Another week, another set of data points for the young 2023 NFL season. This was the week of the running back with the league-shaking loss of Browns running back Nick Chubb and the emergence of Falcons rookie Bijan Robinson.
This week’s Four Verts also spends some time with Washington and asks if the Browns can count on the quarterback they traded the world to get.
First, let's examine the nine winless teams in the league entering Week 3.
Thanks to my buddy Justis Mosqueda for allowing me to steal his brilliant phrase that denotes the perilous situation where the current crop of 0-2 teams find themselves. Only one team (2022 Bengals) has made the playoffs after starting 0-2 in the 17-game era. It’s a tough pill to swallow that playoffs are a long shot after the first two weeks of the season, but it’s an unfortunate truth of their situations.
Last week, we touched on the potential 0-2 teams heading into the weekend, now the 0-2 teams are really here. Let's rank them.
Cincinnati Bengals — This team still has a lot to it and it should start winning games once Joe Burrow gets healthy, but he may miss Monday night's game vs. the Rams (which is probably for the best at this point), and an 0-3 start would make getting to the playoffs nearly impossible.
Los Angeles Chargers — Justin Herbert gives this team the ability to win any game it plays. Unfortunately, the Chargers' defense is stuck in the mud and giving up big point totals through the first two weeks of the season.
New England Patriots — The Patriots had a tough draw to start the season with games against the Eagles and Dolphins. They're a quality team that doesn't quite have the firepower to get past the clubs they played at the start of the campaign. Sometimes that's how it goes and it will probably cost this team later this season.
Minnesota Vikings — Kirk Cousins is competent and Justin Jefferson is still competent. They have a chance to make some noise in what looks like a weak division.
Denver Broncos — Good head coach. Quarterback finally came alive somewhat on Sunday. They're just not consistent enough on a down-to-down basis and have lost their first two games because of it. Still, the Broncos have the high-end talent to be a headache for some teams.
Chicago Bears — Sure, the Bears can go here. They don't have anything going right for them now, but they paid a lot to upgrade this roster in terms of money and draft picks so maybe some of those pieces can start working.
Houston Texans — Of the final three 0-2 teams, this one appears to have the best quarterback situation. C.J. Stroud looks damn promising.
Arizona Cardinals — Being up 28-7 is something the Panthers haven't done yet this year so, congratulations to the Cardinals.
Carolina Panthers — Bryce Young has struggled and the Panthers are already getting banged up on defense. Tough season to not have access to your first-round draft pick.
Bijan Robinson, our newest hero
Y’all mind if I get in my homer bag real quick? OK, cool.
Bijan Robinson has played two games for the Atlanta Falcons and … he’s the best running back of all time.
No one dashes, dances or prances quite like Robinson — every carry feels like Christmas Day. The Falcons have had a lot of great running backs over the past two decades, but Robinson already looks different than the other top players they’ve had at that position. Jamal Anderson, Warrick Dunn, Michael Turner, Devonta Freeman — Robinson might already be the best of all of them. That’s no slight either, it's just an acknowledgement of the supreme talent that the Falcons currently have in their backfield.
Robinson has quickly established himself as one of the more electrifying runners in the league and has made the Falcons' run game more dangerous. There have been a handful of plays that should have been dead on arrival, but Robinson routinely makes defenders miss. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Robinson ranks second in rushing yards over expectation (76) among all running backs with at least 20 carries, behind only Christian McCaffrey. Robinson is also tied for second in total first downs generated on the ground with 11 on his 29 carries. He has been an energizer for this Falcons offense in a way that has gotten Atlanta out of some sticky situations.
His touchdown in Week 1 against the Panthers was a perfect encapsulation of his talents. He caught the ball from Desmond Ridder, who was being blitzed, and was immediately in danger of being tackled for a loss by a Panther before slamming on the brakes, making the defender miss before knifing through two more defenders for a touchdown. It was a three-on-one situation and he got through it with ease.
As someone who was skeptical of the pick on draft night, I'm all aboard the Bijan Robinson train now. He isn't just turning potential negative plays into positive ones, he's turning potential negative plays into explosive ones without putting himself too far into harm's way. It's easy to see how the Falcons decided to pull the trigger on this pick even if it was contrarian toward how running backs are viewed now.
The Falcons haven't given me or anyone else a whole lot to cheer for over the past few years since That One Game, but Bijan has breathed some life back into this fan base and team — and he's the greatest running back of all time after two games. See you in Detroit this weekend and Canton in the future.
The Browns are in big, big trouble
Let's send some well-wishes to Chubb, who suffered a horrific, season-ending knee injury against the Steelers on Monday night.
Chubb has been one of the best players in the NFL since being drafted in 2018 and is one of the few true difference-makers at running back in the league. Not every team can say they have a RB worth structuring an entire offense around, but the Browns certainly have one in Chubb and his presence was sorely missed after he left the game due to his injury.
Now that he's gone and hopefully facing a speedy recovery, the Browns turn their hopes and dreams toward the one thing every team hopes to find in the NFL: a franchise quarterback. Deshaun Watson was supposed to be that when the Browns traded three first-round draft picks for him and handed him a fully guaranteed $230 million contract. He has been anything but that for the Browns since he arrived.
In eight games with the Browns, Watson has completed 57.3% of his passes and has nine touchdown passes to seven interceptions. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Watson ranks dead last in expected points added per dropback (-0.24) among all 35 quarterbacks with at least 200 passing attempts since last season. That’s below the likes of guys like Zach Wilson, Davis Mills and Carson Wentz — guys who don’t have the prospects of being a long-term starting quarterback in the NFL anymore.
In the time that Watson was away from the game dealing with dozens of sexual misconduct and harassment lawsuits, it appears he has lost whatever playmaking ability he had that made the Browns take the on-field and off-field hits of trading for him. If how he’s playing right now is what it’s going to be moving forward, the Browns are in huge trouble.
This isn’t a team in a rebuilding phase. Once the boundary of paying a market rate franchise quarterback contract is crossed, every game has an increased sense of importance. So far, Watson looks like a quarterback who needs to be replaced instead of one who is going to end up living up to his own standard as one of the top QBs in the league. In theory, the allocation of money that the Browns have at quarterback suggests that this shouldn’t be the end of the Browns’ season, but they have absolutely no chance to make the playoffs with how Watson is playing now.
Jerome Ford did an impressive job filling in for Chubb after his injury, but now he has to keep that performance that he had against Pittsburgh up for the whole season. Chubb gave the Browns a way to continue to generate offense throughout their quarterback woes in previous seasons. That's not there anymore. An offense that was centered on the talents of a running back now needs its star quarterback to simply have one game that shows he can still be a top-flight starter in the NFL.
Until that happens, the Browns are still the Browns. All the tanking and asset collection over the past five or six years appears to have led them to the same place they always end up: without a quarterback. Except this time they’re really stuck with Watson for years. No one is picking up that contract, so better hope it gets better.
The Commanders might have a real core
Washington has had a tumultuous run over the past few years, but now that Dan Snyder is out and new ownership is in, the focus can get back to football for this team. The Commanders feel like they’re moving in the right direction and they’re coming off of a big win against the Broncos in which they got their first glimpses of having a quarterback of the future.
Sam Howell is still a little rough around the edges, but he is uncommonly talented for being a fifth round draft pick. Through two games, Howell looks closer to the player who was considered a top-50 prospect instead of the one who fell to the bottom of the draft.
If Howell can sustain above average QB play, then the talented supporting cast that’s in place can live up to their own abilities and expectations. Terry McLaurin is already a star wide receiver, Jahan Dotson is a stud and the Commanders have a host of skill players who can flourish if there’s competent QB play. New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has done a great job pulling the strings so far and this offense is humming, even with some shaky line play and Howell going through the growing pains of a young quarterback.
The Commanders' offensive competence helped them against the Broncos and was the perfect buffer for a normally good defense that struggled Sunday. Jon Allen, Daron Payne, Chase Young and Montez Sweat have had their moments this season, but the defense as a whole hasn’t been as strong as it was last season. Still, the Commanders are 2-0 and look to be a good deal better than the Giants at this point. They'll look to improve to 3-0 when the Bills (1-1) come to town this weekend.
This team isn’t on track to winning a Super Bowl this season, but being able to focus on a quality on-field product is a welcome change for this organization and its fans. There’s no excitement like the excitement of a potential franchise quarterback in town after years of distraught and desperation.