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NFL Thanksgiving: What Every Team Should Be Thankful For

From the Colts' Jonathan Taylor to the Rams' Cooper Kupp, here's one reason why each NFL team should give thanks.
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Some of us are, as Bill Belichick might say, “on to Christmas.” Thanksgiving doesn’t have a ton going for it outside of gluttony and togetherness, which can be replicated for the most part a month later during a better, gift-receiving and -disseminating holiday. Thanksgiving doesn’t have lights or representative front-yard blow-up decorations, outside of the silly-looking inflatable turkeys that have started populating my neighborhood, which only serves to let people know that you have just a bit more free time and disposable income than others. During the penning of this piece, I’m spinning the Jazz at Lincoln Center holiday season spectacular, which only serves to cement the excellence of a holiday that is so gargantuan, that it has its own category of jazz.

But the one sphere that Thanksgiving dominates is gratefulness. We’re supposed to be grateful during December holidays, too, but often get lost in the whirlwind of personal responsibilities. Thanksgiving, in isolation, is a good primer for reminding us that we should set aside time (ideally every day) to give thanks for the best things in our life (like its gift-giving counterparts).

That’s why we’re here today. Just as all of us can find at least one thing to be grateful for this time of year, so can every NFL team, be it the Cardinals or the Lions. As you enjoy your stuffing and cranberry sauce (hopefully the gelatinous, canned kind with the ridges on the side, which is the only way to enjoy cranberry sauce), here is a list of gratitude for all teams.

(As an aside, if you’re unable to see family or friends during Thanksgiving weekend and would appreciate filling the void with some light football conversation, feel free to drop me a note at Conor.Orr@SI.com. I will do my best to check messages a few times throughout).

Arizona Cardinals

Jeff Rodgers, assistant head coach and special teams coordinator 

Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive system and his familiarity with Kyler Murray have created the NFL’s most surprising and dominant offense this year. The Air Raid grows in complexity the longer quarterbacks, receivers and coaches spend marinating in the seemingly basic route concepts, because they can be site-adjusted on almost every snap. Add in a surging Vance Joseph and a talented, budding defense and you have a recipe for a potential NFC West champion. But Rodgers has been building this house behind the scenes for years now. The Arizona Republic did a good look at the longtime special teams coordinator a few years back. Players say he handles way more than the typical, ceremonial assistant head coach, which is something I’ve heard from coaching industry experts as well. When a collegiate staff is transitioning to the NFL, there is always the potential for embarrassing moments. Matt Rhule was blasted by Teddy Bridgewater for failing to practice the two-minute drill. Urban Meyer looks like he’s trying to slowly read a tiny-print menu at a Paris patisserie every time the game demands a critical decision point. Rodgers was able to help ensure a finished product that did not make Kingsbury, a coach who had just been let go by Texas Tech, look like a fish out of water.

Atlanta Falcons

Bill Belichick, New England Patriots head coach

Cordarrelle Patterson had 44 rushing attempts in his first 80 career games before heading to New England, where the Patriots head coach was the first to conceptualize the former first-round pick wide receiver as a type of every down running back and general backfield weapon that can help defenses identify themselves. Patterson’s career has reblossomed since, but in a strange way that has made him continuously affordable for each team that plucks him out of free agency. Patterson may be the most valuable running back in the NFL this year outside of Jonathan Taylor. While Atlanta, at 4–6, doesn’t seem to be making any grand plans, Patterson has helped smooth the transition to Arthur Smith and prevent what could have been a much rockier first season.

Baltimore Ravens

Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Eric Tomlinson and Patrick Ricard

How do you win a game with an undrafted free-agent quarterback who takes only a handful of reps and finds out about his impending start on the bus ride to the stadium? You have four of the most agile big bodies in the NFL, who are deft in open space and can align pretty much anywhere in the backfield, tight on the line or out wide and present themselves as an unmatchable, physical threat. Ricard is the best blocking back in the NFL. Andrews and Tomlinson are first and second, respectively, in Pro Football Focus’ run blocking grades. Boyle returned to the field last week and was immediately jumping into three-wide sets. I’ve long maintained that no one has better understood the market inefficiency on big bodies like the Ravens have, eventually tipping their hand to the rest of the league just before the George Kittle–led tight end boom. Amid a rocky season on the injury front, they have ensured that Baltimore’s run-first offense is never out of a game, no matter who is behind them in the backfield.

Buffalo Bills

Bobby Babich, safeties coach

How do you attain the top passing defense and third-best rushing defense in the NFL? A lot of that has to do with transcendent safety play. While we could have just listed Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde here, it’s interesting that both players went from O.K. and good, respectively, to elite in 2017 when they were enveloped into the Sean McDermott system and paired with Babich. The son of Bills’ linebackers coach Bob Babich, Bobby is carving his own legacy in Buffalo by placing his handprint on the lifeblood of McDermott’s defense, so much of which flows through safety play. Both Poyer and Hyde are in their 30s, having been on at least one other team before arriving in Buffalo. There aren’t many elite safeties you can say that about in the NFL right now, never mind two playing on the same team. Before falling to the Colts this past weekend, the Bills’ scheme had been as close to uncrackable as we’ve seen in the NFL, a lot of which stems from the confidence McDermott and Leslie Frazier can put on two deep safeties to correctly diagnose and dive into every play. Watch how clinical the pair was against the Chiefs, expertly backstopping a set of cornerbacks and linebackers who were pushed to their limit with Kansas City’s talented slate of playmakers.

Carolina Panthers

Shaq Thompson, linebacker

Thompson is holding opponents to a 67% completion rate and already has two interceptions so far, despite having missed a handful of games due to injury. There is something truly beautiful about watching the mastery with which he controls his body. Now a far more mature version of the shifty, positionless defender that was taken in the first round back in 2018, Thompson can effortlessly find himself in the backfield on a blitz simply by compressing his frame and jamming himself through a crowded A gap. He drew one of the best veteran holding calls I’ve ever seen two weeks ago against Arizona and can still fill a gap during a run play with the force of a potato-cannon launcher. Opposing quarterbacks have a QB rating in the mid-50s when targeting receivers in Thompson’s direction, though that number should be much lower considering how quickly he jumps on running backs out of the backfield, gumming up a passer’s progression.

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Chicago Bears

Jason Peters, left tackle

Here’s a fun question to ask yourself when your favorite team is spiraling: How much worse could it possibly get? With the Bears, who lost their presumptive Day One left tackle Teven Jenkins to a back issue in September, it could have been a lot worse. Justin Fields is under pressure on more than a quarter of his snaps according to Pro Football Reference. Pro Football Focus has that number closer to 40%. And while it may seem backward to credit an offensive lineman during this maelstrom, Peters has actually been solid amid a “sea of trash” to borrow a line from divisional foe Dan Campbell. It was pretty incredible to watch the 39-year-old get next-level last week against the Ravens, chipping off linebackers on boot action plays to help get Fields a clean edge or blocking out front of a Jakeem Grant toss sweep. Peters would not have come out of retirement for just anyone, and to find left tackle help above replacement level just before the season starts is largely unheard of. That’s especially true when the player is turning 40 after Christmas. This has not been the ideal developmental campaign for Fields by any stretch, but if the pressure rate on the left side was anything like the pressure rate on the right side, Fields would have been unplayable in 2021.

Cincinnati Bengals

D.J. Reader, defensive tackle

The Bengals aren’t among the league’s elite teams in run stop win rate or pass rush win rate, but they have a few singular players who rank highly on the ESPN metric and are generally not horribly low in comparison to the rest of the NFL. A lot of this is thanks to D.J. Reader, who is an absolute wrecking ball inside for the Bengals and consistently demands two offensive players block him on each snap. What a benefit this has been for guys like Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson, who have been enjoying some solid individual seasons. The Bengals are more than a tenth of a yard per snap better against the run with Reader on the field, which adds up quickly in an AFC North where the Bengals face either Najee Harris, Nick Chubb or Lamar Jackson on almost half their games.

Cleveland Browns

Bill Callahan, offensive line coach

While I don’t for one second dismiss Baker Mayfield’s toughness in playing through a litany of injuries, here is something that will inevitably hurt him at the bargaining table this offseason after betting on himself in 2021: The Browns are first in the NFL in pass block win rate and ninth in run block win rate. There are very few teams with a better composite score than Cleveland (among them, the Eagles and Washington). Callahan’s mastery of the position, along with a personnel overhaul, has made the Browns’ offensive line one of the most coveted position groups in the NFL. Even on Cleveland’s worst days, they are in line to have some semblance of offensive success by virtue of handing the ball off over and over again. Callahan is an indispensable part of Cleveland’s rise and is perennially one of the highest-paid (if not the highest-paid) position coach in the NFL. He is worth every penny.

Dallas Cowboys

Dan Quinn, defensive coordinator

Let’s not overthink this one. The Cowboys are the league’s No. 3 rated pass defense in terms of defense-adjusted value over average. While their run defense lags a bit, there isn’t a team in the division that is going to make them pay enough for the weak spot. In terms of most respectable metrics, the Cowboys will finish with a top-10 defense in Quinn’s first year. This is an incredible turnaround from a year ago, when Mike McCarthy stubbornly clung to a Mike Nolan unit that finished the season as one of the worst units in the NFL. Quinn’s continued alterations to the Pete Carroll Cover 3 defense and his relentless optimism have allowed one side of the ball to completely turn the tide and place themselves into a conversation for legitimate Super Bowl contention.

Denver Broncos

Zach Azzanni, wide receivers coach

Here’s something you don’t see every year: Two of the team’s wide receivers earned in-season contract extensions. Courtland Sutton and Azzanni arrived at the same time (2018) while Tim Patrick came as an undrafted free agent the year before Azzanni’s arrival in Denver. In that time, both have developed into top-tier options who have seen marked improvements in catch percentage and yards per target. Azzanni also found and developed Trinity Benson, who the Broncos were able to trade to the Lions earlier this year. While a great deal of credit belongs to the players, these are receivers who have played at an elite level despite some sub-elite circumstances, earning themselves some cash in the process. Azzanni’s guidance goes a long way there.

Detroit Lions

Your franchise’s lack of historical success

I could have gone conservative here, and maybe this is a good time to mention that Penei Sewell is playing really well of late. He didn’t allow a single pressure against an excellent Browns pass rush Sunday and is rounding into a top-15 tackle, which is hard to do amid a lost season with a struggling quarterback and toggling between offensive play-callers. But I wanted to add that I think it’s far more enjoyable being a fan of a consistently woebegone franchise than a fan of a good franchise. I absolutely loved growing up a Browns fan. Every time I brought it up publicly people approached the subject like I had a nail coming out of my head but I didn’t know it.

William Green, huh? Sure, it’ll all work out, buddy.

When you like a terrible franchise, you’re taken through wild, creative rides of ineptitude. You see your owner make mistakes that other franchises had made, struggled because of, and paid dearly for, a half decade ago. You spend wild sums of money on players in their early 30s. You get to hire a coach like every other year.

All of that stuff is awesome. Way more fun than, say, being an entitled Seahawks or Giants fan right now, hoping to find a sympathetic ear for how things are going when they’ve experienced a Super Bowl in their very recent lifetime. Those fans are the worst. Meanwhile, you get to make a performance out of your team’s crappiness. Bill Simmons made an entire career on this premise before the Red Sox won a World Series. Thanksgiving, in fact, should be one of your FAVORITE holidays. People come to your house, look at you sympathetically in your Honolulu-blue Ziggy Ansah jersey and ask: Do you think this is the week? At least their coach seems like he cares!

All I’m saying is enjoy the ride. While I rescinded my Browns fandom years ago upon entering the NFL media world, there was a small part of me that felt terrified as the Browns throttled the Steelers in the playoffs. What would I have wanted after that? A Super Bowl? Then what? Am I just going to be that mouth breather calling into local talk radio to complain about the “offense’s struggles” when we’re seventh in DVOA? What a horrible place that would be.

Green Bay Packers

De’Vondre Campbell, linebacker

I think this goes a few ways. If you’re a Packers fan, you’re thankful that Campbell, a free-agent linebacker, is perhaps the best off-ball linebacker in football this year. If you’re general manager Brian Gutekunst, you’re thankful that, amid a narrative that you don’t take big swings in free agency and stock the shelves correctly, here is something you can point to, the ultimate win for a general manager. Campbell legitimizes the Packers’ subtle approach to the open market and saves them a boatload of money, with off-ball coverage linebackers like Darius Leonard and Fred Warner now making almost $20 million per season. Campbell is on pace to set career highs at nearly every relevant statistic and is holding opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage under 70. All of this while missing just three—three!—tackles this season.

