During the season, we post weekly power rankings. In the offseason, we pretty much do whatever.
This year, we’ve decided to dispense with ranking all 32 teams and to focus on the teams currently at the bottom of the stack. And even in this time of EVERY TEAM CAN MAKE THE PLAYOFFS! propaganda, the reality in a 32-team, zero-sum league is that some teams will be good, and just as many will be bad.
This following list is far from scientific. It’s a qualitative assessment of where the franchises currently are, and where they’ve been, both recently and in some cases historically.
The list isn’t a prediction as to where these teams will finish in 2019. Several of them could make the playoffs. And maybe one will make it to the Super Bowl. Still, for now, when considering the league’s teams from top to bottom, there necessarily has to be teams from 21 through 32.
And here they are, from 32 to 21.
1. Cardinals: Not long ago, they were one of the best eight or so franchises in the NFL. But a free fall in recent years has depleted the roster, with millions wasted in an effort to replace Carson Palmer, an embarrassing “extreme DUI” arrest and jail time for the franchise’s top executive, a trade up one year ago to get Josh Rosen followed by a trade of Rosen for a low second-round pick because the coach who replaced a one-and-done misfire coveted someone else at quarterback, and (most recently) news that G.M. Steve Keim has never bothered to call Rosen during or after three months of dangling and a few days of rollercoastering along with the six-game suspension of the team’s most recognizable defensive player for taking a PED, taking a masking agent to hide the PED, and getting busted on both counts. They’ll need Kyler Murray to have a Mahomes-Mayfield-style impact to avoid becoming the chronic No. 32 team in a season they quite possibly will begin as the underdog in every single game.
2. Jets: The decision to fire coach Todd Bowles in January and to keep G.M. Mike Maccagnan and to overpay Le'Veon Bell at a time when no one else was pursuing him in that range and to fire Maccagnan after the draft and to make new coach Adam Gase the interim G.M. has made plenty of fans long for the days of Woody Johnson and Rex Ryan. Woody’s kid brother Christopher, whose arrival actually had some rivals concerned that the Jets would turn things around, is learning as he goes, and in his trial-and-error effort to figure out how to run a football franchise it’s been more error than success. That said, the decision to trade up and take quarterback Sam Darnold could eventually eradicate the fumes of Christian Hackenberg from the building, and the Jets actually could be in position to surprise everyone in 2019.
3. Giants: The plan is there is no plan, and the more they try to convince everyone they have a plan, the less obvious it is that they don’t. Everyone except those making decisions for the franchise realizes that it’s keeping former franchise quarterback Eli Manning around because of what he’s done, not because of what he’s expected to do. But even as they cling to Eli, they overdrafted (in the opinion of everyone except those making decisions for the franchise) Daniel Jones to eventually replace Manning, whether in one year or three years or whenever the plan-is-there-is-no-plan spinning wheel lands on Jones. Meanwhile, there’s reason to believe that Jones could be the Week One starter, if he’s as good as the Giants believe and if they remove the helmet-catch-colored glasses when evaluating the training camp and preseason performances of Jones and Manning. The fact that they traded receiver Odell Beckham Jr. after paying him $20 million for 12 games serves merely as the acrid icing on a rancid cake. But, hey, at least the Jets are still the Jets.
4. Dolphins: Although being in the same division as the Patriots hasn’t helped, the Dolphins have done little to help themselves. The slide began when Dan Marino retired, and it accelerated when doctors told Nick Saban to send a second-round pick for Daunte Culpepper and his wrecked knee in lieu of signing Drew Brees and his wrecked shoulder. The Dolphins continue to grope for an answer at quarterback, and the absence of one has been the biggest impediment to sustained success. Giving up too quickly on coach Adam Gase didn’t help matters, and now owner Stephen Ross can only hope that new coach Brian Flores will bring a New England vibe to South Florida. Quickly. The fact that this franchise was once so relevant makes it even more glaring that, over the past two decades, it has plunged into the role of perennial afterthought, with periodic but fleeting exceptions.
5. Bengals: Malaise has been the operative word for the Bengals in recent years. Five straight playoff runs ended with five straight wild-card losses, extending a string of playoff futility that traces back to January 1991. The organization never seems like it makes winning a priority, unless (as it seems) the organization defined “winning” as making money not competing for championships. There’s a certain pragmatism to accepting the fact that only one of 32 teams will be satisfied every year, if that’s accepted as the widespread standard for NFL success. Maybe the secret of Cincinnati’s success has been to accept that it’s far easier to turn a profit than it is to turn up in February. Regardless, this team chronically feels like it could use a new everything, from top to bottom.
