Biggest surprises and disappointments from 2017 NFL season

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2017 NFL season hits Week 17, it’s as good of a time as any to look back to the year that was around the league.

More so than in previous seasons, there’s been a ton of major surprises and brutal disappointments thus far in 2017.

Did anyone really expect Jacksonville to find itself among the top teams in the AFC at the start of the season? Who could have imagined that both the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders would be irrelevant heading into Week 17?

And it has to be a major shock that the Minnesota Vikings find themselves as legit Super Bowl contenders after losing their entire starting backfield in September.

These are among the top surprises and disappointments from the 2017 NFL season.

Surprise: Jaguars roar to relevance 

Setting aside their brutal performance in a 44-33 loss to San Francisco on Christmas Eve, these Jaguars are among the most surprising stories of the 2017 NFL season. Not only did Jacksonville take the AFC South title going away, it will host a playoff game for the first time since 1999.

Led by Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, the Jags’ defense ranks in the top two in points allowed, total yards allowed and against the pass. This unit has also yielded a 67.5 passer rating while leading the league with 52 sacks.

But really, it’s the performance of one Blake Bortles that has fans in Duval thinking title. Sure he had a three-interception outing against San Francisco in Week 16, but a player many had pegged as a bust has turned in his most-promising season. He heads into the Jags’ season finale having thrown 21 touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions en route to leading the league’s fifth-best scoring offense.

Disappointment: Jameis helps sink pirate ship

Most expected the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to challenge for a playoff spot and the NFC South title this season. And after a 2-1 start to the season, it seemed like this would be the case. Though, as we’ve seen throughout Jameis Winston’s still young career, his inconsistencies came back to bite this team in the back end.

Since that 2-1 start, the Bucs have lost 10 of 12. They’ve failed to put up as much as 20 points in five of those games and hit the 30-point plateau just once. For his part, Winston simply has not taken that next step from mediocre signal caller to franchise type guy. Sure he’s cut down on his interceptions with eight this season compared to 18 last season. But the former Heisman winner has missed three games to injury and is leading the league’s ninth-worst scoring offense.

We can’t put all the blame on Winston here. Tampa’s rushing attack ranks in the bottom six of the league. DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans have not lived up to the hype. And a talented defense has seemingly regressed from what we saw last season. All this leads to a 4-11 record heading into Week 17 and more questions than answers for the Bucs.

Surprise: Jared Goff is not a bust

It’s amazing how some in the football world wanted to discount Goff as nothing more than a bust following his rookie season. Overreactions and hot takes were definitely abound here. But no rookie quarterback should be thrown the bust label, especially if he had to exist under Jeff Fisher for a full year.

Now as a sophomore, Goff has turned in a Pro Bowl caliber season for the surprising NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams. He’s coming off a four-touchdown performance against Tennessee in Week 16 and has now thrown for over 3,800 yards to go with 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions on the season. That’s an incredible turnabout for a player that tossed five scores in seven starts last season.

Disappointment: Cowboys flounder in drama-filled season

Whether it was the Ezekiel Elliott suspension or Jerry Jones going to battle with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the 2017 season was filled with some tremendous drama for America’s Team. In what can’t be considered too much of a surprise, this bled over to the gridiron itself.

By virtue of last week’s loss to Seattle, the Cowboys are officially eliminated from playoff contention a season after winning 13 games and earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Sure Elliott’s six-game suspension hurt here. Seeing All Pro left tackle Tyron Smith banged up for the majority of the season also hurt.

Though, it’s the regression we’ve seen from second-year quarterback Dak Prescott that has to worry fans in the Big D. He threw two more picks in Week 16’s loss to the Seahawks and has now been intercepted 13 times after throwing just four as a rookie. A lack of any real connection with Dez Bryant (54 percent catch rate) is also problematic. For a team that entered the 2017 campaign with Super Bowl aspirations, the Cowboys will head into the offseason with more questions than answers.

That’s the sad reality for an organization that has not found itself as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in north of two decades.

