“Just waiting,” the text from Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter read Sunday at 10:38 p.m. ET.
As was all of Tampa. Koetter was in his office at One Buccaneer Place, a few long spirals from Raymond James Stadium, the 40 mile per hour winds gusting up to 62 and spraying sharp rain pellets at his windows. He was waiting for the brunt of the storm, due by about 1 to 2 a.m. local time, and I asked him what he was watching—the Giants-Cowboys game or the Weather Channel?
“Both!!” he texted.
This was a strange capper to a strange football weekend for the three Florida teams. A contingent of about 150 Miami Dolphins players, coaches, staff and family members jetted 2,775 miles west late Friday night; the team is tucked away in Oxnard, Calif., where it will practice on the Dallas Cowboys’ training-camp practice fields this week before facing the Los Angeles Chargers. Around 130 Bucs players and staffers flew on four smaller jets to Charlotte to ride out the storm at a hotel. Koetter, some coaches and staffers stayed behind. “I’m looking out the window right now,” Koetter said when I spoke to him at midday, “and my defensive line coach, Jay Hayes, is out on the practice field, walking his German shepherd. One thing I’ve learned in this: People will not leave their pets.”
Meanwhile, the lone Florida NFL team that played this weekend, Jacksonville, stunned the Texans 29-7 in Houston on Sunday. The Jags are holed up for at least Monday in a Houston hotel, hoping to fly home in the evening, unsure of the damage northeast Florida will undergo. “We’re excited,” coach Doug Marrone told me Sunday night, not sounding at all excited. “But all of our minds and our hearts are with the people back in Florida, and the first responders, and the people doing the real work. That’s the truly important thing. Football’s a game.”
Koetter, if he can sleep at all in the Bucs’ football facility overnight, will wake up this morning and survey the damage to the team’s fairway-like grass practice fields outside his window, and he’ll get reports on the airport and local infrastructure. Tampa, it appeared overnight, might dodge the worst of the storm, though the Tampa-St. Petersburg/Clearwater coast faced storm surge that could flood the region. The Bucs would wait to see if it’s feasible to practice in Tampa for their home game next Sunday, or whether they’d take off for New Orleans or White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., to practice.
I asked Koetter at midday how he balanced football with one of the worst storms in Florida history. “Anything I’m going to say about football has zero importance compared to the danger of this hurricane to the coast and to potential loss of life, obviously,” he said. “But I would imagine we’ll try to have a game next week. I love football. Football has been everything to me from the time I was a kid. But come on, football is a game. I’ve got my TVs on here watching this storm. Look at Houston. Football’s so insignificant.
“What’s been eerie is watching the rest of world just go on. I’ve never been through a hurricane; I’m from the northwest. But you know it’s coming, and you turn on the TV, and there’s the stock market going on as usual, and the rest of the country is all watching college football, and we’re just sitting here waiting. The eeriness, the waiting, the anxiety—that’s the real challenge.”
The Bucs and Dolphins both dismissed their players last Wednesday for the abrupt bye week, and many left Florida. About half the Dolphins are in Oxnard, with the rest of the team due by late Monday night for a Tuesday morning team meeting. The Bucs’ schedule is TBD. “We got a couple guys as far west as L.A.,” Koetter said. “Jameis [Winston] is in Alabama with his family. I’ve been in text contact with 95 percent of the roster, telling ’em, Rest up and be ready. It’s gonna be a crazy week.”
Miami receiver Kenny Stills, from the hotel in Oxnard, said he was watching Packers-Seahawks and Rams-Colts on Sunday afternoon. “When we play,” Stills said, “I really want to try to bring the city some hope, the way the Saints did for New Orleans after Katrina. In a storm like this, you realize how small we all are in this world. We’ve been waiting to play football, because that’s our job and we’ve been prepared for it. But whatever happens, we’ll be fine.”
Good perspective from everyone on the three teams. That’s going to be needed for the little football inconveniences in the next few days, as Florida gets back to some form of normal. Football was a pretty small thing Sunday, and three teams knew it.
I don’t have the kind of memory that categorizes specific weeks of football. So I can’t say this week of NFL ball through 13 games is one of the worst ever. But I can say it stunk.
Week 1 margins of victory, through 14 games in 2016 and 13 in 2017 because of the Tampa Bay-Miami postponement:
2016: 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 4, 4, 6, 6, 7, 9, 9, 19.
2017: 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 20, 22, 37.
There’s no rhyme of reason to it. No trend here. Just a bad week to feed the ratings swoon. Let’s get to what happened in a week of crumminess:
• Up is down: Jags dominate in Houston. Jacksonville ran it better, passed it (slightly) better and rushed the passer lots better, remarkably, than the best defense in 2016—a defense that got back J.J. Watt. Entering the season, I didn’t expect this. The Jags have been like the early-century Washington teams, winning free-agency every year and then stinking. Glad to hear Doug Marrone wasn’t buying claims of preseason greatness either. “I’m tired of hearing how talented we are,” he told me from Houston. “When they say that, you’re usually not winning. I told our team, ‘I’m tired of hearing about our talent. Until you guys win, that doesn’t mean crap.’” They won’t do this every week, to be sure, but Marrone got what he wanted out of the running game with a 65/35 percent run-pass ratio, after physical practices in camp that were designed to get the team used to the pounding of the ground game. First-round back Leonard Fournette had a 26-carry, 100-yard rushing day Sunday. “We’ve worked on that quite a bit,” Marrone said. “We gotta get tougher. This was a good start.”
• David Johnson could miss significant time. The top pick in most fantasy drafts (I guess) after his 2,118-all-purpose-yard, 20-touchdown year in 2016, Johnson damaged his wrist at Detroit, and though X-rays were negative, Chris Mortensen reported that the Cardinals back could miss significant time. There’ll be an MRI on Monday in Phoenix. For you fantasians, pick up rookie Tarik Cohen of the Bears (who might be a revelation) or Johnson’s understudy, Kerwynn Williams. The bad thing, really, for the Cardinals is that the turnover bug that sometimes plagues 37-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer bit him again in a three-turnover loss at Detroit. Now without Johnson, the pressure increases on Palmer. Coach Bruce Arians prefers the pressure to be on Johnson. Arians is going to have to get imaginative with his game plans now, if Johnson misses a few games.
• The Ravens looked like the old marauding Ravens. Cincinnati had won six of the previous seven against the Ravens, and Baltimore (the city and the team) truly hated that kind of failure against a division foe. The Ravens took a rare rich foray into free agency this offseason, signing safety Tony Jefferson, who plays like he has anvils in his shoulder pads, and adding some young speed to the defense in the draft and signing nosetackle Brandon Williams long-term. And back came Terrell Suggs for his 15th year, looking rejuvenated in training camp because he wasn’t rehabbing an injury; he could work out to get stronger and more limber. On Sunday, Baltimore won a 20-0 shutout, holding the Bengals to 221 yards and forcing five turnovers, and afterward Suggs had a veteran’s perspective on the victory. “We were okay,” Suggs told me from Cincinnati. “We could have been a lot better today. We’re gonna enjoy it, but we have a lot of improvement to make. We’re just like every team who won one game. It’s one game.” But I could tell Suggs was excited about the potential of the defense, and about Jefferson, who led the Ravens with nine tackles and had a sack. “In the middle of the game today,” Suggs said, “I said to him, ‘You had a great career at Arizona, but you were meant to be a Raven.’”
• Ezekiel Elliott’s back. For now. Elliott’s grinding 104-yard rushing night was the key to Dallas’ 19-3 win over the Giants—but the Cowboys probably could have won without him. That’s how ineffective the Giants were on offense. Dallas is at Denver and Arizona the next two weeks, then home for the Rams and Packers. Elliott would be vital in all four games. But if the league wins the next battle in court (as early as this week) in knocking down Friday’s U.S. District Court temporary restraining order, Elliott could have to serve his six-game ban at some point this season. He said after Sunday’s game he was relieved “for the fact that I finally get a fair trial. I finally get a chance to prove my innocence.” But would he? There’s no guarantee that he would get a full trial. We’ll see in the coming weeks how the Elliott case gets resolved, but the vagaries of going to court in athletic cases—the league was stunned at the outcome of Friday’s injunction for Elliott—make predicting the outcome exceedingly hard. For now, Elliott plays, and when he plays, Dallas is the best team in the NFC East.
• Worried, Giants? Points per game, last seven games: Giants 13.6, Browns 14.0. Without Odell Beckham Jr., in the lineup (as happened Sunday night with Beckham’s bum ankle), nothing works for this offense. With him in the lineup, it’s still one of the worst offensive lines in football. It’s only one game, but the stench from it will last until next Monday, when the Lions come to the Meadowlands for the New York home opener.
• What was that about waiting a minute until Mike Martz pukes? Remember in August, when the Thomas George book on quarterback success and failure in the NFL came out and former Rams coach Mike Martz questioned the credentials of 31-year-old Sean McVay as a quarterback expert, and Martz said, “Wait a minute while I puke?” (Martz later said his comments for the book, “Blitzed: Why NFL Teams Gamble on Starting Rookie Quarterbacks,” were embellished.) In his first game as an NFL head coach, McVay led the Rams to a stunning 46-9 win over the moribund Colts at a shocked L.A. Coliseum. “A little surreal,” is how McVay put it. This game—with two interceptions of he-doesn’t-belong-there Scott Tolzien returned for touchdowns—is the classic example of coaches who say, It’s one game. But the good thing is that Jared Goff looked competent in his first NFL win, and finding out if Goff can be consistently competent is the most important thing about this season for the Rams. McVay is sort of an excitable darter-around-the-practice-field type, and it was just 11 years ago that he was a senior wideout at Miami of Ohio. So there’s going to be doubt. But just watch the quarterback. Goff’s best throw was a post route, perfectly delivered to rookie Cooper Kupp for an 18-yard touchdown. At the end of the day, Goff had thrown for 309 yards, 72 percent accuracy, and a rating of 117.9. That’s a heck of a start. Mentor Jay Gruden and McVay’s former protégé Kirk Cousins come to the Coliseum on Sunday, and that should be a better test for the Rams and for Goff. But let the Rams revel in their first great moment since the move to Los Angeles 19 months ago.