By DAVE CAMPBELL
The hype trains touting NFL offseason activity typically start leaving their stations each January, when new head coaches are hired and fan bases are fired up about the fresh start that sends hope soaring high like the football in the air on the opening kickoff of a game.
There’s another round of departures in March, when the biggest-buck free agent contracts are signed to put some of the highest-profile players in the league on new teams snatching up missing pieces to their Super Bowl puzzles. Then, the first-round draft picks clamber aboard at the end of April.
By December, well, the derailments are inevitable.
From Le’Veon Bell to Jon Gruden to Leonard Fournette, here’s a pick-six of the biggest disappointments in the NFL this year:
The millions of fantasy football players who snagged Bell for a seeming bargain in their auctions and drafts would wholeheartedly agree, though the Pittsburgh Steelers survived the absence of the two-time All-Pro running back due to the emergence of James Conner and, most recently, Jaylen Samuels.
Bell bet on himself, steadfastly refusing to sign his franchise tender without the promise of a contract extension one of the sport’s most dangerous positions and ultimately accepting his ineligibility for the season . The Steelers didn’t blink, either, and Bell will assumedly restart his career with another team in 2019.
CHALLENGE FOR CHUCKY
The Oakland Raiders, eyeing an eventual move to Las Vegas, gave Jon Gruden a 10-year contract worth about $100 million to return to the franchise he got his start with as a head coach.
The Raiders are in this for the long haul, after burning through nine head coaches in the 16 seasons that passed after Gruden shed his silver and black. Their 3-11 record two years after a 12-4 finish, however, is a shaker of salt in the wound for the Bay Area loyalists on the verge of losing their team. Watching traded stars Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper thrive elsewhere has only made this season hurt worse. No team has been easier to score on this year than the Raiders, with an average of nearly 30 points allowed per game.
The fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft has averaged only 3.4 yards per attempt (46th in the NFL) and 56.6 rushing yards per game (24th in the NFL). Last week in a three-point loss to Washington, Fournette spent most of the second half on the sideline while undrafted rookie Dave Williams ate into his playing time.
Still, more and more quarterbacks in their early 20s are coming to the NFL with the skills to be an instant success, and given the impatient nature of a results-driven culture there’s been no shortage of complaints about Sam Darnold (third overall pick), Josh Allen (seventh overall pick) and Josh Rosen (10th overall pick), particularly when judging them against first overall pick Baker Mayfield’s late-season surge with the Cleveland Browns. With a combined 30 touchdown passes against 38 interceptions, Darnold, Allen and Rosen have displayed a need for more experience and more help. The New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals have a collective record of 12-20.
KICKING IT AWAY
Sure, Chicago and Green Bay play on grass in cold climates, but Minnesota and Detroit have indoor stadiums. NFC North teams have enjoyed a long line of successful kickers. This year, though, has been a struggle, with 12-year veteran Matt Prater of the Lions the only specialist whose season has become a story. The Vikings cut rookie Daniel Carlson after two games and three missed field goals that cost them a victory against the rival Packers, who had their own issues with Mason Crosby. Cody Parkey ranks 28th in field goal percentage for the Bears, one spot behind Crosby.
SO MUCH FOR DRAMA
That last-second 2-point conversion the Los Angeles Chargers used to win at Kansas City and tie the Chiefs for the AFC West lead turned that division race into a December thriller. That’s the exception , though, with the Bears, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams already in possession of top-four seeds in the NFC and the New England Patriots and Houston Texans holding two-game leads in their divisions with two games to play. That three-team race in the NFC East has been muted by all that mediocrity. The Baltimore Ravens, at least, have made the AFC North a legitimate competition with the Steelers.