Mike Tanier's Monday Morning Digest, Week 1

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 12, 2016

Mike Tanier's Monday Morning Digest, Week 1

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    Did you blink? Eat a meal? Run to the potty? Turn your head for just a moment? 

    If so, you may have missed:

    • A thrilling last-minute comeback by the Seahawks after a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback by the Dolphins after about 50 minutes of punishingly sloppy football.
    • Jimmy Garoppolo and LeGarrette Blount proving the Patriots don't need Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to win a big game. (It's just a lot easier when they're around.)
    • A back-and-forth Raiders-Saints game with as much offense as the NBA All-Star Game.
    • Carson Wentz shining in his rookie debut.
    • Terrance Williams spoiling the end of Dak Prescott's rookie debut.
    • An ending to the Lions-Colts game that served as a metaphor for the last 12 months of Colts football.

    ...And much more than we can possibly list on one measly slide.

    Monday Morning Digest is here to catch you up on all of Sunday's action and help you make sense of the senseless. Just don't expect us to explain what the Colts were doing during that last "Stanford" play. We're not miracle workers.

The Front Page: No Brady, No Gronkowski, No Worries

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    For once, the odds actually were stacked against the Patriots.

    They were 9.5-point underdogs against the Cardinals, according to Odds Shark, with good reason. Tom Brady is suspended. Rob Gronkowski (hamstring) didn't even travel with the team. Nate Solder was also out. You know a team is shorthanded when the veteran left tackle gets third billing on the inactive list. Also, the Cardinals were at home and are really, really good.

    So the Patriots were legitimate underdogs, not just everyone-is-rooting-against-us underdogs.

    That's not going to happen again anytime soon. The Patriots beat the Cardinals 23-21 in a Sunday night thriller. They did it by morphing their offense to accommodate Jimmy Garoppolo, who did his part by running the offense with reasonable efficiency and throwing for 264 yards.

    LeGarrette Blount ran 22 times for 70 yards and one bruising eight-yard touchdown. His 13-yard run on 3rd-and-11 extended the Patriots' game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Patriots running backs usually only get 20-plus carries by killing the clock in blowouts, but Blount was actually featured in the game plan.

    With Blount leading a very conventional (very unconventional for the Patriots) power running game, Julian Edelman acted more like a typical No. 1 wide receiver and less like a changeup from the slot. Edelman caught seven passes for 66 yards while rushing three times for 16 yards, the runs adding a misdirection threat that Brady rarely needs.

    The Patriots even slowed the pace of the game, mothballing the uptempo tactics, controlling the ball for nearly 34 minutes and holding the teams to 10 possessions each. This was not your typical Patriots drag race, which helped the defense contain a tough opponent. By the second half, David Johnson was stringing together spin-and-cut moves that would give a video gamer sprained knuckles, while Larry Fitzgerald hauled in footballs like he had the gravitational pull of a dwarf star. The Garoppolo Patriots would not have won a shootout with the full-strength Cardinals. So Bill Belichick made sure that didn't happen.

    The Patriots' upset victory came after an afternoon of losses by the Jets, Bills and Dolphins. So ends the best opportunity to get a leg up on the Patriots that the also-rans have had in years. The Jets and Dolphins blew fourth-quarter comebacks. The Bills just hung around and let the Ravens beat them.

    Maybe the Patriots caught a break from a bad snap on what would have been a game-winning Cardinals field goal—but they put themselves in position to catch a break on the road against a contender without their two best players while the rest of the division was given a potential four-game head start and tripped over their collective shoelaces.

    The Patriots have figured out how to beat good opponents with running and ball control again, a tactic they abandoned many years ago. They only need to rely on it for a few more weeks. But even without Brady, they are back in their familiar role: favorites.

Digestible Nuggets

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    This week's edition of Digestible Nuggets—they are like Hot Takes, but without the greasy, queasy feeling—highlights the performances of starting quarterbacks making their debuts for new teams. (Note: Robert Griffin III gets his own slide later).

    Dak Prescott (25-of-45, 227 yards, zero touchdowns, zero interceptions in a 20-19 loss to the Giants) looked better in his first NFL start than veteran Cowboys backups Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden and Kellen Moore did last year. He lost a potential touchdown pass to Dez Bryant to the replay booth (no, it wasn't a catch, but it was a heck of a throw) and lost a chance to win the game when Terrance Williams decided to hit the juke button instead of going out of bounds in the final seconds. Still, he played well overall.

    The silver lining to the Cowboys' loss for Prescott is that it will quiet some of the "Next Tom Brady" prattle emanating from Dallas. Prescott projects as a game manager-type; the "savior" label is never going to suit him.

