And the Kickoff Game Is...
The MMQB Mailbag

And the Kickoff Game Is...

The Broncos will open the 2016 season at home on a Thursday night. Here’s a ranking of who Denver’s opponent might be. Plus my thoughts on the Cam Newton fumble, the Johnny drama and answers to your email

A Patriots-Broncos matchup to kick off the 2016 season would be a ratings bonanza, but that might also be a reason to put that game on a different date later in the year.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Oh, to be Howard Katz today. That’s a happy thing.

Katz is the NFL’s schedule guru. By late April, about a week before the draft, Katz and his team at the NFL—Michael North, Onnie Bose, Jonathan Payne—will have gone through a daunting process that actually started about a month ago, when all 2016 scheduling matchups were certain. How daunting? Last year, the schedule the NFL ended up using turned out to be the 37,793rd spit out by a team of computers, and it took about 14 weeks to arrive at it.

There are 256 games to place and four networks to please. But the first game is always the most important, the scene-setter for the new year. And this year, the world champion Broncos got a very big break when the Major League Baseball schedule came out. The cross-town Rockies are home on Wednesday night, Sept. 7, the night before the NFL opens its season. But the Rockies are in San Diego on Thursday night … meaning the NFL is free and clear to have the city to itself for the season kickoff.

• VON MILLER REACHES THE TOP: He hit bottom two years ago, with a suspension and an injury. After a Super Bowl 50 MVP performance, he’s solidified his status as a franchise player. Next up: a massive payday.

The other reason Katz has to be happy—as is NBC, which will broadcast the game—is that Denver has a marvelous home schedule in 2016. Keeping in mind all the variables the league will consider, here is my ranking of games with the best chance to be the 2016 kickoff game at 6:30 p.m. Mountain Time on Sept. 8:

1. New England. The only thing I worry about is the NFL taking such a great game and making it the open. This game is ratings gold, even without Peyton Manning, and the league has shown the willingness to hold back a great game if other good alternatives are possible for the opener, realizing that the opener will get a great number no matter who the foe is. 

2. Indianapolis. Andrew Luck and the resurgent Colts is a good idea—but the league strongly will consider the fact that the Colts defense is pretty feeble. The one thing the league will want is a game for four quarters, not a 27-10 game by halftime.

3. Carolina. A Super Bowl rematch is tempting and could happen. But this is such a great game, and such a valuable chip for all networks to want, that I would be surprised if it were placed as the first game of the season.

4. Kansas City. Great rivalry game, with a playoff opponent. Good option.

5. Atlanta. Matt Ryan and a growing defense. Not a bad option.

6. San Diego. A little shaky, but a division rival and Philip Rivers is bankable.

7. Oakland. Derek Carr and a growing defense. Not a bad option either.

8. Houston. Can’t see it. Could be a rout at halftime.

* * *

On the aftermath of the Cam fumble

On Tuesday, asked about what turned into the Super Bowl-clinching turn of events, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said: “We didn’t lose that game because of that fumble, I can tell you that.”

Well, let’s see about that. The situation: Carolina ball, third-and-9, fourth quarter, 4:16 left in the game, Denver up 16-10, Newton back to pass. Fumble. Ball on ground. Scrum ensues. Newton shies away from the action at first, then makes a feeble attempt to join in to get the ball. Denver recovers at the Carolina 4-yard line. The Broncos score a minute later to go up 24-10.

• ‘WE READ THEM LIKE A BOOK’: Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his unit overwhelmed a Panthers offense that offered little creativity and had no hope.

Carolina may not have lost that game because of the fumble, but the result of the play took away any chance the Panthers had to win, I can promise you that.

We can talk semantics, and we can talk excuses. But I believe, after watching the play on every angle of NFL Game Pass, from the CBS feed, multiple times on Tuesday that it’s an inexcusable move by Newton to not compete for the ball.

Below is an image of the key moment, with 4:11 left in the game and the ball on the ground. There are three players very close to the ball: Newton, who is standing and appears closest to it by about a foot; Denver’s Demarcus Ware, virtually as close as Newton, with one knee on the ground and ready to lunge for it; and Denver’s Derek Wolfe, a little further away than Newton. Behind Newton by a yard is Von Miller, who forced the fumble. Four Panthers offensive linemen are fairly close to the ball, but none as close as Newton.

That image makes it clear: If Newton dove at the ball at that moment in time, he would have had a good chance to recover it. Nothing is certain, but he would have had as good a chance at anyone in the vicinity. It looks clearly like it would have been a fight for the ball between Newton and Ware. But Newton shied away before lunging in, clearly too late.

In the end, what would Carolina recovering the ball at its own 18-yard line have done? It would have set up fourth down, and a punt, with about 3:40 left. Carolina would have punted, and assuming the average punt of the day for Brad Nortman (only one of his seven punts was returned on the day—for 61 yards, though) and assuming a fair catch or punt out of bounds, Denver would have started a drive with about 3:33 left at its 35-yard line. A lot to assume, but all those things are most logical events. Carolina had all three timeouts left. On the previous series, Denver had been content to run without success on all three plays, just to run the clock. I’m assuming Gary Kubiak would have done the same thing here. Let’s say he does. C.J. Anderson’s previous six carries had been for 0, 0, 1, 2, 2 and 2 yards. So it’s logical that Carolina would have gotten the ball back—let’s say with no timeouts left, with about three minutes to go, ball on its 15-yard line.

So, under my scenario, Carolina would have had three minutes to travel 85 yards and score a touchdown to win the Super Bowl against this great Denver defense. Do I think the Panthers would have done it? No. But ask any competitor: Do you think you’d have wanted a chance to win the Super Bowl by going the length of the field in the last three minutes against one of the best defenses of recent times? If you say no, I don’t want you quarterbacking my team. It’s clear: Newton did his team a disservice by not diving for the ball at a critical moment in the game of the year.

* * *

On Johnny Football

From Monday Morning Quarterback, Jan. 4, after Johnny Manziel was inactive in the previous day’s game with the team saying he was in the league’s concussion protocol, I wrote: “I am dubious about the cause of Johnny Manziel missing Sunday’s game. The Browns said it was because of a concussion. He may well have had one. But I would ask this question: If you were going to sit a player—or if the player chose to sit himself—what’s the one unassailable reason for him to sit, the one thing that right now has the nodding assent of every owner, coach, player and fan? It’s that if there is any evidence the player has even a headache that has lasted a day or two, he enters the concussion protocol, and he’s in that protocol until his baseline tests comes out positive, and until he doesn’t complain of any concussion-like symptoms. I also doubt that Manziel will ever play another snap for Cleveland.”

So if Manziel was hung over and not truly concussed that week, as Mike Silver of NFL.com reported Tuesday, I would not be surprised one bit. This continues to mean just one thing: Manziel needs help, and he needs it now, and his partying and destructive lifestyle is a fact that cannot be ignored any more. Forget who might sign him. Manziel should use 2016, every last day of it, to save his life. Forget football. He has to save himself first.

Now for your email:

* * *

How Denver stopped Cam Newton

The MMQB's Peter King and Andy Benoit breakdown the Denver Broncos' containment of the Carolina Panthers' QB Cam Newton.

CAM DESERVES A BREAK

I feel that a lot of the criticism being leveled at Cam Newton for his press conference is unfair. Some will say that as a 20-something-year old professional football player who makes millions of dollars as the Face of the Franchise should be more gracious and mature. I say that shoving a microphone in someone's face immediately after they have been embarrassed on national television, forcing them to talk about that embarrassment, and then holding their reaction against them is unfair. I'm inclined to give Cam a break.

—Kathy, Leesburg, Va.

I am too. But as I wrote Tuesday, the post-game press conference for a quarterback is something like the fifth quarter of the game. Particularly for the MVP and face of a franchise, it is not too much to ask Newton to take a deep breath and talk for five minutes after such a difficult moment. As I wrote, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but if I were his advisors, I think I would make this point: Why give the media and fans a chance to rip you? Just take your medicine for a few minutes and get out of there.

ON DUNGY HALL OF FAME REASONING

I’ve heard you say many times that the Hall Of Fame selection committee can only evaluate on-field accomplishments when considering their worthiness for induction. Why then do you cite as a primary consideration for Tony Dungy the fact that he was the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl? I’m fairly certain HOF voting criteria does not mention race. If you think Dungy is deserving that’s fine, but the fact that he’s African-American should have no bearing on his selection.

—Dale, Huntsville, Ala.

I’ve written this on a few occasions. When Dungy first became eligible, I phoned the keepers of the rules, Joe Horrigan, at the Hall of Fame. I asked him if part of our deliberation either could or should be the fact that Dungy has been such a beacon for African-American coaches in the NFL and, to a lesser degree, all other levels of football as well. Horrigan told me that it would be my call as to whether that could be considered. And you’re right. Many who have criticized me for this selection and others have said that I can’t have it both ways.

To that point, let me go back and talk about one other person and his Hall of Fame case. When John Madden was up for election, his case was supposed to be judged based on his contribution to the game as a head coach of the Oakland Raiders. He coached the Raiders for 10 years with very laudable results. But it’s difficult to not think about what Madden did after he left the sidelines. He has become an advisor to so many coaches over the years; he has gotten millions of young people interested in pro football through his video game; and he is one of the best football analysts in history.

The job we do as voters is difficult to define in exact terms. Another example is Michael Irvin. When he was eligible, I was adamant that his leadership and his influence on the team and how the team performed by what he did in the locker room and on the sidelines should count. I was around that team in those days and I knew how important Irvin was in making his teammates practice hard and play hard and be accountable on a great team. I think that stuff should count. I also think a person’s contribution to the game as a whole should count. That is why I feel the way I do about Tony Dungy and his influence on the game beyond what he did on the Tampa Bay and the Indianapolis sideline.

FACTOID OF THE WEEK CORRECTION

You stated that the Broncos’ team hotel, the Santa Clara Marriott, was believed to be the shortest hotel-to-Super-Bowl-stadium distance ever, at 1.1 miles. This is not true. In 2012, the Giants stayed at the downtown Indianapolis Marriott, which is 0.5 miles from Lucas Oil Stadium, site of Super Bowl 46.  Can't believe it only took you four years to forget how easily walkable everything was in Indianapolis, especially when you come back every year for the combine!

—Brian L.

Very good point. I stand corrected.

WHAT IF… PEYTON DOESN’T RETIRE?

Concerning Mr. Manning, I think we are all jumping to conclusions. What if Peyton didn’t like having his contract cut before the start of the season? What if he didn’t like the signing of Gary Kubiak? What if, what if, what if ... You and most of America are putting a cowboy hat on his head and giving him a boost into the saddle for the ride off into the sunset. Are you sure that is what he wants?

—Vance, Seattle

Manning has always said that he will take it year by year and decide on next year at the end of the current year. I have never said that Manning will retire; I have said that I don’t think he is going to play next year. Manning has made it just as clear that if he doesn’t think he can play at a high level, he probably won’t play anymore. Also, one of the most difficult things for him is change. He made that clear in 2012 when he had to leave Indianapolis, which he did not want to do. And I just don't think, at age 40, he would enjoy going to a franchise with quite possibly a quarterback of the future either in house or ready to be drafted, knowing that no team would sign him for a long period of time. So all I am doing quite honestly is connecting the dots.

• A SUPER BOWL SUNSET: Manning ‘at peace’ as career hits twilight

THE PROBLEM WITH THE PERSONAL FOUL EJECTION PROPOSAL

I understand the attempt to formalize ejecting players by considering two fouls as the basis. The consistent problem with issues such as this one is trying to objectify a decision that clearly will always be subjective. Does one very borderline late hit on a QB and a relatively accidental face mask result in an ejection but a brutal late hit does not? Yes, a yellow/red card system is open to criticism because of the apparent subjective quality but I suggest an objective two personal fouls will turn subjective as refs are forced to decide, “Do I want to put this player into potential ejection possibilities over this borderline hit?” It will actually result in FEWER personal foul calls, which is not the goal at all.

—Robert C., Newark, Del.

I doubt that sincerely. Officials may think twice about giving a guy a personal foul because of the added meaning, but if they pass up too many of those flags, they aren’t going to have a job anymore. There is no question that such a system will result in some ticky-tack ejections during the year, but I still would be in favor of some system that prevents out-of-control behavior by players, like we saw with Odell Beckham Jr. I think it’s time.

PENALTY BANK PROPOSAL

The (admittedly intentional) personal foul face mask by Aqib Talib brings up the need for something I’ve been advocating for years—the “penalty bank.” Rather than take the relatively meaningless 1 yard that changed the situation from first-and-goal at the 2, to first-and-goal at the 1, Carolina should have had the opportunity to “bank” that 15-yard penalty instead. Then, after they score the TD and kick off through the end zone, they can apply the banked penalty, which would have given Denver first-and-10 at either the 10-yard line or the 5-yard line, depending on how you structure the rule regarding half the distance to the goal situations. This would not only be more fair but also would be in the interest of player safety, eliminating the lack of real consequences for things like the Talib play and defensive lineman teeing off on offensive linemen when the ball in a foot from the goal line.

—Steve T., Peoria, Ariz.

I think this is a good idea. The next time I have the ear of a member of the competition committee, I am going to ask him about it.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.