Shorts and Shells: Week Two

Posted Sept. 19, 2011 @ 3:53 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Maybe Tony Romo never will catch a break with fans. A week after being barbecued by the general public for his late-game mistakes against the Jets, he is bashed again during Sunday's game against the 49ers.

For being injury-prone? If not that, then what exactly? Maybe people just don't like his celebrity being out of whack with his career accomplishments. Whatever it is, people will poke holes in the guy no matter what.

They'll say he is bad in late-game situations, pointing to the dropped extra point in 2007 (what?), the playoff loss to the Giants the following year (bad play-calling) and Week One's loss to the Jets this season (two big mistakes indeed). But they fail to come up with much more than that.

And as for the injuries, before last season's broken collarbone, Romo had missed exactly three games in his career — and those were with a broken finger in 2008. Three games. It's not as if those are ticky-tack, hamstring-y type of injuries. These are fractures, folks.

That brings us to Sunday. With the Cowboys getting throttled and Romo struggling, the harried QB suffered a broken rib and it was announced by the team mid-game Romo would be done for the day.

But after Jon Kitna threw two picks in his place, Romo pulled a Willis Reed/Paul Pierce/Brett Favre, trotted out onto the sideline and re-entered the game. Romo's critics — and there are legions of them — might have said at this point that he was being selfish. They certainly did on Twitter, which was ablaze with anti-Romo hatred and mockery.

The Cowboys were doing nothing at this point. They were cooked, playing with half of an offensive line and no Dez Bryant. The 49ers were in control.

Before the rib injury, Romo was 8-of-17 passing for 144 yards with a TD.

After the rib, he completed 12-of-16 passes for 201 yards and another TD, rallying his team from down two scores to overtime. Then in OT, after a 49ers punt, Romo threw his first pass to Jesse Holley, Mr. 4th-and-Long, and led him perfectly on a 77-yard play that set up the game-winning field goal. As rookie PK Dan Bailey split the uprights, Romo clutched his broken rib over his pads and winced, but he also managed to crack a small smile.

That's about all he could muster, though, in what has been a wild week for the quarterback. The full-on sortie from outside forces, mostly fans and media, has taken a toll on him, no doubt. This win should ease a lot of that pain. But will the guy ever be respected for what he does on the field?

Yes, he makes his share of mistakes. But Sunday's game shows just how much of a competitor Romo is, and in that light you can understand some of his boneheadedness. The early word is that Romo has two broken ribs. That's just a guy fighting through extreme pain on every play, especially when he is slammed to the ground multiple times in the second half.

Perhaps it's just me, but I pictured a very "Top Gun"-like scene playing out Sunday night of Week One in New York after Romo's two turnovers handed the Jets what should have been the Cowboys' victory.

Basically just sub in Maverick (Tom Cruise) for Romo where it fits. It's as easy as that.

Remember the scene in the movie where the pilots, including Mav, are all sitting around outside the showers in their towels after Goose and Mav killed Jester? ("Jester's dead!") Well, here's my Cowboys-Romo-Jason Garrett spin on how the locker-room scene after the game might have gone down:

Jester (Garrett) comes up to Maverick (Romo) and says, "That was some of the best flying (quarterbacking) I have seen yet — right up until the part where you got killed (fumbled/threw that stupid interception). You never, never leave your wingman (force the ball like that in crucial situations)."

Of course, the good-cop part of the equation comes from Jerry Jones, who called Romo's performance last week "one of the best games I've ever seen," but behind the scenes it's easy to wonder if Garrett and Jones didn't offer him a little Viper-esque advice.

Romo is a phenomenal athlete who has the ultimate confidence that he is the best player on the field. You want that in your quarterback, you really do. You also want a guy who will sacrifice his health and well-being to come back and rescue his team in the most dire of situations. That's what the Cowboys faced Sunday. Instead, he led them to a road win whose significance can't be understated.


Controversial calls of the week

Lots of little ones this week, without much in the way of explanation:

You might not have realized it, but it took replay officials to officially rule the Hail Mary throw at the end of the Bills-Raiders game to be an interception. The field was pretty much cleared when they called it a pick for the record books.

Why exactly did the Texans rush Arian Foster back from his hamstring injury? Hamstrings are notoriously tricky, and Ben Tate has shown he can handle the load.

Why did the Bengals forgo a 54-yard field-goal attempt, down two points, on 4th-and-1 with just over three minutes left? Instead, they tried a rollout that almost got Andy Dalton (who nearly was picked) killed.

Did you notice Hue Jackson getting penalized after challenging Fred Jackson's one-yard TD? The Raiders' coach was flagged 15 yards for challenging a play that couldn't be challenged. It had no effect on the game, really, as the Raiders came right back and scored. But it was interesting nonetheless.

