It's been a while since the last Monday Morning Jones. Which is fine, because ... there really wasn't anything to talk about while I was gone. I took a vacation, and so did the sports world. Yeah, I got it like that.
But football's back, and that's about as good as it gets. To the weekend that was ...
Well, Peyton Manning looked pretty good. Was there any question about Manning that he didn't emphatically dismiss in the Broncos' 31-19 win over the Steelers? Pittsburgh sacked him four times -- and they weren't love taps -- and Manning handled it without incident. Playing in a new offense for the first time in his pro career, and with receivers he's not as familiar with as the old gang in Indianapolis, he looked as precise as anyone could expect. He didn't throw any interceptions, completed 19-26 for 253 yards and two touchdowns, and even galloped seven yards for a first down. We'll see how good Manning can make the Broncos, but if they come up short, it won't be because he wasn't ready to return to the NFL. He'll never again be good as new, but he looked Sunday like he was more than good enough.
Hail to RGIII! It would be silly to draw many long-run conclusions from Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck's first games. Those around Luck are absolutely sold on him, and that's good enough for now. But it wasn't long ago that Griffin was almost universally seen as the "other" elite quarterback in the draft, one whom the Colts didn't seem to seriously consider. It was certainly fair to favor Luck's experience in a pro style offense vis-a-vis Griffin's time playing in a spread, but it seemed few saw the two as prospects of equal value. (VIDEO of RGIII's first TD pass.)
If preparedness was supposed to be a concern about Griffin, he must be one helluva quick study. In an offense tailor-made to showcase his physical and mental gifts, Griffin looked poised and comfortable. The Redskins, who averaged 18 points per game in 2011, won 40-32 at the notoriously hostile Superdome. The man who made his new city his before playing a down somehow managed to exceed expectations in his first game. He won't average 12.3 yards per attempt every week, nor will he throw for 320 yards. But RGIII clearly isn't trying to figure out how to play quarterback in the NFL. He just outplayed Drew Brees. He's learning how to play quarterback well, and there's a good chance that may happen faster than even the most optimistic projections.
See, the Jets just wanted their first touchdown to be a surprise ... The safe money this year was on the Jets' offense struggling and Buffalo's defense, bolstered by the addition of Mario Williams, rising. Maybe those things will start next week, but Sunday's 48-28 Jets' victory seemed like the exact opposite. Mark Sanchez, supposedly keeping the seat warm until Tebowmania ran wild on New York, threw for 266 yards and three touchdowns against one interception. Stephen Hill, the receiver Rex Ryan kinda-sorta didn't want, hauled in two scores. And Tim Tebow, the vaunted x-factor, ran for 11 yards and recovered an onside kick. The one problem for the Jets -- C.J. Spiller ran for 169 yards, a total unseen from the Bills since O.J. Simpson and the Electric Company. Ground and Pound can go both ways. And unless the Jets expect to win shootouts every week, there's reason to temper optimism in spite of verifiable proof the Jets can score a touchdown.
Michael Vick and the Eagles avoid their first crisis of 2012. Considering how much attention Michael Vick has received since he was drafted 11 years ago, that this year will be his most scrutinized is saying a lot. That's why, even if just in the name of keeping things peaceful, games like Sunday's win against the Browns won't cut it. Only a select few can be absolved of a four-interception performance with a game-winning drive at the end of a 17-16 win, especially against an inferior opponent like Cleveland. The Eagles are loaded on both sides of the ball and a legitimate Super Bowl contender (they're my pick to win the NFC). If Vick is inefficient and loose with the ball this season, it will be fair to ask if he'll ever be a quarterback who can lead a team to the Super Bowl. All that said, here's a question for Andy Reid: how efficient and careful can Vick be expected to be when he attempts 56 passes -- plus two sacks -- against 30 rushes as a team?
The Packers and Niners look about like we remembered. Even as the Packers marched toward a 15-1 season in 2011, the question remained whether a team with such a porous defense could win the Super Bowl. It clearly wasn't enough last year, and that will be the context for evaluating Green Bay all season. After being battered on the ground and dissected through the air by the 49ers in a 30-22 home loss, it's hard to find much improvement from the unit that finished 32nd in total defense last season. As for the 49ers, they're keeping their throwback style fresh. While most of the elite teams wing it all over the yard, Jim Harbaugh's unit continues to win by beating people up. They ran for 186 yards, made Green Bay's ground game nonexistent, and held the Packers offense to just two touchdowns. San Francisco was predictably smashmouth, with a little Randy Moss thrown in. It's early, but it's hard to imagine the Niners being much different than what we saw Sunday.
From what I saw, the replacement refs were embarrassing. Unless you work for a television network, it's unlikely you saw enough to fully evaluate the replacement officials performance. But the game to which I paid the most attention, Packers-49ers, was bad enough to declare the whole weekend an embarrassment. And were that not enough, watching the zebras award Seattle a fourth timeout on a last-minute drive into Arizona's red zone drove the point home. While even the regular officials make mistakes, that even one crew could look as clueless as the one in Lambeau Field means something needs to change, and soon. The refs missed obvious false start calls. They picked up a flag on an obvious block in the back on Randall Cobb's 75-yard punt return touchdown, apparently because of pressure from the crowd and/or sidelines. In the first half, the Niners were penalized 10 yards for a block in the back ... when they were the kicking team.
Mistakes are one thing. Incompetence is another, and it will rear its head, no matter how hard the officials swallow (their whistles) and simply try to stay out of the way. And no matter how badly the NFL would like fans to ignore the officials, it's impossible as long as fans are aware they are substandard. If the league is concerned with the quality of its product, Week 1 should motivate someone to make a deal with its locked out officials happen. Seeing how we'll all be back to watch next week, though, it's unlikely anything will change until the officials give in to the league's wishes.
Serena beats two opponents to win the U.S. Open. Serena Williams dominated the first set of the women's final at the U.S. Open. She also dominated the second, with a catch -- she was beating herself. In fact, of the 87 points Victoria Azarenka won in Williams' 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory, 45 were courtesy of Serena's unforced errors. Whether due to flat-footed forehands or double faults, Serena's mistakes combined with Azarenka's resiliency made an entertaining match where a blowout seemed likely. But in the end, it was Azarenka who made three errors when serving for the match and Williams who gritted out the comeback that mattered most.
And so ends another Grand Slam season in the career of Serena Williams. One that started with some wondering if she was in her twilight ended with two Grand Slams, an Olympic gold medal, and little doubt that, no matter what the WTA's rankings say, she's the best player in the world.
Maybe the Stephen Strasburg Shutdown isn't crazy ... or is it? I'm neither a doctor nor a pitching coach, nor have I spent a moment around the Washington Nationals. Like everyone else, I can't recall a situation quite like Strasburg's, so I won't pretend I know the answer. However, after a July 20 no-decision against the Braves, Strasburg had given up four earned runs twice all season. Since, he's given up five or more runs three times. His breaking ball has been less effective as the season has gone on. Since the All-Star Break, he has the highest ERA of all the Nats' starters. None of this is to say Nats GM Mike Rizzo's Operation Shutdown was the right play. But it isn't ridiculous to think it's better to protect the future of Strasburg's arm than overextend it in baseball's postseason, one of pro sports' great crapshoots.
What's weird here is the way Davey Johnson made the decision his own, blaming Strasburg's struggles on mental fatigue from the pending shutdown, not the physical fatigue the front office fears. Maybe I'm reaching, but that sounded more like a dig at the front office from Johnson and him taking control of who plays when on his team. Rizzo says he's OK with it, and he should be. He gets what he wants from the deal. But after hearing everything was hunky dory between Johnson and Rizzo after a spat two weeks ago, it's fair to wonder how good things really are.
Really, someone loaned Lance Thomas $70,000. A hearty "nice try" goes out to whoever tried to dump the news of a lawsuit against former Duke basketball player Lance Thomas late on the Friday afternoon before the first NFL Sunday. That said, the possibility that Duke's 2010 could be vacated is too big to ignore. There's no reason to wag a finger at Duke, which surely told Thomas taking out a $70,000 loan would probably be an NCAA violation. However, all should consider that Duke, North Carolina and Penn State -- three of the NCAA's model programs -- have all been ensnared in serious NCAA issues in the last two years. The differences so many found between these blueblood programs and rogues like Memphis and Kentucky seems smaller and smaller each day. That's not to indict or acquit anyone. But it's clearer than ever that, if one looks hard enough at any big-time program, they'll find something "wrong." Some programs are worse than others. But these days, the gap between the good guys and bad seems too small to be worth discussing.
A closing thought on college athletes. In an otherwise uneventful weekend of college football, Tulane safety Devon Walker suffered a fractured spine. As of this writing, doctors are unsure if he'll be paralyzed. This happened two days after I attended a symposium at Santa Clara University's law school on the role of athletics in higher education. While there, I listened to a speech where NCAA chief policy officer Wallace Renfro took over 30 minutes giving a speech that explained why it was imperative that colleges maximize revenue through sport, and why it was just as important to protect "amateurism."
Walker's injury isn't a time to discuss player compensation. It was, however, a jarring reminder that those are young men, human beings, playing college football. When they suffer horrific injuries, it hits the viewer that these action figures are truly as fragile as anyone else. When someone's on the field receiving CPR, how else can one see him?
Well, we shouldn't need a life-threatening reminder of athletes' humanity. For too many, they are simply performers sent to entertain us on fall Saturdays. In truth, they risk life and limb for the coaches and schools they make rich and the fans who line their coffers. They deserve better than they receive. Not just monetarily, but they also deserve concern and compassion from the people who cheer them on. They are vulnerable off the field, just as they are in competition. And one shouldn't have to suffer an unimaginable fate to earn our empathy.