Who would’ve thought it…
The 2018 NFL regular season was filled with drama and surprises. Who would’ve thought back in Week 1 that second-year Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes would break multiple NFL records en route to being the favorite to land the league MVP award?
Over in the NFC, a key addition by Jerry Jones and Co. brought the Cowboys back from irrelevance to capture the NFC East title. And within the same division, a familiar face led his Eagles to a surprise playoff appearance.
On the other side of the ledger, the Bay Area’s two teams won a combined eight games. Meanwhile, the two Los Angeles teams won a combined 25 games and are legit Super Bowl contenders.
These are among the top 2018 takeaways for each NFL team as the calendar turns to 2019.
Arizona Cardinals: A mistake at the top
If the 2018 calendar year taught us anything it’s that the powers to be in the desert made a major mistake by hiring Steve Wilks. The head coach seemed to be in over his head at every turn — reminding us a great deal of former 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula. And much like Tomsula, Wilks ended up one-and-done in the desert. He led the Cardinals to the league’s worst scoring offense en route to putting up a 3-13 record. The good news here is that Arizona will look for an offensive-minded coach to help young quarterback Josh Rosen progress moving forward.
Atlanta Falcons: A year of regression
Head coach Dan Quinn will keep his job. But what we saw from these Falcons during a seven-win 2018 season was downright dreadful. The offense might have performed well under embattled coordinator Steve Sarkisian, but everything else fell apart. Atlanta’s defense struggled big time. Injuries forced the team to rely on a different group of backs. Meanwhile, youngsters failed to step up. Now, almost two years after reaching the Super Bowl, sweeping changes are already in store for these Falcons. It’s that simple.
Baltimore Ravens: Changing of the tide
Joe Flacco will be playing football in another city next season. After leading the Ravens to a decent amount of success in 11 seasons with the organization, the baton was passed to Lamar Jackson halfway through the 2018 campaign. There’s now no going back after Jackson led the Ravens to an 6-1 mark in seven starts with the team. In the process, Baltimore re-energized a previously fledgling rushing attack. Now, with Flacco likely gone, one has to wonder if head coach John Harbaugh will follow suit once the calendar hits 2019. How the team performs in January will tell us a lot about this.
Buffalo Bills: The Tyrod Taylor dynamic
We’re not here to attack rookie quarterback Josh Allen. He was always going to be a project after an average college career at Wyoming. In fact, it seems that the young quarterback far exceeded expectations. Instead, it was the spring-time decision to move on from former Pro Bowl quarterback Tyrod Taylor that doomed this team. Remember, the Bills were forced to go with Nathan Peterman and Derek Anderson at times this past regular year. It was certainly not a fair situation to put Allen in. And in reality, the Bills’ brass — head coach Sean McDermott included — share in the blame.
Carolina Panthers: Super Cam no more
Prior to being shut down with a shoulder injury after 14 games, it became clear that this former NFL MVP was nowhere near 100 percent. It led to a seven-game slide after the Panthers started the year with a 6-2 record. It’s also just the latest example of Carolina’s front office failing Newton at every turn. Whether it’s the inability to provide him with a decent offensive line or skill-position players or leaving the franchise quarterback out there while injured, the Panthers’ front office needs to do better by Cam. Hopefully, the 2019 calendar year will bring about that train of thought from the powers to be.
Chicago Bears: Back to relevance
Former Bears head coach John Fox must have looked on in disbelief as the team earned the NFC North title. Long irrelevant, it took a genius offensive mind in new head coach Matt Nagy, and one of the best defenses in the NFL, for the Bears to overcome the Vikings and Packers in the division. Once all was said and done, quarterback Mitch Trubisky progressed big time as a sophomore. On the other side of the ball, former Oakland Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack threw his hat into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. We have no idea what’s going to happen during the early part of 2019, but we can say that 2018 brought these Bears back to relevance.
Cincinnati Bengals: Definition of insanity
The Bengals’ decision to bring Marvin Lewis back for 2018 was met with ridicule from the masses. How could an organization that had turned irrelevant in previous seasons bring back a head coach that had posted a career 0-7 postseason record? How could said organization then turn back to a quarterback in Andy Dalton who was 0-4 in his playoff career? We’ll never know what these two had hanging over the heads of those in Cincinnati. What we do know is that Lewis and the Bengals mutually parted ways with one another — only for the former head coach to campaign for Hue Jackson as his replacement. How fun is that?
Cleveland Browns: A new era in Ohio
The Browns are relevant on the larger NFL stage once again. Though, 2018 certainly didn’t start out that way. Most were thrown for a loop when Cleveland brought back Hue Jackson after he posted a 1-31 mark in his first two seasons. After seeing him start the season 2-5-1, the Browns fired Jackson and replaced him with Gregg Williams. That also drew laughs from the peanut gallery. But all Williams did was lead Cleveland to a 5-3 record and contention into Week 16. That’s amazing. Now, with young quarterback Baker Mayfield and a bunch of other solid pieces, we can easily conclude that 2018 was a success for the Browns.
