Welcome to The Ringer’s weekly NFL rankings, where we’ll break down the good, the bad, and the absurd of the 2019 season. Every Tuesday, we’ll have a ranking of the moments, players, or story lines that are driving the conversation around the league. This week, we’re exploring the most important plays through the first half of the season.
The first eight weeks of the 2019 NFL season were packed with twists and turns: A few of the teams we thought would be bad are actually really damn good (hello, San Francisco); a few teams that we thought would be good are, well, awful (sorry, Atlanta); and one of the two could be said about many coaches and players for just about every squad.
There’s still a long way to go before anyone raises the Lombardi Trophy, but looking back on the season’s first half, a few moments stood out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest—plays that represented the identity of the teams involved, leaguewide trends, or the state of the season at large. Here are the top 13 plays that have defined the NFL season at the midway mark.
13. Christian McCaffrey breaks free for an 84-yard TD
McCaffrey has taken over as the official king of fantasy football—and through eight weeks, he’s staked his claim as one of the best all-around players in the league. The 23-year-old back combines toughness between the tackles with juke-you-out-of-your-socks elusiveness everywhere else. If you give the multitalented runner a hint of daylight, he’ll exploit it with elite breakaway speed. That showed up in Week 5 against the Jaguars, when he busted an 84-yard run to the house.
That jail-break touchdown run was the exclamation mark on an otherworldly performance in which McCaffrey notched 237 scrimmage yards and three scores in a 34-27 Panthers win. It also represents the crucial role he’s played in leading a (mostly) Cam Newton–less Carolina to a 4-3 record at the midway point: The Panthers offense runs through McCaffrey. Most running backs are relatively fungible and dependent on the supporting cast around them and the scheme in which they’re playing. McCaffrey seems capable of transcending all those conditions.
12. Melvin Gordon fumbles at the 1-yard line; Chargers lose
Gordon, on the other hand, does not. After holding out for the Chargers’ first four games, the fifth-year back has returned to the lineup with ruinous results.
Chargers rushing yards the past four weeks: 35, 32, 39, 36.— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) October 28, 2019
A combined 63 attempts for 142 yards (2.25 YPC).
They are the first team to rush for fewer than 40 yards in four straight games since 1946.
In the four games he’s played this year, Gordon has averaged just 2.5 yards per carry and scored one touchdown on 44 rushes with an additional 37 yards and a score on 11 receptions. He’s been far less effective than Austin Ekeler had been in the first month of the season, and despite a 1-3 record in the past month, the suddenly listless Chargers have shown little interest in turning the keys over to their more dynamic back―even after Gordon fumbled away the chance for a win in their Week 7 loss to the Titans.
That play followed two separate plays (a 15-yard catch by Ekeler and a rush by Gordon) that were initially ruled touchdowns before being reversed on review—perhaps the Chargersiest finish in Chargers history. This franchise truly seems cursed.
11. Chase Edmonds runs free for a 20-yard TD
There was a lot of excitement coming into the season for what the Cardinals’ Air Raid passing offense under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury and top pick Kyler Murray could do. Spread looks! Four verts! Tons and tons of passing!
We’ve seen glimpses of that―and the Kingsbury-Murray aerial attack has been effective and explosive at times―but shockingly, the Cardinals’ ground game has been even more impressive through the first half of the year. Arizona is using its propensity to spread things out with three- and four-receiver sets to create box-count advantages for its blockers in the run game—and it’s working. With opposing defenses spread thin thanks to the heavy use of 10 and 11 personnel, Arizona’s ground game went into Week 8 ranked third in Football Outsiders run DVOA (the passing game ranks 23rd, meanwhile) and has averaged 4.8 yards per carry (tied for seventh), scored eight times on the ground (tied for 12th), and ripped off six runs of 20-plus yards (tied for sixth). Kingsbury has designed a diverse run game that’s incorporated pre- and post-snap motion and the threat of Murray as a runner to keep defenses guessing and help create huge rushing lanes.
Against the Giants, the Cardinals combined a pin-and-pull blocking scheme up front with sweep motion and a read-option mesh between Murray and Edmonds to freeze defenders on the backside and in the middle of the field. When Murray handed the ball off, Arizona had a four-to-three advantage in blockers up front―more than enough for the speedy Edmonds to exploit.
The Cardinals have utilized four-receiver sets more than any other team this year, by far, and that’s led to the highest rate of light boxes faced in the run game, per NFL Next Gen Stats. As we saw in Arizona’s Week 7 win over the Giants, that simple math works well in three-receiver sets, too. In fact, as Dan Pizzuta of Sharp Football Analysis notes, Edmonds didn’t rush into a single eight-man box in that entire game. The Cardinals are employing a strategy commonly used in college: Spread the field to run the ball. Expect more and more NFL teams to begin doing the same.
10. Mitchell Trubisky’s ill-advised pick dooms the Bears
Trubisky got the Bears’ season off on the wrong foot in Week 1, squandering a strong performance by the defense against the division rival Packers with a critical mistake late in the game. Trailing 10-3 with 2:03 to go and facing a third-and-10 from the Green Bay 16-yard line, Trubisky heaved this prayer into the back of the end zone and right into the teeth of double coverage. It was unsurprisingly and anticlimatically picked off by Adrian Amos, vaporizing what had been a promising opportunity for the Bears to mount a comeback.
More than just the backbreaker in that game, that throw felt like an implicit confirmation that the third-year pro has plateaued in his development. The former no. 2 pick remains as indecisive and inaccurate as he was when he came into the league in 2017; he’s thrown five touchdowns and three picks in six games, averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt this year (on pace for a career low) with an 81.4 passer rating. Instead of the franchise quarterback the Bears imagined when they traded up to select him in the draft, Trubisky has been a liability. The team’s defense, which was already due for regression after leading the NFL in takeaways last season, hasn’t been quite good enough to make up for the team’s offensive ineptitude―and instead of being a force in the NFC North, Chicago looks like an also-ran.
Trubisky’s disappointing play also serves as an illustration of the seismic shifts that drafting the wrong quarterback can create. The Bears’ notorious decision to take Trubisky over Deshaun Watson, now a superstar for Houston, and Patrick Mahomes, the reigning league MVP, will have implications for the league’s power structure for years. More on those two in a bit …
9. Marcus Mariota throws an ugly pick and gets benched
Speaking of missing on a highly drafted quarterback, the 2015 class has had a rough go of it this season. Mariota, the no. 2 pick in that draft, has struggled badly this season, too often looking lost while shrinking in the face of pressure. Those issues came to a head in the team’s Week 6 shutout loss to the Broncos, when Mariota threw up this off-target duck right into the teeth of tight coverage. It was picked by Denver safety Justin Simmons.
That throw―together with his mostly terrible play over the past three seasons―put an end to Mariota’s status as the starter in Tennessee, and the unceremonious benching casts serious doubt on his future in the league. Some team could try to revive what once looked to be a promising career, but Mariota is a long way from being the player who posted 26 touchdowns and nine picks in 2016.
As for the guy who was picked one spot before Mariota in that draft, the future is looking similarly dicey. Jameis Winston has flashed at moments for the Bruce Arians–led Buccaneers this year, but the unpredictable fifth-year pro has been just as turnover-prone as he’s always been―or worse. Winston has tossed a league-high 12 interceptions to go with his 14 touchdowns through seven games, and it’s getting harder to see the Buccaneers giving the 25-year-old a big-money extension. The top two picks of the 2015 draft look destined for free agency this summer.
8. Jacoby Brissett escapes pressure, finds T.Y. Hilton for 35 yards
Andrew Luck’s shocking decision to retire in August put the Super Bowl–hopeful Colts in an incredibly difficult position. With just two weeks until the start of the season, Indy was forced to adapt on the fly. For a lot of teams, that would kill any hopes of making a playoff run; but with the combination of a strong defense, an excellent offensive line, and top-tier coaching, the Colts have just kept chugging along.
Brissett has a strong support system around him, but much of the credit for the Colts’ success rests on the 26-year-old’s shoulders. He has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,590 yards, 14 touchdowns, and just three picks in seven games, leading the Colts to a 5-2 record and the top spot in the AFC South. His transformation from a good backup into what looks like a long-term, playmaking starter can best be summed up by one play from the Colts’ 15-13 win over the Broncos on Sunday. Trailing 13-12 with 1:48 to go in the game, Brissett and Co. took over from their own 11-yard line in desperate need of a scoring drive. That’s when he did this:
Spinning away from Von Miller on the precipice of his own end zone, Brissett turned disaster into opportunity, keeping his eyes downfield before launching a missile to T.Y. Hilton for a gain of 35. That play set up the game-winning field goal six plays later. That poise under pressure does well to characterize Brissett’s play all season; the third-year pro isn’t Luck, but he gives the Colts a real chance to contend.
Brissett’s emergence represents a bigger leaguewide trend as well: The 2018 season has been largely defined by shockingly competent backup quarterback play: Teddy Bridgewater relieved an injured Drew Brees and captained the Saints to a 5-0 record. Kyle Allen has stood in for Cam Newton and acquitted himself well, distributing the ball to his playmakers while helping Carolina to a 4-1 record. Gardner Minshew II has filled in for Nick Foles in Jacksonville, and quickly emerged as what could be the team’s long-term solution at the position. Ryan Tannehill has played well after replacing Mariota, and Matt Moore came close to outdueling Aaron Rodgers in his start in relief of Patrick Mahomes last week. Speaking of Mahomes …
7. Mahomes comes up hobbling vs. Colts
It’s impossible to know how different things would look for the 5-3 Chiefs if Mahomes had been healthy all year, but the god-mode passer has been turned into a mere mortal in 2019 thanks to a series of injuries. Late in the third quarter of the team’s Week 5 loss to the Colts, Mahomes aggravated a high ankle sprain he’d been playing on since Week 1, forcing the superstar to play almost literally on one leg for the rest of the game.
Not even Mahomes could power through an injury like that, which sapped him of his signature throw-from-any-platform talent. The contrast between healthy Mahomes and injured Mahomes was stark, and he struggled to finish that loss to Indianapolis, reaggravated the injury in the loss to Houston the next week, and then dislocated his knee on a sneak attempt against the Broncos in Week 7. Mahomes was lucky to avoid a season-ending injury, and could return as soon as next week―but the compounding ankle and knee injuries could leave the All-Pro playing somewhere far below peak levels. His injuries come with massive playoff and Super Bowl implications.
6. Deshaun Watson throws miraculous blind TD
With Mahomes slowed by those injuries, Watson has stepped into the void as the league’s most exciting signal-caller. It seems like every week, the third-year pro is making some impossible throw after escaping some impossible pass-rush predicament. We saw that late in the team’s 27-24 win over the Raiders, when Watson wriggled free from pressure, got kicked in the face in the process—partially blinding him—then hit Darren Fells in the end zone for the go-ahead and eventual game-winning score.
Watson has been the engine that makes the Texans go; he’s posted a 69 percent completion rate, throwing for 2,231 yards, 16 touchdowns, and five picks in the team’s first eight games. He’s on pace to notch career highs in yards, touchdowns, and passer rating, and he’s done it all behind a cobbled-together Houston line. When Watson is on, he makes the Houston offense perhaps the best and most exciting group in the league—and while the 5-3 Texans aren’t the most balanced team, that explosive offensive potential makes them an intriguing dark horse in the AFC playoff field.
5. Aaron Rodgers somehow finds Jamaal Williams for a TD
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was brought in ostensibly with the sole purpose of reenergizing a sluggish Packers offense and getting Rodgers’s stagnant career back on track. Through eight weeks, it appears he’s done just that. The Green Bay offense needed time to acclimate to LaFleur’s scheme, but in the past few games, that unit is operating at a high level—even without superstar receiver Davante Adams.
During the team’s current four-game win streak, Rodgers has completed 69 percent of his passes at 9.2 yards per attempt, and tossed 10 touchdowns and one pick while notching a 118.7 passer rating. The 35-year-old veteran is playing in vintage form, and that was never more clear than when he found Jamaal Williams in the back corner of the end zone in Sunday’s 31-24 win against the Chiefs. With the game tied early in the fourth quarter and Green Bay facing a third-and-1, Rodgers dropped back, drifted to his right, and flipped the football right to Williams.
If Rodgers holds his 8.2 yards per attempt through all 16 games, it’d be his highest mark since 2014 (same with his 106.7 passer rating). His renaissance under LaFleur in the first half of the season represents the state of young, innovative offensive coordinators. Coming into Week 8, Kellen Moore and the Cowboys ranked no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA; LaFleur and the Packers ranked third; Kevin Stefanski and the Vikings ranked fifth; and as pointed out above, Kingsbury has the Cardinals trending up at a meteoric pace.
4. Russell Wilson throws an impossible TD to Tyler Lockett
Rodgers isn’t the only quarterback to throw a perfectly placed touch pass to the corner of the end zone this year.
In Week 5, Wilson threw this absolute dime to Lockett in the team’s matchup against the Rams.
That throw encapsulates Wilson’s total mastery of the Seahawks offense this year. Wilson has overcome an underwhelming offensive line and a developing receiver corps to drag the 6-2 Seahawks into playoff contention. He became the first player since 1950 to throw 13-plus touchdown passes without an interception in his team’s first six games, and while he did give up one pick-six in the team’s loss to the Ravens in Week 7, he’s otherwise been the platonic ideal of efficiency for Seattle this season. Wilson is on pace to post league bests in touchdown rate (6.8 percent) and passer rating (115.5). Seattle isn’t special in the run game or on defense, but with Wilson under center, the Seahawks have a chance in a tough NFC field.
3. Nick Bosa plants Baker Mayfield—and a flag—into the turf
Bosa has strung together so many high-impact plays through his first seven games that it was hard to pick out just one. No moment got more hype, though, than this one: Just before halftime in the team’s Week 5 shellacking of Cleveland, Bosa took Baker Mayfield down and then planted a figurative flag into the turf.
That gesture was meant to be revenge for what Mayfield did when he faced off against Ohio State back in 2017, but it worked even better if viewed as the Niners’ statement to the rest of the league: We’ve arrived. The 7-0 49ers have built what looks like an absolute juggernaut: They’re dominant on defense, boast an elite run game, and can create explosive plays through the air. It’s too early to say there’s been a changing of the guard in the NFC West, but with the Rams struggling to regain their offensive superiority, San Francisco is clearly the team to beat in the division—and perhaps in the conference.
It also worked well as a representative play for the Browns’ season. Nothing’s working as it was supposed to for Cleveland. The team has struggled to protect Mayfield, who has regressed as a passer and is one of the worst under-pressure throwers this season.
2. Lamar Jackson scores a go-ahead TD on a QB keeper
The plays the Ravens are running with Lamar Jackson aren’t new, but Jackson is doing things that we’ve never really seen from a quarterback. The sophomore signal-caller has shown signs of refinement as a dropback passer and has made great strides in accuracy and pocket awareness. But what makes him more dangerous to opposing defenses is that he combines his ability to hit the deep pass with elite explosiveness and otherworldly elusiveness as a runner.
Those skills showed up against the Seahawks in the team’s 30-16 Week 7 win. A two-play sequence late in the third quarter is a great example of what makes Jackson so damn impossible to defend. With the game tied 13-13, Jackson turned a third-and-15 into a manageable fourth-down situation with a 13-yard gain on this quarterback keeper.
And, after successfully lobbying head coach John Harbaugh to go for it on fourth down, Jackson punched the ball in for the go-ahead score. The Ravens ran a rare single-wing look and kept the ball in Jackson’s hands so he could make a play.
This sequence was a great representation of how the Ravens have embraced analytics and the value of going for it on fourth down, and also how Baltimore has rebuilt and redesigned its offense around Jackson’s talent. Instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, the Ravens have embraced what Jackson does best—and that’s made the team the favorite in the AFC North.
1. The Patriots pick off Sam Darnold, again
The Patriots defense has been the most dominant individual unit in the NFL this year, and it’s on pace to be one of the best defensive groups in NFL history. The superlatives are hard to keep track of at this point, so we’ll just note a few of the big ones: New England’s given up the fewest points per game (7.6), has the most takeaways (25), and owns the best defensive DVOA.
That group’s complete control over opponents this year was never more clear than when they faced the Jets in Week 7. Bill Belichick and Co. toyed with quarterback Sam Darnold like a cat playing with its prey—and these three plays illustrate how. On a first-quarter interception and second-quarter strip sack, the Pats used all-out Cover 0 blitzes to force Darnold into mistakes.
Later in the game, the Pats lined up in similar looks, putting six men on the line of scrimmage to feign the all-out blitz. But instead of bringing the house, they jumped out of Cover 0 at the snap, rushing just four defenders. But Darnold was so spooked by that point in the game (literally?) he panicked at the first hint of pressure, and instead of moving to his right to avoid the rush, he rushed a terrible throw into the end zone.
New England’s defense hasn’t exactly faced a murderers’ row of opponent QBs, it’s true, but this group has absolutely confounded every passer they’ve lined up against. With impending matchups against Lamar Jackson, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes over the second half of the year, though, this group will get to test its mettle against some of the best.