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The Starting 11: Blake Bortles and Ryan Fitzpatrick Are … for Real?

Jacksonville and Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinators appear to have unlocked their teams’ full potential. Plus: Carson Wentz is back, the NFL has a kicking problem, and Josh Gordon may soon be the newest Patriot.

Blake Bortles and Ryan Fitzpatrick Getty 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. A pair of Florida-based quarterbacks—and their offensive coordinators—put on unlikely aerial displays in Week 2 as Blake Bortles and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw four touchdown passes in upset wins. Tampa Bay’s 27-21 victory over the Eagles on Sunday was Fitzpatrick’s second straight game with at least 400 passing yards and four scores. It may have been too early to call after he lit up the notoriously slow-starting Saints in Week 1, but it’s now safe to say that Fitzmagic is back. The Bucs torched the Eagles as first-year play-caller Todd Monken dialed up winner after winner from the booth.

On the first play from scrimmage, Fitzpatrick connected with DeSean Jackson on a post route following a hard play-action fake, and Jackson shook loose from cornerback Jalen Mills en route to a 75-yard touchdown. It took all of one quarter for the Bucs to tack on another 75-yard score, this time on a catch and run from tight end O.J. Howard that was aided by some awful open-field tackling from the Philly defense.

With Howard, Jackson, Mike Evans, and Chris Godwin on the field, Tampa Bay features a devastating arsenal of receiving talent that can attack defenses in a variety of ways, and Monken’s first two games have already shown his knack for letting each do what they do best. The shot plays to Jackson have come early and often. Howard, one of the most physically gifted tight ends to ever enter the NFL, can be devastating after the catch. And Fitzpatrick clearly trusts Evans to win any contested throws, whether they’re 50-50 heaves down the field or routes that require the gigantic wideout to secure inside leverage against smaller corners.

Evans’s skill set was especially evident on a game-sealing third-and-3 catch with 2:23 remaining in the fourth. At the snap, Evans tussled with Mills before releasing inside and securing a quick, low throw from Fitzpatrick. Throws like that one to Evans (and the deep fade to Jackson that set up an Evans TD in the third quarter) highlight how much faith Fitzpatrick has in his receivers and the designs of this offense. At this point, there’s no reason Jameis Winston should reclaim his starting job when he returns from his three-game suspension.

In Jacksonville, there’s only one option at QB, and over the past few seasons that hasn’t been a good thing. Bortles looked shaky in Week 1 against the Giants, but he responded by hurling some fireballs in Sunday’s 31-20 win over the Patriots. Bortles finished 29-of-45 for 377 yards, and very few of those yards came cheap. Some QB stat lines can be deceiving, with raw totals inflated by huge YAC numbers and short, easy completions, but against New England, Bortles’s degree of difficulty was off the charts. His 4-yard touchdown to Donte Moncrief in the first quarter came on a perfectly placed fade that allowed Moncrief to snatch the ball from Stephon Gilmore before the Pro Bowl cornerback could get his head around. And a pair of long completions to Keelan Cole down the left sideline—a 24-yard TD in the first quarter and the catch of the year, a 22-yard completion a few minutes earlier—were both excellent throws that let Cole go to work.

When the Jags offense stagnates, it’s typically because Bortles is dealing with another dose of accuracy issues and airmailing even the simplest throws. But that’s been far from the unit’s only issue. In the past, Jacksonville’s offensive designs have been unimaginative and stale, allowing defenses to settle in, key in on certain tendencies, and develop a decent feel for what’s coming. Against New England, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett flipped the script. With the Pats sticking to man coverage for most of the day, Hackett queued up plays designed to test corners outside against his speed demons like Cole, and he took advantage of efficient, man-beating concepts on third down. Bortles completed eight of his 10 third-down passes against New England; compare that with the 56 percent completion rate he averaged on the same down last season. In that department, Jacksonville’s performance Sunday looked more like that of the 2017 Eagles than the 2017 Jaguars. When Bortles is able to stay on the field and consistently move the ball, this team can be terrifying.

2. After an ugly win over the Falcons in Week 1 and a surprising loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, the wait is officially over in Philadelphia: Carson Wentz is back. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson announced Monday that Wentz had been medically cleared to play, meaning he’ll likely start Philly’s Week 3 game against the Colts. Wentz’s return will mark the end of his long road back from the torn ACL and LCL he suffered in a win over the Rams last December, and it comes at an opportune time for the defending champs.

Pederson’s team has looked uninspiring over its first two games as Wentz has been sidelined and other key pieces (including Alshon Jeffery and Timmy Jernigan) have dealt with injuries. Even with Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles under center, Philly has been in a holding pattern, waiting until Wentz was ready to play. Foles may not be at fault for Jalen Mills being unable to stay with DeSean Jackson or Ronald Darby falling off O.J. Howard in the open field, but it’s clear that the Eagles need a jolt, no matter where it comes from. Welcoming back the face of the franchise and going up against a young Colts defense (one that played quite well Sunday in a 21-9 win over Washington) might be the lift Pederson’s club needs. The hope is that the Eagles’ rocky start hasn’t pushed them to get Wentz on the field before he’s ready, but by all accounts, the final step was just getting the doctor’s signoff. Wentz has been practicing for much of the summer and was waiting only for the go-ahead. If he really is ready, this is welcome news for Philadelphia.

3. Week 2 was a rough one for kickers around the NFL, with some high-stakes misses for the Browns and Vikings. Kickers went a combined 42-of-54 on field goals this week, a 77.8 percent average that’s considerably lower than 2017’s 84.2 percent mark. Extra points were also disastrous: Of Sunday’s 75 point-after tries, seven of them sailed wide or were blocked. That’s a conversion rate of 90.7 percent on a play that should be a sure thing.

Two of the more heartbreaking moments of the day came from Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez and Vikings counterpart Daniel Carlson. Gonzalez had already missed one field goal and two extra points in the Browns-Saints contest when he lined up for a 52-yard attempt with eight seconds to go and his team trailing 21-18. The moment the ball left his foot it was clear the kick was heading wide, and for the second straight week, an errant field goal attempt caused potential victory to slip away from a team that hasn’t won game in nearly 22 months.

In Green Bay, Carlson had a chance to win the game for Minnesota with a 35-yard kick in overtime. But the rookie pushed the ball wide right, writing the latest chapter in the story of Vikings kicking misery. It was Carlson’s second missed kick of overtime and third miss overall on the day. What sets Carlson apart from most of the other kickers that had off days on Sunday is that he wasn’t a free agent signed off the scrap heap. Minnesota took the former Auburn kicker in the fifth round of the 2018 draft; the Vikings even traded up 13 spots to nab him. On Monday, both Carlson and Gonzalez were reportedly waived by their respective clubs.

Daniel Carlson leans over after missing a field goal
Daniel Carlson
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

One possible explanation for Sunday’s kicking swoon is that teams are increasingly reluctant to hold onto their expensive kickers. The Cowboys released Dan Bailey this summer to save $3.4 million against the cap. Chicago cut longtime kicker Robbie Gould before the 2016 season and suffered through inconsistent replacements for much of the next two years. With fewer teams spending on premium kicking talent, quality at the position may also slide. But the struggles of guys like Carlson and 2016 second-round pick Roberto Aguayo raise the question of whether teams even know what they’re looking for when it comes to kickers. The vast majority of kickers drafted over the past decade were on new teams by their third season. Some—like the Eagles’ Jake Elliott, who was drafted by the Bengals last year—never even played for their original teams. Whatever the cause, kicking quality took a serious dip Sunday, and it cost more than one team a win.

4. The Steelers’ 42-37 loss to the Chiefs leaves them with an 0-1-1 record, an inauspicious start for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. As Pittsburgh continues to endure questions about running back Le’Veon Bell’s holdout, whispers about the state of the Steelers are only getting louder. Antonio Brown was shown on the sideline arguing with the coaching staff on more than one occasion in Week 2, and Pittsburgh’s defense looked completely lost while it tried to stick with Patrick Mahomes II and his electric group of pass catchers. Ben Roethlisberger managed to tally 452 passing yards against a paper-thin Chiefs defense, but for the second straight week, one side of the ball failed to carry its weight for the Steelers. It’s possible that Sunday’s effort was an aberration; the Chiefs are playing like a buzz saw right now, and they’d likely be too much for any defense in the league. But if the Steelers’ struggles continue next Monday night against a hot Bucs team, the rumblings about dysfunction in Pittsburgh are going to be hard to ignore.

5. With Saquon Barkley struggling on the ground and the Jaguars rolling without Leonard Fournette, Sunday’s results were a blow to arguments in favor of drafting a running back in the top five. For the second straight week, Barkley was bottled up on the majority of his carries. He managed just 28 yards on 11 rushes in the Giants’ 20-13 loss to Dallas and struggled to find any room on the ground. Barkley wound up finishing with 108 yards from scrimmage thanks to his 80 receiving yards, but even that number was the result of a ridiculous 14 receptions. The Giants are trying to do all they can to get Barkley involved, but the lanes aren’t there behind that offensive line. It’s not as if teams are loading up the box with defenders to slow down Barkley, either. On his 29 carries so far this season, Barkley has faced eight or more defenders only 24.14 percent of the time, which is on the low end of the spectrum compared with backs like the Ravens’ Alex Collins, who’s seen a stacked box on an absurd 62.5 percent of his carries. That’s disheartening for the Giants mostly because there isn’t an easy solution. Making way for Barkley isn’t a matter of opening up the offense and hammering teams out of lighter personnel packages. Even with advantageous numbers, the team still isn’t moving the ball consistently on the ground.

Last season in Jacksonville, Fournette faced boxes of eight or more defenders on 48.5 percent of his rushes, and that’s where the rookie struggled. But that didn’t stop the Jags from slamming him into the line out of heavy formations any time they had the chance. Jacksonville lacks imagination when it comes to Fournette, and that is made all the more obvious following performances like Sunday’s. With Fournette sidelined against New England as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury, coordinator Nathaniel Hackett opened up the offense and the rest of the Jags’ skill-position players flourished. In the four matchups Fournette has missed in his two seasons, the Jaguars are 4-0 and have averaged 31.5 points per game. There’s no denying how sensational both Fournette and Barkley can be in the right setting, but Sunday’s games did little to boost their cases.

David Johnson rushing against the Redskins
David Johnson
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

6. Sticking with the theme of ultratalented running backs, it’s getting frustrating to watch the Cardinals waste theirs. David Johnson finished Arizona’s 34-0 Week 2 loss to the Rams with only 48 yards on 13 carries and a single reception on a measly two targets. Two years after compiling 2,118 yards from scrimmage and hauling in 80 passes on 120 targets, the Cardinals’ star running back has been reduced to a between-the-tackles bruiser who has almost no receiving role at all. That might be tolerable if Arizona were loaded with pass-catching talent, but that’s far from the case in first-year coordinator Mike McCoy’s offense. Behind Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals’ wide receiver depth chart features Christian Kirk (a rookie), J.J. Nelson, and Chad Williams. Johnson ranks among the best multifaceted backs in football, and, on Sunday, Arizona used him like he was LeGarrette Blount.

It was all part of a second no-show from a Cardinals offense that hasn’t been able to move the ball in either of its first two games. Quarterback Sam Bradford totaled just 90 passing yards on 27 attempts against the Rams, which seems mathematically impossible. At this point, the decision to keep Bradford under center while first-round pick Josh Rosen sits is getting harder to defend. No part of Arizona’s offense looks functional right now, and unless something changes in a hurry, it is going to be a long, long season in the desert.

7. Speaking of lost seasons, the Vontae Davis debacle might be a new low in Buffalo. According to Bills head coach Sean McDermott, at halftime of Sunday’s 31-20 loss to the Chargers, the cornerback told the coaching staff that he was retiring, changed into his street clothes, and left the stadium. Some of Davis’s teammates were understandably miffed, and the entire situation is just bizarre. The Bills have a chance to be an all-time train wreck this season (after Sunday’s loss, they opened as 16.5-point road underdogs to the Vikings in Week 3), but that still doesn’t explain why Davis would decide to call it a career in the middle of a game. Even more curious is how quickly Davis managed to release a statement on the matter—a statement that featured Davis in a Colts uniform. More about this story may trickle out this week, but at this point, it’s one of the stranger NFL stories in recent memory.

8. Derwin James was everywhere for the Chargers in Sunday’s win. The rookie safety finished the game against Buffalo with a team-high eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, and a pass breakup. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is already willing to use James at every level of the field, and James is proving to be useful no matter where they put him. His sack in the third quarter came on a delayed blitz off the left edge, where he emerged untouched and dragged Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen to the turf. James’s first TFL came from a similar location midway through the first quarter, only that time, he was able to meet Allen in the shotgun as the QB was handing the ball off and wrestle him down for a 6-yard loss. On the pass break-up, James ran step-for-step down the seam with tight end Charles Clay for 30 yards and nearly came away with an interception. It’s been only two games, but James seems like he’s destined to be a star.

9. The Josh Gordon sweepstakes may be nearing its end, and he’s likely headed to the one place NFL teams feared most. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Patriots are closing in on a trade for the Browns receiver. On paper, the deal makes complete sense. New England is extremely thin at wide receiver with Julian Edelman halfway through a four-game PED suspension, and even once Edelman reenters the fold, the Pats are missing the type of vertical threat that Brandin Cooks gave them last season. If this gets done, it could cause nightmares for defensive coordinators around the AFC.

10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Larry Ogunjobi terrorizes the Saints. The Browns’ second-year defensive tackle may be the best find from the Sashi Brown era’s hoard of draft picks, and he has been an absolute force for Cleveland in its first two games this season. Ogunjobi is an explosive interior pass rusher, and he took advantage of Saints center Max Unger twice with a quick first step and great hands.

His first sack came on a third-and-7 in the second quarter with New Orleans driving. At the snap, Ogunjobi swings a club move toward Unger’s shoulder and follows with a quick rip to get to the edge. In an instant, he’s in the backfield and dragging Drew Brees to the turf. With this guy on the inside and Myles Garrett on the outside, the Browns have the makings of an excellent defensive line.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Keelan Cole makes the catch of the season. This one brought me out of my chair. I mean … how?

Keelan Cole