They were so bolstered by their success in December and January one year ago, so emboldened by the idea that they had finally gotten past their choke-filled recent history. When the Dallas Cowboys finally won a playoff game last January for the first time in 13 years, Jerry Jones was so sure his suffering was over that he stood in the middle of his team’s locker room and shouted “The demons are gone!”
Well, maybe they were. But they’re back. And the Cowboys’ train towards playing Super Bowl XLV in their own stadium may have gotten an early, self-inflicted derailment.
It was so stunning, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine this happening to anyone but the Cowboys — the team that once blew a playoff game when Tony Romo bobbled the snap on a game-winning 19-yard field goal. This may have been the season opener, not a playoff game, but the pain was just as bad.
It all started to unravel for the Cowboys on Sunday night when they were trailing the Washington Redskins 3–0, sitting at their own 36-yard line with time for one more play before the half. With 64 yards between them and the end zone and no time to get into field goal range, even the most casual football fan knows the only choice is to take a knee.
But Wade Phillips, the Cowboys’ always embattled coach, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett would have none of that. They called for a “Hail Mary” pass, which was risky enough, but for some reason Romo decided to throw a short pass to running back Tashard Choice.
Then DeAngelo Hall, the Redskins’ quarterback, stripped him, recovered the fumble and returned it 37 yards for a game-changing touchdown that put Washington up 10–0 at halftime of a game they would go on to win 13–7.
Yes, the Cowboys nearly won it anyway — the game-winning, 13-yard touchdown pass was nullified on the final play of the game by a holding penalty on tackle Alex Barron. But that was poetic justice considering their remarkably stupid call at the end of the first half.
“That’s my fault before the half,” Phillips sais. “We should’ve taken a knee.”
That’s noble that he’d take the blame for a colossally bad decision, and I’m sure the feeling inside Valley Ranch is that one lost game and one bad call doesn’t mean their season is over. The problem is that these are the Cowboys and it’s always something, isn’t it? Year in and year out they seem to have as much talent as any team in football.
But something always seems to go wrong.
For years, in fact, that was the law. That’s why “America’s Team” had gone without a playoff victory since 1996. It wasn’t that Jones wasn’t willing to spend on top players or a top coach. It was … well, “demons” was about as good an explanation as anything else.
Then last year they pounded the Philadelphia Eagles 34–14 in the first round. Sure, they were crushed by the Minnesota Vikings one week later. But the big picture was still bright. Before last year, they were 5–8 in December under Romo. And things looked dire when they started last December 0–2.
But then they shocked the Saints in New Orleans and posted back-to-back shutouts over Washington and Philly before knocking off the Eagles in the playoffs, too. That’s a 4–0 stretch in the most important part of the season. They made smart calls, played well and did everything right. The demons, indeed, looked gone.
Then, as Jones saw on Sunday, those demons made an unexpected and unwanted return to the Cowboys’ locker room — though Jones, diplomatically, wasn’t fingering anyone with the blame.
“Everybody had a hand in some mistakes that kept us from winning this game,” Jones said. “I hate this for our fans. We know that the road to success in this thing has ups and downs, but I am surprised.”
Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe this is just a blip on the Cowboys’ Super Bowl radar. Maybe they now have the toughness to overcome it. Maybe they have the character in the locker room that it won’t disintegrate into a circus like it has done in previous years. Maybe one loss, one demon really can’t define a team.
But history — at least the last decade or so — isn’t exactly on the Cowboys’ side. Those demons got pretty comfortable inside their heads in recent years. For one night, it appeared those demons were back.
Finally we can stop speculating. Finally, we have some current, real life data to play with. Now, it's easy to jump to unwarranted conclusions after Week 1, as anomalies do certainly occur, but we are confident in the following predictions. In a column that probably could have gone on forever, heading into Week 2, we have chosen only the cream of the crop risers, and the unfortunate but true fallers.
Arian Foster, RB, Texans
Are you kidding me? 231 yards and three TDs against the Colts in Week 1 makes Foster the fantasy player of the week by a landslide. If you started him in a basic seasonal league, there's a good chance he won your matchup for you single handedly. The scary thing is that the Texans didn’t even really need to use their incredibly potent passing attack. While the yards may not be there every week, the touchdowns will. Look for Foster to continue to play at a high level again next week against the Redskins.
