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Newton puts best arm forward in debut

Shorts and Shells: Week One

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Posted Sept. 12, 2011 @ 4:43 a.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

If you watched nary a play of the Panthers-Cardinals game, you at least would be impressed by the following stat: Panthers QB Cam Newton set a record for most passing yards in a debut by a rookie. The man he topped? Peyton Manning. How is that for a weird statistic? On the day No. 18 sits out for the first time ever, a record he set in his first NFL game is broken.

But this is about Newton and his pretty amazing stat line: 422 yards on 24-of-37 passes with two TDs and one interception, also rushing for another score on a QB draw. We expected Newton to run well and perhaps make a play or two in the air in his debut after a preseason in which it appeared he regressed a little bit with each game.

But this? Pretty sensational, even if the Cardinals' defense was tissue-soft at times. I remind you: On the road. No offseason program. First game. What a debut.

Pretty much everyone thought the Panthers would run and run and run in Newton's debut. But when the Cardinals blitzed and moved guys into the box, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski opened up the playbook. And Newton responded with a terrific first impression.

I caught up with WR Steve Smith (eight receptions, 178 yards, two TDs — his most yards in a game since 2006 and most TDs since '09) and asked him to rate the rookie's debut.

"I think he did excellent," Smith said by phone Sunday night while sitting on the team bus. "I think, by his demeanor after the game, he was very upset with himself because he feels like he could have done a better job. To me, that's encouraging. A young guy throws for 400-something yards and he is upset, looking at the ticky-tack things he can improve on.

"He has the desire to be better than that. It's an honor be on the same field as guys like that. Most young players don't come out of college wanting to be great. A lot of people say it, but very few really attempt to do it. Man ... I am just happy. I am happy to be on the field with a guy like that."

And as for Smith? Is he happy to have his biggest game in a few years after having a lot of folks — at least in his own mind — write that he is on the downside of his career?

"Everyone wants to act like those articles (panning Smith) weren't written," he said, with sarcasm hanging on every word that followed. "I was disgruntled. I lost a step. I am not as good as I used to be. I think I looked pretty average today, if you ask me."

Newton is going to have a few 13-for-31, 122-yard, two-INT games (maybe even next week vs. Green Bay) in his career, most likely this season. It will not be as easy and successful every week as it was Sunday.

If we want to pick through his performance, Newton really had 4-5 throws on which he looked like a rookie (including a pick that was called back on a questionable roughing call) and was silly to get a 15-yard penalty for his Pete Townshend impression after the rushing score.

Like Newton, Matt Leinart was a prized rookie once, and he too had a banner performance (31-of-51 passing, 405 yards, TD, two INTs) in his first season. Immaturity, something that has been questioned in Newton, has led to Leinart being the Texans' backup.

But it's hard not to be impressed with Newton's composure in this game, especially on the final drive where he looked to be in total control, like he was born to play this position.

The craziest part is that the Panthers went from one of the more boring, unwatchable teams last season to perhaps one of the more intriguing with just one game. We will keep watching to see the encore.

 

Controversial call of the week

In this week's edition, we look at two plays — one that affected the other — in the season opener. As the Saints drove down, trailing by eight points late in the third quarter, to the Packers' side of the field, their run game showed some life but also some diminishing returns. After Drew Brees hit Devery Henderson for 13 yards, four runs followed: Pierre Thomas for five yards, Darren Sproles for seven, Thomas for two and Mark Ingram for no gain.

I think the fact that Ingram was stoned on 3rd-and-1 from the Packers' seven-yard line spooked Saints head coach Sean Payton out of going to a power formation and running it on fourth down. Instead, he called for a sprint-out, and Brees was turned around and forced into a momentum-changing incompletion.

It didn't kill off their chances, though. The Saints got the ball back and drove, with the same-sized deficit, in the game's waning moments, earning an untimed play on 1st-and-goal: score or go home a loser. The formation was tight, and everyone in the stadium seemed to know a run was coming. It did — a straight-ahead power play — and about six Packers, led by Clay Matthews and Morgan Burnett, shut Ingram down. The rookie had no chance.

Payton seemed to doubt himself after the previous failure with a pass on fourth down, and it's my assertion he carried that doubt into the final play call of the game. He spoke on the matter afterward.

"Hindsight, it's easy to say, 'Kick the field goal,' " Payton said. "But that being said, we felt like we had a play we wanted to run. But it didn't work. It's not an easy call, but it's one that you look back on and I'll kick myself a little bit."

The old knock on Payton — definitely before he won a Super Bowl, and a little bit more after last season's playoff disappointment — was that he often outsmarted himself. I remember being at a Saints game before they won it all and an NFL official from another team, sitting in the press box, muttered under his breath after Payton made a risky call that failed: "Smartest guy in the NFL."

The comment, naturally, was sarcastic. And though I don't think Payton was wrong to go for it on fourth down, I do think he erred in letting his one failure affect the next. This is an isolated incident. It didn't cost the Saints a win; the better team was victorious on Thursday night. I expect the Saints and Payton to be just fine.

 

The 'wow' factor

This week's edition looks at the supposed contenders who lacked the "wow" in Week One:

CB Ike Taylor was yanking away at the ball, trying to rip it free from Ravens RB Ray Rice in a game the Steelers were losing 32-7, and you can understand the frustration. But the frustration turned to raw anger when Taylor head-butted Michael Oher when the play long was over.

The Steelers might be the most physical team in the NFL during the past decade, and they have the reputation of being among the dirtiest. But you almost never see them implode mentally the way they did Sunday.

And how bad was it for the Falcons? Poor Matt Ryan. In the midst of a horrendous afternoon, trailing 30-6, Ryan took a sack from Bears DE Julius Peppers in which Ryan's head almost came off. The look on his face afterward? Well, let's just say if it had happened to Jay Cutler, the winning QB across the field, the media would have invoked the "bad body language" phrase.

As for the Colts, it feels like piling on. We'll get back to them in a bit.

On the surprise meter, the Steelers' rates an eight or nine out of 10 — not because the Ravens beat them, but because of the way they did it. Can you ever remember the Steelers' defense looking so slow? And their offense so feckless? The secondary and offensive line have taken their shares of flak in recent years, at times for good reason, but both groups were miserable Sunday.

But so was Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers turned the ball over seven times. Seven, as in the number of points they scored in the game.

"We got our tails whipped," Hines Ward said.

For the Steelers, the whipping might be shocking, but it's the kind of thing they are as prepared to come back from as any team is. Head coach Mike Tomlin did not look pleased during the game, even losing his cool once, but he also has shown a rare ability for a young coach — the ability to turn adversity on its head the past few seasons.

"We got handled in all three phases today," Tomlin said. "We don't like it, but we accept it and we'll respond accordingly."

But do we feel good about the Colts' chances of turning things around? That doesn't look too good right now. Peyton Manning got my MVP vote after Week One when I considered just how much he masked the team's other shortcomings.

Most levelheaded Falcons fans will realize that Mike Smith is a pretty stable head coach whose team had a bad Sunday. But they face the speedy Eagles in Week Two and follow up with the Bucs in Tampa. Plus, Michael Turner looks slow. Do you want to pass-block 50 times a game with that group up front?

A few teams have some work to do to get back to the level we expect of them.

