The vast majority of the NFL’s 32 teams have made it through four games, which means it’s time to begin one of my favorite annual recurring features. It’s fun to hand out awards during each quarter of the NFL season, but it also produces some perspective as we get lost during the 17-week season. This time last year, we hadn’t even seen Odell Beckham Jr. play, and Aaron Donald was playing only a handful of St. Louis’s snaps. Kelvin Benjamin and Kyle Fuller, respectively, were the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year. Philip Rivers was the leading MVP candidate, with Aaron Rodgers putting up great numbers for a 3-2 Packers team.
Things change, but I’m not bringing those players up to point out how they were obviously usurped. Their performances in the first quarter of the season weren’t any less great, but we forgot about them because other players emerged. Benjamin can’t build on his 2014 while he’s out with a torn ACL, obviously, while Fuller has been one of the few bright spots in a struggling Bears defense. Rivers, who faded badly as the season went along, leads the league in passing yards behind a decaying offensive line and may make a run at completing 70 percent of his attempts. Rodgers and the Packers, on the other hand … they’re not 3-2 this time around.
Let’s run through this week’s picks and nominate some award winners for the first quarter of the season, for trophies both real and imagined. As always, these lines are the consensus lines posted by VegasInsider.com, and the home team is in CAPS. I started the week off with a loss by taking Texans -4.5 last night, and actually, let’s get started there …
TEXANS (-4.5) over Colts
Worst Coaching Tree Award: Bill Belichick
Are we at the point where we have to start wondering how long the Bill O’Brien era runs in Houston? Twitter spent the first half of the Colts-Texans game wondering whether O’Brien’s team had quit on him and the second half watching it make jaw-dropping mistakes while Ryan Mallett pouted on the sideline. Even O’Brien couldn’t stop himself from shouting “Why would you do that?” as star wideout DeAndre Hopkins chucked the ball at a Colts defender during the team’s final possession.
O’Brien established the tenor for the 2015 season by benching Brian Hoyer for Mallett after three quarters against the Chiefs in Week 1, subsequently giving Mallett the job by suggesting he had given the team a “spark.” When you get two months of training camp to evaluate a pair of quarterbacks and go back on your decision after three quarters, it’s a sign you’re basically just guessing and hoping somebody wins the job.
Now, O’Brien will surely have to go back to Hoyer, who outplayed Mallett at the end of a blowout loss to the Falcons last week and then came in for a momentarily injured Mallett on Thursday night, promptly leading a touchdown drive that led O’Brien to leave Mallett on the bench. As Mallett fumed, Hoyer sparked the Houston offense with (mostly) checkdowns, mixing in a bizarre Hail Mary that the Colts appeared to quit on in midair.
Hoyer exhibited the hot hand for most of the second half, only to miss on the two most important throws of the game: First, a would-be touchdown pass to an open Hopkins that would have brought Houston within three, and then on the absurd interception that ended up as the offense’s final play. O’Brien has flip-flopped so frequently this season that it invokes one of the league’s cardinal sins: When you have two starting quarterbacks, you have zero starting quarterbacks.
It’s too early to write off O’Brien’s future as the Houston coach, and if the Texans do make changes this offseason, it would likely involve general manager Rick Smith, not their head coach. But this is getting to be another depressing branch on the Belichick Tree. Here is what Belichick’s coordinators have done as NFL head coaches:
And that’s without including Charlie Weis, who went 41-49 while flaming out at Notre Dame and Kansas. (To be fair, it doesn’t include Saban’s wildly successful run at Alabama, or O’Brien’s credible performance at Penn State.) I don’t know why all of these coaches haven’t panned out. But Belichick’s disciples are working on their 17th combined season as an NFL head coach and they’ve managed to make the playoffs exactly once: in 2006, when Mangini’s Jets were blown out 37-16 by … the Patriots.
BUCCANEERS (-3) over Jaguars
Florida Division Champs: Winner of this matchup
In the shadow NFL where the three Florida teams have been lumped together for both their safety and the safety of the rest of the league, this is a fight for first place. There is currently a three-way tie for Florida, with the Bucs, Jags, and Fins all off to 1-3 starts; with the Dolphins licking their London wounds on a bye this weekend, the winner of this matchup will take over first place in the race to crown a Sunshine State champion.
This is probably the darkest season in Florida’s run as a three-team state; since the Jaguars entered the league in 1995, the division has been won by a team with seven wins or more every year besides 2011, when the Dolphins took it at 6-10. Each of the three Florida teams fired its coach that season, with two making midseason firings.
