NFL Wild Card Graveyard

One last look before the long goodnight

Wild Card weekend has come to a close, and it was totally uneventful, if you lived on another planet that didn’t have a tv satellite or cable package. Tons of crazy stuff went down, which we will evaluate later this week in the picks column. In the meantime, let’s say goodbye to some old friends (or enemies or whatever) who couldn’t get it done this weekend, and evaluate some possible next steps.

The Steelers

What went wrong: This was the first snap of the game.

For all intents and purposes, it only got worse from here, as the Browns obliterated a rested, healthy, experienced, and prepared Steelers team that might as well have been the Jaguars. At no point was this game close. Also, that game allowed the Steelers, who started 11-0 to finish out 1-5 with losses to such notable heavyweights as, the Browns, Bengals, WFT, and the Browns again.

Where do they go from here:

Coaching: I don’t think coach is the primary problem with this team. Mike Tomlin had this team ready to go at the start of the year when so many other teams were not prepared. Their defense was decimated by injuries to key players, and I think I know what’s wrong with the offense. The big concern I have is, that it seems like Mike might be losing the ear of the players in the locker room. When it was Leveon Bell and Antonio Brown, it was easy to chalk that up to them being bad dudes. Now, when guys like Juju Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool and various other players seen in videos this last week ignoring COVID protocol, are ignoring him, it’s time to wonder if he is still connecting. Some coaches just have a shelf life. Maybe Mike Tomlin is at the end of his on this team.

Quarterback: It’s time to say goodbye. Ben showed in short stretches some of his old skill, but overall, he was bad throughout the year, highlighted by a total collapse down the stretch. He has become completely immobile, his accuracy has dropped precipitously and his arm strength has dropped too. What this results in is a quarterback with limited options to move the ball in a league where you NEED to be able to move the ball multiple ways. The best QBs now are guys that can move the ball with their legs, through accurate short passing, and by hitting deep passes. Outside of maybe hitting short passes, he cannot do any of those things well.

Other major issue: The offensive line faded as the season wore on, and it is simply too old at this point. From Pouncey’s horrible snap, to the Villanueva’s struggles to keep any base, this team’s line is in shambles. What was once a point of pride, is now something that needs a total rebuild. Regardless of how bad Ben was, they couldn’t run the ball either. Any new young quarterback is going to need blocking and a run game to get him rolling.

Good news: This team still has a great defense that will keep them from falling too far. Injuries hurt in the second half with stars like Bud Dupree and Devin Bush missing from about mid-way on.

What’s next: Find a new quarterback. This team has been claiming Mason Rudolph is next for a while now, but, if we are being honest, here, with no one else listening… he isn’t. This team needs to target a high pick at a potential future star, much the same way they did with Ben all those years ago. It will be very tempting to try to find a veteran band aid a la Philip Rivers, but they need to resist that, and start over with a potential star.

The Colts

What went wrong: Well, they lost by three points…

Philip Rivers played fine in this game. No big mistakes, no sloppy passing, no bad play calls. He moved the ball and put up points on a good defense. Their defense did ok too. The Bills are really good! It is very hard to stop Josh Allen, as, unlike Ben Roethlisberger, he can hurt you on the ground, with accurate short passing or deep shots. The Colts are a perfectly good, 10-6ish team that makes it into the playoffs and loses on the first weekend. I have said that all year. And they did almost exactly that. They are who we thought they were. They are an ok football team.

Where do they go from here:

Coaching: Frank Reich isn’t the problem here either. Watching what has happened in Philadelphia after he left, to seeing the resurgence the aging Philip Rivers had here is pretty clear evidence that he was the mind behind that Super Bowl. I would stay the course with the coach.

Quarterback: Philip Rivers had a bit of a renaissance season by his standards, as he greatly improved once he left the horrible coaching situation in LA, and got under the tutelage of the talented Reich. Still, he is not an elite QB, and he isn’t going to get better again next year (there isn’t another level of coaching acumen available to him). It’s hard for a team with 10-6 talent at other positions to start over at QB, but, just like the Steelers, if they want to be more than they are, they need to identify the future at QB, not keep retreading old guys.

Other Major Issue: This team has a massive dearth of playmakers on offense. T.Y. Hilton is near the end, and the young guys might develop into solid options, but none of them are great. At running back, their investment into Jonathan Taylor looks meh, and the other options are weak. At tight end, they have space fillers. This team needs an infusion of offensive skill.

Good news: The defense was very good, if a little inconsistent. They were still prone to very bad games. It would help them a lot if the offense could stay on the field longer. If that fails, however, they could still use that one big time player that makes the biggest plays on the biggest stages. When the cards were down Saturday, they didn’t deliver.

What’s next: It’s time to decide on the direction of this group. For the last several years, they have been stop-gapping the QB position with fill-ins from the FA heap. They seem to be over-estimating the talent they have there, because they keep thinking they are a piece away, and that simply isn’t true. They need to resist trolling for another veteran band aid like Ben Roethlisberger and accept reality. It’s time for them to finally develop the next young QB since Andrew Luck’s unfortunate early retirement.

The Titans

What Went Wrong: Mike Vrabel famously was willing to cut off his penis to win a Super Bowl, sadly, he wasn’t willing to do anything to get there.

As I noted before the game started, this game was very evenly matched. One small thing could easily tip the balance of this game. In this case, that small thing was trying to win. He said later he felt his defense was playing well (meh) and he trusted them. Except the defense was BY FAR the worst part of the Titans all year. It took the Ravens 2 plays to make back the 25 yards that were gained with the punt. By the time they got the ball back, they had 4 minutes to go 80 yards instead of 6 to 40. That one play cost them roughly 15 percent of their possible winning percentage, a staggering amount.

Coaching: Mike Vrabal’s job is safe, but I am not sure it should be. He contributed in a significant way to Sunday’s loss. He is supposed to be a great defensive mind, but the Titans defense was routinely torn apart all year. His conservative approach continues to cost them in close games. Next year will be a very significant one in his tenure there.

Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill continues to play well in a vacuum, but it is clear based on play calling what this team really thinks about him. The training wheels haven’t come off in two years, and the rare offensive outburst he has, usually comes against a totally overwhelmed opponent. In their last 4 playoff games, he has done almost nothing to contribute. He is very quietly assuming the Kirk Cousins position of Play-Action Signal Caller Who Can’t Do It On His Own. Patent Pending. This team will have to win it all despite him, not because of him.

Other Major Issue: Their secondary was a total disaster. Instead of bringing back the competent Logan Ryan in the offseason, they shredded major cash on the dramatically over-rated Jadaveon Clowney. They need to cut him loose and put all available funds into the back end of that defense.

Great News: Derrick Henry still resembles an oil derrick and is as indestructible as an oil derrick. Very few running backs are real difference makers, but he is. So is AJ Brown, who is more like a colossal ocean tanker. These two are great skill players to build on.

What’s next: This team needs to improve the defense significantly at all three levels. They lack playmakers along the line and in the secondary. Beyond that, they need to get way more aggressive. This is an offense first team, and they need to act like it. Pushing the ball more to Brown, Davis and Henry in space should be a priority. Not holding the ball for 5 minutes and going 20 yards. Vrabal needs to do a Riverboat Ron Rivera and change his coaching style before it is too late.

The Bears

What went wrong:

This loss wasn’t just Mitchell Trubisky’s fault. He had plenty of help on offense from an ineffective rush attack, to WRs getting ejected or dropping touchdown passes. It is impossible to look at this Bears team through anything but the lens of that one bad pick. With Mahomes or Watson, this is a completely different group. Without them, this is a rudderless offense going to the playoffs on the backs of a strong defense (One thread you will notice on most of the teams that were eliminated this weekend is that they have very good defenses and poor to mediocre QB play. Defense can get you to the playoffs, but offense wins the Super Bowl at this point.

Coaching: It’s time for this team to move on from Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy. Besides their definitive failure to draft correctly or develop the pick they had, they wasted picks and money on Nick Foles, failed to lock up their one good skill player and constantly found themselves getting out-schemed by other teams. In the same way Vrabal should be under the microscope, Nagy should be too. He is an offensive coach with a terrible offense.

Quarterback: This is a total black hole. Trubisky is not an answer, Foles was a waste of money, and they have no one else on the roster worth considering. With the defense being so good, it might be tempting to try for a band aid player like Matt Stafford. The problem is the offense has a dearth of skill players, and without knowing who the coach is, it’s fair to wonder how quickly that person will be effective. It’s time to find a young player to develop.

Other major issue: This team desperately needs a fresh start. The GM is the real source of the problems this team has. He continues to make bad player evaluation decision, his arrogance has lead to countless mis-steps and his inability to look in the mirror leads to unwanted repetition of the first two. This team needs new leadership at the top.

Good News: It was even a down year for Khalil Mack, but a down year for Khalil Mack is a dream for anyone else. Beyond him, they have a number of nice pieces on defense that are still fairly young. With this defense, tanking is impossible. I will let you decide if that is good or bad.

What’s next: This team needs to trade up for it’s next signal caller. If someone like Justin Fields or Zach Wilson falls, they need to pounce. Beyond that, it is time to hire the same search committee as the Texans did, except listen to them, and hire an elite GM and new coach.

The WFT

What went wrong: Not much really, they just aren’t that good.

This team has major issues at quarterback, and with their third string QB in the game, they still nearly hung in there with the GOAT. They shouldn’t feel bad about this game, even though they “Jagged” (useless moral victory) pretty hard. They are finally on the path to respect again after a decade of hardcore “Snydering”. It’s going to take more than one year to see the fruit of the change after paring the tree back to a stump.

Coaching: Ron Rivera is definitely the kind of respected figurehead who can bring an organization back to respectability. He immediately improved the defense, and he managed to squeeze enough out of the offense to keep the team in most games. The pieces are here to become one of these 10-6 defense first playoff teams that lose in the first round. Can they be more than that?

Quarterback: This team needs a permanent solution at QB. Dwayne Haskins didn’t grow up in an organization that, prior to this season, prided itself on immature bro behavior all the way up to the owner. It’s not surprising to me that he thought that behavior was fine, since everyone else in the organization was doing it. It must have come as a total shock when Ron Rivera got there and required discipline and adult behavior on and off the field. Hopefully, he will find a real mentor who can straighten him out. For the WFT, they need to look at all the options outside the team. They will be picking pretty far back in the draft to get a difference maker there (they are behind, for example, the 10-6 Dolphins and 8-8 Cardinals). The free agent options will be pretty old as well. This team might need to do a rental/project QB combo deal for the next few years. It’s tough to be in the middle.

Other major issue: They started to find some pieces on offense. Terry McLaurin was a revelation, Logan Thomas came on as the season went along and Antonio Gibson flashed some potential out of the backfield. Still, this team is very light on playmaking. To get away with having a bad QB, you need skill all around. They need several upgrades, from another really good running back, to a true number 2 wide receiver and a more explosive tight end.

Great news: The defensive line is a nightmare. Chase Young had a great first year. The sky is the limit for him. Hopefully he will be more JJ Watt and less Jadaveon Clowney. The other pieces of that line are also really great. If anything, they have too many great players there, they need to make a deal to improve the back end of the secondary. Ron Rivera also loves a strong middle linebacker (Urlacher/Keuchly) so I wouldn’t be surprised if they target that in the draft.

What’s next: They have a choice. They can give up a lot or resources to try and solve the QB problem or they go all in on defense and try to maintain a ground and pound offense. Given Ron Rivera’s track record, I think they will go with defense first. This probably isn’t good as a long term solution, but it would make them more competitive in the short term, which is exactly the kind of thinking a team like the WFT does.

The Seahawks:

What went wrong: No one played well in this game. Worse, however, I don’t think the coaching staff has any idea what is wrong with this team or how to fix it.

The Seahawks were outplayed in every aspect of the game on Saturday. On offense, Russell Wilson had a terrible game. They did great running the ball though. On defense, they allowed the Rams to score 30 points with a busted Jared Goff, who was so out of sorts, they tried to start a different QB. There is no way to look at the game this weekend and come away with the idea that this team is close to being a Super Bowl contender as currently constructed.

Coaching: This is the problem with this team. I mentioned early on in this article that Mike Tomlin might have hit his shelf life, and I think Pete Carroll has gone over his. On offense, he has remained adamant over and over that running the ball is what matters. Yet, the only stretch of good offense this team had this year was when they WEREN’T running the ball. In this game, they averaged over 5 yards per carry and got smoked. The NFL as a whole has figured out the rushing the ball is inefficient, yet Pete Carroll is still stuck in 2010. This team needs to focus on Russell Wilson having the ball in his hands as much as possible, yet it seems like Carroll’s goal is to see the exact opposite. On defense, this team is less legion of boom and more region of gloom at this point. There are still some strong pieces, but the whole of the parts is a disaster. After a decade of trying to run a vanilla scheme with incredible players, they are still running a vanilla scheme with mostly terrible players. Carroll is a good CEO type coach, like Joe Gibbs, Dick Vermeil, or Don Shula. Guys who get everyone on the same page, motivate them, keep things disciplined and let the coordinators drive the car. I just don’t think his rah rah stuff is working anymore. The Coordinators aren’t special, and since he entrusts them, he isn’t getting anything. This team desperately needs a new face. This feels just like the Packers with Aaron Rodgers. They held onto Mike McCarthy 3 years too long because he won a Super Bowl, and they went through years of disappointing results, misusing a star QB in a vanilla system. The change since Matt LeFleur took over is startling. This team needs to recognize this before it’s 3 years from now and they haven’t been to a conference championship game.

Quarterback: Russell Wilson is still a great QB.

The major issue: The defense has holes all over the field. They desperately need a strong pass rusher, depth at CB and a star FS. Without an Earl Thomas type in the center of the pass defense, none of the parts work. Jamal Adams is a box safety like Cam Chancellor, and he can play that part well, but that is not where this team has a problem. They should not have used their picks to trade for him, because now they don’t have picks to get a good free safety or cap space to pay one. This defense is not going to be significantly better next year barring a total scheme change.

Good news: If the coach and coordinator can figure out how to use the pieces correctly, this team can be great on offense. Until they decided to go back into an offensive shell, they were dominating teams on offense. If they simply let loose on offense and let Russ work, they will still put up over 25 points again. One of the reasons Carroll keeps on insisting on the run, however, is that the defense needs to stay off the field. This feels like a cyclical issue where they run the ball, it slows the offense, the defense give up points, the offense has to throw to keep up, the defense tires and gives up even more points. No matter what you do, the defense stinks. Maybe just score the points and worry about the defense later.

What’s next: I honestly don’t know. They don’t have the resources against the cap or in the draft to fix the holes on this team. They lack the coaching to get the most out of the pieces they do have. Russell Wilson will never let this team bottom out. This feels so much like the Green Bay Packers from 2015-2018. Unless they have a disaster season that gets Carroll fired, they are stuck at 10-6 and a relatively quick playoff exit. They are the opposite of most teams on this list though, they have a great offense and no defense. It is easier to fix defense than offense, so there is a little more hope here than in most places. The problem is, fixing the defense usually requires, at a minimum, a new defensive coordinator. They haven’t shown the willingness to make a major schematic adjustment.