|Peyton Manning comes off a rough Monday outing, but the Broncos are willing to take the good with the bad. (Getty Images)|
Peyton Manning was not good Monday night in Atlanta, throwing three early interceptions, a fair share of wobbly balls, and having throws sail and get away from him in an eventual 27-21 loss. Despite all that, he nearly rallied the Broncos late. The Broncos expected there to be some ups and downs with Manning after so many physical problems and such a long layoff, and aren't concerned about his arm strength according to team and league sources.
The Broncos expected that the 36-year-old Manning might be limited some at this stage of his career, and Manning was never known for having a rifle arm in the first place. One talent evaluator who watched the game closely observed: "Are we talking about a guy now with a 40-yard arm or a 60-yard arm? I'd probably say 40, but the Broncos aren't concerned. He knows where to put the ball, he can still beat you in so many ways. He just had a rough night and [Falcons defensive coordinator] Mike Nolan really had him guessing."
Nolan gave his defenders freedom to move around and try to disguise coverages before the ball was snapped -- a tactic Rex Ryan has previously used against Manning-led offenses with effectiveness -- and Manning made numerous mistakes because of it. It also happened to be a night where a sometimes docile Atlanta crowd was whipped up in a froth.
Team sources said Manning has continued to make strong throws in practice, going from the right hash across the field to his left, and they attribute their difficulties offensively Monday more to miscommunication and failing to adjust to some of what Nolan was throwing at them.
"It had nothing to do with arm strength," one team source said. "We know what we have there. There's no concerns about that."
Denver may end up being somewhat limited in its vertical game this season, but again, that's not a revelation to them.
Is Manning going to look as good as he did in Week 1 all season? Doubtful. And he won't look as bad as he did in Week 2 all that often, either.
League urges replacement refs to be more assertive with coach and player conduct
The performance of the replacement officials dipped in Week 2, and there were numerous examples of players and coaches -- most notably in the Atlanta/Denver game Monday night -- browbeating or bullying the inexperienced officials. It was widely reported this week that the league sent a memo to teams warning them that conduct of this nature would not be tolerated in the future and would result in strict penalties.
"It's been made very clear to the coaches, owners and general managers that the league office has no problem being very firm and aggressive if we see incidents like that again," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations.
The league addressed this issue with the officials too, making assertiveness with players and coaches a point of emphasis in this week's curriculum conducted by the league office. The officials were urged to be less passive and more direct in their interactions with coaches and players should similar situations arise this week.
Officials were reminded that they need to be vigilant in controlling game conduct and that, should situations arise where games are getting "chippy," or officials are being pushed around by players or coaches, "they need to step up and throw the flag," Anderson said.
Several coaches and executives pointed out to me this week that, in an "alpha male" world like the NFL, the natural inclination is to continue to verbally attack an official as long as it's being allowed, and as long as the official appears to be willing to absorb the punishment. Anderson agreed with this sentiment and said it was addressed heading into what will certainly be a closely scrutinized Week 3 in that regard.
"This is a world of very intense competitors and [players and coaches are] going to push for as long as you allow them to push," Anderson said. "Our officials were instructed to be more assertive and to not allow themselves to be pushed beyond a reasonable limit, and they know how to respond should that occur."
Meanwhile, two days of meetings between the locked-out officials and the league were fruitless, with the issue of pensions remaining highly divisive. The NFL is demanding the pensions be dropped in favor of a 401K arrangement, and the officials have not relented on their stance, either, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. No new talks are planned and league sources continue to insist the NFL will not be wavering on the topic of benefits.
Fujita could meet with Goodell on Friday
Browns linebacker Scott Fujita was the only one of four players suspended for his alleged role in the Saints bounty scandal not to meet with league officials last week, but the sides have been continuing a dialogue and are likely to meet Friday in New York City at the NFL's headquarters, league sources said.
Saints defensive lineman Will Smith and free agent lineman Anthony Hargrove met with commissioner Roger Goodell and other league execs on Tuesday, while Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was suspended for the entire season, met with the league last Monday.
Fujita was scheduled to be among the players to speak with league officials as part of the "Bountygate" meetings last Tuesday, but the NFL expressed reservations about the original plan to do so via video conference, and the meeting was postponed. Fujita missed substantial time because of injury in the preseason, and then another week or practice due to his suspension, before it was vacated by an appeals panel. Fujita did not want to miss more treatment or time at the facility last week to travel to New York.
The Browns faced Buffalo on Sunday then travel to Baltimore to play Thursday, and the sides were working to finalize a time on Friday when Fujita could get to New York for the meeting. According to league sources, it is highly unlikely Goodell will make any new ruling on the discipline for these players until after having met with all four.
Titans running scheme under scrutiny, becoming a source of frustration
Chris Johnson's struggles the past two seasons can be directly linked to a philosophical change in the Tennessee Titans run scheme, numerous scouts have indicated, a shift that has become a growing source of frustration within the team, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
The Titans have switched from the zone running scheme they ran when Johnson rushed for 2,000 yards under late Tennessee coordinator Mike Heimendinger, to more of a power approach under coordinator Chris Palmer. Several scouts who have watched the team closely maintain that the approach has not been a good fit for Johnson or the offensive line. Johnson is not getting to the outside with stretch plays, where he is most effective, as a mobile, athletic offensive line is not having great success with a scheme that requires more brawn at the point of attack.
“The problem isn't Chris Johnson,” said one scout who has studied Tennessee's run game closely. “It's how they're using him. They're trying to make him be something he can't be. They don't have the personnel to run the ball the way they seem to want to run it. It looks to me like they're trying to run the Giants run game, but they don't have the offensive line to do it and it's not what their back is suited to doing.”
Palmer's preferred run style is more direct, straight ahead, an approach that dates back to his time as a Giants offensive assistant from 2007-09. Johnson, however, was drafted by the Titans under Jeff Fisher to be a home-run hitter in the lateral run game, getting defenses moving side to side, with Johnson waiting for the hole to open and then exploding through it. He could be effective between the tackles on inside zone plays, but in the power game, where the offensive line is required to drive block and generate push forward immediately at the point of attack, scouts have noted how Johnson has been wrapped up frequently behind the line of scrimmage.
Several league sources indicated that frustration is mounting about the schematic differences. Johnson refused to name names or point to particular reasons for his struggles, other than to say everyone has to do their job, when probed about it by reporters. However, as one scout told me: “People inside that building know what the problem is. It's not lost on them.”
Some in the league are wondering if head coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame lineman who was offensive line coach when Johnson was flourishing, may end up assuming more control of the run game, or perhaps tweak the game plan to implement more stretch plays and the kind of pitches Johnson has excelled at in the past.
Johnson has just 19 carries this season for a paltry 21 yards, numbers that would have been unfathomable just a few years ago. He barely cleared 1,000 yards rushing in 2011, with a pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry, after missing most of the preseason with a lengthy holdout. Johnson memorably eclipsed 2,000 yards in 2009, and was an MVP candidate who routinely ripped off runs of 40 yards or more and devastated teams with his outside speed. At 5-11, 191 pounds, Johnson isn't built to run through people.
The Titans came into the season with thoughts of getting back into the postseason, but are 0-2 after being pummeled by San Diego last week. Should this become a lost season, you have to wonder if at some point a needy zone-blocking team calls about Johnson's availability at some point. It's worth noting that the trade deadline being moved back by two weeks, to after Week 8, could help spur more trade talk than usual this season.
Johnson has three years remaining on his extension beyond 2012, and is set to make $10 million in 2013 ($9 million of that become guaranteed if he is still on the roster by the fifth day following the Super Bowl), and $8 million in 2014 and 2015.
Vikings in line for London game, and possibly multiple games abroad
The NFL is preparing to announce a second game in London at its annual fall league meeting next month, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, and barring any late changes the Vikings are the favorite to land that game. League sources have indicated that Minnesota has been actively pursuing the option of playing games in multiple years in Europe, during the time in which its new stadium is being built, and could end up getting their wish though the process is not near completion.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have already agreed to play games in London beginning in 2013, and the league is very close to announcing a second annual game abroad as well. The Jags and Vikes are not the only teams to inquire about taking part in those contests, sources have said.
Also at the October meeting, being held in Chicago, the NFL will announce the three finalist sites for Super Bowl L (aka Super Bowl 50). With so many applications to hold the milestone game, the league handled this process a bit differently than the norm, whittling the entrants down to just three, which will then become part of a voting process in 2013.
Steelers minority owner Jimmy Haslam's purchase of the Browns will also be voted on at that meeting, and is expected to pass unanimously.
Turner will have normal role with Falcons on Sunday
Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner was arrested for DUI following the team's Monday night win over Denver, and returned to the team for practice Wednesday. The Falcons have been noncommittal on his status for Sunday afternoon's game in San Diego, and on whether he would be punished at all, but Turner will play and have his normal workload against the Chargers, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
Turner is off to a poor start, and exacerbated his issues with the off-field incident. He may not start against his former team -- the Falcons plan to spread the field in the passing game and try to attack San Diego's depth corners -- and thus formation could dictate him starting the game on the sidelines. That should not be taken as punishment, however. The team and league will await the conclusion of the legal process before deciding whether or not to impose any penalties on Turner.
Follow Jason LaCanfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora.