Surprise awards: NFL's most unexpected storylines through the first quarter
- Don't worry, you're not the only one scratching your head after the first four weeks of this NFL season. We hand out awards for surprising MVP contender, bizarre division, stunning breakouts and more.
Thus ends the first fourth of the season! Let’s dissect four weeks lacking reason. Have you enjoyed the show, or are you eating crow, mocked by friends for not putting Brees in?
While our title pick is 1–3, the top rookie wasn’t even All-MVC. He’s brought hope to Philly, made us look quite silly. Can you believe it? Neither can we.
So let’s look at big twists in the plot and highlight the plays that defied thought. We will hand out awards and start looking towards a standings board less riddled with clot.
MVP CONTENDER NO ONE SAW COMING: Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
In 2012, coming off a late-season ACL tear, Adrian Peterson became the first non-QB to be named MVP since LaDainian Tomlinson. But this year, Matt Ryan faced even longer odds than AP did four years ago. In fact, some sportsbooks had Ryan listed below all three of his NFC South peers. And why not? In ’15, Ryan’s passer rating was the lowest it had been since ’09, he matched his career high for INT%, and he provided few reasons for optimism down the stretch, throwing more touchdowns than interceptions in just one of Atlanta’s final seven games as it finished the year on a 2–6 slide.
Yet, in 2016, Matty Ice has gotten hot. Sure, his stats are padded by last weekend’s 48–33 domestication of the Panthers (503 yards and four touchdowns), but he also had three 110+ passer rating games before that, too. He leads the league in just about every major category and has the third most yards through four games in history. We’ll know a lot more about Ryan and the Falcons offense after they play Denver and the league’s top pass defense Sunday. But for now, one of the league’s least talked about signal-callers demands attention.
MOST SURPRISING UNDEFEATED TEAM: All Of Them. OK, I have to choose one? Philadelphia Eagles
There are many similarities between this year’s trio of unbeaten squads. Minnesota, Denver and Philadelphia have all relied on new quarterbacks, and Sam Bradford, Trevor Siemian and Carson Wentz have delivered for their respective teams. But the biggest reason for their combined 11–0 start (Eagles had a Week 4 bye) is defense. The Vikings and Broncos rank second and fifth in points allowed, while the Eagles are No. 1, which is why they earn the nod for biggest surprise of the bunch. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has looked like the team’s most important coaching hire by unleashing a talented unit to the tune of the second-highest sack rate in the league (behind Denver) and the third stingiest rushing defense thus far in his first year with the team. The season-opening duo of Cleveland and Chicago might not a gauntlet make, but the Eagles limited the Steelers, who have averaged 35 points in their other three matchups, to just a field goal in a 34–3 stunner, and Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics have Philly as the second best defense (after Seattle).
Then there is Wentz, whose success has come in a conservative offense—his yards/attempt numbers are only average—but he’s still been impressive, given the circumstances. An FCS star considered by many to be a reach at No. 2 overall, injured in the preseason, and installed as quarterback just days before Week 1, Wentz has put to bed any talk of a hitch in his throwing motion or an inability to handle Philadelphia fans. In the meantime, he has earned an NFC Offensive Player of the Week, two NFL Rookie of the Week, and one NFL Rookie of the Month award. The Rookie of the Year competition is going to be stiff between Texans wideout Will Fuller (who is the first rookie in history to tally 300+ receiving yards and a punt-return touchdown in the first quarter of the season) and the Dallas-based Insurance firm of Prescott & Elliott, but it’s hard to argue Wentz isn’t the favorite thus far. For now though, he’ll have to settle for sharing our most surprising undefeated team honor.
MOST SURPRISING WINLESS TEAM: N/A
Sorry, Cleveland, I know you are hungry for a win, but even we predicted this start. Don’t worry though, at least there’s a bit of good news below.
MOST BIZARRE DIVISION: NFC West
We should have seen the signs in Week 1, when Seattle barely held off Miami at home, Arizona lost to a Patriots squad bereft of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, and the San Francisco 49ers trampled the Rams, whose coach seemed to simultaneously be at risk of losing his job and up for a multi-year extension. But by now, it’s blindingly obvious: these teams are playing in an alternate universe, where up is down and Case Keenum can captain a division leader. After starting the season like Bill Walsh 2.0, Chip Kelly has watched his team fail to score 28 in any of its last three games—all losses.
