Biggest takeaways from the end of the NFL’s regular season

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5 Things I care about

Where are the Titans?

The Titans will be one of the most fascinating teams to watch this NFL offseason. I can’t wait to see the transition to the next era of Tennessee football. And it’s already started, too — the Titans reportedly fired offensive coordinator Todd Downing on Monday.

Less than one year ago, it appeared as if general manager John Robinson was ready to oversee a soft reset of sorts. Robinson has since been fired and the team will now look to fill his GM void over the next few weeks. They’ll do so coming off a rash of injuries that caused a brutal stall to end the 2022 season. The ultimate result: The Titans missing the playoffs.

It was clear to me, however, that head coach Mike Vrabel wasn’t really interested in any sort of re-tooling.

He made his displeasure with the A.J. Brown trade well-known. His decision to start Josh Dobbs over their third-round rookie quarterback in the final two games showed Vrabel is interested purely in the present and winning games. He’s already said he wants the veteran Tannehill back at quarterback next season, despite there being a potential out in his contract.

I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with Vrabel’s approach. The Titans just need to fully embrace that mindset. Hire a GM who is on the same page. Get this team set up to a point where they have the resources and cap space available to give this roster the tweaks it desperately needs.

The Titans can’t walk into next season with the offensive line or receiver corps in the state it found them in so often over the last 12 months. That won’t be a winning operation. Yet, they can’t neglect a pass defense that eroded in the face of injuries.

Tennessee has a lot on its plate this offseason and I’m fascinated to see how they attack it.

Sean McVay’s future

Speculation about Sean McVay’s future as the head coach of the Rams was rampant on Sunday morning prior to kickoff. It hasn’t slowed into Monday. McVay said he intends to take some time and decide if he’ll step away from the Rams but indicated he’s in no way done with coaching forever.

If he leaves the Rams at this juncture, I’ll hate it.

Look, if Amazon wants to pay McVay a bag and he’s ready to throw his weight into the far more relaxing media world, that’s fine. If he’s simply stepping away because he doesn’t want to stare down a hard rebuild for the next few years, as Mike Florio suggested during Sunday Night Football, that stinks.

I love when great coaches are faced with a challenging moment in transitioning their club from one era to another. McVay is a great coach and has masterfully pulled off a few of those evolution acts during his time in LA. His ability to keep this Rams team somewhat competitive down the stretch with Baker Mayfield only solidified my belief in his coaching chops.

With Matthew Stafford saying he has no intention of retiring, I don’t think the Rams are nearly as bad off as everyone else. There are pieces in place for this team to get right back into contention, especially if they laser-focus on the offensive line this offseason. Few ownership groups give their employees more flexibility and resources to construct a team than the Rams’ contingent.

I hope McVay stays. I want to see how he pulls off what will essentially be the third or fourth act of his Rams’ tenure.

The Steelers’ next play-caller

Mike Tomlin avoided a losing season once again but his team ultimately couldn’t sneak into the playoffs. Now, it’s time to look to the future to make sure the Steelers aren’t just “not losing,” but actively putting themselves in a position to contend.

We got so many positive glimpses of Kenny Pickett to end the season. As I mentioned in my Week 18 Stats Notebook column, most of those moments came out of structure. I still think this is the worst-designed offense in the NFL.

There’s always some trepidation about changing up offensive schemes on a young quarterback. Too much change can sometimes stunt growth. Yet, a lack of change can create a hindrance to the evolution of your hopeful franchise cornerstone. I believe that is the case with Pittsburgh.

Kenny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws the ball during the first half of the NFL game against the Cleveland Browns

Will Kenny Pickett ascend to one of the top signal-callers in the NFL next season? (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

With the late-season revival of the running game, Pickett’s ability to create off-script and the young talent at pass-catcher, there is potential for a bright future for this unit. That destiny just doesn’t take place in Matt Canada’s offense.

The Patriots’ next play-caller

Everything I just said about Pittsburgh can easily be applied — and more dramatically, at that — to the New England Patriots. It’s tough to argue that the Steelers would be better off keeping Matt Canada but you could stretch yourself into believing that’s true.

There isn’t enough elastic in the world to make that leap for Matt Patricia and co. in New England.

It would be categorically irresponsible to run back what became a pretty toxic situation for the Patriots by the end of the year. Mac Jones clearly hated the setup. He let everyone know about it with his actions on the field. The Patriots just watched as their second-year quarterback regressed and let the environment around him rot.

Bill Belichick can’t afford another season like this one. He’s already said he’ll return in 2023 but I wonder if he gets a mandate from a clearly unhappy owner to make coaching staff changes. It will be interesting to see how the legendary coach responds to such an edict. He’s been allowed to run the roost for years now. The lack of post-Tom Brady success has likely erased that autonomy.

The Patriots will have a ton of cap space this offseason. They can take this offense in many different directions. They just can’t take it down an encore of the catastrophe this season ended up becoming.

The Falcons offense

I’m a sicko, but I like the way the Falcons offense looks for the future.

Drake London is a star in the making, Tyler Allgeier quietly gained 1,000 yards as a rookie and was super efficient down the stretch. And, I promise you, despite your Kyle Pitts pain, Arthur Smith designs a good passing attack.

The Falcons just never had a good enough quarterback to consistently exploit the tasty looks Smith was offering up in the aerial attack for Pitts. He did design good plays for some ancillary receivers like Damiere Byrd and Olamide Zaccheus — and those plays were good.

A better quarterback nails the throws to the big-name guys.

We just need a better solution behind center and I bet this offense produces legitimate fantasy value in 2023. Rookie Desmond Ridder likely didn’t do enough to get a clear runway to be that guy next season. However, if Atlanta doesn’t swing big — and I think they should — he could compete with some upper-mid-tier veteran. As long as it’s someone above average distributing the ball in Atlanta, there is going to be a lot to work with.

5 Things I don’t care about

Brain-pretzel Texans logic

I want to be clear, I have no problem with Lovie Smith playing to win. He likely knew he was not retaining the top job in Houston and had no reason to help them out by losing in Week 18.

As for the Texans, I’ve seen some arguments that it’s not actually a big deal they lost out on the No. 1 pick because Chicago isn’t going to take a quarterback and they’ll still have their pick of passers at No. 2.

That’s nothing but coping.

For starters, you have no idea about Chicago’s plans (more on that in a second). They could take a quarterback. Additionally, the Bears have plenty of incentive to auction off that pick to the highest bidder. Plenty of teams in the top 10 are in desperate need of a franchise cornerstone behind center and desperation breeds opportunity. That bidding war could even force the Texans to part with a handful of picks to move up a single spot or be forced with their second choice at quarterback.

It’s always better to control the draft. Houston no longer does. Add it to their list of problems.

Any degree of certainty in Chicago

As mentioned, no one should have any degree of certainty about what Chicago intends to do at the first overall pick.

Justin Fields showed off truly special running ability in his second season. They completely re-designed the offense to build around that on the fly and that’s a credit to the Bears and to Fields. However, the Bears were still a bad offense. Not to mention Fields sustained nicks and bruises throughout the season while being the focal point of the rushing attack. It’s unlikely they can run him like that ever again over the course of a full year.

Fields still has flaws as a passer, no question. Even with a better supporting cast, there’s no guarantee that he develops into a high-end starting quarterback.

I’m not sure if it’s what I’d do, but there’s every reason to believe a brain trust that wasn’t a part of originally drafting Fields decides to try and trade him away for a bounty of picks and take their next quarterback at No. 1 overall. That player would be on a cheap, longer contract than Fields and might just end up being a better pro. That wager makes all the sense in the world.

All options are and should be on the table for the Bears heading into the NFL draft.

The Jeff Saturday era

The Jeff Saturday era provided us with quite a load of content to start with but quickly became forgettable, even bordering on embarrassing as the Colts skidded to a 1-7 finish under his watch. Jim Irsay will certainly give Saturday the chance to interview for the real job. He shouldn’t get it.

The Colts need to get as far away from the disaster this year became. They need to do it quickly. It seems like Chris Ballard will be the guy to lead the head coaching search. He has just as much soul-searching to do for his role in letting this team get so far adrift in the wake of Andrew Luck’s fateful retirement.

The Colts have good young players on offense and defense. They need a coach that is going to further develop those guys. They need a true young franchise cornerstone at quarterback to help get the most out of the offensive pieces and grow with them, not another veteran stopgap.

Indy needs a coach hellbent on making that dynamic work.

Deshaun Watson excuses

You can make excuses, perhaps legitimate ones, about why Deshaun Watson’s numbers were so bad upon his return to the lineup. But the fact of the matter is that Cleveland’s passing game became mind-numbingly inefficient the moment he got in the lineup:

The excuses can go beyond just Watson’s potential rust after a nearly two-year layoff from real football games. The Browns need better receivers after Amari Cooper. Nick Chubb was banged up to end the year. I maintain Watson is a weird fit in Kevin Stefanski’s timing-based, precision offense.

Throw all that out. No one cares.

When you get the contract Watson received, I’m sorry but you need to be above excuses. For the Browns’ craven bet on Watson to pay off, he needed to be the symbol of progress on the franchise. Not a guy you make justifications for ranking among the worst quarterbacks in the league in a variety of efficiency metrics. If he’s not that guy, an already ill-fated and needlessly risky wager by Cleveland is doomed to erupt in its face.

The 2023 Cardinals

The Cardinals have moved on from Kliff Kingsbury and watched as embattled GM Steve Keim left the team to deal with his health. The only guy remaining from the extension trio of 2022 is Kyler Murray, whom the team announced won’t be ready for Week 1 this upcoming season but will have input on the next head coach hiring.

This team appears completely lost in the wilderness.

It’s a roster stuck in no man’s land. It sports a quarterback coming off a down season and sporting a major injury question. Beyond Murray, there are loads of mid-tier veterans and a total lack of superstar talent.

The next head coach doesn’t get a blank slate to work with. They’ll be stuck with some version of the old Cardinals and the albatross of Murray’s contract. That doesn’t sound too appealing.

No matter who the Cardinals hire — maybe they knock it out of the park — I just can’t see the immediate future of this team being too bright. It looks like 2023 will be a long year for Arizona.

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