clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

4 NFL trends that will pass and 2 that are here to stay in 2018

The Browns might not finish the year with a better record than the Patriots ... but Joe Flacco might be a competent QB.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first three weeks, the 2018 NFL season gave rise to league-leading rusher Matt Breida, the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears, and our new touchdown overlord Patrick Mahomes II.

So, yeah, it’s been kind of an unpredictable season so far.

The regular season has been occasionally exhilarating, sometimes boring, and often frustrating — and that just encompasses the Packers 1-1-1 start. A way-too-early look at the standings has the Bengals, Dolphins, Buccaneers, and Bears in line for postseason berths and the Patriots, Steelers, Vikings, and Panthers on the outside looking in. But while a few of these surprising starts will hold, others will just be happy (or, if you live in New England, tremendously unhappy) memories that give way when the game regresses back to the mean.

So which trends are here to stay, and which will be cast by the wayside as conventional wisdom reshuffles the league’s leaderboards?

Passing trend: Clay Matthews getting flagged for roughing the passer once a game

So the Packers linebacker probably *isn’t* going to get called for 16 roughing the passer penalties this fall. But so far, no player in the league has run afoul of the league’s latest emphasis on quarterback safety than Matthews, who has earned three roughing calls through the first three weeks of the season. One of those, a late hit on Mitchell Trubisky in Week 1, was deserved. The other two are currently being propped up as arguments why the league can’t afford to keep its new rule.

The first nonsense call turned a surefire Packers win over the Vikings into a tie. The second saw head coach Mike McCarthy nearly burst all the veins in his forehead while screaming at the nearest line judge. Both earned scorn across the league.

While the NFL won’t change the language of the rule in 2018, members of the league’s competition committee expressed their concerns with the multitude of flags and have sent officials another video explaining what they are and are not looking for in this new generation of roughing penalties. It was an extremely minor concession to public pressure — but it should also give referees more autonomy when it comes to swallowing their whistles after plays that don’t look malicious in any way on the field.

You know, something like this:

If the competition committee really is committed to fixing the problem they created, it’ll free Matthews up for his first sack of the season — or at least one that doesn’t immediately lead to a 15-yard penalty.

Passing trend: The Chiefs lighting every team up without breaking a sweat

The Chiefs are going to slow down, eventually. Kansas City is the most fun team in the NFL to watch, but let’s take a second to remember the 5-0 Chiefs of 2017. The team averaged 32.8 points per game and got wins over both of the eventual Super Bowl contenders, the Patriots and Eagles.

Then the Chiefs averaged fewer than 20 points over the next seven games, and dropped back to a .500 team. Kansas City still finished top five in total offense, but the bottom five defense couldn’t pick up the slack when the Chiefs stopped burying teams with touchdowns.

This version of the Chiefs is even worse on defense, but so far they’re even better on offense with the unstoppable Mahomes leading the way. He has 13 touchdowns with no interceptions, and the Chiefs are averaging 39.3 points per game. That’s just not sustainable.

The record for touchdown passes in a season is 55 — Mahomes is pacing for about 69. Unless he rewrites the record books in such an unfathomable way that the number can’t be topped for years to come, the Chiefs offense will hit a bump in the road. Unless Kansas City’s defense suddenly starts playing significantly better, a 2017 repeat is probably on the way.

Here to stay: Joe Flacco, competent QB

Let’s not sugarcoat this: Joe Flacco has been a bad quarterback the last few years. From 2014 to 2017, Flacco ranked dead last in yards per attempt (6.51) among all quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts.

This year, Baltimore is getting a different, better version of its former first-round quarterback. Through three games, Flacco is on pace to have his best season yet. He’s only thrown for 4,000 yards once in his career, but he’s currently on pace for 4,741 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. That’s a big improvement over last year’s numbers (3,141 yards, 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions).

It’s helped that the Ravens got Flacco some weapons this offseason. The emergence of John Brown has been huge for the Baltimore offense. Brown is averaging 18.5 yards per catch — 5 yards better than their next best receiver, rookie tight end Mark Andrews.

The Ravens don’t play a particularly tough schedule of pass defenses this year, either. They still have games against the Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers, Raiders, Chiefs, and two games against the Steelers. It’s entirely possible that Flacco could keep up this career year, making the Ravens’ quarterback decision next offseason — keep Flacco or move on with Lamar Jackson — a little more difficult.

Passing trend: The Patriots have a worse record than the Browns

After three weeks, the Browns are 1-1-1. The Patriots are 1-2. For the first time since midway through the 2002 season, the zero-time Super Bowl champion Browns have a better record than the five-time Super Bowl champion Patriots.

Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

Sure, the teams are trending in different directions relative to their usual place in the NFL landscape. Cleveland has a fearsome defense and legitimate hope at quarterback, while New England’s loss to Detroit exposed problems that not even Tom Brady can solve.

But c’mon. We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves here. The Browns have to prove they can win games plural before we even put them into a conversation about finishing above .500, let alone at a higher level than the team that’s represented the AFC in three of the last four Super Bowls.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have reinforcements coming at wide receiver (Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon), and still have four games left against the Jets and Bills. We’ve seen them start slow before and they’re always still alive in January, usually in February too.

As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are around, don’t celebrate the demise of the Patriots just yet. That said, it’s possible we can milk this for a little while longer. In Week 4, the Browns play the winless Raiders and the Patriots get the Dolphins, the last team to beat them during the 2017 regular season (though the game is at Foxborough so you should probably pencil in a home team win).

But even if this trend doesn’t last past September, it could return again in the near future. In a couple years, don’t be surprised if it’s Belichick’s old team that’s in better shape than his current one.

Here to stay: Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins offense controlling games

Adam Gase took over as the Dolphins’ head coach in 2016, and it immediately resulted in Ryan Tannehill’s highest completion percentage in his career (67.1 percent). Tannehill then missed the entirety of the 2017 season with an ACL injury, leaving Jay Cutler, Matt Moore, and David Fales to combine for 24 interceptions. But Tannehill was still a guy that Gase believed in, and he’s come into 2018 looking quite good. In fact, going back to that 2016 season, Tannehill has won 10 of his last 11 starts.

He’s not destroying defense (Miami ranks 23rd in the league in total offense), but he’s been very efficient through three games, and that has allowed Miami to control and win close games en route to a 3-0 start. Nothing about the way the Dolphins are playing on offense is unsustainable, though. This looks like a breakout year for Tannehill, even if “breaking out” for him is settling into more of a game manager role. Good game managers can still win games.

Tannehill has completed 73 percent of his passes for 687 yards, seven touchdowns, and two interceptions. He’s been assisted by a steady-enough running game from Kenyan Drake (104 yards, 3.5 average) and The Inconvenient Truth, Frank Gore (98 yards, 4.1 average). The teams they’ve beaten thus far range from good (the Titans) to less so (the Jets and Raiders). But Tannehill has shown enough poise under pressure and a command of Gase’s offense that should have Dolphins fans expecting a playoff run.

Passing trend: The Steelers being a penalty machine

Three games into Pittsburgh’s drama-filled 2018 season, the team is 1-1-1 and has a league-leading 37 penalties for 361 yards. It’s the most penalty yardage any team has had through the first three weeks of the season since the Oakland Raiders racked up 388 in their first three games of the 1969 season.

The 2011 Raiders own the record for penalty yardage in a season at 1,358. The Steelers are on pace for about 1,925 yards worth of penalties.

That ridiculous amount just isn’t going to happen. Under Mike Tomlin, the team has always been a relatively disciplined team that plays within the rules. A year ago, the Steelers were No. 21 in penalties with 101 and No. 20 in penalty yardage with 897.

Part of the problem has been the league’s extremely strict personal foul rules, which have bit the Steelers bad. In a Week 3 loss to the Buccaneers alone, Pittsburgh got six 15-yard penalties for unnecessary roughness or roughing the passer.

Even if the NFL still can’t figure out its roughing the passer rule, don’t expect the Steelers to keep drawing flags at such an outrageous rate.