The 49ers will try to save their season Thursday against a Cardinals group also in need of resuscitation after consecutive losses to the Bills and Rams, who might actually be good based on their three straight wins since that Monday Night humiliation against San Fran, including a victory over the 3–1, NFC West co-leading Seahawks, except Seattle has not beaten a winning team and has only found mediocre offensive production to pair with a still-elite defense. So, yeah. Who knows.
Runner-up: The preseason-darling Buccaneers and reigning NFC champion Panthers are both 1–3, while the aforementioned Matt Ryan-led Falcons have grabbed control of a division that never can quite sit still.
“THE MICROWAVE” AWARD FOR SUDDENLY HOT COACHING SEAT: Chuck Pagano, Colts
Prologue: Discussing coaches’ job security as water-cooler talk is a bit uncouth, but there are more abhorrent football hills to die on, so let’s just forge ahead...
Both Jaguars coach Gus Bradley and Pagano appear to have survived the Curse of the London Game, unlike Joe Philbin and Dennis Allen, who were fired in the last two years after playing overseas (the growing reputation of the ’English guillotine’ can really be explained by the quality of teams sent to Wembley Stadium and the fact they often have a bye after the matchup, but hey, it’s a fun trope to make these games a little more watchable). All that said, Englishmen heading to the local betting shop still would not be silly to lay a pound on Pagano being the first coach to be canned this season given the lack of excitement around his 1–3 Colts team.
It’s unlikely owner Jim Irsay will change his mind so quickly after giving Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson extensions this offseason. But man, that January kumbaya seems like a long time ago now, to say nothing of the previous winter, when the Colts were taking another step forward into the AFC Championship Game and looking like a team capable of inheriting the conference from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Now, after Sunday’s loss to the previously winless Jags, Reggie Wayne is taking to Twitter to critique Pagano’s game plan while writers around the country are calling the decision to re-sign Pagano and Grigson a regrettable one that “may prove costly,” especially given how the AFC South appears to be anyone’s for the taking.
STUNNING BREAKOUT, DEFENSE: Zach Brown, LB, Bills
“It’s war today,” said Zach Brown before Sunday’s tilt against the Patriots. “That’s why I have these red gloves on.”
He then went out and played the part of a one-man cavalry brigade, racking up 18 total tackles—including three for a loss—and forcing two fumbles, with one coming on a major-league collision with Pats QB Jacoby Brissett. Thanks to that performance, Brown leads the league in tackles and also ranks as Pro Football Focus’ top linebacker.
Second round pick Reggie Ragland was supposed to be the shining linebacker for Rex Ryan, but after Ragland tore an ACL in training camp, Brown—a first-year Bill—has more than stepped up in his stead. Limited by a torn labrum and a torn pectoral muscle while in Tennessee, the 248-pound South Carolina native is finally living up to his potential as one of the fastest players to the ball at the position.
Runner-up: Kerry Hyder, DE, Lions. A longtime member of the Jets and Lions practice squads, Hyder seized the opportunity to start in place of injured Ziggy Ansah. Entering the second quarter of the season, he has five sacks—second only to Von Miller, who has 5.5. There could not be a bigger contrast in styles—Miller a sculpted superstar and former top pick compared to Hyder, who looks a bit out of place in the No. 61 jersey that was once assigned to him.
STUNNING BREAKOUT, OFFENSE: Terrelle Pryor, WR, Browns
See, Browns fans, I told you good news was coming! Pryor’s explosiveness at receiver (and sometimes in the backfield) has been one of the most entertaining elements of an NFL season largely devoid of attention-grabbing offensive performances. After fully leaning into the wideout position, the former QB’s success has come in bunches, starting in the preseason. In his first regular season game, he had just three catches, but one of them was of the absurd variety.
Pryor’s real breakout game came two weeks later, when he tallied 144 yards receiving to go with 21 on the ground and 35 yards through the air on his first passes since he played under center for the Raiders in 2013. Josh Norman eventually shut Pryor down in the second half of Sunday’s game, but not before the Ohio State product got his first touchdown (and celebrated with an homage to LeBron James). Now, there is already talk of the type of contract Pryor might get as a free agent this offseason.
