2020 NFL season in review: What went wrong, what’s next for non-playoff teams
The 2020 NFL regular season came to a close Sunday.
To say it was an unusual year is an understatement. The league worked through a season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, holding games on every day of the week for the first time in history. The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens both experienced COVID-19 outbreaks with more than 20 players and coaches contracting the virus on both teams.
On the field, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes are favorites for the MVP after helping their teams reach the playoffs.
But what’s next for the teams that didn’t make the playoffs? NFL Nation digs in.
AFC EAST | AFC NORTH | AFC SOUTH | AFC WEST
NFC EAST | NFC NORTH | NFC SOUTH | NFC WEST
Miami Dolphins (10-6, 2nd AFC East)
What went wrong: Even though they missed the playoffs, the Dolphins’ 2020 season should be considered a success. They jumped from 5-11 to 10-6 in Year 2 of their rebuild, got significant playing time for rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and emerged as one of the best NFL defenses. This standout season showed Brian Flores’ growth as a head coach and how he could be in Miami for a while. However, the Dolphins missed the playoffs because of offensive inconsistency amid tough AFC competition. Tagovailoa’s lack of downfield throws are a concern and it’s an aspect he will need to improve upon in Year 2, but the Dolphins’ lack of speedy offensive playmakers has been clear and there are lingering questions about whether the offensive scheme and playcalling are the best fit for the young QB. We’ll look back to the Dolphins’ back-breaking loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 11 as the game that might have kept them out of the playoffs, but Sunday’s loss to the Bills showed the Dolphins aren’t close to stacking up against AFC’s elite.
Biggest offseason question: Will the Dolphins go all-in on building around Tagovailoa? Miami needs to find upgrades at wide receiver, running back and offensive line to help its offense ascend to above average next season. Fair or not, there will also be questions if Tagovailoa is the right man to lead them. The Dolphins have two first- and second-round picks in the 2021 draft (including a pick that could be as high as No. 3 overall thanks to the Texans), coupled with plenty of salary-cap space to improve whichever route they take. After 2019 was spent upgrading players in the trenches, 2021 should be about adding speed to the offense. There also will be conversations about whether Chan Gailey returns as offensive coordinator in 2021. Figuring out if the Tagovailoa-Gailey combination works is the biggest thing left to determine. — Cameron Wolfe
New England Patriots (7-9, 3rd AFC East)
What went wrong: The short answer? Quarterback Tom Brady left. But that’s really just scratching the surface, because even Brady would have had a tough time elevating the Patriots to greater heights given the dearth of talent at tight end and wide receiver. The Patriots were so one-dimensional on offense the Arizona Cardinals played a goal-line defense all over the field because they didn’t see any threat in the New England passing game. So that’s where it starts, but it doesn’t excuse unexpected struggles on defense that will require an influx of talent in the front seven. A COVID-19 disruption in Week 4 stunted some early momentum from quarterback Cam Newton & Co., and it didn’t help that an NFL-high eight players opted out. But those were secondary factors to the larger issue of a flawed roster void of talent in key areas.
Biggest offseason question: Who will be the quarterback in 2021? It’s the same question as last March when Brady pulled the plug on his time in New England. There could be some intriguing options on the trade market (Jimmy Garoppolo? Carson Wentz? Matthew Stafford?) and this year’s NFL draft class has some notable promise (the Patriots figure to have their highest first-round pick since 2008). That said, the Patriots simply can’t return in 2021 with the same level of talent at tight end and wide receiver and expect the results to be different — no matter who is throwing the football. The way opponents defended them in 2020 should make that decisively clear to coach Bill Belichick. — Mike Reiss
New York Jets (2-14, 4th in the AFC East)
What went wrong: Pretty much everything. Bad roster. Bad coaching. Bad luck. The result was an 0-13 start for the Jets that included another dismal showing by the offense (ranked 32nd for the second straight season), which sealed coach Adam Gase’s fate. The worst part was the regression of quarterback Sam Darnold, who got off to a brutal start, hurt his throwing shoulder and never passed for more than 230 yards in 15 games. How could that happen in a pass-happy 2020 season? Gase fired himself as the playcaller, then reclaimed the job — which didn’t help. He also fired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in Week 14. That did help, but it was too late. General manager Joe Douglas did a terrible job of constructing this roster; it was so bad that he was in “sell” mode by October. This was not supposed to be a rebuilding season, not after a 7-9 season in 2019, but he changed course once he saw the holes in his handiwork. Let’s face it: This season was an utter embarrassment for the Jets’ franchise.
Biggest offseason question: Two questions, really: Who’s the coach? Who’s the quarterback? With the No. 2 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, the Jets must decide whether Darnold is better than the best draft-eligible QB not named Trevor Lawrence. Advice to Douglas: If you believe in Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson, or another top prospect, pick him and trade Darnold. The downside to keeping Darnold is he has one year left on his contract, which creates financial uncertainty beyond 2021. That’s a huge factor in the decision. Douglas will lean heavily on his new coach, especially if he’s offensive-minded. He could go the pro coordinator route (Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale?) or college head coach route (Iowa State’s Matt Campbell?) because of his college-scouting connections. More advice: Hire a CEO-type, not a so-called guru who specializes on one side of the ball. — Rich Cimini
Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1, 4th in AFC North)
What went wrong: Cincinnati’s inability to win close games at the beginning of the season hindered the rebuilding project under second-year coach Zac Taylor. Couple those contests with an 0-3-1 record against the woeful NFC East and Cincinnati finishes far below a six- or seven-win season. To make matters worse, the Bengals lost rookie quarterback Joe Burrow to a season-ending knee injury in Week 11. One could argue the Bengals’ primary objective for 2020 — to keep Burrow healthy and develop him early during his rookie season — was unsuccessful. But it wasn’t all bad for Taylor’s group. The Bengals won two of their final three games, including their first over Pittsburgh since 2015, to show things could be trending upward in 2021.
Biggest offseason question: Burrow’s availability for the start of the 2021 season is in doubt. Even though he is hitting the early benchmarks after his knee reconstruction surgery, it’s too early to know whether he’ll be able to make the necessary progress to start Week 1. If Burrow can’t go, the Bengals will need a capable No. 2 quarterback, which could be Brandon Allen, who played well at the end of the season. Cincinnati also needs to find permanent answers on the offensive line. Right tackle and both guard positions must be solidified by the beginning of training camp. The Bengals need to do a better job of protecting their franchise investment. — Ben Baby
Houston Texans (4-12, 3rd AFC South)
What went wrong: The Texans’ defense didn’t improve from the unit that blew a 24-0 lead to the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs last season. Instead of making any noteworthy additions, the team hoped several young players would take steps forward in 2020 and that they had the pieces in place to overcome the loss of nose tackle D.J. Reader. None of those things happened, as the Texans struggled mightily against the run and to put pressure on the quarterback. Houston finished last in the league in takeaways. In a year where quarterback Deshaun Watson had the best season of his young career (setting single-season career-highs in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns and passer rating and a career-low in interceptions), it’s the defense that has led the Texans’ to their third-place finish in the AFC South.
Biggest offseason question: How do the Texans address their defense, particularly J.J. Watt and his future in Houston? It won’t be a quick fix to improve the defense, especially without a draft pick in the first or second round. The biggest decision facing the new general manager is whether Watt will be in a Texans uniform in 2021. With one year and $17.5 million (not guaranteed) left on his contract, it may make sense to trade Watt to get some draft capital. Watt has made it clear he’s not interested in being part of a rebuild, and if the Texans’ aren’t going to be serious contenders in 2021, Houston could move Watt to save money and allow him to chase a ring somewhere else. — Sarah Barshop
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15, 4th AFC South)
What went wrong: How much time do you have? Seriously, though, the top two are poor quarterback play and injuries/opt outs on defense. Gardner Minshew didn’t improve from his rookie season, especially in terms of comfort in the pocket, throwing receivers open, and arm strength, and he got in the doghouse by hiding a thumb injury. Mike Glennon and Jake Luton didn’t get it done, either, and the offense floundered (except for running back James Robinson). Opt outs because of the coronavirus (NT Al Woods and CB Rashaan Melvin), a retirement (DL Rodney Gunter because of a heart issue), and injuries to DE Josh Allen, CB C.J. Henderson, CB Sidney Jones, S Josh Jones, and S Jarrod Wilson, decimated a defense that wasn’t exactly loaded with talent to begin with. Allen wasn’t getting to the QB when he was healthy and rookie DE K’Lavon Chaisson hasn’t done much in terms of pressures until the last three games. Just a dearth of playmakers on that side of the ball. Oh, yeah, losing K Josh Lambo to an injury also robbed the team of one of its most consistent players.
Biggest offseason question: Who’s in charge? The Jaguars are searching for a general manager (owner Shad Khan fired Dave Caldwell on Nov. 29) and is expected to part ways with coach Doug Marrone after the season. The Jaguars are the most attractive job in the league. They have the No. 1 pick (which should be Trevor Lawrence) and also have three other picks in the first two rounds and six more in the first four. There are some pieces in place (Robinson, WR DJ Chark, Allen, LB Myles Jack, LB Joe Schobert) to form a solid base, and the Jaguars will have the most cap space (approximately $75 million) in the league. So Khan has to nail the hires, whether it be a GM first and let him decide on Marrone or a GM/coach package. As bad as things have been over the past decade (nine seasons of double-digit losses) the franchise is positioned to make a surge with the right people in place. — Mike DiRocco
Denver Broncos (5-11, 4th in AFC West)
What went wrong: From the moment linebacker Von Miller stepped awkwardly in a practice, ending his season with an ankle injury just days before the opener, the season became one long stumble. By Week 17 there were 13 players on injured reserve, including wide receiver Courtland Sutton, running back Phillip Lindsay and four defensive starters. Cornerback A.J. Bouye was suspended for violating the league’s policy on PEDs. Quarterback Drew Lock’s mercurial play didn’t help. Toss in having to play a game without quarterbacks due to COVID-19 protocols, a lost bye week because of another team’s battle with COVID-19 and a fifth consecutive playoff miss is what you get.
Biggest offseason question: Is Lock THE guy or not. His best work — a four-touchdown day in a win over Carolina or the comeback in November against the Chargers — is exactly what the Broncos want. But his turnover issues loom large — 15 interceptions to go with three lost fumbles in just 10 starts through Week 16. Until president of football operations/general manager John Elway speaks publicly on the matter, it is unclear how much leeway Lock will get out of the gate in 2021. At the moment he is expected to be the starter through the offseason, but the Broncos could crank up the competition at the position just in case the turnovers keep coming in September and October. — Jeff Legwold
Las Vegas Raiders (8-8, 2nd in AFC West)
What went wrong: One hundred and three seconds away from sweeping the Chiefs and improving to 7-3, Patrick Mahomes ripped the Raiders’ hearts out, showed it to them and then took a bite out of it. Too graphic? Maybe, but the Raiders’ collapse since Mahomes led a last-minute, game-winning drive on Nov. 22 has been nothing short of ghastly, with the Raiders losing five of seven to finish. The defense imploded and could not be trusted to close out a game, not with safety Johnathan Abram (Chiefs), cornerback Keisean Nixon (Chargers) and cornerback Damon Arnette and safety Isaiah Johnson (Dolphins) all getting respectively torched in late-game situations to contribute to the skid. Yeah, Mahomes sent the Raiders into a tailspin from which they could not recover, and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther paid for the defensive failings with his job on Dec. 13.
Biggest offseason question: Can the Raiders fix the defense, who will be Las Vegas’ next defensive coordinator and will their next draft class actually, you know, contribute? Yeah, three questions, but they are all intrinsically linked. Coach Jon Gruden could not trust the defense to close out games against the Chargers and Dolphins … after dismissing Guenther. Fans might be clamoring for Wade Phillips to fix the defense but a smarter bet may be for Gruden to make a run at interim Falcons coach Raheem Morris, so long as he does not get the full-time gig in Atlanta. And while 14 of the Raiders’ 25 draft picks since Gruden returned in 2018 have been on defensive players, well, there it is. The biggest needs are on that side of the ball. Still.— Paul Gutierrez
Los Angeles Chargers (7-9, 3rd in AFC West)
What went wrong: Injuries, inconsistent playcalling, inconsistent performances — except for their jewel, rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. Defensive tackle Justin Jones said, “We struck gold when we got Justin.” And they need to strike gold again to keep him healthy. As for the team, there were too many injuries, too many botched coaching decisions and kicks and seven one-score defeats. This team has talent, they just need someone strong in charge. Is it coach Anthony Lynn? It wasn’t all his fault, to be sure.
Biggest offseason question: Will Lynn get another year? Should offensive coordinator Shane Steichen stay? Should defensive coordinator Gus Bradley stay? Or should the Spanos family do a complete overhaul? The team got rid of Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator a year ago, so that didn’t work. Maybe stay with this crew and see where it goes? Lynn is a loyalist, and that’s not always bad. Herbert seems comfortable with Steichen and quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton. Maybe they should get another go, especially with the way the team finished the season.— Shelley Smith
Dallas Cowboys (6-10, 3rd in NFC East)
What went wrong: How about everything? At least it seemed that way early on. The Cowboys were prolific on offense (although turnover prone), to start the season but awful defensively. They allowed a franchise-record 307 yards rushing in a Week 4 loss to Cleveland. Things changed dramatically in Week 5 when quarterback Dak Prescott was lost to a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. Prescott was off to the best start of his career, and in his absence, everything fell apart. The defense struggled under coordinator Mike Nolan and the offense scored more than 20 points one time during a span of six losses in seven games that left Dallas with a 3-9 record. It ultimately was too much to overcome. Beyond Prescott’s injury, the offensive line was beset with injuries. Right tackle La’el Collins did not play a game because of hip surgery. Left tackle Tyron Smith played two games before neck surgery. Right guard Zack Martin missed six games with a concussion and calf injury. The lack of continuity played a role in running back Ezekiel Elliott’s struggles as well, although he had a part to play in why the running game stalled. Coach Mike McCarthy’s first season was far from what he and Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones expected. The hope is his second season is as fruitful as his second in Green Bay, when the Packers made the NFC Championship Game in 2007.
Biggest offseason question: How can it be anything but what happens to Prescott? Do the Cowboys use the franchise tag on the quarterback at a cost of close to $38 million in 2021? After three tries, do they finally reach a long-term deal, which projects to be the most valuable contract in team history? The Cowboys saw how vital Prescott is to their success. He apparently makes everything go. If the Cowboys don’t keep Prescott, how would that affect the locker room? Where would they find a suitable replacement? Could they look to draft a quarterback in the first round for the first time since 1989, when they selected Troy Aikman? Keeping Prescott could cost big money on the tag or a long-term deal could lead to some other players getting cut, but it seems hard to believe that a team that got lucky in finding its past two franchise quarterbacks — Tony Romo as an undrafted free agent and Prescott in the fourth round — would be so cavalier about wanting to start over at the position. — Todd Archer
Detroit Lions (5-11, 4th NFC North)
What went wrong: Detroit continued to bet on Matt Patricia’s scheme and brought in players to fit specific roles. It failed. It banked on Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn’s vision for the team to blossom in 2020. That failed. The defensive line never improved as a unit, despite Romeo Okwara’s emergence. The linebackers still were subpar. The secondary was crushed by injury and No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah did not become an impact player in Year 1. On offense, receiver Kenny Golladay was hurt for more than half the season and the unit as a whole suffered because of the defense’s problems. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was good enough, but by the end of the season had right hand/thumb, rib and ankle injuries.
Biggest offseason question: Will the Detroit Lions get it right this time? The team is heading toward another regime turnover with vacant general manager and head-coaching positions. Detroit is committed to doing a thorough search, but even that doesn’t always turn up a winner. And the Lions have seen a lot of non-winners over the past six decades. So making sure they get the right tandem is where it starts. Then, what to do with Stafford and Golladay is the first big decision for the tandem as they decide how much needs to be torn down and how much can just be tinkered with on a team with three straight 10-or-more-loss seasons. — Michael Rothstein
Minnesota Vikings (7-9, 3rd NFC North)
What went wrong: The Vikings couldn’t predict Michael Pierce opting out or Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and Mike Hughes sustaining season-ending injuries. Minnesota learned how challenging it would be to plug inexperienced players into starter’s roles and expect the same results on defense. The Vikings went all-in with several moves that suggested they were trying to win in 2020 — extending Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook, drafting Justin Jefferson — but tried to execute a rebuild with a defense that lost nine players from 2019. And in 2020, they were no longer able to pull off game-altering stops. While the Vikings’ offensive line finished tied for 16th in pass block win rate thanks to the play of the tackles, the interior remains a major problem. And for how well the offense performed, ranking sixth in yards per game, fifth in rushing and 13th in scoring, the Vikings often played from behind and relied more on their rushing attack than their wide receivers when they needed an offensive surge.
Biggest offseason question: With needs on the offensive and defensive lines, how will the Vikings prioritize their decisions in free agency and the draft? The offense has leapfrogged the defense as the strength of the team, but if Minnesota doesn’t upgrade the offensive line and find a better balance with the run and pass game, it will struggle to improve. Could the Vikings consider drafting a quarterback if they don’t extend Cousins after his deal ends after 2022? Defensively, Minnesota needs its injured and opt-out players to return and continue to add in the secondary and up front. — Courtney Cronin
Atlanta Falcons (4-12, 4th NFC South)
What went wrong: The Falcons came into 2020 with coach Dan Quinn, who earned another chance from owner Arthur Blank after Atlanta won six of its final eight games in 2019. But after an 0-5 start, Blank fired a coach in-season for the first time since becoming owner in 2002. Blank also fired general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who had been with the Falcons since 2008. Raheem Morris took over as the interim, and while the offense has been inconsistent, the defense seemingly became everything Atlanta expected it to be under Quinn. However, neither Quinn nor Morris could get the Falcons to finish most games — with blown leads of 16, 17 and 20 points — something that has haunted the Falcons since Super Bowl LI.
Biggest offseason question: Who will the Falcons hire as general manager and coach and what changes will they bring? When rumors were swirling in late October that QB Matt Ryan or WR Julio Jones could be traded, CEO Rich McKay said the new general manager would have control over personnel decisions, and “this will not be a situation where we’re going to predetermine the roster for the next head coach and general manager.” The Falcons also have a big decision looming on whom they will take in the NFL draft, which could include Ryan’s successor considering the QB talent in this year’s class. — Harry Lyles Jr.
Carolina Panthers (5-11, 3rd in the NFC South)
What went wrong: The Panthers weren’t expected to be a playoff contender with first-year NFL coach Matt Rhule overhauling the roster, so it’s hard to say something went wrong. Having said that, Carolina was more competitive than many expected and could have been in the playoff hunt had running back Christian McCaffrey stayed healthy and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater found a way to pull out close games. McCaffrey missed 13 games and Bridgewater was 0-8 in games in which he had the ball on Carolina’s final possession with a chance to tie or win. Win half of those and Carolina was in the mix. The Panthers ranked 26th in red zone scoring and not having a running game inside the 20 was a big part of that. McCaffrey had five rushing touchdowns in three games. Nobody else had more than six.
Biggest offseason question: Can Bridgewater be the franchise quarterback offensive coordinator Joe Brady called him? Bridgewater’s inability to lead game-winning drives (see above) is reason for pause. Granted, Bridgewater didn’t have starting left tackle Russell Okung for nine games or McCaffrey for 13. Left tackle is the biggest offseason question behind Bridgewater. Bridgewater also was hampered by not having a big, receiving tight end as a safety valve as Cam Newton had for years with Greg Olsen. So finding one is a priority. Bridgewater should go into 2021 as the starter, but with a top 10 pick, the Panthers have to strongly consider drafting a player who has the potential to be the franchise quarterback. Finding a player that can groom under Bridgewater for a year and then take over as Patrick Mahomes did with Alex Smith at Kansas City would be ideal. — David Newton
Arizona Cardinals (8-8, 3rd in NFC West)
What went wrong: The Cardinals finished 3-6, including a three-game losing streak and losing four out of five. They went from competing for the NFC West title to a win-or-go-home game in Week 17, which they lost. Arizona lost a sense of who it was — if it even knew in the first place. All season, coach Kliff Kingsbury repeatedly said the Cardinals didn’t have an offensive identity, but, in reality, they did. It was quarterback Kyler Murray. As he went, so did the Cardinals. During the three-game losing streak, Murray ran for a total of 61 yards. Until then, he averaged 67.1 rushing yards per game. Teams figured out how to defend Murray and make him one dimensional and Kingsbury didn’t counter well enough to spread out defenses and move the ball. It led to the Cardinals losing to teams that they shouldn’t have, like the Lions, Panthers, Patriots and 49ers. And that ultimately cost Arizona a playoff berth.
Biggest offseason question: There isn’t just one because the Cardinals have to take a long, hard looks at the roster, coaching staff, scheme and positions. One question that will play a major role in Arizona’s offseason is whether cornerback Patrick Peterson will get another deal in Arizona or head to another team? His deal expires in March. Another question is whether the Cardinals will add another top- or mid-tier wide receiver — whether Larry Fitzgerald retires or not.— Josh Weinfuss
San Francisco 49ers (6-10, 4th in NFC West)
What went wrong: What didn’t go wrong might be the better question. Most of the 49ers issues can be linked to a never-ending rash of injuries to integral players. Among the 49ers who missed big chunks of the season: quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, tight end George Kittle, defensive ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, center Weston Richburg, receiver Deebo Samuel, running back Raheem Mostert, cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams and safety Jaquiski Tartt. If all of that wasn’t enough, the Niners dealt with their share of COVID-19 related issues, were forced to relocate to Arizona when Santa Clara County banned contact sports just after Thanksgiving and even spent early parts of the season practicing under apocalyptic skies with bad air quality because of nearby wildfires. All of those ingredients created perhaps the worst Super Bowl hangover in league history.
Biggest offseason question: What will they do at quarterback? The Niners have no shortage of roster issues to address and little in the way of cap room, but most of those decisions will be shaped by what happens at the game’s most important position. Garoppolo is due to count nearly $27 million against the cap in each of the next two seasons, which is a hefty price for a player who has missed 23 games in the past three years. The 49ers can move on with little dead money but doing so is dependent on their ability to find someone better for a team that has talent to contend. Garoppolo has won a lot when healthy but given his injury issues, at minimum the Niners need to upgrade their quarterback depth.— Nick Wagoner
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