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NFL Storylines for October: Philip Rivers for MVP, Jerry Jones' Genius & More

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 2, 2014

Jake Roth/USA Today Images

October has arrived, and that means pumpkin beers, harvest festivals, hoodies, Halloween decorations and a chance to turn the page on the worst NFL month ever. 

September is gone, taking all the September storylines with it. J.J. Watt is awesome? Got the memo. There’s corruption in the halls of power? This must be your first time in the halls of power. The Patriots are falling? The Roman Empire fell, too. It took a couple of centuries.

Let’s look ahead to the next set of storylines and trending topics that are perfect for the season of cider, donuts, pullovers and political advertisements that almost make you long for a brutal dictatorship. From new appreciation of old faces to a subtle shift on the scandal front, here are some of the things we will be talking about over the next few weeks.

Philip Rivers: MVP

Two things will happen when the Chargers face the Jets on Sunday: 1) Philip Rivers will pick apart Rex Ryan’s duct-tape-and-bailing-wire secondary; and 2) the New York media will see it and remember that Rivers exists.

Rivers is the NFL’s invisible quarterback. He plays in midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show games and late-afternoon regional broadcasts in a market wedged in America’s lower left corner. He has hung around the fringes of the playoff picture for so long that he is taken for granted. His playoff duels with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning feel like they belong to a long-ago era. A 2011-12 midlife crisis well behind him, Rivers is playing the best football of his career and just upset the Seahawks with a three-touchdown performance two weeks ago. So what is everyone talking about? J.J. Watt for MVP.

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DYAR leaders
PlayerDYAR
Andrew Luck, Colts451
Matt Ryan, Falcons421
Philip Rivers, Chargers386
Joe Flacco, Ravens383
Peyton Manning, Broncos307
Aaron Rodgers, Packers305
Drew Brees, Saints298
Matthew Stafford, Lions240
Andy Dalton, Bengals157
Brian Hoyer, Browns157
Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted yards above replacement

Rivers leads the NFL with a 114.5 efficiency rating, but nobody likes efficiency ratings. Football Outsiders ranks him third in its DYAR metric, behind Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan. Luck has fluffed his stats with Titans and Jaguars blowouts—Football Outsiders adjusts for weakling opponents, but the adjustments don’t always balance out after four weeks—and Ryan is now missing three-fifths of his starting offensive line. Any way you slice it, Rivers is one of the three or four best quarterbacks in the NFL this year, with a proven track record and a massive upset of the league’s best defense on his resume.

After New York takes notice of Rivers on Sunday, the Chargers travel to Oakland to face the Raiders just as the OMG, coach got fired, everyone look busy adrenaline starts to fade. The schedule toughens after that, but two big wins against newsworthy opponents will get Rivers into MVP consideration where he belongs. After that, it’s up to the veteran quarterback to convince doubters by winning some showdowns with Peyton Manning. He has a pretty good history when it comes to that.

Todd Bowles: Red Hot Coaching Candidate

The Raiders have already fired their coach. Doug Marrone is in “start Kyle Orton or else” mode while a new ownership group measures the curtains in Buffalo. Jim Harbaugh is walking down the steps of the Roman Senate wondering why everyone’s right hands are tucked under their togas. There are going to be plenty of head coaching vacancies in a few months, and Jon Gruden cannot fill all of them. Fans of bad or rebellious teams need a fashionable “hot candidate” to covet.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Bowles’ defense is currently ranked fifth in the NFL in yards allowed and second in points allowed. Football Outsiders ranks the Cardinals third in the NFL in overall defense, first in run defense. A meeting with Peyton Manning on Sunday may temper those rankings, but the Cardinals defense has already held the Chargers and 49ers to 17 and 14 points, so they are battle tested. Bowles’ Cardinals had the NFL’s best run defense last season and could lay a legitimate claim to being the second best defense in the NFL.

