Week 1 is upon us and it's never looked better.
I'm back with my weekly insider notebook this season here at CBSSports.com, and we're going to use this space just like last year to highlight trend stories, empty out the notebook from trips around the league and make picks on all 272 games this season.
But before the picks (and I got 67.8% of them correct last season), I'll begin with a couple of officiating notes to set you up for what's to come this week and beyond.
The NFL experienced an offensive explosion last season thanks to revolutionary offensive schemes and quarterbacks who are more accurate than ever. But officiating -- and more specifically, lax officiating on offensive penalties -- also had something to do with it.
I'm told the league's de-emphasis on offensive holding penalties will continue into the 2021 season. Offensive holding flags went from 724 in 2019 to 462 in 2020. Put another way, teams averaged 2.74 offensive holding flags in games between 2015-2019 but just 1.8 flags in 2020.
This offseason, the NFL competition committee looked at 100 potential offensive holding penalties that went uncalled in 2020. Ninety of those no-calls stood upon review, whereas the league would have liked to see penalties on the other 10 due to their proximity to the point of attack/game action. With that, it stands to reason there may be a slight uptick in offensive holding this season, but only marginally.
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The league office was pleased with how defensive pass interference was officiated this past season, which is another good thing if you like POINTS. Officials threw 309 flags for DPI last season, which was the most I could find in a season dating to at least 1998. But the league wants officials to be a bit sharper on offensive pass interference.
In 2020, just 62 flags for OPI were called compared to an average of 97.6 in the previous five seasons. That amounted to one OPI flag for every fourth game, and 2020 represented the fewest OPI flags since 2013 saw just 60. A few more OPI flags will act as a slight counterbalance in a league where offenses regularly get the benefit.
Toning down the taunting
There's a weird controversy where the competition committee and league keep saying the new emphasis on taunting was encouraged by the NFLPA, with the NFLPA in turn saying that's not true at all and that it wants the point of emphasis overturned immediately.
The NFL wants to make clear it's not banning touchdown or turnover celebrations. It just doesn't want players showboating at the expense of a competitor.
"[W]e need to work at bringing this back to creating an environment that is respectful of our opponents, and demonstrating the image that the NFL wants to project," Walt Anderson, NFL SVP and head of officiating training and development, said in his virtual presentation to coaches this preseason.
The Tyreek Hill "peace" sign is obviously not going to be tolerated (nor Antoine Winfield Jr.'s for that matter.) And it's easy for folks to say "just don't celebrate toward/at your opponent." But anyone who's played the game will tell you the emotions are difficult to keep in check in those moments, and docking a team 15 yards for flexing a muscle is a bit much.
I fear this rule could dominate the first couple weeks of the season much like the roughing-the-passer penalty did in 2018. And on the topic of celebrations, that brings me to...
Less time to celebrate touchdowns
The NFL has already been in communication with special teams coordinators this preseason about being more prepared for a quicker extra-point operation in 2021.
And no, this has nothing to do with the taunting rule.
We told you back in July the league was partnering with Hawk-Eye to speed up its instant-replay process. The partnership will decrease delays caused by replays both in coaches challenges and automatic reviews for turnovers and scoring. And that will very likely impact the length of time teams have to celebrate touchdowns.
With the league being able to confirm touchdowns in near-real time, that means the play clock can be wound and ready to go more quickly for the extra-point attempt. When players celebrate scores, they regularly get a little extra time to do so thanks to the automatic review. If those plays are confirmed more quickly, that little extra time goes away.
I wouldn't expect officials to wind the clock for the extra point moments after an obvious touchdown is scored; they'll be reasonable here, I believe. But the operation from touchdown, to celebration, to review, to extra point will be much faster this year and teams should be ready for it.
Feel-good story of the week
I want to THANK YOU for all of the love With me changing my number to 25, I’d love to sign ANY of your #30 jerseys as a continued THANK YOU for all your support and buying my jersey. DM @JaguarsPR tonight with a picture of you wearing my jersey and we will be in touch!#DUUUVAL🤘🏾— James Robinson (@Robinson_jamess) September 7, 2021
One of the coolest things I saw from this week was a gesture second-year Jaguars running back James Robinson made to his fans.
Robinson had worn jersey No. 25 from really the first time he ever played organized football all the way through his career at Illinois State. When he went undrafted and signed with the Jaguars, No. 25 was taken at the time by cornerback D.J. Hayden, who had eight years in the league. So he took No. 38 and shared it throughout camp with another undrafted player (on defense), before surprisingly making the team and then going to No. 30 for his rookie season.
He totaled the most scrimmage yards by an undrafted rookie in NFL history in 2020, which helped him earn NFL Top 100 honors and planned to play this season in No. 30 again. But more than a week ago, No. 25 came open when safety Jarrod Wilson was released and Robinson saw his opportunity.
