In the NFL, being a maverick will either get you glory or get you fired. And there's not a lot of glory to go around.
Going 0-2 is always bad, but most teams can do it without sparking some kind of philosophical crisis. The Saints can bungle badly against the Bucs, then point to their track record. The Seahawks can gut their offensive line, play inconsistent defense and cite the salary cap and challenges of staying on top as reasons for their slow start. Nearly everyone can invoke a "play here and a play there" and claim they were a bounce or a flag away from 1-1 or 2-0.
But the Eagles are different, because Chip Kelly made them different. He put a bull's-eye on his team and himself this offseason. So far, opponents are looking like Robin Hood.
If you are having a hard time putting your finger on the Eagles' problem this season, try using your whole hand, or just belly flop on top of the last six days of Eagles football like it's a fumble in the end zone. The Eagles have been close in both of their losses, the 26-24 opener Monday night and the 20-10 defeat at the hands of the Cowboys on Sunday. But the Eagles cannot point to a play here or a play there. Because of Kelly, they must point to an entire offensive system here and an organizational culture there.
The Eagles are supposed to be the team that changes the way football teams are assembled, how they practice, how they call plays, what plays they run...everything down to the lengths of team meetings and the contents of the cafeteria. Everything is supposed to work in harmony. Right now, there is nothing but cacophony, and the whole Chip Kelly program—the "culture"—looks ridiculous.
That's a shame, because Kelly has many great ideas. Perhaps too many. If the Eagles fail, the ideas will suffer more than the coach.
The Eagles only possessed the ball for 19 minutes and 30 seconds against the Cowboys. Eight of their possessions lasted fewer than two minutes of game time and weren't much longer in real time. The Eagles, employers of a three-headed backfield you'd expect to see in an eight-team fantasy league, rushed for seven yards. They gained 21 net yards and netted one first down in the first half.
Sam Bradford committed three turnovers. DeMarco Murray rushed 13 times for two yards. Ryan Mathews touched the ball once. Byron Maxwell is bringing back bad Eagles fan memories of Nnamdi Asomugha of the infamous 2011 "Dream Team." The Cowboys committed 18 penalties and Tony Romo fractured his left clavicle while the Eagles still had the game within reach, but Philadelphia steadfastly refused to do anything with any opportunity but squander it.
The no-huddle looked bad. The new acquisitions looked bad. The defense played fairly well but cracked under the strain of 40 minutes of field time. The Eagles line blocked terribly, reminding us that Kelly released veteran guard Evan Mathis in a fit of pique in June.
The Cowboys had zero concern about option fakes: In a league where even Peyton Manning pretends to run outside after handoffs, Bradford does not dare risk a hit. The Eagles' only 3rd-and-long play appears to be a screen to Darren Sproles, which gets called back for holding as often as not. The uptempo three-thrills-a-minute offense is bogged down in micro-passes and stuffed runs. The team built to play smarter football commits stupid penalties and makes foolish mistakes.
Kelly doesn't have a safety net after his offseason of coups and trades. The Lions can go 0-2 without a wholesale indictment of Jim Caldwell's philosophy. The Texans can putter around without a quarterback and call it careful regime building. The Giants can make the same dumb mistakes week after week and year after year because they are traditional NFL mistakes, a little clock mismanagement here and a prevent defense there. Heck, we almost expect the Ravens to start out ugly. Only Kelly threatens to take a whole ideology down with him.
Conservative tactics stave off skeptics. They buy coaches benefits of the doubt and votes of confidence. Kelly must worry about non-believers not just in the owner's box but in a locker room full of guys who did things a different way in the past, with more success.
It's easy to buy in to fast-paced practices and massive personnel changes when you are marching up and down the field. It's not so easy to buy in if, for example, you're Murray or Maxwell and you go from Offensive Player of the Year to 0.5 yards per rush or a pair of Super Bowls to 40 minutes per week of chasing receivers all over the field.
If the Eagles don't turn things around, Kelly will lose his locker room, which will be the first step toward losing his job. If Kelly leaves the NFL, it could all leave the NFL with him: the full-time no-huddle offense, uptempo training techniques, aggressive offseason overhauls and even some of the cutting-edge tenets of sports science.
Some of those ideas can be written off as a failed experiment. A few deserve a longer look, especially after some success in 2013 and 2014. Some may be quietly succeeding in the background of all of this early Eagles failure.
