All 32 NFL teams have a chip on their shoulder. No matter what sport, no matter what player, no matter how good or bad the team, there’s always some external reason to prove themselves.
New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul decided that a writer saying the Giants caught a break was reason for motivation. The Alabama Crimson Tide put fabricated stories from “The National Media” on a bulletin board as proof that nobody believed they could win a national championship.
It goes without saying at this point that some reasons for motivation are better than others.
This list will examine eight NFL teams that don’t have to make up quotes or look for writers calling them lucky for motivation. These teams come into the season knowing that they have to prove themselves as contenders or reevaluate their position as a franchise.
For these teams, this year is a crossroads.
If they contend, they’ll likely try to do so in the long term with their current cores. If not, it might be time to tear it down and start anew — or at least acknowledge that they’re pretty far from where they need to be, a depressing reality for any football team. Without further ado, here are eight teams that need to prove themselves this season.
Yes, the Miami Dolphins made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2008. Yes, the biggest reason they failed to compete in the Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was an injury to quarterback Ryan Tannehill. And yes, there is a better outlook coming into this year than there’s been in a long time.
However, there are still a sizable contingent that thinks this team cannot win with Ryan Tannehill. Beyond the quarterback position, there are lingering questions about the defense, which was a paltry 19th in efficiency last season, as measured by DVOA. Byron Maxwell has to follow up on a strong 2016, while Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain are question marks at cornerback behind him. The team also shelled out nearly $20 million in guaranteed money to keep safety Reshad Jones, who must prove he can keep playing at a high level as he nears age 30.
Oh, and there’s that pesky team that feels like an automatic victor in the AFC East every year. The Dolphins haven’t beaten the New England Patriots since September of 2014, a precursor to the Pats being blown out on a Monday night in Kansas City, then turning things around and winning a Super Bowl.
If Miami really has turned the corner, they have to at least compete for the AFC East title, but after the Patriots’ incredible offseason, it’s tough to see that happening.
Jacksonville’s front office has given quarterback Blake Bortles more chances to succeed than most people get in a lifetime. In 2016, he was one of the biggest reasons that Jaguars disappointed with a 3-13 record. Bortles threw 16 interceptions, ranking fourth in the league, and finished 29th in QBR. More than that, after three NFL seasons, he doesn’t seem to be fully developed mechanically.
Well, if he (and Jacksonville) is ever going to turn it around, now is the time. The Jaguars have surrounded Bortles with talent, spending their first-round pick on running back Leonard Fournette to supplement Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon at running back. Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee make up a more than serviceable receiving corps and though the Jaguars still have questions surrounding their offensive line, it’s tough to say there isn’t enough talent for Bortles to succeed.
That’s without mentioning the massive investments Jacksonville made on defense this offseason. They brought in cornerbak A.J. Bouye, defensive tackle Calais Campbell and safety Barry Church. If that unit clicks, Bortles won’t even have to score that often for the Jaguars to win. So, this is it for Bortles, and this iteration of the Jaguars. They have the roster they want and a cupcake AFC South schedule to boot. Time to put up or shut up.
After the offseason departures of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler — the team’s two best offensive linemen in 2016 — it feels like the Bengals may have one foot in the rebuilding doorway already. However, this year still represents as good a chance as any to get to the postseason and win the franchise’s first playoff game since 1990.
Despite the losses along the offensive line, the core of this team is largely the same as the 2015 squad that looked like a Super Bowl contender before Andy Dalton hurt his thumb. If Dalton can be the best version of himself, Tyler Eifert stays healthy, and rookie wideout John Ross becomes an impact guy, the Bengals can easily contend in the AFC North.
Outside of Eifert’s health — which is largely outside of anyone’s control — the biggest question for Cincy is the defense. In 2015, they were a top-10 unit by DVOA, but dropped to 18th in the stat last season. The only impact player they lost was safety Reggie Nelson, so what gives? Maybe the unit overachieved two years ago, but this is still largely the same cast of characters: Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict, Dre Kirkpatrick, Adam Jones, Carlos Dunlap, and so on.
There’s continuity here on both sides of the ball, which means this team should either be better than the 6-9-1 record they had last season, or it should reset — something ownership has resisted. But going into Andy Dalton’s seventh year and head coach Marvin Lewis’ 14th, it’s time for this team to win a freaking playoff game.
It feels weird to say the team that took home a Lombardi Trophy just two years ago has anything to prove, but after a 9-7 record in 2016 led to Gary Kubiak’s retirement and an all-new coaching staff, here we are.
Let’s get one thing out of the way here: quarterback Trevor Siemian isn’t the problem. Siemian is far from a superstar, but he was perfectly serviceable last season, more than Denver could say for Peyton Manning, who was under center when the team won the 2015 title. The defense and coaching staff, however, have a lot to prove.
The big question with the defense: Is this the historically good unit we saw two seasons ago, or merely the very good unit we saw last season?
It sounds like a dumb question, but that was the difference between a Super Bowl-winner and a third-place team, albeit in a very good division. When it comes to the coaching staff, the expectations are high because this group is replacing one that went to the mountaintop. Former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips turned this defense into what it is. Now, head coach Vance Joseph and defensive coordinator Joe Woods have to keep it there, which isn’t easy at all.
More than that, the Broncos have to compete in what may be the best division in football. The Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders were both Super Bowl contenders last season. The Los Angeles Chargers (yeah, it feels weird), look like they could be gearing up for a playoff run. Where does that leave Denver? The Broncos have to prove that this team, which went to two Super Bowls and won one of them, isn’t on its last legs. That it has something left and that it can still compete for a championship.
Like their Super Bowl 50 opponents, the Panthers took a bit of a dive last season, falling to 6-10 and the NFC South basement. Some of the reasons for their downfall, like star linebacker Luke Kuechly playing only ten games due to injury, were out of their control. But that’s no excuse for their record plummeting.
Carolina went offense-heavy in the offseason, adding running back Christian McCaffery and receiver Curtis Samuel in the first two rounds while making left tackle Matt Kalil their marquee signing in free agency. They received widespread praise for their draft. The Kalil signing, not so much. The tackle position probably won’t stop being a problem for the Panthers, but there’s requisite talent at the skill positions and the interior offensive line for Cam Newton to put up the MVP-type season he did in 2015.
And though they still don’t have a star corner in the same vein as Josh Norman, James Bradberry wasn’t half-bad last season and the team remained in the top-10 when it came to defensive efficiency.
However, the NFC South has made strides. The Atlanta Falcons, of course, made the Super Bowl last season and nearly won it, blowing a 28-3 lead in the process, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look like a potential playoff team after bolstering their receiving corps during the offseason. If Carolina competes, it means proving that they can hang with those teams.
The Lions were the NFC’s answer to the Dolphins: a playoff team everyone assumed wasn’t for real, which promptly proved that it wasn’t real in a 26-6 Wild Card drubbing against the Seattle Seahawks.
Detroit’s burden of proof may be larger than any other team on this list, solely because the advanced metrics were never on their side last season. The Lions were 27th — only a hair above the hapless San Francisco 49ers — in overall efficiency, as measured by DVOA, last season. And they dropped to 29th, below the Niners, when the end of the season was weighted more heavily than the beginning. More than that, they were below average in offensive efficiency and dead last in defensive efficiency.
In short, every statistical indicator tells us that the Lions overachieved last season.
Although the Lions made some offseason moves — most notably adding offensive linemen T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner — this is a very similar team, meaning that the front office thinks the stats were wrong. Well, come September, Matthew Stafford and Co. will have to prove it.
It feels like an almost existential question at this point: What are the Vikings?
They started 5-0 last season then went 3-8 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs.
Teddy Bridgewater hurt his knee in gruesome fashion before last season, nobody knows if he’ll be able to play this season and if he is, nobody knows if the job belongs to him or Sam Bradford. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s recurring eye troubles turned into a legitimate health problem. Adrian Peterson, probably the best player in franchise history, was replaced by middling running back Latavius Murray and draftee Dalvin Cook this offseason.
The front office addressed offensive line problems by bringing in Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff, neither of whom are particularly good. Linebacker Anthony Barr’s PFF grade went from 91.7 in 2015 to 43.1 last season. Adam Thielen had nearly 1,000 receiving yards out of nowhere.
What are we supposed to expect from this team?
That question is almost unanswerable, but here’s what we know: at the end of the 2015 season, it seemed almost a sure thing that the Vikings would be Super Bowl contenders by now. The Lions made the wild card with nine wins last season and it’s certainly possible the Vikings could make it with ten, or even win the division, as the Packers did with a 10-6 record last season. This roster, at its best, is probably capable of that, but a lot has to go right that didn’t last year.
Arizona’s 7-8-1 record in 2016 was arguably the singularly most disappointing season any team had. It prompted very real questions about whether quarterback Carson Palmer, at age 37, was done, and with him, this iteration of the Cardinals.
Sure, the rest of a very good team is still there and would have been had Palmer retired or been cut, but a lot of teams have been in the position of having a very good team and a bad quarterback and very few of them have succeeded. Just ask a fan of the Houston Texans.
In light of that choice, the Cardinals chose to run it back one more time, and it’s tough to blame them. David Johnson may be the best young running back in the league, Larry Fitzgerald has gas left in the tank, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson make up one of the most terrifying secondary tandems in the league and Bruce Arians is still a great coach.
In the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks seem measurably weaker than in previous years. The Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers are still in rebuild mode. The Cardinals have the league’s fourth-easiest schedule according to win totals in Las Vegas.
If this is Arizona’s last chance to win with Palmer, it may also be their best chance.