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Debrief: Biggest trends, best performances through Week 4

The NFL has reached Peak Quarterback. A league already awash in dynamic signal-callers found two more fun ones in the Class of 2020. If their first month of games is any indication, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow are here to stay.

The Chargers fans that followed the team up the 405 to Los Angeles must feel conflicted. In some ways, this is such a Chargers season. After Austin Ekeler's injury Sunday, the Chargers were missing at least 11 of the team's original projected starters against Tampa. They blew a 17-point lead before even reaching the fourth quarter, then suffered their third straight loss by one score. Yet, their 1-3 record could hardly feel sweeter, because Herbert has been so much better, so much faster than anyone could have expected.

I can't think of a 6-foot-6 quarterback in NFL history as athletic as Herbert, although Cam Newton (6-5) and Andrew Luck (6-4) were only a bit shorter. We knew Herbert could move, but his pocket presence while avoiding or ignoring the pass rush has been a revelation. He can change speeds with touch passes, and his deep passes are Mahomesian or Rodgersian, depending on your preference.

"I told Anthony (Lynn) after the games, you've got a great one," Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said after the Bucs' 38-31 win. "That looked like (Patrick) Mahomes, where we had an all-out blitz, and he just kept retreating. Then he threw a dime down the field. For rookies to make plays like that, you know they're special."

Herbert hit big plays against one of the league's best defenses, turning guys like Jalen Guyton, Tyler Johnson and Donald Parham Jr. into playmakers despite working with a depleted offensive line and a group of running backs who had 20 yards on 16 carries after Ekeler was hurt. Herbert has averaged 310 yards per game and 8.7 yards per attempt (the fourth-best mark in the NFL) and passes the eye test more impressively than the numbers show.

Anthony Lynn continues to say that the starting job is Tyrod Taylor's when he's healthy, but it's clear the Chargers have extracted a huge positive from an otherwise grim medical situation. Chargers fans just want the team to maximize Herbert better than the franchise did Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.

The Bengals don't have a similar recent history at the position, so they're understandably bathing in Burrow. While Burrow's rate stats aren't as eye-popping as Herbert's, Sunday's win over the Jaguars continued the themes of the No. 1 overall pick's impressive season. He gets better every week. He has a preternatural feel for the position. He's deadly accurate when protected and nearly as good when he isn't.

The Bengals entered Week 4 ranked dead last by far in pass plays over 20 yards, with only three, but Burrow had five such plays against Jacksonville. Burrow's deep ball still hangs at times, but the game against the Jaguars marked a big step in showing that a previously condensed offense can be explosive.

Buoyed by Joe Mixon, the Bengals' offense scored 30 points on six straight possessions, nearly topping 300 yards in the second half to put the game away. Rookie wideout Tee Higgins belongs; he already looks like the second-most dynamic Bengals receiver behind Tyler Boyd and ahead of struggling A.J. Green. The new era has arrived

Burrow's ability to learn from his mistakes is more impressive than his physical traits, and his pinpoint accuracy is the kind of skill that prevents slumps. The Bengals have been competitive in all four of their games, and they now have a soccer-like two-game unbeaten streak, dating to their Week 3 tie with Philadelphia.

Winning is never beside the point, but Bengals and Chargers fans have probably never been so happy to be under .500. They've found their next franchise quarterbacks, and the NFL found two more players to build prime-time programming around.

Herbert and Burrow's emergence are part of a larger trend among offensive rookies. In this week's Debrief, let's hand out some more superlatives from the first quarter of the season:

Most surprising trend: Offensive rookies shining bright. Who needs training camp? The league-wide push toward offense has made a huge difference for a fantastic rookie class. The preseason conventional wisdom that rookies would struggle after a shortened offseason couldn't look more shortsighted.

The strong play starts up front, where Bucs right tackle Tristan Wirfs stoned Joey Bosa for much of Sunday's win over the Chargers. Wirfs has helped transform the Bucs' line.

"He's a good player, and he's gonna be a great player," Bosa told reporters about Wirfs.

Browns left tackle Jedrick Wills has solidified Cleveland's dramatically improved line while playing a new position, and Jets left tackle Mekhi Becton also looked like the real deal before hurting his shoulder. The Giants had the first pick at the position in a deep class, and their selection of Andrew Thomas fourth overall is standing out only because he's dealing with the rookie learning curve that his classmates have bypassed.

