Ten Things We Learned in the NFL This Year

1. The Eagles are on top.

And they don’t exactly look like they’re going anywhere. We’re talking about a team that hung over forty points on a top five scoring defense in the Super Bowl…with their backup quarterback. Granted, Nick Foles is a former pro-bowler and about as good of a backup as you can find. I don’t see a lot of reasons for Philly to make any changes, though demand for Foles will be high. Here’s the thing. Carson Wentz isn’t likely to be ready for week one of the 2018 season. So what do you do? Trade away the guy who just won you a Super Bowl? Or relegate him to the bench when Wentz is ready? It’s a tough decision and it reminds me A LOT of what happened this season with Jimmy Garoppolo and the Patriots. There simply might not be a good way to keep both guys on the roster, no matter how humble Nick Foles is when asked the question. Do they trade Foles for picks and hope to groom a new backup from the draft? It’s an interesting discussion, but in the end, the core of this Eagles team is likely to be back.

2. Tom Brady isn’t quite done yet

I guess we’ll all have to deal with another season of hot takes about Brady getting too old, huh? Apologies to Brady loathers, Patriot haters and Belichick conspiracy theorists, but the guy who just threw for over five hundred yards and three touchdowns in a losing effort at the Super Bowl isn’t retiring. Gronkowski might, apparently, after that vicious helmet to helmet hit in the AFC Championship game, but Brady looks set to continue his one-man war against Father Time. When he eventually declines, it will likely be hard to see at first, as New England will both rest him more during the week and game plan to protect his weaknesses. Without an heir apparent, the brass in Foxboro are depending on one more good run. I expect a full court press to select his backup/replacement during the draft this year, so don’t be surprised if the Patriots make some moves. (Note: I said the same thing about Garoppolo when they drafted him…so…) Speaking of Jimmy G…

3. The Niners might be on to something

Or, they might have just insanely overpaid for a guy who has started seven, count them, seven NFL games. Granted, the Patriots won both starts with him at the helm last year and he’s undefeated as a Niner, but making him the highest paid QB in history? Let’s pump the brakes here, people. I think the guy has a chance to be a really, really good starter in the NFL, but why do NFL teams keep jumping out ahead of the pay curve? The issue here isn’t so much with Garoppolo deal, it’s the feeding frenzy that comes after. What is Kirk Cousins going to get? Aaron Rodgers? Case Keenum, even? It’s going to get crazy, so hang on to your hats.

4. The Jaguars are…

Who are these Jaguars? I think they’re a legitimate AFC contender for the next few years, with one caveat. Expecting Blake Bortles to reprise his role as “most surprisingly competent AFC quarterback” is probably folly. There are upgrades to be had out there, and I’m pretty certain that the Jags would be smart to go find one. Insanely good defenses and hyper-productive running games make quarterbacks look a lot better (See: Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl Champions). Don’t get me wrong, Blake Bortles was much better than advertised this year, but I doubt many people in Jacksonville are screaming for this guy to get a deal that matches Garoppolo’s.

5. Defense wins, but not when the offense is better

I think, after these playoffs, we can, at least under the current rules, throw away the old adage that “defense wins championships”. Offense is king in today’s NFL, and I don’t see a whole lot of momentum that’s going to slow down that evolution. The rules have eliminated the ability for a great defense to contain a great offense, and I’m expecting to see more, not less, of this evolution given the trend away from dangerous defensive plays and the screaming to make any time a receiver touches the ball a touchdown.

6. The Catch rule is set to be blown up

And it’s not going to get better. The general consensus is that the rule has become a bit tortured and overly specific to deal with modern camera angles and slow-motion. Here’s the thing: We can’t go back to “one hundred guys in a bar”, unless we want to make the catch rule a popularity contest. It needs to be somewhat absurdly specific. Frame by frame, if the receiver lost the ball, he lost the ball. That’s the truth. That’s how they called it all season until Goodell said he wanted to change the rule and they broke away from that in the Super Bowl. Any time this rule gets applied, there will be a winner and whiner, but if the game reverts to getting calls wrong, we all lose.

