NFL Season Team Grades And Recap: AFC West

NFL Season Team Grades And Recap

AFC West

The AFC West is a strange beast. While only a year ago touted as arguably the best division in the NFL, or at least the most competitive, it is now one of the laughing stocks of the league. This wasn’t due to intra-division cannibalism either, some of these teams were just plain bad. What happened to this recently mighty division filled with 3 Super Bowl contenders and 4 bonafide playoff teams? Short answer: it was a down weird year. Here is our longer, more in depth, answer.

Kansas City Chiefs

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2017 O Ranks: Yards Per Game – 5th; Passing – 7th; Rushing – 9th

2017 D Ranks: Yards Per Game – 28th; Passing – 29th; Rushing – 25th

FAM Season Grade – B+ (What they wanted, until the playoffs)

Fun Fact – Have signed and released C.J. Spiller on 5 separate occasions this season.

Overview:

For the first quarter of the 2017 season the Alex Smith led Kansas City Chiefs were the most explosive offense in football. Sure, the Rams were throwing up huge crooked numbers in the scoring department, but KC was where the excitement was. Seemingly every time an offensive player touched the ball it went for 50 yards and a touchdown. In 4 weeks, the chiefs had 4 such plays; then 5, then 6, then 7, etc. After a 5-0 start, some people started picking them as the favorites to win the championship. Entering the second half of the season at 6-2, with a comfortable division lead, the Chiefs hit the skids – as is a theme for the AFC West. They eventually fell back to .500 after losing 4 straight, and narrowly gave away the division to the Chargers before finally figuring it out in time to wrap up the year at 10-6; the only team from the once mighty AFC West to make the playoffs.

It was an odd year for the Chiefs. After such a promising start, what went wrong? Did the offense sputter too much? (Kind of) Could the defense not hold its end of the bargain? (Spoiler alert) Did the big plays just go away? (Kind of) Or was it something else entirely? Well, there’s a mix of things.

Even with Alex “Game Manager” Smith at QB, the Chiefs still ended the year with 10 offensive touchdowns of 50 yards or more; the pace drastically fell off after 4 in the first 4 games, though. However, at some point, despite the launching it downfield success, Alex Smith was expected to re-emerge as Alex Smith proper; and he did just that. That is not to say that Alex Smith is a bad quarterback by any measure – there is an in division rival that would trade their brothers to put him at the helm – but he’s not a natural big play QB. He’s a perfect guy to dump it to Kareem Hunt or Tyreek Hill and let them do the work for 50 yards, but not the one that wants to throw the 60 yard go route. The moral of the story with Smith is that he will not lose you the game, but he will rarely win you it, either.

Defensively, the Chiefs have some things to figure out. Kansas City has a reputation as being really good on the defensive side of the ball; not so much in 2017. Yes, they have big names like Justin Houston, Marcus Peters, Eric Berry, and Tamba Hali, but stars don’t make the team. The Chiefs defense this year was sneakily terrible, and only hidden by the success and explosiveness of their offense. Need proof? Blowing a 21-3 lead during the Wild Card round to a team that doesn’t scream offense – the Tennessee Titans. When the offense is floundering, as most do at some point, the defense needs to be able to at least stand their ground. Another disappointing finish to the year for Kansas City has the fan base mumbling about Andy Reid, wanting a change at QB (to be fair, they wanted that before Week 1), and a whole new defensive regiment.

The Positives:

They traded away Alex Smith for much needed assets, getting a 3rd round pick and a starting corner in Kendall Fuller from Washington, while clearing up 17 million dollars in cap space .  Even with Mahomes unproven, the franchise has committed to him being the future. This, at the very least, gives the fan base something to be excited for in 2018.

Kareem Hunt seems to be a work horse in the making. On top of this, he makes running this offense pretty simple: give Hunt the ball and win. In 10 wins this season Hunt had 1,052 yards with 8 touchdowns; the losses yielded 275 yards and no touchdowns. The very simple translation is the Chiefs do well when they get Hunt heavily involved; or at least they do well when he does well.

Additionally, the division seems to be in flux. With the Broncos down until they get a QB, the Raiders struggling to find themselves, and the Chargers as the Wild Card, playoff berths are a very real possibility for the future. Eventually, one of those playoff births should prove fruitful.

Side note – Arrowhead is an amazing stadium that opposing teams should fear to play in. The atmosphere is second to none, the noise permeates your bones, and “WE’RE GONNA BEAT THE F*** OUTTA YOU!” is a glorious chant.

Needs Addressing:

The coaching staff, in general, needs evaluated. Andy Reid may be reverting back to the Philadelphia ways of struggling to produce when it counts. This is not something Kansas City fans want to see. Defensive Coordinator, Bob Sutton, was inexplicably kept on staff after last year’s dismal output. And a new offensive coordinator needs to be felt out in Eric Bieniemy, having lost Matt Nagy to the Bears. The coaching staff may not be the whole problem, but there’s a lot of skepticism within the fan base on its future going forward.

In line with questionable coaching decisions comes with the next issue: the Chiefs were the 4th most penalized team in the league in 2017, not exactly a good stat to be top 5 in. Marcus Peters, one of the premier defensive players, cost the team over 120 penalty yards on his own. Losing games due to bad defense or floundering offense is one thing, but throwing them away because of poor discipline and boneheaded penalties is another. The offense probably won’t be explosive enough to overcome these mistakes, and no defense has ever been helped out by giving the opposition free plays.

Finally, and perhaps the biggest issue, is that a defense as bad as the Chiefs in 2017 may require a complete overhaul. Fortunately, they have building blocks in place and some trade bait to expedite the improvement process. Houston and Berry are under long contracts and are likely to stick around, but locking Peters down, if they deem him worth it, should be next on the agenda. Then, go from there.

Conclusion:

All around, a good season for the Arrowhead faithful.  The offense will be an interesting watch early next year as we see what the new OC brings to the table in conjunction with Patrick Mahomes rise to starter. The defense can hardly perform worse than they did this year, barring injuries. And the AFC West is in shambles, needing a leader. The Chiefs hope to prove themselves worthy ambassadors.

Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)

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2017 O Ranks: Yards per game – 4th; Passing – 1st; Rushing – 24th

2017 D Ranks: Yards per game – 15th; Passing – 3rd; Rushing – 31st

FAM season grade: B- (not the record they want, but better than it has been, and still no playoffs)

Fun Fact – This is the 4th time the Chargers have finished with 9 or more wins and not made the playoffs since 2002 (current playoff format)

Overview:

Here we have the L.A. Chargers…..nope, still doesn’t sound right. The Chargers are the only team in the AFC West to not be picked to win the division by any reputable analyst (or really maybe anyone outside of their own fans). Broncos, Chiefs, and even Raiders fans all acknowledge that you really have no idea what’s going to happen when the lightning bolt brigade comes to town, but there’s a very real possibility of losing. However, there is also a very real possibility that you’ll send them back to L.A. with their tails between their legs. It’s an absolute flip of the coin every time they take the field. So it was in San Diego, so it is in Los Angeles. Some things just never change.

At 9-7 and looking back at last year’s 5-11 record, you would think the Bolts would be delighted with +4 wins and the way this year turned out: no major injuries, an above .500 record, and in the playoff hunt until the bitter end; but, they know they’re better than that. They were still hit with injuries to the first two draft picks (Mike Williams missing 5 games and Forrest Lamp out the whole year), they still started slow, and they still had the tendency to lose the close game. On the year, they lost 5 of 8 games that ended within 1 possession (up to 8 points). Think of that, half of L.A.’s entire season was decided by a touchdown or less; they lost 3 of the first 4 games by a combined 7 points. Sometimes it’s just bad luck, but sometimes it’s a failure of closing it out.

If your offense is going to be pass oriented, Philip Rivers is a good guy to have at the helm. There is seldom a person who would disagree with “Philip Rivers is a good to great quarterback”. The controversy comes with all the follow ups: Is he “elite”? How come he throws so many picks? How far can he really take you, though? Why hasn’t he actually won anything? Do he and his wife not know what contraceptives are? There are answers to all of these, but the easiest argument that can be made is that even Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl and he is still mentioned as one of the greatest to ever play. It just doesn’t work out for some people, no matter how good they are, and it’s starting to look like Rivers might just be one of those people. If the Chargers really want to make a go at this, they need to find a way to get over that final hurdle. That may start with getting help on the defensive side; don’t make Rivers have to go throw the team to victory. He can, but he really shouldn’t have to.

The positives:

Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin, Mike Williams, Antonio Gates, Hunter Henry – these are names that would put pressure on any defense in the league. How do you cover so many weapons? When they are clicking, it is a thing of beauty. The offense is not the issue, despite the 24th ranked rushing attack; a large part of their “running game” is swing passes and dumps out of the backfield to Gordon anyway.

The 3rd overall pass defense from a YPG standpoint. Yes, it is mildly surprising, but it is true. Throw a stellar unit like this on the field, and then line Joey Bosa – who is apparently really, really good – up on the line and you have a recipe for success. It makes you wonder if they’re so good because they practice against such a special unit on offense. Either way, this part of the team seems to be doing ok.

Needs addressing:

Start 0-4, win 3 straight, lose 2 more, then end the year on a 6-1 run and you might find yourself “getting hot at the right time” when it comes to the playoff picture. Problem is, the Chargers slow start(s) seem to put them in too deep of a hole to get out of. This means that, even with 9 wins in their pocket, the bouncer keeps them out of the playoff lounge. The slow starts have to stop. The losing close games has to stop.

31st in rushing defense. There are only 32 teams in the league! What good is a stellar pass rush and secondary if you’re going to let the opposing running backs walk their way down the field? Something has to be done here. Whether it is a coaching ideology, a personnel problem, an effort issue, or some combination of things, it needs to be fixed. This is a huge problem.

Don’t worry though, nobody actually saw the team have that porous of a defensive front this year; at least not at their “home stadium”. With an average posted attendance of 25,335 for home games, they were dead last in the league. By a wide margin. So wide, in fact, that the gap between the Chargers at 32nd and the Bengals at 31st was larger than the Bengals at 31st and the Packers at 2nd. Their temporary home at Stub Hub Stadium only seats 30,000, so you’d think they could at least sell it out. The team knew the move to L.A. wouldn’t be easy, but surely they didn’t expect this. Winning may not be enough to win the fan support back, but it’s the best option right now.

Conclusion:

The Chargers have more firepower than most teams would know what to do with, and an offense that has proven already that they know how to utilize it. What the team is lacking in defense, it makes up for in offense; but how long can they keep this up? Rivers is not a young man anymore, and the window is slamming shut, fast. If the Chargers want to win, and win a lot, then they need to strengthen the run defense and quit digging themselves into early season holes. If they can do that, then maybe they can start winning more of those coin flips.

Oakland Raiders (6-10)

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2017 O Ranks – Yards per Game – 17th; Passing – 16th; Rushing – 25th

2017 D Ranks – Yards per Game – 23rd; Passing – 26th; Rushing – 12th

FAM Season Grade – D (Surprisingly poor)

Fun Fact – Jon Gruden is back! If you can’t smile about The Raiders being in Vegas soon with Chucky at the helm, then you don’t know what fun is.

Overview:

The Raiders finished the 2016 season with a sigh of disappointment as they watched the Brock Osweiler led Texans march on to the divisional round of the playoffs, ending a season of high hopes for one of the NFL’s most faithful fan bases. This was a completely understandable result, seeing as how MVP candidate Derek Carr had blown out a knee only a week prior and Connor Cook had seen no real game time to that point, so Raider nation wasn’t too upset and found solace in the fact that 2017 looked to be their time to shine.

With Carr back to full strength, the team focusing on drafting defensive talent, and the homecoming of Marshawn Lynch – Beast Mode himself – the Raiders came out guns blazing in 2017. After scoring 71 points over the first two games of the season, it looked as though the offense would be once again able to carry the team to the playoffs. Then, they seemingly hit a wall. Only able to score 52 total points over the next four games, the fall to 2-4 came hard, and fast. The rest of the season was a tailspin as they traded games here and there until ultimately finishing 3rd in the division, one game ahead of the hapless Broncos. So, what went wrong?

The defense, while not significantly better than last year, was not any worse either; having drastically improved in the run game and actually allowed both fewer passing yards and total yards per game than in 2016. The offense, on the other hand, fell from 6th in YPG in 2016 to the bottom half in 2017. The passing game remained unimproved, even after signing Jared Cook. Meanwhile, Amari Cooper – despite a career high seven touchdowns – was a relative no show in far too many games with only 48 receptions and 680 yards in 14 played.

