Analysis

Three NFL Franchises Currently Stuck in Neutral

Three NFL Franchises Currently Stuck in Neutral
Tom Rudawky is a former NFL scout for the New York Giants who previously worked in football operations for the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. He now writes for The 33rd Team among other publications.

In the complex and multi-layered discussion of building an NFL roster to consistently contend for championships, the most frustrating position to be in is one where a team feels stuck in the mud, mired in mediocrity with little room to truly move the needle and enhance their super bowl odds. In many respects, being “stuck in neutral” is worse than facing a total rebuild, where that team has a better chance of landing one of the top picks in the NFL Draft and being able to secure a marquee player that can potentially change the fortune of that franchise. Take, for example, the Cincinnati Bengals, who benefited greatly from being the worst team in the league in 2019 – which led to the selection of franchise-changer Joe Burrow. A disappointing 2020 season where Cincinnati was equally as incompetent led to the Bengals being able to select Ja’Marr Chase and accruing another young superstar. Granted, this was obviously the best-case scenario for the Bengals, and isn’t something that is easily repeatable.

Often, a franchise in the midst of a total rebuild is actually in a better position long term than the ones that are “middling” – if they can make the right decisions. The three teams on this list are not laughing-stock football teams, in fact there’s plenty to be optimistic about with all three clubs. They are, however, all franchises that are currently stuck in neutral, and are multiple major moves away from truly moving the needle in the effort to leave a state of mediocrity and enter the NFL’s elite.

Atlanta Falcons

Second-year General Manager Terry Fontenot inherited a difficult situation when he was hired in January 2021 — but not because the Falcons roster was completely devoid of talent. When he took over, star wide receiver Julio Jones was on the wrong side of 30 with clear injury concerns, and QB Matt Ryan hindered the Falcons spending ability with a bloated contract. The writing was on the wall that at some point, Atlanta would have to move on from Ryan and usher in a new era. Really, it’s hard to fault Fontenot for how he handled either scenario. Unfortunately, the Falcons future took another hit when emerging number one receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2022 season for gambling on games. When planning for the future, events like that are obviously completely unpredictable, and this was surely a bad break for Fontenot and Head Coach Arthur Smith.

Looking at the Falcons both for 2022 and beyond, it’s hard to see a clear road map for how this team becomes successful in the next few years. On paper, Marcus Mariota is the starting quarterback, and while there is some promising young talent on both sides of the ball, is it enough for this team to contend? When talking about the overall state of the Falcons team, what is their identity? What can they hang their hat on every Sunday that will allow them to win games? Currently, that is a very hard question to answer, and it’s why the Falcons are “as stuck in neutral” as it gets.

Truth be told, I think Smith did a good job leading Atlanta in his first year as a head coach. I feel as though they got the most out of their roster in 2021, and that’s worth commending. If they do the same in 2022, it will likely result in another 6–8-win season, meaning another year where the Falcons aren’t cellar dwellers but also aren’t even close to good enough to contend. Fontenot has a tough task at hand, as he tries to get the Falcons out of their current middling state.

Washington Commanders

You know those “7-9 jokes” that Jeff Fisher often receives on social media? Well, Ron Rivera has posted five 7-win marks in his 10 full seasons as an NFL head coach. Now, this is not an attack on Rivera, who has proven himself to be a fine coach and a great ambassador for the sport. However, his football team is very much in stand still right now. The Commanders finished 7-9 in 2020, then followed it up with a 7-10 record last season.

The thing about Washington is they clearly possess some real, exciting players both offensively and defensively. Their defensive line is one of the best in football, anchored by standouts Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Montez Sweat. On offense, Antonio Gibson and Terry McLaurin are budding superstars, and Logan Thomas is a playmaking tight end that’s still ascending. So why are the Commanders in neutral? It’s simple – the quarterback situation. Since Rivera took over in 2020, Washington has started games with Taylor Heinicke, Alex Smith, Kyle Allen, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Dwayne Haskins, and Colt McCoy at quarterback – not exactly a who’s who of upper echelon signal-callers. Having traded for Carson Wentz this off-season, there’s no reason to expect things will be any different in the nation’s capital this year. Wentz is turnover-prone, inconsistent, and hasn’t looked like a guy who can lead a consistently winning team in years.

If the Commanders think they can turn Wentz into the guy he was back in 2017, that’s a stubborn, bang-your-head-against-the-wall thought process. This feels like a team that will continue to be exactly who they’ve been – a group that can beat anybody because of their defense, yet a team that can’t escape the annuls of average because their quarterback play isn’t good enough to win enough games over a long, 17-game season. Until the quarterback position is addressed in a major, landscape-changing way, it’s hard to expect anything different from Rivera’s Commanders.

Carolina Panthers

Moving down the east coast from the nation’s capital to Charlotte, North Carolina, we have another NFC team that feels like they’re swimming in the pools of average. After starting 3-0 in 2021, the bottom fell out on the Panthers, as they went 2-12 the remainder of the season, finishing with five wins for the third straight year. Some would argue this isn’t mediocrity – it’s just plain bad. However, I don’t view the Panthers as a bad football team. I do think there’s been positives to Matt Rhule’s tenure and what Carolina has in place moving forward. This is a young, athletic team with a lot of speed on the perimeter – something that makes them hard to play against. They are building an identity defensively, with a deep cornerback group and some impressive players in the front seven such as Brian Burns and Shaq Thompson.

On offense, Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore are legit studs at their respective positions – granted if they can stay healthy. Like the Commanders, it feels unlikely Carolina will take the next step this season due to their quarterback play. Drafting Matt Corral was a smart decision, as the team needed to shoot for upside – which Corral represents. However, given the offense Corral is coming from at Ole Miss, him being able to start week one feels unlikely, which means more Sam Darnold. This time last year, the jury was still out on Darnold, as some believed he simply needed a new situation and fresh start – then he’d thrive. After the tape he put out there in 2021, that’s a hard opinion to stand behind now.

Realistically, can the Panthers win 10+ games with Darnold at the helm and make the playoffs? That seems like a losing bet to make. Really, Carolina’s best shot at a successful 2022 campaign likely includes handing the keys over to Corral at some point while riding the back of a healthy McCaffrey. How likely is that scenario? Well, that’s anyone’s guess, but either way this doesn’t feel like a team with much upside given the major question mark at the game’s most important position.