August seems like forever ago in NFL terms, but it really has been only 15 weeks. So much can change in the course of four months, and what might have seemed controversial or even absurd over the summer has turned out to be obvious and factual. In going back through the 2019 season, I can sit here now and say things that would have absolutely shocked me back in the preseason.
Let’s run through 15 of the biggest surprises from this NFL season. I’ll also try to get a sense of how sustainable or likely to reoccur each is, although some are self-evident. And let’s start with the most dominant player of 2019:
Jump to a topic:
Dak’s dominance | Cratering 2004 QBs
The Pats’ legendary D | A surprise sacker
Running QBs | A decent Bucs defense?!
Cousins: MVP candidate? | Foles’ quick exit
A historic receiving season | Horrific kicking
After Jackson threw for 324 yards and five touchdowns in a season-opening blowout of the Dolphins, I was impressed. When Brady proceeded to start carving apart the Steelers in prime time that night, I decided to crack a joke on Twitter:
yeesh, Tom Brady looks like Lamar Jackson out there
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 9, 2019
The following morning, I wrote about Jackson’s performance and pointed out that his record-setting day wasn’t simply a product of playing the tanking Dolphins, who still had Minkah Fitzpatrick in their secondary. I finished the Jackson section with this: “If anyone thinks they shouldn’t be scared of what Jackson can do as a passer, Sunday should be a wake-up call.”
Little did I know. I’d like to say that I saw what was coming, but I didn’t. Jackson, of course, has picked apart just about every team he has faced this season. The guy who fell back below league average after a hot start to the season was Brady, who began 2019 with three great games and hasn’t been the same since. Out of 31 qualifying quarterbacks since Week 4, Brady ranks 28th in completion percentage, 31st in yards per attempt and 27th in both passer rating and Total QBR. Two weeks ago, I wrote that Brady’s numbers were comparable to those of Mitchell Trubisky, but the Bears quarterback has now pulled ahead.
Even when we factor in those three impressive games in September, Brady’s full-season performance isn’t remotely close to what Jackson has done strictly as a passer:
Even though Brady has thrown 181 more passes than Jackson, Jackson’s efficiency means he has generated more cumulative expected points added (EPA) as a passer (62.8) than Brady (51.8). The 2018 first-round pick has completed a much higher percentage of his passes despite the fact that his average pass has traveled 8.5 yards in the air, more than a yard beyond Brady’s average of 7.1 air yards per attempt.
The excuses you might try to make for Brady don’t apply, either. The Patriots quarterback has played one of the easiest schedules in football, not Jackson. Brady’s receivers have dropped a higher percentage of his passes, but when you remove those plays for both passers, Jackson is still nearly 16 points ahead of Brady in passer rating. And Brady has been pressured more frequently, but Jackson’s passer rating when pressured is a league-best 103.7, while Brady is down at 39.6. That’s not a product of scrambling, either; Jackson has a 102.2 passer rating when he is pressured and makes a throw from the pocket.
Purely on cumulative passing EPA, Jackson ranks 14th in the NFL, right around what Aaron Rodgers has produced this season. By passing EPA per attempt, Jackson is seventh. That’s more than enough when you consider what Jackson generates as a runner, where his 43.9 EPA is more than double the guys ranked second (Deshaun Watson) and third (Daniel Jones) combined and better than any running back in football. Jackson is an incredibly special player and an easy pick for 2019 MVP.
Three quarterbacks would lead their team in both passing and rushing yards, and one of them would be … Ryan Fitzpatrick
Since the merger in 1970, there have been six quarterbacks to lead their team in both passing and rushing yards: Bobby Douglass, Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Josh Allen.
Three quarterbacks are in line to join this group in 2019. Lamar Jackson is no surprise in Baltimore. While David Johnson has disappointed in Arizona, people could have easily imagined a scenario in which he struggled to stay healthy and Kyler Murray was the focal point of the running game. The rookie No. 1 overall pick is 87 yards ahead of Kenyan Drake and could be usurped by the midseason trade acquisition and fantasy playoff hero by the end of the season.
