The 2018 NFL season that is closer than we all think — less than two months and counting until that first burst of Week’s 1 slate of games — will undoubtedly follow a familiar pattern. As it unfolds from September all the way to the 12-team Super Bowl tournament, the season will surprise and confound us, consistently challenging and altering the perceptions we forged during the off-season, while teaching us anew that in the game’s unparalleled unpredictability lies much of its allure.
Every year we spend six-plus months sizing up each team’s chances and calibrating every minute change in their cache of personnel and coaching, and then sit back and watch as our assumptions routinely get turned on their head, occasionally coming to pass just as we imagined. But only occasionally.
As a reminder, last year at this time, we held the following truths to be self-evident, even though they didn’t have that much more shelf life left as it turns out. Let the memory of each of these “givens’’ provide another cautionary tale when it comes to the folly of predicting what will transpire in the NFL season just ahead.
Last year at this time...
* We saw Jared Goff through the prism of the Rams’ failed Jeff Fisher coaching era and called the young Los Angeles quarterback a bust in the making as he entered his second season — which some already considered make-or-break time. Today we see him through the prism of Sean McVay’s potential-laden and productive coaching debut in 2017, and consider Goff one of the game’s brighter young face of a franchise stars. Turns out the Rams did not get swindled by the price of their 2016 No. 1 overall pick after all. The problem was Fisher and his underwhelming staff.
* We saw Doug Pederson as something of a head coaching novice in Philadelphia, with some wondering if he was over-matched in the job or even over-shadowed by the leadership of his own talented defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz. Today we view Pederson as the right man for the right job at the right time with the resilient Eagles, exhibiting the near-perfect touch during the course of last year’s magical Super Bowl run. Philly Special, indeed. Second-year head coaches aren’t supposed to be ready to win it all, but Pederson just matched Super Bowl champions Mike Tomlin, Barry Switzer, Joe Gibbs and Tom Flores in that feat.
* We saw Deshaun Watson as an intriguing first-round quarterbacking talent who would require patience and a period of acclimation to reach a state of readiness as an NFL starter in Houston. Then, when thrust into the Texans lineup at halftime of Week 1 for the faltering Tom Savage, Watson proceeded to electrify the league with his arm and legs, producing a record 21 touchdowns in his first six and a half games of action before being felled by season-ending knee surgery in early November. Watson’s lightning quick ascension was a trust-your-eyes moment for everybody who watches the NFL, especially you, Bill O’Brien.
* We saw Marshawn Lynch as the final piece of the potential championship puzzle in Oakland, a difference-making star elevating his new team to new heights in a heart-warming homecoming-themed story. Then the games began, and the Raiders looked lost compared to their 12-4 finish in 2016, with Lynch being largely a non-factor in the first half of the season. He totaled 65 yards or less of combined rushing and receiving in seven of his first eight games, finishing the year with 891 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. Third-place Oakland endured a substantial regression to 6-10, and wound up firing head coach Jack Del Rio in order to re-launch the franchise’s Jon Gruden era.
* We saw Case Keenum as the lightly-regarded bargain-basement backup quarterback option in Minnesota, there solely to give the Vikings depth behind starter Sam Bradford, and provide the franchise time to be even more patient with the still-rehabilitating Teddy Bridgewater. If Keenum was forced to play, conventional wisdom held that the Vikings season would be in serious trouble and essentially ruined by a quarterback injury for a second year in a row. Then Bradford went down early and Keenum played, and played well enough to lead Minnesota all the way to the NFC Championship game in Philadelphia. The result of that game was a disaster for the Vikings, but Keenum kept their season more than alive and earned himself this year’s starting gig in Denver with his breakthrough showing in 2017.
* We saw Dallas and the New York Giants as the twin beasts of the NFC East, with both having made the playoffs in 2016 and combining for a 24-8 regular-season record. The Cowboys had the Dak and Zeke show on offense and everyone promised their second season would feature even more production than their boffo rookie campaigns. The Giants and second-year coach Ben McAdoo had barely scratched the surface with their 11-5 mark in 2016, and surely bigger and better things were just ahead. But both clubs fell victim to their own hype, with Dallas scraping out a 9-7 mark to miss the playoffs and New York bottoming out with a 3-13 dumpster fire that included Eli Manning’s premature benching and McAdoo’s late-season banishment. Meanwhile the Eagles flew under the radar and became the masters of the East.
* We saw New Orleans trapped in a perpetual cycle of 7-9 mediocrity, with an aging core of veteran play-makers and a defense that seemed doomed to remain unfixable and maddeningly unreliable. Clearly the Drew Brees-Sean Payton glory days were well past their expiration date and long gone. Then the rebuilt and rejuvenated Saints came marching back to prominence, going 11-5 and winning the NFC South for the first time since 2013 and coming within a miracle play in Minnesota of making their first NFC title game appearance since 2009. A tremendous 2017 draft class changed the entire outlook in New Orleans, especially defensively, and made us all realize Brees and Payton might have one last victory lap to take together.
* We saw Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles as an over-drafted enigma who doubled as a punch line, surrounded by an Jaguars team that never even could reach the corner, let alone turn it. The talent was there, but everything else seemed to be missing, and few thought the re-hiring of Tom Coughlin as the team’s football czar, and Doug Marrone as head coach, would yield instant and dramatic results. But we were mis-informed. The Jaguars toughed out a 10-6 mark to win the AFC South and return to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, then made some noise once they got there, winning two games in January and giving the Patriots all they could handle in the AFC Championship. As for Bortles, nobody’s telling those jokes any more.