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7 NFL trends to talk about at Thanksgiving to avoid awkward conversation

What’s in? What’s out? What’s so last year? Here’s what’s all the rage in the NFL this season.

QBs Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson shake hands after a Chiefs-Ravens game
Lamar Jackson is setting the NFL on fire, one year after Patrick Mahomes did.

Thanksgiving is America’s ode to awkward conversations around the dinner table. It’s the only time of the year when you’re confronted in person with nonsense you can usually block online. There’s your uncle spewing his increasingly conspiracy theorist political views, your family friend who you call an aunt who is not an aunt trying to pedal some “organic” face cream, and your wined-up Nana telling everyone who her favorite grandchild is (it’s you, of course).

Luckily, football is there to save us when we don’t want to answer questions about our dating life or hear your cousin’s thoughts about impeachment.

If you haven’t been paying much attention to the NFL this season, it’s OK. We’re not here to judge. Maybe you’ve been busy. Maybe you got really into the CFL this year instead. Maybe you’re a Bengals fan.

It’s not too late, though. There’s still time to get caught up on the latest trends in the NFL so you can avoid turning into the “Ight Imma Head Out” SpongeBob meme and steer any discussion back to what’s happening on the football field.

The best player in the NFL is ...

Out: Tom Brady is the GOAT
So last year: Patrick Mahomes is the GOAT
In: Lamar Jackson is the GOAT

Yes, technically Brady is still the GOAT, but he’s lost his fastball, even if the Patriots are still the Patriots. Jackson is officially the most exciting player in the league, supplanting Mahomes and leading the red-hot Ravens to a 9-2 start.

Jackson has been every bit the dynamic force he was while winning a Heisman Trophy at Louisville — except now he’s doing it against NFL defenses. He’s beaten both teams that played in Super Bowl 53 this season, racking up eight total touchdowns (six passing, two rushing) against them in the process.

So far this season, he’s got:

  • more passing touchdowns than anyone in the league but Russell Wilson (they’re tied at 24)
  • a higher completion rate than Dak Prescott (66.9 to 66.8)
  • the highest QBR (82.2) and a passer rating higher than Mahomes (111.4 to 110)
  • more yards per attempt than Deshaun Watson (8.1 to 8.0)
  • more rushing yards than Le’Veon Bell OR Todd Gurley (876)
  • more rushing touchdowns than Leonard Fournette (five to three)

That’s pushed him to the forefront of the MVP race. He’ll still have to fend off Wilson, but if he can play at even 90 percent of his abilities over the rest of the season, he’ll make it two straight seasons when a second-year QB is named the league’s most valuable player.

The top QB from the 2016 draft is ...

Out: Carson Wentz, savior of the City of Brotherly Love
So last year: Jared Goff, God’s gift to the West Coast offense
In: Dak Prescott, better than Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach combined

Goff and Wentz were the first two picks in the 2016 draft and had high expectations coming into the league. For a while, it looked like they had lived up to the hype. Wentz was a legit MVP candidate in 2017 until his ACL injury put Nick Foles into the lineup — and delivered the Eagles their first Super Bowl. Goff had his strongest season yet in 2018 and got the Rams to the Super Bowl, though they came up short of a championship. Both got big new contracts in the offseason.

Yet it’s Prescott — a fourth-round pick and the eighth quarterback off the board in 2016 — who not only hasn’t struggled this year, but he keeps getting better:

Prescott currently leads the league in total passing yards and is in the top five in touchdown passes, QBR, and yards per pass. Although he doesn’t have a Super Bowl trip under his belt, he has led the Cowboys to two playoff appearances and three straight winning seasons. It looks like he could accomplish both again this season, too.

Dallas is in the driver’s seat in the NFC East, and while the Cowboys have some glaring problems (mainly, coaching), Prescott isn’t one of them. He’ll be rewarded for that soon with his own (richer) contract extension.

The way to win the Super Bowl is ...

Out: Defense wins championships, even with a caretaker QB
So last year: Offense is the king
In: Defense is baaaaack ... but you need a passing game

Defense is paving the way for the NFL’s elite, just like in last season’s playoffs. The two best records in the NFL currently belong to the Patriots and the 49ers, who boast the top two defenses in about every metric — scoring, yards allowed, yards per play, and defensive DVOA.

Yes, New England still has that Brady fella you’ve probably heard of, but he’s putting up underwhelming numbers. The Patriots are winning because of their boogeymen defense. It’s the same story for San Francisco, another one-loss team that is doing just fine with Jimmy Garoppolo but also doesn’t need to rely on its offense to win games.

Last year, the unstoppable offenses of the Rams and Chiefs were all the rage. Both lost to the Patriots in the postseason and since, Los Angeles has slowed down significantly while the Kansas City defense is still too terrible to make the Chiefs all that scary.

The 2019 season has shown that a powerful defense can lead the way — as long as your quarterback isn’t someone as lousy as Mitchell Trubisky.

The NFL’s laughingstock is ...

Out: The Browns, after a nearly two-decade run
So last year: The Cardinals, who literally paid Sam Bradford money in 2018
In: The Bears, because they chose Mitchell Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson

In 2017, the Bears traded up to No. 2 to draft Trubisky, a quarterback who only had one year of starting experience at UNC. As anyone who had watched college football that year knew, two other quarterbacks selected several picks later were the real deal. Mahomes and Watson aren’t just good young quarterbacks, either. They’re bonafides stars who should have long, productive careers.

Then there’s Trubisky, who has fallen from “adequate game manager” to maybe the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. To make matters worse, he’s squandering what should be one of the league’s dominant defenses.

It’s not just that Trubisky is bad, either. It’s that he’s really bad. The Bears have zero identity on offense and zero spark. There is very little reason to expect Trubisky, with his 5.8 yards per pass average, to ever lead them on a scoring drive and when he does, it feels like a minor miracle.

He is prime dunking-on material, and should make for some good Thanksgiving laughs. Be sure to stress the Mahomes and Watson angle at the dinner table.

Our view on the youngest NFL coach ever is ...

Out: Sean McVay is the future of NFL coaching
So last year: Get used to Sean McVay, the NFL’s most innovative coach
In: Oh damn, they figured out how to stop Sean McVay already?

McVay revived the Rams after taking the reins as head coach in 2017, winning a division title in his first year at the helm and then guiding his team to the Super Bowl in 2018. Barring a drastic change, his 2019 follow-up will be sending his players off for an early vacation when the playoffs roll around.

The Rams have fallen to the middle of the NFC pack as issues have cropped up on both sides of the ball. A defense anchored by All-Pros Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey has given up 45+ points multiple times this season. Jared Goff, an MVP candidate through most of 2018, did this:

Part of McVay’s issue is attributable to injuries that have fundamentally changed the way his offensive line blocks for Todd Gurley. Without center Brian Allen or guard Joe Noteboom — tackle Rob Havenstein has missed time with a knee injury as well — LA’s simplistic zone rushing plan has struggled to create space up front. That’s allowed teams to divert attention to the Rams’ passing game and, well, that’s how you wind up with zero passing touchdowns for an entire month.

McVay’s prospects in Los Angeles may not get better anytime soon. The Rams are pressed up against the salary cap thanks to massive deals for players like Donald, Goff, Gurley, and Brandin Cooks. They don’t have much draft capital to spend on young impact players because they shipped their next two first-round picks to Jacksonville for Ramsey. It’s possible LA peaked in 2018 — and that might extend to McVay as well.

Our reaction to the NFL’s biggest goof of a coach is ...

Out: laughing at Jon Gruden in the Monday Night Football booth
So last year: laughing at Jon Gruden as the Raiders coach
In: giving Jon Gruden some credit

Gruden’s 2018 was a disaster, but his teardown — which sent stars Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper packing — has begun to set up a foundation in Oakland. Newly installed general manager Mike Mayock has been a valuable governor to Gruden’s hotter takes, turning the team’s 2019 draft into a handful of young stars. Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs, Maxx Crosby, Foster Moreau, and Hunter Renfrow are set to be significant pieces of the team’s future.

As a result, the Raiders are a surprising piece of the AFC’s postseason puzzle, even if their 34-3 loss to the Jets (!) knocked them into a four-way tie for the conference’s final wild card spot. A strong finish could turn a team oddsmakers pegged to win six games this fall into an honest-to-goodness playoff team, and that’s validated the wild swings the coach-turned-announcer-turned-coach took in 2018.

Gruden needed to create a product fans could get excited about in time for the team’s 2020 move to Las Vegas. The Raiders aren’t a Super Bowl contender yet, but if you squint hard enough you can see how they’d get there — and that’ll be enough to move tickets in the middle of the Nevada desert.

The one NFL opinion we can all agree on is ...

Out: Jimmy Garoppolo, Patriots backup, is handsome
So last year: Jimmy Garoppolo, injured 49ers QB, is handsome
In: Jimmy Garoppolo, QB of the NFC-leading 49ers, is handsome

Nothing can unite a group of people together like a mutual acknowledgement that Garoppolo is handsome. We would say he’s movie star handsome, but he’s more handsome than that. Movie stars wish they could be as handsome as Garoppolo.

For anybody claiming that Garoppolo is inconsistent on the field, well, just look at his handsomeness. The guy was handsome for years behind the average-at-best-by-comparison Tom Brady. Then he came to San Francisco, won a few games handsomely, then sustained a pretty bad ACL tear which, while handsome, was very disappointing.

Now, he’s led the 49ers to a handsome 10-1 record, the best in the NFC. That lone loss came to the Seahawks, and if you were wondering if the loss was handsome:

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Obviously, it was.

So when all else fails, let Jimmy G’s handsomeness help keep the peace at Thanksgiving.