Mike Tanier's Monday Morning Hangover: Forget the Flags

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 8, 2014

Patric Schneider/AP Images

Welcome to the Monday Morning Hangover, where I recap the big stories and strange moments from Sunday’s ... aw heck, it’s a Monday NFL review column. You don’t need a GPS to figure it out. 

A Farewell to Flags

The first Sunday of the NFL season was supposed to feature more flags than a Veteran’s Day parade. It didn’t quite happen that way.

As every fan knows, the NFL "clarified" the defensive holding and illegal contact rules in the offseason. The clarification appeared to involve telling defenders that everything that made them successful has been forbidden, making their jobs impossible. Referees called 173 defensive holding penalties and 105 illegal contact penalties in four preseason weeks, plus the Hall of Fame game. Add 63 defensive pass interference penalties, and the average team committed 2.6 variations on “violating a receiver’s right to waltz unfettered across wide-open spaces” per game, a historically high average.

So we expected every Week 1 scoring drive to be marred by some miscarriage of justice: a thrilling strip-sack on 3rd-and-18 transformed into five yards and a first down because a safety got as close to a receiver as tennis players get when they both rush the net, perhaps. We braced for the latest update of the NFL’s invasive officiating software, which fixes tiny bugs by bricking the whole system.

Instead, we got ... two overtime thrillers! The Colts doing crazy Colts comeback stuff to the Broncos in late night! A shocking Dolphins-Patriots upset! An Eagles comeback from down 17-0 against the surprising Jaguars! The Browns throwing an even bigger scare into the Steelers! Derek Anderson and Josh McCown being semi-interesting! And most shocking of all: a whole day of decently officiated games.

We came to complain about the penalties, and we got entertaining football instead.

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Now, the NFL did not spend the preseason wasting your viewing time and lying to you, or at least not lying to you. Defensive clutch-'n'-grab penalties did increase in Week 1. You would just have to be a stat geek to notice it, or at least read an article written by a stat geek.

Here are the Week 1 defensive holding, pass interference and illegal contact totals for every opening week since 2010. Keep in mind that there are still two games left to play on Monday:

Opening week penalties
YearDef. holdingPass interf.Illegal contact
B/R research; * 2 games remain

Holding penalties and contact penalties have both increased, and both five-year highs will be slightly higher by Tuesday morning. But the increase was not noticeable on the field.

If you want to see a noticeable jump in the numbers, look at the 2012 pass interference total. Remember the referee lockout? Those replacement refs sure were a hoot, calling more than twice as many pass interference penalties as typically occur on opening weekend. That was some irregular refereeing. Sunday’s increase was unobtrusive.

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 07:  Brandon Marshall #15 of the Chicago Bears slips by Leodis McKelvin #21 of the Buffalo Bills to score a third quarter touchdown at Soldier Field on September 7, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There is another reason the increase in defensive clutch-'n'-grab penalties was so subtle. A large percentage of them were declined because they were called on passes which were completed anyway: Brandon Marshall’s catch against interfering Leodis McKelvin and Kelvin Benjamin's touchdown while wearing a Mike Jenkins lobster bib are just two examples. Seven of the 43 penalties occurred on Sunday night, in a crazy, out-of-hand game that was bound to cause some extra interference falls.

So defenders were fouling more but enjoying it less. There were no heinous "lottery" plays on Sunday, where a downfield nudge negated a great defensive play or gift-wrapped a scoring opportunity. And most of the fouls I saw were real fouls, not the kind of incidental contact that barely merits a "my bad" on a Manhattan sidewalk.

So what really happened during that yellow-flag ticker-tape parade of a 2014 preseason? The NFL called off the illegal-contact bloodhounds a bit, though you should not expect a formal admission. Defenders probably did scale back on the downfield jostling. But the preseason of yellow nightmares is best thought of as an example of what teachers call the Flip-Flop Phenomenon.

Open-backed shoes are illegal in most public high schools, ostensibly for safety reasons: If you are trying to evacuate the building, flip-flops could slow students down. (Four-inch stiletto heels and untied clodhopper boots are A-OK.) Since sane, non-creepy teachers do not pay much attention to their students’ feet, the flip-flop rule goes unenforced until some vice principal gets mad or a state auditor arrives and is aghast by flagrant displays of teenage heel. A faculty meeting is spent browbeating the teachers about flip-flops, and for the rest of the week, no student is safe from the footwear Stasi. A reprobate could walk down the main hallway smoking a cigarette, but three teachers would walk straight past him to interrogate a seventh-grade girl who blew a flat tire on her Birkenstocks.

