Philadelphia, PA – The early reaction to the St. Louis Rams' newest effort to repair their image as the NFL's laughingstock was that they'd been played for fools once again.
This time, however, the joke may be on the critics.
Those detractors were out in full force prior to St. Louis' game against the new darlings of the media, the Washington Redskins, primed and ready to point the finger at the franchise for how it let the one player who could lift the Rams out of their continually stale state slip right through their hands.
That blue-chipper, of course, is Robert Griffin III, the transcendent young quarterback who's instantly transformed the Redskins from run-of-the-mill to relevant in the public eye with a dazzling and historic pro debut one week earlier.
The consensus sentiment was that the Rams' blockbuster deal with Washington that enabled the Redskins to secure Griffin with the second overall pick of this past April's draft was made more out of resignation than resourcefulness, with St. Louis' inability to find a taker for incumbent triggerman Sam Bradford's archaic and weighty contract the presumed sole reason why it didn't take the former Baylor University superstar for itself.
Griffin was darn good once more in Sunday's encounter with the team that declined his services in the draft, accounting for three touchdowns (two rushing, one passing) and 288 yards of offense (206 passing, 82 rushing) in a fine encore to his sensational Week 1 display that fueled the Redskins' startling upset over the supposedly mighty New Orleans Saints in the Superdome.
Bradford was better.
The seemingly spiraling St. Louis signal-caller outdueled his fellow Heisman Trophy-winning brethren with a performance most reminiscent of his NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, skillfully dissecting a Washington defense that had flustered Drew Brees in the opener with an unexpected ease and leading the Rams from a 15-point first-half deficit to an inspiring, 31-28 victory.
Bradford completed an on-point 26-of-35 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns, demonstrating that his disappointing sophomore slump of last season was more attributable to nagging injuries and the absence of security blanket Danny Amendola -- who abused the Redskins' defensive backs for 15 catches and 160 yards -- than any decline in his abilities.
Suddenly, St. Louis doesn't seem nearly the pushover it was pegged to be at the start of the season, with a healthy Bradford returning stability to the quarterback position and the team galvanized by the installation of head coach Jeff Fisher, the one-time miracle worker in Tennessee whose credentials and credibility have clearly helped forge a new attitude at One Rams Way.
The old Rams probably wouldn't have won Sunday's game, not without the crafty tactical adjustments that Fisher and his veteran staff made during the second half, and certainly not without the confidence that simply wasn't there in years past.
"It's a completely different swagger," said running back Steven Jackson, whose absence for the entire final two quarters of the Washington win caused by a groin injury further illustrates St. Louis' newfound resiliency. "It's just amazing. I know it's only Week 2 and we're 1-1, but it's just a whole different atmosphere. I can't thank Coach Jeff Fisher enough for what he's done and what he's doing with us."
And with extra first-round picks in each of the next two drafts as part of the Griffin trade, the Rams' future is as bright as it's been in a long, long time.
Vindication also was in order for two of the other teams chasing the resurgent San Francisco 49ers in a division that's just two years removed from the ignominy of having a 7-9 champion, but on Sunday flexed some muscles that practically no one knew it had.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll's controversial decision to insert green rookie Russell Wilson ahead of the more established (and higher salaried) Matt Flynn at quarterback didn't look as scatterbrained as at first glance after the poised youngster played well in the Seahawks' 27-7 manhandling of an unsurprisingly flat Dallas team, while Arizona finally got a noteworthy return on its risky investment in Kevin Kolb when the maligned acquisition had a hand in the Cardinals pulling off by far the most shocking result of Sunday's slate, a 20-18 win over defending AFC champion New England which marked only the second home loss by the powerful Patriots in their last 37 regular-season tilts at Gillette Stadium in which Tom Brady's been under center.
Kolb was hardly prolific in standing in for the injured John Skelton at quarterback, but wasn't a liability, either. He generally showed sound decision making and hung tough against a steady New England pass rush while operating behind a patchwork offensive line. He directed a pair of long scoring drives that helped Arizona take a 20-9 lead early in the fourth quarter.
"The noise didn't bother him. The situations didn't bother him," Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt remarked. "He made some plays for us. One thing he knows, he understands what we are trying to do and he did a nice job today of moving in the pocket, being smart with the ball. The one thing -- the fumble (near the end of the game) was unfortunate, but I am really pleased with how he handled himself."
Very quietly, Arizona has won nine of its last 11 games dating back to November of last season, using a stifling defense that hasn't gotten near the credit it's deserved and timely plays on special teams to offset Skelton and Kolb's deficiencies as passers. Although there's been a little luck involved as well -- such as usually reliable Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski shanking a deciding 42-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds of Sunday's matchup -- it doesn't devalue the bang-up job done by Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Ray Horton in maximizing the available talent.
And if the Cardinals can get a little more consistency from either of their two quarterbacks, posing a serious threat to a San Francisco squad that's showed it may have the fewest chinks in the armor of any team in the NFL through the first two weeks isn't as far-fetched as it may appear.
The same goes for the Seahawks, who showcased their defensive prowess while receiving a highly efficient outing from Wilson (15-of-20, 151 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) and a monster one from running back Marshawn Lynch (122 rushing yards, one touchdown) against the same Dallas team that kicked off the season with a black-type road win over the 2011 world champion New York Giants. Seattle physically overpowered the Cowboys on both sides of the ball in executing Carroll's blueprint for success to near perfection.
Like the Cardinals, Seattle has some flaws that can be exploited by the right opponent on the right day. And like the Rams, the Seahawks are banking on several lightly experienced players coming of age quickly and feeding off the energy and positivity that their proven head coach instills.
It's too early to tell as to whether any of these upstarts can loosen the 49ers' seemingly iron-clad grip on the division or viably contend for a playoff spot. But if nothing else, the NFC West has just gotten a whole lot more interesting.