Every NFL season delivers useful lessons for personnel executives, players and fans to keep in mind.
Some are brand-new stories that fail to last the test of even a little time (see: Wildcat, 2008). Others are familiar concepts we already knew which might have slid to the back of the line or slipped our memories for a year or two. Some are being pounded into our heads even though we haven't forgotten them at all, as anybody who doubted the Patriots for even a moment are currently reminded.
And 2016 is no different. This is a bizarre year, one in which television ratings unexpectedly took a hit, along with the records of several surefire contenders. Meanwhile, a team that went 4-12 in 2015 and has started a rookie quarterback and an organization that hasn't made the playoffs since 2002 are among the three most successful squads in football this season. There might not be any great teams in 2016, but there are plenty of useful stories to take away, many of which popped up here in Week 15. Our stories start with an old credo ...
You build from the (offensive) line out.
Everybody pays lip service to the idea of winning at the line of scrimmage, but how many teams really put their money (or draft picks) where their mouths are? How many fans freak out and sprint to the team store to buy a jersey of the guard their team drafted in the first round? And if players really know best, why are there more running backs (10) than offensive linemen (seven) on the NFL Top 100 List this year?
If there was ever a year to reinforce the importance of building through your offensive line, it's 2016. You know about the Cowboys and Raiders: Oakland is spending a league-high 22.3 percent of their cap on offensive linemen this year, and Dallas has used three recent first-round picks on offensive linemen. Oakland and Dallas, not coincidentally, are set to spend more money on their offensive lines than anyone else in the league next season. I suspect they aren't complaining.
It's not just those two teams, though, that are excelling with an improved line.
The Lions have surprised on offense this year despite losing Calvin Johnson, and while second-year guard Laken Tomlinson wasn't very good early in the year, he's been one of three first-round picks suiting up in front of Matthew Stafford for Detroit, alongside tackles Riley Reiff (2012) and Taylor Decker (2016).
Atlanta's offense has sprung into life after adding Alex Mack in free agency.
Miami pieced together a dominant running game during a rare stretch of health for its line, with three first-rounders of its own.
The Patriots have improved with similar personnel, thanks to the return of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia from retirement.
The flip side of the argument is true, too: Teams with offensive line struggles have collapsed.
The Bengals had a top-three offensive line last year, but with right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi failing to launch as a starter, their offense has been erratic all season.
And Minnesota's playoff hopes have been sunk by a porous offensive line, where injuries have created a unit that can't run or pass block.
You can get by without a great offensive line if you have a scrambling force of nature like Russell Wilson, but you run the risk of facing an unwinnable game against the wrong team, as we saw when Seattle's offensive line was shredded by Carolina in the 2015 playoffs.
Having a great offensive line doesn't ensure success on its own, but it creates an infrastructure in which it's easier for your skill-position players to succeed. They develop better habits and grow more confident, and the safety net of the line makes their talent play up. As teams like the Browns, Jets and Rams continue on yet another rebuild, investing up front should be an essential component of their plans, especially in a draft that doesn't appear to have any great quarterback prospects.
No QB is too expensive to bench.
You have to wonder what it was about this particular ugly game from Brock Osweiler that led the Texans to finally bench their starting quarterback. After throwing his second INT of the game, Osweiler hit the bench with a 2.2 QBR and 48 yards on 11 pass attempts. Even worse for Osweiler, the unheralded Tom Savage came off the bench and excelled, posting a 76.1 QBR while going 23-of-36 for 260 yards in leading the Texans to a 21-20 comeback victory over the Jaguars.
At this point, there are two likelihoods: The Texans are going to the playoffs and, barring injury, Osweiler will be watching from the sideline. If Savage had struggled, Bill O'Brien might have been able to justify bringing back Osweiler after a spell to regroup on the sidelines. Osweiler had been better after Houston's Week 9 bye, but now, the Texans can't credibly put him back on the field barring an injury to Savage. Even then, Brandon Weeden might be the starter. I've seen plenty of starting quarterbacks benched, but I've never had to see a player in the huddle wave his arms to quiet the cheering crowd down so they can hear the backup call his first play, as Lamar Miller was forced to do yesterday.
It's very unlikely, though, that the Texans are through with their free-agent mistake. Osweiler isn't going anywhere until 2018, given the Texans owe him $16 million in guaranteed salary next year and would otherwise owe $25 million in dead money on their cap for 2017 if they cut him. Even if Savage works out, the cost of signing a competitive backup to replace Osweiler on the roster would push the cost of parting ways with him to the $30 million range, which is untenable. The only way they can shed his $19 million salary is via trade, and while the Browns would likely be willing to cook up a trade in which they absorb Osweiler's contract in exchange for a couple of first-round picks, it's not likely to happen. The Texans will have to rehab Osweiler and hope he can start fresh in 2017.
Finally: I've read plenty of commentary suggesting John Elway's a genius for allowing his former starter to leave town for Texas. Elway has done incredible work in Denver and might very well deserve to be called a genius for many of the moves he has made, but let's also remember that he was quite interested in retaining Osweiler. Reports at the time suggested the Broncos offered Osweiler $16 million per year with $30 million in guarantees, only for Houston to win out with $37 million in guarantees.
Don't write anything in pen in September.
It's always tempting to try to get ahead of the curve and spot the next great player or team while the weather's still warm. In some cases, that's a smart move: Dak Prescott excelled in the preseason before meaningful action, and the Raiders went 2-1 in September before winning eight of their next nine games. Atlanta won four straight after losing its opener and has basically held serve ever since; the Falcons are 82.4 percent favorites to win the South at 9-5. Catch the right wave and you'll feel like a smart cookie.
Sometimes, though, you see a juicy wave and end up falling for the Rams, who finished 2015 with three wins in four games and started the year with three more wins in their first four games. Were they riding the momentum of their hot December and the energy of their new home crowd in Los Angeles? Obviously not, given that the only team they've beaten since Oct. 2 is the Jets.
Maybe you were smart enough to see through the Rams, but the Vikings are another organization that looked brilliant in September after trading a first-round pick for Sam Bradford to save a prime Adrian Peterson season. Bradford played better than the Vikings really could have expected, but he wasn't enough to save the team; their takeaway rate regressed back toward the mean, Peterson got hurt, the offensive line fell apart, and the Vikings dropped out of the playoff race. They have just a 1.5 percent chance of making the postseason with two games to go.
You'll remember how hot Carson Wentz looked in September, leading the Eagles to a 3-0 start while outscoring the Browns, Bears and Steelers by a combined score of 92-27. The second overall pick threw five touchdowns without a pick and posted a 103.8 passer rating to go with a 64.7 QBR. Since? Wentz has struggled, throwing eight touchdowns against 13 picks. His 72.6 passer rating is 31st, ahead of only Osweiler and Jared Goff, while his 46.8 QBR is ahead of only Ryan Fitzpatrick. And while Eagles fans will swear about Wentz's receivers dropping passes, his drop rate over that stretch is 4.6 percent, which is 24th among 33 qualifying quarterbacks. Wentz needs help at wideout, but a lack of receivers aren't making him sail a montage of interceptions over the middle of the field.
You may not remember how Ezekiel Elliott was struggling as the year started. Elliott was chided by owner Jerry Jones for visiting a (completely legal) marijuana dispensary in Seattle in August, then only took seven carries during the preseason while struggling with a hamstring injury. Zeke then got off to a slow start, running for 51 yards on 20 carries in the opener against the Giants before fumbling twice during a 21-carry, 83-yard performance against Washington. Elliott delivered on his promise with a 140-yard game against the Bears in Week 3 and has been a force of nature ever since.
Don't fight your top-five picks over offset language.
Elliott has delivered on his promise for the Cowboys, and Joey Bosa has been nothing short of exceptional when on the field for the Chargers. In 10 games with San Diego, the rookie edge-rusher has generated 7.5 sacks and 17 quarterback knockdowns, superstar numbers roughly in line with what Von Miller (11 sacks, 32 knockdowns) produced over a full season last year. Those numbers include a coverage sack against the Raiders on Sunday.
Given the going rate for pass-rushers like Miller, Bosa's four-year, $25 million deal (with a fifth-year option) makes him one of the most valuable properties in all of football. The Chargers will likely realize tens of millions of dollars in surplus value on Bosa's deal, but that wasn't enough for San Diego, which haggled with Bosa over offset language in the final year of his deal and refused to pay his signing bonus up front, which led the rookie to hold out for most of the preseason.
Bosa eventually made it back into camp but then immediately suffered a hamstring injury, costing him the first four games of the season. The Chargers went 1-3 in those four games, with their three losses coming by a combined 11 points. Their season ended up being a disappointment thanks to terrible performances in close games and a crippling amount of injuries, and while Bosa might not have made the difference, maybe he swings one of those games for the Chargers with a key play, and maybe things go a little differently for San Diego. It's very butterfly effect, but it's pretty clear that the Chargers were wasting their time on offset language, especially given that the argument came with a player they knew they were going to take for virtually the entire preceding offseason.
Don't let your superstars leave for free.
All-Pro-caliber players in the prime of their careers virtually never leave in free agency, if only because the NFL's built-in mechanisms make it easy for teams to retain top-level talent. Players who are underpaid on their rookie deal are often eager to cash in with a long-term deal, even if it comes at a discount. Players facing the threat or reality of a franchise tag give up money they might otherwise get going year-to-year in taking long-term deals. The NFL has incentivized stability and team-building with rare exceptions, which come either due to injury (Drew Brees) or cripplingly bad cap situations after repeated renegotiations (Ndamukong Suh, DeMarcus Ware).
Josh Norman became the latest player to join that group, but he doesn't fit either category. Carolina just decided that it wasn't going to be able to come to terms with its franchised superstar cornerback, and when the trade offers it received weren't markedly better than the third-round pick it was likely to receive as a compensatory selection, the Panthers simply let Norman out of his franchise tag and into the marketplace. Norman subsequently signed a five-year, $75 million deal with Washington.
The Panthers will get a third-round pick in next year's draft as a result of the Norman deal, and Norman has had an uneven debut season in the NFC East, but Carolina's defense hasn't been the same without a shutdown cornerback. Carolina, which was third in the league in DVOA against No. 1 wideouts last year, is 27th against those same wide receivers this season. The Panthers have cycled through starters, having already cut both Bene Benwikere and Robert McClain, who started a combined 10 games at corner.
General manager Dave Gettleman wasn't able to make much use of the cap space this year, as the Panthers were unable to sign any meaningful replacement for Norman. They also failed to lock up star defensive tackle Kawann Short, who would have been a logical fit for the actual cash that otherwise might have hit Norman's bank account. Gettleman hasn't made many wrong moves since joining the Panthers and winning three consecutive NFC South titles, although trading a fourth-round pick for punter Andy Lee (and a sixth-rounder) was a brutally short-sighted decision before cuts. The pass defense has gotten better as the season has gone on, posting the league's fourth-best DVOA between Weeks 10 and 14, but the Panthers might be challenging for a wild-card berth if Norman had stuck around. They'll get to catch up with Norman in person on Monday Night Football.
Patience is a virtue ... sometimes.
Nobody would have faulted the Raiders for firing general manager Reggie McKenzie at this exact time two years ago, after Oakland went 2-12 in 2014 and 10-36 during McKenzie's time at the helm. McKenzie's first head coach, Dennis Allen, had failed on the job and been fired. Rookie quarterback Derek Carr was a checkdown machine, averaging an absurdly low 5.5 yards per pass attempt, the worst era-adjusted yards per attempt figure for a starting quarterback since the merger in 1970.
McKenzie looks like one of the league's best general managers two years later.
The Jaguars took a little bit of criticism for bringing back coach Gus Bradley this season after going 12-36 during his first three years at the helm, but the Jags seemed to make headway last year by improving from 3-13 to 5-11. With Blake Bortles expected to improve, it appeared Jacksonville might have been smart to grant Bradley a fourth season in charge.
It didn't work out. Bradley was fired after that heartbreaking loss to the Texans on Sunday amid a 2-12 season. Ironically, while the offense collapsed, Bradley finally delivered on the promise he came over with from Seattle and began to develop a talented young defense in Jacksonville. The Jags were 15th in defensive DVOA heading into the week, with exceptional Jacksonville draftees Jalen Ramsey and Telvin Smith each picking Osweiler off during the first half. Ramsey, in particular, was exceptional against DeAndre Hopkins before Hopkins began to get his in the second half.
Now, while the Jaguars start to look for a new coach, they'll also need to think about the status of general manager Dave Caldwell, who was hired alongside Bradley. Caldwell's recent drafts have begun to deliver, particularly from 2014 and 2016, but his record is uneven at best. His 2013 draft, led by second overall pick Luke Joeckel, was a total whiff. 2015 isn't looking much better, with Dante Fowler delivering just a half-sack and four quarterback knockdowns after Week 2.
Furthermore, Caldwell's aggressive moves in free agency mostly haven't paid off. His 2014 class, with Zane Beadles, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons and Toby Gerhart, was all gone after two seasons. 2015 delivered Jared Odrick, Julius Thomas, Davon House, Dan Skuta, and Jermey Parnell, none of whom have lived up to their price tags. In terms of locking up his own talent, Caldwell also curiously gave a market-value deal to Allen Hurns without extracting much of a discount, despite the fact that the undrafted Hurns was two years away from free agency and held no leverage. With Marqise Lee looking like Jacksonville's most impressive offensive player at times this year, Hurns might very well be the team's third wideout heading into 2017.
