There are 22 teams in the NFL that can make at least a decent case to their fans that they’re still somehow in the playoff hunt, and maybe another handful that can at least stretch the definition of “in” with four games remaining in the season.
But the reality is the field isn’t that wide. Most of the division races are all but settled and the wild-card picture is starting to take shape. For more than half of the teams in the NFL this season is shaping up as a disappointment as they come to grips with the reality that they’ve already crushed their own Super Bowl dreams.
Some disappointments, though, are much greater than others. Some players and teams have collapsed despite incredibly high expectations. So here’s a look at the five biggest underachievers in the NFL:
Panthers QB Cam Newton
His rookie year was so good, the expectations for Year 2 were going to be unreasonably high. But no one expected his Panthers to fall apart so badly. It’s not all Newton’s fault that Carolina has stumbled to 3-9, but he’s been unable to do what good quarterbacks are supposed to do – lift his team up.
His completion percentage has dipped, but what’s most alarming is his 14-to-10 touchdown to interception ratio. It’s alarming because it’s only that good because he’s thrown six touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last three games. His start was so poor it buried the Panthers in a hole they simply couldn’t climb out of. And in an extremely tough division it even has some worrying about Carolina’s prospects for next year.
The Saints defense
The spectre of BountyGate, the suspension of the head coach, his top assistant, the GM and several players all have made this a difficult season for the Saints, as evidenced by their 0-4 start. They’ve rallied nicely since then to get to the fringe of the playoff race, but it hasn’t been enough.
Why? Because the defense stinks, which is shocking considering it’s led by Steve Spagnuolo, a strong defensive coach who won a Super Bowl as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. His defense this year is statistically the worst in the NFL. It’s also the worst against the run and 30th against the pass.
If they were even just a little better, the Saints might have already secured a playoff berth – and nobody would want to play them in the NFC.
The Detroit Lions
For a couple of years this team has been like a sleeping giant in the NFL, loaded with weapons on both sides of the ball and finally a solid plan from the coaches’ office. When they went 10-6 in 2011 and secured a playoff berth they looked to be a legitimate contender in the NFC.
Then what happened? Controversies. Arrests. Ndamakong Suh’s anger issues. Comical miscues. And four straight losses that have made them what one scout called “the best 4-8 team we’ve had in years in the NFL.” That’s not much consolation to a long-suffering fan base that was expecting so much more out of Matt Stafford and co.
Eagles DE Trent Cole
The Philadelphia Eagles could have spent the last two seasons on this list after looking like a “Dream Team” a year ago. And individually you could put everyone from the coach to the quarterback on the list, too. But the most mystifying part of this team is the complete disappearance of its once feared defense, which is a shell of its former, aggressive self.
Cole is the poster child for their disappearance. In his previous six NFL seasons he never had fewer than 8 sacks. In the last three years he totaled 33.5 sacks. Then in the offsesason he signed a four-year, $48.5 million contract extension and what happens? Two sacks so far in 12 games. No one could have foreseen that.
Jets QB Mark Sanchez
He has had Jets fans clamoring for Tim Tebow and then he temporarily lost his job to Greg McElroy. That should be more than enough said. But keep in mind that this year was supposed to be the one that Sanchez finally took the big leap in his career. He had already led the Jets to two AFC championship games, and last year – which wasn’t great – he still threw for nearly 3,500 yards with 26 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
This year? The Jets are a disaster and Sanchez’s numbers have dipped across the board. His worst numbers are his 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He’s failing to justify the $60 million contract extension he got during the offseason and isn’t exactly inspiring faith in the tough Jets fan base. The Jets might have to go in another direction soon and Sanchez’s failures could cost coach Rex Ryan his job.
—By RALPH VACCHIANO