This…was a weird one.
Lions 34, Cowboys 30
When something shocking and unprecedented happens there’s an immediate human desire to compare it to something else, to put it into a more familiar frame of reference to help process what we’ve just seen. For a number of my Cowboys-watching buddies, Sunday’s historic collapse and Romo’s role in it swiftly spawned a movie comparison – we were all trapped in Groundhog Day watching the same damn thing acted out over and over and over again. I kind of felt that one, but for me the first quarter of the Cowboys’ season has much more of a Final Destination feel to it. Now I’m only familiar with this wretched series of teen-fleecing films through their trailers, but I’ve got the general gist – a group of people somehow cheat death, only to find that fate is inescapable as they meet their ends in a series of implausible and outright comic death scenes. Isn’t that – in particular, whichever sequel it was where the big opening death scene was on a roller coaster - what we’ve just been watching? The Cowboys have now won two games that they had every reason to lose, and lost two games that they had lock-down, dead solid won. Is .500 ball their un-avoidable fate? Is drowning in the car wash or roasting in a tanning bed any more implausible or darkly comic than blowing a 24-point second half lead with three INTS, two of which were pick sixes and one of which was turned in by Bobby Motherfucking CARPENTER? Is Romo, who appeared to miraculously reverse public opinion and evolve into a truly clutch leader with his wounded warrior heroics, compelled by the Universe to forever trip over himself and revert to his destined role of Most Controversial QB of His Generation? It certainly fucking feels like it on a Tuesday.
Now consider what I’ve just said in this context: I am (or make every effort to be) a tremendously logical, technical, stat- and fact-oriented consumer of the NFL. I’m in my fourth season of updating and revising a 40MB Excel spreadsheet model that charts game stats, player ratings and projected outcomes and that would horrify my friends and enrage my employer if they had a decent grasp of the time I regularly devote to it. I actively revile Millen-esque color commentary that’s rife with platitudes and shopworn clichés – I make it my mission to understand the why of gridiron happenings with as much data and precision as I can. And now, a month into the season, I’m babbling about fate and inescapable destiny.
What’s the key takeaway from all that?
Tony Romo makes you fucking insane.
Tony Romo has endured the most up-and-down first month of any NFL player since Brian Picollo, and the Cowboys have been dragged in his wake to a .500 mark as they hit their Week Five bye. (I have to give credit to Scipio for the Brian Picollo line, which was literally the only thing that made me smile after 3:01 CST on Sunday.) A performance like that tends to obscure most everything else that happened in the game – as well as put a JerryVision-size damper on the ardor of some writers to discuss the game at great length – but I’ll try to share some thoughts on the rest of the action.
It seemed like the offensive line was going to receive the hero’s plaudits through much of the game as they kept Romo remarkably clean and even provided some running lanes for Choice and Frightfully Fragile Felix, who generally got the yards that were there but failed to dazzle.
The line was aided by a gameplan that worked in just about every screen, hitch, half-roll and other tactic known to Man to get the ball out of Romo’s hands lickety-split, but they also stood strong and allowed Tony to repeatedly hit welcome addition Laurent Robinson downfield. Robinson was having a hell of day in relief of Miles Austin until he injured his foot in the third quarter and limped off. Of course, he limped back on and then failed to get across the face of Lions’ corner Chris Houston on Romo’s ill-fated slant route and the result was yet another game-changing pick six. I don’t chalk that throw up as an outright TIMMAH! like the Carpenter INT since a receiver should at least keep that slant from being picked off, but just like the Jets game with Dez it seems that the Cowboys staff and Romo are the last people remotely associated with their game to realize when a receiver has been hurt and is operating at less than full capacity. As for Dez, he mixed in a couple of touchdown grabs with a lot of silence as his ridiculous, unforgivable due to his outright fucking retarded deployment on special teams unfortunate quad injury has now impacted his conditioning as well as his in-game explosiveness. While we’re pondering questions of Fate, are the Cowboys 4-0 if they had decided to let their top 2 receivers just be receivers?
If the O-line seemed to be in line for plaudits, the defense looked worthy of a ticker-tape parade through the first 2.5 quarters. They clamped down the run and while they weren’t sacking Stafford, they were getting great pressure and rattling him into uncharacteristic inaccuracy. The lack of DE Jason Hatcher was a challenge and none of the Cowboys’ down linemen did much of note in this one, but it still seemed like the hay was pretty much in the barn. Once the Lions had been jump-started by a pair of pick returns, though, the defense started to look far more mortal. It’s no sin to give up some yardage to an air attack that’s been clicking like the Lions’ has, but as they were mounting their go-ahead drives there was a disconcerting lack of pressure. It’s holding DeMarcus Ware to a ridiculously high standard to get on him too much after his blazing start to the season, but when you’re getting paid QB money you need to make more noise against a shoddy pair of tackles like Backus and Cherilus. The secondary seemed to suffer when Gerald Sensabaugh got hurt and Barry Church came in, and Newman was repeatedly victimized. He never had a ghost of a chance on Calvin Johnson’s last lob TD, but I think the Cowboys lose three games total this year based on their decision not to cut bait on Newman during the Great Purge and pay mid-level money for solid, dependable and non-injury magnet Josh Wilson. And three may be a low figure considering how prominent Newman’s respective absence and presence were in the Boys’ first two losses.
While I’ve got nothing but high praise for the job Rob Ryan has done in getting this somewhat undermanned and often beat-up defense to play over its head through the first month, there were two plays that seemed borderline mindless "we’re choosing to lose" type moments. The first was on Calvin Johnson’s circus-grab 23-yard TD. Now he was triple-covered, and the Cowboys could have had five more guys surrounding him and it probably wouldn’t have mattered if one of them hadn’t climbed on another one’s shoulders. But Stafford’s though process on that play was, "Hmmmm one, two, three, four, five, what to do, what to do, hmmmm, looks like Calvin is standing there, let me get this target perfectly sighted in, OK, set me feet one more time, check the wind – oh yeah, we’re in a dome, nevermind – aaaaaaaand here comes a rainbow ball." The way you have that much time to think, aim and unload is that the opposing DC sends a three-man rush composed of three 3-4 down linemen who haven’t so much as sniffed the QB all day. You can’t mindlessly send six or seven guys every play, but not giving yourself so much as a chance of hurrying the QB while Megatron roams your secondary isn’t an acceptable call. Nor was sending in the alignment that had Newman singled up on Johnson at the two yard line on the Lions’ go-ahead score. Now anyone is going to have some trouble with Johnson there, and offenses are going to score from that spot more often than not. But just like a protection scheme that singles up a tight end to pass block against DeMarcus Ware is a situationally invalid call, so is singling Newman against Johnson on the goal line. You are conceding a TD with a simple lob pass roughly 99 out of 100 times – if you’re going to make that call against that player, just pull the defense off the field and avoid the risk of injuring anyone else.
Of course, all the game’s positives and negatives are pretty much rendered moot by the Romo Vortex. It wasn’t as bad a game as it felt like at the time – basically one truly unforgiveable throw along with a 50/50 ball that the receiver has to protect you on and a questionable but understandable throw under pressure on the third pick that would have been a TD had it gone a yard and a half further into Witten’s hands. Even allowing for the context of a comfortable lead, none of Romo’s throws were half as horrendous as Jason Campbell’s twin turds against New England. But I think I feel worse with some distance than I did in the moment. I had a lot of reflections ready to go on how the Cowboys, with their full complement of offensive weapons and defensive cover guys available after the bye, could outgun the Pats and stand toe-to-toe with anyone in this topsy-turvy league outside of the juggernaut Packers. But I’m at the point where it’s absolutely impossible for me to trust Romo - and therefore, the outcome of ANY game – until the clock is literally zeros. Now a lot of the fun of watching your team is in the uncertainty – if you routed the opponent 40-0 each week it would get boring pretty damn fast. But if your team does everything right, wins so many battles, beats up an opponent and claims a lead large and late enough that it’s simply not FAIR for you to lose, and you STILL have to be terrified of a shocking, improbable and un-fucking-fair (at least from an emotional standpoint) loss – when do you get to enjoy what you’re watching? I didn’t realize how deeply my confidence in Romo had been eroded until I realized that I am truly going to have trouble enjoying the Cowboys’ remaining games this season with the looming fear of another shocking and absurd collapse. And I shall ponder this happy thought for a full two weeks in the face of the Cowboys’ bye week.
