Why I'm still watching: Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson and ... Dak

The NFL season is long. No one is going to feel bad for those of us with a dream job to cover the league professionally but around this time every year, the weekly content churn turns into a slog. A handful of teams turn unwatchable, some just hellaciously dull. Some storylines become tedious to the point of madness. We can’t cast those pests out to sea for another month-plus. They continue to impose their presence upon us. 

However, what keeps us engaged and hungry for each morsel of a game the NFL world has to offer is the pure joy the game brings. You can’t do this job well if you don’t love football. I know I am hopelessly smitten with this weird game. As we round toward the final chapters of the 2019 NFL regular season, these are the top-10 themes that keep me watching with joy.

Kyler Murray building his outrageous foundation

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No player has proven more enthralling since Halloween than Kyler Murray. The No. 1 overall pick has played lights out football over the Cardinals last three games, completing 67 percent of his throws with a 7:1 touchdown to interception ratio, plus 16 rushes for 139 yards and a score.

The early returns were mixed but the latest evidence has been clear. It looks like the Kyler/Kliff Kingsbury marriage is going to be a raging success in Arizona. If you aren’t completely captivated by Murray, hanging by his every move when you watch him prepared for the next dime he’ll uncork, you might not like the sport.

You can look at all the metrics you want, including the fact that Arizona has scored on 41 percent of their drives. That’s the sixth-highest rate among NFL offenses. But the reality is that the evidence for Murray’s wildly high potential is on the game film. The ultra-gifted passer is shooting up the arm strength rankings. Every week he’s completing extremely high-degree of difficulty throws. 

When a franchise hits on a quarterback, it changes everything for that one squad. When that quarterback hit looks like he can realistically offer the gifts to be an individual difference-maker, not one who just lives and dies by his ecosystem, the shape of the league is rattled. 

Given some of the pure arm capabilities and raw talent Murray has put on film the last month, he’s inching closer to convincing us he can be that player. You can’t overstate this, he looks downright unbelievable. Cam Newton was once that player for the Carolina Panthers, rocketing them into the inner circle of NFL relevancy with an annual chance to compete for the playoffs. With the artistry he brings as a runner, his ridiculous release points and the unreal holes he’s able to fit the ball, Murray looks like a fun-sized version of Cam Newton.  

Lamar Jackson dunking on the league

Imagine being someone who doubted, god forbid continues to doubt, Lamar Jackson before the season and having to log on this year. He hasn’t just been good. Jackson has become the defining figure of the 2019 NFL season.

There is no more reasonable negativity you can throw Jackson’s way. He’s captaining the lone offense to score on over 50 percent of its drives in 2019. The Ravens quarterback passes every metric test, ranking seventh with an 8.6 adjusted yards per attempt. You can’t even call his rushing work a gimmick-based result, as his big plays have primarily come off improvisational runs. Jackson averages an absurd 10.6 yards per rush on scrambles. 

In a magical quest proving all the haters wrong, Jackson has proceeded to dunk on the entire league. He’s proven to be a difference-maker. A transformative figure capable of remaking an entire franchise. It’s without question that Lamar Jackson is the most fun player to watch in football, but the idea of him as an entity is just as joyous to consider. 

Dallas’ offensive transformation

After becoming interesting in 2016 with the arrival of rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, the Cowboys of 2017 and 2018 slipped back into the malaise of mediocrity that’s typically surrounded this franchise. What’s been unveiled in 2019 has been anything but the boring version we received the two years prior. 

Previously, an operation that looked like something buried deep in the mid-1990s, the Dallas offense has come soaring into the modern era. Don’t get me wrong, the coaching staff does lurch a bit too often back to their conservative roots, but anyone watching this group can see what’s all too obvious; this unit is run by the passing game. 

Prescott has been awesome this year. He leads the league in passing yards and has been a playmaker all year. No quarterback has nailed high-degree of difficulty throws at a greater rate than Prescott has in 2019. His work has the Cowboys offense ranked No. 1 by Football Outsiders this year. Once among the toughest teams to watch, Dallas is must-see TV on offense right now.

Michael Thomas is on pace to set the record for most catches in a season. The record is 143 by Marvin Harrison. Thomas would need 50 in his final six games to set the record. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Michael Thomas is on pace to set the record for most catches in a season. The record is 143 by Marvin Harrison. Thomas would need 50 in his final six games to set the record. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The unique dominance of Michael Thomas

If you appreciate wide receiver craft and you don’t love Michael Thomas’ game, you might be watching the wrong things. After signing a mega-contract in the offseason, the pristine route-runner has been the NFL’s metronome at the wide receiver position. While other top receivers haven’t played to their standards this season, and one exited stage left altogether, Thomas has been as steady as they come.

