No one should be surprised that the 49ers are thriving again on offense. Same with the Dolphins, Bills, Cowboys, Eagles, and Chiefs. They have terrific quarterbacks, elite playmakers, and seasoned offensive coaches.
But there have been a few offensive surprises through the first four weeks of the NFL season. Four teams are excelling with unheralded offensive coordinators who probably don’t get noticed too often in public.
Let’s shine a spotlight on the young offensive coordinators who are thriving, in no particular order:
▪ Bobby Slowik, Texans. Another blossom from Mike/Kyle Shanahan’s coaching tree. Slowik, 36, got his first NFL job with the Shanahans in Washington from 2011-13, and followed Kyle to San Francisco in 2017 (after a three-year stint as an analyst with Pro Football Focus). Slowik was promoted as 49ers passing game coordinator the past two seasons.
Leaving for Houston with fellow former 49ers coach DeMeco Ryans, Slowik has done a fantastic job with rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and a young Texans offense. The Texans won just three games all last season but are 2-2 with blowout wins over the Jaguars and Steelers the last two weeks, scoring 37 and 30 points.
Stroud, the No. 2 overall draft pick in April, isn’t playing like a rookie. He is fifth in passing yards (1,212), third in yards per attempt (8.03), and leads all quarterbacks in passes of 25-plus yards (12). Stroud also is one of three starting quarterbacks to have not thrown an interception through the first four games, with Stroud’s 151 pass attempts the most of the three.
Young receivers Nico Collins (428 yards, three touchdowns) and Tank Dell (267 yards, two touchdowns) are also thriving. And last week, Slowik dialed up the perfect trick play — a halfback pass in the red zone that went for a touchdown.
“Bobby has done a great job of just scheming and understanding the players and what can they do well,” Ryans said. “And they see when they do what’s asked of them, we can make plays.”
▪ Dave Canales, Buccaneers. He’s a career Pete Carroll acolyte, first working for him at Southern Cal in 2009 and joining Carroll a year later in Seattle. Canales, 42, was the Seahawks’ receivers coach for eight years before moving to quarterbacks and the passing game in 2018. This is his first season as the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator.
The Buccaneers haven’t been overly explosive, and they still can’t run the ball (a league-worst 3.0 yards per carry). But they are 3-1 and certainly are much better than most people expected with journeyman Baker Mayfield under center. They are 20th in points (21 per game), up from 25th last year with Tom Brady (18.4 per game).
Mayfield also has been unexpectedly efficient. He is eighth in the NFL with a 69.6 completion percentage, up from 60.0 last year and 61.8 for his career. Mayfield has been safe with the football with just two interceptions (against seven touchdown passes). The Buccaneers are fifth on third-down conversions (47 percent). And the offensive line has been fantastic, allowing just four sacks.
Mayfield and his teammates love Canales’s positive energy.
“That mind-set to give it absolute 100 percent each time, it’s refreshing,” Mayfield said. “He’s so fresh, and that mind-set is awesome.”
▪ Drew Petzing, Cardinals. The 36-year-old, first-time offensive coordinator is a local guy — a graduate of Wellesley High and Middlebury College, and a coach at Boston College (2010-11), Harvard, and Yale before cracking the NFL in 2013. Petzing spent 10 years coaching receivers, quarterbacks, and tight ends for the Vikings and Browns before getting the Cardinals’ job this past offseason.
Though the Cardinals are just 1-3, they have been peskier than anticipated, with two close losses and a surprise win over the Cowboys. And Petzing is doing a masterful job.
The team stats are decent — the Cardinals are 18th in points (22 per game), 12th in yards, 10th on third down, and 11th in the red zone. But they’re doing it with Josh Dobbs, who is on his eighth NFL team in seven seasons and had just two career starts before this year. And it’s not like Dobbs had all offseason to prepare. The Cardinals traded for him on Aug. 24 and crammed for two weeks to get him ready for Week 1.
Under Petzing’s guidance, Dobbs is 10th in the NFL in passer rating (99.4), seventh in completion percentage (70.7), and is one of three starting quarterbacks not to have thrown an interception. It’s one of the most startling performances of the young season. Kyler Murray can take all the time he needs in coming back from his knee injury.
“There’s a ton of communication between myself and Drew throughout the week,” Dobbs said. “He does a great job of getting insight from players. Not only myself, but other guys on the team of, ‘Hey, what routes do you like? How can we position you differently to get the ball in your hands?’ And stuff like that.”
▪ Shane Waldron, Seahawks. Another guy with local ties — Waldron played at Tufts, spent five years as a coach and operations assistant with the Patriots (2002-04 and 2008-09), and coached at UMass and Buckingham, Brown & Nichols School between 2011-15. Waldron, in his third year as Seahawks’ offensive coordinator, was largely responsible for Geno Smith’s surprise renaissance last year, and this year Waldron and Smith are proving that last year was no fluke.
The Seahawks are sixth in the NFL in points (27.8 per game), lead with just one turnover, and Smith is completing 68.3 percent of his passes.
“Our relationship had already been great, and it’s just been continuing to grow,” Smith said. “Overall, I know Shane trusts me and I trust him. I think that is the important thing.”
ONE WHO GOT AWAY
Cardinals’ Dobbs getting it done
Speaking of Josh Dobbs, Browns fans are suddenly wondering why their team traded him for a proverbial ham sandwich. The terms were Dobbs and a seventh-round pick for a fifth-rounder from the Cardinals.
The Browns needed their backup quarterbacks last Sunday when Deshaun Watson was a late scratch against the Ravens because of a shoulder injury. That thrust fifth-round rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson into the lineup, and he was overmatched, throwing for just 121 yards and three interceptions in a 28-3 loss to the Ravens that should have significant postseason implications.
Browns general manager Andrew Berry last week defended the decision to trade Dobbs, stating that the organization believes Thompson-Robinson is a developmental prospect.
“I’ve often talked up here about the general manager’s role having a foot in the present and a foot in the future. That consideration, in that transaction, has elements of that,” Berry said. “Thought it was the best decision. We’re really excited to work with Dorian and see him progress and develop. But thought it was the right move for the organization, both short and long term.”
Well, it definitely wasn’t the best move for the Browns in the short term. And it’s not like they got anything in value for Dobbs, it was strictly a player dump. If the Browns lose the AFC North by a game, or miss out on the playoffs by a game, the Dobbs trade will look like an even bigger unforced error.
Jets have score to settle Sunday
It’s not often that a matchup of 1-3 teams is one of the top games of the week, but Jets-Broncos on Sunday in Denver is no ordinary game. It’s an opportunity for Sean Payton to back up his smack talk, or for the Jets to get revenge.
A refresher: In comments made to USA Today in August, Payton trashed Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who went 4-11 last year in a disastrous stint as Broncos head coach. Payton piled on Hackett, calling it “one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL” and criticizing his handling last year of Russell Wilson, whose performance fell off a cliff in his first year with the Broncos.
“That wasn’t his fault,” Payton said of Wilson. “That was the parents who allowed it . . . the head coach, the GM, the president, and everybody else who watched it all happen.”
Payton later called the comments a “mistake,” but he never apologized to Hackett publicly or personally. Hackett and Jets coach Robert Saleh took the high road in August and did so again this past week, but Jets players are ready to fight for their coach’s honor.
“That organization did him dirty, and we definitely want to allow him to get some payback,” center Connor McGovern, who used to play for the Broncos, told ESPN.
Sunday’s game will also be intriguing to see how Zach Wilson performs. He was one of the biggest surprises in Week 4, completing 72 percent of his passes for 245 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions in a close loss to the Chiefs. Have Wilson and the Jets turned a corner, or was last week just an aberration? One key for Wilson last week was the Jets turning away from a three-receiver offense and utilizing two-tight-end sets more frequently.
As a Boston sports fan, you may hate the Jets and wish for them to go 0-17 each year. But between Hackett taking undeserved shrapnel from Payton, and Wilson trying to save the Jets’ season and his own career from falling apart, the Jets have become one of the most compelling and rootable teams in the NFL.
Brady’s Raiders deal not done
Tom Brady’s deal to buy a sliver of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces was formally approved this past week, but his deal to buy a slice of the Raiders is still on hold. The deal got complicated in July when the NFL changed its bylaws to prevent team employees (Brady was going to be one with the Raiders) from owning equity in a team. And per the Washington Post, the deal remains in limbo because the NFL’s finance committee is concerned that Raiders owner Mark Davis is offering Brady too steep of a discount.
Per the Post, Davis wants to sell Brady 5-10 percent of the team. With Forbes recently valuing the Raiders at $6.2 billion, that would put the cost of Brady’s share at $300 million-$600 million, which even Brady likely doesn’t have.
The Post reports that Davis wants to give Brady a discount of nearly 70 percent. In the NFL, minority investors often buy their share of a team at a discount because it doesn’t come with voting rights or any power. But the 70 percent discount is still too steep for NFL owners, per the Post.
NFL owners likely will discuss the matter at their next meeting Oct. 17-18, but Brady’s deal may not get voted upon until the December meeting. In the meantime, Brady remains a free agent and can come out of retirement at any time, though that ship likely has sailed.
New appreciation for coaches
Former 18-year NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is now seeing the game through a coach’s eyes, as he works this fall as the quarterbacks coach at Westwood’s Xaverian High, where he once played and where his son, Henry, is the starting quarterback.
“I’m working my tail off,” Hasselbeck said this past week. “It doesn’t matter what I know. It matters what the kids know in the heat of the moment. Definitely stealing a lot from the college game, definitely stealing a lot from the Dolphins, and having a lot of fun.”
Hasselbeck’s coaching experience has made him reflect on his NFL career and how he treated his coaches.
“I’ve actually been in touch with a lot of my coaches, apologizing to them,” Hasselbeck said. “Arthur Smith used to make my wristband in Tennessee. He did it meticulously, and I would give him a hard time, and now I’m doing that myself for our quarterbacks. I’m like, ‘Dude, I feel so bad, I’d make you do the whole thing over when there would be one mistake.’ I was such a [jerk].”
Two teams that probably won’t be going big in free agency for a while are the Chargers and Broncos after they dumped 2022 signees J.C. Jackson and Randy Gregory this past week. The Chargers’ final tally on Jackson: seven games, one interception, two benchings, and one major knee injury while paying Jackson $38.5 million. From Gregory, the Broncos got three sacks in 10 games over two seasons while paying him $28 million. Jackson’s struggles in Los Angeles appear to be a case of a general manager and head coach not being on the same page, as Jackson was never a good scheme fit for Brandon Staley’s defense. Gregory was just a poor signing — his career high in sacks is six — and the new regime in Denver had no reason to stick by him . . . Life comes at you fast in the NFL. Two weeks ago, the Patriots’ special teams were the toast of the league with Brenden Schooler’s blocked field goal against the Dolphins, which Ravens coach John Harbaugh called “brilliant.” Two weeks later, the Cowboys punked the Patriots’ special teams by executing a perfect fake extra point they had prepared for all week. With Schooler screaming around the edge again, it left Cowboys defensive end Chauncey Golston wide open for the easy pass and conversion . . . The Patriots have another special teams challenge this week. Saints special teams coach Darren Rizzi hit the Patriots for a blocked punt in their 2021 matchup, and also in 2014 when Rizzi was the Dolphins’ special teams coach . . . Amazing stat of the week: The Jets and Giants have yet to run an offensive play this year with the lead. And both teams have a win . . . Entering Sunday’s games, seven quarterbacks were completing at least 70 percent of passes, led by Josh Allen at 74.8. The all-time record is 74.4 percent by Drew Brees. Seventy percent completions has happened only 18 times over a full season, and prior to Brees landing in New Orleans in 2006, only three quarterbacks had cracked 70 percent — Joe Montana in 1989, Steve Young in 1994, and Ken Anderson in a strike-shortened 1982 . . . The Commanders dropped back to pass 55 consecutive times in Thursday night’s loss to the Bears, the most in a game since Pro Football Focus began tracking data in 2006. The Commanders are running the ball on just 31.7 percent of snaps, higher only than the Vikings (30.4) and significantly lower than league average (42.2) . . . Smart advice by Giants running back Saquon Barkley to teammate Evan Neal, who blew off some steam last week by going after Giants fans. “Never pick a battle with the fans,” Barkley said. “You’re never going to win that one. They’ve been here before and they’re going to be here after us.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.