Austin Collie, WR, Colts
Perhaps one of my best calls was telling fantasy owners honestly that the second year man from BYU is a better fantasy option than Pierre Garçon. Even after his 10-catch, 131-yard, TD performance against the Texans in Week 1 you may think I'm crazy, but in PPR leagues, Collie is a must-own and a borderline must-start. With Peyton Manning not seeing much time to throw due to a banged up offensive line, he'll continue to look Collie’s way often. Collie proved to be the more efficient receiver, catching 10 of 11 targets, as Garçon contributed a few key drops against the Texans. The Colts host the Giants in Week 2, and Collie is a solid WR3 in PPR formats. On top of all of this, Anthony Gonzalez went down with an ankle injury in Week 1, which means Collie is further cemented in as the Colts primary slot receiver.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
Week 1 began to confirm that the 2009 first round pick truly is the Giants number 1 receiver, as he hauled in four balls for 75 yards and three TDs, looking a lot like Randy Moss —unstoppable against one-on-one coverage. After this performance, he should be an automatic start moving forward.
Wes Welker, WR Patriots
Well, any doubts about just how healthy Welker was heading into Week 1 have been completely erased after his eight-catch, 64-yard, two-TD performance against the Bengals. After most fantasy players underrated him due to health concerns, there's no reason to leave him on your bench moving forward.
Jordan Shipley, WR, Bengals
The third round slot receiver from Texas recorded five catches for 82 yards in his first ever NFL game. Even though the Bengals don't figure to be down by nearly 30 points heading into the second half most weeks, it's still impressive that Shipley was this involved in the Bengals game plan. Dynasty owners should consider him a potential Wes Welker/Austin Collie in 2011 after Terrell Owens' contractual obligation is up.
Matt Forte, RB, Bears
Any doubts about Forte "being a Mike Martz guy" can be thrown out the window, as screen passes to him were a crucial component of the Bears offense against the Lions in Week 1. The third year RB caught seven balls for 151 yards and two scores, while also adding 50 on the ground. It looks like he's well on his way to being Chicago's leading receiver, and a must start RB2 in all leagues.
Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seahawks
The 34 year old looked rejuvenated, throwing for 170 yards and two scores and rushing for another. The Seahawks also happen to face the Denver Broncos’pass defense in Week 2, followed by the Chargers and Rams —all three of whom don't necessarily have the best passing defenses in the league. As long as he's healthy, consider Hass a solid fantasy play.
Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
Well, the Kevin Kolb era didn't last long in Philly. Now, don't get me wrong, Andy Reid is still saying that Kolb is the starter when healthy. It's the "when healthy" part that concerns me. Kolb (concussion) isn't expected to practice until Friday, which really puts his Week 2 status in doubt, which is too bad, because the Eagles play the Lions, who have the worst secondary in the league. Then, there's the fact that Vick just flat out looked phenomenal at times against the Packers. He passed for 175 yards and a score, while rushing 11 times for 103 yards. I just have a feeling that it could be the Mike Vick show for a few more weeks in Philly. if you own Kolb, add Vick (without dropping Kolb).
Patrick Chung, SS, Patriots
Wow. The second rounder from Oregon really took advantage of his Week 1 start, racking up 12 solo tackles and four assisted. I'd say he more than solidified the starting gig moving forward, and the really scary thing is that he kind of looks like the next Rodney Harrison.
Brandon Jackson, RB, Packers
A guy I've written about more than a few times this offseason as a potential sleeper has just rocketed up waiver wire lists heading into Week 2. The 24-year-old fourth year former second rounder from Nebraska has looked good when filling in for Ryan Grant. Now he'll have a real opportunity with the starter out with an ankle in Week 2.
Unfortunately, with potential star QB Matthew Stafford suffering a shoulder injury in Week 1, it looks like Shaun Hill will be the team's QB for the near future, which doesn't bode well for receivers Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson. Not that you should bench Megatron necessarily, but his ceiling will be much lower as long as Stafford is out.
Paul Hickey is the lead contributor for Athlon Fantasy Football and operates the website nooffseason.com, a 365-day resource for obsessive fantasy owners who eat, breathe and sleep fantasy football. While the site appeals to all fantasy heads, there is a special emphasis on dynasty formats and IDP leagues.
There’s a new one-word mantra in Big D: Finish. Had the Cowboys finished either of their two respective halves of football, they’d be atop their division with a key win over an East rival. Instead, they’re in an early hole. The Cowboys outgained the Redskins, 380 yards to 250. Tony Romo was largely poised and efficient, completing nearly 66 percent of his passes with a touchdown and no interceptions. The Cowboy defense harassed Donovan McNabb into a 15-of-32 debut in burgundy and gold. But with four seconds left in the first half, Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was possessed by the spirit of Joe Pisarcik and decided to run a play, a shovel pass to Tashard Choice, whose struggle for stat-padding yardage led to a strip and a shocking touchdown by DeAngelo Hall. Then, with the ’Boys at the Redskins 13 on the game’s final play, Romo scrambled and found Roy Williams alone in the corner of the end zone — but right tackle Alex Barron had embraced Brian Orakpo like a long-lost love. Holding. Game over. “We made far too many mistakes,” Romo said in the night’s understatement, “and we weren’t able to overcome them.”
Chris Johnson: Still electrifying
It was vintage CJ out there against the still-hapless Raiders. The Oakland D was stout early, holding Johnson to a few timid, probing runs amid the tall timber. Then, like Keyser Soze, poof — he was gone. Johnson’s 76-yard sprint in the second quarter gave Tennessee an insurmountable 24–3 lead and propelled him to his 12th consecutive 100-yard game. It also provided more than half of his 142 yards, but that’s CJ’s MO. The home run, and the threat thereof, will be Tennessee’s primary offensive weapon this season. Johnson’s presence allowed receiver Nate Washington to run free for a tone-setting first-quarter 56-yard TD reception from Vince Young. “A lot of teams in this league are going to be fearful of what he can do,” Washington said of Johnson. “When (Young) faked it to Chris, I was able to see the safety and corner bite down. I was just able to run right by them.” Be afraid, AFC South. Very afraid.
Welcome back, Michael Vick
Michael Vick’s last start in the NFL came on the last day of 2006. In his first meaningful action since then, Vick almost salvaged a dogfight with the Packers, but in the end the Eagles were more bark than bite. (Sorry, I’ll stop now). After a concussion knocked starter Kevin Kolb out of the game, Vick keyed an explosive second half, completing 16-of-24 passes for 175 yards and a score and rushing for 103 yards, becoming only the third Eagle QB with 175 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the same game since 1960. It wasn’t quite enough, as the Packers held on to win 27–20, but it was an impressive flashback to his Superman days in Atlanta. Andy Reid says there’s no quarterback controversy in Philly — Kolb’s still his guy — the results would seem to argue otherwise, as does Vick. “I feel like if I had been out there for four quarters, maybe we would've had a chance to win the game,” he said. He just might be right.
Sunday’s breakout star: Arian Foster
The helpful folks at Elias strike again, informing us that Arian Foster’s 231-yard performance was the second-best opening day rushing performance in NFL history, surpassed only by O.J. Simpson’s 250 yards to open his 2,000-yard 1973 season. Not bad for a former undrafted practice squadder. Foster shredded the Colts run defense all day, helping the Texans compile a franchise-record 257 yards on the ground in a physically dominant 34–24 win. His three second-half touchdowns enabled the Texans to hold off a Peyton Manning comeback attempt and back up some of that offseason smack talk. So, after years of teasing and tantalizing their fans, are the Texans finally ready to contend? I’m not ready to go there just yet — Houston has shown flashes before, only to self-destruct — but I am ready to anoint Foster as the opening week’s most pleasant surprise. That’ll have to do for now.
Petey still rules the West Coast, for now
Pete Carroll may have cultivated a surfer boy image during his stunningly successful tenure at USC, but he stalked the sidelines in LA with a determined gait, and he’s apparently brought that determination north to Seattle. But his rah-rah reputation is still certainly intact. Carroll’s Seahawks shocked the 49ers 31–6, and Petey loved every minute of it, imploring the Qwest Field crowd to join him in his celebrating his triumphant return to pro football. “He was probably the most enthusiastic person in the place,” said linebacker Lofa Tatupu. “Pete wants to get out there and hit.”
Yeah, so I really wish somebody would have told me that the now infamous phrase "RBBC" - short for "running back by committee" could potentially extend to the signal caller position in Week 1 of the 2010 NFL season.
The biggest mistake many fantasy owners make after Week 1 is to put aside all the observations and expectations they carried into the season and overrate what happened in the first set of real games.
I love to comb to free-agent market after the league has run through its first set of adds and drops to see which players have already been orphaned. That’s the biggest thing to watch for this week. One good or bad week doesn’t paint a full-season picture.
Of course, football also presents the shortest season, so Week 1 performances can’t be ignored either. Here are some little-owned guys worth grabbing if you have a spot. (Just don’t go cutting C.J. Spiller to create that spot.)
David Garrard, QB, Jaguars
He was twice a subject of my sleeper columns in this space and a solid fantasy performer before this season. Yet, Garrard ended Sunday night owned in just 23 percent of Yahoo! leagues. Three touchdown passes in the first week will change that in a hurry, and it’s not as if Garrard loaded up against a terrible defense. Last year, at least, Denver allowed the third fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks. This is obviously a new year, but the Broncos start the same secondary as they did in 2009. Garrard’s 76.2 percent completion rate made the performance look even better.
Mark Clayton, WR, Rams
One game certainly does not tell us the whole story on target distribution, but Clayton drew a team-high 16 looks in Sunday’s loss to Arizona less than a week after joining the team. Everyone’s numbers were inflated by the 55 pass attempts, which certainly won’t be the norm (or else we’ll be talking about Sam Bradford’s untimely death by Week 6), but Clayton led by any measure.
In just the first half, Clayton drew 10 targets, twice as many as any other Ram to that point. Add that to word that he and Bradford spent some off-season time practicing together, plus Laurent Robinson’s injury history (he left Sunday’s game at one point but returned), and Clayton should be picked up this week in any league of reasonable depth. That’s especially true in point-per-reception formats, which will downplay a likely lack of touchdowns. Clayton has been an inconsistent performer throughout his career, but his talent hasn’t been questioned.
Mike Thomas, WR, Jaguars
Jacksonville’s No. 2 wideout was No. 1 on opening day, tallying twice as many receptions (six) as any teammate and drawing seven targets to Mike Sims-Walker’s two. Thomas didn’t snag any of Garrard’s three scoring passes, but the PPR value is obvious, and if he stays near this usage level, enough touchdowns (at least five or six) should come. According to FootballOutsiders.com, Thomas presented the league’s best catch rate last year among wide receivers with at least 30 receptions.
Brandon Jackson, RB, Packers
Consider this a prime argument for drafting a handcuff. Ryan Grant left Sunday’s victory at Philadelphia with a sprained ankle, which he says he doesn’t expect to keep him out in Week 2. Players say a lot of things, though, and we can’t always (ever?) trust them.
It’s impossible to know at this point whether Grant will be ready for next Sunday, and Jackson had already drawn praise from his coaches for a strong camp and preseason. He stepped in for 18 carries (63 yards) and a pair of receptions against the Eagles and would draw Buffalo in Week 2 if he fills in again. Even if Grant is able to go, can we trust the ankle to not be a problem again? Of course not. Give Jackson a shot where possible.
Jermaine Gresham, TE, Bengals
A second tight end isn’t for every league. If you don’t have a flex position (or at least one that includes tight ends) or have fairly shallow rosters, then you get one guy at the position and move on. Others, though, should take notice at the level of use for Gresham in his first game.
The rookie tight end was the third most targeted Bengal, getting 10 passes and catching six for 25 yards and a touchdown. Like with the Rams example above, the totals here are skewed by the 50 pass attempts for Carson Palmer in a game in which Cincinnati trailed big and quickly. Still, Gresham drew four targets through the first half compared with just two for Chad Ochocinco (eight for Terrell Owens) and caught the Bengals’ first touchdown pass of the year.
There’s no question about the talent or size on the guy who was drafted in the first round despite missing the 2009 season, so the only wonder is whether he can get the ball enough. Sunday provided encouragement on that front.
Wait and watch
Waiting back on potential breakout performers can leave one missing out, but that doesn’t mean you need to find a roster spot for everyone who had a good first week. Peyton Hillis, for example, scored Cleveland’s lone rushing touchdown against Tampa but also garnered just nine carries and fumbled twice. That workload matched Jerome Harrison’s, James Davis figures to factor in at some point and even Josh Cribbs’ three rushes should increase based on his 2009 carries and current role. Fumbling twice also doesn’t help a running back’s case, particularly for goal-line touches. Hillis shouldn’t be dropped by those who own him and may well have a strong season. Just don’t trip over your current backs trying to claim him.
Out in Denver, meanwhile, fantasy owners are looking for an answer at receiver. Eddie Royal is owned in most leagues, and those who took a late-round shot have to be pleased with his eight-catch opener. That was exactly the kind of game envisioned last year when he was going in Round 5 or 6. Keep in mind, though, that this one came against a Jacksonville defense that played horribly against the pass last year -- to the point that it’s probably not fair to say the Jags even played ”against” it. It’s too early to say that’ll be the case this year, too, but they’re guilty until proven innocent in this court. This is even more relevant when you find yourself getting excited about Brandon Lloyd’s 117 yards. We’ve seen this before from Lloyd, who went for 124 yards in a single week in 2008 and finished 2009 with a 95-yard effort. Through eight NFL seasons, though, he has never reached 50 catches. He has the talent but doesn’t deserve benefit of the doubt.
Matt Schauf is the senior football writer for RapidDraft.com.
New head coach Mike Shanahan and new starting quarterback Donovan McNabb make their Washington Redskins debuts on the grandest stage — Sunday night against the team’s biggest rival. The cornerstones of the Redskins’ rebuilding effort arrived in the offseason with impressive resumes but a lot to prove after being jettisoned by their respective previous employers. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations and look to end the honeymoon.