NFL Identity Crises and Week 3 Picks
In exactly three weeks, on Oct. 16, we will arrive at the three-year anniversary of one of the great postgame podium tirades of all time. That would be Dennis Green’s microphone-pounding, “THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!” gem of a rant after the Cardinals dropped a Monday night game to the Bears in 2006.
Alas, there were no such gift-wrapped Coors Light sound bites from Bill Belihick after the Patriots shockingly fell to the Jets or from Andy Reid after the Eagles were annihilated by the Saints at home last Sunday.
But take your pick, be it New England or Philly, the Titans getting beat by the Texans, the Steelers getting bumped by the Bears, the 49ers’ manhandling of the Seahawks or the Bengals’ triumph at Lambeau field, Week 2 of the 2009 NFL season — through the eyes of the Belichicks, Mike Tomlins, Jeff Fishers et al — might has well have been renamed the Sunday of “THEY WEREN’T WHO WE THOUGHT WERE!”
With that in mind, and understanding that Week 2 always boasts the wackiest and most unpredictable slate of games, let’s put the microscope on a couple of the teams that sure as hell weren’t who we thought they were last week, and attempt to make a long-term diagnosis.
New York Jets
Why they weren’t: There’s no doubt the Jets have one of the best defenses in the league. Bringing in Rex Ryan to mastermind its schemes and Bart Scott to fill the role of key cog means the New York front seven won’t be sneaking up on anybody this year. Offensive coordinators know what they’re in store for. It’s on the other side of the ball that the Jets have defied preconceived notions and turned heads. Namely, the play of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. I dare say he managed the game vs. the Patriots (14-for-22, 163 yds, 1 TD, 101.3 rating) in a very Bradyesque (circa 2001) fashion. He withstood the initial burst from the Pats D without making a mistake and capitalized when he had a chance to finish a drive. A second consecutive impressive performance out of the gates for the 22-year-old.
Diagnosis: With a Top 5 defense and an offense that takes care of the ball, the Jets are here to stay. Sanchez seems to have transitioned seamlessly from a high-flying dynamic attack at USC into a pro quarterback who understands how to maximize his defense’s potential by managing the game.
New England Patriots
Why they weren’t: Without taking too much away from the Jets, there were two factors that prevented the Patriots from extending their streak at the Meadowlands. The first was the crowd. These folks showed up for their team and didn’t let up, as Tom Brady was whistled for four delay of game penalties and the Patriots as a whole were affected by the sustained noise level throughout the game. The second was the absence of Wes Welker. Against a Ryan defense bringing stunts and pressure from all angles, Brady needed his go-to guy because he frequently had less than two seconds to get rid of the ball. There is no one better operating out of the slot and finding the pocket of free space upon recognizing the blitz than Welker. Because of that, he’s Brady’s most valuable receiver, and there was just no way the Patriots offense could cope with Ryan’s schemes sans Welker.
Diagnosis: It’s evidently going to take some time for Brady to regain his confidence in the pocket, but the real reason why the Patriots are close to being 0-2 has been their lack of discipline: 17 penalties for 134 yards in two games. Belichick doesn’t put up with mental errors. Despite the way they’ve started, you can be sure New England will finish the season as one of the least penalized teams. They’ve endured rough starts before and rebounded to win Super Bowls. Keep that in mind.
San Francisco 49ers
Why they weren’t: We’ve known the recent incarnation of 49ers as NFC doormats that have had no viable quarterback to lead their team. Yet the 2009 outfit, with Shaun Hill at the helm, marched into Arizona, one of the toughest places to win on the road last season, and silenced the massive crowd of the defending NFC champs. They followed that up by routing the Seahawks, a team widely believed to be poised to regain control of the NFC West with a healthy offense this season. That offense was throttled by a San Francisco defense that’s becoming more elite with each passing Sunday. Patrick Willis is a monster in the middle; he’s already one of the best linebackers in the game and he’s only 24. Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements have helped mold the unit into a legitimate force over the last season-plus. And on the offensive side, Hill doesn’t need to much more than take care of the ball because Frank Gore is capable of running through anyone.
Diagnosis: A change in mentality can’t be underestimated in the NFL. A losing mentality becomes insidious, which is why new Niners coach Mike Singletary sought to snuff that out immediately upon taking the helm after Week 7 last season. Through his fiery style (and rich history as an frightening linebacker for the Bears in the 80s), Singletary made the team believe it could win again, and the results have spoken for themselves. San Francisco is 7-4 under Singletary and has won seven of its past nine.
Why they weren’t: As much as the Eagles have perplexed everyone, it’s tough to read too much into their first two games. They blitzed the Panthers when Jake Delhomme was doing his best reenactment of his WPEBAQ (worst performance ever by a quarterback) showing in the playoffs against Arizona last January. Then they got smoked by a Saints offense that has looked like it’s been playing by AFL rules the first couple of weeks. They were also forced to play that game without Donovan McNabb. Defensively, the spirit of Jim Johnson remains entrenched schematically, but the players themselves must adjust to life without Brian Dawkins.
Diagnosis: The Eagles probably aren’t four touchdowns better than the Panthers and surely aren’t four touchdowns worse than the Saints. Their true identity lies somewhere in between, which is to say this is still a solid football team, albeit one that needs its quarterback to be healthy and productive if it wants to entertain any notions of another playoff run.
Week 3 picks (home teams in CAPS)
Green Bay over ST. LOUIS
DETROIT over Washington (not a typo)
MINNESOTA over San Francisco
NEW ENGLAND over Atlanta
PHILADELPHIA over Kansas City
Tennessee over NY JETS
BALTIMORE over Cleveland
NY Giants over TAMPA BAY
HOUSTON over Jacksonville
Chicago over SEATTLE
New Orleans over BUFFALO
Pittsburgh over CINCINNATI
SAN DIEGO over Miami
OAKLAND over Denver
ARIZONA over Indianapolis
DALLAS over Carolina
Last week: 6-10