The Biggest Surprises of the 2020 NFL Season

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistDecember 7, 2020

The Biggest Surprises of the 2020 NFL Season

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    Brett Carlsen/Associated Press

    Some pleasant and others jarring, NFL surprises creep up on us every year.

    The 2020 season has a different spin on it because of protocols stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, but some players and teams have found ways to rise above the circumstances and exceed expectations.

    On the other hand, multiple teams have fired head coaches and general managers. In one case, a club parted ways with a relatively successful lead skipper who led the franchise to multiple division titles. An entire division has struggled, and one team could host a playoff game with a sub-.500 record.

    As we look at the list of contenders after Sunday's Week 13 games, you'll notice two clubs that made significant strides despite wholesale changes this past offseason.

    Let's take a look at the biggest surprises, both good and bad, this year.

A Race Among Sub-.500 Teams for NFC East Title

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    New York Giants quarterback Colt McCoy
    New York Giants quarterback Colt McCoyAssociated Press

    Going into the 2020 season, the Dallas Cowboys had generated buzz with Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike McCarthy taking over for former lead skipper Jason Garrett. The front office selected CeeDee Lamb with the No. 17 overall pick, and he joined Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup to form one of the best wide receiver trios in the league.

    Yet the Cowboys ran into early trouble. As they started 1-3, the defense gave up at least 38 points in three of the first four contests. In Week 5, quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a dislocated ankle with a compound fracture. After that, the Cowboys lost five of their following six outings. 

    After three consecutive trips to the playoffs, the Philadelphia Eagles have struggled mightily.

    In the past, Carson Wentz has overcome challenges with an injury-riddled wide receiver corps, but he's had his worst season behind a banged-up offensive line. Left tackle Andre Dillard (torn bicep) and right guard Brandon Brooks (torn Achilles) won't play a snap this year. Right tackle Lane Johnson went on injured reserve (ankle surgery) after Week 11.

    Wentz has taken the most sacks (50) in the NFL through 13 weeks. He leads the league in interceptions (15) with a 57.4 percent completion rate. The Eagles benched him for Jalen Hurts in the third quarter of Sunday's meeting with the Green Bay Packers.

    The Washington Football Team ranks seventh in scoring defense, but they have experienced turnover at quarterback. The coaching staff demoted Dwayne Haskins Jr., Kyle Allen broke his ankle in Week 9, and Alex Smith has thrown for three touchdowns and five interceptions while making three starts. 

    The New York Giants have put together a four-game win streak with backup quarterback Colt McCoy taking over for Daniel Jones (hamstring) in Sunday's contest. However, they are 5-7 with an offense that ranked 30th in scoring going into Week 13.

    None of the teams in the NFC East have more than five victories. We could see a sub-.500 club win a division for the first time since the 2014 Carolina Panthers, who went 7-8-1 and won a playoff game.

Lamar Jackson's Fall from 2019 MVP Year

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    In 2019, Lamar Jackson had an electric showing throughout the campaign. He ran for 1,206 yards and threw for a league-leading 36 touchdowns. One year later, the reigning MVP has taken a step backward.

    Jackson has struggled to connect with his pass-catchers outside the numbers, completing 56 percent of those attempts, per Pro Football Focus.

    Jackson's blind spots have affected Marquise Brown's production. He has just 36 receptions for 516 yards and three touchdowns with a 53.7 percent catch rate in 11 games. The Ravens' lead wideout scored one of those touchdowns on a 70-yard catch-and-run play with Trace McSorley under center Wednesday.

    Compared to the previous term, Jackson's touchdown rate, passer rating and QBR numbers have all dropped significantly. His completion rate has dipped slightly. He's still a threat on the ground, but the dynamic quarterback's yards-per-carry average also took a hit after he led the category (6.9) last season.

    Jackson didn't suit up against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the team's previous outing because he tested positive for COVID-19. When he returns, the 23-year-old will need to spark a late-season run for a team outside the playoff picture. That's also a shock since the Ravens finished with a league-best 14-2 record in 2019.

