Predicting Scapegoats for NFL's Struggling Teams in 2021

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2021

Predicting Scapegoats for NFL's Struggling Teams in 2021

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    Fans hate to see their teams struggle, and NFL coaches, executives and franchise owners know it. This is why they often play the blame game when things aren't going according to plan. We're likely to see at least a few head coaches fired at the end of the season, and a few coaches are going to pass the proverbial buck.

    We've already seen some buck-passing with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers, who fired offensive coordinators Jason Garrett and Joe Brady, respectively, in-season. Giants head coach Joe Judge and Panthers head coach Matt Rhule can now point to those changes as reasons why they deserve another season. Whether the strategy works is another story.

    Who are teams likely to blame once the 2021 season is complete? That's what we're going to examine here. Below, you'll find nine other teams who are failing to meet expectations or who have been flat-out bad and the player or coach most likely to get the blame. Factors will vary from team to team, but underachievement will be a constant theme here.

    These are your likely scapegoats for the 2021 season.

Buffalo Bills: OC Brian Daboll

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    The Buffalo Bills started the season 4-1 and appeared to be the AFC's dominant team after thumping the Kansas City Chiefs 38-20 in Week 5. The Bills have since slumped to 7-5 and have ceded control of the AFC East to the New England Patriots.

    Now the No. 7 seed, Buffalo is in real danger of missing the playoffs a year after reaching the AFC title game.

    Last Monday's 14-10 loss at home to New England further exposed a fatal flaw: Buffalo's offense is struggling to find an identity and a rhythm. On a night the Patriots played bully ball—they ran 46 times and passed just three times—Buffalo floundered its way to just one field goal on three late red-zone opportunities and 10 total points.

    Head coach Sean McDermott placed blame for the loss on his offense.

    "Well I didn't think, honestly, we took advantage of opportunities tonight. I really didn't," McDermott said, per The Athletic's Joe Buscaglia. "The ball is at the 40-yard line. We're 1-for-4 in the red zone. We've got to figure that part of it out."

    The Bills rank fifth in scoring but have scored 15 or fewer points in three of the last five games. Whether it's a lack of adjustments, poor personnel grouping or bad game plans, something has been off, and the Bills have to consider offensive coordinator Brian Daboll responsible.

    While it's hard to envision Buffalo firing Daboll a year after he was named AP Assistant Coach of the Year, it won't be out of the question if the struggles continue. At the very least, we can likely expect end-of-year talk of "examining the offensive process" or some other form of coach speak indicating that Daboll is on thin ice heading into 2022.

Chicago Bears: Matt Nagy

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    The Chicago Bears have made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, but they're currently 4-8 and unlikely to make a return trip. The drafting of quarterback Justin Fields has changed Chicago's goal for 2021. The season is now about developing Fields for the future, and that might save Matt Nagy's job going into 2022.

    But—and it's a big one—the Bears will have to consider the fact that Nagy hasn't exactly managed Fields or the team well.

    In Fields' first start, Nagy leaned away from the running game and avoided designed runs by the mobile quarterback. The result was a 26-6 loss to the Cleveland Browns and an alarming nine sacks surrendered. The rookie has gone on to be sacked 31 times in 10 games and has been under pressure on 26 percent of his dropbacks.

    It's worth noting that Nagy handed play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor after the Browns game.

    There were rumors that Nagy would be fired following Chicago's Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions, but chairman George McCaskey and CEO Ted Phillips refuted those rumors, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    Nagy did get a Turkey Day win against the Lions, but two of his four victories have come against Detroit. That's not much of a resume-builder, considering the one-win Lions are one of the league's most underwhelming teams.

    In his inaugural Chicago campaign, Nagy went 12-4 and won Coach of the Year. He's since gone 20-24 and has yet to deliver a playoff victory. Unless Chicago makes a surprise push over its final five games, there's a good chance that Nagy is shown the door after the season.

Cleveland Browns: DC Joe Woods

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    A couple of years ago, Browns fans would have been thrilled to see their team at .500 and in the playoff mix in December. After Cleveland notched its first playoff victory as an expansion team last season, though, expectations have changed dramatically.

    Cleveland was largely considered a Super Bowl contender entering the season.

    A lot has gone wrong this season in Cleveland. Wideout Odell Beckham Jr. was ineffective and unhappy and eventually forced his way off the team. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has played hurt since suffering a torn labrum in Week 2. A myriad of injuries has plagued the Browns on both sides of the ball. If the Browns are going to find fault with the controllable, though, expect defensive coordinator Joe Woods to bear the blame.

    Cleveland's defense is loaded with talent, headlined by the pass-rushing duo of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney. At times, the defense has played well. Too often, though, it has broken down.

    Despite ranking fourth in yards allowed, Cleveland is 12th in points allowed. The defense has allowed a third-down conversion rate of 43.4 percent, seventh-highest in the NFL. Blown coverages played a big role in close losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers.

    Garrett called out the coaching staff following a blowout loss to the Patriots in Week 10.

    "We never had a chance just because we didn't make any adjustments on the sideline or when we had time to," he said, per Ben Axelrod of WKYC.

    Cleveland isn't going to fire head coach Kevin Stefanski a year after he delivered a postseason win and was named Coach of the Year. Replacing Woods is far more likely.

Detroit Lions: QB Jared Goff

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    Quarterback Jared Goff didn't ask to be a member of the Lions. He was traded by the Los Angeles Rams—along with first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 and a 2021 third-round pick—for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

    Goff did play a role (296 passing yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT) in getting Detroit its first win of 2021 in Week 13. However, he has been average at best over the course of the season.

    To date, Goff has started 11 games for the Lions and has thrown for 2,576 yards with 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions and an 88.1 passer rating. More alarming, perhaps, is the fact that last week's win was the first of Goff's career without Rams coach Sean McVay—he's 1-16-1 in non-McVay games.

    Lions head coach Dan Campbell believes the Week 13 win can be a turning point for Goff.

    "I think it's great for him and I think it speaks volumes and I think that will help his confidence moving forward," Campbell said, per Tim Twentyman of the team's official website.

    However, Goff isn't playing well enough to suggest he can be the quarterback of the future in Detroit. Even with McVay in Los Angeles the last two seasons, Goff was average (passer ratings of 86.5 and 90.0). Detroit is likely to use the picks acquired in the Stafford trade to seek out a new signal-caller.

    Now, Goff probably isn't going anywhere in the offseason. He'll have $30.5 million in dead money on his contract in 2022, so a cut or trade is unlikely. The Lions probably won't publicly criticize Goff either, as even stopgap quarterbacks are usually given a certain level of support.

    It would be a shock, though, if Detroit doesn't at least bring in competition at quarterback. The Lions are in the early stages of a rebuild, and replacing Goff is going to be part of the process.

Houston Texans: OC Tim Kelly

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    The Houston Texans were widely expected to be one of the worst teams in the league this season, and they have been. With just two wins, the Texans are right behind the Lions in terms of futility, and there are plenty of reasons why.

    Former head coach and GM Bill O'Brien traded away star receiver DeAndre Hopkins last offseason and helped construct a roster that went 4-12 in 2020. Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson hasn't played this year, as he faces 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints from women who have accused him of sexual assault and misconduct.

    With a rookie head coach in David Culley and a severe lack of overall roster talent, the Texans had the odds stacked against them from Day 1. However, this hasn't given anyone a free pass for the 2021 season.

    "I mean, look, nobody's happy with where we are," general manager Nick Caserio told SportsRadio 610 (h/t Matt Young of the Houston Chronicle). "All of us take responsibility. Quite frankly, none of it's been good enough. We haven't played well enough, we haven't coached well enough, I haven't done a good enough job from the team-building perspective."

    If the Texans are going to use a key decision-maker as a scapegoat, it will likely be offensive coordinator Tim Kelly.

    The 35-year-old is a holdover from the previous regime, having served as offensive coordinator since 2019. It would be easy for Culley to justify replacing Kelly with "his guy" if the Texans choose to go that route. Houston has been abysmal on offense, ranking dead-last in both yards and points per game.

    Culley has publicly supported Kelly during this disastrous season, but that support will likely dissipate if the front office looks to make significant coaching changes.

Jacksonville Jaguars: HC Urban Meyer

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    We don't see one-and-done head coaches in the NFL often, but we might see one in Jacksonville. The Jaguars hired former Ohio State and Florida head coach Urban Meyer this past January, hoping he could bring a winning mentality to the franchise.

    What Meyer has brought isn't working. He's seemed disconnected from his players—after a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, he stayed in Ohio instead of flying back with the team—and has made many curious coaching decisions.

    Meyer has regularly underutilized star running back James Robinson, for example, repeatedly leaving him on the sideline following fumbles. This doesn't seem to have sat well with rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

    "I'm playing the game and stuff happens on the sideline with coaching decisions. I don't really get into that, but I know and I voiced my opinion: James is one of our best players, and he's gotta be in the game," Lawrence told reporters.

    It's worth noting that Robinson missed one game with a heel injury, but he has played just 60 percent of the offensive snaps.

    The Jaguars, who rank 31st in scoring and 29th in points allowed, don't appear any better than they were in Week 1. That falls on Meyer, who may already be on the hot seat.

    "It's hot," NFL Insider Jason La Canfora said on CBS Sports HQ (at the 5:30 mark). "The quarterback's not developing. He's obviously had controversy and done some things that many people would say were egregious enough to be fired on the spot. They may not win more games than they did last year."

