As I gather myself after watching the Insecure series finale, I’m also confronted with the fact that the 2021 NFL season is also nearly complete. Of course there’s a five-week postseason awaiting us football fans, but less than half of the NFL teams will play in that tournament. Fans in Chicago, New York, Seattle, Houston, and many other markets are 14 days away from saying goodbye to their teams until post-Labor Day 2022, and of the 14 teams that will appear in the playoffs, six of them will be eliminated the first weekend.
Some fans of these teams may be cursing the day they ever became attached to these franchises, but all is not lost — for some. If you’re a Jacksonville Jaguars fan or a fan of NYC area NFL team the future is murky. However, for some of the other teams with no mathematical playoff hope whatsoever, there is hope for as soon as 2022.
it’s not going to happen naturally for those teams, but a few smart decisions could result in immediate improvement.
Before the 2021 Washington Football Team scandals, the Texans were arguably the most dysfunctional team in the NFL. When their former coach, Bill O’Brien, received front-office-level player-personnel responsibilities he got rid of the Texans’ best player, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. O’Brien was eventually fired but that left Jack Easterby, a former camp counselor and current executive vice president of football operations, with significant player personnel responsibilities.
The one bright spot that the Texans had was their franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson, but the roster had been so poorly mismanaged that he wanted out following his fourth NFL season. That’s a damning indictment of the organization, but at least they can bring a haul of talent and draft picks for Watson.
Wrong! Watson has been accused of serially sexually assualting massage therapists and with his legal situation in limbo, this franchise quarterback hasn’t played in a single game in 2021. The Texans brought in veteran Tyrod Taylor to try and avoid complete embarrassment this season, but he was injured in Week 2. The next man up was third-round draft pick Davis Mills who would end up leading the team for much of the 2022 season.
Mills struggled for much of the first half of the season, but he did have strong performances against the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams. Taylor returned from injury in Week 9, but was benched in the third quarter of a 31-0 loss to division rival Indianapolis Colts in Week 13. Since then Mills has completed 66.7 percent of 120 passes for five touchdowns and one interception. That includes the Texans’ convincing victory on Sunday against Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers who were fighting to stay in the playoffs. Also, the media assessment of Mills is beginning to turn in his favor.
It’s still the holiday season, which means this is the season of hope. For Texans fans, there is reason for hope that Mills can be the quarterback to lead this franchise through a hard, but necessary, reset.
There is a stud at running back in Charlotte. Christian McCaffrey is as good as it gets as a skill-position player in the NFL. His 2019 season was Marshall Faulk-esque. He ran the football 287 times and averaged 4.8 yards per attempt, scored 15 touchdowns, and had 116 receptions at 8.3 yards per catch. McCaffrey surpassed 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they finished that season the same way they finished every season after 2017, well under .500. While the offense has struggled, one of the biggest problems had been their defense. A stout unit in their 2015 Super Bowl season as well as in 2016 and 2017, struggled starting in 2018. That unit spent three consecutive seasons in the bottom half of Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, but that changed in 2021. The Panthers’ defense currently is a Top 10 unit.
However, that has not been able to make the Panthers a playoff contender in 2021. McCaffrey has only played in 10 games the past two seasons. Combine that with injuries to franchise quarterback Cam Newton and a poor offensive line, the Panthers’ offense has lacked any punch since their playoff loss to division rival New Orleans Saints during the 2017 season. Per Football Outsiders, the Panthers have the second-worst offense in the NFL in 2021.
The Panthers released Newton prior to the 2020 season and had to sign him back in 2021 after starter Sam Darnold got injured. When the Panthers brought back Newton, the playoffs were still in sight. They defeated the then first-place Arizona Cardinals, before losing their next five games, ensuring that their season will conclude after Week 18. The Panthers’ most recent loss was a 32-6 shellacking from division rival Tampa Bay on Sunday. They reached six points following a made field goal just under halfway through the second quarter. And that was that.
There is skill-position talent with the Panthers with a healthy McCaffrey, and wide receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, but this team is not going anywhere without improved protection on offense. The Panthers need a better offensive line, and a dependable target at tight end. If the Panthers can take the offensive pressure off McCaffrey and combine that with their renewed strength on defense, they could compete for the top spot in the NFC South next season.
The Bears’ problem is not a lack of talent. Their biggest problem in 2020 was offensive-line play. As poorly as that unit played, people still questioned letting tackles Bobby Massie and Charles Leno Jr. sign elsewhere in the offseason. With two games remaining in 2021, it’s apparent that rookie late-round draft pick Larry Borom can hold down one of those tackle spots, even if coach Matt Nagy decided not to start him upon his return from the COVID list on Sunday. If he had not been sidelined with injury for much of this season the Bears pass’ protection would’ve been much better.
Also, their prized rookie offensive tackle, Tevin Jenkins, has played in the last two games. If he is going to make the move from college right tackle to NFL left tackle there is still a lot of learning to do, but the fact that he is on the field in Dec. 2021 following Aug. 2021 back surgery is a great sign.
The Bears are deep at running back, have very good speed at wide receiver, and their defense has fought through injuries — including a season ender to Khalil Mack — along with three years of transition in the secondary to remain a nearly average defensive unit. WIth nothing to play for on Sunday, and third string quarterback Nick Foles’ as a starter, the Bears ended the Seattle Seahawks slim playoff hopes on an unusually snowy day in the Pacific Northwest.
As bad as the Bears have looked at times this season, a significant improvement is possible next season. Some changes on the offensive line and defensive backfield are necessary, but will decide the immediate future of this team is what happens with the leadership positions.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport is reporting that Bears coach Matt Nagy’s future with the organization is in serious doubt, and the fanbase is completely through with him. The Bears No. 1 priority this offseason should be to find a coach that can maximize the talents of rookie quarterback Justin Fields.
The former Ohio State star has shown flashes of brilliance, but even though he’s a supreme athlete, he needs to make much faster decisions on the field. There’s nothing wrong with that. Slow decision making was a criticism levied on Tom Brady as a rookie from his quarterbacks coach with the Patriots. However, when Brady finally became a starter in 2001 they put him in a system that gave him the best opportunity to succeed.
The Bears have a good chance to win an NFC North in 2022 that might not include Aaron Rodgers, but it can’t happen with the way that the team and staff is currently constructed. A new coach is a must so the Bears have a chance to pull a 2001 New England Patriots and put their young quarterback in the best possible situation to succeed, so his mental clock can speed up and give the team its best chance to win.