by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
(Editor's Note: This article was written on Tuesday afternoon. On Tuesday evening, Antonio Brown was sued and accused of three separate incidents of sexual assault by his former trainer. The NFL has not yet responded, but it is clear that all is not said and done.)
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week your humble Scrambleteers are struggling to decide just which of the eventful happenings from Week 1 most merits our full attention. Do we look at the wild Monday night matchup in New Orleans, with the most exciting final two minutes in the history of that fabled broadcast? Do we focus on the fact that each team in last season's final four won their opening game of this year? In fact, the only team from the divisional round of last year's playoffs to lose their opening game this year ... was the team that also lost their starting quarterback last week, and even then only fell on the road against another member of that illustrious playoff field.
Bryan: Should we focus on the state of the state of Florida, where all three professional football clubs have started 0-1 and are in various flavors of panic mode -- not to mention the fact that every major university in Miami and Tampa is still looking for a win as well. Should we talk about your MVP Leader after one week, Lamar "Not Bad for a Running Back" Jackson?
Andrew: Wait, we already did that one.
Bryan: Should we talk about Minnesota celebrating the NFL's 100th season by deciding to take us back to the dead-ball, run-only era? Or the return to normality in the Factory of Sadness? Other than that, it was pretty much your run-of-the-mill Week 1.
Andrew: This was, er, quite the week for various shades of Brown. Between the astounding debut of a certain Marquise "Hollywood" in Miami, the rather more traditional shade of Brown in Cleveland, and the psychedelic Brown in Oakland -- I wonder, does that qualify as the most expensive YouTube video in history?
Bryan: Nah, other people's YouTube videos have ended careers; Brown got a big ol' one season-deal with the Patriots, which is where he wanted to end up all along. I don't buy that this entire offseason was a ploy by AB to get his way out of Oakland -- burning one's own feet would require a level of dedication above and beyond anything that seems reasonable -- but he made out alright when all was said and done.
Let's start, at least, by zeroing in on Florida, because so much of what made Week 1 crazy happened in the Sunshine State. This is not the first time all three Florida teams started 0-1 -- they all lost their season openers every year from 2007 to 2009 -- but this might be the most despair we've seen out of one state in a long, long time.
To put it another way, when the dust cleared on Sunday night, your top seeds, thanks to points tiebreakers, would have been the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers -- yes, I had to get that mention in somewhere, thank you. They, of course, were playing the Dolphins and Buccaneers, who oh-so-kindly let them run up the scores. And at least neither of them lost their shiny new free agent quarterback for half the season! Nightmare start in Florida.
Andrew: That isn't quite an adequate description of how accommodating the Buccaneers were to their guests on Sunday afternoon. This wasn't so much "letting them run up the score" as "running up the score for them by passing directly to their defensive backs in the open field." Fully half of each team's touchdown total was provided by the opposing team's quarterback. In a game with six touchdowns, that's quite a feat.
As for Miami, well ... at least Buffalo recovered from last year's opening day blowout loss against the Ravens to finish a semi-respectable 6-10? Does that qualify as hope?
Bryan: I think Miami's our first team on 0-16 watch, and so soon! With Washington looking better than expected against Philadelphia, the Dolphins' most winnable-looking game doesn't look so winnable anymore. No wonder half the team apparently is begging to get out of Miami. I guess that means the tank is working, but it is a hard sell to go out there for four months and get knocked around over and over again. Maybe they do still pick up that win against Washington -- it comes after the bye week, after all, so they'll be rested -- or maybe they win against, say, Cincinnati in December when the top draft pick is already all sewn up. But man, I can not remember a team that has looked less competitive right off the bat.
At least their quarterback tied a milestone -- our all-time Journeyman King, Ryan Fitzpatrick, threw an interception with his eighth different team, joining Chris Chandler atop that prestigious throne.
Andrew: We had another couple of milestones on Sunday, too. Jacksonville was the only team Patrick Mahomes had faced without throwing a touchdown pass, so he has now thrown a touchdown against every opponent he has played so far. Also, Adam Vinatieri may have had an afternoon he will want to forget, but he did so while kicking in -- get this -- his 51st different stadium as an NFL player. He has kicked in 19 more stadiums than there are teams in the league.
Here's my question concerning the Dolphins. We all understand that the purpose of tanking is supposed to be to stockpile resources that ultimately develop into a strong team. We understand that this is early in the process, so naturally there will be a lack of talent on the roster right now. So as we've done with other teams in this situation, let me ask: how many of their current players would definitely start games for any other team in the league?
Bryan: Definitely start? The secondary; Xavien Howard, Reshad Jones, and Minkah Fitzpatrick would all be starters on any average NFL team. You could get a bunch more names if you went team by team and found weaknesses -- players like Kenyan Drake or DeVante Parker would be upgrades for some specific teams -- but the Dolphins' secondary is legit.
Which makes Lamar Jackson's Sunday all the more amazing.
Andrew: It does. I just wonder if it plays into something you and I discussed "behind the curtain" as we agreed our way through four Over/Under articles in August. One of the reasons we felt we agreed so much is that it just seems like, for all the supposed attempts at creating parity, the difference between the "haves" and the "have-nots" has rarely been quite so stark. Is that just a question of the quarterbacks then? Because even there, Ryan Fitzpatrick is far from the worst of the starting options in the league today. There might even be an argument that he's the best starting quarterback in the state right now, having seen both him and Winston on the same team last year, and with Nick Foles out until at least November.
Bryan: Not buying into the Legend of Gardner Minshew II?
Andrew: There was a Gardner Minshew I?
Bryan: I'm pretty sure he led the Austro-Hungarian Empire or something, but don't quote me on that.
I'm surprised at how good Minshew looked in his unexpected debut, and kudos to Doug Marrone for giving the kid plenty of easy throws to get his feet wet. Minshew didn't set the world on fire, but going 22-for-25 in your first game isn't bad at all -- in fact, it's the highest completion percentage for any quarterback in their debut, beating the record previously held by Marcus Mariota's 13-for-15, four-touchdown day back in 2015.
Andrew: Still, you have to think that an already imposing first half of the season just got a whole lot tougher for a team that didn't look especially great in any phase prior to Minshew's insertion. Miami still has the inside track on that first overall pick, but the intrastate rivalry looks stronger than it's ever been.
Bryan: First team to four victories wins the state of Florida, I would presume.
Andrew: That is what we on this side of the pond fondly refer to as a "booby prize." At least a wooden spoon has its uses as a kitchen utensil.
Bryan: Alright, we need to get to a point here.
Andrew: Spoilsport. Fine then. Which of the most outlandish occurrences is a portent of things to come, and which is clearly Week 1 playing tricks on us all? I'll go first. The Dolphins are going to be the worst team in the league. That is clearly a sign of things to come.
Bryan: That's a big ol' true. They are bad at least in part by design, while most of the other contenders for this title (the Buccaneers, Giants, and Jaguars) are bad despite their best efforts. I don't think they're 59-10 bad on a week-by-week basis, but they'll probably be in the fewest competitive games for any team this year -- even the tippy-top of the league should blow out teams less often than the Dolphins get blown out.
My turn: the Browns are doomed. DOOOOOMED. The Factory of Sadness is back in full swing, baby.
Andrew: Don't believe the hype, in either direction. The Browns looked to me like a team that did believe their own hype -- that had been reading their own press cuttings, so to speak. They're neither as good as their offseason press hyped them up to be, nor as bad as a 43-13 home loss to the Titans. Which is good, because not even the Dolphins should be as bad as a 43-13 home loss to the Titans.
Time for one from the positive results column: nobody can stop the Patriots.
Bryan: Depends on exactly what you mean. If I had to re-do my predictions today, yeah, I'd put the Patriots over the Saints in the Super Bowl, rather than vice versa. If you mean nobody can stop them in the sense that they're rolling to a perfect season, like the LAST time they added a disgruntled ex-Raiders receiver, I'm not there quite yet. There are a few road games which could give them significant trouble -- we saw what Baltimore can do with a fully operational quarterback; Philadelphia woke up after a half to look like the Eagles we all thought they would be; and Houston showed Monday night that you can never count them out. The Dolphins are much more likely to go 0-16 than the Patriots are to go 16-0, in other words.
Andrew: DePeNdS is why you never got that First Take gig.
Bryan: Man, I missed out on like three full-time gigs this offseason. My shingle's out, if anyone's looking.
Anyway. Speaking of the Ravens, here's one for you: Baltimore's win was more about them being really, really good than it was about the Dolphins being really, really bad.
Andrew: You don't need to persuade me of that. True. Both of us called over for the Ravens in preseason, because their floor under John Harbaugh has always been "solid, tough opponent" and there's plenty of upside if they can get the best out of Jackson. Well, it's tough to dispute that on Sunday they got the best out of Jackson.
Let's peek at a team we disagreed on in the other north, then: the Vikings are the best team in the NFC North.
Bryan: Oh, that's a big nope from me. Not that they're terrible or anything, but this week's game plan screams "random outlier" rather than something that makes me suddenly vault them clearly to the top of the division.
