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The NFL Regular Season Matters. But in a Different Way Than It Used To.

Yes, the opening seven weeks of the 2022 season have been some of the messiest in recent memory. But in this edition of the NFL, there’s no need for panic—unless, maybe, you’re the Denver Broncos.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Panicking is every sports fan’s god-given right, and I will not stand in the way of it. It feels good—cathartic, even—to send a 4:10 p.m. ET text on Sunday wondering whether Jordan Love needs a look, or floating a newfound appreciation for late-stage Ben Roethlisberger, or spitballing that maybe Drew Lock got a raw deal in Denver. It doesn’t matter if any of this is true; it feels real and necessary in the moment, the sports equivalent of swearing off drinking when you wake up with a hangover. So by all means, panic away. But I will, however, let you know that no season in the history of modern football has been cause for less panic than this one.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether anything matters. Not in a grim, existential way—although by now we’ve all watched enough of the Broncos to question everything about life—but in a purely football way. Does what we’re seeing mean anything? Are the rock bottoms a handful of teams have hit significant in the big picture of the season? How should we process a 3-4 Packers team that literally could not convert a single third down last week? What about a 3-4 Bucs team that can’t score a touchdown? Or either of those teams’ defenses, who got outdueled by two former XFL quarterbacks?

A few things to remember: Last year, the Bills had a 3-5 midseason stretch, the Chiefs started 3-4, and the Rams lost three in a row in November. All of those teams corrected themselves to the point that you may not remember any of their crises. The addition of a seventh playoff spot and extra postseason game in each conference, along with the elimination of one bye, means the regular season, and by extension these types of lulls, matters less. The fear of being shut out of January is lessened. The difference between being the second and third seed is negligible, compared to when the reward for the no. 2 seed was an extra week of rest. And an additional regular-season game might force teams to take a more long-term view of injuries. The NFL will never plunge into NBA-style load management, but it can load-manage in other ways: more rotation of non-quarterbacks (look at how the Bills and Rams have managed Von Miller’s snaps over the past two seasons), or calling plays with bodily wear and tear in mind (using fewer designed quarterback runs, for instance).

All of this is anecdotal for now—these factors are very new to the sport—but it is only common sense. When there is less at stake, teams can afford to play like it. Even the crises themselves are not all that dramatic: For all their trouble, the Bucs lead the NFC South. The 3-3 Rams hold the last NFC wild-card spot. The Chargers, off to a disjointed 4-3 start, have the no. 7 seed in the AFC. There is no need to panic because the NFL has built a machine in which even panicked teams can recover quickly.

According to the league, this season has featured the most one-score games in the fourth quarter (84) through seven weeks in NFL history. The Giants are the first team in 22 years to get off to a 6-1 start despite playing exclusively in one-score games. (Giants fans, incidentally, don’t give a damn about the close games, nor should they: Brian Daboll looks like a badass and an elite game manager, and everyone is having a great time.) There have been 34 fourth-quarter comebacks, tied for the most in history. The average margin of victory is the lowest at this point of the season since 1970. So one way to look at this is as a messy group of teams all trying to find themselves; their wins and losses are governed more by luck than any other factor. The alternative is to look at the raw footage of the past seven weeks and see it as a bunch of teams that look like absolute crap with no solutions in sight. The truth is probably in the middle.

“It just seems like there are a lot of people in transition with their team,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley told Yahoo Sports this week. “That’s why I talk about the ‘discovery’ phase. I don’t use that as a coaching phrase to make it feel better, I think it’s descriptive of what’s actually happening. … Once these groups join up and they get their quote unquote ‘identity,’ then you’ll see it.”

The Yahoo piece, by Jori Epstein, cuts to the heart of why it’s been such a weird year: Scoring is at its lowest level since 2009, which was two years before the start of an unprecedented passing boom, and aesthetically appealing plays (good and deep passes) are nowhere to be found. According to FiveThirtyEight, quarterbacks are throwing deep less often than at any point in the past 15 seasons. But that continues a trend that started in 2016, a stretch that includes the highest-scoring season of all time two years ago. Which is easier to believe: That a decade of offensive progress reversed itself overnight? Or that this is a blip on the radar screen?

The most charitable interpretation for a handful of teams is that they are starting slow by design—not losing by design, of course, but knowing that January is far away. In August, Sean McVay told me he believes the NFL playoffs are the closest thing to March Madness—in which the best team doesn’t always win, just the team that plays better for those three hours. (McVay has shared this philosophy with Packers coach Matt LaFleur, both men told me.) Last postseason, three of the four road teams won in the divisional round. The Bengals beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead in the AFC championship. The 49ers almost topped the Rams—who were a 4-seed to begin with—in L.A. This is not to say anything other than there’s a proof of concept that using the regular season as a sandbox to figure out who you are is fine.

Here’s my best guess at what is happening: Staley is more or less correct. A lot of teams are missing their identities and will eventually uncover them. I’ll add in here that in most of these cases, the idea that there’s time to find identities is baked in. This isn’t college football. You can have a bad month. Add in less practice time and reduced preseason game time for starters (which is now in vogue for many top teams) and, well, somehow September has become the new training camp, and October hasn’t been much different. To take it further: There were more high-profile trades and spreading of talent this offseason than at any time in recent memory. Aaron Rodgers lost Davante Adams, who went to a team with less talent and a new coaching staff. The Chiefs lost Tyreek Hill and took a few weeks to find out where his targets would go. Russell Wilson has stumbled with a new coaching staff, and the Seahawks—while a legitimate NFC West contender—are not a Super Bowl threat. The Rams’ offensive line woes are worse than anyone thought they’d be. The Niners’ injuries have left them shorthanded. Rodgers and Tom Brady are just off for different reasons—in Rodgers’s case, his ability to develop any chemistry with his new receivers has been limited and he’s just missing downfield throws. Even so, Packers writers were quick to point out after the team’s loss to the Commanders on Sunday that Rodgers’s 2016 team fell to 4-6 in the same stadium and proceeded to run the table and make the NFC title game.

We are witnessing a league of incomplete teams. The teams that have dominated thus far—the Bills and Eagles—returned an intact core and added talent around that core in the offseason. They are not in flux and are surrounded by a league that is.

And while it is reductive to say the regular season does not matter, huge swaths of it do not. Currently, Daniel Jones has similar numbers to Justin Herbert. As my colleague Steven Ruiz points out, Jones had a higher PFF grade than Patrick Mahomes this time last year. The numbers back then were wild:

We know why that particular blip happened: Defenses used two-high safety looks to put a lid on the Chiefs’ deep passes, and Mahomes took a while to embrace making easier throws. Something similar happened this year with the Bengals, whose deep passing game didn’t look fully formed until last week, when Joe Burrow threw for 481 yards against the Falcons.

The simplest explanation is usually the correct one: This is a league in which a handful of the best teams are undergoing identity crises. This does not mean all of them will get better, nor does it mean the teams that are winning now will stop. It just means the league will look very different in December.

The NFL has been talking about parity since its inception—and even more so when the salary cap was introduced in the 1990s—but this is the real thing. There is no parity when good teams carry over the same ingredients across a handful of years. One thing good teams have always known is there is time to fix anything. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in the “On to Cincinnati” year. The Eagles looked dead in the water after the Carson Wentz injury in 2017, the year Wentz looked like an MVP candidate (seriously, ask your parents). There is always time. The Packers have massive problems, yes, but none that can’t be solved by Aaron Rodgers returning to even 90 percent of his usual form. The Bucs look hopeless and lost, but they looked just as clueless in spurts during their Super Bowl season.

This month has mattered. It has shown the warts of teams. It has shown that the Jets have legit superstars, such as rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner. It has also shown that there’s plenty of time. (Well, unless you’re the Broncos.) Don’t panic. But go ahead and send that text anyway. It’ll make you feel better.