The Dallas Cowboys need Dak Prescott back. The San Francisco 49ers need a Jimmy Garoppolo replacement/contingency plan. The Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions need new head coaches, general managers, and at least two years to repair their rosters and salary cap ledgers. The Philadelphia Eagles just need to get a grip. Here’s a last look back at 2020 — and, more importantly, a look ahead to 2021 — for the NFC teams which failed to reach the playoffs this year.
Editor’s Note: For the rest of Mike Tanier’s individual NFL playoff previews, make sure to check out his full NFL Week 17 Recap. Not only does he give in-depth breakdowns of each game, but he also provides you with his Week 17 Stud ‘n’ Duds. Also, make sure to check out what 2021 has in store for these AFC teams.
NFC East teams that didn’t make the playoffs
Everything begins with the Dak Prescott situation. The Cowboys cannot afford to franchise tag him again. In this scenario, Prescott consumes what little cap space they have and then some. 2020 illustrated the pipe dream of trying to replace Prescott with a “competent journeyman.”
Even with Prescott healthy and compensated, the Cowboys will enter 2021 as a playoff-caliber passing game in search of a defense, a special teams, a jolt of overall competitiveness/physicality, and a workable long-range financial plan. But Prescott’s return alone could vault the Cowboys to 9-7. That would make them the 2007 New England Patriots of the NFC East.
New York Giants
General manager Dave Gettleman built a roster that was practically custom-designed to go 6-10. And he was nearly rewarded with a division title as a result. What success the Giants enjoyed in 2020 was largely an illusion. Several of their best players on defense are maxed-out veteran journeymen (cornerbacks James Bradberry and Logan Ryan, linebacker Blake Martinez) at or near their peak, while others (defensive linemen Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, and Dalvin Tomlinson) are high-expenditure players at low-leverage positions.
Daniel Jones is on the Marcus Mariota career path. Jones’ injuries, fumbles, and limitations were still kinda cute this year but will become inexcusable next year. Saquon Barkley’s destiny trends towards a less-durable version of Todd Gurley, just as many of us worried he would be. The Giants are further from the Super Bowl now than when Gettleman was hired. Only the ugliness of the NFC East hides the fact that they are one of the NFL’s worst franchises.
Assuming that the Jalen Hurts/Carson Wentz quarterback controversy takes another year to sort out (hint for you — the organization isn’t as sold on Hurts as the box score scouts are, and Wentz’s contract is a bigger obstacle than the Alps), there’s a looming estimated $71 million cap deficit to fret about. The Eagles can’t keep running fading and increasingly disgruntled vets like Fletcher Cox, Jason Kelce, Zach Ertz, and Alshon Jeffery onto the field year after year and hoping for 2017 to happen again.
Throw in the ugliness of their Week 17 loss to the Washington Football Team and the turmoil surrounding head coach Doug Pederson and his relationship with Wentz, and the Eagles are candidates to plunge headfirst into New York Jets territory if Hurts is not an immediate 2021 success.
NFC North teams that didn’t make the playoffs
The new regime will need all of 2021 to fumigate the roster of former Patriots and veteran ballasts like Adrian Peterson and Mohamed Sanu. The organization must also come to terms with the fact that bravely playing through multiple injuries in meaningless games may be admirable, but it doesn’t make Matthew Stafford the long-term answer at quarterback.
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There’s so much work to be done that we can just check back in on the Lions in 2023. Yet, while fans have that luxury, team ownership does not. They must ensure the new regime has a plan with a realistic timetable and a sense of momentum. As opposed to the Matt Patricia/Bob Quinn administration’s “blame the last coach for everything/sign lots of old buddies” policy. Nepotism doesn’t get NFC teams into the playoffs, and 2021 will start the beginning of another rebuild in Detroit.
It’s nearly impossible to envision a scenario in which the team ever cracks 10-6 (or 10-7, based on how the spring meetings go) again under general manager Rick Spielman, head coach Mike Zimmer, and quarterback Kirk Cousins. Mediocrity is baked directly into the organization chart.
The Vikings’ best bet is to hit a grand slam in the draft and come away with an impact pass rusher, offensive line help, and a third receiver to go with Adam Theilen and Justin Jefferson to drag their offense out of the late 1990s. Even if that happens, the Vikings will probably just end up 11-5 (or 11-6) and lose in the second round of the playoffs.
South teams that fell short and eye 2021
Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will cost the Falcons about $63 million in cap space. Both are virtually uncuttable for an NFC team that enters 2021 an estimated $24 million over the cap. Both are just good enough to anchor the Falcons around 6-10 for another 2-3 years. With epic late-game meltdowns, it’s no surprise this NFC team didn’t make the playoffs.
Based on remarks he made when head coach Dan Quinn and much of the front office were fired, Falcons owner Arthur Blank will likely give his new coach and executives authority to start moving on from the Ryan era. That will take patience, planning, courage, and a little luck. Three things that are in short supply around the NFL and one that always works against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers will enter 2021 with some rapidly developing youngsters on defense (Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn, Derrick Brown) and an impressive arsenal of weapons on offense (D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel, Mike Davis, a healthy Christian McCaffrey). Everything else is in need of an overhaul — the offensive line, the linebacker corps, and secondary. And yes, the quarterback position. Teddy Bridgewater is fun to root for, but he’s Derek Carr at best and latter-day Andy Dalton at worst.
Matt Rhule is taking his time with the Panthers rebuild. The December firing of general manager Marty Hurney signaled that Rhule knows how to space out changes in order to slow-roll expectations. We’ll probably see Bridgewater under center in 2021 while the Panthers add pieces elsewhere on the team to compete in a rugged NFC South. That’s fine, but it’s much harder to replace a quarterback as a final step than as a first step.
West teams that didn’t make the playoffs
Kliff Kingsbury suddenly looks like a coach who thinks that 8-8 is good enough to earn a berth in the Texas Bowl. General manager Steve Keim and owner Bill Bidwill need to order Kingsbury to do some painful self-scouting and quality control in the offseason and design a detailed developmental plan to advance Kyler Murray from “fun prospect” to “actual franchise quarterback” before all of his new car smell wears off. Keim himself must address an offensive line and defense that always looks about 60% complete.
Getting from 3-13 to 8-8 over two seasons is easy in the NFL. It’s that next step that makes or breaks coaches, executives, and quarterbacks. This Cardinals team didn’t make the playoffs and will be a tough team to project in the 2021 NFC picture.
San Francisco 49ers
The temptation will be to just wait for everyone to get healthy. The goal will be to get better. That may well include coming up with a Plan B at quarterback. There are reports, albeit of “one league executive reads the mind of another league executive” variety, that the 49ers may move on from Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo’s contract was front-loaded in a team-friendly way. Thus, the 49ers could pull a Jalen Hurts-type maneuver and be ready to move on if Garoppolo returns from injury still looking like Captain Checkdown McBuzzkill. They could even release Garoppolo outright, but that would be shocking; quarterbacks rarely go from starting in the Super Bowl to the waiver wire in just over a year.
Whatever the 49ers do, standing pat and hoping the returns of Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, and others allow them to float back to the top is a great way to max out in a three-way clusterfart with the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams.