Sport NFL's first 30 days: A case of reshaped identities

09:10  07 october  2017
09:10  07 october  2017 Source:   USA TODAY SPORTS

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Friday is the 30-day marker for the NFL’s 98th season, and what a ride it has been.

Raise your hand if you saw the Buffalo Bills in first place.

Sit down — or, better yet, take a knee — if you pegged the Jacksonville Jaguars (still with Blake Bortles under center) winning two more games than teams quarterbacked by Eli Manning and Philip Rivers have combined.

Sean McVay? They told us he was good. Yet somewhere, Eric Dickerson — extreme critic of the Los Angeles Rams’ previous coaching regime — can take a bow.

Kareem Hunt. Deshaun Watson. Leonard Fournette. Christian McCaffrey. Rookies, playing like they’ve been here before.

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Sure, the NFL typically serves up unpredictable drama, compelling dashes from worst to first and social litmus tests. Yet there’s nothing quite like the present campaign to hammer that home. Threaded together, the early stages of this season underscore the relevance of identity — on and off the field.

Take the New England Patriots defense. Who are these guys? While Tom Brady cruises along like 40 is the new 30, Bill Belichick entered Week 5 with a defense allowing the most yards and second-most points in the NFL. That, friends, is an identity crisis — even if the Patriots won Thursday (with some help from Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Nick Folk).

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of establishing new identities. Buffalo’s Sean McDermott is nobody’s Rex Ryan. Yet like the other two rookie coaches (McVay and Vance Joseph) who have started 3-1, McDermott has come as advertised in fixing the area of his expertise. The Bills’ D has allowed the fewest points in the league. Likewise, Joseph has the Denver Broncos defense humming even better against the run — just ask Marshawn Lynch, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy and Melvin Gordon for proof. And McVay has turned the Rams offense that was worst in the NFL last year into a juggernaut.

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Andy Reid, the veteran coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, is in the middle of another type of identity shift, which is propelling the NFL’s only undefeated team. In my view, with Reid’s creative offensive schemes, there’s not a more exciting team to watch these days. Efficient quarterback Alex Smith, among the early candidates for MVP, is playing better than ever while bolstered by Hunt, explosive Tyreek Hill and an array of wrinkles baked into Reid’s offense, including the read-option. You can no longer label Reid as Mr. Conservatism.

But you can wonder what happened to the New York Giants (0-4), Miami Dolphins (1-2) and Tennessee Titans (2-2), all of who came into the season with high expectations. Whatever was supposed to happen, hasn’t happened. At least not yet. The Dallas Cowboys can relate. One more loss and they will already match last year's regular-season total.

Thirty days does not make an entire season. The next 30 should reveal much more about many teams' true identities. I mean, the Rams were 3-1 last year, too, en route to 4-12.

The NFL, as a league and cultural phenomenon, undoubtedly has a set of identity issues itself, flowing from the protests that seemed to be on the back-burner when the season began but now reignited with a passion.

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Punked by Donald Trump, the league is walking a tightrope in trying to mitigate damage to its business model — i.e. support from fans and sponsors — amid protests linked to societal issues that are discomforting to a significant number of its players.

Unity sounds good, but the theme pushed after Trump blasted the NFL is too shallow. Players, coaches and owners certainly came together in the face of Trump’s criticism and skewing of the underlying source of the protests — police brutality and racial inequality — engaging in mass demonstrations before games across the league in Week 3. But that was largely a one-and-done deal.

The NFL has been progressive in taking a stronger stand — finally — against domestic violence. It has been proactive with community service — such as the breast cancer campaigns of recent years, expanded this year to raise awareness for all types of cancer — and its commitment to the military.The unity theme sure didn’t resonate Sunday in Baltimore with the largely white fans at M&T Bank Stadium who unmercifully booed Ravens players as they knelt in prayer before the national anthem. Similar boo-greetings took place a week earlier in New England and Arizona, where the Dallas Cowboys took a collective knee before the anthem.

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Yet the league, as an institution — and while Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed — faces a much more challenging task to reveal what it stands for in the face of the racial layers linked to the protests. We know its stance on sexism, as Cam Newton was quickly admonished Wednesday for his ridiculous and insensitive remark to a female reporter. The widespread heat on Newton may have showed, sadly, that a football player can be held to a higher standard than a presidential candidate.

On the same day, word circulated that Washington receiver Terrelle Pryor contended that issues he had with fans in Kansas City on Monday night stemmed from some slurring him with the N-word. The league insists it won’t tolerate such racially charged animus at its stadiums, and threatens to ban violators. We’ll see.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people will show you who they are better than they can tell you. When it comes to identity, that applies to the NFL on and off the field.

***

Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell

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