Assorted observations from the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers' 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football:
» The best part of the Bengals' performance was their defense coming up with six turnovers. If this offensive-driven team has any chance of being a contender, it will need many more defensive gems through the balance of the season. Still, even with all of the Ravens' generosity, the Bengals came perilously close to losing against a backup quarterback at the end. That was a reminder that the Ravens still merit upper-tier-status classification. They were horrendous and beat-up on offense, yet nearly able to pull out a win. Seeing Marvin Lewis, who is still recovering from ankle surgery, coach while leaning on crutches had to be a source of inspiration for Bengal players. Seeing Chad Johnson don a gold blazer with "Future Hall of Famer, 20??" on the back to celebrate a touchdown catch? Not so much. Heads-up to Johnson: Genuine Hall-of-Famers wait until they get the real thing in Canton. You're still a long way from being the genuine article.
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» It only took one game for serious questions to surface about whether Steve McNair is the right quarterback to lead the Ravens or any other team at this stage of his career. His three fumbles and an interception were enough reason to test the patience of coach Brian Billick. But he also looked uncomfortable and was inaccurate with many of his throws. On top of that, he finished the game on the sidelines after being injured, once again. Kyle Boller didn't look like a much better alternative. Rookie Troy Smith isn't ready to play. Maybe the Ravens will need to bring aboard Byron Leftwich after all? Here are two other concerns I have for the Ravens: 1.) Willis McGahee, their biggest offseason acquisition, did nothing to demonstrate he is an upgrade at running back over Jamal Lewis. 2.) Billick can still get too pass-happy with his play calling, and even if he might have lacked confidence in McGahee's ability to deliver, he still needed to put the ball in his hands in the red zone rather than asking Boller to try and win the game with his arm.
» It's hard to get a handle on exactly what kind of quarterback the 49ers have in Alex Smith. Ultimately, he came up big by leading the Niners on an 86-yard drive to Arnaz Battle's winning touchdown run in the final 2:58 (2:36 of which was consumed by the 12-play march). Smith looked smooth and decisive in completing six of 10 passes for 60 yards. On a fourth-and-1 play, he turned what looked like a sure sack into a 25-yard scramble. He managed the clock well, showing the poise and awareness of someone with far more experience and a long track record of success in crunch time. One of the big questions facing the 49ers during the offseason was how Smith would react to no longer having Norv Turner, who moved on to coach the San Diego Chargers, as his offensive coordinator. For most of the opener, that question loomed large. Before the final drive, Smith had completed nine of 21 passes for 66 yards and a passer rating of 38. He did not look all that smooth or decisive. And the 49ers' coaches generally avoided asking the third-year quarterback to carry all that much of the offensive load. Clearly, they'd prefer to lean more heavily on the running of Frank Gore, who despite a preseason of inactivity showed he is capable of handling it.
» It's always dangerous to get too excited about anyone's preseason prowess. Matt Leinart offered such a reminder with his dud of an opener after spectacular showings in games that didn't count. While completing only 14-of-28 passes for 102 yards, he failed to connect on throws that he should have been able to make. He also threw an interception in the first quarter that led to a 49er touchdown. In addition, Leinart was held back by a surprisingly conservative game plan by new coach Ken Whisenhunt, who didn't seem to want to trust his second-year quarterback to win the game with his arm. I was expecting Leinart to fill the Northern California air with game-breaking throws to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Instead, the Cardinals were often using double tight ends and pounding the ball with Edgerrin James, who had a good night (92 yards on 26 carries). Establishing the run is sound, but the Cardinals aren't built for conservatism. When they had a 17-13 lead with 6:40 left in the fourth quarter, they should have had Leinart going deep for the knockout punch rather than handing off with the hope that a four-point advantage would stand up the rest of the way … which, of course, it didn't.
» I'm still marveling at what Jay Cutler pulled off in the Denver Broncos' amazing 15-14 win over the Buffalo Bills. It wasn't just that he threw for 304 yards and a touchdown. It was that he did that and so much more while making only his sixth career start in front of a highly stoked opening-day crowd of 71,132 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Sure, Cutler had moments when he looked like a kid way over his head. He threw an interception that killed a scoring drive late in the first half and nearly was returned for a touchdown. He almost lost a fumble with a reckless attempt to make something happen. But in the game's final 2:13, Cutler did a pretty good imitation of the quarterback the Broncos have yet to successfully replace -- John Elway. He engineered a 42-yard drive, which included his seven-yard run on fourth-and-2, to Jason Elam's winning field goal. He delivered perfect throws on slant routes to Jevon Walker, deftly managed the clock, and alertly got the offense off the field while the field-goal unit scrambled on for Elam to connect on his 42-yard attempt with one second left. "I've been involved with a lot of comeback victories with John over the years," Elam said. "I'm not sure anything compares to this."
» Wade Phillips has a tremendous sense of humor, which was easy for him to display after beginning his first season as coach of the Dallas Cowboys with a 45-35 victory over the New York Giants. "How about my offense?" he said during his postgame news conference. Which was another way of saying that the man whom Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones hired to fix his defense has a lot of work ahead. If Phillips' 31 years of NFL coaching has taught him anything, it is that he cannot count on his offense to score as much or as easily as it did in the opener. Tony Romo is not going to routinely throw for 300-plus yards and four touchdown passes in a game. Phillips' defense performed poorly enough for the Cowboys to lose against an offense that was supposed to have been significantly weakened by the retirement of Tiki Barber. Eli Manning hardly felt any pressure while also throwing for 300-plus yards and four touchdown passes. And pressure is supposed to be the hallmark of a Phillips-run defense. The problem is, improvement could be slow given the likely season-ending biceps injury to nose tackle Jason Ferguson and the indefinite absences of injured cornerback Terence Newman (heel) and linebacker Greg Ellis (Achilles).
» I can't recall a season that opened with so many serious injuries, not the least of which was the life-threatening spinal injury that Bills tight end Kevin Everett suffered while covering a kickoff. According to the doctor who operated on Everett, the player has a 90-95 percent chance of never walking again, a chilling revelation that has rocked everyone connected with the team as well as the entire Buffalo community. One of my Western New York neighbors told me he was so concerned about Everett's fate, he had trouble sleeping. Meanwhile, other players on the Bills and other teams sustained injuries severe enough to end their seasons. Some, such as the season-ending torn labrum suffered by St. Louis Rams offensive tackle Orlando Pace, could go a long way toward altering their clubs' fortunes this season.
» So much for Donovan McNabb's return to mostly good health (if that is, indeed, true) as a reason to expect big things from the Philadelphia Eagles' offense. The Green Bay Packers' defense certainly had plenty to do with Philadelphia's offensive struggles in a 16-13 loss at Lambeau Field. What was true in the preseason was true on opening day: The Packers look as if they have one of the top defenses in the league. However, McNabb, playing with a brace on his surgically repaired knee, gave little indication that he is ready to be a difference-maker for a club that rallied for a 2006 playoff appearance without him (and no longer has Jeff Garcia, the quarterback who led the way into the postseason). Except for a few pretty throws, McNabb did very little that resembled a performance from one of the top quarterbacks in the league. He threw one interception in the first quarter that set up a Green Bay field goal and nearly had a second late in the game.
» It's a fact of football life that teams try and steal other teams' signals. If the Patriots did, in fact, use a video camera to do so during their game with the Jets that would be a violation of league rules prohibiting the videotaping of offensive or defensive signals on the sidelines. However, every NFL club assigns at least one assistant coach to monitor the opponents' signaling. Usually, that coach is seated in the coaching box, with binoculars trained on the other team's sidelines, but he also takes time to study broadcast videotape that often includes close-up shots of the coaches calling plays. That is why you routinely see a play-caller hold his play sheet in front of his mouth when calling a play into the microphone of his headset, which is connected to a receiving device in the quarterback's helmet. It also is why, in college games, you'll see as many as three quarterbacks on the sidelines giving different hand signals to the quarterback on the field; two are decoys.
» This is a step-up-or-step-out season for J.P. Losman. With two years left on his contract, the Bills must, by at least the middle of their schedule, see conclusive evidence that he is their long-term answer at quarterback. If Losman were to step up accordingly, they would likely begin (or escalate) talks to sign him to a lengthy contract extension. If not, he would likely have to step out of the starting job after the season, if not sooner. The Bills would have no qualms turning the reins over to Trent Edwards, their third-round draft pick who looked extremely sharp (albeit against fringe-type defenders) during the preseason. Losman came up very small in the season-opening loss to the Broncos. Dick Jauron might have taken a foolish gamble by having Losman throw deep on third-and-5 with the Bills ahead, 14-12, with 2:43 remaining rather than letting rookie running back Marshawn Lynch carry the ball and kill more time that might have prevented the Broncos from winning with a field goal as the clock expired. But Losman overthrowing Lee Evans, who had clear sailing to the end zone, was inexcusable. He needed to make that play. He needed to do much better than go 14-of-21 for 97 yards and an interception.
» I'm still trying to get my mind around this quote from Tom Brady about the most prominent of his new Patriot teammates: "Randy's a great leader." Randy Moss? A great leader? This is the same guy who once publicly admitted to not being in the "mood" to play at his best for the Oakland Raiders last season, right? I'll buy that having Brady as his quarterback and playing in a championship-caliber atmosphere had something to do with Moss' nine-catch, 183-yard debut in New England. But great leader? I'll need a lot more evidence to believe that.
» In Miami's 16-13 overtime loss to Washington, Trent Green did pretty much what the Dolphins acquired him to do as their starting quarterback. He efficiently operated a passing game that featured mostly short, high-percentage throws, such as the one he delivered for a touchdown on the last play of the first half. He showed superb accuracy in going 24-of-38, and his numbers would have been even better had five attempts not been dropped. New Dolphins coach put it best about Green when he said: "I think what he gives you every week is … hope."
» St. Louis coach Scott Linehan insists he isn't worried about Steven Jackson's two fumbles, on back-to-back series, in the Rams' loss to the Carolina Panthers. I would be. Jackson equaled his entire fumble total for all of last season. When a player who isn't used to fumbling does so twice in one game, there is reason to believe it could grow into a problem because has so little experience trying to overcome it.
» It only took one game for new San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner to demonstrate that he has absolutely no intention of messing with the formula mostly responsible for the team's 14 wins in '06. A year ago, league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and star tight end Antonio Gates had 41 percent of the Chargers' offensive touches. In the Chargers' 14-3 victory over the Chicago Bears, Turner upped that total to 63 percent (of San Diego's 52 offensive plays, 33 were receptions or carries by the dynamic duo).
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