Welcome to the first of three NFL Quarterly Reports. The grades are subjective, and I expect some disagreement. At the outset it’s important to note that the grades are not purely based upon team performance, but performance relative to their expectations. The Browns are graded on a different curve than the Packers for example. Let’s get to the grades.
After a brutal opening loss to Tampa it seemed as if Atlanta was doomed to be more of the same, a inconsistent offense hampered by Matt Ryan’s mistakes and a defense that can’t be counted on. 3 games later and everything has changed. The Matty Ice of old is back and Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are all the better for it. The highest scoring offense in the league is averaging an astounding 7.4 yards per play, almost a yard better than second place. The defense still isn’t great and the offense will cool down but even if they can maintain a top 3 offense throughout the season this is an 11+ win team.
It was easy to dismiss a close loss to Denver to start the season. Less easy to get over losses to Minnesota and Atlanta. While Minnesota’s defense and Atlanta’s offense have both been great, Carolina is supposed to be a team that is well rounded enough to be able to beat teams that are more unbalanced. Not so much. Cam hasn’t been very good and is now injured; their season is on the brink.
As it turns out, you can’t just roll out the same team year after year and expect things to change. The offense is still great but under entirely too much pressure from a leaky defense. At least they score points and tend to lose close games but a miracle comeback against San Diego is the only thing keeping their grade from a D. Well that and low expectations. Seriously, they did nothing to try to improve their defense? Are they trying to kill Drew Brees?
Early in the season opening games can have a massive effect on how we perceive teams and players. When teams lay a stink bomb week 1 we dismiss them and when they play out of their minds early we proclaim them as great. Nowhere was this more prominent than Tampa’s week 1 win over Atlanta. Jameis Winston’s 4 TD performance had people hailing the arrival of Winston as a star. Well not so much. Since then Atlanta is 3-0, Tampa 0-3, Tampa has scored 46 points in those 3 games, Atlanta scored 48 last week. Winston is throwing the ball way too much and his 8 interceptions is second only Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 10. Their score differential of -51 is the worst in football. At some point Tampa isn’t disappointing or struggling, they’re just bad.
How can Cowboys fans not be thrilled? 3-1 with a rookie quarterback and their only loss is a by a point in his debut. What an incredible transition, to go from a team that was reliant on the oft-injured Tony Romo and Dez Bryant to being led by rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Dak is interception free and Elliot looks like he’s the real deal. Combine that with a surprisingly solid defense and effort so far certainly merit an A.
There are two rookie quarterbacks in the NFC East and their teams are both getting As. And not just in the relative sense of how they are performing against expectations, these teams are just good. Carson Wentz has been confident and aggressive, making plays that very quarterbacks in the league could make. The defense has been stifling. The Eagles face some tests soon that will further prove Wentz’s mettle but with the way their defense is playing, you can’t help but think the Eagles are for real.
New York Giants
After a nice start the Giants have stagnated. A 2-2 record isn’t terrible but when put in the context that one of the losses is to Washington at home after New York already had a lead, you start to get concerned. The offense that seems to have so much potential is sputtering and it seems to be struggling under the weight of their own expectations. The most important thing for the Giants is to get Odell Beckham going; despite his whining he is right, he needs to get the ball more. Giants fans can find some comfort in their defense that has apparently turned it around. They look to be a solid unit that can buy the offense some time to figure it out, but the clock is ticking.
Unrealistically high expectations doomed Washington from the start. Their playoff berth last year was more to do with Tony Romo’s injury and the Giants inexplicable ability to blow leads late than anything of their own doing. They are 2-2 despite not really playing that well so their season is still alive but this is not a good football team. Their point differential of -13 is 22nd in the league. Kirk Cousins still presses too much and the defense is still soft.
At 2-1, the Packers season has been decent so far. However it hasn’t really been good either. Through 12 quarters of play the Packers have only played well in 2 of them: the first half against. The Packers did annihilate Detroit in that through those 30 minutes, being up 34-3 at one point, however they let the Lions back in the game and had to survive the 2nd half to win by only 7. Combine that with struggling to a 4 point win against lowly Jacksonville and losing to Minnesota, the Packers still have a lot to prove.
