We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Tom Scocca
To: Nate Jackson, Drew Magary
I was heating up breakfast in a frying pan this morning, pondering the lousy performances by both New York football teams on our 9/11 Football Day in 9/11 American Football Anniversary 9/11 America Holiday, when it occurred to me that I didn't really know how badly things had ended up for the Jets. So I picked up the New York Times from the doorsill and dug out the sports section, and—what the hey?—there was Isaiah Trufant, in full color, running in the blocked punt for the tying score. Because the Jets had ... won?
Football! I'd turned it off and gone to bed after the Jets' Mark Sanchez ended the third quarter by throwing a classic Mark Sanchez brainlock interception, which was run back by a Cowboys linebacker for a touchdown, which was reviewed and revised to a first-and-goal for Dallas, which was mooted when Dallas punched it in two plays later for a seemingly crushing 24-10 lead. The DVR could watch the rest of it. The Jets were playing, as coach Rex Ryan immortally put it last year, like a "slapdick team."
But the Dallas Cowboys, God bless 'em, still look like an expensive supercar being driven by a teenager who doesn't know how to use a stick shift. Screeeee! RRRRrrm! Crunch! (Clunk.) Tony Romo had a slightly worse fourth quarter than Sanchez did, and the Jets—like Proven Competitors, or like opportunistic scavengers, or like a guileless and ridiculous collection of green-and-white-armored Mister Magoos—kicked a 50-yard field goal with half a minute left and are undefeated.
Yet one man's bungling is another man's brilliance. When it wasn't being billed as a Patriotic Healing Ceremony for the nation, the night game was billed as an intra-family chess match between Rex Ryan and his twin brother Rob—who, having failed to get hired as a head coach in his own right, took a job as the Dallas defensive coordinator and got a head coach's worth of publicity out of it. So chess it was, only in lieu of punching a chess clock, the Ryans punctuated each tactical move by dropping a 300-pound guy on a quarterback.
The smashing and bumbling was a nice antidote to the ponderous attempts at solemnity as the NFL and its advertisers tried to create some sort of emotional synergy between the 10th—"anniversary" seems too cute—year since 9/11 and the usual sports-entertainment kickoff pageantry. Choose your favorite inanity: Steve Smith's red-white-and-blue 9/11 gloves, with their "NEVER FORGET REEBOK" message? Or the Budweiser ad—aired just once before—in which the Clydesdales genuflect toward Lower Manhattan, emissaries from the heartland performing a ritual of perfect animal insincerity? The big horses will kneel for anything the ad director tells the animal trainer to tell them to kneel for.
And what does the NFL plan to do with the acres of fabric that went into its field-covering American flags? Football happens at the scale of football, and we can't get back to that scale soon enough. With one-sixteenth of the season accounted for—or almost, pending tonight's Monday Night Football doubleheader—what have we learned? Cam Newton is on pace to pass for 6,752 yards while his Carolina Panthers go 0-16. Ryan Fitzpatrick is on pace to pass for 64 touchdowns while his Buffalo Bills go 16-0. The absence of Peyton Manning has made the Colts' defense collapse in despair.
What have the rest of you learned from the season thus far? The game I watched most closely was the Philadelphia Eagles' systematic thumping of the St. Louis Rams. (Speaking of scale, the football facility in St. Louis never fails to look rinky-dink to me. Something about the place makes me feel as if I'm back watching the Memphis Pharaohs on ESPN2.) The Eagles' offensive line, which was supposed to be a weak point, was putting on a blocking clinic by the end—their game-icing fourth-quarter drive featured rushes of 11, 17, 8, and 49 yards.
Michael Vick had 100 yards rushing on his own, till he gave back two yards on a pair of kneel-downs to use up the clock. That contrasted with the tiny bit of the Ravens-Steelers game I flipped over to see, when the Ravens pulled out a fake point-after play and had the holder run the ball in for a two-point conversion to extend their lead to 29-7. The announcers hailed this as brilliant strategy; maybe it was good psy-ops for Baltimore to humiliate Pittsburgh, but there might come a moment later this season when the Ravens really need two points.
From the Rams' point of view, the Eagles' steady takeover of Sunday's game was mostly a matter of accumulated injuries. Steven Jackson broke through the Philadelphia defense for a 47-yard touchdown to open the scoring, then limped off the field soon after with a strained quadriceps. Quarterback Sam Bradford checked out with a finger injury late. Offensive tackle Jason Smith sprained his ankle.
The thing about these injuries, though, was that few of them involved the vicious impacts we're all worried about. Nate, you wrote for Deadspin about how your own would-be rookie season was lost after you slipped and fell in a non-contact drill, landing on a previously injured shoulder. Jackson tweaked his leg somehow while running in the clear on the touchdown. Bradford whacked his finger on an Eagle's helmet on his follow-through. Receiver Danny Amendola got his elbow violently dislocated on a play where he fell down on his own while making a catch.
It was hard to tell whether the injury happened on the fall or afterward, when the Eagles pounced on him to wrap him up—I was inclined to blame the Eagles, but the Fox crew refused to show a replay, saying something rather huffy about how it was a nasty injury and nobody needed to see it. Because this definitely wasn't a weekend for dwelling on ugly, painful spectacle. Right, Drew?