offseason after never developing into the potential receiving threat that his combine numbers suggested. He frequently dropped passes and had trouble creating separation on routes. This continued in his first game with New England, in which he was targeted five times by Tom Brady but was unable to come up with a single reception as he displayed an inability to track Brady’s deep balls. In Tampa Bay, new guard Logan Mankins missed nearly the entire game after leaving early with an injury. This might not have surprised Patriots fans, who saw Mankins miss 14 games from 2010 to 2012.

2. Sitting Your Rookie Quarterbacks Can Be The Right Move

Four quarterbacks were selected in the first two rounds of the 2014 NFL draft with a strong possibility of contributing to their teams as a rookie starters. Of those four, only Oakland’s Derek Carr actually started on opening day after beating out veteran quarterback Matt Schaub for the first-string spot. Teddy Bridgewater managed a strong preseason campaign for the Vikings, but ultimately lost out to Matt Cassel. Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer both failed to impress in the preseason, but Cleveland decided to go with the veteran over Manziel. Meanwhile, Blake Bortles put together a very convincing preseason effort, and the decision by Jacksonville to bench Bortles in favor of Chad Henne was met with no small amount of backlash.

However, all three teams that decided to start a veteran quarterback over their rookie option now appear to have made the correct choice. Only the Vikings came out victorious on Sunday, but like Minnesota, Jacksonville and Cleveland were both uncharacteristically strong in the passing game. Cassel, Henne, and Hoyer combined for 666 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. The lone rookie to start on Sunday, Derek Carr, did perform admirably in a close loss for Oakland, but the offense looked rather restricted, as Carr rarely threw passes beyond ten yards past the line of scrimmage. After Week 1, it seems that placing confidence in a veteran can certainly be a viable option while rookies develop on the bench.

3. Knowshon Moreno Can Be A Feature Back

Denver parted ways with running back Knowshon Moreno this offseason, and many felt that there would be no noticeable change in production or effectiveness as Montee Ball assumed Moreno’s old role. Furthermore, when Moreno signed with the Miami Dolphins, it was assumed that he would be playing a backup role behind Lamar Miller. Moreno’s late success with the Broncos was largely attributed to the massive attention that Peyton Manning and the Denver passing attack drew, and pass protection was often labeled as Moreno’s greatest quality. He was considered a system back who would have a tough time grinding the ball in another offensive scheme, especially one with a collection of problems on the offensive line like Miami. His nickname “Slowshon” was a testament to the faith that Denver fans put in Moreno’s running ability.

So it came as a surprise on Sunday when Moreno, the back who was described as clearly behind Lamar Miller on the depth chart just before the preseason, received the majority of carries against the Patriots in a 33-20 victory. Moreno gained 134 yards on 24 carries, compared to Miller, who only ran the ball 11 times. Moreno showed physicality, breaking five tackles on a late touchdown run, and he averaged over 5.5 yards per carry. Whether the line improved or not, it’s clear that Moreno can handle the heavy load in the AFC East.

4. You Can Count On Rookie Receivers

The 2014 draft saw one of the deepest classes of rookie receivers in recent history. As veteran receivers shuffled around in free agency, many teams chose to build a solid foundation in the passing game by selecting a wide receiver in the first two rounds. On Sunday, these highly touted pass catchers saw their first action at full NFL speed, and several took the opportunity to stake their claim as the premier receiver on their respective offenses.

The New Orleans Saints traded their first and third round picks to move up and select Brandin Cooks in the first round. After a preseason where Sean Payton elected to take it easy with Cooks, he had the opportunity for a big day in Week 1 as Kenny Stills, the number two receiver, sat the game out with an injury. Cooks was extremely impressive, showing veteran poise as he caught the ball in traffic and absorbed big hits. He ended the day with 95 total yards and a touchdown, including an 18 yard rush.

Kelvin Benjamin assumed the number one spot on the Panthers’ receiving corps after their offseason purge of pass catchers. He had to play without starting quarterback Cam Newton, but was still able to put up 92 receiving yards and a touchdown in a strong NFL debut.

Meanwhile, Jaguars rookie Allen Hurns was virtually unknown (he was owned in ~0% of fantasy leagues), yet put up the strongest rookie performance of the day with 110 yards and two touchdowns, while Jacksonville’s other rookie, Marquise Lee, managed 62 receiving yards. After opening weekend, it seems that the young guys are having no trouble keeping up.

5. The Preseason Yellow Scare Was Just A Scare

This offseason, the NFL Officiating Department announced a renewed emphasis on defensive penalties, especially flags for illegal contact beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage, as well as illegal hands to the face by rushing defenders. Panic set in as the preseason saw record numbers of penalties per game. Referees were enforcing the penalties on the most miniscule contact, and defensive penalties were unbelievably more common than they had ever been.

This caused a fair bit of concern, and it even earned the name “The Seahawks Rule,” as it was speculated that the new emphasis was declared to specifically address the physical play of Seattle’s Legion of Boom during last year’s Super Bowl run. But it appears that the referees simply needed their preseason reps, as well. During Sunday’s fourteen games, only 200 penalties were called, which puts the average penalties per game at 14.2, right at 2013’s 14 per game average. It seems that as players and referees both worked to make more consistent decisions, the penalty panic was nothing more than preseason jitters.

About the author: Cale Finta