NFLTR Review: Time To Hit The Panic Button? 

For some teams, the 2021 season has already gone very, very wrong. In this issue of NFLTR Review:

  • Are the Jets about to ruin another young QB? 
  • Will Seattle’s season go as sideways as Russell Wilson’s finger?
  • Can the last-place Chiefs fix what ails them?

Panic Button Time?

Five weeks into the season, and the havoc of an NFL regular season has already laid waste to many teams’ best-laid plans. The Jets and Jaguars thought they’d be making strides into brave new eras for their teams with sparkling first-round quarterbacks and new head coaches. The Steelers thought they had one more year left with their Hall of Fame quarterback, while the Seahawks were ready to be contenders again with Russell Wilson at the helm. Miami’s multi-year, cutting edge rebuild was poised to pay dividends, the Chiefs were the class of the AFC and the Raiders were 3-0 after three weeks and surprise playoff contenders. 

None of that has played out that way, though. Things have gone wrong and all of these teams now are facing major questions. Which ones can find answers, and which ones need to hit the panic button? Let’s dive in:

The Jets are ruining No. 2 overall QB Zach Wilson

Looking back, there was surprisingly little resistance when Wilson came out of nowhere to be the consensus No. 2 overall pick in this past draft class. Maybe it’s because the Jets zeroed in on Wilson so early in the process, maybe it’s because the drama between the 49ers and Trey Lance/Mac Jones sucked up so much of the oxygen. One of the consequences is I believe it was undersold how much work Wilson would need to transition to the NFL. 

There’s been no hiding that fact the first five weeks of the season. Wilson has struggled, to put it charitably. He leads the NFL with nine interceptions in just five games. He’s been sacked the second-most times of any quarterback at 18, and while some of that reflects how his protection has not been up to par, it also shows that he’s not seeing the field and getting rid of the ball. 

The learning curve jumping from BYU to the NFL is a tough one. Even though Wilson ran an offense with parallels to what the Jets want to do, the windows in the NFL are dramatically smaller. Wilson is having a hard time recognizing when to pull the trigger and be decisive with the ball. Compounding the issue is that when the Jets dial up layups for Wilson to try and get him in a rhythm, plus keep the offense on schedule, he has mechanical issues that are killing what should be easy throws. 

New York’s bye is coming at a great time to allow everyone to take a step back, reset, and for the Jets to do a little self-scouting. While new OC Mike LaFleur comes highly regarded from the Shanahan coaching tree, it’s not unusual for first-year playcallers to not hit the ground running. The hope is that the team looks a little more in sync after the bye and Wilson looks less like he’s treading water. 

If that doesn’t happen, it might be time to up the concern levels. The Jets moved on from Sam Darnold after just three years despite trading up to take him No. 3 overall because they tacitly were admitting they had set him too far behind in his development. It would be beyond demoralizing to ruin another young quarterback. 

Verdict: Too soon to panic

The Jaguars have lost 20 straight games and there’s no end in sight

The last time the Jaguars won a game was September 13 last year, Week 1 of the 2020 season against the Colts. That’s good for the second-longest, post-merger losing streak in NFL history and puts Jacksonville within shouting distance of the Buccaneers’ 26-game drought to open their franchise’s history.

That’s not exactly how the team thought the Urban Meyer era would begin. One of college football’s winningest coaches was supposed to come in and change the culture for a franchise that has had precious little success in the past decade. He had the benefit of a treasure chest of cap space and the best quarterback prospect in a decade in Trevor Lawrence to juice a rebuild. 

Somehow Meyer has squandered all of that and is now on the cusp of becoming the biggest college to pros coaching flameout in history. 

The talent on the roster is better than it’s been in some time and the player’s pride is a beacon of hope. Looking long-term, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Lawrence even if he’s experienced some growing pains (Wilson is the only NFL quarterback who’s tossed more picks than Lawrence). But there’s precious little leadership coming from the coaching staff and that’s a massive disadvantage the Jaguars haven’t been able to overcome. 

Jacksonville has a winnable game against the Dolphins in London this week, though Miami is also viewing it as a chance to break a losing streak. After that is the bye, then a trip to Seattle to play the Geno Smith-led Seahawks (more on them later). That’s perhaps winnable as well. Then come games against the Bills, Colts and 49ers where Jacksonville will be heavy underdogs. If the Jaguars are still winless, they’ll have a last chance to avoid tying the Bucs with a game against the Falcons. 

Even if they can avoid that level of historical ineptitude, we’ve already seen enough from this coaching staff to have serious doubts about their ability to pilot the Jaguars out of this. As hard as it might be for Jaguars owner Shad Khan to swallow his pride and start over again on the coaching staff, he might not have a choice the way things are trending. 

Verdict: Time to panic

Big Ben is cooked and so are the Steelers

Pittsburgh got a nice win against the 3-1 Broncos to pull out of a little tailspin to the start of their season and get to 2-3, which has a much different tenor than 1-4. The Steelers’ offensive line had its best game of the season Sunday, paving the way for a 100-yard game by first-round RB Najee Harris and allowing just one sack and one QB hit on Ben Roethlisberger

That doesn’t wipe away all the ugly football the Steelers offense put on tape in the first four weeks, though. During their 1-3 start to the season, Roethlisberger was horrendous. He was getting rid of the ball as quickly as he could and even that wasn’t enough to protect him from taking a beating. He looked destined to be benched. Pittsburgh couldn’t run the ball either, averaging just 55.25 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. 

Roethlisberger doesn’t have the mobility to make things happen when the pass protection breaks down and he can’t carry the team like he used to when the running game isn’t producing. A strong game from the Steelers’ rebuilt offensive line helped mask those deficiencies in Week 5 but with a young unit, it’s natural to expect those growing pains to continue. Pittsburgh’s defense remains strong but probably not enough to make up for the offense all year. 

The Steelers probably wouldn’t have brought Roethlisberger back for 2021 if they didn’t think they could be a playoff team. That looks far-fetched the way things stand now. The question now is how bad can it get. Will the Steelers bottom out? Or, like he has so many times before, will HC Mike Tomlin coach this team into respectability? History says the latter, even if it stays ugly on offense. 

Verdict: Not quite panic time, but not looking good

The Dolphins’ rebuild is flopping

Full-scale tanking has not made it to the NFL like it has in other sports leagues. But the closest has probably been the Dolphins in 2019 who ripped it down to the studs and beyond. That included trading away players like LT Laremy Tunsil and S Minkah Fitzpatrick for a bounty of first-round picks and taking a year to clean up their salary cap. 

Last year, it looked like things were progressing according to plan. The Dolphins didn’t make the playoffs but they finished 10-6 and looked like a team that was on the verge of taking a step forward behind a blitz-happy defense and a roster stacked with young, ascending talent. Instead, Miami is 1-4. 

Where have things gone wrong for the Dolphins? It probably starts with the quarterback position. That’s not necessarily directed at Tua Tagovailoa, as he’s missed the past three games, all Miami losses, while on injured reserve due to fractured ribs. But the first cracks in Miami’s rebuilding plan showed last year when Tagovailoa was benched twice and didn’t hit the ground running like fellow 2020 first-round quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert

To be fair, he was the only one of the trio coming off a career-threatening hip injury. Life in the NFL isn’t always fair, though, and this was a make-or-break season for Tagovailoa even before the Dolphins’ 1-4 start. Ideally, he’d be stepping into a situation with weapons and good protection but that’s not the case due to other ways in which Miami’s rebuild has come up short. 

The Dolphins have chucked a ton of resources at trying to rebuild their offensive line. In the past few seasons, they’ve drafted OT Austin Jackson, OL Robert Hunt, G Solomon Kindley, OL Michael Deiter and OT Liam Eichenberg, while also spending in free agency to sign G Ereck Flowers, C Ted Karras and C Matt Skura. It hasn’t come together yet. Miami’s offensive line is one of the worst in the league. 

None of Flowers, Karras or Skura remain with the team and the Dolphins basically paid Flowers to go away in a trade to Washington, where he’s now starting and rated 15th in the league by PFF. Deiter is hurt, Kindley has been benched, Jackson and Hunt have been moved from tackle inside to guard while Eichenberg has been shuttled all over the place and — for now — is at left tackle. Offensive line play relies heavily on continuity and Miami has had zero. They’ve even managed to have four OL coaches in three seasons. All of that has sabotaged the development of their young linemen. 

Miami took Tunsil and Fitzpatrick, two cornerstone type players, and so far have turned them into Jackson, Noah Igbinoghene, Jevon Holland and the pick they traded to the 49ers for another haul that included two more firsts and a third. In theory, that type of asset accumulation should pay off in the long run. But you still have to hit on the picks.

Picking the right players has been a problem, whether it’s draft picks who are underperforming (most of them) or free agent signings like LB Kyle Van Noy that the team gave up on after just a year. Jackson and Igbinoghene were toolsy but raw players who have not developed. Holland has shown some promise but is nowhere near the caliber of player as Fitzpatrick. Miami has also undercut their asset accumulation strategy by spending a first-round pick to trade back to No. 6 for WR Jaylen Waddle as opposed to being patient. 

Dolphins HC Brian Flores and Tagovailoa still have time to get this team playing like it was last year and salvage the situation. But the tenor surrounding this team is much different than it has been. The team brass has called for patience while executing this strategy. The time for patience is quickly running out. 

Verdict: Too soon to panic, but only a little

Stick a fork in the Seahawks

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson had never missed a game in his entire career but that’s about to change after his finger injury from last Thursday. The exact timeline hasn’t been confirmed by the team but the reports so far indicate Wilson is going to miss anywhere from four weeks to eight weeks. With Seattle at 2-3 and Geno set to take over, many have already written them off for the rest of the season. 

Not so fast my friend. Wilson is targeting a return in Week 10 which would knock him out for three games, as Seattle’s bye fortunately falls in this time. The Seahawks visit the Steelers, then host the Saints and Jaguars before having the week off ahead of the road trip to Green Bay. That’s not the most daunting slate in the world. Seattle should beat the Jaguars even shorthanded. Splitting games between the Steelers and Saints would be huge and leave the Seahawks at 4-4 heading into the back nine of their schedule. 

If they get Wilson back, the Seahawks will be right back in the mix. They should be heavy favorites in games again the Bears, Lions, Texans and Washington, which means a floor for the team should still be at about eight wins. The key for how Seattle’s season will pan out from here is how they do in the other five games — Wilson’s hoped-for return against the Packers and four divisional games, including two against the Cardinals. 

To get to where the Seahawks want to go, fixing the defense is going to be essential. That happened last year when the pass rush came alive and they’ll have to do something similar this year to overcome an awful secondary. But as long as they get Wilson back, they’ll still have a chance to reach all of their goals. 

Verdict: Too soon to panic

The Chiefs are a bad team? 

Just think for a moment if I had told you back in August that after five weeks the Chiefs would be 2-3 and in last place in the AFC West…

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells used to say “You are what your record says you are.” Much of the time, that’s true. In the case of the Chiefs, I don’t think they’re a below-average football team like their 2-3 record would suggest but I do think that record points to them being a flawed team, perhaps critically so. 

Let’s start with the offense. Kansas City remains one of the most productive offenses in the NFL but the turnovers have been an issue. Patrick Mahomes has been Mr. September and he didn’t have an interception in his entire career in that month until a few weeks ago. Now Mahomes already has six interceptions to equal his total from last season.  

Some of that is just bad luck. Mahomes’ two interceptions on Sunday night against the Bills came on a dropped pass by Tyreek Hill and on a deflection and outstanding athletic play by first-round DE Gregory Rousseau. If there’s a critique of the Chiefs’ offense, it’s that they can try too hard to force the explosive play and need to be more willing to take advantage of what defenses are giving them in order to limit big plays. 

Overall though, the offense will be just fine. They could use a clear No. 2 wide receiver to take pressure off Hill and TE Travis Kelce. But the way the offensive line has been rebuilt overnight is a huge success story, especially when compared to teams like the Dolphins, Giants, Panthers and Bengals who have been trying to fix their lines for years. 

The defense is in big trouble though. They can’t rush the passer. Frank Clark is making $18.5 million this year and has appeared in just two games with no sacks. Kansas City has played DT Chris Jones at edge rusher and while he’s had success, he hasn’t been quite as impactful as he was inside. Jarran Reed was seen as a steal pick up this offseason but so far the veteran defensive tackle hasn’t had much of an impact, along with any of Kansas City’s other defensive linemen.

With no pass rush, the back end has also been shredded. The Chiefs are getting very little out of their current linebacker group — the hope is that the return of Willie Gay helps here — and guys like S Daniel Sorensen have been toasted repeatedly. Kansas City has surrendered more than 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air already. 

There are a couple of reasons for optimism. Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo has a history of getting defensive units to play better over the course of the season. That helped push the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl win in 2019. Some young guys like Gay and S Juan Thornhill could also help. But the personnel holes on this roster feel too big to overcome completely. The best case for the Chiefs’ defense is that they improve from historically bad to just bad. 

In terms of outlook for the season, the Chiefs’ schedule softens up dramatically the next three weeks after being as hard as anyone’s to start the year. It’s far too early to think about the Chiefs missing the playoffs. If they make it back to the Super Bowl, though, it’s looking like they’ll have to do it the hard way on the road. 

Verdict: Defensively, time to panic

The Raiders are staring at a black hole

In any walk of life, an organization is only as good as the people or person at the top. This season, the Las Vegas Raiders have experienced a crisis of leadership. In a matter of months, owner Mark Davis has lost the head of his football team in HC Jon Gruden and the head of his business operations in former team president Marc Badain. Davis himself hasn’t inspired confidence with many of his decisions in recent years and abdicated his role of addressing the world in the wake of the Gruden firing. 

Raiders GM Mike Mayock, who everyone thought was set up to be the fall guy if the team didn’t make the playoffs this year, is now the top person on the football side and stepped into the void left by Davis. More will be asked of QB Derek Carr, and interim HC Rich Bisaccia will have a chance in the captain’s chair for the first time in a 38-year career. They have a chance to turn things around, but after a 3-0 start, the Raiders have lost two straight and the season feels like it’s on the verge of going off the rails. 

If it does, the Raiders will once again be looking at another massive-scale rebuild. Davis will be hiring his third GM and fourth head coach since taking over in 2011. The roster turnover could be enormous, as the Raiders are a veteran-heavy team and the young players from the Gruden/Mayock era are far from proven. Will the new regime want to keep Carr? Will Davis

Gruden had plenty of faults, but with more than half of a 10-year contract still remaining, he figured to at least be a constant for the Raiders going into the future. Now the Raiders have as unsettled a future as nearly any NFL team. It’s a black hole — impossible to see through to the other side until you’ve passed the event horizon. After that, you might not like what you find. 

Verdict: Panic time

This Week In Football

  • The biggest news of the week was obviously Raiders HC Jon Gruden losing his job because of the discovery of a number of emails between him and former Washington president Bruce Allen. These emails were while he was still a broadcaster with ESPN but contained racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments. For any team, but especially one with a history of diversity and inclusion like the Raiders have had, these comments were disqualifying to hold the position of head coach. 
  • The Gruden news takes a lot of bite out of this report, but it’s still worth noting that Raiders QB Derek Carr did not and presumably does not plan to negotiate an extension during the regular season. Carr has one more year left on his deal and had an outstanding start to the year through the first few games, seemingly giving him leverage had he wanted a new deal. Now like nearly everyone else in the Las Vegas organization, his future is up in the air. 
  • Speaking of cloudy futures, trade rumors just always seem to follow Browns WR Odell Beckham like a rain cloud. A three-target performance in last week’s loss to the Chargers hasn’t helped as once again there are doubts about whether Beckham’s presence is actually good for QB Baker Mayfield and the offense. Speculation about a trade has begun, and while Beckham’s salary would make a deal during the regular season prohibitive, there is buzz that 2021 could be his final season in Cleveland. He has no more guaranteed money remaining on his deal, which makes a cut very much in play if the Browns can’t work out a trade in the offseason. They will presumably need to budget for a big deal for Mayfield at some point. 
  • In last week’s issue, we highlighted Eagles TE Zach Ertz as someone to pay attention to for a possible trade as we near the deadline on November 2. Scoopmaster Jay Glazer reported Thursday the Eagles have been getting calls on both their tight ends, Ertz and TE Dallas Goedert and that it would not be surprising to see a deal come together soon. Sure enough, the Eagles have agreed to send Ertz to the Cardinals in return for a 2022 fifth-round pick and CB Tay Gowan. The Cardinals all of a sudden had a major need at the position following the catastrophic knee injury suffered by TE Maxx Williams, who had been having a nice season. 
  • Running through some quarterback situations; like it’s mentioned above, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is targeting Week 10 for his return from his finger injury. That’s aggressive given the initial timeline that was reported but it’s definitely possible with Wilson, even if he won’t be 100 percent. Washington QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will be back soon, perhaps in Week 7, so Taylor Heinicke has one more week against the Chiefs to make his bid to keep the starting job. Both are gutsy gunslinger types with limited physical tools, although Fitzpatrick is a fair bit bigger. And the 49ers look poised to return to veteran QB Jimmy Garoppolo when they return from their bye in Week 7 against the Colts, something which felt inevitable even if first-round QB Trey Lance had blown the Cardinals away in his first start, which he didn’t. 
  • It’s not a surprise that the Lions are taking a more forward-looking view than most teams as they begin the first year of their rebuilding project. But that was made clear with the decision for C Frank Ragnow to undergo surgery on his toe that would knock him out for the rest of the season. Ragnow is one of the best two or three centers in the NFL right now and a major loss for Detroit. But they felt it was more important to correct an issue to get him ready for 2022 and beyond. And it’s hard to disagree. 
  • It has become very apparent that whatever Seattle’s plan was to start the season in the secondary, we are a long way away from it. We might be on Plan E at this point. Just a couple of weeks ago, CB Tre Flowers was starting for the Seahawks. This week, he was abruptly waived as Seattle tries to pull whatever levers it can to improve its defense. Flowers landed with the Bengals via claim, which has the chance to be a better schematic fit for him. Out of the nine cornerbacks who were on Seattle’s roster to start camp, only D.J. Reed and fourth-round rookie Tre Brown remain. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…

Multiple writers, including the Athletic’s Mike Sando, have hit on the topic of Seahawks S Jamal Adams and what’s wrong with him this week after he was burned to a crisp last week. Between blitz rates and heat maps showing where Adams is lining up, it’s clear Seattle isn’t playing him to his strengths despite the major investment they’ve made. It’s hard not to think about TE Jimmy Graham and his disappointing tenure with the Seahawks, and that history may be repeating itself…

Last Thursday’s game also included an incredible, one-of-a-kind special teams play, as Seahawks P Michael Dickson pulled off a double punt with a casual one-handed scoop of the football on the run. NBC Sports Peter King has much, much more on this incredible play…

Some fun tidbits in this ESPN article about which teams are embracing the analytics race and which ones aren’t. There’s absolutely an edge to be found here for some teams…

In the past few months, these are all quotes, all from folks in and around the NFL, that have been published about Lamar Jackson

“There are a lot of people around the league…they say this might be the year that everyone figures out Lamar Jackson…”

“I think the questions that some teams have is if they get behind, can Lamar throw 40, 50 times and win games and bring them from behind with his arm? That is a legitimate question, and I don’t know the answer to that…”

“People are figuring him out a little bit. Those guys on the list, in the two-minute drill, they can go do it. Not sure he’s there yet. The running is great, but when you have to play from behind and throw, that can be very tough…”

“They have to call the game a certain way, and if they call it right, he will produce for them. He is not going to sit back in the pocket and kill you. That is just not who he is…To me, he is a guy you win with and his legs are an X-factor, but you do not win because of his arm…”

“Do you want to make him the highest-paid player in your franchise’s history, and think that he’s going to take you to the Super Bowl and win it? Because, in my opinion, he’s not. He’s a great dude. I have nothing against him, but I’d hate to be in Eric DeCosta’s position and have to pay him…”

And after Monday night, they all look pretty freaking dumb…

The past couple of weeks have made it clear the Bears NEED to be a smashmouth team. It fits what first-round QB Justin Fields does well at this point. Honestly, it should always be their identity as a cold-weather team from Chicago with a history of great defense. Now if HC Matt Nagy can get out of the way, swallow his pride and commit to that instead of trying to finesse opponents with his big brain, it could get interesting…

I nominate the Browns and Chargers as the two best-coached teams in the entire league right now. Los Angeles is a clinic in aggressive decision-making backed by analytics right now with their approach on fourth downs and, this past week, on two-point conversions. Chargers HC Brandon Staley has gotten a lot of pub for that, but Browns HC Kevin Stefanski isn’t too far behind. The Browns’ defense pulling Austin Ekeler into the end zone to give their offense one last chance with the ball was a razor-sharp move…

Staley’s sharp and perceptive in a lot of other ways, too. It’s really rare to see this from an NFL coach…

Tom Brady has undoubtedly changed the aging curve expectations for quarterbacks, with an assist from Drew Brees. But the way Brees and Philip Rivers declined last year, even if they were still productive, along with what we’ve seen from Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan this year, should maybe make us back off of that and treat playing into your 40s as a QB more of the exception than the rule…

So much to take away from this. But as someone who made a significant investment in Ty’Son Williams in one dynasty league, comparing him to Latavius Murray here makes me want to chuck my laptop out the window of my eighth-floor apartment…

More fun charts. Quick explainer here, the PFF grade is a cumulative assessment of all five linemen’s performance. ESPN’s pass rush win rate measures how often the protection as a whole keeps the QB from being pressured. So the Browns have great players who work well as a team, while the Cowboys and Texans have largely great players with a few weak links. The Panthers and Dolphins have bad players who give up a lot of pressure…

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