There was a brief moment when the NFL’s southern contingent seemed poised to follow the lead of its college brethren.
The NFC South looked like it was on the verge of establishing an SEC-style beachhead in the NFL, a championship-runs-through-here bulwark of pass-happy, shutdown-D teams. Two of the last three MVPs had come from the South, two of the last three Super Bowls had featured teams from the South. At least three — and maybe four, if you were feeling very generous — of the NFL’s top 10 quarterbacks played in the South. The South put three teams into the playoffs last season, only the sixth time that’s happened since the NFL aligned into four even divisions in 2002 and the first time in the NFC since the East did it in 2007.
And then it all went straight to hell.
Here’s how three nightmare seasons unfolded, and what comes next, for the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The long Southern fall
The Saints, Panthers and Falcons all reached the 2017 playoffs after combining for 32 wins last season, and although none of them got any farther than the divisional round — shoutout to Stefon Diggs — there was every indication that they’d all be back and fighting not just for a divisional title, but a Super Bowl one. Add in a Buccaneers team with every indicator trending upward, and you had a division that, quite rightly, looked like the strongest in the league by a wide margin.
And the raves rolled in all summer long:
“This is the only division where all four teams are realistic threats for double-digit wins,” NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal wrote.
“The South is another strong candidate for the NFL’s toughest division,” FiveThirtyEight noted in a roundup of predictions that put the Saints and Falcons neck-and-neck, with the Panthers close behind.
“Whoever wins the NFC South — the toughest division in football — deserves the coach of the year trophy,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones.
Hey, we pull the receipts because we love. Hell, we fell under the Southern sway ourselves. Yahoo Sports also ranked the NFC South as the finest division in football prior to the season. “Every division game should be compelling,” our Frank Schwab wrote, a sentence that was exactly correct except for the word “compelling.”
To put it kindly: we all made a huge mistake.
What went wrong?
So what went wrong? For the Saints, nothing. They’re the best team in football, an absolute machine on both sides of the ball and an odds-on Super Bowl favorite. They own the South so thoroughly that the other three teams would have to win every game for nearly half a season just to pull even with New Orleans.
Thus, adios from this article, Saints. You get a pass right into the postseason. But for those other three teams — oh, my friend, pull up a chair as we run through the many dimensions of failure.
Let’s see: there’s erratic offensive play (Panthers, Bucs), complete red-zone incompetence (Falcons, Bucs), gaping defensive flaws (Falcons, Panthers), general quarterback ineffectiveness (Panthers, Bucs), catastrophic injuries (Falcons, Panthers), questionable sideline decision-making (Falcons, Bucs, Panthers), and a healthy dose of off-field drama (Bucs, Panthers).
Plus, their failures have been cinematic. The Falcons, one of the more serious recent threats to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, stumbled out of the gate and at one point lost four games on the last play. The Panthers are in the midst of a seven-game losing streak that stole not just their postseason hopes but also their souls. And the Buccaneers have played guess-the-starting-QB all season long, pinballing between Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick, showcasing both while supporting neither.
All three teams have suffered from the same problem: reasonably strong, occasionally outstanding offense undercut by godawful defense. Tampa Bay’s defense ranked 31st in DVOA, a Football Outsiders metric that judges teams against an NFL baseline, while Atlanta’s ranked 29th and Carolina’s, 25th. Meanwhile, all three teams ranked in the top 12 on offense (Atlanta: 9, Carolina: 11, Tampa Bay: 12).
Digging deeper: all three teams ranked in the top 10 for yards per drive, with the Falcons leading the trio at an average of 38.75 yards per drive (fifth in the league). But the Falcons in turn gave up 37.27 yards per drive, 30th overall. The Bucs and Panthers were similarly unbalanced. Tough for strong offenses to win games when the defense can’t stop a gentle breeze.
Both Tampa Bay and Atlanta were abysmal against both the run and the pass, ranking no better than 29th in any category. Carolina fared only slightly better, managing about an average performance against the run. All three teams currently have a negative point differential, with the Falcons needing to score 11 points more than their Week 17 opponent, the Panthers 25, and the Bucs 66 to get in the black for the year. (Given that the Bucs and Falcons play each other, and the Panthers play the Saints, that’s not likely to happen.)
The Falcons’ Matt Ryan was an outlier in statistical regards; he’s posted yet another outstanding season with little to show for it. His DYAR — Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, or how he fares compared to an “average” quarterback — ranks him fifth in the league, while Carolina’s Cam Newton and Tampa Bay’s Fitzpatrick and Winston rank much closer to the league average. (For the statistic-minded among you, the “average” quarterback in 2018 occupied a spot somewhere between Matthew Stafford and Marcus Mariota.)
In the only number that truly matters — wins and losses — none of the three teams will come anywhere close to a winning record. You don’t need advanced metrics to tell you that ain’t good.
Who gets fired?
You have three separate ugly seasons like this, somebody’s got to take the fall, and leading the sad parade is Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter. He’s had three years to make Winston work and hasn’t pulled off anything worthwhile. It’s entirely possible that both Koetter and Winston are done in Tampa Bay, where a burn-it-all-and-start-fresh approach could sweep in from the Gulf.
Further north, look for a little more stability. The Panthers are still in the first year of new owner David Tepper’s tenure, and he appears willing to extend Ron Rivera a little more credit … although the coordinators under him might not fare so well.
Same story in Atlanta: Dan Quinn’s a favorite with owner Arthur Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff, but patience may be at an end with OC Steve Sarkisian and DC Marquand Manuel. Aside from a bit of turnover on the margins, expect the big on-field names in both Atlanta and Carolina to return for 2019.
Is there hope?
Fans of these three teams resigned themselves to their 2018 fate sometime around Halloween, already turning their sad eyes to next season and beyond. But is there hope for these poor bedraggled squads, or is sub-.500 the new norm?
The Falcons are still within their playoff window, and will be for another two to three years, as long as Ryan (signed through 2023) and Julio Jones (signed through 2020) stay healthy and productive. Atlanta will also return several starters lost to injury on defense this year. But as the Falcons showed in the 2016-to-2017 dropoff, it’s not just about the players; it’s a question of who can deploy them the most effectively. Coaching will be key if Atlanta’s to get back to the postseason.
The Panthers are a bigger question mark; Newton, Christian McCaffrey and Luke Kuechly, the heart of the team, will be around for a couple of years, but the question for Carolina will be how to fill in around them — and how to create both offensive and defensive gameplans that maximize Newton’s gifts while not getting him crushed any more than he already is.
The Bucs face the toughest choice of any NFL team: whether to cut bait on a good-but-not-great quarterback. Winston’s been playing for his job these last few games; Tampa Bay decided to give him a chance to prove he’s worth the fifth year of his rookie deal, a $20.9 million payday. He’s thrown seven touchdowns against two interceptions and two fumbles as the Bucs have gone 2-3 in that span. The emergence of Joe Flacco on the market may color Tampa Bay’s choice; otherwise, if the Bucs cut loose Jameis Winston, the best free-agent quarterback available would be … Jameis Winston.
Nothing’s permanent but change in the NFL; this time next year, we might well be looking at a 6-10 Saints team as the Falcons and Panthers duke it out for the No. 1 seed. (We said “might.”) The NFC South’s sudden fall from grace is a reminder of just how capricious this league can be … and how you can’t take any good moments for granted.
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