With eight weeks in the can, the NFL season is at its official halfway point. Some of what we’ve seen has been more or less what we expected. But in other ways, the 2017 NFL season has been a completely off the rails mess offering one surprise after another.
Both of 2016’s Super Bowl teams have given us surprises. Teams like the Los Angeles Rams and Oakland Raiders are 180 degrees different than they were a season ago. Meanwhile, the New York Jets are 3-5 while the Baltimore Ravens are 4-4. Still, it’s much easier to find positives about New York.
That’s just the kind of weird season that it’s been.
Before we look ahead to the second half of the 2017 NFL season, it’s time to look back at the most surprising developments from its first half
1. Falcons are a flat, uninspiring 4-3
One of the biggest differences between college football and the NFL is that we don’t evaluate wins. If you win, you win. If you lose, you lose. There are no bad wins or good losses. With that said, while the Falcons sit at a respectable 4-3, it’s awfully hard to feel good about this team as we look towards the season’s second half.
Of Atlanta’s four wins, only the Week 2 win against the Green Bay Packers left us feeling that the Falcons were clearly the better team on the field. Wins against the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, and Jets (all losing teams through Week 8) could have gone the other direction with only one play going differently. That’s not exactly a comforting feeling as Atlanta heads into what should be a difficult final nine weeks of the season.
You know what else is not comforting? Matt Ryan has six interceptions through only seven games. As a point of reference, he threw seven in 19 combined games from the regular season and playoffs a season ago. Julio Jones, who has averaged better than 100 yards per game in each of the last four seasons, checks in at under 80 yards per game heading into Week 9. If this team is going to turn it around, these two need to start playing like the stars they were in 2016.
2. Hot action at trade deadline
The NFL trade deadline generally comes and goes fairly quietly. Not this year.
Marcel Dareus was traded from the Buffalo Bills to the Jacksonville Jaguars on the Friday before the deadline. But by and large, it seemed like the trade deadline would come and go quietly. Then, Monday rolled around.
It started when the Seattle Seahawks got some much needed offensive line help and acquired Duane Brown from the Houston Texans.
Then, things got really nuts when the oft-rumored Jimmy Garoppolo trade finally came to fruition. In a hotly discussed deal, the New England Patriots sent Tom Brady’s backup to the San Francisco 49ers.
The NFL is not the NBA or MLB. Midseason blockbusters rarely ever happen. Getting one hours before the deadline is a surprise. Getting two? That’s a downright shocker.
For a deeper look into what these blockbuster trades mean for the NFL, click here.
3. Evolution of Carson Wentz
On the other side of the Falcons, we have the Philadelphia Eagles, who sit at 7-1. Much of that is owed to Philadelphia’s second-year signal-caller.
To be fair, some of Wentz’s totals look similar to where he was in 2016 after eight games. He has 2,063 yards, which is comparable to his 1,890 through 2016’s first half. He has five interceptions, which is identical to 2016’s first eight games. What’s not comparable is that Wentz has 19 touchdowns passes. That’s is 10 more than he had in his first eight games a season ago. He’s also averaging a yard more per attempt. So, his team is unleashing its quarterback more.
It’s obviously paying off. The Eagles not only have the NFL’s best record, but also feel like one of very few truly good teams in the NFL.
4. Giants are already toast
At 1-6, the New York Giants are only slightly better than the winless 49ers and Cleveland Browns. But unlike those teams, the Giants were expected to be good. Heck, coming off of an 11-5 season, New York felt like a genuine Super Bowl contender in the weeks leading up to Week 1.
Now, unless Ben McAdoo is the one talking, any chatter of how good this team is has gone the way of the dinosaur. The Giants’ offense is anemic. The defense has its moments, but has fallen well short of what it should be capable of. In general, New York seems incapable of putting a truly good game together. Even the one win felt like it was more about what the opponent (the Denver Broncos) did wrong than what Big Blue did right.
Giants fans now need to start looking towards the NBA and NHL seasons, or even towards Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees in Spring Training. New York is less than halfway into its 2017 campaign, but the fat lady has been singing for quite some time.
5. Tom Brady leads the league in passing yards
This may not seem like it should be a surprise. After all, Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks (and players) in league history. But actually, it’s quite a surprise.
Through his illustrious career, Brady has only led the NFL in passing yards twice. The last occasion came in 2007. The Pats will usually work to protect Brady with runs. They’ve also frequently been up big in games through Brady’s career. While Bill Belichick is more aggressive than most coaches with a lead, that’s still a time to run the ball.
But despite having a shaky offensive line, Brady has passed a lot in 2017. He’s had to. The Patriots, who started the year with 16-0 buzz, are just not romping their opposition. Only two of New England’s five wins have been by more than eight points. The Patriots have had to pass. So far, the 40-year-old passer has been more than up to the task. He has a buffer of 360 yards on Alex Smith, the NFL’s next leading passer.
6. Rams have completely changed their identity
Los Angeles sits at 5-2. In and of itself, that’s a minor surprise. But the Rams had a manageable early schedule, so we always knew that a strong start was in play. What’s really surprising is how these games have played out.
Under Jeff Fisher, Los Angeles (and St. Louis before) was not only bad, but it was bland. The Rams didn’t win a lot but even when they did, it was usually in a 13-10 slugfest filled with punts and occasional field goals. In 2017, Los Angeles is averaging 30.3 points per game, trailing only the Houston Texans. Todd Gurley looks like the same back who won the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015. Jared Goff is still a step behind fellow 2017 first rounder Carson Wentz, but he is also on pace to throw for nearly 4,000 yards.
First-year head coach Sean McVay has accomplished a lot. He’s made Mike Martz look like an idiot. That was easy. But McVay has also made this an enjoyable team to watch. At 2016’s halfway point, no honest person could tell you that he/she enjoyed watching the Rams. That’s quite a transformation.
7. Bengals’ continued dependence on Andy Dalton
Over the years, we’ve all heard plenty of people calling for Dalton to be benched. We’re not doing that. It’s not always easy to do, but we’ll trust the Cincinnati Bengals’ brass on this topic. For the sake of argument, let’s accept that Dalton is better than any quarterback on the roster.
But when the Bengals get into the red zone, Dalton’s role should be minimized. That’s where Cincinnati should be giving the ball to Joe Mixon, Jeremy Hill or Giovani Bernard. But that’s not happening. We know this because the Bengals have only one rushing touchdown all year.
That should never happen. When we begin to list the reasons that Cincinnati is 3-4 and likely headed towards another missed playoff appearance, this one sits at or near the top.
8. Genuine race in the AFC East
A lot about the NFL landscape has changed since the beginning of the 21st Century. But the AFC East has been a constant. New England has won all but three AFC East titles since 2000. Coming into the year, the Patriots seemed stacked. Unlike previous years, there was minimal buzz that a trendy AFC East rival would unseat New England. Certainly, the Buffalo Bills, who haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, weren’t generating any buzz.
That’s changed. Buffalo sits only one-half game behind the Patriots. And this isn’t a matter of New England being disappointing, either. While the Patriots certainly have some questions around them, it’s worth repeating that they are 6-2. The 5-2 Bills are hanging with New England because the Bills have been good.
As a result, both teams enter the second half primed to make the playoffs. With two games against the Patriots, Buffalo has a chance to knock New England out of the division’s pole position for only the fourth time in the century.
9. John Elway continues to let Broncos down
Nobody is more important to the history of the Denver Broncos franchise than John Elway. He won two Super Bowls as a player and was the architect of franchise’s third championship.
He’s also the architect of the 2016 team that followed a Super Bowl win with a missed playoff appearance. This year’s team is no better.
That starts with the quarterback position. The retirement of Peyton Manning certainly didn’t help matters. But Manning was signed for the 2012 season as a 36-year-old quarterback with multiple neck surgeries to his name. He was never a long-term option. Brock Osweiler didn’t work out as the replacement. Judging by his lack of playing time, Paxton Lynch isn’t the guy. He can’t even unseat Trevor Siemian and his 76.8 passer rating, nine touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, though maybe that changes when he’s fully back from his injury.
Those quarterbacks were taken under Elway’s watch. He now has a team that should be a championship contender, but will instead either miss the playoffs, or be in for a painfully short run. Elway failed to line up a viable replacement for Manning when Manning was with the Broncos, and he failed to bring in a franchise passer since Manning’s retirement. Elway’s past with Denver is magnificent. That’s good, because his present leaves much to be desired.
10. Jacksonville becoming a dominant force
While the aforementioned Falcons are a 4-3 team that’s hard to get excited about, the Jacksonville Jaguars are the exact opposite.
Doug Marrone may not want to praise the defense. That’s fine. But we will. The Jaguars are first in the league in points allowed per game (15.7) and opponent’s passer rating (62.3). Jacksonville is also first in the league in sacks (33) which is even more impressive than it sounds. The Jaguars have had their bye while the No. 2 team (the Carolina Panthers) has not. Still, Jacksonville has six more sacks than Carolina. When we look at the Jaguars’ point differential, things are even more impressive.
Jacksonville is one of only three teams in the league to have a point differential of +70 or better. Only the one-loss Eagles and two-loss Rams are better. Even more impressive is that one of the Jags’ losses came by 21 points. So, in the six other games (including two more losses), Jacksonville has outscored its opposition by better than 15 points a contest. We haven’t seen the Jaguars in the playoffs for a while, but don’t let that fool you. This team is no fluke.
11. Seahawks’ running game is dreadful
We’re not going to diminish the 5-2 record. The Seahawks haven’t always looked sharp this year. But like New England, Seattle has been more than good enough to get the job done. But we do have to wonder about the status of this team’s running game.
The Seahawks are averaging 97.6 yards per game on the ground. In and of itself, that’s rough, as it ranks only 21st in the league. It gets worse when we realize that 28.1 of those yards come from Russell Wilson. Those count towards the stats but are usually a product of Wilson’s elusiveness, rather than anything good that the rest of the offense is doing. Taking Wilson’s yards away, only the Arizona Cardinals are worse.
When we get into the second half of the season and certainly the postseason, running is a necessity. Passing games don’t always travel well, or work well in tough weather. Given the talent Seattle has in its backfield, we didn’t anticipate this being such an issue. But at the halfway point, it’s a real problem.
12. Saints winning with defense
The first two weeks of 2017 looked like business as usual for the New Orleans Saints. In no way was that a good thing. The Saints allowed an average of 512.5 yards and 32.5 points in those games and sat at 0-2. Since then, New Orleans has not lost. While the offense has been good, the winning record hasn’t been a matter of Drew Brees and company lighting up the scoreboard, either.
During the five-game winning streak, the Saints’ defense has allowed an average of 277.6 yards and only 16 points a game. That’s not “good enough.” No, that’s just plain good.
It’s also come out of nowhere. Any of us who have followed New Orleans since its last playoff appearance in 2013 have gotten used to defenses that can’t stop anything. So, Weeks 1 and 2, while bad, weren’t especially surprising. But in Weeks 3-8, the defense has undergone a transformation and now feels like one that could anchor a championship contender.
13. Offense dragging Raiders down
The 2017 season began with the Raiders looking like one of the league’s best teams. Oakland was just that in 2016, and following a 2-0 start, there was no reason to think that 2017 would be any different. Then, things hit a wall.
The Raiders are 1-5 since that 2-0 start and frankly, they needed a miraculous finish to even have that one win. What’s really shocking is that the once lethal offense has been the culprit. In those five losses, Oakland has averaged only 13.4 points and 253.6 yards per game. It’s also lost the turnover battle 11-3.
Now, you could note that this is just cherry picking the losses while neglecting the wins. To an extent, that’s true. But two wins happened at the beginning of September. Since then, it’s been almost all downhill. And with five losses, the Raiders can afford one, maybe two more defeats if they’re going to make the playoffs. Very little that’s happened since Week 2 gives us reason to believe that that’s realistic.
14. Buccaneers are not only mediocre, but boring
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered 2017 with some playoff buzz. Much of that was to be expected. It’s what happens when a young team narrowly misses the playoffs. Observers just naturally assume that the team will take the next step. Frequently that happens, but it’s not a huge surprise when it doesn’t.
What’s surprising is that the Buccaneers are simply playing boring football. With DeSean Jackson being added to an already talented group of receivers led by Mike Evans, quarterback Jameis Winston was supposed to take a huge step forward in 2017. While the yardage totals have generally respectable, he’s thrown six interceptions against only 10 touchdowns.
The 2017 season started as a year with great excitement for Tampa. But through seven weeks, it’s been a disappointment. With an offense that’s tied for 18th in points per game, the disappointment has been a rather boring one, too.
15. Jets obliterating expectations
Under normal circumstances, it would be downright condescending to say that a 3-5 team is obliterating its expectations. But these Jets aren’t close to normal. This was a team that was supposedly going to be tanking the year, NBA style. Only, unlike the NBA, the NFL doesn’t have a lottery. So, the No. 1 draft pick was all but certain. The only question was, would New York win a single game? Three wins later, that question has been answered emphatically.
Now, the cynical response is that they couldn’t even tank right. While the Jets are better than expected, they’re still not a playoff contender. So, besides taking New York out of reasonable contention for the No. 1 pick, what have these three wins accomplished?
It’s a fair question, but this goes beyond just the draft pick. Now the young players on this team know how to not only compete, but also win. That’s going to come in handy in future seasons. It’s also a sign that this team may be closer to being ready to compete than we thought. There are holes still. But there’s also light at the end of the tunnel. For a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010, that’s a great thing to have.
16. Ravens playing well blow standards
The Ravens have long had a high standard. That doesn’t mean that Baltimore wins every game or even makes the playoffs every year. But this team competes at a high level. At least, it did. We’re just not seeing it in 2017.
To be fair, some of the stats would indicate that Baltimore has met that standard. The Ravens are 4-4 and actually have a positive point differential. But those losses have come by an average of more than 16 points. Even that total is some what skewed by a three-point loss in Baltimore to a 3-5 Bears team. Even if the wins have actually been more impressive, this is not the sign of a well prepared team.
Things could be worse for the Ravens. But it doesn’t change how out of sorts this team has looked half of the time it’s taken the field.
17. Jay Ajayi’s incredible regression
The aforementioned Bengals have one rushing touchdown on the season. That makes them the envy of the Miami Dolphins, who have yet to find pay dirt on a single rushing play. Much of that can be pinned on Ajayi, who has done essentially nothing to resemble what he did a year ago. Perhaps that’s why the Dolphins reportedly traded the struggling running back to the Eagles.
In 2016, Ajayi not only rushed for eight touchdowns, but averaged 84.8 yards per game and toted the ball at 4.9 yards per clip. That enabled him to not only make the big plays, but forced the opposing defense to respect his talent. In turn, that opened things up for Ryan Tannehill and later, Matt Moore. In 2017, Ajayi is averaging 66.4 yards a game and 3.4 yards per carry. Since defenses don’t have to focus as much on shutting him down, they have shifted attention towards Moore and Jay Cutler.
Cutler and Moore may be good enough to guide a team that has a potent running game. But if opponents are geared for the pass, they have no chance. It’s a big reason that Miami doesn’t feel like a real playoff contender, despite sitting at 4-3.
18. Deshaun Watson already emerging into a star
Before Watson was drafted, his college coach made an interesting comparison. Dabo Swinney said that passing on Watson would be on par with the NBA teams that passed on Michael Jordan. Watson is only seven games (and six starts) into his NFL career. He has a long way to go until he’s the NFL equivalent of Jordan. But the comparison doesn’t seem as outlandish as it once did.
Watson has eight interceptions, tying him with Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco for fourth in the NFL. So, he’s looked like a raw rookie. But his 19 touchdowns are not only more than Dalton and Flacco combined, but they are also tied for the league lead. So, Watson has also looked like an immensely talented rookie.
It’s taken a long time. But the Texans know they have a franchise quarterback. More importantly, a league that’s gotten a lot of negative publicity has an emerging star that it desperately needs. As talented as Watson was, we didn’t see that coming this early before Week 1.