Bowles has kept the Cardinals defense dangerous this season without injured Darnell Dockett and John Abraham, departed Karlos Dansby and suspended Daryl Washington, and with Tyrann Matheiu only available on a limited basis. Most defensive coordinators would grow conservative with so many veterans and playmakers unavailable, but Bowles has gotten more aggressive, relying on cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, getting star turns from veterans Larry Foote and Calais Campbell, and expanding the role of rising star Tony Jefferson as a do-it-all safety.

Bowles is a creative schemer who can do more with less—just what a down-and-out franchise should be looking for. He has been on the head-coach short list before, and he mopped up for Tony Sparano as interim head coach of the 2011 Dolphins. Bowles could replace Sparano on a more permanent basis in January, perhaps signal a regime change in Buffalo or bring fresh ideas and new personality to a contender seeking a different kind of leadership. No matter which jobs become available, Bowles should be the first guy to receive a phone call.

Jerry Jones: Genius

Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

OK, that title is pushing it. How about “Sympathy for Jerry Jones” or “Grudging Appreciation to Jerry Jones.” With the Cowboys at 3-1 and more likely to remain a contender than become a laughing matter this season, even diehard Jerry bashers (guilty) must admit that he sometimes gets things right, and some knee-jerk criticism may have been a little premature.

As Michael Schottey pointed out earlier in the week, the Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL right now. That line will remain together for the foreseeable future because of three daring, easy-to-criticize Jones decisions:

1. Jones extended left tackle Tyron Smith’s contract in the offseason, even though the Cowboys are perpetually cap strapped and in desperate need of debt relief.

2. Jones drafted center Travis Frederick in the first round in 2013, even though most experts gave Frederick a second- or third-round grade.

3. Jones selected guard Zack Martin instead of Johnny Manziel, or at least he allowed Stephen Jones to convince him to select Martin over Manziel.

Those three moves paint a familiar picture of Jones as a free-spending, seat-of-the-pants decision maker. Both of the draft selections prompted weeks of comical intrigue, with photos of the Cowboys draft board (Frederick was not at the top) reaching the Internet in 2013 and Jones answering Johnny Football questions throughout last summer.

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 28:  Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates a touchdown with  Zack Martin #70 and Travis Frederick #72 against the New Orleans Saints at AT&T Stadium on September 28, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

But four weeks into the season, with the Cowboys tied for first place in the NFC East and DeMarco Murray leading the NFL in rushing, each of those three decisions has paid off:

1. Smith is the NFL’s best left tackle, and his contract is relatively frugal, with lots of pay-as-you-go options deferred to 2019 and beyond. No matter what a team’s cap situation, it is always smart to lock up young Pro Bowlers.

2. Frederick is one of the league’s best young centers, and teams as diverse as the Jaguars, Packers, Saints and Patriots are struggling to solve problems at center right now. (That’s not counting the Eagles, Falcons, Chargers, Bears and other teams dealing with injuries at the position). Perhaps centers are not as replaceable as draft analysts think, and the Cowboys may have been wise to splurge for a good one.

3. Manziel is buried on a bench. Martin is starting and earning rave reviews. Coach Jason Garrett told the Dallas Morning News:

He’s talented, he’s physically what you want in every way. He’s big enough, he’s strong enough, he’s quick, he’s explosive, he’s technically sound. ... He’s very passionate about the game. I think he’s instinctive about the game. He wants to get better every day. You put all of that together and you have a great starting point.

Here’s the kicker: Smith, Frederick and Martin are 24, 23, and 24 years old. The Cowboys should have an excellent offensive line for years to come.

Handing Jerry Jones Executive of the Year honors in October may be taking things too far; the Cowboys' cap situation is still a mess, the defense is surviving on smoke and mirrors, and a trip to Seattle in two weeks will take a little wind out of the offense’s sails. But the Cowboys also have a cluster of winnable home games on the horizon: the Texans on Sunday, then the Giants and Redskins after visiting the Seahawks. If the Cowboys are 6-2 on Halloween, it may be time to admit that many franchises have employed “real football executives” as general managers for years but are in far worse shape than the Cowboys.

