Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in:
If you didn’t spend this offseason keeping close tabs on quarterback movement around the NFL, Sunday had to be a dizzying experience. A staggering 15 teams were slated to have a different Week 1 QB than they started with last season. Some of those passers were guys we’d seen thrilling flashes of last season (Jimmy Garoppolo, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes II). Others were free-agent and trade prizes who were making their debuts in new digs (Kirk Cousins, Alex Smith, and Case Keenum). And another was a once-great passer who had finally completed his journey back from injury (Andrew Luck).
No matter how they arrived in their (relatively) new surroundings, all of those quarterbacks were worth monitoring on Sunday — and the results produced a mixed bag, to say the least. So, on our national holiday of overreaction, let’s open this week’s Starting 11 by playing a game of What’s Real, and What’s Not? to figure out which of Sunday’s results are worth holding onto.
Real: Chiefs, Vikings, Bills, and Cardinals
1. It was pretty easy to get seduced by visions of the Mahomes era in Kansas City this offseason. The Chiefs fielded the most explosive offense in the NFL last year with Alex Smith at quarterback, and they came into 2018 with every cog of that machine intact (plus Sammy Watkins) and a quarterback who makes the term “arm talent” seem quaint. When we finally got to see Mahomes in action against the Chargers on Sunday, the results didn’t disappoint.
He finished 15-of-27 passing for 256 yards with four touchdowns in the Chiefs’ 38–28 win over L.A. His line is a tad misleading — two of those scores came on short flips to men in motion near the goal line, and Tyreek Hill’s 58-yard TD reception included a 46-yard scamper after the catch — but even the short throw to Hill was enough to see what Mahomes can do with this offense. As he was being wrangled to the ground by 311-pound Chargers nose tackle Brandon Mebane, he still put enough zest on the throw to fit it between a trio of defenders. The Chiefs offense will undoubtedly be choppier this year while it’s captained by a 22-year-old fireballer (and the team will want to involve tight end Travis Kelce more than his single catch for 6 yards indicated on Sunday), but the spectacular plays will be a season-long fixture. For every progression that comes a half-second late, Mahomes will rip off the type of third-and-13, on-the-move laser beam that he blasted to Hill for a 34-yard gain late in the third quarter on Sunday.
2. Similarly in Minnesota, the Vikings offense maintained its 2017 big-play gear in its first game with Cousins at quarterback and new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo at the controls — a game that Minnesota won 24–16 over the 49ers. DeFilippo’s first-half play calling incorporated a savvy mix of screens and short throws designed to get running back Dalvin Cook (six catches for 55 yards) free in space, plus uncorked shots that allowed Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to do what they do best. Cousins’s ball placement on a 22-yard touchdown to Diggs early in the second quarter could not have been more precise, and Minnesota seemed ready to score again on the next drive before Niners linebacker Fred Warner jarred the ball loose from Cook’s hands at the end of a 15-yard run. The Vikings sputtered for stretches in the second half when they were unable to move the ball on the ground, but the early returns are such that the upgrade from Case Keenum to Cousins was worth the $84 million guaranteed.
3. There were no such upgrades for the Bills and Cardinals on Sunday. Both teams came into Week 1 with dim outlooks for the season, and both gave every indication that those predictions were justified. The Bills fell 47–3 to the Ravens, and the Cardinals managed just one score in a 24–6 loss to Washington. Now, both teams will need to decide whether to start their high-priced rookie quarterbacks moving forward. The Bills seemed intent to leave Josh Allen in bubble wrap and far away from the cobra pit that is Buffalo’s supporting cast, yet it took only one half of Nathan Peterman — in which he went a pitiful 5-of-18 for 24 yards and two interceptions — to convince head coach Sean McDermott that the team’s sham of an offensive huddle was a proper place for its quarterback of the future.
The Cardinals managed to show some restraint as they elected to keep Josh Rosen on the bench, but placeholder starter Sam Bradford managed just a paltry 153 passing yards on 20-of-34 passing. Nineteen of those attempts went to either Larry Fitzgerald or David Johnson, and it sure looks as though this passing offense will consist of those two and little else moving forward. Still, that’s considerably more than Allen has to work with in Buffalo. If the Cardinals decide there’s more value to ushering in the start of the Rosen era than letting him watch Bradford dump the ball off for an entire season, it’s a bit more justifiable than feeding Allen to the wolves in Buffalo. But either way, neither of these offenses is going anywhere any time soon.
Not Real: 49ers, Buccaneers
4. Garoppolo and the Niners offense dominated the league during his five starts last season, and there was considerable buzz surrounding San Francisco’s prospects entering 2018. But Sunday provided the first evidence that Jimmy G is not, in fact, the greatest quarterback who has ever lived. Mike Zimmer and his terror-inducing Minnesota defense gave the Niners a cold shower in their 24–16 loss — the first of Garoppolo’s career as a starter. Zimmer took advantage of in-game injuries to both of the Niners’ starting guards and dialed up an array of pressures that sabotaged the San Francisco offense.
With Garoppolo facing a third-and-8 from his own 20-yard line in the third quarter, Zimmer brought two extra rushers from the offense’s right side. A panicked Garoppolo flipped the ball toward the flat to no one in particular, and rookie cornerback Mike Hughes picked it off and waltzed into the end zone. Garoppolo’s decision was indefensible in that area of the field, at that point in the game, not to mention it came immediately after tight end George Kittle dropped a potential touchdown. Just like that, a two-play sequence had swung the game.
Judging by Garoppolo’s Sunday performance, there are some reasons to be concerned in San Francisco. The Niners struggled in the red zone last season (ranking 27th in the league in touchdowns per red zone trip), and they again had trouble punching the ball past the goal line against the Vikings. Some of that was self-inflicted — like Alfred Morris fumbling at the 1-yard line late in the second quarter — but the rest may be symptomatic of Garoppolo and this offense. Head coach Kyle Shanahan does an excellent job of scheming receivers into swaths of open space, but when the field shrinks, so do those spaces. Garoppolo finished 3-of-7 on throws inside the 20-yard line this week after completing just 55.6 percent last season. It’s only one game, but that will be an area to monitor to moving forward. Outside of the red zone, Garoppolo looked like a version of the stellar quarterback we saw last season who just happened to run into the league’s most loaded, best coached defense. USA Today’s Doug Farrar made a comparison on Sunday night that I found particularly annoying because I hadn’t already noticed it: There is a lot of Tony Romo in Garoppolo’s game. From his flat-footed delivery, to his touch on certain throws, to his penchant for escaping pressure, there are many shades of young Romo to the way Garoppolo plays. On occasion, that includes the carelessness that Romo showed with the ball early in his career, but other times it leads to throws like his reverse-pivot third-quarter touchdown strike late to Dante Pettis.
5. If it’s logical to expect the Niners to improve outside the bear trap of U.S. Bank Stadium, the opposite is true for Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers. Fitzpatrick jumped all over the Saints’ defense on Sunday with 417 yards and four passing touchdowns in a 48–40 win, but let’s not celebrate the return of Fitzmagic just yet. The Saints’ defense was bound for a step back in 2018 after its massive turnaround last season, and the secondary (particularly cornerback Ken Crawley) looked lost against DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans. The Bucs may be a bit better on offense with Fitzpatrick than we expected — and Sunday showed that Jameis Winston’s days as the Bucs starter may be numbered — but Fitzpatrick is 35 years old and two years removed from a season in which he threw 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. I know how this movie ends.
Wait and See: Texans, Colts, Redskins, Broncos
6. When Deshaun Watson tore his ACL after only six starts last season, it was a crushing blow for anyone who loves football, fun, or both, and his return to the field against the Patriots this Sunday was highly anticipated. Sadly, Watson’s 2018 debut was a long way from the high-flying act he displayed during his rookie season. Watson completed 17 of 34 passes for 176 yards, one touchdown, and one interception in Houston’s 27–20 loss to the Pats; the ugliness of that line accurately reflects what happened on Sunday. Houston entered the season with arguably the league’s worst offensive line, and that was before losing right tackle Seantrel Henderson late in the first quarter to an ankle injury.
Henderson was replaced by 2018 third-round pick Martinas Rankin, and the defensive line’s frenzy only intensified. Miraculously, Watson was sacked only three times Sunday, but he took a dozen hits and there were rushers around his feet crumbling the pocket on seemingly every dropback. Watson missed his share of throws — including a ball over the middle to tight end Ryan Griffin near the goal line in the third quarter — but he had virtually no chance to succeed. Houston’s line could short-circuit its offense all season.
7. Andrew Luck and the division-rival Colts have experienced their share of offensive line issues in years past, but the returns on Luck’s first game in more than a year and a half are almost all positive. He didn’t throw any of the downfield rockets that became so routine in his first go-round with the Colts, but he navigated the pocket smoothly, kept his gaze downfield, and found secondary throwing windows. Plus, the excellent rapport he’s long had with wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was back in full form. About midway through the second quarter, Luck hit Hilton on a perfectly timed back-shoulder throw down the right sideline for a 24-yard gain. The play was ultimately called back for a small push-off by Hilton, but that sort of well-calibrated play was a welcome sight for Colts fans.
Elsewhere, Smith and Keenum both orchestrated wins — the Redskins topped the Cardinals 24–6, and the Broncos beat the Seahawks 27–24 — while showing off good connections with new weapons like Chris Thompson and Emmanuel Sanders. In Keenum’s case, his tendency to get careless with the ball came back to bite him in a way it rarely did in Minnesota. But in both scenarios, I’d like to see a bit more before making any sweeping declarations.
OK, let’s get to a few more thoughts from Week 1.
8. Sunday’s 16–8 loss to Carolina showcased every lingering fear about this Cowboys offense. The question marks that followed Dak Prescott and Co. into the 2018 season were all answered in the worst possible way against the Panthers. The Cowboys’ collection of inexperienced and underwhelming receivers left Dallas with absolutely nothing in the way of a downfield passing game. The offensive line failed to dominate in both pass protection — rookie left guard Connor Williams had issues with star defensive tackle Kawann Short, who bowled Williams over late in the fourth quarter for one of his two sacks and finished with four quarterback hits on the day — and in the run game, with linchpin center Travis Frederick sidelined indefinitely.
Without the comforts of the offensive infrastructure that helped elevate Prescott as a rookie, he struggled to consistently make throws, and Dallas languished. It’s possible that the situation will improve against worse defenses this season, but it was a troubling start for Dallas.
9. Harrison Smith’s performance on Sunday showed precisely why he’s one of the most valuable defenders in football. In Zimmer’s defense, Smith transcends the limitations often placed on traditional safeties. Smith was everywhere for the Vikings. He was, at different times, Minnesota’s best cover man, its best blitzer, and its best run defender.
With the Niners facing first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 3:14 remaining in the second quarter, San Francisco brought in 310-pound defensive tackle Earl Mitchell as a fullback. At the snap, Smith — playing at the line of scrimmage — darted into the backfield and squared up Mitchell with his inside shoulder, collapsing the play and ensuring that linebacker Eric Kendricks could stop Alfred Morris for no gain. On the very next play, defensive tackle Linval Joseph jarred the ball loose from Morris, and to no one’s surprise, Smith was there to recover it.
On a third-and-5 from midfield with the Niners trailing 24–16, Zimmer dialed up a blitz that sent Smith crashing through the A-gap for a series-ruining sack. And when the Niners took the field again with one final chance to tie, it was Smith who picked off Garoppolo to ice the game. Whether he’s following his own instincts or putting one of Zimmer’s plans into motion, Smith is consistently the guy Minnesota’s stellar defense turns to in the biggest moments.
10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Amid all of Sunday’s frustration, reason for hope in Cleveland comes in the form of Myles Garrett. Garrett’s second sack of Ben Roethlisberger was just one example of the impact he’ll have for the Browns. At the snap, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva does a great job preventing Garrett from getting to the edge, but as Garrett turns the corner, he’s able to pivot on a dime back toward the pocket and the quarterback. The dip that Garrett executes with his left shoulder is precisely what defensive tackles are taught to do to redirect — only thing is that for 272-pound mountains of muscle, “put your hand on the ground” is typically more theoretical than literal. His change of direction, body control, continued effort, and final burst finish off Roethlisberger and create another big play for the Browns defense. Sunday’s 21–21 tie against the Steelers is more likely to bring a deluge of Le’Veon Bell takes than anything else, but the play of Cleveland’s recent top-five picks (not named Baker Mayfield) was a beautiful sight for Browns fans. If the Browns do eventually right the ship, Garrett and rookie cornerback Denzel Ward will be two of the pillars that help make it happen.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Aaron Rodgers doesn’t live by the same rules the rest of us do.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Ryan Fitzpatrick as Fitzgerald.