NFL season full of storylines near campaign’s halfway point

Luke Henne | Sports Editor | After a 2020 season highlighted by stadiums with capacity-restricted crowds (or no crowds at all), stadiums across the country — like FedEx Field in Landover, Md. — have returned to full capacity.

Brentaro Yamane | Staff Writer

Oct. 21, 2021

The number one can represent Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray in a lot of different ways.

Throughout his collegiate career at Texas A&M and Oklahoma, his jersey number was always No. 1. In his final year at Oklahoma, he ranked first in the Big 12 Conference in completion percentage (69%), passing yards (4,361) and passing touchdowns (42).

His outstanding performance that year helped him earn the Heisman Trophy, given out annually to college football’s top player.

Soon after, the Cardinals selected Murray with the first overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft. After two bumpy seasons to start his career, Murray’s Cardinals are currently 6-0. As the only remaining undefeated team, a 6-0 record pits the Cardinals as the league’s top team.

Perhaps what is most impressive about Arizona’s start is that four out of its first six games were played away from the confines of State Farm Stadium. Three of those opponents (Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns) earned playoff berths a season ago.

Murray’s lineup of offensive weapons contains perennial pro bowlers like wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green, but also serviceable running backs like Chase Edmonds and James Conner.

The Cardinals added to the lineup this past week, when they acquired tight end Zach Ertz from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Ertz — who caught the game-winning touchdown in Philadelphia’s 2018 Super Bowl victory — provides veteran leadership to a younger, less-experienced team.

While the NFL season has been loaded with interesting dynamics, no team has been as surprising as the Arizona Cardinals.

However, other noteworthy storylines have caught the eyes of many fans.

Since meeting in the 2016 Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos have each struggled to find consistent success. It’s been more of the same this year.

After acquiring quarterback Sam Darnold from the New York Jets, the Panthers bolted out to a 3-0 start, but have since lost three consecutive games.

Likewise, the Denver Broncos won their first three games behind the play of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whom Carolina traded in order to make room for Darnold. Denver has also regressed, losing three straight contests.

Both teams are looking to reestablish an identity and stay in the playoff hunt as a result.

In his age-44 season, Tampa Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady still hasn’t missed a beat.

The seven-time Super Bowl champion currently leads the league in passing yards (2,064) and completions (183). His 17 passing touchdowns are good for second in the league, trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes.

With all 22 starters from last year’s title team returning this season, the team began the season as a favorite to win a second consecutive title. At 5-1 and in first place in the NFC South, Tampa Bay is priming itself for another deep playoff run.

Arguably no division has been as strong as the AFC North to this point. All four teams have a record of .500 or better, combining for a record of 15-9. The Baltimore Ravens, who have won the division in two of the past three seasons, are leading the way at 5-1. At 4-2, the Cincinnati Bengals trail the Ravens by one game prior to a showdown between the division stalwarts at M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday.

The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-3. An injury-plagued Browns team will take on the Broncos on Thursday night. The Steelers will get a bye week before traveling to Cleveland for a pivotal divisional matchup on Oct. 31.

After a disappointing 2020 season that saw the Dallas Cowboys go 6-10 and finish in third place in the NFC East, Dallas has cemented itself as the team to beat in the division. Quarterback Dak Prescott, who was lost to injury in the team’s fifth game of 2020, returned from injury and has led the Cowboys to five straight victories following an opening-week loss against the Buccaneers.

The first two picks of the 2021 NFL Draft are not having hot starts.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the draft’s top selection, is 1-5. During his collegiate career at Clemson, Lawrence was never responsible for a regular-season loss.

Zach Wilson was drafted by the Jets with the second pick. In five games, he’s thrown over twice as many interceptions (nine) than he has touchdowns (four).

Will Arizona’s success last? Will the class of rookie quarterbacks finally hit their stride?

With six weeks gone in the NFL season, these questions will soon be answered, just as new storylines begin to unfold.