NFL Teams That Are Destined to Disappoint in 2020
Marquee teams disappoint every season in the NFL.
Last year, the Los Angeles Rams offensive line caved in, dropping the Rams from 13 wins to nine as they missed the playoffs. Elsewhere in the NFC, a barrage of factors dropped the Chicago Bears from 12 wins to eight.
While high expectations often precede disappointing seasons, teams don't always have to experience regression to disappoint—just ask the Cleveland Browns.
Below are five teams with large expectations for 2020 because of big changes, hype, previous success or otherwise. A litany of factors, such as a standout weakness or personnel losses, highlight them as prime disappointment candidates.
New England Patriots
This feels like one of the first seasons the Bill Belichick-led New England Patriots might be vulnerable.
The Tom Brady drama hangs over things, as the veteran quarterback is free to at least tease a trip to free agency. Even if it's a standoff between the two parties until a new collective bargaining agreement goes through, we'll work with the presumption Brady comes back.
His return will come with plenty of hype and expectations. But despite 12 wins last year, Brady and Co. got bounced early in the playoffs. At the age of 42, he completed just 60.8 percent of his passes with 4,000-plus yards.
The Patriots defense is poised to regress next year after boasting arguably the best unit of the Belichick era. Now add potential key free-agent losses like Devin McCourty and Kyle Van Noy on the defensive side of the ball, as well as productive guard Joe Thuney. After a Brady extension, there doesn't figure to be much left of the current estimated $44 million in cap space.
Last year's late-season performance, marred by losses to AFC contenders Kansas City and Houston, as well as a rebuilding Miami team in the AFC East before the playoff loss to Tennessee, seems like foreshadowing—the dropoff could be real.
It all hinges on the quarterback.
The Tennessee Titans figure to ride the hot hand with Ryan Tannehill and bring him back, which would be the reasonable and cost-effective thing to do while aiming for another AFC title game.
But leaning into Tannehill is bound to lead to dashed expectations. He probably isn't going to lead the NFL in passer rating again (117.5). While the completion percentage above 70 was fun, he only threw 22 touchdowns behind a line that coughed up 56 sacks.
Maximizing Tannehill means an all-out effort around him—a difficult task when trying to pay him, Derrick Henry (a regression candidate after 1,540 yards last year) and star offensive tackle Jack Conklin on about $48 million in cap space, to name just a few free agents.
The Titans have a shaky foundation to boot. They got hot at the perfect time but otherwise split games with every team in the AFC South, never mind three wins by four points or less.
In a division, let alone a conference, that reeks of an arms race, a fifth straight season of 9-7 might not be enough in 2020 for a team buoyed by an unexpected one-off from a quarterback and unorthodox reliance on the rushing attack.
The Minnesota Vikings seem to yo-yo every season under Mike Zimmer.
Since Zimmer took over, the Vikings have gone 7-9, 11-5, 8-8, 13-3, 8-7-1 and 10-6. 2020 looks like it could be another downswing on precedent alone, right?
Despite this, the Vikings hold high expectations because Kirk Cousins puts up fun numbers (69.1 completion percentage last year with 26 touchdowns and six picks) and Dalvin Cook is one of the league's rising stars at running back.
But the Vikings currently have less than a million in cap space and key free agents to retain, headlined by defenders Everson Griffen and Anthony Harris.
It's all a precarious position without bad contracts considering the Vikings got swept by two NFC North opponents last year and went 1-4 against playoff teams. There isn't a high draft pick or cap space to fuel necessary changes. While Cousins is stable enough statistically, it always seems like he could do more given the talent surrounding him (such as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen).
The Vikings feel like a team that is all-in, yet the likelihood of not matching expectations seems high.
San Francisco 49ers
Let's not pretend the Super Bowl hangover isn't real.
Only eight teams in history have returned to the Super Bowl the season after losing it. The San Francisco 49ers, this year's loser, boasted an elite defense and iffy quarterback play, which sure sounds like the Los Angeles Rams from 2019 or even a recent title-game participant like the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Maybe it isn't fair to lump the 49ers in with such teams. But Jimmy Garoppolo wasn't overly impressive during the regular season (27 touchdowns, 13 picks) and collapsed in the playoffs (two touchdowns, three picks).
The team has some awful contracts (Jerick McKinnon takes up more than 4 percent of the team's cap in 2020, for starters) and only about $18 million in space to woo back guys like Arik Armstead and Emmanuel Sanders.
Keep in mind the 49ers also went 7-3 in "coin-flip" games, per Ty Schalter of FiveThirtyEight, so it's reasonable to expect a regression in close games. This is especially the case in an NFC West where nine wins weren't enough to make the playoffs last season and even the last-place Arizona Cardinals seem to be on the upswing.
While San Francisco's defense might not take a major step back, statistical regression and cap challenges make it hard to think the 49ers can repeat last year's epic run.
The Dallas Cowboys' .500 season in 2019 didn't register as much of a shock.
Despite the hype the Cowboys generate every offseason, America's Team has just four winning seasons since 2010.
It's stunning to think about given the talent in Dallas over the years. This offseason's measure of hype will come from the end of the Jason Garrett era in favor of Mike McCarthy. Yet the former Green Bay Packers coach won just seven and four games (the latter in 12 contests before he was fired) over his last two years at the helm. He is often viewed as a guy who didn't squeeze out the most from Aaron Rodgers and Co. near the end of his tenure.
Failing to meet expectations has been a staple of Dallas football, as captured by ESPN's Bill Barnwell: "They were 34-29 in games decided by seven points or fewer under Garrett before 2018, so expecting to win 80 percent of their close games moving forward would have been naive."
Dallas isn't in an enviable situation either. Jerry Jones is perceived to have deep pockets, and the team has about $74 million in cap space. But he's got to find a way to pay Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper on offense, not to mention top corner Byron Jones.
Even if Dallas finds a way to retain all three, the team woefully underperformed last year (8-8 record on a plus-113 point differential). Hiring an offensive-minded coach like McCarthy doesn't guarantee improvement, and with the front office so busy retaining its own, there doesn't seem to be room for major upgrades elsewhere on the roster.
Cap info via Spotrac.