What NFL themes emerged from the opening Sunday of the 2014 season? Our resident coach, Brian Billick, provides five major takeaways:
1) The 18-game schedule is going to be a tough sell
A significant injury can alter the course of a team's season, but this year, injuries could play an even more important role in the future of the league. There have been conversations about extending the regular season to 18 games, but with marquee players like Jadeveon Clowney, Derrick Johnson, Jordan Cameron, Ben Tate, Vontaze Burfict, Tyler Eifert, Evan Mathis and Logan Mankins all going down with injuries in Week 1, the NFL is going to have an even tougher sell on this front moving forward.
On the flip side of that, the NFLPA has campaigned for (and received) more favorable practice conditions for union members. There are far less contact drills -- or even padded practices -- in the weeks leading up to the opener and throughout the course of the entire season. At first glance, you would think that would help to preserve the health of players, but recently I've heard grumblings from multiple coaching staffs that they no longer have the time nor the ability to get their teams into "playing shape." Thus, players simply aren't prepared for the physicality of the game come Week 1.
I'm not sure when (or if) the 18-game schedule will ever come to fruition, but I can promise you that injury-riddled Sundays like this past one will be a notable bargaining chip during future discussions.
2) Rookie wide receivers make their mark
We are coming off a 2013 season in which Keenan Allen became just the fourth rookie in NFL history with 70-plus receptions, 1,000-plus yards and eight touchdowns. Two years earlier, A.J. Green and Julio Jones set the league on fire with a combined 119 receptions for 2,016 yards and 15 touchdowns. With that said, 2014 might truly become the year of the rookie receiver.
There were five wide receivers selected in Round 1 of the 2014 NFL Draft. Four of the five first-rounders played on Sunday -- Odell Beckham's New York Giants take the field Monday night, but the injured receiver already has been ruled out -- and they combined to rack up 21 receptions for 237 yards and two touchdowns, with Kelvin Benjamin (six receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown) and Brandin Cooks (seven catches for 77 yards and a touchdown) leading the way. Benjamin legitimized himself as a true No. 1 option in Carolina, while Cooks proved he can make up for the losses of both Darren Sproles and Lance Moore in Drew Brees' offense. Sammy Watkins had just three catches for 31 yards, but he helped the Bills get their first win ever in Chicago. Lastly, Mike Evans caught five passes, but for a meager 37 yards.
All of those guys obviously enter the NFL with high expectations as first-round picks, but the rookie receiver who truly stole the show went completely undrafted in May: Jacksonville Jaguars newbie Allen Hurns. The Miami product became the first player in NFL history to record two receiving touchdowns in the first quarter of his NFL debut. Unfortunately, he finished with just two more catches and actually had some costly drops later in the game. Even still, the future is bright for this young man. And this is quite a find for the Jaguars, who are without Justin Blackmon, due to the former No. 5 overall pick's indefinite suspension. Quite a difference in prospect pedigree, but Hurns looks capable of filling the void.
3) Victims of their own success
Pittsburgh jumped all over Cleveland early and took a 27-3 lead into the locker room at halftime. It was classic Steelers football, with a tough rushing attack led by Le'Veon Bell and a quick-strike passing game headlined by Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. They could do no wrong. But in the next 20 game minutes, the Browns completely erased the 24-point deficit. The Steelers had become their own worst enemy, victims of their own first-half success. As a coach, that's one of the toughest things to do during a game: keeping your team's attention and focus after jumping out to a big lead. Momentum can shift in a hurry in this league, and it can be tough to maintain dominance through the halftime break.
You can't afford to get comfortable during a game in the NFL. No lead is ever big enough.
4) Road warriors
I have long advocated the formula of holding serve at home and splitting on the road as the easiest path to the playoffs in the NFL. Those 12 wins -- eight at home and four on the road -- all but guarantee a spot in the postseason tournament. While it is way too early to start talking about the playoff field, the Bills, Panthers, Vikings and Titans surely surprised us all by stealing road wins in Week 1. The Bengals and 49ers did it, too, but those two outcomes were far less surprising.
Of the six road teams that won on Sunday, only the Titans beat a playoff team from last year (Kansas City). But still, the Panthers won with backup quarterback Derek Anderson starting in place of the injured Cam Newton, the Bills beat the Bears for the first time ever in Soldier Field, and the Vikings nearly shut out the hapless Rams. Meanwhile, the 49ers overcame critical injuries on the defensive side of the ball to force four turnovers in Dallas, while Andy Dalton earned his first career win in Baltimore.
In 2013, eight of the 12 playoff teams won their season opener. But doing so on the road is even more impressive. These six teams have something big to hang their hats on heading into the second week of the season.
5) Passing league ... to a fault
Sure, it's a quarterback-driven league. And if you don't have a franchise-caliber passer, you better do everything in your power to go out and find out. But even when you do have one, you can't ask him to throw it more than 45 times in a game!
Joe Flacco posted an NFL-high 62 passing attempts on Sunday, with Tom Brady (56), Andrew Luck (53) and Jay Cutler (49) falling in right behind him. Not coincidentally, all four of their teams lost. Typically, passing numbers blow up after a team falls behind big in the early goings, forcing the offense into desperation mode. Strangely, this wasn't exactly the case on Sunday. The Ravens were never more than two possessions behind the Bengals, and the Patriots actually held a 10-point lead at halftime. Cutler and the Bears were down by 10 at the break, but had tied it up by the end of the third quarter. Only Luck was truly playing catch-up, having trailed the Broncos 24-0 in the second quarter.
Even Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, completed just 51.8 percent of his 56 attempts. Flacco didn't do much better at 56.5 percent. And while Cutler (69.4) and Luck (66.0) logged high completion percentages, they each threw two interceptions. When you attempt that many passes, you are going to get all of your quarterback -- the good and the bad.