NFL teams returned to the gridiron this weekend to the delight of football-starved fans across the country.
Unfortunately, the shortened training camp caused by the three-month lockout had both players and coaches running ragged. Though the games were only pre-season exhibition matches, the effects of the prolonged hiatus on the quality of play were apparent.
In Thursday’s games:
The Philadelphia Eagles, viewed by many as the NFC’s team to beat this year, won a tight defensive battle with the Baltimore Ravens, 13-6, despite much of the team taking the field wearing baseball uniforms.
“I knew I played one of the three major professional sports, I just forgot which one,” said embarrassed quarterback Michael Vick, sporting a Phillies uniform. “As soon as I got knocked down on the third play of the game, I remembered I’m supposed to be wearing a helmet.”
Vick threw for 74 yards and a touchdown in the single series he played. His throwing motion appeared somewhat hampered by the first-baseman’s mitt he wore on his left hand. However, his receivers still managed to get open, even though some spent much of the first half sliding cleats-up into the goalposts instead of running their assigned routes.
“I’m really proud of how our defense played,” said Eagles coach Andy Reid. “I’m not sure our pass rush will be as effective when our linemen are no longer able to beat their offensive counterparts with baseball bats. Still, it was a good-if-bloody start to the season.”
The New England Patriots, another pre-season favorite to go deep into the playoffs, overwhelmed the Jacksonville Jaguars, 47-12.
This time it was the Jaguars who seemed unprepared. Patriots rookie quarterback Brian Hoyer went 15-of-21 passing, possibly benefitting from Jaguar players who seemed more concerned with hissing, growling and making other cat noises than in playing an effective 3-4 defense.
“I believe they must’ve thought they were actual jaguars out there,” Hoyer said. “They weren’t able to react to their own defensive audibles because they were largely indecipherable. I was just glad I could still find my targets amidst the defensive backs crawling on all fours out there.”
In Friday’s games:
The Detroit Lions crushed the Cincinnati Bengals 34-3. The Bengals seemed even more chronically inept than usual after the long layoff.
The Bengals managed just 205 total yards on offense, due in part to the fact that they ran the same offensive formation throughout the first quarter.
“I could hardly believe it when they emerged from the huddle and lined up in one long single-file queue behind the ball,” said Lions coach Jim Schwartz. “It looked like the DMV out there. They just couldn’t keep up with their blocking in that alignment.”
The Bengals did make some adjustments after the first series — running offensive sets that included a “ring-around-the-rosey” circle and a flash-mob dance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — but by then the Lions enjoyed a 24-0 lead.
The Miami Dolphins edged the Atlanta Falcons 28-23 despite the fact that many of the Dolphin players failed to have their dreadlocks in mid-season form.
Rather than the long strands of hair flowing down the back of their uniforms, many instead sported mullets, live raccoons and carpet samples stuffed into their helmets as substitutes for the flowing locks they had become famous for.
Falcons coach Mike Smith complained to officials that the raccoons, which got lose several times during the game, distracted his players into tackling the wrong creature.
“That’s something we’re going to have to work on to be ready for the regular season,” Smith said. “I guess small woodland creatures have become a part of the game, and we have to modify our defensive sets accordingly.”
In Saturday’s games:
The Cleveland Browns bested the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers by a score of 27-17.
The Pack kept it close during the first half but faded in the second, when the effects of poorly executed celebratory chest bumps caused numerous injuries.
“We can’t be bumping heads with the same intensity that we bump chests,” said Packer coach Mike McCarthy. “That seemed to create a lot of concussions among our guys.”
Helmets protected some of the players from the severe head-on-head cracks. However others — who arrived at the stadium with their helmets on backwards, trying to see out of the two small ventilation holes in the back — avoided concussions only because they avoided the game itself, instead wandering around in the parking lot.
The Carolina Panthers defeated the New York Giants 20-10 in a game that featured the NFL debut of number-one draft pick Cam Newton.
Newton did not start at quarterback but did put up some impressive numbers while he was in the game. He was relieved in the third quarter by his father.
“We knew from the controversy at Auburn that his father would be closely involved in his son’s career,” said Panther coach Ron Rivera, alluding to the elder Newton’s attempts to solicit a cash payment for his son to play at another school. “But we didn’t expect him to take the field and actually play. We might’ve guessed that was going to happen if only we’d had a few more practice sessions.”
Several other games also saw confusion resulting from the shortened training camps.
The Arizona-Oakland matchup ran three hours longer than a normal game because Raider players gathered in the huddle thought they were conducting a botany experiment rather than planning their next offensive play.
“I thought we had a team project to measure how many separate grass plants were growing in each square meter of sod,” said Raider running back Michael Bennett. “I had forgotten all about our West Coast offense.”
In the Washington-Pittsburgh game, the opening kickoff was marred by the return team’s attempt to advance the ball down the field by soccer-kicking it to each other.
“I didn’t know we were allowed to use our hands,” said return specialist Chris Hadley. “Is that something new this year?”
Even on the periphery of the nation’s favorite spectator sport there was confusion. When Tennessee defeated Minnesota 14-3, new Titans coach Mike Munchak had a cooler-full of human growth hormone (HGH) poured onto his head rather than the usual Gatorade bath. The long-time offensive line coach, promoted to the top position during the off-season, quickly grew to over a hundred feet tall and rampaged through the stadium, killing 12 and injuring 34.
And, in what has almost become an annual rite of summer, Packer legend Brett Favre reported to a local high school in his home state of Mississippi to work out with the team in hopes of impressing an NFL squad to sign him. But even a veteran like Favre was obviously out-of-sorts after the long lockout.
“He started launching passes at the marching band,” said school principal Paul Poole. “I guess he didn’t know we had moved the football team indoors because of the heat.”
Favre was oblivious to the confusion, however, bragging to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he may have lost a step, but that his accuracy is better than ever.
“I put just about every ball I threw squarely into the sousaphone,” Favre bragged. “I am definitely back on my game.”