Admittedly, all fanbases begin the regular season with championship aspirations. In training camp, wily veterans look like they have a lot left in the tank; big-money free agents automatically fit right in; and coaches say all the right things to the fawning media. Prior to the quarter-mile mark of the regular season, teams can easily explain any loss as a fluke, with delusional fans holding out hope that their team can suddenly turn things around and pick up a wild card. After the bye week and eighth game of the season, however, you are what you are.
By now, an apparent sleeper team like the Raiders has solidified itself as a legitimate contender, while the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns obviously receive the title of the two worst teams in the league. Mired in mediocrity, the most disappointing NFL teams generally fall into the middle of the pack. Five of the most talented teams are actually in danger of missing the playoffs altogether, after a slew of untimely injuries, botched assignments, and turnovers. These are the most disappointing NFL teams, ranked from least to most heartbreaking.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Last month, Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson lashed out, blaming Andrew Luck’s massive six-year, $139 million contract for his inability to build a competitive defense against the franchise quarterback. For several seasons running, Colts fans were spoiled by a robotic Peyton Manning and his rocket arm; he carried the franchise through a weak AFC South and into the playoffs.
In 2012, Indianapolis took Luck as the first overall pick in the draft, which made Manning all but expendable. At the time, Manning was coming off multiple neck surgeries and many doubted that the legend would ever play again, let alone throw a tight spiral toward the sticks 35 yards downfield. In 2014, Luck went over the top for 4,761 yards and a league leading 40 touchdowns through the regular season. He made the playoffs and the Pro Bowl through his first three years in the NFL. Most assumed he was heir apparent to both Manning and Tom Brady out of the AFC.
That year, the Colts lost the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough and triggered the Deflategate scandal when D’Qwell Jackson picked off Brady. In 2015, Luck battled through a series of nagging injuries and missed a total of nine games. This was supposed to be the year when the Colts returned to their patented formula of riding the big arm of a healthy Luck to get out in front of a bend-but-don’t-break defense.
The defense, however, is atrocious, especially in pass coverage. In Week 4, Antonio Cromartie got burnt to a crisp in London. The team cut him before the plane landed back in the United States. Now, the Colts defense is giving up more than 28 points per game and rank nearly dead last in every major statistical category. Indianapolis is 4-5, with Luck unable to out-throw such a shoddy defense.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
Last year, it seemed like Andy Dalton would finally make the leap from game manager to elite quarterback. Behind Dalton, the 2015–16 Bengals raced out to an 8-0 record to start the season, en route to closing out the year at 12-4. In all, the Red Rifle completed 66% of his passes to go over the top for 3,250 yards and 25 touchdowns, before fracturing the thumb on his throwing hand in Week 14 against the Steelers. Four weeks later, Cincinnati went on to self-destruct in the wild-card round against their bitter rivals, while Andy Dalton wore a headset on the sideline.
The 2016–17 Bengals now stand at 3-5-1, after dropping a close game to the New York Giants that was a microcosm for the entire season. Cincinnati did show flashes of greatness, with a steady Jeremy Hill setting the table for big plays out of the likes of A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert. However, they simply could not get it done down the stretch. The Bengals offense ground to a halt after the Giants took a 21-20 lead early in the fourth quarter. Prior to that, a wide-open Odell Beckham, Jr. completed his thriller routine in the back of the end zone, and a running back by committee of Rashad Jennings and Paul Perkins looked all but unstoppable.
The Cincinnati defense is giving up 375 total yards per game and ranks 24th against the run. In Week 8, Kirk Cousins shredded the secondary for 458 yards and two touchdowns through the air. At the same time, Dalton and the Cincinnati offense have become a bit too predictable, in either force-feeding the football into Green or checking down to Giovani Bernard out of the backfield. Vontaze Burfict, for his part, might argue that the fines and suspensions doled out by the league office for physical play took the bite out of the Bengals.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
These Pittsburgh Steelers serve as yet another case study proving that fantasy football does not work in real life. On offense, the Steelers have three of the best at their respective positions, in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown; each one is capable of putting up staggering statistics. Last summer, it was Roethlisberger who announced that the 2016–17 Steelers were set to torch defenses for 30 points per game. In reality, however, these Steelers rank 15th in the league in scoring, at 24 points per game.
