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Rookies make big NFL impact

September 14, 2008|Andrew Seligman | Associated Press

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Long before his impressive debut with the Chicago Bears, Matt Forte had to wait to get on the football field.

His dad wouldn't let him play. Seems strange considering Gene Forte starred at Tulane in the 1970s, but he was adamant when his son asked his permission.

"I was 5 years old," Matt Forte said. So he had to wait another year.

He wasted no time making an impact in the NFL, though.

As debuts go, Forte couldn't have scripted a better one. The first rookie running back to start a Bears opener since Walter Payton in 1975, he showed speed and toughness while rushing for 123 yards.

The second-round pick from Tulane broke through the middle thanks to a big block from right guard Roberto Garza and beat 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders on a 50-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. And he showed his toughness in the second quarter, missing only a few plays after a hard hit by Sanders and Clint Session after a reception.

Forte gave one of several notable performances by rookies in their debuts last week.

Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson backed up boasts that he should have gone in the first round of the draft, not the second. Denver receiver Eddie Royal had some crowning moments against Oakland, and Tennessee running back Chris Johnson shined along with quarterbacks Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Joe Flacco.

Defensive players came through too.

New York Jets cornerback Dwight Lowery, Giants safety Kenny Phillips and Forte's teammate, Marcus Harrison, all delivered big plays.

With Reggie Brown bothered by a sore left hamstring and Kevin Curtis recuperating from sports hernia surgery, the Eagles turned to Jackson in a 38-3 win over St. Louis. He excelled.

Jackson caught six passes for 106 yards and returned eight punts for 97 yards, electrifying the crowd with a spectacular catch and punt return.

The 5-foot-10 Jackson's first reception was a dazzler in which he went over cornerback Tye Hill for a 47-yard gain that put the ball on the St. Louis 33.

The long punt return left a few jaws hanging too, with Jackson breaking tackles while going sideline to sideline on the way to the nine.

"I just stepped in and did what I needed to do to help this football team," Jackson said. "I felt very confident out there. I was just ready."

So was Johnson.

He ran for 93 yards in just 15 carries and caught three passes for 34 yards, including a touchdown for Tennessee in a 17-10 win over Jacksonville. It was the best performance in an opener by a rookie running back for the franchise since Earl Campbell ran for 137 yards in his debut against Atlanta in 1978.

"I wanted to come in and have a good game, miss no blocks and make all my reads," Johnson said. "I had a better game than I thought I was going to have. I didn't know how much I was going to play. I feel like I exceeded my expectations."

The Titans were criticized for not taking a receiver with the 24th pick, but they liked what they saw from Johnson at East Carolina, where he finished with 6,993 all-purpose yards.

"He's very explosive, he's got great speed and it's a good one-two punch," Coach Jeff Fisher said. "We've felt that way, we'll keep him healthy and he's going to be a great combination."

Ryan, the third pick, became the first quarterback in eight years to throw a touchdown on his first pass, and the Falcons turned the page on the Michael Vick era by beating Detroit, 34-21.

"It's just one performance and I think that's the biggest thing," said Ryan, the former Boston College star. But it was an impressive showing.

Ryan threw just 13 passes but completed nine for 161 yards, and his first attempt was most impressive.

He hit Michael Jenkins on a slant over the middle for a 62-yard touchdown on the opening drive, raced downfield to celebrate and knocked over Todd McClure when he jumped on the center's back. The last quarterback to throw a touchdown on his first pass was Michael Bishop for New England in 2000, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Like Ryan, Flacco put aside any jitters as Baltimore started a new era with a 17-10 win over Cincinnati. The 18th pick from Delaware, he was 15 for 29 for 129 yards and no interceptions, and broke off a 38-yard touchdown run in his -- and Coach John Harbaugh's -- debut.

"It's just football," Flacco said. "It's a lot of fun though, just like it's always been. Once you get out on the field and you're around your guys, it is just football. It's the same thing we've been doing for the last 20 years of our lives, we've been playing football."

And on Monday, Royal had his way with $70-million free agent cornerback DeAngelo Hall in Denver's 41-14 victory over Oakland, finishing with nine catches for 146 yards. The second-round pick from Virginia Tech caught a 26-yard touchdown from Jay Cutler on the opening drive and had little trouble getting open all night. Hall's frustration boiled over when he committed two 15-yard personal fouls against Royal on the same drive in the second quarter.

Forte, meanwhile, opened a few eyes with his performance. Actually, he did that during predraft workouts.

Carolina Coach John Fox indicated the Panthers might have considered Forte had they not taken Jonathan Stewart with the 13th pick. Now, they'll try to contain him today.

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