Similar stories are playing out at receiver. Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson has played so well over the last two weeks that Minnesota's decision to trade Stefon Diggs to Buffalo looks like a huge win-win deal for both sides. Jefferson is Pro Football Focus' highest-graded receiver in the entire league heading into Monday night's games partly because of his ability to pluck the ball out of the air in difficult situations. Broncos receiver Jerry Jeudy, 49ers first-rounder Brandon Aiyuk, Jaguars receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. and Cowboys wideout CeeDee Lamb are all quality starters at a position that used to be notoriously difficult for rookies. Chase Claypool, Gabe Davis and Tee Higgins add to the class' depth. It's telling that the best rookie running backs -- James Robinson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Antonio Gibson -- have done a lot of their damage catching the ball.

It's a passing league more than ever, and it's clear that the merging of college and NFL offensive philosophies has these players more ready than ever to contribute immediately. Speaking of which ...

Best trend by design: Increased scoring. I wrote about the dramatic reduction in offensive penalties two weeks ago, and the trend has only continued. Entering Monday's double-header, 354 offensive penalties have been called; the next lowest total through Week 4 in a given year was 429, in 2008.

The reduced amount of calls continues to pay dividends on the scoreboard. NFL games are averaging 51.6 points entering Monday Night Football -- the previous record was 46.8. While scoring will likely come down as the weather gets less hospitable, no one is complaining about fewer flags and more points except for defensive coaches.

Worst trend: Unavailable players. No game sadly typified the first quarter of the season for me more than Eagles-49ers on Sunday night. Both sides were missing at least eight starters, including nearly all of the Eagles' offensive line and receiver group. 

Injuries are always a part of the sport, but the breadth of how they've capsized teams this season feels unique. The 49ers are actually far healthier than they were a few weeks ago after Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Jason Verrett returned. The Saints were down at least six starters Sunday. The Broncos' offense has been thoroughly decimated, and the defense isn't in much better shape. The Chargers may have more replacements than original starters now, and fans in Las Vegas and New York (either the Giants or Jets) are probably wondering why I haven't mentioned their squads yet.

It's one thing to lose a few big names or key players. It's another to see nearly a quarter of the league lose enormous swaths of their teams. 

Combine that trend with the Titans' COVID-19 outbreak last week and the Patriots-Chiefs postponement after positive tests by Cam Newton and Jordan Ta'amu over the weekend, and I fear that player availability will shape this season like it has few others.

Most improved offensive player: Josh Allen. I never thought Allen could improve his accuracy enough to be this consistent. I was so incredibly wrong. While Allen made some strides in his second season, this third-year leap is trending toward the historic. His performance against the Raiders on Sunday was his most impressive yet because of the difficulty of the tight-window throws Allen consistently made. It helps that Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, John Brown and Gabe Davis are making great plays on the ball, but that only proves the point. Allen is trusting his wideouts and putting the ball in position for them to make plays. His decision-making can occasionally short-circuit, but overall, Allen is also making smart decisions while going through his progressions behind an improved offensive line.  

Allen is handing out Ls to media doubters like me on a weekly basis, and the forgiving schedule of defenses he's faced doesn't get much tougher the rest of the way. Even if Allen ultimately proves to be streaky, this season could be one, long streak, like Cam Newton's 2015. The Bills are a perfect avatar of the NFL in 2020, possessing an Arena League offense with a diminished defense that only needs to make a few plays per game to get the victory.

Most improved defensive player: Myles Jack. Jack seemed to view his move from middle linebacker back to the outside this offseason as a demotion. The Jags player should have seen it as a return home. Jack and the Buccaneers' Lavonte David have been the premier off-ball linebackers in football through four weeks, making huge plays each week. (The Niners' Fred Warner would be my pick as the best middle linebacker, with apologies to the Seahawks' Bobby Wagner.) On a Jacksonville defense with problems almost everywhere else, Jack's incredible transformation shouldn't be ignored.

Best new coach: Matt Rhule. Here's how I'd rank the five NFL coach hires in performance over the first month

  1. Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers
  2. Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns
  3. Ron Rivera, Washington Football Team
  4. Joe Judge, New York Giants
  5. Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys

The Panthers have been competitive in all four games on their way to a 2-2 record. Their defense appeared so undermanned and overmatched in the first two weeks of the season that I prematurely gave up on them before they harassed Justin Herbert and Arizona's Kyler Murray in back-to-back wins.

The offense is highly professional compared to a year ago, playing to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's strengths as a decision-maker and ball distributor. Robby Anderson was a fantastic addition to the receiver group, and they barely seem to miss running back Christian McCaffrey, getting terrific production out of Mike Davis and Reggie Bonnafon in Sunday's convincing victory over the Cardinals. The Panthers probably aren't ready to contend for a playoff spot yet, but it's remarkable how quickly Rhule's influence can be seen on the field, especially on offense.

The same could be said for Browns coach Kevin Stefanski. Cleveland plays smarter situational football. The offensive line and running game have been transformed, in large part because of his hire of offensive line coach Bill Callahan. Head coaches should absolutely be judged on who they hire, which is why Mike McCarthy is coming up last here. The implosion of the Cowboys' defense is on him and his hire of Mike Nolan as coordinator, because we've seen the same Dallas personnel play much better before.

Story that feels too familiar: The Lions blowing leads. With apologies to Adam Gase's Jets offense and the Chargers losing players and heartbreakers, the Lions' inability to hold a lead is just too on-brand for Matt Patricia to survive. They have now lost six straight games that they led by double digits, an indictment primarily of their defense and situational football, the exact two areas Patricia was hired to improve.

Three teams that are doing well, with room to get much better

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have yet to play a complete game, especially on offense. Their second-half explosion against the Chargers was encouraging because it looked so much like a Bruce Arians offense at its best. Tom Brady's deep passes have been strong all season, and he punished the Chargers' secondary with repeated deep strikes to a vast array of targets, including Rob Gronkowski, who logged a 29-yard catch on the fourth-quarter drive that gave the Bucs' their final margin of victory. Mike Evans showed great toughness playing through injury, and the offensive line had its best game. 

There's every reason to believe this offense will look better in December than it has in the first quarter, despite the season-ending injury to tight end O.J. Howard. (The 31-year-old Gronk's role will have to increase, however, which is a concern.) Backed by one of the only difference-making defenses in the league, Brady is helping the Bucs win before they even hit their stride. 

Indianapolis Colts

The list of defenses that matter is short: The Bucs, Colts and Steelers are at the top of mine. The 49ers should get there, and the Bears are close. That's about it, which puts Philip Rivers in a fascinating position. He has a lot of support from his defense and his offensive line, but the Colts' offense badly misses young playmakers Parris Campbell, Marlon Mack and Michael Pittman

After watching Bears-Colts on Sunday, I didn't believe Rivers particularly outplayed an erratic Nick Foles. Rivers just has the better team around him, although Colts coach Frank Reich could potentially help Rivers by not being so run-heavy on early downs. Rivers' misses have often been cautious, not unlike those of Drew Brees. The Colts are 3-1 without Rivers doing much, which would have been hard to imagine back in August.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills' defense should play better. They have the personnel, the coaching and the track record for success to be much better than average after a substandard start to the year. If the 2017-19 Bills' defense joins the 2020 Bills' offense at any point, Buffalo is a Super Bowl threat. Considering the Bills are 4-0 with such a mediocre defense so far, they might be, anyway. 

One team that is not

The Texans officially promoted coach Bill O'Brien to general manager in January of 2020. They fired him four games into a lost season on Monday. O'Brien's increasingly aggressive and emotional-seeming personnel moves in Houston led to his shocking ouster, but he's not ultimately responsible for the Texans' downfall. Bad process -- and bad ownership decisions -- led to this moment.

O'Brien won more power after the exits of former GMs Rick Smith and Brian Gaine, with ownership's blessing. O'Brien was part of trading DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney and Duane Brown away, with ownership's blessing, and he gave up a raft of future picks for tackle Laremy Tunsil. (The Dolphins -- who have the Texans' first two picks next year as a result of the Tunsil deal -- are surely loving Houston's immediate trajectory.) At every step of the way, ownership appeared to choose O'Brien over everyone else in the franchise. They rewarded O'Brien with more and more autonomy, until pulling the plug just a quarter into O'Brien's first official season as general manager.

This is not to absolve O'Brien of this mess, but it's worth keeping the Texans' organizational timeline in mind. O'Brien brought in former Patriots "character coach" Jack Easterby in April 2019, a decision that reportedly infuriated the Patriots. That came at the same time the team fired Gaine after only one season, setting up O'Brien and Easterby with nearly unchecked power to construct the team as they wished. They made most of the famous trades above, in addition to ones for cornerback Gareon Conley and running back Duke Johnson, and handing out huge extensions for Deshaun Watson, Zach Cunningham, Whitney Mercilus and Tunsil.

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Easterby -- now an executive VP -- and O'Brien were no longer seeing "eye to eye," their relationship have turned "extremely quickly," according to Rapoport. Easterby will now run the football operations, according to Rapoport, a somewhat fitting end to O'Brien's Shakespearean tenure in Houston. After years of winning palace-intrigue battles, O'Brien was apparently pushed out by his own hire.

Texans ownership could be making the same mistake they just repeated for years. Winning office politics, praise from the media or the confidence of your boss does not equate to winning playoff games. This was what O'Brien's rise looked like in the first place, with O'Brien gaining power that Easterby benefited from and making trades that Easterby was in place for. At a time when the Texans desperately need a fresh start, an Easterby-led organization feels like more of the same.

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