Week 2’s Top NFL Storylines: Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and the Worst Team in the NFL
Plus, the undefeated NFC team that's bound to come back to earth
With the NFC North clash between the Packers and Lions on Monday Night Football in the rearview, the second week of the NFL season is in the books. While we can’t get to everything — like the possibility of Tom Brady playing until the age of 50 — here are four of the top storylines to emerge from Week 2 of the season, and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em.
Buy: The Bears need to stick with Justin Fields
Filling in for an injured Andy Dalton to start the third quarter after playing a handful of snaps in Sunday’s home game against the Cincinnati Bengals, rookie quarterback Justin Fields went 6-of-13 for 60 yards and an interception and rushed 10 times for 31 yards. (He also had a pass that should have been a touchdown dropped in the end zone.)
While the numbers were far from impressive for the 11th overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, Fields was able to help guide the Bears to a 20-17 victory, Chicago’s first of the season. Given that Dalton landed awkwardly on the Chicago sideline and his left knee appeared to buckle, it seems very likely that Fields will get a chance to make the first start of his NFL career in Week 3 against the Browns.
And although the Bears have already said Dalton will remain the team’s starter if healthy, head coach Matt Nagy would be wise to commit to Fields as his starter going forward because the 22-year-old rookie, not 33-year-old Dalton, is the future in Chicago. And, if it turns out that he isn’t, the Bears would be better off finding out now.
An organization without a franchise quarterback for decades, the Bears made the difficult, and correct, call of letting former first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky go during the offseason even though he was 29-21 over four seasons as a starter in Chicago. Trubisky, who was drafted second overall in 2017 ahead of quarterbacks including Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, had a winning record for the Bears but was generally a sidecar who was bailed out by a stingy Chicago defense. Now that defense has lost a step and the Bears need more from their quarterback. There’s a chance that Fields can provide it.
“I don’t think I’m pleased with how I played at all,” Fields offered in self-assessment of his play. “I think there’s a lot more in me that I have to show, and I know that’s going to come with time. I know it’s not going to happen overnight. So I’m just going to keep grinding and no matter what happens, I know I’m meant for this and I’m meant to be here.”
The Bears need to let their future franchise QB prove it or fail trying by keeping Fields on the field as their starter.
Sell: The Panthers can keep doing what they’re doing
Following wins over the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints to open the season, the Carolina Panthers are now 2-0 with Sam Darnold as their starting quarterback. Darnold, who has almost 300 passing yards and three touchdowns, has been good. But as is usually the case, the key to Carolina’s success is do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey.
However, if the Panthers keep using their fifth-year star the way they have been, that success is going to cease.
At 5’11” and just north of 200 pounds, the 25-year-old dual-threat is not built like bell-cow running back Derrick Henry and his body cannot handle the pounding of a full NFL schedule if he’s overused. That hasn’t stopped the Panthers from giving McCaffrey, who missed 13 games last season dealing with an AC joint injury, a high ankle sprain and a quad injury, from giving him an insane workload to start the season.
Through two games, McCaffrey has 45 rushes for 170 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and 14 receptions for 154 receiving yards. Of those 324 combined yards, 39 have come after contact and 140 have come after the catch. That’s quite a pounding on almost 30 touches per game, a number that has to come down if the Panthers want to keep McCaffrey playing and productive.
Averaging the most scrimmage yards per game since 2018 at 136.6 ahead of Dalvin Cook (115.7), Saquon Barkley (110.9), Henry (109.4) and Ezekiel Elliott (109), McCaffrey is undeniably a special talent and the best playmaker on Carolina’s roster by far in both the running and passing game. But he’s currently on pace for 501.5 touches, almost 100 more than than the 403 he received during the 2019 season. If that pace keeps up, McCaffrey won’t make it through this one.
Buy: The Jaguars are the NFL’s worst team, again
After going 1-15 last season following disastrous 5-11 and 6-10 campaigns, the Jacksonville Jaguars were given the No. 1 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft for being the league’s worst time. To the surprise of no one, the Jaguars and first-year head coach Urban Meyer selected quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the consensus top pick, out of Clemson.
Following consecutive losses to start the season to the Texans and Broncos, teams that weren’t much better than Jacksonville last season, Meyer and Lawrence are 0-2. Meyer never lost more than two games in any of his seven seasons at Ohio State, and Lawrence, who went 34-2 at Clemson, has thrown five interceptions — the same number of picks he had in 10 games for Clemson in 2020.
”Don’t give up on us,” Meyer said after Sunday’s 23-13 loss. ”We’re going to get better. The one thing about Jacksonville and the 904, [we] go to sleep knowing there’s not going to be any group working harder to get this thing flipped.”
Given that the Jaguars will take their 17-game losing streak into a matchup against Kyler Murray and the undefeated Arizona Cardinals, we wouldn’t count on that happening in Week 3. And given how devoid the team is of talent and how Meyer has handled himself so far this season, we wouldn’t really count on that happening this season in general.
A longtime laughingstock, the Jaguars managed only 189 yards of total offense on Sunday against the Broncos, their lowest yardage total since 2018. Surrounded by a subpar collection of skill players, Lawrence averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per passing attempt to go with a 37.2 QB rating for the game and a 20.2 rating for the season. Not great.
The good news for Lawrence is that help is likely on the way, as the Jaguars currently have the best odds of finishing with the worst record in the league this season and becoming just the eighth team in NFL history to get back-to-back No. 1 picks. If that happens, it’ll help Lawrence in the long-term. In the short term, he’ll just have to hang in there.
Sell: The Jets are giving Zach Wilson a chance to succeed
Drafted No. 2 overall out of BYU by the New York Jets, quarterback Zach Wilson made his home debut on Sunday against the New England Patriots and it may be somewhat of an understatement to say it did not go well.
Wilson threw four interceptions in the first 34 minutes of the game against New England, more picks than he tossed in his entire 2020 season in college. The first Jets player in 40 years to throw interceptions on his first two passes, Wilson had completed as many balls to the Patriots (three) as he did to his own team by halftime.
And what did the Jets do to help calm their 22-year-old QB and put him in a position to succeed? Not too much.
Instead of reeling Wilson in after he finished the first half 3-for-7 for 45 yards with three picks and an abysmal 25.0 passer rating, Jets coach Robert Saleh had the first-year player throw the ball more in the second half as the team attempted to rally in what would eventually be a 25-6 loss. Things got so bad for Wilson (who finished 19-of-33 for 210 yards) in the fourth quarter that the crowd at MetLife Stadium booed their potential franchise QB in his first home game.
When that happened, you’d think that perhaps Saleh would have changed quarterbacks or, at the very least, continued to run the football (which the Jets did effectively, to the tune of 152 yards) in order to get the ball out of Wilson’s hands and help preserve some level of confidence in the young quarterback. Instead, Saleh left Wilson in there to take a beating from the crowd and the Patriots.
“I was not really paying attention,” Wilson said after the game. “But they should be booing. We didn’t play well on offense, we didn’t execute, move ball or score points. This is what we sign up for. This is going to be a game with ups and downs. I think about how long the season is and I have to remember this situation. I’m an important piece for the team and I have to keep that swagger and mojo every week.”
A quarterback who just threw four interceptions should be worrying about forcing balls into coverage instead of checking the ball down to an open receiver, not his swagger and mojo. If Wilson doesn’t know that, blame the Jets.
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