During portions of the offseason, it appeared that some or all of the regular season would be lost to labor unrest. Even before 2011, there were fears that a lockout could lead to missed games.
In the end, football fans got only one less contest — the ceremonial scrimmage played at the site of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All other preseason games were played. Most importantly, all 256 regular season games will be played. On Sunday, 13 of them unfolded, a number that was lucky for the winners, not so lucky for the losers, or for the members of the winners who’ll be losing time to injury.
The fans ultimately won the most, because we got to enjoy the games. And now we get to enjoy highlighting 10 of the biggest story lines emerging from them.
1. Ryan v. Flacco debate heats up.
In 2008, the Falcons made quarterback Matt Ryan the third overall pick in the draft. The Ravens held the eighth pick. They traded down with the Jaguars (who took defensive end Derrick Harvey, a bust), and then the Ravens moved back to the 18th spot to get quarterback Joe Flacco.
In the three-plus-one-game seasons since then, Ryan has been regarded as the better player. But the facts suggest otherwise.
Statistically, Matty Ice and Joe Cool have generated virtually identical performances. In his regular-season career, Ryan has thrown 1,503 passes, completing 916 for 10,380 yards, 66 touchdowns, and 35 picks.
Ryan’s career passer rating? 86.6.
Flacco, in turn, has thrown 1,445 passes, with 895 completions for 10,430 yards. Flacco has thrown 63 touchdowns, and 34 interceptions.
Flacco’s passer rating? 88.5.
In the postseason, Flacco has operated at an even higher level. He has won four playoff games, all on the road. Ryan, in contrast, is 0-2.
And so, when Ryan hosts Mike Vick and the Eagles next week, in Vick’s return to Atlanta as the starting quarterback, Ryan desperately needs a win in order to maintain his image as a top-shelf quarterback. Though he may not lose that standing over only one game, Flacco has caught up Ryan — and Flacco could soon pass Ryan by.
2. Vick is still taking too many chances.
The Eagles routed the Rams, 31-13, in a game that could have been much closer than the final score suggested. After the final gun, Philly quarterback Mike Vick declared, “It felt great to know that I can go out and play lights out, not have to worry about anything.”
But Vick’s performance suggests not that he played “lights out.” Instead, his ongoing struggles in picking up the blitz and his willingness to pull the ball down and run could result in an opposing defender eventually turning his “lights out.” (And . . . now we have to send Shawne Merriman $516.32.)
Vick completed only 14 of 32 passes, a 43-percent percentage. He passed for less than 200 yards, running the ball 10 times for 98.
As Vick prepares to return to Atlanta, it was an average Falcons-style performance from Vick. It simply wasn’t “lights out,” and he’ll need to find a way to complete more passes — and to take fewer risks with his body — if he wants to truly earn that label on a consistent basis.
3. Injured reserve could (or at least should) be coming soon for Manning.
For the first time since December 1997, a quarterback other than Peyton Manning took snaps for the Colts.
And it showed.
The Colts were on the wrong side of a 34-7 loss to the Texans. But it wasn’t Kerry Collins’ fault.
“It was tough out there,” coach Jim Caldwell said after the game. “Obviously he had some pressure and some situations where protection broke down on him. [Collins] didn’t perform as well as he is capable to because of that, but he made some nice throws. One guy or two guys can’t do it all. It’s a team game.”
And the team isn’t good. And if the team doesn’t get better soon, the Colts should simply put Manning on injured reserve and give him ample time to get ready for a return to football in 2012.
With most experts opining that Manning will miss a minimum of three months, there’s no reason to bring him back in December unless the Colts are contending.
4. Texans should presume nothing.
In Week One of the 2011 regular season, the Texans defeated the Indianapolis Colts in Houston.
In Week One of the 2010 regular season, the Texans defeated the Indianapolis Colts in Houston.
Last year, the Texans won only five of their remaining 15 games. And so the last thing the Texans should do at this point is assume that they’ll easily control their division.
“[W]e knew we had to improve our defense and I think it’s clear our defense is much improved,” owner Bob McNair said after the game. But should he or anyone else assume the defense is “much improved,” given that the Texans beat an overmatched Colts team that could have one of the worst offenses the Texans will face this year?
On one hand, it would be wise for the coaching staff to better manage McNair’s expectations. On the other hand, he already has made his expectations abundantly clear. It’s playoffs or else for Gary Kubiak and company in 2011.
