This week’s thoughts will preview the things I’m most excited to watch in the 2021 season, accompanied by a Ted Lasso quote because… why not? I had a high school football coach who acted much like Ted Lasso - earnest, kind, led with empathy. I grew to appreciate his approach more and more over over years. Remember, as Dani Rojas says: “Football is life!”
1 – “Call me old one more time.” ~Roy Kent
I peeked at Tom Brady’s Pro Football Reference page and I’ll be honest, I got lost. Brady has been around so long and accomplished so much that the page lists more nicknames than Daenerys Targaryen. We’re at the point with Brady where the dude is just having fun, drinking “a little avocado tequila,” and running up the legacy score. With Brees now retired, Brady needs just 1,155 yards to take that record (he already has the TD mark). He owns seven championships and three MVPs. In short, he’s the greatest of all time, no hyperbole.
However, I do think this will be his last season. The Buccaneers brought everyone back for another run at a title and regardless of what happens this season, that bill comes due starting in 2022. One or both coordinators will likely get head coaching jobs – maybe even promoted within as Arians might ride off with Brady. The man has nothing to play for and the team situation jus— ah, what am I saying, there’s no way I’m betting against Brady coming back in 2022!
2 – “I don’t drink coffee. My mother always says I was born caffeinated.” ~Dani Rojas
Dani Rojas doesn’t need to drink coffee but Dan Campbell sure does. When the Lions hired Dan Campbell, I watched his first press conference with interest and concluded there was nothing to be worried about as a Bears fan. While I still feel that way from a football standpoint, I’m now firmly of the belief that Dan Campbell will make the Lions interesting and I’ve always believed if you can’t be good, at least be entertaining.
Like all first-time head coaches, I’m interested to see if someone caught lightning in a bottle. Who grabbed the next great coach that establishes himself from the start as a guy that will be around for awhile? I think former Bears defensive assistant Brandon Staley is the most likely new head coach to establish himself right out of the gates as a star (more on the Chargers later). Robert Saleh is an easy guy to cheer for and he will try to reinvent the Jets, but that seems like it will be a slow burn in New Jersey. Arthur Smith emerged as my favorite offensive coaching candidate last year when I thought the Bears would move on from Matt Nagy. He gets his shot in Atlanta with Matt Ryan and the pterodactyl Kyle Pitts at Tight End.
3 – “I think that you might be so sure that you’re one in a million, that sometimes you forget that out there you’re just one in 11.” ~Ted Lasso speaking about Aaron Rodgers (probably)
I wonder what kind of on-field implications off-season theatrics can cause. Will the Packers suffer any dip in performance from Aaron Rodgers trying to escape Wisconsin? What about the less public but still very real Russell Wilson situation in Seattle? Does this kind of distraction carry over and take away from the team continuity and laser focus required to make a deep playoff run?
I’m skeptical any of that matters much, but I’ll take any argument I can to discount how good the Packers could be this season. Make no mistake, the Packers are as talented as any squad in the league and could make existence as a Bears fan miserable once again in 2021 so I’ll cling to anything that can cut them down to size. Oh, and unless you’ve won a few championships and are defending the trophy one last time, please don’t refer to your season as “The Last Dance.”
4 – “You could fill two internets with what I don’t know about football.” ~Ted Lasso but also definitely true for Jack Easterby of the Texans
One of the crazier stories from late last year was by Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bishop about Jack Easterby of the Houston Texans. Somehow, this dude makes a jump from a “character coach” to the football operations side and systematically moves everyone out of his way in his pursuit to the top. He now rules over the smoldering ruins of the Texans organization.
The Texans basically hired a patsy to be the head coach this off season because no candidate with big aspirations would touch the job. The organization acts like Bart Simpson at the smart kid school, getting tricked out of lunch constantly. Their quarterback might just be a milkshake duck and all their star players are gone. It’s a train wreck and I can’t help but rubberneck at the destruction.
5 – “Your body is like day-old rice. If it ain’t warmed up properly, something real bad could happen.” ~Ted Lasso
The number of ACL tears, particularly in non-contact situations, acts as a random agent of chaos to NFL seasons. About 60 active NFL players, according to recent averages, will suffer a season ending ACL injury this year. While that might not seem like a huge number, that’s an average of two per team. Sprinkle that at random throughout the league – a special teamer here, a starting QB there – and it can have huge repercussions on the NFL season.
Many of these injuries occur in the preseason or early in the regular season and are more frequent in younger players. While injuries represent a reality in a violent sport like football, the non-contact ACL tear seems like the most unfair of all. Let’s hope that the trend starts going down and we increase our collective understanding on how to prevent these injuries.
