Six playoff teams from 2015 found themselves missing the playoffs in 2016, for a myriad of different reasons. I take a look at what went wrong for each team, and what they can do to bounce back next year.
Washington (2015: 9-7, NFC #4 team. 2016: 8-7-1, NFC #8 team)
What went wrong? Er, there’s not much difference between finishing 9-7 and finishing 8-7-1. Washington missed the playoffs mainly because the NFC East went from worst to first, pretty much. They have a few problems though, starting with the run defense, which giving away 4.5 yards/play (t-6th worst in the league) was decidedly ordinary. The pass defense wasn’t much better, so this is why they couldn’t pull away in games.
On offense, they ended up starting Rob Kelley, an undrafted rookie out of Tulane. Kelley’s fine, a kind of budget version of peak Eddie Lacy, but he’s a big lad and is not exactly dynamic. I wouldn’t expect him to kick on next season (but you never know). I think Washington have a weird problem with Kirk Cousins, too. In years past we’ve had the “Alex Smith line” and the “Dalton line”, below which your team knew their quarterback wasn’t good enough. Kirk Cousins could easily name that line. Overall, he’s a solid middle-of-the-pack sort of quarterback, somewhere between 15th and 20th best in the league. But he’s not going to elevate a team with his play, so a roster needs to be well-balanced and intelligently built around it, and Washington just haven’t managed that yet.
(Alex Brandon/AP Photo)
What can they do to fix it? See, going from 9 wins to 8 is not exactly breaking your team. But picking up a bevvy of defensive players, starting with some run-stuffers on the defensive line, is going to help. They have two good cornerbacks in Norman and Breeland, but need a third. They need two safeties. And if an actually dynamic running back were to fall into their lap,Washington’s never been shy about basically ditching its previous year’s leading rusher (sorry, Roy Helu).
Minnesota (2015: 11-5, NFC #3 team. 2016: 8-8, NFC #9 team)
What went wrong? Bizarrely, Teddy Bridgewater tearing his ACL wasn’t what did this team’s season in. Sure, the effects of the trade for Bradford will be more felt in 2018 and 2019, as there’s one less first-rounder on a rookie contract on the roster. But for now, it’s not the issue. Minnesota have a devastatingly bad offensive line. It’s a miracle he played 15 out of 16 games. Somehow, he was sacked fewer times than Carson Palmer, with a pretty similar average yards/attempt. Sure, they’ve had injuries. We knew Matt Kalil was bad, but we didn’t expect the line could possibly get worse when he got injured. But it did! They signed Jake Long from the No-ACL Bandits (yeah, they’re a real team), and despite having no knees, he was still better at tackle than T.J. Clemmings or Jeremiah Sirles.
The running game was dreadful, but what was slightly terrifying is that their supposedly transcendental running back, Adrian Peterson, even before he had a most-of-season-missing injury, didn’t look like he could do anything with it.
What can they do to fix it? Seriously, I genuinely think O-Line is the only of Minnesota’s problems holding them back from the playoffs. I wrote early in the season about how good their defense was, and though it declined a bit, it still made me need to fan myself from time to time through the season. So, to fix it, pick up all the O-linemen. Every position except center (where Joe Berger is actually good) need sorting but especially the right side of the line. You want a veteran? Free agency! How about Jahri Evans or Sebastian Vollmer? Someone with plenty of years left but a proven pedigree? Ronald Leary and Larry Warford are there. I think Minnesota might struggle to find tackles they’re happy with in free agency, so there’s the draft. Minnesota don’t have a first-round pick, but it’s a lousy draft for first-round quality tackles. There might be none drafted until late Thursday if Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey doesn’t declare. There are plenty with three-round grades, as far as we can tell, but will they be starters in 2017? Tricky, isn’t it.
Cincinnati (2015: 12-4, AFC #3 team. 2016: 6-9-1, AFC #12 team)
What went wrong? You know about “marginal gains”, right? The process by which Dave Brailsford first drove British Cycling to track Olympic success, and then Team Sky to world-conquering road cycling success? Well, Cincinnati’s season was kind of the opposite of that. Nothing thunderously bad happened, there were no glaring weaknesses, everything just kind of got a bit worse. “Marginal suck”, or something. Let’s take a look.
Andy Dalton, who’d looked bordering on elite for much of 2015, went back to 2014 and earlier form. I mean, that form’s fine, but it’s a bit of a step down.
They tried to replace Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu with, er, Brandon LaFell. With predictable results.
The run game nearly fell off a cliff, as Jeremy Hill went for 3.8 yards per carry (similar to last year, incidentally), but Gio Bernard was slumping to 3.7 yards per carry even before his week 11 torn ACL.
Carlos Dunlap couldn’t replicate his 13.5 sacks from 2015, instead recording a still-respectable, but less dominant 8. They lost two from Geno Atkins (9 from a DT is still lit, but), and got, er, some fairly poor play from Michael Johnson.
Shawn Williams was a downgrade on 2015 Reggie Nelson (though watching the Raiders, 2016 Reggie Nelson was a downgrade on 2015 Reggie Nelson too).
The kicker was so bad he got cut midseason. The guy they brought in was most notable during his time at Washington for being too weak to kick touchbacks.
Tyler Eifert spent a bunch of the season injured (not that that’s remarkable, I just had to put it in somewhere)
What can they do to fix it? Herein lies the problem Cincinnati have when everything gets a touch incrementally worse – it’s bloody hard to fix it to playoffs standard. Elsewhere in this article I can make suggestions like “draft a running back” or “sign an offensive line”. I mean, they’re not small things, but Cincinnati have no obvious weakness, being middle of the pack on O and D. Maybe that means things’ll sort of naturally sort themselves out by regression to the mean next year. Big thing to bank on though.
This is an aging team, so hitting in the draft is going to help. They’ve got a willing trade chip in backup QB AJ McCarron, who may net them something in the late-second to early-third round range. That’s around where you hope to draft future starters, or at least players you’re happy on the field for 60%+ of snaps.
I wouldn’t worry too much about receiver, where Tyler Body and Cody Core will be better next year, and AJ Green will be back. Running back is an issue – Cincy may go for Rex Burkhead, but he’s still an underwhelming choice. There are so so many good running backs in this draft class – at least ten with probable second-round grades.
Denver (2015: 12-4, AFC #1 team. 2016: 9-7, AFC #8 team)
What went wrong? Bizarrely, it wasn’t quarterback. Trevor Siemian was actually an improvement on Peyton Manning (wow, that’s not a sentence I ever thought i’d write). There were some elements of Cincinnati’s “marginal suck”, too. For example, wide receivers, especially Demaryius Thomas, took a step back.
Things mainly started to go wrong with the run game though. First, Denver’s O-Line slipped a couple of notches, then CJ Anderson’s injury basically left them with nothing there. It was bad enough that Justin Forsett was brought in, in a desperate attempt to get a running back who can find holes. It, needless to say, didn’t work.
But, we already knew the offense was likely to be middling at best this season. What kind of sunk the Broncos is that they forgot how to defend the run. That famed Denver defense, which was #1 against the pass and #4 overall? Yeah, it was #28 against the run. Worse in yards/game than the Bears, the Colts, the Raiders, the Falcons. Partly that’s because teams were running it more against Denver, by dint of being in closer games, but that’s still 4.3 yards/carry for opponents.
By late season, it all started to fall apart, and the locker room descended into a bit of acrimony. It should come as no surprise that Aqib Talib was involved. While Talib might not be the nicest person in the world, if you’re part of the best cornerback trio in the league, I can understand the frustration if you restrict the opponent to 16 points, only to see your team score a measly 3.
What can they do to fix it? First things first, Denver have an opportunity to take a new direction at head coach. Gary Kubiak’s retired citing health concerns, so all the best to him (and props to him for putting health before sport – people in any walk of life who drive themselves to an early grave through job stress fill me with a kind of…deep sadness). There are two things they need to do: 1) improve on offense; 2) keep Wade Phillips doing Wade Phillips things with the defense. There aren’t many offensive head coaching candidates around, and no-one under any circumstances should hire Josh McDaniels, so it’s probably Kyle Shanahan if they want a fix. Shanahan has worked wonders with Matt Ryan, the run game, and the offensive line in Atlanta, and Denver could work on all those things.
But they also need to fix the run defense. Sylvester Williams has been pretty underwhelming at nose tackle, and the organisation obviously agrees, given they didn’t pick up the former first-round pick’s fifth-year option. Picking up a new nose tackle in either free agency or the draft seems a good way to help a front three that only really has Derek Wolfe playing at a high level. DeMarcus Ware is aging, and they haven’t really recovered from losing Danny Trevathan and Malik Jackson last offseason. What would be ideal would be finding some quality bargains, akin to when they signed Darian Stewart before the 2015 season.
Arizona (2015: 13-3, NFC #2 team. 2016: 7-8-1, NFC #10 team)
What went wrong? Well, a bunch of things. Carson Palmer took several steps back (and then got sacked, ahahaha). That’s a worry when your quarterback turns 37 years old during a season: is he now in terminal decline? Well, his TDs reduced from 35 to 26 and his INTs went from 11 up to 14. More worryingly, his yards/attempt was down from 8.7 to 7.1. That sets “declining arm strength” alarms ringing.
But there’s a clue in that he was sacked 40 times. To me, that screams both “O-Line struggles” and “receivers can’t get open”. Both are true. Palmer was sacked 8 times in the Week 8 Carolina game (when star left tackle Jared Veldheer left with an injury, and subsequently went on IR). He was sacked 16 times in the subsequent 8 games, but his yards/attempt plummeted, keeping sack numbers down. So he had less time to throw, and his receivers declined too. John Brown struggled with injuries all season. So did JJ Nelson. Jaron Brown ended up on IR. Michael Floyd ended up passed out drunk at the wheel of a car, charged with something called “Super Extreme DUI”. Larry Fitzgerald was Larry Fitzgerald, but that’s not enough.
What can they do to fix it? Well, thankfully one-man-offense David Johnson’s knee injury isn’t an ACL tear, so that’s a start. But I worry for Arizona. If Palmer is in decline, and 2015 was his swansong, they need a new quarterback. But you don’t want to put a rookie behind that O-Line – an O-Line that’s actually going to be, at its healthiest, worse than this year with Evan Mathis’ retirement. What they need to get back to the playoffs is some steadying presence on the interior and at right tackle, cross their fingers that Palmer’s got one more year, and draft a quarterback on the second day. Pat Mahomes from Texas Tech and Deshaun Watson of Clemson are the right kind of range.
Carolina (2015: 15-1, NFC #1 team. 2016: 6-10, NFC #13 team)
What went wrong? When Carolina are good, they’re very very good. When they’re not, well, you have a season like this one. They’re a confidence-driven team who did fantastically last year when they got a good start early. This season things went wrong early, and that lack of confidence snowballed. But why?
For starters, they haven’t really adapted as an offense to Cam Newton running less. Jonathan Stewart had one of his more-often-than-not injury prone years, and without him the O-Line was nowhere near good enough to help the motley crew of running backs lower on the depth chart do anything. Trai Turner having a down year and Michael Oher’s season-ending injury were fairly major causes. Elsewhere on offense, the much-vaunted return of Kelvin Benjamin didn’t really improve the WR corps. Benjamin’s good, but as a WR1 he disappears for stretches, drops too many passes, and runs too many sloppy routes. That doesn’t help when Ted Ginn and Corey Brown are both having bad years.
We’d also worried about the secondary, bereft of Josh Norman, and the early signs weren’t good. Bene Benwikere played poorly enough to get cut and replaced by 5th round rookie Zach Sanchez, who was…err…just as bad. Still, there are green shoots at the end of the season, with Daryl Worley and particularly James Bradberry showing promising development.
(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
What can they do fix it? There are very few positions you can get an instant fix for in the draft. One, however, is running back. So Carolina might look at Leonard Fournette or Dalvin Cook and think “this is a running back who can transcend an underwhelming O-Line”, much as Adrian Peterson did in his peak. And if whichever one of those is on the board when they pick at #8 overall, that could solve a lot of their problems! I doubt Cook is that player but Fournette might be, at least based off his 2015 college tape. I confess I’ve not seen any of his 2016 tape, so if he’s already showing the effects of wear and tear, then sort out that damn offensive line instead, you fools!
Who’s Going To Be Back In The Playoffs Soon Then?
As long as the Broncos don’t hire Josh McDaniels (and no franchise knows McDaniels’ shortcomings better than Denver) they’ll likely be back in the playoffs soon. The issue they have is that so many teams need better O-Lines right now – the average quality of an NFL O-Lineman just seems below other positions, and it shows.
I think Minnesota will be fine too, with the same proviso that although their problem is obvious and quite narrow, improving your O-Line is tricky right now.
Washington should continue to hover around that 7-to-10 win range in perpetuity, unless they ditch Kirk Cousins (in which case, no-one has a clue what’ll happen) or Cousins’ game takes a leap/falls off a cliff.
What About The Rest?
Carolina, ehh, who knows; you never do for a confidence-based team. That said, there isn’t much difference in quality to the team that went 15-1 last year. You’d expect them to bounce back, but they too have the O-Line to sort out. I’m sitting on the fence and putting them squarely in the “I don’t know” camp, where I’m tipping the previous three to bounce back, and suggesting the subsequent two aren’t going to do it.
Cincinnati, I worry about purely because they don’t have that obvious, easy fix. Everything has to get a bit better, to feel refreshed, and while that can come in Year 15 of a head coach’s tenure at a club, it isn’t the scenario you’d most expect it to happen in.
I really worry about Arizona, because there’s a fair smattering of veterans at key positions that you fear could have a bad 2017. It’s easy to imagine Carson Palmer having an even-more-down year. Larry Fitzgerald doesn’t seem to decline, but with every year in his legs, the probability of his game falling off a cliff gets a touch bigger. They’re very reliant on a generational talent running back for their offense – the position with the highest attrition in the league, the position you least want to rely on in the long term.