Baltimore Ravens

Five Things We Learned about the NFL in Week 1

Greeting, football fans. This week, we're taking our popular "Five Things" template we use to break down each Ravens game, and expanding to the rest of the NFL. Each week, we'll try to look at some of the trends and issues we noticed around the league. As always, if you don't like the column, which appears only on the web, we promise a full refund.
Kevin Van Valkenburg
1. Everyone loves Troy Polamalu because he's such a nice guy and he's been a dynamic player, but he's a prime example of how the Steelers have drifted from their core philosophy a bit. They used to let their aging players walk and become free agents. Now they sign them to extensions.
Emotionally, I understand why the Steelers gave Polamalu a $36.5 million 4-year extension. He's been the most important player on their defense -- and maybe the most important defensive player in the entire AFC -- for years. He's humble and ego-less, he's a stoic leader, and he has a knack for making huge plays in big moments. Logically, however, I think it was a mistake. They clearly felt they couldn't afford to lose him, but the Steelers need to prepare themselves for this harsh reality: Superman is 30 years old, and he's lost a step.
Giving that much money to a player who can't stay on the field because he's frequently injured is never wise. It's almsot always better to let him go. The Steelers practically invented this philosophy. Just ask Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown and Joey Porter.
Polamalu had a good excuse for how average he looked during the Steelers playoff run in 2010. His Achilles was really sore, and it clearly limited what he could do. On one hand, it was gutsy for him to even be out there. On the other hand, Aaron Rodgers exploited him in pass coverage multiple times in the Super Bowl. 
But Polamalu is supposedly 100 percent healthy now, and he was a complete non-factor against the Ravens in Week 1. He didn't have a meaningful blitz or tackle or pass defense the entire day, and Ed Dickson not only got the better of him in the running game (sealing him off with a key block on the first play fo the game to spring Ray Rice for a 36-yard gain) he also out-ran him on a play-action pass for a touchdown.
The Steelers will almost certainly maul a punchless Seahawks team this week, and everyone will pretend that everything is fine and that it doesn't matter that nine defensive starters are 30 or older for Pittsburgh. Whatever happens, though, the window is closing quickly for this group of Steelers. Mike Tomlin laughed during the preseason when reporters asked him if he was concerned his defense was getting old quickly. It's just one week, but I bet he's not laughing now.
2. Almost everyone complained during the pre-season about the new kick-off rules, but almost no one talked about a different part of the rule change that appeared to have a huge impact in Week 1. Coverage guys now have to line-up within five yards of the ball, and it limits the running start they can get.
We don't have a big enough sample size to make any grand presumptions yet, but clearly kickoff returns for touchdowns aren't going to be as rare as we were led to believe. All you had to do was watch Randall Cobb, Percy Harvin and Ted Ginn return kickoffs for touchdowns.
What does that prove? Nothing yet. But as someone who covered a kickoff or two back in the day, I can attest that those five yards do make a big difference in terms of getting down the field faster. The longer the return team has to set up their blocks, the harder it is to bust through the seams and find the ball carrier.
If nothing else, special teams provided all kinds of unexpected excitement in Week 1. Five players (Darren Sproles, Jacoby Jones, Patrick Peterson, Eric Decker and Ginn) returned punts for touchdowns, the Jets scored a touchdown on a blocked punt, and Sebastian Janakowski tied an NFL record with a 63-yard field goal.
3. What happend to Donovan McNabb in Washington may not have been 100 percent fair, but he is DONE as an effective quarterback in the NFL.
I really wanted to see McNabb succeed in Minnesota, just to rub it in Mike Shannahan's face a little bit. Shannahan is a good coach, but he's not nearly as great as he believes he is. Yanking McNabb last year so that Rex Grossman could run the Redskins 2-minute offense, then blaming it on McNabb's lack of conditioning, was one of the most ridiculous, phony moves I've ever seen an NFL coach pull. Giving him a few million in "apology" money was equally as baffling.
That said, if you watched McNabb in purple on Sunday, the only conclusion you can reach is that he's toast. He still moves around in the pocket OK, at least at times, but almost all his throws look like he's shot putting a balloon filled with wet sand. The game Sunday against the Chargers was there for the taking, and McNabb couldn't even give the Vikings a credible wingman to Adrian Peterson, finishing with 39 yards passing, including only two yards in the second half. Even Brett Favre, at his lowest point, didn't look this bad in a Vikings uniform.  
4. Tony Romo is proof that there is a difference between a good fantasy quarterback, and a good NFL quarterback.
Romo's total implosion against the Jets shouldn't have come as a surprise. What's surprising is so many people keep expecting a different result from Romo. This is the kind of player he's always going to be. By your seventh year in the league, you don't suddenly start figuring out how to play smart in pressure situations. People just presume you will get better because you trot out words like "maturity" and "wisdom." It's a fallacy. If Brett Favre were a classic movie, then Tony Romo would be the butchered modern Hollywood remake of Brett Favre. Except if Romo tried to send cell phone pictures of himself to Jenn Sterger, he'd dial the wrong number and send them to Roger Goodell instead.
This is the guy, after all, who once ditched Carrie Underwood -- one of the classiest, prettiest babes on the planet -- for Jessica Simpson. (He's now married to Z-list celebrity Candace Crawford.) That should have been an early indication decision making isn't exactly his forte.
Romo and the Cowboys are perfect for one another, though. He and owner Jerry Jones both represent the emphasis of style over substance. Possibly the worst thing that could have happened to Jones was winning a Super Bowl with Barry Switzer as his coach, because it convinced him he was responsible for the Cowboys rebirth, not Jimmy Johnson. But now this cycle will repeat itself on and infinite loop. Jones, forever convinced he is the smartest football mind in the room, will keep over-paying players like Romo to look good and fail in spectacular fashion.  
5. The NFL has changed the rules so much in recent years to promote offense and protect its star quarterbacks, the days of ground and pound are becoming obsolete.
Running the ball is still very important. There is no denying that. It sets everything else up, and when the weather turns cold, any team that doesn't play in a dome needs to be able to run the ball. The Ravens were able to beat up on the Steelers because they finally found a way to free up Ray Rice, for example. 
But for the most part, the NFL is a wide-open game these days. And that may be even more apparent this year, with defenses looking like they've suffered the most from the abbreviated offseason. Look at what Drew Brees and Tom Brady and Chad Henne and Cam Newton did this week. In 2010, there were 11 games in which a quarterback threw for 400 yards or more during the season. After one week, we've already had four do it.  

I would wager that Brady, Brees and Aaron Rodgers are going to threaten some NFL passing records this year. None of them has a dependable running game, but that hardly seems to matter because they're so skilled at handling blitz pressure and delivering the football into tight windows.
The Colts and the NFL are obviously going to miss Peyton Manning this year, but that doesn't mean we aren't going to witness some remarkable quarterback play. It's one of the reasons why the Ravens need Joe Flacco to play with the kind of ruthless efficiency he did on Sunday against the Steelers, even if their run game is churning along. There is simply too much scoring to keep up if you can't throw the ball.