SEASON REVIEW

As it’s been over a month since the Super Bowl the dust has long settled on another NFL season.  But it isn’t too late to look back at each team’s year and analyse how good or bad they really were.  I’m going to rate the teams performances from a low one star up to a high five stars.  Fans who don’t have to scroll far down the page to find their favourite team may not want to bother reading on.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14) ∗ – It feels a little harsh to give Tampa Bay just one star, but their season was awful.  Considering the talent they have on the team and Lovie Smith as new head coach this year should have gone a lot better and should have been far more stable.  They couldn’t seem to decide between Josh McCown and Mike Glennon at quarterback and now that McCown has been released they may go for a new one with the number 1 draft pick.  One high point was rookie Mike Evans’ strong season at wide receiver.  Although many of their defeats were close games, playing in a weak NFC South division makes the Bucs 2-14 record look even worse, but there’s plenty of potential in this team so look for a drastically improved 2015.

Tennessee Titans (2-14) ∗ – The Titans started brilliantly with a win over the Kansas City Chiefs and everything was wonderful…then, well, they only got one more win all season and when it was over they were probably the worst team in the NFL.  Everybody beat them, even the Jets!  It seemed to gradually fall apart all over the field and this after doing ok last year.  This was a big decline.

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13) ∗∗ – This is a team that has been rebuilding over the last few years…slowly.  So slowly in fact that they won less in 2014 than they did in 2013.  But the young Jaguars squad seems to have a great spirit and were not far away in some of their losses.  It looks like rookie quarterback Blake Bortles is going to be given a year or two to show if he can lead the team, which I think is the right thing to do.  They have some good players, they just need to up their game against the stronger teams.

Oakland Raiders (3-13) ∗∗ – I was tempted to give the Oakland Raiders three stars based on flashes of some really good play at the end of their schedule.  Then I remembered they began the year 0-10 and when added to games from the season before, this was a 16-game losing streak going back more than a whole calendar year.  A good sign for next year is that once they won a game they got a taste for winning more.  The new coaches – Jack Del Rio as head coach, Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator and Ken Norton Jr. as defensive coordinator – will help too.

Washington Redskins (4-12) ∗∗ – The Redskins were close to getting just one star, such was the disappointment of their season.  Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy all had a go at quarterback without much joy and on the other side of the ball the defense was too inconsistent.  RGIII should be the starter in 2015; he really needs to be 100% healthy for a full season in order to get back to his best.  He has a real weapon in receiver DeSean Jackson, who was brilliant for them in 2014, averaging more than 20 yards a catch.  They need to improve as the NFC East division is only going to get stronger.

New York Jets (4-12) ∗ – I felt the New York Jets were primed for a big season this year, but it all went very wrong.  The aim must have been to challenge their big rivals the New England Patriots for the AFC East division and give themselves a chance at reaching the playoffs.  Instead the season seemed like a real struggle and the manner of the majority of their defeats was very poor.  The defense and the running game were pretty solid for the Jets this year, despite Chris Johnson not reaching his expected production; the big problem was the passing game, which was the worst in the NFL.  Although Geno Smith played at quarterback for most of the season it didn’t feel like he had the full support that was needed, the distraction being a seemingly season-long internal battle with veteran Mike Vick for the starting role.  Smith did produce an excellent game on the final day though to beat the Miami Dolphins, which is something positive to take forward.  Head coach Rex Ryan seemed to lose his authority and then lost his job, his replacement Todd Bowles comes highly rated and has a strong team to work with – things can only get better for Jets fans.

Chicago Bears (5-11) ∗ – The Bears season was similar to the Jets’ in that they fell well short of expectations and by the end it had just got messy.  While the rest of the NFC North division improved the Bears went backwards and also lost confidence in quarterback Jay Cutler.  New head coach John Fox will have to decide whether to use 2015 to give Cutler a fresh start or go with someone else.  With talk of veteran players wanting to leave during free agency, the Chicago Bears may have to go into rebuild mode very soon.

Atlanta Falcons (6-10) ∗∗ – Atlanta has had an erratic couple of years.  After the 2012 season they earned the number 1 seed in the NFC playoffs and were one game away from Super Bowl XLVII, then last year they were awful and this season wasn’t much better.  The heavy defeat at home to the Panthers in what was a division title-decider on the last game of the season signalled the end for head coach Mike Smith.  As the man who was in charge of the Seattle Seahawks’ brilliant defense, Smith’s replacement Dan Quinn is a great hire as defense is the area the Atlanta Falcons need to improve the most to get winning again.

