1. The date was October 24, 2020, and, as you might remember, the world was a much different place. The release of KIDZ BOP Kids’ “KIDZ BOP 2021” album provided a glimpse into the future of anonymous children covering popular music, Bruce Freeman was nine days from the conclusion of his unopposed re-election bid to represent the 5th Ward in Bakersfield’s city council, and a first-class U.S. postage stamp cost 5,579 kips if your local U.S. post office allowed you to pay in the national currency of Laos, which they almost surely did not.
Also, there were 12 weeks remaining in the year’s NFL regular-season, and three unbeaten teams left: the Titans, Steelers and Seahawks. They went on to combine for zero postseason wins.
2. Moving on from unbeatens to the team that, well, will still probably win the Super Bowl. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Chiefs. Part of me wishes it weren’t the case, because they’re set up to play in approximately 14 of the next 17 Super Bowls and there are only so many Patrick Mahomes ketchup anecdotes, even if you make some of them catsup anecdotes. But there’s no reason to think we’re on the verge of a world in which this Chiefs team hovers around .500 for any significant period of time.
Their biggest issue is on the defensive side of the ball. There’s a bunch of new faces in the secondary, and Steve Spagnuolo’s defense is chock full of gray areas (which is a big reason why Daniel Sorensen is still sticking around). The linebackers look like they’ll be an ongoing issue, especially in coverage. It’s also going to take the offensive line some time.
But here’s what’s almost certainly not going to be an issue: turnovers. First, the history and the raw numbers. The Chiefs are minus-8 in turnover differential through six games this season—they haven’t been negative in TO differential over a full season since 2014 (minus-3). In Patrick Mahomes’s first three seasons as a starter, they were plus-9, plus-8 and plus-6. With eight interceptions, Mahomes has already surpassed his 2019 (five) and ’20 (six) totals. K.C. has lost a league-high six fumbles—typically, a quarterback will be the top fumbler on a team, but non-quarterbacks have already lost five for the Chiefs this year. It adds up to this: The Chiefs are giving away more than a possession per game yet are still on the plus side in point differential.
The spike in giveaways has been due to a combination of some tough luck, some recklessness, and some flat-out sloppiness. The luck will even out, and the sloppiness will get cleaned up, especially as the young offensive line improves and jells. The recklessness is the only thing that might be a question mark. Mahomes came into a league with a reputation as a—if I could use a new football term that I am personally coining right now—“gunslinger.” While the structure in Andy Reid’s offense has reined in a lot of that, he still profiles as a quarterback who could have a sprinkling of 15-interception seasons in his career.
However, if you think he’s staring down a 25-turnover season—his current pace—then you believe he’s Wentzening. Wentzening happens when a once-elite quarterback falls apart and pretty much loses track of how to play football. Let’s review the Wentzening of Carson Wentz. Wentz played at an MVP level in 2017. Then came the torn ACL late that season. And the broken back in 2018. In 2019 he played well, but was surrounded by an Alliance of American Football-caliber group of weapons. Then came 2020, when he lacked NFL-caliber weapons, couldn’t trust an offensive line that was ravaged by injuries, and didn’t have a coaching staff providing him with answers. Wentz was atrocious. But the broken supporting cast and broken offense was the catalyst for it all.
If Mahomes meets a similar fate, the Chiefs will hover around .500 and miss the playoffs. But that would require a collapse by not only Mahomes, but first by his supporting cast and his coaching staff, and the thing is: Their receivers can still get open, and their offense still works. That’s why the threat of a Wentzening is virtually non-existent, and why the Chiefs will almost certainly be right there playing for a third straight AFC title.
3a. Actually, let’s go back to unbeatens. Or unbeaten. Singular. Since the Cardinals are the only unbeaten team left in the NFL, and are certainly expected to get to 7–0 after they finish hosting Houston on Sunday.
The Cardinals’ formula isn’t that different from a year ago. Vance Joseph continues to fly under the radar as one of football’s top coordinators, and the arrival of J.J. Watt has made a good defense great. There’s been some good fortune as well—their current fumble recovery rate (78.3%, compared to the expected 50%) is not sustainable, they’re the only team to have opponents miss three field goals inside 50 yards, and even if you ignore the historic volatility and flukiness of fourth-down and red-zone efficiency (you should not ignore them, by the way), Arizona has nowhere to go but down. They’re the only offense in the league that’s perfect on fourth downs and the defense has allowed the league’s second-lowest fourth-down conversion rate. They’re eighth in offensive red-zone efficiency, and fourth in defensive red-zone efficiency.
But the biggest reason the Cardinals are unbeaten is because of Kyler Murray. As far as the MVP race goes, the gap between Murray and the field is as wide as that famous Arizona landmark, the neon hat outside that Arby’s in Phoenix. Murray has gone from one of the NFL’s least efficient intermediate-to-deep-intermediate passers to, this season, one of the most efficient. In completion percentage on throws of 10-to-20 yards through the air, he ranked last out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks in 2019 (47.2%) and 20th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks in ’20 (55.4%). This season, he ranks third (71.9%). In all throws that travel 15-plus yards in the air, he ranked 22nd out of 44 qualifiers in ’19 (42.3%) and 28th out of 43 qualifiers in ’20 (38.7%). This season, he leads the NFL (66.7%)—no quarterback has ever completed 66.7% on such throws over the course of a season.
Some of that is Murray progressing as a passer. I have a feeling that some of it is also the arrival of Ronale Moore. Even if his usage hasn’t been overly creative, he has added another element to what was (and, in many ways, still is) a stale offensive scheme. Some of it is also the revival of A.J. Green. The vet has been a revelation, and perhaps it’s just a matter of having a quarterback who has a comfort level with contested-catch receivers. But one year ago, you could argue that Green was the least valuable starting receiver in football, with a stunningly low catch rate of 45.2% when targeted. So far this season, on slightly less volume (5.3 targets per game compared to 6.5 last year), his catch rate is 65.6%, including 7-for-8 on downfield targets. Green caught 6-of-37 (16.2%!) downfield targets last season, a number so stunningly bad that it should have triggered a point-shaving investigation. Throw in the continued dominance of DeAndre Hopkins, and you have an offense that might just have too much skill-position talent to fail.
But right now, what Kyler Murray is doing borders on unbelievable (we haven’t even factored in his legs!). If he maintains this level through 17 games, in an offense with talent but little in the way of forward-thinking scheme, it will belong in any conversation about the greatest individual seasons in league history.
3b. It will be nice for the Cardinals brass to get an up-close look at the farm system on Sunday when they host the Texans, and I think Major League Baseball should take a queue and stage mid-season exhibitions between major-league teams and their Triple-A affiliates.
4. It’s early still, but right now Derrick Henry is on pace to log 459 carries in 2021, which would shatter the single-season record (416, Larry Johnson in ’06). But it’s more than a function of a 17-game season; Johnson owns the record for carries per game (26.0), and Henry is at 27.0. Due to the current state of the game and how it’s played you can not, by definition, have an award termed “Most Valuable Player” go to a non-quarterback. But if Henry keeps up this pace, and this effectiveness, they’re not only going to have to come up with some non-quarterback MVP award and give it to him, but they’ll probably have to name it after him.
5. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Pixies!
• Question or comment? Email us.