In most cases, Super Bowl contenders are a long time in the making.
Franchises tend to have success in cycles and need to go through a series of stages before they’re finally ready to take their shot at a Lombardi trophy. Definitive plans are hard to come by and there’s almost always setbacks along the way. But it can be done.
With the NFL season two days from kickoff, here are five teams on the upswing ready to take the first step, the next step or the final step in their trajectory as a franchise.
2020 Record: 1-15, 4th AFC South
Let’s start with the obvious.
Since coming within a potentially premature whistle of advancing to the Super Bowl in 2017, the Jacksonville Jaguars have been dreadful. They’ve finished last in the AFC South three seasons in a row and combined to go 11-21 in 2018 and 2019 before a league-worst 1-15 showing last season.
So no, they don’t have far to go to become vastly improved. The arrival of No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence – one of the best quarterback prospects in history – should be the centrepiece Jacksonville needs to begin an ascent out of the league’s basement, possibly as soon as this year.
Lawrence threw for over 10,000 yards and 90 touchdowns compared to just 17 interceptions over three seasons at Clemson, leading the Tigers to three consecutive CFP appearances and a national title in 2018. Lawrence owns a record of 86-4 dating back to high school and projects as a perennial All-Pro according to NFL.com. For a franchise that has gone between Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne, Blake Bortles and Gardner Minshew over the past decade, any quarterback with potential would be a welcome sight. A talent like Lawrence? It could change everything.
Jacksonville has some play-makers on offence, even with Lawrence’s college teammate and fellow first-round pick Travis Etienne being lost for the season with a foot injury. James Robinson, who rushed for 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns as an undrafted rookie last season, is more than capable of leading the backfield alongside veteran Carlos Hyde. The Jags are also deep at receiver with DJ Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault and Marvin Jones Jr., giving Lawrence plenty of targets to develop with.
Then there’s Urban Meyer, who feels like he could be the best head coaching hire of the off-season or the worst. A decorated coach at Florida and Ohio State followed by an unceremonious departure from the college ranks, Meyer reportedly ruffled a few feathers in the pre-season. And this was after the hiring and subsequent resignation of strength coach Chris Doyle and bizarre Tim Tebow at tight end experiment from earlier in the summer. Big-name college coaches aren’t guaranteed to succeed in the pro game – just ask Nick Saban.
But Jacksonville has pieces, especially the one they need the most. Better days are ahead, even if they don’t come right away.
Washington Football Team
2020 Record: 7-9, 1st NFC East
Re-shaping a franchise is never easy and usually involves the same kind of clichés that are harder to follow through on than say in front of a cluster of microphones. Most attempted turnarounds fail, only to leave an organization scrambling to make a different set of promises it may not be able to keep.
So far, Ron Rivera is delivering on his. And then some.
Less than a month after being fired by the Carolina Panthers in December of 2019, Rivera was introduced as the new head coach of the Washington Football Team and owner Dan Synder made it clear it was Rivera’s show from here on out. The results were impressive.
Washington had one of the best defences in the league last season en route to their first division title in five years. The what – a 7-9 record followed by a first-round playoff exit – isn’t near as impressive as the how.
No. 2 overall pick Chase Young took home defensive rookie of the year honours and led the way for a defence that ranked fourth-best in total points surrendered (329) and second in total yards allowed (304.6). Montez Sweat had 9.0 sacks as a sophomore, giving the Football Team one of the best young one-two pass rushing punches in the NFL. With no major off-season losses on the defensive side of the ball, there’s no reason they can’t be even better in 2021.
That’s the good, and there’s a lot of it. But you can’t lose nine games and not have at least some work to do.
The Washington offence ranked at or near the bottom in most categories, finishing 25th in total points and 30th in yards gained. They also started four different quarterbacks and scored more than 30 points in a game just once.
Washington punted on their off-season search for a long-term option at quarterback, electing to bring in 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick as a free agent, who joins his ninth NFL team after starting in seven games for the Miami Dolphins in 2020. A placeholder signing if there ever was one, Fitzpatrick’s job will be to keep the team competitive in the short term, a job he’s no stranger to and done quite well in recent years. Having a weapon like Terry McLaurin on the outside should help, too.
Rivera set a high bar for himself in year one and repeating as division-winners would be a great way to continue the shift the organization has started.
Los Angeles Chargers
2020 Record: 7-9, 3rd AFC West
Justin Herbert’s NFL career wasn’t supposed to begin the way it did.
Despite being the No. 6 overall selection in last year’s draft, veteran Tyrod Taylor was named the Los Angeles Chargers’ starter in Week 1 and helped lead the team to a win over the Cincinnati Bengals to open the season. But cracked ribs and a punctured lung suffered while being injected with a painkiller by a team doctor forced Taylor out of the lineup and Herbert into early action.
He never looked back.
The Oregon product lit up the league for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns on his way to being named offensive rookie of the year. Herbert now looks to take another step forward under new head coach Brandon Staley, who joins the Chargers from their SoFi Stadium roommates on Sean McVay’s staff. Staley was a quarterback at Dayton in college and will shift his attention from stopping QBs as the defensive coordinator of the Rams’ – the league’s top defence last year in points and yards – to developing a talented young pivot with plenty of offensive weapons to work with.
L.A.’s defence was hard to evaluate in 2020 as they finished 23rd in points allowed but conceded the 10th-fewest total yards. They’ll also get three-time Pro Bowler Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James back from injury which should only help make them more consistent.
If the Chargers are going to take a step forward in 2021, they’ll have to do a better job holding leads. In a four-game span, the Chargers blew leads of 17 points or more three times, highlighted by a 31-30 loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 8 in which they led by 21. The defeat dropped the Chargers to 2-5 and that was that in terms of the playoffs.
The Rams might be Super Bowl contenders, but if the Chargers get Herbert to take another step forward and learn to protect leads, they might not be too far away from some lofty expectations of their own.
2020 Record: 10-6, 2nd AFC East
Two off-seasons ago, the Miami Dolphins replaced Adam Gase with New England Patriots assistant Brian Flores as head coach. And things couldn’t have started off worse.
Miami lost its first three games to begin the 2019 campaign by a combined score of 133-16 and dropped their next four to make it seven straight losses to begin the year. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick told reporters after the game the Dolphins would keep fighting to turn things around. Fast forward a little less than two years later and it’s safe to say they have.
The Dolphins won five of their next nine games to end 2019 at 5-11 and picked up right where they left off last season, going 10-6 to finish second in the AFC East on the back of a defence that finished with the sixth fewest points allowed. Still, it wasn’t quite enough to reach the playoffs, so that will undoubtedly be the goal this time around.
No. 5 overall pick Tua Tagovailoa was up and down in his rookie season and it remains to be seen if he’s the long-term answer under centre. He went 6-3 as a starter and had just five interceptions in 10 games. But he also struggled to get much going down the field at times, throwing for 1,814 yards with 11 touchdowns in 10 games. Earlier in the off-season, the Dolphins were reported to have interest in trading for Deshaun Watson, which doesn’t show a lot of faith in the player they invested in so heavily less than one year earlier.
Tagovailoa will have the reins in year two and has some weaponry to work with. In addition to DeVante Parker returning for a seventh season with the Dolphins, Miami selected wide receiver Jaylen Waddle No. 6 overall out of Alabama and brought in veteran Will Fuller V on a one-year deal. Fuller will miss the first game of the season while serving the end of a six-game PED suspension and battled a foot injury in training camp, so he might need some time to get up to speed.
Speaking of getting up to speed, Tagovailoa has some work to do himself. The 23-year-old said earlier this year he didn’t know the playbook well enough as a rookie and that made him less comfortable adjusting the play call at the line of scrimmage – not what you want from your quarterback.
Odds makers, experts and fans all expect the AFC East to go to the Buffalo Bills in 2021, and it probably will. But things could get interesting if the Dolphins can figure things out on the offensive side.
2020 Record: 13-3, 1st AFC East
It’s hard to consider a team coming off a 13-win season as trending up, but last year may have only been the beginning for the Buffalo Bills.
For the second year in a row, the Bills took a massive step forward. Going from 10 wins in 2019 and wild-card loss in the playoffs, Buffalo advanced to the AFC Championship on the back of a breakout season from quarterback Josh Allen.
Allen was one of the NFL’s best in 2020, finishing inside the top five in passing yards (4,544), passing touchdowns (37), completion percentage (69.2) and quarterback rating (107.2). Not to mention Allen rushed for 421 yards and eight touchdowns, leading a Buffalo offence that finished second in the league in yards and points.
These numbers were well ahead of Allen’s output from 2019, nearly doubling his touchdown passes while raising his completion percentage more than 10 points. A big reason for Allen’s emergence was the arrival of Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in receiving yards (1,535) and receptions (127), forming one of the best QB-WR duos in football. If not the best.
The Bills’ had a middling pass rush in 2020 and a defence that finished 18th in expected points allowed per game according to Pro Football Focus. General manager Brandon Beane took big steps to address that at the draft, selecting defensive ends Gregory Rousseau out of the University of Miami with the 30th pick and Wake Forest’s Boogie Basham in the second round. They also added Efe Obada in free agency, who had 5.5 sacks playing limited snaps last season with the Carolina Panthers.
The Bills locked up Allen this past off-season on a six-year, $258 million contract with $150 million guaranteed. Sure, it’s a lot of money and may present a tight cap situation down the road, but a 25-year-old franchise quarterback entering his prime locked up long-term is a problem – if you even want to call it that – most teams would love to have.
It’s all systems go in Buffalo this season and likely for the foreseeable future.