New York Giants (6-10) ∗∗∗ – There seemed to be negativity from the fans regarding this season, so they may disagree with the Giants being the first three-star team on this list.  Maybe the disappointment comes from the fact they were not able to keep up with the Dallas Cowboys or Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East division, however I still think there was some progress for the Giants this year.  Everyone’s favourite rookie Odell Beckham Jr. became a human highlight reel and helped to improve the offense, which was also helped by Eli Manning having a significantly better season compared to 2013.  The Giants schedule was tough and their six wins came in two three-game streaks, the difficult schedule meant that, apart from the collapse against the Jaguars in week 13, the Giants basically won the games they were expected to win and lost the games where they were the underdogs – the dictionary definition of an average NFL season.  Therefore, three stars.

St. Louis Rams (6-10) ∗∗∗ – A frustrating season for a Rams side who couldn’t get a run together was perhaps encapsulated most by their performances weeks 5 through to 14, where they yo-yoed along up and down to a 5-5 record in that 10-game span.  The last two games in that run were impressive back-to-back shutout wins, outscoring the Raiders and Redskins 76-0.  Just to prove their inconsistency the Rams followed that up with three straight losses to end the season.  Missing Sam Bradford at quarterback for the whole year is what hurt them most; the offense is what needs to really improve for next season.

Minnesota Vikings (7-9) ∗∗∗ – The Minnesota Vikings had a good season and fans will be optimistic that there’s more to come from the young team.  Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater earned the starting place and played excellently, Minnesota ended with a 6-6 record with Bridgewater as the starter and his performances won him the rookie of the year award.  They have real potential and strength all over the field, so much so that I nearly gave them four stars.  Maybe just one more win over a division rival would have earned them that; a better division record should be the minimum target for 2015.

Cleveland Browns (7-9) ∗∗ – Despite the Browns improving on last year’s record and looking more solid in certain areas, by the end the season had turned into a bad one.  As they entered week 13 Cleveland had a 7-4 record and looked like a possible playoff team, but losing all five of their remaining games destroyed their campaign.  This poor end coincided with the decision to play rookie Johnny Manziel a lot more at quarterback ahead of Brian Hoyer.  For all the hype surrounding Manziel I always thought it was a bad idea for him to go to the Browns.  Hoyer’s performances in 2013 made me think they finally had a good quarterback to build an offense around, but now it seems they have forced Hoyer out and replaced him with Josh McCown to battle for the starting spot with Manziel in the near future.

New Orleans Saints (7-9) ∗∗ – Another team who underachieved were the Saints.  In fact the entire NFC South division surprisingly underachieved.  They still came very close to winning the weakest division in the league, but the defense couldn’t keep up with a difficult schedule.  On the other side of the ball their big names on offense still had decent seasons and produced some big numbers.  There’s a lot for them to build on.

Miami Dolphins (8-8) ∗∗∗ – The Dolphins matched their 8-8 record from the previous year and at one point looked to be making a run for the playoffs but just couldn’t keep pace with the Patriots in the AFC East.  The team played some great games and like the Giants, made sure they won the games they were supposed to win.  The next level is winning those other games against strong opposition and they certainly have the talent in key areas to get there.

San Francisco 49ers (8-8) ∗∗ – The struggling form of the 49ers was one of the big disappointments this season.  The slide mainly centred around quarterback Colin Kaepernick having difficulties with the passing game; he made some bad decisions in crucial situations.  Confidence in head coach Jim Harbaugh appeared to slowly fade away and come the end of the final game he was gone.  There’s so much talent on the 49ers’ roster that they are more than capable of bouncing back.

Houston Texans (9-7) ∗∗∗ – To jump from the worst team in the league one season to a 9-7 record the next would have earned most teams high praise.  Such is the strength in some areas of this Texans team though that a big improvement was expected.  Number 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney fought injury problems in his rookie season and needs to return strong to realise his potential, if he does the Texans front line on defense would be scary with him alongside J.J. Watt.  The other thing to sort out is a starting quarterback, once that is in place this team become dark horses for success.

San Diego Chargers (9-7) ∗∗∗ – For the second year running the Chargers had a 9-7 record and although this time it didn’t yield a playoff appearance the team should be optimistic as there’s plenty to build on.  In a difficult division as well as taking on and beating some of the best teams from elsewhere in the league, the Chargers 2014 season was strong.  One of the areas that needs improving is the running game to back up quarterback Philip Rivers, who should probably change his name to “Nearly Man”.

Kansas City Chiefs (9-7) ∗∗∗ – Last year the Chiefs’ 11-5 season was the most surprising success story of the NFL.  This year it felt like teams had them a bit more figured out, despite this they still won games – big games too.  High quality performances from their best individuals like linebacker Justin Houston kept them in the playoff chase but neither them nor the Chargers could beat the Denver Broncos in the AFC West.

Buffalo Bills (9-7) ∗∗∗∗ – The Bills have been rebuilding for a few years now and this was the season the pieces came together.  I really like how the Bills have been doing things and building this team, who were so close to a playoff spot that would have got them five stars here.  The defense has turned into one of the best in the league and in order to improve their offense and chances for next year, Buffalo have traded linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles for running back LeSean McCoy.  A negative the Bills have had to deal with in the post-season was head coach Doug Marrone deciding to opt out of his contract, a decision he may be regretting as he has not found himself another head coaching job, instead landing in Jacksonville to be the Jaguars offensive line coach.  Intriguingly, ex-Jets head coach Rex Ryan is Marrone’s replacement, it’s going to be interesting to see how Ryan and the Bills get on together.

Philadelphia Eagles (10-6) ∗∗∗ – Arguably the best team to not make the playoffs in 2014 were the Eagles.  They put up lots of points all season but midway through lost quarterback Nick Foles to injury.  Backup Mark Sanchez fitted into the high-tempo offense quickly and kept them winning, including a big win in week 13 on the road to division rivals the Dallas Cowboys that put them atop the NFC East with four games remaining.  However, Philadelphia were beaten in the first three of those four games, meaning they lost the division to the Cowboys and missed out on the playoffs.  As previously mentioned, running back LeSean McCoy has been traded to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso – a sign the Eagles are aiming to upgrade their defense.  Their battles with the Cowboys next year will be fun to watch.

Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1) ∗∗∗ – It was a wildcard round appearance but no further once again for Marvin Lewis’ men, something they’ve made a habit of in recent years.  Head coach Lewis and quarterback Andy Dalton have both been cited at different times as the reason why the Bengals can’t win more and get a deeper playoff run.  Dalton certainly needs to play better in the big games to prove his worth and he is being helped by a strong run attack.  The Bengals were unfortunate with injuries this season, especially on defense, which was always going to hurt them playing in the tough and competitive AFC North.

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) ∗∗∗∗ – Winners of the AFC North division were the Pittsburgh Steelers.  After stumbling a little for a couple of years they returned to the playoffs with a strong end to 2014 with the offense putting up impressive numbers throughout the season.  It came to a disappointing end in the wildcard round when they lost at home to their big rivals the Baltimore Ravens.  With a win in that game they could have pushed on and continued their winning streak in the next round too and gained them an extra star in this review.  While the offense is looking great, there are changes happening on defense as the future of veteran safety Troy Polamalu is undecided and legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has left to join the Titans.  There’s still talent in Pittsburgh to mould a new defense around if they need to.

Detroit Lions (11-5) ∗∗∗∗ – The Detroit Lions had a really good season falling just short to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, then falling just short in their wildcard game to the Cowboys where they lost in fairly controversial style.  Detroit’s defense was brilliant this year, especially against the run, but it seems they will lose the face of the defense Ndamukong Suh in free agency.  Suh’s departure will leave a big hole to fill for the Lions but the rest of the roster seem ready and able to put together more wins next season.

Arizona Cardinals (11-5) ∗∗∗∗ – This was a season of what could have been for the Cardinals.  At the end of week 11 they had a 9-1 record and looked like the best team in the NFL.  Quarterback Carson Palmer had suffered a long-term knee injury the week before but backup Drew Stanton and a formidable defense were carrying them to further wins.  Then came serious bad luck as Stanton was also hurt and Arizona’s third quarterback Ryan Lindley stepped in and wasn’t up to running the offense.  Arizona lost the NFC West to the Seattle Seahawks and lost in poor fashion to the Carolina Panthers in the playoffs.  So near yet so far.

Carolina Panthers (7-8-1) ∗∗∗ – The Panthers became only the second team in NFL history to reach the playoffs with a losing record.  Even with all the talent in the NFC South, the division dropped to the league’s worst and it was the Panthers who took it by winning all the big games down the stretch.  For this they should be given credit and they followed it up by winning in the wildcard round against the weakened Cardinals.  The Seattle Seahawks outplayed them and ended their season a week later in the next round, despite this playoff run the Panthers need to improve as do the rest of the division.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) ∗∗∗∗ – Playing in such a hard AFC North division, Baltimore really earned their playoff place.  They were a little inconsistent during the year but a win on the final day to seal a playoff spot and the challenge of the post-season really kicked them into gear.  The win on the road to the Steelers added to their confidence and helped prepare them for the New England Patriots in the divisional round.  They pushed the Patriots all the way, leading by 14 points twice during a great game, but lost 35-31.  The Ravens will be expecting to be in the playoff hunt again next season.

Dallas Cowboys (12-4) ∗∗∗∗∗ – A five-star team!  The Cowboys had an outstanding season in what was a big positive step forward.  Offensively they were excellent, scoring loads of points and able to move the ball in the air and on the ground.  The consensus seems to be that they can only re-sign either running back DeMarco Murray or receiver Dez Bryant this off-season, although the target will be to keep them both.  Impressively, Dallas were undefeated on the road in the regular season, then they went to Lambeau Field in the divisional playoff round and were beaten 26-21 by the Green Bay Packers.  The offense should have had a chance to win the game from the Packers one-yard line but what looked like a clean Dez Bryant catch was overturned and the Cowboys season was over.

Denver Broncos (12-4) ∗∗∗∗ – While the offense wasn’t as potent as in 2013, quarterback Peyton Manning still lead the Broncos to another division title.  The team spent pre-season bolstering the defense and the results on the field showed as they ended the season among the best against the pass and the run.  Denver imposed themselves on their rivals and swept a strong AFC West division, easing into the playoffs and a shot at another Super Bowl.  But at home to Manning’s first team, the Indianapolis Colts, the season faded out with a tame defeat.  The game showed how much the players rely on Manning for inspiration as once it was obvious he couldn’t make the big plays needed, the Broncos never looked like winning.  This defeat also cost head coach John Fox his job.  The task for new head coach Gary Kubiak is to keep Denver playing at a high level.

Indianapolis Colts (11-5) ∗∗∗∗ – Another year that shows the Colts are moving slowly in the right direction.  Andrew Luck had perhaps the best season of his career so far at quarterback, heading statistically the top passing offense in the league.  Despite the progress the Colts had trouble with fellow playoff contenders throughout their schedule.  A good playoff run was stopped in its tracks when they were humbled 45-7 by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.  The staff just need to figure out how to win against the best teams and they will be ready to compete for a Super Bowl appearance.

Green Bay Packers (12-4) ∗∗∗∗∗ – The Packers improved on last season and fought off the Detroit Lions to take the NFC North title.  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers inspired the offense to some big performances and the team went unbeaten at home during the regular season.  Rodgers played injured in the post-season but still got them past the dangerous Cowboys, before an extraordinary defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game where the Packers had a 19-7 lead with just over two minutes left and ended up losing 28-22 in overtime.  A difficult loss was slightly mended when the NFL awarded Rodgers the MVP award, a reminder of how good he and the Packers were this season.

Seattle Seahawks (12-4) ∗∗∗∗∗ – The defending Super Bowl Champions had to overcome some issues within the team early in the season.  Once the reported off-the-field problems had been fixed, the form that won Super Bowl XLVIII returned and from week 8 onwards they only lost one regular season game.  The quality of the defense improved too and for another year they were the best in the league, as was the run game lead by Marshawn Lynch.  With the amazing comeback victory over the Packers, Seattle battled their way to a second-straight Super Bowl despite injuries and fitness concerns on defense. The Seahawks lost the big one to the New England Patriots by the narrowest of margins when quarterback Russell Wilson threw an interception from the one-yard line with seconds remaining.  The play call itself will forever be debated but for the Seahawks, getting back-to-back Super Bowl appearances is a great achievement that should never be underestimated.

New England Patriots (12-4) ∗∗∗∗∗ – Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have a fourth Super Bowl victory.  As the faces of the organisation the duo will get a lot of the plaudits but of course the whole team played their part.  The season actually started off a little unsteady, for Brady especially.  Following a heavy 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in week 4 there were some voices questioning whether Brady was in decline, he silenced those critics with a huge level of play for the rest of the year and during the playoffs.  Another big reason for New England’s success was an improved and seemingly underrated defense, which came up big in the big game when cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass to earn the Patriots a 28-24 win in Super Bowl XLIX.  Once again the New England Patriots are Champions and the target for every other team in 2015, a position they have been in under Belichick before.

It was an exciting season and hopefully next year will be even better.  At the end of April the attention will switch to the NFL draft but for now teams are signing and re-signing players in the free agency period.  I will write about the highlights of free agency soon.