- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

If you aren't pumped up about the NFL season now, you might want to take your pulse to see if you've got one. These things are hard to calculate, but I wouldn't be surprised if Week1 of the 2002 season was the best opening week in league history. From the 49ers' last-second victory over the Giants on Thursday to the Patriots' clinical clobbering of the Steelers on Monday, the games never ceased to give you something to talk about, if not marvel at.
Remember a couple of years ago, when the Ravens strangled opposing offenses en route to the title, and people said pro football was about to enter a defensive era? Well, it hasn't happened thankfully. Sunday's games produced such scores as 40-39, 37-34, 49-21 and 37-31; there was hardly a stadium that wasn't rocking in the final minutes. The Bears came from 10 points down with 10:36 left to beat the Vikings. The Titans rallied from a 14-point deficit in the second half to defeat the Eagles. The Chiefs made up 10 points in the final quarter to stun the Browns.
And that's just for starters. The Falcons kicked a 52-yard field goal with five seconds to go to force the Packers to overtime only to lose on a Ryan Longwell three-pointer. The Bills scored a touchdown with 26 seconds remaining to force the Jets to overtime only to lose on a kickoff-return TD. The Bucs scored 10 points in the last three minutes to force the Saints to overtime only to lose on a botched punt.
Even the less-enthralling games had interesting story lines: the Dolphins' 49-21 destruction of the Lions, for instance. In that one, running back Robert Edwards had a pair of touchdowns for Miami the same Robert Edwards who nearly lost his left leg after suffering a serious knee injury and hadn't played in a regular-season game in three years. In Houston, meanwhile, you had David Carr quarterbacking the expansion Texans, in their NFL debut, to a 19-10 victory over the Cowboys. (The last time a rookie QB led an expansion team a win in its first game: 1961, when a fellow named Fran Tarkenton fired four TD passes to guide the Vikes past the Bears, 37-13.)
And in Washington, of course, the Fun 'n' Gun Epoch was launched with a 31-23 defeat of the Cardinals, a game in which the Redskins' backup quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, found himself kicking off in the fourth quarter because of an injury to Brett Conway. (If Steve Spurrier is ever in a bind like that again, he might want to consider linebacker Jessie Armstead. "I kicked in high school [at Carter High in Dallas]," he says. "I wasn't any great shakes, but I can promise you this: I would have kicked the ball deep; I wouldn't have squibbed it. I would have kicked it right at one of those big ol' linemen and made him carry the ball.")
But back to our theme: offense, offense and more offense. One of the reasons the experts were forecasting a return to defensive football in the NFL was that so many teams were hiring former defensive coordinators to be their head coaches. The Patriots hired Bill Belichick. The Bills hired Gregg Williams. The Jets hired Herman Edwards. The Browns hired Butch Davis. The Redskins hired, ever so briefly, Marty Schottenheimer. And the trend continued this year, with Tony Dungy going to Indianapolis, John Fox going to Carolina, Dom Capers going to Houston, Schottenheimer landing on his feet in San Diego. At the moment, half of the league's head men are defense-oriented guys.
But the fears, as it turns out, were unfounded. The NFL hasn't become more conservative. If anything, it's headed in the other direction. The most revealing game of Week1, for my money, was the one between New England and Pittsburgh. The Patriots rode their defense to the championship last season, but here they were throwing the ball 25 straight times against the Steelers. And this wasn't a catch-up situation, either. The string of passes started when the score was 7-7, and it ended when the Patriots were ahead 17-7 (and driving for another touchdown that would make it 24-7). The Pats, in other words, threw to get ahead, and then they threw to get farther ahead. It was something to see.
By the way, how did you like Deion Branch, their second-round pick? He looks to me like a slightly smaller version of Isaac Bruce. (And Tom Brady, I'm convinced, is the second coming of Bob Griese.) Branch almost played for Spurrier at Florida, you know. The Gators recruited him out of junior college, but his SAT scores weren't quite high enough, so he went to Louisville instead.
All the tweaking the Patriots did to their offense in the offseason paid off in the opener, at least. Branch scored, free agent receiver Donald Hayes scored, free agent tight ends Cam Cleeland and Christian Fauria combined for six catches and a touchdown. The rest of the league, you can be sure, took note. But then, the rest of the league appears to have similar inclinations, anyway. Heck, even Schottenheimer may open it up a bit this year now that he has Cam Cameron, Norv Turner's onetime protege, calling the plays.
So strap yourself in. The Redskins, it's clear, aren't going to be the only team funnin' and gunnin'. And just think: Kurt Warner hasn't even thrown a TD pass yet.

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