Offseason optimism has turned to harsh reality for teams with high expectations and much at stake.
The Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers and Minnesota Vikings are returning playoff teams with 0-2 records. The Kansas City Chiefs have scored as many points on offense as the winless Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots. The Indianapolis Colts’ newly drafted franchise quarterback has suffered two injuries in two games, failing to finish either.
Yeah, there’s plenty to worry about.
The Pick Six column sorts through worries for 11 teams, ranking their worries from most to least concerning. Sean Payton’s increasing frustration with his Denver Broncos quarterback, Russell Wilson, figures prominently into the mix. The full Pick Six menu:
? Which NFL teams should be most worried
? Go for it: Fourth-down aggression reigns
? We didn’t predict Rodgers’ injury, but…
? McVay, Stafford and Puka Nacua?
? OBJ and the highest-paid free agents
? Two-minute drill: Geno Smith’s last laugh
NFL Power Rankings: Dolphins, Eagles on the rise; offense is back!
1. Worries for 11 NFL teams linger most prominently through Week 2. We begin with teams coached by Bill Belichick and Sean Payton, and close with the team coached by Andy Reid.
New England Patriots worry: This is who they are, just another team.
Worry level: 9/10
Oddsmakers had the Patriots fourth in the AFC East entering the season. That remained the case even after the New York Jets lost Aaron Rodgers to a torn Achilles tendon. What does that say about the Patriots’ prospects? This team is 0-2 on the season, 25-27 since Tom Brady’s departure and lacking in offensive firepower. It’s difficult to see great upside.
“They try to be better fundamentally, better in the kicking game and run the ball,” an exec from another team said. “It’s fourth quarter against Miami, they need a good punt, but they give up an 18-yard return (to Braxton Berrios). OK, run the ball and stop the run, right? Next play, Miami runs 43 yards for the touchdown. Then when New England needs a fourth-down conversion late, they throw to a long-striding tight end (Mike Gesicki) several yards short of the first-down marker, and he laterals to an offensive lineman, and the game ends.”
The Patriots lost on fundamentals and in situational play, areas where they must win against the better teams.
Denver Broncos worry: Sean Payton can’t fix Russell Wilson.
Worry level: 8.5/10
Payton entered Week 2 with a 72-0 career record when leading by least 18 points, including 20-0 when leading by that much before halftime. Those records are now blemished after a 21-3 Broncos home lead over the Washington Commanders turned into a 35-33 defeat. Afterward, Payton said the game turned on a Wilson fumble. He also said he was “frustrated” by slow communication on offense.
Yes, there was blame to go around, including lots on the Denver defense. But anyone listening to Payton after the game knows the coach’s frustration with Wilson is mounting.
“We had to burn timeouts in the first half, and I’m not used to doing that,” Payton said. “We have to be better. I have to be better, Russ has to be sharper with getting the play out, and then we have to look at how much we have in. If we need to wristband it, we will.”
There is zero chance Sean Payton thinks Sean Payton is the problem. He is validating what we heard about Wilson last season when Nathanial Hackett was the coach.
Chicago Bears worry: Justin Fields and the offense won’t be much better this season.
Worry level: 7.5/10
The Bears have been 2.5 times less productive on offense through two games this season (minus-19.2 EPA) as they were through two games last year (minus-7.2 EPA). Fields has two touchdown passes, three interceptions, one lost fumble and 62 yards rushing.
This is a dicey situation with a newly hired team president hovering and so much hinging on Fields’ development. Chicago has to hope it’s just two bad games, but getting outgained 437-236 by Baker Mayfield’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers was not a good sign.
New York Giants worry: Their comeback victory at Arizona stops their fall only temporarily.
Worry level: 7/10
Losing 40-0 against the Cowboys in the opener was bad. Falling behind the rebuilding Cardinals 20-0 felt worse. The Giants’ comeback for a 31-28 victory spared them from a disastrous start to the season. But with San Francisco, Seattle, Miami and Buffalo next on the schedule, are we to believe all is well, especially with Saquon Barkley suffering an ankle injury?
New York Jets worry: The Jets are doomed without Rodgers.