They threw the ball ten times (well, 11, but one was called back by penalty.) That's the third time that's happened this decade, and it doesn't happen because a team is confident in their passing game. The Bears did it with a rookie Mitchell Trubisky in 2017; the Broncos did it during the Tim Tebow experiment back in 2011.
Andrew: It's Mike Zimmer. He could have added Tony Gonzalez and LaDainian Tomlinson to the '07 Patriots and still not be confident in his passing game.
Bryan: Even still! Ten-pass games are rare. They happened eight times in the '00s, three times in the '90s, and 12 times in the '80s. It was truly a game plan from another generation -- there were 65 10-pass games in the '70s, 21 in the '60s, 30 in the '50s and 97 in the '40s, back when your starting quarterback had to double as a defensive back. A touching throwback to a very different era of football? Yes. But let's make it a one-off, shall we?
A slightly different one: Kliff Kingsbury should be pilloried for punting in overtime to ensure the draw.
Andrew: False, but Kliff Kingsbury should be pilloried for at least two of his field goal decisions earlier in the game. Preserving the tie near midfield on fourth-and-7 was defensible for a first-time head coach in his debut. Kicking on fourth-and-goal from the 2 is almost never defensible. Fourth-and-4 is more reasonable, but not when trailing 17-3.
Bryan: See, I'm going to disagree slightly. I know, yes yes, we all were 0-0 and have the right to dream of the postseason and yadda yadda yadda. But two things: one, the Cardinals are not going to make the playoffs, so preserving half a win doesn't do much from a standings perspective. And two, if the Cardinals ARE going to make the playoffs, you would think "beating the Lions at home" would be a major part of that push. Kingsbury's prime goal this season is to build a culture in Arizona vastly different from what they had last year. Kicking those short field goals and giving up any real chance of winning by punting the ball away does not send the message I would want to send to my young team. Heck, even if they had gone for it in overtime and failed, you could still play up the "look how these guys fought back; I'm proud of them" thing, which is likely more important than wins or losses in the desert this year.
But maybe I just hate ties.
Andrew: Alright, in that vein, here's my statement of Week 1 fact: regular-season overtime should be abolished.
Bryan: I could get behind that, as I think we've covered before.
Andrew: So the problem you have isn't the tie, as such, it's the prolonged game still ending without a clear winner.
Bryan: It's more the "well, we tried for 69 minutes, but now, eh, we're good." Never mind that the ball was in Detroit territory, and the Lions would have had to move the ball 30 yards to get into field goal range even if Arizona hadn't picked up the first down. Admittedly, fourth-and-7 isn't ideal, but you know, you play to win the game and yadda yadda yadda. Now, if Detroit had accepted C.J. Anderson's holding call and it ended up being fourth-and-17 from the wrong side of midfield, sure, punt and earn your tie. But, just, gah.
Andrew: And yet, as we'll get to shortly, that still wasn't nearly the wussiest decision of the week by a coach who should know better.
Alright, last one before we get onto the important stuff: Titans 43, Browns 13 is going to look like the most surprising result of Week 1 by the end of the season.
Bryan: I'm going to say false, because I think people will come around to Tennessee being better than they thought by the end of the year -- not "better than Cleveland on the road" good, mind you, but better than people think. And the Cleveland hype was very much overdone this offseason, though I think they'll end up better than they looked on Sunday.
No, I think the game we'll look back on and go "huh?" is the Jets-Bills game, as much as anyone will pay attention to the Jets or the Bills in December. I still don't think the Bills are built for the long haul, and I think they got lucky to come back thanks to some kicking woes and poor late-game strategic decisions on behalf of the Jets. The former should improve as the Jets have already switched kickers, and I think even Adam Gase will do better in the future than he did in the fourth quarter of Week 1. So, long after the name "Kaare Vedvik" has faded from all but your Keep Choppin' Wood experts minds, people will go back and wonder how the Jets managed to lose this one.
Andrew: Fair comment. I actually wouldn't be surprised if it's Detroit at Arizona, as a decent Lions team blew a big lead against a bad Cardinals outfit. Time, as they say, will tell.
Anyway, speaking of Keep Choppin' Wood, let's get to the good stuff. Here's to a similarly entertaining Week 2! (Not you, Florida.)
Keep Choppin' Wood
(Editor's Note: Again, this was written before Tuesday night's Antonio Brown news broke.)
