The second weekend of the National Football League season is one of my favorites for one reason: it is when panic officially begins to set in for certain teams and cities. To a large degree, this is understandable. When I did my book on The Baltimore Ravens (Next Man Up) five years ago, I remember the mood at the team's training facility the day after a loss in the season opener at Cleveland.
Kevin Byrne, who I think was the franchise's public relations director under Paul Brown (a slight exaggeration I suppose) made an interesting point: "In this league one loss is the equivalent of a ten game losing streak in baseball."
He's right of course: a baseball season is 162 games, an NFL season is 16 games. Even I can do that math. Which means that 0-2 is the equivalent of starting a baseball season 0-20. There are numbers somewhere on the odds of an 0-2 team making the playoffs since the 16 game season began in 1978. It happens, but not very often.
So, here we sit two weeks in and the Tennessee Titans, who were 13-3 last season and the top seed in the AFC are 0-2. They lost in overtime on the road to The Super Bowl champion Steelers and then lost 34-31 Sunday to the Houston Texans, who were looking at some serious panic in their town if they started 0-2 after all the so-called experts were picking them as the "surprise," team during the offseason. How can you be a surprise team if everyone is saying you're going to be a surprise team?
(Let me pause here a minute to ask another question: how can USC repeatedly get trapped by trap games when everyone is saying, 'this is a trap game?' Oregon State last year was a little bit understandable but Washington? Sure, Steve Sarkisian is an ex-USC assistant and he's clearly brought a new attitude to Seattle but they were 0-12 last year. That's not a typo. All credit to the Huskies and it is pretty clear now why Pete Carroll freaked out when Mark Sanchez decided to turn pro but still, how does that keep happening?).
As they say on ESPN, "more on college football later with an exclusive interview in which Charlie Weis reveals why he's such a genius."
Speaking of Mark Sanchez, I'm not sure which statue is being built first in front of the new Meadowlands Stadium, Rex Ryan's or Sanchez's. The Jets are 2-0 and beat the hated Patriots Sunday at home for the first time since Weeb Eubank was coach and Joe Namath was quarterback. (Okay I'm in an exaggerating mood today). Having grown up a Jets fan I know how crazy they go up there when the Jets have any success at all. When the Jets won in Foxboro last year and then against Tennessee to be 8-3 there were actually stories in The New York Times--not the tabloids, The Times--about a Jets-Giants Super Bowl. Didn't quite work out.
Ryan though is the real deal. I got to know him well while doing the Ravens book. He has all of his father (Buddy's) football knowledge and understanding but he also has a terrific, self-deprecating sense of humor and connects with people--especially his players--as well as anyone I've met. Just to keep things interesting, Rex used to weigh in with his lineman every week--he'd usually show up at training camp weighing about 350 and try to work his way down--and there was always some kind of running bet on how much weight he could take off during the season. To say he kept things loose is an understatement.
Back to panic-towns. It seems pretty likely that fans in Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Kansas City, St Louis and Charlotte are in for long seasons. In Detroit it can't possibly be as long a season as it was a year ago. At least there's a sliver of hope with a new coach and a rookie quarterback. The Lions WILL win this season--how's that for going out on a limb?
The Browns no doubt hired Eric Mangini on the theory that his ex-mentor, Bill Belichick ultimately failed in his first job (with the old Browns) before becoming a Hall of Fame coach in New England. Mangini, like Belichick, had an early playoff team with the Jets, then floundered. He's going to flounder this year but Belichick was, I believe, 5-11 his first year with the Patriots.
In every one of the above-mentioned cities there are quarterback issues. The most baffling one is in Charlotte where Jake Delhomme has all of a sudden become the Steve Blass of quarterbacks, seemingly losing his touch overnight. He was brutal in the playoff loss to the Cardinals, horrific in the opening loss to the Eagles. He was much better Sunday in Atlanta but threw a game-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter. That made 12 in three games.
Maybe he'll bounce back. Maybe Matt Cassel will eventually be the answer in Kansas City. Then again, maybe not.
Here in Washington where I live the Redskins are 1-1 but the town is very much in a state of panic. The Redskins were fortunate to beat the god-awful Rams on Sunday and, even though they marched up and down the field never scored a touchdown. Their offense has one in two games--and that was against the Giants two minute defense when they were down 23-10 in the opener. Naturally the fingers are being pointed at Coach Jim Zorn and at quarterback Jason Campbell. Here's my question: who hired Zorn? Who drafted Campbell and all those wide receivers who haven't done a thing while the offensive line struggles, a year ago? It was, for those of you scoring at home, owner Daniel M. (call me Mr.) Snyder and his trusty henchman Vinny Cerrato. How they continue to duck criticism is mind-boggling.