Dallas Cowboys: Rebirth of sorts
A shutout loss to Indianapolis in Week 15 notwithstanding, Jason Garrett and the ‘Boys made their presence felt on the league-wide stage this past regular season. It started with the acquisition of Amari Cooper in October — a trade that the Cowboys were soundly criticized for initially. But once Coop got his sea legs in Dallas, the Cowboys posted a 7-2 record to close out the year. It led to the NFC East title and a rebirth of sorts for this long-fledgling franchise. With Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott in the mix long term, the future is bright. Add in one of the most surprising defenses in the NFL, and that’s magnified further. Whether this means further progression during the early part of 2019 remains to be seen.
Denver Broncos: John Elway’s failings
Is Elway now the most overrated front office head in all of sports? His tenure in Denver had previously been defined by Peyton Manning landing on his lap. Since then, it’s been a complete and utter dumpster fire at Mile High. From drafting bust Paxton Lynch to failing to add a top-end quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft in favor of journeyman Case Keenum, he’s failed the team at the game’s most important position. Given that Elway is a Hall of Fame quarterback himself, this is head-scratching. Now teetering between bottom-feeding status and mediocrity, the 2018 calendar year proved Elway to be fraudulent. But hey, at least he found his fall guy in that of former head coach Vance Joseph.
Detroit Lions: Another mistake in Motor City
The decision to fire Jim Caldwell and replace him with former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was meant to bring in some new blood to Detroit. General manager Bob Quinn had working knowledge of Patricia dating back to their days together in New England. Almost immediately, this hiring looked like a mistake. Within a week, old allegations of inappropriate behavior from Patricia made headlines. Once the season started, Detroit couldn’t get out of its own way and Patricia’s coaching methods were called into question. It resulted in a 6-10 record and last-place in the NFC North. One now has to wonder if Patricia is long for the job in Detroit.
Green Bay Packers: Onward without McCarthy
Green Bay finally bit the bullet and fired this overrated head coach 12 games into the season. By then, it was all over for the Packers’ playoff hopes. For the second consecutive season, this team missed out on the playoffs. The backdrop here being regression from Aaron Rodgers and a change of philosophy from within the team’s young front office. While 2018 might have been a lost season for the Packers, there’s certainly a lot to look forward to. They remain one of the most-popular franchises in the NFL and will draw interest from top-end head coaching candidates. If it took a lost season for the Packers to move on from the old guard, fans in Green Bay can’t complain too much.
Houston Texans: Saving Bill’s job
Bill O’Brien entered the 2018 season firmly on the hot seat. His Texans had posted three consecutive nine-win campaigns to start his career before falling to 4-12 last year. There was absolutely no way O’Brien would keep his job after the Texans started 2018 with three consecutive losses. Wrong. Riding the great play of Deshaun Watson on offense and a resurgence from pass rusher J.J. Watt, the Texans ended up winning 11 of 13 games to close out the regular season. That’s as much a testament to the talented roster as it is a vote of confidence in O’Brien’s direction. Even then, this brilliant string of play has kept O’Brien’s tenure in Houston alive. What happens next remains to be seen. That’s what January is all about.
Indianapolis Colts: It’s all about Captain Luck
Most of the NFL MVP focus has surrounded Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees. Given how well each quarterback played during the regular season, this makes sense. Though, we’re not talking about the game’s best player. We’re looking at the most valuable. Luck proved to be in this category during a brilliant 2018 season. Indianapolis finished the regular year by winning nine of 10 games — earning a playoff spot in the process. Luck? Well, he threw for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns. The turnaround in Indy can be directly linked to both Luck and first-year head coach Frank Reich. Remember, the Colts were 5-12 in the previous 17 games that Luck didn’t start. O captain, my captain, indeed.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Same old Jags
There’s was certainly a false hope heading into the 2018 season that these Jaguars would somehow come out of the AFC. The calendar year started with Jacksonville taking New England to the brink in the conference title game. Since then, it’s been completely downhill. Blake Bortles was benched for Cody Kessler. Leonard Fournette struggled with injury and found himself suspended for a game. Meanwhile, young cornerback Jalen Ramsey regressed on the field and just couldn’t keep his mouth shut off the field. The end result was a disastrous 5-11 campaign and a last-place finish in the AFC South. Yeah, 2017 proved to be an exception to the rule for this long-downtrodden organization.
Kansas City Chiefs: A new type of football
In his first NFL season as a starter, Patrick Mahomes became just the second quarterback in league history to throw for 5,000-plus yards and reach the 50-touchdown plateau. It was simply stunning what he did for a Chiefs team that finished the regular season 13-3 and averaging north of 35 points per game. All this was done under the guide of innovative offensive mind Andy Reid. Whether that leads to playoff success in January remains to be seen. But this Chiefs team boasted one of the best regular-season offenses in NFL history.
Los Angeles Chargers: From underrated to contender
After starting the season with a 1-2 mark, Anthony Lynn and the Chargers ultimately won 11 of their final 13 games. It’s simply stunning what we saw from Philip Rivers en route to the quarterback throwing his hat into the MVP conversation. Rivers finished 2018 having thrown for north of 4,300 yards with 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. It might have been the finest season of an already-stellar career. Unfortunately, Los Angeles had the displeasure of playing in the AFC West with the Chiefs. This means the team will be forced into a road wild card game to start the 2019 calendar year.
Los Angeles Rams: Brilliant offensive mind
Rams head coach Sean McVay has proven to be an absolute genius on the offensive side of the ball. Prior to late-season struggles, quarterback Jared Goff looked like a legit MVP candidate. Running back Todd Gurley tallied 1,831 total yards and 21 touchdowns. This all led Los Angeles to a 13-3 regular season record and the No. 2 seed in the NFC Playoffs. All the while, these Rams averaged a whopping 32.9 points per game. Given that this is nearly the same core group of players Jeff Fisher coached to mediocrity, McVay has to be given a ton of credit.
Miami Dolphins: Mediocrity in South Beach
Firing Adam Gase after three seasons seemed to be the obvious end result after Miami finished the 2018 campaign with a pedestrian 7-9 record. It’s the ninth time in 10 seasons that these Dolphins failed to finish over .500. At some point, it’s about the powers to be in Miami, not just the coaching. Owner Stephen Ross continues to lead a fledgling ship. and outside of a playoff appearance in 2016, Miami simply has not been relevant on the broader NFL stage. Whether a new coach changes that remains to be seen.
Minnesota Vikings: Kissing Cousins
That’s pretty much how the 2018 season went for these Vikings. After handing Kirk Cousins $84 million in guaranteed cash, Minnesota regressed big time. The idea behind signing Cousins was to take that next step to championship contention following a 13-win 2017 campaign under Case Keenum. The end result was an 8-7-1 finish and a Week 17 loss that forced Minnesota into a dark winter. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they’re stuck with Cousins for the next two seasons. Given his 4-25 career record against winning teams, expectations now have to be muted in Minneapolis moving forward.
New England Patriots: The end of the line?
A solid Week 17 win over the Jets to secure a first-round playoff bye notwithstanding, this year’s version of the Patriots proved to be nothing more than mediocre. Tom Brady struggled to an extent over the final six-plus weeks of the season. Meanwhile, New England posted a 6-4 record outside of the division and was outscored by one point against like opponents on the season. We’re always too quick to call for an end to the Patriots’ dynasty. Brady could very well lead to the team to a ninth Super Bowl appearance under his watch. Even then, the expectation here is that these Patriots are not in a class of their own in the AFC.
New Orleans Saints: Yeah, Drew Brees is still good
This future Hall of Famer did enough during the 2018 season to be considered a top-end MVP candidate. Sure that award will likely go to Patrick Mahomes, but it doesn’t mean Brees has regressed. Not only did Brees lead New Orleans to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC, he did so in style. The 39-year-old quarterback completed an NFL record 74.4 percent of his passes with 32 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He also helped Michael Thomas put up an historic season — catching an NFL record 85 percent of the 147 passes thrown in his direction. Whew.
New York Giants: Failing Saquon and Odell
As bad as the Giants might have been in 2018, they certainly have two major building blocks moving forward. Sharply criticized for taking Saquon Barkley No. 2 overall in April, all the rookie running back did was put up north of 2,000 total yards en route to breaking multiple league records. And while Beckham’s stats weren’t great this past season, he’s still a true No. 1 receiver. The issue here is that these two were failed by the front office. Continuing to throw Eli Manning out there made no sense. And the team’s free agent signings were disastrous. One can only hope that New York finds a quarterback worthy of these two all-world performers moving forward. Eli isn’t that man.
New York Jets: Finally have a franchise guy
As with most rookie quarterbacks, Sam Darnold struggled to an extent in 2018. He started the season out strong with a tremendous Week 1 performance against Detroit. But the USC product hit that proverbial rookie wall. Darnold threw three touchdowns and eight picks in a four-game span between late November and early December. He followed that up by tossing five touchdowns and zero picks over the final three games. Darnold is the real deal. And now that the Jets have moved on from defensive-minded head coach Todd Bowles, we can expect them to bring in someone that will work better with Darnold moving forward. That’s no small thing.
Oakland Raiders: Brutal end in Northern California
The 2018 calendar year started out with high expectations in Oakland after the Raiders brought back Jon Gruden on a 10-year, $100 million contract. These good vibes were quickly replaced with evidence that Gruden was in over his head. That included the team trading star receiver Amari Cooper and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. The end result was a disastrous 4-12 record and a scoring differential of north of 11 points per game. Adding insult to injury, the city of Oakland has sued the Raiders due to their pending move to Las Vegas. This means that Gruden and Co. might have already played their final game in Oakland. Ouch.
Philadelphia Eagles: Nick Foles, a true savior
When Foles replaced an injured Carson Wentz with three games remaining in the season, Philadelphia needed to win out and get some help in order to make the playoffs. Foles did his part — leading Philly to wins over the Rams, Texans and Redskins. Then, in Week 17, Chicago handed Minnesota home loss — leading to the Eagles playing postseason football. It’s simply remarkable how the reigning Super Bowl MVP changed his team’s season midstream. For Foles, it’s going to lead to a starting job somewhere else in 2019. For the Eagles, it brings renewed questions about who the best quarterback is for the team moving forward. We’ll find out more during the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Inconsistency is a plague
Pittsburgh’s 2018 season started out with a tie against Cleveland. From that point on, it was all about inconsistency for Ben Roethlisberger and Co. The Steelers would go on to win seven of their next eight games before dropping four of their final six. Big Ben struggled at key times. Mike Tomlin’s coaching came under scrutiny. Meanwhile, there was drama in Pittsburgh that we’ve never really seen in 50-plus years. Add in Le’Veon Bell’s situation, and this was magnified further. It led to an 8-7-1 record and the Steelers missing out on meaningful January football. Ouch!
San Francisco 49ers: Injuries derail year of hope
This isn’t meant to be a scapegoat. Every team deals with injuries. It’s how you respond to said injuries that define you. The issue in San Francisco is that GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan took over pretty much an expansion roster in 2017. There’s no real depth here. After star free agent Jerick McKinnon suffered a torn ACL during the summer, the 49ers’ depth at running back was tested. Then, just a few short weeks later, Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL before three full games had even been played. This forced the 49ers to roll with undrafted players at quarterback and running back. No team can overcome that, let alone a squad that was already among the thinnest in the NFL.
Seattle Seahawks: Not dead yet
Moving on from the likes of Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor this past offseason proved that Seattle was changing gears midstream. Once Earl Thomas suffered a season-ending injury in Week 4, it became clear that the Legion of Boom was no more. Instead, the Seahawks relied on a renewed rushing attack with Chris Carson and the MVP-caliber play of Russell Wilson under center. It led to a 10-6 record and wild card spot in the NFC. While not anywhere near top-end Super Bowl contenders, talk of Seattle’s demise (from this scribe and others) were obviously premature.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Witching hour for Jameis Winston
Suspended to open the 2018 season due to an off-field incident, Winston stunk it up big time when he returned under center to replace Ryan Fitzpatrick. He turned the ball over 14 times in his first five games — finding himself benched for Fitzpatrick in the process. This led to speculation that the Buccaneers might move on from Winston altogether in 2019. While general manager Jason Licht has all but said that’s not going to happen, 2018 proved that the former No. 1 overall pick is not a franchise quarterback in the truest sense of the word. Depending on who Tampa Bay finds to replace the recently-fired Dirk Koetter at head coach, we could hear more rumors about Winston’s demise in Tampa Bay in 2019.
Tennessee Titans: Super Mario? Nah
For the third time in his four NFL seasons, Marcus Mariota was not able to finish a season to injury. That led to Tennessee getting blown out by Indianapolis with Blaine Gabbert under center in a do-or-die Week 17 game this past Sunday night. The question is now whether Mariota is the long-term solution in Nashville. Outside of his injury issues, the former Oregon standout has regressed something fierce in recent seasons. Since the start of the 2017 campaign, Mariota has put up just 24 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in 28 starts. That’s not good for anyone involved.
Washington Redskins: What a foolish thing to do
Pick and choose. Whether it was letting Kirk Cousins move on in free agency and replacing him with Alex Smith or the decision to sign Rueben Foster, the Redskins’ brass struggled through the 2018 calendar year in a big way. Once Smith went down with a season-ending injury while the Skins were still in playoff contention, they decided to sign Mark Sanchez over Colin Kaepernick. The end result was disastrous play from Sanchez after Colt McCoy was also lost for the season. Even then, Washington decided to sign Josh Johnson. That didn’t turn out too swimmingly for this joke of a franchise. The optics are bad. But the on-field product clearly isn’t good. Yeah, 2018 was a year of foolishness in the nation’s capital.