The NFL's Biggest Surprises of 2013
One thing I’m thankful for during this holiday weekend is the unpredictable nature of the NFL, which is in part due to the parity found at every corner of this league. But even in a landscape fraught with uncertainty, there are still several truths we as fans and analysts can hang our hat on and, at least for a little while, feel smarter than the average person.
But we can also get it wrong too.
This slideshow is dedicated to those moments in an NFL season when some of our most trusted realities are suddenly and unexpectedly ripped apart at the seams.
These are some of my biggest surprises of the 2013 NFL season.
The Resurrection of Philip Rivers
In the two seasons prior to 2013, Philip Rivers had committed an astonishing 47 turnovers in just 32 games. During that same time the Chargers had missed the playoffs both years and were clearly a team in turmoil. Given the declining success of the franchise over the last few seasons, it seemed only natural that some change was in order.
Enter new head coach Mike McCoy, the former offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos.
With little expectations beyond the unreasonable hope of the Chargers’ faithful, San Diego entered the 2013 season looking to change the momentum of a decaying franchise in what was supposed to be total rebuilding year.
Apparently, Rivers never got that memo.
After all, he was equipped with some promising weapons on the outside in Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd. With their size and ability to fight for contested balls, Rivers was at least given a fighting chance for success. More than anything, Rivers just needed to get a little more protection from his offensive line.
However, those two receiving weapons never saw the light of day this year, and Rivers was suddenly left without his top two wideouts and an unproven group of blockers up front.
At this point it didn’t matter that Coach McCoy had spent all offseason working with Rivers to emphasize not turning the ball over. He even went as far as forcing the veteran QB to watch a cutup containing every turnover he committed last season.
Before the injury bug hit the Chargers early and hit hard, Bleacher Report’s panel of experts (see video) saw very little promise in San Diego’s near future. Only Aaron Nagler was able to successfully predict a Rivers resurrection in 2013.
And resurrection is probably a massive understatement.
Rivers is currently completing a career-high 70 percent of his passes while averaging a career-high 307 yards per game through the air. He’s also on pace to set another career high of 32 touchdown passes if he maintains his current rate of two touchdown passes per game.
After 11 games, Rivers is currently ranked fourth overall in my weekly QB power rankings.
As for the issue with turnovers—Rivers has not lost a fumble all season while limiting his interception total to eight thus far. That’s the fewest interceptions he has ever thrown in a season where he has over 3,000 passing yards.
Whether we give credit to the coach, the improved offensive line or to Rivers is unimportant at this point. What is important is that his high level of production, despite enormous adversity, has been a huge surprise.
Chandler Jones and His Double-Digit Sack Total
This prediction is one of the more personal ones on the list. I understand that most of you are not as surprised by this as I am.
I hate when my pass-rush predictions go sour probably more than any other prediction I can make. Chandler Jones is a glaring contradiction to the reality I forecasted two seasons back. When the Patriots drafted Jones in the first round of the 2012 draft, I thought they made the biggest mistake of any team in that round.
In Chandler I saw nothing but a clumsy, slow, lean prospect who lacked the creativity and quickness to do anything around the edge in the pros. I figured his talent level was nothing more than mid-round worth at best.
Even when Jones showed some potential during his rookie year before battling through nagging injuries, I figured he was a guy who was having a lot of things go his way. Though I didn’t see him completely contradict my analysis from his college tape, there were a couple of elements to his game I gravely underestimated.
His functional strength and his hustle were primarily responsible for him usurping my expectations in 2012 and racking up a solid rookie campaign in which he amassed six sacks in 14 games.
Despite this misfire, my boldest prediction regarding Jones’ career was still well intact. Before he played a single game in the NFL, I proclaimed that Chandler Jones would never have double-digit sacks in the NFL.
Heading into the 2013 season I didn’t expect much more from Jones than what he demonstrated his rookie year. Nor did I expect those same positive traits I once underestimated to yield a similar degree of results. Unfortunately, I have to say I’m incredibly surprised at No. 95’s success so far. After only 11 games in his second professional season, Jones has already proven my prediction to be a ridiculous one.
He currently has 10.5 sacks and looks to be one of the more promising young defensive ends in the league. I will now hang my head in shame.
The Chiefs One of the Best Teams in the NFL?
Last year the Kansas City Chiefs made history as the only team ever to send six players to the Pro Bowl and have fewer than six victories on the season.
That sentence alone should tell you this team was not without talent even though it only won two games all year.
This offseason, when Andy Reid was swooped up after being canned by the Philadelphia Eagles, many within the NFL community began to label the Chiefs as a potential surprise team heading into the 2013 season.