Where do we even start with this week's winner, a saga so bizarre that it makes Vontae Davis' halftime retirement and Terrell Owens' driveway workout video both look positively normal? First, Antonio Brown showed up (late) in Oakland with frostbite from not wearing the proper footwear in a cryogenic chamber. He then had a very public meltdown, however much we might suspect a PR stunt, over his inability to wear his old helmet this season. The helmet issue was eventually resolved thanks to a lovely fat endorsement deal, but then Brown allegedly had to be restrained -- by, of all people, Vontaze Burfict -- from confronting Raiders general manager Mike Mayock over comments Mayock made to the media and the fines levied for missing offseason workouts. Brown apologized to the team for that outburst, but shortly thereafter posted a bizarre avante-garde video on social media seemingly featuring a hidden recording of a phone call with head coach Jon Gruden (which, it turns out, Brown had Gruden's permission to do). Finally, when the team voided his guarantees for "conduct detrimental," he flat-out demanded to be released. That done, as seems to be the fad for disgruntled Raiders star receivers, he promptly signed with the Patriots. All in all, Brown's antics cost the Raiders two midround draft picks for no return, cost himself around $20 million in guaranteed money, and cost most of the AFC the last lingering vestige of hope that the Patriots might be slowing down this year. Not bad for about 48 hours' work.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Trailing 20-0 at the intermission, the Pittsburgh Steelers received the opening kickoff of the second half and drove to the Patriots' 1-yard line. An incomplete pass to Donte Moncrief left them facing fourth-and-goal at the 1, trailing by three touchdowns in the second half of a road game against their supposed major rival for the AFC. This is one of the most obvious go-for-it situations we could possibly conjure. A true "even educated fleas know it" moment.
Mike Tomlin kicked a worthless, hapless, hopeless, inexcusable 19-yard field goal. The Steelers lost 33-3, but at least they weren't shut out, right?
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
By contrast, the Philadelphia Eagles, on their opening drive of the second half, faced fourth-and-1 at their own 34, trailing 20-7 at home to a Washington team that was not expected to be competitive in Philadelphia. Doug Pederson, after whom we might soon need to rename this award, took the road less travelled but analytically preferred -- a quarterback sneak was enough to pick up the first down, and the Eagles drove the rest of the field for a crucial touchdown in their 17-point come-from-behind victory.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Jay Gruden does not win this award for benching Adrian Peterson. It may be the first time Peterson has had to experience being a healthy scratch in his NFL career, but the decision was more than defensible from Gruden the Younger. It's not like Peterson plays special teams, and Washington was excited to get a healthy Derrius Guice into the lineup. Coaches have to make tough decisions, and benching Peterson was one of those tough decisions. Coaches also, however, have to keep up their team's morale, and Gruden was not successful in the task. It was reported before the game that several veterans were furious with the decision, with Morgan Moses saying it was a "slap in the face." And how did Gruden respond to questions about Peterson's benching and the rising locker room angst?
Masters of locker room diplomacy the Grudens are not. And now, with Guice down indefinitely with a knee injury, Gruden has to turn back to AP as his lead back. We'll be counting down the I-formation runs as Washington hosts the Cowboys this week.
'First-Round Bust' Fantasy Player of the Week
When you look back at the first round of the 2017 draft, John Ross' name sticks out like a sore thumb. Sandwiched between Christian McCaffrey and Patrick Mahomes, he seemed to be on a fast train to Bustville. First-round picks generally get three years or so to prove they're worthy of a roster spot, so 2019 kind of feels like a make-or-break year for the ex-Washington stud, considering he had just one game in his first two seasons with more than 40 receiving yards. But with A.J. Green out and Zac Taylor calling the shots, Ross looked … well, maybe not first-round caliber, but like a real, actual-factual No. 1 receiver for the first time in his career. He dropped a few passes, but caught enough of them to earn 158 yards and a pair of scores. With Green still out for the foreseeable future, it's worth grabbing Ross to see if he can pull of a repeat performance against San Francisco.
Wow. What a TD catch by John Ross. pic.twitter.com/3BH2koLcBF
— SportsTalkFeed (@SportsTalkFeed) September 8, 2019
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
This award goes to the player who racked up the most stats in lost causes. That might well end up being "the best Miami player every week," but at least to begin with, we're going to hang with Austin Hooper instead. Matt Ryan targeted Hooper nine times, all of them with at least a three-score deficit, all of them with Minnesota having at least a 94% win probability. If you were in a PPR league, Hooper's nine catchers were a huge boon for you, as MInnesota was more than happy to let the Falcons dink and dunk their way to nothing of any great significance. Calvin Ridley and Ryan himself added a lot of fantasy value well after the game was done, but all of Hooper's points came well after the casual fan had turned the game off. That's a garbage-time superstar for you.
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week
This is going to be a long, long season for the Miami Dolphins, whom we expect to have to bypass in this spot multiple times over the course of the year just to avoid making it "Dolphins Player of the Week." The one bright spot from the opening game was rookie wide receiver Preston Williams, who caught his first NFL touchdown in his professional debut. Williams was somewhat overshadowed by a rookie receiver on the opposite sideline, but he was also the only Dolphins wideout to haul in more than 50 percent of his targets on the day. Given the trade rumors swirling around a number of Dolphins veterans, Williams may end up the team's No. 1 target before too long; his performance is the one positive that the Dolphins can take from their opener.
Play Minute of the Week
Just take the last fifty seconds of the Texans/Saints game and stick it here, because you're not going to find a much more impactful minute of football anywhere else this season. Two top-ten teams trading great plays, boneheaded penalties, questionable strategies, and a career-long field goal as time expired. It was the first time in the history of Monday Night Football that we had multiple lead changes in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) September 10, 2019
This recap doesn't even hit everything -- it misses the missed extra point from Houston, wiped out by a late roughing the kicker call. Wild and crazy, and a great way to end Week 1. Too bad about that Raiders-Broncos game that followed. It's too early to get into the weeds of playoff implications, of course, but if the Texans are a game short of a playoff berth in Week 17, or the Saints a game ahead of their rivals, remember these 50 seconds in September.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Andrew: I can't even look at that Patriots line in Miami. That's something out of college football, not the NFL. Instead, I'm sneaking a peek at another home underdog. I almost picked the Giants in double survival (see below), not because I particularly like the Giants, but because Buffalo is one of the more winnable games on their schedule. There was more than a hint of good fortune about Buffalo's win against the Jets this past weekend. The Giants can just about do enough to get by them in Week 2. N.Y. Giants (+1.5) over Buffalo.
Bryan: I like your pick of the Giants, but in the interest of competitive spirit, I should go elsewhere on the board.
Last year, I rarely went for the big underdog to lose but still cover. I want to try to do that more this year, so I'll take Oakland (+9) at home against Kansas City. Back-to-back weeks on Oakland, I must be mad. I am not picking the Raiders to win this one outright, but the Chiefs are a little banged up. Tyreek Hill will miss the game with his sternal clavicular joint injury. Patrick Mahomes' participation in practice may well be limited with the ankle injury he suffered against Jacksonville; the Chiefs offense became a lot more dink-and-dunk as they tried to get the ball out of Mahomes' hands quickly to prevent more hits. That's not nearly enough to pick an outright upset here, but on the road, on a baseball infield? Maybe they play a little more cautious than we're used to seeing. Remember -- the game in Oakland last year ended Kansas City 40, Oakland 33.
Double Survival League
Bryan: For the first time, we have to make a ruling on what happens when one of the teams we pick ties. The official rules do state that we are picking a team to win, and thanks to Matt Patricia's decision to use both a prevent offense and prevent defense throughout the fourth quarter, the Lions did not, in fact, manage to win. Thus, it goes down for a loss on Andrew's balance sheet, despite not actually being a loss on the field. It's harsh, but these rules are written in stone.
Andrew: I demand a recount! Well, a mulligan at least! Bah!
This week should, in theory, be as safe a time as any to pick the Carolina Panthers, who pushed the Rams closer than they really had any right to on opening day. Thursday Night Football at home against the Buccaneers should be a perfect convergence of circumstances for a team that did not open nearly as convincingly as I had hoped.
I contend that no team had a worse opening day than Jacksonville, when accounting for circumstances and expectations. The fallout from that has me picking Houston to win a game I would have been considerably less confident about a week ago. While the Jaguars defense may well have some success against a still-unconvincing Texans offense, I don't see a Gardner Minshew team winning -- this should be the most winnable game of the entire Texans schedule.
Bryan: Vegas and I disagree on what the biggest gimme of the week is -- I think it's Baltimore over Arizona, because sometimes, weird things do happen when New England travels down to play Miami. It's not New England's easiest game on the schedule, even discounting the fact that we can't use their Week 17 game against Miami -- home games against the Jets, Giants, and Browns all loom before the bye, and they get the Bills at home in Week 16. Still … come on, there's no need to overthink this. In a week without a ton of juicy matchups for teams we expect to be bad, I'll go first in what is likely to be a long and fruitful pattern of your Scramble writers picking against Miami this year.
You can repeat most of that same paragraph for Tennessee over Indianapolis -- home games against the Bills and Buccaneers look juicier than a matchup against the Colts, but I strongly disagree that the Titans should just be three-point favorites at home. I was strongly considering making them my Lock of the Week -- they may never have beaten the Andrew Luck Colts, but they've won their last two games against the non-Luck version! I think they bottle up Marlon Mack, make Jacoby Brissett work more, and come away with a fairly comfortable victory.