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. Denver and Washington both fell to 0-4 on Sunday, and their seasons are slipping away. Where do these two storied but rudderless franchises go from here? Let’s start in Denver, where the team’s established veterans seem to be losing patience. On his way out of the locker room following the Broncos’ 26-24 loss to Jacksonville on Sunday, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. shrugged off reporters and made it clear that he’s already eyeing the end of Denver’s dysfunctional season. “I ain’t saying nothing,” Harris Jr. said, according to The Denver Post. “Thirteen more weeks for me.” The four-time Pro Bowl corner will be a free agent at the end of this season, so his escape plan should be fairly simple. But others in the organization won’t have it quite so easy.
The most distressing part of Denver’s horrid start is that this season was supposed to be the start of a new era. General manager John Elway hired 61-year-old Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as the Broncos’ new head coach this offseason and dealt a fourth-round pick to Baltimore for quarterback Joe Flacco. It seemed that Elway was planning on Fangio to elevate Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, and the rest of the defense, while Flacco stabilized the offense and Denver formulated a long-term plan at QB. Through four games, none of those things have happened. The once-vaunted Broncos defense finally recorded its first sack of the season on Sunday, but Denver remains the only team in the league to have not forced a turnover. Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette, who hadn’t rushed for more than 100 yards since December 10, 2017, finished with 225 on 29 carries. That’s 46 more yards than Fournette had on the season coming into Sunday’s game. Flacco had a solid but unspectacular outing against the Jaguars, throwing for 303 yards and three touchdowns, but the offense has still been painfully mediocre. A month into the season, Denver has no discernible identity—and no obvious path to finding one.
Typically, a team mired in this type of rut would try to make some key changes—like finding a new QB or head coach—that might inject life into the organization. But the Broncos just did both of those things this offseason, and now they’re committed to this plan beyond 2019. In early September, the front office converted $13.6 million of Flacco’s base salary into a signing bonus to create extra cap space. Before the move, Flacco had no guaranteed money left on his deal. Now, he’ll carry a $13.6 million dead cap charge if the Broncos trade or release him before next season, and a $10.2 million hit if he’s let go before the 2021 season.
Trading for Flacco and then tying up even more future resources in the 34-year-old is just the latest QB-related blunder for Elway. After signing Peyton Manning ahead of the 2012 season, Denver’s search for his replacement has been a comedy of errors, filled with regrettable stints from the likes of Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, and Case Keenum. Rookie quarterback Drew Lock is the latest potential answer, but the 2019 second-round pick is currently on IR with a sprained thumb. When a season slips away, teams can typically find some solace in giving young players an opportunity to develop, but with Lock on the shelf and second-year edge rusher Bradley Chubb now out for the season with a torn ACL, the franchise’s two most important rookie-contract cornerstones won’t have that chance in 2019.
Considering Fangio is unlikely to be fired after a single year, it’s fair to wonder whether Elway’s time as the Broncos’ primary decision maker has run its course. The Denver Broncos aren’t likely to fire the best player in franchise history, but steering Elway into an ambassador role and handing the keys to a seasoned talent evaluator might be in everyone’s best interest. If ownership—which is currently a mess in its own right—does decide to let Elway see the Lock experiment through, the right move for the Broncos may be to try and trade pending free agents like Harris Jr. and Emmanuel Sanders and rebuild this roster on the fly. Because right now, whatever the current plan is for Denver just isn’t working.
2. Like Denver, Washington is also trying to pick up the pieces after a winless start—but there’s not a lot of hope on the horizon. The Redskins finally turned to Dwayne Haskins on Sunday, but it was immediately clear that the rookie QB won’t be enough to save their crumbling season. Haskins finished 9-of-17 passing with just 107 yards and three interceptions, and he showed everyone why head coach Jay Gruden was so hesitant to toss his young QB into the fire so early. Even if Haskins struggles as a rookie, though, his development is at least something to look forward to. With Alex Smith’s outlook uncertain as he continues his recovery from the broken leg he suffered late last season, Haskins is the future of the franchise. The problem for Washington is that it’s nearly impossible to find much optimism elsewhere.
