Welcome to part two of my rundown of the disappointed eighteen teams who did not make the 2020 NFL play-offs.
In this post I shall be looking at the NFC conference and I’ll work in ascending number of wins and descending draft order.
The cap numbers for next season still come from spotrac.com and the ranking/numbers were right at time of posting with an assumed team salary cap of $175 million.
Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
The Falcons never seem to have quite got over their loss in the Super Bowl back at the start of 2017 even though they got back to play-offs the following year, and after two losing season and an 0-5 start the Falcons let go both head coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff. The Falcons fortunes picked up initially under interim head coach Raheem Morris who went a very respectable 4-2 in his first six games in charge of the Falcons, but they then lost five straight to finish out the season. It was a strange year for Matt Ryan who threw for over four and a half thousand yards and twenty-six touchdowns to eleven interceptions, but the timing of those interception often seemed to be poor. An offensive ranking of twenty-first undermined and average defence but it is interesting to see the Falcons picking fourth by their record but were ranked seventeenth overall by DVOA. Rebuilding this team could a difficult task, Matt Ryan might have a few years left in him at 35, but this is a team who are $32 million over the 2021 cap, behind only the Eagles and the Saints in terms of being over the cap. There are some painful decisions to make and unsurprisingly for a team picking in the top five, a lot of work to be done but this is one of those situations where we shall have to see what vision their new GM sells to ownership and how well they can implement it. It’s not like there are no good players in Atlanta, but there are a lot of questions and I simply do not know how the Falcons will bounce back next season.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-11-1)
I can see why the three teams who are the most over the cap got there, the Saints are trying to maximise their chances of getting back to the Super Bowl at the end of their Hall of Fame quarterback’s last season, whilst both the Falcons and Eagles have been to the Super Bowl in the last five seasons. However, if the Falcons never managed to get over their loss, the Eagles might not have moved past their win. The Eagles roster has frequently been spoken of as one of the deepest in the league in the last few season seasons, including by myself, but familiar names have not saved them from injuries and the slow decay over seasons that finally tipped into losing this year. Worse still, their franchise quarterback Carson Wentz who had to watch their Super Bowl win from the side-lines in 2018 fell apart this season, which having signed a four-year $128 million extension in 2019 that kicks in this season causes all kind of problems this off-season. Carson Wentz was dropped for rookie Jalen Hurts towards the end of the season and it has been stated that Wentz’s relationship with head coach Doug Pederson has completely broken down, but Wentz simply cannot be cut. Wentz will count as $34.5 million on the cap next season and there would be a cap hit of $59 million if he was cut. I’m not sure what cap tricks can be pulled, but at $74 million over the cap, and the salary number is expected to down next season because of the lost game day revenue, there are huge questions about what can be done in the off-season. I am no capologist and I don’t cover the off-season in granular detail, but I will be watching with the situation in Philadelphia with interest. I certainly can’t predict a rapid turn around given this franchise doesn’t look to have functioned to the same level since a number coaches left Pederson’s staff after the Super Bowl win. I do wonder how long the owner’s patience will last if things don’t turn around quickly next season though.
Detroit Lions (5-11)
I left the possibility that Matt Patricia could surprise me before the season, but I did not foresee the Lions improving that much this season and that was very much the case. I questioned Patricia’s ability to create a good defence outside the environment of the Patriots where he made his name as a defensive coordinator, and sure enough they finished this season ranked thirty-second in the league by DVOA at the end of the season. Patricia was let go at the end of week twelve having fallen to 4-7 after a blow out loss to the Texans on Thanksgiving along with GM Bob Quinn. Since letting go of Jim Caldwell the Lions have had three seasons with double digit losses so they need to get the hiring decisions right this off-season. As discussed on the podcast this week, the Lions have the second longest play-off win drought in the NFL (second only to the Bengals) but twenty-nine years is a long time to wait for a play-off win! The Lions are not in desperate cap trouble, but $6 million under when you have the worst defence in the league does not give you a lot of options to work with so this is another team that needs the right GM to build a franchise up over a number of years. There is talk that perhaps they should trade quarterback Matthew Stafford and rebuild from the ground up, but at thirty-two he should have a few good years left though he may fancy a change of team if the right opportunity presents itself. There is too much uncertainty right now to predict how the Lions will fair, but I have a feeling that a multi-year rebuild is coming.