As for the worst officiating call Sunday, there was Darren Sproles clearly going out of bounds on a play that was ruled a touchdown, and the refs missed it. Yet the Saints pretty much owned the Bears regardless of the play.


The wow factor

This week's edition spotlights the ridiculous passing display the league has put on these first two weeks:

Do you like this brand of football? Do you like 400-yard passers (yawn) every week?

You had better. It's here to stay.

Tom Brady has nearly 1,000 yards, sitting at a ridiculous 940. He followed a 517-yard game with a 423-yarder. How lame does that 2007 season seem now by comparison?

Cam Newton has 854 yards and is the first rookie ever with 400-plus in his first two games. Brett Favre had two 400-yard games in his career. Two. Jim Kelly's career high was 403.

Entering Sunday, the most passing yards by a player in the first two weeks was 827 by Kurt Warner in 2000. That was topped twice in a matter of hours, first by Newton and then by Brady.

In a league that has seen Peyton Manning get hurt and Brett Favre retire, passing has increased to a mind-boggling level. Go figure.


Entertainers and icons

It's (almost) all about offense in yet another neck-breaking scoring weekend:

Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick: It stands to reason that if you are discussing an extension with your team, the club is having trouble selling tickets every week and you have a quarterback such as Fitzpatrick, who just seems to make plays when he has to, you get the deal done. Passing on a quarterback in the draft told you what the Bills thought about Fitz (or perhaps the college QB crop, too), and the guy has rewarded his team with some really strong play these first two games. He has seven TD passes. The Bills scored five touchdowns on five second-half possessions Sunday. "Two big fourth-down conversions and I don't think he really broke a sweat," said TE Scott Chandler, Buffalo's new unexpected hero with TD catches in each of the first two games. The Bills are hosting 2-0 New England next week. Buckle up!

Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck: A deep-ball specialist, who knew? Hasselbeck and the Titans were aggressive, sensing the Ravens were a little sleepy, throwing deep passes to Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Jared Cook with great touch. Chris Johnson might be averaging seven feet per rush play through two games, but that won't be the case for long. Not with Hasselbeck dialing up the deep ball so well.

Panthers WR Steve Smith vs. Packers CB Charles Woodson: These are the kinds of matchups we crave. Smith (six receptions, 156 yards) had his moments. So did Woodson (two INTs, fumble recovery). They battled for four quarters. One punched, the other parried and jabbed. It was "worth the price of admission," as Packers announcer Wayne Larrivee tweeted Sunday night. Time after time, Cam Newton continued to fire the ball toward Smith (13 targets), even though Woodson burned him twice with picks on those throws. "It just goes to show you, in this league, you will pay when you make a mistake," Newton said. "That's simple and plain. Charles Woodson has been dominating this game at the cornerback position for a long time, and I have so much respect for him and a lot of players on that defense." You won't see 10 more competitive and classic WR-CB battles this season.


Ten takeaways of the week

Here are nine things I took from Week Two and one, the first thing on our list, that I took from Weeks One and Two:

1. You might have noticed that the Dolphins cut DB Benny Sapp the day after the defensive debacle against the Patriots last Monday night. Let me count the ways this bothered me: First of all, the suggestion is that Sapp was the sole reason the Dolphins allowed 517 passing yards. Did they watch Nolan Carroll on tape? He was repeatedly bludgeoned by the Patriots' gauntlet and looked like he wanted, as the Southwest Airlines commercial says, to get away. Carroll was spared, but Sapp, the one guy who made a play, was not. In fact, Sapp was the only guy in that secondary to make a big play, fighting through a Deion Branch block to deflect Tom Brady's pass and lead to a Jared Odrick INT and runback to set up a score. It just reflects so badly on the Dolphins' front office — the same one that hung both Tony Sparano and Chad Henne out to dry this offseason — to slash a vested veteran (meaning he'll get paid for the season) after a one-play gaffe, the 99-yard TD to Wes Welker. The Dolphins never should have put Sapp in that situation, covering Welker one-on-one, in the first place. This is the same kind of reactionary, knee-jerk move as happened last season, when they fired special-teams coach John Bonamego after a Monday-night debacle against the Patriots. Lot of good it did, too, cutting Sapp. Matt Schaub ripped the Dolphins for 11 yards a completion on 21-of-29 passing in Week Two and really could have scored a lot more, had it not been for a few red-zone breakdowns. I don't like to call for people's heads in the NFL necessarily, but where is the accountability? We need to start with GM Jeff Ireland and examine the job he has done. Fans are tired of him bringing in former Cowboys players, not addressing crucial positions in the draft and seeming to waver from the plan, if there ever was one.

