7 NFL Teams Headed in the Wrong Direction

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IDecember 6, 2013

7 NFL Teams Headed in the Wrong Direction

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    We have all heard that the NFL can stand for the “No Fun League.”

    I beg to differ for a lot of reasons, but that "F" can also stand for “fickle” in many instances.

    This season alone, we could be on the verge of seeing three defending division champions finish in last place and another 2012 playoff team in the basement this year as well.

    Downhill is great when you’re referring to a running back, but it’s much different when you are talking about a team.

    To be clear, the wrong direction means different things to different clubs. We are not necessarily predicting gloom and doom for each of these seven franchises. It is just a look back at what has gone wrong to date and a possible suggestion or two as to how they can mend their ways.

    So, here are seven teams that have a lot of things to ponder these days. And in case you are wondering, the list is in alphabetical order.


    * Financial and free agent information courtesy of Spotrac.

Atlanta Falcons (3-9)

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    Let us make one thing perfectly clear: The Atlanta Falcons have become one of the more successful franchises in the NFL.

    That dates back to 2008 with the hiring of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the arrival of head coach Mike Smith and the drafting of quarterback Matt Ryan.

    Under that regime’s guidance, the Falcons owned the second-best record in the NFL from 2008-12, topped only by the New England Patriots.

    But things have gone awry this season in Atlanta and perhaps the wheels were set in motion roughly two years ago when the team gave up its share of picks to move up in the 2011 draft to grab wide receiver Julio Jones.

    That’s not a knock on Jones, who is one of the league’s top wideouts when healthy, but more passing and less running seemed to be the new game plan for Smith and Co.

    And it looked like it would work. In 2012, the Falcons finished tied for the best record in the NFL. Ryan threw a career-high 32 touchdown passes and Jones, Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez all came up huge.

    However, Atlanta finished 29th in the NFL in rushing and 21st in run defense. That inability to kill the clock and also wear down defenses was gone. And common sense says when you don’t run as often, you don’t practice against it as well.

    That issue really reared its ugly head in the playoffs, in particular, the loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game in which the Falcons squandered a 17-0 lead in the second quarter.

    Now let’s take a look at this season. Atlanta is tied for 29th in the league in rushing yards and 30th against the run. Veteran Steven Jackson was supposed to be a solution, but injuries and other factors made that a moot point. Meanwhile, the defense continues to have its issues.

    It will be an interesting offseason for these Falcons, who may have to do a lot more refurbishing than anyone would have expected.

Chicago Bears (6-6)

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    Last season, you saw the traditionally tough Baltimore Ravens make the transformation from a defensively driven team to a club reliant on its quarterback and offense.

    The same thing has occurred in the Windy City this season, only with different results.

    Under new head coach Marc Trestman, the Bears have been more efficient on the offensive side of the ball, regardless of whether Jay Cutler or Josh McCown has been the starting quarterback. The Bears’ offensive unit has already produced 31 touchdowns, just one fewer than all of last season. A new-look offensive line has performed well and the emergence of second-year wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has been dramatic.

    Speaking of drama, there has been nothing but that on the other side of the ball this season. Chicago has allowed 332 points and 32 offensive touchdowns in a dozen games. A year ago, this club gave up only 277 points and 25 offensive touchdowns all season.

    The Bears defense currently ranks dead last in the league against the run and it’s getting worse almost on a weekly basis. In their last six games alone, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s unit has allowed 1,231 rushing yards—an average of 205.2 yards per game.

    About this time last season, Chicago’s linebacking corps featured Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Nick Roach. Briggs has been out this season and the other two are no longer with the team. Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman has missed his share of time as well and injuries at defensive tackle have been an enormous issue.

    By the way, what is Cutler’s future in the Windy City? The eight-year veteran is scheduled to become a free agent following the season.

    Chicago’s 3-0 start obviously came in September, but how long ago does it really feel?

Cleveland Browns (4-8)

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    There’s a lot to be said about stability, especially when it comes to the NFL and what it takes to be consistently successful.

    So here’s something to consider when it comes to the Cleveland Browns, who are in the midst of another disappointing season at 4-8. The franchise has had three owners and seven head coaches dating back to 1999.

    As far as the quarterback position goes, let’s just say that the franchise has had one 16-game starter since Tim Couch in 2001.

    This season, head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have used three different starters behind center. Brandon Weeden has had his ups and downs, Brian Hoyer was solid before getting hurt in October and veteran Jason Campbell has played well when available, which he may or may not be this week.

    “There’s a lot of firsts this year for a lot of us,’’ Turner said to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. “When you really think about it, obviously, three guys have played, but we’ve had six different games where we’ve had a different starter, and that’s a challenge. It’s not as hard on the coaches as it is on the players.”

    Meanwhile, there haven’t been a lot of firsts for the Browns in terms of finishes. The team has made one playoff (2002) since returning to the league in 1999. Cleveland entered this season having lost at least 11 games for five straight seasons.

    So, in a year of transition in the AFC North, not much has changed with the Browns.

Houston Texans (2-11)

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    It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Houston Texans were a Super Bowl contender.

    It wasn’t.

    After 12 games last season, Gary Kubiak’s team owned an 11-1 record—the best in the National Football League at the time.

    But 13 games into 2013 and it’s been a problem-plagued campaign for Houston, which has won just twice this season and is now riding a horrendous 11-game losing streak. The latest setback came Thursday night to the Jacksonville Jaguars in another deflating 27-20 loss.

    So how did things go so bad so quickly, and is there any relief in sight?

    Obviously, there could be some big decisions coming when it comes to Kubiak. When you have a team that is a combined 22-10 and coming off back-to-back AFC South titles the previous two seasons, losing 11 straight games is more than just disappointing.

    Quarterback Matt Schaub has also fallen on hard times. Earlier this season, he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in an NFL-record four straight games. Now healthy, he’s made a few recent appearances in relief of current starter Case Keenum, but Schaub’s early-season issues seem to have a demoralizing effect on the entire club.

    As for the not-so immediate future, running back Ben Tate and defensive end Antonio Smith are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after the season. Tate’s situation is somewhat intriguing considering the injury issues of perennial Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster.

    When all is said and done, this franchise has enjoyed three winning season and two playoff appearances in 12 seasons. The fact that the Texans didn’t advance further in the postseason the last two seasons may wind up being very damning for Kubiak as well.

Minnesota Vikings (3-8-1)

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    Last season, the Minnesota Vikings were one of the league’s surprise teams.

    A franchise that had gone a combined 9-23 the previous two years was suddenly 10-6 and facing the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs.

    But postseason appearances and winning seasons appear to be the exception rather than the norm for head coach Leslie Frazier and this club. Even if the Purple Gang runs the table the remainder of 2013, they will finish below .500 for the third time in four seasons.

    There’s a lot to look at here. First, what to make of the quarterback situation? Christian Ponder was a first-round draft choice in 2011, but has had his ups and downs. The team brought in veteran Matt Cassel last offseason. In October, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released former first-rounder Josh Freeman, who made his way to the Twin Cities as well.

    All three quarterbacks have started at least once this season with the trio combining for 12 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions for the Vikings so far this year.

    How much does running back Adrian Peterson have left in the tank? Those 10,057 career rushing yards speak for themselves, but it’s the 2015 carries in nearly seven seasons that may be of concern.

    And what about veteran defensive end Jared Allen, who has just six sacks this season? The 10-year pro is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in a month or so.

    Thanks to general manager Rick Spielman, this team has added some young talent via the first round of the draft. Players like left tackle Matt Kalil, safety Harrison Smith and wideout Cordarrelle Patterson have made an impact when healthy.

    But there are too many questions marks elsewhere, especially in some very important areas.

New York Jets (5-7)

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    You had a feeling it may come to this.

    Still, the rebuilt-New York Jets have come up with their share of surprises this season, most notably in wins over the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.

    However, the man once known for his guarantees of sorts when it comes to his Jets winning a Super Bowl may not be a guarantee to be the team’s head coach in 2014.

    Rex Ryan led the Jets to the AFC title game in each of his first two seasons with the franchise, but a club that combined to win 20 regular-season games from 2009-10 owns a 19-25 record since.

    It’s easy to point to the team’s issues at quarterback, and rightfully so. Dating back to Ryan’s arrival in 2009, the team’s starting quarterback, be it Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith, has committed at least 23 turnovers in four of the last five seasons.

    Like Smith, Sanchez achieved the feat (23) in his rookie season. After showing improvement in that department in his second campaign (14), the former first-round pick coughed up the ball 26 times in back-to-back years. This season, the Jets have committed 27 turnovers and Smith has been responsible for 23 of those miscues.

    Only two teams in the league this season have gained fewer yards per game than New York, and the Jets are averaging a mere 15.8 points per contest.

    On defense, there is certainly star power with Muhammad Wilkerson, rookie Sheldon Richardson and linebacker David Harris, but the lack of support on the other side of the ball is disturbing.

    Unfortunately for the Jets, no real relief appears in sight.

Washington Redskins (3-9)

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    “Now I want you to explain this to me like I’m a six-year old.”

    Those were the words of attorney Joe Miller from the movie Philadelphia.

    In April of 2012, the Washington Redskins not only traded up in the draft to secure the services of quarterback Robert Griffin III, but also grabbed Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins.

    While the first pick was a no-brainer, the second appeared to be a very sound move for a lot of reasons.

    Thanks in part to Griffin, with an occasional assist from Cousins, the Redskins turned a 3-6 start to last season into seven straight wins and the franchise’s first NFC East title since 1999.

    In last season’s wild-card playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Griffin injured his knee. Immediately, the concern was 2013 and whether the league’s offensive rookie of the year could answer the bell in time for the regular season.

    But there was no need to rush. The Redskins had Cousins, and as 2013 drew near, he appeared to be the man behind center until Griffin was ready to go.

    So, without the benefit of a snap during the preseason, the Redskins’ starting quarterback in Week 1 would be…Griffin.

    Head coach Mike Shanahan and his team have not recovered since. A club that led the NFL in rushing yards last season is doing that again in 2013. However, the Redskins also committed a league-low 14 turnovers a year ago (seven by Griffin). That total reads 20 turnovers in just 12 games this season, with 15 of those miscues courtesy of Griffin.

    Entering 2012, the Washington Redskins had finished last in the NFC East four straight years, including two seasons under Shanahan. This season, the franchise may be on the verge of going from first to last in their division in the blink of an eye.

    Who knows what the future holds for Shanahan and his staff over the next few months?