Spring and summer in the NFL are times of widespread optimism, providing teams the opportunity to stave off facing the cold realities of the coming fall. But for some franchises, the issues ahead are too glaring to ignore.
While NFL free agency, trades and the draft can give front offices launch pads for rapid improvement, not everyone can plot an upward trajectory every offseason. Calibrating the salary cap and weighing competitive windows can prompt some teams to prioritize long-term considerations at the cost of immediate returns. And in some cases, that means painful transitions that can last an entire season.
Though these five NFL teams all went about it in different ways, each ended up taking a significant step back for 2023:
Las Vegas Raiders
It’s never a good sign when a team has to clear the air about the starting quarterback it secured less than three months ago. That’s the situation the Raiders found themselves in after news broke in late May that Jimmy Garoppolo underwent foot surgery after signing with the team, with an injury waiver being added to his deal. Coach Josh McDaniels said he has “no anxiety” about the situation behind center, but he has refused to put a timeline on a potential return to action for Garoppolo.
The development only raises further questions about the overarching plan to turn to a stopgap starter with an extensive injury history as the successor to Derek Carr. While Garoppolo no doubt fits the bill of the sublimely accurate passer McDaniels covets, the nine-year veteran relies on timing and precision to compensate for his complete lack of big-play potential. With a defense that ranked 26th in scoring (24.6 points allowed per game) adding primarily bargain-bin contributors outside of first-round project pass rusher Tyree Wilson, Las Vegas looks ill-suited to handle the shootouts that are sure to come its way. And in another indication of the trouble brewing for the Raiders, McDaniels had to clear the air after star receiver Davante Adams told The Ringer he doesn’t “see eye-to-eye” with leadership on the direction of the offense. Looks like some dark days ahead for the Silver and Black.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The immediate aftermath of the Tom Brady era was always bound to make for a tough transition in Tampa. The salary cap bill finally came due after the Buccaneers’ moves to maximize their competitive window with Brady, and several notable figures were sent packing to balance the books. Still, general manager Jason Licht managed to keep the team’s top potential free agent – cornerback Jamel Dean – from departing, and defensive heartbeat Lavonte David also returns.
The real whiplash, however, stems from handing the quarterback reins previously held by Brady to either Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask, who have split first-team reps in organized team activities. Buccaneers officials have downplayed the ask being made of both passers, with coach Todd Bowles and first-year offensive coordinator Dave Canales emphasizing that the eventual starter will be pushed to be a distributor rather than a catalyst. That’s not exactly an inspiring outlook for an offense that ranked 25th in scoring (18.4 points per game) even with Brady serving as the engine. And with the offensive line in rough shape after dispatching left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Shaq Mason, it’s difficult to envision either Mayfield or Trask getting the assistance they will sorely need to be a stable starter.
Given the state of the NFC South, it’s possible the defense buoys this team into contention for a third consecutive division crown. But a crash landing seems more likely, with a possible full rebuild coming next year.
Los Angeles Rams
After following in the footsteps of the Buccaneers by realigning themselves around a marquee veteran quarterback acquisition en route to a Super Bowl title, the Rams suffered an even more severe post-championship comedown, with their 5-12 record in 2022 standing as the worst follow-up of any defending champion in league history. Unlike Brady, however, Matthew Stafford is still around. And after the 14-year veteran ended last season on injured reserve with a spinal cord contusion, a fully healthy campaign from Stafford seems like a vital element of any Rams resurgence.
But how much of a lift can the 35-year-old be expected to provide for a top-heavy roster that has only grown more imbalanced? Los Angeles parted with the likes of Jalen Ramsey, Bobby Wagner, Leonard Floyd and Allen Robinson this offseason. The mid-to-late-round gems who once allowed the team to embrace its “(expletive) them picks” approach are gone, leaving an even heavier burden on Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald. The talent gulf is readily evident on defense, where Donald and linebacker Ernest Jones will be surrounded by a starting crew of afterthoughts and also-rans. Stafford and Sean McVay might be able to squeeze a few more wins than expected from this group, but they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them.
Mike Vrabel helped make Tennessee one of the AFC’s most consistent squads in recent years, leading the franchise to winning marks in all of his first four seasons while also claiming consecutive division crowns in 2021-22. Then the bottom fell out last year, as a franchise that had been the conference’s No. 1 seed the previous season tumbled all the way to a 7-10 mark.
But even after cutting a handful of former starters, new general manager Ran Carthon resisted the notion that Tennessee was going through a full rebuild. The net effect: The Titans look like a franchise that has only embraced the initial steps of what will become a full teardown. While there might not have been many better readily available alternatives to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, moving forward with a passer who has mostly reflected the level of support around him is a curious decision for a team with arguably the worst collection of pass catchers in the NFL. Clinging to Derrick Henry, who turns 30 before the end of the regular season, also indicates this organization is not yet ready to find a new identity. But with both Tannehill and Henry entering the final year of their deals, expect this to be a last ride before Carthon and Co. embrace a true reset next offseason.
How does a team that went 4-13 take a step back? Just look to the bleeding of what little premium talent existed on this roster. J.J. Watt’s retirement and Zach Allen’s move to the Denver Broncos leave the pass rush without a player who recorded more than four sacks last year. On the back end of the defense, top cornerback Byron Murphy bolted for the Minnesota Vikings, and five-time Pro Bowl safety Budda Baker has requested a trade. And in late May, Arizona released No. 1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins with nothing to show for the decision besides a bit more cap space and a $22.6 million dead-money hit for the upcoming season.
The focus of the next few months, however, will be on quarterback Kyler Murray’s recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last December. New coach Jonathan Gannon said in May that Murray is “a long way away, but we don’t play for a long time, either.” If the former No. 1 pick misses time at the start of the season, things could get especially ugly for the Cardinals as Colt McCoy once again fills in behind center.
With a first-year head coach in Gannon and an offensive coordinator who has never before called plays in Drew Petzing, new general manager Monti Ossenfort seemingly is emphasizing long-term growth rather than a quick turnaround. Given that Arizona could end up with two top-five draft picks next April after securing the Houston Texans’ 2024 first-rounder, next offseason could be this franchise’s springboard. Until then, however, there could be a lot of pain ahead in 2023 for the only team set to be a betting underdog in all of its games, according to DraftKings.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.