I didn’t pick the 49ers to reach the playoffs this preseason, yet the team has started 8–0.
I thought, amidst expectations, the Browns would win a wild-card spot in the postseason. I didn’t think things would go nearly as wrong as they have.
I didn’t think the Jets would be as good as some this season, but the team has been much worse than that.
And I figured the Falcons and Bengals were positioned to bounce back from subpar 2018s, and the two teams have one win between them.
That’s the beauty of the NFL, and it’s the beauty of a midseason column like this one.
We have nine weeks of evidence to examine and a lot that can be reassessed. With that in mind, let’s do an autopsy of the first half of 2019 from the perspective of those who work for those teams. Here’s your midseason reset, with a little bit of an insider-y twist.
* * *
It’s time for the Week 10 Game Plan, and that means you’ll get your look at a couple college players—one a playmaker from the LSU/Alabama showdown, and the other an NFL legacy playing in a different battle of unbeatens on Saturday—and I’ll give a handful of pros to watch over the week. Plus I’ll answer your questions on …
• A team in London.
• The Chargers’ coordinator switch.
• More Jets trades?
• Where the Giants go next.
• Next year’s head-coaching candidates.
• The Fitzpatrick and Mack trades.
But we’re moving forward first with a look back at the first half of the season.
* * *
We’ve got nine weeks of evidence to sort through, and a lot has gone down.
We’ve had big-ticket news, from Andrew Luck retiring to Jalen Ramsey being traded. We’ve had big moments on the field, from the Saints surviving Drew Brees’s injury without taking a single loss, to the 49ers rallying around a dominant defense, to Lamar Jackson’s breakthrough first half culminating in a win over the 8-0 Patriots. And we’ve had crushing injuries, and new stars emerging and a coach firing, too.
How to process it? We’re going to let the guys who really know do it for us.
This week I sent out a survey with four questions and an awards ballot to front-office types (GMs, VPs and personnel directors) with specific backgrounds in pro scouting. I got 15 back. And rather than infuse my voice too much in here, we’re giving you the best answers out of the 15 responses, and then present the awards votes.
Make sense? Let’s dive in, then, our midseason confidential …
(The below responses have been edited for clarity.)
What’s your biggest surprise this season so far, and why?
“Collapse of the Atlanta Falcons. Just three years removed from a Super Bowl appearance and they looked like one of the worst teams in football. They lack identity on both sides of the ball, have poor depth and can't figure out a way to protect their No. 1 asset, Matt Ryan.”
“Chicago—and their inability to commit to a running game and how they are putting it all on [Mitchell] Trubisky’s back.”
“The year of the backup quarterback. And most have played well enough to win. Maybe teams are doing a better job of fitting the scheme to the player rather than the other way around. There is definitely a major college influence in the passing game right now.”
“Players that were backup quarterbacks in August that have replaced former Super Bowl quarterbacks, former MVPs, and Pro Bowlers and been able to keep their teams season alive. Matt Moore, Kyle Allen, Mason Rudolph, Jacoby Brissett. For most teams when you lose your starting QB it can be devastating and your season is over. A lot of credit should go to the coaching staffs for getting backup players prepared and the personnel departments for creating depth.”
“Baltimore lost a lot of players on defense and still producing. Offense is rolling with a QB not many thought could throw good enough to do it.”
“Indianapolis Colts—and losing Andrew Luck when they did.”
“San Francisco, not even close. They’re going to lose some games down the stretch as the schedule gets tougher, but impressive how they got the needed pieces and turned it around so quick.”
Which player from another team doesn’t get the credit he deserves?
“Matthew Stafford deserves more credit.”
“Marlon Humphrey. He shadows the opposing teams’ No. 1s, but you don’t ever hear about him.”
“Bud Dupree. Playing at high level right now. Disruptive every snap. “
“Dalvin Cook. He’s a beast, and his numbers are almost identical to McCaffrey but you don’t hear as much about him.”
“Chris Godwin. He’s playing really well right now, one of the best slots in the league.”
“Jamie Collins, Shaq Thompson, Chris Godwin, Benardrick McKinney.”
Which coach is doing the most with the least and why?
“[Ron] Rivera, with the young backup QB.”
“[Jon] Gruden. The Raiders are competitive and very young. The team went through Hard Knocks and all the Antonio Brown drama and he has kept them focused and playing hard.”
“Brian Flores. He’s doing the best with the hand he was dealt. Despite all the tank talk, trades, revolving door of players coming in and out of their building, his team has been competitive in every game since they benched [Josh] Rosen. [Ryan] Fitzpatrick is working his Fitzmagic, and they are competing. That says a lot about Brian and his staff when his players will continue to compete week-in and week-out, despite all the outside noise.”
“Bill Belichick is doing the most with least. He’s missing two offensive tackles and a center, doesn’t have a mismatch TE or WR and his QB is aging. They have some Pro Bowlers in the secondary but no game-wreckers up front, and two of their best, Collins and Van Noy, did not play nearly the same with their other teams—neither did Shalique Calhoun, Lawrence Guy or Stephen Gilmore to name a few. Dude is amazing.”
“Sean McDermott. Off the top of your head, name five starters for Buffalo. (You can’t!)”
“Frank Reich and Matt Eberflus. Indianapolis isn’t a team that’s littered with star players but they are very-well coached on both sides of the ball. Play very good situational football. They lose their franchise QB the week before the season and they don’t blink.”
“Mike Tomlin. Significant attrition in the playmakers and composition of roster, and losing QB who would be expected to anchor team through transition.”
What trend is happening in the NFL right now that no one is talking about?
“The lack of NFL level offensive linemen and the return of the run game/running back—with all the fantasy football and rules being made to get points up and passing yardage up, there are not enough offensive tackles for 32 teams to have at least two NFL level starters to execute the passing game at an efficient enough level to win being a "passing, greatest show on turf" type of offense. Still have to run to win. The offensive minded coaches that know how to devise ways to run the ball with lesser talent in the offensive line or when their front line OL are out are the guys that give their guys the best chance to win.”
“What do Baltimore, San Francisco, Minnesota, Dallas and Houston all have in common? Top-five rushing teams in the league and all winning records.”
“Teams are playing the compensatory pick game in cutting UFAs prior to Week 10.”
“You can win with a running quarterback.”
“I don’t have stats to back it up but I think teams have stopped challenging pass interference calls.”
“More really bad teams than most seasons. A quarter of the league has two or fewer wins. Not used to seeing this many poor teams.”
“Do teams pay second-tier QBs above their play or allocate money elsewhere and roll dice on younger guys? Will teams pass on quarterbacks at top of first round and look to mid-rounds with lacks of success some recent picks are experiencing?”
“Certainly not a new trend but you can say it’s made a comeback this season—combatting these high-powered offenses with smashmouth football. Play good defense, run the ball and control the clock. See New England, San Francisco, Baltimore…”
MVP: Seahawks QB Russell Wilson (11 of 15 votes).
Also receiving votes: Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey (3 votes), Ravens QB Lamar Jackson (1).
Offensive Player of the Year: McCaffrey/Jackson (4 each of 15 votes).
Also receiving votes: Wilson (3 votes), Vikings RB Dalvin Cook (2 votes), Packers QB Aaron Rodgers (1), Saints WR Michael Thomas (1).
Defensive Player of the Year: Chargers DE Joey Bosa (2.5 of 15 votes)
Also receiving votes: Bucs DE Shaq Barrett (2 votes), 49ers DE Nick Bosa (2), Rams DT Aaron Donald (2), Browns DE Myles Garrett (2), Cardinals DE Chandler Jones (2), Patriots LB James Collins (1 vote), Saints DE Cam Jordan (1), Packers LB Za’Darius Smith (0.5).
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Raiders RB Josh Jacobs (13.5 of 15 votes).
Also receiving votes: Cardinals QB Kyler Murray (1.5 votes).
Defensive Rookie of the Year: N. Bosa (12 of 15 votes).
Also receiving votes: Jaguars DE Josh Allen (2 votes), Steelers LB Devin Bush (1).
Coach of the Year: Kyle Shanahan, 49ers (9 of 15 votes).
Also receiving votes: Sean Payton, Saints (6 votes), Bill Belichick, Patriots (1), John Harbaugh, Ravens (1).
* * *
TWO FOR SATURDAY
Alabama WR Jerry Jeudy (vs. LSU, CBS, 3:30 p.m.): Jeudy has a shot to be the first receiver taken in April. And so this is a big one Saturday, against LSU’s star-studded secondary, and dynamic corner duo of Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley. Of the Tide junior, one AFC exec said, “Explosive, fast, awesome with the ball in his hands, and a really high level route-runner. He’s probably one of the better route runners that has come out in recent years.” Jeudy goes into the big showdown in Tuscaloosa with 52 catches for 682 yards and eight touchdowns, putting him a little behind last year’s pace. And while there’s a ton of the line for his team, there’s opportunity here for him personally, too. The big questions about his game involve size and durability, and how he holds up against the Tigers should be a good test for Jeudy in those areas.
Minnesota DB Antoine Winfield (vs. Penn State, FOX, noon): This one’s fun for me – Winfield’s dad was actually a senior captain at Ohio State when I was a freshman there. I remember how air-tight he was that year, before heading off to go in the first round on the NFL Draft. And interestingly enough, traits-wise, what scouts say about Winfield the Son sure does mirror the strengths of Dad. “Obviously has a famous dad, but he’s a good player, productive.,” said Mason. “Tough and physical despite not being big. Good enough cover skills.” Right now, Winfield is projected to go in the third or fourth round in April, presuming he declares. And his outlook could be even brighter with a big day against KJ Hamler and CO.
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
Cowboys DL Michael Bennett. The Patriots’ castoff got off to a great start against the Giants on Monday Night Football—he played just 42 snaps, and came away with a sack, three tackles and four quarterback hits. And this week, Bennett gets to feast on what’s been an up-and-down Viking offensive line.
Rams DT Aaron Donald: The Steelers have a quarterback who doesn’t move well, and the Rams have one of the best interior pass rushers of the last, oh, 25 years or so. Bad matchup for the Steelers? You’d think so, before you really looked into it. And if you did look into it, you’d notice Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro in the middle of the lineup, right there as roadblocks the Steelers will have to clear.
Bengals QB Ryan Finley: Zac Taylor and Co. have benched Andy Dalton, and chances are it’s Finley’s team the rest of year. Why? Because Cincinnati wants a full and clear picture of what they’ve got in Finley before they make decisions on the position ahead of the draft in April.
Seahawks OT Germain Ifedi: He’s gotten better of late, as has the entire Seattle offensive line, and Ifedi will be a shot to show how far he’s come on Sunday. That’s because he’s likely to be responsible for 49ers phenom Nick Bosa for most of the afternoon.
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. Obviously. If Mahomes is back, you should probably watch.
From Sean Morgan (@gamerollerb): What is with the league’s obsession with London? I get trying to grow and make more money, but moving a team there would be a disaster in every aspect. They’d get no free agents, logistics nightmare.
The logistics problem is real, no question. I’m not sure luring free agents there would be as much of a problem as some think—money talks, and to some players London would be far more desirable than a Jacksonville or Green Bay. And it’d be even less of a problem if the team had a U.S. base (a long-standing rumor has held that it could be outside of Atlanta, with the league buying the Falcons’ Flowery Branch facility for the London team, which would allow the Falcons to move their headquarters closer to downtown).
As for why the owners want to do this, I see two real reasons. One is money. Over a decade ago, the NFL’s domestic popularity had grown to where owners felt they’d reached a saturation point in the states, and needed to start growing “out” instead of growing “up”. That meant adding inventory like Thursday Night Football, going back to Los Angeles, expanding to 18 games or adding a round to the playoffs. And like growing internationally.
The second reason? There’s a legacy component to this for some prominent owners. They’d very much like to be the first North American sports league to plant its flag permanently overseas, which is why they’d quietly laid out a 15-year plan to get there when the International Series initiative in London launched in 2007. They’re three years away from the other side of that now.
I don’t think they get a team to London by then. But then doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying.
From Mark Liedahl (@MLiedahl): Was Sunday a fluke for the Chargers? Did new OC Shane Steichen fix the Chargers’ offensive problems? Or was Sunday just a few new wrinkles that other teams will be able to take advantage of? Can we expect Philip Rivers to go 4-0 in November? Or is 1-3 more likely?
First, Rivers really liked working with Ken Whisenhunt, and wasn’t a part of Anthony Lynn’s decision to make the change last week. That said, I do know, after talking with the quarterback on Sunday night, that he very much believes in Steichen’s potential—and thinks Steichen has been ready to call plays for over a year now.
The upside for Rivers comes with Steichen’s background having worked with Norv Turner, with whom Rivers had his best years as a football player. Rivers and Steichen have been together with the organization through three coaching staffs, and very clearly speak the same language, to the point where Steichen has been an extension of Rivers within the coaching staff. And that all came to life in how the play calling had real rhythm for the QB in Sunday’s win over the Packers.
Will Rivers go 4-0 in November? No. Because they only play three games. But they could go 3-0. They have the Raiders tonight, then the Chiefs a week from Monday in Mexico City. It’s not out of the question they win both. And after that, they get the Broncos and Jags, so there might be a chance for the team to catch fire here.
From David Lee (@davidlee360): Do you see the Jets trading away some of their valuable players (Adams/Bell/Maye) ahead of the draft?
I’d guess—just a guess at this point—that Maye is going nowhere. He’s a good, cheap player, and I’m not sure what he’d reap on the market would match the value he has to the team in its rebuild. And I don’t think Bell gets traded either, mostly because he’s due $13.5 million in 2020, and most of that is fully guaranteed. I do think the Jets would deal him. I do not think they’ll be able to.
That leaves Adams, who’s situation is very interesting. Adams publicly groused about the way Jets GM Joe Douglas handled the trade deadline, but I do know that the Cowboys were very aware of how open Adams was to being dealt there. I doubt they got that information by accident, which caught the attention of other teams.
Those teams, in turn, now have their radar up for a potential Jalen Ramsey situation with Adams in 2020. I’m not saying they expect things to get as weird. But there’s certainly perception out there that, if the Jets continue to struggle down the stretch, a showdown could be coming next year, with Adams’s eyes on getting out of there.
From Tyler Olsson (@TylerOlsson): What’s the bigger issue for the Giants—coaching or lack of talent?
I think it’s pretty simply Year 2 of what was a massive rebuild. Giants GM Dave Gettleman is starting that rebuild the same way he reworked Carolina’s roster early in his time there—by building through the lines of scrimmage. The difference is in Charlotte, he had Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Greg Olsen, Josh Norman and Charles Johnson as building blocks going in. There was no such infrastructure for him in New York.
What I do believe Giants ownership will be watching closely the next two months will be the development of Daniel Jones. To me, the one way we’d see major change in the organization after this year is if there’s major regression from Jones. Absent that, I think the routinely-patient John Mara continues forward with the current group, a group that slowly build up a foundation along the lines.
From Brian VerDouw (@brianverdouw): Are the secondary issues recently with the Vikings a blip or a real cause for concern?
Well, I’d say we have an idea now why the Vikings were listening when teams called on Xavier Rhodes in the offseason. And when your No. 1 corner is struggling, there’s a trickle-down effect. That said, Minnesota has invested three first-rounders into the position—Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes were all drafted there by the team—and so this situation should be better than it is.
Which is to say, for a team that has a lot of talent, this spot bears watching.
From Jerome (@jaws1010): Has Cam Newton played his last game as Panther?
Jerome, I think anyone telling you they know is a liar. Unless that “anyone” happens to be Carolina owner David Tepper, and he has some grand plan he hasn’t told anyone about.
We don’t know how Kyle Allen’s going to finish this season, we don’t know how Cam’s health will be in January, and we’re not even 100% on who will be leading the football side of the franchise then. What we do know is Cam’s number is fairly affordable ($19.1 million in cash, $21.1 million against the cap) for 2020, so the team could very well slow play any decision on its franchise quarterback if need be.
I think the part that isn’t getting enough attention here is Newton’s mental state. He’s always been so physically dominant—how does his body breaking down a bit change the way he plays and sees the game? Can he be the same force again? How much longer, given the toll the last couple years have taken on his body, does he want to play?
“Who knows? Who knows?” said Newton, when I asked him how much longer he wants to play, before he got hurt. “At this particular point, I’m looking at Benjamin Buttons in Brady and Brees, and they’re setting the tone, man. It’s crazy. Brees and Brady, what, 40 and 42? It’s crazy.”
We’ll see how crazy he thinks the idea of that is in due time.
From Ben (@2legit2dunk): If Gase was brought in to help a young franchise QB develop how do you rate the job Gase has done this season?
Sam Darnold’s second year has been about as bad he could have feared it would be, but that’s not all Gase’s fault. The offensive line issue was well-documented going into the year, and it has been what everyone expected. Getting mono didn’t help either. That said, we’ve seen coaches work around such issues in the past with their quarterbacks, and it’s fair to wonder whether Gase has done a good enough job of that. Darnold doesn’t seem to be playing as fast as he was as a rookie, and that’s obviously a problem.
The key going forward will be whether or not Darnold can get momentum over the next two months, and finish on the kind of note that’ll help he and Gase build towards 2020. After all, Gase’s calling card has been coaching quarterbacks and calling plays. It’s a huge part of why Christopher Johnson hired him in January. And it needs to show up and soon.
From Shedrick Carter (@shedrickcarter2): I know that we are eight weeks out but do you know who the hot head coaching candidates will be once Black Monday rolls around?
Start with the NFL’s white whale—Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. And you continue that to the next hot name in that regard, Ohio State’s Ryan Day. Both, I’d say, are unlikely to jump ship, and they should be. You could easily argue that the jobs they have are better than 75% of the head coaching jobs in the NFL, and that number might be conservative. I do think Dallas would entice Riley. Outside of that, it’s hard to see either guy going in 2020.
As for NFL assistants, it’ll be interesting to see if there’s a little bit of a rebirth of the strong defensive coordinator as a candidate, with San Francisco’s Robert Saleh, Indianapolis’ Matt Eberflus, Dallas’ Kris Richard and New Orleans’ Dennis Allen all meriting a long look. On the offensive side, Minnesota’s Kevin Stefanski, Indianapolis’ Nick Sirriani, Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy and the Rams’ Shane Waldron all interviewed for jobs last spring, and I’d think each gets more run this January.
I’d also give a plug to the Ravens coordinators—Greg Roman on offense and Wink Martindale on defense. Both have done an outstanding job in challenging circumstances. And if Baltimore keeps winning, each could be an interesting hire.
From Tyler Wakeman (@TylerWakeman1): Was the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade to the Steelers a good move?
Very good question, Tyler. If you look back at the deal, the trade cost the Steelers a first-rounder, and turned their 2020 fifth-round pick into a fourth-rounder, and their 2021 sixth-round pick into a seventh-rounder. In the season ended today, that pick going to Miami would be 17 overall. So is Fitzpatrick worth the 17 pick?
For a team that’s struggled to restock its secondary, like Pittsburgh had, I’d argue he was. Through six games as a Steeler, he’s got four picks (one returned for a touchdown), six passes defensed, a forced fumble, a quarterback pressure, and 30 tackles. That’s very solid production. And because his bonus money’s paid, he’s cheaper in cash and cap than the 11 pick in the draft normally would be – Pittsburgh’s paying him just over $1 million this year, and owes him a total of $3.7 million over the next two years.
After that? Because he was taken outside the top 10, his fifth-year option will be very reasonable too. Maybe the Steelers wind up with a value like this with the 17 pick in the 2020 pick. But that’s no sure thing.
From chucky is back (@raider_chucky): Revisiting the Khalil Mack trade, is it safe to say the media misjudged Jon Gruden too soon?
Yes. And so many people have fallen for this one before – valuing the immediate return over the future benefit. I understand that, of course. It was a lot easier to ascertain what Mack brought to the table in 2018 than it was to assess a haul of picks that wouldn’t even start to turn into players until the following April.
But the truth is, the Raiders and Mack simply weren’t getting a deal done, and I’m not sure he really synced up all that well with Oakland’s building timeline anyway. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Oakland figured rebuilding with Gruden would take three years. That means you’d hope to be hitting your stride in 2020. Mack will be 29 during the season, perilously close to hitting the point when players at his position start to really decline.
So they wound up taking the big return instead. The teams swapped Day 2 and Day 3 picks as part of that, but really this was about the two first-rounders. The first became Josh Jacobs, who, as our poll above showed, is the overwhelming leader for Offensive Rookie of the Year. The second would be the 10 pick in the 2020 draft, if the season ended today. That’s pretty damn good.
Rightfully, the Bears are happy with the trade. But the Raiders are too.
From Bryan Gnieski (@gnieskib): Why is it that teams can successfully game plan around an inexperienced quarterback, ie. Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes. But teams cannot game plan around inexperienced receivers, ie. the Patriots. Are schemes that much different from team to team, or is it an unwillingness.
Thanks for the question, Brian. I’d tell you that, since everything runs through the quarterback, it’s easier to tailor the whole operation to what he does well. You aren’t going to do the same for a receiver, unless that receiver is Julio Jones. Along those lines, in the Patriots’ case, it’s hard for coaches to sacrifice Tom Brady’s greatest strength—his head for the game, highlighted in a complex, multiple offense—to get some 21-year-old on the field.
That would help to explain why, in a big spot Sunday, the Patriots gave Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry one snap—combined.
Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.