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More than half of the NFL’s 32 teams continue to chase the dream. This morning, there are still 18 clubs that are either in the playoffs or remain in playoff contention.
And then there’s the other guys.
There are six AFC teams and eight NFC teams that are already eliminated from playoff contention. This in a year the NFL is inviting one more team — seven instead of six — into the postseason and giving teams an extra game to make their case for getting in.
Those 14 teams all have issues, problems, questions, that ultimately explain why they’re clearly not good enough.
And here’s a look at all of them and what it is each team must address so that next year when I write this column, they don’t appear in it again.
The AFC also-rans:
Cleveland — The Browns are generally an excellent running team with several excellent running backs and a head coach who wants to run the ball. But they stink at passing. And the NFL is a passing league. The Browns averaged 200 yards passing, which is bottom 8 in the NFL. That obviously reflects on quarterback Baker Mayfield, the former first overall pick, because he’s an enigma. He’s sometimes good, sometimes bad, often injured. The Browns need to draft a young quarterback, not necessarily to immediately replace Mayfield but certainly to compete — which should make everyone better.
Denver — Vic Fangio is going to be a great defensive coordinator again after this season because he’s not going to be the Denver Broncos head coach. Fangio’s defense in Denver was third in points allowed, but his offense was bottom 10 in points scored. Beyond that, the Broncos have a quarterback problem. Teddy Bridgewater is a free agent after the season and Drew Lock ain’t the answer, unless the question is who should be the backup QB?
Houston Texans — Would not be surprised if first year coach David Culley doesn’t become second-year coach David Culley. Wouldn’t be surprised if Patriots OC Josh McDaniels has this job next season. And, of course, that would be part of the plan to remake the Texans offense with a new quarterback not named Deshaun Watson — who will be traded for three first-round picks-plus before the 2022 season. Some of Houston’s picks need to go toward improving the front 7, which is, well, not good.
Jacksonville — This is a rough situation and not because the defense is awful and the club is going to be involved in negotiations or litigation with former coach Urban Meyer, whose one season in Jacksonville was a cataclysm. This club needs to figure out whether to keep GM Trent Baalke or not, even as it hires a new coach. And after all that dysfunction is addressed, the arduous job of finding help for Trevor Lawrence on both offense and defense can begin. Lawrence, by the way, needs someone to make him better because he didn’t exactly impress, throwing 9 TDs while completing only 58.7 percent of his passes.
Miami — The fanboys will look at the 7-game win streak (mostly against bad teams or backup QBs) and overlook the 7-game losing streak (against better competition). The truth is the Dolphins, who finished second in the division last season, regressed this season and are the third-best team in a four-team division. They’ve spent years trying to build an offensive line and have failed. They tanked in 2019 to be in position to pick a franchise quarterback in 2020 but made the wrong selection of Tua Tagovailoa over Justin Herbert. They’ve also ignored the running back position to satisfy a defense background coach — picking CB Noah Igbinoghene but not RB Jonathan Taylor or several other offensive players. They also traded out of the 2019 second round when A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf were available to them. As a result, Miami’s offense is subpar and even the defense is not — repeat, not — championship caliber. And assuming Flores stays, can he resist the urge to revamp the coaching staff a fourth time in four years, even though it probably needs it more this year than the others?
New York Jets — This is a young team with a young coach and young quarterback. They’re going to have four draft picks in the first 70 or so selections, including two in the top 10, so the future is promising. But people have to grow and develop. Quarterback Zach Wilson still has inconsistent mechanics, the defense literally gives up more points than anybody, and rookie coach Robert Saleh must understand a loss is a loss, not a win as he said Sunday after losing 28-24 to Tampa Bay.
The NFC also-rans:
Atlanta — They’re rebuilding and the defense, particularly the secondary, is so bad they played mostly basic looks much of the year so as to not confuse guys. Hard to believe a big decision on QB Matt Ryan isn’t coming, but his advancing age, declining production and $48 million salary cap number beg attention. Still, trading him would require some serious imagination by both the Falcons and a trade partner.
Carolina — Assuming coach Matt Rhule survives, the Panthers have to get about the business of finding a quarterback because the last two years involved a search that included Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold, and Cam Newton, and none of them have been the answer. The Panthers also have to figure a way to solve what is a subpar offensive line and find a way to keep Christian McCaffery on the field. He’s been unable to complete either of the past two seasons. Carolina is simply a different team offensively with McCaffery on the field because he’s dynamic. But durability is an ability he hasn’t displayed, playing only 10 of a possible 32 games the past two seasons.
Chicago — Coach Matt Nagy is all but fired. There is practically no way he saves his job. And when the new coach and likely new general manager come in, this team has to find a way to immediately nurture Justin Fields and surround him with enough talent so he doesn’t suffer anywhere close to the 51 sacks Chicago has allowed this year — which is tied for the second-worst mark in the league. That means improve the offensive line, yes, but the Bears need receivers who can get open more quickly and a coaching staff that understands getting Fields hit and relying on him to carry the offense is a major problem.
Detroit — The Lions don’t do anything particularly well other than try hard. The problem is most teams try hard and do it with more acumen and talent. So trying hard is not enough. The Lions have to address their run defense. This is a rebuilding project from the studs up, but rookie coach Dan Campbell has suggested quarterback Jared Goff would likely be the 2022 starter, saying, “I don’t see why not.” Here’s why not: Goff, in his sixth season, is what he is, which is a bottom third QB. This year, he’s 21st in yards and 20th in touchdowns. And, yes, the supporting cast was not great. But last season with the Los Angeles Rams, a team with a good supporting cast, Goff was 19th in touchdowns.
Minnesota — The Vikings have been victimized the past two years by an inability to finish games, and that ultimately will likely bring the end of the Mike Zimmer time as their head coach. (The finish problem didn’t apply Sunday when the Vikings simply got pummeled by Green Bay.) Anyway, when a team is incapable of finishing games or loses a bunch of one-possession games, it’s probably close but missing one or two clutch players — an edge rusher who closes the door with sacks late in games, corner play that quashes comeback attempts, or a consistent offensive line that can run the football and protect a lead. Many people will suggest it’s an issue of the heart in pressure situations, but I’m not going to question the heart of the folks in the Vikings organization.
New York Giants: General manager Dave Gettleman is leaving, but the problems he helped create remain. That No. 2 overall pick on Saquon Barkley? Nick Chubb has been more consistent and the Giants would be better off with half-a-dozen other players including, say, quarterback Josh Allen instead. The Giants simply have not drafted well, and coach Joe Judge has been unable to develop enough of the players New York did draft to even sniff .500 in his two years. Interestingly, the Giants seemingly intend to stick with Daniel Jones as their quarterback in 2022. So answer this question: Is Daniel Jones good?
Seattle –Please ignore the Detroit victory because, well, it was the Lions. Coach Pete Carroll wants to return, but Russell Wilson might be another matter. At the heart of their offseason will be whether Wilson believes this team — with good playmaker talent but an inconsistent defense — can make another run with some tweaks. If Wilson doesn’t want to be part of a third rebuild in Seattle, which team is ready to make a run and would give up three first-round picks for him? Seattle is going to be good again soon, but not without Wilson. And that’s kind of the point. Do they add the three first-round picks which would make up for not having a first-rounder in 2022? Or would they be better with Wilson, happy or not, and fill in the rest of the team with no first-round picks but good salary cap space?
Washington — The Washingtons have lost four consecutive games and it is entirely possible they convince themselves the reason is the team was diminished by injuries — particularly to defensive end Chase Young. It’s more complicated than that and includes the fact Taylor Heinicke is a good guy and good story, but he’s mostly a solid backup quarterback who is starting in Washington. Washington is not even averaging 20 points per game this season and needs a better starting QB.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero