Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 15, 2022

Revenge Weekend Falls Flat

So much for revenge weekend.  That was how the first week of the new NFL season was characterized by fans and pundits alike in the days leading up to kickoff, as soon as they realized that offseason transactions involving quarterbacks combined with the Week 1 schedule to create three games in which a signal-caller would line up against his former team.  Whether a quarterback had been run out of town or had conspired to force a change in scenery, the spectacle of a one-time hero cast adrift, with a chance to make fans of his former franchise regret that recent move and long for the good old days, seemed the stuff of high NHL drama.  Joe Flacco’s Jets entertaining the Ravens, the franchise the 37-year-old led to glory in Super Bowl XLVII!  Baker Mayfield, hailed as the savior of the long-suffering Browns when Cleveland made him the first pick in the 2018 Draft, facing his old team while wearing the blue and white of the Carolina Panthers!  Finally, to wrap up Week 1 on Monday night, Russell Wilson, now leading the Broncos, returning to his old haunts in the Pacific Northwest to battle the Seahawks!

As is all too often the case when manufactured hype is disguised as sporting drama, events on the field failed to deliver the high tension and cathartic release that had been advertised.  That the very notion of three high-stakes revenge games was little more than marketing was apparent from the start, since the first of the contests listed above scarcely qualified as such.  Flacco’s time in Baltimore did not end within the past few months, but more than three years ago, when the Ravens traded him to Denver in 2019.  Injured midway through that season, Flacco was supplanted by rookie Lamar Jackson, who provided a needed spark.  After several middling seasons from the one-time Super Bowl hero, when Jackson went 6-1 to cement a playoff spot for the Ravens, no one, including Flacco, was surprised that he was deemed expendable. 

Since then, Flacco has usually played a backup role with multiple teams, most recently the Jets.  Indeed, it was only shortly before Sunday’s game that New York coach Robert Saleh committed to Flacco as his starter in place of Zach Wilson, who is still recovering from a knee injury.  In addition, the Ravens are a popular pick to supplant the Bengals atop the AFC Central Division standings, while the Jets are, well, the Jets.  It’s likely just being competitive was more of a priority for Flacco than exacting some measure of revenge against his old team.

By that diminished standard Flacco had at least a modicum of success in the first half.  The teams headed to the locker room with Baltimore leading by only a touchdown, 10-3, though the Ravens first points did come on a chip shot field goal after a Flacco interception that caused social media to light up with suggestions that he may have thrown to a purple jersey out of habit.  Any thoughts of a close contest dissipated when play resumed however, as Baltimore pulled away to a 24-9 victory. 

Despite the axiom, originally French, that revenge is best served cold, immediacy is key to the allure of revenge games.  For maximum effect, the reunion should occur while feelings are still raw and before fans have time to judge its true impact.  By that important standard, the other two highlighted contests at least fit the profile.  In the end though, they too were lacking.     

What was not in short supply was Mayfield’s willingness, alone among the three quarterbacks, to buy into the popular narrative.  While the result of his four seasons in Cleveland were middling, which is not what one looks for from a first overall pick, he had led the Browns to the team’s first playoff appearance in nearly two decades at the end of the 2020 campaign.  But he followed that up by throwing nearly as many interceptions – 13 – as touchdowns – 17 – last season, and when Cleveland had a chance to acquire Deshaun Watson from Houston during the offseason, Mayfield’s time by Lake Erie was over.  Still, the price that the Browns were willing to pay to have someone other than him as the franchise’s quarterback had to be galling.  To acquire Watson, along with a sixth-round pick in 2024, Cleveland parted with three number one picks, a third rounder, and two fourth round selections.  The club then gave Watson a five-year, $230 million contract that, contrary to most NFL deals, is fully guaranteed.  All this for a player who refused to take the field for the Texans last season and was under investigation by the league for nearly two dozen claims of sexual assault. 

Given all that plus his general demeanor, it was hardly surprising when Mayfield told a sideline reporter during a preseason game that he would “f— them up” when he faced his former team, or that in the days before Sunday’s contest the quarterback’s officially licensed merchandise included t-shirts denigrating the visiting Browns.  Unfortunately for the Panthers, Mayfield’s professional resume is long on talk and short on performance.  For most of the game he was outplayed by Cleveland backup Jacoby Brissett, under center since Watson is unavailable for the first eleven games while serving a conduct suspension stemming from the assault allegations. 

Mayfield did rally the Panthers late, fighting back from a 20-7 deficit to briefly take the lead, 24-23.  But he did so with still over a minute to play, a lifetime in the NFL, as the cliché goes.  With help from a roughing the passer penalty, Brissett quickly moved the Browns just far enough that rookie kicker Cade York could convert a lengthy field goal with 13 seconds remaining.  Instead of revenge, Mayfield and the Panthers had an opening game home loss.

For his part, Wilson steadfastly denied any thought of getting even against the Seahawks.  Perhaps that is understandable, since he was the party instigating the divorce, having concluded that the Seattle franchise wasn’t going to give him the resources for another deep playoff run.  Still, Wilson had to feel some mix of emotions when the boos rained down from the packed stands at Lumen Field as he took the field for pregame warmups Monday evening.   Dismissed by many analysts as too short for his position at the NFL level, Wilson was the sixth quarterback taken in the 2012 Draft when Seattle chose him in the third round.  But he guided the team to a Super Bowl victory in just his second season, and the following year came within a timely read by Patriots’ cornerback Malcolm Butler from making it two titles in a row.

That was then, this is now, and there is no passion quite like that of a lover, or fan, scorned.  Still, Wilson threw for 340 yards and a touchdown, but was hampered by his own penalty-prone defense, which consistently drew yellow flags that allowed the underdog Seahawks to extend drives.  In the end, trailing 17-16, Wilson led the Broncos on one last drive.  Or he did until, faced with a 4th-and-5 near midfield with over a minute remaining and all three timeouts available, Denver’s first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett decided he had better odds trying to nearly match the NFL record for longest field goal rather than trusting his 9-time Pro Bowl quarterback to convert.  Hackett let the clock run down, finally called time, and sent out his kicking unit.  When the 64-yard try missed, he may have been the only person in the stadium who was surprised.  Or perhaps he was the only one who saw all along the silliness of the revenge game narrative.

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