Do you recall what late summer was like, back in Jacksonville and Atlanta and Green Bay? Such heady times, filled with excitement and optimism. It was a much simpler time then, as I recall it. Seems like so long ago.
Everybody loved the upstart Jaguars and grizzled Falcons and healthy Packers, it seemed. Their time was now. Even the sharps in Vegas were all over them, with the sports books setting them among their favorites to win their conference and win it all. The Jags – fresh off their playoff success – were 9/1 to win the AFC, behind only the Steelers and Patriots. The Packers had the fourth-best odds to win the NFC, at 9/1, with the Falcons just behind them at 10/1. After Week 2, the Packers were up to 8/1 to win the Super Bowl – third-best odds in the NFL – while the Jags were 12.5/1 (7th-best) and the Falcons were just behind them at 15/1.
Now, well, yeah, none of those tickets are going to be cashed. Money down the drain. Seasons in the abyss. If anything, the odds are now on which of these head coaches will be fired (hard to envision a scenario where Doug Marrone is back in Jacksonville and Mike McCarthy is back in Green Bay), and what front-office changes are store (would Falcons owner Arthur Blank really bring back his entire braintrust after another lost season?). It really is that bad.
It's kind of strange, given that two of these teams are led by the two highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL (Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan), both of whom got mega-extensions before the season began, yet neither finds himself within screaming distance of the MVP conversation, overshadowed and out-performed by some emerging youngsters. And the Jaguars made the inane decision that quarterbacks are totally overrated and ancillary to any winning equation; how else to explain a quarterback depth chart of Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler?
All three face uncomfortable decisions and probing questions about what went wrong, and how to get back to the lofty heights so many thought they would attain. They are the three biggest disappointments in the NFL (I'm withholding judgement on the Eagles, who remain viable for a division title and who are experiencing a Super Bowl hangover that is hardly endemic to their particular franchise). And of the three, I'd say the Packers (stream Cardinals-Packers and all Sunday's games on fuboTV, try it for free, and stream all the CBS games on CBS All Access) remain best positioned to ascend in 2019, though changes are certainly coming.
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Rodgers did miss almost all of last season due to injury, and it will be interesting to see what new ideas the next coaching staff brings to Green Bay. There is a fast-developing group of receivers there, the run game has been plenty solid as Aaron Jones has become a breakout back for them, Rodgers always finds a way to cultivate a tight end on the fly, and the new front office regime there is more willing to wade into the free-agent waters.
This is by no means a championship roster – not close – but Rodgers at his best covers up a lot of ills, and Green Bay has sunk enough assets into its secondary that it should continue making strides, and the Packers are third in the NFL in sacks, but the run defense has suffered (23rd in yards allowed per game). New ideas on that side of the ball could go a long ways, too, and the next head coach there could be stepping into an excellent situation.
The Falcons, however, I'm not sold on. The NFC South will remain a gauntlet with Drew Brees and Cam Newton going nowhere in 2019, and this seems like a team that is cycling down from a Super Bowl run in 2016 that came close, but not close enough. Blank says the issue isn't coaching, so then what is it? Ryan, for starters, is part of the issue. When you get a $150M contract (with $94.5M guaranteed) in your mid-30s and have a plethora of weapons around you, and play in a dome in perfect, speedy conditions most weeks, you need to win games and shine. Heck, the Falcons don't even win at home anymore.
When things aren't quite perfect, Ryan tends to suffer, and since former coordinator Kyle Shanahan left for San Francisco Ryan has been closer to an average NFL QB than a superior one. He ranks 11th in passer rating and touchdowns and 8th in yards per attempt. He's thrown as many picks as Case Keenum in that span. It hasn't, more weeks than not, been nearly good enough and Julio Jones still can't get in the end zone and they still bog down in the red zone with too much regularity.
Steve Sarkisian was always an odd choice as offensive coordinator – and I can't imagine there are not at least coordinator changes next season – but when you paid Ryan $30M in 2018 and are about to give him $45M more in straight cash in 2019 alone, the blame game starts under center. The Falcons are tied to Ryan through 2021 per this aggressive contract – through his age-36 season – so figuring out a way to get him anything close to his 2016 form is imperative. I still have concerns about the bite and teeth of the defense, too. This team is going to wane for a while, I suspect.
But I'll take Atlanta's problems over Jacksonville's eight days a week. The Jaguars have become the NFL's premier dumpster fire, going from incessant yapping about their next Lombardi Trophy to losers of eight of nine. The are this year's Browns and, well, most year's Bengals, with stupid penalties and unbridled undisciplined play and fighting (with each other and other teams) and ejections and suspensions their calling card.
They are a disaster, and, well, worst of all, they were constructed to peak in 2018. This was it. This was their chance to actually do something before it comes crashing down. They'll gut the defense to get under the cap – a defense that has already slipped badly off its 2017 form – they won't be able to give Bortles away with that contract, and the running back they just over-drafted in the top five is a big problem who makes over $8M a year and his attitude and work habits are a concern.
And, well, they don't have a healthy pass catcher on the roster who could start for most bad NFL teams. And all the money they have spent on the offensive line still can't keep it healthy and effective. A defensive line that was once the strength of the team will be gutted (no way I see Marcel Dareus and Malik Jackson back there under any regime) and all that free-agent money they doled out the last three years is basically diminished returns moving forward except for A.J. Bouye.
Oh, and there are now two legit franchise QBs in their division and one who is at least capable of winning 8-9 games a year, and the Jags will be starting all over at the most important position in all of professional sports after wasting five years trying to justify the selection of Bortles that high in the first place. I mean other than that, it's a great head-coaching job and I am sure dudes will be dying to work there instead of, like, Green Bay and Baltimore and New York and Miami and Tampa and even, gulp, Cleveland.
Maybe one of these teams, come next September, is back among the favorites in Vegas. Perhaps. But I wouldn't bet on more than one, that's for sure.