The First Quarter: The 3 Best Subplots of the 2016 NFL Season So Far

Patrick Smith/SI.com

High expectations can be dangerous; overreactions, even more so. Change is unavoidable, so no one should be too shocked that the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals are both 1-3. It could be an unlucky streak, or it could be a changing of the guard. It is simply too early to say. Of course, some things never seem to change. To the frustration of many, the New England Patriots keep winning against all odds because Bill Belichick is a true football savant who consistently switches up his strategy to outwit the opposition. These narratives are not going anywhere, as fans will definitely still be debating the fates of these preseason favorites deep into December and January.

In the meantime, it’s better to focus on the developing subplots. These are not the stories that receive the most attention early on because everyone is too busy losing their minds over their fantasy season not working out as planned. These are the fun developments that show a player making the leap from good to great or the weird trends that threaten to turn the league upside down before they inevitably become just another footnote.

1. Terrelle Pryor Is A Swiss Army Knife

This one is the most fun. Over the course of a typical athlete’s life, there is a progression from being the person asked to do anything and everything to help their local teams win a youth league championship to focusing on the strongest aspect of their game at higher levels just so that they can earn a spot on a team. There are sound reasons for this, even aside from getting an athletic scholarship: skill specialization clearly increases competitive advantage, and playing less can also decrease the risk of injury. This is what makes it incredibly exciting to see Terrelle Pryor, who recently switched from quarterback to wide receiver, attempt to play almost every skill position in an effort to resurrect his career and save the Browns from yet another disaster of a season.

Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson should really work him in more at quarterback and running back and whatever else he can think of. Why risk his best player? He’s coaching the Browns and fielding questions about tanking! There is nothing to lose here except potentially one of the more uniquely impressive individual performances the league has seen in years. Sometimes a gimmick can make a career, and that is not anything to be ashamed of. So, here’s hoping that Hue Jackson watches what the Patriots do with Gronk and Martellus Bennet over the next few weeks and then lines Pryor up as a second TE next to Barnidge.

Sure, he probably cannot block a defensive end or a linebacker, but the ensuing panic this move would cause in the opposing defense alone could open up a lane in the redzone. They should not stop with offense either. He should get work at safety again on any end-of-half, Hail Mary situations. And you know what? Let him kick the damn ball too. With apologies to Cody Parkey, his best efforts probably will not get it done here. Plus, there have to be a few sports fans in Cleveland who do not care about basketball, and that means Lebron could not save them. For now, they need all the Terrelle Pryor they can get.

2. Jimmy Graham Is Back!

Blockbuster trades tend to not happen very often in the NFL, so it was absolutely shocking when Seattle traded their All-Pro center Max Unger for Jimmy Graham. Unger was the linchpin of an offensive line that had their mistakes covered by Wilson’s scrambling abilities and Marshawn Lynch’s trail of broken tackles. Without him, Seattle put extra pressure on Wilson’s shoulders, and Graham, who does not really do that “blocking” thing, barely contributed to the passing attack before suffering a torn patellar tendon. The trade looked like a failure, until now. Graham’s resurgence looks real, and the only proof needed is this catch:

Or this one:

A lot of exciting tight ends have emerged since Graham was a dominant force in New Orleans, but it’s doubtful that more than one or two of them could do that[1]. Few TEs around the league are even going to attempt to make plays over the shoulders of talented cornerbacks on sideline precision routes. Even if Graham never reaches the crazy heights of his heyday with Brees, this potential comeback is a great, great thing for Seattle, the NFL and anyone who enjoys amazing football plays. It’s already clear that he is still a threat to make highlight reel catch on every snap he takes. As long as he consistently contributes like he did against the Jets and 49ers, the Max Unger-Jimmy Graham swap will cease to be one of the stranger decisions (and missteps) made during Seattle’s recent enviable run as one of the NFC’s top teams.

3. Quarterbacks Still Matter More Than Cornerbacks, Right?

The answer is yes, but the question does not seem quite as laughable as it did a few years ago. Just look at Seattle and Denver. Both recently become the league models for building and maintaining franchises through intelligent drafting and shrewd free agent acquisitions. This is mostly due to the fact that no one can manage to emulate Belichick and Brady, but the trend was also assisted by the old adage “defense wins championships,” which both teams seemingly proved. Denver could not win the big game during Peyton Manning’s record setting season because they ran into Seattle’s historic defense at its peak, but they did manage to drag Manning’s broken body through the playoff gauntlet by having Von Miller and Demarcus Ware beat the living crap out of the opposing quarterbacks.

Now, the LA Rams are 3-1 after one of the most embarrassing opening day losses in recent memory, and the Minnesota Vikings are the early NFC favorite even after losing their quarterback and future Hall of Fame running back. The Rams defense has bailed out journeyman QB Case Keenum by holding Seattle and Arizona to a combined 16 points in two games. The Vikings are now starting Sam “Sleeves” Bradford at QB, who has been cursed by injuries and bad luck for most of his career and had roughly a week to prepare for his new job after being traded right before the start of the season. The Viking’s defense is just flat out dominating. Just watch Xavier Rhodes for a minute:

Meanwhile, promising teams relying on quality QB play to cover up other deficiencies are sputtering out of the gate. Andrew Luck continues to rot in Indianapolis, where terrible management has forced him to fight every battle uphill due to a defense that allows 31 points per game. Without Josh Norman, the Panthers are hemorrhaging longer pass plays and losing games because of it. Derek Carr has shown enough promise that Oakland fans actually have playoff hopes for the first time in years, but the Raiders have shockingly given up more yards (1,840!) through the first four games than any team since the wretched 2012 Saints, who had suffered mass suspensions post bounty-gate. The Raiders are currently 3-1, somehow, but the fact that only three teams have given up more yards than them since the 1970 merger does not bode well for their immediate future, to say the least.

The rise of defense is a welcome change in a league that has seen too much scoring inflation due to rule changes, but it just seems unlikely that so many teams with proven top tier QBs will stay out of the mix for the entire season. There’s enough talent on the rosters and coaching staffs of the Vikings and Broncos to feel confident betting on them to make a run without one of those “elite” quarterbacks, but anyone counting out the Panthers and Cardinals in favor of the Rams will probably look foolish soon.

Worst Subplot: The No Fun League’s (De)moralizing Penalties.

This has already been covered extensively elsewhere (see this article and this one), but it is clear that the only people who do not want to see creative and funny touchdown celebrations are in the league office, with its insistence on caring about the wrong things, and “get off my lawn” type fans. No matter how important the NFL thinks it is, this is still just a game. It should be fun and entertaining, and it is not worth angrily getting on a high horse over. Try not to think too hard about it.

[1] No disrespect to Gary Barnidge’s butt catch last season, but Graham is just on a different level of athleticism.

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