Midseason! The NFL season has reached the halfway point (well, not true halfway because it decided to go to an ugly 17-game season), making it a great time to pause and think about what’s occurred over the first eight weeks of the season. There have been some pleasant surprises and ghastly disappointments, but this week’s Four Verts column will start off with a positive — that team in Kansas City is still damn good, even though it feels different than usual.
The Chiefs' offense is still good, per the data
Anyone who has watched the Chiefs this season would say that the offense isn’t very good. They just scored nine points in a loss against the Broncos and Patrick Mahomes has really had only two games where he completely torched the opposition. The offense isn’t as explosive as it has been in the past and the Chiefs are going through some growing pains at wide receiver. Solely based on the eye test, the Chiefs’ offense looks like a diminished product that might struggle to get KC back to the Super Bowl. However, the data paints the picture of an offense that’s still performing at a very high level.
Let’s start off with the basics. The Chiefs currently rank fourth in yards per play on offense (5.8), behind only the Bills (5.9), 49ers (6.3) and Dolphins (7.3). Even though their scoring is down, the Chiefs are still moving the ball. They rank second in yards per drive (38.6), fourth in points per drive (2.51) and sixth in touchdowns per drive (0.27).
The advanced stats paint a strong picture of the Chiefs' offense as well. According to Ben Baldwin of RBSDM.com, the Chiefs are fifth in expected points added per play (0.071), seventh in success rate (45.7%) and fourth in expected points added per dropback (0.175). By just about every measure, the Chiefs still have an elite offense that should be feared by everyone they play. Even though Mahomes hasn’t been as clean as he usually is, the offense is still cruising for the most part.
Still, people aren’t necessarily wrong if they feel like the Chiefs have been a diminished version of themselves — offense as a whole has been down in the NFL. The league average yards per play is currently at 5.2, which is the lowest mark since 2017 (5.3 yards per play). But the Chiefs are still one of the best offenses in the league.
If there is a spot where the Chiefs can improve and get back into defense-razing mode, cutting down on turnovers would be a great place to start. The Chiefs rank 23rd in turnovers per drive (0.14) and 29th in interceptions per drive (0.11). This is where the eye test becomes relevant again because it’s clear that Mahomes is not totally comfortable with his current set of wide receivers, to the point where the Chiefs had to make an in-season trade for Mecole Hardman, who they let walk in free agency earlier this year. Skyy Moore looks like a miss as a wide receiver selection and they don’t really have a guy on the outside they can truly count on each week.
That lack of talent on the outside, paired with some uncharacteristically sloppy play from Mahomes, has put the Chiefs in a situation where they’re more prone to low-scoring outputs than the past. Even with that, this is still one of the best offenses in the league this season. They’ve been so dominant over the past few years that a year like this feels like failure, even though it hasn’t been that bad. If they can cut out the turnovers and get a little more from their wide receivers, they’ll have a great shot at hosting their sixth straight AFC championship game.
The defense has held up its end of the bargain this season, currently ranking third in opposing points per drive (1.35) and eighth in opposing yards per drive (29.24). With a few tweaks, the offense will be able to do the same.
The Giants have become nothing
The Giants were never a lock to repeat as playoff contenders given their propensity to win one-score games in 2022, but no one could have predicted that this is how far they would fall less than a calendar year after playing in the NFC divisional round. Their season started off with a huge dud, losing 40-0 to the Cowboys at home before an avalanche of injuries led them to their unspeakably bad offensive performance against the Jets on Sunday. Finishing an NFL game (that went into overtime!) with -9 passing yards and 2.8 yards per play felt like the official end of the 2023 Giants season. It’s almost impossible to wipe the stink of a performance like that off and the Giants partially admitted their 2023 run was over when they traded defensive lineman Leonard Williams to the Seahawks for draft capital.
The Giants are trying to squeeze whatever drops of offensive production they can, which hasn’t been much. Daniel Jones, who will take back his spot as the starting quarterback soon, hasn’t performed in the treacherous conditions around him and backup Tyrod Taylor was only marginally better in place of Jones. Outside of their offensive line getting healthy, the Giants’ offensive performance this season isn’t likely to improve. They overestimated their skill position talent, outside of Saquon Barkley, whom they opted not to move at the trade deadline.
There’s just nothing here, man — at least as far as 2023 is concerned. They still have defensive cornerstones like Dexter Lawrence, Kayvon Thibodeaux and Deonte Banks locked in for the future. Those pieces will help as the Giants attempt to get back on the right track for 2024 and beyond. Until then, those guys will have to do their best to allow the Giants to play respectable football for the rest of the season. According to Ben Baldwin of RBSDM.com, the Giants' defense ranks 19th in success rate (44.1%). Their offense ranks 30th in success rate (39.1%), above only the Steelers (38.3%) and Jets (37.4%). Not exactly a banner year for head coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, who have been highly touted as offensive minds.
Daboll is likely safe unless the back half of this season falls to a point where they need to blow it up. His playoff berth in 2022 should get him some grace and Jones is entrenched as the starting quarterback for at least one more season. According to Over The Cap, Jones’ dead salry-cap charge in 2024 is $69.3 million. There’s no way they can move off of that contract without surrendering draft capital to get rid of it.
At the very least it’s looking like they’ll be in the range for a quarterback at the top of the 2024 draft. If the draft was held today, the Giants would have the fourth pick. Based on how they’ve looked this year, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if they can get up to the very tippy-top of the draft — a spot where no one expected them to be this year. Even if the Giants weren’t Super Bowl contenders, they certainly expected to fare better than they have up to this point. A true disappointment for everyone involved.
2 wide receivers have legitimately made a claim for MVP votes
The MVP award has largely become a quarterback award, but there might be a deviation from that norm this season. Offense as a whole is down this season from year’s past, paving the way for some outstanding non-quarterback performances to garner MVP attention. Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill and Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown have been so dominant this season that it would almost be disrespectful to not at least consider them being a part of the MVP conversation. It can be difficult to just yell “watch the games!” to people, but they have become unstoppable forces that their offenses need to survive.
Hill may have a stronger case than Brown here because the Dolphins' passing game is centered on Hill’s speed and his skills as a wide receiver. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Dolphins rank first in time to throw this season (2.36 seconds), which speaks to how fast the offense is as a whole, but it starts with Hill. All of the motions and shifts at the start of each play accentuate Hill’s talent and have turned him from a great receiver to one who's currently on pace for the best season ever for a WR.
Hill already has the most yards in NFL history through eight games with 1,014 receiving yards to go with eight touchdowns. If he’s able to keep up this pace for an entire season, he would end up with 2,155 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns — objectively the greatest season for a receiver of all time. Even at a 16-game pace, he would be on track to surpass the 2,000 yard mark, which no receiver has ever done. If Hill can’t get serious MVP consideration for a season this dominant, then the honor might as well be renamed The Best Quarterback On the Best Team Award. Tua Tagovailoa has had a tremendously productive year throwing to Hill, but Hill is the engine that makes this offense work, even as the Dolphins try to get healthy along the offensive line.
Brown has a case as well based on how he has played for the past six weeks. He set the record for the most consecutive games with at least 125 yards and is comfortably having the best season of his career. His projected stats aren’t quite as crazy as Hill’s, but he’s still on pace for 1,995 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Brown’s impact on the Eagles is a little different than Hill’s, but it’s still an enormous positive influence. When Tagovailoa throws to Hill, those passes take, on average, just 2.33 seconds to be thrown after the snap of the ball. That’s all in-structure play. Brown and Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts are playing a different style of football, taking 2.87 seconds from snap to throw on their targets. There’s an element of backyard football to the way that Hurts and Brown produce these yards. They’re able to create opportunities “late in the down,” or essentially after the structure of the initial play has passed. It’s different from what Tagovailoa and Hill are doing, but it’s been equally effective for their teams' chances of winning.
Two unguardable talents. Two historic seasons. Two receivers on teams that have Super Bowl aspirations. They deserve more than MVP consideration, they deserve votes, especially in a season when there might not be a standout option at quarterback.
Brandon Staley still doesn’t have a defense
It feels crazy to say that a head coach who has yet to have a losing record is doing a poor job, but that’s kind of where Chargers head coach Brandon Staley finds himself. Staley is 22-19 as the head coach of the Chargers, which would probably be OK if he was able to do what he was hired to do — fix the defense. It’s not entirely his fault because the Chargers haven’t been overly efficient in adding talent to that side of the ball, but they have enough pieces to be better than they’ve been.
Since Staley was hired in 2021, the Chargers have done anything but play defense. According to Ben Baldwin of RBSDM.com, the Chargers rank 28th in expected points allowed per play (.034) and 25th in success rate (45.7%) since the start of the 2021 season. Those were not the expectations placed upon Staley when he took this job. The Rams' defense he coordinated in 2020 is still one of the best over the past few years. He hasn’t replicated that success or come close to it.
It turns out, having Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey at the peak of their powers makes a huge difference. It’s easy to run softer coverage looks when the greatest defensive tackle ever is blowing plays up as soon as they start. Ramsey was an ace defensive back for that season as well, giving All-Pro level play at a multitude of spots. It’s much easier to keep things in front of you as a defense with two Hall of Fame level talents punking offenses.
It hasn’t been that easy for Staley with the Chargers, but his defense shouldn’t be as bad as it has been. Joey Bosa is still one of the premier edge rushers in football, Khalil Mack is playing at a high level and Derwin James is one of the best safeties in the league. Whiffing on J.C. Jackson set this team back, but this defense still shouldn’t be just food for any offense it faces.
Pairing Staley with quarterback Justin Herbert seemed like a good plan, but they’ve been able to compete toward the playoffs in recent years only because Herbert has been so good for the team. If they could just get a semblance of consistent defense, they would be able to challenge the Chiefs. Until then, they’re little brother in the AFC West — and Staley’s seat will continue to get hotter.