Imagine you’re Neo from The Matrix, and you’ve just had all of the rules of American football downloaded into your brain, but you don’t know the history of the sport and the first game you ever watched was the NFL season opener on Thursday night. (Then write me a short story with this as the premise.) In this reality, you would be thinking, Huh, that Mahomes guy looked like he could be pretty good if they could just get him some receiving help, and then you would move on with saving us all from computers or whatever the premise of that series actually was.
You wouldn’t realize that the drama inherent in that (kind of boring) game was that the Chiefs now, entering week two of the NFL season, have one third of the losses they had all of last year, including the postseason. And that they have been to the AFC Championship five times in the last five years. And that this loss was to a team that has not won a playoff game since the first Bush administration.
If I were a Chiefs fan, I’d be of two minds about the loss. On one hand, I’d want to discount it. Give me Kelce, I’d say, and we win that game; that, at least, is more or less inarguably true. And even with all those drops and hard offensive sledding, we only lost by one. Any given Sunday, man. All true, sure.
But I would also be very uneasy: with Kelce down, Mahomes is trying to play jazz solos on a kazoo. And as bad as any of the drops were, they weren’t what lost the game. Consider:
With 12:23 left to go in the game, the reigning world champion Chiefs were on the Detroit 21 yard line. It was 3rd and 2. At that time they were up 17 to 14. When Mahomes’s pass bounced off the ground, they faced a decision: they could take a short field goal to go up by six—which is, of course, what they did do—or they could gain two yards on fourth down in an attempt to take the first two score lead of the game. If they failed to gain these two yards, they would still be up by three. All I’m saying is that on a night where, other than the amount of buttered popcorn the whole receiving corps was munching pregame, the most exciting thing to occur was Campbell’s decision to go for it on fourth down twice, this was the time for Reid to flex. If the Chiefs had made it and scored a touchdown, all else being equal, they win the game by three rather than lose by one. If they don’t make the attempt, all else being equal, they lose the game by four rather than by one. It seems like Reid himself realized this and tried to make up for it by bizarrely trying for fourth down conversions with 20 and then 25 yards to go (false start), with two minutes left from their own side of the field.
It all makes me wonder if longtime, much passed-over offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was the grease that kept everything moving smoothly on that beautiful offense: massaging things with the many, mostly interchangeable wideouts, reminding Reid about time management and giving input on down and distance calls, keeping Mahomes in a good place mentally. (Remember, he always used to be talking to Mahomes with the touchpad thing in front of them? Without him, Mahomes was staring at the field making a horrible smile-of-agitation the whole game. He looked like I feel when somebody’s had too much to drink and I’m listening to their stories.)
The Chiefs aren’t going to go gently. They’ll win ten plus games this year. But I wonder if they’ll be sending sad remember-the-good-times texts to Bieniemy soon.
A Nice Literary Touch
-If you did your assigned reading this week—or in like ninth grade or whatever—you would have, very early on, come across Holden Caufield not attending a football game. He is standing up on a hill watching the phenomenon of other people enjoying a football game: “You could see the whole field from there,” he says, “and you could see the two teams bashing each other all over the place.” Holden will, over the next hundred or so pages, physically assault his roommate, make jokes about going hunting for people, and indulge in intense, vivid violent fantasies. I think Salinger is on to something here: people will often blow off football as being ‘barbaric’ or symptomatic of a violent culture, but this, for most people, is not a reasoned critique. It’s a way to feel superior and aloof. “You never saw so many phonies in all your life.”
-During the Detroit/ Kansas City game, referee John Hussey called a false start on poor “everyone but the center,” who I’ve heard blamed in various college and preseason games. We should note that in the ESPN play-by-play, Frank Ragnow is credited with the penalty. But he’s the center! IT WASN’T HIM!!
-Nearing halftime, Atlanta’s Desmond Ridder was 5/6 on passing… for nine yards. But hey, 1.8 yards per completion is better than 1.7 yards per completion!
-Darren Waller caught his first pass as a Giant with about 4 minutes left in the first half in the game against the Cowboys, converting a first down. He made a first down signal and dropped the ball emphatically. His team was, at that time, down 26-0.
-Micah Parsons started boxing training because he was tired of getting punched in the head by offensive tackles? That’s—kind of sad. Sort of unpleasant to think about the sheer violence of the trenches sometimes. Also terrifying for anyone who has to line up against Micah Parsons.
Tis Better to Have Balled and Lost…
-I am still startled by Sean Payton’s Saints opening the second half of the Super Bowl with an onside kick, and that happened thirteen years ago. His opening his tenure in Denver with an onside kick should have immediately guaranteed a victory, if nothing else than for style points.
-It was three minutes into the fourth quarter with the Eagles up by eight points in a game where everything had started to go wrong for the defending NFC champions. Every Birds fan in the universe had a flash of joy when the Mac Jones, under pressure, threw obviously off target on fourth down. And then that millisecond of joy turned to shocked horror as tight end Hayden Hunter made one of the crazier catches you’ll ever see, ripping the ball one handed out of the air while simultaneously being pulled down by a linebacker. The drive still ended on downs, but only after a few more minutes of panic on cheesesteak-weakened hearts.
Guys I Like this Week More than Previous Weeks
-Receivers named Zay. I didn’t think I would care about a Baltimore wideout any time during the Jackson era, but Zay Flowers is good and fun and high energy. In Jacksonville, Zay Jones made a memorably great sticky hands catch while horizontal to score a touchdown.
-Some recently promoted gentlemen: I didn’t really buy the hiring of Shane Steichen or DeMeco Ryans. I thought both of them were probably fine at their jobs, but the talent around them was so obvious that I thought anybody should have been able to be roughly as good. Plus I thought Frank Reich and (especially) Lovie Smith had been scapegoated. But both new guys had their teams looking notably friskier than they had in years past and seemed comfortable in the role. And at least after one week, Philly fans are missing Steichen’s playcalling.
Preview Week 2
-Note. Not every team will be previewed, because some teams are beneath my notice. The Texans were more interesting than I thought, but the Colts were worse, so I’m leaving them both off. The Cardinals looked livelier than I had imagined them to be, but the Giants were unwatchable, so they’re gone too. Until I see anything that makes me say oooooh, I’m planning to pay no attention to the Saints or the Panthers.
Vikings @ Eagles:
For the second year in a row, the Eagles and Vikings play each other in week two! Can Cousins and the Vikings overcome two of their weaknesses—prime time and a great pass rush? Can Jalen Hurts look better than he did against Belichick’s defense?
Packers @ Falcons:
Is Farve-to-Rodgers-to-Love really going to be an ascending arrow of Hall of Famers? (Let’s see more than three good halves of football first, man.)
Raiders @ Bills:
How is it that Josh Allen can do things like dive like unto a dolphin into multiple defenders and play after play and remain fine? How long is this guy going to remain upright? And how long will physically fragile Garoppolo remain uninjured for the Raiders? (Does anyone remember that Shyamalan movie Unbreakable? Was that actually good, or did I just not understand movies when I was a kid?)
Ravens @ Bengals:
Was Burrow still recovering from a ‘highest player in NFL history’ binge last week, or is something drastically wrong with the offense? Can the Baltimore defense look as good as it did against a very raw Houston squad?
Seahawks @ Lions:
Is this Lions team ready to show they don’t just run on emotion and luck? Can they string some wins together? Are the Seahawks about to go from a feel-good story to a non-story?
Chargers @ Titans:
A defense that looked good up against a bad offense last week, playing against an offense that looked great against a bad defense last week. Which confusing team triumphs? Does either coach actually know what he’s doing?
Bears @ Bucs:
We had an offseason full of hype about Justin Fields, but the guy might just not be good at football. Can Baker Mayfield earn himself a new commercial series in the Florida markets with back to back cromulent starts?
Chiefs @ Jaguars:
Can an extra week of work with the jugs machine make the Kansas City offense look like world beaters again? Does Trevor Lawrence’s hair get in his eyes once every five passes or so?
Niners @ Rams:
Remember how Seattle was beating San Fran going into the half of their Wild Card game last year? Can the Rams achieve that level of staving-off-the-inevitable?
Jets @ Cowboys:
Why has no one given Dan Quinn a head coaching job? (Seriously, for the good of everyone bothered by Cowboys fans, that man needs to go.) Will the reign of Rodgers in New York end with exactly no completed passes?
Commies @ Broncos:
As a football fan, I think I like Sam Howell’s commitment to winning ugly more than Russell Wilson’s commitment to losing beautifully. Will these quarterbacks change their ways?
Dolphins @ Pats:
When was the last time Miami/ New England was this compelling? I mean, FitzMagic was a thing but not much of a thing. Am I right that Judon and the Destroyers is an awesome band name, or are my aesthetics a little off?
Browns @ Steelers:
The Browns just looked great and the Steelers just looked pitiably awful. Normally the dynamics of these teams are totally reversed. Can Kenny Pickett show that he’s not awful when he’s not being attacked from all sides on every snap? Will he ever get that luxury?
Broaden Your Horizons
-This week, read Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. It’s a brilliant short novel set in New York about a manic dude who realizes there is much in life to celebrate even though he’s ruined everything. This should be good for New York fans, who will need encouragement in the coming months.