We’re around the midpoint of the NFL season, and it hasn’t been too exciting a season. Maybe it’s because I’m a Giants fan and the Giants have been an absolute trainwreck this year. Maybe it’s because after all these years of following and watching, I’m finally getting sick of it. Maybe it’s because the NFL as a whole has just been in decline, which I think there are plenty of reasons for. But that’s another conversation. (And no, players kneeling during the anthem isn’t one of them. Seriously, if that bothers you, you need to get over yourself.) Nonetheless, there have been some things going on around the league that I think are worth going over. Let’s start with some surprising trades we’ve witnessed over the past week, starting with the Pats trading away their backup QB, Jimmy Garoppolo, to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2018 second round pick.
Normally this wouldn’t be that unusual for the Pats. They’ve dealt good backups as well as good starters before without so much as a bat of an eye. It’s only surprising now because Tom Brady is near the end of his career (even if his play on the field doesn’t indicate it), and there were many indications throughout the offseason that Garoppolo would be the guy to succeed Brady. After filling in very admirably for Brady to start the season last year, it would have been a very Patriots-like thing to do to trade him. There were whispers about the Browns, and the Patriots would have likely been able to get decent value for him. The general understanding was that the Pats chose to stick with Garoppolo because they truly did believe that Brady was close to the end and that he could be the guy to succeed Brady. The Pats clearly thought very highly of him, as confirmed by how Belichick reacted to losing him this week. Judging based off that explanation that Belichick gave, which was unusually revealing for him, it seemed like the Pats wanted to keep Garoppolo, but with Brady playing at such a high level, they couldn’t afford to sign a backup to a long term contract, even if they did like him. Which makes sense on their part. It’s just puzzling at first because if that was the logic all along, then you would have figured they would have traded him during the offseason. But I think it was also a question mark as to whether Brady would play as well as he is. As Belichick said, they tried to keep Jimmy as long as they could but just couldn’t make it work, likely because of what they would have had to pay him.
As for the niners, it’s a bit puzzling on their part as well. They’re winless to start the season, but there have been signs of progress. 5 of their 8 losses have been by 3 points or less. At the end of the day, the logic behind giving Shanahan and John Lynch long term contracts seemed to be that this was going to be a long term rebuilding project that was going to take time. No one was really expecting results this year. It’s why Shanahan came into the season with Hoyer as the starter. The understanding was that he just needed someone to hold the ship down and run the offense and then next year, the niners would likely draft a QB. Hoyer hasn’t been that good, which is why he was benched for CJ Beathard, the niners 3rd round pick from this year’s draft. But with Hoyer’s release, it’s clear that Garoppolo will now be the starter.
What I’m wondering is, why now, and what does this mean for the niners long term? Certainly if Garoppolo stinks up the joint this year they have no obligation to keep him. Obviously as a coach your number 1 goal is to win games, but still, if this was going to be a rebuilding year without a QB, why bring in Garoppolo midseason? Are they just seeing if he has the potential to be a franchise guy, and if not they’ll cut and run (like the Bears did with Glennon)? Do they want him to be their starter long term? At this point you’re 0-8, so you’re already on the fast track for the number 1 pick in the draft. It just doesn’t make sense to me to change the course. If Garoppolo plays well enough, they could fall off that path. We already haven’t seen enough of Beathard to know who he is. He’s probably not the guy, but why not let him finish up the season just to see and then draft a guy next year?
And what if Garoppolo isn’t the guy long term? I guess it’s not a huge risk move, but I’m not entirely sold on Garoppolo yet. Obviously he’s played well with New England. And yes, he seems better than backups they’ve had in the past that haven’t gone on to do well. He’s more talented than Cassel and Hoyer, and he’s more disciplined than Mallett, who was never a great fit for the Pats. Still, you have to mention those guys. Cassel especially, but also Hoyer, both played well for New England, and they couldn’t keep it up elsewhere. In fact, the sample size overall for backup QBs that went on to be starters elsewhere because of good play in good systems with limited action isn’t great. Outside of Cassel and Hoyer in New England you have Kevin Kolb from Philly, Matt Flynn from Green Bay, and most recently Brock Osweiler from Denver. Now obviously the Pats thought highly of Garoppolo so that’s worth something, but it’s no given that he’s a starter in this league. The sample size is way too small. He’s had a game and a half of regular season action as a starter. So for the niners, it’s not a very high risk move, but I just don’t see the logic behind it. Why not see what Beathard has, ride out the rest of the season, and draft Darnold No 1 overall next year? Then again, as Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com suggested this morning, maybe the niners just don’t like the incoming college QB crop.
The other two big trades were even more headscratching. Let’s start in Carolina where the Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin had a great rookie season and has been inconsistent since, although Cam Newton and the passing game have also been inconsistent and erratic and it’s always hard to separate receiver performance from the guy throwing to him. Benjamin was meant to be a big receiver with a big catch radius, a guy who can give Cam Newton margin for error. It’s the same profile as Devin Funchess, their other WR, which is why some on NFL Network last night suggested that the Panthers felt they could get rid of him. Funchess certainly has come on recent, but I don’t know about that theory either. Because the Panthers knew what they were getting in both Benjamin and Funchess. They purposely picked both those receivers with that profile because they knew it fit Cam Newton’s playing style. The Panthers GM recently said that this move was about making the offense faster. It’s a bit of a headscratcher, but at the end of the day, it’s likely that they felt good about Curtis Samuel (their 2nd round pick from this year) and Christian McCaffrey, and thought that they had other holes they needed to fill that they could with the draft resources they got from this trade. Maybe they also didn’t want to pay Benjamin once his contract was up. At the end of the day, a lot of these moves are about value relative to cost.
And then there’s Jay Ajayi from the Bears to the Eagles, another headscratcher. The Dolphins offense had been one of the worst in the league and their passing game with Jay Cutler is pretty much nonexistent. Ajayi can be somewhat of a week to week proposition, but there’s no doubt that he’s talented and one of the tougher grinders in this league. Their offensive line hadn’t been playing well, but without Ajayi they have basically nothing to hang their hat on on offense. Maybe Gase wants to go full on rebuild? Doesn’t seem like him. Maybe there were just off the field issues or philosophical differences. I’ve heard some whispers about that. Ajayi is somewhat inconsistent, but for an offense that’s been that bad and has had absolutely no passing game, it doesn’t entirely make sense.
In other news, the Broncos just benched Trevor Siemian for Brock Osweiler. It’s likely not a move they wanted to make, but Siemian just hasn’t been cutting it in recent weeks. It’s unfortunate, as I’ve liked Siemian. He has a decent foundation and wasn’t the main issue last year. I always thought with a good surrounding cast he can play well. He started the year off well but the Broncos are currently in a 3 game losing skid, and the Broncos likely felt that with a defense as good as theirs, they couldn’t have their Quarterback holding them back. It’s true that Siemian simply hasn’t been playing well enough. At his best he’s an Andy Dalton type player, a ball distributor who won’t wow you and won’t carry your offense by himself but can run your offense if you give him a team. But he’s made some very poor decisions in the past few weeks. I’ve also noticed that the ball isn’t coming out of his hands with quite as much zip as I’m used to seeing from him.
It’s unfortunate, because he really is their best option. Brock Osweiler did flash at times when Kubiak was head coach, but he was one of the worst Quarterbacks in the league last year, and he’s not going to do much for you. His flaws are tough to work around. It’s alarming that Paxton Lynch hasn’t been given an opportunity. They wanted him to win the job in the preseason and drafted him high enough to tell you that they thought he could be their guy in the future. That he couldn’t even beat out Siemian, a 7th rounder, and that they aren’t turning to him now, shows that they know something we don’t, and he hasn’t progressed the way they may have hoped.
Still… I’m extremely skeptical that Osweiler will provide them with anything. Maybe we’ll see Lynch in the future. Who knows. This should have been Siemian’s job to run with and I don’t see the switch helping them, but unfortunately he hasn’t been good enough, and when that happens in this league, you’re going to lose your job.
On the other end of the spectrum, how good has Deshaun Watson been in Houston? It’s really crazy to watch. I don’t think anyone saw this coming. Of course, he’s far from a finished product. O’Brien is helping him a lot, and defenses will figure out ways to stop him. But still, the aggressiveness and playmaking prowess is refreshing in this age of checkdowns. And he’s passed so many really really hard tests. He was inches from beating New England in New England, Seattle at Seattle, and Kansas City. And he’s started the seasons with 19 touchdowns (breaking Kurt Warner’s record of most for the first 7 games of a career) and 8.3 yards per attempt. He’s escaping, throwing down the field, and making Andrew Luck type tight window throws down the field. But he doesn’t have anywhere near the arm Andrew Luck has. Physically, he’s not that different from where scouts had him. He’s just making the plays. Kudos to him. After years of QB purgatory post Schaub era, it seems like the Texans have their guy. It will be interesting to see where things go moving forward.
Lastly, let’s wrap things up by looking at who the marquee teams are around the league right now. This year has been as we’re starting to see a shift in the guard of who’s good in the NFL. The Tom Brady wave of QBs will retire soon. Rodgers is hurt. The patriots defensive losses finally seem to have caught up to them. Brees is still great but on the tail end. The Chargers have been blowing leads and comebacks for 5+ years now. And the Steelers passing game hasn’t matriculated as we would have expected. Overall, it seems like a crappy year for the league. Cardinals, Panthers, Falcons, Giants, a lot of names that have been in it recently are not this year. But we’re also seeing some new teams rise up to take their place. The Eagles are looking very good with Carson Wentz. Obviously his development has been great but its the whole team that looks very complete right now. Then you have to love what the Chiefs are doing with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. And Alex Smith is playing differently than he ever has. It seems like the drafting of Pat Mahomes really lit a fire under him and he was sick of everyone saying he doesn’t throw down the field enough. They are the cream of the crop this year, and I would love to see them take out PIT and/or NE in the playoffs. And I don’t expect them to go too far with their QB and being in the same division in the Patriots, but the Bills have been quite the surprise under Sean McDermott this year. They are now 5-2 which is shocking, to be honest. Even the Jets, who looked about as close to committing to tank as any team could be, are 3-5 and fighting hard every week. I won’t say I’m excited for it, but this week’s Bills Jets matchup on Thursday night might even be worth watching a bit.
The league is always in flux and things have certainly been changing as of recent. But at midseason, the contenders and pretenders are starting to sort out, and it will be interesting to see where things go moving forward.