Panic Meter for Struggling NFL Teams

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistOctober 14, 2020

Panic Meter for Struggling NFL Teams

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Despite the unusual circumstances of the offseason because of COVID-19, NFL teams have wasted little time making big decisions. At 0-5, the Atlanta Falcons relieved Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn of their duties Sunday—the second firing of a general manager and head coach this season.

    With that said, this is the right time to set up a panic meter for teams off to a slow start. While these clubs may not need changes in the front office or coaching ranks, decision-makers should tweak game plans or roster personnel for struggling offenses and defenses.

    The panic meter goes from 1-10, ranging from slight concern to flawed beyond repair for a postseason run:

    • 1-4: Team has cause for concern but no need to panic
    • 5-7: Team needs to make a notable change
    • 8-10: Team is too flawed or too far behind to make playoffs

    The selections below include sub-.500 teams that either went to the playoffs last year or came into the season with the best chance to win a division title.

Dallas Cowboys

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    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton
    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy DaltonMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Record: 2-3

    The Dallas Cowboys land on this list because they have the best odds of winning the NFC East going into Week 6, per DraftKings (+100; bet $100 to return $200). This squad carried high expectations but took a major hit Sunday.

    According to ESPN's Todd Archer, quarterback Dak Prescott underwent surgery after he suffered a dislocated right ankle and a compound fracture, which will require a healing process of four to six months.

    Backup quarterback Andy Dalton cannot match Dak Prescott's mobility, though he's capable of leading the offense down the field with wideouts Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and rookie first-rounder CeeDee Lamb. With less than a minute left in regulation, the 10th-year veteran put the Cowboys in position to kick the game-winning field goal against the New York Giants on Sunday.

    As a starter, Dalton helped lead the Cincinnati Bengals to five consecutive playoff appearances from 2011 to 2015.

    Despite the loss of Prescott, the Cowboys offense isn't the problem, especially with running back Ezekiel Elliott still healthy. Dallas must figure out how to tighten up its defense. The unit gave up 34 points to a Giants team that scored 47 points through the first four weeks.

    Dallas has allowed at least 34 points in each of the last four outings. The Cowboys need to make a trade to bolster their 32nd-ranked scoring defense or realize defensive coordinator Mike Nolan needs help with play-calling.

    The Cowboys' panic meter doesn't rise to the top level because they lead a poor NFC East division with a 2-3 record.

    Panic Meter: 6

Houston Texans

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    Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt
    Houston Texans defensive end J.J. WattMatt Patterson/Associated Press

    Record: 1-4

    For the first time this season, the Houston Texans celebrated a victory Sunday, knocking off the Jacksonville Jaguars 30-14. The team played inspired football following the dismissal of former general manager and head coach Bill O'Brien. Defensive end J.J. Watt tweeted, "FUN! Finally!!!" after the win.

    The Texans' fun may not last long. They'll play the division-leading Tennessee Titans next week and then the undefeated Green Bay Packers. Although Houston found the win column, Jacksonville is in the running for a top-five pick in the draft. This victory doesn't necessarily suggest a season turnaround.

    After the Texans' first touchdown drive in the second quarter, they led the rest of the way. That forced the Jaguars to throw rather than run the ball, so we don't know if Houston has solved its problems in the trenches. The defense has allowed the third-most yards on the ground.

    With run-heavy teams such as the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts (twice) on the schedule, the Texans will likely lose a few more games, which clouds their pathway to the playoffs. If they win one of the next two contests, the front office should pursue a run-stuffer before the trade deadline.

    Panic Meter: 7

Minnesota Vikings

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    Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook
    Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin CookStephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Record: 1-4

    The Minnesota Vikings played one of their best halves of football Sunday, shutting out MVP front-runner Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks 13-0 through 30 minutes. Yet they still came up short.

    Minnesota allowed three touchdowns in the third quarter. Wilson drove his team down the field for the go-ahead score with 15 seconds left in regulation. Vikings running back Dalvin Cook attempted to push through a groin injury, but he came off the field after one play.

    Per Chad Graff of The Athletic, Cook isn't expected to play Sunday, and the team will reevaluate him after its Week 7 bye.

    Alexander Mattison is a solid backup ball-carrier but not comparable to Cook, who's the league's leading rusher through five weeks. The Vikings' ground attack will take a hit until the Pro Bowl running back returns to the lineup.

    With a 1-4 record that ranks last in the NFC North, the Vikings would have to go on an extended win streak to breathe life into their playoff hopes. The defense tightened up Sunday, but that improvement seems like it's come too late.

    Panic Meter: 9

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz
    Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson WentzJustin Berl/Associated Press

    Record: 1-3-1

    The Philadelphia Eagles' glaring issue starts with the offense. Quarterback Carson Wentz has taken a step back this season, throwing for six touchdowns and a league-worst nine interceptions with a 60 percent completion rate.

    Fortunately for Wentz, the Eagles should have players on the way back from injury.

    Alshon Jeffery has practiced over the last couple of weeks, but the team held him out Sunday because of a non-COVID-19 illness. He's attempting to return from offseason Lisfranc surgery. DeSean Jackson logged limited practices leading up to Sunday's game, but the Eagles opted to sit him for consecutive outings because of a hamstring issue.

    On injured reserve, Jalen Reagor (torn UCL in thumb) and Dallas Goedert (fractured ankle) will need extended time to recover from their injuries.

    Yet Philadelphia scored a season-high 29 points against the Pittsburgh Steelers' top-10 scoring defense Sunday, a positive sign for a struggling offense.

    The Cowboys lead the NFC East at 2-3. Like last season, the Eagles could possibly claim the division crown with nine wins.

    Philadelphia plays in a weak division that keeps its playoff hopes alive. As some of Wentz's pass-catchers return, we could see an improved offensive attack, though the coaching staff should feature running back Miles Sanders in the meantime. He's averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

    Panic Meter: 5

San Francisco 49ers

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    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo
    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy GaroppoloScot Tucker/Associated Press

    Record: 2-3

    The San Francisco 49ers lost 43-17 at home to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday—a defeat that should set off alarm bells. On top of that, head coach Kyle Shanahan benched his starting quarterback in consecutive contests. Last week, C.J. Beathard took over for Nick Mullens. He came in for Jimmy Garoppolo in this outing.

    After missing two games with a high ankle sprain, Garoppolo struggled against the Dolphins defense, throwing for 77 yards and two interceptions before Shanahan called on his backup for the second half.

    Shanahan pointed to Garoppolo's ankle as the cause of his mistakes.

    "You can tell he was affected by his ankle. … I know he doesn't usually throw the ball that way, and I think he was struggling a little bit because of it," Shanahan told reporters. "And the way the game was going, I wasn't going to keep putting him in those positions."

    San Francisco's offensive line needs significant help. David Lombardi of The Athletic tweeted the unit is "far from right." In each of the last two outings, 49ers quarterbacks took a combined five sacks.

    Center Weston Richburg, who tore his patellar tendon last December, doesn't have a clear timetable for recovery. San Francisco may have to work with its starting five in the trenches, which isn't a great sign considering the group's recent struggles.

    Without the ability to win battles at the line of scrimmage, Shanahan cannot rely on his run-heavy approach to move the ball or mask issues in pass protection.

    The 49ers sit in the cellar of the NFC West with major question marks across the offensive line. Barring a trade for an interior lineman, the coaching staff may have to give more playing time to backups Colton McKivitz, Hroniss Grasu or Tom Compton.

    Panic Meter: 7