We’re steadily nearing the halfway point of the NFL regular season, and the first part of the year has featured some surprisingly successful teams. The Miami Dolphins currently stand with a 4-2 record, coming off a stirring victory against Khalil Mack and the Chicago Bears. The Kansas City Chiefs went from a solid, low-ceiling playoff team to an absolute juggernaut, boasting the league’s best offense. The Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens look ready to battle the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North’s top spot all season long. But on the other side, some franchises that expected to compete this year might be in big trouble, namely the Atlanta Falcons (2-4), San Francisco 49ers (1-5) and New York Giants (1-5). Do any of these teams have hope for a turnaround?
The Falcons were supposed to contend again in the NFC South, fighting for position with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. Unfortunately, their roster has been absolutely shredded by injuries. Atlanta lost Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones at the very beginning of the year — Neal to a knee injury and Jones to a foot injury. While Jones may return by season’s end, for now both remain on injured reserve. To make matters worse, safety Ricardo Allen tore his Achilles in late September, and he too is out for the season. There simply is not much talent left on the defensive side of the football for Atlanta, and the Falcons have struggled to stop anyone as a result. They’ve given up 32 points per game, the second-worst in the entire league.
Atlanta must be saved by its offense, and I still do believe that the Falcons can resurrect their season. Fantasy owners may complain about wide receiver Julio Jones’ lack of touchdowns, but he’s on pace for over 1,800 receiving yards and gives rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley lots of room to operate and succeed in. Running back Devonta Freeman is headed to IR with groin surgery, but considering the state of the NFL — how pass-heavy the league is now — the Falcons can still succeed on offense with Jones, Ridley and quarterback Matt Ryan. Lots of fans worried about Ryan’s health and ability after his struggles against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, but he looks as good as ever, on pace for 37 touchdowns and only five interceptions. The Falcons host the Giants this Monday night. A win will move them to 3-4, and they play the Redskins, Browns and Cowboys afterwards. Not exactly a fearsome bunch. If they can tighten up the defense only a modest degree, this team can still hang around and try to grab a wild card spot at season’s end.
Speaking of those Giants, the situation in New York is looking rough. WR Odell Beckham Jr. has not shied away from vocalizing his issues with the team, and owner John Mara spoke out strongly in response, saying OBJ should do “a little less talking.” A lot of discussion concerning the franchise has centered on the decision to draft running back Saquon Barkley instead of a quarterback like Sam Darnold with the second overall pick. The argument goes that while Barkley may be taking the league by storm and looking like the best running back in the game, his position’s value is miniscule compared to quarterback, meaning that Barkley can’t help the Giants in the way Darnold would have. And many of the Giants’ problems on offense do come from quarterback Eli Manning. The two-time-Super Bowl Champion looks washed up, and can barely throw the ball 20 yards at this point.
However, how much could Darnold help if he had to spend his rookie season running for his life? Manning barely has any time to throw the football; the Giants’ offensive line has been porous. New York could be in a far better position if it continues on with Barkley and Beckham, then either drafts a quarterback next year or finds one in free agency — and of course, shores up its line. With so much talent on offense, New York can’t be held in check forever. So though they may not have any hope for this season, next year has potential for the Giants.
The 49ers face a lot of obstacles in their path back to respectability. The enthusiasm felt in San Francisco at the start of the season is gone thanks to Jimmy Garoppolo’s torn ACL. C.J. Beathard has done an admirable job of filling in, but Garoppolo is the face of the franchise, and the team must start back at square one next year. Jimmy G will need time to recover his form on the field, and even longer to show signs of his sky-high potential. Add in running back Jerick McKinnon’s torn ACL and you’ve lost two key pieces on offense to disastrous injuries.
It’s really the worst case scenario for San Francisco, but there have been flashes of good news. Running back Matt Breida has rushed for a ridiculous 6.8 yards per carry thus far. If he stays healthy, Breida can be the future at running back for the 49ers. Tight end George Kittle is on pace for over 1,100 receiving yards and will be a real weapon for Garoppolo once he returns. Yet in the end, it’s a rough year to be a 49er fan. Hopefully the condition of the team looks a lot brighter in 2020.
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.