It is always a strange time of year for NFL fans as the excitement regarding the play-offs is tempered by whether you team is directly involved and how you feel about the state of the franchise you support. There is also the rolling coverage of the teams changing GMs and coaching staff, which is getting a head start this year as the NFL has changed rules allowing teams to start interviews earlier under certain conditions.
Still the countdown of disappointed teams has well and truly begun where the number will eventually reach thirty-one, but for now let’s have a look at the disappointed eighteen who didn’t make the play-offs.
In an effort to make life easier for myself I will split these run downs by conference and so we start with the AFC and I’ll work in ascending number of wins and descending draft order.
I am taking my cap numbers for next season from spotrac.com and the ranking/numbers were right at time of posting with an assumed team salary cap of $175 million.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15)
The Jaguars set a franchise record for losing this season with their solitary win in the opening week being the lowest total ever. They were already committed to making changes having fired GM Dave Caldwell when they fell to 1-10 for the season and head coach Doug Marrone followed once the regular season was completed. The good news for whoever takes control of this franchise is that they both have the number one pick in the draft and are projected to have the most cap space available in 2021. There is no shortage of things that need addressing given the only phase of the game the Jaguars were near average in was special teams, but with their choice of quarterbacks in the draft and money to make sensible signings the Jaguars could make a swift return to contention. The Jaguars were nothing if not patient with Caldwell so this could well be one of the most promising teams to join for both GM and head coaches this off-season, but all the fans will care about is someone finally establishing a franchise identity and building a team who can win regularly as the Jags have had one winning season in the last thirteen and only three of those seasons did they avoid a double-digit amount of games. There is a lot of work left to do in Jacksonville if they want to get back to the play-offs.
New York Jets (2-14)
The byword for incompetence for much of the NFL 2020 season, the Jets are such bad losers than in the race for the number one draft pick they came second. Having fired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who we should remember was pushed onto their head coach as a condition of him being appointed) in December when an all-out blitz cost them a win against the Raiders, it surprised literally no one who follows the NFL that Adam Gase was fired shortly after the Jets lost against the Patriots to finish a painful season. There was really no-one left for Gase to blame, particularly as within six months of him being hired as head coach, he had forced out GM Mike Maccagnan who hired him only to be fired 18 months later by Maccagnan’s successor Joe Douglas. In his two years with the Jets Gase failed to spark the offence or improve young quarterback Sam Darnold who might still have a career in the NFL but looks like he will be moving to a new franchise for his fourth season given that the Jets are still well placed to take a quarterback high in the draft. The Jets stand behind only the Jaguars for cap space in 2012 and so could also be well placed for recovery, but much like the Jaguars, with little recent history of success on the field the Jets need to build a new culture and get the front office working in lock step with whoever the new coach is to turn things around.
Houston Texans (4-12)
The Texans only managed four wins this season despite having a franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson who threw for 4823 yards and thirty-three touchdowns to seven interceptions, all having lost his favourite receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a bad trade with the Arizona Cardinals. The decisions made by Bill O’Brien as the GM used up future resources to manage the franchise and having amassed so much power, when the season started with four consecutive losses there was no one else to blame and O’Brien was fired. To be fair, it was a tough open to the season with visits to the Chiefs and Steelers sandwiching their game against the Ravens, but when they lost to a then 0-3 Vikings team the decision was made to fire O’Brien. In recent weeks we have had pretty strong statements of discontent from both JJ Watt and Watson, but having been blocked from talking to Patriots’ director of personnel Nick Caserio in 2019, the Texans have an agreement in place to hire him as their new GM. He will join the extensive search committee to find a new head coach as they seek to turn round a team that was plain bad on defence, but with several picks traded away by O’Brien including this year’s third overall pick to the Dolphins this likely not a quick fix. Apart from the draft capital, the Texans are projected to be twenty-sixth in the league for cap space in 2021 with them twenty million dollars over the projected cap so there is going to be at least a year of pain as they work their way back from that. If they hope to compete with the Colts and Titans any time soon they will need to lay a solid foundation this off-season but it will not be easy.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)
