Each week between now and Super Bowl LIV, Marc Sessler will scan the NFL landscape for people, places and things -- events both evil and just, noble and impure, delightful and inglorious, filled with wise men and anti-heroes -- that burn bright on his radar.
Here's this week's briefing:
We've hit the so-called midway point of the season.
I struggle with the basic definition, because the campaign itself is 17 weeks long, with another month-plus of must-watch playoff fare tacked on.
I'll play along with NFL.com's more generally understood definition of the halfway-chop. To celebrate (and point fingers), let's examine some of this year's happiest storylines and more depressing downfalls to date:
Sweet-tasting surprises of the first half
Jon Gruden, Year 2: As Hard Knockswrapped its summer fling with the Raiders, it wasn't challenging to envision a messy meltdown in Oakland. Even minus the sun blotted out by a spiraling-to-terra-firma ANTONIO BROWN AIR DIRIGIBLE, the Raiders appeared hot-to-the-touch explosive in all the wrong ways, with Jon Gruden overseeing a combustible cast of characters and a quarterback in Derek Carr who just didn't vibe like a forever fit with his sailor-mouthed head coach. Instead, Gruden has guided a young roster to upset wins over the Coltsand Bears before nearly tipping the Texans on Sunday. The playoffs are a bridge too far, but the Raiders have a future -- and a coach who no longer comes attached to a litany of criticism and wit-cracking barbs from snarky pundits. That's progress.
Niners flip the switch: One year ago, San Francisco's football team occupied that embarrassing corner-of-the-classroom stool reserved for overhyped rosters destined to falter. An offseason of buzz draped around Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan gave way to the cruel chomp of the injury bug as the Niners had their heads shaved by a flock of NFC heavies en route to a 4-12 finish. Ultimately, we were a year early with our lofty expectations, with today's 49ers morphing into an unbeaten, untied and impregnable fortress bolstered by a nasty ground game, smothering run-stuffers and a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate shape-shifting into Defensive Player of the Year material in No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa. For our benefit, San Francisco's rise has turned the NFC West into a crowded house of fisticuff-loving ruffians clawing toward January play.
Packers trade in Rodgers/LaFleur "Body Language Watch" for on-field mow-down of hapless enemies: While first-year coaches struggle league-wide, Green Bay's Matt LaFleur has revitalized a Packers offense that somehow became ponderously dull despite possessing the greatest passer on the orb. Watching Rodgers talk with NBC's Mike Tirico before Sunday Night Football, we saw a signal-caller back in his happy place -- and it shows on the field. Rodgers has put together a month-long stretch as juicy as anything he's authored before, a swashbuckling jaunt filled with joy-inducing throws that reduce rooms of hardened analysts to salt:
LaFleur (a.k.a., "The Flower") deserves his share of credit. He's uncorked running back Aaron Jones, coached around a banged-up receiver group and happily retained coordinator Mike Pettine, whose defense is allowing just 20.4 points per game, 11th in the NFL. Packers fans are mere weeks removed from breathless updates breaking down facial quirks, shoulder shrugs and amateur lip-reading sessions in an attempt to uncover dismay between Aa-Rod and his coach. Blow all that up in favor of a rousing offense and feisty defense that give off the feel of a runaway train barreling toward the NFC title game.
Jacksonville's from-the-wilderness rainmaker: The date is Aug. 1, 2019. It is 102 degrees in the shade, dogs are melting in the street, and a woman named BEATRICE saunters up to you. She slaps you in the face and whispers in your ear: "A man named Gardner Minshew will outshine -- by leaps and bounds -- the antics of Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen. My precious Minshew will fling 13 touchdowns to just two picks by the midpoint, while Baker, Samwise and Joshy will throw a combined 27 interceptions over 18 games coming out of Week 8."
BEATRICE floats away up the avenue, laughing hysterically to herself and swatting at children before hailing a cab and shouting at the driver: "Take me to the airport, you scoundrel!"
As Bridgewater trotted onto the turf for mop-up duty, the juiced-up crowd rose to its feet as the chant grew louder and more frenzied with each iteration: "Teddy! Ted-dee! TED-DEE!"
The BOB Revolution: What's not to like about a well-coached, unpredictable Texans cadre that might lose a few stinkers, but, at maximum power, can tussle with any outfit in the NFL? Coach Bill O'Brien generated snickers from every corner after selling away roughly seven future drafts to add left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wideout Kenny Stills. The jury is still out on the long-term cost, but BOB went his own way and now leads a team with as many wins as any non-New England club in the AFC -- and maybe the best shot to rough up the Pats.
America's Team: If you can't derive an ounce of happiness from the rough-and-tumble, blue-collar, vastly imperfect but punishing Bills, I feel for your internal world.
Dan Quinn, Year 5: Colleague Chris Wesseling and I once spent a Super Bowl Week seeking out then-Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn at every media session offered to bloggers and chatterboxes alike. Bottom line: We stalked that man. A head-coaching candidate, Quinn dazzled with his info-rich answers to every question that bubbled up about Seattle's trendy defense.
His arrival in Atlanta bore immediate fruit, with the Falcons going 11-5 and reaching the Super Bowl in Year 2. But Quinn's squad has withered up this autumn, leaving patient owner Arthur Blank to utter the words "extraordinarily disappointed" in describing the team's 1-7 mark. The ugliest aspect of the dismal campaign is Atlanta's 27th-ranked defense, sharing little DNA with the Seattle club Quinn once oversaw -- or even the upstart Falcons group of two seasons ago. I still believe in Quinn, but change feels imminent.
Baker Mayfield to Odell Beckham Jr.: The Browns are especially frustrating because every tilt offers flashes of what could be. Sunday's loss to the Patriots featured two well-matched teams, but not when you factor in 13 Browns penalties and a trio of massively destructive turnovers that set the table for a 17-0 New England lead.
The Browns are more disorganized than dangerous, and they're one of the season's bigger mysteries when it comes to the up-and-down play of Mayfield and less-than-starry numbers from Beckham. The roster suggests something much finer than a 2-5 start, but the Browns can't get out of their own way -- and it can't be blamed entirely on the offensive line. The Patriots are missing people up and down their front five and lack for stars, but they keep Tom Brady safe game after game. Cleveland lacks the weekly preparation and discipline to eliminate mistakes. They might be closer to that Niners team from a season ago, minus the injury excuses. There is the glimmer of a bright future, yes, but nothing comes handed to you on a silver platter in the NFL. Lesser rosters have toppled Cleveland time and again in 2019.
Everything Chicago Bears: Seven games in, Bears fans are understandably agitated with a hard-to-watch outfit suddenly saddled with dark questions around the quarterback. Mitchell Trubisky isn't developing on schedule, but he's hardly the only issue. Coach Matt Nagy's postgame sparring with the media over why he didn't aim to shorten Eddy Pineiro's ill-fated game-winning field-goal attempt in Sunday's loss to the Chargers was an appropriate microcosm for a Bears squad that seems outcoached, outfoxed and psychologically at war with itself on a weekly basis. Plenty left to go, but the charm of last year's playoff team feels like a half-forgotten, middle-of-the-night dream all but shattered.
Adam Gase's 'guru' status: The Jets are an easy target, but it's far too early to panic over the hot-and-cold play of Sam Darnold. It's fair to ask questions, though, about the weekly game plans and preparation spun by Gase, hired by the Jets this offseason as a so-called offensive-minded dabbler with the tools to turn this long-unwatchable, green-clad snoozefest into something frisky. With eight interceptions in three weeks, Darnold is suffering behind one of the league's worst lines. Gase was dangerously outdone by Bill Belichick two weeks ago and failed to draw up plans to prevent Jacksonville from sacking Darnold eight times on Sunday. It's nice that New York beat writers are so entranced by the young quarterback's mature press conferences, but his on-field future sits at risk if Gase can't find a better way to maneuver the parts on offense. Darnold isn't the problem -- not yet, at least -- but this coaching staff has the stink of a one-and-done disaster.
It all depends on your POV
Belichickphiles continuing to thrive like a 15th century royal family from Western Bavaria: They're out there. Prancing through the streets of Boston and smugly pasting another Monday's worth of glowing newspaper clippings into Patriots scrapbooks kept since the preteen years: BELICHICKPHILES.
By now, a 40-year-old Patriots fan of a certain psychological makeup has lost the ability to discern the team's success from one's own accomplishments. Living in worlds of deep-spun vicarious fantasy, the BELICHICKPHILE believes himself to be an organic disciple of the Patriots coach -- nothing short of a blood heir. They will manage their children with DO YOUR JOB mantras and terrorize coworkers with a NO DAYS OFF mindset that doesn't offer the same payoff when your Patriots-obsessed boss is hellbent on breaking quarterly earnings records at the Aerotek Customer Call Center in Attleboro, Massachusetts.
Belichick's followers are everywhere: crowding sports bars, in media circles, at the cinema and in the booth beside you at Luigi's Italian Bistro, where they methodically chew a slice of French bread more efficiently than you and your piqued wife. They picked the right football team to follow every Sunday. Or their fathers did -- or their mothers, or some girthy Aunt Penelope who once fell hard for Bledsoe. A fortunate lineage passed down. And the young princes and princesses today -- words unspoken -- believe themselves to be just a notch above the rest, through no doing of their own, but through the acts of their transcendent, glowing and scowling icon: BILL BELICHICK.
And here we are again. A familiar drama playing out, paused only for ridiculously voiced fantastical scenarios involving the upstart nature of a division opponent ready to find some weakness in New England's super-armor.
REALITY: Said upstart team will be dropped into a grave within eight weeks.
REALITY: The AFC is a messy, wide-open conference containing the ROBOT-ARMY PATRIOTS and no other squad with more than five wins.
An ideal recipe for some dark-horse entry to make a spicy second-half run ... before losing to New England in a Saturday night AFC Divisional Round burnt-earth torture-fest.
REALITY: Patriots color man Scott Zolak will have his way, unfurling body-bop-and-guttural-blast utterances from the press box again and again.