NFL Divisional Round Graveyard
Saying goodbye to a legend
Right out of the gate, we need to address the elephant in the room.
Drew Brees is probably done in the NFL. It looks very likely that this was his last stand. If New Orleans needed any convincing to change that, let’s just say they didn’t get it last weekend. Drew lost to long time commercial pitchman nemesis Tom Brady (They had never met in a playoff game before Sunday). Tom’s Buccaneers overcame Tom’s mediocre game, and a strong effort from the Saints defense, to win, primarily because Drew isn’t really good anymore. It’s tough to see anyone meet their NFL mortality on the field. Especially a legend like Drew Brees. This really wasn’t a great year for him. From his offseason controversy, to his mediocre play all year, to his severe rib injury, not much went right for him. Still it’s worthwhile to remember all the other times Drew Brees WAS great, and the Saints lost because of bad defense or bad luck. It feels like all of the Saints luck was used up in the one onside kick in the Super Bowl. I will miss Drew Brees, if for no other reason, because he mastered the art of the four yard completion better than anyone before or since. The defense always knew what was coming. It never mattered. He would get those four yards again and again and again. He had an irrepressible “I think I can”-train energy. Slowly he would chug his way up the mountainside to bring the people of New Orleans (fresh off a total disaster) hope and joy for over a decade. Kudoughiest kudos to you sir.
With that obligation out of the way, let’s take a moment to check in on the fallen after a challenging week of football, that once again bested me. The Saints aren’t the only team to fall on the sword this week. The Browns, Rams and Ravens all did as well. Let’s take a look at where they stand and where they are headed.
What went wrong: The Chiefs defense, which I described as being good at containing teams, even if they don’t overwhelm anyone, did exactly that. They held the Browns rushing attack to a relative draw, and they kept Baker Mayfield limited. Of course, if a certain fumble into the end zone hadn’t happened we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Of course, if a certain injury to Mahomes hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be having that conversation. The Browns defense, while not terrible in this one, kept leaking points, and would definitely have given up over 30 had Mahomes stayed in the game. There is no way the Browns should leave this game feeling bad though. They played hard, and almost won. They didn’t have their best WR, and just sputtered through 4 weeks of COVID hell just to get here. They have heads held high headed into the offseason.
What happens next -
Coaching: Kevin Stefanski was brilliant in his first season in Cleveland. What, as recently as last year, was a moribund and hopeless franchise is suddenly revitalized. They played consistent football all year, with a clear identity, and effective offensive game plans. My only concern with coaching and this group is on defense. Stefanski is clearly an offensive guy, and the defense was pretty bad most of the year, even with the offense holding the ball a ton. This year is a little early to decide to fire someone from the staff, but they need to take a hard look at the coordinator and coaches on that side to make sure they are the long term solution.
Other major issue: As just noted, this team is very top heavy on defense. Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett are elite players. The rest of the defense are also… players. This team needs to focus heavily on defense in the draft, and with whatever bucks they find for free agency. They don’t need a big signing. Just a few upgrades, even to starter level quality, could pay big dividends.
Good News: For the first time in my life, this version of the Cleveland Browns goes into the offseason with no questions about the status of the GM, coach or quarterback. VERY few teams will head into the off-season this comfortably. Baker Mayfield’s improvement this season was palpable. He moved from questionable starter to one of those guys who goes to the Pro-Bowl after two or three guys drop out. That’s good. I would argue this is his first season receiving professional coaching. I think more improvement is coming. This was a great first toe in the water of being good.
What’s next: The last time the Browns had big expectations they imploded into a fireball that the Zepplin industry would be impressed by. With Odell back, hopefully some improvements on defense, and a full off-season with their coach, a lot will be expected. They might even be the favorites in the division. Will they be ready? Can they learn from last time how to keep confidence but avoid overconfidence? Can they keep improving or will they plateau? All of this and more to come, headed into next year.
What went wrong: Basically this play. If you turn this play into a touchdown for the Ravens, then it’s 10-10. This play (and the subsequent injury to Lamar Jackson) was the defining moment of this game. The problem is, this game revealed all of the big problems surrounding the Ravens and Jackson. While Jackson might have gotten the playoff win monkey off his back, he didn’t do much to change the notion that his approach leads to limited success against good teams, and adds a serious threat of injury.
What happens next -
Coaching: I have heard calls for the Ravens offensive coaching staff to be fired (or even Harbaugh), but I don’t think this is a reasonable decision. First, to fire someone, you have to replace them with someone better. I highly doubt someone better is available. The Ravens have had one of the best offenses in the league the last several years. Can someone do better? I doubt that too with the pieces they have currently. John Harbaugh is a good NFL head coach who is worth keeping around.
Other major issue: Lamar Jackson is the axis of the team, even if the defense is unquestionably the best part of the team. Unless he gets to a place of consistent success throwing the ball, this team is stuck where they are at. This year was one of significant regression for Lamar. I think the biggest issue is the loss of trust that Lamar has with his teammates. First, they have very little in the skill positions. Hollywood Brown is the best wide receiver, but he is really just a small take-the-top-off WR who runs a lot of go-routes to keep the safeties honest. This is an important piece to an offense, but one that is only going to garner 2-5 catches a game. He can’t win a jump ball, so all you are looking for is deep separation. They have no other dangerous wideouts. Defenses found it easy to keep Brown in check with a little help over the top. Mark Andrews took a step back this season with drops, and their main target over the middle became very unreliable. What Jackson needs is what Arizona got Kyler Murray: a Deandre Hopkins. A player who can get open and make plays in the short and intermediate areas of the field. Someone who always catches the ball. A “super” possession receiver. Unfortunately those are very hard to find. Don’t think for a second, though, that this wasn’t the reason Jackson was working out with Antonio Brown. He knows what he needs. With the lack of skill options (their running backs are meh at this point) and the deterioration of the offensive line, Lamar took to trying to run on every third play. Eventually this lead to where all players who run the football 10 or more times a game go: the injury report. If he cannot regain his trust in his teammates, the story will be the same next year. Good defenses will neutralize him, and he will get hurt.
