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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Every team in the NFL wants to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. To hold up the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the Super Bowl. To be champions.
But only one of 32 clubs gets that distinction. There are a fistful of legitimate contenders to claim that title in 2021—maybe eight to 10 at most. For every one of those good teams, there’s a bad one—a franchise whose Super Bowl hopes are more delusion than aspiration.
However, there’s something that can be even worse than being bad. Being stuck.
For some squads, being stuck means a record of futility that stretches back for years—and likely forward for the foreseeable future. Others still are stuck in the netherworld between good and bad—the limbo of so-so.
There are different reasons why, but every team on this list knows these three things are true in 2021.
First, Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles is a pipe dream.
Second, each and every one of the teams on this list is stuck.
And third…being stuck sucks.
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Steve Marcus/Associated Press
When Jon Gruden was (re)introduced as head coach of the Raiders back in 2018, he pledged that the team’s days of being mediocre were over.
“I’m just so thrilled to be back here,” Gruden said, per Will Reeve Jr. of Raiders Wire. “I hope people understand the emotion inside of me. I feel unfinished business. I also feel a lot of loyalty, and I feel a lot of responsibility to get the Raiders going again. And it’s been a while since we’ve consistently performed at a high level. And that’s really all I care about. I’m gonna do everything I can to help this team get right again.”
The only thing that has changed since that day is the Raiders’ mailing address. The team itself isn’t one bit better in Las Vegas in 2021 than it was in Oakland in 2018.
There’s been no shortage of roster turnover. Under Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock, each offseason has brought about a parade of departures, questionable signings and dubious draft picks. This year was no different—the Raiders blew up the offensive line and then reached for Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood in Round 1 of the 2021 draft.
Per Kevin Patra of NFL.com, Gruden defended the latest roster shake-up.
“I’ll have to see when we get to camp,” Gruden responded. “Obviously, we like it on paper. We made some changes that’re, you know, in some people’s eyes, uh, questionable. But we’re younger, I think we’re faster. I think we do have more depth. It’s hard to update that question right now without seeing everything in pads at full strength.”
There’s been a ton of turnover. What there hasn’t been is progress. It’s hard to point to a single position group and say it’s substantially better than a year ago. Or two years ago. That includes the game’s most important position, where quarterback Derek Carr is 16 games under .500 in his 110 starts in silver and black.
The Raiders didn’t make the postseason in any of the first three years of Gruden’s 10-year, $100 million contract.
They won’t make it in the fourth, either.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Long-suffering fans of the Detroit Lions will point to the tumultuous 2021 offseason as evidence that hopefully the team is breaking out of its rut.
There’s a new quarterback in Jared Goff after Matthew Stafford was shipped to Los Angeles—a move that landed the Lions extra first-rounders in 2022 and 2023. There’s a new general manager in Brad Holmes. And a new head coach in Dan Campbell, who insisted to reporters that he knows what it takes to turn the Lions around.
“Look, I’m not going to sit here and kid you; you think I’ve got all the answers? I don’t have all the answers,” Campbell said. “I’m not going to tell you that. But I know, and I’m very comfortable in my own ability and those around me. And I know what it takes to win. I do.”
The problem for Campbell and the Lions is that, in order to win, the Lions would first need a different football team.
The one they have isn’t going anywhere.
The Lions do have at least one thing going for them—a top-10 offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus.
That’s it, though.
The wide receivers at Goff’s disposal are the weakest group of “talent” at that position in the league. Last year, no team allowed more yards per game than the 419.8 the Lions surrendered. Detroit also finished last in points allowed at 32.4 per contest.
Maybe Holmes and Campbell are the answer. Maybe Goff can rebound from a down 2020 in L.A. and turn his career around in his new home. Maybe those extra first-rounders will accelerate this latest rebuild in Motown.
But that’s a lot of maybes, and even if all three come to pass, it’s still going to take the Lions a while to dig out from under all the bad from the Matt Patricia era.
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Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Like the Lions, the beleaguered fanbase of the New York Jets is hopeful that an offseason of seismic change will finally break the team out of a rut that is more like a canyon.
There’s a new head coach in New York in 2021 in Robert Saleh, and the team hit the reset button under center—after three ho-hum years in the Big Apple, Sam Darnold was shipped off to Carolina, replaced by rookie second overall pick Zach Wilson.
Saleh is a firebrand of a head coach who coordinated a Super Bowl defense with the San Francisco 49ers. Wilson is an immensely talented young prospect coming off a breakout season at BYU. Per ESPN’s Rich Cimini, Saleh said he thinks that Wilson has the perfect mentality to succeed as an NFL quarterback.
“Zach loves ball, that’s one thing I’ve learned,” Saleh said. “He’s unflappable in the sense that he doesn’t care whether [it] went good or bad. He wants to know why it went good or bad. He wants to learn from it. He’s wired exactly the way you want all players to be wired. Now it’s a matter of getting as many reps as possible [in training camp].”
The problem is that we have seen this movie. Multiple times. With different faces at quarterback and walking the sideline. And while those faces and names change, the result is always the same.
Because it takes more than just turning over the coach and QB to win in the NFL.
To the Jets’ credit, the surrounding cast around Wilson is better than what Darnold has had the past few years. But that doesn’t make it good. New York’s pass-catching corps is still the weakest in the division. The O-line is a bottom-five unit, per Pro Football Focus.
New York’s playoff drought is going to hit 11 years in 2021. The team will more likely than not finish last in the AFC East. The media in New York isn’t known for its patience. Neither are the fans.
And so it will begin again—failure on the field leading to grumbles off it, leading to (another) franchise reset.
The Jets are The Fast and the Furious of futility—they just keep cranking out sequels.
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Jason Behnken/Associated Press
Apparently, the Atlanta Falcons have problems letting go.
If there was any question that the team’s window of contention (a window that included a Super Bowl trip) had shut, it was answered in the middle of last year’s 4-12 fiasco of a season when head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were shown the door.
The exodus continued in the offseason. After making it clear that he wasn’t interested in participating in a rebuild in Atlanta, Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones was traded to the Tennessee Titans.
Given all the turnover, there was speculation that veteran quarterback (and 2016 NFL MVP) Matt Ryan could be dealt as well. But heading into his 14th season, the 36-year-old is still in Atlanta.
And that is where the rut comes in.
This isn’t to say that Ryan can’t still play at a high level. As D. Orlando Ledbetter reported for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said that he’s already been impressed by Ryan’s willingness to be coached.
“It’s my job as a coach to push him and to also listen,” Smith said. “Matt wants to be coached, and that’s what I love about the guy. He’s going into year 14, and he wants to be coached. The great players, they want to be coached.”
The thing is, a Falcons team with Ryan under center throwing passes to Calvin Ridley and rookie phenom Kyle Pitts isn’t likely to be markedly better than last year’s squad with Ridley and Jones. Atlanta’s 29th-ranked defense also isn’t any better. If anything, given the team’s losses at safety, it’s worse.
This Falcons team isn’t any sort of real threat to the Buccaneers in the NFC South. As a matter of fact, Atlanta’s ceiling in 2021 is seven or eight wins.
And as much as it hurts to be terrible, in some respects being mediocre is even worse.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
This last team comes with a massive caveat. If the Denver Broncos are able to pull off a summertime trade that lands the team a star quarterback, then this rut would be busted into a million pieces.
But unless that happens, the Broncos are mired in a Mile High muck of “meh.”
In many respects, Denver’s roster is equal parts talented and balanced. The skill-position talent at running back (Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams), wide receiver (Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick) and tight end (Noah Fant) is solid. Denver has an excellent pair of edge-rushers in Bradley Chubb and Von Miller and maybe the best secondary in the NFL.
And yet add that all together, and the Broncos will need to be lucky to finish in second place in the AFC West and really lucky to squeak into the postseason—because the quarterback situation is a mess.
The Broncos were linked to just about any quarterback with a pulse who had a possibility of becoming available in the offseason, but they settled on a guy who barely does. Once upon a time Teddy Bridgewater was a first-round pick, but in his lone year as the starter for the Carolina Panthers in 2020, Bridgewater managed just 15 scoring passes and won just four of 15 starts.
Bridgewater will battle Drew Lock (who tied for the league lead in interceptions during his own disappointing 2020 campaign) for the right to face the New York Giants in Week 1. Per ESPN’s Jeff Legwold, head coach Vic Fangio admitted his mind is far from made up as to who that starter will be.
“Obviously, coaches and everybody else likes to evaluate every day, but to me, the big evaluation will come more in camp,” Fangio said. “… So to me, they—if you’re going to put a percentage on it, the evaluation and comparing the two, is 2-3 percent these last few weeks. The 97-98 percent of it has yet to come.”
Given how they played a year ago, it may not really matter who “wins” the job.
The Broncos are stuck either way.