The NFL's tribute to 9/11 featured several poignant moments, from the playing of Taps to watching Presidents Obama and Bush walk together in Pennsylvania with their wives to Amazing Grace on bagpipes and Robert DeNiro's tribute. For pure bone-chilling inspiration, though, nothing beat Jim Cornelison's tone-setting national anthem at Soldier Field, "belted out with majestic gusto."
Eighty-nine players currently on NFL rosters, including Carolina's Steve Smith, were playing on 9/11. Cam Newton was entering junior high. The two combined to steal the show on the NFL's opening weekend. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Newton shattered Hall of Famer Otto Graham's 1950 record for most passing yards (346) in an NFL debut. Newton's 422 yards are more than Terry Bradshaw, Tom Brady, Jim Kelly, Bart Starr or Frank Tarkenton ever managed in a single game. The only players with more passing yards in the season opener are Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, and Peyton Manning, who have combined for seven MVP awards. For a player who was under pre-draft scrutiny for everything from his passing mechanics to his mental makeup, the performance was more important than his first loss since Navarro Junior College. With only a month to prepare for the season, Newton provided more thrills for the Panthers fan base than they experienced all of last season.
Smith, who famously told Jimmy Clausen to apologize for his play last season, said it was "an honor" just to be on the field with Newton Sunday. "Man … I am just happy," said Smith. "I am happy to be on the field with a guy like that. ... He was everything everybody didn’t expect him to be. He was on point, he made some great runs, he made some great reads, made some fantastic throws. He made some throws out there that honestly as a receiver it made it easy to catch them."
How does a passer go from 42 percent in the preseason to the most electrifying performance in the NFL's opening weekend? I don't understand it, but it's a good bet that the Cardinals' inept pass defense, Smith's presence for four quarters, and Newton's ability to come through on the big stage were the main ingredients. Rotoworld has been recommending Newton as a high-upside QB2 since June, but this output will be the exception rather than the rule. He won't be a recommended fantasy start against the Super Bowl champs next week.
Two sidenotes on Newton before we delve into Smith's performance: 1. Bias and hyperbole are at play here, but check out Bo Jackson's quote on the Jim Rome Show last week: "[Newton] has the arm strength and power of Dan Marino and John Elway combined. He is quicker than Michael Vick -- faster than Michael Vick (Author's Note: No way). And he will run over you with the power of a Jerome Bettis." 2. If you watched NFL Network game highlights over the past month, you've probably noticed Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin yelling, "Cam, whoa, Cam!" every time Newton makes a play. It's a reference to 1988 new jack swing hit "Teddy's Jam" from the R&B group Guy. I only know this from the 1990 NBA Superstars video that came free with a Sports Illustrated subscription.
Smith's dominant 8/178/2 performance was no fluke. He would have soared past the 200-yard mark had a 41-yard gain not been overturned on replay. As part of Rotoworld's Bold Predictions series in this year's Draft Guide, I noted that Smith still has the ability to lead all fantasy receivers in scoring with a major upgrade at quarterback. In games not started by Vinny Testaverde, Chris Weinke, Jimmy Clausen, and Brian St. Pierre, Smith has produced at the same 90-100 yards-per-game level as Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. It remains to be seen if Newton constitutes that major upgrade as a passer, but Sunday's game was certainly a step in that direction. If the Smith owner in your league is looking to sell high, don't be afraid to take the bait. He's a WR2 with WR1 upside this season.
Joe Flacco / Ray Rice - As Profootballtalk's Mike Florio points out, Flacco has actually out-played the more highly regarded Matt Ryan since the two entered the league in 2008. Despite four road playoff victories, though, Flacco had never won a game started by Ben Roethlisberger entering the 2011 season. He was only sacked once behind a much-maligned offensive line Sunday, threading a handful of the prettiest passes of his career. "It was the Joe Flacco show," Rice said. "I was just a co-star in it." For matchup start purposes, note that Flacco is 11-1 in 12 home-field starts with a 22:2 TD-to-INT ratio dating back to November of 2009.
It was Rice, however, who had the look of a potential 2011 fantasy MVP, showing 2009 form behind the improved O-Line. With excellent burst, balance, and body control, Rice did extensive damage at the second level of Pittsburgh's vaunted run defense. The Ravens' 170 rushing yards were the most against the Steelers since 2009 and 22 more than Baltimore's combined output in three games last season. In fact, Rice has the only two 100-yard performances against the Steelers in their last 51 games. "That was a physical, (well-) executed beat down," Rice said of Sunday's domination.
Matthew Stafford / Calvin Johnson - Upon drafting Stafford three years ago, coach Jim Schwartz declared "It's probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne." Stafford burned the Bucs for 305 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, becoming the first Lions quarterback to top 300 yards in a season opener since Layne in 1953. (Side note from Hall of Famer Yale Lary: "When Bobby said block, you blocked. When Bobby said drink, you drank.") His decision-making continues to surpass expectations, as evidenced by a 118.9 passer rating coming off a preseason rating of 154.7. If he stays healthy in Scott Linehan's pass-first offense, Stafford won't finish outside the top-five fantasy QBs.
Johnson can thank aggressive play-calling for his monster fantasy day. Down 10-6 in the second quarter, the Lions went for broke on fourth-and-3 from the Bucs' 36-yard line. Teams often eschew the long field goal in favor of a short passing route, but Linehan and Schwartz opted instead to send Johnson deep against a heavy pass rush. Stafford found Johnson's outstretched arms just over shadow corner Aqib Talib for the first of two Megatron scores. He's going to push for 15 touchdowns this year.
Rex Grossman / Fred Davis - After starting slowly with his usual assortment of Rex issues, Grossman finished 21-of-34 for 305 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (110.5 rating). Want to know why Grossman is a sneaky QB1 play with OC Kyle Shanahan letting him sling the ball all over the field? In his nine-year career Grossman has four 300-yard games, three of which have come with the Redskins in his last four starts. In a matchup with Arizona, Grossman has the look of a legit top-10 option for Week 2.
Down a dozen pounds from last season, a streamlined Davis outplayed a gimpy Chris Cooley. Davis got open at will and racked up major yardage after the catch. Cooley may not be healthy all season, leaving Davis as a potential TE1. He was a recommended waiver wire addition last week and will be high on the list for Week 2.
Michael Vick - Behind a shaky offensive line, Vick’s superhuman athleticism saved the day. Even though his passing numbers (14-of-32 for 187 yards) were his worst with the Eagles, Vick still managed 26 standard-scoring fantasy points. He would have topped 30 had DeSean Jackson not dropped a perfectly thrown pass that would have gone for 90 yards and a score. "It felt great to know that I can go and play lights out, not have to worry about anything," said Vick. "I trained very hard this offseason. I feel better than I’ve ever felt before. I felt quicker than I ever felt before. ... I feel like I could play another four quarters right now."
Ryan Fitzpatrick - We've always had faith in coach Chan Gailey's system. The only question was how a physically overmatched offensive line would hold up. The Bills' 41 points were their most in a season-opener since 1975. Should we have been surprised? They brought back more starters than any other team in football this season, and Fitzpatrick rewarded Gailey's faith in neglecting to upgrade at quarterback during the offseason. Gailey exacted sweet revenge on Todd Haley, who jettisoned him as offensive coordinator just before the 2009 season.
Kevin Kolb - After passing for a pin-point accurate 309 yards and two touchdowns, Kolb immediately provided legitimacy to a Cardinals offense that failed to produce a 300-yard passer in any game last season. In fact, Kolb has now surpassed 300 yards in four of his eight career starts. Don't worry about Larry Fitzgerald. Determined to stop Arizona's best player, Panthers used brackett coverage with Chris Gamble shadowing and safety help over the top.
Matt Forte - Pay the man. Forte has averaged 127 yards from scrimmage in his last 10 games, combining for at least 98 yards in nine of the ten. As evidenced by his 56-yard screen-pass touchdown, Forte remains in the discussion for the best receiving back in the game while showing lateral quickness and agility on the ground against a stout Falcons run defense. Forte should remain a solid RB1 all season long.
Kenny Britt - All of the August concerns about his hamstring injury and possible suspension were for naught. The lone bright spot in Tennessee's offense, Britt turned a desperation flip into an 80-yard score and high-pointed a pass in the end zone for a leaping grab over Rashean Mathis. "He played exactly how we thought he could play," coach Mike Munchak said. "He … has a chance to be a difference-maker for us." If he stays healthy, Britt is going to be a top-10 fantasy receiver this year.
Texans - When healthy, Arian Foster is the clear feature back. Whether that will be the case in Week 2 remains to be seen. Derrick Ward (11 carries, 39 yards) started, but sat out the second half as a precaution after sustaining a minor ankle injury. Ben Tate carried the load the rest of the way, impressing coach Gary Kubiak on his way to 116 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. According to Pro Football Focus, Tate averaged 3.2 yards per attempt after contact compared to Ward's 2.1 and a league average of 2.5. We still believe the more talented and explosive Tate is the handcuff to own here, and he could carve out 6-8 carries per week behind Foster.
Saints - Mark Ingram is the primary early-down, between-the-tackles back. Darren Sproles is the passing-down specialist. Pierre Thomas is a mixture of both. Over the long haul, Ingram is easily the best fantasy bet. Much like the Patriots' BenJarvus Green-Ellis, his role is limited when the Saints are playing from behind. Most weeks, that won't be the case. He's a player to target if owners are panicked by the first game.
Chargers - Sunday's game went just as expected, with Mike Tolbert (21 touches, 93 yards, 3 TDs) handling red-zone work and third downs. Ryan Mathews (15 touches, 118 yards) showed his homerun hitting ability in the passing game, but won't see the end zone with much regularity. Tolbert's knee injury isn't expected to keep him out for more than a week -- if that.
Giants - Ahmad Bradshaw (14 touches, 54 yards) had the timeshare advantage over Brandon Jacobs (6 touches, 29 yards) this week, but it's going to be an unpredictable rotation throughout the year. Jacobs was curiously left on the bench in several short-yardage situations, so it's tough to get a read on the goal-line situation.
Packers - James Starks is the back to own in Green Bay. He's bigger and more explosive this season, lowering his shoulder and running through Saints defenders. Ryan Grant, on the other hand, appears to have lost a step. Starks' role will continue to expand at Grant's expense.
Chiefs - There were two major takeaways from Sunday's loss to the Bills: 1. Thomas Jones' (2 touches, 3 yards) role has been diminished to the point where Dexter McCluster (9 touches, 67 yards) may actually have more fantasy value. 2. The Chiefs offense is in the tank since Charlie Weis left after a falling out with Todd Haley. Jamaal Charles (15 touches, 65 yards, TD) is the feature back.
Buccaneers - Sunday's game confirmed what we already suspected about LeGarrette Blount (5 touches, 15 yards): He's bench bound when the Bucs are playing from behind. It's the primary reason Rotoworld advised letting someone else draft Blount in the early third round. Despite training camp puff pieces to the contrary, Blount is among the worst receiving backs in the NFL and the Bucs don't trust him in pass protection. Earnest Graham (14 touches, 71 yards) isn't a waiver pickup this week, but he's going to siphon fantasy value from Blount all year long. For an alleged power runner, it's also interesting to note that Blount was bypassed in short-yardage situations as well.
Panthers - $43 million man DeAngelo Williams (13 touches, 36 yards) started, but was outplayed by Jonathan Stewart (9 touches, 40 yards). Stewart had two big plays called back due to penalties and broke tackles in impressive fashion. He's going to continue to eat into Williams' value.
Colts - Built for a passing offense as a strong receiver and pass protector, Joseph Addai is in for a long season with Kerry Collins under center. He rushed just eight times for 39 yards while rookie Delone Carter took nine totes of his own for 25 yards. There's little fantasy upside in this backfield for 2011.
Bills - Outside of an impressive 9-yard score, C.J. Spiller had just seven yards on four carries while Fred Jackson broke the century mark on 20 attempts. As much as the Bills want to increase Spiller's role, F-Jax remains the top fantasy back in Buffalo.
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