Who can flip the script?
By: Daniel Racz
Every year at least one team comes out of nowhere and earns a division title after having a terrible record the year prior. Last year it was the Washington Football Team, who went from the second overall pick to win the NFC East. In 2018, both the Chicago Bears and Houston Texans rebounded from last-place finishes in 2017. The precedent for a rapid turnaround has been in the National Football League for decades, and it persists to this day.
Most teams that take a massive leap forward undergo some massive change in the offseason, whether it be new personnel, coaching staff, or unpredictable development from a key player. This year, there are a few prime candidates to make playoff births after lackluster finishes, and both have new quarterbacks.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers made the Super Bowl in 2019, so fans had lofty expectations for them in 2020. Sadly, San Fransisco did not live up to the hype. Early, season-ending injuries to Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas hurt the team. Quarterback Jimmy Garropolo, running back Raheem Mostert, tight end George Kittle, and wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel could not piece together complete seasons, but all of the team’s weapons looked great when on the field.
Garropolo’s future with the team remains uncertain. In one of the biggest blockbuster trades in recent memory, the 49ers gave up three 1st round picks and additional compensation for the right to select North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance with the third pick in the NFL draft. Shanahan previously worked with Matt Ryan and Jimmy G, so the mobility that Lance brings to the table may be emphasized in the revamped Shanahan offense.
The 49ers finished in fourth place in the NFC West, so they will face an easier schedule than the rest of their division. San Francisco managed to win six games with a barebones roster, so a healthy weapons group and a dynamic quarterback could lead to an eleven or twelve-win roster.
After a trainwreck of a 2020 season, the Jaguars cleaned house. They fired Doug Marrone and hired decorated former college head coach Urban Meyer. Meyer’s tenures with Ohio State and Florida are synonymous with success. He won national titles for both programs, so many Jaguars fans are hoping for the same success in Jacksonville.
Urban takes over a roster that is not in the worst shape. The Jaguars had the first pick in the 2021 draft and took generational talent, Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence is perhaps the most hyped-up prospect at any position since Andrew Luck. It is fitting that Luck is the only number one pick, rookie quarterback to take his team to the playoffs in year one. If Lawrence is indeed the prospect that many believe him to be, a playoff berth is in the range of outcomes.
The Jaguars also play in the NFL’s worst division. With the Texans set to implode without Deshaun Watson, they will contend for the NFL’s top pick. The Titans lost most of their weapons, so a path to mediocrity is foreseeable. The Colts did not make any significant additions, and they need to take on the Carson Wentz reclamation project. The Jaguars may not be the most talented team, but they only need to piece together a half-decent season to win their division.