Drake was expected to be the rushing leader in Miami, but how far would you have needed to go down its preseason list before landing on Fitzpatrick as the Dolphins’ leading rusher? He has only 219 rushing yards, but with Drake in Arizona, Mark Walton having been released and Kalen Ballage on injured reserve, the next-closest competitor is Patrick Laird, who has 130 rushing yards with two games to go. The Dolphins gave Myles Gaskin (78 rushing yards) a chunk of Laird’s workload during Sunday’s loss to the Giants.
Before the season, I would have guessed that Fitzpatrick would be playing for another team by the time December rolled around. It seemed like the Dolphins were going to use their tanking season to evaluate Josh Rosen. But after Rosen struggled mightily in three starts, new coach Brian Flores went back to Fitzpatrick. Rosen, a first-round pick by Arizona in 2018, hasn’t been seen since and probably isn’t long for the Dolphins’ roster.
Over the ensuing nine games, Fitzpatrick has played some of the best football of his career. He is eighth in QBR over that time frame while throwing 339 passes, which ties him with Mitchell Trubisky for the most in football. A top-10 quarterback who soaks up this much volume is pretty valuable! Fitzpatrick is third in passing EPA and sixth in rushing EPA over that nine-start stretch, and he has done so by playing behind an offensive line that might charitably be described as a work in progress.
The more cynical among us might note that the Dolphins’ chances of claiming the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft have fallen from 89.1% to just 7.1%, according to the ESPN Football Power Index, but it’s not Fitzpatrick’s job to keep the tank alive. He has helped keep the Dolphins competitive, which is impressive for a 37-year-old on a team going nowhere.
The league leader in sacks would be a Broncos castoff
I did not see the Shaq Barrett season coming. An undrafted free agent in 2014, he showed some promise when he debuted the following season, racking up 5.5 sacks and 12 knockdowns while playing 45% of the defensive snaps. Buried behind DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Shane Ray, Barrett finally got a chance to start in 2017 and disappointed. He racked up four sacks and 12 knockdowns across 67% of Denver’s defensive snaps, and the Broncos promptly used the fifth overall pick on Bradley Chubb, bouncing Barrett back to the bench.
Barrett seemed like a competent third rusher who would be stretched in a starting role, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when he got a one-year deal with $3 million fully guaranteed. He has turned out to be the biggest bargain of the free-agent window. He has a league-high 16.5 sacks for the Buccaneers and 31 knockdowns, the latter figure tied with T.J. Watt for best in NFL.
It seemed like Barrett might have been a flash in a pan when he followed a run of nine sacks in four games to start the season by picking up just 1.5 sacks over the following four. That has not been the case. He has responded with five sacks and 14 knockdowns over his past four games. It’s not fair to compare him to a generational athlete and former teammate, but if Miller has preternatural, almost-impossible bend to help get around tackles, Barrett is not far behind.
Barrett isn’t going to get Miller’s six-year, $114.5 million contract this offseason, but as Bruce Arians admittedly recently, Barrett “ain’t going anywhere.” The Bucs could use their franchise and transition tags to keep Barrett and Jameis Winston in-house for the short term, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they negotiated a multiyear deal with their star pass-rusher.
Dak Prescott would have the best season of the Class of 2016 quarterbacks
With Jared Goff coming off of a Super Bowl appearance and Carson Wentz gathering serious MVP chatter before the campaign, it seemed like Prescott would be battling to prove himself during 2019. When the 2016 fourth-round pick and the Cowboys failed to agree on a contract extension before the season, it became clear he was embarking on one of the most significant contract years in recent memory.
While Prescott hasn’t been perfect, he has clearly been a cut above his competition. With Ezekiel Elliott struggling through his worst campaign as a pro and Amari Cooper battling various injuries for most of the season, Prescott has become the focal point of the Cowboys’ offense.
Prescott also has outperformed his more expensive classmates in the process, each of whom have already received contract extensions:
On top of that, Prescott leads this foursome with 235 rushing yards and three touchdowns. For a player who often is criticized as a product of his environment, he hasn’t benefited from much help this season. Dallas receivers have dropped 4.8% of his passes, which is the second-highest rate in the NFL, behind Fitzpatrick.
