Monday Morning Digest: The Steelers and Le'Veon Bell Are Risking It All
In this week's overstuffed kickoff edition of Monday Morning Digest:
• Odell Beckham Jr. wins his battle with Jalen Ramsey, but the rest of the Giants lose the war
• The Panthers grind out a costly win against the Cowboys
• Patrick Mahomes sparkles, Jimmy Garoppolo struggles and Kirk Cousins manages
• The Saints go old school against the Buccaneers (and that's a bad thing)
• Too much happens in the Sunday night game to condense into a pithy bullet point
• A New Jersey brewpub becomes a sportsbook for a day
...and much more!
Get your monocles ready, folks, because we're going to start with another long look at the Le'Veon Bell stalemate.
Le'Veon Bell Standoff Leaves Steelers All Tied Up
Le'Veon Bell was as surprised to watch the Steelers tie the Browns as the rest of us were.
Bell tweeted the "monocle" emoji after the frustrating, sloppy draw in the rain, in which the Steelers frittered away a 21-7 fourth-quarter lead on turnovers and mistakes.
The monocle can be interpreted in as many different ways as an abstract painting, so Bell clarified in a second tweet: "no shade, just never witnessed a tie before."
Right. No shade. And the Steelers offensive linemen weren't angry at Bell over his refusal to sign a franchise tender and report to the team earlier in the week; they always compare pay stubs in rooms full of reporters.
This Steelers-Bell trial separation is now officially hurting both sides. Bell lost an $855,000 game check Sunday and has lost at least a little respect from some of his teammates. The Steelers? They're now tied for last place with the Browns in the AFC North, with a tough Chiefs team heading to Pittsburgh in Week 2.
It's time for both sides to end this madness. For the Steelers, that means doing anything possible to appease Bell and salvage the season before it's too late. Replace the franchise-tender offer with a heftier one-year offer. Beg. Send an apology note with an Edible Arrangement. Anything but the current cross-armed obstinance.
For Bell, it means laying off the cryptic emojis and rerunning his calculations to make sure the millions slipping through his hands this year are really worth less than the hypothetical bucks lurking in some future bush.
Bell backup James Conner was just short of phenomenal in relief, rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns and adding five catches for 57 yards. Teammates celebrated Conner's touchdowns so eagerly that they stopped just short of texting Bell after Conner crossed the plane to make sure he saw them.
Conner is a good back and a great story. But just short of phenomenal was not good enough. He fumbled in his own territory in the fourth quarter, sparking a Browns comeback. The difference between a good back and the best in the league only comes down to a few plays per game: a stutter step here, broken tackle there and, sometimes, both hands on the football on a rainy day in the fourth quarter.
And the difference between a good team and a Super Bowl contender often comes down to a gimme win against a weak opponent instead of a stumble. Or a tie.
The way things are going, Bell will sacrifice millions of dollars now that he won't get back when he's 31 years old under any contract, and we will be watching the Ravens or Bengals in the playoffs because they took care of business against their weakling opponents and the Steelers didn't.
The worst thing about Sunday's result is that both sides can claim victory. Bell can point to the fumble and the late Steelers collapse. The Steelers can point to Conner's otherwise excellent performance; heck, Bell might have fumbled, too, given the circumstances.
Instead of setting the stage for an intervention, Sunday's tie could convince both the Steelers and Bell to dig in.
But ties aren't victories, guys. Even the Browns know that.
Player Spotlight: Aaron Rodgers
What didn't happen?
• Rodgers started the game looking a little rusty. The Bears came out smoking and took a 10-0 lead.
• Bears defender Roy Robertson-Harris landed hard on Rodgers, who had to be carted to the locker room with what looked like a devastating knee injury that would reshape the rest of the NFL season.
• Newly acquired Bears defender Khalil Mack strip-sacked, intercepted and stole backup DeShone Kizer's class-picture money, making it appear that the whole power structure of the NFC North was about to be toppled.
• Rodgers came back after halftime with a smile on his face and a little brace on his knee and went Super Saiyan on the Bears, erasing a 20-0 deficit with touchdown passes to Geronimo Allison, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams.
• Rodgers finished 20-of-30 for 286 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-23 victory. By the end, the whole sequence when Mack was munching on Kizer's soul and the Bears led comfortably began to feel like some mass hallucination.
What it means
Rodgers can still do things that no other quarterback in the NFL can do, and the Packers remain utterly dependent on him. The running game was a non-factor as usual. Kizer was hapless. The defense looks a little better than it did last year, but the offense will rely entirely on Rodgers' heroics once again.
Packers teams that live and die by Rodgers' heroics have a long history of disappointing in the playoffs. But hey, it's Week 1: Enjoy the breathtaking win, and be thankful that the quarterback's season didn't end in the second quarter.
The Bears try to bounce back on Monday Night Football against the Seahawks.
And Vikings at Packers. Yeah, that's gonna be good.
Quarterback Report Cards
Many hotly anticipated quarterbacks took the field Sunday, from veteran starters with new homes to buzzy young Next Big Things. But reviews of the debuts were decidedly mixed. Here's all the analysis you need, plus grades:
Kirk Cousins, Vikings (20-of-36 for 244 yards, two TDs): Cousins was just fine in a 24-16 win over the 49ers. He spread the ball among seven different receivers. He made some plays with his legs. He drew the 49ers offsides with his cadence to convert a crucial fourth down. He was an excellent (don't type game manager, don't type game manager, don't type game manager) game manager. (D'oh!) Get ready for 16 more weeks of wondering if "just fine" is really good enough. Grade: B
Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers (15-of-33, 261 yards, one TD, three INTs): An early injury to Marquise Goodwin, coupled with the late-August injury to Jerick McKinnon and some losses along the line, left Garoppolo with little time to throw and only the likes of George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk to throw to. He wasn't as bad as the three-pick stat line suggests (one was thrown in end-of-game desperation), and both the lack of weapons and the strength of the Vikings defense are extenuating circumstances. But Garoppolo wasn't the Tom Brady Junior in red-zone and third-down circumstances that we saw last year, so the MVP Express bandwagon should be stalled for a while. Grade: C-
Case Keenum, Broncos (25-of-39, 329 yards, three TDs, three INTs): Keenum oscillated between outstanding and awful in a 27-24 victory over the Seahawks. That was surprising to those of us who were expecting game-managerial mush from a veteran journeyman on a defense-first team. The Broncos moved the ball well when Keenum wasn't tossing brain cramps directly to Earl Thomas, which has to be encouraging. But keep in mind that Thomas is just about the only Seahawks defender you can name these days, so don't fool yourself into thinking Keenum shredded the Legion of Boom. Grade: B
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs (15-of-27 for 256 yards, four TDs): Please grind Mahomes-to-Tyreek Hill into a fine powder and then mix it with essential oils and cocoa butter so I can smear it all over my body and feel nothing but the electrifying tingle of Mahomes-to-Hill against my flesh all day, every day. They were so much fun Sunday that they almost have to be enjoyed topically. Grade: A-
Alex Smith, Redskins (21-of-30, 255 yards, two TDs): It was a typical Smith performance: efficient (more so than Cousins, the QB he replaced in Washington), non-flashy (especially compared to Mahomes, the QB who replaced him in Kansas City) and not likely to receive much attention (due in part to teammate Adrian Peterson getting his 100th career rushing touchdown). Bold prediction: Despite a dominant 24-6 Redskins victory over the Cardinals, no one outside the Beltway will be talking this week about how good Alex Smith looked. Grade: B+
Tyrod Taylor, Browns (15-of-40, 197 yards, one TD, one INT, seven sacks; eight rushes for 77 yards and a TD): Taylor ran for a touchdown, threw a 17-yard sideline strike to Josh Gordon to force overtime and spent the rest of his 70 minutes in the rain running for his life, spraying passes and taking sacks. Flash highlights mixed in a vat of bean dip: That's Taylor's game in a nutshell, and you can only appreciate it when you keep replacing it with Nathan Peterman's game. Grade: C
Deshaun Watson, Texans (17-of-34, 176 yards, one TD, one INT): A fumbled snap on the Texans' first play of the season led to a Patriots touchdown and set the tone for what followed. Watson completed just five first-half passes and threw an interception as the game slowly got away from the Texans. He provided some thrills late in the 27-20 loss, and problems on the offensive line contributed to the lackluster performance, but for most of the game he looked like a more mobile Matt Schaub getting bamboozled by the Patriots defense—not the last best hope for the Bill O'Brien era. Grade: C
Player Spotlight: Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Jalen Ramsey
Odell Beckham Jr.'s party to celebrate his new contract was spoiled when his teammates showed up.
Beckham earned a narrow personal victory in his much-anticipated matchup against opinionated Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, catching 11 passes for 111 yards and drawing a pair of pass-interference penalties (one on Ramsey) to set up a field goal before halftime.