Good news: That defense was excellent. Holding down two explosive offenses to just 20 points total in the playoffs was very impressive. This team has great pieces along the front and in the secondary. If they can continue the dominance on defense (year to year defenses turn over in quality WAY more than offenses) they will be in the playoffs again. If they want to do more than that, offense is the area for improvement.
What’s next: They need to sink everything they have into getting Lamar a high quality target. Someone like Allen Robinson might be too expensive, and if that is true, they need to make this a priority in the draft. They need to come away with a special player at that position. Juggling the salary cap for them will be a challenge, especially as a Lamar extension is looming. There might only be a year or two left in this window afforded by Lamar’s cheap rookie deal.
What went wrong: Aaron Rodgers is at his peak, playing at home, with all his weapons healthy. The Rams were just sort of a side show to the brilliance of Rodgers, who showed no rust. Devante Adams won the matchup with Jalen Ramsey, and the Packers had no trouble containing a banged up Aaron Donald. On the other side of the ball, despite the injury, Jared Goff played… ok. That is his wheelhouse. If they want to actually win the Super Bowl, that isn’t going to cut it.
Coaching: Their defensive coordinator is headed to San Die… LA to coach, after one season of success with Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald. This is sort of like giving Adam Gase two coaching jobs based on the fact that he stood by Peyton Manning for a year or two. I’m sure San Die… LA won’t regret that in two years. Their head coach Sean McVay continues to make toilet wine in the prison of having Jared Goff as QB. Both he and Kyle Shanahan are brilliant minds who are playing with one hand tied behind their back by a mediocre quarterback. Matt LaFleur has Aaron Rodgers and look what he can do.
Other major issue: They really seem to have a GM problem brewing here. Not so much with drafting, as it is a problem with signing people to long term contracts for huge money despite them not being good actually. If this team had signed good players, instead of guys like Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks or Jared Goff, think how good they would be. Slowly these contracts will stop costing them, but I wouldn’t have much confidence in their ability to evaluate their own players.
Good News: I keep mentioning this, but they have Aaron Donald. It’s like having a one ton moose loose on the field. He throws other humans around like they are rag dolls. There are a lot of big strong dudes in the NFL. He is somehow so much BIGGER and STRONGER than those players that it ALWAYS takes at least two of them to sort of hold him in check. Think about how much better he is than other players. As long as he is healthy and in the middle, they will have a great defense.
What’s next: I’m not sure. They can’t replace Goff, his contract is prohibitive. They don’t have the cap space to pick up someone else or the draft capital to take someone else. Could they trade him for a veteran on another team? Maybe, but unlikely, since other GMs watch the same football games you and I do. Goff is what is holding them back. They are going to keep trying and trying to win the Super Bowl with him, but it isn’t going to happen. Do you realize how much better Drew Brees is than Jared Goff? He won ONE Super Bowl. One. It is extremely hard to win a Super Bowl with a great quarterback, let alone a Goff. Maybe they can find a Russell Wilson miracle in the third round, but I doubt it. I’m guessing they run it back, and lose to a better quarterback next year too.
What went wrong: Drew Brees is not good at being a quarterback anymore. Tom Brady is a demon from the gates of hell, who takes the souls of old quarterbacks and renews his life force by placing them in his Well of Souls (patent pending). Evil has triumphed, and we were all denied one last chance to root for the old underdog. For a kid coming out of Purdue (Purdue?!?!) to getting beaten out by Philip Rivers, to going to a city fresh off a cataclysm, to setting all of the meaningful NFL records at QB, this has been a helluva journey. As usual, however, Satan triumphed. I imagine Tom’s parting words to Drew were, “I am going to obliterate all your records until your name is forgotten by every soul on this earth. Here, let me throw your kid a TD.”
What happens next -
Coaching: Sean Payton will be the coach there until he decides not to be. He has been setting up for this transition for years, first with Teddy Bridgewater, then either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill. I expect (just based on contracts) it will be Taysom Hill next year. The defense was pretty good this year. So was the offensive game plan. Sadly, 30 (or even 35) year old Drew Brees is not here to execute it.
Other major issue: The salary cap is going to be a massive problem next year. This was going to be an issue even before the pandemic hit. Now, the cap isn’t going up. The Saints are almost double the next worst team in being over the cap for 2021. They are going to be 100 million over. There is no way to make this team better next year. They will objectively be worse. It’s time for them to do what the Patriots did this year. Kill the season to clear the cap. The Pats went from barely being under the cap to lots of cap room next year, simply by letting people go, and not signing anyone of value. That will be this offseason for the Saints. They also might want to consider selling some of the better parts of the team for assets (Marshon Lattimore, Michael Thomas, and Alvin Kamara) before they start losing value.
Good News: Not much. Look, this team’s window is closed. They will probably be OK next year. Good coaching and defense can make that happen (look at the Patriots this year. They were devoid of meaningful talent and were still hanging around the playoff race). This isn’t a fan base that is looking for OK though. They are used to being in the Super Bowl conversation, then being sent home in a way that Shakespeare would have considered as an alternate ending for MacBeth. We are heading for dark times in the Crescent City as they join the lost teams of the NFL with a mediocre quarterback and a good defense. They are doomed to wander the earth as the Patriots, Steelers, Rams and Colts are. Alive, but with nothing to live for.