In all, Prescott is grossly exceeding expectations. NFL Next Gen Stats suggest he should have completed 62% of the passes he has thrown this season. Even given that significant drop rate, he has instead completed 65.5% of those passes. The 3.5% gap between his expected and actual completion rates is the fifth best in football among regular starters, while Wentz (-1.4%), Jacoby Brissett (-3.0%) and Goff (a league-worst -4.3%) are all below league average in the same category.
Dallas’ midseason dip in form before Sunday’s blowout win over the Rams led the offense to come in for criticism, but it hasn’t been the problem. The Cowboys rank second in offensive DVOA, 22nd in defensive DVOA and dead last on special teams. It might seem for naught if a clearly banged-up Prescott struggles in Sunday’s division-tilting game rematch with the Eagles, but he has been one of the best quarterbacks in football this season.
Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes would depend on Devlin Hodges finding a connection with James Washington
I’ve written about this recently, but it is staggering to look back toward August and think about just how different the Steelers’ offense has been from what we expected heading into this season. This was already going to be a team in transition, what with Antonio Brown traded to the Raiders and Le’Veon Bell officially parting ways to join the Jets, but the offense still had guys around such as Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Those three offensive cornerstones played a total of 41 snaps together before Roethlisberger left at halftime against the Seahawks in Week 2 with an injured elbow and never returned. Conner and Smith-Schuster have hobbled through difficult seasons with various injuries. Donte Moncrief was cut after a horrific start to the year to lock up the compensatory pick the Steelers were in line to receive for Bell. Jaylen Samuels and Vance McDonald have missed games. The Steelers have had to go deep into their depth chart at every single skill position.
The Steelers had to turn to Hodges after nominal quarterback of the future Mason Rudolph suffered a concussion and then again after Rudolph simply didn’t play well. And while Hodges led the Steelers to three straight wins to get them to 8-5, he looked badly overmatched against a great defense in Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Bills. Mike Tomlin seemed to give thought to a reunion with Rudolph, before eventually confirming Hodges as the starter against the Jets in Week 16.
The Steelers finish their season against a Ravens team that might be playing its backups, given that Baltimore can clinch the top seed in the AFC with a win over the Browns in Week 16. Hodges is unquestionably limited, but the time to go after a veteran with a higher floor such as Ryan Fitzpatrick or Colin Kaepernick passed months ago. The Steelers believed in Rudolph and were quickly convinced of their mistake. While Smith-Schuster could return this weekend, Hodges is going to have to make it work in the passing game with Washington and Diontae Johnson, receivers who were really supposed to be backups in 2019.
Believing in Rudolph had the effect of causing the Steelers to send a first-round pick to the Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick, and while I was critical of the deal at the time, it has worked out brilliantly for the Steelers in Year 1. Fitzpatrick likely will be an All-Pro for the first time, and his arrival has transformed the Pittsburgh defense. The Steelers have allowed a passer rating of 131.3 to opposing quarterbacks with Fitzpatrick on the sidelines or in Miami this season; with their star safety in the lineup, the opposing passer rating has fallen all the way to 72.3. Fitzpatrick isn’t solely responsible for that improvement, but he has been a huge influence at a safety spot that Pittsburgh has struggled to fill since the peak of Troy Polamalu‘s career.
The Class of 2004 would crater
This isn’t the end of one of the most storied quarterback classes in league history, but that day doesn’t seem far off. After pretty routinely racking up an average about 10.5% of the league’s passing yards and passing touchdowns from 2006 to 2018, the Class of 2004 was responsible for just over 5% of passing yards and under 4% of its passing touchdowns this season. The last time the Class of 2004 struggled to top 5% of the league’s passing production was, well, in 2004. I’m not sure that class is going to climb much in the years to come.
I already discussed what happened to Roethlisberger. The elbow injury was a surprise for a quarterback who actually had gotten healthier as his career went along. I didn’t think he would age well thanks to his injury history, but the 37-year-old had missed only five games due to injury from 2013 to 2018, before missing almost all of the 2019 campaign.
It also wasn’t a surprise to see Eli Manning benched for rookie first-round pick Daniel Jones, with the two-time Super Bowl winner eventually coming back when Jones suffered a high ankle sprain. Manning sits on the cusp of immortality at a career record of 117-117, and with Jones recovered and trending to start the final two games, Manning could be done in New York.
