The off-season is long for every NFL team that doesn’t make the playoffs, but it somehow seems longer for those teams who reach the postseason only to find themselves bumped early. Here’s a quick look forward for the four teams that find themselves on the outside looking in after their wild-card losses.
2015 record: 9–7
How it ended: Ugh. Houston was blown out 30–0 by the Chiefs, and quarterback Brian Hoyer had perhaps his worst NFL game—15 of 34 for 136 yards, no touchdowns and four picks. In addition, Hoyer appeared to have major issues with simple things like field reads and basic physical mechanics. Sadly, it wasn't a fluke.
Estimated 2016 cap space: $29.2 million
The Texans have a fairly ferocious defense, a decent offensive line, one of the NFL’s best receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and a coach in Bill O’Brien who—for the most part—seems to get it. They’re also in the enviable position of having most of their priority players locked up through at least the 2016 season.
Yet, there is no other team who proves the modern maxim more than the Texans that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and this team will go no further than it has without the right guy under center. Houston’s front office saw Ryan Fitzpatrick to be less than they wanted and cast him aside before 2015, only to see him succeed as never before with the Jets.
And while it’s possible that Fitzpatrick would never have been what O’Brien really wanted, the former Patriots offensive coordinator must do better than a bunch of former Tom Brady backups like Hoyer and Ryan Mallett (who’s no longer on the Texans). Hoyer at his best is a serviceable backup, and it’s past time for the Texans to find the quarterback who can get them past the top of the worst division in football. Maybe that’s Christian Hackenberg, who starred for O’Brien at Penn State in 2013; maybe it’s another draftee or free agent. But the Texans are stuck in a quagmire, they’ve got most everything else in order, and they now risk wasting the best roster in franchise history at the feet of the game’s most important position.
2015 record: 12–4
How it ended: Ugh, Part 2. The Bengals played well enough to win their 18–16 loss to the Steelers, but multiple penalties and the highly questionable actions of linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam Jones set things on the wrong path, and made many wonder if the Bengals understand that there is a culture of accountability that comes with consistent winning—especially when the playoffs come around.
Estimated 2016 cap space: $36.6 million
The Bengals’ complete lack of discipline in their wild-card game against the Steelers fostered yet another playoff loss, lowering Marvin Lewis’s postseason record to 0–7. Perhaps the team will move on from Lewis—if it can find someone better—but the real wolf at the door is not Lewis, or the fact that Andy Dalton got hurt late in the season, or the franchise’s history with troubled players and the fact that this keeps biting them at the worst possible times.
No, the real problem is that what many believed to be the most balanced roster in the NFL is about to see a lot of change. The Bengals go into 2016 with enough cap room to get things done, but they’ve got a lot of talented players on the free agency bubble, many of whom Cincinnati will ostensibly try to retain.
That’s the real pain of this year’s first-round playoff exit; with Dalton playing so well before his thumb injury and the roster stacked the way Lewis preferred it, this felt like the best chance the Bengals have had for a long run in the postseason in the new millennium. Transition is coming sooner than later.
2015 record: 11–5
How it ended: The Vikings’ great season ended in a most agonizing fashion: With Blair Walsh missing a field goal from 27 yards out with 26 seconds left in the game against the Seahawks. That ended the third-coldest game in NFL history, and left Minnesota’s favorite football team with few answers.
Estimated 2016 cap space: $22.1 million
That was a stunner, Vikings fans... but the good news is that better days are coming. Mike Zimmer’s team won the NFC North while the Packers were sleeping, and probably not for the last time. Teddy Bridgewater showed a lot of growth in his second NFL season, Adrian Peterson proved that he’s ready and willing to break the over-30 curve for NFL running backs, and if he can’t do so as much in future seasons, Jerick McKinnon is one of the most intriguing young backs in the league. Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have put together one of the best young defenses in the league from front to back, and everything is just going to get better as long as everyone stays healthy.
Zimmer, the great defensive assistant who waited far too long to become a head coach because he wasn't political enough, is in the perfect place. The Vikings need better and more consistent receivers, though rookie Stefon Diggs showed out at times, and there's a need for help along the offensive line, but this Vikings team looks like one that could potentially dominate over the next three-to-five years. Small consolation after what happened on Sunday afternoon, but it's true.
2015 record: 9–7
How it ended: The Redskins had an 11–0 lead against a Packers team that had been struggling on offense all season, and then saw everything go to pieces in a 35–18 loss. It was Washington's first playoff appearance since 2012 after a couple years of hard times and transition, and left the franchise still waiting for its first postseason win since ’05.
Estimated 2016 cap space: $9.6 million
“This loss, I think, catapults our offseason to enable us to have a little bit of an edge to say, ‘Okay, where did we fall short?’ We made the playoffs, but we didn't advance in the playoffs, and we weren't good enough to do that. So, where do we have to change? Where do we have to grow in the next several months to be able to get back here and win?”
That’s what Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins said after his team’s wild-card playoff loss to the Packers; the good news is that with general manager Scot McCloughan in charge of personnel, this franchise will build talent the right way for the first time in the Dan Snyder era. McCloughan has dealt with his own personnel issues, but when he’s on point, there are few better personnel men in the business—he was a prime mover in the construction of the 49ers and Seahawks, the NFC’s last two champions.
McCloughan’s most important off-season task will be to confer with ownership and decide just how much Cousins is worth on a per-year basis. Cousins’s numbers in the second half of the season were just nuts, but that’'s half a season for a physically limited quarterback who really didn't do much until he tied himself completely to Jay Gruden’s offense. The Redskins have great receivers in DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed, and some great pieces along their front seven. Now, McCloughan must build a top-tier secondary, figure out the running back position and complete the offensive line. If he gets all that done over the next couple years, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that he's helping to create his third NFC championship team.