In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 4 of the 2023 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at who deserves your R-E-S-P-E-C-T ...
The old adage about respect is that nobody gives it to you. It takes a lot to earn respect, and once you have it, there's plenty of work that goes into keeping it. The NFL is a perfect example of that. We spend an ample amount of time in the offseason talking about who's going to do what, based on new coaching hires and personnel moves in free agency and the draft. Then we actually get to witness what happens when the games are real, which is the only way we can decide if those opinions carried any merit in the first place.
Three Sundays into the 2023 campaign, it's time to start talking about who really is legit -- or more specifically, who deserves that high level of respect. We know there were a fair number of surprise teams that jumped out to 2-0 starts and wanted to keep the good vibes going. There also were plenty of players and coaches who were thrust into positions to prove themselves, either because of high expectations or the need to rebound from rough beginnings. This is what comes with this league. Every week is a testament to who you really are.
That isn't to say there won't be more to discuss on this topic as we move deeper into the season. It's just to note that there are some folks who have done plenty to open the eyes of this particular writer. So give them your respect today. They've damn sure earned it thus far.
1) Mike McDaniel: Seventy points??? The Dolphins have been doing crazy things with their offense already this season, but that number is both mind-boggling and further evidence of how scary Miami has become under its second-year head coach. The Dolphins surrendered 20 points to Denver on Sunday, won by 50 and easily could've broken the league record for points in a regular-season game (72) had McDaniel played his starters for the entire contest. The narrative in Miami once revolved around whether quarterback Tua Tagovailoa could stay healthy for an entire season. It's quickly moved to a more telling conversation about who's going to slow this team down in the AFC. The Dolphins didn't even have wide receiver Jaylen Waddle available for Sunday's win. They won't have star cornerback Jalen Ramsey on the field until some time in December, as he's recovering from knee surgery. Yeah, we know -- the Dolphins aren't perfect. But when you're averaging 43.3 points per game, that doesn't really matter. McDaniel has turned this team into a monster.
2) Brock Purdy: It's impossible to doubt the guy now. Purdy has come too far, overcome too much and continues to play as if he is the quarterback head coach Kyle Shanahan has coveted for this offense all along. It felt like Purdy was along for the ride when the 49ers won the first seven games he started at the end of the 2022 season, before that elbow injury in the NFC title game loss to Philadelphia crushed San Francisco's Super Bowl dreams. However, Purdy hasn't missed a beat since returning from offseason surgery. He's still benefitting from the best supporting cast in football -- this team has stars all over the offense and defense -- but he's playing with even more confidence and efficiency. The best thing about Purdy last year was that he always played within himself. He still does that (he hasn't thrown an interception through three games), only it feels like he believes he can make more plays when called upon. The 49ers compete as if they're out to prove a point every week, and the quarterback is leading the charge on that front.
3) Steve Spagnuolo: As brilliant as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been in Kansas City, one fact that often gets overlooked is that this core won both its Super Bowls when the defense was playing at a high level. That comes back to Andy Reid's decision to hire Spagnuolo as his defensive coordinator, a move that continues to pay huge dividends this year. The Chiefs' defense, simply put, has never been this good during the Mahomes era. Spagnuolo's unit has allowed just 33 points through three games -- the only other score generated by a Kansas City opponent came on an interception return for a touchdown in a season-opening loss to Detroit -- and it's getting stronger with each passing week. Spagnuolo has so much versatility and athleticism in this bunch that he can dream up imaginative options to frustrate opposing quarterbacks and stifle their best weapons. He also has his top defender back in the mix, as All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones ended his holdout after missing that Lions defeat. If that isn't bad enough for the opposition, Spagnuolo is still waiting on defensive end Charles Omenihu, a major free-agent acquisition, to return from a six-game suspension. A lot has been made of the Chiefs' slow start on offense (even though they just enjoyed a 41-10 win over the Bears). It really hasn't been that big of an issue because the other side of the football is doing more than enough to help this team win.
4) Shane Steichen: You can probably fit the number of people who expected the Colts to start 2-1 into a decent-sized closet. That's exactly where they sit after three weeks, largely because of the work of their first-year head coach and his staff. The Colts just went into Baltimore and produced a 22-19 overtime win despite rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson not playing because of a concussion. They've played the entire season without disgruntled star running back Jonathan Taylor. Steichen also has done a nice job of preparing Richardson in Year 1, as the young quarterback who only made 13 college starts has been able to make plays with his arm and his legs. Of course, nobody is sitting here saying the Colts are about to make a run at the Super Bowl. But they have a feisty defense, a lot of energy and a schedule that is breaking in their favor. Over the next three weeks, they'll see the Rams, Titans and a Jaguars team that they give fits to in the season opener. Yes, they got a nice break in Baltimore by playing a beat-up Ravens squad. But this team also is better than advertised, which says something about Steichen.
5) The marriage of Kellen Moore and Justin Herbert: The Chargers have started slow once again -- they currently sit at 1-2 -- but offense isn't the problem. They hired Moore to be their offensive coordinator because he had a proven track record in Dallas, and Herbert needed somebody to help elevate his game. Nobody can argue with the results so far. Herbert is creating more explosive plays and producing more impressive numbers (he's averaging 313 passing yards while completing 74.4 percent of his throws with no interceptions). Moore is assisting him with a balanced approach to play-calling that gives Herbert more of a rushing attack than the quarterback ever had in his first three seasons. Sure, the Chargers are battling the same injury bug that inexplicably hits this team every year: Running back Austin Ekeler didn't play in Sunday’s win over Minnesota, while wide receiver Mike Williams was carted off with what is feared to be a serious knee injury. (UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported after publishing on Monday that Mike Williams tore his ACL and is done for the season.) However, the hope always has been that Herbert would develop into the kind of quarterback who could offset significant setbacks around him. That's what stars like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow do. Moore has put Herbert in a great position to show that side of himself this year, especially if the Chargers can rebound from another slow start.
Cleveland's quarterback bore a heavy burden heading into a short week after a Monday night loss and with star running back Nick Chubb out for the season. The response he offered had to make Browns fans feel a little better about where this investment is heading. Watson didn’t merely produce the best performance of his brief tenure in Cleveland during Sunday’s 27-3 win over Tennessee (completing 27 of 33 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns) -- he proved he can complement a defense that is becoming more dominant with each passing week.
The word coming out of Buffalo this offseason was that the Bills' defense would be more aggressive with head coach Sean McDermott calling plays. So far, so good. Buffalo only has allowed 13 points over its last two victories, obliterating the Commanders in Sunday’s 37-3 win. The turnovers were impressive (four interceptions and a fumble recovery), but the most noteworthy accomplishment was the pressure. The Bills produced nine sacks against an offense that had been humming under starting quarterback Sam Howell. If they can be that disruptive now, just wait until star edge rusher Von Miller returns to the lineup.
So much for the question about how the Packers edge rusher would respond to a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his 2022 campaign early last November. Gary amassed three sacks in the Packers’ 18-17 win over New Orleans, showing everybody that he’s ready to pick up where he left off last season. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level before that injury. If he returns to that pace -- and there’s suddenly no reason to think he can’t -- then the Packers will have an easy decision to make when his fifth-year option expires after this season.
The Cowboys’ 28-16 loss to Arizona was the upset of the week and it was rough for Dallas from the start. Dallas managed one touchdown in five red-zone opportunities. The defense couldn’t stop the Cardinals’ run game. It’s true that anybody can lose in any given week, but McCarthy is calling the plays for a Cowboys offense that didn’t have to do much in the first two weeks of the season. Now we know Dallas' defense can’t take over every week -- and certainly is compromised with star cornerback Trevon Diggs out for the season. That means McCarthy must ask more of his offense (and his team) than what it delivered on Sunday. And it certainly didn't help that Dallas committed a whopping 13 penalties in the desert.
