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The Biggest Surprises From Week 1 Of The NFL Season

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It‘s been quite an opening week in the NFL — and that’s just on the field. We started with an old-fashioned defensive slugfest on Thursday and ended Sunday night with the Patriots still looking like the Patriots. And we still have two games left tonight! Throw in a tie for good measure, and the season is off and running.

There was a lot to unpack in Week 1. What were your biggest surprises of the week?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think the Browns are the biggest surprise of Week 1. Not just Baker Mayfield and the offense — because maybe the Titans have a good defense. Who knows at this stage of the season? But the Cleveland defense, which seemed like it was perfectly designed to dominate in the trenches and on the perimeter with the corners, was just shredded. Marcus Mariota had 10.3 yards per attempt, admittedly inflated by a screen pass to Derrick Henry. And the Titans ran the ball well. So it was just a total team collapse by the Browns.

sara.ziegler: I do feel like Cleveland was classically set up for this disappointment. Our model didn’t think the Browns would be nearly as good as everyone else seemed to think they would be.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yes, we had warned Cleveland fans to kind of pump the brakes before the season. This was a good-looking team by Browns standards, but that’s different from being a good-looking team, period.

Salfino: I know this is a little Narrative Street, but the Browns really set themselves up to be the hunted and not the hunters with all the offseason talk. I don’t know if there’s ever been a team coming off a losing season that had every opponent circling their game on the schedule. Maybe now they will just shut up and play because obviously there is a lot of talent there. Maybe the humiliation on Sunday in Cleveland will actually be good for them, since they needed humbling.

neil: For me, the biggest surprise was Lamar Jackson. He was one of the worst QBs in the league as a rookie last season, and the Ravens adapted their offense to be incredibly run-heavy (particularly by 2018 standards) because he was such a better runner than passer. So to see him come out and throw for 324 yards on 17-for-20 passing, 5 TDs, 0 picks and a perfect 158.3 passer rating was nothing short of astonishing.

You could have told me a QB would do that Week 1, and I would have guessed 25 QBs before Jackson.

Salfino: The tricky thing with this game is whether the Dolphins are the 1962 Mets — or did the Ravens make them look that way? Let’s put it this way: If the Dolphins are trying to lose, they couldn’t have done it any better.

neil: That’s a great point to keep in mind. The Dolphins have been accused of tanking all offseason, and they played like it Sunday.

Incidentally, what’s the opening line on Pats-Dolphins next week? I shudder to think.

Salfino: New England minus-14.5 at Miami, up to 17 now. That would put them among the biggest home underdogs since 1970.

sara.ziegler: And now Miami players are reportedly asking their agents to get them off the team! Not great.

neil: What was your biggest surprise, Sara?

sara.ziegler: Arizona! Loved to see the fight from Kyler Murray and Co.

neil: Fighting back for a TIE, no less.

sara.ziegler: So great.

neil: That’s just fighting back for the love of the game, not the glory. Lol.

Salfino: Murray was Tebowing on Sunday: horrible for most of the game and then turned it on in the fourth quarter. I guess the slow start was opening day jitters. Maybe it was a mistake to not use the regular offense in the preseason.

sara.ziegler: That’s a great point, Mike.

So many of these offenses have looked SOOOOO bad. Maybe a few more reps in the preseason could help?

neil: Maybe this is the year the “rest the starters all preseason” trend jumps the shark.

Salfino: Start with Mitch Trubisky and the Bears.

sara.ziegler: And Aaron Rodgers and the Packers!

neil: That game was SO ugly.

sara.ziegler: It kinda hurt to watch.

neil: Although if they were going for symbolism with the NFL of 100 years ago, they kinda got what they were asking for.

Salfino: Bears-Packers set back offensive football 100 years, so….

sara.ziegler: So true.

Salfino: I just am skeptical about changing the offensive system of an inner-circle Hall of Fame player — especially someone as generally grumpy as Rodgers — with that young of a coach who has not proven anything. How does this work? I would have given Rodgers Mike Shanahan — someone he had to respect — if you want to switch to a Mike Shanahan offense.

sara.ziegler: Our colleague Josh Hermsmeyer wrote about the Packer play-calling that might have been holding Rodgers back last year … but I’m skeptical, too, about changing that on a dime.

Salfino: And it’s kind of like, “Mike Shanahan is standing right here.” But the league is all about young coaches now. Does this work with a 35-year-old QB though? Will the QB, especially this QB, buy in?

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

neil: But at least there, you can use the coaching change as an excuse. Maybe they’ll find more of a rhythm as the season goes on. There were no such excuses for Trubisky’s poor performance.

Salfino: For Trubisky, we kind of know what he is, right? His ability to execute plays that work as designed is definitely below the line. He sort of has to play with his hair on fire, out of structure, so he’s a tough player to design an offense for.

Based on one game, I’d set the Browns over/under at nine wins, the Ravens at 10 and the Cardinals at six. (I mean, it was Matt Patricia blowing a game, right?)

sara.ziegler: Haha

What’s the over/under at Patricia still being the coach in January?

neil: That’s the REAL over/under to worry about.

Salfino: I think Patricia has to be a favorite to be fired in-season. The Dolphins aren’t going to fire a coach. It has to be a team that thinks they’re good with a “franchise” QB, I assume.

neil: The funny thing is, Matt Stafford actually played well overall, with a 110.0 passer rating. But the defense badly collapsed down the stretch.

sara.ziegler: Who else stood out? Philadelphia? Kansas City?

Salfino: I wrote about the impact a downfield weapon has on the entire offense, regarding DeSean Jackson. That certainly was a factor in Sunday’s Eagles win, though Jackson did most of the damage himself. But now the best of these players for Kansas City, Tyreek Hill, is probably out a significant amount of time with a shoulder injury, and I wonder if this will slow down the Chiefs offense. Sammy Watkins was unreal on Sunday, but he did a lot of that damage with Hill in the game. Does the Chiefs offense seem more mortal now?

neil: Not to mention that Pat Mahomes was hobbling around on a bum ankle.

Salfino: And he no-looked away a TD to a wide-open Travis Kelce like he was Meadowlark Lemon.

neil: If Mahomes shakes off any effects of that ankle — and it’s not supposed to be serious — they still have a lot of weapons even without Hill. But they were a team everyone was already wondering about perhaps regressing offensively, just because the highest-scoring offenses usually tend to fall off some in the following season.

sara.ziegler: LeSean McCoy looked decent as one of those weapons.

Salfino: They do seem to have an endless supply of super-athletic players, but Hill really dictates coverage and makes defenses more easy to dissect. The McCoy thing is interesting — Damien Williams still had 65 percent of snaps, compared to just 30 percent for McCoy. But how does Andy Reid tell a guy like McCoy — with over 14,000 scrimmage yards who just outplayed Williams — that he’s sitting behind Williams? I have to think McCoy is the primary back near term for the Chiefs — and he may be washed up, I know.

Speaking of running backs, not a good day for Melvin Gordon.

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Salfino: You want to say that RBs are fungible, but Austin Ekeler is not just an ordinary backup. He’s electric. I think him leading a committee is perfect, and the Chargers are now 5-0 since 2018 without Gordon in the regular season.

sara.ziegler: Not gonna lie: I forgot for a second about the Gordon holdout. The Antonio Brown drama just eclipsed everything.

neil: Austin Ekeler:Melvin Gordon::James Conner:Le’Veon Bell ?

(I think I got my SAT analogy format right there?)

sara.ziegler: Very nice, LOL

Salfino: Well, the Steelers looked like they missed Bell and Brown on Sunday night.

neil: Steelers looked like they missed a lot of things Sunday night.

Salfino: I think the story with the Steelers is that Juju Smith-Schuster is not a downfield wide receiver, and they have no one who can threaten defenses deep like Brown could (even though he was used all over the field). So the Steelers offense looked suffocated on Sunday. There was just no room to breathe.

Ironically, the team on the field that really needs Brown was the Steelers.

sara.ziegler: It was hard to watch that game and not think, “Oh, the Patriots are unstoppable again.”

Salfino: But why even add Brown? I guess it makes sense if you are worried about Josh Gordon’s status, given that he has not completed an NFL season since 2013. But if you know you have Gordon — which of course you can never know — Brown is another mouth to feed and obviously a volatile personality on a team that does not remotely need his talent. Put it this way, if the Patriots had not signed Brown, the story off that game would be, “Of course they shouldn’t have signed Brown because they are a finely tuned machine right now, so why mess with that?”

neil: That’s true. It sort of adds diminishing returns on the field and the potential for chaos off the field. But maybe they wanted extra insurance for Tom Brady at receiver with Gronk retired.

Salfino: Brady is 42. He threw the ball very well, especially deep. But the expectation with an older player is that he will fade as the season progresses. It’s really the Patriots and Brady vs. Father Time. That’s the Battle of the Ages, not New England vs. the NFL.

sara.ziegler: I just assume it’s part of the overall Evil Plan that Patriots always execute to perfection.

neil: I will say this. I have compared Brady’s downfall (whenever it happens) to Peyton Manning’s in 2015, in the sense that when it does happen, it will probably happen very quickly. But for whatever one game is worth, Manning already showed signs of what was to come with a terrible opener that year against Baltimore. Brady, on the other hand, was perfectly fine. So if you’re mentally tracking the odds of a Brady collapse in 2019, those odds had to go down quite a bit just after a game.

Salfino: But what about Peyton in 2014? Isn’t that the example that the Patriots (and Saints) have to fear? That did come all at once. And we ignored it heading into 2015, mostly, attributing it to nagging injuries, which probably was the point. Peyton started 2014 with 22 TDs and three picks in seven games.

neil: True, while Brady was not great in the Super Bowl and had a mediocre game or two down the stretch, he wasn’t consistently struggling late in 2018 as much as Peyton did in 2014. So maybe that does mean the writing was more on the wall for him than Brady, anyway.

Whatever happens, I love Week 1 because we’re all so eager to overreact to every little thing that happens once real football starts. So I wonder which things that seem clear right now will end up looking foolish in a couple months.

sara.ziegler: Can’t wait to find out!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Sara Ziegler is the sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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