This past Sunday was one of the most highly anticipated opening days for any sport in years, following one of the most eventful offseasons that football has ever seen. For almost five months, the NFL was gripped in a frustrating lockout that prevented players from working in team facilities until late July.
Understandably, there were a few bumps along the road associated with the lockout — including a shorter amount of time for rookies to get together with their teams to learn routes, coverages, and bond with teammates. Football also felt the effect of the new kickoff rule: kickoffs now start from the 35-yard line, which led to a drastic increase in the number of touchbacks. In the Packers-Saints game alone, there were over eight touchbacks in a stadium where there were only two all last season. Despite this increase, there were still mammoth returns on special teams — rookie Randall Cobb of the Green Bay Packers returning a kickoff 108 yards, for example.
Even with the expectation that players this opening weekend would be far from mid-season form, there were still a number of surprises and disappointments. The normally dominant Steelers were embarrassed in a 35-7 loss to the Ravens, turning over the ball seven times, even though in past four years no game between the two was settled by more than four points. The Chiefs were destroyed at home, where last year they were 7-1, and the Colts seem to have finally lost their supremacy in the AFC South. For every disappointing loss there seemed to be an even more exciting victory. In the same match where the Chiefs lost 41-7, the Bills, who only won 4 games last season, found themselves looking at a surprisingly strong season opener from veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald.
Here are five lessons football fans have learned from Week One:
1. The AFC South no longer belongs to the Indianapolis Colts. With Peyton Manning out for the next two to three months because of more neck surgery, this was our chance to see how out-of-retirement Kerry Collins could carry the Colts. The Colts might have been limp on offense without Manning, but their weak defense will get them nowhere in the division. They played so poorly that they have already started scouting Andrew Luck as a potential first-round draft pick to fill the quarterback position. The fall of the Colts, however, is likely to be the Houston Texans’ chance to finally reach the playoffs. Matt Schaub is the most experiences quarterback in the AFC South, despite having the starting role for the Texans only since 2007. In the offseason, the Jaguars released their veteran quarterback David Garrard, and the Titans decided to bring in Matt Hasselbeck to try sparking their offense after releasing Vince Young. The addition of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator makes the Texans the team to beat in the AFC south.
2. The NFC South isn’t the glamour division of the NFL that we all expected it to be. With three teams in the division winning over 10 games last season and the Carolina Panthers adding Cam Newton, experts believed this was the toughest division in the NFL. After Sunday, teams in the NFC South are all winless, including the Atlanta Falcons (who were expected to go to the Super Bowl), who put up a dismal effort in a 30-12 loss to the Chicago Bears.
In the season opener, Drew Brees had a great statistical game completing 32 of his 49 pass attempts for 419 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Even those numbers weren’t enough to overcome the Green Bay Packers, the defending Super Bowl Champions. There was a bright spot for the division that lost, however. Cam Newton turned in the strongest performance ever for a rookie in his first game, going 24 for 37 with 422 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. To put it in perspective, the most yards Tom Brady has ever thrown in a regular season game (before last week) was 410 yards.
Unfortunately, Newton’s effort wasn’t enough to overcome the Kevin Kolb-led Arizona Cardinals. Kolb was able to prove himself as an elite quarterback, showing what Andy Reid saw in him last year when he traded Donovan McNabb to make Kolb the starter in Philadelphia.
3. A year ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one drive away from winning their third Super Bowl under Mike Tomlin. In their first regular season game since that loss, they looked like a completely different team. Their normally shutdown defense, which allowed an average of only 80 yards rushing last year, allowed 180 rushing yards. The normally stellar offense committed 7 turnovers and, in a season that has already lost on AFC superpower, we might be looking at a disappointing season for another superpower.
4. Early injuries might have turned some hopeful seasons into another season of disappointment. The team hardest hit was the St. Louis Rams. After being one win away from winning the NFC West and going to the playoffs in Sam Bradford’s first year in the NFL, the Rams saw Bradford leave early with nerve damage in his index finger. They also saw running back Steven Jackson leave with a thigh injury. Leading receiver Danny Amendola is likely out for the season with a dislocated elbow. Right tack Jason Smith suffered a high ankle sprain, and top cornerback Ron Bartell left with a shoulder injury. Other serious injuries included Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding (torn ACL), Saints wide receiver Marques Colston (broken collarbone), Texans receiver Kevin Walter (broken shoulder), and the Bengals’ rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who sat out for the second half of Sunday’s game with a wrist injury.
5. After disappointing seasons last year, the San Diego Chargers and the Washington Redskins had a lot to prove in their first games of the season. In the past few years the San Diego Chargers have suffered incredibly slow starts despite having the top-ranked offense and defense. Last year, poor special teams play cost the Chargers an opportunity to return to the postseason. The early signs aren’t good, especially when Percy Harvin returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Phillip Rivers was in typical form, going 33 for 48 with 335 yards and bringing the Chargers back from a 17-7 halftime deficit to beat the Minnesota Vikings 24-17. Three of the Chargers’ first four games are at home; if they can go 3-1 they are likely to return to the top of their division and have a serious shot at a Super Bowl run.
Mike Shanahan and the Redskins’ front office had a lot to prove in their opener after releasing Donovan McNabb for a relatively unknown Rex Grossman in the offseason. Mike Shanahan has a habit of taking good teams and making them great, but after a six-win season last year many doubted his ability to make the Redskins a serious contender in a tough NFC East. They were able to take advantage of a depleted New York Giants and walk away with an easy 28-14 victory. So far, it seems that the Redskins made a smart decision going with Rex Grossman as their quarterback.
Of course, the NFL season is long and the first week isn’t always a good predictor of things to come in the next 15 games. One thing we did learn for certain, though, is that football is back for one of the most exciting seasons in years.