The NFL needs many of the innovations Kelly is trying to introduce, ideas that can keep players healthier, make football more fun and shake up the status quo. But if the Eagles go in the tank this year, only the boldest, safest coaches—Bill Belichick, primarily—will dare adapt a Kelly concept without disguising where it came from.
Did you ever have a boss that just made too many changes too fast? Someone who refused to account for the fact it takes large groups of people time to adjust to even a few changes, let alone a dozen new radical ideas, implemented in a hurry on a tight deadline?
That's Kelly. All of his ideas are getting in each other's way, and his own. He created a big, brilliant mess. He can still recover to clean things up: Romo's injury clouds the NFC East picture and makes the Eagles the healthiest, most talented team in the division. Despite the ugly start, Kelly's Eagles still have a clear path to the playoffs.
If they don't make it, the whole heap will get hauled away, treasure and trash alike.
Most Monday wrap-ups are probably playing "Smash or Trash" or "For Real or Fraud" with the 2-0 and 0-2 teams after Sunday's games. Hangover prefers to get such predictable coverage over with as quickly as possible:
The 2-0 Teams
The Patriots are a typical Patriots team. The Bengals are slightly more Bengals than in past years. The Packers have the best quarterback in the NFL and plenty of extra helmets for the guys they pull off injured reserve. The Falcons are good enough to beat NFC East teams playing dumb, sloppy football, which could net them four wins. The Cardinals are the old blind sensei in the karate movie who embarrasses the hero by using his own strength against him. The Cowboys will be out of skill-position players by October. The Panthers are Cam Newton in a cape and a wizard's cloak. The Broncos are the Rocky Mountain Ravens. The Eagles...see above.
The 0-2 Teams
The Texans are a typical wannabe Patriots team. The Lions are slightly more Lions than in past years. The Giants have enough talent and coaching for about 35 minutes of quality football, then some soup and perhaps a nice bath to clear their heads. The Seahawks are going to enjoy that We Stuck to Our Economic Model parade in February. The Bears have more ways of quitting than an angry teenaged fry cook. The Ravens are just on a road trip. The Saints are the team everyone thinks the Broncos are.
Now that we have all of that out of the way, let's examine the risers and fallers among the many 1-1 teams around the NFL. A .500 record does not make for great early-season storylines, but it could conceal some hidden strengths and weaknesses.
Adrian Peterson: Steady
Peterson carried 29 times for 134 yards and added two receptions for 58 yards, including a 49-yarder, in the Vikings' 26-16 win over the Lions. Peterson also fumbled twice in the red zone, recovering his own fumble once, and had a third fumble (at the goal line) negated by a defensive penalty. It was a good game that looks a lot better on the stat sheet than it really was.
Teddy Bridgewater attempted only 18 passes all afternoon, though a few of his six rushes were scrambles. The Vikings' game plan suggests the team has not quite figured out whether it's Peterson's team with Bridgewater at quarterback or a balanced offense with a great but-aging Peterson in the drive train. Nostalgia and narrative beg for the former. Common sense and the fumbles point toward the latter: Less might be a little more for Peterson moving forward.
Situational Football for Young Quarterbacks: Rising
If you want to make an inexperienced quarterback (or an old journeyman or any other passer with major flaws) look great, give him a lead and some good field position. Conversely, if you want to make an unestablished quarterback look terrible, make him play from behind.
Jameis Winston threw 21 passes against the Saints after throwing 33 in the opener. Marcus Mariota threw 16 passes in the opener but threw 37 times in Sunday's loss to the Browns. Johnny Manziel completed just 8-of-15 passes in a 28-14 win over the Titans. Two of Manziel's completions were long bombs for touchdowns. The others netted 62 total yards.
Winston and Manziel looked better this week than last, Mariota worse. But game situations and field position made the differences much more pronounced.
Manziel only threw four second-half passes (he also fumbled twice; his team pouncing on his fumbles is another great way to make a young quarterback look better). Winston threw the ball just twice after the Buccaneers took a 23-7 lead. Quarterback is an easy position when you are handing off in the fourth quarter and the hardest job in the world when trailing by 14.
