NFL Report Cards: Team-by-Team Grades for the Regular Season
A football season is a mini lifetime. It's amazing to look back on it and see how much has changed.
• Remember when the Falcons were locks to make the playoffs?
• Remember when Ben Roethlisberger got hurt (several times) and the Steelers appeared to be finished?
• Remember when Russell Wilson was having a hard time living up to his new contract?
• Remember when the Cowboys were 2-0?
• Remember your preseason Colts Super Bowl prediction?
• Remember the 1-5, utterly hopeless Kansas City Chiefs?
• Remember wondering if anyone could beat the Patriots or Packers?
• Remember when Cam Newton was just another young quarterback with something to prove?
A lot has changed in the last four months, and these final report cards reflect those changes. While the grades are weighted slightly toward second-half accomplishments, the report cards remember when the Rams looked like a playoff team and the Texans didn't.
The grades are based on the GPAs that have been calculated all year, but they are curved a little to prevent the whole league from falling somewhere between C- and B- (as happens when you collect 17 sets of grades). Week 17 results count for a little, but not as much as other weeks.
These grades are meaningless now that the playoffs are here. But then, they were always meaningless. Think of this as a 2015 yearbook, a chance to reflect on just how many ups and downs every NFL team experienced since the start of September.
Carolina Panthers: A
Final 2015 Record: 15-1
Offense (B+): Cam Newton’s MVP-caliber season would look even better if he had more help. Ted Ginn Jr. caught 10 touchdown passes but also dropped a few. Jonathan Stewart rushed for 989 yards but provided minimal big-play pop. Other than Ginn and tight end Greg Olsen (77-1,104-7), none of the Panthers receivers were a threat to the defense without Newton firing lasers and scrambling to create throwing lanes.
Defense (A): Josh Norman received the highest honor a cornerback can earn: backlash about being “overrated” on Twitter. Kurt Coleman intercepted seven passes. Kawann Short generated 11 sacks for a pass rush that lacked a consistent outside threat. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are the most versatile linebacker duo in the NFL.
Special Teams (B): Graham Gano was inconsistent on field goals but hammered 69 touchbacks on kickoffs. The Panthers coverage units weren’t great (punt and kickoff touchdowns allowed), so Gano’s touchbacks made a big difference for a team that kicked off after a whole lot of touchdowns.
Coaching (A+): Mike Shula let Cam be Cam. Sean McDermott doesn’t over-engineer his defenses: He let blue chips like Norman and Kuechly do their thing. Ron Rivera didn’t do much Riverboat Ron stuff, but he set a tone for a team no one gave a chance (especially after Kelvin Benjamin’s preseason injury) and helped the Panthers get better as the season wore on.
What’s Next: A well-deserved first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
New England Patriots: A-
Final 2015 Record: 12-4
Offense (B+): One by one, Tom Brady’s receivers, running backs and protectors vanished like sidekicks in a horror movie, leaving Brady throwing to Rob Gronkowski (72-1,176-11 between injuries) and whoever was healthy while counting on a ragtag offensive line.
It’s a testament both to Brady and the organization that the offense, unstoppable when everyone was healthy early in the year, did not completely collapse Packers-style. Until the season finale, at least.
Defense (B): Chandler Jones and Devin McCourty made their usual major contributions, supported this year by Logan Ryan, Jabaal Sheard and others. The Patriots defense is at its best when their offense is taking much of the pressure off, something that did not happen as often in the second half of the season.
Special Teams (A-): Stephen Gostkowski was nearly perfect in a season when the Patriots needed him much more than they typically do. Gostkowski also excels at kickoffs: The Patriots score a lot, but opponents rarely take the ensuing kickoffs past the 20-yard line. Ryan Allen punts unreturnable flop shots inside the 20-yard line. Several returners made impact plays. The “minus” is for the Eagles game.
Coaching (A+): Bill Belichick and his staff juggled offensive linemen, converted a tackle to tight end, combed the wire for skill-position talent and rotated role players all over the defense. The Patriots won with great red-zone play-calling, outstanding clock management (particularly before halftime, when the Patriots always squeezed in an extra scoring drive), special teams and all the little things an injury-plagued team needs to stay competitive.
What’s Next: Two weeks of stories about Brady’s sprained ankle, then a playoff game.
Arizona Cardinals: A-
Final 2015 Record: 13-3
Offense (A): Given a fleet of dangerous receivers and stable pass protection, Carson Palmer reminded the football world why he was once mentioned in the same conversation as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Rocking defenses back on their heels allowed Chris Johnson (814 rushing yards before getting injured) to have his most meaningful season since the CJ2K days.
Defense (A): The Cardinals defense is one of the most unique units in the NFL. Before suffering a season-ending injury, Tyrann Mathieu (five interceptions) continued to revolutionize a hybrid slot-safety role. Deone Bucannon is a middle linebacker in a free safety’s body. Dwight Freeney has been reborn as a situational spin-move specialist. The Cardinals rarely saw a matchup they could not adjust for, and despite Mathieu’s injury, they got more dangerous as the season wore on.
Special Teams (B): Chandler Catanzaro was extremely reliable (28-of-29) inside 50 yards. Justin Bethel is one of the league’s best gunners.
