We’re nine weeks into the NFL season, and a handful of things have played out as expected: Tom Brady and the Patriots are comfortably atop the AFC East, Todd Gurley sits atop the rushing board and the Browns are still struggling. But a few things have caught us off-guard: Le’Veon Bell still hasn’t returned to Pittsburgh, and James Conner has filled in admirably in his absence; Jameis Winston has lost the starting quarterback job to journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick down in Tampa Bay; Patrick Mahomes has emerged as the early MVP favorite, breaking records amid a hot start to the season; and President Donald Trump has hardly tweeted about the NFL this year.
The MMQB kicks off our NFL midseason report with a roundtable answering one question: What was the most unexpected thing to happen in the first half of the 2018 NFL season?
Adrian Peterson’s performance in Washington. In mid-August, 33-year-old Adrian Peterson had 11 NFL seasons and 2574 NFL carries on his legs, and no NFL job to speak of. The idea that a guy with that sort of the tread on his tires could be a factor in the NFL season to follow? Absolutely impossible. After being signed by Washington on Aug. 20, Peterson has proved again what he first showed us as an 18-year-old true freshman at Oklahoma—he’s built differently than anyone else. Halfway through this season, Peterson has 604 yards and four touchdowns on 136 carries, and another 167 yards, plus another touchdown, on 12 catches. That he’s the centerpiece of an offense for a division leader two months later is bonkers. That he’s filling that role in the way that he has seems, like we said, impossible.
Le'Veon Bell's continued absence from Pittsburgh. When the Steelers and the All-Pro RB didn't reach a long-term agreement before the deadline for franchise tagged players, most people both inside and outside the organization figured Bell would do what he had done last year, skip training camp and report before Week 1. But nine weeks of the season have now passed, with the Steelers proceeding without any indication of if or when he'll report. A hard deadline is approaching, with Bell needing to report and sign the tag by Nov. 13 if he wants to play this season. Few outside of Bell and his agent would have guessed he'd stay away for this long, given that he's forfeited $7.7 million (and counting) of his $14.5 million franchise tag salary. Bell has saved himself at least half a season of wear and tear at this point, and has eliminated the risk of a serious injury before signing the kind of long-term contract with sizeable guarantees that he is seeking, but will he make that up in the long term? Bell has taken that gamble, and has kept everyone, including his own teammates, guessing in the process.
The Chargers looking like a contender despite all the injuries they’ve dealt with in the first half of the season. Losing TE Hunter Henry before the season even started felt like a death blow, especially given Kansas City’s hot start. But Melvin Gordon has been a fantastic receiving replacement in the red zone, and Austin Ekeler is one of the league's best unsung offensive players. If and when Joey Bosa returns from injury to take charge of this defense, the Chargers could sneak up on some people. It’s a shame only a couple thousand Chargers fans will see it in person week to week.
Just how good Patrick Mahomes has played. When I visited Chiefs camp this summer, I saw a redshirt rookie quarterback making a lot of mistakes in practice. I was told by everyone that he was just seeing what did and didn’t work, but I left there believing he’d be a risk-taker in 2018 and you’d have to live with the mistakes. So far he’s accounted for 31 touchdowns and seven picks for the 8-1 Chiefs.
Sean Payton’s second act. It wasn't long ago that we deemed this team dead in the water, desperate enough to shove Adrian Peterson in their lineup and hamstring transcendent talent like Alvin Kamara. But like the best coaches do, Payton has evolved in time to maximize his final years with a future Hall of Fame quarterback and budding defense. Knocking off the Rams indoors is no small feat.
The Rams’ easily winning so many games. I picked the Rams to go 10-6 because of concerns about their edge rush and lack of depth. The edge rush has actually been lacking (hence the trade for Dante Fowler) but obviously it hasn’t been as consequential as I thought. It’s not just that the Rams are undefeated, it’s how handily they’ve won so many of their games. No offense—save for Kansas City—hums like theirs, and the defense is likely to improve down the stretch. Speaking of Kansas City, the enormous success of Patrick Mahomes would be my 1B for “most unexpected thing.” Mahomes looked so raw coming out of Texas Tech that I thought it would take multiple years before he could execute Andy Reid’s offense on schedule. But the second-year QB / first-year starter has looked like a tenured veteran since the first snap of this season.
The emergence of Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. There are several other surprising developments this season, such as the Jaguars implosion, or the Bears ahead of the Packers in the NFC North, or Le’Veon Bell’s absence, but none are nearly as impressive as Mahomes mania in Kansas City. I didn’t even have the Chiefs in my preseason playoff predictions and now I am picking them to play in the Super Bowl, so you could say I definitely wasn’t expecting Mahomes to light it up the way he has in his first full season as a Kansas City’s starter. I was expecting the usual growing pains, especially considering Mahomes was considered raw coming out of Texas Tech. He has yet to look like a first-season starter, and hasn’t shown any hint of slowing down.
Jon Gruden and the Raiders. When Gruden was pulled out of the booth and back onto the sideline after a decade away—and paid the GDP of a small country— there were a lot of jokes and predictions that his return to the league may not end up triumphant. But even the most farcical Gruden parodies couldn’t have predicted what has happened already this year. Not only did Gruden trade away one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, but he then promptly complained that his team had no pass rushers. Not only did Gruden make a series of confounding personnel decisions, but then he publicly criticized some of his own players. Gruden’s team is not only the worst in the NFL, but right now his Raiders are the epitome of dysfunction. Even if you predicted this union would eventually turn sour, it is still a surprise to see how fast it turned and how sour it is.
Le’Veon Bell’s absence.Bell’s purported strategy of less, or no “usage” will not result in a significantly greater contract in 2019. Teams will view Bell as a player with a lot of usage early in his career and a year older in 2019 than he was in ’18, no matter the circumstances. And there is the matter of being in the same position he is now, with the Steelers right to tag him again as if the second, not third time, if he doesn’t show by Tuesday.
Bell has forfeited $7.7 million and counting of his purported $14.5n million salary. That money is not going to others in the locker room; it is pure savings—cash and cap—for the Steelers. And it makes no sense.
Hey, what happened to the NFL as a political issue in 2018? I was so looking forward—weren’t we all?—to an election season in which cynical, divisive leaders would again target football players as a cheap and easy way to “rouse the base,” rather than address the social-justice issues that players have felt compelled to raise, or indeed any of the truly pressing crises facing our embattled nation. In place of athletes, however, it’s a rag-tag bunch of hapless Central American asylum seekers—hoping one day to enjoy the blessings of liberty once promised by a welcoming nation—who have become the new focus of unbridled, unreasoned rage this fall. And for that football fans everywhere can be thankful.
How bad the Giants are. I didn’t think they were a playoff team, but I was sure they'd hover around .500 while losing a lot of 35-31 games. The skill-position talent is as good as it gets and Pat Shurmur can coach. The offensive line has regressed though, with the uneven play of high-priced free agent Nate Solder and 34th overall pick Will Hernandez on the left side, and the other three spots a rotation of street free agent types. Of course, the biggest issue has been the awfulness or Eli Manning. He was fine last year—arguably better than fine considering the broken system he was playing in and practice-squad talent he was playing with. This year, his arm looks shot and his refusal to quarterback with any aggression in a league that demands it is unacceptable. Last year’s Eli Manning didn’t deserve to be benched for Geno Smith, but this year’s version of Eli Manning does.
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs playing like Super Bowl champions. Back before the season started, when we were making preseason predictions, two MMQB colleagues picked the Chiefs to win it all—so I requested that Patrick Mahomes be featured on the graphic, almost as a joke. Well, after one of the hottest starts for a quarterback ever, Robert and Mitch sure look smarter than ever. I’m jumping on the Mahomes train; the breakthrough of the second-year quarterback is the most unexpected thing to happen this season. Mahomes, along with Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and coach Andy Reid, have turned Kansas City into appointment viewing, and the Chiefs-Rams clash in Week 11 in Mexico City has to be the most anticipated game of the second half of the season.
The lack of flags from the offseason rule changes. Weren’t we all expecting dozens of flags every Sunday for the new emphasis on hits leading with the helmet? The body weight rule briefly carried the news cycle for a few weeks early in the season, but even that has died down and the helmet rule has barely registered.
Of course the new rules have an impact on the game, and it’s noticeable in a few spots where we would normally see a player decleated. But the result has mostly been a season full of high-scoring shootouts—with fewer flag-fests decided by inconsistent officiating than I think a lot of us feared.