 

Entertainers and icons

Newton wasn't about to make the list for the second time in three weeks of the "Shorts and Shells" existence, so three others will have to do:

Packers WR-RS Randall Cobb: My goodness, is this kid fun or what? And a bit of a wild card, too. Texted one area scout whose territory included the Southeast the day after Green Bay's win over New Orleans, asking about the Kentucky product, a second-round pick in April's draft: "Second-best player in the SEC last year after Cam (Newton)." All Cobb did in his debut on Thursday was catch a touchdown pass (while running the wrong route) and running back a kickoff for a touchdown, tying an NFL record for the longest ever at 108 yards (he never should have taken it out of the endzone, said Mike McCarthy), with a nice assist from John Kuhn, who helped push the rookie after a brief stumble. Contrast Cobb's debut with the game James Jones (one target, one catch, one yard) had, and it's easy to wonder if re-signing Jones was necessary.

Lions TE Tony Scheffler and Jaguars QB Luke McCown: Hey, it's Week One. Did you see Scheffler's swashbuckling, Buccaneer-fun-poking TD celebration? If not, don't concern yourself too much. But seek out McCown's emphatic first-down indication ... only to discover he and his team had come up a yard short. That was entertaining.

 

Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from Week One, which was filled with plenty of exciting twists and turns:

1. Mark Ingram has a lot of pride. I walked into the Saints' locker room as the place was pretty well cleared out Thursday night, and there the rookie was, sitting quietly in his stall, putting on his clothes slowly. I walked up to him, knowing he already had been asked about the final play of the game — probably more than once. He graciously replayed the play for me, but it was less about X's and O's to Ingram. He felt like he had let down his teammates in his first pro game that counted. "Man, it's on the goal line. I got to get in there," Ingram said, shaking his head thinking about the potential game-tying TD play. "This is the NFL. I have to find a way to get in there. It's one yard — I've got to get it." He'll get it. A lot. Ingram might not ever be a special back in the mold of Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson because he'll never be that fast. But Ingram knows how to pick his way through traffic — the final play aside because the interior O-line got zero push — and will be a very nice fit in this offense for years to come. Trust me.

2. What happened in the state of Misery/Missouri? The Rams and Chiefs, both contenders last season, were spanked at home. The Rams were far from impressive, dropping at least six passes by my count, but it didn't help to lose RB Steven Jackson early in the game (after a 47-yard TD on his first carry), as well as ORT Jason Smith, WR Danny Amendola (dislocated elbow — very bad news), CB Ron Bartell and QB Sam Bradford late. But what in the name of Harry Truman happened to the Chiefs? Their problems started early: Dexter McCluster fumbled on the first play, which the Bills recovered, and Eric Berry, their fine young safety, left with injury soon thereafter. It snowballed from there, as the Ryan Fitzpatrick Train ran right through them. It's hard to make too many sweeping statements in Week One, but this was bad. On the panic scale, the Chiefs, though, have to be ranked higher. They might struggle to win six games with this type of showing. Maybe four.

3. The biggest negative lockout effect I can see right away appears to be tackling. It has been widespread on defense and special teams, and perhaps more obvious on the latter. People are surprised that there have been so many big returns on kickoffs considering the new rules that have moved the kickoff spot up, but I bet special-teams coaches are imploring their returners — save for Cobb, of course — to take balls out even if they are five, six, seven yards deep. Why? Tackling is something that comes with time. When I have been to early full-pad practices and preseason games, it's what I notice the most: bad tackling, not wrapping up. It usually gets cleared by the start of the regular season. We're a little behind on that this year, clearly.

4. It was an impressive statistic to see: Fifty-eight undrafted free agents made Week One rosters, the most since 2003 when the number was 63. What made it so impressive is that these players didn't get to choose their teams until late July, losing a lot of time to study playbooks. But the fact that some of these players are out on kick and punt coverage clearly led to the fact that there were three kickoff returns for touchdowns, which ties the mark for the most in Week One.

5. The Saints and Jets remain Super Bowl contenders, in my mind. But each team appeared weak in the trenches in Week One: the Jets on offense, the Saints on defense. The Saints got absolutely no push against the Packers, and though DE Will Smith's absence hurt, the rest of the group was invisible. And the Jets might have to give ORT Wayne Hunter help all year long. He was simply manhandled by Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware. Granted, we're talking about one of the best in the game, but Hunter looks badly outclassed. Smart teams will exploit him weekly.

