The NFL Midseason Story Lines We Could — and Couldn’t — Have Seen Coming

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By the halfway point of most NFL seasons, the league’s dominant story lines have already come into focus. A second-half run is occasionally lingering, but we usually know who looks good, and we definitely know who looks bad.

The uncertain part comes when we look back. While some of the stories were visible months and miles away, some have popped up relatively out of nowhere. As the NFL year hits the turn, let’s take a look at five stories we should have seen coming and five that stealthily made their way to the forefront.

Five Stories We Could Have Seen Coming

Andrew Luck Gets His Spot at the Table

Indianapolis Colts v New York GiantsJim McIsaac/Getty Images

Luck hasn’t exactly sneaked up on us. In the run-up to the 2012 draft, he was the subject of perfect-prospect Mad Libs: “Elway,” “best,” “generation,” “all the throws,” “prototype,” “can’t-miss.” All those qualities have appeared, in some form or another, over the past three seasons. Occasionally, he’d make throws, like the one to T.Y. Hilton against Seattle last year, which looked like a Madden glitch — in a good way. His ability to move around the pocket, and outside of it, is better than anyone probably thought. And Luck’s helmet and shoulder pads are apparently packed with Wolverine’s bones. The amount of hits he took in his first two seasons bordered on the inhumane, and I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen him linger on the ground.

Those were just flashes, though. This year, his greatness is constant. It makes sense. His offensive line is better — with left tackle Anthony Castonzo having a career year and rookie guard Jack Mewhort giving the Colts some much-needed help inside — and his arsenal of receivers is flusher, but Luck has also been better in just about every way. He finished 24th in the league last year in completion percentage (60.2). This year, he’s up to 63.6 percent (15th), while also ranking in the top 10 in yards per attempt. His Colts are 6-3, and Luck has been good enough to put himself in the MVP conversation. This is the every-down superstar we expected.

The Grind-You-to-Dust Cowboys Offense

The ground-based Cowboys offense has been in the makings for a while now. It started with drafting DeMarco Murray, who was a force when healthy, even in his rookie year. Dallas has doubled down on the running game in its past two drafts. It jumped from 24th in rushing DVOA in 2012 all the way to fifth last year, thanks in large part to taking center Travis Frederick in the first round. Frederick is a demolishing force in the run game, regularly able to handle nose tackles on his own, freeing up the Dallas guards to clean up linebackers while Murray rips off five yards per carry. It’s only gotten better since one of those guards became Zack Martin. Dallas clearly had a plan for how it wanted to build on offense, and it’s panned out nicely.

The Jets Disaster

The Jets’ offensive struggles were to be expected, even if there was some Geno-based hope coming out of last year. What’s new — but also predictable — are their problems on defense.

New York’s cornerback conundrum began in August. Dimitri Patterson, who’s 31 and has played for just about every team in the league, wasn’t a strong starting corner choice, but when he was released by the Jets, Rex Ryan was left with Darrin Walls and Ellis Lankster as his top two cover guys. It hasn’t gotten any better since. The Jets rank 27th in pass defense DVOA, easily the worst mark of Ryan’s tenure.

Denver Broncos v New York JetsJeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Lankster was released — twice. Dee Milliner barely saw the field because of injuries. Walls has also missed time. Last week, the Jets rolled with converted safety Antonio Allen and undrafted free agent Marcus Williams. Early in the season, the Jets were creating about as much pressure on the quarterback as any team (30.3 percent of dropbacks through five weeks), but that pressure was the result of lots and lots of blitzing. Ryan and his staff were sending at least five rushers at the fourth-highest rate in football. Over the last four weeks, the Jets have ranked 26th in the same stat. They’ve dropped from blitzing on about 41 percent of snaps to sending extra pressure just 22.2 percent of the time. With a lack of faith in the guys on the outside, it’s hard to be shorthanded in coverage.

It’s a problem that creates a cycle of struggles on pass defense. With no pass rush, the corners have to hold up longer, but the reason the Jets can no longer manufacture a pass rush is because of their corners.

Antonio Brown, MVWR — Most Valuable Wide Receiver

Josh Gordon’s suspension, Calvin Johnson’s ankle, and A.J. Green’s toe have all helped, but Brown was already one of the league’s best wide receivers even before going on his incredible half-season run.

Brown is on pace for an unreal 126 catches, but he had 110 a year ago. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranks second (to Demaryius Thomas) in yards per pass route run. Last season, he finished fifth. Brown isn’t much different of a player now than he was in 2013. The difference is, he’s getting into the end zone a whole lot more. Brown has already scored as many touchdowns as he had all of last season, and those fantasy points are what have people really taking notice.

Broncos and Patriots: Here We Go Again

It doesn’t really matter how we got there. (The Patriots took a more circuitous route, while the Broncos just laid waste to the league before getting stopped dead in their tracks in New England.) The Patriots and Broncos — Brady and Manning, Belichick and whoever’s coaching Manning — are again making the turn as the best teams in the AFC. New England gets the edge by virtue of what it did to Denver last week, but considering the Patriots’ second-half schedule (next five weeks: Colts, Lions, Packers, Chargers, Dolphins), the Broncos could easily go into the playoffs with home-field advantage. Either way, we could probably just Madden-sim the rest of the season. We know where this is going.

Five Stories That Sneaked Up on Us

Tampa Bay’s Defensive Drop-off

Baltimore Ravens v Tampa Bay BuccaneersAlex Menendez/Getty Images

The Bucs’ status as the worst offense in football makes at least some sense. Tampa Bay decided to roll with a 35-year-old quarterback who got his job based on a five-game sample while playing with some of the league’s best weapons. The offensive line had 80 percent turnover, and it’s not like Lovie Smith has been known for quality choices on his offensive staffs.

