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Some of the NFL’s Pillars of Stability Are Starting to Crumble

We look to players like Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, and Ben Roethlisberger to make sense of this fickle league. With their seasons in flux, what can we count on?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s Cowboys-Packers game, on the Green Bay drive following Morgan Burnett’s interception of Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers sputtered on a disappointing three-and-out, squashing any sort of hope for a comeback. Rodgers’s weird, season-long downward spiral continued. He was booed. At his Lambeau Field. In front of Brett Favre.

It appears we’re now forever away from the Aaron Rodgers who threw that 48-yard pass to Randall Cobb against the Bears in Week 17 of 2013. The one who seemed more like an inescapable fact of life than a quarterback. The one who used to make us say stuff like Y’all done fucked around and let Aaron Rodgers into the playoffs.

We can probably chalk up Rodgers’s struggles to waning athleticism; not being able to use your legs in the way you want to will do things to your throws. We can explain that away, but what about the NFL’s other perplexing quarterback meltdown? What about Cam? It’s almost as if reigning MVP Cam Newton has been zapped of his powers. Remember just last year, when he bent the laws of physics to curve a pass to Ed Dickson against the Falcons?

Well, maybe not all of his powers. There’s no good reason that this, against New Orleans on Sunday, should’ve worked:

He’s still insanely talented, obviously, but the Panthers aren’t winning games. It’s not all Cam’s fault; literal straw men would’ve done a better job against the Saints’ air attack than Carolina’s current makeshift secondary. He’s just not the superhuman he appeared to be this time last year. He hasn’t enjoyed the same protection he had last year, though that doesn’t solve the riddle. He just doesn’t have that extra whatever it was that made 41–38 games lean Carolina’s way instead of the other way.

There are universal truths: The Patriots will forever be good and the Browns will forever be terrible. But in the spaces between, we’ve been able to count on the excellence of players like Rodgers and Newton to help us make sense of this widely agreed-upon delusion that is the NFL. If these first six weeks are any indication, we can’t count on them anymore. We can’t count on anything.

Once each week my girlfriend sidles up to me with an open laptop and lobs a “Sooo, what do you think about San Francisco away at Buffalo?” More specific than the usual “How are the sports,” the question signifies that it’s time to do picks for the office survivor league. I’m sure you know how these work, but for posterity: From all the games on the slate, we choose five and a “survivor pick,” which is the only pick that absolutely has to win that week. We’ve picked games together this whole season without incident, but this week’s go-round, in Week 6, she wanted to go with Miami as the survivor pick, and it was inconceivable to me that Pittsburgh, which was a 7.5-point favorite, could lose to a team that got taken to overtime by the Cleveland Browns, on the road or not.

And then the Steelers lost. Lost 30–15, no less. She’s a far better person than me, so she didn’t lay into me about it, but if she had I probably would’ve spouted some pretty nonsense about “life’s random uncontrollability,” when what I really would’ve meant to say was, “You were right, and I know nothing.” But I still would’ve been a little right: There was no earthly way of knowing that a stingy Steelers rush defense that entered the matchup allowing 77 yards per game on average would let tailback Jay Ajayi bling them up for 204 and two touchdowns. Or that, with the exception of Darrius Heyward-Bey’s 60-yard touchdown run, the rest of the Steelers managed only 68 yards on the ground against the league’s worst rush defense prior to Week 6. But like the 34–3 spanking they took in Week 3 against the Eagles (who are probably better than anyone outside of Philadelphia would care to admit), their struggles were deeply unfortunate but not of any deeper existential concern, I don’t think.

Such concerns, of course, would be reserved for Ben Roethlisberger chucking two interceptions, and getting sacked twice, and briefly being knocked out of the game with a knee injury that turned out to be a meniscus tear.

Let it be known that I do not like Ben Roethlisberger, but I do not need to like Ben Roethlisberger to appreciate that, irrespective of the team’s two losses, he’s been playing MVP-caliber football. I also do not need to like Ben Roethlisberger to appreciate that Landry Jones (first second choice) is not Ben Roethlisberger, and that Zach Mettenberger (second second choice) is extremely not Ben Roethlisberger. Watching Big Ben hobble around on the sideline with a bandaged knee, the hazy low-rent-ness of this NFL season snapped into focus.

Defensive Player of the Year Ad Infinitum J.J. Watt is out for the rest of the season with a back injury. Jadeveon Clowney has drawn Watt’s double-teams in his absence while still managing to be delightfully “disruptive,” and a shocking comeback win over the Colts on Sunday put the Texans at the top of their division. Adrian Peterson, whom we watched come painfully, agonizingly close to breaking the single-season rushing record in 2012, is also out with a meniscus tear. But before he went down, Peterson had only 50 yards on 31 carries through two games. And you know what else? [Leans in to whisper softly] Minnesota is better off without him. Not having Peterson to bully the Vikings out of tight corners has led to a very attractive and very effective spread offense and a record that remains perfect.

In the cases of both AP and Watt, it’s just the ordinary wear and tear of football; a matter of teams reprioritizing out of necessity. The Steelers, on the other hand, can afford to wait it out. They’re still 4–2, but, after they face the New England Patriots this week with not–Ben Roethlisberger under center, they will probably fall to 4–3. When actual Roethlisberger returns, which may be soon, they could still make a deep run into the playoffs. In the 2015 season, he missed five games due to a sprained MCL and left mid-foot, and he came back to lead the Steelers to the divisional round of the playoffs before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Things could still work out moderately well-to-good for them. But at 1–5 in Week 6, it’s not too early to call this season a wash for Cam Newton and the Panthers. Nor is it an overstatement to say that, with one of the lowest completion percentages in the league, Aaron Rodgers’s stock, which was once stupid-dumb high, is now in free fall. As we hit the midpoint of the season, it’s possible that both quarterbacks can right the ship. After all, Rodgers and Newton have built careers on conjuring magic out of impossible situations. And yet, in their current form, that’s a hard thing to picture. It’s weird.

Everything is weird now. Not necessarily bad weird, just new and strange and unfamiliar weird.