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How to Lose a Season

A handful of 2016’s early stragglers have a lot in common with some of the NFL’s archetypal flop teams. And if they keep playing like their historical comps, they’re doomed.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

All good NFL teams are alike; each bad NFL team is bad in its own way.

Tolstoy may have been specifically talking about the ’94 Oilers, but the sentiment holds for all franchises: Good teams row in the same direction, smiling and productive; bad teams go off the rails in many different courses. And a handful of 2015’s best teams are discovering that in frightening fashion.

Through a quarter of the season, some of the teams that we thought were going to be Super Bowl contenders are instead frustrating shells of their 2015 selves. They won’t all flounder all year, of course, but many are showing the earmarks that classic flop teams exhibited.

For some teams, flopping is inevitable. The 2003 Falcons didn’t stand much of a chance of going better than 5–11 when they had to replace Michael Vick with Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner. The 1993 Washington Redskins were destined to go 4–12 after replacing Joe Gibbs with Richie Petitbon. But most struggling squads fail to bring it all together despite having all the ingredients needed for a great season. And unfortunately for five of this year’s slow starters, numerous historical comps might spell doom.

The Archetype: The Ticking-Time-Bomb Team

Historic Examples: 1987 New York Jets, 1997 Dallas Cowboys, 2007 Chicago Bears

This is perhaps the most frustrating of all subpar paths. This problem occurs when a massive roster hole is obvious to every human being on earth except, apparently, the people who control the roster. Imagine if there were a piece of glass in your house, and everyone knew about it, but no one cleaned it up, and then one day someone stepped on it. That’s what happens to these teams: Despite massive talent in pockets of the roster, the fatal flaw eventually catches up with them.

The mid-’80s Jets had a talented quarterback, Ken O’Brien, operating behind what The New York Times dubbed a “porous offensive line.” That characterization wound up being charitable: O’Brien was sacked 62 times in 1985, marking one of just eight instances when a QB has gone down 60 or more times in a season. He, however, was awesome. His 96.2 rating that year is by far the highest of anyone in the unfortunate eight (David Carr’s 62.8 rating is the worst). The Jets never figured out how to protect O’Brien, though, and he continued to be sacked at an alarming rate. In 1987, it finally caught up with the team. He was sacked 50 times, and after reaching 25 passing touchdowns in consecutive seasons, he managed just 13 in ’87; the Jets won six games and missed the playoffs. Things didn’t get much better from there: He never again managed 20 passing touchdowns in a season.

Sometimes, the guy the line is trying to protect is actually the problem. Everyone knew that eventually, not even the Bears’ dominant defense and special teams unit could overcome Rex Grossman, and yet Chicago kept giving him chances to start despite him having the distinction of being injury prone and also bad when healthy. Grossman went 13–3 in 2006 despite throwing 20 interceptions, which was notable, as only three other players since the merger in 1970 have won that many games while throwing so many picks. The Bears made the Super Bowl, but the next year Grossman’s mistakes proved too costly: He threw four touchdowns against seven interceptions on the season. The mistakes piled up, the team went 3–5 when he played, and it didn’t do any better when it had to turn to the backup, because that backup was Brian Griese. The Bears finished 7–9 in 2007.

Sometimes, the shard of glass isn’t one player or position group, but rather a wider culture. For the Cowboys, years of dominance obscured the combustible personalities that ultimately led to their fall a year after capping the 1995 season with a Super Bowl win. Too many egos and a slight lack of discipline led to infighting and Michael Irvin crying on the sideline. The coach, Barry Switzer, even got caught with a gun in his carry-on. Despite superstars Troy Aikman, Irvin, Emmitt Smith, and Deion Sanders playing the bulk of the season, the Boys went 6–10.

2016 Team to Watch: The 1–3 Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck has played behind a bad offensive line for most of his professional career. Through four games this season, he’s been sacked on 8 percent of his dropbacks and is on pace to suffer through the ninth 60-plus-sack season in NFL history. He’s also on pace to join O’Brien as the only players to be sacked that often and still throw interceptions on less than 2 percent of their passes. That’s because Luck is awesome.

Andrew Luck (Getty Images)
Andrew Luck (Getty Images)

Not awesome: his offensive line. In 2014, The Washington Post detailed the Colts’ inability to protect him. Things failed to improve, and in 2015, analysts were calling his offensive line “an insult to average.” Yet the Colts elected to use veterans who were already on the roster at four of five O-line positions. They selected center Ryan Kelly in the first round, and he’s been decent, but he was also among the players Pro Football Focus said the Jaguars “took apart” last week. And regardless of Kelly’s success, adding one promising body wasn’t nearly enough: The team, already banged up, suffered two injuries to their veterans and resorted to starting a fifth-round pick (Joe Haeg) and a seventh-round pick (Austin Blythe) in their places, leading to Luck being sacked a career-high six times on Sunday against the Jaguars.

No one should be surprised. This line was so bad in the offseason that Luck had to leave a preseason game early. While he’s managed to perform well despite the hits, these sacks catch up with him. He missed nine games last year, and by the end of Sunday, looked banged up again. Luck passed on the opportunity to run for a first down late in the game, opting to throw. Who can blame him for not wanting to take another hit?

Like O’Brien, Luck has been criticized for holding the ball too long and bringing some of the sacks on himself, but with a capable line, holding the ball isn’t reason to fear.

The Archetype: The “Wait, Our Young Guys Forgot to Get Better” Team

Historic Examples: 2011 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2013 Minnesota Vikings

It’s easy to forget about the hype surrounding the 2011 Bucs, but it was very real at the time. After Tampa Bay went 10–6 in 2010, narrowly missing the playoffs, coach Raheem Morris branded QB Josh Freeman a “stud.” Tackle Donald Penn called him an MVP candidate. The Bucs appeared ready to make the leap to buzzy NFC contenders — and then it was revealed that Freeman’s 25-touchdown, six-interception 2010 performance was the fluke, while his 18-interception rookie season was the norm. He threw 22 picks in 2011 and led the team to a 4–12 record.

Another young QB, Christian Ponder, helped his team to a 10–6 record in 2012. Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 yards led the way, but Ponder’s 18-touchdown, 12-interception performance was enough to earn the Vikings’ high expectations entering 2013. Ponder never made the leap, however. The 2013 team lost his first three starts, and then lost him to a rib injury. Desperate to save the season, the Vikes signed … Josh Freeman! They went 5–10–1.

2016 Team to Watch: The 1–3 Tampa Bay Bucs

The Bucs were 6–6 last season before a four-game losing streak cost Lovie Smith his job, and despite the sour finish, they showed enough flashes to look like contenders entering this season. Note that “showed” is past tense. New coach Dirk Koetter said Sunday that he’s “very concerned” with Jameis Winston, but denied that his QB is regressing. About that:

Not all good young quarterbacks become good old quarterbacks. A lucky few will — check out this year’s Oakland Raiders, who are getting a huge year from third-year passer Derek Carr — but Winston needs to develop more if he’s going to help save the Bucs’ season.

The Archetype: The Problematic-Coordinator Team

Historic Examples: 1998 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2009 New York Giants

The Steelers are perhaps the most consistent organization in sports: They’ve had three head coaches since 1969. (The Browns have had three since 2013.) But even they are vulnerable to a misstep in the coordinator game. Their biggest blip during their stretch of 1990s success came in 1998, when they replaced OC Chan Gailey, who left to be the head coach in Dallas, with Ray Sherman. It was not a smooth transition: The Steelers went from seventh in the league in points to 28th, and their overall record dropped in turn: They finished 7–9, breaking a four-year streak of double-digit-win seasons. Sherman read in the newspaper that he was going to be fired, so he quit.

The Giants were also a long-consistent team that made a hiring mistake and lost a season because of it. They’d capped the 2007 season with a Super Bowl win and gone 12–4 in 2008. But DC Steve Spagnuolo left to coach the Rams, and new coordinator Bill Sheridan tanked the defense from fifth in points allowed in 2008 to 30th in 2009. The Giants went 8–8. Co-owner John Mara said he was “[p]robably as disappointed as I have been in my life at this team.”

2016 Team to Watch: The 2–2 Cincinnati Bengals

It would be premature to suggest that the Bengals are in for a lost season, but with former coordinator Hue Jackson leaving to run the Browns and Ken Zampese taking over, Cincy’s offense has taken a huge hit. Through four games, the Bengals are scoring 1.5 fewer touchdowns per game, on average, than they did throughout 2015 and have dropped to 23rd in the NFL in points scored this year after ranking seventh last year.

The Archetype: The “No Way Back” Team

Historic Examples: 2003 Oakland Raiders, 2010 Minnesota Vikings, 2014 San Francisco 49ers

Sometimes, a team can’t keep battling back. After the Raiders wrapped the 2002 season with a 27-point Super Bowl loss, it was clear that their roster was old. Quarterback Rich Gannon was turning 38! Few downfalls should have been more predictable. Sure enough, the Raiders went 4–12. Coach Bill Callahan called them the “dumbest team in America” and was fired soon after. There was no way back from that Super Bowl.

There was also no way back from this:

The 2010 Vikings went 6–10, fired their coach, and sent Brett Favre into retirement (we think).

There was no way back from this, either:

The Niners went 8–8 the following season and fired their coach.

2016 Team to Watch: The 1–3 Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals have suffered some misfortune around the playoffs each year: Carson Palmer’s 2014 injury led to Ryan Lindley starting a postseason game. A year later they lost Tyrann Mathieu in December, which led to a massive hole in the secondary that the Carolina Panthers gleefully exploited in a 49–15 NFC title game win. And in that loss, Palmer was also in nightmarish form. He threw four interceptions and looked incapable of producing a nice pass. The Cardinals didn’t cross midfield until they trailed by 17.

That effects of that kind of showing can linger. What’s more: Eventually windows close, and the Cardinals, who looked primed to give it one more shot, may instead experience a lost season. Carson Palmer, 36, was concussed last week and may not play on Thursday night. The offense looks disjointed and incapable of throwing a deep ball — previously its best play. Eventually, time runs out on teams, and we may be seeing that the Cardinals are just the latest team that can’t crawl back to the heights it reached the year before.

The Archetype: The “Missing Piece” Team

Historic Example: 1993 Philadelphia Eagles

Starting with Buddy Ryan’s reign in the late ’80s, the Eagles won double-digit games for five straight seasons, the last two under Rich Kotite. They were also perhaps one of the most unhinged teams in league history. They played in a game called the “Body Bag Bowl” and multiple games called “Bounty Bowl.” But free agency, then in its infancy, proved that it could change teams. Owner Norman Braman all but swore off joining the league-wide pursuit of his best player, Reggie White. The team had an exciting quarterback in Randall Cunningham and a talented defense, but in 1993, the first season without White, the Eagles regressed to 8–8 and dropped from sixth in the NFL in points allowed to 19th.

2016 Team to Watch: The 1–3 Carolina Panthers

The frustrating thing about the Panthers is that Josh Norman did not have to leave. One of the best cornerbacks in football, Norman was under team control for another season on a $14 million franchise tag. Norman is not White, who might be the best free-agent pickup of all time, but as far as a day-to-night change in a defense, his exit is having a similar impact. The Panthers rescinded Norman’s rights, leaving him to sign with Washington, and leaving Carolina to replace him with two rookie cornerbacks. The defense that ranked sixth last year in points allowed now ranks 28th.