What doesn’t make sense is how awful Tampa Bay has been on defense. Even while finishing 4-12 last year, the Bucs still managed to finish in the top 10 in defensive DVOA, thanks in part to a brutal schedule. Losing Darrelle Revis this offseason certainly didn’t help, but for the most part, the Bucs brought back the same crew they had a year ago, while also adding some new pieces. Alterraun Verner isn’t Revis, but he had a strong season in Tennessee last year, and both Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald looked like solid, if unspectacular, moves. Well, it hasn’t exactly worked out.

Tampa Bay is 28th in defensive DVOA. Its run defense is still reasonably stout, especially with Gerald McCoy back, but its pass defense has been a disaster. Verner and second-year corner Johnthan Banks have been massively disappointing. And the safeties have been even worse. The Bucs traded 2012 seventh overall pick Mark Barron for a bag of magic beans last month, and Dashon Goldson looks like one of the worst contracts in football. The idea that Smith would roll into town and the Bucs would get worse on defense seemed next to impossible, but here we are.

The Wrecking Crews in Detroit and Miami

Ah, yes, those storied defensive juggernauts, Detroit and Miami. Wait, what? Coming into this weekend’s game against each other, Detroit and Miami rank first and second in defensive DVOA, respectively. It would have been easy to predict that the front fours for both teams would cause widespread destruction. Each team features a truly great player (Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake) coupled with a few dangerous contributors. But what’s turned these teams into such a handful is the production they’re getting out of their supposed weak spots.

Detroit’s secondary has been bad since I was in kindergarten. Last year’s second-round pick, Darius Slay, was the most recent highly drafted solution, but throwing resources at a problem rarely fixes it. The key here is the coaching. Under new defensive coordinator (and former Ravens defensive backs coach) Teryl Austin, Slay and 72-year-old Rashean Mathis have turned into a viable cornerback duo, while Glover Quin and former Raven James Ihedigbo have solidified the back end.

For Miami, the unexpected success has come from its linebackers. The Dolphins gave a combined $27 million to Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler in 2013, hoping to shore up that position. But after a year, it looked like they might as well have tossed the same money into a flaming barrel. Wheeler has been better in Year 2, but the pleasant surprise has been Jelani Jenkins, who the Dolphins took in the fourth round, out of Florida, in 2013. With Koa Misi back from injury, Miami has a reliable linebacking duo entirely from the middle rounds of last year’s draft.

The Unkillable Cardinals

The Cardinals have put together a top-10 defensive unit for each of the past three seasons. What’s impressive is just how Todd Bowles has done it this year. I’ve listed the names at least a dozen times at this point: Karlos Dansby, Daryl Washington, Darnell Dockett, John Abraham. All, for one reason or another, gone from last year’s no. 2 defense. Somehow, through scheme, development, or actual wizardry, the Cardinals have barely fallen off.

Denver Broncos vs. Arizona CardinalsSteve Nehf/The Denver Post

A deep secondary that’s about as malleable as Silly Putty has allowed Bowles to send an absurd amount of creative, terrifying blitzes that let Arizona bother quarterbacks despite lacking a pure pass-rushing threat. Calais Campbell and the boys have again managed to be a brick wall in the run game. Even when it’s their starting quarterback, the Cardinals just don’t seem fazed by who goes down. There’s no explanation for why they should have the league’s best record.

San Francisco’s Collapse Into Mediocrity

Losing two of the league’s top defenders off a unit with an already shaky secondary felt like the start of a defensive decline. Yet through half the season, the 49ers are around the middle of the pack mostly because of their offense.

San Francisco ranks seventh in defensive DVOA after Week 9. Offensively, they’re 23rd. Colin Kaepernick’s stagnation has lent to that. He’s sitting 21st in QBR, two spots behind Mike Glennon. But there’s enough blame to go around. The Niners offensive line isn’t what it used to be, and neither is their running game. Jim Harbaugh’s team isn’t running as well or as often as it has in the past. They sit 16th in rush percentage through nine weeks by running on 39 percent of their offensive snaps. Last season, they were first, running 46.7 percent of the time. Much of Kaepernick’s success as a passer in the past two seasons was being able to throw when he wanted to, not when he needed to. That luxury is gone. This is the result.

The Seahawks Are No Longer Scary

The championship drain is real; sometimes, it’s just not as apparent. Seattle waltzed to a Super Bowl win last year, in part because it had a roster full of cheap stars that afforded them the deepest team in the league. We know about Russell Wilson and his bargain-bin salary, but Richard Sherman’s $600,000 deal should pop up on Antiques Roadshow one of these days. Having to pay guys like Sherman and Earl Thomas, while stockpiling cash for Wilson’s inevitable raise, meant cutting ties with the likes of Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, Golden Tate, and Clinton McDonald. But even without that group, the Seahawks had the most frightening roster in football.

Oakland Raiders v Seattle SeahawksSteve Dykes/Getty Images

A laundry list of injuries is part of Seattle’s decline from “historically ferocious juggernaut” to “merely a contender.” Depth and versatility fueled the Seattle pass rush, which has all but disappeared, and as a result, teams no longer fear the secondary in the same way. A season removed from having an all-time great pass defense, the Seahawks are sitting 12th in passing defense DVOA.

How much of that change is down to scheme and personnel, and how much can be chalked up to the several reported instances of internal dysfunction is impossible to separate, although I’m guessing it’s probably more of the former than the latter. With the amount of talent on the Seattle roster, there’s always a chance the Seahawks round into the NFC favorite by the time the year is out, but for now, they don’t look like they’re scaring anyone.

Filed Under: NFL, Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, DeMarco Murray, New York Jets, Rex Ryan, Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lovie Smith, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, Richard Sherman, Robert Mays, San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays