The commissioner’s pet award: When Percy Harvin returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown against San Diego, the evil leprechaun on Roger Goodell’s shoulder cackled with delight. Harvin’s kickoff did two things: it tied a record for the longest return in Vikings history, and combined with Ted Ginn’s 102-yarder it gave us two return touchdowns on the opening Sunday of the NFL season.
Throw in Randall’s Cobb’s 108-yard return Thursday night that tied the league record, and that’s three kick return touchdowns this week for a combined 313 yards, the most kickoff TDs during the opening week since 1998. This is happening in a league where running the ball out of the end zone is now considered daring, non-conformist behavior.
But maybe that prevailing view will fade soon, because in the small sample size we saw today teams showed a willingness to be daring. In the same game that Ginn scored his kick return touchdown, Seattle’s Leon Washington also refused to take a knee several times when he was deep behind his own goal-line.
Teams that are confident in their kick returners and see them as a true weapon in their offensive attack could begin to accept the risk of poor field position and run the ball out of their end zone regularly, in effect wagging their finger at Goodell and his injury kid gloves. We’ll likely see this with the Bears and Devin Hester, but if Hester fails and is stopped inside the 20-yard line, Chicago is much more confident in Jay Cutler than teams like Cleveland, Seattle, and San Francisco are with the arms leading their offenses.
There will be growing pains, just like Thursday when there were four touchbacks in the first quarter at Lambeau Field, two more than there were all of last season. But weaker offenses with dynamic returners will see the risk of running a kick out from underneath their goalposts as a requirement for success instead of just a dice they can roll when they’re feeling daring.
Best Eli Manning doppelganger: Maybe this isn’t an Eli clone, and Peyton just couldn’t stay away from the football field today…any football field.
Or maybe this is the only chance Cooper had to get near a football field…any football field.
Best new hitting rules guinea pig: 49ers defensive back Madieu Williams hit Seattle tight end Anthony McCoy with San Francisco up 16-7, less than one minute to go in the third quarter, and the Seahawks pressing to close the gap. Tarvaris Jackson spotted McCoy deep up the middle around San Francisco’s 10-yard line, and unloaded a ball that split two defenders. Arriving a second late after McCoy had the ball in his grasp, Williams did what any good defensive player who would like to remain employed in the NFL should do: he dislodged the ball with a sound hit, leading with his shoulder and connecting with McCoy’s shoulder while both players were suspended in the air.
The result? A 15-yard penalty for hitting a defenseless receiver. This is the new NFL, a league taking a hard stance against head injuries, and a league very much living in the year 2011 as far as brain trauma is concerned. It’s a stance that’s generated much debate and has polarized opinion.
We won’t continue that debate here, but there is one question that remains unanswered. When a defensive player is protecting his territory in a close divisional game as Williams was, what is the proper conduct? Should he give ground, and time his approach in such a manner that the receiver can catch the ball safely, and then collide fiercely with his shoulder? That would likely be Goodell’s answer, and the result in this scenario may decrease the opportunity for injury, but it also increases the odds of blowing a key game.
Most fickle rookie debut: Patrick Peterson showcased his signature speed with his 89-yard game-winning punt return touchdown, but he was also burned by Steve Smith during his 26-yard touchdown in the second quarter. An occupational hazard of being a cornerback–and especially a rookie cornerback–is that every mistake is magnified. Only the gaffs are featured in the endless highlight loops, and serve as easy fodder for bloggers (sorry, Patrick).
Overall Peterson looked solid in his debut, but Arizona can expect the spectacular peaks to be balanced out by some frustrating valleys as their young cornerbacks are forced to learn on the fly following an offseason in which learning time was minimal (thanks, lockout).