How We Got Here, And Where We’re Going
Eight weeks of the 2014 NFL season are in the books, with nine more to go before the playoffs, but these past two months have been like few others in the 95-year history of the league.
Some things we already knew: The Broncos and Patriots, along with their quarterbacks, are still pretty good—and Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is still turning offensive coordinators into insomniacs. Some things have surprised us: The Cowboys, Lions and Cardinals are division leaders, and each seems capable (pending Tony Romo’s health) of sustaining success in the second half.
And some things have really surprised us…
Hours after the season kicked off, Roger Goodell disappeared from public view, hoping to survive the scandal that engulfed the NFL after TMZ aired the Ray Rice elevator surveillance video. Had the league seen the same footage before handing down a mere two-game ban? The commissioner eventually held a forgettable press conference in which he denied it and pledged transparency during an independent investigation—to be conducted by former FBI director Robert Mueller, whose law firm has close ties to the league—but his lack of cooperation with the NFLPA’s investigation has been a different story altogether.
Still, Goodell has hardly remained idle while awaiting an outsider’s findings. He dusted off the rarely used commissioner’s exempt list to keep stars like Adrian Peterson (child abuse allegations) and Greg Hardy (domestic violence) out of view from a public eye that has never looked more harshly at the league. The Cardinals also placed running back Jonathan Dwyer on the non-football illness list following domestic violence allegations, while the 49ers have kept Ray McDonald in the lineup pending the adjudication of his own domestic violence allegations.
Remember when people thought Michael Sam was going to be the biggest distraction in 2014?
Peyton Manning might have his best supporting cast ever. Jerry Jones, executive of the year? Four rookie QBs not named Johnny Manziel are seeing action. The one-win Jags, Bucs and Jets might be worse than the winless Raiders. And we’re still waiting to see the Ray Rice report.
Along the way, the NFL and the players’ association agreed to begin testing for HGH and revamped the drug policy. In another step toward global expansion, the Lions and Falcons played at London’s Wembley Stadium in a time slot that meant the game could be watched over breakfast on the East Coast. And in classic oh-by-the-way fashion, the NFL admitted in federal court documents that it anticipates nearly one in three retired players will suffer long-term cognitive problems at younger ages than the general population.
Ah, yes, the men playing these games.
It looked as if the Seahawks hadn’t taken a day off since winning the Super Bowl when they rolled to a 36-16 victory over the Packers. In other Week 1 action, the Broncos took charge in the AFC by bolting to a 24-0 lead in an eventual 31-24 win over the Colts, Peyton Manning’s old team. The Patriots, meanwhile, looked shell-shocked after trading guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay and lost in Miami, 33-20. The Eagles trailed the Jaguars 17-0 but reeled off 34 unanswered points to avoid further embarrassment.
What a topsy-turvy, unpredictable ride it’s been. At one point both the Patriots and Seahawks were in upheaval.
After a 41-14 loss at Kansas City dropped New England to 2-2, it was hard not to wonder if Tom Brady was on his way out and/or upset with the organization for the makeup of the team. The Patriots responded with four straight victories, winning by an average of 17.8 points, and they’re currently the AFC’s No. 2 seed heading into Brady-Manning XVI this Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Amidst reports of locker room unrest, the Seahawks jettisoned receiver Percy Harvin to the Jets. And despite more reports of unrest—the organization is apparently fed up with Marshawn Lynch, while a Bleacher Report story suggested that Russell Wilson isn’t “black enough” for some in the locker room—Seattle squeaked out a four-point win over the slumping Panthers, snapping a two-game skid to improve to 4-3 last Sunday. And while that win ballasts Seattle, the defending champs (along with the rival 49ers) are currently out of the playoff picture.
The Cardinals are the NFC’s top seed thanks to a resilient defense, quarterback Carson Palmer and a rookie receiver out of Pittsburg State named John Brown. In the AFC, the Ravens, Steelers and Chiefs are looking up at the Chargers and Bills in the playoff picture.
What else do we know so far?
With the additions of receiver Emmanuel Sanders, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward, Manning (your recently crowned all-time leader in touchdown passes) might have his best supporting cast ever.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is a contender for executive of the year (seriously). Dallas is off to a 6-2 start thanks to three first-round picks (different draft classes) who are dominating on the offensive line and paving the way for DeMarco Murray, who has rushed for an eye-popping 1,054 yards through eight games. And, of course, there’s the patchwork defense led by coordinator Rod Marinelli and middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who was out of football and lost in life a year ago.
The NFC South (no team above .500) is bad. The AFC North (all above .500) is going to be a dogfight. The Jaguars, Buccaneers and Jets each have just one win, but might be worse than the winless Raiders, who fired coach Dennis Allen. Rex Ryan (Jets), Mike Smith (Falcons), Jeff Fisher (Rams), Marc Trestman (Bears) and Jay Gruden (Washington) are all on the hot seat, though the temperature for Gruden was dialed back a bit following a 20-17 overtime victory at Dallas on Monday Night Football.
Oakland was the first team to start a rookie quarterback (second-round pick Derek Carr), followed by the Vikings (first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater) and the Jaguars (who rescinded their “break only in case of emergency” policy on third overall pick Blake Bortles). Even sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger is now starting for the Titans. But some guy named Johnny Manziel remains on Cleveland’s bench while local boy Brian Hoyer continues to play winning football for the Browns.
Dating back to offseason workouts, it seems like every team has lost either a star or a standout player: Alex Mack, Victor Cruz, Evan Mathis, Brian Orakpo, Charles Tillman, Jerod Mayo, Stevan Ridley, Jairus Byrd, Adrian Clayborn, Darnell Dockett, Sam Bradford, Dennis Pitta, Robert Mathis, Derrick Johnson, Lamarr Woodley, Danny Woodhead, Sean Lee, B.J. Raji, Danny Trevathan, Knowshon Moreno and Sean Weatherspoon to name a few. All of the aforementioned have either missed time or are out for the season. Not to mention the two players, Stephen Tulloch (Lions) and Lamarr Houston (Bears), who tore ACLs celebrating defensive plays.
Players can’t dunk the ball over the goalpost anymore in the “No Fun League,” though some have resorted to calling it the “National Flag League.” With a renewed emphasis on eliminating downfield contact in the passing game, the yellow hankies seem to be everywhere. I’m not sure we heard much of an outcry for that to be fixed, except maybe from the Broncos after getting trounced by the Seahawks’ physical defense in a 43-8 loss in the Super Bowl. (Hmmm, a rule emphasis following a Manning playoff loss? I think I’ve heard of that happening before.)
What’s in store for the second half?
We’ll find out starting Thursday night as the Saints and Panthers square off for the title of mediocrity in the NFC South. Then it’s Broncos-Patriots on Sunday. The Week 10 matchup between the Browns and Bengals could be big, and in Week 11 we’ll know if Andrew Luck’ s Colts are true contenders when they host the Pats. The 49ers and Seahawks will finally meet on Thanksgiving night for the first of their two tilts in three weeks, but not until an important NFC East showdown between the Eagles and Cowboys is decided earlier in the day. The Cardinals’ fate will likely be decided when they close out their schedule with the Seahawks and 49ers.
For a moment, all that football makes you forget about everything still happening off the field.
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