The Jaguars starting running back will play Sunday against the Texans in his old No. 25 after striking an undisclosed deal with the league to make the switch. But he's not leaving his fans hanging.
So here's the story: Jaguars PR manager David Wolf went to Robinson this week with an idea he should do something for the fans. See, in Jacksonville, there are still plenty of Blake Bortles, Jalen Ramsey, Nick Foles, Calais Campbell and, yes, Tim Tebow jerseys out there. Robinson was staying with the team, but the switch made his old jersey obsolete to some degree.
How could that be fixed?
The two brainstormed ideas. One thought was autographing a new No. 25 jersey and sending it to a fan who could prove they already had a No. 30 jersey. But Robinson wanted to take care of more people than just one fan. So, with some help from Robinson's agent Samantha Sankovich, the plan to sign all No. 30 jerseys was hatched.
Fans with No. 30 jerseys had to take a picture of themselves wearing the jersey and send it to the Jaguars PR Twitter account via direct message to prove they already had one. Wolf says within less than two days, more than 100 fans sent pictures with the intention of sending in their jerseys for a signature. He's going to give it a couple of weeks for all the shipments to come in, and then he'll line up the jerseys for Robinson to sign one day and then ship them back to the respective fan.
(This, by the way, is no small task for an NFL PR person in the regular season. Adding 100-plus shipping packages -- and making sure you get them all right -- to a routine that involves a Week 1 away game, plus your home stadium hosting Packers-Saints, plus preparing for a Week 2 home game yourself isn't making your job easier).
Kudos to Robinson for doing right by the fans. Players should have the freedom to change their jersey numbers, but fans spend hard-earned money on these jerseys -- especially on an undrafted running back! It's one thing for a guy to get released or traded, but it's another when he simply wants to go down five digits and all of a sudden you're in an old jersey. That sort of power does come with a responsibility, and I'm glad Robinson recognizes that and is doing what he can to take care of his fans.
Season sneaks up
Will Brinson and I spoke about this earlier in the week on the Pick Six Podcast and I have to say, the rhythm getting into Week 1 was vastly different than what we're used to. I don't remember the regular season sneaking up on me the way it has any other year -- even last year with no preseason games.
Brinson and I figured it had to do with the new preseason schedule. The normal rhythm of the offseason had been fourth exhibition, followed by roster cuts 48 hours later, waiver claims the next day and then a Labor Day Week 1 practice that Monday. That flow won't ever be back, though. With three exhibitions and the cut deadline on a Tuesday, this preseason let us get lulled to sleep a bit on a long weekend that most NFL folks have never gotten before.
Personally, I'll take it. We were able to take a trip to the mountains for the weekend with minimal NFL news missed. Texting sources around the league (when I had service), I found a lot of others enjoying some time away from the team facilities on a weekend where normally they were doing massive roster cuts and watching film of potential new acquisitions in years past.
Overall I think the new preseason is a positive in a number of respects. And I'm sure that last night's game will bring in major ratings, so it's not like the different preseason will impact viewing habits. I'm definitely locked in for the season now, but just a few days ago I was reminding myself that Week 1 really, truly is here.
Week 1 picks
I had a pretty good year last season picking games straight up, but I never got that perfect week that I wanted. Let's try it again starting with this week, where I picked the Bucs to beat the Cowboys. Undefeated! Never lost!
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)
Ben Roethlisberger looked like a shell of himself last season, but I was very impressed with him in his limited action against the Lions in the preseason. All reports out of Pittsburgh have him turning back the clock. Unfortunately, I don't trust his offensive line yet, and I think the offense is going to be a work in progress. The Bills second-teamers nearly relegated the Bears first-teamers last month. Buffalo keeps it rollin'.
The pick: Bills
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)
It's hard for me to buy in on Sam Darnold right now after he was solidly average during training camp. Matt Rhule has to take the bubble wrap off his QB on Sunday, and I think he winds up getting the "W" in this revenge game. The Panthers' first eight games are a little soft, so I could see them surprising people with where they're at in the standings come Halloween.
The pick: Panthers
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)
Cleveland has, in my opinion, the best roster top to bottom in the NFL. I think the Browns have quality starters at all positions and really good depth, and they could absolutely be playing in the AFC title game in late January. But Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are virtually unbeatable most any time in the season and especially in September.
The pick: Chiefs
Eagles over Falcons
Vikings over Bengals
49ers over Lions
Jaguars over Texans
Seahawks over Colts
Titans over Cardinals
Chargers over Football Team
Dolphins over Patriots
Packers over Saints
Broncos over Giants
Rams over Bears
Raiders over Ravens