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The Starting 11: The NFL’s Race to the Bottom Keeps Reaching New Lows

The Dolphins have been orchestrating their Fish Tank all season, but after a win over the Jets this week, they no longer have the inside track at the no. 1 pick. Plus: Derek Carr continues to impress, and we are not worthy of Deshaun Watson.

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. The race to the bottom of the NFL got a lot more crowded on Sunday, as the tanking Dolphins showed they might not be the worst team in football. Miami got its first win of the season this weekend, beating the lowly Jets 26-18. That victory would have been a positive development for almost any other franchise, but knocking off the Jets improves Miami’s record to 1-7 and moves the team out of pole position in the race for the no. 1 pick. This franchise has actively purged its roster of talent as part of a full-scale rebuild, and a major part of that plan was supposed to be either landing a quarterback of the future with the top pick in the 2020 draft, or trading that pick for a haul that would give Miami an influx of young talent. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, when they put this plan into motion, there was no way to know just how awful the league’s bottom tier would be in 2019.

Going winless in the NFL is difficult, no matter how horrible a team’s roster is, and Miami’s decision to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick this offseason and make him the starter for the second half of the year introduced a level of volatility that a tanking team should try to avoid. Performances like the one Fitzpatrick had on Sunday (288 passing yards and three touchdowns) are always a possibility for the free-wheeling 36-year-old quarterback, and his one red-hot day may have just sabotaged Miami’s season-long plans.

The Dolphins have another game against the Jets looming on their schedule (Week 14), and they also welcome the winless Bengals—who leapfrogged Miami to take hold of the league’s worst record on Sunday—to town on December 22. In a normal year, winning one more game probably wouldn’t sink Miami’s chances at the top pick. Over the past two seasons, only one team—the 2017 Browns—finished with two or fewer wins. But this year, four teams are on pace to go 2-14 or worse. The difference between picking from the top spot and somewhere else in the top 3 may not seem massive, but it would cost Miami control over how the draft plays out. After enduring the lows that the franchise has over the first half of the season, that would be a devastating outcome. But Miami’s plan to be bad just happened to coincide with a couple of teams that stumbled into incompetence all on their own.

2. Speaking of: Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for the Jets, Adam Gase’s team reaches a new low. It’s not just that the Jets lost to the Dolphins on Sunday—it’s that they were down by two scores at halftime. The Jets’ offseason spending spree clearly hasn’t worked out the way that the franchise had hoped. The offensive line is in tatters, to the point that it couldn’t block journeyman pass rusher Vince Biegel, who finished with three QB hits on Sunday. High-priced free-agent acquisition Le’Veon Bell is averaging 3.3 yards per carry, and he suffered a knee injury on Sunday (the team is currently waiting on MRI results that will reveal the severity). Linebacker C.J. Mosley, who signed a five-year, $85 million deal this spring, has played just two games because of a groin injury. Spending big in free agency is often a risk. Watching a team strike out the way that the Jets have isn’t all that surprising. The truly devastating part of the Jets’ season, though, is how quickly the partnership between Gase and quarterback Sam Darnold fell apart. Even if every other aspect of the Jets’ season had gone awry, significant improvements from Darnold would have made this year at least partially a success. Instead, Darnold’s development has stagnated, and Gase’s offense looks completely lost.

It’s unclear where the Jets will decide to go from here. Gase won a short-lived power struggle this past spring, which ended in former general manager Mike Maccagnan’s firing. And the coach has a history with current GM Joe Douglas, as the two worked together for a year in Chicago. But at this point, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Jets clean house, both with the coaching staff and any bloated contracts that Douglas can unload this offseason. Few franchises make the difficult decision to move on from a coach after a single season, but after seeing what Gase has accomplished over his first nine games—and watching how little progress Darnold has made—it’s tough to find a light at the end of the tunnel for this team.

3. Not to be outdone in the competition for most hapless franchise, Washington was blown out by the Bills on Sunday, bringing the team’s record to 1-8. By now, most of what can be said about the 2019 Redskins already has. After firing head coach Jay Gruden on October 7, Washington signaled that a new era will begin when they find his replacement this offseason. Whoever ends up taking the job will be saddled with one of the thinnest rosters in the league and an incumbent starting quarterback with only half a season’s worth of experience. Dwayne Haskins got his first career start on Sunday, but it’s difficult to glean much from his play. Washington’s passing offense was limited to short throws, as interim coach Bill Callahan and offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell implemented a conservative game plan to protect their rookie QB. Haskins averaged just 6.8 intended air yards per pass.

Washington is really just operating in a holding pattern while this group plays out the rest of 2019. All that matters between now and the end of the season will be where the Redskins wind up picking in the 2020 draft. If Washington somehow nabs the top spot, team president Bruce Allen would likely deal the pick to a quarterback-needy team in a draft that’s loaded with talented passers. That would be the best possible outcome for this team in what’s become a lost season.

4. After losing to the Broncos in quarterback Brandon Allen’s first career start, the Browns’ season has gone from a disappointment to a full-fledged disaster. It was a familiar story for Freddie Kitchens and his team on Sunday. Cleveland’s red-zone woes have been an issue all season, and once again the Browns failed to finish off drives. Baker Mayfield and Co. were 1-for-5 inside Denver’s 20-yard line, including a failed fourth-down conversion late in the fourth quarter.

Allen made a handful of decent throws on the day, but he wasn’t forced to do much. Tight end Noah Fant took a short throw 75 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter, and wide receiver Courtland Sutton made one of the most spectacular catches of the season for a score with 6:16 remaining in the first quarter. It’s been a frustrating first year for head coach Vic Fangio in Denver, but Sutton has been a bright spot. In his second season, the 6-foot-4, 24-year-old receiver has already developed into one of the most impactful young pass catchers in the NFL. Denver has serious issues on the offensive line, but Sutton and Fant have the makings of an exciting play-making combination.

Denver can’t be happy with its 3-6 start to the season, but the Broncos were never supposed to contend in 2019. The same can’t be said for Cleveland. It’s tempting to look at the success the Browns sometimes have moving the ball between the 20s, see all the talent that’s lining Cleveland’s roster, and believe that the margins are slim enough for this team to bounce back in a big way next season. But Cleveland’s problems with the details—like penalties and red-zone execution—now seem like a sign of what this team is, rather than the product of a few bad breaks. Kitchens was hired in large part because of his connection with Mayfield and the production they generated during the second half of last season. Weirdly enough, it could be Mayfield’s lack of production that seals Kitchens’s fate. The Browns’ future is completely tied to Mayfield’s growth as a passer, and there have been no signs that he has improved this season. The cheap years on Mayfield’s first contract are already half over. The Browns have two seasons to build around Baker before making a decision about his future—and by extension, the franchise’s. And that urgency could inform general manager John Dorsey’s thinking about what to do with his coaching staff this offseason.

5. After another brutal offensive performance, it’s time for the Bears to make a change at quarterback. Mitchell Trubisky completed 10 of 21 passes for 125 yards in Sunday’s loss to the Eagles, and somehow even those numbers don’t communicate just how anemic the Bears offense was. Late in the first half, Trubisky was 4-of-7 for 12 yards. Twelve. It had already become clear that the Bears’ third-year QB probably wasn’t the team’s long-term answer, but Chicago has been so inept on offense in its past few games that head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace have to start considering how continuing to play Trubisky could hurt the franchise.

Even if Trubisky isn’t Chicago’s starting quarterback in 2020, Nagy will almost certainly still be the head coach. And the Bears are set to return about 90 percent of their roster. How Nagy handles the Trubisky situation will have consequences that go far beyond the quality of Chicago’s quarterback play. The Bears coaching staff lacks faith in Trubisky, and that’s trickled out and sabotaged the team’s ability to run a cohesive offensive system. It’s nearly impossible for Chicago’s young skill position players to make any progress in this scheme right now, and if the Bears keep going in this direction, it could have a serious impact on how Nagy relates to the other players in his locker room. Chase Daniel is a lifetime backup with a defined ceiling, but the Bears offense ran far smoother with him at the helm earlier this season. This group may not thrive with Daniel under center, but at least it can function. Admitting that the team was wrong about Trubisky will be painful, but the alternative is far more dangerous. It’s time, and the Bears’ brass would be well served to admit it before it’s too late.

6. As if Bears fans haven’t been through enough this season, Deshaun Watson—the quarterback they bypassed to draft Trubisky—was incredible in the Texans’ Sunday win over the Jaguars. Watson only threw for 201 yards in the 26-3 win in London, but he made a handful of spectacular plays that defied the physical laws of the universe. He consistently kept plays alive with his legs, and he managed to slip out of trouble in the pocket and complete several desperation throws for crucial gains. You could choose plenty of moments from this game to showcase Watson’s brilliance, but his most impressive play was a second-quarter completion to running back Duke Johnson where Watson evaded a defender in the pocket and made a throw while getting dragged to the turf. Stellar seasons from Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson have created a logjam in the MVP competition, but with Houston sitting at 6-3 and Watson turning in brilliant performances week after week, he certainly deserves mention.

7. Derek Carr is having the best season of his career in his second year under head coach Jon Gruden, and he was brilliant again on Sunday. Carr finished 20-of-31 for 289 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Oakland’s 31-24 win over the Lions. More than his statistical production, though, Carr’s command of the offense has really been apparent this season. He’s delivered throws decisively and accurately, like the 14-yard completion he tossed to Tyrell Williams on a third-and-12 late in the second quarter.

Oakland’s offense as a whole has improved in Year 2 with Gruden, and it’s been one of the most impressive developments of the entire season. The Raiders’ offensive line and running game with rookie Josh Jacobs look transformed. Gruden has found the perfect role for Darren Waller, who has 48 receptions and has blossomed into one of the league’s best tight ends. Coming into the season, Carr’s future with the Raiders was quite murky. With only $5 million in dead money remaining on his contract after 2019, the Raiders could have easily moved on from Carr and let Gruden handpick his franchise QB as the team moved to Las Vegas. At this rate, though, it’d be shocking for Oakland to not stick with Carr. The Raiders are currently eighth in offensive DVOA, and that standing might actually improve following their strong showing against the Lions. Gruden has re-established himself as an excellent offensive play-caller, and he might have revived Carr’s career in the process.

8. After a hellish showing in last week’s blowout loss to the 49ers, Kyle Allen bounced back in Sunday’s 30-20 win over the Titans. The Panthers’ second-year QB only finished with 232 passing yards against Tennessee, but he made several impressive throws. A lot of young quarterbacks struggle to shape their throws to different levels of the field. Finding the right touch and trajectory on deep passes outside the numbers can take years. But it’s already one of the best facets of Allen’s game. Against the Buccaneers in Week 6, Allen dropped a perfect throw to the right sideline that fell just over the outstretched hand of the cornerback and just in front of the closing safety. That ball was dropped by Jarius Wright, but Allen delivered a nearly identical pass to Curtis Samuel on Sunday for a 32-yard gain in the first quarter. Like most young QBs, Allen’s had his share of growing pains, but he’s done more than enough to keep the Panthers afloat with Cam Newton out.

9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Marshal Yanda’s reach block against the Patriots was the type of play only a few offensive linemen in the league could make. Yanda is the best guard of his generation, and even at age 35, he’s still capable of some amazing feats. On this play, the Ravens asked him to block 345-pound nose tackle Danny Shelton, who was lined up two entire gaps to Yanda’s left. The core strength, balance, and body control it takes to make this type of block can’t be overstated. Yanda is a future Hall of Famer who’s one of the most crucial pieces on an excellent Ravens offense.

10. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us, Part 1: We don’t deserve Deshaun Watson.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us, Part 2: I mean, really.