Coaching (A+): The Cardinals' success is the result of a perfect mesh of organization, coaching and personnel. Bruce Arians and his staff are daring, detail-oriented and canny about putting squarish pegs like Mathieu, Bucannon and the former CJ2K in positions to excel.
What’s Next: A week off, then a home playoff game.
Kansas City Chiefs: B+
Final 2015 Record: 11-5
Offense (C+): Jamaal Charles, one of the most important non-quarterbacks in the NFL, was hurt most of the season. Jeremy Maclin (87-1,088-8) was the only downfield threat, Travis Kelce (72-875-5) the only over-the-middle threat, with second-through-fifth receivers who probably couldn’t make the Browns’ practice squad.
The offensive line suffered so many injuries that the Chiefs once almost ran out of bodies in the middle of a game. Alex Smith remained Alex Smith. Yet, the Chiefs still kicked a lot of butt.
Defense (A): Cornerback Marcus Peters (eight interceptions, two touchdowns) should win Defensive Rookie of the Year. Justin Houston recorded 7.5 sacks before getting injured, with Tamba Hali and youngsters like Dee Ford playing well in Houston’s absence. Eric Berry provided versatility and playmaking ability, not to mention a little inspiration.
Special Teams (A): Cairo Santos was reliable to a distance of 50 yards or so. Dustin Colquitt is the Phil Mickelson of punters. The coverage and return teams were professional.
Coaching (A+): Bob Sutton’s defensive schemes were brilliant. Andy Reid’s roster management was exemplary. The Chiefs had no business remaining in contention without Charles and Houston, but Reid developed the available talent and kept everyone in position to help the team while playing within himself.
What’s Next: A winnable playoff game in Houston.
Cincinnati Bengals: B+
Final 2015 Record: 12-4
Offense (A-): When Andy Dalton was healthy, the Bengals had one of the most dangerous, diverse offenses in the NFL, with big-play capability, a two-headed running game and lots of ways to beat you in the red zone. After Dalton fractured his thumb (and Tyler Eifert suffered a concussion), the Bengals went max protect to support AJ McCarron, and everything slowed to a crawl.
Defense (B+): Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Reggie Nelson led a defense with only one real weakness: a penchant for unnecessary roughness and illegal contact penalties.
Special Teams (C+): Mike Nugent was reliable, though many of his misses came in important games. The return units had a knack for negating long returns with illegal blocks.
Coaching (B): Marvin Lewis and his staff appeared to cure the Bengals of their big-game blahs early in the year. The Bengals then reverted to tough losses every time they played a high-profile game late in the season.
The Bengals have the best top-to-bottom talent in the AFC entering the playoffs. Lewis had them playing that way when it counted early in the season.
What’s Next: A tough playoff matchup against the Steelers, probably without Dalton.
Denver Broncos: B
Final 2015 Record: 12-4
Offense (C+): Watching Peyton Manning operate Gary Kubiak’s offense was like watching an old action hero trying to do his own stunts in a cash-grab movie. Once Brock Osweiler took over, the Kubiak offense started looking like a Kubiak offense again: play action, ball control and downfield passes that actually had some zip on them.
C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman were inconsistent, as was their blocking. When the running game clicked, the Broncos offense clicked. And when Manning made a last-second cameo to clinch home-field advantage in Week 17, it was almost as cool as seeing Rocky in Creed.
Defense (A+): Outstanding pass rush, stout run defense, great coverage in the secondary. The Broncos defense was historically great for much of the year, though it was also penalty-prone, allowing some opponents (like the Steelers) to move down the field on pass interference and/or roughness fouls at the worst possible times.
Special Teams (A-): Brandon McManus’ kicking kept the Broncos alive when Manning was gimping around the pocket.
Coaching (B+): Wade Phillips’ game plans were typically outstanding. (Though having great personnel helps.) The Kubiak-Manning mesh was awful early in the year; as rickety as Manning looked, Kubiak did him no favors by asking him to execute play-action rollouts.
While a foot injury prompted the switch, replacing Manning was a potential time bomb. Kubiak and the Broncos did a fine job defusing it. Let’s see if they can prevent any playoff quarterback controversy detonation.
What’s Next: Playoff games in the mountains.
Seattle Seahawks: B
Final 2015 Record: 10-6
Offense (B-): The pre-bye week offense, with Russell Wilson scrambling around the sandlot until someone slipped open behind the El Camino, earned a D. The post-bye offense, with shorter routes that allowed Wilson to play more like a young Tom Brady, earned an A. The offensive line audited the course Pass-Fail and barely earned a “Pass.”
Defense (B+): The leaky Legion of Boom never found a Ringo at cornerback opposite Richard Sherman. But Sherman and Earl Thomas had Pro Bowl seasons, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril again led a formidable pass rush, and only the best quarterbacks could really put a dent in the Seahawks defense.
Special Teams (A): Kicking, punting and coverage were outstanding all season. Early in the season, Steven Hauschka’s kicking and Tyler Lockett’s return touchdowns served as a surrogate offense.
Coaching (B): Darrell Bevell was slow to adjust his offense. Tom Cable is the Rob Ryan of offensive line coaches: His units (weakened by the organization’s hubris that it could turn anyone into a guard) nearly sabotaged the season. But everyone adjusted, and Pete Carroll doesn’t even know where the panic button is located.
What’s Next: The Seahawks are the scariest sixth playoff seed ever.
Pittsburgh Steelers: B-
Final 2015 Record: 10-6
Offense (A-): The bombs-away Ben Roethlisberger offense, with Antonio Brown (136-1,834-10) and Co. leading a relentless vertical assault, earns an A+. The Wildcat-heavy Michael Vick offense and Landry Jones’ training-wheels attack graded out as a C.
Defense (C+): The Steelers generated 30 turnovers and 48 sacks. Better offenses, however, could torch their secondary.
Special Teams (C+): Chris Boswell prevented a kicker catastrophe when he replaced Josh Scobee. Antonio Brown probably shouldn’t be asked to return punts at this point in his career, but the alternative (late acquisition Jacoby Jones) was far worse.
Coaching (B+): Todd Haley tailored game plans to maximize available personnel, though his quirks could come back to haunt him: The Steelers lack a backup running back who received any meaningful carries now that DeAngelo Williams is injured.
Keith Butler got a lot of mileage out of a defense that looks terrible on paper. Mike Tomlin kept the team heading in the right direction when injuries threatened to derail the season.
What’s Next: The Bengals in the playoffs. It doesn’t get much better for the Steelers than that.
Minnesota Vikings: B-
Final 2015 Record: 11-5
Offense (B): Adrian Peterson (1,485 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns) spent the year straddling the line between someone to lean on and an unnecessary crutch. Teddy Bridgewater played like he spent his childhood memorizing Alex Smith game film.
At his best, he is a pesky ball distributor with wheels, but at his worst, he is afraid to throw 15 yards downfield but too willing to run backward when getting sacked. Stefon Diggs (52-720-4) was the breakout star of a receiving crew full of talent-squanderers like Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Defense (B): Linval Joseph, Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr and a three-headed pass-rushing monster at defensive end (Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter combined for 21.5 sacks) were the stars. The secondary lacked depth, which left the Vikings vulnerable to some of the better offenses they faced.
Special Teams (A-): Patterson and Marcus Sherels combined for three return touchdowns. Sherels also led outstanding punt-coverage units. Blair Walsh shook off a crazy preseason slump to have a fine year.
Coaching (C+): Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner never quite found the right Peterson-Bridgewater balance (the game plan in the season-ending victory over the Packers was still too conservative), and much of the middle of the season was wasted trying to appease Peterson while teaching Bridgewater to throw something besides shallow crosses. Zimmer and George Edwards did a better job piloting the team through the Joseph-Smith-Barr injury crisis late in the season.
What’s Next: The Vikings host a playoff game. Woo-hoo! It’s against the Seahawks. D’oh!
Green Bay Packers: B-
Final 2015 Record: 10-6
Offense (B-): The Packers offense slowly eroded over 16 games, crumbling like a cliff face into a creek during the Cardinals loss in Week 16 and staying there in the season finale. It’s easy to forget that Aaron Rodgers still looked very much like himself in the first six weeks of the season, before opponents realized that none of his receivers could get downfield separation and some of them couldn’t even really catch.
Defense (B): The pass defense was opportunistic, with Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews spurring the pass rush (as usual) and Sam Shields leading a deep, diverse secondary. The run defense was less reliable, which became a problem once the Packers stopped playing with leads each week.
Special Teams (B): Mason Crosby and Tim Masthay are not asset specialists like the Patriots and Seahawks (and Colts and Ravens) employ, but they are veterans who don’t lose games by themselves. The Packers mastered the onside-kick recovery this season, which legitimately helped seal a few close games.
Coaching (C): Mike McCarthy eventually took over play-calling duties, but the change may have come too late. The Packers never made sense of their running back rotation and asked too much of inexperienced receivers. Leaving backup left tackle Don Barclay on an island to get Rodgers pummeled against the Cardinals was an almost disastrous blunder.
The Packers are hamstrung by an organizational insistence on homegrown talent, even when a quick free-agent fix (at running back or receiver) is warranted. Under the circumstances, McCarthy must be ready to wring the most from third-stringers. He couldn’t quite do it this year the way he has in the past.
What’s Next: A playoff road trip no one anticipated.
New York Jets: B-
Final 2015 Record: 10-6
Offense (B): Jets fans probably thought they were watching an A-plus offense as Ryan Fitzpatrick fired downfield to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker (a whopping 189-2,529-26 combined) while Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell churned out yardage between the tackles. No, Jets fans, that’s just what an offense is supposed to look like. We know it has been a while.
Defense (A): Muhammad Wilkerson led one of the best run defenses in the NFL. Darrelle Revis (five interceptions) may not be worth the money—a new convention center might not be worth Darrelle Revis money—but he played to his billing and punished quarterbacks who dared to test his reputation. Marcus Williams added six interceptions in a cherry-picker role.
Special Teams (D+): The Jets had to switch punters and kickers during the season. The punt-coverage units gave up two touchdowns. Antonio Cromartie was forced to take on kick-return duties by season’s end. A missed field goal and a shanked punt crushed the Jets’ playoff hopes in the season finale.
Coaching (B+): Chan Gailey’s daring game plans suited Fitzpatrick well: The quarterback could launch downfield passes and not worry about inconsistent results. Todd Bowles proved to be a perfect boiling chip for a team that’s always one back-page headline away from erecting a big top.
What's Next: Good question. The Jets count on many veterans who are at or past their peaks. The next step is complicated.
Washington Redskins: C+
Final 2015 Record: 9-7
Offense (C+): Kirk Cousins (4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns, just 11 interceptions) improved as the season wore on, going from a turnover machine with occasional hot streaks to a confident ball distributor with a quick release and a knack for timing his downfield shots.
The offensive line and receiving corps jelled as players developed and got healthy. The running game remained wishful thinking for much of the year. Jordan Reed (87-952-11) had a Rob Gronkowski-level impact; good thing he stayed healthy, because even the tight ends the team signed to replace the injured tight ends behind Reed got injured.
Defense (C): The pass rush was good; the run defense was inconsistent (though sometimes effective); the coverage was dreadful.
Special Teams (C+): Rashad Ross and Andre Roberts returned kickoffs for touchdowns. Dustin Hopkins emerged as a reliable kicker. The return and punt-protection units had some lapses, but the Redskins matched opponents big play for big play in the kicking game, which is an improvement over past years.
Coaching (B+): Let’s be frank: The Redskins made the playoffs because their division stank and they got to beat lots of teams with losing records. Much of what they accomplished this season must be viewed through that prism. Their defense is worse than it looked statistically, and Cousins faced some really soft defenses in the final weeks.
But Joe Barry did a lot with little talent (particularly in the secondary) on defense, Bill Callahan galvanized an offensive line that often needed backup tackles to moonlight as tight ends and, most importantly, Jay Gruden made this season about football, not drama.
What’s Next: A home playoff game against the Packers.
Houston Texans: C+
Final 2015 Record: 9-7
Offense (C): The Texans lost Arian Foster early in the year, juggled four different quarterbacks and survived an injury crunch on the offensive line. Still, their offense never totally collapsed, with T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden accomplishing just enough in Brian Hoyer’s absence to manufacture wins with the help of a superstar turn by DeAndre Hopkins (111-1,521-11) and a committee approach to the rest of the offense.
Defense (B+): J.J. Watt was amazing (17.5 sacks), but he needed help during a critical stretch of the season because of hand and groin injuries (and because the offense wasn’t doing anyone many favors). Whitney Mercilus, Johnathan Joseph and even Twitter criticism magnet Jadeveon Clowney made sure teams couldn’t beat the Texans simply by running away from Watt.
Special Teams (C): The Texans were forced to shuffle kickers. Shane Lechler’s best days are behind him. The return game was nothing special.
Coaching (B+): Bill O’Brien handled the early-season quarterback controversy poorly. He made up for it, however, by keeping the offense viable when the Texans were down to Weeden. The Texans wound up winning all the games they needed to down the stretch, plus a few (like the Bengals game) they probably shouldn’t have won.
What’s Next: A home playoff game against the Chiefs.
Oakland Raiders: C+
Final 2015 Record: 7-9
Offense (C+): Derek Carr and Amari Cooper could develop into the NFL’s next great touchdown tandem, and a championship-caliber supporting cast may emerge from among Latavius Murray, Clive Walford, Seth Roberts and others.
This was a season of brilliance mixed with growing pains, however. Fumbles, dropped passes and general inexperience kept the Raiders offense from closing out some winnable games.
Defense (C): Khalil Mack is a future Defensive Player of the Year. David Amerson, Dan Williams and Mario Edwards are building blocks. Charles Woodson was both a father figure and turnover producer. But the Raiders were still about three starters short of a playoff-caliber NFL defense.
Special Teams (C): Sebastian Janikowski was 4-of-5 beyond 50 yards but erratic on shorter kicks. The coverage and return units were nothing special.
Coaching (C): Jack Del Rio spent much of the year rotating new combinations on defense in search of players good enough to help the team in 2016. It was a wise move for a rebuilding team. Next year, Del Rio must stop building for tomorrow and start winning what-if games like the Steelers loss.
What’s Next: Overall optimism tempered by relocation insecurity.
Chicago Bears: C
Final 2015 Record: 6-10
Offense (C+): Jay Cutler coped with a revolving door of unfamiliar faces at the skill positions by rebranding himself as a dink-and-dunk ball distributor who (gasp) avoids turnovers. The reboot kept the Bears offense viable despite the fact Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett were rarely healthy at the same time.
Defense (C-): Pernell McPhee had a fine season as an all-purpose disrupter. Prospects like Kyle Fuller and Eddie Goldman developed into useful building blocks. Overall, however, the Bears were short-handed and too reliant on geezers (Jared Allen, Antrel Rolle) at the start of the season.
Special Teams (D-): Robbie Gould missed several impact field goals. Marc Mariani sometimes had trouble handling routine kickoffs and was a fair-catch machine on punt returns. The coverage units were terrible.
Coaching (B): John Fox and his staff wisely shuffled older players like Allen out of the lineup (or off the roster) while never actually throwing in the towel in the name of rebuilding. Adam Gase did a fine job playing mix-and-match at the skill positions and creating game plans that kept Cutler content and productive.
What’s Next: The rebuilding continues.
Atlanta Falcons: C
Final 2015 Record: 8-8
Offense (C): The September-October offense earned an “A.” Then Matt Ryan forgot how to throw forward passes for a while, Devonta Freeman (1,061 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns) slowed down and got nicked up, and opponents realized that Julio Jones (136-1,871-8) was Ryan’s only receiving threat and the offensive line was built out of balsa wood and hot glue. The Falcons offense did not end the year on a high note, but it at least halted a slide to oblivion with three solid games in December.
Defense (C-): Again, the defense played at about B-plus level through October. Then opponents realized the Falcons had no pass rush whatsoever (19 total sacks).
Special Teams (C-): Both Matt Bryant and Shayne Graham missed makeable field goals. The Falcons waited all year for Devin Hester to return from injury, but he didn’t do much when he finally arrived.
Coaching (C): The 6-1 start created unreal expectations. Dan Quinn and coordinator Richard Smith had little to work with on defense, while Kyle Shanahan threw an offensive line together at the last second. The Falcons were a rebuilding team that overachieved, though Quinn needed to do more to stop the midseason collapse before it got downright embarrassing.
What’s Next: Another year of rebuilding.
New York Giants: C
Final 2015 Record: 6-10
Offense (C): Odell Beckham Jr. (96-1,450-13) was unstoppable until he lost his temper, making him a kind of anti-Hulk.
None of the other Giants' skill-position players ever settled into a real role, particularly in the backfield, where Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen played well but kept ceding carries to Andre Williams and Orleans Darkwa. That may be because the Giants weren’t used to having healthy running backs and just assumed they had to give the fourth guy a bunch of touches.
Defense (D+): There are four or five regulars on the Giants defense who are simply too slow for the positions they play (most of the linebackers, for example). Steve Spagnuolo’s game plans weren’t even all that clever during the George W. Bush administration; he just had crazy-good linemen to work with back then.
Special Teams (A-): Dwayne Harris made an impact as a return man and a gunner. Josh Brown was exceptional on field goals. Brad Wing was a weak link as a punter.
Coaching (D-): The season started with confusion over late-game strategies and ended with confusion over whether a superstar wide receiver should be left in the game when he is running around slamming his helmet into everyone he is miffed at. In between, Spagnuolo coached yet another defense past the 6,000-yard mark while the rest of the staff coasted on increasingly faded reputations.
What’s Next: Who knows? Tectonic plates move more quickly than the Giants, but they must act this offseason as they move on from Tom Coughlin.
Detroit Lions: C
Final 2015 Record: 7-9
Offense (D): Statistically, the Lions ended the year with a middle-of-the-pack offense. Now, factor in the good health they enjoyed all season: Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, most of the running backs and the most critical players on the offensive line (left tackle Riley Reiff and center Travis Swanson) were healthy all season.
This should have been a top-10 offense. But predictability and an almost obsessive need to use Johnson improperly got in its way.
Defense (C-): Ezekiel Ansah (14.5 sacks) was the only consistent big-play producer. Interceptions were rare. The run defense collapsed against opponents (Rams, Chiefs) the Lions should have been able to load up against.
Special Teams (B): Matt Prater had an outstanding year. Ameer Abdullah flashed promise as a return man and all-purpose threat.
Coaching (D): This was a weird year for the Lions: a shake-up in the front office, strange-call last-play losses to the Seahawks and Packers, early-season allegations that opponents knew the playbook.
Jim Caldwell shuffled offensive coordinators and nearly dragged the Lions into the playoff picture after an 0-5 start, but the organization once again appears to need a system-wide reboot.
What’s Next: A system-wide reboot.
Buffalo Bills: C
Final 2015 Record: 8-8
Offense (B-): The whole of the Bills offense never quite added up to the sum of its parts. Tyrod Taylor generated big plays with his arm and his legs while avoiding turnovers (just six interceptions). It’s the small plays—short completions, 3rd-and-medium conversions—that he struggled with. LeSean McCoy led a running game that rushed for over 2,300 yards but rarely appeared to be working in concert with the passing attack.
Defense (C-): Somehow, Rex Ryan took over a defense full of scary pass-rushers and managed to produce just 21 sacks. Some defenders got hurt. Others were disgruntled with the scheme. A few, like rookie cornerback Ronald Darby, offered glimpses of how Ryan’s defense is supposed to operate.
Special Teams (C+): The Bills got little from their return game, though coverage units were excellent. Punter Colton Schmidt and kickoff specialist Jordan Gay kept opponents pinned in bad field position.
Coaching (D): Vintage Ryan: lots of bluster, big talk about grudge matches, too many penalties, too many players doing their own thing, incoherent offensive game plans and a nagging sense that everything would have turned out better if anyone bothered sweating the details.
What’s Next: Probably more tough talk and guarantees.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: C
Final 2015 Record: 6-10
Offense (C): Jameis Winston developed impressively for much of the season, plateaued around Week 14 or so and began regressing late in the season.
Doug Martin (1,402 rushing yards, six touchdowns) had a Comeback Player of the Year-worthy season, with Charles Sims (1,090 scrimmage yards) providing an outstanding changeup. With Vincent Jackson hurt for much of the year, Winston lacked a safety valve and often scattered passes at Mike Evans (74-1,206-3 on 147 targets).
Defense (C+): Gerald McCoy played hurt for much of the year but picked up 8.5 sacks. Lavonte David often tried to do too much in pass coverage but is still one of the league’s best all-purpose linebackers. Kwon Alexander is a rising star. Let’s not talk about the secondary.