6 – “I lost my way for a minute, but I’m on the road back.” ~Rebecca
I love a good Comeback Player of the Year story. Last year with Alex Smith coming all the way back from that horrific leg injury tested my limits of just how happy I could be for a player because I was so worried he would re-injure the leg. Luckily, he did not, and he’s now retired. For what it’s worth, Alex Smith would be great in the booth, but I really hope he decides he wants to coach.
This year’s lead dog for Comeback POY is Dak Prescott, the likeable signal caller of the Cowboys. Coming off a brutal ankle injury, Prescott is set up for a monster year with the great WRs the Cowboys have amassed for him. Plenty of other stars have their own shot at the title with Joe Burrow, Christian McCaffrey, and Nick Bosa all returning from injury. I hope for good things for Burrow because Bengals fans deserve something to cheer for.
7 – “I’m sort of famous for being almost famous.” ~Keeley
There are teams and players that are just on the cusp of being household names. Stepping up from players that the fan base appreciates to someone the entire league recognizes as great or teams that finally put it all together. My personal favorites for this category this season are Brian Burns, the third year EDGE defender in Carolina, Tee Higgins, the second year WR from the Bengals, and Roquan Smith of our beloved Bears.
As far as teams to take the leap, the Chargers have everything going for them. They rebuilt the offensive line this off-season, their quarterback looks like a superstar, and they finally get a healthy Derwin James back to lead the defense. Add new Head Coach Brandon Staley to introduce cutting-edge defensive concepts and instituting the Saints offensive scheme for Justin Herbert and we might have the out-of-nowhere contender that everyone will fall in love with by November.
8 – “There’s two buttons I never like to hit: that’s panic and snooze.” ~Ted Lasso
This league reinvents itself multiple times over the year and making a judgment on a team’s performance in September – good or bad – can lead to a lot of mistakes in predicting future games. A team could be rolling along until a defensive coordinator throws a package at them that shuts them down, everyone copies it, and they adapt or die. Another team might start getting better as it figures out what players can do well, units gel over time working together, and the game starts slowing down for rookies. Whatever the case may be, this league is week to week and what you were a month ago doesn’t mean much.
With the 17th game and the extra playoff spot, there’s more football to keep teams fighting longer. One of the reasons I love this game so much is that it never gets boring. There are so many stories across the league every week that it can feel like that scene from The Matrix with a bunch of code running down the monitors. Eventually, it all starts to make sense and you see impact EDGE defenders, good offensive lines, and scheme trends. If you’re just getting into football or know someone that is, don’t get overwhelmed. It’s worth the effort to learn.
9 – “If that’s a joke, I love it. If not, can’t wait to unpack that with you later.” ~Ted Lasso
George Paton, Denver’s new GM, said “quarterbacks are available more than franchise corners every year, at least the last couple of years.” That quote made some shock waves as Denver’s strong roster certainly appeared to be a good quarterback away from competing in 2021 and already boasted an excellent secondary. In fact, the Broncos started fielding trade calls for some of their corners. I like corners more than most, and I think the corner position is incredibly important, but I think Denver may have outsmarted themselves here.
Ultimately, I’m fascinated by the teams that had a chance and decided to not pick Justin Fields. In addition to the Broncos, the Panthers taking a chance on the Sam Darnold reclamation project and not taking the gift of Fields at pick 8, one before the Broncos, is stunning. You can make arguments in Atlanta with Matt Ryan potentially gone after this season, Detroit where they willingly took on a big chunk of Jared Goff’s contract, and even the Giants where they haven’t seen enough Daniel Jones turnovers. I think all these teams will likely go fishing in the quarterback pond again next year.
10 – “I feel like we fell out of the lucky tree and hit every branch on the way down, ended up in a pool of cash and Sour Patch Kids.” ~Ted Lasso about Justin Freaking Fields (probably)
About a week before the draft, I started to believe in a path for the Bears to get Justin Fields. It wasn’t anything I staked money on, but I could see the one-in-a-thousand path. It took a ton of luck for the board to fall how it did and for Dave Gettleman, Giants GM, to make his first trade down in his drafting history. But it did happen and now Justin Fields is number one in your hearts and your programs. He is the best prospect for this team since Johnny Lujack in the 1940s.
There are no guarantees in this world and certainly not in the NFL. Just because he’s a great prospect does not mean he’ll be a great professional. I said on a podcast after the selection that I believed in the bottom of my heart that we will be talking about that draft night for decades. I think he can change the trajectory of this franchise and drag the McCaskey’s into modern football.
“I suppose the best brand is being yourself.” ~Leslie
I’ll be bringing you my thoughts on the NFL all year and I will do my best to follow Leslie’s advice above and be myself while writing and podcasting. Thank you for reading and listening along this year and please put your thoughts on the 2021 season below in the comments. Find me on Twitter @gridironborn to keep the conversation going.