What happened to Philip Rivers, though, is surprising. He made the Pro Bowl in 2018 at the helm of a 12-4 Chargers team, and while Los Angeles went through a predictably frustrating start to the season, he didn’t seem to be the problem. After the Week 9 victory over the Packers, he was completing nearly 67% of his passes and averaging 7.8 yards per attempt and had thrown 12 touchdown passes against seven picks. The Chargers were 4-5 and still on the outskirts of the playoff race in the AFC.
Rivers has (mostly) cratered over the ensuing five games. While he posted a near-perfect passer rating in a blowout win over the Jags, he has been a mess in Los Angeles’ four other losses. The crafty veteran has completed just 61.6% of his passes, averaged 7.5 yards per attempt and thrown just six touchdown passes against 11 picks. Two of those interceptions came while down 29 points to the Vikings last week, but his nine other picks took place while the game was within seven points or fewer.
Six weeks ago, there was no speculation that the Chargers were about to move on from their longtime quarterback. Now, it would be a surprise if they brought him back for 2020. The franchise likely saved itself tens of millions of dollars by not signing Rivers to an extension before the season; he would instead hit unrestricted free agency for the first time this offseason.
I do think Rivers will have suitors if he wants to keep playing, although whichever team is interested will need to be able to protect the former NC State star. The Chargers have one of the worst tackle situations in football when Russell Okung has been out, and Rivers has been a different quarterback with his left tackle on the field. Just under 25% of his dropbacks have come with Okung on the field this season, but he has averaged nearly 10 yards per attempt and posted a passer rating of 104.2 in those plays. Without Okung, he falls to 7.4 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 84.3.
Manning, who also will be a free agent in 2020, seems far more likely to retire. Roethlisberger might be the only member of the Class of 2004 left standing by this offseason, and given that he reportedly has refused to shave until he is able to throw a football, it appears he is likely to return for 2020. Roethlisberger’s $8.5 million salary in 2020 is guaranteed for injury, and the Steelers surely would welcome back the future Hall of Famer with open arms.
Michael Thomas would keep doing historic things
Receivers aren’t supposed to do what Thomas did last season. In 2018, he caught 84.5% of the passes thrown in his direction. Running backs can do that on a smaller sample size when they’re only being thrown screens and dump-offs. Christian McCaffrey caught 86.3% of the passes thrown in his direction last season, but his average target traveled just under 1 yard downfield. Thomas’ average target traveled nearly 8 yards downfield.
We have average depth of target and catch rate data going back through 2007 at ESPN, and no wideout had combined Thomas’ catch rate with target depth. Heck, no wideout with 100 targets in a season had posted a catch rate over 79% over that time frame, let alone Thomas’s 84.5% rate.
We didn’t know back in August that Teddy Bridgewater was going to play the better part of six games for the Saints, but if we did, I would have assumed that Thomas’ catch rate would have dropped off to somewhere in the 70% range. That still would be among the best in football, especially for a wideout with his usage rate, but a major drop-off from his 2018 campaign.
Thomas has indeed fallen off in 2019. His catch rate through 14 games is all the way down to … 83.6%. That’s unreal, and his work with Bridgewater shows that it isn’t strictly a product of playing with Drew Brees. Among the wideouts with 100 targets in 2019, the second-highest catch rate in football belongs to the Bucs’ Chris Godwin. The newly named Pro Bowler is at 71.7%. The average catch rate for guys in this group — almost all of whom are regarded as superstars — is 65%.
Godwin catches deeper passes on average than Thomas, but even after you adjust for depth of target, nobody is coming close to doing what Thomas has done over the past two years. You could make a case that Thomas was the best wideout in football last season, although I would have argued for DeAndre Hopkins. Right now, nobody else is on Thomas’ level.
Marcus Peters would make it to the Pro Bowl … as a Ravens player
This one was surprising for all kinds of reasons. It didn’t seem like the Ravens needed to add a cornerback before the season, but once slot standout Tavon Young suffered a season-ending neck injury, Jimmy Smith went down with a sprained knee and safety Tony Jefferson tore his ACL, the Ravens needed to add help in the secondary.
