We’ve seen some surprising results so far in the NFL season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were widely expected to finish last in the NFC South as one of the worst teams in the entire league, yet they knocked off the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles in back-to-back weeks for a 2-0 start. The Kansas City Chiefs can seemingly score whenever they want to with Patrick Mahomes at the helm. On the other side of the coin, however, the Pittsburgh Steelers limped to a 0-1-1 record with lots of team chemistry issues. But which of these early season trends will continue?
The Buccaneers can’t keep their current pace for long. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 400-plus yards in his first two outings, along with eight touchdowns. Everyone loves to talk about the “Fitzmagic” phenomenon — when Fitzpatrick gets absurdly hot and cannot be stopped. The problem with Fitzpatrick is that Fitzmagic eventually ends, and when Fitzmagic ends, things get ugly. Fitzpatrick is interception-prone, with a 19:20 touchdown to interception ratio over the 2016 and 2017 seasons combined. Those turnovers are coming Tampa Bay’s way soon. Quarterback Jameis Winston will return from his suspension after Week 3 but has shown nothing in his career that indicates he will help this team. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson has 275 receiving yards and three touchdowns in two games thanks to Fitzpatrick. But he’s 31 and hasn’t been a force in the league since 2014. The Bucs feel like a 7-9 or 8-8 team to me, though to give them credit, that’s far more than most anyone expected entering the season.
The Kansas City Chiefs raced past the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers in the first two weeks, scoring a blistering 80 points total. Mahomes threw for 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, and while that ratio won’t continue, he looks legit. Mahomes can launch the football deep with more ease than almost anyone else in the league, and he looks poised beyond his years. Still, it’s hard to trust a rookie quarterback for an entire season, and the Chiefs have a history of cooling off after hot starts under Coach Andy Reid. In Week 1 last season, they dominated then defending champion New England, scoring 42 points behind Alex Smith and Kareem Hunt. Those 2017 Chiefs went 5-0 before stumbling and making an early exit from the playoffs. In 2016, Kansas City went 9-3 to open the year but still lost their first playoff game, this one in the divisional round.
I’m taking a wait-and-see approach with the Chiefs. They look absolutely loaded, but they’ve looked dominant in other seasons that ended in disappointing and underwhelming fashions. Until Kansas City wins a game in the divisional round of the playoffs, I can only consider them a 10-6, wild card kind of team. They have much to prove to the football world in January 2019.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, meanwhile, played far worse than anticipated. Star running back Le’Veon Bell’s continued holdout doesn’t help matters, of course. It seems more and more likely that Bell will wait until Week 8 or Week 9 to return to the team — when he can still retain his free agent status next off-season but not risk the Steelers running him into the ground throughout an entire year. Bell is basically punting on 2018 in the hopes of a healthy and wealthy 2019. Wide receiver Antonio Brown’s discontent grows stronger by the week. He responded with anger to a former employee of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Twitter the day after Pittsburgh’s Week 2 loss, sarcastically (maybe) tweeting “trade me.” Brown missed Monday’s practice for unexplained reasons, to add to the situation. As much as Coach Mike Tomlin tries to downplay the Brown issue, the wide receiver has made it clear that something negative is happening behind the scenes.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was rocky to start off as well, throwing three interceptions in Week 1 against the Browns. Big Ben rebounded in Week 2, but the 36-year-old has grown more and more inconsistent in recent seasons, and 2018 looks no different. It could be his bumpiest campaign yet. Considering his advanced age, it would be no great surprise if Roethlisberger declined precipitously this year.
It’s looking like the end of an era for the Steelers. Offensive linemen spoke out against Le’Veon Bell before the season, Antonio Brown continues to express displeasure and Roethlisberger made a number of curious comments in the offseason. On Pittsburgh’s drafting of Mason Rudolph, the veteran said, “I was surprised when they took a quarterback because I thought that maybe in the third round, you know you can get some really good football players that can help this team now … But that’s not my decision to make. That’s on the coaches and the GM and the owner and those kind of things.” These are not the words of a happy quarterback. Roethlisberger later said these comments were taken out of context and that he meant them “in jest.” Nevertheless, whether you believe the quarterback or not, the Steelers’ locker room is a toxic environment.
Luckily for Pittsburgh, the AFC North is not exactly a powerhouse division. Between the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, the Steelers only need to be above-average to make the playoffs. But do they have that kind of season left in the tank? I remain unconvinced.
George Klein ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.