And then, three days later, everything is forgotten, except that a few kids have buried their flip-flops in the closet, at least until spring.

That's what happened this preseason. The table above shows that some penalties were not being enforced properly: illegal contact was disappearing from the rulebook. So the NFL made officials go on a penalty binge that lasted until there were real things to worry about, like games that count in the standings. The league more or less accomplished its mission, because players and position coaches were thrown into a tizzy and some officiating crews were given a refresher course on rulebook details. But really, everything is close enough to status quo that it is impossible to notice the difference.

Strange officiating will become a storyline again soon enough. But after the August we trudged through, it was great to take a break from watching referees to watch some football.

The Hangover Debut Spectacular!

The Monday Morning Hangover isn't alone in making its Week 1 debut. We got our first looks at dozens of new coaches, players and schemes on Sunday. Here are the premiere episodes of some sagas that we will keep an eye on all season long.

The Dolphins' "Real Men Don’t Bully" Offensive Line

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The Dolphins rushed for 191 yards. Ryan Tannehill was sacked just once and knocked down one other time. No one was sent to the guidance counselor for a conflict-resolution seminar. It was a win-win-win!

"They kept me pretty clean the whole night and obviously dominated in the run game," Tannehill said after the game. "[It] is a good first step for us."

The Patriots offensive line, meanwhile, gave up four sacks in the 33-20 loss to the Dolphins. Jordan Devey, Marcus Cannon, Dan Connelly and Ryan Wendell took turns sliding from guard to center in an over-engineered attempt to hide regrets about the Logan Mankins trade. The problems up the middle propagated along the line until everyone looked terrible and Brady started taking a Tannehill-level beating.

The Patriots are covering their dissatisfaction with Sunday’s performance with Orwellian PatriotSpeak. "From here on out, it's the guys we've got, and we're going to work on it," Nate Solder said after the game. "It's great. I couldn't be happier to have the guys we have."

Who needs bullying when you have repressed passive-aggression?

RG3, Version III

Robert Griffin was an exciting quarterback in 2012. He was a troubled, controversial quarterback in 2013. He is on pace to be an irrelevant quarterback in 2014.

Griffin was not particularly terrible in the Redskins' 17-6 loss to the Texans, though Jay Gruden made an effort to keep the game out of his hands. (If you love 3rd-and-long screen passes and draw plays, Redskins-Texans was your Christmas morning.) But post-ACL Griffin is no faster than your average Texans linebacker. He and Alfred Morris have more trouble with handoff exchanges than any experienced quarterback-running back tandem in NFL history, and they screwed up another routine pitch on Sunday. When your fast, big-armed option quarterback is no longer that fast, you are afraid to throw deep and the running back exchange has become an adventure, well, there is not much left to feel great about.

The Redskins, as usual, have deeper issues. When receptions get fumbled, extra points and punts get blocked, defenders commit every dumb roughness penalty in the rulebook and an opponent with an aging hipster quarterback can execute back-to-back 13-play drives to sew up a close game in the fourth quarter, it wouldn’t matter if the Redskins had Russell Wilson at quarterback.

That said, Robert Griffin is a long, long way from Russell Wilson.

The Buccaneers Rebuilt Everything

So much is new in Tampa that the changes are best broken down using bullet points:

New Uniforms: Clean and snappy, like the officers on a cruise ship, but with uniform numbers inspired by a broken 1980s digital clock.

New Quarterback: He's Josh McCown, folks. A four-touchdown game against the Cowboys' "Nicholls State spring practice" defense last year did not erase 12 years of being Josh McCown. Lots of quarterbacks can fumble and throw an interception on the same play, but it takes a career third-stringer like McCown to do both while throwing a screen pass.

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 7: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on from the sidelines against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium on September 7, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff McBride/Getty Images) )
Cliff McBride/Getty Images

New Defense: Hey, Lovie Smith is running the Cover 2! Is the other team near the goal line? Cover 2! Is its starting quarterback wandering the sidelines in a baseball cap and the cheesiest grin this side of a leadership seminar in an airport hotel? Cover 2! Are the opposing wide receivers a rookie and a guy the Jets got rid of four years ago? Cover 2! For variety, sometimes the linebackers will cram themselves into the A-gaps, threatening to "fire blitz" straight down the center's throat, before dropping into…Cover 2! Okay, it was not quite that predictable, but Greg Olsen looked like Jimmy Graham, and you have to wonder just how unlikely an opponent has to be to throw deep before Lovie starts creeping those safeties forward a bit.