Peters never seemed to find steady footing in Los Angeles. The Rams grew frustrated with him attempting to jump routes and/or ending up on a different page from the rest of the defense, which led to at least one long, crucial touchdown. The Rams sent Peters to the Ravens in what was really a salary dump at midseason, as Los Angeles freed up $5.9 million in advance of acquiring Jalen Ramsey later that day.
What has happened next has been nothing short of shocking. Peters immediately stepped into the starting lineup and came up with a pick-six of Russell Wilson in a 30-16 road win over the Seahawks. Peters has been one of the league’s best cornerbacks since. The guy who the Rams couldn’t trust has become the corner the Ravens depend upon; it’s no coincidence that Peters was the one on John Brown in Cover Zero on the Bills’ last play of the game two weeks ago, when the Bills failed to convert on fourth down.
The Ravens have been a drastically better defense with Peters on the field. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a 62.4 QBR against the Ravens without him this season, a mark that falls to 30.9 with Peters on the field. He is a free agent after the season at a position the Ravens already have addressed, but it’s almost impossible to imagine them letting him leave. Whatever happens, Peters has reestablished himself as a No. 1 cornerback and a player who will get a big new contract this offseason.
The Patriots would have one of the best defenses in league history
The numbers for the Patriots are still astounding. A defense that was good (if not great) last season and lost its best pass-rusher in Trey Flowers is allowing a passer rating of 57.4, with 25 interceptions against just 10 passing touchdowns. Opposing offenses have scored 16 touchdowns against the Patriots in 14 games. The Pats have responded with five defensive touchdowns of their own. Bill Belichick’s defense continues to allow less than 1 point per possession at 0.91 points per drive.
To put this in context, I went back through the merger and looked at how many points every defense allowed to opposing offenses, removing return touchdowns and safeties from the equation. Then, since we’re playing in a scoring-friendly era, I compared each defense’s points allowed to league average and built a standardized score to allow us to compare the defenses across eras.
The Patriots are allowing 11.2 points per game to opposing offenses. That’s the fourth-best defense ever through 14 games. The 1970 Vikings rank as the best defense through 14 games, which was the entirety of their regular season, but the Patriots are right up there with some great defenses of more recent times. Here’s the top 10, with their performances all translated to the scoring environment of 2019:
And while some attribute New England’s success to an easy schedule, the reality is that just about every great defense needs an easy schedule to hit this sort of peak. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots’ average opponent has posted an offensive DVOA of minus-5.0%, making for the second-easiest slate of opposing offenses in football.
Go back through these great defenses and you’ll see a similar trend. The 2002 Buccaneers faced the easiest slate of opposing offenses in football. The 2000 Ravens, 2013 Seahawks and 2017 Jaguars were each going up against the second-easiest schedule in the league, like the 2019 Patriots. DVOA doesn’t exist for the 1970 Vikings, but if it did, I suspect it would find that the Vikings faced a pretty easy slate of opponents too. (DVOA, by the way, has the Patriots as the fourth-best defense since 1985 through 14 games.) This is a historically dominant defense, and it is one nobody expected to play at this level before the season began.
The Bucs’ defense would be decent
With two weeks to go in the regular season, the Buccaneers rank ninth in defensive DVOA. Ninth! That’s just ahead of the Saints. The Seahawks are behind the Bucs. The Eagles and Packers aren’t as good on defense. The Chargers, Cowboys and Panthers all look up at Tampa Bay. This from a defense that ranked last in the league in both 2017 and 2018. What on earth happened here?
Finding a league-leading pass-rusher in Shaq Barrett for nothing in free agency obviously helped, but the Bucs finally built an effective defensive line. Jason Pierre-Paul has 3.5 sacks and 11 knockdowns in half a season since returning from his neck injury. Ndamukong Suh has played like Ndamukong Suh and bizarrely scored two touchdowns. Carl Nassib, a waiver-wire acquisition from the Browns last year, has rounded into form as an effective third defensive end.
The other breakout star on the line has been Vita Vea. The 2018 first-round pick missed time as a rookie, and his most notable play of the season might be catching a 1-yard touchdown pass in a win over the Falcons, but he has emerged as a serious problem for opposing defenses. He might never produce huge sack totals, but his athleticism on the interior is ridiculous.
