NFL WEEK 1
The Start of Something Beautiful
One year ago, Cal suspended junior Chris McCain for "conduct detrimental to the team." A rangy linebacker with a terrific burst, he entered the draft but was not selected, his reputation having preceded him. But after performing their due diligence, the Dolphins signed the 6'5", 250-pound McCain as a free agent. Intent on redeeming the franchise in the wake of a bullying scandal, Miami threw a lifeline to a young man asking for a second chance.
And there was McCain on the first snap of his pro career, knifing up the middle to block a punt off the foot of the Patriots' Ryan Allen, setting up Miami's first touchdown in what turned out to be the biggest upset of the opening weekend. McCain followed that with a third--quarter sack of Tom Brady, then cried tears of joy in the locker room after Miami's 33--20 win.
An inordinate number of feel-good stories from the NFL's opening week featured new guys making the most of new opportunities. McCain celebrated with former Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, who gashed New England for 134 yards in his first game as a Dolphin. The resurgent (they hope!) Jaguars gave the Eagles fits—Jacksonville led 17--0 in the third quarter—until Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly started feeding free-agent signee Darren Sproles, whose 49-yard scoring dash between the hashmarks sparked his new team's comeback. Sproles piled up 147 total yards on the day; the Eagles won 34--17.
Devin Hester, another recently relocated veteran, is the greatest kick returner in league history—but the Falcons couldn't have expected much help at receiver from the 31-year-old when they signed him last March. He last caught a regular-season pass in 2012, with the Bears. But entering the final minute of regulation in the most electrifying game of the weekend, Hester had already snagged four balls against the Saints when Matt Ryan found him over the middle for the clutch 21-yard grab that put Atlanta in field goal range. Four snaps later, Matt Bryant's 51-yarder tied the game; his 52-yarder in OT beat the Saints 37--34. That win served as a sorbet, cleansing Atlanta's palate following its woeful 12-loss '13 season.
Perhaps the only team more disappointing than the Falcons last season: the 2--14 Texans, who also found sweet relief on Sunday, winning for the first time in 15 games and 357 days. (But who was counting?) The biggest star of Houston's 17--6 defeat of the Redskins was the defense (led by new coordinator Romeo Crennel) in general and one Justin James Watt in particular. No player in the league finds more ways to be disruptive than this fourth-year All-Pro end, who recovered a fumble; had two tackles for a loss, including a sack; swatted down a pass; blocked an extra point; and was credited with five hits on Robert Griffin III.
The only bad news for Houston concerned Watt's bookend, the ballyhooed Jadeveon Clowney, who left the game in the second quarter after tearing the meniscus in his right knee. (Clowney had surgery on Monday and will miss four to six weeks—so not every newbie shared McCain's happy day.) The one rookie who generated more preseason buzz than Clowney had even less impact on his team's opener. Brian Hoyer took every snap at quarterback in the Browns' close-but-no-cigar, 30--27 loss to the Steelers. Johnny Football was Johnny Bench.
Forgive us for savoring what is sure to be a brief hiatus in Manziel Mania. Now that the NFL's silly season is over, we celebrate the rookies and transplants who came up big when the games finally counted. They ranged from first-year coaches like Mike Zimmer, whose Vikings embarrassed the Rams 34--6, to first-round draft picks such as Brandin Cooks, who caught seven Drew Brees passes for 77 yards and a touchdown in the Saints' loss, to McCain, who was undrafted, unknown and, at times on Sunday, unblockable.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
HANGING IN THE BALANCE The notion that the Packers weren't interested in tackling during last Thursday's season opener doesn't seem like much of a stretch. Seahawks tailback Marshawn Lynch ran through tackle Josh Boyd (93) and Green Bay for 110 yards and two TDs in a 36--16 home win.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BILL OF SCALE Buffalo cornerback Corey Graham climbed Mount Marshall—6'4" Bears receiver Brandon, that is—and came up with a big stop. That coverage, combined with a stout rushing attack (193 yards), helped the Bills pull off a 23--20 upset in Chicago.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
MANNING: HAPPY RETURNS In his 16th NFL season opener, quarterback Peyton Manning stood and delivered three touchdown passes in his first four drives to steer the Broncos to a 24--0 lead against the Colts in Denver. While his successor in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, outpassed him 370 yards to 269, Manning & Co. held on for a 31--24 victory.