The 2020 NFL season was full of surprises, including teams that ascended to the top of the NFL (see the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Tom Brady). And there were plenty of others that fell from the upper echelon of the league to the bottom of the well. The Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Texans led the group that experienced a major free fall in 2020 and now face quarterback uncertainty with their franchise signal-callers.
The teams listed below probably won't have the quarterback issues the Eagles and Texans have, but they will have questions that will need to be answered regarding their rosters. Behold the five teams that are poised to take a major step back in 2021 (you can check out our list of five teams poised to make a major leap here). Remember, this is a way-too-early prediction, so much can change throughout the offseason.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The Steelers started the season winning their first 11 games, then went on a free fall by losing four of their last five games entering the postseason. Then they were demolished in the wild card round by the Cleveland Browns, a team they beat 38-7 in Week 6. When Cleveland and the Baltimore Ravens thrived in December, Pittsburgh played its worst football as all its problems hidden during the perfect start came to life.
Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball effectively and its receivers dropped passes at an alarming rate. This was an issue all season, not just in December and January. The Steelers didn't even try to run the ball late last season, nor could they throw the ball deep because Ben Roethlisberger was 38 and coming off elbow surgery. Let's not forget Roethlisberger lost his mobility and is relegated to being a pocket quarterback. Roethlisberger is coming back at 39 and the Steelers still can't run the ball -- not to mention JuJu Smith-Schuster is likely leaving in free agency and Pittsburgh is a projected $30 million over the salary cap.
Roethlisberger has to restructure his contract and the Steelers have to find a way to improve this roster to give their franchise quarterback one last chance at a Super Bowl. Here's the problem: Baltimore and Cleveland are in the AFC North and only getting better and Pittsburgh plays a first-place schedule. The Steelers look destined for third in the AFC North and a rebuild starting in 2022.
New Orleans Saints (12-4)
If Drew Brees does decide to retire, the Saints are bound to take a dive in the standings -- no matter who Sean Payton uses at quarterback. Payton seems obsessed with giving Taysom Hill the opportunity to be the starting quarterback for a full season, which would result in a significant drop-off in offense.
Payton chose Hill over Jameis Winston this year and has a good sample size of the Saints offense under Hill, who completed 71.9% of his passes for 834 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions while rushing 39 times for 209 yards (5.36 yards per carry) with four touchdowns in four games. Hill recorded a 96.9 passer rating in his four starts as the Saints went 3-1 during that stretch. The Saints lost to the 4-11-1 Eagles as Hill struggled, while defeating the Denver Broncos (who didn't have a quarterback due to COVID-19 issues), and the Falcons twice (who were a bottom-five team in the league).
Winston will provide big-play potential for an offense that needs it (Brees' 7.5 yards per attempt was the lowest since 2014), but can he avoid the turnovers that plagued him in five seasons in Tampa Bay? The Saints should still compete for a playoff berth in 2021, but asking the franchise to win 12-plus games next season is a monumental task (especially with a first-place schedule and the Buccaneers in their division). They also are playing the NFC West and AFC East next season.
A 9-7 record could be enough to get the Saints into the playoffs, but they won't be a Super Bowl contender as in years past.
Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
The Seahawks already play in a loaded NFC West (which got even better as the Los Angeles Rams acquired Matthew Stafford), so the chances of repeating are slim -- the San Francisco 49ers should be back to full strength in 2021 after dealing with so many injuries and the Arizona Cardinals are still a team on the rise. Then there's the Russell Wilson saga, which seems to be gaining steam. If Wilson does want out of Seattle -- and gets his wish -- the Seahawks will take a major fall toward the bottom of the division.
Seattle has to improve its offensive line in order to keep Wilson happy, which is a problem, considering the Seahawks have drafted just three offensive linemen over the past four seasons -- and only one is a contributor. Seattle tries to sign free agent offensive linemen every year, but none of them pan out and Wilson keeps getting sacked. Part of that is on Wilson, as he's always on the run and trying to extend the play long before it develops.
The Seahawks are going to be competitive as long as Wilson is their quarterback, but a lack of cap space and draft picks from the Jamal Adams trade will significantly hurt their chances of improving their roster. If Wilson leaves, this team is heading toward last place in the NFC West in 2021.
Chicago Bears (8-8)
The Bears were a playoff team last year, which sounds crazy when you think about it. Their quarterback situation was a mess with Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles -- neither are certain to return to Chicago -- and Allen Robinson, the Bears' best pass-catcher, is set to enter free agency.
Not only do the Bears lack offensive weapons in the passing game, their offensive line was a problem all season and seemed to get worse as the year went on. Chicago also invested a lot of money in the pass rush and received little return (their 22.4% pressure rate ranked 21st in the NFL). Robert Quinn had two sacks in 15 games last season and it would cost the Bears $23.9 million in cap space just to get rid of him -- so they're stuck with that contract. They're also $6 million over the cap, so free agency appears out of the equation (unless they move on from Kyle Fuller and Akiem Hicks, which wouldn't be wise).
If the Bears trade for Carson Wentz, will they really be that much better? Wentz is coming off the worst season of his career, which was partly due to offensive line problems in Philadelphia, which hurt his confidence. Those issues would likely reemerge in Chicago.
The Bears appear set to miss the playoffs next season -- and could find their way toward the bottom of the NFC unless the defense carries them.
New England Patriots (7-9)
Is a team that finished with their first losing record since 2000 actually in a free fall? Unless the Patriots get a quarterback, this situation could get worse. New England could acquire one of the premier quarterbacks on the market in free agency and compete for the AFC East title once again, but if the Patriots bring Cam Newton back, they'll still be third behind the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins in the division -- even with the eight players who opted out of the 2020 season returning in 2021.
The Bills are an AFC contender, while the rising Dolphins will get even better with all the draft picks at their disposal. The AFC actually had a 10-6 team miss the playoffs last year, so what would make one think the Patriots will have a bounce-back season with the offensive personnel they have? Tom Brady isn't coming back.
Granted, the Patriots have $62 million in cap space to improve this roster, so they'll have the money to compete with any team in free agency and improve the pass catchers this offense is sorely lacking, They could also can improve a pass rush that finished 25th in quarterback knockdown percentage (8.7% and had just 24 sacks next season). The Patriots can get better, but are they going to be better than the Bills and Dolphins?
If New England strikes out on the quarterback market over the next two months, the Patriots could actually be worse than 7-9. Again, this is a "way-to-early" prediction for a reason.