We are halfway through the NFL’s regular season, which is a perfect time to check in on the league’s award races. But we’re not going to do that today. Mainly because those races aren’t all that competitive this season. Here, I’ll spoil most of them for you: Patrick Mahomes is the clear MVP to anyone outside of Philadelphia or Miami. Tyreek Hill is the Offensive Player of the Year, and Micah Parsons gets the defensive award. Barring a complete meltdown, Geno Smith should have Comeback Player of the Year on lock. Sauce Gardner is the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Chris Olave looks destined to take home the offensive honors. There are some more competitive races for coaches and executives, but I’m not going to waste your time arguing about people who wear slacks on game days.
So instead of handing out those tired titles, I’ve made up a bunch of fake ones to honor (or dishonor, in some cases) the players and coaches who have shaped the first half of a fascinating NFL season.
Most Likely to Finish the Season As QB1: Patrick Mahomes
It’s over. There are no more debates or arguments left to be had. Patrick Mahomes is the NFL’s best quarterback, and until Josh Allen can eliminate all of the silliness—namely, the inexplicable interceptions and increasing rate of off-target passes—from his game, there isn’t another in his league. Sure, there are a handful of passers who can go toe to toe with Mahomes in a single game. We saw Allen outplay him earlier this season in a Buffalo win. And Justin Herbert arguably had a better game when they squared off in Week 2. But do you know why I can rattle off instances of Mahomes being outplayed in specific situations? It’s because they don’t happen often! You can always bank on him to show up on a big stage.
We saw it on Sunday night against a Titans defense that was so locked in you could have told me Mike Vrabel had tapped into Andy Reid’s headset and I would have believed you. Didn’t matter, though. In the end, Mahomes was able to improvise his way to a game-tying drive before putting it away in overtime.
This season, Mahomes has taken another step. Without Hill taking the top off defenses, the Chiefs have had to spread their passing game out horizontally. We’re seeing receivers run more challenging routes on the backside of concepts, and Mahomes is hitting them with regularity. He’s had to be more methodical, as evidenced by a career-low sack rate, while facing the highest rate of pressure of his career. It hasn’t mattered! The Chiefs offense leads the NFL in EPA per play. Mahomes ranks second among quarterbacks in that same stat, third in success rate, and fourth in yards per dropback, according to TruMedia. But where he really separates himself from the rest of the pack is in obvious passing situations—when playing quarterback is most challenging.
Mahomes is doing this with just ONE target the defense has to worry about in those situations, and it’s a tight end—maybe the best tight end in the league, but still!
While we’re putting an end to the QB1 debate, we can probably wrap up the MVP discussion, too. No matter how bored voters are of heaping praise on the Chiefs quarterback, there isn’t another passer doing the heavy lifting for his offense quite like Mahomes. Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts are winning lots of games, but they have the most support in the league. If you forced their front offices to choose between their two top receivers and the guy throwing them the ball … they’re taking the receivers. That’s not happening in Kansas City. Allen, who was right there with Mahomes in the MVP race before Sunday, has had to carry more of the load for Buffalo, but he’s had a hard time doing that while playing mistake-free ball.
So much of the Chiefs’ offensive success this season has been predicated on the quarterback’s ability to make any throw to any part of the field at any given time—and he’s been able to do just that. Mahomes’s performance this season has been truly exceptional.
The MVP If It Wasn’t Just a “Best QB” Award: Tyreek Hill
God, we’re so stupid. I’m talking about those of us who spent the offseason debating who would be most affected by the Hill trade, Mahomes or his former WR1. The answer after nine weeks: Neither! Both players have somehow enjoyed a post-relationship glow-up. Sure, there are undoubtedly times when these two miss each other: As we covered in the previous section, Mahomes’s degree of difficulty this season has been awfully high, and Hill’s record-setting start to his career in Miami would be even more impressive if Tagovailoa wasn’t throwing him pop flies every time he gets open deep:
Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle running vertical together is quite the sight pic.twitter.com/aZMFOMeMBQ— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) November 3, 2022
But Hill is currently on pace to finish with over 2,000 receiving yards this season, and if he does, he should garner at least one MVP vote—which is an accomplishment on its own. There has been just one MVP vote cast for a receiver since Randy Moss got four of them in 1998, and that was for Cooper Kupp last year. If Hill can manage more than one, I say we just give him his own MVP trophy.
Hill’s presence, along with the arrival of Mike McDaniel, has elevated this entire Dolphins offense. It’s all built around speed and Hill’s ability to make highly difficult downfield catches, sometimes in traffic. That has opened up tons of space for the other receivers on the roster. And now that we’re seeing defenses adjust—and back off in coverage—the pockets are getting wider for Tua, the rushing lanes are bigger for the backs, and there always seems to be a gigantic void in the intermediate area of the field. Defenses have been forced to almost exclusively play zone—which leaves exploitable holes in coverage—against this team because Hill (or Jaylen Waddle when the defense sends a double-team at no. 10) burns them any time they dare to play man.
I’m not old enough to know what Rice was like at the peak of his powers, but I’ve seen plenty of historic receiver seasons in my lifetime: Steve Smith winning the receiving triple crown and dragging a bad Panthers offense to the NFC title game; Randy Moss scoring 23 touchdowns in a 16-game campaign; Calvin Johnson earning the receiving-yardage record; Marvin Harrison setting the record for receptions, and Michael Thomas breaking it. But I have never seen anything like what we’re seeing out of Hill in 2022.
The Football-Related Hashtag That’s Aged the Worst This Year: #LetRussCook
OK, so this may be a terribly forced category, but like seemingly every former teammate of Russell Wilson, I’m gonna get this slander off no matter what. And that’s been much easier to do with Wilson sandwiched in between Jared Goff and Cooper Rush at 21st on the league’s EPA leaderboard while the Broncos passing game came into the week ranked 24th in DVOA. That’s worse than the team’s 2021 passing game led by Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. It’s a bad look for everyone involved, but especially Russ after Denver essentially gave him the keys to the offense and allowed him to shape it to his liking.
Really, though, this is bigger than Russ and his capacity to lead a pass-first offense, something he had clamored for in Seattle over the last few years of his time there. The Seahawks famously acquiesced to that request in 2020, and after a hot start to the season, with the offense leading the NFL in “pass rate over expected” on early downs, everything fell apart. It’s the sort of offense where defenses don’t have to worry about the run—instead they can drop a second safety back in coverage. And as we’ve seen across the league, where early-down pass rates have been on the rise for over a decade now, dealing with those coverages isn’t an issue for only Russ. The NFL as a whole is struggling to deal with this new defensive agenda. Passing numbers, and offensive production in general, are down. And speaking more anecdotally, the football just seems … worse. I appreciate a quarterback dissecting a defense one 8-yard gain at a time, but I don’t want to watch it for 60 minutes. Football is at its best when teams are chucking it downfield and just hoping for the best, but with defenses selling out to prevent explosive plays in the passing game, that just isn’t a viable strategy for even the best quarterbacks in the league.
We’ve seen Wilson put that theory to the test—he’s still launching those moonballs downfield with little success to show for it—which has sort of been the problem in Denver. Well, that along with his remarkable ability to completely ignore the middle of the field.
Does Russell throw over the middle update. pic.twitter.com/JcHiNmLyby— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) November 2, 2022
To be fair, Wilson hasn’t gotten much help from his rookie head coach, Nathaniel Hackett, a man who once said the (made up) word “tugalicious” without a hint of shame:
Hackett’s game-day performance has somehow been even more embarrassing than his vocabulary. We’ve seen him make several costly mistakes in high-leverage situations—including the Week 1 disaster class at the end of the Seattle loss—commit several time management gaffes, and use personnel bizarrely to craft a completely ineffective running game. So I’m not ready to label the Wilson trade (and subsequent extension) a complete bust just yet—I want to see him play under a more competent head coach before then. But we can end #LetRussCook once and for all.
The Least “Washed” Coach: Pete Carroll
TALK YOUR SHIT, PETE.
Maybe the coach who has won championships at the two highest levels of football knows what he’s doing after all. The Seahawks were viewed as one of the worst teams in the league heading into the season after losing their star quarterback and the last remnant of the Legion of Boom era in Bobby Wagner. With no clear replacement for Russ on the roster and a terribly inexperienced defensive roster, the pessimism made sense. But after a comprehensive win over the Cardinals in Arizona on Sunday, the Seahawks look destined to host a home playoff game in January.
While most of the attention has been fixed on Geno Smith’s star turn and the offense, Carroll has quietly righted a Seattle defense that had gotten off to a nightmarish start. The NFL’s oldest head coach made a small but significant tweak to the Seahawks defensive front in Week 6: altering alignments to allow this group to play more aggressively. That, along with improvement by a young secondary that is developing rapidly, has sparked this turnaround. Since Week 6, Seattle ranks second in EPA per play allowed and first in success rate, according to RBSDM.com, and opponents have managed just 16.5 points per game.
We should also steer some credit toward the other half of Seattle’s brain trust, general manager John Schneider. The veteran GM needed a big offseason to avoid the hot seat and he turned in a perfect one. Every big swing he took left the park, including the Russ trade, the cheap Geno extension, the Uchenna Nwosu signing, and basically every draft pick he made in April.
I’ve been hard on Seahawks GM John Schneider in the past…but he absolutely bodied this offseason. pic.twitter.com/cot8imAusf— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) October 27, 2022
It’s been a banner year for Carroll and Schneider, a duo Seattle fans were ready to run out of town after they dealt Wilson. And the work they’ve done should set up the Seahawks to contend for a playoff spot for the next few years. We’ve seen many other teams try and fail to sustain success after losing their forever QBs—New England, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh, to name a few—but it appears Seattle will avoid a similar fate.
New Top-10 Quarterback Dropped: Geno Smith
And now it’s my turn: TALK YOUR SHIT, STEVEN.
OK, I’d be lying if I said I expected Smith to do [gestures at every relevant metric] this, even if I was one of like three Geno supporters in existence before this season kicked off. I had him ranked as the 22nd-best quarterback in the league in my preseason QB rankings, which got plenty of pushback from the nonbelievers. But it turns out I was actually way too low on the 32-year-old. My optimism was based on his pocket presence, arm talent, and field vision, all of which have been on full display this season. But I didn’t expect him to be as accurate as he has, or to have such a strong command of the offense presnap—at least a few times a game, we’ve seen Geno call an audible at the line before the offense rips off a big gain—or to see his arm be this incredible. I mean, this isn’t the case of a quarterback taking advantage of wide open receivers; Geno is throwing his receivers open and consistently testing the tightest of windows:
You can continue to question how sustainable this all is, but there is nothing fake about Smith’s production. His film is actually more impressive than the numbers, as Seattle’s receivers have picked some unfortunate times to forget how to catch a football. Geno’s had only five of his passes dropped, which ranks near the bottom of the league, but his aDOT (13.2) on those plays ranks second behind only Derek Carr among full-time starters, according to TruMedia, so his receivers have left a lot of yardage (and a few touchdowns) on the field.
The numbers also suggest that Geno’s production is of the highest quality. Per Next Gen Stats’s “passing score” metric, which uses player tracking and other relevant data points to measure the quality of a quarterback’s performance, he’s been the third-best passer in the NFL this season. Sunday’s win over the Cardinals was another well-rounded display for the favorite to win the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
Geno Smith completed 19 of 25 passes for 221 yards & 2 TD (+10.9% CPOE) when holding onto the ball for 2.5+ seconds in Week 9.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 7, 2022
Smith, 2.5+ seconds (2022):
12 TD (1st)
+7.9% CPOE (1st)
98 NGS passing score (3rd)#SEAvsAZ | #Seahawks pic.twitter.com/cZenrGYAMc
The Most Anonymous Coach-of-the-Year Candidate Ever: Kevin O’Connell
I don’t think I’ve heard Kevin O’Connell speak. I couldn’t even pick him out of a lineup, and I cover this sport for a living. Even so, the rookie head coach has the Vikings sitting at 7-1 and five games clear of the Packers in the NFC North standings. Typically when a young coach has this kind of success—especially when he fits the “young offensive mind” archetype—the hype is unrelenting. But for whatever reason, O’Connell hasn’t gotten that attention yet. Maybe it’s coming this week, after Minnesota eked out another close win. Or maybe the football-watching public is holding off because the underlying numbers suggest this Vikings team is closer to mediocre than elite.
But before this house of cards inevitably comes crashing down—probably in the most devastating way possible because Minnesota sports fans will never know happiness—let’s give O’Connell some credit for propping up the reputation of Sean McVay’s coaching tree this season. It hasn’t been pretty for former McVay assistants elsewhere across the league—Zac Taylor is still holding back the loaded Bengals offense, Brandon Staley might already be out of a job if not for Justin Herbert, and even Matt LaFleur is struggling to keep the Packers offense together—but O’Connell just keeps stacking wins.
The Most Blatant Waste of Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald: Raheem Morris
Aaron Donald has finally met his match. It’s not some dominant offensive lineman or an innovative protection call that has slowed the greatest defensive player of our generation, though: It’s a cowardly approach to defense from Rams coordinator Raheem Morris.
Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but no team plays softer in the secondary than the Rams have this season, according to Next Gen Stats:
Opposing offenses have taken advantage of the cushion that the Rams defense gives receivers this season.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 7, 2022
Rams Defense (2022):
Average Cushion: 7.9 yards (most)
Time to Throw: 2.43 seconds (quickest)
Pressure Rate: 20.1% (lowest)#LARvsTB | #RamsHouse pic.twitter.com/SI2dYxyNXW
And while that strategy has stopped opponents from pushing the ball downfield, it has also surrendered the underneath areas to the point where quarterbacks aren’t holding the ball long enough for Donald to get home. This wouldn’t be nearly as frustrating if the Rams didn’t employ the most physical, and talented, cornerback of the past decade. But in Jalen Ramsey, Morris has a player capable of manning up any type of receiver Los Angeles might come up against—and he just doesn’t take advantage of that. That was particularly troublesome when watching Tom Brady tear up the Rams’ quarters coverage on his way to another game-winning drive on Sunday.
The Rams’ defensive results have been mostly fine this season. But with an offense that can’t move the ball at all right now, the defense needs to lean into a more chaotic approach to create turnovers. Only four teams have generated fewer takeaways this season. That’s unacceptable for a unit that features two of the most disruptive defenders this league has ever seen, and it can be directly linked to Morris’s conservative coverage.
The Worst Attempt at Recreating the TB12 Method: Aaron Rodgers
I don’t think Aaron Rodgers is completely washed up. There are still about five plays a game when he shows he has plenty left in the tank, including this fourth-down conversion on Sunday that kept Green Bay alive in what would ultimately be a loss to the hapless Lions. But even though Rodgers isn’t completely cooked, it’s clear that he has taken a step back. And if the Packers take his advice and start cutting reps for players who are making mistakes, he should lose a few snaps himself.
Maybe we should have expected this, with Rodgers inching closer to 40 and coming off an offseason in which he lost his top receiver while he was off tripping on ayahuasca and spending way too much time with Miles Teller. (Any amount of time spent with Miles Teller is too much, in case you’re wondering.) But this season has not only eliminated any chance Rodgers has of gaining ground on Brady in terms of legacy, it has also proved once and for all that avocado ice cream >>>>> a Panchakarma cleanse. I’ll let you Google that one on your own.
The Best Impression of 2019 Josh Allen: Josh Allen
This is kind of unfair to the rest of the field vying for this illustrious title, but Charlie Chaplin famously once lost a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, so it’s not like Josh Allen didn’t have to earn it. And boy, has he earned it over the last five quarters of football, in which he threw four of the worst picks I’ve ever seen. The two he threw in a Week 8 win over Green Bay proved inconsequential, but he did not get off so easily in Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the Jets.
I don’t know how to justify this:
Those might have been the most accurate passes Allen threw all game. At least among the ones that were caught. I’m looking at you, Gabe Davis. Outside of the two unsightly picks, Allen was inaccurate and indecisive. His off-target throw rate of 17.6 percent was the ninth-worst of the week across the NFL and the worst of his season to date. As Allen readily admitted in his postgame presser, he cost Buffalo a win and sole possession of the AFC’s top seed.
This is a far cry from what we saw out of the Bills star over the first month and a half of the season, when it seemed he had eliminated all of the mind-numbing mistakes that led to his disjointed 2021 campaign. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Given the highs we know Allen is capable of reaching, this doesn’t lower the ceiling on this Bills team that is still favored to win it all—but it does create new questions about the team’s floor.