7. The concussion rules need some work

Yes, the protocol enforcement needs to improve, but I’m talking more about protecting the receivers and runners. Teams aren’t being punished nearly enough for dangerous hits that are taking players off the field for weeks at a time and risking people’s careers and health. The buck can’t stop with the individual player that makes the hit, though multiple infractions, regardless of “intent” should result in significant suspensions. I’m talking about some out of the box stuff, here. Put the onus on the coaches and front office to prevent these types of hits. What about this? The team that causes the most concussions in a season loses a first round draft pick and it’s given to the team that has the most players go into the concussion protocol. The team with the second most concussions caused loses a second rounder and it gets handed over, etc. Penalize the five most dangerous teams that are endangering others this way. Watch how quickly the number of on the field concussions is reduced. Would this ever get past the competition committee? Probably not, but if the league wants to get those hits out of the game, we need fans to cringe when their player makes a hit like that, not cheer. Alternate idea, any time a player is taken out of the game and entered into the protocol, a corresponding player from the other team is removed from the game for equivalent time. For example, in the Super Bowl, when Brandin Cooks was hit with that wildly dangerous head shot, Alshon Jeffrey would have to sit for the rest of the game, too. Again, this won’t make it past the committees, but we need to make coaches care about concussion prevention. Right now, it’s clear that they don’t.  At all.

8. The Rooney Rule probably isn’t enough

I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, to note that the Rooney Rule is too easy for owners to sidestep. The Raiders hiring of Jon Gruden was a classic example of a team going through the motions when the hire had already been decided. There are numerous problems with enforcement of hiring policies, but the simple fact is this; there are too few minority coaches across all levels of football. The NFL’s imbalance is a glaring symptom of the issue. Stepping away from celebrity coaches in the college ranks and identifying and promoting talented coaches from all backgrounds should be a priority at all levels of the game. Is it easy? No, but it’s necessary. How might it work at the pro level? Great question…How about a coach draft? Qualified candidates can declare their candidacy, but the league office controls who can be hired for what jobs based on qualifications, preventing a celebrity college coach from leap frogging a qualified NFL-level candidate.

9. Speaking of coaching hires

NO MORE INTERVIEWING, OR HIRING, OF COACHES DURING THE PLAYOFFS. The stupidity of allowing this is simply mind-bending. Just wait until everyone is done for the year, and all teams that want to make a change can do so simultaneously. Call it coaching carousel week and schedule it for two weeks after the Super Bowl. The media (yours truly included) would love the intrigue and the comings and goings. It would level the playing field for playoff teams trying to avoid having their coordinators poached, or distracted. Avoiding another Josh McDaniels-Colts situation is more than enough reason to make teams sit on their options for a few more weeks.

10. It’s going to be a weird offseason

This year, more than most, strikes me as a year when the league might change dramatically before players suit up again for the preseason. Changes are likely to happen that will alter the game, once again, in favor of offenses. For a league that has already swung widely towards the offensive side of the ball, it’s a big deal, and it isn’t likely to swing back the other way as it has in seasons past. I’m not saying that defense is dead, just that the game is moving away from smash-mouth spectacle we all grew up with. Have you noticed that “Jacked Up” isn’t a regular segment on ESPN anymore? As teams evolve, expect to see more emphasis in the draft on versatile skill players (See: Kamara, Alvin and Amendola, Danny) and evolving the playbook in favor of complicated offensive schemes that will make speed on defense far more valuable than power. Between the continued trend towards more offense and legislated protection for offensive players, the game is likely to shift away from the hard-hitting gladiator sport it once was. That’s not a bad thing.

Tom Capo

 

Tom Capo writes about sports, parenting, food, wine and travel; but seldom all at once. He’s currently working on his first novel and collection of shorter fiction. He lives in the Bay Area with all of his girls; wife Allison, daughter Liliana and dog Artemis.

 

 

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