The first ‘Super’ Wild Card weekend certainly provided plenty off football to watch, a couple of upsets and plenty to digest. As usual I will be saying goodbye to the losing teams, and for this post in the order they were knocked out so let’s take a look at the six who fell at the first playoff hurdle.
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.
This season the top of the AFC was so competitive that a ten win team did not make the playoffs and the Colts were seeded seventh despite an 11-5 record and ranking tenth overall by DVOA. It would have been no mean feat to go into Buffalo and beat the number two seed Bills in their own stadium, even if the long suffering but vociferus Buffalo fans were not present to cheer on what they would hope with be the first playoff win since 1995, but sadly for the Colt it was just not to be. There’s an argument that the Colts played better for large parts of this game, they had the ball for longer, outgained the Bills and their defence prevented the Bills from running up the kinds of scores they had over the last quarter of the season but sadly for the Colts, the Bills ability to put up points quickly saw them eek out the 27-24. I have been impressed with the job GM Chirs Ballard has done since he joined the franchise, which has not been easy given the injury status of Andrew Luck when Ballard took the job in 2017 and then had to deal with Luck’s retirement in 2019 just before the season. In that time the team had become competitive and with the addition of Frank Reich the Colts have won double digit games when they have had a true franchise quarterback. This is hardly a surprise but I mention it because the singing of Philip Rivers canonly be short term with him mulling retirement and as good as the Colts were this season, they really need to find a long term solution at quarterback. Their left tackle, the ten year vet Anthony Castonzo is retiring so there are a couple of key decisions coming up on offence this off-season. Rivers may decide to come back for another year, and the good news is that right now the Colts have the third most cap space going into 2021, but whether they can find the right pieces I don’t know. I trust Frank Reich as a head coach to keep this team competitive as he has managed that from the moment he got there, despite taking the job very late in the process and inheriting a stage that was assembled by Josh McDaniels before McDaniels pulled out of the job. However, if the Colts are to truly challenge, they need to sort the two key positions of quarterback and left tackle and whilst I admire Ballard, that is not an easy task in one off-season.
The Seahawks under Pete Carroll have gone to the playoffs in all but two of his eleven seasons, but they have not got back to the conference championship game since the 2014 season and their second Super Bowl appearance. It might be considered churlish to be picking at the sustained success of the Seahawks under Carroll, but I am getting a little concerned about their current direction and I think that feeling is shared by their fans. The league has moved on since the 2013/14 and whilst the Seahawks formula is clearly still successful up to a point, this is no longer a team with an era defining defence if it is still even possible to build such a unit with the current rules. These days the clear best player on the Seahawk’s roster is quarterback Russell Wilson and after the fans’ clamour to let Russ cook was met at the start of the season, the Seahawks won their first five game with Wilson an early MPV candidate as things were humming with receiver DK Metcalf absoultely dominating in the deep passing game. However, the defence was struggling to contain offences and as teams started to play more cover two coverage against the Seahawks the offence faltered and stagnated. As the defence improved, the Seahawks fell back to running the ball more and their old familiar formula. Whilst they still won twelve games this way, the Seahawks also just got knocked out by a Rams team who started their backup John Wolford at quarterback and when he was injured early were forced to play Jared Goff who is still recovering from a fractured thumb and cleary was having problem throwing the ball. Even more concerning for me was Carroll’s talk post game of getting better at running the ball and a lot is going to depend on who is selected to be the new offensive coordinator as the franchise parted ways with current OC Brian Shottenheimer citing philosophical differences. I would love to be proved wrong and the Seahawks bring in a fresh coordinator who can diversify the passing offence whilst maintain the running game as a genuine threat as I believe that is the most successful formula in the NFL these days, but the other thing that Wilson could benefit from as a shorter quarterback is for the Seahawks to take a leaf from the Saints’ handling of Drew Brees and fortify the interior of their offensive line. However, the Seahawks have not focussed on the offensive line with the tandem of John Schneider and Pete Caroll in charge so I doubt that will be done in the off-season. Even with only $5 million under the 2021 cap I expect the Seahawks to compete again next season, but I am beginning to wonder if the Seahawks are going to put themselves in a position to maximise Russell Wilson’s prime, or if he is going to end up in a situation similar to the Packers and Aaron Rodgers where they need to refresh the coaching scheme to maximise their investment. Having read his book on coaching I have a lot of respect for Pete Carroll, but I do wonder if he is going to help get the Seahawks offence in the place it needs to be to allow him to return to the Super Bowl and for the Seahawks, that should be focus right now.
Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team didn’t just make the playoffs but gave a credible performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and whilst they never truly troubled the Bucs, they did a lot better than the Bears who I shall be covering in a bit. Alex Smith steadied the ship and brought Washington back into playoff contention when he was made the starter at quarterback, but the Football team had to work hard to hold on to top spot in the NFC East when Smith picked up a calf strain yet they did managed to slide into the playoffs. If nothing else in the last few weeks, fringe quarterback Taylor Heinicke who had one career start going into Saturday’s game, hadn’t been on a NFL roster since final cuts ahead of the 2019 season, and didn’t even see the field for his XFL team last year moved the ball well enough that someone surely will sign him to take another look in the pre-season. However, Washington’s offence clearly still needs work in Washington as it ranks bottom in the league by DVOA (and let’s not forget that means it was worse than the Jets!), but in his first season Ron Rivera and his coaching staff got special teams up to fifteenth by DVOA and the defence finished third. The defence in no small part flourished with the addition of rookie defensive end Chase Young who looked every bit the top of the draft era defining pass rusher that Washington hoped for when they selected him last year. This was a very credible turnaround in one season, and there were a couple of players who caught the eye on offence, but the clear focus in the off-season is improving their quarterback play and getting their offence to at least league average. Washington have over $27 million in cap space next season and so whilst it is too early to know how far the new regime can take them, having taken a decent first step this season for the first time in a long time it feels like there is some hope that Washington can improve in consecutive seasons. My one concern is that I have said this before and been proven wrong as no regime has managed to take promise into production on the field or been given time to see a long term project through so we shall have to see what does actually happen this time. Even if you can’t bring yourself to hope yet, there is at least reason to monitor Washington’s moves this off-season and that has not been the case for many a year.
The first team that we lost on Sunday was an upset in seeding but was one I predicted before the game although it was hardly a controversial prediction. The Tennessee Titans continued to improve their standings in the AFC South under Mike Vrabel, winning the division for the first time since he took over in 2018 as well as achieving double digit wins for the first time. That said, this season’s iteration of the team differed from last year’s in that the 2019 version were competitive across all three phases of the game whereas this season the defence improved to fourth overall by DVOA whilst both the defence and special teams regressed badly. The short-term future on offence seems secure unless they lose coordinator Arthur Smith, but much like my criticism of the Raiders, it will not matter how good their offence is if the Titans can’t get the defence up to somewhere near the league average in play. The hope would be that as defence tends to be more volatile than offence the Titan’s defence could bounce back next season, but they need to address the pass rush from somewhere and with them $5 million over next season’s cap they will have to be clever or draft well to turn that around. The right draft pick could very well help them turn the corner, but you could say that about plenty of teams in the league. Still, this is now five seasons with at least nine wins so I have no reason not to expect the Titans to compete next season. However, there is a limit to how long running back Derek Henry can maintain his currently volume of production, particularly with his physical running style and five years in the league is a long time for a running back with his kind of usage. There are always cycles for any NFL team and I just hope that the Titans maximise their current situation because it is rare for a team to have their success tied to a running back and it last for long.
The Bears were the most comprehensively beaten team of the Wild Card round, and the score would look a lot worse if it were not for a garbage time touchdown from the Bears thanks to a ridiculous one-handed catch by Jimmy Graham. However, for most of the game the Bears offence never really took off and the Saints had full control of the game. This really mirrors the Bears season where despite starting 5-1, the Bears were worried enough that having signed Nick Foles to a three-year $24 million contract in the off-season they made him the starter but as so often has been the case unless pressed into service for a limited period, Foles did not impress. This leaves the Bears in the position where Trubisky played well enough to get them into the playoffs, but not to win in a demonstration of what I call the Andy Dalton paradox. Now Trubisky isn’t as good as Dalton was at his height for the Bengals, but neither of them were able to elevate those around them on their own and with the modern rules I don’t think you can build the kind of defences that allowed the Ravens to win with a Joe Flacco or a Trent Dilfer. In a league that is segueing from Drew Brees and Tom Brady to Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, Dak Prescott and it seems more good quarterbacks than ever before, I believe you simply must have an offence that performs to a certain standard and I think the Bears by splitting between Foles and Trubisky have ended up with no quarterback and awkward decisions to make this off-season. I do not know what they plan to do with Foles and having declined the fifth-year option for Trubisky, they now have to make decisions having invested draft capital and free-agent money without a clear path forward and who really knows what changes are the front office prepared to make to improve next season. This is particularly prescient as with their defence and special teams both ranked in top ten by DVOA, if they can sort out what is after all head coach Matt Nagy’s side of the ball in the offence, then they might be able to push on and really challenge in the playoffs. However, I am not sure about GM Ryan Pace who not only drafted Mitchell Trubisky, but traded up for the privilege to do so when it did not seem like the 49ers were going to draft a quarterback and passed over both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the process. It’s always easy to look back in hindsight so I do want to be careful as Pace will obviously know a lot more about player evaluation than me, but I did not like the process at the time and everyone questioned the choice of player as well as the draft capital given up. I’m not sure anyone knew what Mahomes was going to turn into, but Pace’s evaluation of the three players was clearly wrong and with one winning season in six there is no record of consistent success under the current administration. The Bears are $8 million over the draft cap so I will be following the Bears’ off-season with interest as there are some big decisions to be made, but I’m not sure about the process or the people who are making them.
The last team to finish their season on Sunday was in some ways the most surprising, but the warning signs were there, and things went wrong from the very first snap of the game for the Steelers. They may have started out 11-0, but the end of the season saw the lose five out of six games including Sunday’s Wild Card game to a team who could barely practice and were without several players as well as their play-calling head coach due to a Covid-19 break outs. The Steelers’ first snap saw nine-year veteran centre Maurkice Puncey shotgun a snap over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s head and the Browns were first to secure the ball in the end zone and score a touchdown. By the end of the first quarter, the Steelers were down 28-0 and despite generating over five hundred yards of passing offence in the game ultimately lost 37-48. You can understand how as the defence accumulated injuries at linebacker the defence struggled late in the season, but the real problem was the balance of the offence where they could not run the ball and were overly reliant on short passing plays that required yards after the catch. Once teams had figured out how to stop this then the Steelers could not seem to adjust. They approach next season with a thirty-nine-year-old quarterback mulling retirement who is an eye watering $41 million cap hit in 2021, with $22 million in dead money if he is cut, but with the Steelers $23 million over the 2021 salary cap and with a number of free-agents there are going to be some difficult decisions. They will certainly have to be careful about who they seek to retain, though at least they have young receivers to take over if they let some of the more experienced players go. I have wondered for years about the Steelers cap management, though they usually find to way remain competitive but they have not had to think about quarterback for a long time. I think you have to be impressed at how they are run but with no obvious successor to Roethlisberger on the roster and a murky cap situation the Steelers are going to have to create a new era and there might well be some pain ahead before they get back to the kind of success we are all used to seeing in Pittsburgh. I would not bet against them coming good again soon though.
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.