I suppose it’s my destiny.
Texans 17, Steelers 10
The torch has been passed. Not the big-T Title belt – if the first four weeks are any indication, that will remain firmly wrapped about Aaron Rodgers’ midsection through 2011 and beyond – possibly well beyond. No, this is a much less ballyhooed torch, but one that can help light the way towards Title belt contention. Duane Brown, Wade Smith, Chris Meyers, Mike Briseil and Eric Winston, step forward and take a bow – you are the league’s best offensive line. It may have taken a collapse by the Jets to vacate the top spot, but the Texans proudly staked their claim with a four-quarter demolition of a proud Steelers’ defense. It certainly helps to have a healthy Arian Foster back in the fold, but he doesn’t gallop to anything resembling 155 yards at 5.2 a pop if a pack of Pro Bowlers like Casey Hampton, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu aren’t being handled. And handled they were – center Chris Meyers in particular deserves a lap dance at Treasure’s for stoning Hampton and consistently wiping out the Steeler’s run-destroying LBs at the second level. It was a bright, shining day for the Texans’ offense with nary a blemish to….oh, wait. Andre Johnson. Um…yeah. Urgh.
The good news is that the news doesn’t seem to be a as bad as it looked when Johnson first hit the turf with what Barry Switzer always referred to as a "self-tacklization" injury. The first positive was that it wasn’t a knee, and while the latest reports seem to indicate that Johnson’s hamstring has some degree of tearing (remember that basically any ‘sprain’ or ‘strain’ involves some degree of tearing) they are seeking different opinions and there appears to be an air of cautious optimism that he could be back in a few weeks. Of course, I’ve already lamented the impossibility of knowing anything for certain due to the Twitterization of reporting, but it looks like Texans fans can exhale. Fantasy guys, grab Jacoby Jones off your league’s waiver wires posthaste for the interim against a dire Raiders’ secondary this week.
Serviceable Schaub was on the scene Sunday, turning in a steady and unremarkable performance while taking a back seat to the dominating ground game. He’ll likely be throwing a lot more than 21 times next week as he looks to provide the Texans with the difference in the Battle of the Backs against Oakland – go ahead and set the over/under on combined rushing yards for Foster and Darren McFadden at around 315.
Keeping McFadden under his half of that total is the big challenge facing the Texans’ defense this week following a B+ performance that got some big help on the grading curve from an execrable Steelers’ line. This remains a 3-4 defense with maaaaaybe three guys in the front seven best suited to play in a 3-4, so run D will remain a weekly adventure. I no longer even see Rashard Mendenhall anymore – I see Jurgen Prochnow coolly staring into a periscope since Mendenhall has remorselessly torpedoed a couple of my fantasy teams with his weekly Gregory Hines act in the backfield. The Texans kept Rashard locked down, but got gashed with some effectiveness by backups Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore.
Fortunately in today’s NFL, unless you’re facing a superback who can house it from 50 yards out, some softness on run D won’t kill you as long as you’ve got the passing game under control. The Texans certainly did on Sunday as they terrorized Big Ben from every conceivable angle. They were facing one of the worst O-lines in the entire league, but that line has sucked all year and it hadn’t stopped Roethlisberger from torching opponents to the tune of 8.8 yards per attempt. He was held to 6.9 on Sunday (5.9 if you factor in sack yardage) as the Texans’ DL and linebackers routed their opposition while the secondary took Michael Irvin’s pre-game exhortations to heart and held the afterburner-equipped Mike Wallace under a hundred yards for the first time in seven contests. Just about everyone in the front seven got to take a turn swinging the stick at the Big Ben piñata in the hopes of breaking it open to receive a cascade of fried foods, Coors and rape, but OLBs Mario Williams and Connor Barwin swung the biggest sticks of all (no homo).
