Debrief: Unpleasant (and pleasant) surprises through Week 2

The fun, young Broncos are decimated. The Giants’ offense may be unwatchable again. The frisky Panthers attack is now playing Mike Davis every snap at running back, and the defending NFC champion 49ers’ June depth chart is as useless as a pre-pandemic vacation plan.

The duality of the NFL was on display in Week 2. Scoring is up, penalties are down and there were sensational games across the map, highlighted by one of the best quarterback matchups of its era in Seattle. I will get to the pleasant surprises below, but the more lasting impact on the 2020 season came from a Monday filled with grim injury-confirmation news.

Unpleasant surprises

The Broncos’ playoff hopes feel all but extinguished. It’s hard enough to recover from an 0-2 hole when healthy. It will be another chore entirely for the Fighting Fangios now that wide receiver Courtland Sutton is out for the season with a torn ACL, as revealed by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network’s James Palmer. Sutton and pass rusher Von Miller were arguably the best two players on the roster entering 2020, and their seasons ended before the autumnal equinox. Starting quarterback Drew Lock hurt his shoulder in Sunday’s loss to the Steelers, and the team is hoping he’ll be able to return before their Week 8 bye, according to Rapoport and NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. (Coach Vic Fangio confirmed the rotator-cuff strain would keep Lock out three to five weeks.) Starting running back Phillip Lindsay is out two to four weeks with turf toe. High-priced right tackle Ja’Wuan James opted out of the season, and top cornerback A.J. Bouye is on injured reserve.

There are still enough young offensive pieces (Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and Noah Fant) to make this offense peppy when Lock returns, but Broncos executive John Elway seemingly went out of his way to be unprepared for this moment. In an offseason when quality veteran quarterbacks were available for pennies on the dollar, Elway signed Jeff Driskel — a 27-year-old third-year pro with a 1-7 record as a starter — in an effort to keep the pecking order simple. It didn’t make sense at the time, and now it may cost the Broncos any chance at relevance this season.

Fangio has done an excellent job coaching up this defense, and the Broncos remained competitive in Pittsburgh despite the injuries. There are winnable games coming up against the Jets and Dolphins, but Driskel’s presence under center will make actually winning them that much tougher. Elway was so ride or die for Lock that the organization chose a path that led to the early death of its postseason dreams, just like a season ago.

The Panthers don’t have a Plan B. Christian McCaffrey will miss four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, a development that coach Matt Rhule and his predecessors in Carolina must have feared, yet never prepared for. Some running backs — even great ones — are replaceable. CMC is not.

McCaffrey barely left the field under Ron Rivera in his first three pro seasons, and that trend was continuing early this season under Rhule. Mike Davis, on his fourth team in a six-year career, caught eight passes while stepping in during an attempt to come back against Tampa. He’ll take over every-down duties, with Trenton Cannon next in line.

Rhule’s offense has looked frisky through two weeks, but it’s an attack that relies on its playmakers to make defenders miss after the catch. The 0-2 Panthers are already fighting uphill in a strong division with a talent-poor defense. They probably won’t be favored to win a game until December (when they play Washington), and this injury could help put them in the mix for the No. 1 overall draft pick in Rhule’s second season.

The Giants could be unwatchable again. I’m holding on to my Danny Dimes stock. Daniel Jones is not responsible for the bad luck and the bad pass protection around him, nor is he capable of overcoming it on his own. Sunday’s game in Chicago marked the first time in 14 career starts that Jones was able to play with Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate at the same time. They didn’t even stay together through halftime.

The Giants’ fears of an ACL tear for Barkley were confirmed Monday. Shepard, theoretically the Giants’ best wideout, has a turf toe injury, and those tend to linger for a long time. Jones is tied with Joe Burrow for the league lead in dropbacks under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus, despite logging 17 fewer snaps than Burrow. The curious signing of backup running back Dion Lewis already looks like a mistake, and the team is working out Devonta Freeman on Monday.

Barkley’s career has proven maddening thus far, through little fault of his own. His talent is undeniable, but his boom-or-bust style hasn’t been a good match with a poor offensive line and worse Giants defense that always has the team in catch-up mode. The Giants are 9-25 since drafting Barkley No. 2 overall in 2018, and one can only hope he returns to an offense in 2021 that allows him to shine.

