First impression: champs are as good as last year


Alan TruexIt’s often said that nothing is more misleading than a pro football team’s opening game. Teammates are trying to adjust to each other. They didn’t play together very much in the preseason, which was more a tryout camp for reserves than a serious tune-up for the starters, who were interested primarily in staying healthy.

Last year’s opening week was typical of the genre, with Miami beating Washington and San Francisco routing Minnesota.  Not much of a precursor there. So you don’t want to put too much credibility in this season’s openers. But hey, it’s all we got.

With that said, these are five Opening Arguments:


1. Denver has a QB, FB and an offensive line.

The Broncos won the Super Bowl with a doddering Peyton Manning straining to heave the ball downfield behind an offensive line that often blocked like mannequins. In a wonderful rematch of Super Bowl 50 – and a better game — Denver beat Carolina by one point in Thursday night’s NFL kickoff game.

Quarterbacking the Broncs was Trevor Siemian, last year’s last-round draft pick from Northwestern, a school well accredited for just about everything except turning out quarterbacks.

Siemian does not have a rocket arm, but he has a Northwestern brain, and the poise of a brain surgeon.

After a few inevitable first-half jitters – and two interceptions — he was very solid in leading a fourth-quarter comeback.

He had time to exploit Carolina’ revamped secondary that clearly misses Josh Norman, the All-Pro free agent who left for Washington. Siemian was well protected by an O-line upgraded by the arrival of Pro Bowl veteran Russell Okung and the maturation of second-year pros Ty Sambrailo, Max Paradis and Max Garcia.

Denver’s running game rolled, not just because of the O-line but because Gary Kubiak introduced a fullback, a key element in his zone-blocking ground game that was lacking last year.   Andy Janovich, 6-1, 240-pound rookie from Nebraska, cleared space for C.J. Anderson.   And with a 28-yard carry, Janovich showed he’s a run threat himself

No doubt the mile-high altitude sapped the Panthers in their first attempt since February to last four quarters. But this Denver team is every bit as good as last year’s. At least, that’s my first impression.


2. NFL concussion policy is a joke, not funny.

As the clock was running down in the Broncos-Panthers game, Denver safety Darian Stewart head-butted Cam Newton, who fell to the ground and was motionless, obviously stunned.

The player should have been removed from the game for concussion evaluation, but neither the refs nor the Panthers’ medical staff took action. Nobody wants to see the reigning MVP out of the game when it’s on the line.

They considered it more important to let the game go on, with Carolina desperately trying to overcome a 1-point deficit. An NFL spokesman said the officials acted correctly because “there were no indications of a concussion.”

Lying prone on the ground after being hit in the head – his fourth helmet-to-helmet hit that night — is no indicator?

Mike Pereira, former chief of officials who’s now a Fox analyst, said the concussion protocol “isn’t working,” and “it’s time to bring the targeting rule to the NFL. . . “

In other words, a helmet-to-helmet hit should be cause for ejection. Or at least a penalty.   No flag was thrown on any of the four head-butts on Newton.


3. Carson Wentz is the real deal.

Yes, he was facing the Cleveland Browns, so you discount his performance about 30 percent. Even so, Carson Wentz’s NFL debut was remarkable: 278 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions in a 29-10 victory.  According to Pro Football Focus, Wentz was on target with 81.3 percent of his passes – fourth-best showing of all the first-week QBs.

After a small-college career at North Dakota State and then missing almost the entire preseason with a fractured rib, Wentz showed why the Philadelphia Eagles had no qualms about trading Sam Bradford for first-round and fourth-round draft picks. Wentz, who was taken No. 2 overall in the April draft, has the intelligence, poise and arm to be the franchise quarterback right now.

Which is difficult for Browns fans to accept, considering that their team had the opportunity to draft Wentz but traded it away.


4. The Patriots can win with defense and stand-in QB Garoppolo.

When All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski became a late scratch for New England’s opener in Arizona, the betting line changed from Cardinals -6 to Cardinals -9.5.

The wiseguys saw little chance of the Patriots putting up a fight without either Gronkowski or their suspended future Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady.

But everyone should know by now that you don’t underestimate the ability of Bill Belichick, the most resourceful coach in football, to concoct a game plan that will keep his team competitive.   With free safety Devin McCourty at his sharpest and with steady blitz pressure on Carson Palmer, the Patriots cut off Arizona’s deep passing game.

Brady’s understudy, Jimmy Garoppolo, put on a performance worthy of the master himself.   The Patriots won 23-21, and Garoppolo posted a QBR of 73, with 50 being considered a winning number.

Belichick gave him the game ball. And even Brady, who’s been a bit standoffish with his heir apparent, said, in his weekly appearance on Westwood One for the Monday Night Pregame: “Jimmy did everything he was asked to do. It was a great way to start the season for our team.”


5. The Dallas Cowboys, as usual, don’t know what they’re doing.

With Tony Romo injured, as he often is, the Cowboys had to rely on rookie fourth-round draft pick Dak Prescott, to quarterback them in the season opener against their long-time rivals, the New York Giants.

Given that Dallas has the most acclaimed offensive line in the sport and the Rookie of the Year favorite in running back Ezekiel Elliott, the logical strategy was to run the ball, taking the pressure off Prescott.

But logic has never been the strong suit of coach Jason Garrett. He abandoned the running game early and filled the air with footballs: 30 runs, 45 passes.

Most of the passes were nickels and dimes, nothing to put heat on a suspect Giants defense that last season ranked 32nd and last in the NFL in passing yards allowed.

With the Giants defense bunched near the scrimmage line, Prescott averaged 5.0 yards per pass for the game, as Dallas lost at home, 20-19.

Despite the unimaginative play-calling, the Cowboys likely would have won had not Terrance Williams, who’s always a mistake waiting to happen, chose to turn upfield instead of heading out of bounds as time was expiring.

Williams continues to play like a rookie even though he’s 26 years old.   And Garrett continues to coach like a novice, even though this is his seventh year as head coach of this team. It’s long past the time to move on from both of these bumblers.

And that’s not just a first impression.



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