NFL HALFWAY: So many surprises, from Trump/anthem to Eagles
Who anticipated the NFL getting caught up in a back-and-forth spat with President Donald Trump over players kneeling during the national anthem?
And who could have imagined the Philadelphia Eagles would own the best record in the league at the midway point? And that their second-year quarterback, Carson Wentz, would lead the MVP conversation with an NFL-best 23 touchdown passes?
Or that the Atlanta Falcons , New York Giants and Oakland Raiders — playoff participants a year ago — would struggle so much?
Anyone answering yes to any of the above is either unbelievably prescient or, um, just plain lying.
“It’s a big shock to start the season off this way,” Raiders running back Jalen Richard said after his team, considered a Super Bowl contender by some, endured a three-game losing streak. “I don’t even know what to say.”
Here is a look at developments that left folks speechless during an NFL season full of surprises:
TRUMP VS. NFL
It all began, bizarrely enough, with a speech in Alabama by Trump, followed by daily tweets from the highest office in the land, including a call for teams to fire players who kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That resulted in pregame demonstrations going from a half-dozen players to hundreds — and Vice President Mike Pence, in what 49ers safety Eric Reid called a “PR stunt,” leaving a game after players knelt. The man who started the movement to protest racial inequality and police brutality, Colin Kaepernick, has filed a grievance against the NFL, saying teams colluded to keep him out of a job in a league where folks such as Tom Savage and Brett Hundley have started games, and Josh Johnson was just signed as a backup.
EAGLES LEAD THE WAY
The Eagles are 8-1, with a budding star in Wentz, and already exceeded their win total from a year ago (7-9, last in the NFC East). They average 31.4 points, second most in the league, and allow fewer than 20 points. “We feel,” Wentz said, “like we have some momentum.”
GOING THE WRONG WAY
The Giants are 1-7, Eli Manning looks anything but elite, and coach Ben McAdoo sure seems dumbfounded. He couldn’t even find words to respond when asked what he told his club at halftime of a 51-17 loss. The Denver Broncos, desperately in need of a competent QB , and the Raiders, whose star receiver Amari Cooper has suddenly become a chronic pass dropper, both have losing records, too. At least the Falcons are at .500, but neither QB Matt Ryan nor much of the rest of the squad look like recent Super Bowl participants.
Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt was a third-round pick out of Toledo, of all places, and Texans QB Deshaun Watson was a backup to Savage for Week 1. But Hunt leads the league in rushing with 800 yards. Watson was having the same sort of impact, throwing for 19 TDs with a passer rating of 103, before tearing up his knee.
SO MANY INJURED STARS
That there are so many injuries is not surprising. This is the NFL, remember? But that so many superstars are sidelined for the rest of the season is striking. The list keeps growing, too, with Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, Texans DE J.J. Watt and Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. at the top, along with important players such as Watson, Colts QB Andrew Luck and Patriots WR Julian Edelman.
Talk about precocious: The Rams’ Sean McVay, 31, is the youngest coach in NFL history, and his combination of charisma and offensive design have helped LA go from 4-12 to 6-2 (ahead of Seattle in the NFC West), while Jared Goff has gone from presumed bust to a guy who looks like a No. 1 overall draft pick. The Rams are averaging a league-high 32.9 points and have won three times by at least 30. “Now the challenge is: Can we sustain it?” McVay said.
OTHER GOOD TEAMS
The NFC South-leading Saints are the third team to go from 0-2 to 6-2. The others, the 1993 Cowboys and 2007 Giants, went on to win the Super Bowl. The most stunning aspect for New Orleans? The defense, a problem for so long, has been superb. The Vikings are atop the NFC North at 6-2 despite starting Case Keenum at QB and parting ways with RB Adrian Peterson.
New coach Doug Marrone has the perennially terrible Jaguars tied for first in the AFC South at 5-3, matching their best start in a decade. A dancing defense and better-than-expected Josh McCown have made the Jets far more respectable than anyone imagined at 4-5.
The NFL trade deadline is usually a dud, but this time there were real moves that could end up mattering this season and beyond. Such as the 49ers getting QB Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots; the Eagles landing RB Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins; the Bills picking up WR Kelvin Benjamin from the Panthers; and the Seahawks acquiring LT Duane Brown from the Texans.