6. Ugh, the Browns. Clearly, they are not ready for prime time. I was pumping them up as a great sleeper team, one capable of ripping off five or six wins in the first half of the season based on their soft schedule. But now? I'm picking against them until further notice. I like the tight ends, but the defense has to put on its big-boy pants. They were run over by RB Cedric Benson and let too many free releases underneath in pass defense. The A.J. Green touchdown, not being set at the line and aware of the situation? Inexcusable.

7. We all should chill on the Andrew Luck to the Colts/Chiefs/Seahawks/Browns talk for now. Remember, at this time last year Jake Locker was the unquestioned No. 1 pick, and I would say he became a very surprising No. 8 pick. I love Luck as much as the next guy and think he has a chance to be fantastic. But it's early September. We've got some time to think about the draft.

8. What can we say about Tony Romo? He played a marvelous football game through three quarters, dicing up a Jets secondary that features three stars and surviving constant pressure. But his fumble on the scramble near the endzone cost his team three points, and the fourth-quarter interception — thrown right into Darrelle Revis' hands — was just purely awful. It was bracket coverage, and Romo just pulled the trigger when he shouldn't have. It's the same knock on his game, good and bad, he has been hearing for years. "Dumb decision," he said of the late pick. "We win that football game if I didn't do what I did. I cost us a football game tonight." Hard to argue differently, sadly.

9. Can't go without saying how well Jay Cutler played, minus a few Cutler-esque plays. He was questioned all offseason for his toughness, how injured he was in the NFC title game, as critics picked apart his season. The Bears were everyone's pick to tumble from being great last season to being 7-9 or some similar record. But what do they do? They dominate a supposedly very good Falcons team from the start. Cutler paced them with an excellent game. In fact, that might have been better than they played in any single game a year ago.

10. Hard to believe I got this deep without mentioning the Texans. The Kevin Walter injury (out three months perhaps) is a crushing blow, especially considering how thin they are at receiver and considering two starters (Jacoby Jones and Danieal Manning) are their primary returners. But Arian Foster will be back, the offensive line can dominate at times and — hallelujah! — the defense has some teeth. Mario Williams (two sacks in his first game as a linebacker) is going to love Wade Phillips, and vice versa. Phillips was having some fun dialing up the blitzes vs. Kerry Collins.

 

Early Week Two teasers

The top five story lines heading into next week:

  • Mr. Vick goes back to Atlanta. Yes, these teams have played each of the past two seasons, and yes, Vick has appeared in Atlanta since leaving the team. But it still is a story line. Meanwhile, the bigger (but less publicized) story might be that the Falcons are struggling to find an identity right now. Passing team? Running team? Improved on defense? Week One provided no concrete answers. For that matter, do we really know how good the Eagles are? They were awfully sloppy in Week One.
  • Cam vs. A-Rod — The future against the present. Of course, Rodgers is the future, too. The Packers are going to present a lot more problems for Newton than the Panthers will for Rodgers. This one could get ugly early. But still, you'll watch.
  • Saints fans don't like Bears fans, haven't since the NFC championship game between the teams in January 2007. Why? The perception is that some Chicago folks made some not-so-kind references to Katrina that year in the stands of a game that ended up being a Bears blowout in the snow. Now, New Orleans fans, some of the nicest (and yet loudest) in the country, will give the Chicago folks a little welcome to the South this weekend.
  • The Chargers and Patriots meet up in a pretty good football game. We'll see the Patriots tonight, and the Chargers showed grit in coming back to beat the Vikings, if nothing else. Are they elite? Are the Pats? We'll have more answers up in New England next weekend.
  • All eyes remain on the Colts. Many are ready to write off their season, but there is a lot of pride — and talent — in that locker room. They have a chance to bite back against a deflated Browns team that lost a game nearly everyone had them winning.

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