By Bucky Brooks
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
There is nothing better than sitting back and watching football on the opening weekend of the NFL regular season. All the hype and optimism is met with a bit of a reality check when the games count on the schedule.
Although a week of results does not necessarily predict how the rest of the season will unfold, it certainly provided us with a glimpse of how hard it is to win in this league. Teams regarded as cellar-dwellers knocked off title contenders, while some heavyweights flexed their muscles on their opponents to validate their standing among the elite.
While it is important to keep all the performances in perspective, here are a few thoughts on a wild kickoff weekend.
Kirk Cousins: MVP?
The veteran quarterback has posted impressive numbers throughout his career, but he has never been viewed as an elite player due to the lack of signature wins on his résumé. That perception might change after seeing how Cousins plays under new Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell’s direction.
In an impressive win over the Packers, Cousins connected on 23 of 32 passes for 277 yards with two touchdowns. While Justin Jefferson played a huge role in the quarterback’s sensational performance, the veteran passer deserves credit for taking what the defense was giving up when Jefferson was not available as a primary read. The patience, discipline and poise displayed by Cousins resulted in more consistency from an offense that has enough firepower to make some noise in the NFC.
Saquon Barkley appears to be back
Just when observers were penning a career obituary for the former No. 2 overall pick, Barkley put on a spectacular performance that showcased his explosiveness. The fifth-year pro totaled 194 scrimmage yards on 24 touches (18 rushes, six catches) as the centerpiece of a Giants offense that moved the ball well against a stout Titans defense.
Saquon Barkley sparks Giants’ comeback win over Titans
Giants running back Saquon Barkley had a huge day, with 194 total yards and a touchdown in the Giants’ 21-20 win over the Titans.
The performance reminded me of Barkley’s dominance at Penn State due to the combination of explosive runs and gritty plays that keyed the effort. With new head coach Brian Daboll willing to put the ball in the hands of his best players in critical moments, Barkley has reemerged as the dynamic offensive player who excited the football world in his spectacular rookie season.
If the veteran playmaker continues to dazzle as a top running back while doubling as a No. 2 receiver, the Giants could return to relevance on the play of the franchise running back.
The Saints show their grit
It is time to give Jameis Winston his flowers for an amazing come-from-behind performance in the fourth quarter. The gunslinger erased a 16-point deficit by trusting his veterans to make good decisions with the ball while flipping into attack mode on key downs. After watching Drew Brees selectively utilize all the tools on his superhero utility belt, Winston has demonstrated the ability to toe the line between game-manager and playmaker.
Against the Falcons, Winston’s big arm prompted the Saints to scrap their original game plan in the fourth quarter. The veteran responded with an assortment of “wow” throws that you would expect from a former No. 1 overall pick. The teardrop to Jarvis Landry along the boundary, in particular, is the sort of throw you see elite quarterbacks make. With Winston threading the needle on several challenging throws, the Saints’ coaches should recognize how his talent could open up an offense that is loaded with talent.
If Winston can continue to straddle the line between game manager and playmaker based on time, score and situation, the Saints’ QB1 could lead the team back into contention this season.
The Cowboys are in trouble
Perhaps members of the Cowboys’ front office and coaching staff were fooled by the talent of the newbies and backups who played prominent roles in their Sunday night shellacking at the hands of the Buccaneers. That is the only way to explain the roster decisions that severely weakened an offense that was a juggernaut in 2021 but looks punchless this season. The decision to trade Amari Cooper and elevate CeeDee Lamb to the No. 1 WR role did not make sense without retaining Cedrick Wilson or adding another high-end player as the second or third receiver.
In addition, the removal of four-time Pro Bowler Cooper robbed franchise QB Dak Prescott of a trusted option to count on in critical moments. Although Lamb and Michael Gallup were productive in their previous roles, it is hard to project whether a secondary option can handle the pressure of being the No. 1 option in the passing game.
Lamb certainly is talented enough to thrive as the focal point, but he needs an upgraded supporting cast around him to ensure he sees some one-on-one coverage on critical downs. With Cooper as the WR1, Lamb and Gallup rarely faced double coverage or tilted zones. Thus, they were allowed to run unobstructed through zones while piling up yards.
Against the Buccaneers, Lamb saw how differently he will be treated by defensive coordinators around the league without a credible threat on the other side. With Gallup still working his way back from his knee injury, the unheralded cast of pass-catchers around him did not scare the Buccaneers’ secondary or coaching staff. As a result, the Bucs were content to play a mix of man-to-man and zone coverages that tested the Dallas receivers’ ability to create separation from physical defenders.
Dak Prescott suffers devastating hand injury in loss
The Cowboys entered Week 1 with high hopes, but their matchup against the Buccaneers ended in a slew of disappointing events, capped with Dak Prescott suffering a serious injury in the fourth quarter.
Given the tight windows and clogged passing lanes due to a lack of space in the passing game, it was not surprising to see Prescott struggle mightily. The Cowboys feature only one legitimate threat in the passing game (Lamb), and that is not enough to win against elite defenses without creative scheming. Considering the lack of motions, pre-snap shifts and exotic passing concepts in the Cowboys’ playbook, the puzzling decision to move on from Cooper looks like a major mistake.
And with Prescott set to miss time after hitting his hand on Shaq Barrett‘s helmet, the Dallas offense is in very serious trouble.
Trey Lance is on the hot seat
Despite the hefty investment the 49ers have sunk into Lance, the second-year pro is squarely on the hot seat after a disappointing season debut against the Bears. Lance flashed intriguing skills as a dynamic athlete with big-time arm talent, but he remains an unpolished quarterback prospect with limited experience. While there are some growing pains that the team will need to live through with a young QB, it is a lot easier to deal with the learning curve if the team is winning games.
