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’Tis the Season … to Fire Up the NFL Hindsight Machine

Ten 2016 moves that have proved to be utterly misguided — and the decisions that teams should have made instead

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

NFL teams make mistakes. With thousands of transactions taking place across the league each year, no team can get everything right, just as no team can get everything wrong. Well, except for the Browns:

There are two ways to view the mistakes that do occur. (1) Be charitable, because teams don’t have the benefit of hindsight when they’re making moves. (2) Acknowledge that being charitable is boring, and that since we do have the benefit of hindsight, we should use it to ruthlessly judge decisions.

Some calls look smart when they’re made and only emerge as head-scratchers with the passage of time; others instantly appear misguided — hello, Brock Osweiler signing! — and unsurprisingly turn into universal punch lines. Since there are a lot of the latter this season (none funnier than Osweiler, of course), it’s time to put the 2016 moves that ultimately proved wrongheaded through the Hindsight Machine to determine what teams should have done instead. Specific draft picks are not eligible for inclusion unless they stemmed from trades for kickers. What’s more: Appearing on this list does not guarantee that a mistake will remain a mistake for all of time. At the moment, though, hindsight judges these 10 decisions poorly.

The Jaguars Signing Malik Jackson for $90 million

The initial assessment was: Split. Jackson was one of the heroes of the Broncos’ Super Bowl upset of the Panthers last season, but the six-year deal he signed this spring was worth up to $90 million, making him the NFL’s fifth-highest-paid defensive player at the time.

The Hindsight Machine says: He’s been decent for Jacksonville, collecting 4.5 sacks in 12 games, but he certainly hasn’t performed like a $90 million man. More concerningly, he’s ripped Jaguars fans and wistfully discussed his time with a better team.

And the Jags might not have even needed him. When they decided to bolster their defensive line, they probably weren’t counting on being able to find a rookie in the third round who would wind up being a force. But Yannick Ngakoue has six sacks and has emerged as the game changer the Jaguars needed on the line, and with a $664,044 cap number, he’s a hell of a lot cheaper than Jackson. Jackson’s contract is spread out so that $15.5 million of his salary will count against the cap next season, with a similar hit in the three seasons after that. Plus, no one else on the Jags will count more than $8.5 million against the cap in 2017. There are similar cap discrepancies elsewhere in the league — but those involve franchise quarterbacks, not decent pass rushers. At least Blake Bortles is still cheap?

The 2–10 Jags need a lot of help, and cap space will get tighter as some of their talented young players sign extensions in the next few years. The money they’re spending on Jackson could have gone to three solid veterans capable of helping the young players mature instead of one big-ticket item.

The Panthers Renouncing Josh Norman’s Franchise Tag

The initial assessment was: Poor. Norman was a key cog in the Panthers’ 2015 NFC championship defense and was due to make $13.95 million this year if he had signed the Panthers’ initial franchise tag offer. Some argued, flimsily, that Norman would have been a dreaded “distraction,” and that having him play out the season without a long-term contact would have risked disruption in a locker room that prizes strong culture (and wearing ties). Well, do you know what else proved to be a disruption? Not having a dependable veteran cornerback despite playing in a division featuring a slew of talented receivers and quarterbacks:

The decision to part ways with Norman was even more puzzling in light of the fact that Norman reportedly offered to sign the tag and play for the Panthers this season after learning that Carolina was going to rescind it. He wanted to stay!

The Hindsight Machine says: Norman signed a $75 million deal with Washington shortly after leaving Carolina and has played well in D.C. The Panthers opted to rely on cheap, rookie cornerbacks, and after giving up an astounding 500 yards of offense twice over the season’s first six weeks, Carolina’s defense essentially eliminated the franchise from contention by midseason. Rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley both show promise, but they were forced into action too soon; if Carolina had let Norman play out the season on the tag and then let him walk, the rookies would have gotten time to properly develop. Plus, Norman would have worn a tie.

The Packers Letting Casey Hayward Walk

The initial assessment was: Positive. After focusing on the secondary in recent drafts, the Packers didn’t make Hayward an offer to stay, so the cornerback signed a three-year, $15.3 million contract with the Chargers.

The Hindsight Machine says: He’s now leading the NFL in interceptions, with seven — one fewer than the Packers have as a team. Green Bay’s pass defense is below average across the board, including allowing 24 passing touchdowns, 29th in the NFL. While interceptions can be a misleading statistic, Hayward is playing well overall. And with Green Bay’s thin secondary losing leader Sam Shields to a season-ending concussion in Week 1, there’s no doubt that Hayward, who wasn’t particularly expensive, could have added depth to a young secondary that has needed help all year.

The Rams Giving Jeff Fisher a Two-Year Extension

The initial assessment was: FIRED UP, BRO!

The Hindsight Machine says: Whoops:

The Eagles Signing Fletcher Cox to a Huge Extension

The initial assessment was: Approval. The cap is rising every year, and getting a star at a fixed price is smart business. It’s also something on which the Eagles have always prided themselves. They rarely let their guys hit the open market, which is why they usually have a great cap situation. And Cox fit the mold, having shown flashes of being a game-changing force on the defensive line and thus giving the franchise the confidence to offer him a six-year, $102.6 million extension.

The Hindsight Machine says: Paying stars only makes sense if they keep playing like stars, and Cox hasn’t.

The Philadelphia media has noticed the slump, forcing new coach Doug Pederson to spend significant time defending the player who has become a scapegoat for the team’s recent slide.

No one thinks that the Eagles should have ditched Cox, but they had options, including franchising him twice before committing long term. As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Zach Berman noted, the deal “relieved the acrimony that would have come if Cox did not have a long-term contract,” but while that may be true for the team and player, the words from fans and media are as pointed as ever.

The Bucs Trading Up for Roberto Aguayo

The initial assessment was: Befuddlement. The Bucs traded third- and fourth-rounds pick to Kansas City to move to no. 59 to draft Aguayo, the Florida State kicker. Though Aguayo had yet to attempt an NFL kick, the prevailing opinion was that even if he became a top-10 kicker, he’d be extremely unlikely to justify that draft position, especially in a league in which decent kickers are routinely available on the open market.

The Hindsight Machine says: That “even if” hypothetical hasn’t mattered so far, because Aguayo has not performed anything like a top-10 kicker. He’s hit 68 percent of his field goals, 32nd in the NFL this year. For comparison, Blair Walsh, whom the Vikings cut last month, hit 75 percent of his attempts. With decent players like safety Vonn Bell and cornerback Bradberry going soon after Aguayo, it would have made sense for the Bucs to acquire literally anyone else at that spot and then get a kicker off the scrap heap. That’s where New Orleans found undrafted free agent rookie Wil Lutz, and he’s making more kicks than Aguayo.

The Seahawks Entering the Season With This Offensive Line

The initial assessment was: Optimism. It’s not impossible to see why the Seahawks thought they could get away with again fielding such a crappy offensive line. Throughout his career, Russell Wilson has shown an ability to operate well in the pocket and evade pressure. Seattle rolled into the season with the cheapest offensive line because it hoped the rest of the team could patch up the holes, as it had in previous seasons.

The Hindsight Machine says: The line is playing down to its price tag. Wilson has been sacked nine times in the past two games and has been banged up all year because of the hits he’s taken. Russell Okung, whom the Seahawks let walk in the spring, had his limitations, but he was better than this. I consulted Seahawks fan, Ringer staff writer, and Seattle celebrity Danny Kelly, who agreed that the team should have kept Okung, who signed a bizarre nonguaranteed deal with Denver. Kelly deems Okung “better than some rando.” A rando like George Fant, the basketball player turned NFL lineman, who has struggled:

The team also could have saved money by signing a veteran tackle instead of bringing back cornerback Jeremy Lane (who signed a four-year, $23 million deal) or receiver Jermaine Kearse (three/$13.5 million).

The Colts Retaining Coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson

The initial assessment was: Bad. Really bad.

The Hindsight Machine says: Uh. Still really bad.

The Bengals Letting Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones Leave

The initial assessment was: Understanding. Sanu and Jones were a nice two-three punch behind A.J. Green, who sucked the life out of the opposing defense. Jones delivered 816 yards last season, while Sanu registered 11 touchdowns in his first three years with the Bengals before a down 2015. But almost anyone can look good when Green is drawing the best corners, and at $2.4 million, Brandon LaFell was a cost-effective replacement with Jones commanding a $40 million deal from Detroit and Sanu grabbing $32.5 million from Atlanta.

The Hindsight Machine says: Andy Dalton had already taken a slight step back this season without one of the league’s best supporting casts. When the Bengals lost Green to a hamstring injury last month, it doomed the offense to failure. LaFell has been decent, amassing 552 yards thus far, but the Cincy offense lacks both the depth and the zip it showed in 2015. Meanwhile, Sanu has 521 yards and three touchdowns as a role player in Atlanta, while Jones has 730 yards and four touchdowns for the Lions. Keeping either would have helped make Cincy’s offense more potent early in the year and then softened the blow of losing Green late.

The Texans Signing Brock Osweiler to a $72 Million Contract

The initial assessment was: Laughter. Osweiler played well in seven starts with Denver, throwing 10 touchdowns and six interceptions and looking positively competent in a league where good young quarterbacks are damn near impossible to find. On the other hand, $72 million with $37 million guaranteed is a hell of a lot of money.

The Hindsight Machine says: Wow. This is bad. Osweiler has 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The Texans are 6–6 and have scored more than 20 points just once in the past six games. His 5.8 yards per attempt ranks dead last among starting quarterbacks, 0.3 yards per attempt less than Blake Freakin’ Bortles. Oh! And Osweiler has a $19 million cap hit next year that’s sort of impossible to get out of.

What should they have done? Found the most average quarterback they could, even if he wasn’t particularly tall or good looking. Someone with two arms, some feet, and the know-how to put on a helmet. With that, they could have received the same production, kept a more flexible salary cap, and kicked the quarterback problem down the road a few years until there was a better passer worth investing in.

There are plenty of stop-gap, league-average passers out there. There are, like, nine McCowns, plus plenty of serviceable backups in the Mike Glennon and Drew Stanton mold. The Texans could even have let Denver re-sign Osweiler, then traded for Trevor Siemian. Sure, at that time, no one knew that Siemian was decent. But mercifully, that doesn’t matter once you fire up the ole Hindsight Machine.