Worry level: 7
Doomed to what? The defense should be good enough for the Jets to stay in the mix, but the likelihood of finishing in the 7-10 range is high when checking out the remaining schedule. The Jets still have both defending conference champions on their schedule, plus the Dolphins twice, Buffalo once and games against other teams that could be tough to beat, including the Chargers and Falcons.
Minnesota Vikings worry: Finally escaping Kirk Cousins’ contract beyond this season, only to realize Cousins is the best option beyond this season.
Worry level: 7/10
The Vikings did extricate themselves from the fully guaranteed structure that has bound them to Cousins in recent years, creating flexibility beyond this season. That was supposed to set them up for a longer-term build. But if the first two games are any indication, Cousins ranks among the best things this Minnesota team has going for itself, beyond all-world receiver Justin Jefferson. Is Cousins suddenly going to come cheaply?
The quarterback has completed 73 percent of his passes for 708 yards and six touchdowns with one interception. What are the Vikings without him?
That is an interesting question to ponder for a general manager and head coach who will be entering Year 3 of their tenures in 2024. Getting cheaper at quarterback would likely mean getting worse before getting better, and the third year isn’t time to take a step back. Washington found this out when letting Cousins leave entering Jay Gruden’s third season as head coach. The Commanders are still looking for a long-term replacement.
Los Angeles Chargers worry: The negative narratives could be here to stay.
Worry level: 6.5/10
Gone are the days when reporters fawned over coach Brandon Staley’s fourth-down aggressiveness, which could have been a storyline Sunday if the Chargers had not suffered a 27-24 overtime defeat at Tennessee in falling to 0-2.
Two tough losses to open the season have put the Chargers’ coach on the defensive. Staley faced tough lines of questioning at Tennessee and shot back, particularly when it was suggested the 0-2 start was a continuation of a crushing defeat to Jacksonville in the playoffs last season. It’s a sensitive subject. Staley interrupted his questioner, calling the suggestion a “convenient storyline for you and everybody else, but not the truth.”
On the positive side, Staley’s defense allowed only three explosive pass plays (longer than 15 yards) against the Titans, after allowing 14 against the Dolphins last week. Unfortunately, two of those three plays were killers covering 70 and 49 yards. All the narratives Staley is fighting — that the Jacksonville hangover is real, that his defense remains a work in progress at best — are hard to shake in the absence of better results.
It’ll be tough for the Chargers to keep losing with Justin Herbert at quarterback. They rallied last season from 6-6 to 10-6 and a playoff berth. That doesn’t guarantee anything now.
Expectations were high for the Chargers, and if they enter their bye week 1-3 or worse following games against Minnesota and Las Vegas, what then? Dallas and Kansas City await on the other side.
Worry level: 6/10
Richardson has played two games and failed to finish either one. The rookie incurred a knee injury while straining toward the goal line late in the Colts’ Week 1 defeat to Jacksonville. He suffered a concussion while scoring his second rushing touchdown of the day Sunday in a victory against Houston.
The Colts have done a good job tailoring their offense for Richardson’s skill set. Richardson is such a talented runner. But the Colts’ need to feature Richardson as a rusher, along with Richardson’s limited experience against top competition (13 college games, plus two in the NFL), is looking like a dangerous combination for the quarterback’s health early in his career.
It’s early to panic, but concern is warranted. Is there another way Indianapolis can play while Richardson is in the lineup?
Buffalo Bills worry: Josh Allen’s turnovers will doom Buffalo when it matters.
Worry level: 4.5/10
Allen appeared determined in the Bills’ 38-10 victory against Las Vegas to protect the football after suffering four turnovers against the Jets in Week 1. This was his fourth turnover-free performance in 20 total starts since the start of last season.
The game against the Jets got me thinking about how helpless teams in the Bills’ situation can be when trying to control superstar quarterbacks. The entire operation is set up to make the QB comfortable, not accountable.
Allen’s contract assures he will be the starter no matter what. Allen’s backup, Kyle Allen, is his friend and supporter, not a viable alternative. His coordinator, Ken Dorsey, is his former position coach, and his head coach, Sean McDermott, is the defensive play caller.
The Bills need Allen to play the way he played Sunday more consistently, and if he doesn’t, that’s the way it’s going to be.
Cincinnati Bengals worry: Joe Burrow and the offense won’t hit stride.
Worry level: 4/10
Burrow was nearly a unanimous Tier 1 selection in 2023 Quarterback Tiers, but coaches and executives expressed worry over his long-term durability. That was before Burrow suffered a calf injury that sidelined him for most of training camp. That was also before Burrow aggravated that injury during the Bengals’ 27-24 home loss to Baltimore.
“When you are that young in terms of snaps played, you need camp to get timing, you need camp to get execution of situational football, the snap count, all that,” a veteran coach said.
The worry level is not higher because Burrow is such a good player, and he still has strong weaponry around him. Cincinnati struggled on offense in starting 0-2 last season before taking Kansas City to the brink in the playoffs. The team has scored only 20 points on offense this season, but Burrow was not terrible Sunday.
The potential for the calf injury lingering separates this 0-2 start from the last one. There is greater uncertainty.
Kansas City Chiefs worry: Early struggles on offense will be harder to overcome this time.
Worry level: 3.5/10
The Chiefs are averaging 18.5 offensive points per game, their lowest figure through two games since 2014. The high-priced right tackle they signed in free agency, Jawaan Taylor, leads the league in penalties with six and was briefly benched during a 17-9 victory against Jacksonville in Week 2. The situation at receiver was already concerning before Kadarius Toney and Justin Watson suffered injuries Sunday. So, yeah, there could be some inconsistency.
“Here is the time to start writing about the Chiefs: When they are in danger of missing the playoffs,” an exec from a rival team said. “Otherwise, they are fine and still building.”
The defense ranks second in EPA per game through Week 2 after ranking between 16th and 32nd through two games previously during the Patrick Mahomes era (since 2018). The receiver situation is concerning enough to create more worry than the exec expressed.
2. NFL teams are going for it on fourth down more frequently in recent years. Sunday advanced the cause by one interesting measure, with the Chargers’ Staley leading the way.
Sunday was rough for the Chargers, but after Los Angeles succeeded on all three fourth-down tries, Staley owns four of the NFL’s eight most productive fourth-down EPA games since his hiring in 2021. The 11.5 EPA the Chargers gained on fourth down Sunday was the eighth-best payoff in a game since 2021, according to TruMedia. Unfortunately for Staley, his teams went 1-3 in those games, with each of the three defeats by three points.
You had to figure something special was happening on the fourth-down front Sunday when Seattle’s Pete Carroll went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 41 while trailing Detroit 21-14 with 7:08 remaining in the third quarter. It wasn’t the boldest play, but it was the first time since Carroll became Seattle’s coach in 2010 that he went for it on fourth down in minus territory before the fourth quarter of a game that close, according to TruMedia.
Seattle’s Kenneth Walker picked up the first down, sustaining a drive to a successful field goal as the Seahawks moved toward a 37-31 overtime victory.
As Week 2 unfolded, the notable go-for-it decisions mounted. By the time Miami defeated New England 24-17 in the Sunday night game, this week ranked No. 2 since at least 2000 by one measure of aggressiveness. Teams went for it 13 percent of the time — eight times in 61 chances — when tied or leading in the first three quarters and having more than a yard to go for a first down.
(Eliminating fourth quarters, times when teams were trailing, and fourth-and-1s highlights situations when teams are more likely to punt.)
Detroit accounted for three of these plays, and the Chargers accounted for two. The eight plays produced two touchdowns, two first downs, two incomplete passes and two sacks. The offenses combined to pocket 4.6 EPA.
A quick run through the eight plays, beginning with situations when teams were least likely to go for it historically, according to TruMedia:
Jaguars: Fourth-and-5 from the Kansas City 45-yard line, 4:10 remaining in the second quarter of a game the Chiefs led by three. The Chiefs’ Chris Jones sacked Trevor Lawrence, costing the Jags 2.2 EPA.
Titans: Fourth-and-4 from the Chargers’ 46 in the first quarter of a tie game. This decision also failed to produce the desired results, with the Chargers’ Kenneth Murray sacking Ryan Tannehill, costing Tennessee 2.7 EPA.
Lions: Fourth-and-2 from the Detroit 45 late in the third quarter of a game the Lions led by four. Jared Goff threw incomplete on the play, costing 2.4 EPA.
Chargers: Fourth-and-4 from the Tennessee 8 midway through the second quarter of a game Los Angeles led by three. Herbert found Keenan Allen for a touchdown, gaining 4.4 EPA.
Lions: Fourth-and-3 from the Seattle 11 with 11:07 left in the third quarter of a tie game. Goff’s 5-yard completion produced 3.1 EPA.
Bills: Fourth-and-2 from the Las Vegas 2 with 6:06 left in the third quarter of a game the Bills led by 11, producing 3.6 EPA.
Chargers: Fourth-and-2 from the Tennessee 27 in the first quarter of a tie game. Herbert completed a 20-yard pass to Mike Williams, good for 3.7 EPA.
Lions: Fourth-and-4 from the Seattle 31 with 9:41 left in the second quarter of a tie game. Goff threw incomplete, costing 3.1 EPA.
3. We didn’t predict Aaron Rodgers’ torn Achilles tendon, but alarm bells raised for 2023 will ring louder in 2024.
No one can prove whether synthetic turf played a role in the likely season-ending injury Rodgers suffered in Week 1, but his signing with the Jets did raise alarms before the season about an older quarterback suddenly playing many more games on surfaces other than natural grass.
“Green Bay played four games on turf last year,” an NFL exec noted in my 2023 Quarterback Tiers piece before the season. “Guess how many the Jets play this year? Fourteen. Huge difference for a guy who turns 40 in December and has had some lower-leg injuries, including calf strains. (Nathaniel) Hackett’s offense has the boot package, the wide stretch runs. It’s a lot of pounding on a surface that is tough on an old guy’s legs.”
With the Jets scheduled to play 10 to 12 games on synthetic surfaces in 2024, the same thinking applies to a quarterback who will not only turn 41 next season but will also be returning from a major lower-leg injury.
Two of Rodgers’ most recent significant injuries did occur on synthetic surfaces. Beyond the torn Achilles in Week 1, there was the broken clavicle Rodgers suffered in 2017 when Minnesota’s Anthony Barr tackled him on the Vikings’ artificial surface. Rodgers also suffered a hamstring injury against Philadelphia on the Eagles’ artificial turf in 2016, although he did not miss games. Earlier in Rodgers’ career, most of his injuries were suffered on natural grass.
4. Few had the Rams winning in Seattle and then pushing San Francisco to the limit. Fewer could have foreseen Puka Nacua snatching 25 receptions in his first two games.
The Rams’ better-than-expected start to what is widely seen as a rebuilding season would seem to show the value of an elite head coach (Sean McVay) and a healthy Tier 2 quarterback (Matthew Stafford). Great head coaches rarely post the worst won-lost records. Their worst seasons are better than other coaches’ worst seasons. Even last season, when the Rams all but ran out of players and resorted to starting Baker Mayfield at quarterback with basically no practice, Los Angeles won five games.
McVay is surely bummed about falling to 4-10 in games against his 49ers counterpart, Kyle Shanahan, which includes nine consecutive regular-season defeats in the series. But he has been to two Super Bowls, winning one, and he is doing more with less this season, which leads us to the curious case of rookie fifth-round pick Puka Nacua.
Nacua set an NFL single-game rookie record with 15 receptions against the 49ers. He now has 25 in his first two games, another record for the first two games of a career. Passing is much more prominent now than it was decades ago, but think of all the great wide receivers to enter the league, and consider how unlikely it is for Nacua to outrank every one of them through two games.
Target share will shift once Cooper Kupp returns from a hamstring injury, but by then, Nacua and Stafford should enjoy an even stronger rapport. The table below shows Nacua ranking second among all wide receivers, not just rookies, in receptions through two games since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002. All the other receivers were stars. Nacua will become one if he can replicate the full-season production for some of the others, which appears in the final column (injuries shortened the seasons for Kupp and Julian Edelman).
5. The 15 most expensive players signed in free agency have started every game for their teams so far. Here are the two biggest question marks.
The Baltimore Ravens’ 27-24 victory at Cincinnati marked their best statistical game offensively since their 42-38 defeat against Miami in Week 2 last season, both from total EPA and pass EPA standpoints. That was a welcome development as the Ravens implement a new offense, especially after Baltimore lost left tackle Ronnie Stanley and running back J.K. Dobbins to injuries in Week 1.
Another Ravens injury does bear monitoring, however, with Odell Beckham Jr. failing to finish the Cincinnati game after suffering an ankle injury that coach John Harbaugh suggested was not serious.
Beckham was one of 11 free agents signed to deals worth at least $15 million per year. The table below stacks those players by APY.
Can Beckham stay on the field for a full season, which he has done twice previously and not since 2019? The injuries are striking Baltimore in waves. Beckham’s recent injury history is concerning, so even if this ankle sprain is minor, it’s concerning he made it just one game before exiting.
Also, can Jawaan Taylor settle into his right tackle spot with the Chiefs, or will his penalties persist at the worst times, including in the playoffs? Chiefs fans won’t forget the offsides penalty that doomed Kansas City in the AFC title game against New England following the 2018 season. Two games into 2023, it’s not difficult envisioning a critical false-start penalty knocking Kansas City from field-goal range late in a tied playoff game.
We’ll revisit this free-agent list as the season progresses.
6. Two-minute drill: Geno Smith gets the last laugh
Geno Smith shouting “Oh my God” while Rams superstar Aaron Donald was bearing down on him in Week 1 was funny.
Geno Smith yelling “oh my god” as Aaron Donald is running at him ?
— PFF (@PFF) September 10, 2023
Smith pleading his case Sunday with referee Alex Kemp was even better. Kemp’s crew had called Smith for intentional grounding on a play where there appeared to be a miscommunication between Smith and receiver Tyler Lockett. Smith threw deep as Lockett cut off his route.
Two straight weeks, Seahawks’ QB Geno Smith has been involved in the sound byte of the week.
Last week, he had Aaron Donald coming at him; this week, it was an official. pic.twitter.com/yJLHGRO8YG
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 18, 2023
“Intentional grounding, offense, No. 7,” Kemp announced over his microphone.
“He ran the wrong route!” Smith interrupted, in comments picked up by Kemp’s microphone.
“I’m talking to America here, excuse me,” Kemp replied.
“That is the best line I’ve ever heard,” Fox color analyst Greg Olsen said.
Seattle escaped with a victory Carroll needed for his young team following a rough 30-13 home defeat to the Rams in Week 1. Beating the Lions on the road without both starting offensive tackles didn’t necessarily save the Seahawks’ season, as it’s too early for that, but it was huge under the circumstances.
Coach Prime revisited: Last week, we considered how well Deion Sanders might project to an NFL sideline. Since then, Sanders has said he has no plans to coach in the NFL, noting that he might struggle motivating millionaire professionals. Sanders might mean exactly what he said, but what he said is also what he needs to say, in order to recruit most effectively. He can decide whether the fit is right if and when there’s an opportunity. …
Load management: Colorado’s overtime victory against Colorado State on Saturday night was riveting. It was also costly, as the Buffaloes lost do-it-all receiver/defensive back Travis Hunter to injury on an illegal hit. When Hunter played 152 snaps against TCU and 126 against Nebraska a week later, I made a note to see which NFL players came closest to those totals across all three phases (offense, defense, special teams).
Most NFL snaps in a game so far this season: 88, by the Colts’ Julian Blackmon in Week 2 and Eagles’ Justin Evans in Week 1. Most in a game since 2019: 103, by Rodney McLeod of the Colts in 2022 Week 15. …
The eight 2-0 teams: We all could have seen Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dallas, Miami and Baltimore starting 2-0, but Tampa Bay, Washington and Atlanta as well? The Cowboys’ 40-0 and 30-10 victories give them the second-largest average victory margin through two weeks since 2000. Only the 2019 Patriots (36.5) and 2006 Chargers (30.0) have won by as much through two games. The 2022 Cowboys were outscored by 6.5 points per game over their first two, averaging just 11.5 points per game on offense. It’s a minor upset owner Jerry Jones hasn’t already guaranteed a Super Bowl victory. There’s always next week after the Cowboys play … Arizona.
(Top photo: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)