B/R NFL Staff's Biggest Winners, Losers and Surprises from 2020 Campaign
No one could have predicted what 2021 would look like at the start of 2020. The NFL is a completely different entity after dealing with COVID-19 measures and the turnover the league experienced.
All one has to do is realize the Cleveland Browns—yes, the Cleveland Browns—are going to the postseason for the first time in 18 years. That's just the starting point to many unexpected outcomes.
The Buffalo Bills clinched the AFC East division crown, while the New England Patriots won't make their annual trip to the postseason. Oh, Tom Brady now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the playoffs expanded, seven franchises that didn't make it last season punched a postseason ticket. And so on and so forth.
Individually, Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert and Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson shattered rookie records. The Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce smashed previous standards set at the tight end position. The Bills' Josh Allen emerged as an MVP candidate. And so much more.
Change is the only constant. From that change, certain winners, losers and surprises emerged. Bleacher Report's team of NFL writers—Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski, Gary Davenport and Kalyn Kahler—identified exactly who they believe fell in each category with the postseason looming.
Winner: Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry
There is only one franchise running back in the modern NFL, and Henry proved that with a 2,000-yard season that was capped by a 250-yard, two-touchdown performance to lock up a Tennessee division title in Week 17. He had three 200-yard, two-touchdown games in 2020. No other back has had more than three such games in an entire career.
Combine that with his incredible run to lead the league in rushing last season, and the 27-year-old (happy birthday, Derrick!) might already have a spot locked up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Loser: New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold
Two days after Justin Fields lit up Clemson to arguably cement himself as a top-three pick in the '21 NFL draft, Darnold ensured he'd finish the '20 NFL regular season as the NFL's lowest-rated passer by throwing two interceptions in a dud loss to the New England Patriots. Now, you'd have to think the New York Jets will be prepared to give up on the '18 No. 3 overall pick.
Darnold hasn't been particularly well supported during his three-year professional career, but a 6.6 yards-per-attempt average and a sub-60 completion rate just aren't going to get it done regardless. Look for the Jets to decline Darnold's fifth-year option and draft either Fields or Trevor Lawrence in April.
Surprise: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers
Entering this season, I honestly wondered if Rodgers was running out of gas. I worried about the lack of depth in his receiving corps, and I was concerned that his 96.6 passer rating between 2017 and 2019 was an indication he peaked midway through the last decade. And then he went out and posted 48 touchdown passes to five interceptions and the second-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history.
So I guess I was wrong.
Winner: Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski
Move over, Paul Brown and Blanton Collier, because Kevin Stefanski is now the winningest first-year Cleveland Browns head coach in NFL history.
Yes, you read those names correctly. (Technically, Brown won more in his first season with the team but in the defunct AAFC, not the NFL.)
More importantly, the 11-5 Browns snapped the NFL's longest playoff drought by securing the AFC's sixth seed after not making the postseason since the 2002 campaign.
"There's a new standard here [in Cleveland]. We aim to keep it that way," quarterback Baker Mayfield said in an interview on the CBS Sports telecast after Sunday's 24-22 playoff-clinching victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Years of misery finally turned as the Browns found a formula to win. Stefanski's hire, alongside general manager Andrew Berry, created a cohesive vision for the entire franchise that carried onto the field despite all of this year's extenuating circumstances.
As a result, Stefanski should win 2020 NFL Coach of the Year.
Loser: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz
Few have experienced the highs and lows Carson Wentz has in a short amount of time. He went from an integral part of a Super Bowl-winning squad, albeit with Nick Foles sealing the deal during the postseason, to likely being off the team three years later.
According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the relationship between Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson is "fractured beyond repair," and the quarterback will likely ask for a trade this offseason.
The problem lies in the fact that Philadelphia already signed the 2016 second overall pick to a four-year, $128 million contract extension, which has yet to begin. A post-June 1 trade makes the deal manageable since Wentz's suitor would take on the responsibility of $25.4 million with the Eagles eating only $9.3 million over the next three seasons and $6 million in 2024, per Over The Cap.
Something will almost assuredly get done because Wentz is no longer the Eagles' quarterback of the future; Jalen Hurts is.
Surprise: Alex Smith's comeback
No one expected to see Alex Smith on the football field and leading an offense again. His recovery from a life-threatening infection after surgery to repair a devastating leg injury showed how resilient he is. He had nothing to prove, except to himself.
After missing the entire 2019 campaign, doctors cleared Smith for football activities in June. OK, that's amazing. But he was never going to actually play, right? Wrong.
Due to multiple factors with other quarterbacks on Washington's roster, Smith found himself in the lineup. The anxiety of watching him play ratcheted to another level knowing what he endured from a medical standpoint. Yet he kept Washington in the playoff hunt.
Smith's return reached mythical proportions as he became the runaway favorite for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Winner: Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen
When the Buffalo Bills invested the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft on Allen, more than a few pundits questioned the wisdom of that selection. After a pair of up-and-down seasons, the jury was still out on the big-armed signal-caller from Wyoming.
No one is questioning the pick now.
Maybe it was the addition of a true No. 1 wide receiver in Stefon Diggs. Maybe it was an offseason of working on his mechanics and footwork. Or maybe it was a combination of the two. Whatever the reason, Allen had his "lightbulb" season in 2020. In throwing for 224 yards and three scores in Sunday's rout of the Miami Dolphins, Allen put the finishing touches on an MVP-caliber season: 396 completions, 4,544 passing yards and 37 touchdowns.
All are franchise records. Allen threw just 10 interceptions and posted a completion percentage over 10 points higher than he did the previous season.
Loser: Dallas Cowboys
It's fitting that the '20 season for the Dallas Cowboys ended with a disappointing loss to the New York Giants.
Because the Cowboys have been all about disappointment this season.
Now, fans of the team will no doubt point to Dak Prescott's season-ending ankle injury as the reason that Super Bowl aspirations turned into missing the playoffs altogether. But the Dallas defense wasn't terrible because Prescott got hurt. Prescott's injury wasn't solely to blame for a pedestrian season from star running back Ezekiel Elliott.
And Prescott breaking his ankle most assuredly wasn't the reason that an unnamed player told the NFL Network's Jane Slater that head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff "just aren't good at their jobs."
By the time summer rolls around, plenty will convince themselves that 2020 was an aberration. That Dallas was done in by bad fortune. That the Cowboys can contend next season. If the Cowboys can, it's only because the NFC East is terrible.
Dallas is a mediocre team with delusions of grandeur.
Surprise: Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are no doubt disappointed that they missed the playoffs despite having 10 wins. Just the fact that Miami sniffed the playoffs at all makes the Dolphins an easy call as this season's biggest surprise.
The team began a complete rebuild last season, dealing veteran talent for draft capital. The '19 Dolphins were a scrappy bunch that most called overperformers at 5-11. In the offseason, they spent some cash on defense and used some of that draft capital to grab their quarterback of the future, Tua Tagovailoa. Miami appeared headed in the right direction, but no one thought they were a 10-win team.
Head coach Brian Flores deserves a ton of credit and consideration for NFL Coach of the Year. While not making the postseason is a bummer, the Dolphins also have the third overall pick in the 2021 draft, compliments of the Houston Texans.
The playoffs will come soon enough.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady
Tom Brady's foray into becoming a Florida Man has been a successful venture. With a full regular season of perspective, we can judge his decision to leave New England with a clearer vision now.
In New England, he lacked talented weapons on offense, and though he didn't know it then, the Patriots defense would suffer from opt-outs at key positions, turning it from one of the best units in 2019 to among the worst.
The Buccaneers offense has not been without its own frustrations this season, but Brady and head coach Bruce Arians have won 11 games and secured the team's first playoff berth since 2007. The offense appears to have hit its stride at the end of the regular season against weak competition.
Brady's choice to leave New England for the final chapter of his career really looks like a good one...and for those who thought he might be washed? His stats are up in nearly every category from last season, and he's shown he's still not ready to retire.
Loser: Chicago Bears
The extra wild-card spot has unintended consequences.
The Bears backed into the playoffs thanks to a Rams win, so ownership may think of this season as a success. Head coach Matt Nagy will likely keep his job, and general manager Ryan Pace may have also saved himself from the hot seat.
But the reality is the team still doesn't have a franchise quarterback, and the defense hasn't been enough this season to keep the score close against the division-rival Packers.
Chicago needs some kind of change. There's a debate to be had on what that change should be, and whether it's more on the coaching staff or the personnel staff.
Either way, this playoff berth essentially guarantees another season of mediocrity. It will likely delay those tough decisions until next year at this time when Chicago goes 8-8 and misses the playoffs.