High-Flying Adventures In The Research Notes: Week 8

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Every week, Dan Hanzus combs through the expert findings of the NFL Media Research Department to share nuggets (also known as "nugs") that interest, fascinate, frighten or change him on a fundamental level. This is the Week 8 edition of High-Flying Adventures In The Research Notes.

DESHAUN WATSON OVERDUE FOR A COURSE CORRECTION?


Here is the first big test for Deshaun Watson: Franchise Quarterback. A deadly road matchup against a forever great defense that chews up and spits out young quarterbacks in their building. If Watson shreds the Legion Of Boom, you can begin engraving his name on that Rookie of the Year trophy.

Watson will be a fascinating quarterback to watch in the back half of his rookie season. Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus wrote a compelling piece this week that posited that traditional statistics don't capture some of the shortcomings in Watson's game this season. Per Palazzolo, Watson has missed too many open receivers, has been able to dodge the fallout of "turnover-worthy plays", and has been aided by the lowest drop rate in the league by his receivers. In a nutshell: Watson has been special in flashes, but he's also been lucky.

Inexperienced quarterbacks don't often find luck in Seattle. Stay tuned here.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE GAME MANAGER BECOMES AN MVP FAVORITE?


One of my most vivid memories of covering Super Bowls came in 2013, and it involved a player who didn't play a single snap in the game that year. That player was Alex Smith, who had been consigned to backup status after Colin Kaepernick exploded on the scene for the 49ers. Smith was having a career year for that Niners before a concussion opened the door for Kaepernick, who took the team to the next level with his electric play. (Hmmm, whatever happened to that guy?)

Anyway, Smith spent Super Bowl week grinding through the endless media availabilities answering the same questions about Kaepernick and his own uncertain future with the Niners. I remember sitting next to Smith during San Francisco's final media period and seeing the empty look behind his eyes. Given the stage, it might have been the lowest moment of his football life.

I bring this up because all that happened in Smith's past -- No. 1 overall pick, getting prematurely labeled as a bust, the humbling demotion and subsequent Niners Super Bowl run -- has to make everything that's followed in Kansas City all the more sweeter.

The Chiefs have lost two straight following their 5-0 start, and they might not have the defense to be a credible Super Bowl contender. But Smith is playing at a career-best level and it's the main reason the Chiefs shouldn't be discounted as a threat to the Patriots' crown.

THE COWBOYS ARE PLAYING WITH FIRE


That's everything you need to know about the Dallas Cowboys right now.

There might not be two more indispensable players on the roster than Ezekiel Elliott and Sean Lee. And that's the rub: Elliott's six-game suspension continues to dangle over his head like an anvil, a seesaw ban that threatens to blow up the season for Dallas. Lee, meanwhile, shows you what happens when the heart-and-soul of your defense is also one of the unit's most injury-prone commodities.

The Cowboys are rounding into form, but they're also playing on eggshells.

LE'VEON BELL SHOULD RAP ABOUT EVERYBODY'S USAGE CONSPIRACY THEORIES


Le'Veon Bell had 38 touches in last Sunday's win against the Bengals. That's the type of workload Bill Parcells would dole out to punish a guy for bringing him the wrong bialy in the morning. Bell is on pace for 461 touches this season. That is crazy! The Steelers would never, ever, admit to it, but you have to wonder if Pittsburgh simply does not have Bell in their long-term plans and are using him accordingly. At this rate, Bell's odometer is going to tick over 90,000 miles by his 26th birthday.

For the record, Bell would finish with the second-most touches in NFL history if he keeps up this usage rate:

1. James Wilder ('84 Bucs), 492
2. Larry Johnson ('06 Chiefs), 457
3. Eddie George ('00 Titans), 453
4. LaDainian Tomlinson ('02 Chargers), 451
5. Edgerrin James ('00 Colts), 450
(h/t Pro-Football Reference)

Astute fans might be looking for DeMarco Murray. Murray was the last prominent running back whose intense usage prompted the football cognoscenti to wonder if was being maxed out in a nefarious way. Murray had 449 touches for the 2014 Cowboys before signing with the Eagles in free agency.

BUT SERIOUSLY ... IS JOE FLACCO ELITE?


If you're a football fan who's never really bought into the Joe Flacco thing, the last couple of years have been satisfying. Flacco has been a mess this season for the worst offense in football. Meanwhile, the Ravens have surged into first place in the Worst Teams To Re-Watch On Game Pass power rankings. Congrats, guys.

Here's something we touched on during Tuesday's edition of the Around The NFL Podcast: How bad would it have to get for the Ravens to a) select a quarterback high in the 2018 draft or b) move on from their Super Bowl hero entirely?

Working in favor of Flacco's continued job security: The specifics of the contract extension he signed with the team in March 2016. He is owed "just" $12 million next year, or, to put it in some context, the same amount the Jets paid Ryan Fitzpatrick to submarine them in 2016. Flacco will be paid like a middling starting quarterback next year, which is pretty much what he's become.

So yeah, don't expect the Ravens to give up on Flacco anytime soon. The much more likely scenario: General manager Ozzie Newsome stops obsessing over his defense and tries to build around his veteran quarterback in 2018.

Until next week ...

Follow the NFL Media Research Group on Twitter at @NFLResearch. Follow Dan Hanzus, too.

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