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The Starting 11: NFL Championship Windows Are Shorter Than Ever — Just Ask the Jaguars

Ten months ago, Jacksonville seemed poised to begin a new, winning era. But the team’s struggles this year illustrate how difficult it is to build a consistent contender. Plus: Baker Mayfield and the Browns are surging, and the Amari Cooper trade causes local writer to eat crow.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in:

1. Last season, the Jaguars ended up a game away from the Super Bowl, and their ascent was one of the best stories in the NFL. Now, barely 10 months later, the Jags are 3–8, and their fall shows just how short championship windows can be. After an embarrassing 24–21 loss to Buffalo on Sunday, Jacksonville began the process of moving on from what has become a lost season. Blake Bortles had a dismal outing against the Bills (12-of-23 for 127 yards and two interceptions), and on Monday he was benched in favor of Cody Kessler. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who guided this offense to last year’s AFC championship game, has been fired. When a team implodes the way that Jacksonville has this year, changes are inevitable. But both of Monday’s moves were Band-Aids that don’t address the real reasons this team looks nothing like it did in 2017.

In the modern NFL, teams built on defense have a difficult path to contention from season to season. Defensive success isn’t nearly as reliable as offensive success, and regression on that side of the ball is all but inevitable for most teams, even if it comes in subtle ways. The Jags ranked sixth in defensive DVOA coming into Week 12. Jacksonville has still fielded one of the best units in the league, but the slide from dominant to very good is massive for a team that leans on its defense the way the Jags do. Injuries aren’t to blame in this case, as unlike the team’s offensive line and pass-catching corps, the Jags defense has avoided major injuries for the second straight season. But even if the players are the same, small steps back at every level have taken their toll. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye haven’t been the same pair of lockdown corners they were last season. Coverage breakdowns like the one by Barry Church on Sunday that led to a 75-yard touchdown by undrafted receiver Robert Foster just didn’t happen last year. In 2017, the Jaguars finished with 55 sacks and seven defensive touchdowns. This year, they’re on pace for 31 sacks, and they’ve found the end zone just once. That type of decline can make all the difference.

This team’s success last season was seen as the start of a new era. The Jags were returning all their key players on defense, they added a big-money free agent in guard Andrew Norwell, and were viewed by many as legitimate contenders heading into the season. The problem with that line of thinking, though, is that it discounts how difficult it is to repeat a magical run like the one Jacksonville strung together last year. A linear trajectory is never a guarantee in the NFL, and the Jaguars have learned that the hard way. There was no reason to believe the Jags would continue to progress in 2018 because for the most part, they stood pat this offseason — which made sense in some ways and didn’t in others. With the amount of money Jacksonville had already allocated to the defense, it wouldn’t have been feasible to add any significant pieces on that side of the ball. But the decision to extend Bortles was dubious at the time and looks even worse in retrospect.

The argument for financially committing to Bortles for 2018 and 2019 was that it freed up about $10 million in cap space this season. In Jacksonville’s mind, moving some of Bortles’s money into 2019 was the best way to prop their championship window open, when in reality, the refusal to bring in another quarterback is likely what slammed it shut. As teams like the Rams used their bevy of rookie contracts to acquire players like Ndamukong Suh and Brandin Cooks as they loaded up for a run at the Super Bowl, the Jags brought back virtually the same team. With all the cap space floating around the league right now, running it back is almost never a good idea, especially when so much of Jacksonville’s success came from a type of play that’s nearly impossible to sustain. But that’s how fast everything can change. In less than a year, the Jaguars went from being one of the most exciting young teams to an afterthought whose season is over before the start of December.

2. The Browns offense has taken a huge leap forward since Hue Jackson was fired, and we now have an idea of what the future could hold with Baker Mayfield. Over the past four weeks — ever since former running backs coach Freddie Kitchens took over Cleveland’s play-calling duties after Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were ousted — the Browns have looked like a new team. They’ve implemented way more quick throws, especially to their dynamic pair of running backs, and the system has allowed Cleveland’s rookie quarterback to have days like Sunday, when he finished with 258 yards and four touchdowns on just 26 attempts in the Browns’ 35–20 win over the Bengals. The result has been a more efficient approach to the passing game and considerably less pressure on Mayfield. Nick Chubb has been a more consistent presence in the passing game, and his spectacular 14-yard touchdown on Sunday points to the type of impact he could have for Cleveland’s air attack long term. Tight end David Njoku also turned in one of the best games of his young career against the Bengals as he hauled in all five of his targets for 63 yards and a touchdown.

While some of Cleveland’s recent schematic choices have worked wonders for Mayfield and the offense, not all the reasons for the Browns’ improvement are that complicated. To put it simply, they’re just playing better. The dropped passes that plagued Cleveland during several of Mayfield’s early starts are no longer a devastating problem. Potential big plays that were being left on the table in late September are now turning into chunk gains, and as a result, Mayfield has been able to show what he’s capable of. It also can’t be overstated how much more energized the Browns look now that Jackson is gone. Cleveland might not be in the playoff race, but the past several games have shown why this group could be exciting next season under a new coaching staff.

3. Melvin Gordon’s MCL sprain is a tough break for a player in the midst of a career year, but the Chargers should be able to survive his absence thanks to Austin Ekeler. The Chargers’ backup running back may not have the home run ability that Gordon has exhibited this season, but he’s more than capable of handling the sort of varied workload the Chargers put on their starting running back. Ekeler is averaging 5.8 yards per carry on the season, and he has no problem pounding the ball between the tackles. He’s also hauled in 39 receptions so far this year, and entering Week 12, only Kareem Hunt had a better receiving DVOA among running backs. Gordon was enjoying a monster campaign, but at this point, ensuring that he’s healthy by the start of the playoffs has to be the Chargers’ top priority. In his stead, Ekeler should have no trouble sliding into the feature-back roll and keeping the high-powered Chargers offense rolling through the end of the regular season.

4. Go ahead and microwave some crow for me (and plenty of others), because the Amari Cooper trade looks like a boon for the Cowboys. Cooper was unstoppable against Washington on Thanksgiving, as he hauled in eight catches for 180 yards and two long touchdowns, and it’s incredible how different he’s looked in his new surroundings. He’s always been a polished route runner who could do damage as a slot receiver, but the 90-yard catch and run he ripped off against the Redskins wasn’t the sort of play he regularly made in Oakland.

By trading a first-round pick for him — and presumably committing to an eventual extension — Dallas made it clear that it viewed Cooper as a no. 1 receiver and the centerpiece of a passing offense. Considering his underwhelming production in Oakland over the past two seasons, that seemed like wishful thinking, but through four games, Cooper has looked legit. In a little over a month, he has as many catches with the Cowboys (22) as he did in six games with the Raiders. He’s given the Dallas offense an added dimension that it was desperately lacking early in the year, and in the process, the franchise has had a chance to properly evaluate Dak Prescott as they determine what type of extension he should get this offseason. Jerry Jones is (rightfully) a punch line much of the time, but the Cowboys may have gotten this one right.

5. Eddie Jackson has transformed into a touchdown-scoring machine for the Bears, and through 11 games, he’s playing like the best safety in the NFL. Jackson’s pick-six against the Lions on Thanksgiving was his third touchdown of the season, and while some defensive scores are the product of a fluky tipped ball or easy interception, Jackson’s pick against the Lions was anything but. After starting the play as a deep safety, he perfectly read Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ alignment, and he bolted toward the flat. The timing was perfect. Jackson stepped in front of the receiver at the exact moment the ball arrived, and he walked in 41 yards for the score. Jackson has found the end zone in plenty of different ways over his first two seasons, but this latest pick-six was downright Ed Reedesque — to the point that it earned him a much deserved shout-out from the safety GOAT.

6. As the Bengals defense continues to unravel, it looks like Marvin Lewis may be out of a job at the end of the season. And with Andy Dalton heading to I.R. after injuring his thumb in Sunday’s loss, it could be time to consider his future with the team as well. Dalton was playing some of the best football of his career early in the season, which makes it difficult to imagine the Bengals moving on. But regime changes bring a chance to evaluate every area of a franchise, and 2018 is the final year that Dalton’s contract includes any guaranteed money — meaning the Bengals can release or trade him at the end of the season with no financial penalty. Dalton has always served as an interesting QB litmus test. Paired with the right supporting cast, he’s capable of running an excellent offense (see: the Bengals’ 2015 season), but if any part of that infrastructure starts to unravel, he’s struggled to pick up the slack. With cap hits of $16.2 million and $17.7 million over the next two seasons, Dalton’s price tag is relatively palatable by modern QB standards, but with teams like the Chiefs and Rams reaping the benefits of their first-round quarterbacks playing on rookie contracts, the Bengals could be one of the surprising teams in the mix for a QB within the next couple seasons.

7. Russell Wilson’s deep-ball prowess has long been one of the defining aspects of his game, and this season, he’s experienced a resurgence in the efficiency of those throws. Wilson led the league in deep-ball percentage last season (16.5 percent of his throws traveled at least 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus), but among qualified QBs, his 37.4 accuracy percentage on those throws ranked 14th. This season, Wilson again ranks near the top of the league in deep-ball percentage (15.2 percent, the fourth-highest mark). The difference is that his accuracy rate on those throws has jumped by more than 10 percentage points, to 48.9. That’s tied with Kirk Cousins for seventh best in the NFL, and only Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have a higher passer rating on deep throws this season than Wilson’s 125.7. When he is dropping throws like this one to David Moore 35 yards down the field, Seattle’s offense is a completely different beast.

8. It took a few games, but T.Y. Hilton has finally settled into Frank Reich’s offense, and that could have devastating effects for opposing defenses down the stretch. During the Chuck Pagano regime in Indianapolis, Hilton was the speed threat in the Colts’ vertical passing game. As the team has transitioned to a more quick-strike approach in Reich’s first season, Hilton’s role has shifted, and during the first half of the season, it was clear that both he and Andrew Luck were still working out the kinks. Recently, though, their connection has been much stronger. Hilton hauled in seven catches for 125 yards in Sunday’s 27–24 win over the Dolphins, including a beautiful 24-yard back-shoulder reception at the goal line that helped set up a Colts touchdown to go up 14–7 in the second quarter. Luck has found success with a lackluster receiving corps for much of the season, so it’s easy to overlook just how dynamic he and Hilton can be together. When they’re clicking, though, that pair is one of the more exhilarating combinations in the league.

9. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Joey Bosa is back. In just his second game of the season, Bosa notched two sacks in the Chargers’ win on Sunday, the second of which was vintage Joey Bosa. The way he changes direction and subtly uses his hands to bait offensive tackles and get them off balance shows the type of savvy that even some of the league’s best edge rushers never fully grasp.

10 and 11. This week in NFL players … they’re absolutely nothing like us: Giving Philip Rivers a receiver like Mike Williams is borderline unfair. Williams caught two touchdowns in the Chargers’ win, and the second showed a remarkable amount of body control for a player with his size. Rivers was red hot on Sunday, but having a guy with Williams’s catch radius certainly helps.

Bonus: Saquon Barkley is (still) absolutely absurd.