Things change fairly rapidly in the NFL. Yet, it seems as though we’re almost always surprised when they do. Of course, the 2016 NFL season has been no different. It has offered plenty of surprising developments and crazy stories.
What’s topped the list? The Cardinals and Panthers were two of the NFL’s best in 2015. What has has happened to them? How have the Raiders gone from the dregs of the league to a power? Which division has gone from worst to first?
What have been the eight craziest NFL stories thus far in 2016?
Dak Prescott making Tony Romo a memory in Dallas
Romo has certainly earned some detractors over the years. But from 2013-15, he was the most valuable player on the Dallas Cowboys. There was no close second, either. In that three-year stretch, Dallas was 23-11 in games started by Romo and 1-13 in games where he was not the signal caller.
So, when Romo was sidelined with a long-term injury during the preseason, the Cowboys had a rather bleak outlook in 2016.
The Mississippi State rookie has completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 3,139 yards, 20 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 102.7 passer rating. He’s rushed for 218 yards and five touchdowns as well.
Most importantly, Dallas is 11-2 with Prescott as the starting quarterback.
Romo has been this team’s quarterback for a decade. He hasn’t led the Cowboys to the same heights as Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman, but he’s done an awful lot.
Yet in 2016, the play of Prescott has relegated Romo to nothing more than a few obligatory sideline shots per game.
The Cardinals were not just one of the NFL’s best teams in 2015. From 2013-15, Arizona was one of the league’s best teams, posting a 34-14 record. With a deep group of talent returning from a team that made the NFC Championship game in 2015, the Cards were a logical Super Bowl favorite in 2016.
Logic is a funny thing, though. It doesn’t always prevail.
Arizona’s season got off to a bad start. Despite being without Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots managed to go on the road and pull a Week 1 win against the Cardinals.
— NFL México (@nflmx) September 12, 2016
Arizona sputtered to a 1-3 start. It got back to 3-3, but never recovered from a frustrating tie to the Seattle Seahawks in the season’s seventh game.
That has certainly been a surprising development from a team that had been one of the NFL’s best over the previous three years.
Complete incompetence of the Jacksonville Jaguars
It seems hard to believe now, but Jacksonville entered the year with reasonably high expectations. Granted, the preseason chatter didn’t exactly have the Jags winning a Super Bowl. But they were expected to at least contend in the mediocre AFC South.
Jacksonville had plenty of talent on defense with Dante Fowler Jr., Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, and Malik Jackson. On the offensive side of the ball, receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns had potential to be one of the NFL’s best 1-2 combos. Those two, along with an apparently fast rising Blake Bortles, figured to lead one of the NFL’s best passing attacks in 2016.
The Jags have had their moments on defense, ranking fifth in yards allowed. The scoring defense has been a different story, allowing 26 points per game, the sixth worst total in the NFL. On offense, Jacksonville has been abysmal. The Jaguars rank 23rd in total yards while their 18.5 points per game is the league’s 27th best mark.
Bortles has been a disaster. He’s completed 58.7 of his passes for 3,187 yards, 21 touchdowns and 15 interceptions for a 77.9 passer rating. Even those totals have been somewhat inflated by some spectacular garbage-time performances. Three of those 15 interceptions have been returned for scores, giving Bortles 11 career pick-sixes — an alarming pace.
Blake Bortles' 11 Pick-Sixes are the most by a QB through their 1st 3 seasons in NFL history (via @EliasSports).
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 4, 2016
That has all contributed to a 2-11 record.
The AFC South has been as mediocre as expected. The Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans share the division lead at 7-6. But at 2-11, Jacksonville has simply failed to post.
Los Angeles Rams drama
The San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns enter Week 15 with one combined win. Yet, despite the incompetence of those front offices, the season’s worst front office prize goes to Los Angeles.
On November 29, a report came out that quoted team COO Kevin Demoff in saying that Jeff Fisher had done a “model job,” which you can read more about here.
As baffling as that quote was, it seemed to go in line with the contract extension that was signed at the beginning of the season and announced on December 4, just ahead of the team’s Week 13 loss to the Patriots.
Yet on December 12, the day after a blowout Week 14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Fisher was fired.
So, in less than three weeks, Fisher went from doing a “model job” to fired, with an already signed extension announced in between.
This is a team that hasn’t gone .500 since 2006, made the playoffs since 2004, or had a winning season since 2003. But this activity is bizarre, even for the Rams.
NFC East re-emerging as a power
For decades, the NFC East was one of the NFL’s most daunting divisions. But the current decade has been a vastly different story. From 2010-2015, the NFC East sent only one team to the playoffs. In only one of those years (2014) was the division champ better than 10-6.
The 2016 season has been much different.
The Cowboys have already clinched a postseason spot. The New York Giants are virtually assured of making the playoffs. Through Week 14, the Washington Redskins are only one-half game out of a playoff appearance. The Philadelphia Eagles are 5-8, but even that’s a little deceptive.
The NFC East’s four teams are 23-10-1 in games outside of the division for a .691 winning percentage. Only the AFC West (25-11, .694 percentage is better). But every NFC East team, including the last-place Eagles, has a winning record outside of the division. No other division can make that claim.
As a point of reference, in 2015, the NFC East was won by a 9-7 Washington team. The Redskins also led the division with a 5-5 record in non-division games. Overall, the division was 14-26 in non NFC East games in 2015.
That’s quite a turnaround in less than one year’s time.
Oakland Raiders a powerhouse
The Raiders finished at 8-8 in both 2010 and 2011. For most teams, that’s the very definition of a mediocre two-year run. For Oakland, though, those two seasons stood as the high water mark for the 2003-2015 era.
Since losing Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season, it’s been slim pickings for the Raiders.
The 2016 season has reversed that trend in a big way. In terms of wins and losses, Oakland is already assured of its best season since 2002. If the Raiders average better than 17.3 points per game over their final three contests, they’ll score more points than in any of the 2003-2015 seasons. If Oakland outscores its final three opponents by two points, the 2016 Raiders will have the franchise’s best point differential since 2002.
But Oakland is not simply good compared to its ugly recent past. At 32.9 points per game, the Raiders have one of the NFL’s best, most explosive offenses. Only the Atlanta Falcons have scored more points, while the New Orleans Saints have been as prolific. But Atlanta is 8-5, while New Orleans is 5-8. Oakland is 10-3
The defense has certainly had some problems, but the Khalil Mack led unit has generally stepped up when a big play was needed.
– Make the OL look silly.
– Get the sack
– Force fumble
– Recover fumble
— NFL (@NFL) December 5, 2016
A 10-3 record is good for anyone, but there’s one other unmistakable factor that makes this mark even better. The Raiders don’t know where they’ll be playing next year. A long term solution could exist in Oakland, but both Los Angeles or Las Vegas seem just as possible. Teams potentially on the move have not traditionally dealt with the uncertainty well.
Yet, the Raiders have found a way to fight though that. For a team that had enjoyed so little success for more than a decade, that’s impressive.
Detroit Lions fourth quarter success
The Giants aren’t exactly blowing teams out. New York has a 9-4 record and has trailed in the fourth quarter in four of those nine victories. Big Blue has broken the mold this year.
The Lions — who have the same record — have shattered the mold.
Detroit has trailed in all but one fourth quarter during the 2016 season. Granted, even the best teams will usually have a come-from-behind win or two during the season. But eight of nine makes no sense at all.
As a point of reference, even the 1-12 49ers have trailed in the fourth quarter (not counting overtime) in fewer games.
While all teams will trail, it stands to reason that winning teams will trail less than their losing counterparts. It certainly stands to reason that winning teams will trail less than their losing counterparts late in games.
Nobody has told that the Lions, who are in the midst of one of the most inexplicable seasons in recent memory.
Downfall of the Carolina Panthers
Carolina not only enjoyed a great deal of success in 2015, but was one of the NFL’s best teams during the three year window from 2013-2015.
Only the three Super Bowl champions were better than the Panthers from 2013-2015. What's gone wrong for Carolina in 2016? pic.twitter.com/mRjEmkb3jH
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 15, 2016
Of course, some regression was expected. A team can only improve so much from 15-1 and a conference championship. Additionally, the Panthers lost First-team All Pro corner Josh Norman.
Still, stalwarts like Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Jonathan Stewart, Greg Olsen, Kawann Short, Devin Funchess, and Kelvin Benjamin back from injury all returned and figured to lead one of the NFL’s most talented teams to another deep playoff run.
It has not worked out that way. With three weeks remaining, Carolina sits at 5-8 and well out of any realistic playoff race.
The 2016 season got off on the wrong foot. For most of the Panthers opening game, it looked like they would gain a measure of revenge on the Denver Broncos, their Super Bowl 50 opponents. But a late charge from Denver, along with a missed field goal from Graham Gano, led to a 21-20 loss. Also, much like the Super Bowl, the Broncos hit Newton hard all game. That gave the rest of the NFL a blueprint against the reigning MVP.
Still, few (if any) teams can actually replicate what Denver can do against Newton. That game can certainly explain why Carolina isn’t repeating a 15-1 season, but 5-8?
That’s a pretty stunning development.