Unfortunately, perennial weak link Ereck Flowers negated Beckham's first reception with a holding penalty, setting the tone for the rest of the game. Eli Manning faced constant pressure (often, but not exclusively, from Flowers' defenders), other receivers dropped passes, and returner Kaelin Clay muffed a final punt return that would have given the Giants one last chance in a 20-15 loss to Ramsey's Jaguars.
What it means
Beckham played well, though his stats are padded by a few short receptions on 3rd-and-longs. And new head coach Pat Shurmur's game plan was sound, with lots of shallow routes and criss-crossing concepts to isolate Beckham against safeties instead of Ramsey.
But familiar problems haunted the Giants: a Manning overthrow of Beckham in the end zone and other misfires, Evan Engram drops, the usual Flowers in the attic. If this is how the Giants look when Beckham and Saquon Barkley both play well, their off games are going to be ugly.
As for the Jaguars: They have the NFL's fastest, most aggressive defense, so Ramsey can count on the pass rush and Myles Jack, among others, to raise their level when he has his hands full with a tough assignment. Blake Bortles and the offense remains iffy (especially if Leonard Fournette's hamstring injury becomes an issue), but that's a topic for another day.
Ramsey and the Jaguars host a master class with the Patriots. Beckham takes another turn in the Sunday night spotlight against the Cowboys.
Game Spotlight: Panthers 16, Cowboys 8
The Panthers overcame injuries to tight end Greg Olsen, offensive tackle Daryl Williams and (briefly) Luke Kuechly to hammer out a victory that didn't earn any bonus points for artistic expression but still counts in the standings.
Cam Newton threw for just 161 yards but led the Panthers with 58 rushing yards and one touchdown, and the Panthers defense recorded six sacks and held the Cowboys to just 232 net yards of offense and a 2-of-12 conversion rate on third and fourth downs.
What it means
The Olsen and Williams injuries looked serious at press time. (Kuechly returned to the game with what Albert Breer of The MMQB reported as a hyperextended knee.) The oft-injured Olsen is one of Newton's primary targets and the Panthers offensive line was clobbered by preseason injuries, so Sunday's victory may prove costly.
Meanwhile, Dak Prescott completed just six passes for 46 yards in the first half for the Cowboys, with the team punting at the end of each of its first five possessions. He has no one to throw to except Cole Beasley (a fine No. 3 receiver being pressed into No. 1 receiver duty), so any team that can stop the run—and the Panthers can stop the run—should have no problem shutting down the Cowboys this season.
The Panthers and Cowboys are supposed to be in the mix of the wild-card chase in the stacked NFC this year. The bad news for both teams is that their anemic offenses don't look playoff-worthy. The good news is that the Falcons, Saints and Eagles aren't looking like the Lombardi Packers after Week 1, either.
Wouldn't it be fun to see the Giants receiving corps matched up with the Cowboys offensive line? Unfortunately, the Cowboys and Giants will be squaring off instead of teaming up next week.
The injury-riddled Panthers will face the touchdown-allergic Falcons for the right to remain close to the NFC South's reigning powerhouse: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Upset Special: Buccaneers 48, Saints 40
An unexpected shootout between Drew Brees and Ryan Fitzpatrick turned into a near-blowout when Bucs defender Vernon Hargreaves returned a fumble by Mike Gillislee (the recently signed replacement for suspended Mark Ingram II) for a touchdown to give the Bucs a 31-17 lead before halftime.
After some more Fitzpatrick heroics and Saints defensive lapses, even a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns by Alvin Kamara didn't matter in what played out like a cross between a pre-2017 Saints scoring fest and that first NBA 2K game you play on easy difficulty while you relearn the controls.
What it means
History tells us that when their defense is solid, the Saints are a Super Bowl contender, but when their defenders bumble and leave open receivers streaking down the field, they are a sub-.500 also-ran more relevant to fantasy football than real football. If Sunday's lapses and pratfalls are any indication that the bad Saints defense is back, the team is in trouble.
The Buccaneers have one of the best receiver corps in the NFL (Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Chris Godwin combined for four touchdown receptions), but no one talked much about them in the offseason because we assumed either Fitzpatrick or coach Dirk Koetter would find a way to screw things up.
Whispers that Fitzpatrick should keep the starting job when Jameis Winston returns from suspension in a few weeks will only grow louder after this game. Whatever you think of Winston as a player or person, relying on Fitzpatrick for anything more than a random outburst like this once or twice per year remains a terrible idea.
The Saints get to work out their issues against the Browns, which didn't turn out so swell for the Steelers. The Buccaneers will be issued a reality check by the Eagles.
Inside the Numbers
Analysis for all your favorite football genres, from fantasy to golden oldies to (in Nathan Peterman's case) comedy-horror:
Nathan Peterman, QB, Bills (5-of-18 for 24 yards, two interceptions, three sacks): Peterman has now completed 29 of his 67 career passes (43.3 percent) for 276 yards (4.2 yards per attempt), two touchdowns and seven interceptions. That's good for a 25.7 quarterback rating. For the sake of comparison, Tim Tebow's career rating was 75.3, almost three times higher. (And Tebow could also run, of course.) Have you seen enough Peterman? (Now imagine how bad AJ McCarron must be to lose his job to Peterman. Stay healthy, Derek Carr.)
Adrian Peterson, RB, Redskins (26 carries for 96 yards; two catches for 70 yards): Peterson fumbled at the end of a 52-yard catch-and-rumble in the fourth quarter; luckily, the Cardinals are so bad they are nearly nonexistent, so it did not matter. He also scored the 100th rushing touchdown of his career and ripped off a pair of 17-yard runs and an 18-yard reception to go with some rugged shorter carries. He proved he is still capable of effective battering-ram duty against weaker teams. Unfortunately, history tells us Washington will now be lulled into letting him ring up 21-carry, 29-yard stat lines for a few weeks in the hope of a repeat performance.
Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants (18 carries for 106 yards and one TD; two catches for 22 yards on six targets): Barkley had a quiet game once you get past the (fabulous) 68-yard touchdown run. He failed on a two-point conversion, gained just 12 yards on eight first-half carries and was a non-factor in the passing game, other than one 18-yard third-down conversion. The Giants were creative about moving him around and finding ways to get him the ball, but like Odell Beckham Jr., Barkley got no breaks from the swarming Jaguars defense and little support from the rest of the offense.
Cole Beasley, WR, Cowboys (seven catches on eight targets for 73 yards): Beasley was as good as Beasley can be. Let's talk about the rest of the Cowboys receivers: 12 catches for 97 yards on 21 targets. Dak Prescott attempted third- and fourth-down passes to Allen Hurns, Geoff Swaim, Rod Smith (a running back, not the old Broncos star, who would probably be better), Deonte Thompson and Blake Jarwin, who we are pretty sure was Tony Stark's computer-operating system from the first Iron Man movie. That's a brutally awful receiving/tight end corps, and opponents will be happy to give Beasley a few 16-yard catches as long as it's easy to make sure no other receiver does anything.
Will Dissly, TE, Seahawks (three catches for 105 yards and one TD): Dissly looked like the second coming of Mark Bavaro on a 66-yard catch-and-run. He also caught a 24-yard pass and a 15-yard touchdown. The fourth-round pick left college with a reputation as a blocking tight end—the kind that teams draft after watching Jimmy Graham escort defenders into the backfield for a few years. It figures that the team that can never draft offensive linemen who can block finally somehow stumbled into a tight end who can catch by looking for one who could block.
Brett Maher, K, Cowboys (one missed 47-yard field goal): Call Dan Bailey back and beg for forgiveness. Now.
The folks at Draft Kings invited Digest to their NFL Kickoff Bash at the Pilsener Haus & Biergarten in Hoboken, New Jersey, to celebrate the launch of their Draft Kings Sportsbook App on the first legal gambling Sunday of the NFL season.
That's right: New Jersey residents can now place bets anywhere from the neighborhood brewpub to their own living rooms. Draft Kings has already accepted its millionth wager: that's in one state, in one month, with no NFL, college football, NBA or college basketball on the schedule.
Ezra Kucharz, chief business officer of Draft Kings, took a few minutes to talk about the app and the brave new world of legalized sports gambling.
Digest: Is there anything I can do in a brick-and-mortar sportsbook that cannot be done on the app?
Kucharz: There isn't much. You have to have your feet planted in the state of New Jersey. But if you want to place a bet in a physical sportsbook, you have to get in your car and drive somewhere. In New Jersey, if you are in a venue like this, you can take out your phone or iPad and place all the bets you want.
Digest: What's on the menu: regular bets, parlays and teasers?
Kucharz: All the things you see in a regular sportsbook, and you will soon start to see more things, like in-game teasers.
Digest: There are wagers as low as $3 available on the app. What was the rationale for allowing such tiny plays?
Kucharz: There are a lot of people that want to test the waters. So we made it very approachable for the fans.
Digest: Where is the Sportsbook app available?
Kucharz: Right now, New Jersey is the only state outside of Nevada with legal online gaming. We're not operating in Nevada. We're waiting for more states to pass regulations. West Virginia looks like it might be next. There are other states talking about it.
Digest: Are you planning to launch any physical sportsbooks?
Kucharz: Right now, no. We'll see how it goes.
Digest: A few years ago, it looked like daily fantasy sports were about to be classified as gambling and made illegal. Could you imagine then that you would be promoting a legal gambling app today?
Kucharz: This is the third seismic change, when you think about sports in this country. In 1979, ESPN comes along with 24-hour sports. In 1987, WFAN here in New York becomes the first all-talk sports radio station. And now this. This is the next step in the sports industry.
This is something that I've been hoping for since I was a young adult wanting to see this happen. They've had it for a long time in Europe and other parts of the world. It's time it happened for us.
Week 1 Awards Digest
Defensive Player of the Week: Von Miller sacked Russell Wilson three times and forced a pair of fumbles. Miller stripped Chris Carson of the football like he was taking a handoff from him in the third quiarter, though it didn't help the Broncos much because Case Keenum threw an interception right back to the Seahawks. Miller must be used to that sort of thing by now.
Offensive Line of the Week: The Buccaneers offensive line held the Saints to zero sacks and just two hits on Ryan Fitzpatrick. So this week's award goes to (left to right): Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Caleb Benenoch and Demar Dotson.
Special Teamer of the Week: Tyreek Hill would be the obvious choice, but let's recognize Jakeem Grant instead for his 102-yard kickoff return touchdown, which gave the Dolphins a fourth-quarter lead in what became a 27-20 victory and woke fans up after hours of boring rain delays interspersed with the almost-as-boring Titans and Dolphins offenses.
Fantasy Leech of the Week: Did you know the Panthers have a fullback named Alex Armah? Did you know offensive coordinator Norv Turner is so old school that he has goal-line plays for the fullback in his playbook? If you had Christian McCaffrey in your fantasy lineup and expected him to get all of the non-Cam Newton-related goal-line touches, you know all about Armah after his one-yard leeching against the Cowboys.
Mystery Touch of the Week: Bills punter Corey Bojorquez earned an official carry on the stat sheet by fumbling a wet snap, dropping the ball when he stooped to pick it up and flailing like his shopping bag full of apples ripped until the Ravens pounced on the loose football. Bojorquez is a rookie the Bills claimed off waivers from the Patriots in September for some reason. Just a reminder that this team has problems that go way, way beyond poor Nathan Peterman.
NFL news and issues, tackled in that inimitable Digest way.
Point: That's nothing. Team owner Jim Irsay was once all 15 of the Doobie Brothers.
The Eagles unveil a Bud Light-sponsored "Philly Special" statue in the stadium parking lot.
Point: It's part of a sculpture garden that includes the 1968 Falstaff Beer-sponsored "Booing of Santa Claus," the Terrell Owens sit-up statue, Chip Kelly's kinetic sculpture of 11 guys running around in circles and Rodin's "Thinker," known to Eagles fans as "Andy Reid Burns a Timeout."
Counterpoint: So the Eagles get a statue of two guys chatting for winning the Super Bowl, while the Browns get coolers full of free beer for going 0-16? "Check and mate, NFL," says Sashi Brown, somewhere.
Kirk Cousins hopes to trademark the newly coined catchphrase "You Vike that?"
Point: Never trust a quarterback with more trademark applications than playoff wins.
The Cowboys announce partnership with WinStar World Casino.
Point: Ooh, which hacky joke should we go with here? Jerry Jones as Fredo "I'm smart" Corleone? Jerrah as Howard Hughes saving toenail clippings in a mason jar? Or ordering a Mr. Happy for Dez Bryant? Maybe the cool heist movie angle (Witten's Eleven)? Nah, Jerrah is not that different than the septuagenarians on the Friday buses to Atlantic City. He's all about the nickel slots and all-you-can-eat buffets.
Counterpoint: Remember when Tony Romo tried to host a fantasy football convention in Vegas in 2015 and the NFL acted like he was throwing sackfuls of kittens over a guardrail into a poisoned lake? If other NFL policies reverse course as quickly as this one does, the Broncos will own a chain of dispensaries by 2020.
Nike airs Colin Kaepernick-themed "Dream Crazy" commercials during NFL games.
Point: Nike stock immediately tanked as a result, according to the investment wizards buying scratch-offs at your corner convenience store.
Counterpoint: The NFL hemmed and hawed over its national anthem policy until one of its principal sponsors rendered the whole conversation irrelevant. As Spinal Tap would say, there's a fine line between stupid and clever.