It's difficult to improve on an MVP season as a 22-year-old quarterback in one's first full season as a starter. But Lamar Jackson just might do it.
Yes, he was opposing the Cleveland Browns, a perennially helpless bunch that did their best to live down to their reputation at critical junctures in Baltimore's 38-6 beatdown on Sunday. And, yes, the Browns were thin at linebacker and throughout the secondary with a rookie head coach in his first NFL game. But don't let any of that detract from Jackson's latest tour de force performance, one that was even more consistent and nuanced and, frankly, mature, than many of his jaw-dropping outings from 2019.
There was a certain poise and calmness to his masterful Week 1. His clear command of every tenet of the offense was obvious. He was operating at a higher level than anyone else on the football field, anticipating and regulating and putting his team in position to dominate, once more, picking up where they left off the 2019 regular season. On the day, Jackson was 20 of 25 for 275 yards with two touchdowns and no picks and a stellar 152.1 rating, on a day when he established the run early but was able to carve the Browns almost exclusively with his arm and not his legs (just seven carries for 46 yards).
But there was something extra special about his drive to close out the first half, which also served to effectively close out the competition portion of this football game, with his touchdown drive making it 24-6. It wasn't just what he did, but how he did it.
The first NFL Sunday of the 2020 season is in the books and there's a lot to go over. John Breech and Ryan Wilson join host Will Brinson on the Pick Six Podcast to break it all down; listen in the player below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.
Odell Beckham, Jr. dropped an easy first down catch (more on the Browns browning it up, below) then perhaps soon-to-be-ex-kicker Austin Seibert missed from 41 yards. This could be a huge momentum swing. Jackson could sense it. And his expert work on a seven-play drive, with 41 seconds and two timeouts at his disposal, spoke to Jackson reaching a higher level.
Jackson would go five for seven for 69 yards on the drive, never scrambling, never panicking, doing all the damage through the air. He would require just 35 of those allotted seconds to hit paydirt on his second TD pass to tight end Mark Andrews on the day. He was outright toying with the Browns at times, it seemed, in the process.
He fired immediately to slot man Willie Snead for 20 yards, and then, after a timeout, he found Hollywood Brown for 13 yards over the middle before waiting for him to make a cut down the sideline. A little hand gesture from Brown, who worked all offseason with Jackson in Miami, seemed to indicate where to thread the pass. That was another 16 yards.
Jackson worked the opposite sideline next, leading Andrews out of bounds for an 11-yard gain but only after teasing the entire Browns front. Jackson calmly slid up in the pocket, almost inviting contact, before gliding back into a vacant pocket and rolling slightly before executing the strike.
"It's our job to get to the spot," Brown said in the postgame Zoom, "because that's where he's putting it."
He misconnected with Andrews and then threw a back shoulder fade to Miles Boykin that fell just short (Jackson chastised himself for not being more pinpoint after the game, though a more accomplished receiver probably makes the catch and he placed it where the defender had no shot). Then he crushed the Browns' will with a nine-yard TD pass to Andrews.
This wasn't about mesh points or hybrid offenses or fooling anyone with a keeper. Everyone knew the ball was going to be in the air every snap and everyone knows Brown and Andrews are the guys he goes to when it matters most, and no one could intervene. Other than the coaching staff leaving him in too long, when Jackson took a big hit on what could have been a dangerous sack up 31 points in fourth-quarter garbage time -- there wasn't anything to nitpick.
Jackson obsessed about improving his downfield passing, and went out and was 14-for-17 for 229 yards and 3 TDs on passes of 10 yards or more. Expect more of the same next week against an overwhelmed Texans defense and then another meeting with the Chiefs looms in a battle of the last two MVPs. There's a good chance either one of them gets their hands back on that trophy this year.
Cam shows what Pats are now about
The Patriots are not about style points. They have become a muscular offense in the image of new quarterback Cam Newton, and on two scoring drives that basically sucked the life out of the Dolphins Sunday you could really feel it.
Newton ain't messing around, and coordinator Josh McDaniels can soften teams up with the power runs early to set up the pass, or vice versa. If you put too many helmets in the box, Newton will make you pay in the short passing game.
The Pats went ahead early on an 11-play, 80-yard, six-minute drive. It went something like this: run, short pass, run, run, run, short pass, Cam keeper, short pass to Julian Edelman, run, Cam keeper for the TD. It was more of the same on an eight-play, 75-yard TD drive that put the game away, which started with three straight quick passes (two to Edelman and one to running back James White), then a handoff, then another quick pass to Edelman, then a Cam keeper, then a handoff for an inside run and then a Cam keeper for 11 yards to score.
Newton ran 15 times for 75 yards, far away the team leader as New England rolled up over 200 yards on the ground. This is who they are. Get used to it.
Dome team defenses struggle without fans
For what it's worth, keep an eye on dome teams, now with no fans, having their defenses struggle mightily. There were notable collapses by the defenses of the Lions, Vikings and Falcons in the early games. Now, part of it might be that all three defenses stink (two probably do and the Vikings continue to decline rapidly from where they were a few years ago), but they combined to give up 108 points, with opposing QBs having no concerns about crowd noise or hand signals or silent counts.
Frankly, it was ugly. Even Mitchell Trubisky got off under these circumstances, leading a wild fourth quarter comeback that will have the hot seat under Matt Patricia cranking again (wasn't buying the Lions as a playoff team narrative before this game; definitely ain't now). Might be a trend worth tracking after Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Trubisky combined to go 83 of 115 (72 percent) for 928 yards, 11 TDs and no interceptions. Wow ...
QB controversy coming for Colts?
The Colts may find they have a QB controversy on their hands sooner rather than later. Philip Rivers has been a turnover machine for years, specializing in the first quarter and fourth quarter variety, which is why the Chargers were ready to move on by last December. The Colts should have put the Jags away early, scoring a quick TD, getting stuffed on downs near the goal line and then, driving again, Rivers got picked, which led to the Jags' first score. And, trailing by a score with less than five minutes left, Rivers got picked again. Defenders can undercut his throws too easily, as arm strength has long seemed an issue. But he is still pretty quick to heave the ball up for grabs. Head coach Frank Reich goes way back with him, and with his $25M salary I doubt we see a quick hook. But Jacoby Brissett is the better QB and he is already seeing the field in certain packages and that could prove to be a damning loss for Indy ...
Haskins shows guts, leadership in WFT comeback win
Dwayne Haskins began his day 3-for-11 and his Washington Football Team trailed very quickly, 17-0, while Carson Wentz had no issues completing 12 of his first 15 passes for 174 yards and two TDs. So guess how this one turned out? Washington has put a ton of draft capital into its defensive front, and it looked like it in the second half. They worked the beat-up Eagles line, Wentz went just 12-for-25 for 96 yards and two picks. Haskins got zero help early but showed great guts and leadership, taking over the halftime speech for coach Ron Rivera as the coach got an IV (Rivera is battling cancer). Kudos to that kid who so many were so fast to write off before he got a shot. I have serious reservations about the cast around Haskins, but this was a huge win for a franchise that had an offseason unlike any other in NFL history on multiple fronts
More Week 1 insider notes
- Speaking of Wilson, get that MVP campaign cranked up for him, too. He got to come out throwing and that should remain the case. Ridiculous he hasn't been getting annual votes. ...
- Besides that bad Beckham drop (his body language looked off to me all day, by the way), the Browns also got too cute with a botched fake punt early, missed that field goal, got shredded in the return game at times, turned the ball over and looked way too much like we expect the Browns to look like. "It's hard to say we did anything good," Kevin Stefanski said after the game. Well, their first six carries went for 66 yards and the combo of Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb looked dominant but the game flow and mounting deficit took them out of the game and Baker Mayfield did not great by any stretch ...
- Josh Allen had 59 yards rushing in the first half while the entire Jets team had 20. Long, long year ahead for Gang Green.