A Texans team that has taken big strides towards consistency and efficiency in 2011 now gets to face a Raiders squad that has a higher beta than a Greek penny stock. The Texans will be looking for any method to stop RunDMC short of shooting Jam Master Jay, but they should also look for ways to coax the ball out of enigmatic Raiders QB Jason Campbell. I suggest that they take a page out of the Patriots’ unorthodox Zen approaches discussed below.
Now, some thoughts on a few other games of interest from Week Four.
Patriots 31, Raiders 19
While many games featuring outright clownish QBs hit the over in Week Four (highlighted by a hilarious Jets-Ravens game that made it to 51 despite exactly one offensive TD being scored), the matchup of two of the league’s most high-octane offenses stayed under the total. Credit here goes to Bill Belichick, missing two of his top three corners, for re-working his defense on the fly to scrap some of their favorite coverages in exchange for Far Eastern poses and techniques such as Patient Crane Finds a Fish (having a defender stand stock-still in the endzone with no Raiders receiver within ten yards and concentrate really hard on the nature of existence until the ball appears in your hands) or Jolly Buddha Receives the Gift (wherein you float the fattest man on your defense into the flat where the QB mistakes him for some benign force of nature and tries to throw the ball through him). Campbell was unable to resist Belichick’s mind powers and committed two backbreaking turnovers – perhaps he should consider a different kind of helmet.
Stay out of my mind, Charles! And you too, Bill!
I had actually figured the Patriots to hit at least 40 in this one, but while they rolled on the ground Brady didn’t reach his typically hyper-efficient plane. He had no trouble hooking up with Wes Welker, however – I’m now convinced that Welker had his injured knee replaced with a ball-and-socket joint to enable his insane repertoire of cuts and breaks. Brady-to-Welker has joined Stafford-to-Johnson and Rodgers-to-anyone in my ‘Push Pause Passing Pantheon.’ Many of Rodgers’ passes seem like he pushed pause, walked 40 yards down the field while everyone else was frozen, and just placed the ball in his receiver’s hands within an 11-inch wide throwing window. Megatron’s signature TD grabs make you think he pushed pause while the ball was hanging 11-12 feet overhead, trotted to the sideline and grabbed a box to leap from to snag the ball far above his gravity-bound foes. Brady to Welker makes you think that they push pause three steps into the route and have a two-minute discussion on everything from the placement of the linebackers to his corner’s weight shift to the rotation of the safeties, then resume their positions as Welker uses this knowledge to break open for a perfectly delivered ball. Brady and Welker are parallel processing at a speed the rest of the league can’t catch up to.
It’s not all Blue Bell and BJ’s in New England, however – aside from Campbell’s twin TIMMAH!’s their defense basically got shredded yet again and now must contend with the loss of stud LB Jerod Mayo for the next several weeks.
49ers 24, Magic Team of Destiny 23
Hopefully, friendly readers, you’ll indulge this long-suffering Cowboy fan with a brief moment to relish the outcome of this contest.
OK, we’re back.
In the no-lead-is-safe madness that was Week Four, the Eagles managed to waste a tremendous 491-total-yard performance from Michael Vick and cough up a hairball against an overmatched but game 49ers squad to fall to 1-3. A vintage Andy Reid game saw the Eagles call twelve non-scramble runs against 46 passes despite playing with the lead the entire game. While Vick’s Eagles resurgence has been borderline incredible, he’s usually aided and abetted by strong ground support from LeSean McCoy. That was denied him in this game as Reid reverted to his stubborn, Greg Davis-esque approach of ignoring the run and petulantly demanding complete perfection from his QB. Vick wasn’t perfect, and threw a crucial late pick. To be fair to Vick, once DeSean Jackson realized the pass was underthrown you would have needed the Hubble Telescope to detect his interest in coming back to fight for the ball. That pick combined with two lost fumbles opened the door for the 49ers, but the real story is that the Eagles were once more undone by some gaping roster holes.
Probably the most amazing development of the 2011 Free Agent Feeding Frenzy was that Philadelphia, after dominating the NFC East for most of the 2000’s while watching Jerry Jones star-fuck his way to salary cap hell and unbalanced rosters, were unable to resist the exact same approach when they found themselves flush with cash and faced with a free agent bounty. They went whole-hog after the big names like Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin. While Asomugha has underperformed so far (due in no small part to playing in a ton of zone after being a straight man guy in Oakland) the other two have been pretty much as advertised. The problem for the Eagles was that they concentrated their money on these big-time signings while allowing other areas of the roster to morph into an outright shitshow. They cheerfully ushered out all three members of a solid but unspectacular linebacking corps and replaced them with a spectacularly overmatched one – only Brian Rolle has approached adequacy thusfar and Casey Matthews has looked comically inept, no more so than on his 50-yard wheel route roasting from a 265 lb Brandon Jacobs. This pitiful band (say it in the Emperor Palpatine voice) is backed up by some of the league’s worst safety play, where the Eagles entertained the misguided thought that a Nate Allen/Jarrad Page/Kurt Coleman troika was remotely capable of dealing with NFL passing attacks. Nate Dogg, Jimmy Page and Kurt Cobain would probably have better success – Cobain certainly covered more surface area after the shotgun went off than Coleman has proven capable of doing.
The result is a Donut Defense with absolutely nothing in the middle. Tight ends roam unimpeded, backs torment them on screens/draws/wheel routes, and their vaunted corners can’t even play outside leverage with a hope that they’ll receive a tinker’s damn worth of help once their man breaks towards the middle. Compound that with an undermanned OL that’s going to keep giving up shots on an increasingly fragile Vick (even more now that LT Jason Peters is out for a few weeks) and you’ve got a Dream Team facing the same rude awakening that’s been served up to Jerry Jones so many times.
Not to give the 49ers short shrift in this writeup – Alex Smith had to take the game on his shoulders as the 49ers fell behind and might have turned in the best game of his career. He had a short-stacked WR corps but worked them, Vernon Davis and his running backs to the tune of 8.4 yards an attempt and two TDs. Frank Gore, injured ankle and all, broke out for a 127-yard effort and could be forming a strong 1-2 punch with rookie Kendall Hunter. The 49ers defense has ably absorbed the losses of Aubrayo Franklin, Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements to look like a very solid unit. Spikes and Clements’ replacements in particular have shone, as Navorro Bowman has dueled Sean Lee for Best Penn State Linebacker honors and Redskins castoff Carlos Rogers has been ProFootballFocus’ #1 cover corner through the season’s first month. With the Rams collapsing under the weight of Week One’s bus crash-load of injuries, the 49ers look good to take the NFC West.
Bengals 23, Bills 20
There are coaches who, once they’ve helped a young team turn around 15 years of futility and surge to a surprising 3-0 start, can keep that team grounded and focused to ensure that they give another consistent effort and not cough up their hard-earned division lead. Chan Gailey isn’t one of those coaches, and so the Bills rolled into the Queen City with a strong sense of entitlement and got slapped with a 23-20 loss. It’s one thing to get burned by Tom Brady and the Pats, but quite another to get your tits lit by soulless ginger hellspawn plucky rookie Andy Dalton to the tune of 298 yards. They allowed the Bengals offense to set a season high in yards per carry and yards per attempt while featuring a moribund passing game and only rushing the ball 21 times despite leading for most of the day.
For the Bengals’ part, Cedric Benson ran like the APD was after him – perhaps it was a metaphorical flight from justice ahead of a looming three-game suspension. Not too many of Dalton’s throws look promising in flight, but they often look much better once A.J. Green is able to outleap and outfight corners for the ball – the Bengals have a keeper here that will make a Gresham-Shipley-Green alignment hell on one side of a defense once Ship the Elder is back. Their defense has gotten solid play at all levels including second-year DE Carlos Dunlap (who they finally realized deserved the lion’s share of snaps), LB Thomas Howard and safety Reggie Nelson. While it’s damn near impossible to bet an under in The Year of Legalized Holding the Quarterback, I’m going to give a long look at the total in this week’s Bengals/Jags catfight.
