The NFL in 2017 has been a home for the flawed. Virtually the entire league is hovering somewhere around .500 through seven weeks of the season, with only a few clubs inching toward the extremes of being very good or very bad. Sunday brought more of the same. The once-promising Broncos were shellacked 21-0 by the Chargers. The Panthers, who entered the day atop the NFC South, fell 17-3 to a Bears team that completed four passes. And the Aaron Rodgers–less Packers struggled to generate much offense in a 26-17 loss to the Saints. Following the Chiefs’ 31-30 defeat in Oakland last Thursday night, the Eagles are the NFL’s lone remaining one-loss team. If Philadelphia goes down against Washington on Monday, it will mark the first time in more than 25 years that every team in the league has at least two losses before the midway point of the season.
In 2007, the Patriots took a flamethrower to the rest of the NFL while looking like the most complete team in modern history. A decade later, not only are there no teams like the ’07 Patriots, but there are none like the 2016 Patriots. That makes it easy to understand why some fans and analysts have lamented the mediocrity permeating the league. Greatness is easy to appreciate. Learning to love this version of the NFL—with a dearth of quality quarterbacks and lots of imperfect clubs mired in the middle—is tougher. But with nearly half of the season in the books, the state of league seems unlikely to change overnight. So instead of mourning what’s been an endlessly bizarre 2017 campaign, maybe it’s time that we try to embrace it.
No team embodies the strangeness of this season quite like the Jaguars, who sit at 4-3, own the league’s second-best point differential (plus-73), and somehow aren’t leading their division. The Jags are a walking collection of opposing forces: Coming into Week 7, they boasted the league’s best pass defense, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, but ranked 31st against the run. Because having Blake Bortles at quarterback isn’t typically a good thing, Jacksonville has built its offense around a ground game headlined by a superhuman rookie running back, about 10 years after that approach fell out of fashion. Its issues aren’t difficult to spot, but Sunday’s 27-0 blowout of the Colts was further proof these Jags are pretty damn fun despite them.
Jacksonville absolutely terrorized Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett, racking up 10 sacks and hitting him 21 times on the afternoon. No, really, the Jaguars hit him 21 times. What makes this defense so entertaining is that a different group can take over a game every week. In Week 5’s 30-9 stomping of the Steelers, A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey, and the secondary sprouted wings, flew around the field, and corralled five interceptions; on Sunday, Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and the front four spent three hours pouncing on Brissett, at times resembling actual Jaguars. There’s no question that the Jags are about as uneven as NFL teams get. There’s also no denying that they have certain qualities that are eminently watchable.
The same can be said for other individual units whose dominance was on full display in Week 7. Minnesota was forced to kick six field goals as its Case Keenum–led offense struggled to find the end zone in a 24-16 victory over the Ravens, but there was something beautiful about the way that its defense slowly squeezed the life out of the Baltimore offense. The Vikings piled up five sacks and held the Ravens to an average of just 6.9 yards per completion. Seattle’s defense was similarly dominant in a 24-7 win over the Giants, limiting Eli Manning to 134 passing yards and a 48.7 completion percentage. Questions about the long-term viability of both victors’ offenses abound—the Vikings remain unsure about the health of their most talented quarterbacks; the Seahawks line has yet to grasp how to block anyone—but these are still two of the most ferocious defenses in football. Field goal fests like Sunday’s showcase in Minneapolis are rarely fun, but they’re easier to tolerate when Linval Joseph is relentlessly wrecking people left and right.
Elsewhere on Sunday, entertainment came more from individual greatness than from the play of an entire unit. Joey Bosa commandeered the Chargers’ 21-0 win over the Broncos, sacking Trevor Siemian twice and tormenting the Denver quarterback seemingly every time he dropped back to pass. Bears safety Eddie Jackson—one year to the day after he broke a bone in his leg, ending his college career at Alabama—returned both a fumble and an interception for touchdowns against the Panthers, the latter of which required him to cover about 15 yards in the time it took a tipped pass to fall to the ground. Todd Gurley’s 18-yard touchdown scamper in London was maybe his best run of the entire season. Tom Brady, who was ruthlessly efficient again on Sunday night (21-of-29 passing for 249 yards with two scores), continues to look like a quarterbacking android. And in Buffalo’s 30-27 victory over the Buccaneers, Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy showed flashes of brilliance for an offense put in the rare position of having to keep pace in a shootout.
The Bills’ heart-stopping win represented another telling example of what the league has wrought so far this season. Their surprisingly stout defense has been the story of their 4-2 start, but it nearly cost first-year coach Sean McDermott’s team a game on Sunday. On Thursday, Kansas City’s once-formidable defense did let one slip away against the Raiders. In both cases, the outcome was still thrilling. Amari Cooper jolting back to top form for Oakland and Tre’Davious White doing his best Charles Tillman impression for Buffalo were made no less enjoyable by the games around them frequently looking like sloppy messes.
A league rife with parity means that the only certainty through Week 7 is chaos. And at this point, it’s worth diving into that chaos head on. There’s a chance that by late November a sense of normalcy will be restored and teams like the Steelers, Pats, and Eagles will have climbed way ahead of the pack. For now, though, there’s no telling what each Sunday will bring. Welcome to the murky 2017 NFL season. Jump right in. The water is weird.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Carson Palmer’s broken arm creates questions about the Cardinals’ future. Palmer went down late in the second quarter of Arizona’s 33-0 loss to the Rams, and he’s expected to miss at least eight weeks following surgery. That means there’s a chance this blow could end the quarterback’s season—and possibly his career. Palmer is 37 years old. He’ll be 38 in December. His contract is structured in such a way that the Cardinals could cut him this offseason without taking a hefty financial hit. If the rest of their 2017 campaign spirals with Drew Stanton at the helm, it might be time for the franchise to start over under center (and elsewhere).
With an average player age of 27.47 years, the Cardinals entered this fall as the oldest team in football. Yet while organizations such as the Chiefs and Texans took their respective quarterbacks of the future in the first round of this spring’s draft, Arizona elected to wait, loading up for one more go with Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald, and later trading for 32-year-old running back Adrian Peterson. After finishing 13-3 and a game shy of a Super Bowl berth in the 2015 season, the Cardinals front office has spent the past two years tinkering with the edges of this roster in the hopes of making another push with an aging core. It seems like this group’s window has closed, though, and, with the team poised to potentially lose both Palmer and Fitzgerald to retirement, 2018 could mark a new era in the desert.
The good news for Arizona is that it has enough young pieces in place that a rebuild wouldn’t start from scratch. Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson, and David Johnson form a strong nucleus, and the Cardinals would have about $50 million in offseason cap space if Palmer and Fitzgerald were to come off the books. That money could be spent to help retool the offensive line and other problem areas on this roster. Yet the most pressing need would be addressing who’d play quarterback in 2018 if Palmer is out. Head coach Bruce Arians saw Blaine Gabbert as an intriguing project when he signed with Arizona this summer, but he isn’t a long-term answer. Sam Bradford, Kirk Cousins, and Jimmy Garoppolo combine to give next year’s free-agent class a level of intrigue that was missing from a 2016 market led by Mike Glennon, and the Cards could choose to invest there. And if this team does crater down the stretch in Palmer’s absence, it could be in prime position to make a play for a passer toward the top of the 2018 draft.
As for the rest of this season: With the Cardinals tumbling out of the NFC West playoff picture, the Rams have gladly stepped into their place. They’re now 5-2 and look like a legitimate threat. Even on the days when Jared Goff and the passing game struggle, Los Angeles is able to find offense based on head coach Sean McVay’s resourcefulness and Gurley’s sheer will.
2. The Aaron Rodgers injury created a void at the top of the NFC, and the Saints might be the team to fill it. With New Orleans heading into this weekend on a three-game winning streak, its Week 7 visit to Green Bay came at an interesting time. The NFC playoff race is even more wide open than usual with Rodgers sidelined by a broken collarbone, and the Saints have all the ingredients to stay prominently in the mix.The New Orleans defense allowed the Packers to score a couple of early touchdowns Sunday, but those two scores accounted for almost the entirety of the Green Bay offense. First-round 2017 pick Marshon Lattimore has been a revelation at corner in his rookie season, and he’s gotten plenty of help: The Saints rank 16th in scoring defense. With Drew Brees still piloting the offense, average is all that unit ever needed to be.
The combination of Brees, an underrated line, and a running game that’s found its footing with the rotation of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara make the New Orleans offense potent, even it lacks the record-smashing passing attack that it’s had in years past. And it’s clear that head coach Sean Payton wants Ingram (22 carries) and Kamara (nine carries and seven targets) to remain focal points, an approach that could make Brees’s job easier in the long run. The Saints look good right now—and they look even better after surveying the rest of the NFC.
3. Having a cluster of star playmakers could mean more this season than in years past. That’d benefit Pittsburgh and Dallas. Two weeks ago, Kevin Clark and I discussed how having the best player on the field (Rodgers and Brady, namely) felt like an even bigger deal in 2017 than usual, mirroring the impact that advantage has in the NBA more than the one it’s traditionally had in the NFL. And while neither Antonio Brown nor Le’Veon Bell is the football equivalent of LeBron James, they may be the NFL’s versions of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
The Steelers offense hasn’t been the scoreboard-exploding machine that some anticipated coming into the fall, but it feels like Bell, Brown, or both are able to take over every game in which Pittsburgh plays. A week after the pair combined for 346 yards from scrimmage to knock off the previously unbeaten Chiefs, Bell piled up 134 rushing yards and 58 receiving yards as Pittsburgh downed the Bengals 29-14. Ben Roethlisberger’s final stat line against Cincinnati (14-of-24 for 224 passing yards with two scores) doesn’t look inspiring, but Sunday was probably his best start of the season.
For the Cowboys, it’s not a matter of the quarterback spoiling the play of the stars around him, because Dak Prescott is one of those stars. He made some brilliant throws in a 40-10 win over the 49ers, including a gorgeous one to Jason Witten that resulted in a second-quarter touchdown and blew open the game. To go along with Prescott’s stellar work, Ezekiel Elliott had his best game of the year, contributing one huge play after another and finishing with 219 total yards and three scores. Elliott could begin to serve a six-game suspension in short order; when he’s on the field, though, Dallas has an offensive duo capable of fueling a rapid rise up the standings.
4. Let’s celebrate Joe Thomas’s science-defying streak of 10,363 consecutive snaps. Consider the above number for a moment. In a sport in which an offensive lineman rolls an ankle on what seems like every other play, Thomas staying on the field for that many snaps in succession goes beyond basic comprehension. A triceps injury in the third quarter of the Browns’ 12-9 loss to Tennessee on Sunday finally got to Thomas, and now his season is likely over. With 10 Pro Bowl appearances and six first-team All-Pro nods, Thomas isn’t only the best left tackle of his generation. He’s one of the best players the league has ever seen.
That Thomas went down playing for a winless Cleveland team that looks even more lost than normal at quarterback is beyond cruel. And while the Titans hung on to win in Week 7, their performance looked anything but encouraging. For the second straight year, Tennessee seems intent on turning down a chance to join the AFC’s elite. During a fall in which the pecking order is up for grabs, its lack of progress is particularly frustrating.
5. No team has been more disappointing in 2017 than the Bucs. Tampa Bay joined Tennessee as one of this preseason’s trendy breakout teams, continuing the parallel paths of quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. So far, though, the Bucs have looked nothing like the contender that some believed they could be, and the reason for that is somewhat surprising.
Winston (32-of-44 passing for 384 yards with three touchdowns and one interception) and the Tampa Bay offense played well enough to win Sunday in Buffalo, but the defense was miserable—much like it has been all season. The Bucs came into Week 7 ranked 31st in defensive DVOA, a reality that wouldn’t have seemed possible two months ago. The scenarios in which the 2017 Bucs fell short of their ceiling focused mainly on Winston failing to take another developmental step forward. While that has been the case at times, Tampa’s bigger issue has been that its defense has looked feckless and now has several veterans in open mutiny about their playing time.
Somehow, we’re nearly halfway through the season, and the Bucs are the worst of the three Florida teams. I’d like to remind everyone that one of those teams is quarterbacked by Blake Bortles and another looks better on offense with Matt Moore calling the shots.
6. Which of the Jaguars’ 10 sacks on Sunday was your favorite? I tried to answer this question, and I imagine this is what parents must feel like when asked to identify their favorite child. All 10 Jacksonville sacks are so special to me, and I love each and every one of them.
Myles Jack screaming through the right side of the Colts line on a blitz in the third quarter is close to the top of the list. The guy looks like a missile, covering 15 yards in what feels like half a second. This is the type of blitz that linebackers dream about—an ocean of grass, nothing but green lying between them and the quarterback.
Yannick Ngakoue and Eli Ankou’s sack in the fourth quarter is up there at the top, too. My favorite part about this play is that it provides a window into the Jags’ mind-set. As Ngakoue sees his opening to Brissett start to emerge, he leaps toward the Colts quarterback like he’s going after prey.
Campbell’s masterpiece is my winner here, though. Everything about it is beautiful. He never stops working his hands against right tackle Joe Haeg, and when he does finally get into the backfield, all it takes is one handful of jersey for him to yank Brissett—who weighs 230 pounds—to the ground. At 31, Campbell already has a career-high 10 sacks. The Jaguars have played seven games. This pass-rush group is endless fun.
7. Players who don’t wear gloves during games automatically become 15 percent cooler than they otherwise would be. Chicago’s Akiem Hicks is the perfect example. He wreaked all sorts of havoc in the Panthers’ backfield this weekend, and while the six-year veteran has been fantastic during his two seasons with the Bears, he’s been even better after making the decision to play with his hands bare in 2017.
I understand why most guys want to play in gloves; we’ve seen some of the catches that are made possible by adhesion. But there’s something pure and badass about a player with taped fingers going out and knocking opponents around. The gloveless look could not fit Hicks’s brutal style of play any better, and the same goes for the Chargers’ Melvin Ingram, another member of the finger-taping fraternity.
8. Mother Nature revealed the best way to watch a televised football game. As heavy fog rolled into (or was conjured by Bill Belichick to protect a lead in) Gillette Stadium last night, NBC was forced to change the primary camera angle of its broadcast from the traditional view to Skycam view. And guess what? It was better! Gauging the yardage of certain plays was difficult from the end-zone view, but aside from that everything about the TV experience was more interesting from that angle. Viewers could see what the quarterback did; line play no longer existed as a great mystery; and it was possible to understand how defensive backs moved and why.
There’s a reason that no one plays Madden from a traditional broadcast angle, and I’m not sure why the endless technology at our disposal doesn’t at least make watching games from the Skycam view a regular secondary option. The league was gifted a rare opportunity to test a new approach in real time. I’d say it was an unqualified hit.
9. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Everson Griffen’s excellent combination of technique and power. Since signing a big contract extension with the Vikings and taking on a full-time role in 2014, Griffen has ranked among my favorite pass rushers in the league. That’s in part because he’s been so damn reliable. He’s piled up eight sacks in each of the last three seasons, including twice reaching double digits. He already has nine sacks this fall, and with two on Sunday he became just the sixth player to record a sack in each of his team’s first seven games.
Griffen’s second sack against the Ravens, which came on the opening play of the fourth quarter, represents his entire game boiled down to a single snap. As he bursts off the ball, Griffen uses his speed to get to left tackle James Hurst’s outside edge, but also plays with enough physicality to knock Hurst off his spot. That dual approach makes it easy for him to use a simple rip move underneath, work his way back to Joe Flacco, and drag him down for the sack. Griffen makes this sequence look straightforward—and no one does straightforward quite like he does.
10. This week in tales of the tape: The Bucs go back to the well with an O.J. Howard throwback for a long touchdown.
Tampa Bay scored an easy touchdown by hitting Howard on a play-action pass in which he started on the right side of a heavy formation before he leaked across the field and down the left sideline. Howard scored his first career touchdown on this exact play against the Giants in Week 4, and it was no surprise to see the Bucs try it again when they needed a boost. This type of action is difficult to combat with all the traffic it creates around the line of scrimmage. Setting up in a heavy set with multiple tight ends creates a pile of bodies at the snap, allowing Howard to slowly navigate through the cluster unaccounted for and untouched. The Falcons used a similar play last season, with Austin Hooper in the Howard role.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us:
Julio Jones will have that, thank you.