Bell sat out the first three games of the season for failing to report to a drug test; Big Ben has been knocked around repeatedly; and the team failed to roll out a viable WR2 next to Antonio Brown, with the NFL banning the enigmatic Martavis Bryant for the entire year. Against this backdrop, the Steelers took a brutal 34-3 Week 3 beating on the road in Philadelphia.
Pittsburgh is now staring down a four-game losing streak that puts them at 4-5. Last week, Ezekiel Elliott ran roughshod over the defense at Heinz Field for 114 yards on 21 carries. To add insult to injury, the rookie referred to his game-winning, 32-yard touchdown gallop as the “parting of the Red Sea” against a lifeless Steel Curtain. For now, Pittsburgh can take solace in the fact that the team does have two games remaining on the schedule against the Cleveland Browns out of the suddenly weak AFC North.
2. Green Bay Packers
In 2010, the Green Bay Packers helped write the playbook for teams that muddled through the regular season, backed into the playoffs, and somehow peaked at just the right time. That team went 10-6, earned a wild-card berth, and took three straight playoff games on the road before winning Super Bowl XLV. In 2014, the Pack started off the year at 1-2, right before Aaron Rodgers told anxious fans to “relax.” Then, the team won nine of their next 10 games en route to taking a bitter overtime loss in the Conference Championship.
Last year, Green Bay went 10-6 and blew the doors off the Redskins on the road, before losing another overtime thriller in Arizona in the divisional round. Without the services of Jordy Nelson, Rodgers held things together by handing the football off to a fat Eddie Lacy and hooking up with possession receiver Randall Cobb working out of the slot. After this finish, fans expected the 2016–17 Packers to contend for Super Bowl LI, especially after Lacy reported to training camp in the best shape of his life and big playmaker Nelson recovered from his torn ACL.
Instead, the Packers are 4-5 after dropping three straight games. The running game is a disaster, with Lacy missing significant time due to a nagging ankle injury. Without him, wide receiver Ty Montgomery is left to rotate into the backfield to take the majority of handoffs, only to be repeatedly stonewalled at the line of scrimmage. Head coach Mike McCarthy is now on the hot seat, largely because of his predictable offense that often results in Rodgers freelancing out of the pocket and hurling the football into the dirt, before a chorus of boos rains down from the stands at Lambeau.
Like Pittsburgh, Green Bay can save its season, if it closes out the season at 9-7 and remains the last man standing over a weak NFC North. To do so, the Pack must go 5-2 the rest of the way, with division leaders Houston, Seattle, and Detroit still left on the schedule.
1. Carolina Panthers
Last year, the Carolina Panthers rattled off 14 straight wins to open up the regular season, before closing out the year at 15-1. From there, the Panthers dominated the NFC playoffs and throttled the Seahawks and Cardinals by a combined 80-39 score. Then, Cam Newton looked like the quarterback of the future, as a 6-foot-5 physical specimen with a cannon arm. In claiming MVP honors, Newton passed for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns through the air and 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Sadly, this party came to a crashing halt in Super Bowl 50, when Newton took six sacks, threw one ugly interception, and a stellar Broncos’ defense harassed him into a miserable 18-for-41 passing. Newton, after suffering from the losing end of this 24-10 blowout, refused to address the media after the Big Game. At that point, Denver had cracked the code. First, contain the pocket with a rotation of speedy defensive ends and outside linebackers who crash down into the line of scrimmage. Next, roll the corners up in press coverage, to bait Newton to force the football into tight windows. Lastly, have a middle linebacker patrol the field as a spy, to tee off on Newton, if he were to take off and run.
For 2016–17, Newton has struggled with his accuracy, already throwing seven picks through eight games, while complaining to officials about repeatedly taking his share of vicious shots outside of the pocket. Like Colin Kaepernick before him, Newton quickly realized that defenses already adjusted to the shotgun-spread gimmick. The Panthers are now 3-6 and dead last in the NFC South. The Super Bowl curse is real.