The early kings of the NFL season are Sean Payton and Andy Reid. It isn’t because their teams are bee-lining toward the Super Bowl — though who really knows in this league of wonderfully shocking story lines? — but actually because both have returned with a vengeance from different forms of football purgatory. Both are 3-0, both seem playoff-bound, and both look refreshed and much happier than a year ago.
As opposed to Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan, who are realizing that a collective four Super Bowl coaching rings are met with amnesia when their teams start 0-3. Here we thought the “FIRE COUGHLIN” headlines of yesteryear were now a running joke, after he famously responded to waves of New York negativity with championships. My guess is they’ll be back soon, with the same headlines about to dog Shanahan in D.C. as he and Robert Griffin III are sized up for impeachment.
Payton is no conquering hero, mind you. In a league that is trying to protect human brains amid a concussion crisis, the New Orleans Saints’ pay-for-knockouts bounty scandal was on his watch. He deserved his one-year suspension. But to his credit, he quickly has re-established this season that he’s an elite leader who’s worth more victories to his team than any other NFL coach south of New England and, possibly, Seattle. You knew the explosive offense would be even better as Payton reunited with Drew Brees, who passed for three scores and ran for another Sunday in a 31-7 trouncing of Arizona. You didn’t know Payton would spent his time off obsessing with how to make a horrendous defense better and, when last season ended, move quickly to hire The Other Ryan.
Rob Ryan is the brother of Crazy Rex, coach of the New York Jets. With his wildly flowing hair and barking-dog image, Rob looks like he belongs in a Bourbon Street dive bar. Oh, he managed to make that scene — after a recent win, he bought rounds for the house at Ms. Mae’s, an Uptown hole in the wall — but Ryan has been more focused on fixing a defense that relinquished a league-record 7,042 yards. Miraculously, he has accomplished the patch job, with his sack-happy unit allowing only four touchdowns in three games. “Today was a huge step for us,” Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said, per the Associated Press, after the Saints sacked Carson Palmer four times and intercepted him twice. “Last year, I don’t know what that was, but this year is what I definitely expected. I love being here.”
“It was all just pressure everywhere,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “When you’re part of a D-line like that, I mean, it’s a party.”
We know New Orleans loves a party, especially when Payton is the life of it. The good folks have been wearing t-shirts supporting their coach — “RedempSean,” they read — because they’ll never forget how he took a traditional rag-tag franchise and led it to a Super Bowl victory four years ago. Not one to yap publicly when times are good, Payton said simply, “A really good afternoon. We finished this game the way we like to. I’m proud of our guys.”
Inside, he must be gloating, as is Reid. There is no polite way to put it: He was run out of Philadelphia, despite one of the league’s best coaching records during an exasperating, controversial, emotional 14 years in a truly psychotic football town. He came close to winning a Super Bowl, with Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens, but that wasn’t enough. Last year, when his drug-addled son died in training camp and the Eagles lost 12 games, it was time.
But unlike Santa Claus, a knocked-out Michael Irvin, Mike Schmidt and all the others they’ve abused through time in their battery-throwing, boo-birding perpetual rage, Philly fans neither disparaged nor mocked Reid when he returned with his new team, the Kansas City Chiefs. The vocal minority booed, but it was drowned out by an appreciative standing ovation as Reid jogged onto the field, staring straight ahead, though clearly looking odd in red. “I appreciate the fans and the support they gave me,” he said later. “That was kind of them.”
If he sounded a bit surprised by the response, he shouldn’t have been. There always has been a certain empathy for Reid in that city, probably because of the personal problems he and his wife have had with their sons but also because most of his players loved him. Starting with Michael Vick, to whom Reid gave a chance after his release from prison and dog-killing atrocity, the Eagles said how much they liked and respected Reid in the hype leadup to the game. And during the game, when LeSean McCoy was injured, who ran out to see how he was but .. Andy Reid, Kansas City coach?
Now it is Chip Kelly who deals with Philly’s wrath as he tries, with annoying inconsistency, to adapt his blur offense to the NFL level — a task that will be difficult if he doesn’t mold a better defense, like Payton, and doesn’t learn the pro rules that help him manage the clock late in games. Reid? He’s loving life in a more peaceful environment in Kansas City, where they are thrilled to be 3-0 after going 2-14 last year. In December, the Chiefs were devastated by the murder-suicide of linebacker Jovan Belcher, who killed himself in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot while coach Mario Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli tried to help him. They needed Andy Reid. And he needed Kansas City. And with the help of quarterback Alex Smith, who needed Reid and K.C. after he was run out of San Francisco — any regrets now at 1-2, Jim Harbaugh? — the Chiefs are efficient on offense and ferocious on defense, with 15 sacks already.
Reid’s new players love him, too. “Even though he said it was just another game, we wanted to go out and get it for him,” cornerback Brandon Flowers said.
He returns the sentiment. “I’m proud of the guys,” Reid said. “One thing I appreciate about these guys is that they play as a team, and they create energy amongst themselves.”
His presence also is creating a necessary equilibrium, which Kelly is not providing in Philly. Good luck with that, rookie coach. When Reid vanished into the tunnel after the 26-16 win, some fans thanked him him, and he responded with a fist-pump. He later stopped and told an ESPN.com reporter, “After the game is where you felt it, when the players were coming up. After the game, I just appreciated what the guys were all about. … Every game is so important in this league, you try to put (beating the Eagles) out of your mind. I love those kids over there. That’s not how I look at it. I look at it is it’s a game, and you’ve got to cut through all of that other stuff. I’ve been doing it too long to feel all of that.”
Oh, but he did.
The losses tend to torture a coach more than the victories soothe him. Ask Coughlin, whose second Super Bowl win over the Patriots isn’t resonating in New York anymore, though it happened less than 20 months ago. The Giants were destroyed 38-0 by the previously winless Carolina Panthers, the worst loss of the Coughlin era. This team is doing nothing right — no offensive line, no running game, no defense — and won’t be playing a Super Bowl in its home stadium. There are serious concerns that Eli Manning, who was sacked seven times and hit repeatedly, won’t survive next week — when the Chiefs and their sackmasters await.
“Disappointed isn’t a strong enough word. I expected more,” Coughlin moped after his running game managed 20 yards in the first three quarters. “They ended up with seven sacks, and our quarterback must have gotten hit 20 times.”
Said Manning, who threw two more interceptions and now has nine for the season, or as many touchdown passes as brother Peyton has thrown in Denver: “We have to find ways to slow down the pass rush. Whether that is running the ball with screens or getting the ball out quicker.”
Short of renting out some Manhattan skyscrapers for protection, I see no hope. Only five 0-3 teams have made the playoffs the past 35 NFL seasons. Even in a bad NFC East, the Giants won’t be the sixth, which will launch questions about Coughlin’s future. This time, he may not get the chance to prove everyone wrong again.
Shanahan’s future in Washington is tied to the development of Griffin. That continued to be a work in progress Sunday, when RGIII contributed to a 27-20 home loss to the Detroit Lions because he didn’t remember an NFL rule that could have helped him. Finally starting to run effectively with his knee brace, a constant reminder of offseason reconstructive surgery, Griffin scrambled for 21 yards as the Redskins were mounting a fourth-quarter drive with the score tied. But rather than slide, which immediately would have ruled the ball dead as the league continues to protect its quarterbacks, Griffin sort of dove/stumbled at the Detroit 30-yard line … and fumbled the ball away. The Lions regained possession and went ahead for good with a field-goal march.
“It’s the rule. It can be a (bad) rule, but it’s still one of the NFL rules, and they said it’s a fumble,” Griffin said, per the AP. “So, it’s unfortunate, and I’ve just got to make sure if I dive forward, hold onto the ball.”
The Redskins still had 11 minutes, but they were done in by another rule — named, ironically, for Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson. Three years ago, Johnson didn’t maintain possession as his body landed on the ground in the end zone, and a TD catch was overturned. Sunday, the ball came loose similarly as Washington’s Aldrick Robinson fell into the end zone for what would have been a 57-yard TD pass. Rightfully, a replay overturned the score.
“I’m not known for my calm or anything like that,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said, per the AP. “But if that hadn’t got overruled, I would have had a difficult time. I might have had a conniption or whatever that is.”
No conniption fit there: He’s 2-1. Shanahan is 0-3 and facing more criticism. Harsh as it was when he stubbornly let a badly limping Griffin remain in last January’s playoff game, which probably aggravated his injured knee, he now is torn between making Griffin a pocket passer or turning him loose as a dual threat and jeopardizing his health. “We’re going to go back and we’re going to be hard on ourselves and we’re going to work hard to eliminate mistakes,” Shanahan said.
If that is a plea for mercy, forget about it. This is the NFL, where Week 3 begins to define a season’s winners and goats. Did you see Andrew Luck, forged by a touchdown from new battering ram Trent Richardson, trouncing his old college coach (Harbaugh) and making Colin Kaepernick look like a novice in his first Candlestick Park loss?
Did you see Harbaugh afterward, fending off questions about why he allowed the troubled Aldon Smith to play two days after he was arrested at 7 a.m. with an obvious substance-abuse problem? Smith will seek treatment and miss Thursday’s game in St. Louis, telling the media he is sorry to “everyone I let down.”