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This Week in Football – Assessing the NFL a quarter of the way through the season

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They say that you know what a baseball team is through 40 games in a season, or approximately after a quarter of the year’s games. That same concept couldn’t be less applicable to this NFL season.

The league’s only constant over the past two decades is the New England Patriots. Their domination is an accepted fact of life, so it’s wholly unsurprising that they are once again a clear-cut favorite to win the AFC. Outside of Foxborough, though, even the most likely Super Bowl contenders have more questions than answers through four weeks.

Kansas City is the next closest team to a sure thing and is another AFC favorite, but even that group has questions. They’re all on one side of the ball, given how absurd the offense usually is (more on that later), but if the defense can’t grow into defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme it could easily be another lost season.

The rest of the AFC is uninspiring, to say the least. Baltimore looked frightening coming out of the gates but has lost two straight including a rough performance against the Cleveland Browns. Speaking of the fighting Baker Mayfields, they haven’t shown any semblance of consistency yet but lived up to their unsustainable hype in Week 4 without getting any real production from Odell Beckham Jr.

The South is a mess, the West is a clown show behind the Chiefs, the North is filled with question marks and the East is still owned by the Patriots. Every team that has a playoff shot in the AFC, save for two (and not even the entirety of both) has a lot to prove before we know how good they actually are.

Then there’s the NFC, the conference of actual parity, in which even the top teams are largely unproven. Dallas seemed like a whole new franchise through three games, with the defense clicking and the Kellen Moore-coached offense operating so efficiently that even Dak Prescott looked elite. Then they played a dreadful game against Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints.

The Green Bay Packers had a top-three defense through three weeks, a bizarre twist given recent history, and that carried the team to a 3-0 start while Aaron Rodgers and the offense struggled to get adjusted to coach Matt LaFleur’s scheme. Then the roles completely flipped, with Rodgers throwing for over 400 yards and the defense melting down in a home loss to Philadelphia.

Speaking of the Eagles, it’s impossible to know which version of the birds will show up week by week. One week they’re choking against the Falcons or Lions, the next they’re picking up a huge road win in Green Bay. At least they have injuries to use as an excuse.

Run up and down the NFC standings and you can find a fatal flaw for every team that has playoff hopes or Super Bowl aspirations. The Bears have the best defense in the league and one of the worst quarterbacks. The Vikings somehow have even worse quarterback play than the Bears. The Rams look like a paper tiger who just gave up 55 points in a game to a team that had 68 points through their first three weeks.

Without wanting to look like a prisoner of the moment, it’s reasonable to feel like this season has more unanswered questions through a quarter of the year than seasons past. And it’s been a unique campaign so far, with key quarterback injuries, new schemes for contending teams and a group of franchises that are an affront to the sport (you can guess which ones).

This is partly what makes the NFL such a great product year after year. Yes, the on-field product itself has deservedly come under fire for several years now for myriad reasons, most recently the consistent proof that the officiating crews have no idea what they’re actually supposed to be ruling. However, the concept of “any given Sunday” is particularly applicable in 2019, which is going to make the remaining 13 weeks of this season must-watch TV, save for the occasional Monday night sludge factory like Steelers-Bengals.

The Patriots are what they’ve been for 20 years, we can accept that. The Chiefs will score a lot of points, that’s a guarantee. The Redskins, Dolphins and Broncos are a collective tire fire. Beyond that, we still have little to no idea what most of the league’s contending teams are or can be.

At this rate, we’ll be past the halfway point of the season before we can start to weed out the real contenders from the pretenders.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*The NFL didn’t go far enough with Vontaze Burfict. That may sound like overkill, given the fact he’s done for the rest of the season with his latest suspension, but he doesn’t belong in the game any longer. The kind of head hunting and malicious intent Burfict has built his game on doesn’t have a place in football today. That’s not soft, that’s not weak, that’s exactly what the NFL and football organizations around the country are trying to legislate out to keep the game thriving for years to come. Burfict has demonstrated time after time that he has no regard for any other player on the field and that’s not acceptable. This is a trend. It was a trend when he took a cheap shot at Antonio Brown last year, when he twisted Cam Newton’s ankle and when he tried to behead Jack Doyle this weekend. A year-long ban isn’t enough. The fact that the Raiders made him a captain this season is an embarrassment.

*It’s time for the Minnesota Vikings to start looking higher up on the food chain to determine what the root of their problems is. Kirk Cousins has been dreadful this year, ranking 32nd out of 33 quarterbacks in ESPN’s QBR metric. You need a quarterback who performs better than that, but Cousins doesn’t deserve all the blame for Minnesota’s disappointing start to the year and aimless trajectory.

The Vikings’ offensive line is still terrible. The Bears make most opposing offenses look bad, but the pass protection is as bad as ever and the run game, the only thing Minnesota’s offense can do right, was useless in Week 4. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired midway through last season when the offense was struggling, only for it to be even worse this year. DeFilippo, meanwhile, is now the offensive coordinator in Jacksonville, where a sixth-round pick who wears headbands and jean shorts is the most exciting quarterback in the league today. The Vikings need introspection. Why is the offensive line still terrible? Why can’t the coach find an offensive coordinator that actually makes the team better? General manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer don’t face enough tough questioning for Minnesota’s string of blown opportunities and uncertain playoff chances for a second straight year.

*Jared Goff needs to get it figured out. The Rams’ quarterback put up the emptiest 500-yard performance of all time this weekend in a 55-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On one hand, it’s ludicrous to need more than 40 points to beat the Buccaneers and the Rams’ defense needs to be critiqued for that. But this isn’t the first time Goff has struggled in a big moment (you may have heard of Super Bowl 53). He turned the ball over four times on Sunday, three interceptions and a lost fumble (The Ringer covered his fumbling problems and potentially problematic hand size this week). There are reasonable excuses for all of Los Angeles’ offensive faults beyond Goff’s play. The offensive line hasn’t played well, coach Sean McVay has taken on a lot of criticism for his game management and Todd Gurley, the highest-paid running back in the league, can’t be trusted to carry the load for the offense. All of these things are valid, but at some point you need your quarterback to be able to go out and win a game for you. Goff still hasn’t proven that he can do that, and the time for him to develop that intangible skill is evaporating quickly.

*The Detroit Lions did something that almost no other teams have been able to do in the last one and one quarter seasons: They frustrated Patrick Mahomes. The MVP wasn’t terrible by any means in a Week 4 win over Detroit, but 315 passing yards on 42 attempts with no touchdowns is far below his lofty standards. Based on the eye test alone, it was also clear that Mahomes and his receivers weren’t on the same page constantly, which is patently bizarre for the Andy Reid offensive machine. The Lions shadowed the Chiefs’ receivers all game, which could have played a role. But for a team without its top cornerback available forcing the best quarterback in the league into his worst game in a year is an impressive feat and could potentially be a blueprint for stopping Kansas City (probably not, but anything is possible).

JADEVEON CLOWNEY DID WHAT THIS WEEK?

Jadeveon Clowney showed off that he’s still one of the NFL’s best athletes this week.

Clowney always looks like he could take over a game, but he never does. He’s a physical specimen regardless, and plays like this are why Seattle was willing to trade for him (and barely had to give anything up in said trade). Men that large should not be able to move like that.

By the way, if you’ve never seen Clowney’s high school highlight tape, do yourself a favor and watch it.

FOOTBALL FOLLIES

Andy Reid is both one of the best coaches in the game and is one of its lowkey funniest guys. He unintentionally lived up to that moniker while celebrating the Chiefs’ victory over the Lions.

Was he thinking of Monet? Did he just throw any random artist out there on the off chance they had painted before? It doesn’t matter, this is hysterical either way. When you’re winning you can get away with anything. The earnestness with which he exclaims it makes the whole video; he was so fired up and just had to blurt out some analogy to painting. It’s an iconic moment for the franchise.

WEEKLY TOP 5: TRADE PIECES THAT SHOULD BE MADE AVAILABLE

The later trade deadline, instituted a couple years back, has led to more exciting player movement midway through the season than we were used to for years with the NFL. With so many teams tanking this year, whether intentionally or not, there are plenty of talented players who could be moved for draft capital.

  1. Any Miami Dolphin – Miami has already shown a willingness to move talented players, and there are a handful more it could deal in its quest to have the worst roster of all time. Cornerback Xavien Howard, wide receiver Devante Parker and running back Kenyan Drake will all get looks from contending teams (Howard would net the biggest return).
  2. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals – Green has dealt with injury troubles for several years in a row and still hasn’t played a snap this year. That drops his cost, which should only make a receiver with his talent on an expiring contract even more enticing. When healthy he’s still one of the best in the game.
  3. Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals – The Kansas City Chiefs have been tied to Peterson for a full year now, and while they were previously rebuffed you have to imagine he’s a tempting trade candidate once again. He hasn’t played this year either due to suspension, and his value will probably never be higher than when he’s at 100% health like right now.
  4. Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos – Another cornerback, this time it’s the best slot corner in the game. While he “clarified” his seemingly scathing comments after the most recent Broncos loss on Monday, he’s still wasting away on a terrible Denver team. He’s another player on an expiring deal, and at a premium position he should net plenty of interest.
  5. Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos – Another Bronco and another receiver on the list, Sanders is healthy again and would be a stellar No. 2 option for a team that needs a reliable pass catcher. He’s not as fast as he once was, but he’s still got sure hands and is a quality route runner. Teams like Green Bay, New England and possible even New Orleans and Seattle could use another target like Sanders.

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