PHILADELPHIA — During eight months of the offseason, every NFL team expended untold sweat and man-hours to prepare and to dream. In Cleveland, that work produced vivid hope of a suddenly thrilling and reformed franchise. In Jacksonville, the machinations delivered a Super Bowl MVP quarterback to revive a turnaround. In Philadelphia, those hours created aspirations for another Lombardi Trophy to pair with the one earned two years ago.
The visions never include losing by 30 at home while running out of offensive linemen, or a sentence that combines the words “clavicle” and “surgery,” or falling behind by three scores and getting booed off the field at your own stadium.
“You’ve worked months to get to this place,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “All this excitement. You got all of this talent, all of the hype, all of that. You look up, and it’s 17-0. It’s very easy to get distracted. You start thinking about what people are going to say about you.”
The Eagles recovered, but not every NFL hopeful survived the wake-up call of Sunday unscathed. The Browns, the darlings of the offseason, unraveled. The Jaguars, finally equipped with a competent quarterback, lost Nick Foles in the first quarter to an injury that could sideline him for half the season. In Week 1, best-laid plans collided with cold reality.
Even though they beat Washington comfortably, dominating the second half to win, 32-27, the Eagles could identify with the teams whose spring and summer designs evaporated. They fell behind 17-0 in the first half and heard boos from the Lincoln Financial Field fans as they jogged to the locker room at halftime down 20-7.
“It sucks,” tackle Lane Johnson said. “It feels like you have a big plan, you have lots of plans, and then you go out there and you get hit in the mouth. Then you have to go to Plan B.”
Johnson summed up his halftime message to teammates as “Get your s--- together.” That’s the task the Browns face now, after the Tennessee Titans embarrassed them. The Browns lost, 43-13, at home in the debut of Odell Beckham Jr., looking just as hapless as their forebears. Cleveland brimmed with anticipation all summer. Sunday, FirstEnergy Stadium had emptied by the fourth quarter, at which point the Titans had stomped out the hope built up since spring.
This year was supposed to be different for the Browns. Baker Mayfield led them to a 5-3 finish last season, and Beckham’s arrival, combined with a bevy of recent high draft picks, made them a chic choice to contend for the Super Bowl. In their unveiling, disaster unfolded.
The Browns outgained the Titans, but they sabotaged themselves. Cleveland committed 18 penalties for 182 yards. Left tackle Greg Robinson was ejected after kicking a Titans defender in the head, which Coach Freddie Kitchens called, in an understatement, “not acceptable.” In the fourth quarter, Mayfield committed three turnovers in four possessions, including a pick-six by Malcolm Butler. When the Browns closed within 15-13 in the second half, their defense immediately yielded a 75-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Derrick Henry.
“We’ve got a locker room full of disappointment right now, which we should have,” Kitchens said. “That’s not the way we want to be represented. We lost our discipline. We lost our composure. But it’s one game. You face adversity, and you either run towards each other or you run away. I think our guys are going to run towards each other.”
The Browns’ high-end talent created hype for months, but the concerns within the guts of their roster surfaced in calamitous fashion. Cleveland lacked offensive line depth, and Robinson’s ejection combined with two injuries left them with only four healthy linemen by the end. The pressure from the Titans disrupted Mayfield, and the pressure from trying to live up to expectations may have, too.
“Once you have one mistake, then you’re pressing late in the game, and it compounds,” Mayfield said.
Cleaning up the mess falls to Kitchens, the folksy, first-year coach entrusted with all the talent the Browns amassed. Kitchens earned the job with his performance last season as interim offensive coordinator, and many wondered whether he had been rushed into the job — he had never started a season higher on a coaching totem pole than running backs coach.
This preseason, Kitchens ran an unusually physical and demanding training camp. Week 1 made it fair to wonder whether that instilled discipline or simply wore down the Browns before the regular season. Faced with immediate turmoil, Kitchens pleaded for calm.
“The world’s not falling right now,” Kitchens said. “This only counts as one game. The world’s not ending today, contrary to popular belief.
“Hopefully our locker room knows and fans know we got 15 more games,” Kitchens added. He hit the theme often enough that it sounded as if he was trying to convince himself.
At least the Browns will not have to break in a new quarterback. In Jacksonville, Foles was driven to the ground as he tossed a gorgeous touchdown pass to wideout D.J. Chark. The hit broke his left clavicle, which will require surgery and probably cost him at least half of his first season with the Jaguars after he signed a free agent deal that could pay him $100 million. The Jaguars believed they had secured their future. Less than two quarters in, they were replacing Foles with sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew.
“For him to come in and have that happen, it shocks us,” Jaguars guard A.J. Cann told reporters. “But that kind of thing happens in this league. You’ve got to be able to sit back, take a deep breath and move forward.”
In some cases, the opener surpassed imagination. In the debut of 30-year-old, baby-faced offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott shredded the New York Giants with 405 passing yards and four touchdowns. After reshaping their offense around Lamar Jackson, the Ravens watched him heave five touchdown passes in a 59-10 victory over the horrific Miami Dolphins. The Cardinals entrusted the franchise to a wunderkind quarterback and groundbreaking head coach, and Kyler Murray piloted Kliff Kingsbury’s offense to a 27-27 tie after a 15-point comeback in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter.
More often, Week 1 forced teams to regroup. The Falcons hired a new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, to direct Matt Ryan in a bounce-back season and signed Julio Jones to a mega-extension. And then the Vikings dusted them, 28-12, while Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins attempted just 10 passes. The Jets under first-year coach Adam Gase saw a 16-3 fourth-quarter lead turn into a 17-16 Buffalo Bills victory, as Sam Darnold showed no apparent growth after an offseason with an alleged quarterback guru.
Those teams, so certain in their outlook before the season began, could only attempt to move on to their backup plan, to insist it’s a long season, to preach togetherness and resilience. They had reveled in expectations and placed faith in their work for eight months. Just like that, after one game, they could only nod along to Kitchens’s refrain.
“I didn’t see that coming,” he said.
>>> Sunday marked the return of Carson Wentz, Third Down God. When Wentz became an MVP front-runner in 2017 before shredding ligaments in his knee, he was a wizard on third down. He used his athleticism to extend plays and his fearlessness to make downfield throws and convert third-and-long on a routine basis. Last season, as he returned from ACL surgery, his playmaking on third down waned.
Against the Redskins, it returned. Able to play without the knee brace he wore last year in the wake of his rehab, Wentz completed 12 of 13 third-down passes for 197 yards, throwing all three of his touchdowns on third down while picking up six first downs passing. He also quarterback-sneaked for a crucial fourth-and-1 and converted another third down with a sneak.
Wentz hit DeSean Jackson with two bombs on third downs, but his vintage moment came early in the fourth quarter. On a third-and-11, Wentz escaped a collapsing pocket by spinning and rolling left, spotted Zach Ertz breaking off his pattern toward the sideline and zipped a bullet into his hands. Those are the plays that make Wentz the player he is, the plays that were missing last year.
“Physically, I was feeling free being able to get rid of the knee brace and just go play ball,” Wentz said. “It’s been a blessing, and I’m thankful for the way that recovery went.”
>>> A modest criticism of how Arizona handled the endgame of their 27-27 tie against the Lions: The Cardinals should have run the ball on second down of their final possession.
With 1:19 left in overtime, needing a field goal to end the game, the Cardinals faced second-and-7 from the Detroit 46. Each team had one timeout left. Running the ball would eat up enough clock to either force the Lions to use their final timeout or ensure the Lions wouldn’t get the ball back. Because the Cardinals still had a timeout, they could still control the clock well enough to navigate into field goal range without risk of the clock running out on them.
Running the ball would also likely gain a couple yards, both making third down more manageable and inviting the possibility of going for it on fourth down. The Cardinals, a young team not expected to contend this season, surely wanted to play for the win instead of the tie, and would not have punted unless they more or less had no choice.
But the Cardinals passed, inviting the scenario that followed. An incomplete pass stopped the clock and set up third and long. Murray fired another incompletion on an obvious passing down. On fourth and seven near midfield, even if Kingsbury hated playing for a tie, it would have been madness not to punt.
Punter Andy Lee pinned the Lions at their own 5, and the Lions never mounted a drive. But they held possession with a timeout left and a minute on the clock. The Cardinals could have made sure Matthew Stafford had no chance by more wisely managing the clock.
>>> The man with the best performance of Week 1 also provided the best line. Critics maligned Baltimore’s Jackson for a supposed inability to pass with accuracy and read NFL defenses when he came out of Louisville. Some even suggested he change positions. After passing for 324 yards and five touchdowns, Jackson was asked if he had quieted those doubts. “Not bad for a running back,” he said.