Caldwell inherited one of the league's least-talented rosters from Gene Smith, and the lessons learned from McKenzie and the Raiders may be instructive. It's critical that the Jaguars create an infrastructure in which Bortles (or whoever ends up playing quarterback for Jacksonville in the next three years) can succeed, and that will likely require an offensive-minded head coach (Josh McDaniels? Jim Bob Cooter?) and/or an offensive coordinator with significant experience molding young quarterbacks into successes (Norv Turner?). You would also forgive the Jaguars, having been burned by their patience with Bradley, for wanting to move on from their general manager as well.
Variance catches up with you.
The Panthers are the poster boys for the vagaries of records in close games. From 2011 through the first two games of the 2013 season, which we would characterize as the Pre-Riverboat Ron Era, Carolina went 2-14 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Once Rivera suddenly morphed into an aggressive fourth-down playcaller, the Panthers suddenly found their stride in close games, going 15-3-1 in those same games, including a 6-1 record last year. It appeared the Panthers had the close ones figured out ... and then they went 2-5 in those same seven-point games this season. Some things are just more random than we care to admit.
It's also true for the Cardinals, who were 13-5 in one-score games during Bruce Arians' first three years with the team. Variance finally got them this year, during which they've gone 1-5-1 in those same contests. The Colts were a league-best 25-8 in one-score games during Andrew Luck's first four seasons in the league and they're an entirely average 4-4 in them this season. There are teams that didn't bounce back this year, like the Chargers, but underlying numbers from 2015 suggested the Cowboys, Chargers, Giants and Titans were likely to improve this season. They've all already surpassed their win totals from 2015, and the Chargers are the only one who are particularly close to where they finished last year.
This stuff matters.
... unless you're the Patriots.
The Patriots are 4-1 in games decided by one touchdown or less and 69-32 in those same games since 2001. Only the Colts (83-37) have been better, and anything close to a serious outlier alongside the Pats over that time frame.
You get old really fast.
Just ask the Jets, whose free-agent spending spree was lauded last year after it led them to a 10-6 record and the league's fifth-ranked defensive DVOA. The centerpiece of that spending spree was Darrelle Revis, who looked to have lost a half-step at times but otherwise seemed to be a viable top cornerback. The Jets imported veterans like Ryan Clady and Matt Forte, re-signed Fitzpatrick and aimed to take advantage of the wild-card picture in the AFC.
The plan has failed spectacularly. Revis has been below average, the centerpiece of the league's worst pass defense by DVOA, a figure which was calculated before Matt Moore rode on them for four touchdowns Saturday night. Fitzpatrick was on the bench watching Bryce Petty. Forte was limited by injuries at the end of an anonymous campaign, and Clady was eliminated by ailments as well. Brandon Marshall has battled through injuries and has seen his catch rate drop from 63 percent to 46 percent, while David Harris wasn't his usual self for most of the first two months. There's precious little in the cupboard here, and while Mike Maccagnan likely knew that before joining Gang Green, it can't be fun to see it play out in real time. Giants fans may want to be worried about their 2017 campaign.
Nothing drives sudden, unexpected success like a massive improvement in QB play.
Let's finish with the simplest and most obvious tenet of all. For all the numbers, for whatever best-laid plans, for all the good luck and bad luck, a lot of what drives improvement and decline in this league comes down to changes at quarterback. That can represent a different person playing quarterback, a different level of performance, injuries -- all kinds of factors. But a massive upgrade or decline at quarterback can overcome just about anything else most of the time. (Thank the Colts and Texans for the word "most" in that sentence.)
As much as we've enjoyed Elliott this year, where do you think the Cowboys have upgraded more on offense?
Last year, Dallas ran the ball 408 times for 1,890 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per carry. This year, with two games to go, the Cowboys have run the ball 448 times for 2,163 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, Dallas' various quarterbacks completed 63.3 percent of their passes, averaged 7.0 yards per attempt and threw an interception on 4.2 percent of their attempts in 2015. This year, Prescott is completing 67.7 percent of his passes, averaging 7.9 yards per attempt and throwing picks on 0.9 percent of his throws.
Those numbers don't tell the whole story, but there's enough of a difference there to indicate how the level of upgrading between the two sides is not even close.
Other quarterbacks have upgraded their level of play in line with much-improved records. Carr took another leap forward after his first jump in 2015. Stafford's playing the best football of his career with Megatron retired. Matt Ryan's back to the MVP-caliber form of 2012. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have improved dramatically in their second seasons.
All of these guys save for Ryan are 28 or younger, too, so there's reason to believe their improvements may stick. There was a paucity of promising young quarterbacks in the NFL and then, suddenly, there were superstars sprouting around the league. And none of those teams were favored to make the playoffs before the year, and they all either will be in or have a significant shot at seeing the postseason. The lesson there is simple: some things never change.