If the Redskins fail to correct course—which seems likely at this point—Gruden may lose his job. And soon. But even if Washington hits on its next head coach, the other issues that have plagued this franchise for years aren’t going away. Team president Bruce Allen has left Washington almost completely devoid of any high-end talent, and the franchise’s mismanagement of its roster continues to boggle the mind. Trent Williams, the team’s star left tackle, refuses to play for the Redskins again after a dispute about a medical issue last season. Their Pro Bowl right guard, Brandon Scherff, is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the two sides reportedly aren’t close to finalizing an extension. Washington was forced to cut two starting-caliber linebackers this offseason to create the cap space necessary to sign safety Landon Collins to a six-year, $84 million contract—which isn’t exactly the type of aggressive move a rebuilding team should make. Josh Norman, whose $14.3 million cap hit is the fifth highest in the league among cornerbacks this season, has looked completely lost. Aside from rookie receiver Terry McLaurin and some promising young players on the defensive line, there is almost no homegrown talent that will be around past this season.
The Norman and Collins signings are the exact type of headline-grabbing moves that Washington has favored for years, and Allen and owner Dan Snyder will likely try to make the same type of big splash when searching for the team’s next head coach. But whoever gets tapped to take the job will end up in the same situation as all the other coaches who’ve held the reins during Snyder’s tenure: Washington has a habit of making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons, and even a great head coach and quarterback might not be enough to solve what ails it.
3. After another brutal outing from Kirk Cousins in the Vikings’ 16-6 loss to Chicago, the frustration is starting to show in Minnesota. In the locker room after Sunday’s game, wide receiver Adam Thielen was asked about the Vikings’ inability to consistently move the ball through the air this season, and he didn’t mince words. “At some point, you’re not gonna be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL,” Thielen said. “And that’s when you have to be able to throw the ball. You have to be able to make plays.” In four starts this season, Cousins has averaged 183.8 yards per game on fewer than 25 attempts. The 2-2 Vikings haven’t asked Cousins to do much because for the most part, they haven’t had to. Mike Zimmer and new coordinator Kevin Stefanski have built a conservative offense around Dalvin Cook and the running game, but against the Bears’ excellent defensive front, Cook didn’t have much room to work. With nothing going on the ground, the Vikings turned to Cousins, and the offense crumbled. Cousins finished the first half 7-of-10 passing for just 49 yards, and the Vikings added just 10 on the ground over the first two quarters.
Minnesota’s new scheme under Stefanski and senior advisor Gary Kubiak was supposed to align with Cousins’s strengths as a quarterback. He’s consistently been one of the most effective play-action passers in the NFL, and an emphasis on a strong running game and complementary throws seemed to align with his preferred style of play. But this season, Cousins has actually been one of the least effective play-action passers in the NFL. His 6.7 yards per attempt when using a play fake is tied for dead last among 22 qualified quarterbacks, and both his YPA and completion percentage are actually worse when using play action. With Cousins struggling, Minnesota’s excellent wide receiver duo of Stefon Diggs and Thielen have failed to make much of an impact; the question now is what the Vikings plan to do with Cousins moving forward. He’s set to count $31 million against the cap next season on the final year of his fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract. Minnesota’s franchise trajectory was largely tied into its limited window with Cousins, and the team’s move toward this offensive approach was partially motivated by trying to get all it could from its expensive quarterback. Twenty games into his tenure in Minnesota, it seems like the experiment has failed.
4. Chase Daniel’s performance against Minnesota raises the question of whether the Bears offense is actually better off with the veteran backup under center. After Mitchell Trubisky went down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter of Sunday’s game, Daniel entered and went 22-of-30 for 195 yards and a touchdown in the Bears’ win. And while those numbers may not seem eye-popping, the offense generally ran smoother with him at the controls. With the way Chicago’s defense is currently playing, the Bears don’t need stellar play from their quarterback to emerge as a possible contender in the NFC. An offense that eats up time, consistently moves the chains, and doesn’t make back-breaking mistakes might be enough to get Chicago back to the playoffs—and Daniel showed he’s capable of doing all those things. During Matt Nagy’s tenure as the Bears’ play-caller and head coach, Chicago’s scheme has routinely created adequate separation for its receivers only to see inaccurate throws sabotage the game plan. Daniel may not have the physical skill set that Trubisky possesses, but he does have the ability to process quickly, get the ball to the correct receiver, and identify and tweak certain calls and protections. If Trubisky misses extended time with his injured shoulder, it’s possible that Chicago’s offense could actually improve over what we’ve seen so far this season.
5. Four games in, Lions cornerback Justin Coleman looks like one of the best free-agent finds of the offseason. The former Seahawks slot cornerback signed a four-year, $36 million deal (with $17.9 million guaranteed) with the Lions in March, and he’s been excellent so far this season. Coleman was all over the field in Detroit’s 34-30 loss to the Chiefs on Sunday. On a third-and-goal from Detroit’s 5-yard line early in the second quarter, Coleman lined up across from Sammy Watkins on the right side of the formation. Anticipating man coverage near the goal line, Kansas City ran a series of crossing routes designed to create traffic and pick Coleman off as Watkins weaved across the formation. But instead of getting clipped by another receiver, Coleman navigated through the bodies and managed to knock away the pass and force a Kansas City field goal. By the end of the game, Coleman added another pass breakup in the end zone and a beautiful forced fumble that would have made Peanut Tillman proud. The Lions likely woke up this morning feeling like they let one slip away against one of the best teams in the league, but Detroit looks poised to compete in the NFC all season. And bringing in a quality addition like Coleman is a big reason why.
6. By holding the Patriots to 16 points, the Bills had their own moral victory of sorts on Sunday—and this defense looks like it’ll keep Buffalo in plenty of games. Inconsistent play from Josh Allen and a late interception by Matt Barkley eventually cost the Bills Sunday against New England, but Buffalo’s front four controlled the game along the line of scrimmage, and the secondary was more than able to hold up their end of the bargain. Micah Hyde’s end zone interception in the second quarter was a perfect example of what makes this unit so effective. With the Patriots facing a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line late in the second quarter, New England motioned into a trips bunch set on the right. Even though the route combination was designed to exploit man coverage, the Bills deftly kept track of all three receivers on that side of the field and forced Tom Brady to extend the play by moving to his right out of the pocket. Rather than stick with wide receiver Jakobi Meyers near the pylon, Hyde read Brady’s eyes, fell off his receiver, and made an acrobatic leaping interception in the end zone. That combination of sound assignment football and smart risk-taking is what great defenses are made of.
7. The Browns bounced back in a big way in their 40-25 win over the Ravens on Sunday, and they did it by leaning on Nick Chubb. On a team with huge personalities like Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr., it’s easy to forget just how talented Chubb is. He finished with 165 yards on 20 carries on Sunday, and seemed to rip off a solid gain every time he got the ball. Chubb is one of only nine backs to handle at least 70 percent of his team’s offensive snaps so far this season, and he’s made the most of that workload. There are few—if any—backs in the league who marry Chubb’s size with his ability to create home run plays. On his game-clinching, 88-yard touchdown run against Baltimore, Chubb hit a speed of 21.95 miles per hour—the top number any ball carrier has hit this season. Chubb weighs 227 pounds. That is absolutely terrifying.
8. Luke Kuechly may be the star of the Panthers defense, but on Sunday, fellow linebacker Shaq Thompson was Carolina’s best defender. Thompson finished the team’s 16-10 win over the Texans with 12 tackles and was a consistent force against the run. Two specific plays convey just how many ways he impacted this game. On a second-and-12 midway through the first quarter, Thompson hit right guard Greg Mancz with a vicious club move directly after the snap, darted into the backfield, and dropped Deshaun Watson for a 7-yard loss. Later, with the Texans trailing 13-10 and facing a third-and-19 from their own 16-yard line, Houston sent running back Duke Johnson on a wheel route down the left sideline. But Thompson, the 230-pound linebacker, had no trouble checking Johnson 20 yards down the field and knocking the pass harmlessly to the turf. There may be more times during Cam Newton’s extended absence that the Panthers have to win ugly, and they proved on Sunday that they’re capable of doing just that.
9. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Khalil Mack is at it again. Mack has been absolutely ridiculous for Chicago this season. He’s already forced four fumbles and tallied 4.5 sacks in four games. It feels like he’s good for one turnover per game, and he provided another on Sunday. Mack’s ability to win with power makes it tempting to overlook just how flexible he can be around the edge. On this strip sack against the Vikings, Mack dips his shoulder to the point that left tackle Riley Reiff has nothing to block. His balance—which allowed him to keep his feet while bending that far—combined with the explosion to finish off the play is part of what makes him such a special player.
10. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us, Part 1: Jadeveon Clowney somehow tracks a deflected pass, corrals it with one hand, and teleports 25 yards in the end zone.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us, Part 2: How Travis Kelce thought to do this mid-play will never make sense to me.