UNFORESEEN BREAKDOWN, OFFENSE: Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals
As California alt rock group Rooney might sing to the former Raiders quarterback, “When Did Your [Arm] Go Missing?” Palmer’s struggles—he is currently ranked No. 25 in passer rating among QBs with 25 or more throws—are not new. As Rotoworld laid out, he now has 18 touchdowns and 20 turnovers over his last 11 starts dating back to last year, not including his zero touchdowns and three turnovers in the preseason. Suddenly, it seems like the issue is bigger than one bad (nay, very bad) playoff performance against Carolina or a bum finger for the 36-year-old.
There is still an argument to be made that the Bills, Rams, and Patriots will end up having three of the toughest defenses in the league, and there’s certainly plenty of time for the veteran to rediscover his previous form. But, with Palmer now also dealing with concussion symptoms, there’s a real chance we’ve seen his last great games.
UNFORESEEN BREAKDOWN, DEFENSE: Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets
PFF grades are not the be-all, end-all, but it should still concern Jets fans that Revis currently ranks No. 101 among corners, right between Phillip Gaines and Coty Sensabaugh. The makers of Madden have certainly paid attention, dropping Revis’s rating below 90 after A.J. Green and Marquise Goodwin beat him deep in the first two games of the year. Revis allowed only 583 yards in coverage the entire season last year, but he gave up 173 in those two games.
A hamstring strain now has Revis’s status uncertain heading into a critical Steelers game for the 1–3 Jets. Before the season, 31-year-old Darrelle told Newsday, “At some point I’m not going to be able to play the cornerback position the way I want to play it,” while contemplating a potential move to safety (like Charles Woodson and DeAngelo Hall made to extend their careers). I doubt he expected the chatter about needing to make that switch to come so quickly.
TEAM THAT WE STILL KNOW NOTHING ABOUT: Green Bay Packers
An unusually early bye week does not help here, though it is nice for a team that is already ailing. Green Bay’s two wins have come over teams with a combined record of 2–6 while their loss is to the undefeated Vikings. QB Aaron Rodgers seemed to dismiss concerns about a pedestrian first two games with a four-touchdown outing against the Lions, but that was before Brian Hoyer went for 300 yards against a Detroit defense that now ranks No. 32 in DVOA. The Packers will likely still get the benefit of the doubt given they have the longest active playoff streak in the league (tied with New England), but I don’t think it’s safe to assume that run will continue this year. Not yet at least.
THE PLAY THAT STILL HAS US SHAKING OUR HEADS (IN A GOOD WAY): Raiders beat Saints on two-point conversion
It’s not just the fact that Jack Del Rio went for two while trailing, 35–34, with less than a minute to play in New Orleans, but how he did it, sending out Derek Carr and Michael Crabtree to play a simple game of pitch-and-catch over undrafted rookie Ken Crawley following a timeout. They ran the play to perfection, an early sign of chemistry for a duo that currently ranks first in touchdowns and fourth in catches so far this season.
While the stats community was left to debate Del Rio’s call after the game, the coach explained that he made the decision well before the opportunity came. “I let them know early in that drive,” he said. “‘When we go score here, we’re going to go for two and we’re going to win it right here.’ I said that right when the drive started.”
Runner-up: Steve Smith Sr. throws down a Raiders defender and the natural act of aging at the same time.
THE PLAY THAT STILL HAS US SHAKING OUR HEADS (IN A BAD WAY): Buccaneers’ comeback effort ends up short
Before the season, first-year coach Dirk Koetter said, “The thing I’d be most nervous about is just all the situations that come up at the end of the game when the money’s really on the line.”
Evidently, he had reason to be nervous. In one of the season’s odder games (The Rams scored 37 points? There was an hour-plus weather delay late in the fourth quarter?), Koetter’s fears were realized when he went against the team’s game-management coach’s suggestion of a timeout with 40 seconds to play. Twenty-three seconds ultimately elapsed between snaps. Then, on the game’s final play, Jameis Winston was taken down while pump-faking six yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Surely, that sequence is not Tampa’s only problem right now, as its two other losses have come by an average of 27 points and Winston already has 10 turnovers. But still, a demoralizing loss like that early in the year can sink the season for a young team with high hopes, and do just as much damage to a new coach who has not proven he can move past failure.
“No one second-guesses my calls more than I do,” he said after the loss.
Runner-up: Kirk Cousins. Buddy, come on.
THE PLAY THAT STILL HAS US SHAKING OUR HEADS (IN A ??? WAY): Jets WR Charone Peake scores his first NFL touchdown...
Football makes no sense.