We made it. After six months of national upheaval and unceasing waves of crisis, the NFL once again proved itself an unstoppable cultural force. The league started its season Sunday as scheduled, as it vowed it would all along. There was no preseason, and at almost every stadium there were no fans. It was surreal and odd — people who have been in the NFL for years and even decades had never experienced anything like Sunday.
“We’re used to certain things, and then you have to adjust,” Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. “And I’m sure that affected a lot of us on the sidelines. I know it affected me. But you have to figure it out.”
The race to see which team figures out this season the best started this weekend. It was weird, but it was football. Here is what to know from the season’s first Sunday.
The MVP got better. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has been unfairly maligned as a passer since he entered the league. He did not win the MVP award last season on his legs alone, and the notion that he did still chafes his teammates.
“The misconception of our offense is that we’re only a run-first team,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “We’ve shown time and time again that we can throw the ball. We used the run game to throw off that. We’re going to be dangerous in the passing game. You’ve seen it last year; you’re going to see it this year.”
And so it seems wrong to insist Jackson improved as a passer after watching him complete 20 of 25 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-6 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns. But it’s the truth — Jackson, by all appearances, is a better thrower in his third full season. He even thinks so himself.
“I do,” Jackson said. “It’s just dedication.”
Jackson seems to have a sturdier base when he throws, and it allows better touch and accuracy. He didn’t just find receivers. He put the ball in the perfect spot for them to run after the catch, often with just the right trajectory and velocity.
Jackson’s 20-yard touchdown throw to Willie Snead was a work of art. He lofted a pass down the seam over one defender and in front of another, let Snead cruise underneath it and make an easy over-the-shoulder catch.
“You can tell he’s a lot more comfortable, and he’s a lot more pinpoint with it,” said second-year wideout Marquise Brown, who caught five passes for 101 yards. “It’s now our job to be at the spot, because that’s where he’s putting it. He’s doing a good job of throwing it away from defenders and throwing it to where you can catch and run.”
It’s a new world for Tom Brady. It was all fun when Brady was trademarking “Tompa Bay,” throwing passes in a park to new teammates and receiving verbal hosannas from Coach Bruce Arians. But starting over at 43 is not easy, and neither is playing in a division other than the AFC East. Brady received his first taste Sunday.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost Brady’s debut, 34-23, to the New Orleans Saints, and Brady bore primary responsibility. He completed 23 of 36 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns, throwing two backbreaking interceptions, the second of which Janoris Jenkins returned for a touchdown. Arians placed the blame for both picks on Brady, saying his receiver on both plays read the defense correctly while Brady read it wrong.
That kind of miscommunication is to be expected in a quarterback’s first game in a new system. Brady is perhaps the most experienced quarterback in NFL history, but all of that experience has come with one coach, in a system that evolved over the years but was rooted in the same fundamental concepts. He’s learning a new offense from a new coach with new teammates. It takes time.
But Brady also has the challenge of competing in the NFC South rather than the AFC East, which was a cakewalk for so much of his two decades at the helm in New England. The Patriots have won 16 of 17 division titles. It is almost certain the 2020 Saints are better than any of the division rivals Brady faced in those 17 years.
Cam Newton and Bill Belichick is two tons of fun. You get the feeling that Belichick for years has kept a drawer in his office — if not a closet — full of plays to use in the event he employed a running quarterback. He now has one of the greatest running quarterbacks in NFL history. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are about to unleash Newton in some really cool ways.
Newton’s two touchdowns in Sunday’s 21-11 victory over the Miami Dolphins revealed a glimpse of how Belichick could wield Newton’s rare ability. On the first touchdown, from the 5-yard line, the Patriots lined up three wide receivers to the left. Before the snap, running back James White bolted in motion to the left, dragging another defender — a safety — all the way across the field, leaving one fewer defender on the right side.
On the snap, tight end Ryan Izzo — the only eligible receiver on that side of the field — caved in the right side of the Dolphins’ line, which allowed right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor to pull around and pave a path for Newton. Eluemunor shoved cornerback Eric Rowe several yards into the end zone, and Newton cruised in.