The Buccaneers started their average drive on their 36-yard line thanks to some turnovers and the stagnant Saints offense. The Browns started their average drive on the 33-yard line thanks to a pair of fumbles, with Travis Benjamin adding a punt-return touchdown to take pressure off the offense. Mariota, meanwhile, started his drives at his 19-yard line, on average.
That's a long way of saying Mariota is not as good as he looked last week, nor Winston as bad as he did. Manziel is better than last year (there was nowhere to go but up or reality television) but not as good as he's likely to be portrayed by the time you read this.
Let's enjoy these young quarterbacks and gather more evidence. When the game situations even out, we'll start to get a real sense of what each is capable of.
The Tyrod Taylor Experience: Steady
Taylor looked great in his first drive. Then the Patriots grabbed his composure and threw it over Niagara Falls in a barrel for about a half. Taylor began fumbling and running directly into Patriots defenders. Matt Cassel began warming up.
Taylor then made a game of things late—but not so late that his three fourth-quarter touchdowns (two passes and a run) were complete garbage-time gobbledygook. His final score pulled the Bills within five with over four minutes to play.
Bills fans had a lot riding on Sunday's game, as did national Patriots haters and those of us who root for underdogs and upsets that easily become the lead stories in our Monday columns (darn it!). The question for the Bills moving forward is how much they had riding on Sunday's game.
Taylor pulled himself off the mat and did some things right. The defense was weak overall but had a few successes to point to. The Bills can take positives away from Sunday's loss and go about the business of preparing for a bunch of winnable upcoming games (Dolphins, Giants, Titans, Bengals and Jaguars; a 5-2 record after that stretch is a reasonable goal). Or they can collectively buy in to the "September Super Bowl" nonsense and follow Sunday's letdown with a whole series of letdowns, playing emotionally instead of professionally.
The Bills are a Rex Ryan team, so they could easily go either way.
The Raiders Triplets: Rising
Sunday's 37-33 win over the Ravens may have been the Raiders' most significant victory since 2011. It was an early-season win over a quality opponent, something the Raiders haven't had an abundance of in recent years (the last win that qualifies was over the Steelers in September 2012), but it was much more.
Derek Carr returned from injury and had one of the best games of his young career, throwing deep effectively (something he rarely did last year) and even running an option for a big play. Latavius Murray gained 87 yards from scrimmage, with two important catches on the game-winning drive. Amari Cooper "arrived" (I hate that term, because it makes everyone sound like they are on the red carpet for the People's Choice Awards, but it's late and I am out of adjectives), while Michael Crabtree and others made major contributions to an offense that was still relying on the likes of Darren McFadden and Denarius Moore this time last year.
This was no cobbled-together Raiders victory. It was a sign of offensive legitimacy. The Raiders are not the easy out they appeared to be last week, and for three years before that.
Your High School Junior Varsity Offensive Playbook: Falling
It was fun watching the 49ers use the glorified Wing-T your Pop Warner coach taught you in sixth grade to beat the Vikings in last Monday night's Million Dollar Movie game. But really, you have to throw downfield more than twice per game to win consistently in the NFL.
Colin Kaepernick actually completed 11 passes in the first half of the Steelers' 43-18 win over the 49ers, but they netted just 61 yards as Geep Chryst emptied his playbook of every screen, boot pass and dump-off Amos Alonzo Stagg ever dreamed up.
Among the most exciting 49ers passing highlights of the first half: After a slow march of Carlos Hyde rushes and Kaepernick options got the 49ers to the Steelers 10-yard line, Kaepernick completed two passes for a loss of three and a loss of four. Throw in a stuffed run, a holding penalty and a sack, and the 49ers faced 4th-and-goal from the 29-yard line. Needless to say, they kicked the field goal: The 49ers only throw 29-yard passes these days if they are down by about three touchdowns.
Josh Scobee: Falling
About the only thing that didn't click for the Steelers on Sunday was the kicking game.
The Steelers opted for two-point conversions after their first two touchdowns, perhaps thinking a 16-point lead would be insurmountable against a team running the offense Yale used to beat Harvard in 1893. Scobee finally got his chance to kick an extra point with the score 22-3, but the ball hit the left upright. Scobee, coming off a bad game against the Patriots, eventually squirted three extra points through.
Look for the Steelers to replace Scobee with Josh Scrappy, a pesky little rookie kicker who never backs away from a fight but gets on fans' nerves and generally proves the franchise has run out of ideas.