But when enough people are calling you a surprise team, how much of a surprise can you really be?
I expected the Chiefs to be much improved this year, but their level of success has completely surpassed all expectations.
Few brave souls out there could have predicted that the Chiefs would be sitting at 9-2 and tied with the Broncos for the best record in the AFC at this point.
Big plays from the defense have been their primary reason for success, along with smart, turnover-free football on offense.
Their defense has allowed the second-fewest points in the league (179) behind only the Panthers (151). Last year they were the seventh-worst team in the league in this category.
It‘s stories like this one that help make the NFL so entertaining. A team can go from worst to first in just a single year.
It seemed like one of the safest bets in the league to expect huge numbers from Trent Richardson in his sophomore season. His hard-nosed running style and impressive physical features seemed ideally suited for ripping up a league whose primary focus was on stopping the pass.
As a rookie he ran for over 900 yards, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Most of those yards came against defenses that would focus exclusively on stopping the run with eight and nine men in the box. How could it not be assumed that a running back who incites league-wide policy change for being too physical wouldn’t go bananas in year two—especially with a full training camp under his belt for the first time in his career?
However, Richardson not only failed to progress in his second year, but his level of ineptitude has been downright mind-boggling.
Leading up to this season I was advising anyone with a brain to pick this guy up in every fantasy league he or she could. He was all set to be the next game-changer in the backfield.
Here I am singing Richardson’s praises in an article written last May:
Richardson is by far the most talented sophomore running back, and his skills will be on full display with Norv Turner now calling plays. Also, having a full training camp to improve his craft will benefit him quite well.
Expect a new superstar to be born in Cleveland once Trent Richardson explodes in 2013 and runs for more than 1,500 yards while averaging 4.4 yards per carry—throw in double-digit touchdowns as the icing to this rising star’s cake.
Apparently the Browns brass knew much more than I did and elected to trade their once prized possession to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick in next year’s draft.
The trade alone could be considered one of the biggest surprises of the year when it happened.
Once the trade was official, I thought now would be the time that Richardson would truly flourish. Boy did I miss there.
Since joining the Colts, TRich has averaged 2.8 yards on the ground—which is essentially equivalent to getting to the line of scrimmage and just falling forward.
I have to admit it’s getting harder and harder to defend this guy.
Falcons' and Texans' Total Collapse
Last year the Atlanta Falcons came within a play of making it to the Super Bowl and finished the season tied for the best record in the NFL at 13-3. They returned in 2013 with the same nucleus of players along with the acquisition of free-agent running back Steven Jackson to bolster their struggling running game. They even convinced tight end Tony Gonzalez to come out of retirement and return for one last shot at a ring.
Everything looked in order for another great season.
I could see the warning signs of a team that looked to be in danger of regression and predicted this to be the case, but not in my wildest imagination did I expect the Falcons to be sitting at 2-9 and out of the playoffs at this point.
Many people might point to injuries as the biggest reason for their disappointing season thus far, but we must keep in mind that injuries are an unfortunate inevitability of every team in the NFL unless you happen to be extremely lucky one year. Nearly every team must deal with the loss of a key contributor and is expected to weather the storm with capable backups when necessary.
Perhaps the Falcons’ weakness is they’re not built to survive the loss of a star or two. Or perhaps their offensive line has been abysmal while the youth in their secondary has been exposed.
Regardless of the reason, the Falcons have now lost five in a row and can see no end in sight to their unexpected suffering.
At least head coach Mike Smith can take solace in the fact that he is expected to return in 2014, according to owner Arthur Blank (via Michael Silver of NFL.com).
The Texans are another talented team coming off a successful campaign a season ago who have somehow laid a major egg in 2014.
This was perhaps the most surprising development of any team this year. At one point in the offseason, I considered Houston to be one of the most complete teams in the NFL.
It was a strong team up front on both sides of the ball with improved talent at the receiver position and in the secondary. Furthermore, the Texans had established themselves to be one of the more well-coached franchises over the last several years.
We even thought we knew what to expect in quarterback Matt Schaub. Oh how little we really knew.
Despite the 2-9 record, the Texans are in fact a pretty decent defense and may even play host to this year’s Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt. The unit is currently ranked first in the NFL in total yards allowed per game. It has primarily been a struggling offense that has sent the Texans to the bottom of the NFL.
Long-time head coach Gary Kubiak is now on the hot seat and looking around for answers as to what went wrong. Last Sunday, they hit rock bottom with their ninth consecutive loss after folding to the unimpressive Jacksonville Jaguars.
If answers aren’t found soon, the city of Houston will be calling for everybody’s head on a stake.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and current Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter