Some of us are, as Bill Belichick might say, “on to Christmas.” Thanksgiving doesn’t have a ton going for it outside of gluttony and togetherness, which can be replicated for the most part a month later during a better, gift-receiving and -disseminating holiday. Thanksgiving doesn’t have lights or representative front-yard blow-up decorations, outside of the silly-looking inflatable turkeys that have started populating my neighborhood, which only serves to let people know that you have just a bit more free time and disposable income than others. During the penning of this piece, I’m spinning the Jazz at Lincoln Center holiday season spectacular, which only serves to cement the excellence of a holiday that is so gargantuan, that it has its own category of jazz.
But the one sphere that Thanksgiving dominates is gratefulness. We’re supposed to be grateful during December holidays, too, but often get lost in the whirlwind of personal responsibilities. Thanksgiving, in isolation, is a good primer for reminding us that we should set aside time (ideally every day) to give thanks for the best things in our life (like its gift-giving counterparts).
That’s why we’re here today. Just as all of us can find at least one thing to be grateful for this time of year, so can every NFL team, be it the Cardinals or the Lions. As you enjoy your stuffing and cranberry sauce (hopefully the gelatinous, canned kind with the ridges on the side, which is the only way to enjoy cranberry sauce), here is a list of gratitude for all teams.
(As an aside, if you’re unable to see family or friends during Thanksgiving weekend and would appreciate filling the void with some light football conversation, feel free to drop me a note at Conor.Orr@SI.com. I will do my best to check messages a few times throughout).
Jeff Rodgers, assistant head coach and special teams coordinator
Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive system and his familiarity with Kyler Murray have created the NFL’s most surprising and dominant offense this year. The Air Raid grows in complexity the longer quarterbacks, receivers and coaches spend marinating in the seemingly basic route concepts, because they can be site-adjusted on almost every snap. Add in a surging Vance Joseph and a talented, budding defense and you have a recipe for a potential NFC West champion. But Rodgers has been building this house behind the scenes for years now. The Arizona Republic did a good look at the longtime special teams coordinator a few years back. Players say he handles way more than the typical, ceremonial assistant head coach, which is something I’ve heard from coaching industry experts as well. When a collegiate staff is transitioning to the NFL, there is always the potential for embarrassing moments. Matt Rhule was blasted by Teddy Bridgewater for failing to practice the two-minute drill. Urban Meyer looks like he’s trying to slowly read a tiny-print menu at a Paris patisserie every time the game demands a critical decision point. Rodgers was able to help ensure a finished product that did not make Kingsbury, a coach who had just been let go by Texas Tech, look like a fish out of water.
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots head coach
Cordarrelle Patterson had 44 rushing attempts in his first 80 career games before heading to New England, where the Patriots head coach was the first to conceptualize the former first-round pick wide receiver as a type of every down running back and general backfield weapon that can help defenses identify themselves. Patterson’s career has reblossomed since, but in a strange way that has made him continuously affordable for each team that plucks him out of free agency. Patterson may be the most valuable running back in the NFL this year outside of Jonathan Taylor. While Atlanta, at 4–6, doesn’t seem to be making any grand plans, Patterson has helped smooth the transition to Arthur Smith and prevent what could have been a much rockier first season.
Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Eric Tomlinson and Patrick Ricard
How do you win a game with an undrafted free-agent quarterback who takes only a handful of reps and finds out about his impending start on the bus ride to the stadium? You have four of the most agile big bodies in the NFL, who are deft in open space and can align pretty much anywhere in the backfield, tight on the line or out wide and present themselves as an unmatchable, physical threat. Ricard is the best blocking back in the NFL. Andrews and Tomlinson are first and second, respectively, in Pro Football Focus’ run blocking grades. Boyle returned to the field last week and was immediately jumping into three-wide sets. I’ve long maintained that no one has better understood the market inefficiency on big bodies like the Ravens have, eventually tipping their hand to the rest of the league just before the George Kittle–led tight end boom. Amid a rocky season on the injury front, they have ensured that Baltimore’s run-first offense is never out of a game, no matter who is behind them in the backfield.
Bobby Babich, safeties coach
How do you attain the top passing defense and third-best rushing defense in the NFL? A lot of that has to do with transcendent safety play. While we could have just listed Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde here, it’s interesting that both players went from O.K. and good, respectively, to elite in 2017 when they were enveloped into the Sean McDermott system and paired with Babich. The son of Bills’ linebackers coach Bob Babich, Bobby is carving his own legacy in Buffalo by placing his handprint on the lifeblood of McDermott’s defense, so much of which flows through safety play. Both Poyer and Hyde are in their 30s, having been on at least one other team before arriving in Buffalo. There aren’t many elite safeties you can say that about in the NFL right now, never mind two playing on the same team. Before falling to the Colts this past weekend, the Bills’ scheme had been as close to uncrackable as we’ve seen in the NFL, a lot of which stems from the confidence McDermott and Leslie Frazier can put on two deep safeties to correctly diagnose and dive into every play. Watch how clinical the pair was against the Chiefs, expertly backstopping a set of cornerbacks and linebackers who were pushed to their limit with Kansas City’s talented slate of playmakers.
Shaq Thompson, linebacker
Thompson is holding opponents to a 67% completion rate and already has two interceptions so far, despite having missed a handful of games due to injury. There is something truly beautiful about watching the mastery with which he controls his body. Now a far more mature version of the shifty, positionless defender that was taken in the first round back in 2018, Thompson can effortlessly find himself in the backfield on a blitz simply by compressing his frame and jamming himself through a crowded A gap. He drew one of the best veteran holding calls I’ve ever seen two weeks ago against Arizona and can still fill a gap during a run play with the force of a potato-cannon launcher. Opposing quarterbacks have a QB rating in the mid-50s when targeting receivers in Thompson’s direction, though that number should be much lower considering how quickly he jumps on running backs out of the backfield, gumming up a passer’s progression.
Jason Peters, left tackle
Here’s a fun question to ask yourself when your favorite team is spiraling: How much worse could it possibly get? With the Bears, who lost their presumptive Day One left tackle Teven Jenkins to a back issue in September, it could have been a lot worse. Justin Fields is under pressure on more than a quarter of his snaps according to Pro Football Reference. Pro Football Focus has that number closer to 40%. And while it may seem backward to credit an offensive lineman during this maelstrom, Peters has actually been solid amid a “sea of trash” to borrow a line from divisional foe Dan Campbell. It was pretty incredible to watch the 39-year-old get next-level last week against the Ravens, chipping off linebackers on boot action plays to help get Fields a clean edge or blocking out front of a Jakeem Grant toss sweep. Peters would not have come out of retirement for just anyone, and to find left tackle help above replacement level just before the season starts is largely unheard of. That’s especially true when the player is turning 40 after Christmas. This has not been the ideal developmental campaign for Fields by any stretch, but if the pressure rate on the left side was anything like the pressure rate on the right side, Fields would have been unplayable in 2021.
D.J. Reader, defensive tackle
The Bengals aren’t among the league’s elite teams in run stop win rate or pass rush win rate, but they have a few singular players who rank highly on the ESPN metric and are generally not horribly low in comparison to the rest of the NFL. A lot of this is thanks to D.J. Reader, who is an absolute wrecking ball inside for the Bengals and consistently demands two offensive players block him on each snap. What a benefit this has been for guys like Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson, who have been enjoying some solid individual seasons. The Bengals are more than a tenth of a yard per snap better against the run with Reader on the field, which adds up quickly in an AFC North where the Bengals face either Najee Harris, Nick Chubb or Lamar Jackson on almost half their games.
Bill Callahan, offensive line coach
While I don’t for one second dismiss Baker Mayfield’s toughness in playing through a litany of injuries, here is something that will inevitably hurt him at the bargaining table this offseason after betting on himself in 2021: The Browns are first in the NFL in pass block win rate and ninth in run block win rate. There are very few teams with a better composite score than Cleveland (among them, the Eagles and Washington). Callahan’s mastery of the position, along with a personnel overhaul, has made the Browns’ offensive line one of the most coveted position groups in the NFL. Even on Cleveland’s worst days, they are in line to have some semblance of offensive success by virtue of handing the ball off over and over again. Callahan is an indispensable part of Cleveland’s rise and is perennially one of the highest-paid (if not the highest-paid) position coach in the NFL. He is worth every penny.
Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator
Let’s not overthink this one. The Cowboys are the league’s No. 3 rated pass defense in terms of defense-adjusted value over average. While their run defense lags a bit, there isn’t a team in the division that is going to make them pay enough for the weak spot. In terms of most respectable metrics, the Cowboys will finish with a top-10 defense in Quinn’s first year. This is an incredible turnaround from a year ago, when Mike McCarthy stubbornly clung to a Mike Nolan unit that finished the season as one of the worst units in the NFL. Quinn’s continued alterations to the Pete Carroll Cover 3 defense and his relentless optimism have allowed one side of the ball to completely turn the tide and place themselves into a conversation for legitimate Super Bowl contention.
Zach Azzanni, wide receivers coach
Here’s something you don’t see every year: Two of the team’s wide receivers earned in-season contract extensions. Courtland Sutton and Azzanni arrived at the same time (2018) while Tim Patrick came as an undrafted free agent the year before Azzanni’s arrival in Denver. In that time, both have developed into top-tier options who have seen marked improvements in catch percentage and yards per target. Azzanni also found and developed Trinity Benson, who the Broncos were able to trade to the Lions earlier this year. While a great deal of credit belongs to the players, these are receivers who have played at an elite level despite some sub-elite circumstances, earning themselves some cash in the process. Azzanni’s guidance goes a long way there.
Your franchise’s lack of historical success
I could have gone conservative here, and maybe this is a good time to mention that Penei Sewell is playing really well of late. He didn’t allow a single pressure against an excellent Browns pass rush Sunday and is rounding into a top-15 tackle, which is hard to do amid a lost season with a struggling quarterback and toggling between offensive play-callers. But I wanted to add that I think it’s far more enjoyable being a fan of a consistently woebegone franchise than a fan of a good franchise. I absolutely loved growing up a Browns fan. Every time I brought it up publicly people approached the subject like I had a nail coming out of my head but I didn’t know it.
William Green, huh? Sure, it’ll all work out, buddy.
When you like a terrible franchise, you’re taken through wild, creative rides of ineptitude. You see your owner make mistakes that other franchises had made, struggled because of, and paid dearly for, a half decade ago. You spend wild sums of money on players in their early 30s. You get to hire a coach like every other year.
All of that stuff is awesome. Way more fun than, say, being an entitled Seahawks or Giants fan right now, hoping to find a sympathetic ear for how things are going when they’ve experienced a Super Bowl in their very recent lifetime. Those fans are the worst. Meanwhile, you get to make a performance out of your team’s crappiness. Bill Simmons made an entire career on this premise before the Red Sox won a World Series. Thanksgiving, in fact, should be one of your FAVORITE holidays. People come to your house, look at you sympathetically in your Honolulu-blue Ziggy Ansah jersey and ask: Do you think this is the week? At least their coach seems like he cares!
All I’m saying is enjoy the ride. While I rescinded my Browns fandom years ago upon entering the NFL media world, there was a small part of me that felt terrified as the Browns throttled the Steelers in the playoffs. What would I have wanted after that? A Super Bowl? Then what? Am I just going to be that mouth breather calling into local talk radio to complain about the “offense’s struggles” when we’re seventh in DVOA? What a horrible place that would be.
De’Vondre Campbell, linebacker
I think this goes a few ways. If you’re a Packers fan, you’re thankful that Campbell, a free-agent linebacker, is perhaps the best off-ball linebacker in football this year. If you’re general manager Brian Gutekunst, you’re thankful that, amid a narrative that you don’t take big swings in free agency and stock the shelves correctly, here is something you can point to, the ultimate win for a general manager. Campbell legitimizes the Packers’ subtle approach to the open market and saves them a boatload of money, with off-ball coverage linebackers like Darius Leonard and Fred Warner now making almost $20 million per season. Campbell is on pace to set career highs at nearly every relevant statistic and is holding opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage under 70. All of this while missing just three—three!—tackles this season.
Tyrod Taylor, quarterback
The Texans are a dystopian chemical fire at the moment, but Tyrod Taylor is making the most of his opportunity as an interim spot starter. In four starts for the Texans in 2021, he is 2–2, which means he has logged a .500 record in starts with the worst rosters in recent NFL history. I don’t think we fully appreciate the type of gamer Taylor is. Ousted in a political squabble in Buffalo, ousted due to a concussion in Cleveland, ousted due to a freak incident of pregame medical malpractice in Los Angeles, he winds up tasked with plugging the Deshaun Watson gap in Houston for a year. None of this would seem to be particularly enjoyable work, yet he still maintains a career-winning record, a lifetime interception ratio better than 2:1 and is chipping away at a potential career high in net yards per attempt this season with No. 1 wide receiver Brandin Cooks.