Special Teams (C-): Kyle Brindza was a kicking disaster. Connor Barth tweeted his way onto the roster but was only a slight improvement on field goals (he kicked off well). Bobby Rainey accomplished little as a returner, though the coverage teams were solid.
Coaching (C+): If the sole goal for 2015 was to develop Winston, mission accomplished. But Lovie Smith’s defense has become comically predictable, and the Buccaneers let some games slip away (like the Redskins loss) that could have changed the whole complexion of the season.
What’s Next: The Buccaneers have obvious needs (the secondary) and cap space to burn.
New Orleans Saints: C-
Final 2015 Record: 7-9
Offense (B): This is what a Drew Brees “off” year looks like: 4,870 yards, 32 touchdowns, 11 interceptions. Slacker. Brandin Cooks (84-1,138-9) grew into a multipurpose threat, with newcomers like Willie Snead (69-984-3) taking pressure off both the greybeards of the receiving corps and a running back committee racked by injuries.
Defense (F-): It was like watching toddlers chase a puppy across a frozen pond. Except with lots of penalties.
Special Teams (D): Neither Zach Hocker nor Kai Forbath was the answer at kicker: The Saints missed a pair of field goals inside the 40 and two extra points.
Coaching (D): The seeds of the defensive collapse were already sprouting in training camp, when Sean Payton and Rob Ryan were clearly at odds over basics like: There should be 11 players on the field, and they should all know the play.
The Saints flatlined on both sides of the ball for much of November, so Payton cannot lay all of the blame at the feet of Ryan or replacement Dennis Allen.
What’s Next: The Saints are in disarray and salary-cap peril. It will make the offseason interesting.
Jacksonville Jaguars: C-
Final 2015 Record: 5-11
Offense (D+): Imagine a bunch of frat boys reenacting their favorite moments from an afternoon playing NFL Blitz in a campus arcade. That’s what the Jaguars offense looked like for much of the season.
Young talent is everywhere: Blake Bortles, T.J. Yeldon, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns all have the potential to be special. But no team in the league was more likely to follow an 80-yard touchdown with a snap over the quarterback’s head or an illegal forward pass from three yards past the line of scrimmage than the Jaguars.
Defense (D-): The Jaguars have spent three years searching for an impact pass-rusher and a shutdown cornerback. Rookie Dante Fowler Jr. might have helped had he not torn an ACL the moment he set foot on a practice field, but the Jaguars needed more help than one rookie could have provided.
Special Teams (C+): Jason Myers overcame some rough early performances to have a pretty good season. Bryan Anger is one of the NFL’s best punters. Rashad Greene made an impact as a return man.
Coaching (D+): Gus Bradley never makes any glaring mistakes and always appears to be taking the right approach and saying the right things. Losing Fowler and Julius Thomas, the team’s two biggest offseason acquisitions, to injuries (Thomas returned in the second half of the season) surely set the Jaguars back.
Still, it has been three years, and the Jaguars are still finding ways to lose close games to opponents like the Titans and Chargers.
What’s Next: More rebuilding. Always with the rebuilding.
Philadelphia Eagles: C-
Final 2015 Record: 7-9
Offense (D): No one looked comfortable in Chip Kelly’s offense.
Sam Bradford did not dare even fake an option keeper, so defenses could load up on the running backs. DeMarco Murray (702 yards, 3.6 yards per carry) wanted to run downhill, not wide from a shotgun set, and he certainly didn’t want to ride the bench for weeks at a time.
The young receiving corps dropped too many passes and rarely separated deep. Jason Peters belonged in a hospital bed late in the year, not at left tackle. Worst of all, opponents figured Kelly’s system out completely, yet Kelly responded by getting less creative.
Defense (C): Fletcher Cox (9.5 sacks) rocks. Other Eagles defenders played hard and well for much of the year, despite increasingly dire circumstances. The bottom fell out during the Buccaneers game, when everyone stopped tackling at once.
Special Teams (A): The Eagles beat the Patriots almost entirely on special teams heroics. Darren Sproles was arguably the team’s MVP. Caleb Sturgis replaced Cody Parkey and turned the kicking game from a weakness into an asset.
Coaching (F): Kelly gave football traditionalists all over the world an opportunity to chuckle condescendingly about the no-huddle, daring trades, sports science and every other innovation since 1984. That’s the most grievous of his many sins.
What's Next: A search not just for a new coach, but a new culture.
Indianapolis Colts: C-
Final 2015 Record: 8-8
Offense (D+): Colts offense phase one: Andrew Luck thought he was executing a Super Bowl-caliber vertical passing attack but wound up getting sacked, intercepted and injured (grade: D).
Colts offense phase two: Matt Hasselbeck shifted into Magic Plucky Geezer Quarterback mode, distributing short passes to generate wins against weak opponents (C+).
Colts offense phase three: Hasselbeck gets drawn-and-quartered weekly on the field, but the Colts refuse to resort to their third-string quarterback to win games until the season finale, because that is more of a Texans thing (F).
Defense (C): Pagano Brothers defenses are like Ryan Brothers defenses without even the threat of doing something exciting. It’s like extra-mild salsa from a jar.
The Colts defense would have looked much better if it got to do what it was built to do (generate turnovers and sacks while protecting leads) instead of trying to hold opponents under 20 while Hasselbeck crawled to the sideline.
Special Teams (A-): Pat McAfee and Adam Vinatieri had stellar years. Quan Bray emerged as a fine return man. Mind-alteringly idiotic trick plays against the Patriots belong in the next category.
Coaching (F): This should have been a 10-6 team, even with Hasselbeck replacing Luck in midseason. What Pagano asked Hasselbeck to do in the final weeks should have gotten him fired before season’s end for player-safety reasons.
What’s Next: A thorough housecleaning? No? You sure? Sigh.
St. Louis Rams: C-
Final 2015 Record: 7-9
Offense (D-): It didn’t matter whether Nick Foles or Case Keenum was the quarterback. The Rams offense consisted of feeding Todd Gurley to the line until he suffered a wear-and-tear injury (mission accomplished!), using Tavon Austin as a screen-and-reverse specialist and maybe completing one downfield pass to Kenny Britt if everyone was feeling particularly plucky. Good defenses obliterated the Rams, but the Rams lucked into their share of bad defenses.
Defense (B+): Aaron Donald had a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season. The Rams defensive line remains one of the best in the NFL, an equalizer that can force opponents to play down to their scoring level.
Special Teams (A-): Johnny Hekker is the NFL’s best punter: a huge asset on a team that can barely convert a third down and expects its defense to win games. Austin is dangerous on punt returns. Greg Zuerlein was just 3-of-9 behind 50 yards.
Coaching (F): Jeff Fisher is NFL status quo mediocrity incarnate. When he is not squandering several drafts’ worth of extra high-round picks or overworking the team’s most precious asset, he can be seen leaving concussed quarterbacks in the game and then acting indignant when called on it.
The Rams have the talent to explode for one of those 13-3 seasons Fisher’s teams produce once or twice per decade. But better coaching would have yielded an 11-5 season or two while St. Louis fans could still enjoy them.
What’s next: Relocation uncertainty and coaching certainty. The Rams would be better off if it were the other way around.
Miami Dolphins: D+
Final 2015 Record: 6-10
Offense (D): Just figuring out what the Dolphins were trying to accomplish was often a puzzle. Some weeks, they would completely ignore the running game. Then the next week, Ryan Tannehill would throw just 19 passes. Protection deteriorated as the year went on, and there were times that Tannehill (and the offense) were caught in a tug of war between interim coaches and a disorganized front office.
Defense (D): Ndamukong Suh actually played well when not jumping offside. The pass rush surrendered soon after Cameron Wake got hurt, though it rebounded in the season finale when it had a chance to embarrass/injure Tom Brady. The run defense came and went like a mood swing. The secondary was easy to exploit as long as opponents shied away from Brent Grimes and Reshad Jones.
Special Teams (C): Jarvis Landry was a bright spot as both a receiver and a returner. Andrew Franks was efficient when called upon, which wasn’t often because the Dolphins rarely made it into field-goal range.
Coaching (F): Joe Philbin was overmatched by basic strategic and player-management concepts. Dan Campbell is one of those guys who thinks every tool is a hammer. Only the Dolphins can endure two separate major coaching shake-ups in a season (coach, then offensive coordinator) and expect anything but confusion and lackluster effort in the final weeks.
What’s next: NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the Dolphins plan to interview Mike Shanahan. Yep, that will make everyone feel better about themselves.
Baltimore Ravens: D+
Final 2015 Record: 5-11
Offense (D-): Even before Joe Flacco, Steve Smith Sr. and Justin Forsett got hurt, the Ravens offense was inconsistent and frustrating. But then, Ravens offenses are usually inconsistent and frustrating. By the time Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett were handing off to Javorius "Buck" Allen and throwing to Kamar Aiken, well, the results were actually better than anyone could have expected.
Defense (D): The Ravens never recovered from the loss of Terrell Suggs; none of their young pass-rushers filled the void, and their secondary needed heavy pass pressure to survive. Nose tackle Brandon Williams was among the defense’s few bright spots.
Special Teams (B): Justin Tucker was just 4-of-10 on 50-plus-yard field goals, though he did save his best kicks for Steelers games. The Ravens could usually count on a big play from their special teams if they needed, say, a blocked kick at midnight to avoid an upset.
Coaching (C): Marc Trestman’s predictable game plans held the Ravens offense back when everyone was healthy. When broadcasters announce flat passes to Kyle Juszczyk before they happen, it’s a sign the offensive staff needs to do a little quality control.
John Harbaugh kept the Ravens dangerous as spoilers even though they were fielding preseason-game talent at the end of the season, which is a credit to his staff and the organization.
What’s Next: Lots of injury rehabilitation, and the first high draft pick in many years.
San Diego Chargers: D+
Final 2015 Record: 4-12
Offense (C-): Injury crises on the offensive line and at wide receiver left Philip Rivers throwing to the likes of Dontrelle Inman instead of Keenan Allen. Melvin Gordon (641 yards, 3.5 yards per carry, four fumbles lost) frustrated coaches all season with turnovers and tentative rushing.
The Chargers endured one stretch where they were held to just three points in three games out of four: inexcusable for a team with a healthy Pro Bowl quarterback, no matter whom he is forced to throw to.
Defense (D): Melvin Ingram and Jason Verrett began to emerge as playmakers on defense. Eric Weddle battled injuries and illnesses to contribute. But in the tradition of Pagano Brothers defenses, the Chargers didn’t make enough plays.
Special Teams (D): The Chargers were one of the worst punt-returning teams in NFL history. Josh Lambo was unreliable outside of 40 yards.
Coaching (D-): John Pagano offered little as a defensive coordinator. Mike McCoy and Frank Reich’s offense, which promised to be daring and innovative when McCoy arrived from Denver, descended into an endless series of short passes to Danny Woodhead on 3rd-and-long.
What’s Next: The third pick in the draft and lots of stadium referendums.
Cleveland Browns: D+
Final 2015 Record: 3-13
Offense (D): When finally inserted into the lineup, Johnny Manziel demonstrated a fair amount of potential as a passer, rusher and (yes) orchestrator of the offense. Manziel also made plenty of mistakes and forced his coaches to take three aspirin before loading Instagram, right up through the end of the season.
The Browns’ best offensive weapons were a career backup tight end (Gary Barnidge), a receiver who would be a backup and return man on most teams (Travis Benjamin) and a rookie changeup runner (Duke Johnson Jr.), making it hard to really evaluate how well Manziel (or any other quarterback) played.
Defense (F): Joe Haden wasn’t having a good season. But when a concussion sidelined him, it left the Browns with zero starting-caliber cornerbacks. A pass rush might have helped, but the Browns didn’t have one of those either, despite the draft picks and free-agent dollars they invested in sack specialists in recent years.
Special Teams (D): Andy Lee is a heck of a punter. A variety of sloppy mistakes (roughing-the-kicker penalties, blocked field-goal touchdowns) haunted the Browns throughout the season. One of the strangest things about the 2015 Browns is the fact the team had lots of players who could have been outstanding return men (Benjamin, Johnson, Andrew Hawkins), yet Cleveland kept sending Justin Gilbert back to handle kickoffs.
Coaching (D+): Under the circumstances, weekly Browns game plans looked pretty creative. Mike Pettine kept Manziel’s off-field issues from careening the whole organization off a cliff. There are only so many kudos to pass around for a team that responded to every challenge with a 31-10 loss, however, and Pettine’s desk will already be cleaned out by the time you read this.
What’s Next: Coaching search, general manager search, quarterback search: the annual Browns January trifecta.
San Francisco 49ers: D
Final 2015 Record: 5-11
Offense (F): Blaine Gabbert replaced Colin Kaepernick (who eventually had shoulder surgery), threw a bunch of short passes on 3rd-and-forever to keep his completion percentages high and fooled a lot of 49ers observers into thinking the team was making progress.
In fairness, Anquan Boldin was the only skill-position player good enough to contribute to a playoff team...before 2014.
Defense (C): With a few exceptions (Arik Armstead had a fine rookie season), all of the old Jim Harbaugh defenders like NaVorro Bowman and Aaron Lynch made positive contributions, while all the new guys struggled to achieve adequacy.
Special Teams (C): Phil Dawson got the job done on field goals. Punt returns were often an adventure.
Coaching (D-): It’s almost cruel to hammer Jim Tomsula, who was practically set up to fail by the organization. But the 49ers spent much of the season playing as if they were trying to look busy until quitting time instead of win games.
What’s Next: The 49ers seek a coach who can work with Trent Baalke. This...this could take a while.
Dallas Cowboys: D
Final 2015 Record: 4-12
Offense (F): Tony Romo got hurt. What were the Cowboys supposed to do? Win with experienced backups because they have a great offensive line and some top skill-position talent? C’mon, teams can’t really do that, can they?
Defense (C): As usual, the Cowboys fielded terrible safeties and ran a fairly vanilla scheme that opponents could easily attack. The defense would have looked better with even modest offensive support.
Losses by 13-12, 16-6 and 10-6 finals hint the season would have looked differently if the Cowboys even had base-level competency at quarterback. While we endlessly debated the sociopolitical meaning of Greg Hardy’s continued employment in the NFL, Demarcus Lawrence emerged as an excellent all-purpose, three-down defensive end.
Special Teams (C+): Dan Bailey missed just two field goals and was 5-of-6 beyond 50 yards.
Coaching (F): It’s a coaching staff’s job to have some sort of strategy for winning a game or two with a backup quarterback.
What’s next: An offseason of fretting about Romo’s ailing, aging back and neck.
Tennessee Titans: D-
Final 2015 Record: 3-13
Offense (D): A strong rookie season by Marcus Mariota (19 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, a pair of four-touchdown games) was rendered meaningless by poor play at the skill positions, predictable game plans that gave too many touches and targets to players who did nothing with them, and a revolving door of ineffective blockers on the interior line.
Defense (D): A handful of individuals (Jurrell Casey as usual, Wesley Woodyard, Brian Orakpo) can hold their heads up. Otherwise, the Titans secondary was usually awful, while the pass rush was inconsistent at best.
Special Teams (C-): Return and coverage units were pretty bad. Ryan Succop and Brett Kern were fine.
Coaching (F): Ken Whisenhunt plugged Mariota into the veteran Kurt Warner offense and asked him to be the veteran Warner. Interim coach Mike Mularkey did less harm, but Titans games often felt like they began with the team trailing 14-3.
Ray Horton and a well-regarded defensive staff couldn’t overcome the lack of talent in the secondary, though the talent on the front seven should have made it possible.
What’s Next: The Titans are on the clock with the first pick in the 2016 draft.
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