Green Bay 49, Denver 23
As John Hamm so eloquently put it in The Town, "This is the not-fucking-around crew." While I’m loath to compare Aaron Rodgers to Ben Affleck (though Rodgers can be a dead damn ringer for B.J. Novak of The Office and Inglorious Basterds fame), the Packers are here to rob your vault, evade your pursuit, burn the car, take your lunch money, dance wif’ yo’ dates – you name it. In a wild-ass, topsy-turvy, mad mad mad mad NFL world the Packers display Gibraltar-esque constancy. Fans of offense can go ga-ga over Rodgers’ absurdly pinpoint accuracy on absolute laser shots 30 yards downfield. Fans of defense can enjoy the Packers’ ability to stop the run, hit the QB and cover receivers not named Steve Smith. Fans of gambling can revel in a team that was a silly last-second Cam Newton backdoor cover drive (which he’s developing a knack for, btw) from matching their 4-0 record with an unblemished Vegas record. As a fan of all three, let’s just say I enjoy the Packers.
The Broncos were able to make it mildly interesting in the second quarter behind two Orton-to-Decker TDs before the Packers , like James ‘The Grim Reaper’ Roper in the criminally under-rated Great White Hype, asked, "Boy – you tryin’ to embarrass me on national TV?" and annihilated the Broncos with a 28-0 beatdown over roughly one and a half quarters.
One other random Packers note – if the great Reese Bobby was correct when he said that "It’s the fastest who gets paid, and the fastest who gets laid," then Packers WR Randall Cobb’s future involves reclining on stacks of gold coins, Scrooge McDuck-style, while nursing a friction-burned penis. Dude can FLY, and as a replacement for an aging Donald Driver he is completely unfair to the opposition.
Bears 34, Carolina 29
You know that Cam Newton backdoor cover drive I mentioned? Well, he did it again this week as the Panthers kept it interesting but ultimately couldn’t get by the Bears. The two most interesting things about this game were Cam Newton’s ability to go for 374 yards against a Cover-Two defense seemingly designed to take away his strengths, and Matt Forte’s 200-yard evisceration of the Panthers’ run defense that may signal a seismic shift in the Bears’ approach to offense.
Newton is so far ahead of where I thought he’d be at this point – or, to be honest, ever in his career – that I hardly even know what to say. He is absolutely making big-boy throws each week and his INT numbers are perfectly acceptable for a veteran who’s attacking downfield this much, let alone a rookie QB in his fourth game. I’m still very comfortable saying he’s not going to crack 300 yards each and every week going forward, but he’s putting up a ton of evidence that he’s not just going to be ‘figured out’ at some point and revert to standard rookie form. If he’s owned in your fantasy league by a pessimistic, glass-half-empty RS or CS-type dude who doesn’t really understand what he’s seeing on the field, try and swindle him away.
Forte put up a tremendous display of speed, cutting ability and vision in humiliating the Panthers’ run defense and rendering Jay Cutler an afterthought in the game plan. Even a bad offensive line would rather fire out and run block than drop back and pass block, and the Bears’ OL showed legitimate signs of life as they were allowed to repeatedly hammer the Panthers front rather than backpedaling to protect their asshole QB on yet another seven-step drop. There have probably been three coaches in league history more stubborn than Mike Martz so it’s hard to say if he’ll stick with this approach – I could see him staging a mutiny of play-calling petulance even if a run-first approach is mandated by Lovie Smith, Dick Butkus and George Wendt – but a stretch of games that feature Bears ground-and-pound and 40 pass-outings from Mark Sanchez will be worth it just to convince Rex Ryan that he’s gotten ahold of some bad peyote and is hallucinating the whole damn thing.
Ravens 34, Jets 17
OK, this piece is about to hit 5,000 words and I have to get to the gym as a pre-emptive strike against State Fair fried-food excess, but this one was too damn funny not to mention. Rex Ryan and everyone else involved might have thought they were hallucinating as an outlandish five defensive/special teams scores decided the outcome.
The quarterbacking miscues, special teams blunders and outright fiascoes are damn near impossible to accurately convey through prose alone, so you should probably just go ahead and watch the highlights.
Check back later in the week for thoughts on the NFL at the quarter pole and a look at this week’s gambling prospects.