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NFL Panic Index 2018: The Patriots’ surprise bet for an offensive revival

New England has a new receiver! Deshaun Watson is struggling. Arizona won’t give Josh Rosen a chance. There’s plenty for everyone to panic about this week.

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NFL: New England Patriots at Jacksonville Jaguars
Why isn’t this man smiling?
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The second week of the NFL season was stressful. Another questionable roughing the passer call affected the outcome of yet another game, kickers were misfiring wide left and wide right, the Browns teased us with another almost-win, and we saw our second tie of the season.

We’re also down to nine teams still looking for their first win. Seven of those are 0-2 and are now flirting with danger. Since 2007, only about 11 percent of teams that started 0-2 have made it to the playoffs. Even the teams sitting on a perfect record can’t breathe easy. Last year, just four of eight teams that started 2-0 went on to the postseason.

So it’s understandable if you were feeling a little football anxiety this past weekend. But not all concerns should be treated equally, especially after just two weeks of football.

Let’s sort out what you should really be sweating about in the Week 3 edition of the panic index:

The Patriots are staking their offensive revival on Josh Gordon

New England’s shallow-as-hell wide receiving corps bottomed out against the Jaguars Sunday. Phillip Dorsett, Chris Hogan, and Cordarrelle Patterson combined for just 38 yards before a garbage time fourth-quarter drive helped make their output look a bit more respectable in a 31-20 defeat. More importantly, their inability to make plays allowed Jacksonville to focus hard on Rob Gronkowski, who finished the day with only two catches on four targets.

That performance was a catalyst for Bill Belichick, who turned around Monday and swung a deal for the Browns’ soon-to-be-released star Josh Gordon. Relying on Gordon is a major risk. The explosive wideout was a first-team All-Pro in 2013, but has played only 11 of a possible 66 games in the years since due to various suspensions related to repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy.

While he’s clean in 2018, and even took time away from Cleveland’s training camp to work on his sobriety, his actions this fall were enough to frustrate the Browns into finally cutting ties with him. The wideout reportedly injured his hamstring while filming a “hype video” for his clothing line at the team’s facility. The next day, he showed up late to a team meeting while nursing the injury, and that was all general manager John Dorsey needed to see.

Those are the kind of shenanigans Belichick gives no quarter, and knowing he can cut Gordon with little lost investment — the Pats shipped a fifth-round pick to Cleveland and will recoup a seventh-round pick if he doesn’t play in 10 games in 2018 — could make the rangy deep threat’s Foxborough tenure brief. Or, he could show up to every Patriots obligation he’s got and team with a returning Julian Edelman to give New England the league’s most dynamic passing offense. With Gordon around, neither possibility would be especially surprising.

Panic index: Predicting the fall of the Patriots’ empire after early-season adversity is now a time-honored tradition that has always failed to pan out. Their Week 1 defeat to the Chiefs led to a Super Bowl 52 appearance. Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension in 2016 gave way to a Super Bowl 51 victory. 2014’s 2-2 start ended with another NFL championship. New England will be fine, until it isn’t.

The Cardinals are stubbornly sticking with Sam Bradford over Josh Rosen

Ninety yards. That’s how many total passing yards Sam Bradford had in the Cardinals’ 34-0 loss to the Rams. Not a quarter, not a half. A whopping 90 yards in 60 minutes.

We knew this was, at best, a rebuilding year for the Cardinals. And the Rams are perhaps the most complete team in the NFL. But 90 yards? On 27 pass attempts?

At this point in his career, the most you can hope for from Bradford is what he gave the Vikings two years ago when he was last healthy for an entire season: efficient game manager who is just kinda there to dump off some passes. He’s probably not making a good play, but he’s probably not making a bad play either.

That hasn’t been the case with the Cardinals. In two games, he’s thrown for 243 yards, no touchdowns, and two picks. The Cardinals have converted four third downs (out of 20 attempts) and scored exactly one touchdown this season (and even then, the two-point conversion failed). On Sunday, they didn’t get sniff the Rams’ side of the field until there were 30 seconds left in the game.

Larry Fitzgerald is being wasted at the tail end of his Hall of Fame career. David Johnson, finally healthy again, has been bafflingly misused.

Meanwhile, here’s what the quarterback they used a top-10 pick on is doing:

At this point, why not try Rosen? If you’re invested in him being the future at quarterback, and this season is going nowhere fast, let him learn on the job like Josh Allen is doing with the Bills. He probably couldn’t do any worse than Bradford’s league-worst 55.6 passer rating.

New head coach Steve Wilks is stubbornly sticking with Bradford, though:


Panic index: One way or the other, Rosen is going to play this year, whether because Bradford gets hurt yet again or because the Cardinals need to see what Rosen can do in an already lost season. It might not be in Week 3 against Khalil Mack and the Bears, but it’s coming, probably sooner rather than later.

Deshaun Watson and the Texans offense are off to a slow start

We were all pretty excited to see what the Texans could do with a full season of Deshaun Watson. Unfortunately, the answer so far is not much.

Watson has thrown just three touchdowns and two interceptions in two games. His YPA has slipped from 8.3 last season to 7.3 this season, and he’s only completing 59 percent of all his throws. He is running more, but it’s not as effective and some of that running is him running for his life behind a line that’s already allowed him to be sacked seven times (four last week).

Rookie left tackle Julie’n Davenport leads the league with eight blow blocks on pass snaps. Journeyman left guard Senio Kelemete is tied for third most blown blocks on pass snaps with four. Watson’s completing just 48 percent of his throws when pressured, which could be worse considering he’s getting sacked on almost 11 percent of all his throws.

We could pull stats for days to illustrate the struggles of Houston’s passing game this season, but you get the point. The real question here is when/if this can be turned around?

Panic index: Breathe. A rough opening week marred Watson’s overall passing numbers. He quietly had a nice game last week. Another plus is that the running game is working very nicely. Things will get better.

The Raiders sure are a mess, huh?

We’ll be talking about Oakland’s ill-fated decision to trade Khalil Mack to the Bears for a long, long time, at least until the Raiders find a pass rusher who can get after the quarterback half as well as Mack can. Also, we’ll talk about it just as long as Jon Gruden continues to make comments completely lacking in self-awareness.

The Raiders managed just one sack in each of their first two games, and of course Gruden has to talk about the pass rush being an issue ... it’s just that he also doubled down on not regretting the Mack trade, perpetuating a stubborn philosophy that many feared he would have coming into Oakland.

Well he certainly has it.

Through two weeks, the Raiders have looked prepared for two quarters, and then completely lost for two more. Gruden’s team is having a difficult time with halftime adjustments, and not having a star player like Mack to disrupt the game even when the gameplan is wrong is hurting them big time.

Panic index: With a different coach who isn’t so stubborn, I might say it’s far too early to panic. Unfortunately, Raiders fans, it is precisely the right time to panic. The Raiders looked like the window was about to open for them for a couple seasons there, but it’s been slammed shut. Panic!

The Chiefs need a shootout to win every game

It’s fun to watch Kansas City right now and Patrick Mahomes has given the Chiefs reason to be real optimistic about their future. But how sustainable is this success if the defense keeps struggling?

The Chiefs have already given up 1,016 total yards in two weeks. No other team has topped 900.

Mahomes is as exciting as it gets, but he threw six touchdowns and the Chiefs still only won by five.

Peyton Manning owns the record for touchdown passes in a season with 55 — that’s an average of about 3.4 touchdowns per game. So unless Mahomes smashes that record in such a ridiculous way that the Chiefs’ defense can afford to give up more than 500 yards on a weekly basis, eventually that defense is going to come back to haunt them.

Panic index: Eric Berry will be back soon from a heel injury. He may be ready to return to practice this week, according to Ian Rapoport. He’ll be a welcome addition. But the Chiefs’ defensive issues run deeper than just the absence of Berry, and it’s tough to truly believe in the team as a contender.

Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger have been a bit off

Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown have been one of the most productive duos in NFL history, but they’ve gotten off to a bit of a slow start. Through two games Brown and Roethlisberger have connected on 18 of 33 targets for 160 yards and a touchdown. That’s just 4.8 yards per target — a far cry from their 9.4 yards per target in 2017.

So far, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jesse James have been the Steelers’ most productive receiving options.

JuJu Smith-Schuster: 18 of 27, 240 yards, one touchdown

Jesse James: 8 of 10, 198 yards, one touchdown

Brown definitely appears to be upset with his slow start to the season. He was visibly upset with new offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner in the Steelers 42-37 loss against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Brown also didn’t show up to team meetings on Monday following the loss. The Steelers won’t trade or release him this season, but it has to be a bit upsetting for fans to see their superstar wide receiver clearly disgruntled with the current situation on offense.

Panic index: It’s a little early for complete panic mode for the Big Ben-Antonio Brown connection — even Roethlisberger said he’s “not worried” about Brown. They have way too much past success to write off this early in the season. If they still haven’t gotten going in a week or two, it might be time to press the panic button.

They have the perfect “get right” opportunity against a porous Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass defense next week. Sometimes it takes star players a couple weeks to return to dominant form. That could be all it is it is with Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger.

The Jaguars are better without Leonard Fournette

Jacksonville earned its spot atop our power rankings with an impressive 31-20 win over the Patriots. And they did it without the help of running back Leonard Fournette.

So what’s the problem?

How about the fact that Blake Bortles is significantly better when Fournette is on the sideline? In games with Fournette sidelined, Bortles has a 115.4 passer rating and a 4-0 record.

Part of that has to do with the fact that Fournette missed games against the Colts, Bengals, and Texans in 2017 — three teams that finished with losing records and below average defenses. But Bortles’ performance against the Patriots gives the questions some legitimacy.

Maybe it’s because the Jaguars are more creative, unpredictable, and aggressive when they aren’t banging their head against a wall with Fournette? Maybe Bortles steps up his game when the Jaguars need him to?

One reporter made the mistake of asking Fournette about it:

Whatever it is, Jacksonville can’t have Bortles revert to his former self once Fournette is healthy and in the lineup again.

Panic index: There’s not much reason to panic at all. Fournette is the best running back on the roster and figuring out a way to stay aggressive is a nice problem to have. The Jaguars are fine.