The Saints top receiver is posting outrageous numbers on a weekly basis. He leads the NFL with 94 receptions heading into Week 12. That’s more catches than any receiver has managed through the first 10 games of a season in NFL history. Honestly, Thomas is just different.

When he signed his contract extension, there was a small gaggle of takesmen who insisted Thomas was just a product of Drew Brees. That without the Hall of Fame quarterback, Thomas would just be any old receiver. Yet, here he is having his best season in a campaign that saw Brees out of the picture for over a month. You love to see it.

The Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes in fighting mode

Coming into the 2019 season, it looked like the Chiefs had a golden road laid before them. The AFC West had at least two tomato cans to kick around and with Patrick Mahomes guiding the ship, Kansas City just had to moonwalk to the AFC Championship game to avenge last year’s loss to New England.

The path in 2019 has been far rockier than anyone expected. Kansas City heads into its bye at 7-4, with the 6-4 Raiders nipping at the Chiefs’ heels in the West. Multiple injuries to Tyreek Hill, a consistently volatile running back rotation and true holes as a run defense have made the Chiefs mortal. The fabled home-field advantage they’re meant to have has even faded with a 2-3 record in Arrowhead Stadium. 

Somehow it’s these flaws that make the 2019 Chiefs more interesting. The holes on this roster have them already stretching the wide margin for error having an elite passer brings a franchise. Andy Reid and company can’t afford many more slips. 

Mahomes and his squad with their backs against the wall, having to fight for last win, is about as compelling as you can ask for. Make no mistake: Mahomes is still the best football player on the planet. He’s uniquely special. Odds are we won’t see him in this type of fight often in his career. 

Jon Gruden making it happen

The Raiders looked like a desolate roster entering 2019. It looked even worse when Antonio Brown forced his way off the scene. Under a true identity established by Jon Gruden and his mold of physical football and a surprising amount of modern concepts, the Raiders are 6-4 with a clear path to the postseason. Something about Gruden turning from joke to hero in the matter of a few months with a playoff run in the team’s final season in California feels poetic.

Jamal Adams backing up the talk

Jamal Adams was downright pissed when he felt betrayed by his team’s actions at the trade deadline. He put himself in Aaron Donald’s stratosphere when balking at the idea he should be the subject of trade talks. In the last two weeks, Adams looks like that guy. He has an outrageous sack total (5) for a defensive back, along with two forced fumbles and a touchdown. We should be here for Adams backing up his own bravado with a slight middle finger to his own team’s brass. 

Tom Brady watch

The Patriots are an average offense. It’s obvious to anyone watching and it’s clear in the efficiency metrics. New England ranks 14th in pass offense and 18th in rushing offense, per Football Outsiders. The personnel is not totally ideal but the bottom-line is what it is. With articles starting to creep out questioning Tom Brady’s individual worth, we’re back in a familiar setting. Let’s see if Brady has one last run of dropping a hammer on the doubters left in him. 

The Packers evolve

To start the year, it looked like the pass-rush driven Packers might be a defensive-oriented team. That unit has fallen apart. Later in the year, the team looked like it might funnel through their two talented backs, with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams playing the roles of the now divorced Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram for the Packers. What’s been clear throughout the season is this team no longer lives and dies by Aaron Rodgers. That’s a huge development. When you’ve been good throughout the entire year all while not solely relying on your Hall of Fame passer, who still has vintage performances in him when you need them, that makes you scary and far more compelling than the Mike McCarthy-led Packers.

Excuses for the 49ers falling away

The “haven’t played anyone yet” crowd got their fodder when the 49ers took their first loss of the season to the Seattle Seahawks. It’s a ridiculous concept anyway but San Francisco is doing something more important than silencing that peanut gallery. The theme of the first half of their season was completely obliterating bad teams. Here in Act 2, it looks like the central tenor will be the 49ers eschewing excuses. Despite playing without their leading rusher, star tight end, left tackle and with a hobbled No. 1 receiver, Jimmy Garoppolo kept his team in range of beating an upstart Cardinals team in Week 11. It might not seem like much but that resiliency mettle matters with attrition setting the tone for playoff runs.

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