As we do every week, let’s take a swing around the NFL, looking at a bunch of random things…
1. The Cowboys play the Giants on Wednesday, the high-profile season opener for the entire league and a rematch of the 2011 finale that kick-started the G-Men on their run to the Super Bowl. It will also be the debut of the Cowboys defense that has looked really stout in the preseason under second-year coordinator Rob Ryan. Most of it came without pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, who had 19.5 sacks last year. As a precaution, he sat out three preseason games, even though he said after the second one that if there was a real game, he’d have played. Yet if Ware is worried about being rusty, he hasn’t shown it. Actually, he surprised me a bit when he discussed how being familiar with an opponent can be more beneficial than being in tip-top physical shape against an unfamiliar one.
“It’s not like I haven’t ever played the Giants before and don’t know what they’re doing,” Ware told me after a preseason game. “This game is more of a mental game of preparing and knowing what to do and the physical part will take care of itself. When you’re playing against any team, if you can know them 100 percent, (you’re good). Everybody says it’s a physical game. But you sorta knock the physical part out of it if you know what’s going on, know what type of blocks you’re going to get, who you’re playing against, what type of guys you’re going to be playing against. When you know more, the physical part sort of deadens out a little because you don’t have to work as hard, but mentally, you have to work harder, reacting fast.”
2. The Giants have been under-the-radar all preseason, but that ends Wednesday. The world will be watching when they play Dallas. How important is this for the defending Super Bowl champs? Tough to imagine a better opportunity, at least, than this one. “The first impression is always the best impression,” Giants WR Hakeem Nicks told me during a promotional appearance for New Era hats. “So, we got a division opponent on the first game of the season, we know what’s at stake.” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and others have been talking, but the Giants have kept (mostly) quiet. As Nicks said, “The best team’s going to win” regardless of who talks. Still, he made reference to the finale in 2011 when they knocked Dallas out of the playoffs. “We just gotta pick up where we left off,” Nicks said. The Giants have played well against the Cowboys of late, with last year’s game serving as the exclamation point. Make no mistake, the Giants are pumped. “I think our confidence in ourself is pretty high,” Nicks said. “We know what we’re doing. We just gotta take it one day at a time this week, prepare well and preparation is the key and go out there and give it our all on Wednesday.”
3. The Patriots made one of the more surprising moves of an otherwise not-too-shocking cut-down day when they released backup QB Brian Hoyer. It shouldn’t have been a total shock — a third-round pick in his second year should beat out an undrafted free agent — but it was eye-opening nonetheless. I laid out some reasons why the Patriots promoted QB Ryan Mallett to the No. 2 behind Tom Brady, but I also missed one of the big ones. At this point, it’s obvious the Patriots really like Mallett. I am not convinced, however, that they see him as the heir apparent to Brady. The timing isn’t right (Brady may play five more years). So Mallett is a value play for them, and he has been since they plucked the first-round talent in the third round. Why am I saying all this? Because his value is significantly higher as a backup than as a third-stringer. And if Brady goes down for three games or whatever in 2012, and Mallett steadies the ship and wins a few, his value will skyrocket. Say what you want about the Kevin Kolbs of the world, but if at least one team believes Mallett is a future starter, that’s worth a first-round pick. Being the backup opens up the possibility that he proves he’s ready to be a starter to some team. Mallett is in a much better position now to help the Patriots make good on their investment. Either way, having a third-round pick who improved enough over the course of the year to become No. 2 means that selection was worth it.
4. Along with learning about how Bears WR Brandon Marshall is to coach, we left Chicago earlier in the week with a greater understanding for why Marshall and QB Jay Cutler work so well. What we knew was, they did. In Denver, they combined for more than 100 receptions for Marshall per year, the kind of magic you rarely see from a receiver and a QB. Now, they’re back together again, and we’ll see how quickly they can find their groove again. Speaking of that, I asked WRs coach Darryl Drake what it is that Cutler and Marshall have together. His view, after watching it all through the offseason? Trust. “That’s a chemistry and a respect they have for each other,” Drake told me. “There is some trust there. That’s what you want. Jay knows that in certain situations, Brandon’s going to be there. Brandon knows in certain situations, Jay’s going to come to him. It’s Jay’s job to get there and it’s Brandon’s job to make the play. The quarterback needs some security with those monsters they have on defense and the way they rush the passer and all the different blitz packages. Guys gotta be able to be there and make the play for him. What Brandon’s done is really given Jay some options and some security and a chance to go with the ball at any given time. It’ll be fun to watch.” I’ll say.
5. Speaking of Kolb, it may be too early to say that trade was one of the worst ever. … No, maybe it’s not too early. It was a total disaster. The Cardinals sent starting CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and draft picks to the Eagles for Kolb, then gave Kolb a $63.5 million contract. All they get is a starter not good enough to beat out a fifth-rounder from Fordham in John Skelton. Two things stand out about this… One is that coach Ken Whisenhunt sucked it up and admitted the franchise’s mistake and chose the player better suited for Week 1. That’s pretty awesome, because it takes guts. He could’ve been stubborn and gone with Kolb, his guy. But he obviously has the big-picture view and enough confidence not to worry about looking stupid on the front-end and eventually screwing up even more on the back-end. Two, Whisenhunt is obviously discouraged by the QB play. So much so, that while naming a starter, he made clear it may be not for long. He told reporters, “There’s no guarantee going forward that Kevin won’t be playing for us or won’t be the starter.” Translation: The hook will be fast. As it should be. The Cardinals have the capability to be a passing team with WR Larry Fitzgerald and some promising other WRs, but they can’t without someone who can get them the ball. But what’s weird is that, unlike most teams, they actually have another option. They can also pound the rock and play defense. Whisenhunt should pick the QB who is the best game manager, since both aren’t that good. If Kolb gets them in the right play and turns the ball over less, he should be their starter. The Cardinals need to win in spite of their QB.
6. One of my favorite storylines from cut-down day never actually happened. The Eagles, flush with QB talent, were trying to trade reserve Mike Kafka. They made it known publicly, tried their best, then ended up with nothing. In the end, the Eagles cut the former fourth-rounder from Northwestern. It leaves the Eagles with Michael Vick, rising rookie Nick Foles and veteran Trent Edwards. It also means that some teams got smart. Not that the reserve QB market was hoppin’ this year (Tarvaris Jackson was worth only a late-round pick), but still. Anyway, nice job by teams not to get duped again. I mean, who would want to trade with the Eagles for a QB? The Cardinals know with what they got from Kolb. The Redskins know, picking up Donovan McNabb only when Andy Reid knew he was done. The Dolphins know after they sent a second-rounder to the Eagles for A.J. Feeley. And on and on. It’s like the Braves of a decade ago. If they said a pitcher was available, it means that dude is done. Don’t deal for him. Yet teams did anyway (including my Mets and Tom Glavine. Sigh.) Reid and the Eagles have done such a good job at propping up QBs, making their faults disappear and making them look good, it’s just amazing. At least the NFL is learning it’s fool’s gold. In my view, that’s why teams stayed away from Kafka.
7. Packers NT B.J. Raji injured his ankle on the first play of their last preseason game, though it doesn’t seem too bad. Rams first-round DT Michael Brockers injured his ankle, and he’ll likely miss a few games. Why? Why? Why? I know preseason games are important sometimes. For the unknown guys, the end-of-the-roster guys, the injured guys, the guys still trying to impress — go ahead, play. Why does it really make Brockers or Raji or Aaron Rodgers or anyone less rusty come the opener? Now, I know what you’ll say. Didn’t I just praise Rams coach Jeff Fisher for his approach to the fourth preseason game last week? OK, I did. But I was blind to the reality that sometimes, dudes get hurt. I was mostly assuming that it would be all right. But for both teams, it wasn’t. And so, the risk isn’t worth the reward. I mean, how much more ready for the season is Rodgers by having completed 1 of 2 passes in the final preseason game? None. If you really need them to play, if they simply aren’t ready, put your guys in the fourth preseason game. But just for show? Or just for a quick taste of the action? Honestly, I’d rather they be rusty for a quarter in the regular season than waste themselves and get hurt in this meaningless nothing of a game. Wonder if the circumstances changed the minds of the Packers and Rams…
8. It kinda happened late on Thursday night, and the news was met with a shrug. But it can’t be emphasized enough how big of a bonus it was for the Titans that WR Kenny Britt is only suspended one game for his off-the-field shenanigans. I mean, it’s just massive. Nevermind that he may not have been able to play against the Patriots — at full-speed, at least — as he recovers from a knee injury. Now, he’ll miss one game, and play 15… assuming he has no more dumb things on his docket. Britt is a beast, a walking breakout player who hasn’t quite made it happen yet. He’s big, strong, looks to be in incredible shape, and can be a machine in the red zone. Maybe just as important, he’s 6-foot-3 and can go get it, helping the Titans deal with the inaccuracy issues of second-year QB Jake Locker. Instantly, Britt makes Locker better. It’s tough to measure how much, but you know that Locker knows he’ll catch it, which gives him confidence. It can be the different between the offense punting or staying on the field. In not quite as important news, he’ll serve as an example for rookie Kendall Wright, who has also impressed. The Titans, assuming they get at least average QB play, could be pretty nasty.
9a. One amazing thing from cut-down day is that the Bengals are keeping playmaking LB Vontaze Burfict. The former underwhelming, undisciplined college All-American who fell off the map went undrafted, he’s a real success story. I kinda laughed to myself when the Bengals grabbed him, thinking it was another troubled guy going to Cincinnati. The reality is, Marvin Lewis does a great job with players who need some guidance. Burfict could be a fantastic find, just for his football instincts alone.
9b. Hey, the season is starting. How about that? I, for one, am pretty pumped. After taking in last night’s fantastic college football extravaganza that was Alabama-Michigan at JerryWorld, I’m ready for some professional football. It was awesome that The Steaker and his buddy visited and checked it out, though. Anyway, I’m ready for Wednesday. As for me, I’ll be in Nashville all week, covering the Titans and the Patriots. Back in the old stomping grounds… kinda. Will be good to see some familiar faces, and it’s always fun watching the Pats offense in person. Will be curious to see how much that defense has grown. As for the Titans, it’s the first start of Locker as a full-time starter. We’ll see how he handles the nerves.