Saints (+5) over EAGLES
Marketer of the Year: Chip Kelly
We’re four games into the Chip Kelly: Personnel Maven experiment, and the early returns are brutally bad. Kiko Alonso is hurt. Byron Maxwell was playing like a below-average starter before he got hurt. The offensive line is a mess. DeMarco Murray is averaging 1.6 yards per carry, is already injured, and is still complaining about not getting the ball frequently enough for his liking. And Sam Bradford has posted a 32.3 QBR, which is 32nd among 35 qualifying quarterbacks. Ryan Mallett, who is in 27th place with a 51.4 QBR, is closer to Tony Romo (69.9) in ninth than he is to Bradford.
And you know what? I’m still holding out hope. I wrote about Bradford’s seeming mental block about throwing deep last summer, saw the Rams flourish downfield without him around, and saw Bradford basically avoid throwing downfield like the plague through the first three games. All of that changed last week when Bradford threw eight passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air against Washington after throwing just five such passes over the first three weeks combined. He was 0-for-5 on those passes the first three weeks, but against Washington he was 4-of-8 for 176 yards with two touchdowns on those throws. It’s the first time he’s shown any propensity to throw deep in years, but I’m intrigued! Only Chip could make that happen.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
49ers (+7) over GIANTS
Possibly Good Team I’m Afraid To Talk About Award: The Giants?!?
I hesitate to say this, but the 2-2 Giants could very easily be a 4-0 team right now. It took an overwhelmingly unlikely collapse against the Cowboys in Week 1 and one big play from Julio Jones during the home opener in Week 2 to send the Giants to brutal defeats. They’ve followed those losses with comfortable victories over Washington and Buffalo, the latter coming on the road.
And their schedule isn’t very tough: Their next five games come against the 49ers, Eagles, the Romo-less Cowboys, Saints, and Buccaneers. With the rest of the NFC East floundering, the Giants could take a commanding lead in the division by the time the Eagles make up their minds about Bradford and the Cowboys get Romo back from short-term injured reserve. In fact, they probably should have already.
I really, really hesitate to say how they’re doing it, because it’s going to summon an evil, vengeful god: A team with Eli Manning is somehow dominating the turnover battle. The Giants have turned the ball over just twice on offense, with Manning throwing just a single pick in his first 143 pass attempts, albeit a brutal red zone interception against the Bills last week in a situation where he should not have been taking even the tiniest of risks. And they’ve forced eight takeaways in four games without Jason Pierre-Paul. Out of fear of unearthing an ancient four-interception game from Eli, I can say no more.
CHIEFS (-9) over Bears
Mind Control Award: Alex Smith
No, Alex Smith isn’t controlling our minds into checking down to day-old bread because it’s better than going hungry. We’re the ones mind-controlled into thinking that Alex Smith is a hindrance, that he’s going to prevent the Chiefs from ever seriously contending for a Super Bowl. I don’t think the evidence is there. It’s worth remembering that the 49ers very nearly made the Super Bowl in 2011 with Smith at the helm, losing in the NFC Championship Game to the Giants almost exclusively because Kyle Williams mishandled two punts.
Smith was admittedly bad in that game, but he was fantastic against the Saints in the previous round, throwing for 299 yards and three scores while winning a shootout against Drew Brees. And in the one playoff game he’s started as a Chiefs quarterback, Smith threw for 378 yards and four touchdowns against the Colts despite losing his top two running backs and one of his starting wide receivers during the game. We live in a league where Joe Flacco and Eli Manning have won Super Bowls. Alex Smith isn’t going to drag the Chiefs into January, but he’s not holding them back, either. (That might be you, 30th-ranked defense.)
CHARGERS (-3) over Steelers
Genuine Pity Award: Jimmy Wilson
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Wilson, the former Dolphins safety who has been forced into the San Diego starting lineup by an injury to Jahleel Addae. You probably saw the most notable moment of his past two weeks, when Adrian Peterson stiff-armed him into the Minneapolis turf. That was bad. But it’s not the only time Wilson’s popped up on tape in recent weeks.
Earlier that game, Peterson met Wilson in the hole and basically just accelerated past him like it was a high school game:
That’s not crazy because, you know, it’s Adrian Peterson. It’s one thing to have a bad day against one of the most physically dominant players in the league. It’s another to make a nemesis of Gary Barnidge:
The Browns isolated Barnidge on Wilson for the two most important plays of their final possession; first, while Wilson actually did a decent job in coverage, Barnidge caught a Josh McCown lob over Wilson to set up first-and-goal from the 1-yard line:
Wilson excitedly gave the no-catch signal after this was initially ruled an incompletion on the field; there was no sign of whether he dejectedly put up a catch symbol after it was overturned on review. Two plays later, the Browns put Barnidge in motion and he beat Wilson to the edge for a score that would set up the game-tying two-point conversion:
The Steelers are in town this week. I’m not saying that Antonio Brown is going to stomp on Jimmy Wilson like he was Spencer Lanning. If it happens, just know that you should already be feeling a little bit of remorse when you watch the Vine 100 times in a row. We’re getting to the point where Wilson is being bullied.
TITANS (+2.5) over Bills
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ronald Darby
OK, let’s start with the real awards. Darby was an absolute disaster in the preseason, but he has managed to hold up and play above-average football over the first four weeks. He’s getting a ton of attention because teams are afraid to throw at Stephon Gilmore, and while Darby has been beaten a couple of times, he is performing enough to justify keeping his job when Leodis McKelvin comes back. Darby has knocked away a league-high 11 passes; nobody else has more than eight.
There is plenty of time for other candidates to emerge, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see an Aaron Donald–esque contender step up with more playing time. Hau’oli Kikaha already has three sacks in four games for the Saints, playing nearly 85 percent of the team’s snaps. Henry Anderson has been one of the few bright spots up front for the Colts, with five tackles for loss, while Leonard Williams is tied for eighth in the league with six quarterback knockdowns. And Vic Beasley’s been making plays for a surprisingly undefeated Falcons team. The race is on.
Seahawks (+3) over BENGALS
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Tyler Lockett
This one will probably be slightly more controversial, because there are all kinds of compelling options on the other side of football. Marcus Mariota has been smooth and unflappable from the drop, throwing eight touchdowns against two picks over his first three starts. Amari Cooper immediately elevated Oakland’s passing attack, and he’s on pace for a 96-1,356-8 rookie season, which would be one of the best debut campaigns in league history. Todd Gurley flashed his brilliance last week, and even Karlos Williams has been impressive. All kinds of choices.
In terms of the most important rookie through the first month, though, it’s not out of the question to choose Lockett. He is just the ninth player since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to score on a punt return and a kick return during the first four games of the season, and the first rookie to pull that off since Tony Green in 1978. He’s been a much-needed source of points for a struggling Seattle offense. Teams are already beginning to realize they need to punt the ball away from him. I don’t think Lockett will be able to keep this up, so I would expect him to cede the trophy to Mariota or Cooper by the time the season ends, but he’s off to a remarkable start.
COWBOYS (+8.5) over Patriots
Executive of the Year/Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick
Belichick’s a three-time Coach of the Year winner for his work with the Patriots, but he’s never won Executive of the Year; Scott Pioli picked up the award (as handed out by various institutions) in as many as five seasons during his time with the Patriots and Chiefs, and could very well be a favorite to pick up his sixth such honor with the Falcons starting 4-0. And it’s also fair to say that Belichick the executive benefits from having Belichick the coach around to implement a game plan built around his players’ strengths while simultaneously targeting players who he knows he’ll be able to fit into the lineup.
And then look at what’s happening with this dominant Patriots team. They’re starting two rookies along the offensive line most weeks. Their top running back was out of football last year and their top wide receiver is a converted college quarterback who didn’t attract a sniff in free agency. Their other running back and their star linebacker came out of one of Belichick’s many draft-day trades. They lost their top three cornerbacks, one of whom is a future Hall of Famer, and haven’t skipped a beat. Nobody wants to reward Belichick,1 but if the Patriots keep winning, doesn’t he have to win at least one of these awards?
LIONS (+2.5) over Cardinals
And if they don’t, I’d go NFC South for Coach of the Year (Dan Quinn) and Executive of the Year (poor Dave Gettleman).
Comeback Player of the Year: Carson Palmer
This could go a lot of different ways. I’m sure some people will make a case for Adrian Peterson, although it’s going to be pretty distasteful if those people ever have to explain what Peterson’s actually coming back from. Eric Berry’s return from Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been nothing short of remarkable, although it’s fair to say he’s still not 100 percent. And NaVorro Bowman has been an anchor for the 49ers as he returns from the catastrophic knee injury he suffered during the 2013 NFC Championship Game.
So far, though, Palmer deserves the nod. Given that the 35-year-old wasn’t exactly in pristine condition before tearing his ACL for the second time in November 2014, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Palmer hadn’t been able to make it back for the beginning of the 2015 season, or if he had struggled mightily when he did return. Instead, not only has Palmer lived up to his level of play from last season, he’s arguably playing better than he ever has as a pro. He is sixth in QBR through four games, and if I was picking an NFC Pro Bowl team today, Palmer would be on the squad alongside Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, with Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, and Matt Ryan trailing behind.
RAVENS (-6.5) over Browns
Farewell Player of the Year: Steve Smith Sr.
If there’s a Comeback Player of the Year, there should really be a Farewell Player of the Year, too. And if there was ever a reason to suddenly institute that award for a player who was giving the most wonderful performance as he leaves the game, well, that’s Steve Smith. He’s single-handedly been keeping a struggling Ravens passing game afloat. Jerry Rice is the only receiver 36 years or older who has posted more than one 15-target game in a season (going back through 1998, at least), and Smith posted two during the first three weeks.
He has been breaking tackles and shoving defenders to the ground to convert much-needed third and fourth downs, but even that’s not enough. He’s doing even more Steve Smith things, like trash-talking Bengals defenders on the bench while referring to them only by their numbers, like he can’t be bothered to learn their names. (He can’t — and indeed shan’t — be bothered.) And now, he’s broken four bones in his back. The Ravens have reportedly ruled him out for this week’s game against the Browns, but I’ll believe that when I see it.
Broncos (-4.5) over RAIDERS
Defensive Player of the Year: DeMarcus Ware
Yes, so far, over J.J. Watt. Please don’t hurt me, Mr. Watt. Ware’s numbers are competitive despite Watt playing five games to Ware’s four:
Watt has been a better run defender, which isn’t a surprise, but Ware has been the most unstoppable pass-rusher in football. The Broncos are getting pressure on 37.0 percent of opposing dropbacks, the second-best rate in the league behind Tennessee (really), and Ware has been the biggest reason that’s occurred. Again, if I had to pick a favorite to win over the entire season, I’d pick Watt, if only because I value my legs. But over the first month, Ware has been a totally reasonable alternative choice.
Washington (+7.5) over FALCONS
Offensive Player of the Year: Julio Jones
I’m treating this as an award for the best offensive player who isn’t a quarterback, and through four games, that’s Mr. Jones. This is where you make a highlight video of ridiculous Julio catches and set it to an awful Counting Crows song. I wrote about how incredible Jones has been last week, so it’s no surprise he promptly was held to his quietest day of the season, with the Falcons limiting him to 55 percent of the offensive snaps during a blowout win over the Texans.
If you’re going by the no-QBs rule, you could make a case for Antonio Brown or Rob Gronkowski as challengers to this throne, and I wouldn’t disagree. But Brown has had Le’Veon Bell, at least for two games. That’s at least one other game-changing skill-position player to take the defense’s attention away. Gronk has Julian Edelman. Can you picture how bad this Falcons offense would be without Jones? If they were starting a clearly injured Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson at wide receiver? Bless Devonta Freeman’s heart, but he’s not a star running back. This is a one-man show and it’s been incredible to watch. The only thing holding Jones back going forward is injury. Well, that and blowouts.
PACKERS (-9) over Rams
Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers
And that leaves us with the two-man race for league MVP. The numbers, with Rodgers in four games versus Tom Brady in three:
The rate statistics are basically a dead heat. Brady’s volume is impressive, given how he’s managed to outproduce Rodgers in yardage despite playing one fewer game. Obviously, they both have ridiculous runs of touchdowns without interceptions. It’s hard to imagine quarterbacks playing any better than Rodgers and Brady have over the first month, and I wouldn’t blame you for picking either guy.
The difference, for me, is supporting cast. They each have a fantastic slot receiver, with Edelman in New England and Randall Cobb in Green Bay, but Brady has Gronk. He certainly makes Gronkowski better, but there are plays where Gronkowski is just uncoverable in a way that nobody else in football is uncoverable, in the way that a bear mauling your picnic site is unstoppable.
Rodgers, meanwhile, is doing this without Jordy Nelson, the closest thing he has to a Gronkowski. His no. 2 receiver is James Jones, who was cut by the Giants in September. He has made some ridiculous catches this season, but Jones is a guy in a bear suit rummaging around your picnic site. He’s still scary — because why on earth is there a guy in a bear suit foraging for food in your camp? — but he’s not Gronk.
Brady would still be a good quarterback without Gronkowski, but we’ve seen over the past few seasons how his ceiling falls precipitously without his star tight end available or even at less than 100 percent, as was the case over the first four games of the 2014 season. Brady can’t be this Tom Brady without Gronk. Rodgers is playing this well without Nelson. For me, that’s enough to open up the tiniest of differences between the two best quarterbacks in football. But let’s check back in a month to see if that’s still the case.
THIS WEEK: 0-1
LAST WEEK: 9-5-1
THIS SEASON: 36-26-2 (.578)