Patriots Finished? Carson Palmer Washed Up? Our End-of-Era Test Has the Answers

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 14, 2017

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 10: Anthony Zettel #69 of the Detroit Lions sacks Carson Palmer #3 of the Arizona Cardinals in the fourth quarter at Ford Field on September 10, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Everyone knows that you cannot jump to conclusions after Week 1, that anyone claiming the Patriots are "finished" is just trolling, that the Rams and Jaguars aren't going to face off in the Super Bowl and that even leading a mid-September NFL column with "you cannot jump to conclusions" has become a cliche. 

So let's ask a more pressing question: How can we tell the difference between a Week 1 stumble and a sign of a pending franchise apocalypse?

That's a question veteran teams with playoff ambitions around the league are asking themselves this week, even as their fans comfort themselves with it's only one game mantras. Has the quarterback gotten too old? Is the system stale? Has the window of opportunity been bricked up?

To find out, let's put aside the wait-and-see waffling, look past the box scores and search for telltale signs of teams on the decline by applying a simple litmus test:

  • How old is the quarterback? And did he look shaky/rusty/older than Patrick Stewart in that satellite-dish commercial last week?
  • Have injuries begun eroding the team's core?
  • Is the coaching staff repeating the same mistakes from previous years? Has it run out of ideas?
  • Has the organization resorted to devil's bargains (risky trades, deep cap cuts) to keep the nucleus intact after years of late draft picks and free-agent defections?

Put it all together, and you get a good sense of whether the panic levels should be set at "no worries" or "curled up in closet, sucking thumb."

Let's apply the end-of-era litmus test to five veteran teams in ascending order of 2017 expectations to find out which ones will bounce back quickly and which are ready to crumble.

         

Cincinnati Bengals (lost 20-0 to Ravens in Week 1)

When did they last look like contenders?

On paper, before the 2014 season or after any regionally televised early-season blowout victory from 2011 through 2015.

Quarterback age: Andy Dalton is 29 years old. If Dalton has a prime, this should be it.

How's the not-so-old fellow looking these days?

Gary Landers/Associated Press

Like Mark Sanchez. Dalton delivered a meltdown or two per year even when his protection was reliable and his playmaking arsenal was loaded. If Sunday's five-turnover shutout is any indication, it's going to be a long year behind the new budget-priced offensive line.

Have recent injuries eroded the core?

Age- and cap-related defections are a bigger problem than injuries, particularly on the offensive line. New starters Jake Fisher, Trey Hopkins and Cedric Ogbuehi (now at left tackle after an ugly 2016 season on the right) got manhandled by the Ravens. Stalwarts Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler and Eric Winston were released or left via free agency so the Bengals could spend their money more questionably.

Does the coach sound like he's out of ideas?

Did Marvin Lewis ever sound like he had ideas?

Lewis did have lieutenants, however, and the best of them are now head coaches elsewhere. Under current coordinators Ken Zampese and Paul Guenther, the Bengals were predictable on offense last week (especially in the red zone, where they used to be innovators) and unable to stop the Ravens from running down their throats on defense.

Has the organization resorted to Faustian bargains?

Gutting your offensive line while extending the contracts of aging ne'er-do-wells like Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones is pretty Faustian. And that's before we talk about why Joe Mixon was available in the second round.

End-of-era panic level

High. The worst thing about the current roster is the lengths to which the franchise is going to keep the most disappointing parts of it together. The Bengals are trying to hang on to glory years that were never all that glorious.

A Thursday night home win against the Texans (with Deshaun Watson making his first start...on a gimpy ankle) could help the team breathe easier. But counting on the Bengals to win a prime-time game has never been wise.

             

New Orleans Saints (lost 29-19 to Vikings on Monday)

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 11: Adrian Peterson #28 of the New Orleans Saints on the sidelines before the game against the Minnesota Vikings on September 11, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

When did they last look like contenders?

On offense, the end of last season. On defense, the day before the Bountygate ruling in March 2012.

Quarterback age: Drew Brees is 38 years old and has thrown 8,795 career passes.

How's the old fellow looking these days?

Like a typical early-middle-aged guy who misses old buddies like Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Pierre Thomas, Jahri Evans, etc.

Have recent injuries eroded the core?

The Saints offense wasn't the same on Monday night when Zach Strief exited with an MCL injury. Strief isn't just a steady protector. He's one of the few guys besides Brees on the roster who remembers when the Saints were more than a sub-.500 fantasy-stat honeypot.

Does the coach sound like he's out of ideas?

Sean Payton abandoned his defense years ago, and we're used what we saw from coordinator Dennis Allen's troops Monday night: foolish penalties, wide-open receivers and an inability to stop simple run-out-the-clock plays.

But Payton's offensive game plan, particularly when Strief left, looked like a mixture of checkdowns, guesswork and reactionary decisions. Adrian Peterson was getting appeasement snaps early in drives, but third-down back Alvin Kamara ran up the gut at the goal line, which is one reason why the Saints kept settling for field goals.

Has the organization resorted to Faustian bargains?

The Saints traded receiver Brandin Cooks for the draft pick that became offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. And while New Orleans also added Marshon Lattimore in the draft, its receiving corps is short-handed, while its defense is as overaggressive and easily confused as ever. That's how deals with the devil work.

Peterson is the weight bench the divorced guy buys so he can start working out to get "back on the scene" but ends up using as his dinner table.

End-of-era panic level

High. We've seen Saints road collapses like Monday night's before over the last three years, but that's precisely the problem for a team that keeps boring deeper into its 7-9 rut. After New Orleans goes 0-2 at the hands of the well-rested and fuming Patriots, Payton, Allen and Peterson may go after each other like Cap, Bucky and Iron Man at the end of Captain America: Civil War.

            

Arizona Cardinals (lost 35-25 to Lions on Sunday)

DENVER, CO - AUGUST 31: Head coach Bruce Arians of the Arizona Cardinals looks on from the sideline during a preseason NFL game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on August 31, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Brad
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

When did they last look like contenders?

Overtime of the 2015 divisional-playoff win against the Packers.

Quarterback age: Carson Palmer is 37 going on get-off-his-lawn.

How's the old fellow looking these days?

Like an aging fastball pitcher who can suddenly only reach the low 80s on the radar gun. Palmer wants to fire lasers on 15-18-yard sideline routes, but his throws now either tail low and away or into the bellies of defenders.

Have recent injuries eroded the core?

David Johnson's wrist injury takes away the Cardinals' only insurance policy against a Palmer decline.

Does the coach sound like he's out of ideas?

As the only head coach in the NFL who still provides detailed, honest-sounding answers to questions, Bruce Arians never sounds like he is out of ideas. But his offense is built out of vertical passing and power running. Things get ugly when the Cardinals can do neither (see their collapse after Palmer's injury in 2014).

Has the organization resorted to Faustian bargains?

Chris Johnson has returned to help replace David Johnson. The whole CJ2K story has deal-with-the-devil overtones. (I grant thee a 2,000-yard season in exchange for the souls of Jeff Fisher, Vince Young and the whole Titans franchise! Muah-ha-ha-ha-ha.)

Also, while most of the Cardinals' concerns are on offense, Calais Campbell is now in Jacksonville making Texas barbecue out of shredded Houston quarterbacks. It's impossible for a veteran team to retain all of its core players. Which is why eras end so suddenly in the NFL.

End-of-era panic level

High. The Cardinals face the Colts on Sunday, which should calm things down for a week. But that's how most of their 7-8-1 season in 2016 went: They beat terrible teams, lost to good ones, and things got weird against the Seahawks. The Cardinals can't keep doing this forever. Especially Palmer.

               

New York Giants (lost 19-3 to Cowboys on Sunday night)

Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

When did they last look like contenders?

The Giants never looked like traditional contenders when they were winning Super Bowls. But they sure looked like they were building something, or at least buying something, in the last two free-agency periods.

Quarterback age: Eli Manning is 36, which is 252 in New York quarterback years.

How's the old fellow looking these days?

Like Eli Manning. Trying to execute Aaron Rodgers' offense. Behind Russell Wilson's offensive line.

Have recent injuries eroded the core?

The Giants signed Brandon Marshall and drafted Evan Engram and (last year) Sterling Shepard to reduce their reliance on Odell Beckham Jr. Yet with Beckham hurt, their offense appears to consist mostly of checkdowns to running backs.

Does the coach sound like he's out of ideas?

Ben McAdoo is a graduate of the Mike McCarthy school of never adjusting his game plan to account for decreased firepower or nonexistent pass protection. On the other hand, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a whole toy chest of pass-rushers to play with, which is how the 2000s Giants became a Super Bowl team in the first place.

Has the organization resorted to Faustian bargains?

The devil whispers in the man's ear that he should buy a Porsche instead of fixing the roof and saving for retirement. The devil whispers in a general manager's ear that he should sign more receivers and edge-rushers while the offensive line dry-rots.

End-of-era panic level

Moderate. The 2007 Super Bowl team got clobbered in its first two games; the 2011 title team lost the opener to the Rex Grossman-led Redskins. The Giants have long memories when shrugging off slow starts. Beckham will return, and New York will beat lots of opponents with just bombs and sacks. And the Giants know their window is closing, which is why they opened the bank vault in the last two years. Their plan may not have yielded encouraging early returns, but at least it's a plan.

                  

New England Patriots (lost 42-27 to Chiefs on Thursday night)

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

When did they last look like contenders?

Last Thursday, midway through the second quarter.

Quarterback age: Tom Brady is 40. You may remember his birthday party. Emperors have been crowned with less fanfare.

How's the old fellow looking these days?

Brady has been quietly compensating for his floaty downfield passes with deity-level decision-making and touch for years. Thursday's loss to the Chiefs revealed a little more floaty-ness and need for compensation.

Have recent injuries eroded the core?

The Julian Edelman-Danny Amendola-Malcolm Mitchell injury trifecta has reduced Brady's offensive options from "limitless" to "still better than half the league."

Does the coach sound like he's out of ideas?

Bill Belichick sounds like he ran out of patience in 2004. Though it does sometimes look like Patriots defensive game plans are predicated on the idea that opponents will wet themselves before kickoff simply because they are facing New England.

Has the organization resorted to Faustian bargains?

Devil's bargains are stacked in the devil's favor, of course. The Patriots plucked Phillip Dorsett from the Colts just before their receiver emergency went critical (and added Cooks in the offseason), so there is still no evidence that their comeuppance is imminent.

End-of-era panic level

Low. There's nothing more fun than predicting the decline and fall of the Patriots empire. But the loss to the Chiefs looked like the semiannual Patriots blunder game than a sign of doom. Even accounting for their newfound mortality, it's hard to find three more losses on their upcoming schedule.

                      

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.