There will be 16 games played in the National Football League over the holiday weekend, although recent events have led us to understand we can’t say definitively when this “weekend” will conclude. There will be an aspiring playoff team involved in nearly every one of them, a group of men seriously competing to reach the postseason or to arrive there in the grandest possible style.
The 2021 NFL season has become Roger Goodell’s dream season.
The league that introduced “parity” into the sporting lexicon is reaching the apotheosis of that standard. With three games left in the regular season, only two teams have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention in the NFC, and only five have no realistic shot. It’s even more heated in the AFC, which has three teams eliminated but the other 13 teams are in serious position to compete for one of seven spots in “the tournament,” as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin calls it.
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The division in which the Steelers reside, the AFC North, features four teams (including the Bengals, Ravens and Browns) separated in the standings by a single game. Only two games separate the first-place Patriots in the AFC East from the third-place Dolphins.
After 14 games, only five teams in the league have reached double-figure victories. In the 1970s, when that was the full length of the regular-season schedule, there were seven such teams on average. Only the Packers have a winning percentage better than .720 this season. In 2020, six teams finished at at .750 or better. Only a dozen teams have negative point differentials with three games remaining, compared to 17 that finished there in 2020.
In week 16, with competition scheduled for Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, only two games could be considered essentially meaningless, or impacting only 2022 NFL Draft order: Jaguars (2-12) at Jets (3-11) and Bears (4-10) at Seahawks (5-8). If we want to be all mathematical about it, then only the Jets-Jags game is inconsequential. All the others will involve at least one team fighting to qualify or to achieve the best possible seed.
The NFL had been working for years toward that magical season when every team would finish 8-8, then assured that never would happen by extending the regular season to 17 games this year. But what’s accounting for the increased competitiveness of the current NFL?
There are some reasons that stand out above the rest:
1. Quarterbacks are better
In the 2005 season, these were the quarterbacks comprising the NFC playoff field: Eli Manning, Jake Delhomme, Rex Grossman, Mark Brunell, Chris Simms and Matt Hasselbeck. In the AFC, you had David Garrard and Jake Plummer.
Of those, only Manning had a career that included more than 10 full seasons as an NFL starter and multiple Pro Bowl appearances. The AFC QBs that year were stronger, including Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. These players, along with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, towered above the competition for essentially a decade, with few coming along to challenge them.
The emergence of Russell Wilson with the Seahawks in 2012, however, changed everything. He didn’t fit the mold of the star NFL quarterback because he stands only 5-foot-11 and is so adept at running to damage defenses, qualities that opened up the NFL to many of the quarterbacks who’ve entered the league and excelled in recent seasons.
“I think we’re seeing a transition from old to young as far as quarterback play,” Ramon Foster, former Steelers guard and co-host of the Martin & Ramon show on Nashville’s 104.5 The Zone, told Sporting News. “Just in the AFC North in particular, there are three new, young quarterbacks who are exciting and actually good, and Ben who’s historically been good.
“Good, young quarterbacks, I think that’s the biggest thing. And not only that, the offenses that they’re running: You’re putting guys in position to be successful because you’re catering offenses that are not necessarily an ‘NFL offense’, where they just drop back. Now you’ve got offenses where they’re moving the pocket, finding the athletes and making plays. The young quarterbacks are getting better, quicker, because the offenses cater to them, and the older quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Ben and Tom Brady are good because they have the experience.”
Wilson’s stardom helped make the Browns comfortable with making 6-1 Baker Mayfield the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, and it was the same with the Cardinals and 5-10 Kyler Murray a year later. There are quarterbacks 6-2 or shorter leading such contenders as the Ravens (Lamar Jackson), Cowboys (Dak Prescott) and Dolphins (Tua Tagavailoa) Standard-sized quarterbacks drafted in recent years also have met quick success, including the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, Chargers’ Justin Herbert, Bills’ Josh Allen and Bengals’ Joe Burrow.
“That first decade of the 2000s, there was a lot of concern around football – my NFL career was 2001-05 – that maybe the college quarterback position wasn’t transitioning well to the NFL,” said Anthony Herron, who analyzes football for SiriusXM, the Big Ten Network and NBC Sports. “Folks were kind of posing the question of, ‘What’s going to happen when Manning and Brady and Brees retire? There’s going to be no great quarterbacks left.’