    Carson Wentz (22-of-37, 278 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions in a 29-10 win over the Browns) looked like he was back at North Dakota State, possibly because his opponent looked like South Dakota State.

    Browns bashing aside, Wentz displayed everything you could ask for from a rookie making his first start: great touch on deep passes, some tight-window throws underneath, poise in the pocket and a few adjustments, audibles and checkdowns.

    Wentz's next task will be to sustain that success against real NFL opponents. And to manage expectations.

    Brock Osweiler (22-of-35, 231 yards, two touchdowns, one interception in a 23-14 win over the Bears) passed his first test as the Texans' starter. Graded on the $72 million curve, though, he passed with a C at best.

    Osweiler got hot-and-cold performances from his receivers: DeAndre Hopkins and rookie Will Fuller combined for 10 catches, 161 yards and two touchdowns, but each dropped potential touchdowns. Osweiler was hot and cold himself, too, with an early interception and some wild throws throughout the game. The Texans offense has the potential to be explosive, but it spent most of Sunday squandering opportunities and settling for field goals against a bad defense.

    Shaun Hill (18-of-33, 236 yards, zero touchdowns, zero interceptions in a 25-16 win over the Titans) did slightly more than hand off to Adrian Peterson and wait for the Vikings defense to win the game. Look for Hill to continue doing that until Sam Bradford learns enough of the playbook to do slightly more than what Hill can do. That should be soon. 

Game Spotlight: Seahawks 12, Dolphins 10

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    What Happened: The Seahawks waged war with their own offensive line for 55 minutes and 52 seconds. Seahawks linemen and tight ends committed multiple holding penalties. Guard Mark Glowinski got steamrolled straight back into Russell Wilson on a handoff, causing a fumble. Wilson threw an interception after Mario Williams somehow got an unblocked rush even though he was lined up directly over the left tackle.

    Oh yeah, the Dolphins were there, too, and no team blows an opportunity to make a statement quite like the Dolphins. Kenny Stills got open 15 yards behind the greatest secondary in history but dropped a perfect Ryan Tannehill pass. A 50-yard catch-and-run by Arian Foster led to no points when Foster was stuffed on 4th-and-1. You get the idea.

    The Dolphins finally mounted a touchdown drive to take a 10-6 lead late in the fourth quarter, but they played defense like they didn't believe they held a fourth-quarter lead in Seattle. The Seahawks converted a pair of fourth downs on the final drive, with Wilson eventually hitting Doug Baldwin for the game-winning touchdown.

    What It Means: No team in NFL history as good as the Seahawks has ever had an offensive line as bad as the Seahawks line. They were in denial about it last year. In the offseason, they took measures to improve things—drafting three offensive linemen, moving Justin Britt to center to make everyone forget how bad he was at tackle and guard—but Sunday's game showed it's still no match for a solid defensive line.

    As for the Dolphins, they remain a solid defensive line in search of just about everything else until they put some points on the board and prove they can do more against good opponents than lose with conviction.

    What's Next: The Seahawks face another great defensive line with a bad franchise attached to it next week, but the Rams know how to get under their skin. The Dolphins head from Seattle to Foxborough, which is a clear sign that someone in the NFL scheduling department hates them.

Player Spotlight: A.J. Green, WR, Bengals

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    What He Did: Green caught 12 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown, despite drawing coverage from Darrelle Revis for most of the game.

    Green broiled Revis for a 54-yard touchdown, as well as a 32-yarder up the sideline (Revis' coverage was good, but Andy Dalton's pass and Green's basket catch were perfect) and a short out-route on a third down late in the fourth quarter to set up a game-winning field goal. Green also weaved through the Jets defense for 29 yards on a screen pass.

    What It Means: Green not only generated big plays, but he also created opportunities for others. Brandon LaFell caught four passes for 91 yards, and reserve tight end C.J. Uzomah slipped up the seam for a 54-yard catch.

    The Bengals don't have as many weapons for Dalton as they had in the past. But if Green requires the attention of a top cornerback and a safety, Dalton and the Bengals will be just fine. And if Green can light up Revis for 12 catches, it means he requires the attention of a top cornerback and a safety.

    What's Next: Bengals versus Steelers next week in the gladiatorial arena. The Steelers secondary is severely injury-depleted. Green can either expect triple-teams or battle axes.

Game Spotlight: Raiders 35, Saints 34

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    What Happened: The Saints built 24-10 and 27-19 leads in the second half, with Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead (15 catches for 315 yards and three touchdowns combined) getting open so often that the Raiders resorted to committing pass interference penalties (three of them in the fourth quarter) instead of covering receivers.

