NFL Teams Facing Make-or-Break Seasons in 2022
The NFL is a pressure-filled business by nature, but some teams will be feeling it more than others in 2022.
As former Houston Oilers coach Jerry Glanville once famously said, the NFL stands for "Not For Long." While he was berating an official at the time, the saying rings true for players, coaches and front-office executives.
This offseason, we've seen teams move on from quarterbacks, coaches, general managers and several league stars. Projecting forward a year, there are some who probably have just one season to prove themselves before they too are on the chopping block.
Whether it's the front office, coaching staff or stars who will be on the hot seat, these teams are facing make-or-break seasons in 2022.
In 2020, Carolina took a big swing on luring head coach Matt Rhule from Baylor to turn the Panthers into a winner. They handed him a lucrative seven-year contract worth at least $60 million.
Two years into that contract, it's looking like a shaky bet that he'll wind up lasting the entire pact. The past two seasons have yielded five-win campaigns and a top-10 pick in consecutive drafts.
Joseph Person of The Athletic reported team owner David Tepper is "unhappy and embarrassed" by the pact they signed with the coach.
General manager Scott Fitterer isn't blameless, either. He's only been in the position for a year, but he was part of the decision to trade for Sam Darnold. Bringing in the former Jets quarterback was questionable at the time and looks even worse now.
Darnold went 4-7 in 11 starts and threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (nine) for the second consecutive season.
Yet, Fitterer has called Darnold the "No. 1 guy right now," per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. The Panthers' only investment at quarterback this offseason was taking Ole Miss signal-caller Matt Corral in the third round of the draft.
That leaves Rhule and Fitterer depending on either Darnold or Corral to show the pairing can get the franchise going in the right direction.
If the Panthers don't show marked improvement in 2022, it should spell the end for Rhule—and Fitterer should feel uncomfortable as well.
Expectations are high in Dallas, as they should be. Everything team owner Jerry Jones has done over the past three offseasons has been aimed at contending for a Super Bowl.
In that time, the Cowboys fired Jason Garrett, hired Mike McCarthy and handed quarterback Dak Prescott a four-year, $160 million contract.
The allure of hiring McCarthy was his previous playoff success. The veteran coach won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 2010 and had at least one playoff win each season from 2014-2016.
Thus far, he's not brought the postseason success with him. The Cowboys went 6-10 in his first season before going 12-5 and losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Game this past year.
That loss was magnified by some baffling coaching decisions at the end of the game, including an ill-fated quarterback draw on the final play of the game with no timeouts.
In the aftermath, Jones was noncommittal about McCarthy's future with the team.
Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, and McCarthy was retained. But the gauntlet has been thrown, and Jones' expectations are clear. Jones said McCarthy is "very qualified to win a Super Bowl," per Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News.
McCarthy isn't the only one who should be feeling the pressure. Ezekiel Elliott's burdensome contract has a potential out after the season, so the team could outright release the running back and incur $11.9 million in dead cap.
If he doesn't impress on the field in 2022, he could be looking for a new team alongside McCarthy.
Head coach Frank Reich and GM Chris Ballard have proven through four seasons together in Indianapolis they are good at their jobs.
Colts owner Jim Irsay made it clear after trading Carson Wentz that the expectation is they are great at their jobs.
Wentz put up respectable numbers and led the team to a winning record but failed to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in the final week of the season and missed the playoffs.
“Your guy’s gotta pick you up and carry you through Jacksonville,” Irsay said, per Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star. "He has to do it. Not an option. Has to. No excuses, no explanations.”
In other words, the expectations have been made clear, and Wentz was the scapegoat—for now.
The Colts went 4-12 in Ballard's first year as GM, but with Reich's arrival the next season, they have gone 37-28. That includes two trips to the playoffs but just one postseason win in 2018.
Wentz is now a Washington Commander. The GM and coach now have a veteran with proven leadership at their disposal in Matt Ryan.
Running back Jonathan Taylor is one of the league's best offensive weapons after finishing the 2021 season as the NFL's leading rusher. The defense also added playmakers at premium positions in defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
The Colts are in position to make a deep playoff run. If they don't, it's going to be difficult not to look at management and coaching this time.
New York Jets
In 2021, the New York Jets had a lot of reasons to be bad.
Robert Saleh was a first-year head coach. Zach Wilson was a rookie. They even had to start a 36-year-old Joe Flacco for a game. As their 4-13 record showed, they just didn't have the talent of your average NFL team.
Those built-in reasons aren't there anymore.
Saleh has had a year to figure out what it takes to be a successful head coach. Wilson has had a year to develop. And the Jets have had one of the best offseasons in the league—on paper, anyway.
There's a lot to like about what GM Joe Douglas has done; the influx of talent through free agency should certainly help. Tight end C.J. Uzomah and guard Laken Tomlinson will be welcome additions to help Wilson, while safety Jordan Whitehead and cornerback D.J. Reed could transform the secondary.
In the first round of this year's draft, New York added at least three players who are expected to make an immediate impact: cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson and pass-rusher Jermaine Johnson, as well as second-round running back Breece Hall.
But it's going to take actual signs of progress on the field for Jets leadership to feel safe. Douglas is entering his fourth season as GM. Wilson and Saleh may only be in their second years, but the NFL is a win-now league.
For a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 2015, the pressure is on.
Ron Rivera has not had a winning season as a head coach since 2017 in Carolina.
Two seasons into his run as the Washington Commanders skipper, he has yet to break .500.
The Commanders have some talent to work with, but the results have been frustrating. For instance, the defensive line features four former first-round picks in Chase Young, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat. Yet, the team ranked just 19th in pressure percentage in 2021.
One legitimate reason Rivera can point to for the lack of success is the quarterback position. It's difficult to have a winning season with the likes of Taylor Heinicke and Alex Smith.
Even though Carson Wentz has his faults, he's still the most talented quarterback Rivera has had in Washington. He has a 44-40-1 record as a starter and threw 27 touchdowns to just seven interceptions last season.
With receivers Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel at his disposal, plus running back Antonio Gibson, Wentz is good enough for the Commanders to have a respectable offense.
Rivera is in his third season. Wentz is on his third team in three seasons. Both are facing make-or-break situations and will depend on each other to keep their NFL careers going.