    It won't be a shock to see Meyer and Jacksonville "mutually agree" to part ways. In other words, he'll be fired in a respectful manner roughly a month from now.

New York Jets: DC Jeff Ulbrich

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    At first blush, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur seems like the most obvious scapegoat candidate for the New York Jets. New York ranks just 26th in scoring and has failed to adequately develop rookie quarterback Zach Wilson.

    Wilson is perhaps marginally better than he was in Week 1, though he's posted a passer rating above 85.0 only once this season and has been an overall disaster. The BYU product has thrown for 1,539 yards with six touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 66.2 rating in eight starts.

    However, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich may be the one to get the blame when the season is complete. That's because head coach Robert Saleh has to find someone to blame for the struggles on that side of the ball if he's going to going to stay off the hot seat himself.

    Saleh was the San Francisco 49ers' defensive coordinator from 2017 to 2020 and was expected to help solidify New York's defense. However, the Jets have actually taken several steps in the wrong direction defensively this season.

    New York finished the 2020 season ranked 28th against the pass, 12th against the run, 24th in yards allowed and 26th in scoring defense. This year, the Jets are 29th against the run and the pass and dead-last in yards and points allowed.

    While New York isn't exactly loaded with talent, this isn't the type of turnaround the Jets envisioned. Saleh isn't putting the blame on his players either.

    "I do look at coaches to get this fixed," he said, per DJ Bien-Aime II of the New York Daily News.

    Replacing Ulbrich or taking on the dual role of coach and defensive coordinator would be one way for Saleh to protect his reputation as a defensive guru—in other words, saying that it's not his fault that the defense stinks. The big question is whether Saleh can actually improve the defense in Year 2.

Pittsburgh Steelers: DC Keith Butler

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    Head coach Mike Tomlin has never experienced a losing season at the helm of the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's a very real chance that it happens in 2021. While Tomlin isn't going to criticize 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the team's struggles, he may indirectly use Big Ben's decline as an excuse.

    With Roethlisberger widely expected to retire in the offseason, though, defensive coordinator Keith Butler could become the full-on January scapegoat.

    Roethlisberger has been far from perfect, and he doesn't move in the pocket or chuck the deep ball like he once did. However, he has already thrown for 3,066 yards and 19 touchdowns. Butler's defense has been a bigger issue.

    Pittsburgh ranks 14th against the pass, 30th against the run, 26th in yards per game allowed and 24th in points surrendered.

    As a franchise with a reputation for hard-nosed defense, the Steelers aren't used to this. Someone is going to have to take the blame, and it isn't going to be Tomlin. The head coach is about as far away from the hot seat as one can get with a 6-6-1 team. He also has a history of making coordinator changes when units have struggled.

    Butler was promoted in 2015 when defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had one of those aforementioned "mutual partings." Matt Canada is the fourth offensive coordinator Tomlin has employed since taking over in 2007.

    Injuries have hurt the defense, but so have bad scheming, poor tackling and coverage breakdowns. Don't be shocked to see Tomlin shake things up by handing the defense to someone new in 2022.

Seattle Seahawks: GM John Schneider

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    Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider took over in 2010 and helped build a mini-dynasty in the Pacific Northwest. Since he drafted Russell Wilson in 2012, Seattle has been to the Super Bowl twice, won the Lombardi Trophy once and missed the playoffs just once. However, the Seahawks are now 4-8 and have one of the weakest overall rosters in the NFL.

    Wilson himself has been unhappy with the pass "protection" he's been provided; he's been sacked 172 times since the start of the 2018 season.

    "I'm hearing Russell Wilson's camp has grown increasingly frustrated by the Seahawks' inability to protect the eight-time Pro Bowler," La Canfora tweeted.

    Seattle has also missed on several recent high draft picks, including running back Rashaad Penny, defensive end L.J. Collier, offensive lineman Ethan Pocic and safety Marquise Blair.

    Schneider also traded for safety Jamal Adams, who was first-team All-Pro in 2019 but isn't living up to his lofty price point: first- and third-rounders in the 2021 NFL draft, a first-round selection in the 2022 draft and safety Bradley McDougald.

    In the offseason, Schneider received a contract extension through 2027. However, anyone who has followed the NFL closely over the past 20 years knows that franchises won't hesitate to rip up contracts amid undesirable results. The results this season are indeed undesirable.

    According to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, Seahawks Chair Jody Allen is "not happy" with how things have unfolded and doesn't view the problems as a "one-year thing."

    Yes, Schneider helped build a winner in Seattle, but he's also largely responsible for constructing the current mess. If the Seahawks make a major change in the offseason, it could involve showing Schneider the door.


    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference. Contract information via Spotrac.