    But the Raiders kept coming back. A 75-yard run up the middle by Jalen Richard tied the game at 27-27. The Saints answered with a quick touchdown (aided by a pass interference penalty), but Derek Carr led a crisp drive downfield that culminated with a Seth Roberts touchdown with 47 seconds left.

    Then Jack Del Rio became America's favorite head coach by going for two instead of kicking an extra point to tie the game. After a basketball-style timeout to check the defensive set, Carr hit Michael Crabtree in the corner of the end zone to give the Raiders a 35-34 lead. Seriously, Del Rio could run for president on the "Go For Two Instead of a Tie" platform right now and win in a landslide.

    What It Means: The Saints have been playing games like this for three years: 1980s-style NBA shootouts that end at about halftime of the 4:15 p.m. games. But they have to win these pinball tournaments in the Superdome if they hope to be anything more than a 7-9 Drew Brees statistic-and-income generator this year.

    This was a major road win for the Raiders, who had a hard time closing out games like this last year. They will have a lot to feel good about...after Del Rio makes them run gassers for giving up 507 yards and giving away 141 penalty yards.

    What's Next: Del Rio ruins everything by naming Joe Philbin his presidential running mate.

    Past that, expect more of the same from these teams. Raiders and Saints games might be one-stop shopping for massive fantasy production this year, both for players on those teams and for their opponents. 

Player Spotlight: Robert Griffin III, QB, Browns

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    What He Did: Griffin completed 12 of 26 passes for 190 yards and one interception, plus three sacks and five rushes for 37 yards.

    The highlight reel had some sizzling moments, including a 44-yard strike to Terrelle Pryor to set up a touchdown and a nifty 20-yard scramble after a pump fake. But the full game tape wasn't pretty. Griffin overthrew open receivers and appeared to get rattled as the game wore on.

    Even some of the highlights weren't all that high upon closer inspection: a 58-yard completion to Corey Coleman looks great on the stat sheet, but the pass was severely underthrown. Luckily, three Eagles defenders misplayed it.

    Griffin also told reporters that he sprained his shoulder late in the game but downplayed the severity of the injury.

    What It Means: Browns head coach Hue Jackson threw some combination of the kitchen sink, Pandora's box and an Ivy League playbook from 1954 at the Eagles early in the game. Once the Browns ran out of hinky formations and misdirection plays, Griffin looked much more like a rookie than opposing quarterback Carson Wentz did. There was no sequence or rhythm to the Browns passing game. If Griffin wasn't taking a one-on-one downfield shot or throwing something predetermined like a screen pass, he had nowhere to go with the football.

    Jackson and Griffin have spent months putting together a system to suit Griffin's talents. If that's all there is, this is going to be another long year in Cleveland.

    What's Next: This being Griffin, a week of spin, counterspin and injury speculation awaits. Then the Ravens.

Unsung Heroes of the Week: The Ravens' Expendables

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    What They Did: Justin Forsett, Dennis Pitta, Steve Smith Sr. and Mike Wallace combined for 216 yards from scrimmage and the only Ravens touchdown in a 13-7 win over the Bills.

    What It Means: Smith is 37 and coming back from an Achilles injury. Pitta suffered a hip injury in September 2014 and hadn't played a snap since. Forsett was released and then re-signed by the Ravens at the end of the preseason. Wallace wore out his welcome in Miami and Minnesota as a one-dimensional deep threat who was suddenly incapable of getting open deep.

    These aren't the guys you expect to spearhead your offense.

    Yet there was Forsett grinding out late-game yards, Pitta and Smith catching short stuff over the middle, and Wallace not only burning a slot defender up the seam for a 66-yard touchdown but also running reverses, catching passes in traffic and stiff-arming—yes, stiff-arming—defenders for extra yards.

    It was rarely pretty, but Ravens football is rarely pretty. If Wallace has rediscovered the simple joy of putting forth an effort and the others can provide some third-down receptions, up-the-middle yards and leadership, the Ravens could go back to doing what they did so well in the past: combine tough yards, 50-yard field goals and one long touchdown per week into a winning playoff formula somehow.

    What's Next: Ravens-Browns games are best watched with both hands over the eyes, and only during the Steelers-Bengals commercial breaks.

Fantasy Digest

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    A quick recap of this week's fantasy developments:

    Winner: Chiefs running back Spencer Ware rushed 11 times for 70 yards and a touchdown and added seven catches for 129 yards in relief of Jamaal Charles. Charles may be back soon, but Ware's usefulness as a receiver and as a big back will keep him involved in the offense. Until then, he isn't sharing many carries.

    Loser: Keenan Allen is believed to have torn his ACL in the Chargers' overtime loss to the Chiefs, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune's Michael Gehlken. Allen was not just a great young receiver on many "sleeper" lists but also the linchpin of the Chargers passing game. His loss impacts Philip Rivers and the whole Chargers offense.

    Warning: Melvin Gordon rushed 14 times for 57 yards and two touchdowns and looked pretty good in the process. But Danny Woodhead got more carries (16) and all of the targets out of the backfield (seven, for five catches, 31 yards and a touchdown). Also, see the the note about Allen above. If your brother-in-law offers a WR1 and a kidney for Gordon, you should at least think about it.

    Fluke: Jalen Richard is sure to light up the waiver wire after his 75-yard touchdown run. Both Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington had more carries than the Raiders' undrafted rookie, though, and fullback Jamize Olawale is poised to do lots of goal-line leeching this year. Save your waiver dollars for someone in a less-crowded backfield.

    Leech: Andy Janovich is going to be a very good fullback for the Broncos. He will also score another touchdown someday. Probably before Thanksgiving.

Awards Digest

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    Offensive Line of the Week: Drew Brees was only sacked once and hit three times, according to Pro Football Focus, by a tough Raiders defense. The Saints generated 507 yards of offense. Hats off to offensive linemen Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief. May their defense finally show up one day.

    Defender of the Week: Damarious Randall officially made the tackle. Joe Thomas was carried off the field by teammates, even though he just piled on the play at the end. It was Micah Hyde who fought through a block and halted Allen Hurns for no gain (with Randall around Hurns' ankles) on a 4th-and-1 screen in the final seconds of the Packers' 27-23 win over the Jaguars.

    Hyde also recovered Thomas' fumble after a first-quarter interception, setting up a touchdown. Randall was in coverage when the ball bounced off a receiver's shoulder to Thomas. Good things happen when those three stick together.

    Special Teamer of the Week: Cassius Marsh of the Seahawks and Margus Hunt share this award for blocked field goals in close games.

    Coaching Call of the Week: Jack Del Rio going for two to beat the Saints. I care even less about what "the analytics say" than Del Rio, and I do analytics.

    Worst Coaching Call of the Week: Hue Jackson and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor dreamed up a fake punt in which punter Britton Colquitt lined up as a blocker on the edge for a direct snap to Duke Johnson. The problem is that it is hard to convince the defense that you plan to punt when the punter is standing on the line of scrimmage, so Johnson was stuffed for a loss.

    Tune in next week when the Browns attempt a fake field goal with kicker Patrick Murray as the long snapper.

    Stat Line of the Week: Reggie Bush rushed three times for minus-four yards. It's great to have Reggie Bush back.

    Mystery Touch of the Week: Here are all the players who touched the ball on a delightful late-game Colts desperation lateral play: Quan Bray, Robert Turbin, Donte Moncrief, T.Y. Hilton, Bray again, Jack Doyle, Hilton again, Moncrief again. Moncrief tossed the ball out of bounds for a safety.

    The Colts look like they are making things up as they go along even when they are trying to follow a plan. So when they are actually making things up as they go along, it's magical.

Final Thoughts

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    The old guy next to me was rowdy, drinking beers and ordering shot after shot of Irish whiskey, cheering every big Eagles play and cursing hard over each mistake.

    I sat in my usual seat, tablets and notebooks laid out, diet cola on a continuous drip. A sports bar is the best place to watch the Sunday early games, better than any press box. There are multiple screens and plenty of anxious gamblers and fantasy gamers shouting updates. Putting up with the occasional drunk is an occupational hazard.

    The old guy got tipsier and noisier, slapping me after touchdowns, making wolfish remarks about the waitresses. I considered a move to another seat, or back to the home office. Then he looked me in the eyes during some commercial break chit-chat.

    "This is a tough day for me," he said. "I used to work for American Airlines out of Philly."

    Oh, yeah: It was September 11th. We listened to the national anthem, took note of the scattered protesters, vowed to never forget. We honored our military and first responders for a few moments, but 9/11 was never just about them. It was about airline workers, cab and bus drivers, doctors and nurses, teachers who locked down classrooms and calmed children, parents, businesspeople, citizens, all of us. We all needed to be a little courageous that day.

    Then came kickoff, and maybe we forgot it was 9/11 for a while. If so, then we earned it. The guy next to me—his name was Brian—deserved to drink and shout and watch an Eagles game, because he was in the trenches 15 years ago, when the trenches came to us.

    Instead of moving on, I made sure he wasn't driving, then bought him another drink. Football remembers 9/11 with flags and flyovers. Then it gives us license to forget our own fears and anxieties for a while. Both are important. Football's escape will be with us for months to come. Let's keep our memories of heroes of all kinds with us as well.


    Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeTanier.