5 NFL Teams Under the Most Pressure to Make the Playoffs in 2021
Success is a relative term that carries a different meaning among NFL teams.
Coming off consecutive Super Bowl appearances, the Kansas City Chiefs won't go into the 2021 season with the same expectations as the Jacksonville Jaguars, who turned the franchise over to a new regime following a 1-15 campaign.
Most teams hope to make the playoffs. Some clubs that fall short of that mark could undergo changes that will shake up the roster, the coaching staff and perhaps the front office.
We'll profile five teams under the most pressure to make the playoffs in 2021. Without a postseason appearance, these clubs could look for a new general manager, head coach or quarterback next offseason.
In 2020, the Arizona Cardinals went 6-3 and then fell apart after the "Hail Murray" play to beat the Buffalo Bills in Week 10. They lost five of their last seven games and missed the playoffs.
Quarterback Kyler Murray battled a shoulder injury, but he suited up for every game. Despite the addition of three-time All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona only improved marginally in scoring, going from 16th in 2019 to 13th in 2020. The defense made significant strides, though the unit allowed 110-plus rushing yards in six of the final seven contests.
According to ESPN's Josh Weinfuss, head coach Kliff Kingsbury's future may hinge on a postseason berth.
"If the Cardinals don't go to the playoffs next season—barring a major injury to one of its key playmakers—then Kingsbury may not be in Arizona after 2021," Weinfuss wrote. "The Cardinals have a window to win now. If they can't get to the playoffs next season, they run the risk of that window starting to shut."
The Cardinals have gone five consecutive campaigns without a playoff appearance or a winning season, so one has to wonder about general manager Steve Keim's job security as well. This offseason, he made multiple win-now moves, acquiring battle-tested veterans like wideout A.J. Green, defensive end J.J. Watt, cornerback Malcolm Butler and center Rodney Hudson.
Arizona plays in one of the toughest divisions in the NFC West, which features three teams that have won at least one playoff game over the last two years. Regardless, Kingsbury sits on a hot seat, with Keim likely on notice as well.
Despite mediocre quarterback play from Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles, the Chicago Bears clinched a playoff slot with an 8-8 record last season.
Although the Bears extended their 2020 campaign by a week, they didn't do quite enough to secure the futures of general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy.
Bears chairman George McCaskey decided to keep Pace and Nagy on their current contracts and made a point to improve the quarterback position. Pace will go into the final year of his deal, while Nagy has two terms left.
In the first round of this year's draft, Chicago traded up to select quarterback Justin Fields. If the rookie shows promising signs, Pace and Nagy could earn extensions. On the other hand, Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune isn't sure about the future of the team's leadership if the Ohio State product struggles through his debut season:
"I can tell you some personnel officials with other teams whom I've chatted with believe the arrival of Fields gives Pace and Nagy at least two more years. If Fields gets on the field as a rookie and plays well, both could be in line for potential contract extensions, especially if the team has success too. If Fields plays poorly, I don't know what will happen."
While Fields could flash in a few games, the Bears wouldn't have a reason to retain Pace on an expiring deal if the team misses the playoffs. A new general manager could push to replace Nagy, whose offense ranked 22nd or worse in points and yards in each of the last two years.
Following consecutive 8-8 seasons, Pace and Nagy may need Fields to play well on a playoff squad to earn a vote of confidence from McCaskey, which is why Andy Dalton won't start in many games if he struggles to move the ball with a borderline postseason roster.
The Denver Broncos head into the 2021 season with multiple variables in play.
Amid the Broncos' three-game losing streak to end the 2020 season and chatter about head coach Vic Fangio's job security, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the club would retain its lead skipper for a third term.
"They know how he operates, respect his approach and believe he was dealt a difficult hand this season between the Broncos' early-season injuries—including to star pass-rusher Von Miller and top wide receiver Courtland Sutton—and other challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including playing a game without any experienced NFL quarterbacks on the roster."
The Broncos essentially gave Fangio a pass for issues beyond his control. However, he may not survive another sub-.500 campaign without a playoff appearance. The Broncos head coach knows his team must show significant improvement.
"Hopefully, the third year will be the magical year for me," Fangio said during a January press conference.
Under Fangio, the Broncos have gone 12-20. Team president of football operations John Elway hired him, but Elway ceded general manager duties to George Paton, who came over from the Minnesota Vikings front office.
With a new executive on board, Fangio's coaching staff must make a good first impression, which starts with sorting out the quarterback situation between Drew Lock, who's going into a crucial third year, and Teddy Bridgewater.
Just as Elway paired Fangio's crew with Lock, Paton may want to steer the franchise in a new direction with a different head coach-quarterback tandem if the current arrangement doesn't pan out.
If the Broncos fail to reach the playoffs with a healthy roster, Paton will probably look to replace both Fangio and Lock next offseason.
Las Vegas Raiders
Although the Las Vegas Raiders have improved in the win-loss column in each year under Jon Gruden, they've missed the playoffs in all three seasons.
Gruden leads the charge for one of the slowest rebuilds in recent years. His squads have fizzled out late in the regular season with a 3-7 record in December and January over the last two campaigns.
Despite all of that, Gruden isn't on the hot seat. The Athletic's Vic Tafur suggested the Raiders' lead skipper could point the finger elsewhere if the team doesn't show further improvement.
"If Gruden’s seat ever gets warm, he just chucks it out the window and gets another one," Tafur wrote. "There are a couple of scapegoats already lined up for next season if the Raiders don’t improve on 8-8."
Gruden could assign the blame to two possible "fall guys."
He can take a critical look at general manager Mike Mayock's recent first-round picks who haven't played up to expectations, such as defensive end Clelin Ferrell and safety Johnathan Abram. Last year, the Raiders' 2020 first-round picks, wideout Henry Ruggs III and cornerback Damon Arnette, also had disappointing campaigns.
In the event that the Raiders passing offense takes a step back, Gruden may consider acquiring another veteran quarterback as an upgrade over Derek Carr, who's made strides every year but still has some fumbling issues with limited touchdown production.
Owner Mark Davis has a great amount of respect for Gruden, who led the Raiders to the postseason twice in his first stint, but he cannot allow nostalgia to cloud his assessment of Gruden as the team's chief decision-maker.
Instead of a scapegoat, Gruden would need to take a look at himself after another disappointing season. If he doesn't, Davis must have an honest discussion with him about the team's direction.
New York Giants
This offseason, the New York Giants took an aggressive approach in free agency, signing wide receiver Kenny Golladay to a four-year, $72 million deal and cornerback Adoree' Jackson to a three-year, $39 million pact. Both list top 12 at their respective positions in annual salary, per Spotrac.
Giants co-owner John Mara made the team's 2021 objective crystal clear.
"It's time for us to start winning," Mara said. "That's one of the reasons we spent the money we did."
Quarterback Daniel Jones must make good use of Golladay, one of the Giants' prized acquisitions. Jones threw for 2,943 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. Now going into a critical third year with a go-to receiver, Jones must elevate the offense whether running back Saquon Barkley can play through a full season or not.
Dave Gettleman, who drafted Jones in the first round of the 2019 draft, is 15-33 as the Giants' general manager. With that record, he had to approach the offseason in win-now mode.
Last year, at 6-10, the Giants finished second in the NFC East behind the Washington Football Team, yet they went 4-2 within their division. With a top-10 defense from the previous campaign and pricey acquisitions on both sides of the ball, Gettleman isn't likely to see a fourth season if Jones struggles on a non-playoff squad.