Twenty-two NFL teams still harbor hopes of reaching the postseason.
For fans of the other 10 franchises, the offseason can’t get here quickly enough.
But while the playoffs are a pipe dream for squads who can finish no better than .500, the final four regular-season games will impact what steps those franchises take in the future. Here’s a look at where things went wrong for the Terrible 10, what’s left to play for and the most pressing issues that must be addressed to avoid another depressing December.
What went wrong: One of the NFL’s most hyped teams entering the season is its most disappointing. Even before missing the past three games with a rib injury, quarterback Michael Vick had regressed from last season. He already has 14 turnovers (11 interceptions, three fumbles) compared to only nine last season in 12 games. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson has withered under the stress of not securing a contract extension. The defense is even more disastrous. Why sign Nnamdi Asomugha — one of the NFL’s best press cornerbacks during his time in Oakland — to a massive free-agent contract if his skills were going to get wasted in zone coverage?
What’s left to play for: The public outcry in Philadelphia for head coach Andy Reid’s ouster has never been louder. Reid can quiet some of the noise by serving as a playoff spoiler in upcoming games against the New York Jets and Dallas.
What’s next: After 13 seasons under Reid without a Super Bowl victory, Eagles brass must decide whether it’s time for a change. Should he get ousted, Reid’s inability to effectively replace the late Jim Johnson at defensive coordinator will be a major factor. Juan Castillo — completely overmatched since Reid made the unwise move of switching him from offensive line coach during the offseason — is assuredly out regardless of Reid’s employment status. One potential saving grace for Reid and the Eagles: Defensive wiz Steve Spagnuolo may be available to return if ousted as St. Louis head coach as expected. Whoever is the new coordinator must hope Philadelphia’s front office does a much better job upgrading the linebacker position.
What went wrong: Simply put, an 0-7 start. No team can dig out of that deep a hole.
What’s left to play for: If he does get fired as head coach the end of the season, Tony Sparano isn’t going down without a fight. Sparano has changed some of his heavy-handed ways to better connect with Dolphins players. The result: Four victories in the past five games by a 120-34 margin.
What’s next: Even an 8-8 record probably won’t be enough to save Sparano’s job. Some of that stems from public apathy towards the franchise under his watch. The Dolphins will face even bigger challenges for the South Florida sports dollar in 2012 from the Miami Heat and Miami Marlins. Sparano’s return won’t trigger a rush to purchase season tickets like a big-name replacement, a la Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. Personnel-wise, Matt Moore has done a nice job since replacing the injured Chad Henne (shoulder) at quarterback. Moore, though, is not the next Dan Marino. Miami still needs to make drafting a franchise passer its top priority. Acquiring one becomes tougher the more Miami continues to drop in the draft order by winning now.
What went wrong: Mike Shanahan is a likely future Hall of Fame head coach. That’s what makes his belief that Washington could win with Rex Grossman or John Beck at quarterback so baffling. This was either a terrible talent misevaluation or misguided Shanahan hubris that he could win with a retread at the game’s most important position.
What’s left to play for: The continuing development of 2011 fourth-round draft pick Roy Helu. With consecutive 100-yard outings, Helu has shown earmarks of being the next rusher to flourish in Shanahan’s run-friendly offense. Like other losing teams out of the playoff race, the Redskins would be wise to give other youngsters playing time looking forward to next season.
What’s next: Heading toward a second straight season in the NFC East basement, Shanahan’s reputation can only take him so far. Washington needs to win in 2012. That won’t happen unless the Redskins find a real quarterback. If he becomes available and is healthy enough to play, Peyton Manning would be an intriguing veteran option. Manning wouldn’t have to carry as much of the offensive load like in Indianapolis. Otherwise, using a high draft pick on a quarterback would be wise after passing on three current NFL starters (Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton) in last year’s draft.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What went wrong: The more this season unfolds, the more it becomes obvious that the 2010 Bucs overachieved with a 10-6 record. The regression of third-year quarterback Josh Freeman was disturbing even before the thumb injury that affected his accuracy.
What’s left to play for: Raheem Morris’ shaky job security would be greatly bolstered if Tampa Bay players gave maximum effort and showed the same support Dolphins players do for coach Sparano. The Bucs flat-out quit in the second half of a 37-9 home loss to Houston in Week 10. Morris showed the pressure is getting to him during last Sunday’s 38-19 loss to visiting Carolina. He sent Brian Price to the locker room after the defensive tackle drew a third-quarter unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Morris then had to apologize after swearing when talking about the decision during his postgame news conference.
What’s next: Along with deciding Morris’ fate, Bucs ownership needs to reassess their top priority — building a winner or continuing to pocket extra cash at the expense of the roster. Tampa Bay needs better team speed on offense, especially at running back behind LeGarrette Blount, and more impact defensive players in the back seven. Trying to accomplish this exclusively through the draft rather than spending in free agency will set the Bucs back even further in a strong NFC South.
What went wrong: Coming off a 1-15 season, the better question is what has gone right? Start with rookie Cam Newton. He already has set the NFL single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (13) and proven to be a more polished passer than expected. Ron Rivera also is off to a good start in his first season as an NFL head coach.
What’s left to play for: The Panthers have a chance to damage the playoff standing of three contenders (Atlanta, Houston and New Orleans) while furthering Newton’s development.
What’s next: Don’t expect another wild offseason spending spree, but the Panthers desperately need to upgrade some of their defensive talent, particularly at defensive tackle.
What went wrong: The Browns had too many personnel deficiencies to overcome in Pat Shurmur’s first year as head coach. Injuries to running backs Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty forced Cleveland to overly rely on a passing game bereft of quality skill-position players. The fact Cleveland has the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense is mitigated by being 31st against the rush.
What’s left to play for: Colt McCoy has four games left to prove whether he should be considered Cleveland’s long-term answer at quarterback. McCoy is surrounded by a poor supporting cast, and the Browns lead the NFL in dropped passes. McCoy, though, still hasn’t clearly shown that he is a better option going forward than some of the quarterbacks who could be available when Cleveland picks in the first round.
What’s next: General manager Tom Heckert Jr. will have a busy offseason outside of a quarterback assessment. The Browns need a big-time wide receiver, another defensive end with run-stopping skill, an outside linebacker who can make more impact plays (Scott Fujita turns 33 in April) and potentially a new starting running back if Hillis leaves via free agency.
What went wrong: The Jack Del Rio regime started to unravel when he released quarterback David Garrard just before the regular season began. Rookie Blaine Gabbert was prematurely thrust into the starting lineup without the benefit of quality wide receivers.
What’s left to play for: Del Rio’s firing last week coincided with the announcement that Wayne Weaver was selling the Jags. New owner Shahid Khan (pending expected NFL approval) is surely waiting to place his own stamp on the franchise. That means the current Jags would be wise to give better effort than in Week 13’s embarrassing 38-14 home loss to San Diego.
What’s next: Naming a new head coach. Mel Tucker did a nice job as defensive coordinator before being promoted to replace Del Rio on an interim basis but the Chargers game did him no favors as far as keeping the position permanently. Personnel-wise, a game-breaking wide receiver and pass-rushing threat should be atop general manager Gene Smith’s to-do list.
What went wrong: Start with Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier’s misguided belief that Donovan McNabb was still a winning option at quarterback. McNabb was finally benched after Minnesota’s 1-5 start in favor of Ponder, who immediately provided life to a listless offense. A strong pass rush was wasted by injuries and insufficient talent in the secondary.
What’s left to play for: Along with continuing Ponder’s development, the Vikings should be rallying around defensive end Jared Allen and his efforts to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Allen ranks second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks and leads the league in both forced and recovered fumbles with four of each. Allen also tied an NFL record last Sunday with his fourth career tackle for a safety. If every Viking played with Allen’s intensity, Minnesota wouldn’t be 2-10.
What’s next: While Sidney Rice’s injury problems continued in Seattle, the Vikings still never found another wide receiving threat to complement Percy Harvin. The secondary also needs an overhaul. On an even bigger scope, the Vikings must resolve their stadium issues with local and state politicians or the franchise could soon be on the move elsewhere.
St. Louis Rams
What went wrong: That’s what most NFL analysts have asked after deigning the Rams as the NFC West preseason favorite. Injuries crippled St. Louis from the get-go. Five cornerbacks, three wide receivers (including 2010 leader Danny Amendola), and starting tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith are among those on injured reserve. Sam Bradford is sidelined with an ankle sprain, although the second-year quarterback showed surprisingly little progress this season under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. There also is no excuse for fielding the NFL’s 32nd-ranked run defense.
What’s left to play for: Personal pride is about all that’s left. A lousy season is set to get even worse now that Bradford backup A.J. Feeley is out with a fractured thumb. Tom Brandstater is set to make his first NFL start Monday night at Seattle. If the Rams don’t win that game, a 2-14 record is likely with remaining matchups against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
What’s next: Although class acts, Spagnuolo and Rams general manager Billy Devaney are likely on the outs after what will be the fifth time in six years that St. Louis finishes with three wins or less. The only good news about such a rotten season is high draft placement for 2012. The revamped rookie salary system and the fact St. Louis already has a franchise quarterback will make it easier for the Rams to trade down and acquire extra picks to address a number of roster weaknesses that the next regime must fix.
What went wrong: The season-long loss of quarterback Peyton Manning following neck surgery highlights a litany of injuries that sunk the Colts. Indianapolis never found anything close to a competent replacement for Manning in Curtis Painter, Kerry Collins and now Dan Orlovsky.
What’s left to play for: Trying to avoid becoming only the second team in NFL history to finish with an 0-16 record. The best chance will come in Week 17 at Jacksonville (3-9). There also is an outside chance Manning might be able to play this season. That would be beneficial in giving Indianapolis an opportunity to assess whether Manning can make a full recovery from having his third neck surgery in a 19-month span.
What’s next: First things first. Colts owner Jim Irsay must decide whether head coach Jim Caldwell and/or personnel kingpins Bill and Chris Polian will return after such a disastrous year. The next step will be deciding Manning’s fate, especially with potential replacement Andrew Luck set to become the draft’s No. 1 overall pick. Three key veterans — center Jeff Saturday, wide receiver Reggie Wayne and defensive end Robert Mathis — are also set to become free agents. Either a new era will be dawning in Indianapolis or the franchise will try and keep its window of opportunity alive for another year before handing the reins to Luck.