49ers

NFL winners, losers: 49ers in trouble as Kyler, Cards soar

49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyler Murray

We're officially a month into the NFL season, which means it's time to take stock of the good and bad at the quarterish pole of the season.

Through four games, some things we thought preseason have come to pass, such as the 10-car pile-up happening in Jacksonville or Tom Brady continuing to bludgeon Father Time into submission.

But there have been some surprises on both ends of the spectrum.

So, with four weeks in the books, here are the winners and losers from the first quarterish of the NFL season.

Winner: Kyler Murray and the Cardinals

You couldn’t have drawn up a better first month of the season than what Murray and the Cardinals put together.

The electric third-year quarterback ranks first in the NFL in completion percentage (76.1 percent), completions of over 25 yards (16), second in passing yards (1,273), total touchdowns (12), passing yard per attempt (9.5), and fifth in passer rating (115.0).

In 113 pass attempts from the pocket, Murray has only thrown six off-target passes. Six.

Murray has been an unstoppable force of nature through the first four games. He shredded the Tennessee Titans to open the season, survived a scare against the Minnesota Vikings, spun the Jacksonville Jaguars like a top, and then rolled into SoFi Stadium on Sunday and poured gasoline all over the NFC favorite Los Angeles Rams before lighting them on fire for three straight hours.

 

There is no argument to be made that the Cardinals aren’t, right now, the best team in football. Arizona ranks first in the NFL in scoring, second in total offense, fourth in passing offense, and sixth in rushing offense.

Kliff Kingsbury has taken his play-calling to the next level which has, in turn, allowed Murray to elevate his game.

The Cardinals just pantsed Sean McVay and the darling Rams and have a chance Sunday to put a stake through the heart of the wounded 49ers.

The only thing prettier than the Cardinals’ start to the season was watching Murray put on a show Sunday in Los Angeles, announcing himself as the MVP front runner and Arizona as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Loser: Urban Meyer

Who could have seen this train wreck coming? Oh, right, just about everyone who knew anything about Meyer.

Even before the season started, rumors came out of Jaguars camp that veteran players were turned off by Meyer and that coach was having a hard time connecting with his players.

The Jags went 0-4 through the quarter pole, including a Week 1 loss to a Houston Texans team that is expected to be the worst in football.

Then, after the Jaguars’ Week 4 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night, Meyer opted not to fly home with his team and instead stayed in Ohio to visit family. That family trip turned into a video that went viral over the weekend that showed Meyer with a woman who wasn’t his wife engaging in an act that required an apology Monday.

The Urban Meyer circus is a 24/7/365 operation. Meyer has been a distraction to the Jaguars since the moment he arrived in Duval. There was the hiring and quick firing of disgraced former Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle, the Tim Tebow PR stunt, the fake QB competition, the fine for violating offseason practice rules, the USC whispers and now, the viral video.

Meyers has no moral compass. He never has. He has always done what he wants, how he wants, and believes he has the power and moral high ground to justify and get away with those actions. He isn't cut out to lead players who have their own agency and whose lives he doesn't completely control. He's not the king in Jacksonville as he was in Columbus or Gainesville. In the NFL, the players are the stars, not the coach.

He isn’t connecting with the Jaguars and didn’t care enough about his team’s fourth-straight loss to head back to Jacksonville to study the tape and find ways to get in the win column. Instead, he stayed in Ohio, donning a scarlet Ohio State zip up and yucked it up at the local watering hole and went viral.

 

It’s over for Urban in Jacksonville. But it was over before it started.

But hey, at least he has a lot of pictures of his family on the coffee table.

Winner: Tom Brady

Perhaps age really is just a number.

At 44 years young, Tom Brady started the season playing some of the best football of the late stage of his career. Through the first two games, Brady threw nine touchdown passes and racked up 655 yards. Brady appeared to be gunning for the NFL single-season touchdown record of 55 set by Peyton Manning, but he has tossed just one touchdown in the last two weeks.

While Brady’s play cooled against the Rams and New England Patriots, the seven-time Super Bowl champion’s win in his highly anticipated return to Foxboro cemented him on this list.

No, Brady didn’t play great in the pouring Massachusetts rain. Bill Belichick’s defensive gameplan flummoxed Brady and the Bucs for much of the night as New England did everything to take away the middle of the field – Brady’s bread and butter – and forced the 44-year-old to beat them outside the numbers.

While Belichick’s gameplan kept Brady off-balance, the legendary quarterback eventually authored a game-winning drive by doing exactly what he has done his entire career: take what the defense gave him.

Brady jogged off the Gillette Stadium field for likely the final time as a competitor with a 19-17 win, and a 1-0 record against the man he spent two decades building a dynasty with.

The Bucs are nursing some key injuries, but Brady hasn’t lost a step at age 44. With the New England return behind him, Brady can focus all his energy on guiding the Bucs back to the Super Bowl trying to become the first team to repeat as champions since Brady and Belichick accomplished the feat in 2003 and 2004.

Loser: Rookie QB

The 2021 NFL QB class was hyped out the wazoo. Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Mac Jones and Justin Fields garnered comparisons to the famed 1983 class.

Lawrence, Wilson and Jones opened the season as starters. All struggled early. Lawrence threw three interceptions in his first game. Wilson was picked off four times in his second and Jones put three INTs on the board in Week 3.

 

Fields got his first start in Week 3 and Matt Nagy’s refusal to change from the Andy Dalton gameplan to one that accentuated Fields’ strengths saw the Bears’ offense put up 47 total yards in an embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Both Wilson and Fields responded in Week 4, playing well and delivering wins. Jones outplayed Brady in the Bucs’ win over the Patriots and has been the best of the class so far.

As for Lance, he got his first extended action in Week 4 after Jimmy Garoppolo exited with a calf injury. While there were some good moments, the North Dakota State product was jittery and showed why coach Kyle Shanahan had been adamant that Garoppolo was the starter. If Garoppolo can’t go in Week 5 then Lance will get his first career start with a gameplan that is tailored to him and that will give us a more accurate gauge of where he is at.

The rookie quarterbacks aren’t losers, per se, but the expectation that all or most of them would step in and light the NFL on fire clearly missed the mark. Herbert’s incredible rookie season was the exception, not the rule.

In the past 10 years, only seven rookie quarterbacks who have seen significant time performed at an above-average level per Expected Points Added. The names: Herbert, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston, Robert Griffin III and Dak Prescott. Every other rookie QB has been a below-average starter in Year 1.

It takes time to be great in the NFL. All five rookies still have bright futures, but they likely will continue to struggle throughout their first season. That’s to be expected.

Winner: Dallas Cowboys

Alright, I’ll admit it, I might have been wrong about the Cowboys.

Even after Dallas stuck with the Bucs in Week 1, I was quick to dismiss Dallas as a legitimate NFC title threat. Then, the Cowboys beat the Chargers with the help of a questionable illegal formation call, and I was still dubious of their long-term prospects.

But then the Cowboys went and put it on a Philadelphia Eagles team that stuck with the 49ers for 60 minutes, and then tore the Carolina Panthers’ stout run defense to ribbons.

Coming into Sunday’s game, Carolina had only allowed 135 rushing yards all season. The Cowboys went and rushed 245 yards and had seven different players pick up explosive plays (either 10-plus yard run or 15-plus yard reception) in the win.

 

The Cowboys have weapons all over the field and Dak Prescott is playing like the elite quarterback many of us with eyeballs knew he was.

RELATED: What's best for Lance is what's best for 49ers

On the defensive side of the ball, Trevon Diggs, who was barbecued chicken in the secondary last year, has totaled five interceptions and looks like he could be the best cornerback in a 2020 class that had five first-round picks. Diggs was taken in the second round.

Rookies Micah Parson and Osa Odighizuwa have been revelations so far and have helped Dallas stomach the loss of Demarcus Lawrence.

The Cowboys have the look of a legitimate title contender through four games. The NFC East is already in the bag as far as I’m concerned.

Loser: Pittsburgh Steelers

Oh, boy. Things could get ugly in Steel City.

Through four weeks, the Steelers are 1-3 and in the AFC North basement with the three teams ahead of them all at 3-1.

Pittsburgh’s offense has been an eyesore. Ben Roethlisberger, now 39, looks as cooked as cooked can be. The Steelers’ offense ranks 28th in EPA through four weeks and Roethlisberger is an issue that can’t be fixed. The veteran is averaging just 6.6 yards per pass. In the Steelers’ Week 4 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Roethlisberger threw the ball 40 times but only nine of those throws were over 10 yards.

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers’ infrastructure can’t save them. The house has already burned down with everyone inside.

Winner: Los Angeles Chargers

The odd Week 2 loss to the Cowboys didn’t stop the Chargers from ripping through the first four games, complete with a win over the Chiefs in Kansas City, to lead the AFC West.

Justin Herbert has picked up right where he left off last season, throwing for 1,178 yards, nine touchdown passes and only three interceptions early in the season.

Not only do the Chargers have an elite young quarterback with a bazooka for a right arm, but after having offseason surgery to remove an Anthony Lynn-sized growth from the franchise, the Bolts also have a sharp, young head coach in Brandon Staley who has helped usher in a new era of Bolts football.

On Monday, the Chargers raced out to a 21-0 lead over a confused and overmatched Las Vegas Raiders team. But Jon Gruden’s club mounted a second-half comeback, cutting the lead to 21-14. In past years with a different coach, the Chargers would have turtled, taken the ball out of Herbert’s hands and lost. But Staley elected to trust his young star, opting to go for two fourth downs near midfield, both of which Herbert converted.

 

The Bolts won 28-14.

LA has young stars at the two most important positions in the sport and is on top of the AFC West. The Chiefs aren’t going anywhere, but Herbert and the Chargers are set up to battle them for the division and conference crown for the next decade.

Loser:  49ers

After spending last season with a MASH unit, the 49ers had big plans for the 2021 season.

They pummeled the Detroit Lions for two quarters in Week 1 and then almost gagged the game away at the end. Then, they went to Philadelphia and struggled to score against an Eagles team that gave up an average of 41.5 points and 369 yards over the next two weeks. In Week 3, the 49ers came home and fell behind 17-0 to the Packers right out of the gate. Then, after storming all the way back to take the lead, the 49ers left Aaron Rodgers with 37 seconds, time enough to throw to passes and set up a game-winning field goal.

There was no bounceback in Week 4 against the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers outplayed Seattle in the first half but the game was tied at seven at the break. The Seahawks took advantage of some 49ers’ mistakes and Lance’s shaky play in the second half to send the 49ers to the NFC West basement.

The 49ers’ offense has struggled, the defense hasn’t been able to turn teams over and the injuries already are piling up. Jason Verrett and Raheem Mostert are done for the season. Dre Greenlaw is out for a while. So is K’Waun Williams. Garoppolo and Trent Williams both got banged up in Week 4, but the 49ers got promising reports on both players Monday.

At 2-2, the 49ers already are two games behind the undefeated Arizona Cardinals, who they face in Week 5. Arizona has a chance in Week 5 to deal a near mortal wound to the 49ers’ NFC West chances.

Injuries and inconsistent play have plagued the 49ers through four games, and the season might be on the brink soon if Shanahan can’t turn the ship around.

Download and follow the 49ers Talk Podcast