“And what we’ve seen, which makes all the sense in the world, NFL offenses – and a lot of times it’s been ‘Let’s grab a college coach and bring some of the collegiate principles to the league’ – schematically look more like what we see in college football. There still is a transition. There still is an adjustment to the size and the speed of the game, the film study that opponents put in and force you toward whatever makes you least comfortable.
“But beyond that, having some of these young quarterbacks that are able to operate in their comfort zone, being in shotgun – in some cases, almost exclusively, like a Kyler Murray – and having some of these read option principles, and zone read principles, and run/pass option concepts they were running in college and being able to make decisions in a way, post-snap, they’re comfortable with and been doing for years.”
2. Defense has a chance
On Nov. 19, 2018, in a Monday Night Football game the New York Times called “Scoreapalooza”, the Rams defeated the Chiefs, 54-51, a game that included 10 touchdown passes and 1,001 yards of offense. It was the first game in NFL history in which both teams topped 50 points in regulation. ESPN analyst Booger McFarland called it an example of “the new NFL.”
Well, in 2021, the current NFL looks more like the old one. In that 2018 season, the Chiefs led in scoring with 35.3 points per game, and there were three total teams scoring more than 30 and eight that averaged 27 or more. In 2021, no team averages 30 points. The Buccaneers, who lead the league at 29.3 points, were shut out on Sunday. There are seven teams producing 27 points or more.
In 2018, the average NFL week featured slightly more than 21 “explosive” pass or run plays of 40-plus yards per week. Now, it’s down to 19 such plays.
So many of the rules are stacked against the defense, including standards for pass interference and roughing the quarterback. And, as mentioned, teams are having to cope with more capable QBs than ever before. And yet NFL defensive coordinators have found a way to at least hang in the game with the offensive wizardry of Mahomes, Brady, Rodgers and Wilson.
“I think the defensive coordinators are doing a more effective job,” Herron told SN. “For a while, pretty much every defense, every secondary, started playing predominantly man coverage, a lot more than folks realize. When you have the corners who can do it and get away with it, that’s great. But when you don’t have a secondary that can hold up through that lens, you can make life hard on yourself.
“We’ve seen defensive coaches over the last couple of years adjust and blend their defensive strategies a lot more than was the case for a while. When you had these veteran QBs around the league who could just carve up zone coverage over and over again – like Brady and Manning and Brees and Roethlisberger – a lot of defenses started playing man just to feel like you should have a DB near a receiver. What ended up happening, all it took was one or two missed tackles and a short pass becomes a long pass becomes a touchdown.
“Now we’ve seen, in the past couple seasons, it does seem defensive coaches feel more comfortable going back to more zone concepts, and that does put you in a better position to make tackles, to force the opponent to drive the long field. So we’re not seeing as many explosive pass plays as we once did.”
3. The stars are out
In the past week, NFL teams have lost superstars DeAndre Hopkins and Chris Godwin to season-ending injuries, joining the likes of Christian McCaffery, Khalil Mack, Ronnie Stanley and JJ Watt.
Nothing can even out the talent in an NFL game more rapidly than the most gifted players being lost to injury. The Ravens lost running back JK Dobbins, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and Stanley, among others. The Steelers are doing without defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Bills are missing terrific cornerback Tre’Davious White. All those players are not expected to return this season.
The Titans have not had superstar back Derrick Henry for six games, which at his rate is 703 rushing yards. He is hoping to be back on the field before the playoffs.
NFL rules seem to have made it safer for quarterbacks. There have been fewer absences at that position, and it’s been nearly as likely for the reason to be a positive COVID test (Roethlisberger, Mayfield) as a contact injury.
What the league can’t do is make the players slower or less powerful. Although using the helmet to deliver punishment has been dramatically reduced, there still are plenty of hard hits from faster, bigger defenders.
“The healthiest team is usually going to be the team that wins the Super Bowl,” Foster said. He started at right guard for the Steelers in the 2010 Super Bowl against the Packers, which the Steelers played without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and lost, 31-25. “A lot of our pressure in that game was over the center; that’s not disrespecting Doug Legursky or anything like that.
“But it’s one of the things that you’ve got to say: As healthy as we can be, we need to be. So when the coaches pull off of practice, or say, ‘Hey, we’re only going ‘shells’ today’, it’s so they can get the best product on the field.”