6. Raiders: Reason exists for guarded optimism when it comes to the Raiders, thanks to the pilfering of receiver Antonio Brown from the Steelers and a draft headlined by three first-round draft picks. But the organization continues to be mired in the funk of mostly 17 years of struggles unbecoming to what once was one of the greatest brands in football. The looming move to Las Vegas carries a vague sense of promise, but to make that happen the marriage between Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock must bear fruit in the form of great football players, sooner than later. It won’t be easy in a division headlined by a perennial contender in Kansas City and an underrated powerhouse in L.A. The current placement in the middle of the worst-franchise pack is deserved, and some would say the Raiders should be even higher (as in lower). The fact that they aren’t primarily flows from the notion that the inevitable return to glory is coming sooner than later. Even if, in reality, “later” continues to be the operative term.
7. Washington: Mired in at-best mediocrity for most of Daniel Snyder’s tenure as owner, the franchise has hovered in the general vicinity of “maybe” when it comes to potential contention, but hasn’t delivered. This year’s first-round haul of Dwayne Haskins and Montez Sweat has boom-or-bust potential for Washington, which is 28 years removed from its last championship. A run of health could fuel a rebound, but the upper reaches of the operation seem to be destined to keep the team from being as good as it can be — and it’s still not quite clear how good the team can be, with or without the upper reaches of the organization holding it back.
8. Buccaneers: But for the arrival of Bruce Arians, who unretired in a Hail Mary effort to salvage Jameis Winston, the Bucs would be among the worst teams in the league. They’ve struggled to sell tickets, and for good reason. In the 17 years since winning a championship, the team has languished more often than not, unable to consistently compete with the other teams in the NFC South. Ownership moves too quickly to move on from coaches, preventing the kind of continuity that characterizes the franchises that manage to make it to the postseason at least once every few years. For the Buccaneers, it’s been an extended dry spell, and but for the fading memories of a run that could have/should have yielded more than one Lombardi Trophy, the Bucs would still be spinning their wheels among the very worst organizations in all of sports. They continue to slide back in that direction, and only a major jolt from Arians will keep that from happening.
9. Lions: Bobby Layne’s 50-year curse has lasted a decade longer than expected, and the Lions now must hope that the efforts of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia to change the culture will take root before they’re gradually swallowed by the internal and, among much of the media covering the team, external acceptance of also-ran status that has kept the team from winning a playoff game for 28 years and counting. Periodic promise has yielded playoff berths but no postseason success, and the career of franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford has largely been squandered. The only question at this point is whether the team will step up before the current power structure decides to tell Stafford to step off. The answer depends on whether the Lions can incorporate sufficient Patriot DNA to spark change before ownership decides to press the restart button prior to the effort to embrace a shot at greatness taking root.
10. Broncos: Yes, they’ve won three Super Bowls, including their most recent trophy only three years ago. But a sustained run of relevance has been replaced by a sharp plunge to the bottom made even more conspicuous by the fact that, for the first time since the early 1970s, the Broncos have had a losing record for consecutive seasons. While a decorated history spared Denver from being closer to the top of the list, three years of post-Peyton flopping in the boat have earned them a spot in the bottom 12. Whether they remain there depends on whether Vic Fangio is the answer at coach (he very well may be), whether Joe Flacco is the answer at quarterback (he very well may not be), and whether the linger intra-family Willie Wonka competition for control of the team is ever resolved (at times it feels like it never will be).
11. 49ers: Those five Super Bowl trophies are getting lonelier and lonelier. Things simply haven’t been working for the 49ers since the “mutual parting” with Jim Harbaugh. Last year, expectations were too high, and injuries derailed a season that may not have resulted in a playoff berth anyway, given the presence of the Rams and Seahawks in the division. This year, expectations are high once again, which will make another failure for a team in perpetual turmoil even more noticeable. The 49ers would be wise to stay the course with Kyle Shanahan, who has four more years remaining on his contract, but another sub-.500 season should provoke serious soul-searching regarding the best way to dig out of a protracted funk.
12. Browns: Speaking of protracted funks, the Browns would have been the clear-cut No. 1 team on this list a year ago, with an 0-16 season in 2017 preceded by 1-15 in 2016. A surprising turnaround in 2018 has them on the brink of escaping — but as their coach would say they haven’t won anything yet, including a path out of the bottom dozen franchises in the league. While all indications are that the Browns have the players to turn things around (starting with Baker Mayfield, who may end up with a full mantle of MVP trophies), an unproven coach was hired in January, and ownership that has proven to be far too meddlesome remains. So before penciling the Browns in for a division title or a Super Bowl berth, the first step is to have the kind of season that will get them to be considered to be in the upper half of a 32-team league. Here’s hoping they do.