As the 2019 season enters its final stretch, an entertaining MVP race showcases a less restrictive brand of football.
By Robert O’Connell | The Atlantic | December 12, 2019
“The No-Fun League” isn’t a new phrase. It has hung around the NFL for decades, mobilized whenever the structures and strictures of the league tip too far toward dourness. Historically, it’s been brought up most often in relation to the NFL’s disciplining of on-field celebration, but lately it seems to resonate more generally. For the better part of this century, following pro football hasn’t been particularly fun. On the macro level, there’s the ever-present specter of brain injury, the lopsided battles between ownership and labor, the bleeding of civic funds for billionaire owners’ stadiums. On Sundays themselves, there is a game that too often indulges the draconian whims of coaches and reduces players to replaceable parts.
This NFL season rounds into its final stretch, though, with an unmistakably joyful quality to it. The year hasn’t been without its reminders of football’s ills—Andrew Luck’s preseason retirement and Colin Kaepernick’s farcical midseason tryout foremost among them—but it has also offered a reminder of its primary charm: namely, the remarkable athletes who play it. Amid the usual churn of the leaderboard, with certain new contenders announcing themselves and former ones falling back to the pack, the lead story has been the MVP race, and the emergence of a pair of players poised not only to lead Super Bowl runs but also to shake the sport free of its stodgier tendencies. They promote a more positive perspective: Since Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson play football, it can’t be all bad.
ackson, the Baltimore Ravens’ second-year quarterback, began the season with his credentials as a viable starter still in question, at least in some pockets of the NFL community. Thirteen games into the Ravens’ campaign, he’s been nothing less than a one-man revolution. In a win against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Jackson became just the second quarterback ever to rush for 1,000 yards; with 3 games left to play, he is 22 yards away from Michael Vick’s record. He has also put up a 79.8 mark in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating this year, the highest in the league. In the way of great players across sports, he reduces football to pick-your-poison simplicity. Teams load up against Jackson’s running ability, and he hands the ball to a back for an easy gain or chucks it over their heads for a big play downfield. They drop back, and he runs for 20 yards. Jackson’s 35 total touchdowns, 28 passing and 7 rushing, are more than 18 entire teams have put up this season.
The production is one thing, the style another. The run that gave Jackson his 1,000th rushing yard, Sunday afternoon, came on a broken sequence; the Bills’ defense had brought a blitz that had seemed to bottle everything up. But with a linebacker in his face, Jackson chopped his feet and spurted out to the right. The defender toppled, and Jackson got to the edge, leaned his long frame forward, and wrung seven yards from a play that should have gone backwards. “That’s God-given,” Jackson said after the game when a reporter asked about the move.
Where the buzz around Jackson comes in part from his being a relative newcomer to the league, Wilson is by now an entrenched figure. At 31, he has won one Super Bowl and lost another, been named to six Pro Bowl rosters, and reached the playoffs six times. But his greatest successes came when he played a complementary role: to the Seattle Seahawks’ notorious “Legion of Boom” defense of the mid-2010s and to the bruising running back Marshawn Lynch. Now, with Lynch and almost every key defensive figure having left in recent years, the team rises and falls with Wilson. Even after a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Rams Sunday night, and despite a minuscule average point differential that suggests a roughly .500 team, he has led Seattle to a 10–3 mark, many of those wins coming in the final moments by way of Wilson’s crunch-time dramatics.
Like Jackson’s, Wilson’s numbers sparkle. The Seahawks quarterback has thrown 26 touchdowns and run for three more against just five interceptions, all the more impressive considering that his passes often come on the run, with defensive linemen bearing down. Also like Jackson’s, Wilson’s numbers fail to get at the weekly experience of watching him. In an overtime win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in November, Wilson set up the winning touchdown with a 29-yard throw down the sideline to a receiver, the rookie D.K. Metcalf, who couldn’t have been less open; Wilson lofted the ball to a point over the sideline, just outside of Metcalf’s shoulders, where only he could catch it. The next week, at the end of another overtime game against the league-best San Francisco 49ers, Wilson broke out of the pocket and ran 18 yards to push the Seahawks in range for the winning field goal. The now-routine performances—Wilson has a league-best five game-winning drives on the year—amount to an argument. Tactics get you so far, but talent wins out when it matters most.
That might also be the subtext of the season at large. This grim generation of football has been defined not only by head injury and corporate gluttony but also by the New England Patriots, whose quarterback, Tom Brady, has achieved such a rapport with his head coach, Bill Belichick, that divvying credit between the two is nearly impossible. Theirs is an approach built on responsibility and precision, but this year it seems to be paying off a little less. Sunday’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs—led by another outlandish talent, the reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes—dropped the Patriots to 10–3, and Brady looks as bad as he has in a long while.
There is a symmetry to the Patriots’ slippage, the waning effectiveness of their mind-melding coach-QB combo, coinciding with these yearlong performances from Jackson and Wilson. Those two, stylistically and strategically, offer a rebuttal to the Belichick-Brady mold, a reassertion of the franchise player as something more exciting than an enactor of game plans. “With Russell back there, it don’t matter,” the Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said after Seattle’s win over Tampa Bay. “You have a chance. You have a chance no matter what’s going on.”
In Baltimore, Harbaugh rebuilt the entire offense around Jackson, moving away from the NFL’s pocket-passer traditions and acknowledging the obligation of a coach to adjust to a special player. Earlier this season, cameras caught Harbaugh praising his quarterback on the sideline late in a Ravens win, excited as any fan. “You changed the game, man,” Harbaugh said. “You know how many little kids in this country are gonna be wearing number eight playing quarterback for the next 20 years?” It was, for a moment, a true rarity: a happy look into the future of football.
ROBERT O’CONNELL is a writer based in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Esquire, and Vice Sports.