It’s football season. Not the preseason, not the offseason, not draft season—football season. Week 1 is here, and we are excited for the return of the NFL. Here are the things we’re most looking forward to watching this year.
Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury Trying to Outscore Whatever the Defense Gives Up
Rodger Sherman: Last year I wrote about how I thought an Air Raid–style offense could work in the NFL: If a team created a scheme advantage by running smarter offense and devoted all its draft and free-agency resources to defensive players, they could be a contender.
A year later, the Cardinals hired Air Raid practitioner Kliff Kingsbury, who promptly did the opposite. He used the top pick in the draft on my beloved Kyler Murray and second-, fourth-, and sixth-round draft picks on wide receivers. Meanwhile, their most notable defensive signing to improve a defense that finished 26th in points allowed and 28th in yards per play allowed is... 36-year-old Terrell Suggs?
The Cardinals are going to allow somewhere between 30 and 50 points most games. That means to win, Kliff and Kyler must figure out a way to score between 31 and 51 points. I don’t think they’ll be able to do it often, but I’ll be watching every week to see whether they can pull it off.
The Many Facial Hair Styles of Baker Mayfield
Kjerstin Johnson: Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield tells one story on the field and another on his face, and there’s no telling what he has in store for the 2019 season. During his three years at Oklahoma, he kept it cute—reliably stubbled with one notable exception. Every year, Mayfield would bust out a horseshoe mustache for the annual Bedlam game, when Oklahoma went up against Oklahoma State. The Sooners’ Bedlam record was 3-0 with Mayfield and his mustache under center.
Baker rocked a bushy beard at the start of his rookie season with the Browns. Experts (me) speculate he lost the beard the day after the Browns’ Week 1 tie against the Steelers. They would lose the next week in New Orleans, but crucially, a trimmed Mayfield would take the field on Week 3, when the Browns broke their 19-game winless streak.
His barbigerous look returned during the postseason for his Super Bowl commercial, the Kentucky Derby, and news pressers with OBJ. Then, Baker debuted a new look at the outset of his sophomore season rocking clean cheeks and a classic mustache. When asked whether there was a story behind the look, he said, “Maybe you’ll find out and maybe you won’t—that’s the elegance of having a mustache. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.” Was he taunting the press or foreshadowing a possibly historic season for the Browns? Baker milked the mustache during preseason (even sporting a Bedlam look). Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, it was gone again—his face a blank slate, leaving more questions than ever before.
What game is Mayfield playing here? What clues on the QB’s intentions can we gain from his fickle facial hair decisions? When Baker wakes up in Cleveland this Sunday to take on the Titans, he will feel dangerous, but will he feel like shaving? (Bovada was at one point allegedly taking prop bets on this very question.) Like Mean Girls’ Gretchen Wieners, Baker Mayfield holds secrets in his hair, and what he wears this season could hold the future of the AFC North.
The New Offense in Dallas
Jonathan Tjarks: Jason Garrett took over as Cowboys head coach in 2010, making him the sixth-longest-tenured coach in the NFL. One of the problems with keeping a coach around for that long is that the sport can pass them by. The best NFL offenses at the end of the 2010s don’t look anything like they did at the beginning of the decade. The type of ground-and-pound offense that Garrett learned as a QB in the ’90s might as well be a different sport than what the Chiefs are doing.
The difference between the way the Rams use Todd Gurley and the Cowboys use Ezekiel Elliott is coaching malpractice. Gurley constantly runs into empty boxes because the Rams spread the field with WRs, while Elliott has to scratch and claw through eight-man boxes. To use an analogy from basketball, Gurley is a big man who gets to catch alley-oops at the rim because he’s playing with three shooters who force the defense to open up the paint. Elliott is a big man who has to post-up and score through double coverage. The amazing thing about how successful Elliott has been in his first few years in the NFL is that he’s done it with one hand tied behind his back.
The hope in Dallas is that the offense changes this season now that Garrett has handed over control to Kellen Moore. They are both saying all the right things in training camp, but it remains to be seen how much autonomy Garrett gives Moore in the regular season.
The window for a great RB in the NFL to succeed is tiny. Garrett put Elliott in a difficult position to succeed in the first three years of Elliott’s career. That should change this season.
The Beefcakes on the Eagles Offensive Line
John Gonzalez: Locker rooms are weird places. Historically, this has been especially true for the Eagles. The old long snapper used to do magic tricks in the Eagles locker room. Asante Samuel once loudly interrupted Michael Vick during media availability so he could tease (shame? Yeah, shame) two reporters who had famously gotten in a fight at the practice facility. You could say that the story behind Nick Foles’s “Big Nick Energy” was, uh, revealed in that very same locker room. It is also where I first met my lovely wife. Like I said, weird place.
That locker room—like all locker rooms in all professional sports everywhere—is home to a decent amount of workplace nudity. Again, this is common for all teams across all leagues. But if you were to ask me to predict, at random, a group of teammates whom I thought might collectively disrobe for a magazine that’s about to discontinue its print edition, the Eagles locker room is the first place I’d start. And so it came as no surprise when I learned that the Eagles offensive line agreed to pose nude for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue. Because of course they did. Lane Johnson already gave us an unsolicited sneak preview.
My guess is they’ll be handing out autographed copies to opponents and fans. The only regret here is that Foles isn’t still around to do the shoot with them—though that would have required a much bigger magazine.
How Kliff’s Air Raid Offense Will Affect Its New Kicker
Danny Chau: There is a borderline-nonsensical fascination with how Kliff Kingsbury’s full-fledged Air Raid offense will work in the NFL, centered around the inherent boom-bust binary that comes with introducing concepts to a traditionally stodgy league. All eyes will naturally be on Kingsbury and his rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, but I wonder about the fate of Zane Gonzalez, who either has the easiest or hardest kicking job in the league. The Air Raid offense, of course, is not built to optimize the productivity of its kickers; the Air Raid’s most notable moment was, itself, a response to a field-goal attempt that never happened. So it makes sense that the Cardinals simply opted to stick with the kicker who finished last season, and it makes sense that, perhaps due to systemic neglect, that kicker just happens to have the worst career field goal completion percentage (minimum 30 attempts) among active kickers of the past 20 years.
Gonzalez, arguably the most decorated kicker in NCAA history, was waived after missing three field goals and two extra points in the first two Cleveland Browns games last season before bouncing back with the Cardinals. His role will be marginalized in theory, but given the sheer number of plays that Arizona will run, and the inherent lack of certainty in their offense, Gonzalez will have opportunities that he will need to ace. Everything is accelerated in an Air Raid, and there is already no patience in the modern NFL for kickers, a fungible position that most NFL front offices seem to think is played by automatons.
Autumn Win for the Autumn Wind, or the Ballad of Antonio Brown
Katie Baker: It just wouldn’t be the dawn of another NFL season if I weren’t sitting here Googling recipes for Buffalo chicken dip and incanting, completely irrationally: “I think the Raiders could surprise some folks this year!” Every August, I believe that maybe this will be the season that the Pacific time zone’s strangest franchise puts everything back together, and maybe one season I’ll finally be “right.” Maybe it will be this season! Stranger things have happened …
Expectations are lower than ever right now, what with these past few weeks bringing us Antonio Brown’s frostbitten, “circumcised” tootsies and his sulking over (and painting over!) helmets and his “shut up already” tweets to a former teammate and, most recently, the news of his probable suspension. And then there’s the eternal question: Are we sure Derek Carr is even good? Meanwhile, the division rival Kansas City Chiefs are the belle of the ball and former Raider Khalil Mack is beloved in Chicago. Everything is shaping up for Jon Gruden to be the season-long answer to what’s black and white and red all over.
Which is why I’m more stubbornly convinced than ever that things will somehow take a dramatic turn for the … better? (This is my own personal Alabama hurricane map.) Maybe Brown will be released and everyone will rally around his absence? Better yet, maybe Brown will somehow stay, and Carr will thrive, and we can write earnest stories about the utility of Brown’s “radical obnoxiousness” and dub the QB-WR combination “HEAVEN AND HELMET” as they take the league by storm. But the strongest rationale I have for why the Raiders could surprise some folks this year is that doing so would actually be completely in character. Nothing would be more Raiders than for the team to finally get things right just in time to pack up and leave for Vegas.
All the Things Lamar Jackson Can Do
Mallory Rubin: I wish Joe Flacco well in Denver. I do. He helped my Ravens win their second Super Bowl, and I hope that his ruggedly bearded existence brings him glee, numerous high-altitude touchdowns, and enough wins to finish just behind Baltimore for an AFC wild-card spot. May he bathe in the glory of another Mile-High Miracle (at least in the regular season).
Any success he finds won’t fill me with longing. It won’t make me feel bad. It won’t lead to anything more than the occasional, Don Draper–esque “I don’t think about you at all” exclamation.
Because I’ll be too busy focusing on my one true football son, Lamar Jackson.
Look at him move! Did that play count? It did not. Did it unfold in the preseason? It did. Do I care? I do not!
Lamar is more than what any official stat sheet can capture. He’s hope incarnate, dynamism given form. You know how they say “the autumn wind is a Raider”? It’s actually Lamar. His movements are unpredictable but propulsive, surging and soaring, ready to carry you or knock you on your ass. I can’t wait to watch him throw to Hollywood Brown and Miles Boykin and Mark Andrews. I can’t wait to watch him cut through defense after defense with his jukes. I can’t wait to watch him rush for more than a thousand yards and beat his passing over/unders. I can’t wait for him to create his own miracles, one Charm City Sunday at a time.
Big Dick Nick in Big Cat Country
Justin Sayles: We here at The Ringer do not hide our love for Nick Foles. Over the past two winters, we filled reams of internet paper with articles about the growing legend of the backup-turned-hero (and sneaking in some puns when we could). Unfortunately for us, he won’t be in Philly to save the Eagles’ season anymore. Fortunately for us, however, he gets to write a new chapter of his career in Jacksonville.
The Jaguars bet this offseason that going from Blake Bortles (probably bad?) to Foles (probably good?) will be enough to propel them back into the playoffs. It’s not an unlikely proposition: Two seasons ago, this team nearly beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, which would’ve sent them to the Super Bowl to play Foles and the Eagles. The key pieces of that monster defense are still in place, and a strong season from Foles and a rejuvenated Leonard Fournette could be enough to bolster the offense and help Jacksonville win a wide-open AFC South.
Of course, there’s always been a pumpkin-at-11:59 feeling about Nick’s recent success. We’ve been here before, after Chip Kelly briefly made a star of him during Foles’s first run in Philly, and we saw how that turned out. There’s always a chance that playing under Doug Marrone instead Doug Pederson will bring back the old (probably bad?) Foles. But if we’ve learned anything about BDN the past two seasons, it’s that he won’t shrink in the big moment.
Our Man Josh Allen Learning How to Play QB
Andrew Gruttadaro: For the past six months or so, any time anyone has asked me how the Buffalo Bills are looking heading into 2019, I’ve responded with a question (these people ask out of courtesy, by the way; they don’t actually care): Well, how’s Josh Allen looking? The fate of the 2019 Bills is inextricably linked to the improvement of their second-year quarterback—from “guy who sure can scramble” to “guy who can maybe consistently throw a football to the person he meant to”; from “the best tight end to ever line up under center” to “an NFL quarterback.” The Bills upgraded their defensive and offensive lines and sloughed off the expensive ghost of LeSean McCoy and return an elite secondary … but none of it matters if Allen is still only completing half of his passes and throwing more picks than touchdowns.
I don’t know how to answer that question I’ve been asking everyone. Quarterbacks improve after their rookie seasons all the time; they also become Jake Locker. The only thing I know is that my boy Joshy is hitting the shit out of stationary targets.
Never mind—just watched that clip for the hundredth time; Bills are winning 12 games.
Blake Bortles Taking Command of Southern California
Craig Horlbeck: Born and raised in the sunshine state, the 2015 passing-touchdown runner-up should fit nicely alongside golfing buddy Jared Goff under the Southern California sun. The Rams invested heavily in Goff just this week, but if he gets injured or vastly underperforms, Sean McVay could turn to Bortles, the former third overall pick whom he described this preseason as “charismatic” and “athletic.” Bortles only has a one-year contract with the Rams, but don’t be surprised if the former AFC South division champ finds his footing in Los Angeles—or perhaps a guest spot on NBC’s The Good Place. Bortles is the star L.A. deserves, and whether we see him on the gridiron or the big screen, he will do great things.
The Patrick Mahomes Show, Part Deux
Richie Bozek: Patrick Mahomes headlined the 2018 NFL stage in a lot of ways and became a crowd favorite to watch. For this season, I bought the presale tickets for Mahomes, hoping for the same performance after having such a fun time last year. I’m in the front row of that crowd this season. I’m pressed against the barricade and I can’t move. I’ve been standing here for 14 hours.
There’s a lot of reasons I’m excited to watch him again this season, but I’ll mention just two. First, just as an overarching statement if you haven’t heard, he’s really good at football. He threw 50 touchdown passes, tied for the second most all time, and had just 12 interceptions during the regular season last year, his first as a starter. Half of me knows a season like that will be extremely difficult to replicate and that we shouldn’t expect a showing like that from anyone this year, but the other half of me believes that if there’s anyone who will have a 2019 like that, or even surpass it, it will be Patrick Mahomes.
Second, if you were to put money on a quarterback throwing a trick pass in a game this year, Mahomes is your safest bet. He debuted this skill last season with no-look passes and I can’t wait to see what he’s been rehearsing for this year.
It’s been a miserable experience waiting to watch Mahomes again. I can’t find my friends and I would do anything for a single sip of water. I’m defeated but still excited. But when he completes a behind-the-back pass midair while hurdling a linebacker Week 7, it will all be worth it.
More JuJu Celebrations
Sean Yoo: In 2017, the NFL softened its restrictions on end zone celebrations, allowing players to have a little bit more fun after scoring a touchdown. No player took more advantage of that rule change than JuJu Smith-Schuster, who started his career in the revised end zone celebration era. In his first season, Smith-Schuster racked up seven touchdowns, which meant he had seven chances to show off his creative mind. In his sophomore season, he scored another seven touchdowns while taking his celebration up another level. He gave birth to a football in the end zone. This year, with Antonio Brown no longer on the team, Smith-Schuster will be the Steelers’ no. 1 receiver, which means his production should significantly increase. This will most likely lead to more touchdowns, which will then lead to even more ridiculous end zone celebrations. The Steelers losing a talent like AB might look tough on paper, but having one of the most entertaining players as his replacement will be must-see TV for 2019.
Did We Mention We’re Excited About the Air Raid?
Danny Kelly: I would’ve been excited to watch Kyler Murray play in literally any NFL scheme. Dropping him into the Kliff Kingsbury Air Raid–styled system in Arizona multiplies that anticipation tenfold. Kingsbury has said that he plans to run an offense similar to the one Murray ran under Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma—i.e., a wide-open, up-tempo, shotgun spread offense that utilizes four- and five-wide sets, deep shots galore, and plenty of option runs from the quarterback. The Kingsbury-Murray marriage brings unmatched boom-or-bust potential. I don’t know whether it’s going to work—we could see the Cardinals offense explode, or it could easily be a disaster—but there isn’t a more fascinating offense in the league right now.
But of Course, We Know Where This Is Headed
Jackson Safon: Death, taxes, and the Patriots. Three things everyone hates but, in the words of Thanos, are inevitable. The return of the NFL is fun and all my coworkers are understandably excited for a variety of things. But what they’re failing to consider is that the things they’re excited about actually don’t matter. Yes, Baker Mayfield will probably be fun this year. Sure, Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury, and the Cardinals might unleash some things the modern NFL hasn’t seen. Maybe Patrick Mahomes tries a behind-the-back pass! But much like you’re standard rom-com, we know how this thing ends. The guy gets the girl and the Patriots win the Super Bowl.