Cleveland Browns Are Playoff Contenders with 1st-Time Head Coach

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    Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski
    Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin StefanskiRon Schwane/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns haven't punched their ticket to the postseason yet, but they will finish with a winning record for the first time since 2007. At 9-3, they hold the fifth seed in the AFC.

    For the first time in a long while, the Browns have established an effective offensive identity, accumulating the most rushing yards going into Week 13 with running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way.

    Under his third head coach in three years, quarterback Baker Mayfield has done enough to keep his team out of precarious situations. Through 12 games, he's thrown for 2,442 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

    In a new run-first offense, Mayfield doesn't have to rack up gaudy passing statistics, which leads critics to question his impact on the team's success. Nonetheless, he carved up the Tennessee Titans defense Sunday, throwing for a season-high 334 yards and four touchdowns.

    Typically, constant change hurts young quarterbacks, but first-time head coach Kevin Stefanski has rebuilt the Browns offense, improved Mayfield's efficiency and propelled the Browns into the playoff conversation.

Aldon Smith's Strong Play After 4-Year Hiatus

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Despite a four-year absence that stemmed from multiple suspensions due to substance-abuse and conduct-policy violations, Aldon Smith has arguably been the best player on the Dallas Cowboys defense, recording 44 tackles, five tackles for loss and a team-leading five sacks.

    Smith's production may go unnoticed because the Cowboys defense ranks 32nd in scoring. The unit is on pace to surrender the most points in franchise history.

    Nevertheless, the 31-year-old is performing at an optimal level again.

    Before Dallas signed Smith to a one-year, $2 million deal, he hadn't played since November 2015 with the then-Oakland Raiders. Now, on 105.3 The Fan, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has talked about a possible extension for him.

Houston Texans Fire Bill O'Brien After Winning Consecutive AFC South Titles

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    Former Houston Texans head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien
    Former Houston Texans head coach and general manager Bill O'BrienMichael Wyke/Associated Press

    Despite the Houston Texans' 0-4 start to the season, Bill O'Brien had earned the benefit of the doubt—or so we thought.

    On O'Brien's watch, the Texans won four AFC South titles. Yet following a 31-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4, Houston relieved him of his jobs as head coach and general manager.

    Overall, O'Brien has a 52-48 record and went 2-4 during the playoffs as the Texans head coach. In one of his most head-scratching moves as a front-office executive, he traded wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick for running back David Johnson (who, partially because of injuries, had been on the decline), a second-rounder and a 2021 fourth-round pick.

    Following Sunday's games, Hopkins has 85 receptions for 1,019 receiving yards and five touchdowns while Johnson has 613 scrimmage yards and five scores through nine games. He's missed three outings because of a concussion.

    According to ESPN's John Granato, O'Brien's undoing had started behind the scenes. The Texans' former head coach had a "heated exchange" with star defensive end J.J. Watt, which led to a "player revolt."

    Apparently, O'Brien's solid record and success within the division couldn't withstand unrest in the locker room.

Jacksonville Jaguars RB James Robinson's Emergence

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    As an undrafted rookie out of Illinois State, James Robinson went into the 2020 campaign as an unknown. He made a name for himself during a condensed training camp period, which prompted the Jacksonville Jaguars to release running back Leonard Fournette.

    Before Week 1, the Jaguars had placed Ryquell Armstead on the reserve/COVID-19 list twice and fellow running back Devine Ozigbo on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's confidence in Robinson continued to grow through the offseason.

    Going into Week 13, Robinson ranked third in rushing (890) and fourth in scrimmage yards (1,170). For at least this year, he looks like a diamond in the rough. The Jaguars released Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick from the 2017 draft, and found a comparable replacement in a running back who signed with the team as a rookie free agent.

    Jacksonville made the right decision. Assuming the new general manager set to replace David Caldwell picks a quarterback in the first round of the 2021 draft, the Jaguars offense will have something to build on going forward.

QB Justin Herbert Makes Los Angeles Chargers Worth Watching

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Unfortunately, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, tore his ACL and MCL in Week 11. Right now, Los Angeles Chargers signal-caller Justin Herbert looks like a strong candidate to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    Herbert took over the starting job in a bizarre situation.

    During warmups for Week 2, a Chargers doctor accidentally punctured Tyrod Taylor's lung. The rookie signal-caller had to start against the Kansas City Chiefs under short notice but played well in his impromptu debut. He threw for 311 yards, a touchdown and an interception as Los Angeles pushed the reigning champions to overtime.

    Even though Herbert came up short against the Chiefs, he made the most of his opportunity. Taylor didn't reclaim his job. Through 12 weeks, the Oregon product ranked ninth in passing yards and tied for seventh in touchdowns through the air with a 66.9 percent completion rate.

    The Chargers (3-9) have lost seven one-possession games this season and just went flat in a 45-0 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday. They're headed toward another top-10 pick in the draft, but Herbert's play gives this team hope for the future. With his arm strength, accuracy and mobility, he's already shown signs of a franchise quarterback.

Miami Dolphins Contend for Playoff Spot in Quick Rebuild

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    Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores
    Miami Dolphins head coach Brian FloresWilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    As the old adage goes, Rome wasn't built in a day. However, the Miami Dolphins could once again prove that NFL front offices can shape a playoff contender in one offseason.

    Last year, Miami finished 5-11 and went into the offseason with five draft picks within the first two rounds and a lot of salary-cap space.

    Among the Dolphins' most notable moves, they chose quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with their top draft selection, used first- and second-round picks on offensive linemen who currently start and signed cornerback Byron Jones, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and pass-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah to bolster the defense.

    Tagovailoa has won in four of his five starts. He suffered a thumb injury, missed a game and led the Dolphins to victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

    Defensively, Jones doesn't have the interceptions (zero) or pass breakups (two) to show for his contributions, but going into Sunday's game, he had allowed a 58.0 percent completion rate when targeted in coverage. Van Noy serves as a versatile defender, logging 55 tackles, nine tackles for loss, six sacks and five pass breakups. Ogbah has eight sacks.

    In its final four games, Miami will play teams that hold an AFC playoff spot or remain in the hunt. Regardless of the results, the Dolphins have already made major strides in their rebuild process.

New Orleans Saints DE Trey Hendrickson's Breakout Season

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    During the first round of the 2018 draft, the New Orleans Saints moved up for defensive end Marcus Davenport. He's shown flashes, but injuries have delayed his progress through three seasons. The UTSA product has missed 11 games, logging 66 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in 33 career appearances.

    Yet the Saints still have one of the most productive pass rushes thanks, in part, to Trey Hendrickson's breakout campaign. In 12 starts, he has 10.5 sacks.

    Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Shaquil Barrett made a significant jump from a backup for the Denver Broncos to the 2019 sack champion with 19.5.

    Hendrickson's leap comes as surprise because of the Saints' aggressive draft-day move to acquire Davenport. All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan occupies the other side of the line.

    As a 2017 third-rounder, Hendrickson settled into a backup role in his first three years. He's on an expiring contract, so the Saints must decide whether to let him walk or open the checkbook to keep their current sack leader.

Alex Smith Is a Starter 2 Years After Gruesome Leg Injury

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Despite the slow division race in the NFC East, we can pluck a surprising comeback story from one of the four teams well below .500. No one anticipated Alex Smith suiting up to take live snaps, let alone starting for a team this season.

    Smith has struggled under center, and that's expected since he hadn't played a down since November 2018 before his return in Week 5 of the current term. Still, the 36-year-old threw for at least 325 yards in back-to-back games, and he's helped lead Washington to consecutive wins.

    At his age, Smith isn't the quarterback of Washington's future. However, he could lead this club to the playoffs in a bad division, which far exceeds expectations for someone who underwent 17 leg surgeries to stave off a serious infection that followed an operation on a badly broken leg.

    Smith has an NFL story that will go down as one of the most inspiring in history. He may not finish with impressive statistics, but we'll hear his name mentioned among Comeback Player of the Year candidates.

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