As we wait in nervous anticipation of the NFL season’s big finale between the Eagles and Patriots, it’s time to reflect on what was a unique and at times bizarre year of football. The off-field story lines often overshadowed the on-field product: Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance against the league alleging collusion; player protests against police brutality expanded; the president called any player that kneels during the national anthem a “son of a bitch”; the vice president staged a dramatic walk-out of a game; ratings were all over the place; Ezekiel Elliott was suspended, then unsuspended, then re-suspended about 10 times; and the question of the league’s long-term viability as the effects of CTE and head injuries become more clear hung over every game.
But the show went on: There were games to be played, touchdowns to be scored, sacks to be had, and plays to be Bortles’d. And as it turned out, plenty of things got weird from a football point of view, too. Here are 10 of the most surprising plot twists from the 2017 season.
Scoring Took a Nosedive
The NFL continually alters and adjusts its rule book, and over the past couple of decades, the majority of those tweaks—from a looser definition of what constitutes pass interference to an emphasis on protecting the quarterback—have stimulated scoring. There’s been a scoring surge over most of the past 10 years, and the leaguewide team average for points-per-game dipped below 22.0 just once going back to 2008. But in 2017, that average dropped to 21.7 points per game, a new eight-year low and a full point off last year’s mark (22.7). The Rams were the league’s highest-scoring team (we’ll get to this in a minute), and fell 62 points short (478) of last year’s Falcons (540).
We got to see some fun touchdown celebrations this year, sure, but that didn’t hide the big shortage of the sport’s most exciting play. There were 741 touchdown passes thrown in 2017; that’s 45 short of last year’s total, 101 fewer than the all-time high of 842 such touchdowns set in 2015, and the lowest mark since the 2009 season. Just 13 wide receivers eclipsed 1,000 yards, the fewest since the 1993 season, and only two—DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams—hit the 10-touchdown milestone, the lowest total the league’s seen since 1990. Things weren’t much better on the ground, as the league’s collective 380 rushing touchdowns tied for the second-lowest mark (along with 2014) we’ve seen this century.
Of course, part of the reason teams failed to match the scoring output of recent seasons was that, well …
Everyone Got Hurt
It’s hard to remember a year in which more of the league’s major stars were lost to injury, when big-name players seemed to drop like flies each week. So, I made a list that helps capture the sheer enormity of the problem: At running back, David Johnson, Dalvin Cook, Spencer Ware, D’onta Foreman, Darren Sproles, and Chris Carson all hit the injured reserve. A few of the league’s most recognizable receivers went down, with Odell Beckham Jr., Julian Edelman, Allen Robinson, Brandon Marshall, and Pierre Garçon all suffering season-ending injuries. Tight ends Greg Olsen, Charles Clay, Zach Miller, and Tyler Eifert all missed significant time. Top-tier offensive linemen like Joe Thomas, Jason Peters, Taylor Decker, Zach Strief, Bryan Bulaga, Marshal Yanda, Mike Iupati, and Kyle Long all got hurt. Key defensive linemen J.J. Watt, Jonathan Allen, Cliff Avril, Sharrif Floyd, and Derek Wolfe all ended up on the injured reserve. Linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a very scary back injury, Leonard Floyd and Pernell McPhee landed on injured reserve, and Dont’a Hightower, Markus Golden, Jordan Hicks, Jerrell Freeman, and Whitney Mercilus all suffered season-ending ailments. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett, Jimmy Smith, and Ronald Darby all missed time to injury, as did all-world safeties Eric Berry and Kam Chancellor and promising rookie Malik Hooker.
But it’s still a quarterback league, and that position seemed to get hit disproportionately hard by the injury bug. Packers superstar signal-caller Aaron Rodgers missed nine games with a broken collarbone. Andrew Luck missed the entire season with a mysterious shoulder issue. Carson Palmer went out in Week 7 with a broken arm—now he’s retired. Ryan Tannehill missed the whole year with a knee injury he suffered before the season. Sam Bradford missed all but two games with a knee issue of his own, and Carson Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14. And, in perhaps the most devastating quarterback injury of them all, Deshaun Watson tore his ACL after Week 8.
Watson Briefly Took Over the League
Despite early-season injury outbreak and downturn in offense, the league was buoyed for the first half of the season by the Houston rookie’s damn-near-unbelievable play. Watson’s meteoric rise to pro superstardom might not surprise many Clemson fans, but there were plenty of doubters in the pre-draft process—where concerns over deep-ball accuracy and his transition to the pro-style schemes many teams run made him just the third quarterback to come off the board. Plus, no rookie quarterback is supposed to do what Watson did.
Those factors are possibly why Texans head coach Bill O’Brien needed to watch two terrible quarters from Tom Savage before handing the keys over to the rookie, but the former Tiger quickly proved he was up to the task as the team’s starter. In a custom-styled hybrid offense, which mixed pro-style dropbacks with plenty of college option plays and spread looks, Watson quickly captured the imagination of the entire country, scoring 21 touchdowns (19 throwing, two on the ground) in just seven games, before tearing his ACL in a noncontact drill at practice. Watson looked like the guy that was going to save an NFL season that had, to that point, already seen far too many injuries and had struggled to produce many fun moments, but the football gods had other ideas.
Having an Elite Quarterback Seemed a Little Less Important
You needn’t look further than the conference-championship contenders, a group of teams that featured Tom Brady … and Case Keenum, Blake Bortles, and Nick Foles under center, to drive this plot twist home. Bortles had his moments this year, Keenum played well above expectations, and Foles suddenly looked like his 2013 self reincarnated in the Eagles’ win over the Vikings on Sunday, but the NFL’s final four goes against the long-held belief that, save for a few extreme outliers, a great quarterback is a prerequisite to a deep playoff run.
Of course, an extreme outlier year could just be one of the side effects of all the quarterback injuries that happened across the league. As the top echelon of NFL passers thinned, it created an opportunity for teams with less-than-elite signal-callers. This isn’t likely going to end up being a long-term trend—just look at the rest of playoff field, where you see teams led by the past two MVPs in Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, two sure-fire future Hall of Famers in Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, savvy vets Alex Smith and Tyrod Taylor, and a young, promising passer in Jared Goff.
The Chiefs and Eagles Had the League’s Most Fun and Innovative Offenses
If you’d have asked me at this time last year which teams featured the most entertaining offenses, I’m not sure Kansas City or Philly would’ve cracked the top 25. The 2016 Chiefs were, apart from the few moments of brief respite provided by Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, boring. Alex Smith was one of the league’s least aggressive throwers—a guy that consistently threw short of the sticks and the poster boy of a check-down offense. The Eagles weren’t much better. It’s hard to remember after what he did in his second season with the team, but Wentz struggled for most of his rookie year, finishing with a 79.3 passer rating (!) with 16 touchdown throws and 14 picks. Gross.
This year, everything changed. Both Smith and Wentz found a penchant for the deep ball, and the Andy Reid offense was eclipsed in innovation only by Doug Pederson’s scheme in Philadelphia. Both coaches employed heavy doses of run-pass options to confound defenses, both utilized their quarterbacks as runners, and both attacked downfield with reckless abandon. The Chiefs had a midseason meltdown where they lost track of what they were doing best but rediscovered their mojo late in the year. Overall, both Kansas City and Philadelphia featured fun, forward-thinking schemes, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see plenty of copycats in 2018.
The Rams’ Offense Was Suddenly Really, Really Good
If you were really bold in the run-up to the 2017 season, you might’ve given the Rams a solid shot at getting back to their 7-9 bullshit, but I’m not sure anyone predicted they’d usurp the NFC West throne and punctuate that divisional changing of the guard by spanking the Seahawks 42-7 in Seattle.
I mean, it was easy to imagine new, 31-year-old head coach Sean McVay would inject some energy into a downtrodden franchise’s psyche, but he was about to inherit an offense quarterbacked by Goff, a guy who’d just posted one of the most disastrous rookie campaigns imaginable, throwing five touchdowns and seven interceptions and for an astonishingly low 5.3 yards per attempt under Jeff Fisher’s staff. Instead, Goff transformed before our eyes under McVay’s tutelage. That shift, plus the team’s savvy moves in free agency and the draft, caused the Rams to go from the lowest-scoring team in the NFL (14.0) in 2016 to the highest (29.9).
The Bizarro Saints
The Brees-led New Orleans offense has been the poster child for the NFL’s passing-game explosion; when you thought about prolific passers, Brees was the guy that came to mind, as he’d racked up an NFL-record five 5,000-yard passing seasons while leading the league in pass attempts four times, touchdowns four times, completions five times (now six), and passing yards seven times. But the Saints flipped their offense on its head in 2017, transforming it into the league’s best rushing attack behind the dual-headed monster of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The Saints finished fifth in rush yards (129.4 per game) on the year, first in touchdowns (23), and tied for first in yards per carry (4.7) while Brees finished just ninth in attempts, throwing his fewest passes in any year since 2009, when he missed a game.
Meanwhile, a defense that had become the laughingstock of the NFL over the past three years took a huge jump forward, improving on its 31st-place finish in defensive DVOA last year to eighth place in 2017.
The Jets and Bills Both Failed at Tanking
The Jets spent most of the offseason off-loading all of their recognizable players, while the Bills spent most of the summer doing much of the same, trading away Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby, and Reggie Ragland while letting Stephon Gilmore, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Mike Gillislee leave in free agency.
But despite the outward appearance of full-on tank jobs by the pair of AFC East squads, both ended up at 3-2 through five weeks of the season. The Jets faded as the year went on, winning just two more games to finish 5-11, but the Bills won nine games and a berth to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season—even after McDermott cost the team a potential win when he benched his starting quarterback for rookie Nathan Peterman in Week 11.
The Trade Deadline Was Actually Fun
The NFL trade deadline is typically a boring affair—characterized by, if we’re lucky, a handful of back-of-roster moves to swap relative unknowns or backup/developmental types. This year, it was fun as hell, and we saw five relative blockbusters: The Seahawks traded for left tackle Duane Brown, the Jags dealt for Marcell Dareus, the 49ers dealt for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the Eagles brought in Jay Ajayi, and the Bills acquired receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Those trades were mostly successful, with Ajayi, Brown, and Dareus all playing well for their new teams, but Benjamin struggled to stay healthy in Buffalo. The Garoppolo trade, though, stands well above the rest. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound signal-caller led his new team to five straight wins to close out the year. He looks like a franchise quarterback—a player the team can build around and win with. Which brings me to another surprising story line ...
The Patriots Traded Both of Their Backups and Doubled Down on Tom Brady
Brady says that he wants to play until he’s 45. For a while, it wasn’t clear whether Bill Belichick believed that was possible, and so he developed—and refused to trade away—a pair of quality backups in Jacoby Brissett and Garoppolo. Then, in the matter of a few months, both Brissett and Garoppolo were gone, starting for new teams.
The Patriots’ decision to trade away their two best backups has the potential to impact the league for years to come. First, it signals New England’s undying loyalty to its 40-year-old quarterback, not just now, but over the next several seasons. And second, both Garoppolo and Brissett proved that they’re good enough to start in the league. Garoppolo, in particular, could represent a seismic shift in the NFC, a player who showed the potential to develop into the type of top-tier passer who could make San Francisco a major player in its division and conference.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Mark Ingram as Melvin.