On Newton’s second touchdown, the Patriots lined up on first and 10 from the Miami 11 with Rex Burkhead as the lone back, three wide receivers to the left and one lonely receiver wide to the right. Newton faked a handoff to Burkhead, who sprinted left behind that wall of potential blockers, forcing the Dolphins to respect the fake.
Newton then rolled right, behind a pulling guard who clipped the defensive end just enough to give Newton the corner. Here came the brilliant wrinkle on the play: The receiver lined up wide to the right was Izzo, with poor Rowe lined up opposite him. Izzo’s block left an open swath for Newton, and because he’s Newton, he had the speed to reach the pylon.
The Chiefs are dominating by different rules. The NFL’s opening night only bolstered Kansas City’s standing as Super Bowl favorites. The Chiefs plastered the Houston Texans, 34-20, with a cohesive defense that continued its ascent from late last year and an offense with many extra gears to reach, especially the use of electric rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire as a pass catcher out of the backfield. If you thought Edwards-Helaire looked great Thursday night, wait until Patrick Mahomes starts hitting him on wheel routes.
One remarkable aspect of the Chiefs’ perch atop the NFL is how they have violated modern roster-building tenets to their immense benefit. To build a complete roster, a team typically needs a quarterback on his rookie contract … except the Chiefs re-signed Mahomes and brought back their entire team. It’s considered foolish to use a first-round pick on a running back … except the Chiefs took Edwards-Helaire and one week in look like geniuses.
How are the Chiefs playing — and winning — by different rules? There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but they’ve also been smart, and Mahomes allows them avenues other do not have. Edwards-Helaire is more valuable to them than other teams because of the way he fits into Andy Reid’s scheme — the impact of a lightning-quick, tackle-breaking running back in the Chiefs’ offense is catalytic. They could re-sign Mahomes because of his willingness to be creative with his salary structure and their planning.
The Chiefs aren’t only the best team in the NFL. They have more ways to improve, too.
The Cardinals’ bandwagon is going to fill up fast. Few teams had better offseasons on paper than Arizona, but those kinds of offseason champs tend to disappoint. The Cardinals lived up to the expectations they could be a sleeper in the NFC West on Sunday, beating the San Francisco 49ers with a remade defense and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins impressing in his Arizona debut.
In Arizona’s 24-20 victory, Hopkins caught 14 of the 16 passes Kyler Murray threw his way for 151 yards, including a touchdown and a 33-yard gain to the 1 that set up the game-winning score late in the fourth quarter.
Nothing about Arizona’s victory felt fluky. The 49ers took a 10-0 lead after five minutes when a blown assignment led to a 76-yard touchdown catch and run by Raheem Mostert. Arizona then dominated the rest of the game, with Murray leaning on Hopkins and running 13 times for 91 yards.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have to guard against one loss becoming a Super Bowl hangover, while perhaps wondering if they have a Jimmy Garoppolo problem. With top wide receiver Deebo Samuel out with an injury, Garoppolo completed 19 of 33 passes for 259 yards. But he struggled on San Francisco’s final drive, and if you remove Mostert’s touchdown, Garoppolo completed 18 of 32 passes for 183 yards, a measly 5.7 yards per attempt.
Jordan Love should get used to the bench. Aaron Rodgers did not hide his disappointment after the Green Bay Packers traded up and drafted Love in the first round to be his heir apparent in lieu of adding a potentially key piece to a team that lost in the NFC championship game. In his first game with Love behind him, Rodgers left no doubt that, at 36, he can still play quarterback as well as anyone in the league.
Rodgers torched the division-rival Minnesota Vikings for 364 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 43-34 victory. Despite a 13-3 record, the Packers rarely played like a dominant team in Coach Matt LaFleur’s first year, and Rodgers and LaFleur often seemed to be out of sync. That may or may not change in Year 2, but Sunday was an ideal start.