No matter your job, having an unexpectedly great year at your place of employment is the bee’s knees. A little extra money in bonuses will have you entering the new year extremely confident and ready to conquer the world.
This is the way a handful of NFL teams are feeling right now. I’m not talking about the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, or even Denver Broncos of the league, i.e. teams that have strung together great season after great season. I’m talking about the likes of Minnesota, Houston, and Washington: teams which are new to this whole “success” thing.
Unfortunately, as we all know too well, one year of success does not always lead to future triumphs. The climb up the mountain is usually prolonged and difficult, but the free-fall from the top can be quick and painful.
Here are five teams who prospered in 2015, but are going to receive a swift kick in the groin from the spiteful character the NFL refers to as parity.
Washington (2015 record: 9-7, NFC East champs)
This is not a direct consequence of what Washington did in the offseason. I am a huge Kirk Cousins supporter; he is a potential franchise quarterback and has all the talent necessary to lead a high-powered offense. And, just for the record, yes I did like that. So what is the driving factor for Washington making this list, you ask? The state of their division in 2015.
A healthy Tony Romo brings the Cowboys to at least 8-8; the Giants spent a ton of money to repair their defense; and the Eagles are no longer a disgruntled team under Chip Kelly. Washington took advantage of a horrendous NFC East in 2015, going 4-2 within the division, but won’t have that luxury in 2016.
With that being said, Washington made some moves in the offseason that I liked, and some that I didn’t like so much.
Josh Doctson and Vernon Davis have a lot of upside as targets for Cousins, however, their offense was already their strength last season. The defense – which gave up the seventh-most yards on the ground and the eighth-most yards through the air – needed the offseason attention.
Washington did pounce on top cornerback Josh Norman after Carolina surprisingly allowed him to walk. True shut-down corners are so hard to find, and when you get your hands on one, you do everything you can to keep him in your team’s uniform. The fact that the Panthers had the cap space but decided to let Norman walk says a lot. Norman had one good season, but will be the 2016 version of Byron Maxwell.
Even if they can stop teams from playing pitch-and-catch next season – which I doubt – I don’t see any reason to believe Washington will be any better at stopping the run in 2016.
Their poor run-defense will remain their Achilles heal, and Norman will be a flop.
2016 prediction: Washington misses out on the playoffs, and will be lucky to win seven games.
Minnesota Vikings (2015 record: 11-5, NFC North champs)
How much longer are the Vikings going to try to pass off Teddy Bridgewater as a legitimate quarterback? I agree that the Vikings appear to lack a true number one receiver, but none of their wideouts are being given much chance of success, either. This will become apparent now that the Vikes have first-round pick Laquon Treadwell out wide. Bridgewater cannot throw the long ball accurately. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is having to perform magic to keep opposing defenses from selling out to stop the run.
In order to win in the NFL, sometimes your quarterback has to take matters into his own hands and just make a play. Bridgewater is capable of this with his legs, but he can’t do it from the pocket.
As was the case with Washington, the Vikings took advantage of their weak schedule in 2015. The Packers struggled mightily last season due to their receivers’ inability to get open. This won’t be the case with Jordy Nelson returning in 2016. Minnesota was also lucky to get both games against the Detroit Lions out of the way early before they found their groove. The bottom-feeders of the NFC North may not get much better, but Minnesota won’t go 5-1 in the division again.
Although we have questioned whether Adrian Peterson is man or machine, he and the defense can’t continue carrying an inadequate quarterback. With such a complete roster, I could name at least 20 quarterbacks that would have the Vikings in Super Bowl contention. Teddy is not one of those 20.
2016 prediction: Green Bay takes the division back, and Minnesota reverts to its eight-win ways.
Cincinnati Bengals (2015 record: 12-4, AFC North champs)
Much credit has been given to Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson for their work with Andy Dalton in Cincinnati. But is there any chance that it’s actually the quarterback making his coordinators look good? The Bengals’ presence on this list means I answer that question in the negative.
Despite only playing in 14 games last year, Dalton enjoyed the best season of his five-year career. He had a career-low 3,250 yards, and a moderate 25 touchdowns, but only threw seven interceptions. Coming into 2015, the Bengals quarterback was averaging just under 17 interceptions per season, and found himself in the top-five for interceptions in two of his four seasons. That’s quite a feat when you consider Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, and Jay Cutler have all been turning the ball over in that time too.
Dalton’s play was the primary reason the Bengals enjoyed a 12-4 season and won the AFC North. This is not to put down the strength of the rest of their roster, just to point out that their signal-caller had been costing them in previous years.
I point to a bevy of weapons and Hue Jackson’s tutelage as the cause for Dalton’s improved play last season, and I question whether he can do it again with a new coordinator (Ken Zampese) and without a couple key contributors (Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu).
2016 prediction: The Steelers win the division and Baltimore is competitive again.
New York Jets (2015 record: 10-6)
I heard the most absurd argument recently: the New York Jets have not come to an agreement with Ryan Fitzpatrick because they want Geno Smith to start.
Do these people realise what they are saying? This is Geno Smith we’re talking about. GENO SMITH! (How else can I stylize his name to drive that point home?) The Jets were able to win ten games last season because Fitzpatrick had a 2.07 touchdown to interception ratio and was able to keep defenses honest. Geno has not only thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in his three seasons as a pro, but he also averages more than one interception per game.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Geno averages a pitiful 188 yards through the air per game. (Even Teddy Bridgewater averages 212.) He’s the proud owner of a career passer rating of 72.3 (which is worse than the career ratings of Johnny Manziel, E.J. Manuel, Mark Sanchez, Colin Kaepernick, and Josh Freeman). And he has a career completion percentage of 57.9-percent.
If you thought the horror was going to end there, you’re wrong. Geno has also fumbled the ball 16 times in his 31 career games. He is a walking turnover.
The Jets have spent a good chunk of change on their skill positions and have now gathered a talented group: Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, and Eric Decker, to name a few. Would you let your 16 year old son – who just smashed up your old Pontiac – continue his driving lessons in your brand new Ferrari? I didn’t think so.
In a year where the division is as up-for-grabs as it has been in ages (Tom Brady may have to sit out the first four games, the Dolphins are coming off of an embarrassing season, and the Bills … well, they’re the Bills), you’d think the Jets would go all-in. Yet, here we are: Geno is atop the depth chart, and the two players behind him have a combined one season in the NFL and zero pass attempts. To make matters worse, the Jets are pissing off one of the premier defensive linemen in the league, Muhammad Wilkerson.
Even if Fitzpatrick is at the helm come Week 1, the Jets schedule won’t be as easy as last season. In 2015, they got to pick on the AFC South and NFC East, and drew the Browns and Raiders, as well. In 2016, they’ll have to face the AFC North, the NFC West, and the Chiefs and Colts.
2016 prediction: Regardless of who is under centre, the Jets are in for a letdown. The only question is whether it will be eight wins (with Fitzy) or four (with Geno).
Carolina Panthers (2015 record: 15-1, Top Seed in NFC)
This is a little bit cheap of me, but I’m doing it anyways. The parity of the NFL means the Carolina Panthers’ win total will go down in 2016, since no team has ever gone 15-1 and then topped it the following year.
But I’m not suggesting a difference of one or two wins; I am saying at least five.
Had the Panthers not been in the NFC South, the division would have been in the discussion for worst in the league in 2015. It was one of three divisions to only have one winning team. (We’ll get to the other two later.)
Looking at their divisional games, the Panthers only beat New Orleans by a combined eight points in the two games they played (both could have easily gone the other way) and Atlanta handed them their sole loss of the season. We can’t criticise much there, though, since divisional rivals always play you tough.
But speaking of the worst divisions in football, the Panthers got to play the AFC South and NFC East last year. You probably already guessed that they were the other two quartets with just one winning team.
Despite having, arguably, the easiest schedule in the league, the Panthers played in a lot of close games, only winning seven contests by more than one score. That statement would be impressive if you didn’t know who their opponents were. Adding to the two games against the Saints, I can recall games against the Packers, Seahawks, Colts, and Giants that could have very easily wound up as losses for the NFC champs.
All of that is to say: the Panthers won almost all of their close games. That won’t happen again in 2016, especially with a tougher schedule.
On top of that, Cam Newton had a career season with his arm, throwing 11 more touchdowns than he ever has before, and a career low in interceptions too. Even with Kelvin Benjamin returning this season, Cam’s numbers won’t be able to back-up his flamboyancy in 2016.
2016 prediction: The Panthers will still win the division, but the Falcons and Saints will dramatically close the gap.