2. Not sure what it is about Josh Freeman that makes him not kick it in until the fourth quarter, but that is two games in a row in which he was fairly blah through the first three quarters (combined 24-of-37 passing, 244 yards, two INTs) but just lights-out in the fourth quarters (combined 26-of-37, 258 yards, two TDs). It has been a career trend in his first three seasons: He now has eight fourth-quarter/overtime comeback wins in only 27 career starts, which, according to NFL Network, is the most in that few starts in NFL history. The kid just thrives on pressure. "He doesn't blink," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. Now Freeman just needs to figure out how not to blink in the first three quarters of games.

3. Tough weekend for the Harbaughs. John Harbaugh had been 18-1 against teams with a losing record entering Sunday but fell to 18-2 with his and the Ravens' stunning loss to the Titans, which makes us question all the praise we heaped on that team all week leading up to this game. Then brother Jim has defeat grasped from the jaws of victory in Romo's amazing performance. Maybe they commiserated over text messages late Sunday night.

4. Things I never thought I would have said after two weeks: We know the Panthers can chuck it, but why in the heck can't they run the ball? If Vegas had offered the bet of Newton surpassing his 422 passing yards from Week One in Week Two, would you have taken it? Neither would I. That's the good news. The bad news is that, Newton aside, the Panthers cannot run the ball. At all. I am as shocked as the next guy at Newton's 854 passing yards through two games. That was more than John Fox wanted to throw for in a season. But Rob Chudzinski is putting the kid in a very tough spot, asking him to throw so much. Maybe Newton is the rare rookie who can handle it. But they need to solve their running and red-zone issues.

5. I usually laugh at coachspeak, but I think I agree with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz on this one: "We can play better," he said with a shrug. You know what? They can. The score will mask some of the things the Lions didn't do as well as Schwartz would like, such as running between the tackles and cleaning up a few play-calling things, and the Chiefs are just plain awful, last year's division title aside. Now, as for the Lions going for it on fourth down both late in the third quarter and with about five minutes to go ... payback for last year's tampering charges filed against the Lions by the Chiefs? Or just the Bill Belichick coming through in Schwartz, his former lackey in Cleveland? "We're not trying to do anything other than trying to win the game," Schwartz said. Hmm, consider me back to laughing at coachspeak now.

6. It's not time to bench Donovan McNabb. Not yet. The Vikings are just figuring out what they can and cannot do with him in this offense, and they successfully found that a nice rollout series started to use the middle of the field better. McNabb rewarded the team with a nice effort Sunday and was not the reason they lost. Could he have played better down the stretch? No doubt. But don't expect Christian Ponder any time soon, barring injury. The Vikings have division games in two of their next four and don't want to put the rookie in that situation if he doesn't have to be.

7. The Bears can't call too many more games like they did Sunday. Jay Cutler is tough, but no one can take that much punishment. No team blitzes more and blitzes six more than the Saints. No team pass-protects with five blockers and calls seven-step drops more than the Bears and offensive coordinator Mike Martz. You'd think even he would have had a dose of humility in this one. But without WR Roy Williams, Martz kept to his plan. It was flawed. I was stunned, for all the times he had been hit, that Cutler wasn't sacked in the first half. The Saints made up for it in the second, taking him down six times. On one planned seven-step drop, Cutler's seventh foot barely hit the ground when Jonathan Casillas whipsawed him. You could see Cutler mouth some unsavory words that were caught on TV, and frankly (without really knowing to whom he was speaking) I can't blame him. His coaches hung him out to dry at times Sunday.

8. A quarterback change is coming in Seattle, barring a dramatic change of the tide, in very short order. Yes, not having a full offensive line or WR Sidney Rice changes everything. And you have to admire Pete Carroll for saying, "I've got to help more." But the coach saying that the offensive problems have "nothing" to do with Tarvaris Jackson is just a way of protecting his starter. It might say even more about Charlie Whitehurst, although he was the better QB in the preseason. They have a tough situation up there, and you get the feeling Carroll is going to just have to manage things on a week-to-week basis.

9. Stands to reason that Falcons CB Dunta Robinson might be the first player suspended for multiple dirty, head-hunting hits. And here I thought it might be James Harrison or Ndamukong Suh, based on reputation. But Robinson had perhaps the most egregious of the three big hits in Week Six last season, and the hit he made on Jeremy Maclin Sunday night was a near replay — maybe even more vicious. The NFL has been waiting for an excuse to enforce its rules, which now have been enforced at an elevated level for nearly a year.

10. The Chiefs, now that Jamaal Charles has reportedly suffered a torn ACL, are the worst team in football. Worse than the Seahawks. Worse than the Colts. There is really no hope in Kansas City right now for this season being successful as their best offensive players drop like flies. This is starting to feel like the Panthers' 2010 season. Right now, it's Opponents 89, Chiefs 10. Would Andrew Luck be their Cam Newton? Oh, I promised myself I wouldn't go there. Yet.

Early Week Three teasers

The top five story lines heading into next week: