They say that hope springs eternal, but that’s really meant for baseball. In football, hope is false, more often than not. Parity in the NFL has made every team enter every season feeling like a contender, when the truth is that couldn’t be further from the truth.
So more than a few fan bases are in for a big fall – either immediately with a slow start, or slowly with a disappointing finish. There are only a few “power” teams left in the NFL. All the rest could go either way depending on a few factors. Sometimes it’s easier to see the truth from outside the fan base. So for those of you caught up in hope that your mediocre team is truly a contender, here’s a little reality check:
Here are five teams you think will be good, but they almost certainly won’t:
1. Carolina Panthers (12-4)
They had a brilliant, coming out party in 2013 and it looked like they had arrived, finally, as an NFC power and Cam Newton had taken a step toward being an elite quarterback. But now Newton is playing with a cracked rib and behind a shaky offensive line. And remember, they got rid of Steve Smith and pretty much all their wide receivers during the offseason.
Yes, their defense is terrific. They led the NFL with 60 sacks last season. And you can win a lot of games with a pass rush like that. But you can’t be a double-digit win team without scoring points. Also, defensive end Greg Hardy is staring at a suspension at some point, possibly as long as six games.
If he gets suspended for that long, and Newton’s injury lingers it could be a really long season. Even if everything works out, the Panthers could be in for a fall back to mediocrity, at least.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)
Everyone knew Andy Reid would turn around the Chiefs, but did anyone see 11 wins in his first season? Probably not, because it was unrealistic – as improbable, really as their 9-0 start. It’s also impossible, by the way, to ignore that their 9-0 start became a 2-5 finish, which may have been too big of a correction, but is still a sign of things to come.
This year they’re facing a brutal schedule and Reid will have to continue to make magic with quarterback Alex Smith and a surprisingly powerful running game behind an offensive line that lost three starters to free agency. That’s not usually a recipe for success. Also keep in mind that as the Chiefs swooned late, so did their pass rush which was as responsible as anything for their 9-0 start.
In a tough division where a lot of points are scored, it’s hard to imagine Reid can keep up with the roster he has – just like it was tough to imagine they could sustain it when they were undefeated in Week 10 last year.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8)
Back to back .500 seasons show they’re deep in mediocrity, but they always feel they have a chance because of the presence of Ben Roethlisberger. And maybe that’s true. But what else do the Steelers have? And shouldn’t everyone be at least a little alarmed by how awful the offense looked this summer?
The hope for more seems to hinge around the running back duo of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, assuming they don’t end up serving twin suspensions for their arrest on marijuana charges in August. It won’t help ease the burden that the loss of Jerricho Cotchery has thinned the wide receiver corps.
Unfortunately they’re going to need to score points just to get back to .500 again, because that defense, being rebuilt around youth, took a big step back last year and may be poised to step back again.
4. Chicago Bears (8-8)
Doesn’t it seem like every year the Bears are on the verge of contention and Jay Cutler is on the verge of being an elite quarterback? Yet the Bears haven’t been in the playoffs since 2010 and they’ve actually made it just once in the last seven seasons. So why all the optimism this year?
Jay Cutler is what he is, which is an erratic quarterback capable of elite play followed by mindless mistakes. Yes, they scored a lot of points last year (and Cutler was rewarded with a seven-year, $126 million extension). And they should again with the receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey.
But a bad defense last year is now without Julius Peppers and Henry Melton along their defensive line. They brought in Jared Allen to help replace them, though he doesn’t exactly bring young legs. Their secondary isn’t getting any younger either. Yes, if the defense is better and the offense is just as good, this finally could be the year the Bears return to prominence.
But when is the last time everything worked out that well in Chicago? And haven’t we heard all this before?
5. Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
Arguably the biggest disappointment of 2013 was the fall of the Falcons from the best team in the NFC to the worst – a stunning fall for a team that was loaded with weapons (at least on the offensive side of the ball). Now, in 2014, everyone seems to assume that last year’s collapse was an anomaly, that the Falcons are poised to bounce back big.
Granted the return to health of Julio Jones could be big, but take a look at the lines along both sides of the ball. They’re trying to patch things together and hoping it will work, but it doesn’t appear as if they’ll be able to generate a pass rush or stop one. That’s a problem because that’s where games are won and lost.
Maybe they’ll be able to score some points – though it’s important to factor in the retirement (for real this time) of tight end Tony Gonzalez. Yet with a questionable defense – that may be switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 – it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to score enough to vault them back into contention in the NFC. Mediocrity may be their ceiling, and that would be a disappointment again.
—By Ralph Vacchiano