The Biggest Surprises of the 2019 NFL Season

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 7, 2019

The Biggest Surprises of the 2019 NFL Season

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    The 2019 NFL season is three-quarters of the way complete, and it's been a wild ride. Just consider the fact that the Dallas Cowboys were 3-1 after the first month, while the Baltimore Ravens sat at 2-2. The Cleveland Browns looked to be on the right track, while the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed lost.

    Yes, a lot has changed, and some developments have been more surprising than others. Russell Wilson as an MVP front-runner? That's not shocking. Lamar Jackson as the favorite for the award after 13 weeks? Far fewer folks likely saw that coming.

    Here, we'll examine the most unexpected storylines of 2019 so far. We'll only be focusing on in-season surprises, so offseason shockers like Andrew Luck's retirement won't be addressed here.

Lamar Jackson Is (Probably) Your 2019 MVP

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    Ravens QB Lamar Jackson
    Ravens QB Lamar JacksonAssociated Press

    No one who watched Lamar Jackson at the University of Louisville should be shocked by his NFL success. However, you're unlikely to find many who believed in August that he would be the MVP favorite over the likes of Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers

    Jackson has been nothing short of phenomenal. He's passed for 2,532 yards and 25 touchdowns and has rushed for 977 yards and seven more scores. He has turned the ball over a mere six times. No player has been as difficult to contain.

    The raw numbers aren't surprising, but his Mahomes-like rise to elite status and the fact that the Ravens helped facilitate it are. Whereas many franchises have forced young quarterbacks to adapt to pro-style offenses—think of Mitchell Trubisky and Jared Goff in their rookie seasons—the Ravens adjusted theirs to Jackson.

    Head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman deserve a ton of credit for building around Jackson's strengths. As a result, the second-year signal-caller's talent and leadership ability are shining through—and the Ravens might be the most dangerous team in the league.

The Regression of Jared Goff

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    Rams QB Jared Goff
    Rams QB Jared GoffRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    It's not unusual for the dreaded Super Bowl hangover to take its toll on the loser. Therefore, it's not a major shock that the Los Angeles Rams are sitting at 7-5 and on the verge of missing the postseason. However, the struggles of quarterback Jared Goff have been surprising.

    After back-to-back Pro Bowl campaigns and a justified place in the discussion of which quarterbacks are elite, Goff has fallen back to earth in a big way. His passer rating of 84.1 is his lowest since his rookie year, and he has 17 turnovers to go with just 13 passing touchdowns.

    He had 60 passing touchdowns over the previous two campaigns.

    Perhaps teams have started to figure out head coach Sean McVay's offense. Perhaps the decline of Todd Gurley II and the constant shuffling along the offensive line have been too much for Goff to overcome. Still, it's rare to see a young ascending quarterback suddenly drop to the ranks of the mediocre the way that Goff has this season.

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Gardner Minshew

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    Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew
    Jaguars QB Gardner MinshewMark Zaleski/Associated Press

    During the offseason, the Jacksonville Jaguars made a statement move by parting with quarterback Blake Bortles and signing Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 Million deal. The statement was that the Jaguars believed they could win now and that Foles could allow them to.

    Fans could be forgiven for believing that the prospect of contention was gone when Foles was placed on injured reserve after Week 1. It wasn't completely, however, thanks to the play of rookie sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew. The former Washington State standout won two of his first three starts, and Minshew Mania was born.

    With an unyielding swagger—and an uncanny resemblance to one Uncle Rico—Minshew was easy to root for, and he was an effective quarterback to boot. He went 4-4 as a starter while passing for 13 touchdowns and four interceptions.

    Once Foles was eligible to return from IR, the Jaguars turned back to their prized free-agent acquisition—then lost three straight games. Now, they're turning back to Minshew to further gauge his potential as a long-term solution. The whole saga has been rather unexpected, as offensive coordinator John DeFilippo recently admitted.

    "It's been a unique year," he said, via the team's official website.

    It most certainly has.

The End of an Era in Carolina

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    Former Panthers HC Ron Rivera
    Former Panthers HC Ron RiveraBrian Blanco/Associated Press

    Over the summer, it appeared as though Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton would be ready to return to pre-shoulder-injury form. Then, he suffered a foot injury during the preseason and struggled at the start of the regular season. Kyle Allen replaced him, and Newton landed on injured reserve at the beginning of November.

    Now, there's a possibility that the 2011 No. 1 pick and 2015 MVP never plays another down for the Panthers.

    "I was told both," Dan Patrick said of Newton and Allen on The Dan Patrick Show last month. "That they wouldn't be the starting quarterback there."

    Even if Newton does return, the coach who drafted him, Ron Rivera, is out.

    This would have been surprising both during the summer and a month ago when Carolina sat at 5-3.

The Disappearance of Odell Beckham Jr.

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    Browns WR Odell Beckham Jr.
    Browns WR Odell Beckham Jr.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Over his first five seasons, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the most prolific players in the NFL. This wasn't expected to change after the New York Giants traded him to the Cleveland Browns in March—and it contributed to many labeling the team a title contender.

