What we learned: It didn't take long for rookies to make a splash

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Rookie quarterbacks Matt Ryan (Falcons) and Joe Flacco (Ravens) passed their opening NFL tests with Week 1 wins.

Week 1 of the 2008 season was like going to a great cafeteria -- there was something for everyone's taste. For starters, it was the fourth consecutive opening weekend in which all 16 games were sold out.

There were many "firsts" in this first weekend of the season. The one that really stands out for me: For the first time since the merger in 1970, there were six quarterbacks starting their team's opener who have never won an NFL game.

Two of those six are rookies -- Joe Flacco for Baltimore and Matt Ryan in Atlanta. The other four: J.T. O'Sullivan (San Francisco), Brodie Croyle (Kansas City), Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay), and JaMarcus Russell (Oakland).

The Flacco-Ryan accomplishment marked the first time two rookie quarterbacks have started on kickoff weekend since 2001 (Chris Weinke for Carolina, Quincy Carter for Dallas).

And with Flacco and Ryan both victorious, it's the first time since Sept. 19, 1971, that two opening-day rookie QBs have both won. That feat was accomplished by Archie Manning, for New Orleans against the Rams, and Jim Plunkett, for New England over Oakland.

The other notable first for Ryan was the 63-yard touchdown pass to Mike Jenkins that he threw on his first attempt of the game -- the first time a QB has thrown for a TD in his first career pass since Michael Bishop did it in 2001.

So what did we learn from Flacco and Ryan in Week 1? Considering the careers of some of the names mentioned above, it's too soon to make any sweeping statements. What I saw yesterday was a couple of young quarterbacks -- especially Ryan -- who looked like their extensive playing experience in college helped them greatly. Ryan, a five-year player at Boston College, looked poised and seemed to handle the pressure of the game very well. When Flacco made that 38-yard TD run at the end of the third quarter to give Baltimore a 17-3 lead of the Bengals, he showed running ability that I did not think he had.

Immediate impact

The 2008 draft featured a large number of elite RB prospects and four of them played especially well in their NFL debuts.

Felix Jones
Draft placement: Rd. 1 (22)
Height: 6-0
Weight: 212
College: Arkansas

Matt Forte
Draft placement: Rd. 2 (44)
Height: 6-2
Weight: 216
College: Tulane

Ray Rice
Draft placement: Rd. 2 (55)
Height: 5-8
Weight: 205
College: Rutgers

Chris Johnson
Draft placement: Rd. 1 (24)
Height: 5-11
Weight: 200
College: East Carolina

» Draft tracker: 2008 running back class
» Complete draft coverage

Rookie runners

We've always said that running back is probably the easiest position in the NFL to play as a rookie. Not surprisingly, four newcomers came in and made an impact:

» Felix Jones, Dallas: Ran 11 yards for a TD the first time he touched the ball, and ended his NFL debut with 9 carries for 62 (and he had another long run nullified by penalty).

» Matt Forte, Chicago: Had 23 carries for 123 yards, including a 50-yard TD that was longer than the Bears' longest run from scrimmage last season (43 yards). Forte added three catches for 18 yards.

» Ray Rice, Baltimore: Had 64 yards rushing in the win over Cincinnati, one yard better than the Bengals' team total in the game.

» Chris Johnson, Tennessee: Rushed for 93 yards and added 34 yards receiving, inclusing a 7-yard TD reception that gave the Titans a 10-7 lead over Jacksonville. Johnson's rushing total was better than combined output from the Jaguars' duo of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.

While he's not a rookie, Michael Turner's performance in his debut with the Atlanta Falcons is worth mentioning. His 220 yards was the second-best rushing total for opening weekend (O.J. Simpson had 250 in 1973). It was also the most yards rushing by a player in his first game after changing teams.

Getting defensive

While he may not get much recognition in Defensive Player of the Week voting, two of the most important plays on defense yesterday were made by Jets rookie cornerback Dwight Lowery. The fourth-round pick from San Jose State, who started for the Jets on Sunday, had back-to-back pass deflections, turning away the Dolphins on third-and-goal and then fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line early in the fourth quarter.

Other impressive defensive notes:

» The Bills allowed only 85 yards in the first half of their win over Seattle; the Steelers allowed only 82 yards in the first half against Houston. It's no surprise that both teams won.

» In Cleveland, the Dallas Cowboys came out and executed a defense designed to contain tight end Kellen Winslow. Every time Winslow lined up on the outside, Dallas had Greg Ellis line up wide with him. Ellis jammed Winslow at the line and made it hard for him to break free -- it's something Baltimore used to do a lot when they had Adalius Thomas. On to of that, when Dallas was in man coverage, it had cornerback Anthony Henry covering Winslow. While Winslow had a 2-yard TD reception, he was mostly negated as a key weapon for the Browns, catching five passes for 47 yards.

» Regardless of the injury to Tom Brady, you have to give Kansas City's defense credit for holding New England to 17 points. Defensive coordinators preparing to face the Patriots will note that the Chiefs played most of the game with two linebackers and five defensive backs.

» Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley had a sack, interception, fumble recovery and three tackles.

NFC domination

The NFC was way behind the AFC in interconference play midway through last season, but they came back to even out the season matchups and then knocked off an unbeaten AFC team in the Super Bowl. So it's safe to say NFC teams picked up where they left off, going 3-1 in interconference games on Sunday, with all three wins coming against AFC playoff contenders (Dallas over Cleveland, Carolina over San Diego, Chicago over Indianapolis).

As is usually the case, quarterback play was a big factor in these games. Tony Romo had a big game against the Browns; Jake Delhomme played well and then rose to the occasion in the game-winning drive over the Chargers. In the case of Indianapolis, Peyton Manning simply was not himself on Sunday night. The injured knee must still be bothering him -- and the telltale sign was the way the Colts ran the ball.

Instead of running the trademark stretch play, in which Manning steps to one side or the other to hand off the ball on outside running plays, this time he pitched the ball more. It will be interesting to watch how he progresses.

The Cassel report

Matt Cassel, QB
New England Patriots

Career Statistics:
Passer rating: 85.8
Passing yards: 405
TDs/INTs: 3/2

So now that Brady is officially out for the season, here's the brief scouting report on Matt Cassel, the four-year veteran from USC who will be making his first career NFL start in Week 2 -- and the first start in a regular-season football game since he was a senior in high school.

Cassel is a strong-armed quarterback with good mobility. His biggest weakness, of course, is lack of experience.

Everybody is writing off the Patriots without Brady, but there's still plenty of talent on the roster. It's not as if Cassel is taking over a 1-15 team. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Extra points

The Ravens have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 20 games… Steelers RB Willie Parker, who had two TD runs in 2007, had three in his first game of 2008… Randy Moss scored his 126th career TD, tying him with Jim Brown for eighth on the all-time list… Tampa Bay had no third-down conversions until the fourth quarter of its loss to New Orleans… Miami RB Ricky Williams started an NFL game for the first time since 2003… Miami rookie tackle Jake Long, who had been called for one penalty in his career at Michigan, had two called against him in his NFL debut -- and both negated first-down runs by Chad Pennington… Think the Chiefs want to run the ball? They had just three WRs active for yesterday's game… NBA star LeBron James, who was seen on TV yesterday talking to Dallas owner Jerry Jones, once told me he was a big Cowboys fan. James was also an all-state receiver as a junior in Akron (he did not play as a senior)… Kansas City has more rookies on its roster than any other team -- 14 (10 draft picks, 4 undrafted free agents). They had six rookie starters: T Branden Albert, RB Jamaal Charles and FB Mike Cox on offense; DT Glenn Dorsey and CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers on defense. Flowers tied for the team lead with 6 total tackles… The Bills scored 34 points after scoring a combined 30 in their last three games of 2007. Two of Buffalo's TDs came on special teams -- a punt return and a fake field goal… The four first-year coaches went 2-2 Sunday -- Mike Smith (Atlanta) and John Harbaugh (Baltimore) won, Tony Sparano (Miami) and Jim Zorn (Washington) lost… Kudos to NBC for a nice new wrinkle in their broadcast: Before each play, they would list key offensive and defensive personnel groupings -- "5 defensive backs" or "3 receivers." That's a nice enhancement for the viewer.



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