Best story so far: the revived 49ers under Mike Singletary. I also got to know Singletary doing the Ravens book and I will freely admit I never envisioned him as a head coach. As great a linebacker as he was, he came across almost gentle as an assistant coach. He's was (and is) very devout, often read the bible in his office during down time and came across very quiet. I simply missed the boat. I remember Mike Nolan, who was the defensive coordinator, telling me he thought Singeltary WOULD make a great head coach. "When he talks to the players, you can hear a pin drop in the room," he said. "He doesn't have to raise his voice to get his message across."
Nolan took Singletary with him to San Francisco and Singletary got the job when Nolan got fired. That's the way sports works. Your friend gets fired, you get a chance. Nolan was right about Singletary. I was wrong.
Back to the colleges for a moment. The most stunning score to me on Saturday was Florida State-54, Brigham Young-28. The BYU defense which looked so good against Oklahoma (even before Sam Bradford was hurt) looked helpless. Maybe the ACC DOES have a few good teams: Miami and Virginia Tech (which play Saturday) also appear to be solid. We'll see. The bottom of the league still looks awful: Maryland lost for a second straight year to Middle Tennessee (talk about panic); Virginia is 0-3 and those revived Duke Blue Devils managed to stay within 28 of Kansas on Saturday.
One final note: Two weeks ago I wrote about what a great day I had when Navy went to Ohio State and almost beat the Buckeyes. This past Saturday was completely the opposite. The traffic getting to Pittsburgh (I drove up on Saturday for a 6 o'clock game) was horrible thanks to construction coming off The Pennsylvania Turnpike. That cost me close to an hour. Then there was construction at Heinz Field and, even though I knew exactly how to make a quick turn to get me to the parking lot I needed to get to, the not-so-helpful Pittsburgh police (where are the guys from Ohio when you need them?) not only wouldn't let me make the turn, one guy shouted at me, "get moving now or I'll arrest you."
Thanks for the courtesy. I barely made it inside to go on the air on time. Then the game began with Pitt fumbling the opening kickoff and Navy’s Ram Vela having a clear shot at scooping the ball at 20 yard line and running in four a touchdown. Vela, who may be the country's smallest linebacker at 5-9 and 193 pounds (seriously) couldn't quite pick the ball up. Pitt recovered, drove 89 yards for a touchdown and dominated most of the game. The Mids offense looked as bad as I've seen it since Paul Johnson put in the triple option in 2002. A long night.
On the way back, I was about 30 miles from home at 1 a.m. driving about 70 in a 65. I'm always careful late at night because I know there are cops with nothing better to do waiting to nail people who sneak up to 10 or more miles over the speed limit. Suddenly, a cop came up behind me, lights flashing, siren going. I thought he was going to swing past me but he came right up on my tail. He wanted me.
Surprised--and a little bit angry--I pulled over. He came up and, as I handed him my license and began searching for my registration he asked the usual opening question: "Do you know why I pulled you over?"
If I've learned nothing else in my old age it is that courtesy to a cop is usually key in how he (or she) deals with you. "Officer, I'll be honest, I really don't know," I said.
"You were going 71 in a 55 mile per hour zone," he said.
Oh God, I thought. I had missed the sign where the limit had gone from 65 to 55 going into Frederick and he'd been waiting. I apologized profusely, said I had missed the sign. In the meantime I was still trying to find my registration. My glove compartment is filled with media credentials, parking passes--you name it--because I know if I keep the stuff there I'm far less likely to lose it. (I am famous for losing credentials. Once I walked into a golf tournament wearing a three year old credential because I hadn't noticed that I pulled the wrong one out of the door. Fortunately, the security guard knew me--yes Tony Kornheiser, he knew who I was!--and it was okay).
The cop finally told me to keep looking while he went back to check my license. No doubt he looked at my plate and called that into the computer. I finally found it and--as instructed--held it out the window for the cop to see. He came back and handed me a warning.
"This is a warning for the speed and for failing to produce your registration in a timely manner," he said.
"For what?" I said, genuinely surprised.
"The law says if you fail to produce your registration in a timely manner you can be ticketed even if you have it," he said. "We're targets out here on the road you know."
I was tempted to say if you didn't pull people over at 1 o'clock in the morning on an empty road for not slowing down in an artificially marked down speed zone, you wouldn't be a target. But he WAS, in fact, cutting me a break so I just said, "I understand."
I must have been smiling because he said, "did I say something funny?"
I shook my head and told him what I was thinking at that moment. "The thought just occurred to me that I was convinced you were going to give me a ticket and that would have been the perfect end to a perfect day," I said. "You messed it up by giving me a break."
This time, he smiled. "I get it," he said. "Have a safe trip home."
I did. But before I did, I put my registration in a spot where I can find it easily in the future.