4-Down Territory: 2023 NFL Midseason awards… and warnings

With eight weeks of actual football in the books for the 2023 NFL season, it’s time for Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire, and Kyle Madson of Niners Wire, to come to the table with their own unique brand of analysis in “4-Down Territory.”

This week, the guys have some awards and debits for teams and players as we near the halfway point for a league that no longer has a halfway point:

  1. Which NFL team has been the most disappointing to date?

  2. Which team has been the most pleasant surprise?

  3. Which NFL player has been the biggest disappointment?

  4. And finally, which player has been the most pleasant surprise?

You can watch this week’s episode of “4-Down Territory” right here:

You can also listen and subscribe to the “4-Down Territory” podcast on Spotify…

…and on Apple Podcasts.

1. Which NFL teams has been the most disappointing so far?

(Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
(Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Doug: The Kansas City Chiefs and their passing game. Patrick Mahomes against the Broncos had his first NFL game with no passing touchdowns and 3 turnovers as Denver beat KC for the first time since Peyton Manning was their quarterback in 2015 – and Patrick Mahomes was a sophomore at Texas Tech. The Chiefs are currently fifth in Offensive DVOA and fifth in Defensive DVOA, which is nice, but there’s no way to look at Kansas City’s passing game right now and deem it a success. This is especially true when it comes to the deep ball. This season, on throws of 20 or more air yards, Mahomes has completed 10 of 32 passes for 351 yards, one touchdown, five interceptions, a league-high eight turnover-worthy throws. 

I get that his receivers outside of Travis Kelce have been woefully inconsistent, and that the route combinations under Matt Nagy are nowhere near as helpful as they were under Eric Bieniemy (go figure) but right now, the 6-2 Chiefs are a team led by their defense, and their offense has struggled to catch up. It’s odd to call the defending Super Bowl champs a disappointment with that record and those overall metrics, but as we always say, tape don’t lie. 

Kyle: Given how they started the year it’s hard for me to not put the 49ers here. They were a consensus NFC contender and now after eight weeks they’re not even leading their division. To make matters worse, the defense they were supposed to be able to rely on got beat by PJ Walker and the Browns when they couldn’t get a stop at the end of the game. Then they got lit up in consecutive weeks by Kirk Cousins and Joe Burrow. It’s not that getting beat by that duo of QBs is necessarily bad, but the 49ers had the same problem both weeks – they’re not getting pressure on the QB and their coverage hasn’t been good enough so signal callers are comfortable and shredding a secondary that’s gotten exposed.

On top of that, QB Brock Purdy has turned the ball over six times in the last three games, including five interceptions that have all come in the second half with the 49ers within one score. With Trent Williams and Deebo Samuel out, head coach Kyle Shanahan just hasn’t had any answers. San Francisco hasn’t been able to run the ball and it turns out putting games on Purdy’s right arm is not conducive to playing winning football. The 49ers are in a bind going into the bye week where they’ll need Shanahan and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks to both do some pretty significant problem-solving. If they don’t, the 49ers could very easily miss the playoffs with two games against the Seahawks left, along with contests at Jacksonville, at Philadelphia and at home vs. the Ravens. 

Doug: Per ESPN, the 49ers in their 5-0 start: 

33.4 points per game, 13.6 points allowed per game, +7 turnover differential.

The 49ers in their 0-3 stretch:

17.0 points per game, 24.0 points allowed per game, -3 turnover differential.

That is a negative trend in all possible ways.

2. And which NFL teams have been the most pleasant surprises?

(Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
(Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

Doug: The Baltimore Ravens on both sides of the ball. It took a while for Lamar Jackson to look fully comfortable in new offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s playbook, but it’s happening now. Jackson is a fully-formed pocket passer, and he’s still ridiculous when it’s time to leave the pocket. Moreover, first-round pick Zay Flowers has given Jackson the separation generator he’s never really had at the position. Monken has also expanded Baltimore’s multiple run concepts, and this offense is as fun to watch as any in the league. 

But I think the untold story here is what the Ravens’ defense is going in DC Mike Macdonald’s second season. This is a defense smart enough to throw different things at you every week – it’s a highly opponent-specific set of schemes, and that’s hard to beat. Even when this defense drops a few plays, as it did in Sunday’s 31-24 win over the Cardinals, they’re adept enough to get back on track when the need really arises. 

Kyle: The Jets are fun! It looked like their season was over when Aaron Rodgers went down with a torn Achilles. That was objectively awful. However, they’ve managed to piece together a 4-3 record through eight weeks and have themselves very much in the thick of the playoff race after everyone wrote them off as contenders for the No. 1 overall pick (since we can’t just say Caleb Williams anymore apparently). QB Zach Wilson is still bad and not good, but head coach Robert Saleh has that defense playing as well as any unit in the NFL. That group is super talented and carrying them through their struggles under center. Old-school, defensive-minded football teams are such a stark contrast to other top clubs in the modern era that it’s hard to not be enthralled by them.

3. Who's been the most disappointing player in the first half of the season?

(Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

Doug: Michael Davis, CB, Los Angeles Chargers. Davis has been one of the NFL’s better and more unheralded zone defenders for a while now, but for whatever reason, Brandon Staley has him pressing top receivers at the line of scrimmage in crucial situations, and that’s not really his game. Staley has been notorious for putting his defensive players in positions where he thinks they should be able to succeed as opposed to what they do best, and this is another instance. Davis has had by far his worst season in a seven-year NFL career, allowing 35 catches on 52 targets for 381 yards, 76 yards after the catch, five touchdowns, no interceptions, five pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 120.8 – seventh-worst in the league among cornerbacks playing at least 50% of their defensive snaps. 

I would almost like the Chargers to trade him to a more zone-heavy team like the Jaguars, Colts, or 49ers, just to give him more of an opportunity to do what he does best. 

Kyle: Josh Jacobs, RB, Las Vegas Raiders. Jacobs led the NFL in rushing last season. Las Vegas didn’t re-sign him on a long-term deal and Jacobs had a real chance to give the team (and the RB discourse) the double birds with another huge year. In seven games he has 118 carries for 347 yards and two touchdowns. His 2.9 yards per carry ranks 40th out of 41 qualified rushers, and he’s yet to post more than 88 total yards in a game. The Raiders in general are a mess, but Jacobs’ struggles haven’t helped, and it will likely wind up having a dramatic impact on his free agency.

4. And who's been the league's most pleasantly surprising player?

(Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)
(Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)

Doug: Robert Hunt, OG, Miami Dolphins. There is no explosive offense in the NFL without a strong offensive line – or at least more than one piece of that kind of protection for any quarterback. Left tackle Terron Armstead is the Dolphins’ best offensive lineman when he’s healthy, but it’s time to give some praise to Hunt, the second-round pick in 2020 out of Louisiana-Lafayette who has allowed one sack, one hurry, and two hits in 275 pass-blocking snaps. Hunt is also athletic enough to block well in Miami’s outstanding motion run concepts, which we don’t talk about nearly enough. Now, the guy previously known for nearly scoring the greatest Big Man Touchdown ever in 2021 –  his receiving touchdown against the Ravens was called back because he didn’t report as eligible – should be lauded for his more traditional expertise.

Kyle: CJ Stroud, QB, Houston Texans. All signs pointed to Stroud being a Year 1 disaster. He had a first-time offensive coordinator, a shoddy offensive line, unproven pass catchers and a first-time head coach to help him navigate all of this. After a rough preseason, Stroud has responded with a tremendous first eight weeks. He’s completing 60.3 percent of his throws for 1,800 yards with nine touchdowns and just one interception. There are plays within structure and outside of structure, and he’s showing that what he put on tape in an impressive outing vs. Georgia in the College Football Playoff was a sign of things to come in the NFL. He’s lighting it up at all three levels of the passing game, and it’s clear he’s just scratching the surface of what he’ll be capable of in the NFL. There haven’t been many individual player stories more fun than Stroud’s in the league this season.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire