The NFL Fan's Unicorn Dream Journal
This past weekend sealed the deal for the NFL playoff picture. We will talk about playoff teams later this week, but first we need to address the losers and their hopelessness. Some teams have known this was coming for a while. Others found out at the last minute. They all still face the same reality though: An offseason of hoping that next year is better. The teams have their own wish lists no doubts, but who cares about them. They got their teams in this predicament. The FANS have their own wishes, and they need to be addressed. Obviously, they would like to actually make the playoffs next year.
OK, maybe that is asking a lot for some teams. Let’s take a look at the top 3 dreams and hopes for each non-playoff team’s fans that will need to be guarded by a horse with a sword on it’s head. We will go by draft order (or at least what it should be, unless you foolishly traded your first round pick for a mediocre left tackle).
The London/Jacksonville/TBD Jaguars are starting out here. Of course, they achieved this distinction in what I might describe as the ideal manner. They gutted their team of good players. They got some picks for it. They entered the year with a poor, lame-duck coach. They won their first game, then they never won again (so they could comfortably move through the year without fear of 0-16 or tanking scrutiny). THAT is how you tank. The Jets could learn a lot from them.
Stay in Jacksonville. I bet you thought this would be Trevor Lawrence. That’s coming (maybe). But it would seem to me the biggest priority of being one of the few Jags fans out there is to have them remain in your city. Shad Khan didn’t buy the team to have it sit in Jacksonville with 20,000 fans forever.
A new QB. As cute as it was to run through the Bears old QBs and follow the Gardner Minshew pipe dream, this team needs a signal caller with some hope attached. Everyone assumed it was Trevor Lawrence, but then Justin Fields jumped off the top rope and obliterated him. The Jags would like both or either but not neither.
A new coach. Rumors are swirling that Urban Meyer is headed down south again to be the coach of the Lond… err Jacksonville Jaguars. The track record of college coaches in the NFL is awful, but Meyer has been a success everywhere he has coached. Regardless of whether it is Meyer, a high end coach with a top end QB is what Jason stays up each night to dream about.
Fireman Ed and his family have a rough offseason coming up. The good news is that the organization didn’t force the Jets fans to have to sit around and wonder if Adam Gase would be back, firing him before/after the last game of the year. Now, they might also fire the GM that Adam Gase handpicked (I’m starting to see why teams don’t let the coach pick the GM). There are a lot of holes here so three hopes and dreams might not be enough.
A new coach and GM… and owner: This team needs a fresh start pretty much across the board. The owner part is tough, but after decades of consistent failure, it is clear they are the root of the problem. Until that situation improves, it’s hard to imagine this team suddenly being run competantly.
Help. This team is very thin on talent. They lack good skill position players across the board, a strong QB, most of a good offensive line, and have 1 good player on defense. That’s how you become last at offense and defense. It’s easy to say they should draft a QB, but they have so many problems, one player isn’t going to help. They need to trade down. Who knows if Darnold is good. He is younger than Joe Burrow and he had Adam Gase as his coach.
Dignity. A combination of starting the season 0-12, being in NYC, their history and their status as the worst in a very loaded division fully stripped the Jets of any dignity this year in a way that they may never top, and this is a team that had a butt fumble. It’s embarrassing to finally see Tom Brady leave but be wholly unprepared to compete in the new vacuum. Now, the Dolphins and Bills have filled the void and then some. Their fans would be happy just to see them be a normally bad team at this point.
Well, nobody saw this coming, least of which the Texans. That is why they are here, but this isn’t their pick. It is the Dolphins pick, but they are still the third worst team in football. It is hard to imagine a team with one of the 5 best quarterbacks in football getting only 4 wins but here we are. This has to be heartbreaking if you are a Texans fans, and not just because you can’t fall back on the Cowboys like usual.
A new leadership team: The core of this leadership group, from the ownership (who seemingly fired their very popular and successful media relations person for not loving Trump enough) to the GM (who is currently the Patriots former chaplin) to the coach (the very washed Romeo Crennell) are a total disaster. This needs a full house cleaning from the top down.
Ditch the old guys: While most fans probably don’t want JJ Watt to go, getting rid of him is the next step toward winning. He stopped being an elite player several years ago, and his cap number does not reflect that. His name is worth a lot though, and should be worth at least a low end pick. More importantly, they desperately need to open up cap space. A number of other older/expensive defensive players need to go too. He is just the one you have heard of.
Forget running backs. The trade of DeAndre Hopkins was a full on disaster, mainly because they got a damaged and expensive running back in return, instead of a good draft pick. David Johnson is washed. I know they will be tempted to sign some one else, but they need to stop it. The ball should always be in Deshaun Watson’s hands. Add a great tight end or WR. Stop trying to run the ball 25 times a game.
A team with this much offensive talent should be dominating most weeks. Instead, they find themselves middle of the pack. On defense, the absence of playmakers causes them to get torn apart in the air. As the season wore on, they were able to scheme the defense so they could stop the run, but that doesn’t cut it in today’s NFL.
Move on from Matt Ryan, Todd Gurley and Julio Jones. This is a tough ask, and in today’s NFL, QBs last a lot longer than they used to. Still, the ship has sailed on Matt Ryan being an elite QB. Which means there is no reason to keep Jones or Gurley either. Both of these players have a short window left to be contributors on a winning team, and there is no way to fix the defense quickly. They are going to have cap problems, and there are just too many holes to fix in the draft.
Don’t fall for Coaching Pyrite. Few things are more of an annual tradition than falling for the interim coach (i.e. Freddie Kitchens) who spices up the team. Raheem Morris picked up the mantle from the fallen Dan Quinn, and kept the Falcons respectable down the stretch. That doesn’t mean he should be the new coach. He was the coordinator of that terrible defense that improved with him as coach. That is not a good thing. While I think Morris is a good leader, and could develop into a good head coach, if you think you are winning big with him, you are mistaken.
A séance. Look, this team has some wicked bad mojo, as they say in Boston. They need to get a Medium out there, stat. Hail Science.
Another year gone by, no new hope for the fans. This team is a lost cause. I feel so bad for Joe Burrow, who should have listened to his mentor’s brother, Carson Palmer, about what a stint in Cincinnati is like. Cincinnati is actually a very nice little city. It (and Joe Burrow) deserves better than the Bengals. I hope these long suffering fans get what they deserve.
Hope. This team needs something to change in a big way. New owners, a quick recovery for Burrow, a fresh leadership group, a new stadium. SOMETHING. They are stuck in a loop, like in Palm Springs (my favorite movie of 2020). They need to science the hell out of this and move on.
A leader. This also falls under hope, but it is the core of the problem. For years Marvin Lewis held this organization together with his leadership and coaching acumen. While he got handed one mediocre player after another, he turned it into slightly above average results. That sounds bad in theory, but look what happened before and after him. With their terrible ownership, having a football leadership void means that the Bengals descend deep into the Heart of Darkness in a way only Coppola could understand. They need someone like him again. A Jim Caldwell type. An older coach with experience and the cache to force the owners to do what he says. Zac Taylor has shown me nothing, but he will be sticking around for another year because they must like how the players nearly mutinied mid-season.
Defense. This team needs to get back to it’s identity. Their terrible defense forced the offense to have to throw 45 plus times a game with a bad offensive line and no rushing attack. That is tough on a young QB. Having a strong defense will allow them to take a more balanced attack as Joe Burrow grows into his role. They have some good pieces in the secondary. They need lots of help up front. As the season lagged, they got back to being nasty, the Bengals’ trademark. You can’t do that after you have already given up a 20 yard completion though.
What a disastrous season. In many respects, the Eagles had the worst season in the NFL. While Houston was expected to be better, it was understood they would have competition to make the playoffs in that division with the Colts and Titans. They also still have an elite quarterback who is going nowhere. The Eagles blew what was essentially a free division title by throwing up all over themselves and finishing last, all while turning what seemed like a solid QB situation into a muddled nightmare.
Youth. This team is old all over the field, from the offensive line, to the skill positions, to the defense. This team has very little in the way of young playmakers, and the offseason experiment to bring in Darius Slay was a disaster as he was repeatedly left on an island to get pounded every week. This team needs a total overhaul.
They need to resuscitate Carson Wentz. This is the worst of a lot of bad options at QB. It was clear as Jalen Hurts time under center wore on that he is not ready to throw the ball at the NFL level. He might get you some points running the ball, but that doesn’t work in the long term. Wentz is untradeable with his contract. Hurts in not ready. This probably also means firing the coach, but coaches are a lot cheaper than quarterbacks, and Pederson has not distinguished himself since Frank Reich left.
Rebuild the offensive line: Of all the positions that need help, this is number one with a bullet. They couldn’t protect Wentz at all, and he stopped looking down the field and started looking at the rush. He needed to be pulled whether he realized it or not, just so he could have time to relearn how to stay in the pocket. It won’t matter unless the pocket exists though.
The Lions did what absolutely everyone expected and were bad. They had been bad ever since hiring Matt Patricia and trying to be the Patriots West (a trap so many have fallen into). They are a weird mix of young and old, and it isn’t clear if they are rebuilding or trying to win now. They didn’t resign their best player (Kenny Golladay) and they don’t show any indication they are going to. Their franchise has been based on Matt Stafford for over a decade, but this year it became clear he simply cannot carry them any more.
Direction. This team needs to hire a new leadership team and then figure out who they are. They have been semi-competitive for so long that it is sort of ridiculous. The best they have ever done with Matt Stafford is lose in the wild card round. He isn’t getting any better at this point. The plan to fill the defense with former Patriots was an abject failure and they put one of the worst defenses on the field imaginable this year. This team needs to decide, once and for all, to pack it in and rebuild.
Defense. As just mentioned, this team was a defensive atrocity. It is hard to argue with the decision to trade Darius Slay, but they replaced him with less than nothing. This team needs help on all levels. It doesn’t matter if they replace Stafford or not if they are giving up 30 points a game each week.
Effective tactics. This team desperately needs to identify better schemes and improve its coordinator situation. They vacilated all over the place on offense, from pounding the center for 2 yards a pop with a totally washed Adrian Peterson one week, to working in a rookie running back the next week. Who are they on either side of the ball? They have no idea. They need a GM who will draft for a specific approach and a coach who will follow through on that approach.
This was sort of a lost season for the Panthers. They played well at times, but injuries sapped them of key playmakers and they never really figured out a defense that worked. To be fair, the defense has no great players, and there is a lot of work to be done there. On the plus side, I can’t help but see them get better next year. They seemed to be coached well (given how hard it was to coach as a rookie head coach this year) and they have some great pieces to work with.
More defense. This team desperately needs someone who can make big plays consistently on that side of the ball. I though the offense looked good most weeks, but it was almost never enough. They could start with their first round pick by adding a pass rusher or cornerback who can stop the run as well.
Figure out if Teddy Bridgewater is the real deal. Bridgewater was fine this year, but there is no indication he can lead a consistent winner. He is clearly a bridge (I am so sorry) to the next quarterback, but how soon do they need to cross that bridge? Do they need to invest heavily in it? Or is this a situation where a second round pick gets groomed for down the road. Deciding that right now is imperative.
Keep Joe Brady. Their offensive coordinator (and LSUs a year ago) is a hot candidate for open coaching positions, and given his performance this year with McCaffrey out and a mediocre QB should be on those lists. They need to make sure he doesn’t leave. Having to restart at OC is a big step back for a team that made some positive movement on that front this year. Whether they have to raise his pay or adjust his title, they need to keep that going.
This team’s season was over as fast as it began, as a mountain of injuries sapped their roster to the point where they were out of the mix before the season was half over. They played a little better in the second half, but all that did was muddle the discussion and the direction of this team.
Find a real QB. Drew Lock was OK this year. He had some good moments and a lot of bad moments. I think what the Broncos need to ask themselves is, “Can this team ever beat the Chiefs with Drew Lock at QB”. The answer is no. He simply lacks the talent to be more than a midlevel starter. That isn’t going to cut it in this division. Given the vets on defense, the time is now, and looking into a player like Wentz, Ryan or Stafford might be a good decision here.
Evaluate the coach. It’s hard to tell how good of a job the coaching staff did this year because of all the injuries. I have seen some good defensive scheming and some big offensive games, but it all seems very inconsistent. This next year is going to be a critical year to evaluate the structure they have in place.
Move on from John Elway. Whew. This is NOT going to be a popular opinion. He is the face of that franchise. He is so ensconced into the ownership group he might as well be the owner. The problem is, since his decision to bring on Peyton Manning (which barely worked), he has shown that his opinions about team building are stuck in 1996. They signed 2 lead running backs this year, in a league that requires 0. He continues to look for the discarded model for quarterbacks (the statuesque 6-6 guy with the big arm). He continues to look for defensive minded coaches with almost no ability to coach offense. This team will be handcuffed to the past as long as he is there. (as I went to post this… John Elway stepped down from his role as GM, which was a major surprise. I guess the Broncos are down to two wishes. Unfortunately they can’t wish for more wishes).
It’s hard to judge the Cowboys season with Dak Prescott’s injury. I find it hard to believe they would have lost the division with him at quarterback. The problem is, he masked over a lot of other deficiencies, and it is hard to know if Jerry Jones and family are savvy enough to understand that.
Get Dak Back. Dak’s health and contract status are all that matters this offseason. He showed, before his injury, that he is key to the offense. Even the offensive line’s collapse was less important than Dak. Dak is the future of the Cowboys. They need to resign him and move on to the other stuff.
Reallocate funds: This team has wasted money in all the wrong places. They locked up a number two receiver with number one money (Amari Cooper), they paid a fortune for a good running back who can do nothing without a great offensive line, they spent a fortune on an aged and injury prone offensive line and they filled out the rest of the roster by signing overpaid washed vets. They need to focus their money on getting younger on the line, and helping their talentless defense. They were losing games where Prescott would throw for 500 yards and 3 TDs. His injury wasn’t the main problem.
Fire the coach. I know McCarthy has been there for one season, and they are unlikely to deviate from that after the Prescott injury, but I saw nothing this year that showed me McCarthy is a good head coach. His defense was an atrocity. The core element that every Cowboys coach must have is a total and complete servitude to Jerry Jones and his whims and the ability to send all credit his way. This leads them to be trapped eternally with Alfred the Butler as coach while the rest of the league looks for Batman.
Another year, another lost season of going nowhere and doing nothing. This team is completely dead in the water and any hope for the future must come from elsewhere. As opposed to the Jets, the Giants have historically been a well run enterprise, but it feels increasingly like they have fallen behind in terms of recognizing league trends and how to adapt to them.
A new GM. This is tough, because I suspect they will be hesitant to move on from a coach after just one year (which would likely need to happen to fire the GM). I don’t really think the coach showed much, but it was tough to have your first year ever as a coach be this year. The core issue on this team is the lack of savvy in the draft. Basically all of his picks have been busts, and this team’s record reflects that. This is another team that wants to be ground and pound, but the league simply doesn’t reward that anymore. On defense, more bad drafting has left them as an average group with little in the way of young talent.
Move on from Daniel Jones. Jones is simply too prone to turnovers. He is Jameis Winston with a more palatable personality. He has shown no signs of improving in this area over the last 3 years. As Maya Angelou once said, When someone shows you who they are by having an interception and fumble every game, believe the turnovers.
Continue building the secondary. They are on the right track with James Bradberry, who had a good season. Now they need more help on the back end. An elite safety or other corner will allow them to load up at the line of scrimmage. Their defense feels a piece or two away from being very good.
The 49ers experienced a level of injuries most teams only dream of, if that dream had Freddy Kruger in it. It is impossible to evaluate this season without looking at the plethora of injuries sustained on both sides of the ball and to the back ups on both sides of the ball.
Health. Hopefully next season will see this team get back to being healthy again. While they have their share of older players, there is no real reason things should have been this bad. Hopefully, it’s just bad luck.
A quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo is not a solution. This team has been forced into running non-stop because of his limitations. We saw in Atlanta what a Kyle Shanahan offense could look like with a capable thrower. This is the spot where the team most needs improvement. Trading for a vet like Stafford, Wentz or Ryan would be a good move here as well, because the rest of the team is very good.
Better offensive pieces. This team has tried to get younger on offense, but most of the pieces in place are still limited. Their running backs are all just replacement level fodder, and their wide receivers are young but very unproven. Only George Kittle is elite, and he is used to devastating effectiveness when healthy. Imagine what this offense could do with a second player at that level.
This is a team loaded with talent across the board. They have no clear holes on offense, and a defense full of playmakers. So how did they end up here? Almost unfathomably bad coaching. Anthony Lynn was deadlocked with Adam Gase to receive the NFL Razzie for head coach. From constant clock management blunders, to poor play calls, to embarrassing gaffs (they tried to start Tyrod Taylor over an incredibly competent Justin Herbert) this team did everything possible to be worse than it was.
A new coach. This is obvious, but what direction to go in is less clear. This team really needs someone who is more detail oriented. Their disastrous special teams, and bad game plans wasted so much talent. Adding someone who while get the most out of what they have is paramount. This is one of the few teams on this list that doesn’t need a coach to develop the players. They are there already. They need someone who can create a winning culture.
Win the draft. This team is so close to being very good. Making good picks this year would make all the difference. They have some holes on defense and along the offensive line. Patching up the remaining problems could set this team up for the playoffs next year.
Stop wearing the dark blue uniforms. When you have caviar, don’t eat from McDonalds.
This team needs a reset across the board. The pieces simply aren’t adding up. This year they took a solid but not great defense and burned it to the ground. There is very little left there. On offense, it is very clear that the pieces they have aren’t going to make a consistently great offense. This team is trying to compete, but it needs to accept defeat.
Start over at QB. Kirk Cousins is a moderately effective QB. He is also getting older and shows no sign of improving. There is no future here for him, so the time to draft his replacement is now.
Fix the secondary. This team was the worst defensive team Mike Zimmer has coached in his history. He said so himself. It really isn’t all his fault though. The talent level on that side of the ball is abysmal. They can start in the secondary, however, where they have nothing.
Take advantage of Dalvin Cook better. This team has run the play action/handoff combo for so long, teams know it is coming at this point. They need additional options for using him. RPO’s would be very effective with him, and using a mobile quarterback would be a huge improvement in causing the defense to respect him. Beyond that, using him more effectively in the passing game would improve the quality of his touches.
The Patriots deal with Satan finally came due this year, as Tom Brady ducked the Dark Lord by moving to Tampa, and the result was a rudderless squad hampered by a lack of talent, COVID opt outs and injury. Bill Belichick still got a lot out of what was there, but the upside of this team is clearly just the wild card round, even if everything breaks right.
Accept reality. This team is not going to get better quickly, even with the cap savings they will have next year. They have nothing at QB or the skill positions on offense, and their defensive line is in shambles. This team is not a couple players away, but I am not sure Belichick can see that. I think he views this group as being a few tweaks away from winning again. But they aren’t. They need a huge draft, and Belichick has proven over the last 5 plus years he will not provide that.
Trade Bill Belichick. I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out. Belichick is still a great coach. What he has lost is his ability to evaluate personnel. This team has such bad personnel that they need an overhaul that he can’t provide. Since he is under contract, they can trade him to a team that already has the talent… like the Chargers. He still has immense value. If you were the Chargers, would you rather have your first round pick this year… or Bill Belichick. Then, you hire a real GM and let Josh McDaniels take over. This trade basically makes itself.
Trade everything else that is not nailed down as well. Edelman, Hightower, Gilmore et al need to be on the next bus out of town. All of them still have some level of value and will kick start a much needed talent infusion. Just don’t let Belichick make the draft picks.
The Cardinals were off to a great start, but key injuries derailed a promising season. Beyond Kyler Murray clearly playing hurt down the stretch, the loss of Chandler Jones and other defensive pieces were very tough on a unit that was thin to begin with. Murray is the core of the team, but the they are not elite enough, nor do they have the talent backlog to survive this yet.
Keep on developing Murray. The core of their team still doesn’t really know how to run the passing game at a high level. His running ability is cool, but it submits him to higher level of injury risk. He needs to be able to do what Russell Wilson does, throw effectively and only run when absolutely necessary. It’s up to him and his coach to make this happen.
Add more depth. This team really needs another good draft to fill the holes on defense. Adding a few carefully selected free agents would help too, but they simply don’t have the depth yet to be elite in that area.
Stop running the ball up the middle with a tiny running back. One of the most befuddling things in the NFL this year was the insistence of the Cardinals that Kenyon Drake (a borderline scatback) needed to run into the line 15-20 times a game. Not only did his body obviously fall apart, but they wasted his ability as a pass catcher. They either need to use him correctly or move him for someone who is meant to do that job. Don’t be afraid to dream a bit bigger… literally.
Las Vegas Raiders
Well, that came apart at the seams rather quickly. This team has an offense that is somehow less than the sum of its parts and a defense that is lacking in parts. This team feels like it is stuck on a treadmill of OKness. For the Raiders, that is actually a mild improvement over what it was before Gruden got there, but for a franchise in a new city, treadmill isn’t going to cut it.
Decide whether they can win with Derek Carr right now. Derek Carr is not a bad quarterback. He also is not a great quarterback. He isn’t getting any younger, and probably not much better. Is he the foundation of a winning team, or just another guy. Personally, I think he isn’t the main problem here, and I would soldier on.
Build a defense that matters. Their defense continues to not rush the passer or get turnovers. They aren’t a total disaster, employing a bend but don’t break approach, but with the offense seemingly at or near it’s ceiling, this is where improvement has to happen. They still haven’t come close to replacing Khalil Mack, and desperately need to.
Figure out why the offense is still so limited. Is it scheme? players? a combination? This team has a very competent QB, has spent a lot of draft capital at skill positions and has a solid offensive line. Why are the results still so meh?
After a season full of promise, the final game let down was a very stark reminder of the talent gap between this group and the elite teams. While this group has made incredible progress in a season and a half, they still lack so many key parts. This offseason will decide whether this team joins the Raiders on the treadmill or takes the next step. A lot of people are speculating that they could add a QB, but that isn’t going to happen. Tua showed that, at worst, he is a competent game manager who avoids turnovers. The lack of talent at other positions is much more glaring. Unlike the other teams on this end of the list, they are in position to do something about it, with a pile of cap space and 4 picks in the top 50.
Get skill players. This team suffers from a dearth of talent at WR and RB. After Devante Parker (who is better suited as a no 2 WR), there isn’t much of anything. Just a mishmash of overachieving slot guys. The running backs are replaceable, but this isn’t a big spot to spend money or draft capital. Adding someone with big play ability though would be significant. The Bills showed this year what a great WR can do for a young QB. The Dolphins should follow suit and pursue a big name WR like Kenny Golladay or Allen Robinson.
Fix the offensive line. This group was an atrocity last year, and upgraded to undesirable this year. While a lot of that was due to starting 2-3 rookies at all times, a large part of it was still not having depth or talent at several spots. This should be a major priority, as their starting quarterback clearly is not well suited to making quick throws yet.
Improve the defense up front. The secondary is excellent and almost solely responsible for the team’s improvement this year. Their ability to generate turnovers changed the trajectory for this team. Unfortunately, they still can’t generate a pass rush with a four man line, and they can’t stop the run. Faster linebackers and more dominant edge players are critical to taking the next step.