Returns, and Many Happy

The stadium scene.
Sept. 5 2000 10:00 PM

Returns, and Many Happy

The inanity, the tediousness, the predictability of the NFL—it's back, and what a relief. Opening weekend saw games that were monotonous (Carolina-Washington, Jets-Packers), games that were excruciatingly bad (Bolts-Raiders), and two fabulous games (Bills-Titans and Rams-Broncos) both played in prime time where everyone could see them. But mostly it saw no basic changes in what makes the NFL both lovable and exasperating, and that was the best part.

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(Note: Complaints about Monday Night Football to follow at end of column.)

All summer, for instance, it was standard to hear that the NFL was about to be totally transformed by "vertical game" deep passing. In imitation of the Super Bowl champion Rams, everyone would be throwing monster long TD passes. Instead, opening weekend saw five TD passes of 40 yards or more (Warner to Hakim for 80, Warner to Faulk for 72, Banks to Ismail for 53, McNown to Robinson for 48, Chandler to Mathis for 44) vs. seven plus-40 TD passes last year on opening weekend—when everyone said the league would be swept by a vast, sweeping switch to power running, in imitation of the then-champion Broncos, and that didn't happen either.

Much more prevalent than "vertical" passes were touchdown returns. Nine punts, kickoffs, fumbles, and interceptions were returned for touchdowns on opening weekend, a high figure. There's nothing teams hate more than working, working, working for each hard-won meter of field position (note: TMQ is considering using the metric system, as in, "It was 2.8 meters and a cloud of dust"), only to see some gentleman suddenly sprinting untouched the length of the field. And it's almost always a little, skinny guy who gets to do the sprinting too, driving the bulked-up, pumped-up NFL middle class crazy.

Among other vast, sweeping changes that failed to occur, it was reassuring to see that individual team makeovers turned out to be mostly puff. For instance, every summer every NFL offensive coordinator says he is going to make a commitment to being patient and establishing the running game—when he knows perfectly well the plan is to push the panic button by the middle of the second quarter. Thus Arizona and Pittsburgh, two teams that made off-season commitments to the running game, went pass-wacky immediately after their first two drives were stuffed: The Cardinals threw 49 times vs. 20 runs, while the Steelers threw 39 times vs. 18 runs, each trend beginning long before the score was one-sided. The sight of the Cardinals and Steelers attempting to pass is not something for the faint-hearted.

And every summer, every NFL defensive coordinator says his charges are going to play attacking, blitzing defense—when he knows perfectly well that the plan is to fall back into coverage to keep things from getting even worse. Thus Dallas, Cleveland, and Seattle yesterday all switched early to soft zones to guard against long scores that would turn defeat into embarrassment. (Interesting that we have Dallas and Cleveland in the same sentence as teams that stank on opening day, isn't it?) Coverage-based strategy may make sense: Of last season's top three defenses—Buffalo, Baltimore, and Tampa—none play a blitz-based scheme. It's just the entertainment value of the annual, obligatory claim that this year we will have an "attacking" defense. What TMQ wants to hear is some defensive coordinator someday saying, "Our plan is to lay back, block the seams, and get incompletions."

Best Call of the Day: At Dallas, the Eagles began the game with an onside kick. An onside kick is a desperation play, and there were 15 minutes on the clock in the first quarter. But the Eagles were desperate! They've been horrible for years. The gamble worked and set Philadelphia on a course for an impressive 41-14 opening-day road win. The psychological angle here is that players often would rather gamble and fail than play percentages. An onside kick or a try on fourth and short shows that you are unafraid, whereas punting on fourth and short communicates the opposite message. The Eagles started the game by telling the Cowboys that they weren't afraid, and boy did it work. Bonus: Jerry Jones had to watch.

Worst Call of the Day: New Orleans held the visiting Lions to just 189 yards yet somehow was trailing by four as the clock wound down. (Wait, we know how—they are New Orleans.) The Saints had the ball deep in Detroit territory, third and five, about 30 seconds left. The call? New Orleans set RB Ricky Williams far out to the left like a wide receiver, hoping to draw the Lions defense that way, and then rolled QB Jeff Blake right. But Williams is such a terrible receiver he might as well stop in the middle of pass patterns to call his agent and complain about his contract. So the Lions ignored him, and Blake was smothered. On the next and final play, we saw why the Lions had ignored Williams on the previous down. The Saints called a short middle curl pass to Williams, and he listlessly jogged out (probably searching for his cell phone), then barely bothered to fight for the ball as a Detroit player made the breakup that ended the game. Tactical explanation: Defenses always shrug at heavy RBs who line up as WRs, unless it has been shown that these gentlemen can run real patterns and catch balls. Lining up a heavy RB as a flanker is the equivalent of handing out cards that say, "We're rolling the other way."

Best Performance of the Day: Turned in by Cincinnati, which did not lose. But then, it had the opening bye. Face it Bengals fans, your team peaked early.

Stat of the Day: Seattle, which lost 23-0, is now 6-19 all-time on opening day. Ye gods.

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