Early in his incredible career, American singer-songwriter Billy Joel wrote a song called “Summer, Highland Falls,” a self-examination of the thin line between being ecstatic or forlorn. Joel’s lyrics chronicle the hardships of becoming a rock star, which one moment create a euphoric feeling and the next tremendous sadness — kind of similar to NFL Sundays.
Week 1 of the NFL season mimicked Joel’s struggles for fans, bettors, coaches and executives. Everyone’s emotions from 3:30 Eastern until 4:30 were back and forth as the games were coming down to a single kick, resulting in, as Joel described, “sadness or euphoria.” To end the weekend, we watched Russell Wilson’s return to Seattle come down to another field-goal attempt to determine our state of well-being. Welcome back, NFL. We missed you.
Most everyone focuses on the scoreboard, the final result — who won, who lost. Giant fans were delighted with their win, and Titans fans miserable, yet the margin was so, so close, it could have gone the other way. Early in the season, it doesn’t matter who won, the scoreboard is not relevant, as each week presents a new challenge for the teams and the thin line is ever-present. We cannot make judgments by the scoreboard, we have to review the games, study the tape and prepare for next week's games.
Each Tuesday, I hope to present a fair and unbiased review of the games with information that hopefully helps our handicapping of the next week’s games. Before I do, I need to get something off my chest. This lack of respect for three points in the NFL is going to cost people their jobs. They will not be able to hide behind the protective shield of “the analytics” proclaiming their decision was the right one. Owners only care about winning, and playing the analytics card can only go so far. How do you think Colts owner Jim Irsay feels after watching his head coach, Frank Reich, continue to cost him games with his lack of respect for three points? It cost him a playoff win in Buffalo two seasons ago and a season-opening win in Houston on Sunday. If the object of the game of football is to collect as many points as possible, why do coaches turn down three points?Jaguars head coach Dougie Pedersen once again went on his fourth-down crusade and once again it cost him the game. Had the Broncos’ Nathaniel Hackett taken the three points when his team was inside the 5 twice on Monday night, he doesn’t need to try a ridiculous 64-yard field-goal attempt. I believe taking points in the first three quarters is always a smart move — and then in the fourth, when it becomes a stand-alone game, make the fourth-down decision. Had Denver, Indy and Jacksonville followed this advice, they would be 1-0 today, not 0-1. OK, enough of my rant.
— I am not a big fan of the Falcons' talent base, or their Over win total, but after watching their game against the Saints, I am a fan of the offense they created around quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mariota looked like a solid starter in the game — with his timing, athletic skills and accuracy. Credit coach Arthur Smith for being creative, and now that his offense has been fully declared on tape, it will be interesting to examine how defenses adapt and if Mariota can stay healthy.
— Week 1 proved my theory of teams being good for certain portions of the game. For example, some teams are capable of playing well for 50 minutes, some for 55, and the best can go for 60. The Falcons appear to be a 50-minute team, as in the fourth quarter last year, they were last in points scored, 28th in points allowed and 31st in point differential. The Seahawks also appear to be a 50-minute team as they managed only one first down in the fourth and held the ball for a little over four minutes. The Lions are a 60-minute team — not in a win-the-game way, rather, they will compete until the bitter end, which makes them a potential backdoor cover team. Here is my initial list of time element teams:
- Texans 50-minute team. They will wear down and don’t have enough depth to finish games. But they will play hard and are getting better with more quickness and speed.
- Bears 50-minute team. When the Bears play on a clean surface, they will have a hard time stopping their opponents. They will play hard and compete, but they are not good enough to finish games.
- The Bills, Bucs, Chiefs and Ravens are never going to be out of any game, regardless of the score. They are 60-minute good teams.
— Sorry Bears fans, but the worst quarterback on the field Sunday wasn’t Trey Lance, it was Justin Fields, who completed only eight passes and never looked in rhythm. In fairness, the weather was god-awful and his offensive line had a hard time blocking the 49ers' front. Yet Fields was inaccurate and still not comfortable throwing from the pocket. He can make plays with his feet, but he has yet to prove he can make plays from the pocket.
— Trey Lance isn’t ready. It’s not fair to him or his teammates to continue to force his development. Now that he is on tape in a real live game, defensive coaches will fine-tune their coverages and read his eyes before every throw. He will lead the defender to the ball, as he did on Sunday. Lance passed for only one first down in the fourth, and when the game became a total passing game, removing the play-action, Lance wasn’t remotely effective.
— There were more bad snaps and center/quarterback exchanges in Week 1 than I have ever seen. First-time flag footballers were more effective.
— The Colts and Titans both lost yardage before their critical field-goal attempts, which isn’t the reason both kickers missed, but it certainly didn’t help. At the end of the game, getting in field-goal range isn’t the object. Getting in makeable field-goal range is the requirement.
— The Jaguars spent significant money on their offensive line this past offseason to help protect Trevor Lawrence. And based on their first game, it didn’t help. Lawrence was hit 10 times and sacked twice. He took a beating, and the Jags need to make a deeper commitment to running the ball with their two solid backs, Travis Etienne and James Robinson. The Jags averaged 6.8 rushing yards per attempt in the game, yet called only 18 runs in a close game.
— Last season, the Eagles finished 28th in red-zone defense. On Sunday, the Lions were 4-4 in the red zone, which cost many Eagles bettors their cover. The Lions moved the ball on the Eagles, who had a hard time stopping the run.
— Before betting any game, check the officiating crew and be wary of new referee Tra Blake, who called 19 total penalties in the Washington-Jacksonville game and got more screen time than any of the Kardashians.
— I love Mike Tomlin and never doubt his talents as a head coach and decision-maker. However, I am not sure how much longer he can watch MVP Mitchell Trubisky play quarterback. If it wasn’t for some of Bengals coach Zac Taylor’s awful decisions, the Steelers would have lost.
— Speaking of Taylor, why is he insistent on playing Samaje Perine as his pass-catching running back? Joe Mixon is an elite player, on all downs. If Taylor wants to rest Mixon, do it on early downs, never on the conversion downs. He is too hard to tackle and too good of a pass catcher.
— Can we please stop calling Kyle Pitts of the Falcons a tight end? He rarely aligns at the Y position, and the defense treats him as a receiver. Until he can block someone, he is a receiver.
— Early in the season, teams are finding their way and searching for an identity, especially on offense: What they do well, who they can count on to make critical plays and how they can minimize their weaknesses. Once this occurs, then we can better assess their teams.
— Saquon Barkley looks like he is back to his old form after overcoming all the injuries. He singlehandedly won the game for the Giants with his playmaking talent. And Giants fans rejoice that you won the game, but don’t believe the Daniel Jones stat sheet. Yes, he only had four incompletions, but he still processes too slowly and cannot protect the ball, fumbling once again on Sunday. When Jones plays against a fast, active moving third-down team, he will struggle badly. Against the Titans, he was 2-for-10 on third down.
Check out my Friday column for notes on the weekend games, and if you are a VSIN Pro Subscriber, you get my Sunday picks.