Two of the biggest first-quarter failures in the NFL — the Cowboys and the Chargers — are led by two of its best quarterbacks. It simply doesn’t compute.
But the Cowboys, as talented as they are individually, are 1-4 today because they epitomize undisciplined football. They have already committed 48 penalties for 404 yards — stats you would generally align with teams like the Lions — and their turnover ratio is -6, down near the bottom of the league where the underachieving San Francisco 49ers reside.
In their Panic Bowl showdown game in Minneapolis, Tony Romo was intercepted twice while the mistake-prone Brett Favre escaped with none. Turnovers were the difference in that game, plus two ridiculous penalties cost Dallas dearly. The first was an excessive celebration penalty when Miles Austin leap-frogged over Roy Williams after the game’s opening touchdown catch. The second one was Mike Jenkins’ unnecessary pass-interference penalty prior to the 2:00 warning. Favre’s pass to Greg Lewis on third down was off line, but replays clearly showed Jenkins tugging at Lewis’ jersey, pulling him away from the pass.
In their previous game, the Cowboys were penalized for an excessive end-zone celebration when right tackle Marc Colombo was flagged for falling backwards onto the turf, which was interpreted as an orchestrated celebration. The 15-yard penalty set up Tennessee’s great kickoff return and another defeat. For some reason, new NFL officiating czar Carl Johnson is strictly following the letter of the rule, saying “that we don’t allow a player to go to the ground as part of a celebration.”
FOX’s Mike Pereira, Johnson’s former boss, vehemently disagrees with that interpretation, but Johnson is in charge now and his officiating crews are adhering to his judgment. Considering their predicament and circumstances, you would think that coach Wade Phillips would have pulled his offensive players aside and told them in no uncertain terms that the next player to do something stupid after a touchdown would be either fined severely or benched. But, no, in the very next game, there is Austin jumping over Williams — an impressive feat — and hitting the ground.
Austin’s foolish penalty forced kicker David Buehler to panic, booting the ball only 23 yards to the Dallas 45. Granted, the Cowboys held, but after Minnesota punted, the Vikings also held, and then E.J. Henderson caught a deflected Romo pass inside the 30-yard line and Favre then quickly connected for the game-tying touchdown. Basically, Austin’s penalty led to a tie game.
Later, the Jenkins penalty allowed the Vikings to ice the game and today the Cowboys aren’t talking about the playoffs anymore. They are simply talking about how to beat the first-place Giants next Monday night.
The Chargers’ fiasco of losing their first four road games to teams that were an aggregate 15-49 last season is rather remarkable. These road games vs. the Chiefs, Seahawks, Raiders and Rams were supposed to get coach Norv Turner over his penchant for slow starts. Instead, the Chargers continue to find ways to self-destruct. Their turnover ratio is -3 and on Sunday the upstart Rams, who lost the previous week by 38 points in Detroit, sacked Phillip Rivers, one of the best in the business, a career-high seven times. There is no question that injuries have hurt the Chargers in every area, and Rivers was forced to play minus all-world tight end Antonio Gates (now in a walking boot) and leading receiver Malcom Floyd in the second half.
Heading into St. Louis, the Chargers had the NFL’s top-ranked offense and the defense was right behind it. There is no question that San Diego is 2-4 today because their special teams lost two games. They allowed two kickoff returns to Seattle’s Leon Washington for touchdowns and permitted the Raiders to block two punts, one giving Oakland a touchdown. In St. Louis, Nate Kaeding had a field-goal attempt blocked when he slipped. They are making miserable mistakes for a team that Turner once said was his most-talented group in San Diego.
I do believe that GM A.J. Smith’s stubbornness has been a factor. Receiver Kassim Osgood, a former Pro Bowl special teams’ player, was allowed to leave in the offseason because he wanted to be a bigger part of the offense. Osgood signed with the Jaguars. Also, the contract hassles with receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill dominated the San Diego storyline for months. McNeill came back and got his money, but he definitely didn’t resemble a Pro Bowl blocker against the Rams. Jackson will eventually return later this month, but who knows what kind of effort he will exert given his monetary unhappiness.
Turner is still one of the best play-callers in the NFL, but his team isn’t executing right now and the 4-1 Patriots come to town next. Nothing has gone Turner and Smith’s way — they both thought LaDainian Tomlinson was finished and look at him now, while the runner they drafted to replace him, Ryan Mathews, hasn’t produced because of an ankle injury. Instead of paying L.T., Smith invested $7 million in Darren Sproles, who still hasn’t scored a touchdown or broken any long kick or punt returns. And who knows how all these faulty personnel moves have been received in the locker room?
Right now, the Chargers look like a damn good team in warmups, but simply don’t play like one when the whistle blows.
In the Bay area, the 49ers got in the win column because their defense suffocated Jason Campbell, who finished with a 10.7 quarterback rating after posting a 117.6 rating the previous week. The Raiders lost the game when they were forced to settle for chip-shot field goals after reaching the San Francisco 4- and 6-yard lines in their first three possessions. The 49ers’ defense never allowed them to get that close again.
This was a big win for Mike Singletary and Alex Smith because both of them have been hanging by a thread after an 0-5 start. Singletary has been screaming at Smith for seemingly months now, but he realistically has no other option but to stick with his quarterback. David Carr and his pop-gun arm is hardly the solution. There is no doubt that the 49ers have been beating themselves. They have the worst turnover ratio in the NFL at -10. Nobody is close to that awful mark.
But in their first win of the season, guess what? On a wet, misty afternoon in Candlestick, the 49ers didn’t turn the ball over once.
WATCH OUT FOR THESE GUYS
Ben Roethlisberger: In this first game back for the Steelers, he threw for three touchdowns — equaling the team’s total in the first four games of the season — and you have to believe his rapport with his teammates and his accuracy will only improve with practice. Pittsburgh is very healthy, too, and with the offense improving, this team looks like a Super Bowl favorite.
Deion Branch: It doesn’t make sense that a receiver can return to his original club after a four-season absence and make a seamless transition. How does a guy go from not being a factor in Seattle (only 1,510 receiving yards combined over the last three seasons) to catching nine passes for 98 yards and a game-winning touchdown in one week? Branch never caught nine passes in a single game for Seattle! Maybe Tom Brady doesn’t need Randy Moss.
Lovie Smith: Nothing against the Seahawks, but Smith’s team failed to execute in every area on Sunday. Smith has to blow his stack at Mike Martz and his offensive line. How in the world does Matt Forte go from rushing for a season-high 166 yards on 22 carries with a hapless quarterback in Todd Collins, to getting 8 carries for 11 yards (that’s not a misprint) in a humbling loss to the Seahawks? Jay Cutler passed 39 times and was sacked six times, giving him 15 sacks in his last two starts. His head must hurt.