Still, Sunday’s win does nothing to ensure that the Texans will avoid the “or else.”
5. It’s way too early to spot trends.
Broadening the point (which also could be described as “recycling”) made immediately above, no team should read too much into a win or a loss in Week One. The Saints may have lost to the best team they’ll see all year, and the Bengals may have beaten the worst.
It’s way too early to label teams as “good” or “bad,” until more games have been played. Even then, some teams will get better as the season unfolds, and some teams will get worse.
If that sounds ridiculously obvious, there’s a reason for that: It is. But with fans of 14 teams looking for reasons to believe that a Week One win will result in a trip to Indy and with fans of the other 14 teams already looking ahead to 2012, sometimes it’s important to state the obvious.
6. Steelers still may have something up their sleeves.
Yes, the Pittsburgh defense suddenly looks old. Sure, the Ravens have a swagger that they didn’t have in prior games against the Steelers. In the end, however, Baltimore merely held serve in its annual home-and-home series with a key rival.
They’ll meet again, in Pittsburgh. On November 6, to be precise. (On NBC.)
If the defending AFC champions can return the favor, all won’t be lost for the losers of the Week One game.
Regardless of whether it feels like it right now.
For the Ravens, they’ll have to learn how to play from the front of the pack, quickly. If they can’t, they won’t be at the front of the pack for long.
That said, the Ravens look like an elite team, given the way they manhandled the Steelers.
7. Chiefs could unravel quickly.
Unlike the Steelers, who have veteran leadership that will help them overcome an uncharacteristic 20-plus-point loss (the last one came on December 9, 2007 against the Patriots), the Chiefs are a young team that has had a Buffalo-sized wrench thrown into their plans for a second straight AFC West title.
Losing in Week One is one thing. Losing at home by 34 points to the 4-12 Bills, whose head coach was jettisoned by the Chiefs coach Todd Haley two years ago, could be the kind of blow that will be hard to overcome.
After losing that badly to a team that was supposedly bad, teams can slide into a funk from which they may not quickly recover.
The Chiefs will need to recover quickly. In six days, they travel to Ford Field. Then, they go to San Diego. In other words, an 0-3 start may be less than two weeks away.
8. The Civil War, NFC style.
Last year, the NFC South produced a trio of 10-win teams. This week, the supposedly best division in football was swept.
Those three 10-win teams lost to three members of the NFC North, with the Packers beating the Saints, the Bears knocking off the Falcons, and the Lions beating the Bucs in Tampa for the second time in nine months. Throw in the Panthers’ 28-21 loss to the Cardinals, and the NFC South is a collective 0-4.
It doesn’t mean that the NFC North is the best division in all of football (even though it possibly is). But it makes it very hard for the NFC South to lay claim to that crown.
9. So much for close games.
Last year, Week One of the regular season produced 11 games decided by seven points or less. This year, the number dropped to five. But for the Cowboys’ late-game meltdown against the Jets, the number would have been four.
Though the Monday night games could produce two more close games, the gaps between some of the winners and losers seemed to be wider than usual on Sunday. And five of the teams that lost by double-digit margins (the Steelers, Colts, Chiefs, Falcons, and Seahawks) won their divisions in 2010.
Again, it’ll take time for the dust to settle and for the consistently good and bad teams to emerge. But the NFL loves nail-biters, and there simply weren’t very many to kick off the 2011 season.
What we got instead, as the league turned a bit upside down, may have been just as good.
10. Kickoffs remain exciting, despite all the touchbacks.
Yes, the shifting of the kickoff point from the 30 to the 35 has resulted in more touchbacks. Sure, I continue to be concerned that an inherently dangerous play doesn’t become safer simply by running it fewer times.
But I’m starting to believe that, while there may be less traditional kickoff-return excitement, there’s a new level of excitement that could compensate for the kicks with the only official action coming from an official flapping an arm like a one-winged bird.
With more and more kickoffs sailing into the end zone, and with more and more teams willing to allow their players to run the ball out, that split second of “will-he-or-won’t-he” will happen much more often.
And when the player chooses to come out, the excitement has multiple layers. Will he get past the 10? Will he get to the 20?
Or, as we saw three times in Week One, will he take the ball from inside his own end zone all the way to the other one?
So maybe, just maybe, the new procedure has enough new twists to compensate for the increase in touchbacks.