The debut of an NFL-record five rookie quarterbacks as starters was one of the top Week 1 storylines, and only one, Washington’s Robert Griffin III, was worth the hype.
In fact, a slew of rookies at other positions proved more deserving of the spotlight. But first, let’s look at the newbie quarterbacks.
Griffin enjoyed what may very well be the most outstanding premiere ever in a 40-32 victory at New Orleans.
No other rookie had thrown for more than 300 yards and at least two touchdowns without an interception. As part of his 19-of-26, 320-yard effort, Griffin posted the best rating (139.9) for a quarterback starting his first professional game.
Equally impressive, Griffin did this in one of the NFL’s toughest environments. The Saints were undefeated at home in 2011 and emotionally jacked playing their first game since the bounty scandal that engulfed the franchise during the offseason.
Griffin, though, was so nonplussed inside the Superdome that his pregame warmup routine included Doug Flutie-style drop kicks.
Such poise was evident in the first quarter when Griffin willingly took a hit from blitzing Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins to give wide receiver Pierre Garcon time to get open crossing the middle of the field. Garcon snared the pass and zoomed 88 yards for a touchdown.
The Shanahans, head coach Mike and offensive coordinator Kyle, deserve credit for tweaking Washington’s West Coast-style offense to include some of the run/pass concepts that made Griffin a Heisman winner at Baylor. Griffin also got great help from his supporting cast, especially rookie running back Alfred Morris (96 yards, two TDs) and an offensive line that did a surprisingly good job against a Saints defense whose preseason struggles are continuing under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
The other four rookie quarterbacks all lost.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson came the closest to avoiding such a fate. Wilson’s up-and-down performance ended with a fourth-down incompletion in the end zone during the closing seconds of a 20-16 loss at Arizona.
Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden got caught under the US flag that was unfurled as part of the pre-game festivities. He should have stayed there.
The number of points scored by Cleveland’s defense (six) exceeded Weeden’s quarterback rating (5.1); no rookie quarterback since 1960 had a lower rating on opening day (minimum 15 passes).
Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie intercepted Weeden twice and would have completed the hat trick had he not dropped a fourth-quarter pass in the end zone. As part of his 12-for-35, 118-yard stinker, Weeden missed two open receivers, Mohamed Massaquoi and Alex Smith, in the end zone on red-zone drives where the Browns were forced to settle for field goals.
Cleveland’s defense played well enough to win. Weeden guaranteed that wouldn’t happen when intercepted by Eagles safety Kurt Coleman with 1:05 remaining on a badly overthrown pass.
Miami’s Ryan Tannehill struggled against Houston in Sunday’s 30-10 loss, to no surprise. New Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin put the neophyte passer in a tough spot by starting him on the road against one of the NFL’s top defenses.
The most disturbing part was the recurrence of a problem Tannehill had at Texas A&M. According to Stats LLC, Tannehill was intercepted eight times last season on tipped/deflected passes. Two of Tannehill’s turnovers Sunday came in such fashion when defensive end J.J. Watt got a mitt on throws at the line of scrimmage.
If it’s any consolation for Indy’s Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning also struggled in his first start for the Colts. The statistics are eerily similar. Manning passed for 302 yards and one touchdown but was intercepted three times and sacked four in a 1998 loss to Miami. Luck’s statistics in a 41-21 defeat at Chicago: 309 passing yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and three sacks.
As for the Bears, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery was one of the rookies whose NFL debuts went far more swimmingly. Jeffery had three receptions for 80 yards and two touchdowns. New York Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill was even more impressive with five catches for 89 yards and two scores against Buffalo.
Defensively, New England’s top three picks all made impact plays in a 34-13 pasting of Tennessee. Outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower returned a Jake Locker fumble forced by defensive end Chandler Jones for a touchdown. Safety Tavon Wilson also intercepted the Titans quarterback.
The special teams hero was Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh. A sixth-round pick drafted to replace Ryan Longwell, Walsh made a 55-yard field goal to send Sunday’s game against Jacksonville into overtime, then converted the winning 38-yarder to give the Vikings a 26-23 victory. Walsh also made his other two attempts.
Here’s a look at all 13 of Sunday’s games:
Denver 32, Pittsburgh 19: With all the attention Peyton Manning has received, another one of Denver’s valuable offseason acquisitions was being overlooked. Not anymore. Ex-New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter already has proven an upgrade to Denver’s secondary. Like he did to Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, Porter clinched victory for his team Sunday night by returning a fourth-quarter interception for a touchdown. That was one of the few major mistakes made by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who looked comfortable operating a new offense that calls for quicker passes. Playing offensive line for the Steelers is the NFL’s most hazardous job. Two more starters, right tackle Marcus Gilbert and right guard Ramon Foster, were sent to the bench with injuries.
San Francisco 30, Green Bay 22: If the 2005 draft were held again today, the 49ers surely would select Aaron Rodgers over Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick. But on Sunday, Smith was the better quarterback. He was more efficient (20 of 26 for 211 yards with two TDs) and didn’t commit a turnover. Rodgers wasn’t bad by any means in a 303-yard, two-touchdown showing. He also doesn’t have the benefit of a great defense or complementary running game like Smith does with Frank Gore, who gained 116 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown. Rodgers, though, cost his team dearly with a fourth-quarter interception after the Packers had started to rally from a 23-7 deficit.
Houston 30, Miami 10: The outcome of this game wasn’t nearly as surprising as the news that came afterward when the Texans announced quarterback Matt Schaub had signed a multiyear contract extension through the 2016 season. Houston was expected to let Schaub play out the final year of his current deal largely because of concerns about his extensive injury history. But when unable to reach agreement with outside linebacker Connor Barwin on a new contract, the Texans decided to roll the dice on Schaub with what the Houston Chronicle reported is a $62 million extension with $25 million guaranteed. Barwin, one of the NFL’s top young pass rushers, now seems destined for a franchise tag designation in 2013 unless able to reach a deal following the season. The Texans have a policy of not negotiating during the season.
Arizona 20, Seattle 16: Kevin Kolb a hero? Yeah, it’s hard to believe after a horrendous preseason that caused him to lose the starting quarterback job to John Skelton. But when Skelton suffered a right ankle injury midway through the fourth quarter, Kolb redeemed himself. He completed 6 of 8 passes for 66 yards and threw for what proved the game-winning touchdown. With Skelton likely out for at least Arizona’s next game at New England, Kolb should have the chance to once again stake claim to a starting spot — and prove the Cardinals knew what they were doing in signing him to a six-year, $65 million contract.
Tampa Bay 16, Carolina 10: The Bucs have a new head coach, but the defensive vibe in Greg Schiano’s debut harkened back to the franchise’s glory days under Tony Dungy and Jay Gruden. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was disruptive enough in the Carolina backfield to evoke memories of Warren Sapp, while the crushing third-quarter hit that rookie strong safety Mark Barron delivered to wide receiver Steve Smith was John Lynch-like. It also helped Tampa Bay that the Panthers deployed a curious pass-first strategy after making such a heavy financial investment in their backfield. Expect Carolina to log more than a mere 13 carries next Sunday against visiting New Orleans.
New York Jets 48, Buffalo 28: The media atmosphere surrounding the Jets may be a circus, but it was the Bills who looked like clowns. Defensive end Mario Williams — he of the $96 million free-agent contract — whined after the game about dirty tactics from Jets right tackle Austin Howard. But even if he got held or illegally hit in the face mask on every play, Williams still should have finished with more than one measly tackle. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick also didn’t justify the big-money deal he signed last year with a lousy three-interception performance that helped the Jets open a 41-7 lead. And the exclamation mark to a miserable day: Running back Fred Jackson and wide receiver David Nelson both suffered knee injuries.
Atlanta 40, Kansas City 24: With four starters out, including their top cornerback (Brandon Flowers) and pass rusher (outside linebacker Tamba Hali), give the normally stout Chiefs a mulligan for their poor defensive performance. But that doesn’t diminish how sharp the Falcons looked offensively. Four scoring drives spanned at least 70 yards. Wide receiver Julio Jones set the tempo with three catches on the opening drive. He finished with six grabs for 108 yards and two touchdowns. It also was a feel-good moment to see ex-Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez score and get the chance for one last over-the-crossbar dunk in celebration.