Where Vea has really been valuable, though, is as a run-stopper. Tampa Bay leads the league in rush defense DVOA. It has allowed one 100-yard rusher all season, and that was when Chris Carson got to 105 yards in a November shootout with the Seahawks. The Bucs rank second in yards per carry allowed, first in yards before first contact and fourth in first-down rate. They have allowed 217 fewer rushing yards than any other team.
Stopping the run doesn’t mean as much as it used to in a league that is so pass-happy, but Tampa Bay’s long-miserable pass defense actually has rounded into competency this season. This is a recent development, and the improvement has been driven partly by the benching and release of former first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves after the Week 10 win over the Cardinals.
Since cutting Hargreaves, the Bucs have blossomed. Through the Cardinals game, Tampa Bay ranked 24th in both passer rating and QBR. When it didn’t get pressure on the opposing quarterback, its young secondary was overmatched and frequently made mistakes, producing a passer rating of 117.5, the third-worst mark in football.
In a five-game sample, Tampa Bay’s defense suddenly has rounded into form. It ranks fifth in QBR allowed and 11th in passer rating. When its pass rush doesn’t get home, its passer rating is at 83.5, which is the sixth-best mark in the league. Some of this is due to a schedule that has included Nick Foles and David Blough, but the Bucs also have faced Drew Brees and Matt Ryan over this stretch. There’s something to monitor here, with a lot of young players and a wildly underrated defensive coordinator in Todd Bowles all coming back next season.
Some of the improvements derive from the sort of sheer regression to the mean I suggested was likely to occur in my preseason column pegging the Bucs to improve. The Buccaneers have been healthier. Their historically bad red zone defense has gotten dramatically better. After allowing 5.9 points per red zone trip in 2018, they are down to 4.8 points per opportunity in 2019, which ranks 17th in the NFL. I thought the Bucs couldn’t do much worse on defense in 2019, but if they actually finish in the top 10 in DVOA, it should be considered a huge feather in Bowles’ cap.
Kirk Cousins would be a down-ballot MVP candidate
Forget before the season. As recently as the Week 4 loss to the Bears, Cousins was essentially a national punchline as an $84 million millstone around the Vikings’ necks. The Vikings, who had been hoping to buy a 10-win floor for their great defense by signing Cousins during the spring of 2018, appeared to have capped their team’s chances of succeeding in the process.
Here’s where Cousins ranks in a few key categories from Week 5 on:
Not bad, huh? As I mentioned in the playoff kryptonite column, he has been absolutely lethal off play-action in 2019, posting a passer rating of 136.3 when the Vikings use a play fake. This also has come during a stretch in which Adam Thielen has played just under 24% of Minnesota’s offensive snaps while dealing with a hamstring injury.
At the very least, if Cousins’ inconsistent 2018 and frustrating start to 2019 were evidence that his presence doesn’t guarantee the Vikings a playoff berth, what has happened since is a reminder that his ceiling is higher than his critics suggest. Cousins has been one of the league’s most lethal quarterbacks over his past 10 outings.
Nick Foles would be benched after four starts with the Jaguars
There were plenty of reasons to think Foles might struggle in his new gig with the Jaguars. His track record of staying healthy isn’t great, so it wouldn’t have been shocking to find out that he suffered an injury that cost him some time.
To see all of this happen so quickly, though, is staggering. Foles went down with a broken collarbone before the end of the first quarter of his first start. Upon being restored to the lineup, he lasted 2½ games before being benched for rookie sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew. Realistically, Foles lost his starting job without completing three full games for Jacksonville. No one saw that coming.
As is the case for just about everybody with Jacksonville, Foles’ future with the team remains uncertain. Minshew has been adequate in Foles’ stead, and he helped lead a late comeback victory over the Raiders last week, but the Jaguars might hire a coach who wants to restore Foles to the lineup this offseason. If not, they might need to eat a significant portion of Foles’ remaining guaranteed salary and/or send off a draft pick to move on from the former Super Bowl MVP. This could go down as one of the worst free-agent signings in recent memory.