We all know it’s hard playing in Seattle, but eight false starts? This unit was close to setting a record for that category in a game that once again revealed how much work needs to happen for Carolina to become a winner. The O-line has been plagued by injuries (left guard Brady Christensen is out for the season, while right guard Austin Corbett is on the physically unable to perform list) and there hasn’t been much to praise with this bunch. Coming into Sunday’s game, the Panthers had allowed six sacks and 15 quarterbacks hits. It’s going to be a long year for rookie quarterback Bryce Young if those numbers don’t change by the time he returns from an ankle injury.
It’s hard to make this list when your team wins, but the situation surrounding Jackson in Los Angeles is confounding. He’s been a disaster ever since his arrival as a high-priced free agent in 2022. He struggled in Brandon Staley’s defense at the start of last year and didn’t even finish the season because of a ruptured patellar tendon. Jackson started this season in equally disappointing fashion, so much so that he was a healthy scratch in the team’s win in Minnesota. The Chargers gave Jackson a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the idea that he’d be a huge part of their success. What he’s ultimately become is the face of their defensive problems. (UPDATE: An arrest warrant was issued for Jackson after he failed to appear for a court hearing on traffic charges in Massachusetts.)
SUNDAY'S BIGGEST SURPRISE
Disappointing Jaguars. Jacksonville was supposed to be a no-brainer pick to run away with the weak AFC South. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence seemed like a trendy MVP candidate. Nobody is talking about that right now -- not after the Jaguars dropped to 1-2 with a blowout home loss to Houston. There's still plenty of time left for head coach Doug Pederson to fix the problems -- which start with an offense that has generated just 26 points in the last two weeks -- but this isn't a good look. Jacksonville feels like the most overrated team in the league after three weeks.
- Chargers-Vikings: If you want to see high-level quarterback play and explosive highlights, this is your jam.
- Colts-Ravens: This was a huge overtime win for Indy, even against a Baltimore team battling several injuries.
- Saints-Packers: New Orleans suffered a huge blow in losing Derek Carr to injury, but Jordan Love continues to build his legacy with an impressive comeback victory.
MOST INTRIGUING GAME OF WEEK 4
Miami has the hottest offense in football, while the Bills' defense is rounding into elite form. This is going to be a heavyweight matchup. These teams split last season, with the Dolphins pulling an eye-opening upset early and the Bills gaining revenge late. Both of those games revealed plenty about each team’s strengths and weaknesses. This one will do the same as we try to see who gets a leg up in the AFC East race.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
A lot of offenses have struggled through the first three weeks of the season. Is that more about defenses playing at a higher level or offenses starting slow?
ANONYMOUS NFC PERSONNEL DIRECTOR: "It's usually like this early in the season and then it changes once teams have a few games on tape to see what their identity is. The better offensive teams will go on their runs mid- to late-season, while a couple who started fast face injuries or get figured out and fizzle out. A lot of the better quarterbacks don't play a lot in the preseason, so those first few weeks are essentially the preseason for them. Plus, defensive coaches talk to their buddies, especially those in the same divisions or conferences, to see what schemes and personnel work best against certain opponents. There is always a ton of information getting passed around in the offseason. The better offensive units and players start to take off once they get oiled up."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 4 (with Caesars Sportsbook odds as of 8 a.m. ET on Sept. 25):
- Caesars odds: +300
- Weeks in top five: 3
- Next game: at Bills | Sunday, Oct. 1
- Caesars odds: +4000
- Weeks in top five: 3
- Next game: at Bills | Sunday, Oct. 1
- Caesars odds: +550
- Weeks in top five: 3
- Next game: at Jets | Sunday Night Football, Oct. 1
- Caesars odds: +3000
- Weeks in top five: 2
- Next game: vs. Patriots | Sunday, Oct. 1
- Caesars odds: +1600
- Weeks in top five: 2
- Next game: vs. Raiders | Sunday, Oct. 1
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: 49ers over Dolphins.
Previous picks ...
- Week 2: 49ers over Bills
- Week 1: 49ers over Dolphins