This will not be remembered as a vintage NFL season. Several already-established superstar quarterbacks have missed large chunks of the season, as have multiple signal-callers who were well on their way to achieving a similar status. Plus, statistics show the number of high-octane offenses is down this year. But even in a down year, there’s still lots of fun that shines through. Last year, I counted down the best things I saw during the 2016 season, and many of the things that were great about the league then—Cam Newton’s outfits and being able to make fun of Jeff Fisher—are still great. Other things, like Kirk Cousins being a story of the season, have since expired.
Here are the 25 best things I’ve seen this season.
25. Jimmy Garoppolo, Savior
Highest career passer rating, minimum 200 passes, NFL history:— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) December 18, 2017
106.5 Jimmy Garoppolo
103.8 Aaron Rodgers
103.0 Deshaun Watson
24. The Time John Lynch Tried to Trade for Tom Brady
John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are probably going to work out in San Francisco. They have what looks to be a franchise quarterback, they've got a haul of draft picks over the next couple years, and they both seem like generally smart people. They are also bold. In early November, word leaked that during the Garoppolo trade discussions, Lynch asked Belichick if he would trade Brady to the Bay Area. Jay Glazer had this to report:
“Belichick just said, ‘What did you just ask me? … (Lynch) said, ‘I’m asking if you’d trade us Tom Brady, (since) you said Garoppolo is off-limits. (Belichick) said, ‘Did you just ask me if I’d trade Tom Brady? … Did you just ask if I’d trade the greatest quarterback of all time.’ And John said, ‘So is that a no?'”
23. Marshawn Lynch, Generally
This list of the most-mentioned athletes on Twitter is fascinating. Despite NFL season being in full swing, there’s a pretty glaring lack of current NFL players. As for Lynch?
Almost all of Marshawn Lynch's yards last night came after contact pic.twitter.com/VUDMzt2bgt— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 18, 2017
Well, he’s the exception:
After Getting Ejected, Marshawn Lynch Rode the Subway Home With Fans https://t.co/hOU9Va2e4h— Esquire (@esquire) October 21, 2017
22. The John Fox Experience
John Fox’s hiring in Chicago was hilarious from the moment it was announced. He is
the epitome of a coach who’s hired to be fired—a decision so bad that you start the clock to his firing during his introductory press conference. This tweet sums it up best:
When you reflect back on the Jeff Fisher, it really is hard to believe it was real. John Fox era in Chicago will feel the same way.— Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat) September 22, 2017
They say that teams take on the personality of their coach, and this year in Chicago is a testament to that, as the Bears players also have no idea what they are doing. You can start with Marcus Cooper going full Leon Lett at the 1-yard line against the Steelers and then continue with Fox’s own mistakes. There’s what USA Today called the “worst coach’s challenge in the history of the NFL” in November, when Fox challenged a spot on a Bears run that ended up with Chicago losing the ball. Then there was the time he didn’t let the 49ers score because he was banking on a statistical near-impossibility occurring: a blocked kick from close range.
As for John Fox's comment yesterday that Bears didn't let Niners score TD because Chicago felt good about their chances to block Robbie Gould's final FG -- there have been 2,431 FG attempts from inside 25 yards since 2001.....only 20 have been blocked (0.82%), per @ESPNStatsInfo— Jeff Dickerson (@DickersonESPN) December 4, 2017
The John Fox era will almost certainly be ending soon, but in true Fox fashion, he gave us something to laugh about even in his most devastating moments: He has reportedly “accepted his fate.” Fox won’t be here for much longer, and we can only hope he is replaced by someone whose reign is half as funny.
21. Todd Gurley
One of the underrated parts of the Jeff Fisher era—and we’ll get to more of them in a minute—is that in 2016 he made Todd Gurley look human. In his rookie year in 2015, Gurley had 1,106 yards in 13 games. He followed that up, in his first full season, with just 885 yards on 3.2 yards per carry. But the Fisher stink was quickly erased this offseason, and now he’s back to being Todd freaking Gurley. We missed you, Todd.
Look at this man Todd Gurley run pic.twitter.com/OSPc1O6rWz— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) December 17, 2017
20. Tony Romo
A chunk of retired NFL players on TV can predict what’s going to happen on a given play, in the same way Romo has done on CBS broadcasts all season. Yet no one else actually does it on air. The majority of NFL broadcasts had settled into rote displays of obviousness and banal reads for upcoming network drama shows. Romo is … not that. Hell, his call of a kitten running on the field was better than most network analysis this season. His ability to diagnose plays—and more importantly, say why they are happening—is something all NFL commentators should learn from.
Look, if you’re going to watch bad football, as Thursday Night Football often features, it might as well look cool. The great thing about the behind-the-line angle is that it is more anxiety-producing than any other vantage point. Bad throws on SkyCam look especially terrible, as it feels like you are on a journey with the ball into the arms of the defender.
SkyCam is so great for watching QBs throw bad INTs pic.twitter.com/g2DjR8FGkB— Ben Baldwin (@guga31bb) December 15, 2017
18. Julio Jones
He’s still got it.
17. Marcus Peters
Peters is friends with Marshawn Lynch. Let’s assume that Lynch is done playing after this season. Although they don’t share the same position or same side of the ball, Peters is well-equipped to carry Lynch’s torch in being a talked-about, brilliant talent who is one of the most fascinating figures in the sport. From his social activism to his self-ejection to his incredible skill at covering and taking over games, the Kansas City cornerback is as interesting a young star as there is in this league.
16. The Renewed Life of “Jeff Garcia Is Our Baby”
During the 2006 season, Eagles fan Larry Poff gave television cameras what is, quite frankly, a breathtaking analysis of Philadelphia’s playoff chances.
I love this video, and my colleagues have been talking about it for weeks. The video embodies everything it means to be a sports fan: alcohol, optimism, yelling with friends, and talking yourself into your very own Jeff Garcia. The video resurfaced on Twitter in August and quickly became a social media rallying cry for the team. Local media caught up with Poff. And in October, Garcia himself acknowledged that the video never gets old. He is correct.
15. Nathan Peterman
There’s been a lot of discussion this year about the declining quality of football. It might be true that the level of play is getting worse, but performance level and entertainment value don’t have a one-to-one correlation. Sometimes, bad football is so bad it is good. See: Nathan Peterman’s five-interception debut starting performance. Peterman was inexplicably inserted as a starter in last month’s Chargers-Bills game, a matchup that hilariously now has massive playoff ramifications. Peterman threw five interceptions in the first half, and then previous starter Tyrod Taylor took over for the final two quarters. The Chargers won 54-24 and are now in a battle with Buffalo for the final playoff spot in the AFC. The decision to bench Peterman foreshadowed the piece of folded paper that Gene Steratore used to measure a first down in Sunday night’s Raiders-Cowboys game: poorly thought out, hilarious, and a poor reflection on the sport.
14. Bill Belichick Figuring It Out
On The Ringer NFL Show, Robert Mays, Danny Kelly, and I have a running bit where we wonder whether there is anything we wouldn’t trust Bill Belichick to do. The answer, of course, is there’s nothing we wouldn’t trust him with, even if Belichick were piloting a plane with a small fire on the wing. In the first four weeks of the season, the Patriots gave up 30 points three times, including 40 points once. Since then, they haven’t allowed 30 points a single time and have been among the best defenses in the league in stretches. Whether it’s a small fire or a defense, Belichick can fix anything.
13. Jay Cutler Signing With the Dolphins
Jay Cutler says he woke up this morning Iin team hotel and didn't know where he was initially.— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) August 8, 2017
12. Cam Newton Doing This
Clay Matthews: It's that wheel route, it's that wheel route— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 18, 2017
Cam Newton: You been watching film, huh?
Cam: That's cool. Watch this
Cam: Slant to McCaffrey TD
I can't stop watching this.pic.twitter.com/PZcfiayC7T
11. Blake Bortles, Playoff Quarterback
Leonard Fournette said Blake Bortles is a top-five quarterback. Jadeveon Clowney, as recently as Sunday, called him “trash.” Bortles is not trash, to be clear, but he’s also not the franchise quarterback other playoff teams have. However, he’s paired with a really fun defense, and he’s a roller coaster to watch, so the Jaguars make for must-see viewing on both sides of the ball.
10. The Steelers Offense
Antonio Brown is an MVP candidate. JuJu Smith-Schuster is as fun of a rookie wide receiver as you can get. Le’Veon Bell is going to win the rushing title. Earlier this month, Brown and Bell had 100-plus receiving yards in the same game for the first time. And Pittsburgh was a catch rule away from beating the New England on Sunday and essentially locking up the top seed in the AFC. If the offense doesn’t excite you, can I interest you in the Martavis Bryant–JuJu feud?
9. Deshaun Watson
He can’t come back soon enough.
8. Andy Reid, Innovator
About four years ago, a coach told me that the college game was typically about five years ahead of the NFL. The coach was Andy Reid, and if you haven’t noticed, he’s in the middle of, despite some recent hiccups, incorporating some college schemes into the NFL with some of the most talented skill-position players in the NFL.
So Andy has been doing some CRAZY stuff w/ the run and quick throw game. First, you've got your basic read option using RB/QB. pic.twitter.com/IzKqkn3p8N— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
There's also your touch pass to Hill (basically a jet sweep) w/ threat of DAT going opposite direction. Fake sweeps to Hill set this up. pic.twitter.com/n82uTDWt9A— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 22, 2017
The running game hasn’t looked like that in a few months—though they showed flashes of their old selves on Saturday against the Chargers—but the individual talents of Kareem
Hunt, who has an incredible knack for breaking tackles …
Kareem Hunt has already broken more tackles on 124 carries (37) than Zeke Elliott did on 322 last year (36)— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) October 23, 2017
… and Tyreek Hill, who, uh ...
… have both led the Chiefs to the precipice of a playoff spot. One of the NFL’s biggest trailblazers is a guy who has been a head coach for 19 years.
7. The Wentz Wagon
One of the best players I’ve ever seen on third down or in the red zone, Wentz looked like a legitimate superstar, ready to lead a stacked Eagles team to the Super Bowl. One thing I’ll always remember about the Wentz Wagon was the vibe in Los Angeles as Eagles fans invaded the city earlier this month ahead of the matchup with the Rams. They gave off a feeling of invincibility, and they should have felt that way. I thought they had by far the most talented roster in the NFL, but more than that, they had the best quarterback in the conference. Then it all ended in the second half of that Rams game.
Text from a friend and #Eagles fan: “There was a guy crying on WIP just now. They hung up on him.”— Mike Sielski (@MikeSielski) December 11, 2017
The Wentz Wagon will be back—and it’s nice to know that the league has a young superstar it can count once he gets healthy.
6. Ben McAdoo
Some coaching eras that aren’t funny, like Chuck Pagano’s tenure with the Colts. The teams he and Ryan Grigson built did little more than get Andrew Luck injured. The McAdoo era, though, was objectively hilarious. He’s been fired, but we’ll always have the memories: the bizarre walkouts from players, the offensive guru whose team never scored 30 points while he was head coach, and the guy who benched Eli Manning not for third-round pick Davis Webb, but instead for Geno Smith.
5. The Jaguars Defense
There’s a statistic called “fastest sacks” that shows how quickly a defense can swarm you. The Jaguars have two players with seven of the fastest sacks this season—Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue. And although Jacksonville’s line is awesome, the defensive backfield is just as good, if not better:
The #Jaguars have 5 players with at least 3 INTs, which is the most in the NFL. No other team even has 4 players with that amount.— Matt Hoffman (@MattHoffmanNFL) December 18, 2017
Bouye - 6 INTs
Ramsey - 4 INTs
Gipson - 4 INTs
Smith - 3 INTs
Church - 3 INTs
They are the perfect marriage of a ferocious defensive line and a cornerback tandem that can’t be burned. One of those units can usually make the other look great, but in this case, they are both performing at a high level.
Lowest burn % (through Wk 13)— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) December 8, 2017
A.J. Bouye 43%
casey hayward 43%
Ken Crawley 44%
Bradley Roby 44%
Terrance Mitchell 47%
Trevor Williams 47%
Tre'Davious White 48%
jalen Ramsey 48%
Artie Burns 48%
Brandon carr 48%
Shaquill Griffin 49%
Rashaun Melvin 49%
This is an incredible collection of talent, and if they were a more established team, we’d be talking about this defense among the all-time greats. Look at this:
The @Jaguars have allowed 10-or-fewer points in 8 of 14 games this season, including today's victory over Houston (7).— x-Tad Dickman (@Tdickman89) December 17, 2017
JAX joins the 2000 Ravens, 2005 Bears and 2002 Bucs as only teams to allow 10-or-fewer points in at least 8 of the first 14 games of a season since 2000.
This defense is fun as hell.
4. Alvin Kamara
3. Celebrations You Didn’t Know You Wanted
When the NFL announced in the spring that it would allow group celebrations, I assumed it would affect only a small percentage of scores. I was, thankfully, wrong. For some fans, group celebrations have defined the season: Somehow, the Vikings started a controversy involving the proper name for “Duck, Duck, Goose.” But the Eagles have the title belt for group celebrations—most recently they held a campfire by a touchdown ball. And against the Rams, they broke out the Flying V:
2. The Jeff Fisher Quarterback Tree
Jeff Fisher was bad for football. We know this now, not only because his final year with the Rams (and the first in the NFL’s return to L.A.) featured the worst offense in the league, but because of what happened next: Three quarterbacks he had in the summer of 2016—Jared Goff, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles—will likely start playoff games a year later. Two of the quarterbacks he had on his roster for all of last season (Goff and Keenum) actually led their teams to the postseason. And one of them (Foles) looks like a legit fill-in for a budding superstar.
For Goff, the solution after a terrible rookie season was apparently as simple as adding a few pieces around him and bringing in quarterback guru Sean McVay.
The improvement has been stunning. You can count me among those who assumed Goff was so bad his rookie year that there was no chance for recovery.
I felt much the same way about Case Keenum. He never showed enough under Fisher for anyone to see this coming.
Case Keenum since #Vikings bye-week:— Warren Ludford (@wludford) December 18, 2017
141/194 (72.68%), 1609 yards, 13 TDs, 4 INTs, 111.0 QB rating, 8.71 AY/A. 5-1 record.
Leading MVP candidate Tom Brady over same 6 game stretch:
140/207 (67.63%), 1622 yards, 12 TDs, 5 INTs, 100.4 QB rating, 7.91 AY/A, 5-1 record.
Foles is in a different situation, as he takes over in relief of Wentz, but uh, Eagles fans still love him:
Getting Fisher out of the NFL was a win for multiple teams around the league. There’s a quarterback-pipeline problem in the NFL, but removing cloggers like Fisher will help solve it.
1. NFL Players
The lasting legacy of this season will be the way players reacted to Donald Trump wishing kneeling players were fired in September and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s comments that the “inmates [were] running the prison” in October.
The best thing I saw this year? Players like Malcolm Jenkins, Eric Reid, Marcus Peters, and Chris Long making tangible efforts to use their platform for good. More players bolstered more causes than in any other season in history. Remember that list of most-mentioned athletes I talked about earlier? There were two NFL players on it: One was Lynch, the other was Colin Kaepernick, whose actions while he was in the league in 2016 still have a bigger impact than that of most active players. He, too, spent the vast majority of his time this year using his platform for good. Many other players did that this year, too. There have been some fun moments this season, but there’s nothing better than this.