Houston Texans

Tyrod Taylor, quarterback

The Texans are a dystopian chemical fire at the moment, but Tyrod Taylor is making the most of his opportunity as an interim spot starter. In four starts for the Texans in 2021, he is 2–2, which means he has logged a .500 record in starts with the worst rosters in recent NFL history. I don’t think we fully appreciate the type of gamer Taylor is. Ousted in a political squabble in Buffalo, ousted due to a concussion in Cleveland, ousted due to a freak incident of pregame medical malpractice in Los Angeles, he winds up tasked with plugging the Deshaun Watson gap in Houston for a year. None of this would seem to be particularly enjoyable work, yet he still maintains a career-winning record, a lifetime interception ratio better than 2:1 and is chipping away at a potential career high in net yards per attempt this season with No. 1 wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

Indianapolis Colts' Jonathan Taylor

Indianapolis Colts

Jonathan Taylor, running back

Perhaps the second-most enjoyable kind of fandom, outside of rooting for a perpetual, destructive basement dweller, is a team with an outside-the-box MVP candidate; a nonquarterback with no real shot at the award but for which an academic case could be made. Taylor, as we wrote last week, is one of those players. Through a series of herculean performances, amid a down year for the quarterbacking brand (the Cardinals are winning games with Colt McCoy, Tom Brady has plateaued a bit, Dak Prescott lacks a signature win), Taylor has conjured a shade of 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson, just not with all the necessary overkill in the red zone. Taylor obviously leads the Colts in rushing net yards over average, but he’s also third in passing net yards over average, showing that his presence on the field is almost as valuable for Carson Wentz from a dropback standpoint as it is from a run game standpoint.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Josh Allen, edge rusher

One of the very few positives you could take away from the 2021 Jacksonville Jaguars has been the development of 2019 first-round pick Josh Allen. Allen has become an elite, Pro Bowl–caliber edge rusher, who should finish the year with enough vanity statistics to match his breakout rookie year, though his on-field maturity as a run defender means more for his future prospects and won’t show up in a box score. It was not the most critical player development arc the Jaguars had hoped for; they took a massive swing on Urban Meyer, experimenting with the thrice-retired coach to be a salve for their organizational woes and for No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence has been woefully underschemed and has failed to conjure that Andrew Luck–ian immediacy to his NFL career despite being a similar talent. Whether Meyer comes back in 2022 remains to be seen, but whichever coach toes the sideline in Jacksonville does so next year with a top-five edge rusher at his disposal.

Kansas City Chiefs

Creed Humphrey, center

Humphrey is more than just an expert flopper. The 2021 second-round pick is among the best centers in the NFL right now. The position doesn’t always necessarily translate to the NFL, and considering Humphrey is in the center of an almost completely remade unit (while playing with a quarterback who would probably be among the first to admit that he is still developing as a protection caller), it makes his immediate arrival all the more impressive. Humphrey adds a third of a yard per rush by virtue of just being on the field, according to NFL GSIS statistics. Humphrey has allowed just one sack and has committed three penalties this year. In sticking with our theme with Jason Peters up top ... how much worse could it possibly be? A franchise reeling from an eye-opening offensive line performance at the Super Bowl gives Patrick Mahomes a rookie center to kick of the year. The range of potential outcomes went from great, as it is now, to quick let’s see if Olin Kreutz might come out of retirement.

Las Vegas Raiders

The upcoming coaching cycle

Here’s a bit of optimism I heard recently from one person plugged into the coaching search process: Look at the landscape as a whole and it becomes clear fairly quickly that Las Vegas stands out as a pretty good job. Look at what might be available and ... it can get lean pretty quickly. In Las Vegas, you have a ready-to-win veteran QB, an O.K. offensive line and a handful of weapons on offense. Compare that to, say, Chicago, for example, or Houston. For as much fun as we’ve had at Jon Gruden’s expense in this space, there were some successes from a roster-building perspective during his time in Vegas. Not nearly enough to mitigate the failures, but probably enough to keep Vegas as a top option for a prospective head coach, and not a feared destination reserved for the truly desperate.

