The NFL is back, and so is our grab bag of observations you can steal to sound smart in your next Zoom meeting.
Football is back.
It’s perfectly alright to feel conflicted about that for any number of reasons, but the NFL returned this weekend, and a little bit of normalcy returned with it. The irony of NFL announcers talking about empty stadiums and the absurdity of rewarding ourselves for not having done anything to combat COVID-19 as though we actually have shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
But two things can be true at once, and you’re not a bad person for being excited that the NFL is back in our lives. You can both acknowledge that we don’t deserve to have sports back but also accept that we do — that duality is the least complicated thing about the state of the world at the moment.
So before get ahead of ourselves and start breaking down Week 2, let’s dwell on what we saw the first week of the season and what it all means. Reach into our grab bag of observations and pull one out so that you can start the season off sounding smart in whatever Zoom meeting you need to kill five minutes in because everyone shows up late (you all know who you are).
1. Cam Newton’s Revenge Tour Starts Now
One of the biggest self-owns the general football community has pulled is convincing itself that Cam Newton is merely okay.
Even when he signed with the New England Patriots this summer, and it was pointed out just how incredible all the things Newton was able to do in Carolina given the talent that surrounded him, or how motivated he’d be to redeem himself, there was still this hazy doubt that any of it would work out.
Then Sunday happened. Newton didn’t use his debut to sear a middle finger into the foreheads of those that have doubted him his entire career so much as he’s gleefully twisted the iron in the fire to warm it. He knows what’s coming next and so do we, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. This wasn’t his ‘Eff You Game’, he’s only getting started and is going to savor every moment of what he does this year.
To simply call the new Patriots offense Not Tom Brady’s is to tremendously undersell just how entirely different New England looks. Josh McDaniels called for 13 designed quarterback runs on Sunday, with Newton rushing for 75-yards and the Patriots rushing for over 200 yards as a team. That hasn’t been done since 2018 when Sony Michel single-handily rushed for 116 yards against the Buffalo Bills and Cordarelle Patterson racked up 66 yards. But in that game, Michel rushed 18 times and Patterson stitched together four huge runs to pad the total; on Sunday the no Patriots rusher other than Newton carried the ball more than 10 times.
Newton’s ability to run the ball adds dynamic creativity to the Patriots offense we’ve never seen it have before. Five Patriots rushed the ball on Sunday and Newton set up options that paid off later in the game once the Dolphins realized they had no idea what he was going to do under center. We saw this in Carolina (See: The awesome trash-talking wheel route he ran against Clay Matthews and the Packers) but now he has McDaniels to collaborate with and emphasize his skills in new and dangerous ways.
There’s still work to be done, as Newton only threw for 155 yards, but similar arguments were made against Lamar Jackson last season and that ended with him winning an MVP award. The Chiefs and Ravens are still the class of the AFC, but if Week 1 was Newton settling in, the rest of the league isn’t prepared for what he’ll look like once he truly hits his stride.
2. Aaron Rodgers Is Going To Be Just Fine
On the list of quarterbacks in the NFL who are easily motivated to kick your ass, Aaron Rodgers’ name is tattooed near the top. We saw on Sunday that angst does not age out of someone who has made a Hall of Fame career out of finding ways to remind everyone who good he is.
The only thing anyone could talk about with Rodgers heading into the season was how the Packers were starting to plan life without him. Green Bay traded up to draft Jordan Love in the first round back in April and ever since it’s been impossible to talk about the team without mentioning the end of the Rodgers era in some way.
Rodgers put all talks on hold by turning in a vintage performance on Sunday that featured four touchdowns, nearly 400 yards of passing, a handful of astonishing dimes, and an absolute pantsing of a division rival.
Does this look like a guy who is going anywhere anytime soon?
Jordan Love had better get comfortable because this team is not getting handed over until Aaron Rodgers says it is. Maybe that was Matt LaFleur’s master plan all along, to anger Rodgers into tapping back into his well of talent (it wasn’t but I have three different beach houses I purchased with LaFleur stock), but whatever is going on in Green Bay it feels like just the beginning of a vintage year for a guy ready to remind us of just how good he can be.
3. Bucs Are Victims Of A COVID Offseason
Sunday was supposed to be a first big step for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of obscurity and back into the NFL spotlight. Instead, Tom Brady’s woeful debut with the Bucs became a therapy sessions where NFL Twitter unloaded two decades worth of pent-up Brady rage that had been waiting to be let out at the first possible chance.
Brady provided that chance, throwing two interceptions — of which was a Pick Six that proved everyone was sitting on the exact same Jameis Winston joke — and losing his first game away from New England.
But the joy many felt from unloading their Brady hate quickly unspooled into misguided grave digging. Just like all those times we prematurely said the Patriots dynasty was dead, Brady is not as washed as your favorite Twitter personality wants you to think.
Let’s be clear: Brady was not good on Sunday. If alarm isn’t being raised then we should at least be reaching for the button. He overthrew receivers, looked out of sync with the offense, and made some truly terrible decisions. But nothing that happened on Sunday isn’t correctable, nor is it unexplainable. As much fun as it was to dunk on Brady at the first sign of him showing mortality, unpacking the Brady baggage will reveal that this is more likely a slow burn than instant success.
It can’t be overstated how bad a spot teams that underwent massive change are in without a full offseason to let that change settle. The absence of preseason games for teams to try things out and allow new pieces to sync up is less an excuse and more an explanation as to why half the league is starting the year a step behind. Rather than have a Friday night exhibition game against the Dolphins to begin the gelling process of this new Bucs offense, they had to do it on national television against one of the most talented teams in the league. The Saints tried to bodybag the Bucs by running up the score while already winning by double-digits with less than two minutes in the game — this was the furthest thing from a preseason run-through.
This is less an excuse than it is an explanation, and it’s also not exclusive to the Buccaneers. The Colts lost at home to a severely depleted Jaguars team and the 49ers lost a stunner to the Cardinals. The common thread here is continuity and what’s lost when that continuity is thrown off even a little. The Bucs are an extreme example, as major pieces of their team are brand new and need time to sync up. What made Brady so dangerous in New England was timing with his receivers, and once he gets on the same page as his weapons, the Bucs might look a lot more like what we expected to see and less than what we saw. The Colts are in a similar situation, as Philip Rivers is still assimilating himself into the offense and Frank Reich should be trusted to know what he’s doing once that process is complete. The 49ers found out what having only George Kittle rather than their full boat of receivers looks like the hard way.
The bottom could still fall out on all three of these teams, but judging based results of the first week after the weirdest offseason in NFL history is foolish. Continuity benefited teams like the Saints, Chiefs, and Bills — all of whom rolled through their first game of the year. Don’t hold it against teams that didn’t have time to establish it until they truly give you a reason to.
4. Lamar Jackson Is Still The MVP
If Tom Brady and the Buccaneers are on one end of the continuity spectrum, Lamar Jackson sits on the throne positioned on the other end.
Baltimore steamrolled the Cleveland Browns on Sunday — who also on a continuity spectrum in which the continuity is terribleness. Lamar Jackson threw three touchdowns, rushed for 45 yards, and turned in a handful of highlights straight out of the gate.
But if you’re looking for the type of highlights that helped Jackson win the MVP last year, you won’t find them. Instead, his Wow Factor was almost exclusively in the passing game, which is a new wrinkle that should freak the rest of the AFC out.
Get a load of this deep dime that he dished out:
The trope with Jackson — which he and Ravens fans fully leaned into last year — was that he’s a running back who plays quarterback. That’s terrible phrasing but it touches on the biggest issue analysts had with Jackson’s highlight reel style. What happens if he needs to rely not on his legs but his arm to win games for Baltimore.
Well, it’ll look a lot like what the win on Sunday looked like:
Jackson finished with 275 yards passing, which is the second-most in his career and his highest total since Week 1 of last year. He also completed 80 percent of his passes on 25 attempts, which is notable because he only threw 25 or more passes seven times last season and didn’t have a completion percentage higher than 80 percent since Week 10.
This is to say, Jackson is off to a hot start in answering questions about his accuracy. We expected to see him catching defenders flat-footed, which is not only his bread-and-butter but will be easier than ever to do after an offseason where teams didn’t get their normal amount of time to adjust to his style of play. Usually, when a player has a breakout year like Jackson had, defenses have an entire offseason to install systems that will figure him out. That didn’t happen this year, which means Jackson is picking up where he left off in his MVP season without the usual catchup from defenses.
So he was already set up to succeed without missing a beat, but it appears he’s added to his already prolific game. Jackson won the MVP last year and got even better in an offseason where most teams plateaued — let that sink in for a second.
5. Does Mitchell Trubisky Deserve Credit?
Let’s be clear, the Chicago Bears coming from behind to beat a bad Detroit Lions team was not some sort of glowing endorsement that Mitchell Trubisky has figured it out. It might be tempting for Bears fans to buy the snake oil the team has been selling ever since Trubisky was handed the starting job, but try to resist. If we truly believe that biggest value of Sunday’s win was it served as a confidence booster to a guy who has been starting for four years, that’s a problem.
Franchise quarterbacks blossom well before the last year of their rookie contract. They also don’t need a full four quarters to find the will to beat a team that should have never been in a position to win in the first place.
Make no mistake, the Lions are not a good football team. Detroit blew its 11th fourth-quarter lead since 2018 and its eighth dating back to last season. Last year, the Lions became just the third team in NFL history to hold a lead in each of its first 11 games, and win three or fewer. The Lions are built to implode exactly the way we saw on Sunday. D’Andre Swift dropped the game-winning touchdown pass for no other reason than the football gods saw that Detroit was about to do something right and intervened.
That’s who Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears beat on Sunday.
Chicago winning no doubt eases whatever Trubisky tension there was heading into the game but it doesn’t get rid of it. Lest we forget, at one point in the game Trubisky was 5-for-13 for 63 yards. He still completed just over 50 percent of his passes and less than 300 yards. He saved his job for a week, and gave a desperate Chicago sports scene and excuse to decry the notion a quarterback controversy exists but it almost certainly does. If a more talented quarterback than Nick Foles was behind Trubisky on the depth chart, we would not be having this conversation. The Bears had no choice but to start Trubisky until he fails out of the job for a final time, and to his credit, he managed to pass his first test with serious C’s Get Degrees energy. But there are 15 more tests ahead, and Trubisky will have to do a lot better than what he did on Sunday if he wants to truly rebrand himself.