The sight of Aaron Rodgers riding a cart into the locker room Sunday, immobile right arm pulled close to his body, capped a brutal stretch of injuries to some of the NFL’s most visible personalities. Over the span of eight days, Rodgers (broken collarbone), Odell Beckham Jr. (fractured ankle), and J.J. Watt (tibial plateau fracture) were all presumably lost for the season. With that trio gone, the NFL now faces the strange reality of marketing itself as a league largely devoid of stars.
Tom Brady still exists, and he threw two touchdown passes in the Patriots’ 24-17 victory over the Jets on Sunday. And Antonio Brown finished the Steelers’ 19-13 win over the Chiefs with 155 receiving yards to go with his requisite show-stopping score. But the NFL’s list of superstars doesn’t go much deeper than that. The players lost during the past week or so aren’t just some of the game’s best. They’re also some of its most transcendent, the ones who managed to break through the relative anonymity that besets most guys wearing helmets. They’re featured in commercials for shampoo, car insurance, and headphones. Losing so many players in that tier presents yet another challenge for a league already facing questions about its appeal.
One week after Beckham went down, the Giants filled Sunday’s prime-time slot with their 23-10 win over the Broncos. Beyond Eli Manning, the most famous healthy Giants player is … who, exactly? Meanwhile, on Monday, Marcus Mariota and Tennessee will square off against Jacoby Brissett and Indianapolis in a quarterback matchup that exactly zero people outside the football-nerd community have circled on their calendars. The Colts-Titans clash is a microcosm of the league’s vacuum of star power: Andrew Luck is among the recognizable names who’s had his 2017 season spoiled by injury. And even if Mariota feels destined to develop into one of the game’s better quarterbacks, he’s yet to crack any list of the game’s most marketable faces.
The Mariota–Derek Carr–Jameis Winston tier of quarterbacks was supposed to help fill the void of superstars created by Peyton Manning’s retirement and the eventual decline of the older generation of passers that includes Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger. But the former group’s ascension seems to have stalled. Carr’s Raiders have been a mess on offense for the past month regardless of whether he’s been on the field, a trend that continued in Week 6 as he turned in a 171-yard, two-interception outing in a 17-16 loss to the Chargers. Winston went 5-of-10 passing against Arizona before exiting in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, leaving backup Ryan Fitzpatrick to pull the Buccaneers to a 38-33 defeat. The biggest star on the field in that one was running back Adrian Peterson, a 32-year-old future Hall of Famer who’s on his third team in the past year; lest we forget, the only reason that the Cardinals acquired him in a trade with New Orleans last week is because another one of the league’s bright young stars, 2016 all-purpose yards leader David Johnson, is likely out until at least December with a wrist injury.
Rodgers went out after taking a hit from Minnesota’s Anthony Barr just two days before the 2017-18 NBA season tips off, and it’s worth noting that as football tries to power through a campaign lacking marketable stars, basketball is flush with them. The offseason movement of major names, from Chris Paul to Paul George to Carmelo Anthony, and the continued emergence of young talent have helped the NBA solidify its status as a league driven almost entirely by its personalities and their story lines.
Conversely, the NFL has been left to rely on the appeal of the game itself. The draw resides less in the appointment viewing of individual players than in the pull of the sport as a whole, in addition to exterior factors like fantasy sports and gambling. At this point, the league is banking on the inertia of football as a television product. The tagline for Thursday Night Football is literally, “When it’s on, it’s on.”
The NFL’s injury woes—which have claimed players like Julian Edelman, Brandon Marshall, Greg Olsen, and Tyler Eifert in addition to headliners like Rodgers, Beckham, and Watt—feel only more pronounced when the wave of young players is taken into account. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook was electrifying in his first few games before he tore his ACL in a 14-7 loss to the Lions in Week 4; when fellow rookie standout Leonard Fournette came up limping late in the Jaguars’ 27-17 loss to the Rams on Sunday, it felt like the punch line of a particularly cruel joke. (Fournette said he was “fine” after the game and should be healthy enough to play in Week 7.)
Along with Cook and Fournette, this season’s rookie class has provided its share of compulsively watchable players. Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt has been fantastic through six weeks, while Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has become appointment viewing after just five career starts. Given the league’s current landscape, though, Watson appears to be the exception rather than the rule. The high-scoring affair between Watson’s Texans and the then-undefeated Chiefs in Week 5 was a gift to fans after the nationally televised dreck that preceded it, but that caliber of prime-time display may prove to be an anomaly. On Thanksgiving night, NBC will have to sell viewers on a Giants-Redskins tilt that’s missing Beckham. Three days later, newly christened Green Bay starting quarterback Brett Hundley will face Roethlisberger on Sunday Night Football.
During a year in which the national conversation surrounding the sport has so often strayed from what’s happening on the field, the sudden absence of the league’s most recognizable stars is a significant blow. The NFL has long believed that the sport itself is enough to drive the league’s popularity; now is when we’ll find out how true that is.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The Rodgers injury throws a wrench into an already-crowded NFC North playoff picture. Sitting at 4-1 heading into this weekend, Green Bay seemed a virtual lock to either take home the division or sneak into the postseason as a wild card. Remove the best quarterback in football, though, and no lead in the standings is safe. The Packers weren’t able to get much of anything going with Hundley under center in Minnesota. The 2015 fifth-round pick tossed three interceptions, completed 18 of 33 attempts, and looked generally out of sorts in a 23-10 loss. Life in Green Bay has been good with Rodgers; that could become fully apparent now that he’s out.
The Vikings have their own quarterback injury issues with Sam Bradford’s status up in the air, but the difference is that the talent on the rest of their roster can make up for shoddy play under center. Wide receiver Adam Thielen continues to be a steadying presence on the outside, Kyle Rudolph made a pair of spectacular catches Sunday, and this team still has one of the most complete defenses in football. Even Jerick McKinnon (99 total yards with two touchdowns) did his part while filling in for Cook.
Through five games, Green Bay’s advantage at quarterback—both in its division and across most of the league—was as stark this season as it had ever been. But that might have been the Packers’ only advantage over the Vikings. With Detroit sitting only a game back of both teams following a wild contest in New Orleans, it may not be long before the Packers’ grip on the NFC North is gone.
2. The Lions’ 52-38 loss to the Saints felt like it happened in another dimension. A game in which these two teams combined to score 90 points isn’t strange on its own. It’s how they reached that total that is. Detroit and New Orleans recorded four defensive touchdowns, including two on plays by the Saints defense that happened in the end zone. After cornerback Marshon Lattimore returned an interception 27 yards for a score to give New Orleans a 45-10 lead midway through the third quarter, the Lions rattled off 28 unanswered points, a stretch that featured a punt return score and a 2-yard pick-six by 320-pounder A’Shawn Robinson. Every time I looked up at this game, it felt like someone unexpected was waltzing into the end zone.
Twists and turns aside, this was another encouraging outing from a Saints defense that appeared hapless early in the season. It racked up five sacks and six quarterback hits, although that was partially aided by Matthew Stafford’s clear lack of mobility stemming from the minor ankle injury he sustained last week. With Rodgers and Bradford on the shelf, Detroit has a great opportunity to make a run at the division, but it’ll need a healthy version of Stafford to do it.
3. The most troubling part of Atlanta blowing a 17-0 lead was its offense looking stagnant yet again. The Falcons had four possessions during the second half of Sunday’s game against the Dolphins; they went three-and-out twice, turned the ball over on downs, and threw a pick that sealed Miami’s 20-17 comeback win. Atlanta had trouble dealing with the Dolphins’ front four, with sacks by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake sabotaging drives, and Matt Ryan went 24-of-35 passing for 248 yards.
The Falcons have quietly missed having Mohamed Sanu (who’s out with a hamstring injury) as a secondary option in the passing game, but their issues on offense are more systemic. The formation variance and easy throws that were a staple of this unit last season haven’t been there this time around, and Atlanta’s production has dipped as a result. The Falcons are still in prime position to contend in the NFC North, but the quick-strike element that made them the best team in the conference in 2016 is missing.
4. Adrian Peterson’s stunning debut with the Cardinals rectified a decade-old mistake. In 2007, the Arizona front office used the fifth overall pick in the draft on Penn State left tackle Levi Brown, who spent six-plus seasons with the franchise as a middling bookend. Two spots later, the Vikings took Peterson. Trading for Peterson last week was a small way for Cardinals general manager Steve Keim to right that wrong and, from the looks of it, provide real a jolt of energy to Arizona’s offense. Peterson was resurgent against the Bucs, carrying 26 times for 134 rushing yards with two touchdowns and quelling any doubt about whether he has anything left in the tank. The Cards’ under-center, downhill offensive style is a perfect fit for Peterson, and probably the type he should’ve targeted as a free agent.
Still, for as good Peterson looked Sunday, Tampa Bay looked equally bad. It seemed lost all afternoon, and it didn’t help that Winston went down with a shoulder injury shortly before halftime. The Bucs entered this fall as a popular pick to make the leap in their second year under head coach Dirk Koetter; so far, they’ve shown few signs of progress. Winston resembles the player he was in his first two NFL seasons, and young guys like cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III have added to the team’s problems, not solved them.
5. Pittsburgh’s ugly win over the Chiefs revealed a team that could cause trouble in the AFC—even if it isn’t the type of team that many people expected. With receiver Martavis Bryant back in the fold after his 2016 suspension, the Steelers offense was expected to return to its high-flying ways this fall. On Sunday, though, Pittsburgh proved that it can win games even when it doesn’t light up the scoreboard. Le’Veon Bell carried 32 times in a 19-13 victory, as the Steelers used physicality up front on both sides of the ball to hand Kansas City its first loss. Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward combined to handle the interior of the Chiefs offensive line all day, building on the strong campaigns they’ve already put together in 2017. Somehow, Pittsburgh’s defense may have emerged as this team’s biggest strength. That wouldn’t have seemed possible a few weeks ago.
6. The Rams turned to Todd Gurley against the league’s best pass defense, and he did not disappoint. Gurley’s 116-yard-rushing outing against the Jaguars was exactly the type of performance that Los Angeles needed to beat an opponent with the league’s 31st-ranked rush defense, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. None of Gurley’s touches went for more than 14 yards, yet he consistently ripped off chunk plays that allowed the Rams to move the chains and sustain their offense. While Jared Goff and the passing game have generated most of the excitement throughout L.A.’s hot start in 2017, first-year coach Sean McVay must be thrilled to know that he can turn to Gurley as a workhorse back when needed.
7. Tom Brady’s subtle mobility in the pocket has always been one of his defining traits; even at age 40, it hasn’t fallen off. I’m pretty sure that Brady would have trouble clocking a sub-5.0-second time in the 40-yard dash right now, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still the best in the game at navigating small spaces in the pocket and using tiny movements to unleash big-time throws. Brady’s 33-yard strike to Rob Gronkowski in the third quarter against the Jets was a perfect example of him evading pressure while remaining in a position to keep his eyes downfield, quickly reset, and give himself options that wouldn’t have been available early in the down.
8. The 49ers going to rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard already looks like the right choice. After mounting four consecutive scoreless drives—two of which were three-and-outs—in a 26-24 loss to Washington, San Francisco benched Brian Hoyer and plugged in the 2017 third-rounder out of Iowa. While Beathard was frantic at times, it was immediately clear how much more life the Niners offense had with him under center. He went 19-of-36 passing for 245 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
For a team like the 49ers, who remain winless and aren’t going anywhere fast, figuring out what Beathard can be is a worthwhile pursuit. At worst, he’ll get ample time as the starter, flounder, and show San Francisco that he projects as nothing more than a long-term backup. At best, he’ll play well enough to convince that first-year coach Kyle Shanahan that he has a legitimate future as a starting quarterback. Either way, continuing to let Hoyer lead an anemic offense was never going to be the answer.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Joey Bosa’s heat-seeking hands.
Bosa sets himself apart as a pass rusher with the way that he uses his hands. He’s relentless with them, rarely stopping after delivering an initial punch to opposing offensive linemen who stand in his path. What’s even more remarkable, though, is how well he’s able to place them. Bosa’s strip sack of Derek Carr in the second quarter of the Chargers’ 17-16 win over the Raiders was a perfect example. After jarring Marshall Newhouse back with a two-handed punch to the chest, Bosa was able to turn his attention to Carr and redirect his hands quickly enough to knock the ball loose.
10. This week in tales of the tape: Antonio Brown’s ability to use deception is unfair when paired with sneaky route combinations.
The Steelers used a beautiful design to get Brown open on a second-and-6 play midway through the third quarter of their victory over the Chiefs. After motioning Bell to the slot, Pittsburgh ran what initially looked like a typical slant-flat combination with Bell and Brown. After Kansas City cornerback Terrance Mitchell committed to the slant, though, Brown broke his route behind Mitchell and turned up the field to give the Steelers an easy chunk completion. With his understanding of how to pace double moves, Brown is the perfect guy to execute a play like this. This is borderline unstoppable.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Harrison Smith manages to move the ball with his mind.
I still don’t understand how Smith hauled in this game-sealing interception. After deflecting the pass—while horizontal to the ground—he was somehow able to follow the ball in midair, get his hands underneath it, and corral it into his arms. There is no explanation for that other than telekinesis.