Washington 40, New Orleans 32: Teams that score 32 points at home shouldn’t lose. Thus, there is legitimate reason for concern about the Saints defense. The defensive line didn’t generate a sack, and it’s not like Washington fields the second coming of the Hogs along the offensive line. There are depth issues at cornerback because of injuries. The kicker: New Orleans goes from having to handle one run/pass quarterbacking threat in Washington’s Robert Griffin III to another next Sunday when facing the Cam Newton-led Panthers on the road.
Chicago 41, Indianapolis 21: Jay Cutler got off to a horrific 1-for-10 start with an interception returned for a touchdown, but it didn’t matter against a defense as poor as the Colts’. Cutler connected on 20 of his next 25 passes, with Brandon Marshall (nine catches, 119 yards and a TD) the primary recipient. Marshall would have posted even gaudier stats without a couple of drops, including one in the end zone. He had the same inconsistency issues when playing for Miami.
New England 34, Tennessee 13: Winning the season-opener is nothing new for the Patriots — they’ve now captured nine straight — but the physical fashion in which they did so Sunday was different from their usual. Stevan Ridley’s 21-carry, 125-yard performance marked the first time in 14 games (including the playoffs) that a Patriots running back hit triple digits. New England’s defense held Titans running back Chris Johnson to a mere 4 yards on 11 carries and made life miserable for quarterback Jake Locker in his first NFL start. The Patriots stripped Locker and returned the fumble for a touchdown before knocking him out of the game with an injured left shoulder. Locker should be back to try to redeem himself next Sunday at San Diego.
Detroit 27, St. Louis 23: After coming back to win four times in the fourth quarter or overtime last season, the Lions are up to their old tricks. Matthew Stafford’s 5-yard touchdown pass to running back Kevin Smith with 10 seconds left gave Detroit the victory. Stafford needed such heroics because of an uncharacteristic three-interception performance that included two errant tosses in the Rams’ red zone. St. Louis lost for the 16th time in 18 games, but it’s already clear the defense is much improved under new head coach Jeff Fisher. Free-agent pickup Cortland Finnegan and rookie Janoris Jenkins have upgraded the cornerback position, an area where Detroit is still a mess.
Philadelphia 17, Cleveland 16: Michael Vick barely played in the preseason, and it showed. Vick was intercepted four times and took a beating from an aggressive Cleveland defense during his whopping 56 pass attempts. To his credit, Vick kept his composure and came through with the game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Clay Harbor with 1:18 remaining. Three newcomers on Philadelphia’s defense, linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, made their presence felt. Ryans and Kendricks finished tied with safety Nate Allen for the team lead in tackles with five; Cox had a sack in his NFL debut. The Eagles also held ballyhooed Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson to 39 yards on 19 carries. Richardson, though, showed his toughness by plowing into Kurt Coleman so hard that the Philadelphia safety’s helmet went flying.
Minnesota 26, Jacksonville 23: Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert and Minnesota’s Christian Ponder entered their second seasons enshrouded by doubts that they were legitimate franchise quarterbacks. The jury is still out, but both showed significant signs of progress Sunday with clutch fourth-quarter play. Gabbert capped what he thought was the game-winning drive on a beautiful 39-yard TD pass to wide receiver Cecil Shorts with 20 seconds remaining. Ponder, though, put Minnesota in position to send the game into overtime with two quick completions to set up Blair Walsh’s 55-yard field goal (Walsh won it with a 38-yarder in OT). Gabbert and Ponder also can rest easier knowing two of the NFL’s best rushers are again in their respective backfields. Adrian Peterson made a successful return from a major knee injury with an 84-yard outing on 17 carries. That was a much larger workload than expected considering he didn’t get cleared for full contact in practice until last week. Maurice Jones-Drew also got back in the swing of things less than a week after ending his preseason contract holdout with 19 carries for 77 yards.