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Which Week 1 NFL Performances Were Flukes?

Making sense of Jared Goff’s greatness, Andy Dalton’s awfulness, and Tarik Cohen’s surprising star turn

Sam Bradford, Andy Dalton, and Le’Veon Bell Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After months of waiting, we finally got our first glimpse of what the NFL will look like in 2017. But Week 1 games can be fickle; for example, you might have noticed that the 49ers did not go on to win last season’s Super Bowl after whipping the Rams 28-0 on Monday Night Football in September. And who could forget Nick Foles’s 2015 debut with the Rams, when he led his team to a season-opening win over the defending NFC champion Seahawks with 297 passing yards and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing). He finished that campaign with more picks than touchdowns and never came anywhere near the 300-yard mark again.

Some performances from Week 1 will prove to be the first signs of breakout years; others will go down as total flukes. We looked at seven of the most surprising Week 1 outings—some good, some terrible—and tried to divine whether they’re atypical or harbingers of the season to come.

Andy Dalton Throwing a Ton of Interceptions

The ginger slinger had the worst game of his career Sunday, going 16-for-31 passing for 170 yards with no touchdowns, four interceptions, and a lost fumble in a 20-0 defeat against the Ravens. (He also threw the ball out of bounds on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter, which should count as a sixth turnover for its sheer stupidity.) In fact, Dalton’s outing was one of the worst performances ESPN’s QB rating system has ever graded.

The interceptions might be an anomaly: Dalton threw only eight picks all of last year, and he threw seven the year before that. While there were some early seasons in Dalton’s career in which he recorded a sizable number of interceptions (he topped out at 20 in the 2013 campaign, with a 3.4 percent interception rate), he’d recently improved that aspect of his game: Before Sunday, none of his other three-interception games had occurred since 2014. It’s possible the Ravens just have his number: After Week 1, both of Dalton’s four-pick games and four of his eight three-plus-interception games have come against Baltimore.

But there is potential for trouble here. Dalton is one of the worst passers in the league when facing pressure, and the Bengals have let their offensive line rot. Dalton was sacked 41 times last fall, second most in the league, and Cincinnati allowed its two best linemen to walk during the offseason: Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth went to the Rams, while right guard Kevin Zeitler became the highest-paid guard in league history by signing with the Browns. And Cincinnati used its top two 2017 draft picks on skill-position players, wide receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon. Last year 2015 first-round draft pick Cedric Ogbuehi was awful at right tackle, playing what he described as “a shit 2016” before getting benched. The team responded by moving him to left tackle—his natural position, but a pivotal place to put a player who hasn’t looked good in his brief NFL career. That move didn’t look like a good decision Sunday.

The Verdict: The Bengals have created a situation where a quarterback who struggles under pressure will be constantly pressured. Dalton’s sheer number of picks against the Ravens might have been a fluke, but his dismal performance probably won’t be.

Tarik Cohen Developing Into a Go-To Option

The rookie out of North Carolina A&T led the Bears in both rushing and receiving yards in their 23-17 loss to the Falcons, recording 113 yards from scrimmage with a touchdown. He nearly helped Chicago knock off the defending NFC champions.

Cohen is only 5-foot-6, but he’s a freak athlete. He ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash before the 2017 draft and has proved that he CAN CATCH TWO FOOTBALLS WHILE DOING A BACKFLIP:

"Look the ball into the tuck." - @coachshawngibbs @lamarr_7 and @m.weav @dedicated_grind & @xcheck_3 film crew

A post shared by ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ тarιĸ coнen (@tarikcohen) on

It’s clear that the Bears intend to make Cohen a featured player in their offense; he racked up 12 targets in Week 1, which would be a lot for a wide receiver. With Cam Meredith and Kevin White already injured, Chicago lacks any noteworthy deep threats and doesn’t have a quarterback capable of connecting deep anyway. The team’s best strategy is to give the ball to Cohen, who can make players miss. (He has earned the nickname “chicken salad,” in reference to the old saying about making chicken shit into chicken salad.) Watch the play at the 30-second mark of the above video, where the Falcons swarm Cohen after a toss play to the left. It should be a loss of 5; he switches field for a 46-yard gain.

The Verdict: Cohen’s speed and athleticism will not wane. Those are legitimate NFL weapons. I’d be high on Cohen’s prospects regardless of his situation; the fact that the Bears seem likely to rely on him all fall makes me think that he’ll be one of the most exciting players in the league. Then again, I am extremely passionate about tiny football speedsters, a passion that often goes unrewarded. SOMEBODY SIGN TRINDON HOLLIDAY.

Alex Smith Emerging As a Quarterbacking Wizard

Ah yes, Alex Smith, the NFL’s best quarterback. He leads the league in passing yards (368) and is tied for the lead in touchdowns (four) after turning in a masterful performance in a 42-27 win over the Patriots, who are damn good.

It was stunning to see anybody do this to New England; it was especially stunning to see Smith—maybe the NFL’s most conservative QB—clinically dissect the reigning Super Bowl champs. He was exquisite under pressure and had two 75-plus-yard touchdown passes. Before Week 1, I was set to urge the Chiefs to move on from Smith and play rookie Patrick Mahomes II. Mahomes slings the ball; Smith hires a financial adviser before investing the ball in low-risk mutual funds. And then came Thursday night, when Smith dropped bombs on Bill Belichick’s defense.

I’d like to take a moment to praise the Chiefs’ offensive approach against New England, as it was a brilliant display of game-planning. SB Nation’s Spencer Hall wrote about how it closely resembled a college spread look, both in terms of personnel and play-calling. Kansas City ran an offense that tested the Pats from sideline to sideline, then burned them on two plays: a 75-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill, who is legitimately one of the fastest humans on the planet, and a 78-yard pass to Kareem Hunt, who had one of the best debuts in NFL history. Hill was left open by defensive miscommunication; Hunt because he was matched up with a defensive end unable to cover him on a vertical route. Smith connected on both passes; it would’ve been quarterbacking malpractice for him to miss such open men.

Smith likely hasn’t become a new quarterback; players in their 13th NFL seasons rarely do. He threw four deep balls while going 21-for-21 on passes of 9 yards or fewer, and the Chiefs racked up more than 200 yards after the catch. But it worked, because the Chiefs executed perfectly and got the most out of their explosive athletes. Smith still can’t make the throws that many of his peers can, but he can run an offense designed to take advantage of Kansas City’s personnel.

The Verdict: I don’t think Smith is a significantly different player than he has been in years past, but I also don’t think the Chiefs’ fireworks were a fluke. This team’s offense is fun and takes advantage of Smith’s strengths.

Le’Veon Bell Producing Like a Mediocre Running Back

Bell registered a career-low 47 yards in the Steelers’ 21-18 win over the Browns, carrying 10 times for 32 yards and making three catches for 15 more. This ruined the day of at least one person in your fantasy league. There’s about a 1-in-10 chance that person is you. Apologies if it is.

The obvious question is whether Bell’s slow start was linked to the fact that he missed training camp and the preseason as part of a holdout. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin did not want to talk about this Sunday: “You can sing that Le’Veon Bell camp song all you want. He’s here, we’re working,” Tomlin told reporters. “I’m done with it.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine that Bell’s slow start is not somehow tied to his August absence. He’s been incredibly consistent for the entirety of his NFL career, a force of nature week in and week out. It would be odd if his worst game coincided with his holdout, but wasn’t related.

The Verdict: The Steelers don’t seem too concerned, and I don’t think fantasy owners should be either. Bell will produce like Bell eventually.

Jared Goff Becoming an Unstoppable Passing Force

It’s hard to overstate how bad Goff was last season. His rookie campaign was so nightmarish that it prompted even reasonable football analysts to question whether the former no. 1 overall pick was a bust. And it’s hard to overstate how much better Goff looked in Sunday’s 46-9 rout of the Colts. He finished 21-of-29 passing for 306 yards with a touchdown, went 5-of-5 on passes of 15 yards or more in the first half, and completed as many deep balls in one game as he did all of last season. And the Rams won, the first time they’ve ever done so with Goff starting under center.

Goff benefited from the Rams’ acquisition of receiver Sammy Watkins, who had five catches on five targets against Indianapolis. But the biggest factor for his improvement seemed to be the play-calling tactics of first-year head coach Sean McVay. Los Angeles ran plays that seemed logical from a strategic perspective, like play-action passes. Using the threat of Todd Gurley running the ball to buy time for a young quarterback—imagine that!

Part of Goff’s Week 1 success is also attributable to the incredible awfulness of Indianapolis. More NFL teams should play the Colts Week 1. This game felt similar to the instances in college football when Big State U pays West Fartville State $800,000 to schedule a home opener. Indy was abysmal in virtually every aspect in Week 1, and Goff was helped by having some open targets to hit.

The Verdict: I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Goff won’t consistently be one of the highest-ranked quarterbacks in the league. But pencil me in as a believer that he’ll show marked improvement in McVay’s system. Then again … he still might be bad at throwing footballs.

Brandon Marshall Getting Virtually Zero Looks

The entire Giants offense flopped in Sunday’s 19-3 loss to the Cowboys, managing just 233 total yards. Yet Marshall was especially disappointing, as New York’s prized free-agent signing finished with just one reception for 10 yards. Marshall also didn’t have any catches all preseason.

It’s important to mention that the Giants were missing their no. 1 weapon against Dallas, as wideout Odell Beckham Jr. was sidelined with an ankle injury. New York’s front office didn’t intend for the 33-year-old Marshall be its top receiver, and he seemed useless when forced into that role. Perhaps he was also a little bored by a football game in which quarterback Eli Manning showed him little love.

ESPN’s Jordan Raanan broke down the All-22 video of Marshall’s game and found that the receiver managed to get separation often; Manning just didn’t look his way much. Maybe that means Marshall will be fine. But maybe it’s more concerning: The problem might be not be Marshall, but the person who’s throwing to him.

The Verdict: If Marshall’s bad debut was caused by his inability to be the team’s primary receiver, that will hypothetically be fixed once Beckham returns. If the problem is a lack of connection with the Giants’ aging, inconsistent quarterback, that might stick all season.

Sam Bradford Dropping Dimes

Bradford turned in the best game of his career Monday night, going 27-of-32 passing for 346 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 143.0 QB rating in a 29-19 victory over the Saints.

He completed eight passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, tying a career high. That’s an encouraging sign for a quarterback who finished 32nd in the NFL in passes that traveled more than 20 yards last season. It’s possible that some of Bradford’s 2016 tendency to throw short passes stemmed from his need to get rid of the ball quickly behind an iffy offensive line—a unit that the Vikings revamped with new starters. That group looked great against New Orleans.

This was Bradford’s pass of the night, an absolute dime:

Perhaps he shouldn’t have thrown to a receiver who wasn’t open, even for a split second. But Bradford tried to fit a football in a football-sized window, and he did it. He made plenty of throws like that squeezed into tight spaces.

Of course, this came against the Saints, who allowed a league-worst 4,380 passing yards last season. (It takes a special defender not to notice a football flying inches from their head.) And the issue with Bradford has never been accuracy: He set an NFL record in completion percentage (71.6) in 2016. The question is whether he can make throws that are meaningful. Though he completed an absurdly high percentage of his passes, Bradford was below average in yards per attempt last season.

The Verdict: Bradford’s uptick in throws down the field is encouraging, and he should benefit from an improved offensive line. But I think his great Week 1 performance was just an extension of the strengths he’s showcased over six NFL seasons, complemented by an egregiously bad defense.