Ten Things We Learned in The NFL This Year

2018

1. Nothing new here, but it’s really hard to beat the Patriots

On paper, the Rams looked to be a great fit to win the Super Bowl. I said so myself, even if I ended up picking New England. They create inside pressure and turnovers on defense. They run the ball on offense and take big chunks on play action. Everybody knows that. But that’s why they lost the big game. Sean McVay was so convinced of the effectiveness of his offensive and defensive schemes that he didn’t bother to tweak either of them going into a game for all the marbles against Bill Belichick. Bad move. The Patriots don’t adhere to a specific scheme on either side of the ball, instead morphing into the opposing coach’s worst nightmare like some sort of football Boggart. The league continues to chase trends, but they haven’t started chasing the only one that probably matters. That’s why we’re likely to never see another dynasty like the Patriots going forward.

2. Pittsburgh is about to go full on apocalypse

With the holdout of Le’Veon Bell and the out of control spiral that is the Antonio Brown situation, the Steelers narrowly missed the playoff this season. It’s not going to get better. If, and this is a big if, the Steelers can somehow mend fences with AB, they’re basically the same team, only next year, their QB is going to be 37. He was talking retirement two season ago. Big Ben has been extremely durable, but father time beats everyone, and I think we can all agree that Ben isn’t exactly on the TB12 diet and workout plan. Point being, if the Steelers want to make one last run at this thing, now is the time. Because a big rebuild is on the horizon and the Ravens and Browns are both looking like they might be ready for primetime. My guess, however, is that neither Bell, nor Brown are in Pittsburgh and Mike Tomlin can’t keep this thing on the rails. Unless some magic happens in the offseason, we’re likely to see the Steelers at or near the bottom of the division next year.

3. Baltimore is steady, and that’s probably a good thing

It seems like every year since their Super Bowl win, I hear rumblings from Baltimore fans that it’s time to move on from John Harbaugh. That’s nonsense. Especially with Ozzie Newsome stepping down, having Harbaugh’s steady hand at the wheel is a good idea. The Raven’s midseason push after Joe Flacco went down is no coincidence. Lamar Jackson is the real deal and with a preseason with reps as QB1, I’m pretty sure we’ll all see that Jackson is more Cam Newton and less Tim Tebow. This is a very dangerous team on defense as always, and if Jackson and the offense can put up modest numbers, they will more than likely be a playoff team again. I like the patience and confidence that Steve Bisciotti is showing in Harbaugh, I have a feeling he’ll be rewarded.

4. The Packers are squandering Aaron Rodgers career

This year, the Pack missed the playoffs for the second straight year. It’s their first time with back-to-back losing seasons since 1990-1991. And like Pittsburgh, the Packers are in a bad place. The advanced age of Clay Matthews was a problem this seasons as his production dropped well below his career averages, despite playing every game for the first time since 2015. They need help in a few places, but not getting sentimental and replacing Matthews without breaking the bank will be key. Because Aaron Rodgers needs a talented slot receiver. Badly. Rumblings out of Miami are that Danny Amendola might be available. If he is, he can fill the void left by Jordy Nelson with aplomb. In any case, the Packers have some 50-ish million in cap space to work with, and Aaron Rodger can’t do it alone, even in today’s QB-friendly NFL.

5. Kareem Hunt will get another chance, for good or ill

Not-so-fun fact. Kareem Hunt hasn’t even been suspended yet. He’s on the commissioner’s exempt list, meaning he can’t play. But the league has yet to finish their investigation of the incident that occurred in a Cleveland hotel, where Hunt was seen pushing and kicking a woman. Now, to be clear, this is not a domestic violence situation. The woman and Hunt had just met that day and there has been no indication that they were romantically linked. I only point this out because I’ve seen a lot of reports referring to it as a domestic violence incident, which appears to be wrong. That doesn’t make the video any less shocking, it just needs to be viewed through the proper lens. And now we know who clearly does NOT have the correct lens. The Cleveland Browns. The recently mediocre AFC North doormats have seen the cracks in Pittsburgh’s armor, and think they can make a division push next year. They’re doing it without a conscience. Hunt might well sit out more than half of the 2019 season for the incident in question, but the fact that he has a job in the NFL waiting for him before he even learns what his suspension will be rubs plenty of people the wrong way, myself included. I’m thinking a good idea for the league would be to disallow transactions (aside from outright release) for any players on the commissioner’s list. It would be a good start towards cleaning up one of the league’s biggest problems.

6. The Raiders might be homeless next year

In a Bay Area coup, the Raiders reached an agreement to play their final season at Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. It would have been a great upgrade from their current digs in the Oakland Coliseum. But, in a remarkably petty move, the 49ers appear to be blocking the transaction based on arcane territorial rights. Mind you, the Niners left San Francisco and moved down to Santa Clara, a wealthy, tech-funded suburb about an hour south, and really have no real home in San Francisco any more. The Raiders are leaving after 2019 anyway, so what’s the concern? That a few Niners fans might fall in love with the silver and black on their way out of town? It’s nonsense. Sure, I’d prefer to see the Raiders play their final season in Oakland, but that looks increasingly unlikely. I’m not sure what can reasonably happen at this point, but it looks increasingly like the Raiders will slink out of Oakland with eight final home games played somewhere well off the beaten path. It’s a shame.

7. Instant Replay will become more useful

Sometimes you need an absurdly obvious example to move the needle, and the NFC Championship referee error that led to petitions, protests and demands for a rematch might be just what the doctor ordered. I’m on the record that no change needed to be made to the game result, but now, in the off season, it’s time to have a look at the replay rules. A few cool suggestions are out there, like an extra referee watching multiple angles in real time, but I’m a fan of a simpler solution. Make everything reviewable. At least make everything subject to challenge and increase the number of automatic reviews. Turnover and scoring plays are automatically reviewed…why not narrow misses of both types. In the case of the Saints/Rams debacle, Sean Payton should have been able to challenge the no-call. I like the idea of red flags for normal challenges, and gold flags to challenge literally anything. At the end of the day, getting the call right is what matters.

8. Defensive schemes will become more flexible

With the onslaught of offense and gaudy production we witnessed all season long (until the Super Bowl), I expect that the rigid schemes we’ve grown accustomed to will start to fade in favor of hybrid looks that allow for more flexibility. That’s why Patriots DC Brian Flores was hired away to Miami. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the Super Bowl, it’s that there’s a price to be paid for an over-reliance on a single scheme. The Patriots wildly confounding and borderline chaotic effort held the Rams to only three points and the Chiefs scoreless for the first half of the AFC Championship game. That’s about as close to perfect as you can be against the league’s number one and two offenses. The rules may encourage scoring and offense, but defenses always find a way to evolve and stay relevant.

9. Running backs are an underrated asset

The stalemate in Pittsburgh is about more than Le’Veon Bell wanting more money than the Steelers want to pay. Bell is attempting to correct the market for the league’s top rushers. It’s been out of vogue for several seasons now to pay top dollar for running backs. Concerns about durability have been the centerpiece of ownership’s argument that running back labor should remain cheap. The best at the position are now hybrid rusher-receivers, but at the end of the day, teams that move the ball on the ground win football games. Of the top five rushing teams in the league, only the Panthers missed the playoffs, a late season swoon we now know is attributed to Cam Newton’s shoulder issues. New England advanced through the playoffs, week after week, by absolutely stifling mid-level running backs (the exception being the clearly injured, but not admitting it Todd Gurley). A good running back protects his quarterback by keeping defenses honest, and the value in that should not be underestimated. If Tom Brady can play until age 45 as he hopes, it won’t be because of his restrictive diet or his offseason regiment. It will be because of a revamped offensive line and the emergence of Sony Michel as a top-tier threat rushing the ball. I’m not sure where Le’Veon Bell ends up next season, but my guess is that he’s brought in somewhere with a young quarterback. He should be paid like a top ten player in the league, regardless of position.

10. The league has made SOME progress in the war on concussions

After hitting a high-water mark in 2017, the league’s rule evolution has begun to take effect. Practice and in-game concussions were both down in 2018, and the total number of concussions league-wide was the second-lowest since statistics started being compiled. More penalties for helmet to helmet hits and other dangerous plays seem to have made the game safer, at least on the surface. I think it might be a few more years before we get a good sense for whether football can ever be truly safe but reducing the number of catastrophic impact plays is a good start. Watching the first few games of the AAF, I was struck by how little I missed the kickoff. I’m not sure I love the idea of simplifying the game that much, but at the end of the day, player safety can’t be an afterthought in the team meetings this off season.

Image Source: USA Today

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