The Vikings have been phenomenal. They’ve recreated Denver’s winning formula in the NFC: a smothering, opportunistic defense with an offense that is efficient and can stay on the field. In a league where defense is harder to play than ever it’s no coincidence that these two teams are 4-0. Unlike Denver Minnesota doesn’t have very many playmakers you trust outside Stefon Diggs but Sam Bradford’s accuracy is making the most of what he has. They’re coached well and make few mistakes, this is one of the best teams in football, something that seemed crazy to say after they lost Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson for the year.
There hasn’t been much drop off from Jay Cutler to Brian Hoyer, and I’m not sure if that’s a complement to Hoyer or an indictment of Cutler. The offense is bad and the defense is a mess. Relative to their low expectations I’m not too surprised with how they are playing but John Fox should be able to get this team to player harder on defense at least.
Another victim of opening week expectations. A week 1 win over the Colts had people thinking myself included that the Lions offense could be good enough without Calvin Johnson to help a decent defense. 3 losses later and that tune has changed. They’ve lost those games by a combined 11 points but a loss to lowly Bears last week revealed this team isn’t good at any one thing to make them a viable playoff team. 8-8 at best.
Seattle has bounced back from a rough offensive start nicely scoring 64 points the last 2 weeks including 27 against a good Jets defense. They appear to have figured things out with the revelation of Christine Michael at running back giving them the balance they needed on offense. Luckily for them they have their stellar defense to rely on while the offense figured itself out. Russell Wilson’s health is a question mark and the offensive line is a bigger one, but for now all seems right in Seahawks Country.
Has anything gone right for the Cardinals? Besides a beat down of Tampa in week 2 Arizona has looked bad to downright terrible in their other 3 games. For a team that was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender what a miserable start. They seem burdened by expectations and are so determined to correct their failure in last year’s NFC Championship Game that they’re skipping over the small step of making the playoffs first. Their task of correcting things is made even harder by a injury to Carson Palmer, who hasn’t been playing that well in the first place. With the Rams out to a hot start and Seattle back to being Seattle time is running out for Bruce Arians and his Cardinals.
The Rams are one of the surprises of the league. And opening weekend destruction at the hands of Blaine Gabbert and the 49ers seemed to reveal LA as one of the league’s worst teams; a 3 game winning streak seemed to change that. Their offense is still anemic: their 63 points in 4 games is 2nd worst in the league. Their defense has been carrying them to these wins. Case Keenum has to get better for them to maintain this nice start but for now with wins over Seattle and Arizona they have a little breathing room.
This might be the most subjective grade of the article, and is entirely based on you thought the Niners’ goals were heading into the season. They aren’t good but save their loss to Seattle they’ve proven they can move the ball. For the talent level on the team Chip Kelly is getting a lot of out their offense. If the Niners goal is to tank for a quarterback, this is the way to go about it. Lose but do it while you score points and develop some young talent. There are better teams in the NFL that have more depressing situations than SAN Francisco.
Its hard to grade the Bills after 4 weeks; you can argue that their two losses were as ugly as their two wins were impressive. So then why give them any grade higher than a C? The two tangible changes in coaching after the Jets game, replacing Greg Roman with Anthony Lynn at offensive coordinator and Dennis Thurman now calling the plays defensively, have produced impressive results. If those changes have long term effects, the Bills are trending up. Especially on the defensive side of the ball, where the Bills look like they could be special.
The Dolphins could very easily be 0-4 if it weren’t for Cleveland’s terrible kicker. Not only are they bad, they’re uninspiring. Outside of Jarvis Landry, there isn’t much to be excited about in Dolphinland. This is a team that doesn’t appear to be that good at anything, and still are trying to figure out if Ryan Tannehill is any good behind a brutal offensive line. Miami doesn’t appear to be trying to tank for a pick, with additions of veterans like Arian Foster and Mario Williams but that decision may be made for them. Miami isn’t in a good place right now.
The Jets first 4 games could be renamed an “Ode to False Positives”. After a close loss to Cincinnati and a nice win over Buffalo where Ryan Fitzpatrick looked as good as he ever has, Jets fans seemed like that had something to be excited about. 9 Ryan Fitzpatrick touchdowns later, things have changed. The defense has been OK but the failures of Darrelle Revis and the secondary has made their stellar defensive line less effective. The Jets seem to me like a team that could surprise some good teams, and play well on a given Sunday but with Fitzpatrick under center even if he improves they’ll lack sort of consistency to actually make a run at the playoffs.
I think the most reasonable Patriots fan (if they exist) would’ve said 2-2 following Tom Brady’s 4 game suspension would’ve been something they could be happy with. So a 3-1 record has to be considered a success. Relative to expectations, having to play a 3rd string QB for 10 of their 16 Brady-less quarters and winning 3 games should earn them an A. However not all things are well in New England. Gronk still isn’t right, and the highly touted Patriots defense is only middle of the road so far. However with Tom Brady coming back, these issues could be rendered irrelevant. The Gronk situation needs to be monitored however when New England starts to play some tougher games.
3 great performances and 1 truly awful one populate the Steelers resume so far in 2016. Their offense looks truly special, and will only get better now that Le’veon Bell is back. The offense alone will beat most teams but their defense in improving as well. Pittsburgh has had as good of a start to the season as anyone really however you don’t get an A when you get your ass kicked like they did to Carson Wentz and the Eagles. That was a concerning performance, as they got dominated and appeared to give up near the end of the game. As the Steelers continue to stack up good performances that game can start to be forgotten and especially if the Eagles end up being very good. But for now it sticks in your mind.
Blah. That’s all I can say for the Bengals so far this season. They dominated an anemic Dolphins team beat the Jets by a point on the road but they haven’t really looked good yet. Even in their one win the Bengals didn’t look good, AJ Green did. All of the pieces are still there for this team to be back to where they were last year, and losses to Denver and Pittsburgh really aren’t anything to be ashamed of, but this is a team that was supposed to challenge for best in the AFC and they aren’t there yet. The burden of getting them to that level falls on Andy Dalton, who so far hasn’t proven that he elevate his teammates with out the same level of weaponry around him. He has to get better and that could be a scary thing to rely on.
OK so what do the Ravens have to hang their hat on: a win over the Bills where they scored 13 points, a win over Cleveland where they were down 20-0 at one point, and a 2 point last second win over Jacksonville. Add that into a loss to Oakland, where admittedly their offense finally got going, and we arrive at a very mediocre 3-1 record. Their defense is pretty good, and that’s how they gotten to this point thus far. They’re allowing only 4.6 yards per play, good for 3rd in the league. But Baltimore’s offense is mediocre at best. Joe Flacco hasn’t been very sharp, their receivers are either past their prime or very young and the running game has done very little. I think this is a team that’s prime for a big drop off once the schedule gets tougher. But grading only the first 4 games, they’ve earned their B rating.
A B? How can you give an 0-4 team a B? Well for one, Cleveland has been pretty competitive in 3 of their 4 games and probably should’ve won against Miami. But that’s not why they get the grade. This grade is relative to what teams wanted to get out of this season and Cleveland wanted to lose. They traded most of their veterans away for a reason. This season is about giving playing time to young talent and getting as high a pick as possible. So far they are right on course. The discovery of Terrelle Pryor as a multi faceted weapon as already given credence to their plan of playing young guys and being down to their 3rd string QB helps with the losing. Stay the course Cleveland.
Houston set out to remake their offense in 2016 plugging in a new quarterback and running back. So far despite a 3-1 record that hasn’t happened. In their 3 nondescript wins Houston has been carried by their defense and to a lesser extent their running game. However Brock Osweiler has left a lot to be desired at the quarterback position. Those flaws were exposed during the Patriots 27-0 destruction of Houston in Week 3. Despite facing a 3rd string quarterback Houston found its back against the wall early as a result of mistakes on special teams. A good quarterback in this position needs to be able to lead a drive to stop the bleeding and inspire his team to rally in a tough environment on the road. Osweiler could do no such thing. His ability to string together completions or be patient enough to take what the defense is giving him killed them in that game and things got out of hand quickly. Only 4 games into the season and I think I have Houston pegged: a talented team that can beat bad teams and play well when they are outfront. But when the going gets tough and you have to rely on Osweiler, he’s going to disappoint. A wild card playoff loss beckons.
What an incredibly flawed team the Colts are. Every time I watch them play or look at their roster, I’m still dumbfounded that the Colts have had 5 years to build around Andrew Luck and yet they don’t appear to be good at anything. Well I guess they are good at one thing; furious late comebacks after they were already down by 10+ points. The defense outside of Vontae Davis offers little resistance and the offense line is getting Andrew Luck killed. However Luck is complicit in the Colts struggles. He’s still too risky with the football and he makes some head scratching decisions at times, the latest of which was at the end of these latest loss to Jacksonville in London. Down 3 with only a few minutes left in the game, the Colts were driving and reached a 4th and short near midfield. Needing only 15 or so yards to get Adam Vinatieri into range Luck could’ve easily rushed for 2 yards to pick up the first down without being touched and instead tried to place a pass into a tightly covered receiver, fundamentally ending the game for Indy. It was a monumentally dumb decision, something a great player 5 years into their career should not be doing.