After losing to the Bears, the Jimmy Garoppolo questions will begin to pop up, as observers and some teammates begin to wonder if the Niners can reach the Super Bowl with an inexperienced quarterback leading the way. Moreover, there are going to be some questions about why the veteran with the 31-14 record (with the Niners) is on the bench while the young guy struggles.
Justin Fields propels Bears’ gritty victory vs. 49ers
After falling behind 10-0 against the 49ers, Justin Fields threw for two impressive TDs to lead the Bears to a 19-10 victory in their season opener.
With each setback and loss putting more pressure on Lance to play at a high level immediately, the Niners will need to protect their young quarterback while he deals with the growing pains that are a part of the process. If Lance can navigate these rough waters without losing his confidence or swagger, he could solve the team’s long-term problem at the most important position in the game.
The Patriots‘ offense is ugly
The secret is finally out on whom the Patriots’ offensive playcaller is. Matt Patricia is making the difficult transition from coordinating a defense to running an offense. Although I would suggest that defensive coaches can be well-equipped to call offense due to their experiences defending a variety of offenses, Patricia’s non-traditional path has certainly led to some consternation in New England.
Moreover, the football world wanted to know who would nurture talented young quarterback Mac Jones. After watching the New England offense slog through a tough loss to the Dolphins, the concerns and skepticism surrounding the offense were warranted. Patricia (and Joe Judge) are not quite prepared to tackle the complexities of running an offense, and the team’s struggles were a byproduct of the coaches’ inexperience directing an offense.
From flawed schematics to the poor utilization of the unit’s personnel, the Patriots’ offense not only lacked creativity but also direction. It was hard to determine the philosophy behind the offensive calls, and the team’s red-zone woes were partially due to the lack of clarity behind the play calls.
Observers are left pondering whether the Patriots intend to become a ground-and-pound unit built on gap scheme principles or an outside zone running team that follows the trend of the rest of the league. In addition, there are plenty of questions regarding the core concepts of the passing game and if the main plays complement each other in the playbook.
While there is plenty of time for the Patriots to figure out their offensive identity, the pressure is mounting on Patricia to find a way to score more points while carving out a plan that better utilizes the team’s personnel each week.
1. Buffalo Bills: If Sean McDermott’s squad is capable of easily beating the defending Super Bowl champs without playing its A game, the rest of the league is in trouble when Josh Allen & Co. put it together.
2. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes and the revamped offensive lineup rolled like a well-oiled machine. With the offense humming on all cylinders and the defense coming up with timely stops, the Chiefs remain a threat to emerge from the AFC.
3. Los Angeles Chargers: The star-studded Bolts looked as good as advertised in their regular-season opener. Justin Herbert found his groove early and the defense held up its end of the bargain with a strong effort against an explosive offense.
4. Minnesota Vikings: It is only one game, but Kevin O’Connell looks like the right man to unlock the explosive potential of the Vikings’ offense.
Justin Jefferson goes for 184 receiving yards, two TDs
Justin Jefferson couldn’t be stopped against the Packers, as he went for 184 receiving yards and two touchdowns to help the Vikings grab a 23-7 victory.
5. Miami Dolphins: Mike McDaniel might have concocted the right recipe to help Tua Tagovailoa cook from the pocket. If the third-year pro continues to pick apart defenses with a surgeon’s precision, the Dolphins’ individual and collective speed could overwhelm opponents this fall.
6. Philadelphia Eagles: Jalen Hurts‘ growth as a dual-threat quarterback has the Eagles primed to make a deep postseason run. With the third-year pro exceeding 300 scrimmage yards, the Eagles’ ground and pound attack continue to roll.
7) New Orleans Saints: Jameis Winston’s heroics helped the Saints overcome a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter. The gunslinger made a couple of “wow” throws that showed the football world the offense’s potential behind the strong-armed passer.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The workmanlike win from Todd Bowles’ squad showcased a defense with top-five potential. While it might take some time for the offense to find its rhythm, the Bucs’ stingy defense can carry the squad.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Tomlin always appears to be at his best when adversity strikes his roster. The Steelers overcame a series of injuries, including the loss of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year to a torn pectoral, to knock off the defending AFC champs. But T.J. Watt‘s absence will hurt.
10. New York Giants: Credit Brian Daboll and Don “Wink” Martindale for creative game plans that enabled the G-Men to hit the Titans in the mouth — especially considering how the Titans like to set the tone with their physicality and toughness.
Offensive Player of the Week: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
The former Super Bowl and NFL MVP reminded the skeptics and haters that the Chiefs’ offense was never a one-man show. Mahomes tossed five touchdowns to four different receivers while flashing pinpoint accuracy and a deft touch, distributing the ball like a pass-first point guard on a fast break. With No. 15 showcasing a more balanced game without Tyreek Hill on the field, the Chiefs might look at the blockbuster trade as an addition by subtraction due to the maturation of their quarterback.
Defensive Player of the Week: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
The ultra-instinctive playmaker put his game-changing talents on display with an impressive performance that included an interception and critical blocked PAT. Given the impact and significance of the veteran’s splash plays on the outcome of the game, Fitzpatrick deserves to walk away with a game ball for his efforts.
The electric dual-threat quarterback continues to make strides as a franchise player for the Eagles. Although his workmanlike game is not always pretty, it is hard to account for a quarterback with the capacity to amass 300-plus yards on a combination of runs and throws. If Hurts continues to avoid the turnovers while moving the ball utilizing his legs and arm, Hurts is going to be a problem for opponents going forward.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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