Zac Taylor’s doubling of the Bengals win total in his second season, including his first road win, was apparently enough to secure him a third season as head coach but I have to think that another failure to develop the offence to a rank higher than late twenties by DVOA won’t be enough to a fourth. The failure on offence is partly down to the loss of rookie quarterback Joe Burrow to injury, but he was covering up a multitude of sins on the offensive line, which eventually led to him being hit enough that he was lost for the season. This rests on the should of Taylor and his coaching staff and the one top ten phase of the game the Bengals had this season was special teams, and Taylor inherited Darrin Simmons from Marvin Lewis’ staff having been a fixture in Cincinnati since 2003. Certainly the defence really wasn’t much better than the offence despite defensive end Carl Lawson and safety Jessie Bates being right up there with any other players at their position. To be fair, the reports from the locker room have been supportive and there are other young players who look promising, but we are relying on development in areas in the third year that don’t seem to have progress in the first two. The Bengals have a conservative draft and develop programme historically, although they splashed some cash last off-season but saw most of those acquisitions injured. There are no problems with cap space, the Bengals have the sixth most free in 2021 and usually draft well, but I find it hard to see the next big step forward with things remaining the same. I hope to be proved wrong and this could be a more traditional re-build, but Marvin Lewis turned round a franchise in his time, even if he couldn’t get a play-off win, but the Bengals seem to have returned to their poor pre-Lewis ways since his leaving and with five losing seasons since the often-mentioned (if only by me) 2015 team that looked so promising, the Bengals feel like a franchise who have lost their way. I really hope they find it next year, but I have to be honest, I have my doubts…
Denver Broncos (5-11)
I feel like the Denver Broncos slipped under my radar a little this season. They managed to win five games with an offence that ranked thirtieth out of thirty-two teams by DVOA with quarterback Drew Lock missing three of their games but not exactly convincing in the other thirteen. However, whilst it was always going to be tough for them on defence when they lost veteran pass rusher Von Miller for the season before it had even started, a ranking of thirteenth by DVOA is at least respectable. The worry must be that the Broncos have not been to the play-offs since they won Super Bowl fifty and GM John Elway, despite being a Broncos legend, has not been able to find a franchise quarterback to follow Peyton Manning. Elway does seem to be recognising problems and is planning to step away from the day to day running of the franchise with the plan of hiring a GM with full autonomy over player personnel. The Broncos are at least projected to have space under next season’s cap and Lock has only finished his second season so they don’t have any big contract decisions to make this year on that front, but I’m not sure they have their franchise quarterback either and from the quotes that head coach Vic Fangio made about Lock’s potential as a franchise QB and the work Lock still has to do, it would not be a surprise to see someone brought in to challenge or mentor Lock in the QB room next season. I am not sure I am expecting massive changes this off-season, but a new direction seems like a good idea given five seasons of losing and head coach Vic Fangio is likely to need to find success going into his third season if he wants keep his job. Patience is not a virtue often utilised in the NFL, and whilst things can turn around more quickly in the modern NFL, for the Broncos a lot will rest on what they do at GM and how well that hire meshes with Fangio.
Los Angeles Chargers (7-9)
The LA Chargers finished an almost surprising 7-9 thanks to a strong four-win finish, but that was not enough to save head coach Anthony Lynn’s job. The last two seasons of his four years with the franchise yielded two losing seasons and in his lsat Lynn managed the transition from one franchise quarterback to another, but it was the manner of the losing that would have worried those in charge. I don’t think I have heard such positive views of a head coach as a man, something last year’s Hard Knocks series only served to highlight, coupled with such heavy criticism of in game management and general approach to offence. Lynn’s job with the Chargers was never easy as this is the first season where the Chargers had their own stadium in LA (all be it them renting from the Rams) and Lynn managed the transition to Los Angeles well, but with Justin Herbert looking like the rookie of the year having been thrown into the starting line-up in week two after Tyrod Taylor suffered a collapsed lung after a nerve block procedure went wrong the decision was made to change course. With Herbert looking like a franchise quarterback already, plenty of other talent spread around the rest of the roster, and over $20 million in cap space next season the Chargers should bounce back strongly even if they do share a division with the Chiefs. However, they will need to get their next coaching hire right (spotting a pattern here?) to pull this off. The Chargers of recent years have had a reputation for often losing close games so it might not take that much to turn things round, but we shall just have to see how they choose to go about it.
New England Patriots (7-9)
The Patriots’ season sputtered before it even began as they went into their pre-season with the most Covid-19 opt-outs in the league and when combined with the departure of Tom Brady after twenty seasons with the Pats in the off-season, you could see how they might struggle and struggle they did. The late signing of Cam Newton was a canny move that was a gamble for both parties that didn’t work out for player or team, and whilst the Patriots’ staff were effusive in their praise of Newton’s leadership and effort, he was not able to turn that into success throwing the ball. Yes he was still an effective running quarterback and there are limitations in the Patriots skill positions, but the truth is he simply could not complete enough passes for the team to truly compete. We had the strange situation where Bill Belichick, the ultimate no nonsense pragmatist, has been making excuses about this season was the payoff for the investment they put into maximising their chances with Brady. There are some facts that back up this position, the Pats go into next season with nearly $60 million in cap space but their record in drafts over recent years has not been stellar (which makes the hiring away of Nick Caserio to the Texans interesting) but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Belichick and the staff get it right with more room to manoeuvre. However, they will need to find a solution at quarterback and it seems like that answer is not currently on the roster and their path to getting one is unlikely through the fifteenth pick in the draft. I am not prepared to bet against one of the most successful head coaches in NFL history for long, and while I don’t know whether next season will see a turnaround, you wouldn’t bet against Belichick managing it before too long.
Las Vegas Raiders (8-8)
The Raiders first season in Las Vegas was rolling towards the play-offs through the first ten weeks of the season, but the last seven weeks only added two more wins to their week ten 6-3 record that fell to 8-8 by the end of the 2020 campaign. I wrote before the season about my concerns regarding the defence and their performance was still problematic and cost Paul Guenther his job as coordinator during the season. There was a marginal improvement to a ranking of twenty-eighth by DVOA but that was not enough for the Raiders to finally achieve a winning record in Jon Gruden’s third season as head coach. When a head coach gets a ten-year contract then they have a certain amount of job security, but there surely has to be some very pointed questions in private this off-season and a lot of pressure on Gruden and GM Mike Mayock to get the coaching hires on the defensive side of the ball right. I don’t know when owner Mark Davis’ patience might run out, but for Gruden to get the Raiders where they want to be he has to be able to serve the whole team going forward and not just the offence. However, the Raiders are currently $17 million over the 2021 salary cap so the roster management could be distinctly tricky this off-season and I have to wonder if Gruden can get this to team to where he wants to next year.
Miami Dolphins (10-6)
Fans of the Dolphins are probably as disappointed as any fanbase this week given that their team won ten games in the first year of the new expanded play-off format and still didn’t make get in. Their wait to make the play-offs has now extended to five seasons, but once the initial sting wears off there is still a lot to be hopeful about. Brian Flores impressed in his first season, managing five wins with a roster that was in the middle of a massive overhaul and in 2020 he followed that up by doubling the number of wins and mounting a serious push for the play-offs. The way that push ended in Buffalo is definitely a concern, but under the circumstances with the Bills playing well and Tua Tagovailoa unable to keep up with the Bills’ high flying offence with Ryan Fitzpatrick unavailable to play his QB reliever role due to Covid-19 it is at least partly understandable. There are concerns about Tagovailoa’s ability to push the ball down field, but we are only nine games into his career and he had to deal with shortened pre-season where he was still recovering from the hip injury that ended his college career so there is still plenty of potential to grow. For the first time in years it feels like the Dolphins’ front office and coach are working in lock step, the Dolphins go into next season with $25 million in cap space and as I mentioned earlier, have the Texans’ third overall pick in the draft. If they are that worried about Tagovailoa they could easily pick a quarterback, and I certainly think they were keen to get a good look at him this season, but if they have faith in their previous decision they should have their choice of the best players at the top of the draft. Thanks to injury they were having a lot of problems with their skills position late in the season but with an upgrade there and a new offensive coordinator the Dolphins look set to challenge in the AFC East for years to come. I can’t say if they will win a game in the post-season next year or even make the play-offs, but I absolutely expect them to compete for it and I think they are more likely to make the play-offs than not. That’s probably as much as any fan of these nine teams can hope for.
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.