Scot McCloughan: Rising
Matt Jones rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns. A great game for Jones, but also the first rumble that a McCloughan midround draft pick is about to become a star the way so many did for the 49ers and Seahawks.
The Redskins' 24-10 win over the Rams could have been about all the players the Redskins lost in the Robert Griffin trade. Jones made it about the players the Redskins could be gaining if McCloughan still has his draft mojo.
The Chargers Defense: Falling
Special teams mistakes, sacks, few big plays on defense and a general willingness to linger in the Bengals' rearview mirror all afternoon in a 24-19 loss: This is how the AFC status quo stays in place year after year.
The Jaguars: Rising
The Jaguars won a September game! The Jaguars won a September game! It was a first since 2012. Give Blake Bortles (273 yards, two touchdowns, no sacks or interceptions) a game ball and tell him he does not have to immediately carve it into a jack-o'-lantern!
Dolphins Fundamentals: Falling
The Dolphins have not run well (116 yards, 3.4 yards per rush through two games) or stopped the run well (284 yards allowed, 4.1 yards per rush) this season.
The Dolphins committed 13 penalties in their 23-20 loss to the Jaguars, eight of them in the fourth quarter. (One was a make-room-to-punt delay of game; the others were damaging.)
The offensive line played poorly, and the pass rush was almost nonexistent. The more money and energy the eternally .500 Dolphins spend trying to change, the more they stay the same.
Offensive Line Bonus
The Bengals rushed for 175 yards against the Chargers. Andy Dalton threw for three touchdowns and has not yet been sacked this season.
So let's give this bonus to (left to right) Andrew Whitworth, Clint Boling, Russell Bodine, Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith, a mostly veteran line that did a great job against the Chargers defensive front led by...um...there's a guy named Corey, right? And that dude who had the thing that was all over the Internet a couple of years ago. And Dwight Freeney, right? No? Shawne Merriman? Well, whoever they blocked, the Bengals line did a fine job.
Special Teams Bonus
Travis Benjamin and David Johnson would be obvious choices, but let's single out Jared Crick for blocking a fourth-quarter field goal that would have made a difference if the Texans were even pretending to field a quality offense.
The camera operators for Texans-Panthers, confused that someone besides J.J. Watt produced a highlight, initially focused on Vince Wilfork as the defender who tipped Graham Gano's attempt. Can you imagine Wilfork leaping to block a field goal? Even in his most famous field-goal block, Wilfork didn't quite get airborne.
Honorable mention to William Gholston, who blocked a late extra point for the Buccaneers against the Saints. At the rate the Saints are going, someone is going to swallow the coin during the opening toss this season.
Unsung Defensive Hero Bonus
Jacquies Smith has been bouncing around practice squads since 2012, with stints in Miami, Buffalo and New York (Jets) before landing in Tampa last year. He recorded 6.5 sacks last season, but you probably didn't notice because most of them came in the second half of the season, when the Buccaneers were a first overall draft pick in waiting.
Smith recorded three sacks and forced two fumbles against the Saints. The whole Buccaneers defense looked great against the suddenly rickety Saints. If Smith is really the late-blooming pass-rusher suggested by his last eight games or so, the Bucs may finally have the Simeon Rice-type they have been seeking for years.
Fantasy Leech Bonus
The best Vikings goal-line strategy this week was using Adrian Peterson as a decoy. Bridgewater scored on a bootleg left when the whole Lions defense followed Peterson and the run action to the right.
And Zach Line scored on a fullback give after Peterson nearly fumbled away an opportunity at the one-yard line. Line not only proved to be a true fantasy leech but the centerpiece of Abbott and Costello routines at sports bars around the NFL.
FIRST DUDE: Who scored for the Vikings?
SECOND DUDE: Line.
FIRST DUDE: The Vikings were three-point favorites. Who scored for them?
SECOND DUDE: Line.
FIRST DUDE: Defensive touchdown? Strip-sack fumble recovery in the end zone?
SECOND DUDE: No, Line.
FIRST DUDE: They struggled against the 49ers, but I wouldn't say the Vikings have no line. Who scored for them?
And so on.
Mysterious Touch Bonus
Tyson Alualu caught a three-yard pass on 3rd-and-1 for the Jaguars. Alualu, a defensive lineman by trade, also plays fullback for the Jaguars in short-yardage situations. If the Jaguars come up with any more innovative offensive ideas, we may have to actually start watching them.
Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Bonus
The Steelers and 49ers stopped playing competitive football at halftime and devoted the rest of the game to fantasy-fan service.
Kaepernick connected with Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith after spending three quarters going backward or sideways once the 49ers reached the red zone.
Gonzo Fantasy Waiver Bid Bonus
If Travis Benjamin was still available in your fantasy league, he won't be after your league rivals trade their kidneys for waiver points to claim him this week.
Benjamin is a tremendous talent, but he also: a) is your typical home run threat who will mix weeks like this one with weeks of one catch for three yards against a better defense, and b) is the Browns' leading receiver, which means he is due for a pass-dropping or league/society-rule-violation spree the moment he achieves a modest measure of stardom.
Game Plan Bonus
Jay Gruden designed a game plan that allowed the Redskins to run the football effectively against an outstanding front seven, then used the run threat and "on schedule" down-and-distance situations to allow Kirk Cousins to have an efficient passing afternoon.
Wait a minute, Hangover just said something un-ironically positive about Jay Gruden? (Clutches chest.)
Grab the defibrillator, stat! We need 200 CC's of adrenaline. Hook up the EKG. Cancel my 3 p.m. tee time. Now, CLEAR! (Zzzzt). CLEAR! (Zzzzzt!) Pulse is stabilizing. Life signs returning to normal.
Sorry to do that to you without warning.
Chute to Thrill; Play to Kill
A parachute jumper nearly crashed into the entire Detroit Lions lineup during the pregame festivities in Minnesota.
Oh sure, it's just an innocent stunt gone wrong when the Vikings do it. But let a parachute crash into the opposing lineup during a playoff game in Foxborough. Then the conspiracies start: #Chutegate...the mysterious employee who calls himself the "Chute Folder" just because he wants to improve his laundry skills...a Patriots-sponsored truther website about chemtrails from airplanes...bad courtroom sketches of Tom Brady in aviator's goggles...and maybe Ted Wells getting sliced by a propeller like that tough guy who almost beat up Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Let's just ban parachute-themed festivities in Patriots games forever, shall we?
That's "Differently Abled" Cricket, You Insensitive Lout
Tony Romo will be out for quite a while with a broken collarbone. Jerry Jones is upset of course: Upset because he pays Romo a lot of money, upset because Brandon Weeden won't lead the Cowboys to the Super Bowl no matter how many bad decisions Chip Kelly, Tom Coughlin and Jay Gruden make, and upset because Romo has been a valued employee for a decade and Jones really isn't some greedy ogre lacking in human decency (NFL owners merely play those on TV).
Jones' remark about Romo's injury was a classic:
Jones is at his best when he breaks out the insect analogies. When the NFL lockout was in its final days in 2011, Jones said the owners and union were "down to circumcising mosquitoes." His latest quote is less itty-bitty Sinai hospital and a little more wannabe moonshiner, but it conveys the proper sentiment: Jones is disappointed in a homespun sort of way.
Romo was the national quarterback criticism magnet for many years, finally aging past the expiration date of the Choko Romo storyline and earning grudging respect from most critics for playing so well for so long.
Jay Cutler is now the go-to quarterback for pie-in-the-face gags, and heaven knows I have taken my shots. Cutler, like Romo, was injured Sunday, though not as severely (he suffered a hamstring injury while trying to make a tackle on a pick-six). Cutler's injury did not bring out the compassionate side of some.
The only thing worse in my business than the big-name personalities bloviating obnoxious quasi-informed "analysis" is all the tongue-clucking and finger-wagging at those personalities, who of course turn our outrage into more relevance and money. So I won't climb too high on the moral soapbox here; I've been on the business end of stern blogosphere rebukes for offhand remarks.
Hey, it's just Cutler, and it's not like he suffered a spine injury or anything. And Stephen A. Smith was echoing, with succinct bluntness, a sentiment heard around Twitter, the NFL and the Bears mediascape: Cutler's absence is something of a relief and a disguised blessing.
But when a player gets hurt, and the severity of the injury looks bad or is still unknown, we are all better off erring on the side of the crippled cricket. The NFL's a better place when overpaid and disappointing starters are playing than when the unprepared backups are in the game. And feeling good when someone else gets hurt is a great way to end up feeling bad about yourself.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.