Los Angeles Chargers

Brandon Staley, head coach

Here’s an interesting stat: The Chargers have used 339 unique defensive lineups this year, which is the most in the NFL. They have used their most common defensive lineup 1% of the time. Compare that with the Bengals, at nearly 15% or the Jaguars, Steelers or Dolphins hovering around 7%. Through roster-churning and injuries (Staley has also trotted out the most unique starting lineups in the NFL), the Chargers have posted one of the top pass defenses in the NFL (in a division with Patrick Mahomes). Staley is more than just an experimental coach who goes for it on fourth down a lot. His relative fearlessness has extended to all corners of the roster and he can still keep a unit on the same page amid constant change, be it of his own making or when forced upon. The Chargers should be a playoff lock this year and have an outside shot at winning the division if a friendly end-of-season schedule goes their way (two games against the Broncos, Raiders, Giants, Texans).

Los Angeles Rams

Cooper Kupp, wide receiver

Let’s not overthink this one. The Rams' offense doesn’t function properly without Kupp, who—like Jonathan Taylor in Indianapolis—has rightfully entered the MVP conversation despite being a nonquarterback. The entire offense runs through the former second-round pick, who understands how to attack thin slivers of empty space better than almost any player in football.

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Miami Dolphins

The back end of their schedule

The Dolphins are on a three-game winning streak, and while the victory over Baltimore stands out, they’ve also had the benefit of matchups with the Texans and the Jets. The Panthers are next before games against both New York teams bookending a well-timed late bye. Cam Newton will not be unfamiliar to Brian Flores. The Giants will be marred in a coordinator switch. The Jets will be trying to navigate Zach Wilson out of choppy water. The respite has been a fine opportunity for Tua Tagovailoa to play some semblance of normal football (his offensive line is still a disaster) and in the process he’s managed to claw himself back into the conversation as a top-15 passer. Strange what happens when you stop fawning over a quarterback on another team and start pouring resources into the one you drafted. Tagovailoa may not be done in Miami yet. The same could be said for Flores, if the Dolphins manage to navigate the rest of this soft spot wisely.

Minnesota Vikings

Kirk Cousins, quarterback

Kirk Cousins is having another excellent season, but because he is Kirk Cousins, we assume there is something better out there. Statistically, analytically, he is on par with, and in some cases, better than Patrick Mahomes this year. Cousins has thrown just four fewer touchdowns and nine fewer interceptions. Their completion percentages over expectation? About the same. Their completion percentages? Cousins’s is slightly better. He has made several game-winning, game-tying or other significant drives this season with the perceived effortlessness of an Aaron Rodgers but cannot seem to escape the narrative that he is a somehow less-than-ideal option. Minnesota is going to back into the playoffs this year because of him and be an aggravating matchup draw for some No. 2 seed.

New England Patriots

Bill Belichick, head coach

If the Patriots win the AFC East, does Bill Belichick get serious coach of the year consideration for the first time in more than a decade? While no one has won the award more than three times, it might be a fitting recognition of what Belichick has done with this roster post-Brady, propping up the offense with the fifth quarterback taken in the 2021 NFL draft. With New England nipping at first-place Buffalo, their pair of end-of-season matchups could be instructive on how the future narrative of the coach gets painted.

New Orleans Saints

Dennis Allen, defensive coordinator 

Allen’s run in New Orleans has been tremendous. For six straight years, the Saints were a top-10 team in terms of net yards per attempt surrendered. They have had a top-five rushing defense every year since 2018. With uncertainty at the quarterback position hampering an otherwise stellar campaign, this might be the time for Allen to reenter the head-coaching sphere, as he may not be locked away deep into the playoffs, unable to interview. There has been sufficient time and space between his '12–14 stint with the Raiders, which was not a coaching job fit for a first-timer.

New York Giants

A fresh start at offensive coordinator

The marriage between Joe Judge and Jason Garrett felt doomed from the start. It was an odd choice for Judge, who selected a coach that had not called plays competitively since 2012 and saw his best offensive boon under a creative, young play-caller that Dallas retained after letting go of Garrett. The Giants’ playbook always felt fundamentally broken, with plodding tight end sweeps and straightforward, in-line running plays that failed to jar open any running room for No. 2 pick Saquon Barkley. Facing mounting pressure in '21 as the team accumulated a handful of offensive stars and spent their first-round pick on twitchy, position-bending wide receiver Kadarius Toney, Garrett left the gig No. 25 in points scored and No. 23 in yards accumulated, despite noticeable improvement from Daniel Jones. Freddie Kitchens will be remembered for his less-than-stellar run as the Browns’ head coach but had a hot streak as interim OC the year before after the firing of Hue Jackson, mostly thanks to his willingness to borrow concepts from Baker Mayfield’s collegiate playbook. He may not fall into the same trap he did in Cleveland, where he designed infinitely lengthy route concepts for Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry without the offensive line or running game to support the plays from a timing perspective.

New York Jets

The offensive line

Joe Douglas may ultimately sink or swim with the Zach Wilson pick, but he has done a commendable job piecing together the team’s offensive line on the fly. Most of the Jets’ front is at least O.K., and some of them have had flashes of very good this season, despite the fact that they’ve been almost exclusively trailing and unable to do the thing they were brought in to do: block in an established, downhill running scheme that, if done correctly, necessitates fewer straight drop back pass sets. The beauty of the outside zone is that it should allow offensive linemen to attack on most downs, but minus a scenario where the Jets have been leading or in contention enough to put up a more representative pass/run ratio, they’ve had to make turkey salad out of the carcass.

Philadelphia Eagles

Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman

I can see a vehement argument in the opposite direction. Believe me when I say there is no joy in praising ownership of any team. That said, Lurie and Roseman, who seem to operate as a single entity in Philadelphia, may have lopped years off their post-2018 Super Bowl rebuild by jettisoning Doug Pederson early. They may have saved themselves a half decade of middling football by cutting ties with Carson Wentz. In other places, this relative lack of sentimentality would be praised for its productive cold-bloodedness. In Philadelphia, it always takes on the feel of some kind of evil emperorship. Lurie and Roseman may have ultimately failed in the way they treated Wentz and created a situation in which they’d need to find his replacement sooner, but they did not dwell on that mistake and sink years of half-hearted efforts into denying the reality of their situation. Nick Sirianni has the Eagles at a 40% chance to make the playoffs right now with games coming up against the flailing Giants and the Jets. Jalen Hurts is playing like a top-10 quarterback. DeVonta Smith is already successful as a rookie, which is a 50–50 proposition at best for rookie first-round wide receivers. And, the team has three first-round picks for next year. As a fan, fully accepting there was going to be a dip in performance after your coaching staff was pillaged post–Super Bowl, if the team was back into week-in, week-out relevance in '22 with an affordable franchise QB and a slew of young defensive stars potentially emerging from this year’s draft ... you wouldn’t sign up for that?

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Pittsburgh Steelers

Minkah Fitzpatrick, safety

Steelers fans won’t need convincing, but it’s interesting when the Chargers are in need of a critical, game-shifting play and they go right at Fitzpatrick’s backup, as the safety missed last week’s game due to a positive COVID-19 test. Mike Williams runs more “GO” routes than any receiver in football, which is something Fitzpatrick would obviously know. When he’s sidelined, however, some of the more routine concepts have a better chance of success. I’m not sure if this is a hot take or not, but if Fitzpatrick was in the game Sunday, I believe that the game-winning touchdown to Williams is either picked off, broken up or has fallen incomplete. This isn’t Fitzpatrick’s best season by any measure, but his instincts in the secondary are irreplaceable.

San Francisco 49ers

Trent Williams, Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle

In some ways you can look at this trio as the best offensive line trio in the NFL when they’re dotted together throughout the formation. Now healthy at the right time, the 49ers are beginning to return to their original blueprint for the year, which runs off the back of a dizzying run game that presents countless options at the outset of the game, forcing defenses to guess from an infinite Tecmo Bowl menu of possibilities. Because Juszczyk and Kittle are always lining up differently, the same run play is never going to have an indicating feature for the defense. This allows the 49ers to do what they did against the Rams two weeks ago, and what they did against the Jaguars the week afterward. The 49ers are peaking at the right time, and offer a fascinating dark-horse candidacy for a final playoff spot in 2021. Should this trio stay healthy, it’s difficult to count them out of any game, given that they can manipulate any front they desire, dictating one of the most important aspects of a matchup.

Seattle Seahawks

Change on the horizon

It would be stunning to see the Seahawks crawl into 2022 as is, hoping to sell themselves as somehow rejuvenated and refreshed after some time off. Russell Wilson tried to oust himself this past offseason, laying the groundwork for an eventual departure this offseason when his contract becomes more tradable at the beginning of the league year. Pete Carroll is signed through '25, but would he have the enthusiasm for a two or three-year rebuild (at best)? Seattle is lining up to be one of those potential “surprise” teams during this coaching cycle, a team we all assume would stay the course but decides based on availability of another coach or on the emergence of a locked-in trade partner for Wilson, who decides to lop that responsibility onto the next person taking the job. I don’t mean this blurb flippantly, like Seahawks fans should be thankful Carroll may step away Wilson will get traded. But sometimes two good artists need a change of scenery to make good music again. What would the world have been without Wings? Love take me down to the streets.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A once-embattled general manager

For the last few years, Jason Licht and Les Snead have operated from a similar playbook and the results have been fascinating. Both general managers have been bold, headline-grabbing and seemingly uncaring about some of the more practical aspects of team-building that we’ve seen shackle franchises in the past. They were also both, at one point, general managers who had their feet to the fire after a stretch of mediocrity—or worse. Licht was the guy who drafted a kicker in the second round. The guy who drafted and failed to develop Jameis Winston. The guy who brought in Dirk Koetter. So at the edge of the cliff, he decided to turn his franchise over to Tom Brady at a time when the market was not necessarily robust for a quarterback in his early 40s who appeared to be on the decline (with 20/20 hindsight, it seems like more of a roster issue). The results have been swift and dramatic. While there will inevitably be some cleanup on the back end of this experiment, Licht will get to do so with the equity he’s built over a Super Bowl and, at the least in 2021, another playoff run. Similarly, Snead has the Rams as relevant and talent-stocked as ever. He emerged, after the cocoon of the Jeff Fisher era willing to take a massive swing on Sean McVay. He’s positioned himself as the first call for any team looking to discard a superstar.

At the moment, both are sitting in a pretty comfortable seat.

Tennessee Titans

Shane Bowen, defensive coordinator

The Titans knew going into this season that Kevin Byard was one of the best, if not the best safety in the NFL. What they did not know was someone like Amani Hooker was capable of becoming the second-best safety in the NFL. Or, that Jeffery Simmons would have QB pressure numbers on par with Aaron Donald this year. While one of these may be a coincidence, having all of the Titans surge in Bowen’s first year as defensive coordinator doesn’t necessarily feel like an accident. The Titans may regress in the game-altering turnover department at some point this season, but that won’t change the Pro Bowl vote flooding performances of a third of their defense. Mike Vrabel’s coordinator decisions have come under fire in the past, especially when he tapped Arthur Smith to be his offensive coordinator after the Ryan Day overtures. Turns out, he has a pretty good eye for internal promotions. The Vrabel Tree, against all odds, may start bearing some fruit if the winning keeps up.

Washington Football Team

John Matsko, offensive line coach

Think about this for a moment: At worst, Washington emerges onto a historic veteran quarterbacking carousel with a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver, a beastly pass rush (when properly imagined, perhaps with the assistance of a new defensive coordinator in 2021) and ... maybe the best offensive line in the NFL? Thanks to Matsko, Washington may actually have one of the most efficient units in the league (according to ESPN’s blocking metrics, Washington is top five as both a pass-blocking and run-blocking unit), which includes the speedy development of 2021 second-round pick Sam Cosmi when healthy. The organization has a long way to go in order to repair themselves from a public relations standpoint, and who knows how that factors into the decision-making process for a quarterback on the open market (or with a no-trade clause). But we do know that any veteran looking to move is going to consider who is blocking for him, who he’s throwing to and what the rest of the division looks like. All of a sudden, playing in burgundy-and-gold doesn’t (immediately) feel like getting launched into relevance purgatory. 

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