The Debrief, Week 4: Handing out first-quarter awards
Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 4 to Week 5.
Quarterbacks aren’t defining this NFL campaign — because they’ve spent it on the ground. Welcome to the season of the sack.
In this first-quarter-awards edition of “The Debrief,” there are too many early Defensive Player of the Year candidates to name. I’d start with Justin Houston and Von Miller, but the surplus of pass rushers having dominant starts is overwhelming, Khalil Mack, Everson Griffen, Calais Campbell, Demarcus Lawrence, Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram among them. With apologies to Mr. Newton, the best two Camerons this season have been Jordan and Heyward.
Newton’s volatile start to the season — before throwing for 316 yards and posting four total scores Sunday, Newton posted 189 yards per game and a 2:4 TD-to-INT ratio — is emblematic of the struggles of many big-name quarterbacks this season, which is one reason the way-too-early MVP race is so muddy. (Tom Brady, somehow playing better than ever on a flawed Patriots team, would get my vote over Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt.) While the league searches for stability and health in its star quarterbacks, the generational pass-rushing stars, including J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald and some of the names above, have proven more reliable and awe-inspiring. They have helped inflate sack totals to 5.05 per game this season, the second-most in 20 years, leaving quarterbacks to look up for a helping hand.
And now … on to the awards.
The Futile Delay of Progress Award: John Fox, Bears, Bill O’Brien, Texans
Fox and O’Brien spent the offseason minimizing expectations for their rookie quarterbacks, artificially boosting the potential staying power of the in-house veteran quarterback options.
Fox’s decision Monday to elevate No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky to the starting role with the Bears was a recognition of the rookie’s thrilling preseason, Mike Glennon’s poor decision-making and perhaps Fox’s coaching mortality. In his 16th straight seasons as an NFL head coach, Fox likely needs a rookie quarterback savior to keep his streak going in Chicago. While the Bears’ wideout group is the weakest in the NFC, Trubisky has a strong offensive line, a stronger running game and a promising defense to support him. Other rookie quarterbacks have survived with less.
One such rookie quarterback: Houston’s Deshaun Watson, who has transformed the Texans’ organization and potentially the AFC playoff picture despite a thin receiver group and thinner offensive line. Coach Bill O’Brien’s decision to start Tom Savage in Week 1 before benching him at halftime looks even stranger after Watson’s sensational start (64.9 percent completion rate, 811 passing yards, a TD-to-INT ratio of 7:4 and a 2-1 record — to his NFL career. It’s a reminder for O’Brien that a quarterback’s performance after a week of game-planning can be dramatically different than a small sample size in a preseason game. It’s also a reminder for writers (ahem) that evaluating rookie quarterbacks from afar in August is as fruitless as teams starting the season with a veteran quarterback who is just killing time before the future arrives.
The Worst Injury Week of the Season: Week 4
Watching Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr suffer injuries on the same Sunday again was eerie, conjuring memories of an ugly Christmas Eve a season ago. It appears that Mariota’s hamstring injury may not even cost him a game, but Carr will be out at least a week and possibly longer with a transverse process fracture in his back. Tony Romo missed only one week with a similar injury in 2014, which is good news for a 2-2 Raiders team that is already falling behind in the AFC West race. The Titans and Raiders wouldn’t survive for long with Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel at quarterback, respectively.
Unfortunately, the injuries to Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (torn ACL) and his fellow rookie, Seahawks starting running back Chris Carson (leg fracture), will take longer to recover from. Seattle can turn to experienced backups Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy, but it’s a shame to see Carson’s crazy rise from seventh-round sleeper end so quickly. Cook was in the mix for Offensive Rookie of the Year and brought a big-play element to the Vikings offense that backup Latavius Murray can’t come close to matching.
The downer of a week for injuries was fittingly capped Monday night when Redskins cornerback Josh Norman suffered a fractured rib. Norman is undergoing evaluation, coach Jay Gruden said, and it’s not clear how much time he’ll miss.
The Jekyll and Hyde Award: Jaguars defense, Raiders offense
Jacksonville gave up 7 points to the Texans, then 37 to the Titans. The Jaguars held Baltimore to just 186 yards in London, then somehow gave up 471 yards to the fighting Elijah McGuires — also known as the Jets — in MetLife Stadium. From the team’s boffo cornerback duo to the emergence of linebacker Myles Jack, there’s a lot to love about this Jaguars defense. But a true shutdown unit would show up every week.
Two weeks is a trend for the struggling Oakland offense, which was dominated up front by the Broncos long before Carr was injured. No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper continued his nightmare season with only 9 yards on eight targets, complete with his weekly drop. Denver had three sacks and five tackles for loss and held the Raiders to 24 rushing yards. That’s not good enough for the highest-paid offensive line in the league, and it’s twice in a row they were pushed around. Speaking of which …
Identity Change Award: Broncos
After ranking 28th against the run last season, the Broncos have given up a total of 95 rushing yards combined on 50 carries to Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch. Broncos executive John Elway’s strong offseason starts with the team’s coaching choices and extends to key additions like nose tackle Domata Peko. Releasing safety T.J. Ward to free up playing time for ultra-athletic safety Justin Simmons, who sealed Sunday’s win over Oakland with a Tecmo Bowl-like leaping interception, is the type of unsentimental decision that keeps teams ahead of the curve.
While the Broncos’ run defense grows stout, the running attack on offense has flourished. The Broncos have jumped from 27th to third in rushing because of new pieces like rookie left tackle Garett Bolles and free-agent pickups Ronald Leary (guard) and Jamaal Charles (running back). This is a transformed team with a tougher foundation, built better than it was a year ago to withstand the rigors of an NFL season.
The Up-For-Grabs Division Award: NFC South
The best division in football for quarterbacks is bidding to be the best division overall, with a 9-4 record against non-division opponents. The Falcons, Panthers and Bucs all have some warts, but they also all have enough firepower to win in any given week. In the AFC South, a 2-2 record is good enough for first place, with the Jaguars, Texans and Titans all sitting at .500. In the NFC South, having a 2-2 record puts the Saints alone in the cellar.