The Cincinnati Bengals' disturbing 27-15 defeat of the Miami Dolphins on Thursday marked the end of the NFL's September slate for 2022. And even though 30 teams still have more than 80% of their schedules ahead of them, the first month of the season left its share of indelible impressions.
For every pleasant surprise – if you're a Dallas Cowboys fan, you're both amazed and grateful QB Cooper Rush has stepped in to win two games while Dak Prescott convalesces from surgery on his throwing thumb – there has been a major disappointment elsewhere.
Here are the seven biggest ones from the season's first month:
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1. Concussion protocol
Twice in a five-day stretch spanning Weeks 3 and 4, Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa found himself in distress on the football field. Sunday, he returned to play despite what appeared like an obvious concussive event to most observers but was explained away by Tagovailoa and the team as a back injury (even though his head smacked the turf courtesy of a hit from Buffalo Bills LB Matt Milano). But there was no skirting the 24-year-old's condition Thursday night in Cincinnati after a vicious sack by the Bengals left Tagovailoa dazed on the ground and in a fencing response.
At best, the Dolphins have been misguided in handling their starting quarterback, who's been under intense pressure to justify his No. 5 overall selection in the 2020 draft. Yet despite what seemed so evident to viewers and former players, rookie coach Mike McDaniel has stridently insisted all protocols have been followed, that Tagovailoa's injuries in the successive games were unrelated and that he'd be personally negligent to risk a compromised player, particularly one McDaniel claims to have a close relationship with. The coach has quickly earned a reputation as a humorous, if quirky, albeit straight shooter from the podium. And yet ...
At worst, Miami has been grossly negligent with a man they hope to be their franchise player and the long-awaited successor to Dan Marino. Either way, the league and NFL Players Association, which had already opened an investigation into Tagovailoa's treatment during the Buffalo game, seem to realize more must be done to protect players from their injuries, from their teams and from themselves.
Tagovailoa's injury in Cincinnati dominated the sports news cycle Friday. Should be fascinating to see if it persists, or if fantasy football, betting and the league's general popularity have again prevailed by Monday morning.
2. Super Bowl 56 teams
Los Angeles Rams: They're fortunate to be 2-1 after scratching out wins against markedly less talented Atlanta and Arizona squads the past two weeks – but there's no way to write off LA's blowout loss to Buffalo to begin its title defense. Maybe WR Allen Robinson starts to synthesize with an offense that skipped preseason, and perhaps GM Les Snead has a seismic trade up his sleeve down the line. But the Rams miss OLB Von Miller, can't run the ball, and their lack of depth already looms as a concern.
Bengals: Wins against the Jets and Dolphins in a 96-hour window went a long way toward providing relief from the dreaded 0-2 start, and – in fairness – last season's AFC champions are a few good breaks from being 4-0. But, despite an overhauled offensive line featuring four new starters, QB Joe Burrow is still getting hit way too much – on pace to get sacked 68 times in the regular season after absorbing a league-high 70 in 2021 (postseason included). By comparison, Patrick Mahomes has been sacked twice. On the flip side, Cincy's defense needs to generate more pressure, only notching seven sacks and 29 quarterback hits so far.
3. AFC West
It was projected as the league's glamour quartet, some pundits (not this one) even predicting that this would become the first division to send its entire membership into the playoffs. Instead, these clubs are a collective 5-7. Oops.
Denver Broncos: Miraculously, they're 2-1 and tied for first place. In actuality, they've played like an 0-3 outfit – especially the Russell Wilson-led offense that's put up the second-fewest points in the league, scored one touchdown in seven red-zone trips and converted 37% of its third downs. Wilson hasn't made his patented off-schedule plays, and his legendary deep ball has seemed to lack juice. But the Broncos have time to jell, perhaps plenty given the efficacy of their third-ranked defense.
Kansas City Chiefs: They're also 2-1, and the guys who have owned this division since 2016 seem to have the fewest issues. Still, they've been steadily less impressive each week – perhaps fortunate to beat the Bolts in Week 2 courtesy of a bad route by gassed TE Gerald Everett that turned into a 99-yard K.C. pick-six, and then coughing up a fourth-quarter lead to the struggling Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Again, plenty of time to recover – if that's even an accurate characterization – but the absence of WR Tyreek Hill is noticeable, and the running game is sputtering again.
Las Vegas Raiders: The league's only 0-3 team, they now stand a 2.5% chance to reach postseason based on data dating to 1990. It probably shouldn't be a surprise given the personnel turnover and culture shift initiated under new coach Josh McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler. The Raiders also can't get to the passer, registering a league-low two sacks – that weakness fully exposed by Arizona QB Kyler Murray in Week 2.
Los Angeles Chargers: It's truly a shame, but that infamous Chargers luck has already surfaced. QB Justin Herbert is laboring to breathe through barbecued ribs, Pro Bowl LT Rashawn Slater (biceps) is out for the year, Pro Bowl OLB Joey Bosa (groin) won't return anytime soon, and WR Keenan Allen, CB J.C. Jackson and C Corey Linsley are among the walking wounded. The Bolts (1-2) might already be zapped if not for a favorable schedule the next few weeks.
4. Sophomore quarterbacks
The 2021 draft was highlighted by a ballyhooed bunch of passers. With one notable exception, it's been nearly all sizzle and very little steak in Year 2.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars: The outlier. He's playing like the generational talent – think John Elway, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck – he was projected to be years before the Jags selected Lawrence No. 1 overall (despite the meticulous months of research former coach Urban Meyer claimed went into making the pick). Lawrence's rookie year was scuttled by Meyer's gross mismanagement, but he seems to be on track now (76.8% completion rate, 497 passing yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs, 120.3 QB rating over the past two weeks), Jacksonville winning its last two to move into first place in the AFC South. Surrounded by weapons and Super Bowl-minted coach Doug Pederson, Lawrence and the Jaguars could be on a playoff trajectory.
Zach Wilson, New York Jets: Hurt. A preseason knee injury and subsequent surgery cost him three starts after a rocky rookie season, but he's set to debut Sunday in Pittsburgh – hoping to be protected by a pair of backup tackles. Yikes ... though at least T.J. Watt is out.
Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers: Hurt. He suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2, and the questions surrounding him this year will only be amplified in 2023 – which Lance will begin with four NFL starts under his belt.
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears: He owns the lowest-rating (50.0) in the league among qualified passers. Fields only has 45 attempts – a week's work for many of his peers – and completed just 23 for 297 yards (2 TDs, 4 INTs). He's had limited impact as a runner, too, rushing for just 95 yards and 3.5 per carry. But it's not fair to lay these struggles solely at his feet given the lack of resources Chicago's new regime provided. Surely that will change next year when the team's salary cap loosens drastically.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots: Hurt. Wasn't playing great before he suffered a high ankle sprain Sunday, an injury expected to keep him out multiple games, though the offense had shown incremental improvement. Jones is tied for the league lead with five interceptions but has been a victim of a coaching staff in flux, the departure of longtime offensive coordinator McDaniels a key blow for the man slotted as Tom Brady's successor.
Davis Mills, Houston Texans: He entered the NFL fairly quietly as a third-round pick but ended up replacing Deshaun Watson. Mills played better than all of his more highly acclaimed 2021 draftmates, save Jones, as a rookie but hasn't shown much for a winless club in 2022 – a killer pick at Chicago in Week 3 notwithstanding.
5. Jonathan Taylor
The Indianapolis Colts' All-Pro back has 329 total yards, eight catches and one TD to date. Meh. This isn't to suggest Indy's struggles are his fault ... but if you took him No. 1 in your fantasy draft, you're apoplectic to see him buried under the likes of James Robinson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jamaal Williams and Khalil Herbert – among others – on the scoring chart.
6. 2021 wild-card teams
With the exception of the unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles, all of last season's bonus playoff entries seem to be trending toward also-ran status in 2022.
Raiders: In addition to the aforementioned issues, the O-line has predictably struggled, they haven't figured out how to use slot WR Hunter Renfrow – he missed last week with a concussion – and, aside from a steady connection with newly acquired WR Davante Adams, QB Derek Carr has been average at best. Not a good year to bet on (Silver and) Black.
Patriots: Jones' struggles sans McDaniels shouldn't come as a shock. A team playing break-but-don't-bend defense – as opposed to its typical converse – is highly unusual for a Bill Belichick team. Could get ugly if the Pats expect to weather the pending storm with ancient QB2 Brian Hoyer.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Week 1 victory in Cincinnati was Pyrrhic given it came at the cost of Watt's indefinite loss to a pectoral injury. The offense ranks as the league's second worst, new QB Mitchell Trubisky and RB Najee Harris unable to get going behind a suspect line.
Arizona Cardinals: Sick of the "independent study" jokes yet? Me neither. Aside from his second-half heroics in Vegas, Murray has been a disappointment, particularly in the wake of the massive financial investment he wrangled out of the team. A defense that's surrendered the second-most points in the league has been even worse. Doesn't bode well for a club that usually starts fast and finishes flat – especially since suspended WR DeAndre Hopkins isn't eligible to play until Week 7.
49ers: They should be over the whiplash of the Lance injury, especially as QB Jimmy Garoppolo and coach Kyle Shanahan get reacclimated and recalibrate the offense to suit Jimmy G's strengths.
7. Tom Brady
Who am I to critique a seven-time Super Bowl champion and holder of all the NFL's significant passing records? But TB12's opaque explanation for his training camp hiatus – "I'm 45 years old, man. There's a lot of (expletive) going on, so you just have to try and figure out life the best you can" – seems even less satisfying given his acute awareness of the turnover the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were undergoing on their O-line and receiving corps. I mean, I'm 48 years old, have two toddlers and a wife I'd like to see more, just lost three valued colleagues in media free agency and am fresh off surgery for a torn biceps. A lot of (expletive) going on, but I haven't missed a rep, Tommy. Buck up, man. But this isn't about me ... not really.
Meanwhile, the Bucs offense has been fairly disjointed, posting three touchdowns in three weeks and couldn't get a two-point play off in time after that last TD on Sunday. (A successful conversion would have tied their game against the Packers, but the delay-of-game flag was too much to overcome in Tampa Bay's first loss of the season.)
Brady doesn't look like a guy whose play is about to suddenly hurtle into the abyss as happened to graybeard predecessors like Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, among others. But TB12 hardly looks crisp, his 89.2 QB rating well off his initial two-year level (102.1) in Tampa. Last season, he led the league with 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdowns but almost certainly won't approach those levels in 2022.
Lot of (expletive) going on, but he's got ample time to redeem himself ... especially if the Bucs get healthy, maybe Rob Gronkowski unretires – ??? – and the NFC remains eminently winnable.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL September disappointments: Tom Brady, AFC West struggle