The Jacksonville hype machine was full steam ahead, or at least it had as much steam as it could have with Blake Bortles at the helm. This was going to be the year that the Jags got back to respectability. A close loss to Green Bay to start the year seemed to signify that. And then Blake Bortles went full Bortles. He played one of the most careless games that you’ll ever see an NFL quarterback play in San Diego. I say careless and not just bad because Bortles is so reckless with the ball sometimes that it borders on sabotage. He’s the same guy, and it doesn’t matter what tools he has if he can’t learn to make decent decisions. The sooner Jacksonville moves on, the better. Why not an F grade? Because when you’re the Jags and you get a win, that still an accomplishment.
Marcus Mariota showed quite a bit of promise his rookie season. Despite playing on a terrible team, he showed an ability to read the field well, make sound decisions and throw with anticipation. A lot of that has seemed to leave him this season. He’s regressing, with this latest outing being his worst yet a 13 for 29 and 2 interception stink bomb against Houston. To be fair to him the cards are pretty stacked against him. He might have the worst coach in the league and his receivers are some of the league’s worst too. However he needs to be better than this. Tennessee is still a bad team with low expectations so you can’t be too mad about a 1-3 start and DeMarco Murray regaining his old form certainly helps, but this year is about Mariota’s development and so far there’s been little to be encouraged about.
Can I give a team two As? Denver is a machine and I couldn’t be more impressed. The Denver defense is proving to be one of the most reliable units in the NFL. It seemed like the way they were winning last year with Manning was flukey and that the Broncos were a team primed to regress this year with an unknown starting at quarterback. Well the defense is still awesome and Trevor Siemian has played pretty well. Even Paxton Lynch played well when he filled in this week after Siemian got injured. I didn’t expect much from Denver when the season started but they have proven that they know what they are doing better than anyone else in the league not named Belichick. Kudos to Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips.
It’s so difficult to figure out what to make of the Chiefs. You’d pick them to beat almost any bad team in the league, but against any good team with a good quarterback they don’t have much of a chance. It’s like they’re perfectly in the middle. This season is no different. Their first game was an exhilarating comeback against San Diego, their most recent game was a blowout loss to Pittsburgh. They certainly aren’t the high flying offense that lead that comeback and they aren’t as bad as they looked against Pittsburgh; they’re in the middle. They put a clown suit on Ryan Fitzpatrick and got 6 picks. They also lost to Brock Osweiler, while isn’t the most embarrassing loss it’s not great either for a team that’s supposed to be taking the next step. KC’s biggest problem going forward is their offense. After scoring 33 points in the opener, they’ve only scored 50 in the next 3 games with, 14 of those points coming from defense. The return of Jamaal Charles will have to provide the necessary jumpstart if the Chiefs want to start performing like the boring playoff team they usually are.
This may have been the hardest team of them all to give a grade to, as the Chargers have had one of the oddest starts to a season in recent memory. They blew out Jacksonville in their only win and blew leads in each of their 3 losses. Philip Rivers is still great; he only threw his first interception as his last pass of their last game but they’ve also suffered a tremendous amount of injuries to key players, with Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead already out for the year and star corner Jason Verrett was added to that list just this week. I think the Chargers are still better than their record says they are, even with the injuries and while I don’t think they’ll have enough to challenge for the playoffs they have the potential to be scariest 7-9 team in the league. With all that said, can someone please rescue Rivers from this disaster? He’s wasting away out there.
The new Cardiac Kids! Oakland’s games have been full of excitement, but not so full of defense on their way to a 3-1 record. I’m not quite sure they are as good as their record would lead you to believe, but winning one point comeback games in New Orleans and Baltimore is impressive regardless of circumstances. Derek Carr is the 2nd highest rated passer in the league amongst quarterbacks who have played at least 3 games and he only has thrown 1 interception in 4 games. Unfortunately the Raiders defense that was supposed to be must improved is giving Carr plenty of comeback opportunities, something they must improve to win consistently. But a 3-1 record after their hyped offseason is a massive success.