New Weapons: Fullback Jorvorskie Lane provided the Bucs' offensive highlight with a 54-yard burst on an I-formation dive. Doug Martin picked up where he left off last year, with nine carries for nine yards—he may be the RG3 of running backs, ruined by coaching madness. Austin Seferian-Jenkins looked like a scary target when he caught a 26-yard pass over the middle. He then disappeared for the rest of the game, presumably to wipe off all the beach chairs on the lido deck.

New Offensive Line: Bad, and losing Logan Mankins to a knee injury did not make it better. Richie Incognito may be on the horizon. He’ll solve the guard problem. And cause six others.

New Attitude: Presumably still a winning one, despite a loss to the kind of offensive talent that plays the fourth quarter of a final preseason game. The Buccaneers kept battling until the end. Sounds like something Greg Schiano would say.

Derek Carr, Future Quarterback of the San Antonio Raiders

Carr executed a standard "hide the rookie" game plan well in a 19-14 loss to the Jets. His first four completions netted zero, eight, three and one yards before he hit Rod Streater on a shallow cross that turned into a 12-yard touchdown, so you get a sense of the Raiders' downfield daring against an opponent with no cornerbacks.

Carr later discovered the one thing James Jones does extremely well: catch jump balls along the sideline in the end zone. The late touchdown made Carr's performance look better than it really was, but he handled himself well overall. Carr was sacked just twice, which is a good sign, because his brother could usually count on getting sacked two or three times in just the opening series.

The Revis Archipelago

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Darrelle Revis broke up two passes intended for Dolphins burner Mike Wallace. He also gave up a touchdown to Wallace, he caught a break when Wallace only got one foot inbounds on a deep pass, and he cramped up for a few series, because he is not used to that Florida heat after spending last season in ... Tampa. Wallace finished the afternoon with seven catches for 81 yards and the touchdown; he was targeted 11 times, so the Dolphins were not trembling at Revis' presence, when he was present.

Revis is still talented and can still be a major plus for the Patriots, but he has become the NFL equivalent of a pleasure boat. The second-happiest day of any general manager's career is the day he signs Revis. Can you guess what the happiest day is?

Johnny Manziel's Package

He didn’t have one.

Panthers' Less-is-More Offense

Give Riverboat Ron Rivera credit for consistency. The Panthers faced 4th-and-1 at the Buccaneers' 5-yard line early in the second quarter. That's Riverboat Ron go-for-it territory, but the Panthers' offensive personnel looked like a squad the Virginia Destroyers of the old UFL might field, and for all their vices, the Bucs have a nasty interior defense.

But Rivera is just not a 22-yard field goal kind of guy. Derek Anderson sneaked for a first down, then hit Greg Olsen for a touchdown two plays later. Cam who? Steve who? Ted who Junior? Various retired offensive linemen? You get the idea.

Make no mistake, the Cam-less, receiver-poor Panthers offense was a horse-and-buggy operation. Anderson threw a lot of one-yard passes to running backs, and the only person in the stadium who thought the Panthers planned to chuck it deep was Lovie Smith. But overall, the rebuilt offensive line was sound, and the Kelvin Benjamin-Jerricho Cotchery-Olsen receiving corps looked less ridiculous on the field than it looks on the depth chart. Cam will have something to work with when he returns.

Denver's Wes-less Wonders

LM Otero/Associated Press

Emmanuel Sanders caught six passes for 77 yards, including a 40-yarder on a deep crossing route, with an 11-yard end-around tossed in. Julius Thomas caught three touchdown passes.

And yet, something was lacking in the fourth quarter of the Broncos' 31-24 escape against the Colts. That something was defense. Also, smart special teams play. But there was a third thing missing: efficiency, that magic Wes Welker ability to peck you to death with six-yard passes that lead to first downs and game-icing drives. Late in the fourth quarter, Manning could not quite connect with Sanders along the sideline. Andre Caldwell got wide-open on a third-down corner route but backpedaled awkwardly instead of running through the throw. If Manning had the NFL’s best slot security blanket, the Colts comeback would not have lasted until the two-minute warning.

It will not matter against the Chiefs next week, because the Broncos will coast. Nothing matters against the Seahawks. And Welker will be back soon after that. But the Broncos are not as crisp without Welker, it is more noticeable this year, and the next time Welker disappears may be the last.

The Bengal Coast Offense

Hue Jackson dubbed his new system in Cincy the "Bengal Coast Offense." Yes, "-coast" has become a suffix to mean "offensive philosophy," the way "-gate" means "political scandal." So if you are the offensive coordinator at Sweet Valley High, you can run the Sweet Valley Coast Offense. (It's a lousy job, anyway: The cheerleaders get all the attention.) Coach football at Florida Gulf Coast University, and you run the Gulf Coast Coast Offense. And so on.

Jackson wanted to stress the uniqueness and originality of his system, because nothing says "unique and original" like slapping together your team's name and a cliche from 20 years ago.

Sep 7, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) runs with the ball as  running back Giovani Bernard (25) blocks Baltimore Ravens defensive end DeAngelo Tyson (93) during the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Cre

Jackson's offense certainly is unique, though. There are reverses, myriad screens, pistol formations, wheel routes and triple options. Yes, triple options. Andy Dalton runs well enough, but Jackson thinks he is Colin Kaepernick. Dalton executed a mix of pitch plays and keepers, finishing with six carries for three yards. Dalton’s 18-inch sprints aside, the Bengals offense looked like the Greatest Show on Turf, if "turf" is defined as "any surface outside the Ravens' 20-yard line."

The Bengals settled for five early field goals and had a sixth one blocked before Jackson allowed Dalton to put away the Urban Meyer playbook. Dalton can only throw one bomb at a time—he needs 20 minutes and a glass of orange juice to recover afterward, and perhaps a shower—so Jackson was wise to save it until A.J. Green was single-covered and the Ravens were waiting for Dalton to run the veer. Green exploded for a 77-yard touchdown after hours of teasing. Jackson should rename his offense the Tantric Coast.

(And yes, there is a Bengal coast in India, on the Bay of Bengal. If Jackson is claiming that Dalton options are some Bollywood reimagining of NFL strategy, well, it is as good an explanation as any.)

The Houston Texans and Captain Belichick Junior

Bill O'Brien did not display a lot of offensive creativity in the Texans' victory over the Redskins. He can't, really. His quarterback is a cross between Tim Wakefield and a fiddle player who showed up late for his band's gig at South by Southwest.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is a knuckleballer: His location is unpredictable, and one of his passes dropped so suddenly on Andre Johnson that the All-Pro receiver could not drop his hands quickly enough to grab it. The official scorers ruled it a passed ball. The Texans may sign Doug Mirabelli as a third receiver.

O'Brien does not have a quarterback, but he does have J.J. Watt. Watt’s blocked extra point, sack, fumble recovery and constant disruption did not win the game single-handedly for the Texans—Arian Foster kept the chains moving and ate the clock like it was organic quinoa, and both Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins broke out the oversized catcher's mitts—but the Texans might have lost to the most unprepared team north of Dallas if not for their defensive superstar.

How many games can Watt win all by himself? Oh wait, we answered that last year: two. He has slightly more help this year, but O'Brien must get him much more.

Rookie Receiver Revue

Sep 7, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks (10) is tackled by Atlanta Falcons free safety Dwight Lowery (20) during the first quarter at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Many members of the best rookie receiver class since 1996 saw their first action on Sunday. Here are a few who stood out:

Brandin Cooks: He occupies a niche halfway between the ones Darren Sproles and Devery Henderson vacated in the Saints' offensive ecosystem. Cooks was excellent in his debut: seven catches for 77 yards and a touchdown, plus 18 yards on a reverse. Cooks was effective in the red zone and on third downs, catching some tough passes in traffic. He was a little shaky fielding punt returns, but not Earl Thomas shaky. If only Cooks could play cornerback...

Allen Hurns: He is Kenbrell Thompkins in a media vacuum. Remember Kenbrell Thompkins? The Patriots discovered him as an undrafted rookie last year, and because evidence that Bill Belichick is the reincarnated Socrates gets blown a wee bit out of proportion by the New England media, Thompkins went from "interesting camp story" to a fourth-round pick in your fantasy league, ahead of Larry Fitzgerald.

Hurns was better this preseason than Thompkins was in 2013—he caught 14 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown, versus 15-166-0 for Thompkins—but only Blake Bortles fit in Jacksonville's laser pointer of a media spotlight in August.

Hurns started in place of injured Cecil Shorts and caught 34- and 21-yard touchdown passes for his first two receptions, adding a 46-yard catch later and turning the first half of the Eagles-Jaguars game into a waking nightmare for Eagles fans. (The Eagles later erased a 17-0 deficit and won 34-17.) Hurns finished with four catches; Thompkins caught five for the Patriots, but did not have nearly the impact. Hurns may be destined to always get upstaged, even in this week's "fantasy waiver scramble": your brother-in-law just sacrificed his right arm as a bid for Isaiah Crowell.

Kelvin Benjamin: He caught six passes for 92 yards and a touchdown in the Panthers' Cro-Magnon offense. Benjamin is raw and error-prone, but if you can catch touchdown passes while wearing cornerbacks the way Clint Eastwood wore a poncho, coaches will be patient.

Non-Drowsy Formula Kubiak

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 07:  Quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens talks with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak before the start of their game against the San Francisco 49ers durng an NFL pre-season game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 7, 2014 in
Rob Carr/Getty Images

It takes an innovator like Gary Kubiak to graft the dullest elements of the 2013 Texans to the dullest elements of the 2013 Ravens to create something hyper-boring. His new Ravens offense combines watching paint dry with watching grass grow: It's like watching paint grow.

All of your favorite Kubiak-isms are there. Stretch runs and play fakes off stretch runs are the staples. Those empty-backfield short passes that gain three fewer yards than you really need? Still there. Bengals linebacker Emmanuel Lamur intercepted a pass by standing on the Matt Schaub Memorial Patch of Turf toward which all Kubiak system outlet passes are directed. Kubiak even imported Justin Forsett to give the Ravens that "Arian Foster and Ben Tate are injured" vibe.

The only thing that made the Ravens watchable on offense was Steve Smith. Smith now wears "Smith Sr." on his jersey, making him look like a walking Colonial-era tombstone. He added old-guy muscle, so he is now all forearms and calves, like Popeye. Smith dropped several early passes and then continued the Ravens' offensive tradition of waiting until the game was as plug-ugly as possible before waking up with five catches for 108 yards (including an 80-yarder) in the second half.

Joe Flacco threw 62 passes against the Bengals. It was enough to make you wish for illegal contact penalties.

Images of Sunday

Let’s wrap up with some enduring images from a tremendous day of action.

It Takes a Nation to Hold Back Andrew Luck. Five Broncos defenders stacked up to stop Luck on a fourth-down goal-line sneak. One defender even got a blatant, uncalled handle on Luck's face mask. Luck somehow squirted the football to Ahmad Bradshaw, who sprinted into the end zone, but Luck's forward progress had stopped three defenders ago. It was the strangest play of Sunday's strangest game.

Luck had already rushed for a touchdown. That goal-line stuff became the margin of victory in a 31-24 final. Imagine what the Colts could do if they had a conventional running game, instead of a mix of excuses, rationalizations and quarterback keepers.

Michael Vick and Geno Smith Run a Reverse Option Pass: Someday, we may wish we listened to Marty Mornhinweg's obvious pleas for help.

Cam Newton Gives a Pep Talk. Newton ran on the field in street clothes and a baseball cap to rally his Panthers troops, who at that moment seemed to be doing just fine without rallying. Cam lovers are thrilled that he took his leadership role so seriously. Cam haters will point out that he seemed a little too cheery to not be playing all afternoon. I am more worried that if he keeps overstepping his boundaries, he will age into Pat Haden.

Chris Conte Cannot Tackle. Bears fans know this, of course. But they did not need to see Conte getting pushed down the sideline by Fred Jackson in overtime like a shopping cart through the produce aisle.

Antonio Brown Kicks Spencer Lanning in Face. It was like a generation of Steelers-Browns history encapsulated in one play. Brown rightfully drew a penalty for the kick, but Lanning must work on his "kneel with my face in front of the return-man legs and beg for mercy" passive-resistance tackling technique.

Dwayne Harris, Wide-Open. It's a play-action slant near the end zone, Tony Romo. The defender, Perrish Cox, fell down. It's a pretty basic play and read. Why are you pump-faking? What are you doing? Sigh... Romo may have reached the point where his whole life is the fourth quarter of a nationally televised game.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.