Welcome to Week Midseason Under Review where we will hand out awards to commemorate the season’s first eight weeks, but first we’re just going to cut to the chase…
On the surface the 2016 season has—pardon my lack of sophistication—sucked. TV ratings are down 12% overall through the first seven weeks, and illuminating the night games only paints an even grimmer picture. The overriding theories run wide and deep—anthem protests, the election, celebration penalties, the Cubs in the World Series, increased interest in Sunday afternoon recreational table tennis and even shifting cloud formations are all listed as culprits.
Here’s what I think: For my entire adult life—a number of years that falls somewhere between the jersey numbers of Tom Brady and Aqib Talib—quarterbacks have been the featured attraction in the NFL. Between putting up splashy plays, being dissected by the media and featured in countless advertising campaigns, quarterbacks have put up mega-stats and won so much to the point where it was expected. And in the process, they have brought in a boatload of new fans that transcended local markets, particularly in the last decade. For as long as I can remember, there have been—at minimum—two guaranteed future Hall-of-Famers in their prime gracing our TVs each Sunday, whether it be Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Brady, of course.
Right now, Brady is the only quarterback deserving of a transcendental label in the first half of this season—and he only suited up for four games. There is no longer a national quarterback attraction that we mock as over-hyped a la Manning vs. Brady while secretly getting sucked into the narrative because it actually feels like a momentous occasion. What’s the matchup this year? Tom Brady vs. who? Maybe the warranted buzz will re-commence when Big Ben returns from injury or if Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck actually starts winning.
But as it stands the first-half has taught us that it’s probably time to move past the intoxicating sheen of elite quarterbacks. Like Vine, Breaking Bad and summer, all good things must come to an end. With that, let’s focus on the present and hand out some midseason awards…
Best on-field trend: The mega-running back
Of the current top seven leading rushers to date, five (DeMarco Murray, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, LeGarrette Blount, Melvin Gordon) are over six feet tall. The other two, Lamar Miller and LeSean McCoy, are 5' 10" and 5' 11" respectfully. Most weigh at least 220 pounds with Blount topping out at 250. Some of these beasts have ridiculous offensive lines (ahem, Dallas) but that should not diminish the talent literally running tall and wide at the position. Add in more dimensions like McCoy’s pass catching ability, Johnson’s instincts, Murray’s stiff arm and Blount’s sheer power, and it’s fascinating to watch defenses struggle to keep up.
These monsters are no illusion. Last season, four rushers tied for the league lead with 11 scores. Seven are on pace to eclipse that number. While quarterback play has clearly diminished, the uptick in impossible-to-tackle backs has been a pleasure to watch. Especially given how the position was left for dead in recent years.
Worst on-field trend (tie): Celebration penalties
Richard Sherman put it best in an essay for The Players’ Tribune: “Antonio Brown can’t twerk after a touchdown because it’s ‘sexually suggestive.’ But every Sunday, on most sidelines, there are rows of cheerleaders doing the same types of moves to entertain the crowd.” Brown can’t dance. Josh Norman can’t pretend to shoot a bow and arrow while donning an offensive jersey. Earl Thomas can’t give a ref a hug. The hypocrisy is shameful.
The NFL markets its sport through endless footage of lathered, adrenaline-filled players making incredible plays, giving pregame speeches and partaking in staged promos where they are instructed to feign celebration. But when it plays out in real life, the players are flagged? I don’t get it at all. This is a game, not a museum. The fun is why people watch.
Worst on-field trend (tie): Ties
I don’t regular wear ties for obvious reasons but when my husband has to wear one to work, it’s typically because his day is set up to be especially corporate and stale. (‘Hey, I’ve got quite the PowerPoint presentation today.’) So considering how the NFL has stripped the fun form its product this year, ties in consecutive weeks for the first time since 1997 feels strangely appropriate. The ties, in Week 7 and Week 8, are symbolic of this season—sloppily played and unsatisfying. Please make it stop.
(P.S. You know what else happened in 1997? The Cleveland Indians lost the World Series in seven games.)
Best example of predictable mediocrity: The 4–3 Packers
Green Bay’s victories have come at the hands of teams they are inherently equipped to beat: Jacksonville, Detroit, the New York Giants and Chicago. They lost to more the complete teams that are Minnesota, Dallas and Atlanta.
Stop right there, Packers fans. Yes, you’ve suffered significant injuries. So have most teams—it’s the NFL!. Be lucky your quarterback has escaped unscathed. Back to the point…
Nothing in the NFL is supposed to be predictable predictable. That’s why we watch the games (or used to watch the games), right? Heck, even the 49ers beat an actual football team this year. So it’s pretty astonishing when a team’s schedule plays out almost exactly as it should.
Worst interception: Case Keenum
Week 7. For the tie….
Best off-season move: Alex Mack to the Falcons
Center isn’t the sexiest position but it’s one of the most important—and Mack is close to the best. The Falcons signed Mack to a rich five-year contract with the first two years fully guaranteed. Perhaps it was the instant upgrade from Cleveland to Atlanta, but Mack is playing near the same All-Pro level he had maintained before suffering a broken leg in 2014. He’s is particularly adept at run blocking and that unit has seen a noticeable improvement over last year. The Falcons wanted pieces around Matt Ryan that should make them a bona fide contender, and Mack clearly fits the bill.
Worst new coach: Dirk Koetter
Yes, Hue Jackson’s sitting in Cleveland at 0–8 and Chip Kelly’s in Santa Clara with a single win. But the issue with Koetter, whose Bucs ended the first half at a mediocre 3–4, is the fact that he was promoted to shepherd the progression of second-year quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston started off well, throwing four touchdowns in Week 1 win against Atlanta, but he’s been careless and inconsistent ever since. On top of that, Koetter’s play calling has been suspect at times, and his time management skills are not exactly enviable. He also gets knocked for failing to improve first-year kicker Roberto Aguayo’s mental state. Things are by no means dire for Koetter—I’d take him over a number of veteran coaches—but the rookie coach’s tenure hinges on the sophomore quarterback’s success, and so far there’s been little of it.
Best storyline: The heir apparent
Don’t save a statue in Canton for Dak Prescott quite yet, but what the fourth-round rookie has done in Dallas this season has been simply phenomenal—six straight wins with a seven-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Perhaps more importantly, Prescott has come through in clutch moments. He struggled early against the Eagles Sunday night but was stoic in an overtime comeback. If there is any particular play that should solidify Prescott as the Cowboys’ starter, it was his last. From the Eagles’ five-yard line Prescott escaped danger and extended the play—Tony Romo style!—to find a strikingly wide-open Jason Witten for the game-winning touchdown.
Romo returned to practice last week, which would have inspired a collective sigh of relief several weeks ago. But now… you can’t bench the rookie (and Jerry Jones has said he won’t). He’s too proven.
Worst storyline: Everything about the 1–6 49ers
Even though Blaine Gabbert makes Brock Osweiler look like Joe Montana, Gabbert was pegged to start the first five weeks of the seasons. A mountain of losses and a 69.6 passer rating later, the 49ers finally turned to Colin Kaerpernick, a quarterback who’s actually won something as a professional. The pivot was obvious but the lag time frustrating. Even more frustrating was the realization that Kaepernick was likely benched only because his 2017 salary would have been guaranteed if he failed a physical on April 1. The 49ers deny this, but coincidentally Kaepernick’s first start of the season occurred just days after a restructured contract alleviated the team of future financial obligation in case of injury.
Chip Kelly has actually been somewhat adequate as a play caller. The issue is Trent Baalke—he’s completely failed as a talent evaluator and as a result, the 49ers field the least talented roster in football. So when NaVorro Bowman is lost for the season, there is no adequate replacement. Add in the fact that Baalke was tantamount to running Jim Harbaugh out of town, and now he’s the most hated GM in football these days. Fire Baalke banners have been flown. His Wikipedia has been vandalized to the point that it had to be locked. The firing is inevitable but the waiting period is excruciating and awkward, only adding to the morose and toxicity of losing.
Best quote: The new guy
“If we’re looking for reasons why TV ratings for the NFL are down all over the place, this doesn’t help. The way this game has been officiated is not something anybody wants to watch.” – New Monday Night Football play-by-play commentator Sean McDonough during a 19–3 Cardinals-Jets stinker in which 19 penalties were called.
While it was a clearly a gutsy comment from McDonough, he gained instant credibility.
Worst quote: The $42 million man
“I understand the public’s misunderstanding of those things and how that can be difficult for them to understand how we get to those positions. But those are things that we have to do. I think it’s a lot deeper and a lot more complicated than it appears but it gets a lot of focus.” – Roger Goodell, while promoting the NFL in London (the safe haven where he’s conducted many of his interviews over the past three years), was asked by the BBC about the Josh Brown debacle.
If you’ve been living in some bubble, here are the three things you need to know: 1. Josh Brown kept a journal in which he admitted to abusing his wife that was obtained by NJ.com. 2. The NFL was under incredible fire for only suspending Brown one game and for its investigators’ failure to garner the same information as a journalist. 3. We’re all dense.