Carolina Panthers (5-11)
This was always going to be a tough season for the Panthers who were starting a major rebuild with first time NFL head coach Matt Rhule and a curtailed pre-season. They lost their first two games, but then won their next three despite Christian McCaffery being unavailable due to injury (a situatin that was the case more often that not in 2020) and having heard Rhule on the Peter King’s podcast I was really impressed with how things were shaping up for the Panthers under their new head coach. Unfortunately, what followed was five straight losses and the Panthers were only able to get two more wins over the rest of the season. The Panthers made the decision to move on from GM Marty Hurney who has an overall record of 106-32 with the Panthers but 16-30 since he re-joined in 2017. The Panthers only have marginally more cap space to play with than the Lions so this is yet another franchise who look like they are in for a patient rebuild, but we will have to see and certainly owner David Tepper is not shy of making changes now he has had the team for a while. I still have a good impression of Matt Rhule but it looks like there is a lot more work to do and at some point the question of a franchise quarterback is going needs to be dealt with.
Dallas Cowboys (6-10)
I am almost not sure where to start with the Cowboys who were much fancied going into the season under new head coach Mike McCarthy who started his time in Dallas going 1-4 despite Dak Prescott playing very impressively. Unfortunately, then things went from bad to worse in game five when Prescott went down to a horrible ankle injury that helped turned the sputtering 1-4 start into a 2-7 record before the bye. Things improved in the home run of the season with the Cowboys maintaining a winning record and went into week seventeen with a shot of winning the NFC East. However, a woeful performance from backup quarterback Andy Dalton saw them lose the game as Dalton slipped to a 4-5 record as the starter this season. The Cowboys will face more off-season turmoil about getting Prescott signed to a long term deal but at least he should be fit for the start of next season. The real concern though is the defence, which slipped from sixteenth in the league by DVOA in 2019 to twenty-fourth and the Cowboys go into 2021 with £10 million of space to sign a quarterback so the route to a defence surely lies through the draft and better coaching. It was an odd season for a new coaching staff to take control so you might feel that it is unfair to judge McCarthy too harshly, but it is worth pointing out that McCarthy went 11-16 in his last two seasons with the Packers and his successor Matt LaFleur has gone 26-6. I have concerns about how the Cowboys run by Jerry Jones and how good the coaching staff are so whilst I’m not saying the Cowboys can’t compete next year, they have not been able to compete consistently for a reason which makes it hard to expect good things next season.
New York Giants (6-10)
The New York Giants were understandably frustrated when the Eagles pulled Jalen Hurts at the end of a close game they eventually lost against the Washington Football Team, handing the NFC East to the capitol, but with only six wins the Giants really only have themselves to blame about not making the play-offs. Their season started badly with the Giants going 0-5 and losing Saquon Barkely for the season after only two games. The Giants got their first win for rookie head coach Joe Judge against Washington, but that was followed by two more losses until the Giants went to Washington and swept their divisional opponents. This was followed by two more wins against the Eagles and the Bengals before their marquee win of the season, a masterpiece of a defensive performance that saw the Giants hold Russel Wilson and the Seahawks to twelve points in Seattle and come away with the win. At this point in the season I was really becoming very impressed with the coaching job Judge was doing and fancied them to make a run at the division. To be fair, they were still in the race on the final day despite losing the next three games, but the Giants needed Washington to lose because the their twenty-sixth ranked offence couldn’t score enough points for them to maintain their challenge for the division. I am not convinced by Daniel Jones as a quarterback or for that matter, Jason Garrett as an offensive coordinator but I do feel like this season finally represents progress after three seasons of failing to make the play-offs, even if the Giants still recorded double digit losses. However, the slow progress will have to continue with the Giants over the cap by $9 million next season, and I do think they need another quarterback, but with the arrow finally pointing up and a talent like Barkley returning next year they could well be a surprise in the NFC East.
San Francisco 49ers (6-10)
The 49ers season seemed doomed from the start due to injuries, a problem that followed them all through the 2020 season. Once again Jimmy Garoppolo couldn’t make it through an entire season with the teasing quarterback only playing in six games this season and it would not exactly be a surprise to see the 49ers make a move at that position in the off-season. Still, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have created a great culture in San Francisco so this 6-10 feels a lot more positive than how a lot of teams might feel. Certainly defensive coordinator Robert Saleh did well to get his unit to a ranking of sixth in the league overall by DVOA and it would not be a surprise to seem him as a head coach next season. The 49ers have cap space next season but not necessarily enough to sign a big contract quarterback without some clever moves, but I do expect them to compete again next season. If they can finish the regular season ranked eleventh overall by DVOA despite their raft of injures then with a bit of luck they can sustain a challenge in the very competitive NFC West.
Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
It’s perhaps not a surprise that the Vikings struggled on defence this season given that they let 223 collective career games in their secondary walk out the locker room in the off-season. I should also mention that the Vikings were part of that rare thing, the NFL trade that benefited both participants. The Vikings sent disgruntled receiver Stefon Diggs to the Bills and he transformed the Bills’ offence alongside Josh Allen’s remarkable development, whilst the Vikings used the pick they acquired to draft Justin Jefferson who set a Vikings rookie receiving record which is no mean feat when the pervious record holder was Randy Moss. The Vikings actually made fifteen draft picks in a year with no proper off-season programme so they did pretty well to reach 7-9 with a defence that Mike Zimmer called the worst he ever coached. That said, the defence still ranked eighteenth by DVOA and if anything, it was the problems the Vikings had with winning when running back Dalvin Cook wasn’t available that stopped them from making the play-offs. Still, under Mike Zimmer the Vikings have been to the play-offs every other year and while this is only his second losing season since his first with the team in 2014, I don’t see any major reason why they can’t challenge again next season. Their path there still might not be that straight forward though as they are $17.5 over next year’s cap and so once again they will have to rely on draft picks and coaching. I wonder who else on the current roster might be let go. However, given the Vikings have been consistently able to be competitive I expect them to be so again next season.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
The Cardinals pulled off something of a coup in the off-season, acquiring receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a trade with the Houston Texans that most would say the Cardianls got the better of the deal. They also got off to a good start this season going 5-2 before their bye, but were unable to keep pace with the more experienced play-off contenders in the NFC West and just missed out on the play-offs. Though there were no announcements, it seemed like second year quarterback Kyler Murray was dealing with some kind of injury mid-season as there was a notable drop in his rushing production for a number of weeks and this seemed to hamper the offence. Still, they got back to winning ways towards the end of the season but losses to two divisional opponents in the final two weeks sees them on the outside of the play-offs looking in. A year of development is nothing to be sneezed at, but while the three more wins and ten place improvement in defensive ranking by DVOA from their 2019 record is good, as is the thirteenth ranking by overall DVOA, the slip in offensive ranking given the acquisition of Hopkins is a concern. This might all be down to the injury I suspect Murray was dealing with, but I have heard enough concern about head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s play calling and game management to be very curious to see if they can improve again next season or if they hit a plateau or get worse. The Cardinals don’t have a huge amount of cap space available to them next season, and we are once again wondering if this is the last season for veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald, but I wonder if the results of season rest on the lessons the coaching staff learnt this year and whether they can apply suitable changes to get them over the top next season. To me this is one of the more interesting situations in the league going into next season so I will be watching with interest.
DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measuring a team’s success on every play versus the league average, and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.