You really never know about a season until you see it. They ask us to make NFL predictions every August, and we try our best with the information we have, but the truth is they’re all dart throws. Every year brings a dozen or more major developments no one saw coming. And every year, there are a dozen or so things we think we see coming but then don’t.
That’s the fun of it, of course. Unless you’re some kind of narcissistic psycho, you’re not watching the NFL season hoping it turns out exactly the way you predicted it would. You watch it for the surprises, for the unexpected. You watch it to find out what exactly it is that you didn’t know, even though you thought you did.
With the 2018 NFL season at its midpoint, we’ve decided to make this week’s “What We Learned” column about more than just this past week. Today, we bring you “What We Learned in the First Half.”
Andy Reid’s QB plan was the genius move of the past two years
Remember this time last year, when Reid’s Chiefs were lighting up the league with Alex Smith at quarterback while first-round pick Patrick Mahomes watched and learned from the bench? And remember when Reid traded Smith to Washington during Super Bowl week, elevating the untested Mahomes to the role of starting quarterback on a high-powered offense with its sights set on the Super Bowl? That second move felt risky, but it’s obvious now that it was all part of a larger plan that couldn’t be working out better.
Mahomes is a leading candidate for NFL MVP at the midpoint, thriving under Reid’s tutelage, behind an underrated offensive line and with myriad targets from which to choose in the passing game. It’s easy to look back at the 2017 draft and wonder whether the Browns, Bears, 49ers, Jaguars and Jets all messed up by not picking Mahomes, but that’s oversimplifying. Mahomes landed in exactly the right place, with exactly the right coaching staff and exactly the right veteran in front of him to put him in position to thrive in Year 2.
There’s no way to know whether Mahomes would be doing this if he had been picked by one of those other teams or if the Chiefs had played him over Smith last season before he was ready. This was a perfect storm — one that probably surpassed even Reid’s best-case scenarios. Mahomes’ talent is undeniable, but so much about this league is about where you end up and who’s around you. Those things couldn’t have lined up better for Mahomes, who is maximizing all of it in historic fashion. Circumstances + Opportunity + Talent is a heckuva formula.
And by the way, the impact former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy — who was essential in Mahomes’ development as a backup in Kansas City last year — is having with Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago this year is another bit of supporting evidence for everything we’ve already said.
Le’Veon Bell wasn’t kidding
Back in January, Bell told our man Jeremy Fowler that he was willing to sit out if that’s what it took to get a long-term contract. After the mid-July deadline passed without Bell and the Steelers agreeing on said deal, Bell stayed away. And kept staying away. At this writing, entering Week 10, Bell still hasn’t signed his franchise tender and reported to Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have moved on. James Conner has taken Bell’s job and quite literally run with it, currently ranking second in the league in rushing yards and fourth in touchdowns. Even if Bell comes back at this point — and he has to by next Tuesday in order to play this year — there’s no guarantee that the Steelers will use him very much the rest of the way. The popular opinion is that Bell’s strategy has backfired.
But I’m not so sure. If anything is clear about this Bell situation, it’s that this year was never the priority. Especially once Todd Gurley signed his extension in July, Bell had eyes only for the next contract and the tens of millions in guaranteed money that will likely come with it. In order to secure that, he has to get to free agency healthy, and he decided that the best way to do that is to play as little as possible this season. We’ll see how it works out. I still think, if he gets to March healthy, Bell will cash in and become the league’s highest paid running back. I could be wrong, but if I’m not, we’ll have an example of a player maximizing his own leverage in a fairly unprecedented way to beat a system (namely, the franchise tag) designed to limit his market value. You’d better believe plenty of players (and agents!) around the league are rooting for Bell’s strategy to pay off.
Demand could outweigh supply on the coaching carousel
People around the league expect the usual six to eight head-coaching vacancies come January. The Browns already have one, and some other situations that bear watching include Tampa Bay, the Jets, Denver, Dallas, Baltimore, Green Bay and Miami, depending of course on the way the season finishes in a few of those places. The list could grow larger if long-tenured coaches such as Marvin Lewis, Pete Carroll or Bill Belichick decide to leave.
The problem is, as one source told me recently, “When you turn over six or eight of these jobs every year, eventually you’re going to run out of candidates.” In recent years, the trend has been to hire successful young coordinators, mainly offensive ones. But the pool of candidates fitting that description is getting shallow, which is why you’re starting to hear some college coaches come up as candidates, why Josh McDaniels is letting it be known he’s still interested (who’s going to trust that?) and why you’ll see some familiar names getting second chances. Former NFL coaches such as Jack Del Rio and Chuck Pagano could get on some interview lists. Defensive coordinators such as Kris Richard and Jim Schwartz could be strong candidates. And if the Packers move on from Mike McCarthy and the Ravens move on from John Harbaugh, those guys could find new head-coaching jobs elsewhere instantly, à la Andy Reid jumping from the Eagles to the Chiefs in 2013.
Repeating is hard, no matter who you are
The last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions was the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004. They’re the only team that has pulled off that feat in the past two decades. But this year’s Eagles were supposed to be different, remember?
Oh, this was a team to buck the trend. They were getting back Carson Wentz, Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks … a whole bunch of guys who missed the Super Bowl run that the team managed anyway. There was no preseason reason not to like the Eagles to be not only the first repeat Super Bowl winners in 14 years but also the first repeat NFC East champions in that time.
They might still pull off both of those things. Especially the latter, given that the East looks to be a wide-open, three-team race. But what the Eagles have shown so far is that it’s not going to be easy. They’ve been beset by injuries again. Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles didn’t perform up to last January/February’s standards while holding down the fort for Wentz in September. The offense is starting to click, but it still has some problems getting the ball downfield.
As Wentz puts more distance between himself and his knee injury, as trade-deadline acquisition Golden Tate gets integrated into the offense and especially if the defense can start playing better on the back end, the 2018 Eagles have a chance to look like the 2017 Eagles. But they’ve already lost more games this season than they did last year, and if there’s another run in them, they’re hiding it better than they did a year ago.
Aaron Donald should never have to go to training camp again
Donald held out all of camp last year and won Defensive Player of the Year. He held out all of camp this year and is on pace for 18 sacks. From the defensive tackle position. Now that he has secured his monster contract, you have to imagine Donald will show up for camp next year. But if I’m the Rams, I think about telling him, “Don’t change anything.” And they might. There was a joke going around the Rams this offseason that they wouldn’t have improved from 32nd in offense to first in offense last season if Donald had been in camp demoralizing their offensive linemen in practice. Maybe this formula works!