Judging Week 1 NFL overreactions: Cam Newton is back, the Eagles are doomed and moreby Dan Graziano
It's probably taking things too far to say that the Patriots have managed to revamp their entire offense around Cam Newton in two months.
It's probably way too soon to say that Newton looks just like his old MVP self and that the rest of the league made a horrible miscalculation in letting him sit unsigned for three months before Bill Belichick swooped in and got him for almost nothing.
Yes, it's probably a little bit over the top to say, based on a 21-11 victory over the Dolphins in the first game of the season, that the addition of Newton makes the Patriots a shoo-in for their 12th straight division title.
But this is a column about overreactions -- back again for another fun season of taking snap Sunday night judgments and seeing whether they need to be injected with a little bit of sense. Newton's first victory as a Patriot is absolutely perfect for this column, and so it is that we welcome you to Overreactions 2020 with Cam in the leadoff spot:
Cam Newton, who looks just like his old self, will lead the Patriots, who managed to revamp their offense around him in two months, to their 12th straight division title.
Newton ran the ball 15 times in Sunday's game. Sure, you're sitting there saying, "So? He's a running quarterback. Everybody knows that." But did you know that there has been only one game in Newton's career in which he had more than 15 carries? He had 17 for the Panthers in a 37-37 tie against the Bengals in 2014. His 15 carries Sunday were the most he has had in an NFL game without playing overtime. He rushed for two touchdowns, and he threw the ball just fine -- 15-for-19 for 155 yards and no interceptions. It was an exceedingly under control game plan, and it worked. The Patriots, who obviously want to be a run-dependent team, called design runs on 65% of their plays -- their highest such percentage since Week 17 of the 2008 season.
Newton said after the game that the extent to which he and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are jelling is the result of "them understanding who they have and what I have," and if you have a healthy Cam Newton and you want to be a running team, you're crazy not to make him a big part of that. Asked about the number of carries, Newton said, "I just wanted to win" and talked about the ways he and McDaniels discussed trying to pick apart the Dolphins' defense.
The Patriots under Belichick are known, as much as any team, for varying their game plans week to week depending on the opponent. As such, it might be that 15 is the most carries Newton has in any game this season, and that might be the smart way to go if the Pats want to get him through the season. But it was obvious that he was having fun out there, and with the secondary collecting three interceptions of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, he wasn't alone. The game was ugly at times, but it was a good team win for New England to get the season started 1-0.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. I understand that the Bills looked great in a 27-17 win over the Jets. I leave it to you to figure out who had the more challenging opponent on this particular day. Now, the Bills might prove to be the better team over 16 games, but in no way is it an overreaction to predict that a run-first, Newton-led Patriots team will come out on top in the AFC East.
Newton made the playoffs four times in his seven healthy seasons in Carolina. His receiving corps when he won MVP in 2015 wasn't loaded with superstars any more than his current one is. He has done some winning in his time, and just because he isn't Tom Brady doesn't mean the Patriots can't keep alive the streak Brady and Belichick built together. There's a long way to go here, but I'm still not betting against Belichick and McDaniels figuring this out -- especially if they can keep up the good vibes.
"Cam's a very, very unselfish player," Belichick said after the game. "He's a great teammate. He's earned everybody's respect, really, daily. He just continues to do everything that he can to help our team, and that's really all you can ask from anyone. He continually does that -- puts himself last and puts his team first. He's done a tremendous job here."
Here are a few more of this week's overreaction candidates:
The Eagles' season is already doomed by too many injuries.
The Eagles built a 17-0 second-quarter lead in Washington and lost 24-17. After losing two starting offensive linemen to injuries over the past few months, they were down three once right tackle Lane Johnson was declared inactive. They didn't have starting running back Miles Sanders, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery or pass-rusher Derek Barnett. They lost substitute right tackle Jack Driscoll during the game. We could go on, but you get the idea.
Washington's defensive front is packed with first-round picks and legitimately tough, and there's no question that the Washington defense wore down what was left of the Eagles as the game went along. It was an ugly start to the season for a defending division champ with high hopes.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. There hasn't been a repeat NFC East champion since 2003-04, so history tells us that the Eagles will have a tough time winning the division in 2020. But after seeing what coach Doug Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz were able to do to drag last year's Eagles team into the playoffs and after seeing Pederson make the playoffs with a furious, late-season comeback the year before that and win the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback the year before that ... I can't count him out.
Although Wentz was terrible Sunday -- his 14.1 Total QBR was the worst of the day -- that might have had to do with his being surrounded by second- and third-string strangers. Johnson will be back at some point, which will mitigate the line issues, as will the return of Sanders, which likely isn't too far off. This was a rough one, but the Eagles are experts at pulling themselves out of the fire. Pederson and Wentz seem to be the type who can rise to the occasion when everything is being asked of them, which it pretty much will be now.
Brady, Schmady -- the Buccaneers still aren't on the Saints' level.
You had to see this one coming. Tampa Bay's offseason hype train made its first stop in New Orleans, where you just knew Sean Payton and Drew Brees were going to be ready to remind everybody who has won the NFC South the past three years. Neither Brees nor Tom Brady was especially fantastic in Sunday's game, but Alvin Kamara found the end zone a couple of times, and Janoris Jenkins ran back one of Brady's two interceptions for a touchdown, so the home team cruised to a 34-23 victory in the first of two matchups this season between the league's living legend quarterbacks.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Look, the Bucs have a good team and a good shot to make the playoffs. But new things don't come together quickly in the NFL, and that's going to be especially true after this minimized offseason. Brady's protection didn't hold up well, which isn't going to make him happy, Mike Evans was playing hurt, and there were points when it looked like the Bucs were still getting in sync -- which is to be expected.
The Saints, meanwhile, don't need to worry about putting things together because they already are together. This is basically the same group that has won the division three years in a row and been among the preseason Super Bowl favorites the past three offseasons. The Saints don't even have much coaching turnover. In a year in which continuity might be at an all-time premium, New Orleans is set up better than most teams -- and especially better than a team with a new quarterback, no matter how many Super Bowls that quarterback has won. I'm still taking the Saints to win this division, and Sunday didn't change that.
Aaron Rodgers will win the MVP award out of spite.
By now you know the story: The Packers drafted quarterback Jordan Love in the first round in April, bypassing potential short-term help at wide receiver and signaling to longtime superstar quarterback Rodgers that his time in Green Bay had a clock on it. Rodgers is, by all accounts, handling things well -- saying all the right things while being honest about not loving the pick when it was made and making contributions in practice and meetings to help Love's development.
But on Sunday, he seemed to take out whatever frustration he had on the Vikings' defense. Rodgers was 32-for-44 passing for 364 yards and four touchdowns in the Packers' season-opening 43-34 victory in Minnesota. Fourteen of those passes were caught by Davante Adams, who had 156 yards and two touchdowns, as if he and Rodgers were trying to say, "You don't want to get us help. We'll show you we don't need it!" Rodgers still managed to find Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard for a touchdown apiece.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. First of all, did you see Russell Wilson play Sunday? Or reigning MVP Lamar Jackson? Or, heck, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on Thursday? It's too early to start any kind of legit MVP watch. As good as the Packers might have looked in their opener, their roster isn't without significant question marks, and they still have tough-looking road stops in New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Houston, San Francisco and Indianapolis.
Green Bay is one of the season's top regression candidates, having finished 13-3 last year with a hard-to-repeat 8-1 record in one-score games. The NFC sets up to be very tough. Imagining the Packers winning enough games to put Rodgers forward as an MVP candidate still takes a bit of work. Don't put anything past Rodgers, who's an all-time great and a two-time winner of the award. But let's see this a few more times before making him the favorite.
The DeAndre Hopkins trade was as bad as we thought.
David Johnson had a nice debut for the Texans on Thursday, but Houston looked sleepy on offense overall. Hopkins on Sunday had 14 catches for 151 yards in Arizona's 24-20 victory over the 49ers. That's one more catch than all of the Houston wide receivers had combined Thursday.
To recap: Hopkins began the week signing the huge-money contract extension with the Cardinals. He watched the team that decided to trade him rather than give him that extension look lousy in a loss to the Super Bowl champs. He capped his week by propelling his new team to a comeback victory over the NFC champs. Pretty, pretty good.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. The Texans won the AFC South four of the past five years, so there's a pile of evidence that Bill O'Brien knows what he's doing as a coach. What we're still collecting evidence on is what kind of general manger O'Brien is.
The Hopkins trade is not helpful evidence for his case. Whatever Houston gets out of Johnson, however their new wide receiver corps works out for Deshaun Watson and however they recover (as they surely will) from a tough opener, there's no replacing what a player such as Hopkins brings to the passing game. If your difference-maker wants to be paid like a difference-maker, you have to at least consider doing it. The bet here is that the move will benefit Arizona a lot more than it will Houston, and Week 1 certainly points that way.