Top developments during first quarter of NFL season
One quarter of the NFL season is in the books, and some clear story lines have emerged. Offense is way up. So are roughing-the-passer penalties. Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff are the next Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The Rams and Chiefs are soaring, the Steelers and Falcons are sinking.
Of course, the first month of the season doesn’t always portend the final three. The 2009 Broncos, under Josh McDaniels, started 6-0 but missed the playoffs at 8-8. And the 1992 Chargers made the playoffs after an 0-4 start, a rare but important reminder that there is still plenty of football left to be played this fall.
So let’s take a look at the top developments of the first quarter of the season, and analyze whether they are sustainable for the long haul or just a temporary blip:
■ Offense, offense, offense. By almost every metric imaginable, this has been a banner year for NFL offenses. Through four weeks, this season has seen records for points, touchdowns, passing touchdowns, completions, completion percentage, passing yards, passer rating, and 400-yard passing games.
It’s easy to assume that offenses will cool down along with the weather. History says that’s not necessarily the case.
I researched the league-wide passer rating and points scored on a month-to-month basis between the 2012-17 seasons. I chose 2012 because that is the season in which many of the current records were set.
It’s true that September usually has the best quarterback performances and the most points. And it’s true that production drops significantly in December. But offensive production and QB play often remain steady, if not improved, during October and November.
So Goff, Mahomes, and the other QBs have two more months to light up the scoreboards before the cold and inclement weather sets in. Expect several league-wide records to fall.
■ The Greatest Show on Surf: The Rams are back on top of the NFL for the first time in nearly two decades, and have the league’s most exciting offense under Goff and coach Sean McVay. The Rams can become just the fifth team to score 30-plus points in each of their first five games if they accomplish it again Sunday at Seattle.
But there are a few roadblocks coming up in their path. Three straight road games — at Seattle, Denver and San Francisco — won’t be easy. Same with games at New Orleans and Chicago later in the season, and a showdown with the Chiefs in Mexico City.
The Rams were also hot offensively last year, scoring 30-plus per game well into December. But they fizzled at the end of the season and in the playoffs. And with four players accounting for 89 percent of their yards, one injury could derail the offense. This year’s team has a big challenge to keep the momentum going into January.
■ The Bears’ hot start. No team is a bigger surprise than the 3-1 Bears under first-year coach Matt Nagy, and they could be 4-0 if not for a miraculous comeback by Aaron Rodgers in Week 1.
Are the Bears an early-season mirage beating up on the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Buccaneers or a legit contender? While it’s hard to fully buy into the Bears because quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is still a bit unproven, there are two reasons to believe the Bears are for real this year:
One, the Bears’ great start has been led by their defense, which has been dominant with Khalil Mack now in the lineup. The Monsters of the Midway are back, creating 11 takeaways in four games and ranking No. 3 in points allowed, No. 4 in total defense, and No. 2 against the run. The offense may be inconsistent, but the defense will keep them in every game.
Two, the schedule doesn’t look too bad. They have a bye this week, their two toughest games are at home (Rams and Packers in December), and all of their road games are winnable: Miami, Buffalo, Detroit, Giants, San Francisco, and Minnesota. Barring an injury disaster, the Bears will be in the thick of the playoff hunt come the end of the season.
■ Tom Brady and his incentives. Brady finally signed that long-awaited contract adjustment in August, but it didn’t contain much new — just $5 million in extra incentives based on five statistical criteria. Brady has to finish among the top five quarterbacks to earn each $1 million incentive, but the last two years, that wouldn’t have been an issue — Brady played at an MVP level and would have earned every dime.
Not so much in 2018, however. Brady had a pedestrian September both by his standards and compared with the rest of the NFL. Through four weeks, Brady was tied for 16th in passer rating (94.0), 21st in completion percentage (64.4), tied for 27th in yards per attempt (6.8), tied for eighth in touchdown passes (9), and 20th in passing yards (918).
Brady’s statistical output should improve with the return of Julian Edelman, but these incentives won’t be easy to reach. Not only does he have a ton of ground to make up, but Brady will face several tough defenses on the road — Chicago, Buffalo, Tennessee, the Jets — and his weapons aren’t as dangerous this year.
Brady may lead the Patriots deep into the playoffs again, but his chances of repeating as MVP and achieving those incentives don’t look good.
■ The Steelers’ struggles. No team has been a bigger disappointment than the Steelers, sitting at 1-2-1 and looking like a dysfunctional mess. But anyone hoping for their demise will probably be disappointed. Ben Roethlisberger is still putting up huge numbers (a league-high 353.5 passing yards per game), Le’Veon Bell will be back in Week 8, and these close losses (or ties) should start turning into wins.
The schedule isn’t easy, with tough games against the Falcons, Jaguars, Ravens, Broncos, Patriots, and Saints, but expect the Steelers to be in the thick of the wild-card hunt.
Edelman fielding punts says a lot
A handful of Patriots notes:
■ Julian Edelman had a great night on Thursday, and not just because he got back into the flow of the offense. Edelman looked spry and powerful in making his seven catches for 57 yards (though he’s probably having nightmares about that drop), but most important was the fact that he also handled punt return duties.
It wasn’t his performance so much (two for 20 yards), it’s the fact that he did it with no issue. As explained by former Chargers team doctor David Chao, “Punt return is most dangerous for a player returning from ACL surgery. Hard cutting while dodging defenders stresses an ACL and is a ripe situation for a noncontact injury. So is a direct low hit that happens in the open field with multiple defenders flying in to make a tackle.”
So the fact that the Patriots felt comfortable putting Edelman back there, and that he looked so good, is a great sign for the health of his knee.
■ One area where you don’t expect the Patriots to struggle — kickoff coverage. After four weeks, they ranked 29th in opponents’ starting field position (26.1-yard line). Stephen Gostkowski tried to kick it short last year, but he has banged 14 of his last 17 for touchbacks, including 6 of 7 on Thursday night.
■ On “Inside the NFL” last week, NFL Films showed Bill Belichick congratulating center David Andrews at the end of the 38-7 win over the Dolphins and praising him for “great leadership this week.”
■ All is well so far for Josh Gordon as a Patriot. He has made it three weeks, playing 36 snaps over two games and catching four passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. While the Patriots have taken on several players with character and off-field issues in the past, a Browns source relayed that “this is a different challenge than they have ever taken on.” In addition to his well-documented substance abuse issues, Gordon had significant issues with showing up on time to work, meetings, events, and so on. Belichick has been known to send players home early who show up 10 minutes late in a snowstorm, so it will be interesting to see how they handle Gordon’s punctuality issues.
■ Two scenes from late-night Gillette Stadium that remind you that these gigantic men are still kids at heart. One was Andrew Luck finding a quiet table near the Colts’ buses to spend 15 minutes chatting with his parents before heading back to Indianapolis. Even at the highest level of professional sports, all many players want to do after a game is talk to their parents and decompress.
The other was Edelman hugging Willie McGinest, shaking the hands of stadium employees, playfully talking trash with Jacoby Brissett, and generally bouncing off the walls as he headed out to the parking lot. Few people love their jobs as much as Edelman loves being a Patriot.
Butler admits to early struggles
It’s hard not to root for Malcolm Butler, given his back story and incredible contribution to Patriots history.
Butler hasn’t been the best investment for the Titans so far, giving up three touchdowns in four games, including two of more than 50 yards. It’s clear he’s feeling the pressure from the big contract he signed this spring, but Butler owned up to his shaky performance last week, in a way that you want to give him a big hug and let him know everything will be OK.
“Eye control, fundamentals,” Butler said, via The Tennessean. “Just a lot of stuff I’m beating myself on. It’s very frustrating. I know it’s frustrating to the fans.”
“Just got to play smarter,” he added. “It’s things I’m doing on my own. It’s things I can fix. Just got to keep playing and just keep swinging my way out of the slump. I’ve got to keep swinging.
“This quarter of the season, it’s not what I was looking for. But got three more quarters and I’m looking to change, make a dramatic change. So just bear with me, just like my teammates [are] doing. Just hope things get better — things will get better. They’re going to get better.”
Government at the center
A couple of interesting government-related comments this past week. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, speaking in Boston, said he anticipates the next round of TV deals in 2022 or 2023 to include real-time prop bets. Bets could include, “Will the Patriots’ drive end in a touchdown?” or “Will the next play be a run or pass?”
“I really believe that come 2022, 2023, whoever has the rights to our games will give you a stream, like you see today, but you’ll be able to, if you choose to, have a stream of real-time proposition bets scrolling at the bottom of the screen,” Kraft said.
Meanwhile, those statements appear to be at odds to the NFL’s official position. Executive vice president of communications and public affairs Jocelyn Moore submitted a written statement to a House Judiciary Committee last week, saying that “professional and amateur sports organizations should be able to restrict, limit, or exclude wagers that are not determined solely by the final score or outcome of the event, if the sports organization reasonably determines that such restriction would significantly decrease the risk to contest integrity. Examples of such wagers would include those based on performances of a single athlete or the actions of match officials and referees.”
And Roger Goodell got tangled up with President Trump again, but this time to praise him. The new joint trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States overturned a regulatory order that forced a Canadian network to air American commercials to the Super Bowl. The network can now sell Canadian advertising, making it a much more valuable property for the NFL.
“We greatly appreciate President Trump’s leadership and determination in bringing about a resolution to our intellectual property issue in Canada,” Goodell said.
The NFL is hitting us over the head this fall, making sure everyone understands how good the TV ratings are. The top 15 shows on television in September were NFL games, and overall ratings are up about 1 percent from last year, which is notable given how drastically other TV ratings are falling across the board . . . A great reminder from Football Outsiders that sacks aren’t always about poor offensive line play. Per the website, Tyrod Taylor had the second-highest pressure rate this season (42.1 percent), while Baker Mayfield has the fifth-lowest at 21.7 percent. The Browns’ offensive line didn’t magically improve — Mayfield is better at reading the defense, staying within the structure of the play, and throwing on time. In fact, the top three most-sacked quarterbacks are also among the best athletes — Josh Allen (18), Deshaun Watson (17), and Russell Wilson (16), suggesting that sacks are less about the offensive line and more about their tendency to dance and scramble . . . Note to NFL coaches: Ties can help! As pointed out in a great segment on “NFL Turning Point” last week, the 1978 Vikings, 1986 49ers, and 1989 Browns won division titles because of a tie, and the 2002 Falcons got a wild card because of one. If the goal is the make the playoffs, and you make the playoffs by maximizing your won-loss record, sometimes playing for the tie is the correct call . . . The NFL has called just four lowering-the-helmet penalties in four weeks. It was a rule that was impossible to officiate as written, and was one that neither fans nor players really wanted to see called. Now let’s see if the officials can start swallowing their whistle on some of these roughing-the-passer calls . . . Another year, another season of Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy lobbing passive-aggressive shots at each other in news conferences, then denying any rift exists . . . Why the NFL is great: Jacksonville at Kansas City on Sunday at 1 p.m. is must-watch TV.