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Which Rough NFL Starts Are Salvageable, and Which Are Season-Enders?

Plenty of would-be contenders have started the season in relatively disappointing fashion, but while we’re only two weeks in, it’s already apparent that a few of these teams won’t recover in 2020

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL players who got injured on Sunday could form a Super Bowl team. Giants running back Saquon Barkley tore his ACL; the same likely goes for 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa, one of the half dozen players lost to injury in the 49ers-Jets game, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. San Francisco players blamed the “sticky” turf at MetLife Stadium, but the injuries went beyond New Jersey. Broncos quarterback Drew Lock sprained his shoulder; Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey injured his ankle; Packers receiver Davante Adams injured his hamstring; Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor went to the hospital with a chest injury that was exacerbated in pregame warmups. For NFL fans, Sunday required deep breaths: both because of the exhilarating finishes, and also because of the growing list of hurt players.

Those injuries contributed to a few teams’ bad outings on Sunday, but other franchises have nowhere to look but inward to explain their 1-1 or 0-2 records. We’re only two weeks into the 2020 season, but already some of those starts could spell doom for their franchises. So which are salvageable, and which look like season-enders?

We Won, but Let’s Never Do That Again

Dallas Cowboys (1-1)

There’s a scene in The Avengers when Dr. Strange tells Tony Stark that their odds of success are 1 in 14 million. Dallas’s odds weren’t that bad on Sunday, but things weren’t looking good late in the fourth quarter. Trailing 39-30 with just under three minutes to go, the Cowboys’ odds of beating the Falcons were roughly 1 in 100. But no math was required to see that Dallas had royally screwed up the first half. The team started Sunday’s game with the following drives:

  • Three and out
  • Lost Fumble
  • Lost Fumble
  • Failed Fake Punt
  • Lost Fumble

The Falcons turned those three turnovers into a 20-0 lead, and they took a 29-10 advantage into halftime. Luckily for the Cowboys, Dak Prescott came out of the break acting like the team’s very own Iron Man. He led four touchdown drives in the second half to cut the deficit to 39-37. Then Dallas recovered an onside kick with less than two minutes to go, and the Cowboys kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired to win the game 40-39. Here is the win probability of the game, visualized.

Dallas did a lot of dumb stuff in this game. Three fumbles, a failed two-point conversion, and two failed fake punts (who fakes after a fake?) put the team in a terrible position, and even caused some fans to do the unthinkable: openly miss Jason Garrett. But the Cowboys climbed out of the hole by leaning on their best players. Prescott became the only player in NFL history to record 400 passing yards and three rushing touchdowns in a game, and the Dallas offense was unstoppable in the second half, amassing 570 total yards on 14 drives. Amari Cooper looked like himself again, rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb emerged as a reliable late-game option, and tight end Dalton Schultz showed he can replace Blake Jarwin. Dallas’s mistakes in this game were caused by either mental errors or first-year coach Mike McCarthy’s over-aggressiveness, both of which are far easier to fix than a lack of talent. The defense is not great, and it got worse without linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee or cornerback Anthony Brown, who are all injured. But the good that Dallas showed in this game is more representative than the bad.

Cowboys fans can now go from being nervous about starting 0-2 to being nervous about Dak’s contract situation. That’s at least familiar territory for them.

Injuries Mounting, Hard to Keep Counting

San Francisco 49ers (1-1)

The 49ers destroyed the Jets 31-13 on Sunday, but at what cost? San Francisco left New Jersey a different team than when it arrived. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo sprained his ankle and will miss at least one game. Star defensive end Nick Bosa, who had the best-selling jersey of any non-QB last year, is believed to have torn his ACL and would miss the rest of the season. Defensive tackle Solomon Thomas and the 49ers’ top two running backs, Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, also suffered knee injuries (Mostert’s, an MCL sprain, is reportedly more serious than Coleman’s). San Francisco players blamed the new turf field at MetLife Stadium, calling the field “sticky.” (Only Willy Wonka wants a field described as “sticky.”) League officials will inspect the turf this week, but the team’s next game is against the Giants in the very same stadium. The 49ers are basically Kate from Lost as Jack yells “We have to go back!”

That list of injured players does not include the 49ers who were hurt coming into the game: All-Pro tight end George Kittle (knee), All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman (calf), and starting defensive end Dee Ford (neck) all missed Sunday’s contest. Receiver Deebo Samuel broke his foot in June and second-year receiver Jalen Hurd tore his ACL in August. Nine of the 49ers who started last season’s Super Bowl are either injured or no longer on the team, and their path back to the big game already seems to be in jeopardy.

The 49ers destroyed the Jets even while down all these players, showing how good this team still is (and how bad the Jets are). And San Francisco gets the Giants next week, which is basically an active bye. But still, watching this 49ers team is like tuning in to the end of Lost: There’s a creeping sense that we are witnessing something that has its best seasons behind it.

Philadelphia Eagles (0-2)

The Eagles lost by 18 on Sunday and would have lost by 25 if Rams receiver Cooper Kupp hadn’t fumbled a punt inside the 10-yard line. Philadelphia is 0-2 for the first time since Chip Kelly was the head coach, and this team can’t hide behind its mounting injuries anymore. Eagles fans have started pointing the finger at Carson Wentz, even though the offensive line is missing three of five starters and the defense is being held together with Duck Tape (yes, Duck Tape, the discount version of duct tape that doesn’t work).

In fairness, the Eagles were basically down to AAF fill-ins by the end of last year, and they have picked up where they left off, losing All-Pro right guard Brandon Brooks and left tackle Andre Dillard before the season. All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson missed Week 1, and guard Isaac Seumalo injured his knee in Week 2. One of the league’s best offensive lines has quickly become one of the worst, as shown by Washington sacking Wentz eight times with seven different players in the season opener. The Birds blocked better in Week 2, but Wentz didn’t capitalize. He threw one interception because he was late on a potential touchdown, and he threw another because he forced a pass across the middle of the field. Rookie mistakes. Wentz is too old (and too rich) to play so young.

Wentz had tremendous success during the Eagles’ Super Bowl season when plays broke down: He could consistently scramble and find receivers on third-and-long. But that early success may have emboldened some bad habits. He struggles to admit defeat, routinely trying to extend plays when he should throw the ball away and taking unnecessary gambles downfield when a checkdown is available. In other words, Wentz is playing heroball, a style that was reinforced last season when the Eagles’ receiving corps was decimated by injuries and the team needed a hero. This year, though, the Eagles just need a quarterback, and Wentz is giving Philly too little by trying to do too much. Second-round rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts was involved in the offense this week as a receiver for the first time, and while he does not loom large just yet, he definitely looms medium.

Denver Broncos (0-2)

The entire premise of this Broncos season was supposed to be seeing what the team’s feisty new offense could do. Quarterback Drew Lock would lead a receiving corps that includes Courtland Sutton, first-round pick Jerry Jeudy, second-round pick K.J. Hamler, and 2019 first-round pick Noah Fant, and this group was expected to eventually compete with Kansas City.

So much for that. Lock injured his throwing shoulder on Sunday and could miss anywhere from two to six weeks. Sutton suffered a shoulder injury in early September that cost him Week 1; he returned in Week 2 and then hurt his knee. He also might be out several weeks. Running back Phillip Lindsay missed the game with a toe injury, and Hamler missed Week 1 with a hamstring strain. Star defensive end Von Miller is likely out for the season with an ankle injury, though he is hoping to return by December. Denver’s other star defensive end, Bradley Chubb, is still on a limited snap count after missing all of last season with an ACL tear. Not only are the Broncos hurting, but they are hurt at the exact positions that were supposed to be their strengths.

Now the offense that general manager John Elway hoped would compete with the Chiefs is being led by backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, who is throwing to two rookies and a second-year tight end. Jeudy has looked hard to cover through two games, and Fant looks he will soon be one of the NFL’s best tight ends. But Denver is 0-2, and 90 percent of teams who start that way miss the playoffs. Driskel played surprisingly well against Pittsburgh’s elite defense, but there is a difference between depending on Driskel to manage a team versus lead a winning streak. Driskel’s first test as a starter will come against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers next week (Brady vs. Driskel, almost as storied as Brees vs. Brady in Week 1). This isn’t the fun ride Broncos fans thought they were getting on.

Nobody to Blame but Ourselves

Houston Texans (0-2)

The Houston Texans are the NFL’s version of the Portland Trail Blazers, and Deshaun Watson is Damian Lillard. Watson and Lillard are both exciting, elite players who are hard not to love, but their teams can’t compete with the best squads in their conference, and it is hard to see that changing anytime soon.

That reality was obvious during Houston’s loss to the Ravens on Sunday. The Texans cannot make the Super Bowl without going through the Kansas City Chiefs or Baltimore Ravens (or both). Ironically, those two teams have been Houston’s first two opponents this season, and Houston lost to both by a combined 31 points. Neither game was particularly close, and the Texans looked shockingly unready to compete against the Chiefs in Week 1, despite Kansas City ending Houston’s season in humiliating fashion back in January. In their last seven quarters, the Chiefs have outscored the Texans 85-30. And Houston doesn’t have better luck against the Ravens, who have outscored the Texans a combined 74-23 in their last two games.

Watson has been elevated to the star stature of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, but the Texans are nowhere near as good as the Chiefs or Ravens—and they don’t have an obvious path to fix that anytime soon. After head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien traded DeAndre Hopkins this offseason, the Texans don’t have the receivers to score with the top teams or the defenders to slow them down. Mahomes and Jackson are always swimming with the current, but Watson has been forced to swim upstream. If the Texans don’t get rid of O’Brien soon, they’ll risk letting Watson’s prime drift away.

Atlanta Falcons (0-2)

The jokes write themselves when Atlanta blows a big lead, but Sunday’s defeat was easily the team’s worst loss since [REDACTED]. This game marked the first time in NFL history that a team has scored 39 points with no turnovers and lost (out of 441 tries), according to ESPN Stats & Info. There’s a lot here—1 in 100 odds, blowing a 20-0 lead—but the real key is the onside kick. Look at this thing Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein calls “a watermelon kick”:

How does this happen? Three Falcons defenders are standing around the ball, seemingly unaware of the rules or afraid to make a mistake. That speaks to a lack of preparation, an issue that falls squarely on the shoulders of head coach Dan Quinn. Quinn, a defensive coach who oversaw the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom, has seen the Falcons unit steadily erode under his watch. While Atlanta managed three fumble recoveries early on Sunday, the defense was steamrolled on four touchdown drives in the second half. The Falcons lost key defenders like safety Ricardo Allen and defensive end Tak McKinley to injury, but the Cowboys were without both starting tackles and still shredded the Falcons for 7.0 yards per play. Atlanta was a few almost plays from pulling away, including Julio Jones dropping a touchdown catch. But the team’s coaches are operating on borrowed time. The Falcons didn’t turn the ball over on Sunday and still lost. They might need some turnover in the organization.

Minnesota Vikings (0-2)

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told The Ringer’s Kevin Clark earlier this month that he trusts Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer. “I know Zim is going to have our football team ready to go,” Spielman said.

Two weeks into the season, the Vikings have been essentially run off the field in losses to the Packers and an embarrassing 28-11 defeat to the Colts this week. Former Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs, whom Minnesota traded to Buffalo this offseason, had more receiving yards on Sunday (153) than Minnesota’s entire team (113). “Right now, we’re not very good at anything,” Zimmer said about the offense on Sunday.

The Vikings offense started off slow last season too, but this poor showing comes after Minnesota traded away Diggs, lost offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, and signed Kirk Cousins to a two-year, $66 million contract extension. Two games into that two-year deal, Cousins is 30 of 51 (59 percent) with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Cousins is making last season’s game-winning throw against the Saints in the wild-card round look like a Bourbon Street mirage. Minnesota was expected to capitalize on an NFC North opening this season but instead may fall behind the Lions and Bears. Oh my.

It’s As Bad As It Looks

Detroit Lions (0-2)

“We expect to be a playoff contender [in 2020], and those are our expectations,” Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford said last season, when announcing Matt Patricia would not be fired despite two last-place finishes in the NFC North in two years. Two games into 2020, the Lions are 0-2—but worse than recording two Ls is the way the Lions lost each game.

Detroit was carved up by the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in a way that suggested this team was nowhere near shaking up the division as promised. The Lions entered halftime down three points but went into the fourth quarter down 20, a good indicator of bad coaching. Last week, the Lions blew a 17-point lead to the Bears, and Detroit is now the one team that Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky can reliably pick apart. Since 2018, Trubisky is 4-0 with 12 touchdowns and one pick against Patricia’s Lions.

If that isn’t bad enough, remember that Patricia was hired for his defensive abilities (he’s a rocket scientist, remember?). But that unit hasn’t taken off. His team now has nine wins in 33 games after the man he replaced, Jim Caldwell, had 18 wins in his previous 33 games (including playoffs, which Patricia is unlikely to reach). Along the way, Detroit has played the bad-team bingo: trading away its best defenders because they don’t “fit” the system, signing former Patriots defenders to big-money contracts, and drafting running backs high and then not playing them. Unless the Lions want to add three consecutive last-place finishes to that list, Patricia might be gone soon.

Even Worse Than We Thought

New York Giants (0-2) / New York Jets (0-2)

The Giants and Jets share a stadium, so they can share this section. The low expectations for these teams entering this season were further lowered for both on Sunday, when the Giants lost Saquon Barkley to a torn ACL and the Jets lost another game in embarrassing fashion. The Jets were stomped by San Francisco, and now the Giants are in line for the same treatment, albeit potentially on a fixed field after Sunday’s debacle when the 49ers felt the new turf was partially to blame for their injury issues. It is unfair that the 49ers have been dragged into the mess at MetLife, but Giants and Jets fans could have told you long ago that these teams were bad for your health.