Surprise: Big Ben, Steelers turn it around

It was just a few short months ago that Ben Roethlisberger put up a career-worst performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars, throwing five interceptions in a 30-9 Week 5 loss. At that point, some within the Steelers’ organization questioned whether Big Ben still had what it takes to lead his team deep into January football. Heck, Ben himself seemingly indicated he didn’t have it anymore.

Fast forward two-plus months, and the Steelers head into Week 17 with 12-3 record and as one of the AFC favorites to land in the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger has thrown 22 touchdowns compared to just seven picks since that brutal outing against Jacksonville. It’s not a coincidence that Antonio Brown is in the midst of a historical season and the Steelers themselves have won nine of those 10 games.

Disappointment: John Elway

It would be easier to conclude that the Broncos as a whole are disappointments this season. Potentially the most disappointing team in the NFL. The combination of Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler have thrown 17 touchdowns compared to 20 interceptions. Denver sits at 5-10 on the season, ranks in the bottom six in scoring and has put up 16 points or less eight times in 15 games. But in reality, this is all on Elway and his inability to handle the quarterback situation.

Trading up for Paxton Lynch in the 2016 NFL Draft has proven to be a huge mistake. Relying on Siemian and Osweiler to be anything more than bench warmers is an even larger mistake. And it’s led to the Broncos wasting the prime years of some of the league’s best defensive players. Sure the team is said to be looking to add a top-end quarterback in the offseason. But up until now, Elway has not shown us that he can handle this quarterback situation. And please, don’t refer to Peyton Manning landing on his lap. That’s a cop-out in the biggest possible way.

Surprise: Case Keenum proves to be starter-caliber

When the Vikings lost Sam Bradford to what would ultimately be a season-ending knee injury back in Week 5, most figured it would be the team’s defense that would have to step up in order to make the Vikings legit playoff contenders. While the defense has more than done its job, the biggest surprise here is the performance of a career backup in Case Keenum.

A guy that had thrown 24 career touchdowns in as many starts heading into 2017, Keenum has tossed 21 scores compared to seven interceptions while leading Minnesota to a 10-3 record in 13 starts. This is good enough for the Vikings to head into Week 17 with a top-10 scoring offense and as one of the truly legit Super Bowl favorites in the NFC. It’s also a dramatic turnaround for a player in Keenum that was actually benched by the now unemployed Jeff Fisher in Los Angeles last season. Just look at the optics there.

Disapointment: Colts’ handling of Andrew Luck

Whether it’s owner Jim Irsay and former GM Ryan Grigson in the front office or head coach Chuck Pagano, how the Colts have dealt with Luck’s injury is just beyond comprehension. Originally, the team noted that he would likely be back from January shoulder surgery at the start of the season.

While still not on injured reserve, Luck sat several weeks before ultimately being given that designation after a setback during practice. This led him to Europe for treatment on the shoulder. It also led some to question whether Luck would ever be the same after not playing a down since January of 2017.

More than all that, Luck was said to have suffered the shoulder injury all the way back in 2015. At that point, the Colts’ organization and doctors let him play through said injury instead of undergoing surgery. It’s just been a dumpster fire of epic proportions. And no matter who is to blame here, the Colts deserve to be put on blast for impacting one-plus year of their franchise quarterback’s career.

Surprise: Jimmy Garoppolo traded, dominates

The defending champion Patriots spent this entire past offseason turning down trade overtures from multiple teams for Garoppolo in hopes that he would sign a long-term deal to remain Tom Brady’s backup until he ultimately took over the starting job. One team was said to be willing to offer up at least a top-15 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. But the Patriots loved what they saw in the youngster and didn’t want to give him up.

Once it became apparent that Garoppolo wanted to start somewhere as soon as possible, that’s when New England worked out a deal with San Francisco to send Garoppolo to Northern California for a mere second-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

This wasn’t a case of the 49ers owning New England in the trade. Instead, the Pats simply didn’t want to send Garoppolo to another AFC team and have to potentially play him multiple times per season. And for good reason.

In four starts with the 49ers, Garoppolo has yet to lose a game. He just led the team to 44 points against one of the most dominating defenses in recent NFL history in that of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s a true franchise quarterback. He has everything we look for in a signal caller that can lead his team to the Super Bowl. At this point, we’re not too sure what’s more surprising the Patriots trading Garoppolo or him proving himself to already be among the game’s best quarterbacks.

Disappointment: John Fox

It’s not as much about the Bears’ cellar-dwelling status this season. Most anticipated this team would finish in dead last. It’s not even about Fox’s questionable in-game coaching decisions…some of the worst in the NFL. Instead, it’s about just how poorly he’s handled rookie No. 2 pick Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback.

If you’re going to decide to start a greenish quarterback, the expectation is that he’ll struggle. And if it’s for a non-contending team, it makes perfect sense to let those struggles act as growing pains. For a quarterback in Trubisky who threw a grand total of 572 college passes (900 less than Baker Mayfield), this is magnified even further.

Instead of letting Trubisky learn on the job, Fox did nothing but hold him back this season. Here’s a quarterback that has attempted less than 20 passes in three of his 11 starts and fewer than 30 in all but six of said starts. How is this going to help Trubisky grow as a quarterback, especially when a nice chunk of these attempts were with his team playing from behind and opposing defenses in prevent mode? After all, he’s attempted an average of five first quarter passes this season. That’s just silly. And it will impact Trubisky’s progression long after Fox is gone from Chicago.

Surprise: Chargers’ on-field performance following relocation

We already know that the Chargers’ move from San Diego to Los Angeles has not gone over swimmingly for fans in either city. This has absolutely nothing to do with players who, themselves, were none too excited about relocating to a soccer stadium for the next few seasons.

But on the field, the Chargers’ players have more than proven that the future is bright in Los Angeles. Regardless of whether the team’s long-shot playoff hopes fade in Week 17, this season will be defined by an excellent on-field product.

After starting 0-4, Philip Rivers and Co. head into their season finale against Oakland having won eight of their past 11. During that span, Rivers himself has thrown 19 touchdowns compared to six picks. As Rivers’ favorite target, Keenan Allen has tallied 93 receptions for 1,260 yards.

Meanwhile, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram (21.5 combined sacks) have teamed up with surprising cornerback Casey Hayward to lead a defense that has yielded the third-fewest points in the NFL. With all the drama surrounding this team and its relocation, we’re incredibly surprised by how well the players have performed on the field.

Disappointment: From playoffs to disaster in Jersey

Giants quarterback Eli Manning

It really is hard to comprehend just how horribly awry things have gone with the New York Giants this season. A team that entered September with Super Bowl aspirations will see December close with the league’s second-worst record. But it’s not just the record (2-13 entering Week 17) that has led to this disaster in New Jersey.

From head coach Ben McAdoo going from NFL coach of the Year candidate to being fired to Odell Beckham Jr. being lost for the season back in Week 5, it’s been a Murphy’s Law kind of season for New York. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.

Eli Manning was benched, leading to speculation that this might be his final season with the Giants. Pro Bowlers Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins were suspended for violating team rules. And if that weren’t enough, Landon Collins and Eli Apple seem to be feuding in a not-so-quiet manner. This has all led to what could very well end up being the Giants’ worst season since 1974.

Surprise: Sean McVay’s brilliance in Los Angeles

McVay might not have had the same name recognition as Kyle Shanahan during the 2017 hiring season, but those around the NFL viewed him as an elite offensive mind. The numbers in his first season as the Rams’ head coach back this up big time.

Los Angeles finished last season dead last in total yards, 31st in passing yards, 31st in rushing yards and dead last in points scored. Heading into Week 17 of McVay’s first season, this offense is in the top eight in each category and ranks No. 1 overall in points scored. Needless to say, this is the primary reason Los Angeles surprised the masses by capturing the NFC West title.

But it’s more than just basic stats. Schematically, McVay has one-upped opposing defenses at nearly every turn. He’s continually putting second-year quarterback Jared Goff in position to succeed through the air. And this scheme has running back Todd Gurley as a true MVP candidate with 2,093 total yards to go with 19 scores on the season. Just amazing stuff.

Disappointment: Derek Carr, Raiders regress

Watching Carr play against the Eagles Christmas night was an exercise in self-masochism. That sounds harsh, but the performance we’ve seen from a player that was months ago the highest paid in the game has been just brutal. Carr’s numbers aren’t horrible. He’s completing 62.4 percent of his passes with 21 scores and 12 interceptions. But it’s the tape and his own mentality that has to concern the Raiders’ brass.

From a broader perspective, the Raiders themselves have also been an utter mess. It’s gotten so bad during a lost season that we’re not even sure Jack Del Rio will return after being a Coach of the Year candidate during a 12-win 2016 campaign. Defensively, there’s not much to look at here outside of Khalil Mack. And when it comes to the Raiders’ overall roster, there’s seemingly a lot more questions than answers. That’s a major disappointment as Oakland closes up shop on what is right now a six-win season.

Surprise: Saints’ defense leads team to playoffs

Throughout the course of Drew Brees’ career in New Orleans, the team’s ability to contend has been in spite of its defense. Even when the team won the Super Bowl back in 2009, it’s defense finished 20th in points against. All that has changed dramatically in what has been a surprising 2017 season for this squad.

Led by stud rookie corner Marshon Lattimore and underrated defensive end Cameron Jordan, the Saints head into Week 17 having yielded the eighth-fewest points in the NFL. This defense also ranks in the top five of the NFL with 17 interceptions and has racked up the seventh-most sacks.

All of this has New Orleans at 11-4 on the season and among the top Super Bowl contenders in the NFC. It’s a far cry for a unit that ranked in the bottom five in total defense each of the past three seasons.

Disappointment: Marcus Mariota’s performance

While the Tennessee Titans still have an opportunity to earn a playoff spot in Week 17, the performance we’ve seen from Mariota in his third season just has not been up to snuff. Sure he’s dealt with injuries throughout the year, but that’s no different than what we saw from the former Heisman winner in each of his first two seasons. Instead, it’s the lack of overall progression that has to be worrisome.

He’s failed to put up more than 225 passing yards in over half his starts this season. In addition to this, Mariota has not hit the multiple touchdown plateau in all but three starts and leads an offense that’s failed to score as many as 20 points six times. In Year 3, we expected a whole lot more. And now, the concern is that Mariota will never be more than your run-of-the-mill starter in this league.

Surprise: Eagles soar high

The loss of second-year quarterback and MVP candidate Carson Wentz has quieted expectations a tad in Philadelphia. But in no way does this take away from what the team has done throughout the 2017 season. Prior to Wentz going down with a torn ACL back in Week 14, the Eagles had put up 30-plus points eight times and ranked in the top three of the NFL in scoring offense. It led to the team winning 11 of its first 13 games.

Even with Nick Foles under center the past two games, the Eagles have found a way to come out on top and clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC. And as much as we want to give credit to the offense, this team’s defense has stepped up in a big way. It heads into Week 17 yielding the sixth-fewest points with a top 10 overall ranking on defense.

It’s something that will have to continue if the Eagles want to play in the Super Bowl, especially with Foles under center. But even if that doesn’t happen, the progression we’ve seen from Doug Pederson’s squad in his second season as head coach is nothing short of extraordinary.

Disappointment: Packers’ front office

Throughout the past several seasons, Aaron Rodgers did his best to mask the issues his front office has had building up talent around the former MVP winner. Once Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in Week 6 and proceeded to miss the next seven games, it became apparent that the talent vacuum in Green Bay was vast.

Relying on a greenish Brett Hundley under center, the Packers went on to lose four of those seven outings, proving that the issues on both offense and defense were too vast for the team to overcome without its franchise quarterback. And once Rodgers returned — likely not 100 percent in Week 15 — the writing was on the wall here.

Simply put GM Ted Thompson and Co. have utterly failed to build up the necessary talent around Rodgers. In the process, the team is wasting the latter years of his prime. This was all magnified in a season that will ultimately see Green Bay miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008.