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The NFL Stability Index

In a league that tends toward volatility, the few franchises that can maintain any sense of consistency are usually the ones who also find the most success. The Patriots are the model, but what about everyone else?

(AP/Ringer illustration)
(AP/Ringer illustration)

The NFL is designed to make stability elusive. When you combine the high rate of turnover in the coaching ranks, the parity-driven salary cap, the volatility of the draft, the scarcity of top-tier franchise quarterbacks, and the complexity of offensive and defensive schemes with often impatient ownership and a limited offseason practice schedule, establishing a solid organizational foundation is the exception and not the rule.

As we flip the league calendar from the 2016 season to 2017, the teams at the top of our Stability Index enjoy security at quarterback and continuity in their staff, schemes, and culture; it’s easy to picture what they’ll look like next season. But for those down the list, the challenges of establishing that foundation have just begun. Change is in the air for these squads, and we really have no idea what to expect going forward. For most of the top teams on this list, stability correlates to success … unless you’re the Saints.

Here’s a list of all 32 teams, ranked from most to least stable.

1. New England Patriots

Bill Belichick isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Tom Brady. New England’s organizational culture and identity are as solid as any team in the league; “The Patriot Way” is a ubiquitous term at this point. Plus, New England returns both offensive and defensive coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia for the sixth straight season. The Patriots may have a few choices to make in free agency — mainly whether to re-sign middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower, cornerback Logan Ryan, tight end Martellus Bennett, and running back LeGarrette Blount — but with Brady’s team-friendly deal and the seventh-most cap space in the league, the Pats should have enough money to keep whomever they deem the most important pieces. All together, New England isn’t going to be much different from the team we saw take home the Lombardi Trophy two weeks ago.

2. Seattle Seahawks

Pete Carroll’s “program,” as he calls it, follows a very specific philosophy centered on a ball-control offense and a physical defense. That’s not changing in 2017, and neither is the braintrust in charge of implementing it: Kris Richard returns as defensive coordinator for his third season, and the combination of Tom Cable (run game) and Darrell Bevell (passing game) will run the offense for the seventh straight year. Russell Wilson’s still the face of the passing attack, and still has his top weapons in Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham, and even though it was a problem all year long, Seattle’s coaching staff has indicated they’re pleased to move forward with the pieces they have on the offensive line. Meanwhile, Seattle’s defense returns stalwarts in cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Earl Thomas, pass rusher Michael Bennett, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, and do-everything enforcer Kam Chancellor. The only starter on any side of the ball entering free agency for Seattle this offseason is kicker Steven Hauschka.

3. New Orleans Saints

Drew Brees will be piloting the Sean Payton offense for the 11th season in 12 years, and there’s little sign of the Saints’ marriage of minds losing any of its strength — especially with the emergence of rookie Michael Thomas last season as a future superstar. New Orleans returns nominal offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael for the ninth straight year, and has just one starter on offense entering free agency: veteran guard Jahri Evans. Defensively, the Saints continue to be a work in progress, but Dennis Allen will head into his third year as defensive coordinator with only a few of his players set for free agency, namely defensive ends Paul Kruger and Darryl Tapp, defensive tackle Nick Fairley, and backup defensive backs Jamarca Sanford, Roman Harper, Keo Shiloh, and Kyle Wilson. That stability could finally pay dividends in 2017 if New Orleans can manage to stay healthy in key spots; injuries to cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins were huge setbacks to a group that flashed promise at times last year.

4. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers has been coming to the same party for 12 years now, and in no way is that depressing. The Packers’ signal-caller has been immersed in Mike McCarthy’s offense since his days as Brett Favre’s backup in 2006 — and while there was some question as to whether a play-calling or scheme change was needed in 2015 and the early part of 2016, the coach-quarterback duo put that narrative to rest with an incredible offensive explosion over the second half of last year. The Packers need to re-sign right guard T.J. Lang, bring back explosive tight end Jared Cook (which Rodgers said should be a priority), add depth to their secondary, and shore up their pass rush (Nick Perry and Julius Peppers are free agents), but with the McCarthy-Rodgers relationship intact and thriving, they remain contenders.

5. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys’ winning formula — an explosive yet grinding ground game and an efficient passing offense — will be exactly the same in 2017 as it was in 2016. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott return with another offseason under their belts. The Dallas offensive line returns all five starters from the start of the 2016 season. While the Cowboys have to do some work on their defensive secondary with Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox all due for free agency, their runaway beer truck of an offense can hit the ground at full speed next September. Jason Garrett, due to start his eighth season as head coach, doesn’t even have to worry about Tony Romo’s back this time around.

6. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals return the second-longest-tenured head coach in the NFL for 2017 (it will be Marvin Lewis’s 15th year) and both coordinators (Paul Guenther’s fourth as defensive coordinator, Ken Zampese’s second as offensive coordinator). Andy Dalton remains the stalwart at quarterback, and offensive stars A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, along with running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, are all under contract. Cincy has question marks on their offensive line with right guard Kevin Zeitler and left tackle Andrew Whitworth up for contracts, but they’ve got plenty of cap space ($45 million, per SporTrac) to address those spots. Only two starters on defense (nose tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick) are free agents.

7. Pittsburgh Steelers

Mike Tomlin heads into his 11th season as the top man in Pittsburgh, and he brings with him an established identity of toughness and physicality on both sides of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger will run Todd Haley’s offense for the sixth straight year, while Keith Butler will run the defense for the third straight. Antonio Brown is going to continue to dazzle, and worst-case scenario, the Steelers franchise tag Le’Veon Bell while they work on a long-term contract. An ascending defense will have to re-sign or replace free-agent linebackers Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison, but overall, the Steelers won’t change a ton in 2017 — unless Ben Roethlisberger retires

8. Detroit Lions

Matthew Stafford (Getty Images)
Matthew Stafford (Getty Images)

Head coach Jim Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin head into their fourth year for the Lions, and rising-star play caller Jim Bob Cooter begins his third. The Lions have an established franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford, who put up MVP-caliber numbers when healthy in 2016, and a pair of playmaking receivers in Golden Tate and Marvin Jones still in their prime. They’ll have to address the right side of the offensive line, with guard Larry Warford and tackle Riley Reiff hitting free agency, but most of the pieces are there for Detroit to build on a promising nine-win season in 2016.

9. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens check all the stability boxes: long-tenured head coach (John Harbaugh enters his 10th year), established culture and identity (great on special teams, disciplined on defense), an ever-present starting quarterback (Joe Flacco’s missed just six starts in nine years), and having most of their core players all under contract. Baltimore must decide whether to lock up nose tackle Brandon Williams long term, and they have to take care of free-agent right tackle Ricky Wagner, but with both coordinators (Dean Pees on defense, Marty Mornhinweg on offense) coming back, don’t expect big changes in Baltimore.

10. Arizona Cardinals

Head coach and de facto offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is back for his fifth year with Arizona, defensive coordinator James Bettcher returns for his third season, and now that Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald have both announced that they’ll return in 2017, the Cardinals’ list of offseason worries has shrunk significantly. They’ll still have to decide whether to bring back free agents like defensive end Calais Campbell and outside linebacker Chandler Jones, but Arizona looks set up to bounce back from last season’s disappointing sub-.500 finish.

11. Kansas City Chiefs

It may not be the most attractive trait in a quarterback, but Alex Smith is stable. He’s not exciting and he’s not likely to take over many games, but he’ll distribute the ball to his playmakers and he won’t turn it over. Andy Reid, when he’s not losing his mind late in games, is about as stable as they come, too. Together, the pair will begin their fifth year together, and while Jamaal Charles’s future with the team is still in doubt, the emergence of tight end Travis Kelce and receiver/returner Tyreek Hill gives Kansas City other touchdown-makers. The big question for the Chiefs comes on the other side of the ball: Their two stars, Dontari Poe and Eric Berry, are both free agents.

12. New York Giants

Head coach Ben McAdoo is back for his second season running the show, while defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan return with him. Eli Manning, who, if my math is correct, hasn’t missed a game since grade school, is a constant for a New York offense that has no starters hitting free agency. The Giants’ breakout defense returns most of its key pieces, but its ability to recreate a dominant performance next year may hinge on re-signing or replacing free-agent pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.

13. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers’ greatest source of stability is quarterback Cam Newton, who is only one year removed from an MVP season. But in six years at the helm, Ron Rivera has established a culture of toughness on both sides of the ball, and there’s little doubt that will continue to be the case next season with just four starters hitting free agency: two on offense (receiver Ted Ginn and right tackle Mike Remmers) and two on defense (defensive end Charles Johnson and defensive tackle Kawann Short). However, losing defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to Buffalo hurts. The scheme will likely remain mostly the same under new DC Steve Wilks, previously Carolina’s defensive backs coach, but it’ll be his first time manning all the responsibilities (play calling, in-game adjustments, communication) of leading a defense.

14. Oakland Raiders

Jack Del Rio took a calculated risk by not renewing the contract of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave (now the Broncos quarterbacks coach) and instead promoting up-and-coming quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. This change goes against the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” aphorism, considering the Raiders finished sixth in yards and seventh in points last year while Derek Carr jockeyed for MVP honors before breaking his ankle in Week 16. Downing’s familiarity with Carr should ease the transition, but we don’t know much about his play-calling chops.

15. Philadelphia Eagles

The trio of head coach Doug Pedersen, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and offensive coordinator Frank Reich returns for a second season in Philly. Same goes for all of the Eagles’ offensive personnel, as they have zero free agents on that side of the ball. Defensively, Philadelphia’s staff will have to decide what to do with several free agents, including defensive tackle Bennie Logan and cornerback Nolan Carroll, but with a full offseason of preparation for quarterback Carson Wentz, the Eagles should improve on an up-and-down 2016 campaign.

16. Tennessee Titans

Marcus Mariota (Getty Images)
Marcus Mariota (Getty Images)

Mike Mularkey and his staff (defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie) will get another shot at the playoffs in 2017 after a disappointing end to their first season with the club. With just a handful of free agents to worry about on both sides of the ball, Tennessee should pick up where it left off as a legit challenger in the AFC South, as long as Marcus Mariota recovers fully from a broken fibula.

17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

We’re now firmly into the “Year 2” section of our programming, as the Bucs are in a similar situation to the Eagles and Titans: ascending franchises with promising young quarterbacks early in their development. Head coach Dirk Koetter and Co. will have to address the safety position in free agency or the draft (Chris Conte and Brad McDougald are both free agents), but Tampa Bay returns the staff and most of the team that threatened for a playoff spot until late into last season.

18. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts return Chuck Pagano, most of his staff, and quarterback Andrew Luck in 2017, but with former Chiefs player executive Chris Ballard taking over for Ryan Grigson at GM, a culture change may be in store in Indianapolis. How will Indianapolis attack free agency? What will Ballard focus on in the draft? Grigson couldn’t build a supporting cast around the quarterback prospect of the decade, and so Ballard’s moves will determine where the Colts land on the 2018 version of this list.

19. Miami Dolphins

Ryan Tannehill, Jay Ajayi, and the Adam Gase–led Dolphins offense looks like a group to watch in 2017, but with the loss of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph (who took the head-coaching job in Denver), the scheme, style, and aggressiveness under new defensive coordinator Matt Burke, who coached linebackers for Miami last year, remains a big unknown. The Dolphins finished only 20th in defensive DVOA, so a change might be welcome.

20. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons return the majority of the players who carried them to a Super Bowl berth in 2016, but major shake-ups of the coaching staff — defensive coordinator Richard Smith is gone, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left for San Francisco — leave the future in flux. This is still Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme, but will the loss of Shanahan, whose brilliant play sequencing and unpredictability confounded defenses all season, mean the league’s best offense takes a huge step back? How different will this Matt Ryan–led offense look when the MVP gets played called into his helmet by first-time NFL coordinator Steve Sarkisian?

21. Minnesota Vikings

Mike Zimmer and most of his staff returns in 2017, but we really have no idea what the Vikings will look like next season. Will Teddy Bridgewater be ready after suffering a gruesome knee injury last August? Is Sam Bradford the starter even if Bridgewater returns? Hell, is Bradford really the best option if Bridgewater isn’t ready? Will Adrian Peterson and his $18 million cap hit return, or will he refuse to restructure his contract? What is this team’s offensive identity? Minnesota not only has to answer those questions, but it’s got a lot of work to do in free agency, with the future of tackles Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, and Jake Long, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, running back Matt Asiata, linebacker Chad Greenway, and cornerback Terence Newman all up in the air.

22. Houston Texans

Bill O’Brien returns for his fourth season as head coach in Houston, but still has no answers at the quarterback position. His gamble on Brock Osweiler failed horribly, and it’s left him with few options at the position. Is it back to Tom Savage? Do you hope Osweiler comes around? Do you draft someone and hope he’s the next Dak Prescott? To make the waters even muddier, offensive coordinator George Godsey was dismissed — O’Brien will just do the play calling himself now, thank you — and linebackers coach Mike Vrabel was promoted to defensive coordinator, replacing Romeo Crennel.

23. Chicago Bears

Head coach John Fox, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains return in 2017, but there’s major uncertainty at the quarterback position. Jay Cutler’s almost surely going to be a cap casualty, and Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley are both free agents. There are a lot of pieces to like about the Bears defense, but we really have no clue what to expect from Chicago until it makes multiple decisions about its signal-callers.

24. Cleveland Browns

Robert Griffin III (Getty Images)
Robert Griffin III (Getty Images)

The Browns are probably going to be bad again because they’re the Browns, so that’s its own kind of sad stability. But there’s one massive question hovering over the offense: Is Robert Griffin III the quarterback of this team? And if that’s a yes, then there’s another question: Can he stay healthy for more than one game? And on the defensive side of the ball, new coordinator Gregg Williams comes over from the Rams, and he brings a new scheme and a long learning curve for a young defense.

25. Washington Redskins

Washington lost both of its coordinators (offensive coordinator Sean McVay is now the head coach of the Rams, and he took defensive coordinator Joe Barry to Los Angeles with him), it doesn’t have a starting quarterback under contract (Kirk Cousins is a free agent), and its two top receivers, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, are free agents. Jay Gruden enters his fourth year as head coach, but everything around him seems likes it’s up in the air.

26. Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers have a new head coach (Anthony Lynn) whose creative run attack will alter the identity of the offense, a new defensive coordinator (Gus Bradley) who is going to change the defense from a 3–4 into a 4–3, and they also have a new city and a new logo. The only reason they aren’t 32nd on this list is that they still have a top-tier quarterback (Philip Rivers) to act as a counterbalance to all that upheaval.

27. Denver Broncos

The Broncos have a new, first-time head coach (Vance Joseph), a new offensive coordinator (Mike McCoy), a new defensive coordinator (Joe Woods), and still don’t have a clear starter at quarterback. (Is Trevor Siemian the long-term answer? Is it Paxton Lynch’s goatee?) The only reason they aren’t 32nd on this list is that they still have a top-tier defensive group to act as a counterbalance to all that upheaval.

28. New York Jets

What does an offense under John Morton, who spent the past two years as the receivers coach in New Orleans, look like? Moreover, who is the Jets’ starting quarterback? Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick are both free agents, and [bursts into hysterical laughter trying to formulate an argument for Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg]. On defense, what will happen with Darrelle Revis? Is he going to move to safety or are they going to just cut him outright? Todd Bowles has yet to establish any type of identity for New York and there are more questions now than when he was hired two years ago. Oh, and owner Woody Johnson’s off to London.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars head into 2017 with a new head coach, Doug Marrone, along with a second-year offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, and even after three seasons, it’s still not clear if Blake Bortles is a long-term option — or even a short-term one, for that matter — at quarterback. The defense has some very nice young pieces and Jalen Ramsey is already a star, but nothing matters until they develop some positive momentum for the situation under center.

30. Los Angeles Rams

Almost the entire coaching staff has changed, and 31-year-old, first-time head coach Sean McVay is now the man in charge. Based on last year, the precocious play caller has his work cut out for him: Jared Goff looked terrible in his first season, Todd Gurley looked terrible in his second season, Greg Robinson looked terrible in his third season, and Tavon Austin looked terrible in his fourth season. Their best receiver, Kenny Britt, is a free agent. Defensively, things are looking up — new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is one of the best and he has some very good weapons to work with, especially Aaron Donald — but a new DC means another scheme change, and growing pains should be expected. If there’s any consolation to be had from the Rams sledgehammering any shred of stability they had this offseason, at least we know they’re not staring at more 7–9 bullshit.

31. Buffalo Bills

First-time head coach Sean McDermott takes over for Rex Ryan, and he brings with him almost an entirely new staff, including offensive coordinator Rick Dennison and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. The first item on the agenda is to figure out whether Tyrod Taylor is their quarterback — but even if McDermott wants him, he may not get his wish, as GM Doug Whaley still has control of the 53-man roster, a situation that will almost certainly lead to friction sooner rather than later. Major turbulence should be expected in Buffalo this season.

32. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers burned it all down and are starting from scratch. New to the team this year is a first-time GM with no scouting or managerial experience in John Lynch, who will pair with first-time head coach Kyle Shanahan to try to build a competitive roster. They’re part of an … interesting power structure in which each has veto power over the other. Considering this franchise’s recent history, that’s sure to go well. Shanahan’s a great play caller but he doesn’t have a clear-cut quarterback (Colin Kaepernick is a big question mark and Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder are both free agents) or any elite playmakers. Stable is the last word we’d use to describe the situation in San Francisco.