This NFL season has been weird as hell. Parity is at an all-time high; underdogs have been winning at an incredible clip. The Jets are better than the Giants. The Eagles, who finished last in the NFC East last season, are now first in the division and look like the league’s best, most complete team. Superstars are dropping like flies, with Odell Beckham Jr., J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers, and David Johnson all on the shelf, and two of the league’s generational talents at left tackle, Joe Thomas and Jason Peters, are now done for the year, too. Alex Smith leads the NFL in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating and is a front-runner for the MVP award. And after this week, more than a third of the NFL’s clubs (11) will have started more than one quarterback.
Yet somehow, among all that weirdness, a handful of teams have managed to stand out as even stranger than the rest. Whether we’re talking about inexplicable statistics, unrecognizable styles, or a seven-week Jekyll-and-Hyde act—these teams’ seasons, so far, make little sense.
The Dolphins’ weird year really starts with what happened over the offseason. After partially tearing his ACL in December, Ryan Tannehill elected to rest and recover from the injury rather than have surgery. As a source told Adam Schefter and Jeff Darlington, this made his knee a “ticking time bomb,” and in early August that bomb went off. Tannehill reinjured his ACL on a noncontact scramble in practice, and the team was forced to make a decision: go forward with longtime backup Matt Moore (who’d completed 63 percent of his passes for 721 yards, with eight touchdowns and three picks, for a passer rating of 105.6 in three regular-season games of relief, then threw for 289 yards, one touchdown, and one pick in the team’s playoff loss to the Steelers), or sign free agent Jay Cutler. They chose the latter, ostensibly because of Cutler’s history with head coach Adam Gase (the two worked together in Chicago in 2015).
Cutler, who had earlier announced his retirement and spent his offseason looking at the ocean in the nude, looked this excited to be playing football again when the Dolphins held a welcome-to-the-team press conference:
Through the team’s first seven games, Cutler played about as well as his body language indicated he would, completing 62.8 percent of his passes at 168 yards per game and 5.5 yards per attempt, while throwing seven touchdowns and five picks for a 78.8 passer rating. The Dolphins offense followed Cutler’s lead: The team didn’t score a first-half touchdown in any of its first five games, and were nearly shut out by the Jets in Week 3, with a last-second garbage-time touchdown saving them from a goose egg. They promptly followed up that pathetic performance by actually getting shut out by the Saints, and through seven games, the Dolphins rank second to last in points per game (15.3), last in yards per play (4.3), and last in yards per game (261.8).
Oh, hey, that reminds me, did I mention that Miami has now won three games in a row, is 4-2 and sits just one game behind the Patriots in the AFC East? You might ask how that’s happened. Well, it’s helped that the defense has somehow limited opponents to just 18.7 points per game (tied for sixth) despite allowing opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of 102.9 (28th)—that’s been a key, but it’s not like that group has excelled in any particular area besides run defense. So, uh, it’s kind of a mystery as to how this team’s gotten to where it is this year.
I forgot to mention one other thing: Cutler broke multiple ribs last week, and his timetable for return is up in the air, meaning the Dolphins will turn to Moore to lead them for the foreseeable future. Moore, who probably should’ve been the starter all along, threw two touchdowns and a pick in relief to lead Miami to victory over the Jets on Sunday—and he should give the team a chance to jumpstart the offense. The Dolphins will need it to keep winning; so far, they haven’t been a very good team, but the NFL is weird this year, and they’ve put themselves in a position to contend in the division.
Los Angeles Chargers
Let’s start with the fact that the Chargers are in effect going to have to play 16 road games this year. That alone is weird enough to put them on this list; home-field advantage is real—it’s one of the strongest variables that goes into handicapping a game—and the fact that Philip Rivers and Co. will have to play in front of sparse and largely hostile crowds in every game puts them at a major disadvantage.
An ugly start, in which the team lost its first four games in increasingly depressing manner, didn’t do a whole lot to drum up local interest to diminish that home-field disadvantage either. A city that hadn’t been paying much attention to its new team in the first place seemed to all but tune out, and while L.A., and really the rest of the country, was busy paying attention to other teams, the Chargers won three straight games to put themselves back in the playoff conversation. Joey Bosa is back to being a game-wrecking force. Melvin Ingram is proving he’s one of the best pass rushers in the game. Casey Hayward is a shutdown corner. Hunter Henry has taken the torch from Antonio Gates and looks like a future star at tight end. And look, Rivers still throws weirdly, but he’s also still really damn good—and has connected on six touchdowns, with just one interception, in the last three games.
It’s anybody’s guess where the Chargers will go from here. They’re still a few games behind the Chiefs in the division and will have to make up that ground the hard way, without any real home games. But if they can avoid late-game meltdowns, keep playing tough on defense, and continue to get after the quarterback, anything could happen.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints’ weird season began the day they signed Adrian Peterson. It never really made a whole lot of sense on paper; the team already had a talented, complete bell-cow back on the roster in Mark Ingram, and when the Saints drafted Alvin Kamara in the third round, all the logic behind a cap-strapped team paying the former Viking $7 million over two years went out the window. Peterson didn’t take kindly to a rotational role, did little when he carried the rock, and got into a shouting match with head coach Sean Payton in Week 1. It wasn’t long before New Orleans traded him to Arizona, but that whole fiasco is just the tip of the iceberg for what’s been an unusual season for the Saints.
Over the past month, New Orleans has seemingly transformed into a whole new team — with a new identity on both sides of the ball — right before our eyes. The oft-maligned defense has come alive after surrendering 65 points and 1,025 yards combined in losses to the Vikings and Patriots the first two weeks of the season. During the team’s four-game winning streak, defensive end Cameron Jordan has played like an All-Pro, racking up four sacks and a pick-six touchdown, and corner Marshon Lattimore (one pick-six and a 28.8 passer rating against, second best among all corners, per Pro Football Focus) has looked like a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. They’re flying around, pressuring the quarterback, and most important, getting turnovers (10 total in the last four games).
The offense looks awfully different, too. Drew Brees is no longer asked to throw the ball all over the yard and carry the team on his back; instead, he’s been more of a facilitator—handing off to Ingram and Kamara as New Orleans has re-established its ground game. Over the team’s last four games, the Saints’ running back duo has combined for 514 yards and four touchdowns on 101 carries (5.1 YPA) while Brees has thrown the ball just 138 times. For the first time in recent memory, we’re seeing something resembling offensive run/pass balance in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Brees has been as effective as ever, completing 71 percent of his passes for 1,005 yards, eight touchdowns, and four picks.
Brees is on pace to finish with just 4,405 yards, which would be his lowest total since 2009. That happens to be the year that the Saints won the Super Bowl, by the way, and Payton is looking to recapture that team’s ability to beat you through the air and on the ground (New Orleans finished sixth in the NFL in rushing that year). With Ingram and Kamara running well, Brees playing efficiently, and the defense forcing turnovers, New Orleans has a real chance to contend.
As the season goes on, no team has been harder to predict week to week than the Panthers. Sometimes, we’ll see the grind-em-out, smash-mouth group that beat the Bills in a low-scoring affair in Buffalo; other times, we’ll get the high-flying, explosive squad that knocked off the Patriots and Lions on the road. Then we’ll see the version of this team that was nearly shut out by the Bears on Sunday, somehow actually looking worse on offense than the team that completed just four passes all game.
But apart from their Week 4 win in New England, Carolina’s yet to put together a complete performance. The defense remains the team’s foundation and has surrendered just 19.9 points per game (11th)—but the offense has been a roller-coaster ride. Quarterback Cam Newton has waffled between terrible and excellent and back to terrible, and has really only played well in two games this year. He’s thrown nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions on the season with an 80.9 passer rating on the season. That’s worse than, say, Trevor Siemian, Blake Bortles, Andy Dalton, Eli Manning, and Case Keenum. Of course, it hasn’t helped that he lost tight end Greg Olsen to a broken foot in Week 2. To make matters worse, Carolina’s normally dominant run game, which a lot of us thought would be unstoppable with the addition of the seventh overall pick, Christian McCaffrey, is just 21st in yards per game (97.3), 29th in yards per carry (3.4), and tied for 20th in rush touchdowns (three) through seven weeks. Normally reliable veteran Jonathan Stewart hasn’t done much (he ended the team’s Week 6 loss to the Eagles with negative-4 rushing yards on eight carries) and McCaffrey’s been more of a receiver (44 catches, 329 yards, two touchdowns) than a runner (just 2.5 yards per carry and zero touchdowns on 45 totes).
Still, despite all that, the Panthers are somehow 4-3, just a half game behind the Saints. The defense still gives Carolina a chance to win every week, and while Newton’s struggled, he’s also shown flashes of the MVP-caliber player that can do it all at times, too—whether it’s throwing the ball deep or running a quarterback keeper on a power run for a touchdown. If the Panthers can get that version of Newton to show up more consistently, this team will still have a shot at the postseason.
An earlier version of this story misstated the team that Matt Moore and the Dolphins lost to in the playoffs. It was the Steelers, not the Patriots.