The Falcons can still find new ways to torture their fans. Mike Sando of The Athletic notes that NFL teams since 2015 have won 506 games and lost three when leading by more than 14 minutes in the final six minutes of regulation. Dan Quinn was the coach of two of those games: one came on Sunday, and I don’t think I need to specify the other one.

Week 2’s collapse against the Cowboys was as bad a regular-season loss as I can remember, because Atlanta’s onside kick staring contest was so mystifying, wasting yet another fantastic game by the Falcons’ offense. But don’t get it twisted: The Falcons didn’t “deserve” to win. There’s no rule that says you have to give up four second-half touchdowns before the fateful kick. The Falcons forced four fumbles in the first quarter and recovered three, but that was a somewhat fluky occurrence. Atlanta’s defense — Quinn’s specialty — played awful after that, despite the Cowboys missing so much of their offensive line. The Falcons and Cowboys looked remarkably similar, possessing outstanding offenses and defenses that have major problems rushing the passer and in coverage. Speaking of which …

The Cowboys’ pass rush looks better on paper than in reality. It was surprising to see the Dallas defensive line comprehensively handled by the Rams’ and Falcons’ fronts. Aldon Smith was a great pickup, but Demarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffen do not look like themselves in early play. The back end of the Cowboys’ defense has bigger issues that the pass rush was supposed to cover up. While the Football Gods smiled upon Dallas late Sunday, and the Cowboys are in the right division to get out of the gates slowly, this defense could short-circuit any title hopes.

The 49ers’ season has quickly taken on a surprising shape for a defending NFC champion with a talent-drenched roster. For the next month-plus, this is a team just trying to stay alive, waiting for some of its cavalry to return. Their injury luck has been a storyline for the last month, with new major losses popping up each week. Time could heal most of these maladies, but Nick Bosa isn’t coming back after tearing his ACL. It’s an especially worrisome injury, with Dee Ford (neck) hurt yet again and reserve Solomon Thomas also getting carted off with a knee injury. While 2020 first-round pick Javon Kinlaw is getting his feet wet on the interior line, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner — who was traded from San Francisco to Indianapolis for a first-round pick that ultimately helped land Kinlaw — is earning big bucks with the Colts.

The 49ers’ entire identity came from their defensive line last year, and it’s hard to imagine that happening again. The schedule, however, may make it easier to tread water until the players who make them their best selves are back. Tight end George Kittle, who was hurt in Week 1, has a chance to return in Week 3. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is week-to-week after suffering a high ankle sprain on Sunday, according to coach Kyle Shanahan, and backup Nick Mullens is capable of moving the offense — at least, he would be, if he had any healthy players around him. Running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman are already expected to miss this week. Five receivers, including Deebo Samuel, are on injured reserve. It says a lot about the 49ers’ coaching staff and depth of talent that they were still able to blow out the Jets 31-13, and that they could win this week against the Giants, too. Their following two opponents (the Eagles and Dolphins) are, like the two New York teams, 0-2, which makes it a realistic goal for the 49ers to reach Week 6 at 3-2 before their schedule turns tougher.  

It sounds like Jimmy G will be back sooner than later. Cornerback Richard Sherman (who went on injured reserve last week), Samuel and the running backs could all be playing before midseason. Repeating as the No. 1 seed may be near impossible in a loaded NFC West, but there’s room for this division to send three or possibly even four teams to the playoffs. To get there, the 49ers just need to survive this next month and see if they can change shape on the fly.

So what were the pleasant surprises of Week 2? Glad I asked!

Pleasant surprises

The old Cam Newton isn’t back. This New England version is a different model, updated for the times and improbably ahead of schedule. He’s dominant again. Already.

The Patriots came up 2 yards short of victory on Sunday night, but Newton’s ability to hang in a shootout with his old rival Russell Wilson was one of the delightful developments of Week 2.

Cam led the Patriots in rushing again, but it was his arm strength, accuracy and decision-making that stood out. Newton has always been a streaky quarterback, but the bag of dimes he littered on the Seattle field in the second half added up to the most passing yards (397) he’s posted since the second game of his career.

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is doing his best, but this wasn’t about scheme. Newton completed difficult tight-window throws with regularity, often down the field. Journeyman Damiere Byrd is the closest thing the Patriots have to an outside deep threat. They are asking Julian Edelman at age 34 to go deep — with success!

Newton is supported by perhaps the strongest offensive line and certainly the best offensive coaching staff of his career, but the Patriots have no threat yet at tight end and the Patriots’ running backs had 20 yards on 14 carries in Sunday’s game. Elias notes that Newton is the first quarterback since 1950 to lead his team in rushing attempts in the first two games of the season. The Patriots are as close to a one-man offense as you’ll see in the NFL, and it’s working.

Whether this bizarre offense is sustainable is anyone’s guess, but that doesn’t make it less remarkable. No one wanted Cam Newton this offseason, including the Patriots for over three months. Fifty-two quarterbacks have a higher cap figure than Newton in 2020, according to Over the Cap, including Ryan Griffin, Nate Sudfeld, Jeff Driskel, Chad Henne, Robert Griffin III, AJ McCarron, Matt Schaub and Jacob Stick. That last name isn’t even real, but you believed it.

There is an alternate universe where Al and Cris spent all of Sunday night extolling Jarrett Stidham’s work habits and pleading for patience as he developed. I’m glad to live in this universe instead, the one where two of the most electric quarterbacks of any era went throw-for-throw against each other and Cam doesn’t need time to get used to a Patriots uniform before starting his Superman sequel.

Scoring is at an all-time high. The NFL’s officiating department is under new leadership, with new objectives. Referees are focusing on calling only “clear and obvious” penalties, which is to say they are calling fewer penalties.

This bucks a decade-long trend of penalties increasing, and the reversal is the most pronounced on offense, per NFL Research. There have been 181 offensive penalties called entering Monday night’s game, which is by far the fewest since 2002, when the league expanded to 32 teams.

The evidence is showing up on the scoreboard: Teams are scoring an average of 50.1 points per game thus far. If that mark holds through tonight’s game, it would be the highest average through two weeks since the 1970 merger. More points might not precisely equate to better quality of play, but it’s close enough. No one is missing the endless offensive holding penalties, perhaps except pass rushers. Calling fewer penalties is absolutely a long-term strategy I can support.

Russell Wilson had another level to reach. Wilson only gets mentioned after Newton here because his greatness was expected; he wasn’t in a quarterback competition with Brian Hoyer a few weeks ago. I just didn’t expect Wilson to be this great.

His first three touchdown passes Sunday night were all outrageous throws, with Bill Belichick noting there’s not much more the defense could have done on his plays to DK Metcalf and David Moore. Wilson’s incompletions feel like an event; he’s thrown 11 of them in two weeks to go with his nine touchdowns. Four of Wilson’s scores came on throws that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, according to PFF; no other quarterback has more than two such TD passes.

The maturation of Metcalf and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s aggressiveness raises the ceiling on Wilson’s season, even if MVP talk after two weeks feels premature. This is just what us dumb sports yakkers resort to after witnessing someone like Wilson play quarterback at the highest level it can be played.

The Jaguars’ young foundation. Forget Tanking for Trevor. If Gardner Minshew keeps playing like this, the Jaguars will win too many games, and Minshew will be pictured on Florida’s new $1 bill after it secedes from the union.

Minshew made so many terrific reads and throws while leading the Jaguars to 30 points and 480 yards of offense in a tight loss to Tennessee. He’s incredibly accurate. As for his two interceptions, one came off a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage and the other occurred when one of his receivers imprudently jumped for a throw directed to someone else.

Minshew isn’t doing it all by himself, either. Sixteen running backs were selected in this year’s NFL draft, and none of them are playing better than Jaguars undrafted starter James Robinson. The Jags’ second-round receiver, Laviska Shenault Jr., is so good with the ball in his hands that he earned five productive carries in addition to his three catches on Sunday. Adding Shenault to an underrated receiver group led by D.J. Chark provides Minshew with plenty of options to distribute the ball to; eight Jaguars had at least three catches against the Titans. While the Jaguars’ defense might be a year away, Minshew’s crew is no one’s pushover.

How alive football still feels on TV, even when no fans are in the stands. When the Patriots lined up for their decisive final play vs. the Seahawks or Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker lined up for his 58-yard field goal in overtime against the Chargers, were you anything but in the moment, blank, expectant, senses alive, waiting? No one wants this current setup mostly without fans to continue indefinitely, and perhaps this is a time we should only be so distracted. But as fans watching the end of thrilling, excruciating games like Jags-Titans or Falcons-Cowboys, I suspect no one was thinking about anything outside of that field, that moment. If that’s not the real thing, I don’t know what is.

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