Anquan Boldin: Hall of Famer

Hall of Fame discussions don’t typically heat up until November, when the selection committee picks 15 finalists from among the 115 nominees announced two weeks ago. But when a veteran player keeps building upon an already impressive resume, launching a Hall of Fame campaign is a great way to underscore his importance to his team.

Boldin is having another Boldin season. He leads the 49ers in receiving yards and is second to Michael Crabtree in receptions. He has been thrown seven passes on third down, and he has caught six of them for first downs. He is once again the most consistent player on an inconsistent offense and a steadying influence on an overemotional, fractious team.

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Anquan Boldin #81 of the Arizona Cardinals gets upended against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Boldin’s Hall of Fame case is all about impact, not statistics (though his statistics are darn good). The 2012 Ravens would not have sniffed the Super Bowl without his contributions; they certainly would not have won without his late-game heroics. Boldin’s 89 receptions and 11 touchdowns helped the 2008 Cardinals reach the Super Bowl, and eight receptions for 84 yards in the big game itself nearly sparked a win. Boldin was the only component of the 49ers passing game that worked properly for most of last season, and 16 more playoff receptions (including a touchdown against the Seahawks) brought his career total to 68, placing him 11th on the all-time list.

The 49ers upcoming schedule is brutal—Chiefs, at Rams, at Broncos before the bye—and both Crabtree and Vernon Davis are banged up. There is obvious dissension in the ranks. If the 49ers manage to reach the bye above .500, chances are Boldin will be a big reason. And if Boldin drags yet another sputtering offense into the playoff chase, we will begin to recognize that he is one of the best at what he does in NFL history.

Blame Fixing Becomes Problem Fixing

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19:  National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a press conference on September 19, 2014 inside the New York Hilton Midtown in New York City. Goodell took the time to address personal conduct issues in the N
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

We have not heard the last of the Ray Rice scandal, domestic violence, cover-ups, accusations or the NFL’s game of hot potato with incriminating video evidence. But the bloodlust to storm the Bastille and sharpen the guillotine has cooled. Now that it is clear we won’t be parading down Park Avenue with Roger Goodell’s head on a pike, calmer voices are beginning to ask what can be done to make the league better at preventing, responding to and policing domestic violence incidents.

The NFL released a five-point memo last Friday itemizing some of the steps it has started to take to improve domestic violence policies. Among the initiatives, Goodell has met with the U.S. Army to discuss some of the military’s prevention and intervention practices. Tessa Pope provides detailed insight into the Army’s domestic violence problems, some of the programs it has created in response, and how some of those programs could be adopted by the league in this Business Insider article. This Military OneSource website shows the variety of resources available to service families. The NFL could assemble something similar in the months to come.

The military has a less-than-stellar record on dealing with sexual crimes, but there are not many other institutions with the size, scope, and resources—as well as the need—to develop and implement sweeping policies like the ones the NFL must adopt if it hopes to turn the Rice saga into an opportunity to do real good. There will be naysaying and well-earned skepticism, but the NFL is at least talking to people who know what they are talking about. And as Pope points out in Business Insider: Domestic violence is “not an NFL or military problem; it’s everybody’s problem.”

Look for one other development on the off-field front in October: reinstatements. They are coming, probably after players like Rice and Adrian Peterson have waited through the six games Goodell prescribed as his revised minimum sentence for domestic crimes. The reinstatements will cause a stir, but based on the number of “punishment should fit the crime” conversations I have had and overheard in taverns and school drop-offs over the past two weeks, not as much of a stir as you might think.

J.J. Watt: Attorney General

JJ Watt @JJWatt

I've wanted to be able to do this my whole life. For all you've worked & sacrificed, you deserve it. Happy B-Day Mom! http://t.co/oP1AWQwGwu

Watt-for-MVP talk is small-time, folks. October is election season, and that means it is time to think BIG.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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