The ugly truth about the NFL
The main reaction so far to the 2013 NFL season has been one of surprise. Things to be surprised about:
• The San Francisco 49ers are 1-2 and have the third-worst point-differential in the league.
• The New York Giants and Washington Redskins are 0-3, and the Giants’ point differential is worse than any team but the Jacksonville Jaguars.
• Eli Manning has been as bad as that last stat suggests; Robert Griffin III hasn’t been as bad as Eli Manning, but his turning radius is about that of an 18-wheeler.
• And the AFC currently has 28 wins, well ahead of the NFC’s 20.
None of these things were to be expected; 2013 was supposed to be the Zone Read Year 2, the season in which Colin Kaepernick and RGIII continued their reign of terror against opposing offenses and the NFL’s passing games became even more dominant presences than they already were. And Week 1 certainly started out that way, with more passing TDs than any other week in league history.
But what might become the overwhelming narrative of the year — and let’s be clear: it also might not; this is football we’re talking about, a sport so unpredictable it makes the stock market look like Scooby Doo — is that teams are winning ugly.
Ugliness has always been a part of the NFL’s DNA: with 16 games a season, the maxim of “it’s now how you win, it’s that you win” becomes massively more important. In the NBA, if your team shoots 43 percent from the field, you might pull out a game against the Bobcats, but you won’t beat the 28 other teams. In MLB, if you only score 3.5 runs per game, you might take the night when your ace is up, but you’ll lose the next four.
Back to the NFL. At the end of Week 3, we have a few teams that look like bonafide juggernauts: the Seahawks and Broncos have each outscored their opponents by more than 18 points per game. Then there’s the Saints, Chiefs, and Patriots, none of whom have allowed more than 13 points per game. (The Chiefs are also riding a remarkable zero-turnover streak, which certainly doesn’t hurt.
After that, we’re in the realm of the insane. The Bears are 3-0, right? Sure are. But they’re winning by an average of seven points a game and allowing nearly 25 points per game. They’ve beaten two winless teams and the Bengals, which: well, let’s talk about the Bengals.
If you had the misfortune of watching the Packers-Bengals game this weekend, then I’m sorry. Packers-Bengals is one of those games that gets referred to as "good" because it was close.
As far as the quality of football it contained, you’re probably better off hitting up any high school in Texas. The game featured eight turnovers, four from each team; the Bengals won despite fumbling five times. And that’s no fluke: Cincinnati might currently be the king of the dirty win. The Bengals turn the ball over on a remarkable 19.4 percent of their offensive drives, trailing only the Giants, the Steelers, and the Vikings: all teams that — surprise! — have yet to win a single game.
Something the Bengals and the Bears have in common: they’ve both beaten the Steelers.
Then there’s the Jets. Oh, the Jets. That list of teams with the highest turnover percentage continues with the Jets following the Bengals, and their win on Sunday against the Bills featured one of the most remarkable displays ever seen in an NFL victory: New York committed 20 penalties, or more than any other team during a win in the Super Bowl era. (You have to go back to 1951 to find the last time that a team won with more penalties than that).
It was so bad that Rex Ryan has pledged to make players — even the owner — do push-ups during practice for every penalty committed, another thing that sounds more appropriate on a high school team than in the pros.
The 2013 season is young, and there’s more than a chance that order could be restored in more ways than one. That’s the beauty of sports: If the 49ers win their next 13 games, they’ll be 14-2, even though they started 1-2. If the Broncos lose their next 13 games, they’ll be 3-13, even though they started 3-0.
But through three games, the general thread outside of Seattle and Denver — what you can rest assured every coach is saying to his players in the locker room — is that any team can beat any other team. Except for Jacksonville.