With two weeks in the books, let’s take a look at the level of quarterback play around the NFL:
■ One thing is clear, it’s Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and everyone else. If we rank the quarterbacks by tiers, only those three belong in the highest level. Sorry, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
Brady has reached a new level of Zen to start the season, and he is only the second player in NFL history with seven touchdown passes and no interceptions through two games (Manning, 2013). Roethlisberger is averaging an otherworldly 11.1 yards per attempt and is completing 72.3 percent of his passes. Rodgers’s numbers are down a bit (averaging only 219 passing yards), but he has five TD passes against no interceptions and is still the best in the game with his combination of arm strength, mobility, and intelligence.
As for Manning, anyone who watched the Sept. 17 Chiefs-Broncos game knows he’s running on fumes. He’s completing only 58.8 percent of passes, averaging 215.5 yards per game, has three TD passes against two interceptions, his arm is shot, and on top of it, coach Gary Kubiak is trying to have him run a play-action, bootleg offense that doesn’t suit his style anymore. But you have to give Manning credit for being able to get it done with intelligence, timing, and accuracy. He’s basically a better version of Chad Pennington, who led the Dolphins to the 2008 AFC East title with nothing left in his arm.
■ When you think of the next tier of quarterbacks, you probably think of Manning, Brees, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, and Matt Ryan. But Carson Palmer is playing better than all of those guys, and arguably is playing as well as Brady, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger. Palmer quietly has seven TD passes, one interception, a ridiculous 124.4 passer rating, and more importantly, has the Cardinals at 2-0, both wins coming by double digits.
Palmer also is averaging 8.8 yards per attempt and hasn’t taken a sack. That he’s doing this 10 months after tearing his ACL for the second time makes it all the more impressive. At minimum, the Comeback Player of the Year award is his to lose.
■ Is Brees done? Last year, it was Brady hearing talk about how the end was near. Now it’s Brees’s turn.
Manning gets all the criticism for being old and having no arm strength, but it’s time to look at Brees, too. Remember, Brees’s career was supposed to be in jeopardy when he had a 360 degree tear of his labrum and rotator cuff in 2005, and the Dolphins’ medical staff recommended the team sign Daunte Culpepper over Brees.
Brees overcame his arm issues with incredible accuracy, timing and presnap decisions to win a Super Bowl and forge a Hall of Fame career with the Saints. But Brees no longer looks like a quarterback who can make his teammates better or overcome talent deficiencies. The Saints struggled to 7-9 last year, are a mess at 0-2 this year, and Brees looks like a shell of his former self, with his deep passes wobbling badly and falling well short of his receivers. Brees’s 62.8 completion percentage would be his lowest since 2003, and his 7.1 yards per attempt would be the third-lowest mark in his 10 years with the Saints.
Brees won’t play Sunday because of an injured rotator cuff, missing his first game in six years, and it’s time to wonder how much he has left in the tank at 36.
■ There are 35 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 20 passes this year. Andrew Luck, supposed to be entering his prime in his fourth NFL season, ranks 34th with a 58.9 passer rating. He’s completing only 54.7 percent of his passes, averaging a ghastly 5.7 yards per attempt, and leads the NFL with five interceptions.
It’s hardly all Luck’s fault — the Colts’ offensive line is a mess, his receivers are running the wrong routes, and there is apparent dysfunction between the coaching staff and front office — but the Colts were embarrassed by the Bills and Jets and hardly look like a team capable of being an AFC finalist again.
■ Does Brady need to go on a pitch count? It’s early, but Brady is on pace to shatter several NFL passing records. One that he might not want to break, though, is Matthew Stafford’s 727 pass attempts in 2012. Brady has thrown the ball 91 times through two games, on pace for 728. Brady looks as spry as ever this year, but he’s 38, and throwing the ball 45 times a game at his age could lead to a dead arm later in the season.
The Patriots should probably try to establish the run a little more, or monitor Brady’s throws closely during the week. Don’t be surprised if he starts appearing on the injury report as “limited: shoulder” at some point.
■ Youngsters win on the road. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have a long way to go to develop as potential franchise quarterbacks. But give the top two picks in this year’s draft credit — not only are they both 1-1, they’ve both won on the road, no easy feat for a young quarterback.
Mariota and the Titans went down to Tampa and whipped up on Winston’s Buccaneers in Week 1, and Winston and the Bucs responded last week, beating the Saints by a touchdown.
Johnny Manziel deserves some credit, too. He threw only 39 passes in two games, and completed just 8 of 15 last week against Tennessee, but he throws a good deep ball and looked like he at least belongs in the league, which you couldn’t say last year.
GOING FOR IT
Steelers willing to take the risk
The NFL’s new extra point rule will have three expected consequences. For one, there will be more missed extra points, since the kick was moved back 13 yards (there have been nine misses through two weeks, more than the eight from all of last season). Two, defenses will try harder to block the kick, since the defense can now score two points if it returns a blocked kick all the way back. And third, teams will start going for two-point conversions more often. Through two weeks, only one team has taken advantage of the new rule, and surprisingly it’s not the Patriots.
The Steelers are 3 for 3 on two-point attempts this year, and aren’t just going for it in the fourth quarter. Last week against San Francisco, the Steelers went for two after their first two touchdowns, becoming the first team in 17 years to successfully make a two-pointer in the first quarter.
“Oh, we’re going to keep doing it,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told reporters last week. “We don’t practice it this much to not do it. We practice it every single day . . . I tried to tell you guys early on that we would do it, and I think you guys kind of didn’t quite believe it. But it’s something we feel comfortable with.”
Some of it has to do with Pittsburgh’s shaky kicker situation — new kicker Josh Scobee missed an extra point last week when the Steelers allowed him to finally kick one. But part of it is the math involved. Two-point plays historically have been successful about 47 percent of the time. Since the extra point has dipped from a 99 percent success rate to about 94, the decision has now become a coin flip over kicking the PAT or going for two.
When the weather gets worse, the extra point success rate is probably going to dip further, making the two-point conversion the statistically prudent option. And there are psychological benefits to converting two-pointers, as well — being up, 16-0, early in a game instead of 14-0 can put a lot of pressure on an opponent to keep pace.
“If you’re up, 8-0, and they go score, they have a decision to make,” Roethlisberger said. “We feel like we’re a team that’s going to do it enough that it’s going to be hard to get a bead on us.”
Patriots a team that has it all
Reporting a story about the unpredictability of the Patriots’ game plans drove home the point of how unique this team is in terms of structure and stability.
There are a few coaches who are just as smart as Bill Belichick, and a few quarterbacks who are as smart and talented as Tom Brady.
But the Patriots literally have it all — a Hall of Fame quarterback who is as much coach and a leader on the field; a Hall of Fame coach who has run his program the same way for 16 years; the same people helping Belichick make key decisions each year (Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia, Nick Caserio, Ernie Adams); many of the same key players returning year in and year out (Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Julian Edelman, Nate Solder, Rob Ninkovich, and more); and an owner in Robert Kraft smart enough to let the football people do their thing.
“Every once in a while, a team will catch lightning in a bottle,” ESPN’s Ron Jaworski said. “But no one has been as consistent as the Patriots because of the consistency they have in their organization.”
Hearing Belichick on Friday talk about how the typical Saturday pregame meetings go also drove home how meticulous the Patriots and Belichick can be. Belichick said on the day before games, he and his staff try to go over a few isolated situations that could occur.
“Now look, you can’t cover every situation in every game that could possibly come up. That would be impossible,” Belichick said. “You maybe wouldn’t cover every one of those every week, but you cover two or three of them this week, and then two or three of them the next week, and then two or three of them, so then after a cycle of four to five weeks you would have hit it.”
There’s just no way teams that are constantly replacing their quarterbacks or coaching staffs can compete with a team this meticulous that has spent the last 16 years gathering notes and learning from mistakes.
CBS commentator Rich Gannon, who called last week’s Patriots game and has Sunday’s game against the Jaguars as well, noted that Belichick and his staff went over the end of the Week 1 Giants-Cowboys game with their players to emphasize communication and clock management.
“He’s always looking for teaching moments,” Gannon said. “They don’t leave any stone unturned for a chance to get better.”
Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor earns a nomination for worst contract holdout ever. Chancellor skipped training camp and the first two weeks of the regular season as he sought to restructure the five-year, $28 million deal he signed before the 2013 season. Chancellor incurred $1.1 million in fines by skipping camp, might have to forfeit $500,000 in signing bonus money, and missed out on two game checks of more than $267,000 each (it is unclear if the Seahawks will enforce the fines and signing bonus forfeiture).
If ever there were a time for Chancellor to have a little leverage, it would be now, with the Seahawks 0-2. Instead, he caved and returned this past week without a new deal in place.
No doubt, Chancellor felt a lot of pressure from his teammates to return. But was that worth potentially costing himself a couple million dollars? Chancellor took it this far, he should have seen it through.
Is it me, or are offensive coordinators getting creative and calling more trick plays? The Ravens copied the Patriots last week and threw a touchdown pass to a tight end that was lined up in the traditional left tackle position:
The Jaguars threw a first-down pass to defensive end Tyson Alualu, who was lined up at fullback:
And the 31-yard catch and run last week by Bengals rookie Jake Fisher was the longest pass play to an offensive tackle in 27 years:
Why was Ben Roethlisberger named AFC Offensive Player of the Week last week over Brady, even though they had the same number of touchdown passes and interceptions and Brady threw for 100 more yards? The committee, comprised of the NFL’s communications staff, liked Roethlisberger’s efficiency (21 of 27 passing), incredible 13.7 yards per attempt, and the fact he didn’t commit a turnover (Brady lost a fumble) . . . Last week we wrote that the Buccaneers’ Lovie Smith is our early choice for “coach who will get fired first before the end of the season.” We might have to amend that to include the Dolphins’ Joe Philbin. Four years into his tenure, the Dolphins still are losing games they should win and self-destructing in the fourth quarter . . . Only two teams in the last six years have made the playoffs after starting 0-2 — the 2013 Panthers and 2014 Colts . . . Jaguars offensive coordinator Greg Olson said his team had the Patriots in mind this offseason went it spent big on free agent tight end Julius Thomas to pair with Marcedes Lewis. “They’ve done some good things with their two-tight-end sets,” Olson said of the Patriots . . . Speaking of the Jaguars, quarterback Blake Bortles worked last offseason with Tom House, the coach who works with Brady . . . Former Falcons and Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn continues to do amazing things off the field. Dunn’s charity has provided financial assistance and affordable housing for 144 single mothers, and tweeted last week that No. 145 is coming soon.
Stat of the week
Browns receiver/returner Travis Benjamin is the first player since Jim Brown in 1963 to score four 50-plus-yard touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season. Benjamin has touchdown catches of 50, 54 and 60 yards, and a 78-yard punt return touchdown.