The problem was running the ball. From the 6th best rushing attack to the 25th ranked in one year. In fairness, we all know running the ball while behind is not the ideal strategy for a comeback. This Oakland team was built to play with a lead; something they proved by winning 5 out of the 7 games in which they did score first, with the 6th coming from an opening touchdown after holding the Kansas City to a field goal. Even when playing with the lead, the opposing defenses were not scared of the downfield passing threat. This led to stacked boxes, which led to a poor running game, which led to no opportunity for explosive plays, which led to a real lack of explosive plays, and the vicious cycle continued.

When your offense, that is supposed to be able to carry the torch and herald an MVP candidate at quarterback, cannot move the ball, the result is a 6-10 season, not the predicted division title.

The Positives:

Down year or not, Derek Carr can still be the real deal, Amari Cooper can still be what he has been in years past, and the offense can still put up the big numbers they did. The groundwork is there, it just needs to be properly utilized and capitalized on.

Khalil Mack is still on the team, and will be through 2018 at least. Arguably the best defensive player in the game (depends who you ask) the guy is a beast, but the man needs help. Right now that defense is still best put as “Khalil Mack and 10 other guys” and that needs to change. Spending 4 of the first 5 2017 draft picks on defense is a drastic step towards doing that, but one of them has to end up being good for it to matter.

A little footnote here, Oakland’s kicking game seems in good hands, er feet. Giorgio Tavecchio seems to be the real deal, and the ageless wonder that is Sebastian Janikowski has to retire sometime, right? On the punting side, Marquette King is as big of a game changer as one could hope for from the position. Averaging 42.7 net yards per punt, the field position swing is something the Raiders can thrive on going forward.

Oh, and there is also talk of a new, Super Bowl champion, head coach back in town.

Needs addressing:

The “10 other guys” portion of the defense. Oakland needs to keep drafting defense and start using Las Vegas as the draw for free agents. Gareon Conley’s NFL ability is still in question, having only played two games before a shin injury sidelined him for good, but hopes are high he can become a staple in that secondary going forward. The new signing of Paul Guenther as defensive coordinator should also help. While with the Bengals, Guenther’s defenses were always sound, if not known as world beaters. Oakland obviously hopes he can recapture that coaching form to, at the very least, give the offense a chance.

The running back position is a point of concern. Marshawn Lynch is, let’s face it, not the Lynch of old – he’s just old. Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, while both young and talented, are unproven. With the upcoming NFL draft, what is stopping Oakland from drafting yet another mouth to feed in the backfield? The Raiders need to figure out the plan back there.

On the other hand, that new head coach hasn’t coached since 2008 (9-7) and is on a reported 10 year $100,000,000 (yes, 100 million) contract.

Conclusion:

The Oakland offense needs to get back on track and prove they weren’t just a fluke. They still have one of the best offensive lines in the league, even if they do need a little help at tackle. They still have Derek Carr, and they just hired a new OC in Greg Olson – not the Panthers tight end. Although, Olson coordinated the Oakland offenses in 2013-2014, when they finished last in the division and had worse numbers than 2017, so it’s an interesting choice.

On the other side, Khalil Mack needs help. The defense needs to be improved, and fast. The offenses in this division have proven their potency (if not consistency). If Oakland has any hope of competing again in the coming years, they need to become more consistent on both sides of the ball.

Denver Broncos (5-11)

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2017 O Ranks: Yards Per Game – 17th; Passing – 20th; Rushing – 12th

2017 D Ranks: Yards Per Game – 3rd; Passing – 4th; Rushing – 5th

FAM Season Grade – D+ (Lower than expectations)

Fun Fact – Still the last team from AFC West to win a playoff game

Overview:

After finishing 3rd in 2016 at 9-7, there were some that thought the Broncos offense might be improved enough to make a run at a division title; especially with the defense mostly sticking around (sans T.J. Ward, leader of the No Fly Zone). Surely one of the quarterbacks would pan out. Although, whether it be the first round pick Paxton Lynch or the now experienced Trevor Siemian was anyone’s guess until Week 1 came around. Whomever it ended up being, it was expected the Broncos take a more grounded approach to victory, running the ball to chew time and score just enough to let the defense take care of the rest (and the abysmal special teams units to not screw it up). So was the plan. The plan did not work.

After starting 3-1, taking out 2 division opponents and even destroying the Cowboys, it seemed like the season was on the right track. Dominating the clock, running the ball (572 rushing yards in 4 games), and letting the defense do work (18.5 ppg allowed during that stretch) was exactly what the Broncos were after. Then, it all came crashing down.

Denver failed to score over 20 points in eight of their final twelve games. Even then, once was against the Eagles during a 51-23 drubbing that wasn’t even that close, and one in week 17 when the Chiefs were debuting the heir to the throne, Patrick Mahomes, having locked up the division (Denver still lost 27-24). During this 8 game skid: the offense was called out (semi-publicly) by the defense, the team was regularly throwing it 35 times a game while barely attempting 20 runs, and the quarterback carousel was in full swing. In due fairness, some of this swapping was due to injury, but 3 QBs regularly getting playtime is not a recipe for success.

You know how, during the college bowl seasons, there’s always the excuse of one team being “disinterested” after suffering a loss to a perceived lesser opponent (Auburn v UCF, e.g.)? The Denver Broncos defense is the living embodiment of such a thing. After seeing the offense struggle to move the ball, let alone score points, they became gassed; giving up 29, 51, and 41 points in three straight. With no help from the offense, some Denver fans suggested the defense had given up on the year, and it would have been fine if that had been found true. One side of the ball can only do so much, even if it is top five in the league.

The Broncos, since winning the big one 2 years ago, have gone nowhere but down. The defense is still great, proven by the numbers again and again. Meanwhile, the offense is less than effective and the special teams play is purely abysmal. So, where to go from here?

The positives:

Obviously, the defense can still hold its own. The young safeties proved they can be good even through some growing pains. The cornerback trio (soon to be a tandem) of Harris, Roby, and Talib can lock most anyone down at will. The line backing core, while not the greatest in coverage, can shut down almost any running attack. And the defensive line (when healthy*) is always going to give the opposition fits; they do need an inside pass rush, though. C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker continue to run hard, even if it is difficult for them to get yards in a game. That’s a positive for any team. If your running backs just won’t quit, then maybe that little three yard smash can turn into a 15 yard gain.

This one depends whom you ask, but Vance Joseph gets another shot. Whatever the case may be, consistency in the coaching ranks is an underrated trait in this day and age. By keeping Joseph around, the front office has shown faith in their man, and they hope he will not let them down; but the ball is in his court now.

The silver lining of being so bad, though? The last time the Broncos drafted in the top 5 they got Von Miller.

Needs addressing:

The obvious one here is the QB play. The old adage of “If you have two starting quarterbacks, then you have no starting quarterbacks” is apparently foreign to the Broncos coaching staff; they went so far as to start three of them. Some stability behind center would be helpful – not a surefire season saver, but helpful nonetheless. Osweiler showed flashes that he actually did learn under Manning by calling out plays and schemes at the line more than once this year. The team still might not know what they truly have with Lynch due to multiple injuries this year, but maybe that is what they have with him. Any way you slice it, Denver needs to shore up the QB situation. This is the draft to do it, but this may also be the free agency year to do it.

In front of the QB may actually lie a larger problem. The offensive line allowed 52 sacks this year, tied for 3rd most in the league. A portion of this can be attributed to the trio of Siemian, Osweiler, and Lynch holding the ball too long while trying to make things happen, a portion to missed assignments by running backs or an audible at the line, and a portion can be attributed to “coverage sacks”, but 52 is still a huge number. This, somehow, needs to be addressed during  the off season.

The special teams play from Denver of late is best described by a text received from a fan – “Every time the special teams is on the field I am horrified of what will happen” – and it’s not without merit. While the Broncos have been known to make a block or two, they are also consistently in the bottom third for net punt, they consistently muff punts, and consistently make questionable decisions in the return game. Or, if a true example is needed: those 41 points surrendered to New England? Brock Olivo, ex special teams coach, conceded that 24 of those were his unit’s fault.  At least kickoffs aren’t an issue at home, where it’s all but guaranteed to land in the third row.

Conclusion:

All told, Denver has some work to do. With star corner Aqib Talib on the trade block (at the time of writing), the No Fly Zone may be truly closed for business. The defense is still going to be good, the running backs are still going to be capable, even the receiving core will be a strength as long as Thomas and Sanders are around. But, the fact remains that somebody has to throw to these guys, somebody has to move the ball through the air, and someone needs to ensure that guy remains upright. The Broncos are in a better position than most teams in the league, they just need a captain at the helm before a mutiny is in full force.

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