32 things we learned from Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season

32 things we learned from Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season

The 32 things we learned from Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season:

1. Nice league-wide tribute prior to Sunday’s kickoff commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. The NFL also produced a touching tribute video voiced by actor Steve Buscemi, a former member of the FDNY, which struck the right chord given the context of the country’s current difficulties. Two decades can seem like a lifetime, yet it also feels like only yesterday when then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the NFL took a prominent role in navigating the crisis before helping the country heal … to some degree anyway.

2. Is this finally the year Seattle QB Russell Wilson gets at least one MVP vote? He got off to another hot start, throwing for four TDs and 254 yards (while attempting just 23 passes) as the Seahawks opened with a road win at Indianapolis. Wilson’s 2020 season perfectly illustrates the folly of charting the MVP race from Week 1. But if you’re going to do that, you’d have to say Wilson and Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray (4 TD passes, 1 rush TD in a blowout of the Titans) are the very premature front-runners. Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (337 yards, 3 TDs passing, rushing TD), the 2018 league MVP, is right there, too. More on him later.

3. Sunday’s biggest shock came out of Jacksonville – primarily because the Jags weren’t on site – as the Hurricane Ida-displaced New Orleans Saints embarrassed the Green Bay Packers, the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed last season, 38-3 at TIAA Bank Field. It was 16 years ago that the Saints won their opener on the road in the aftermath of the destruction Hurricane Katrina left in New Orleans. Here’s hoping the 2021 Saints are far more formidable than their 2005 forerunners – Sean Payton was hired in 2006 – while wishing New Orleans a far quicker recovery from this most recent storm.

4.Welcome back, Dak Prescott. After 11 months “off,” didn’t expect to see you throw 58 passes in your return. But while the Dallas Cowboys seem just fine under center, they’ve still given us plenty to talk about – including a suspended right tackle, the struggles of rookie LB Micah Parsons (and the defense overall) in Week 1 and new worries at kicker after Greg Zuerlein’s rough start.

5. Welcome back, Chandler Jones. Limited to five games in 2020 by a biceps injury, the Arizona pass rusher returned to force two fumbles while racking up a franchise record-tying five sacks of Tennessee Titans QB Ryan Tannehill. Jones’ three sacks in the first quarter is a record since the NFL began officially recognizing the statistic in 1982. Since he was drafted in 2012, Jones is the only player in the NFL to surpass 100 sacks (he now has 102) in that span. His new teammate, J.J. Watt, has 95½ over the same stretch.

6. Welcome back, Christian McCaffrey. After an All-Pro effort in 2019, when he led the league with 2,392 yards from scrimmage, McCaffrey played in just three games in 2020. But he was back in force Sunday against the New York Jets and produced 187 combined yards – his most since Nov. 17, 2019 – which puts him on pace for 3,179 in the new 17-game format. Yes, that would smash the current record (2,509 by Chris Johnson in 2009).

7. Welcome back, T.J. Watt. After doing next to nothing in training camp before signing his record-breaking contract extension, the Steelers All-Pro pass rusher sacked Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen twice as Pittsburgh pulled off a surprise in Western New York. Maybe we’ve been talking about the wrong Rust Belt team as a challenger for AFC supremacy.

8. Welcome back, Jimmy Garoppolo. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who missed 10 games in 2020, returned to the starting lineup – despite sharing snaps with rookie Trey Lance – and improved his record against new Detroit Lions QB Jared Goff to 4-0.

9. Welcome back, Joe Burrow (261 passing yards, 2 TDs) and Joe Mixon (150 yards from scrimmage, TD), who both endured injury-abbreviated 2020 seasons but starred for the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday as they escaped the Minnesota Vikings in overtime.

9a. And maybe we should’ve known the Bengals had the edge given they’ve got four members of LSU’s 2019 national championship juggernaut (Burrow, WR Ja’Marr Chase, DT Tyler Shelvin and practice squad TE Thaddeus Moss), whereas the Vikings had to rely on former Bayou Bengal WR Justin Jefferson.

10. Welcome back, Von Miller, who missed the entire 2020 season after injuring his ankle days before the Denver Broncos’ opener. But he resurfaced Sunday, collecting a pair of sacks in a 27-13 thumping of the New York Giants. Note to Chandler Jones: Miller’s 108 sacks are the most registered in the NFL since 2011 and tops among active players.

11. I was OK with the NFL’s decision to allow more players to wear single-digit (and other sleeker) jersey numbers, even if the decision came well after it could benefit Reggie Bush and LSU’s best players. (And, sure, Temple’s.) But there are so many rookies and mid-tier players – and worse – rocking them, that I already have misgivings. If you wore it with distinction in college (DeVonta Smith, Chase, Leonard Fournette, etc.), then fine. But unless we’re more discerning with these coveted digits – meaning you, equipment managers – then we’re going to need a rule to put the kickers and punters in the 60s … though maybe that would be fine.

12. What happened to Aaron Rodgers? Sunday’s loss to the Saints, when the 2020 MVP passed for 133 yards and two INTs, has to be considered the worst performance of his brilliant career. Maybe Rodgers, who became the first player to reach a 17th season with the Packers on Sunday, should more carefully consult Brett Favre next time on how to prepare for a season on the heels of a six-month, football-free vacation.

12a. For one day anyway, Jordan Love (5-for-7, 68 yards), who made his NFL debut after Rodgers was pulled, was the Packers’ best quarterback.

13. It’s rare for a coach to enter the NFL with more fanfare or rebuilding assets (in terms of draft picks and salary cap space) than Urban Meyer has enjoyed with the Jaguars. It’s rare for a coach to get his first head job with less fanfare or under worse circumstances than the Texans’ David Culley did this year. Yet you wouldn’t have known Sunday as Houston blew the doors off Jacksonville, further calling into question how prepared Meyer is for his jump to football’s biggest stage.

13a. The Texans intercepted three passes in 2020. They intercepted Jaguars rookie QB Trevor Lawrence three times Sunday.

13b. Lawrence, the top pick of the 2021 draft, lost his first NFL start. QBs taken No. 1 overall are now 0-13-1 in their first starts since Houston’s David Carr won his debut in 2002. 

14. It’s only one game, but I was among those who wondered if the Jets would have been better off keeping QB Sam Darnold, trading out of the No. 2 spot in the draft in order to collect more picks and surrounding him with the talent he’d never had at the NFL level. Welp. We got a glimpse of what the new Carolina Panthers QB1 could be Sunday – his 234 passing yards before halftime marked the best half of his NFL career – as he accounted for two TDs in a 19-14 victory. His TD pass went to fellow former Jet Robby Anderson, who took the opportunity to troll his former employer after reaching the end zone.

15. Fantasy bust of Week 1? San Francisco WR Brandon Aiyuk, who wasn’t even targeted and apparently has some work to do in practice to work his way back into coach Kyle Shanahan’s game plan.

15a. If you’re a Rodgers owner, like me, I understand if you have a different opinion.

16. NFL Network reported Sunday that the Broncos are prepared to make a substantial offer for Rodgers, assuming he’s available, during next year’s offseason. Based on what we just saw from the 2020 MVP – not to mention how well new Denver QB Teddy Bridgewater (264 yards, 2 TDs passing) played Sunday – maybe new Broncos GM George Paton should reconsider … at least for the next few days.

17. The Texans, widely slotted at the bottom of most preseason power rankings – including mine – are alone atop the AFC South. But that division sure looks baaad.

18. The Miami Dolphins are alone atop the AFC East after beating the New England Patriots for the third time in the teams’ last four meetings.

18a. Round 1 of the battle of former Alabama QBs – the Pats’ Mac Jones and Fins’ Tua Tagovailoa – goes to Tua. Perhaps just as well Jones didn’t want the ball after throwing his first TD pass.

COVID-19. All things being relative, the virus caused minimal disruption in Week 1 – though the Cowboys certainly could’ve used All-Pro G Zack Martin, and WR Jamison Crowder would’ve helped the Jets. Still, expect the pandemic to make a significant impact on this season at some point.

20. Goat of the week? One vote for the Cleveland Browns’ Jamie Gillan (the “Scottish Hammer”), who mishandled his first punt attempt of the day at Arrowhead Stadium and allowed the Chiefs to take possession at the Cleveland 15-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. Three plays later, K.C. TE Travis Kelce caught what proved to be the game-winning TD from Mahomes in a 33-29 victory.

21. Inevitable outcome, though, given Chiefs coach Andy Reid is now 9-0 vs. the Browns.

21a. Also, Cleveland hasn’t won in Week 1 since 2004, its 17-season streak of futility in that department an NFL record.

22. Mahomes is now 11-0 in September games with 35 TD passes and nary an INT.

23. Apparently they play pretty good football west of the Mississippi. The AFC West and NFC West, which many expected to be the best divisions in the league this year, are a combined 7-0 heading into Monday night, when the Raiders host the Ravens.

24. The Steelers now have a sack in 74 consecutive games, an NFL record.

25. Reigning offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert (Chargers) > reigning defensive rookie of the year Chase Young (Washington). Sunday marked the fourth time such a matchup had occurred in Week 1 with the previous season’s offensive ROY now 3-1.

26.Bad an idea as I thought it was to sign him, bummer to see Washington QB Ryan Fitzpatrick suffer a potentially serious hip injury in his WFT debut. Expect head coach Ron Rivera to face an increasing flurry of questions about a potential reunion with free agent Cam Newton.

27. Meanwhile, the team that laid down to give Washington the NFC East crown in 2020 – your Philadelphia Eagles – has gone from worst to first in the division … at least for this week.

28. The rookie wideouts looked awfully good Sunday. The top three receivers picked in this year’s draft – Chase, who had a terrible preseason, Miami’s Jaylen Waddle and Philadelphia’s Smith – all found the end zone.

28a. The rookies who catch the ball definitely looked generally better than the ones throwing it. Lawrence and the Jets’ Zach Wilson finished with passable numbers, but their teams weren’t competitive. Mac Jones had the strongest debut among this year’s first-round QBs, while the Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields and Niners’ Lance both played in certain packages.

28b. Lance threw a TD on his first NFL pass, the first player to do so since … Tim Tebow in 2010. Lance also became the first rookie in Niners history to toss a TD in Week 1.

29. “Black and blue” division? Apropos for the NFC North, with four winless teams after Sunday.

30. New Saints QB Jameis Winston is your NFL passing TD leader with five. Also note the zero in his interception column, though he had one giveaway wiped thanks to a dubious roughing-the-passer penalty on Packers OLB Za’Darius Smith.

31. Former Saints QB Drew Brees, who’s currently sitting in an analyst’s chair for NBC’s “Football Night in America,” said of Winston’s performance, including his deep strikes: “I guess apparently this is what the Saints have been missing.” Nice tongue-in-cheek moment, Drew, and a nice recovery from your performance at halftime of Thursday night’s Cowboys-Bucs game.

32. Last, but hardly least, congrats to Maia Chaka, who became the first Black female to officiate an NFL game on Sunday in Charlotte.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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