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Which NFL Teams Should Panic After Starting 0–2?

Seven teams are still looking for their first win. Some should be more worried than others.
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Through two weeks of the season, seven teams sit at 0–2. That’s the fewest since 2018. Last year there were 10, and the season before there were nine (plus the Cardinals were 0–1–1).

Is there anything to cull from this? Probably not, although the relative strangeness of Week 1 is lingering a bit longer than expected. In 2020, for example, the Jaguars made us rethink their offseason narrative a bit after stunning the Colts in Jacksonville, only to lose 15 straight games afterward. Teams like the Panthers and Texans have thrown a wrench in our predictive machines, especially when Houston hung around in Cleveland last week. The Saints’ destruction of the transitive property, by blowing up the juggernaut Packers and then falling haplessly to the Panthers, has also made the long-term view of the NFL season rather hazy.

We’re at a strange point because of the new 17-game season, where we will have to delay declaring a team’s irrelevance by one week. Typically, an 0–4 start was the ultimate symbol of a lost season. Only two teams in modern NFL history have traversed that pit and reached the playoffs. Is that 0–5 now? Is 0–2 the new 0–1?

On one hand, that would make it seem difficult for us to make any definitive judgements on the winless teams now, since most of them are only a game from climbing back into relevance. On the other, there have been some telling performances, both good and bad, through two weeks that can lead us to some conclusions, namely, which of these clubs should start panicking.

So let’s break out the old worry meter, shall we? We’ll rate each team on a low-medium-high scale, with high being the most reason to panic and low being a true R-E-L-A-X situation.

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New York Jets

Losses to: Panthers (19–14), Patriots (25–6)

Panic level: Low

The reason we’re not scoring the Jets higher right now is that they’re still kind of abiding by our expectations. In my preseason forecast, I had them beating the Panthers in Week 1, but did not expect Carolina to evolve defensively like it has. The Jets do not yet have the requisite pieces to compete for the division … or even win more than a handful of games. What we were always looking for this year was more nonblowouts than blowouts, the development of Zach Wilson and the emergence of some core veteran leaders who can row this ship from rebuild to contention. The New England game was ugly, but Wilson’s four-interception day was different than Darnold’s infamous “seeing ghosts” game. Disastrous rookie outings can often be placed in two different categories: Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in three of his first four games, so this guy will be fine. Or, My God, this poor child can’t read a defense. Wilson’s picks seemed like the product of not being entirely comfortable with his receivers yet. Leverages shifted, the Patriots made some nice plays and some balls were dropped. Robert Saleh’s team climbed back into a game against a Panthers outfit that clubbed the Saints a week ago.

Indianapolis Colts

Losses to: Seahawks (28–16), Rams (27–24)

Panic level: Low

This schedule is a brutal one, hence our preseason prediction that the Colts would lose their first five games before mounting an admirable charge for the postseason (which, given how the rest of the division looks around them, could actually leave them a chance to win the AFC South). Carson Wentz has two sprained ankles, which could keep him out of a game or two, depending on a medical evaluation. Regardless, this team kept pace with arguably the best-designed offense in the NFL last week (the Rams), even though Wentz has not shaken the notion that he must shoulder the entire team every week. In Philadelphia, the plan was to ask him to do too much, hence one of the highest aggressive throw percentages for a regular starter in the NFL in 2020. In Indianapolis, there are more options for him, even though Wentz still seems to be forcing magic. This is understandable, given his urgency to prove that his decline in play was not some indictment of his career. With patience and some RICE, the Colts should be able to capitalize on a schedule that softens significantly over the second half. Their running game, which faces one of the most consistently loaded boxes in the NFL right now, should also regain its efficiency as Wentz melds with the expectations of his offense.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Losses to: Texans (37–21), Broncos (23–13)

Panic level: High

The league’s second-worst offense according to Football Outsiders, the Jaguars were expected to struggle this year, but perhaps not as badly as they’ve done over the first two weeks of the season. The reason we’re scoring them in the high category at this point is obvious: When you take a massive swing at the coaching position like Jacksonville did with Urban Meyer, you are setting yourself up for a hefty amount of discomfort if the team loses to the hapless Texans in Week 1. Adding to the pressure is the obvious developmental timeline of Trevor Lawrence, who clearly looks the part as an elite passer who can transcend a typical rookie season, but does not have the infrastructure to pull off an Andrew Luck-like 11–5 campaign during Year 1. Through two weeks, Lawrence is being pressured on roughly one in five snaps and has a completion percentage at 50%. The issues are clear. Despite James Robinson’s having one of the lowest percentages of eight-man boxes in the league, there is no running game for Lawrence to lean on, despite the fact that both offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer are disciples of the church of Ground N’ Pound. A game against the 2–0, white hot Cardinals this week feels ominous at best, with a Bengals game one week later that could be the true test of this organization’s ability to stay afloat right now.

New York Giants

Losses to: Broncos (27–13), Washington (30–29)

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Panic level: Medium

Consider this a kind of addendum to my Joe Judge column from a week ago. A point I wish I made: I’m not saying that Judge can’t succeed as a tough guy. I think the act plays well in the right circumstances, and when you’re in the building in East Rutherford and you get immersed in the culture and surrounded by the history, it all makes sense. When I covered Tom Coughlin after years on the Rex Ryan beat, I thought his message would feel dated and overly paternal to players who wanted to be treated like adults. After a few months of talking to players in the locker room, it was easier to see the merits and advantages of Coughlin’s approach, which I’m loosely comparing to that of Judge. What I am saying is that you’re not always battling common sense as a head coach; you’re battling perception. Kenny Golladay came out and admitted having some passionate words about Jason Garrett’s offense. Judge himself made an admittedly emotional coaching gaffe in a big spot. This, amid a season where Daniel Jones is the second-highest graded quarterback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus’s metrics. Players are playing well, and the results aren’t there. So who gets blamed, especially after a somewhat oppressive training camp in which they had to surrender a bit of pride for the idea that this approach would work?

I think Judge possesses the finesse to get out of this, but not without some difficult decisions along the way.

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Minnesota Vikings

Losses to: Bengals (27–24), Cardinals (34–33)

Panic level: Medium

The Vikings are 27th in points surrendered and 28th in yards surrendered through two weeks. And while some of these stats will turn around once their turnover percentage catches up to the rest of the league, Minnesota is in a difficult position. The division rival Packers have woken up from an extended training camp slumber and will begin to roll. The Vikings’ entry into the playoffs as a wild card depends on their surviving an absolute gauntlet of a schedule through Thanksgiving, which includes back-to-back games coming up against the Seahawks and Browns, a trip to Carolina on Oct. 17, the Cowboys after their bye week, two straight road games against the Ravens and Chargers, then the first of their two meetings against the Packers, then a road trip to San Francisco. The season opener against Cincinnati was a way for them to pick up a win and an early tailwind heading into the Arizona game. Instead, the team was gutted, losing both games on the foot of their kicker, which has the tendency to create some difficult emotional management situations. Mike Zimmer can handle these situations better than most, but the team’s current disposition will inevitably force some in the building to ask tough questions about a defense already at its breaking point, about a quarterback playing well but potentially on the outs, about another year with one of the best receiving tandems in football and nothing to show for it.

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Atlanta Falcons

Losses to: Eagles (32–6), Buccaneers (48–25)

Panic level: High

The Eagles are going to end up being a better team than we initially expected, and the Falcons had the unfortunate disposition of following that matchup with a game against the machine-like Buccaneers. That said, their complete lack of preparation before the Eagles game was glaring, as is the look and feel of their offense right now. Arthur Smith came from Tennessee, not promising to install a purist’s outside zone system like the one that propelled Matt Ryan to a Super Bowl and developed Derrick Henry into the type of star that earned Smith a head coaching job in the first place. Now, the Falcons are both the fastest and most inefficient offense in the NFL, which has them at the polar opposite end of the spectrum from the 49ers and Packers, teams running a version of the system Smith was calling in Nashville. Football Outsiders has their offense ranked dead last in their defense adjusted value over replacement metric. New head coaching hires are always tremendous risks, but Atlanta made this decision with the hope that Smith would validate the desire to hang onto Matt Ryan amid an offseason where the team could have sold him off for a king’s ransom and drafted Mac Jones or Justin Fields as his replacement. Yes, the Falcons are, from a personnel standpoint, a complete mismatch for their defense. Yes, the roster needed some work before Smith’s arrival, hence the firing of his predecessor and his general manager’s predecessor. That said, a team with Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, a movable tight end capable of making spectacular catches and an offensive line with several anchor points should not look this outmatched.

Detroit Lions

Losses to: 49ers (41–33), Packers (35–17)

Panic level: Low

The Lions played four complete quarters of football over two weeks, leaving them toe-to-toe with the 2–0 49ers and the eventual NFC North champion Packers. This was already far better than we thought they’d look, and it proves the coaching staff’s acumen both in terms of creating early scripts (the way they did against the Packers) and adjusting to the opponent at halftime (the way they did against the 49ers). While the Lions have been competent on offense in the past despite a lack of overall success, Anthony Lynn has the team forging an identity even though its best offensive weapons may all be linemen. Though he doesn’t often get credit, he has a creative ability to rethink formations and is friendly to quarterbacks, getting Justin Herbert prepped for his rookie season, getting the best out of Tyrod Taylor and now helping to rebuild Jared Goff after the Rams discarded him. Any time a coach is hired on the strength of personality, one has to worry what his ultimate managerial strengths are. Dan Campbell, though, has proven to be a solid judge of people and has built a staff he can win with. 

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