    Partnered with best friend and former LSU teammate Jarvis Landry and 2018 rookie sensation Baker Mayfield, Beckham was supposed to explode. Instead, through 12 games, he has caught 57 passes for just 805 yards and two touchdowns. On three occasions, he's failed to even top 30 receiving yards.

    There are several factors involved. Mayfield has regressed as a passer—his rating has dipped from 93.7 in 2018 to 79.9—and head coach Freddie Kitchens has mismanaged Cleveland's offensive talent all season.

    "Kitchens only uses [Beckham] when it's convenient, like running him long to close halves instead of truly immersing him into his offense," Ellis L. Williams of cleveland.com wrote.

    Meanwhile, Landry has emerged as Mayfield's go-to target. This has left Beckham languishing in mediocrity, a concept that seemed laughable a few short months ago.

The Disappointing Season of Saquon Barkley

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    Giants RB Saquon Barkley
    Giants RB Saquon BarkleyDylan Buell/Getty Images

    Giants running back Saquon Barkley took the NFL world by storm in 2018. He rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns, caught 91 passes for 721 yards and four more scores and beat out Mayfield for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

    It seemed that he was destined to be a superstar—and a regular No. 1 fantasy pick—for the foreseeable future.

    Surprisingly, though, Barkley has been far from special in 2019. Injuries have been part of the problem, as they've limited him to nine games, but the explosive big plays have been lacking too. He had a league-leading 16 runs of 20 yards or more in 2018; he's had just four this season. His yards-per-carry average has dropped from 5.0 to 4.0.

    He has produced just 544 rushing yards, 291 receiving yards and three total touchdowns.

    While sophomore slumps aren't uncommon—and opposing defenses have clearly been keying in on Barkley with rookie Daniel Jones under center—the former second overall pick has had a surprisingly disappointing season.

The Steelers Winning Without Big Ben

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    Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
    Steelers QB Ben RoethlisbergerKirk Irwin/Getty Images

    When quarterback Ben Roethlisberger landed on injured reserve after just two games, it was easy to write off the Pittsburgh Steelers. They got blown out by the New England Patriots in Week 1 and fell to 0-3 two weeks later.

    Then something surprising happened. The Steelers swung a trade for Miami Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, their defense solidified and they started winning games.

    It hasn't always been pretty—and Pittsburgh recently switched from Mason Rudolph to Devlin Hodges at quarterback—but the defense has carried the team to a 7-5 record. The unit ranks sixth in scoring defense (18.8 points allowed per game) and fifth in total defense (317.2 allowed yards per game).

    The Steelers are in possession of the AFC's No. 6 seed. As long as they can get consistent quarterback play, they're in a good position to make the postseason and may make some noise, depending on the matchups. Four of their losses have come to 10-win teams (the Patriots, Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers), and excluding the New England game, those defeats were by a combined nine points.

    This has been one of the most surprising runs of the 2019 season.

Ryan Tannehill Saving the Titans' Season

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    Titans QB Ryan Tannehill
    Titans QB Ryan TannehillStacy Revere/Getty Images

    Like the Steelers, the Tennessee Titans got off to a rough start but are on the cusp of making the postseason. They've gone from 2-4 to 7-5 thanks to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, one of the unlikeliest heroes of 2019.

    The team acquired the 2012 first-round pick from the Dolphins in March, and he spent the first six weeks of the regular season backing up Marcus Mariota. Tennessee has gone 5-1 since switching to Tannehill in Week 7.

    The 31-year-old quarterback has passed for 1,602 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions with a 113.9 rating, and teammates are buying into what he brings to the field.

    "The ball is coming out of his hands smooth, and he's making good decisions," wide receiver Adam Humphries, per The Athletic's John Glennon. "There's not much indecision. He's confident when he's choosing to throw the ball. As a receiver, you like that, and you're prepared to go make a play for him."

    As far as redemption stories go, Tannehill's seemed like one of the least likely.

Miami's Competitive Streak

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    Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
    Dolphins QB Ryan FitzpatrickJoel Auerbach/Getty Images

    It seemed as though the Dolphins' plan was to tank for the 2020 draft. They traded away left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills. A few weeks later, they dealt star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. They lost their first four games by a combined score of 26-163. They gave up on second-year quarterback Josh Rosen after just three starts.

    Miami appeared to be in store for a historically bad season and a death grip on the first overall pick.

    Here's the thing, though—head coach Brian Flores and his players apparently weren't interested in facilitating the tank job. They've clawed their way to a 3-9 record with three wins in their last five games and will likely draft after No. 1.

    The 1-11 Cincinnati Bengals have the "lead" for that pick and will play Miami in Week 16.

    The Dolphins still aren't a good team, but they've at least been fun to watch over the last month-plus. Journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing steady ball, and wide receiver DeVante Parker finally seems to be reaching his potential (53 catches for a career-best 854 yards and six touchdowns).

    As the Philadelphia Eagles found out in Week 13, the Dolphins aren't going to be an easy out down the stretch. This statement would have sounded ludicrous a month into the season.