Kickers would have their worst collective season in years
As The Ringers’ Rodger Sherman documented earlier this year, kickers have been peculiarly disappointing this season. There was a real danger that kickers would fail to hit 80% of their field goal tries for the first time since 2003. The various place-kickers topped out at 86.5% in 2013, and they hit 84.7% of their tries a year ago.
There isn’t one obvious answer as to why. Kickers aren’t trying more difficult field goals; 14.3% of attempts this season have been from 50 or more yards, down from 16.1% a year ago. Their accuracy has dropped dramatically on both field goals in the 40- to 49-yard range (down from 76.3% in 2018 to 69.7% this season) and from 50 yards and up (63.8% to 56.9%). If anything, teams have been more aggressive going for it on fourth down in places where they typically would have attempted long field goals in years past.
Injuries have stricken kickers such as Michael Badgley, Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Succop, but that isn’t the story. Thirty-eight kickers have attempted at least five field goals this season, identical to the number we saw a year ago and down from 39 in 2017. Age struck for veterans Adam Vinatieri and Matt Bryant, each of whom saw their success rates fall precipitously in 2019, but even younger kickers such as Ka’imi Fairbairn and Aldrick Rosas have had disappointing campaigns.
Blocked field goals are up, but not enough to make a difference. We’re at 16 blocks through 14 weeks, which is up from 10 a year ago but still well on pace to come up short of the 23 we saw from the league in 2017. And we haven’t been stricken by a run of nasty weather across the country; if anything, we should be seeing the worst kicking now in December, under the threat of snow.
I’m inclined to argue that this is a one-year blip amid a decadeslong trend of kickers improving their field goal accuracy. Justin Tucker is still his usual 23-of-24 on field goals. If the Ravens superstar starts missing kicks, it will be time to start a serious investigation.
Ryan Tannehill would be one of the league’s best quarterbacks
I’ve covered this a couple of times recently, including naming Tannehill as my All-Underrated team’s quarterback, but there was little reason to expect him to play as well as he has this season.
The Dolphins had to swallow $5 million of Tannehill’s deal to net a draft pick in dealing him to the Titans; Tennessee has come away with a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback for less than $2 million in 2019. The 8-6 Titans have a 56.7% chance to make the playoffs, according to FPI.
The Air Raid would have been neither a colossal success nor a miserable failure
Two years ago, the offense I was most excited to see heading into the 2018 season was Jon Gruden’s in Oakland. After a decade away from the game, I figured he had either melded cool ideas from every coach in the game into a super offense or stuck with outdated concepts from his Buccaneers playbook. Instead, the Raiders’ offense has been somewhere in between.
Likewise, the preseason chatter this year surrounding Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid attack in Arizona seemed to revolve around the same extremes. While just about every NFL team has incorporated Air Raid plays into their offense, his scheme was going to be the closest thing the NFL had seen to a pure Air Raid attack. Kingsbury and first overall pick Kyler Murray were either going to revolutionize football or fall flat on their faces.
Again, neither polar outcome has come true. The Cardinals sit 12th in the league in offensive DVOA, which is a huge improvement when you consider that Arizona ranked last in the same category a year ago. Skeptics who thought NFL defenses would laugh at what Rex Ryan called a “boring” offense before the season were unquestionably wrong. Kingsbury, who was simultaneously an out-of-the-box hire and a trendy pick, is certainly going to get a second season in Arizona.
At the same time, though, the Cardinals’ offense has succeeded in ways I don’t think we would have expected. Arizona ranks 23rd in pass offense DVOA, but it has the second-best rush offense DVOA. And while the Cardinals spent the 2019 offseason stocking up on wide receivers to play in what seemed likely to be an offense for which the base set would be 10 personnel, they have been better when adding tight ends to the picture. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, the Cards have posted a success rate of just under 43% with no tight ends of the field, with that mark rising to nearly 48% with one or more tight ends in the lineup.
The fairest thing to say is that the offense is still a work in progress. Kingsbury should have more opportunity to add weapons at wide receiver this offseason around Christian Kirk, who has gone from playing in the slot almost exclusively earlier this season to now running the vast majority of his routes outside. Second-round pick Andy Isabella has barely played, while fourth-rounder Hakeem Butler has spent the season on the injured reserve list. Kingsbury’s offense isn’t a one-trick pony, but the best might still be yet to come.