The New Parents’ Guide to the 2021 NFL Season – AFC South

Let’s get this over with, shall we?

I beginning this guide with a look at the AFC South because I have long believed that, whenever I am confronted with any sort of task, it is best to get the shitty, no fun parts of said task out of the way before moving on to the more enjoyable components. Generally speaking, I am thrilled to bring this collection of my preseason thoughts, opinions, and tangential musings to my adoring readership of, I dunno, maybe a dozen people on a particularly good day, give or take. That said, it gives me no pleasure to include any of the four teams in the AFC South in this guide, to say nothing of speaking on all of them. I am only examining the AFC South because my overdeveloped sense of duty demands it; therefore, I am doing so as soon as possible.

This division is absolutely no fun, whatsoever. Even if I were to narrow my focus to the on-field components of each team and the on-field components alone, taking a close look at the AFC South would still be a huge bummer. Not a single one of these teams has any real chance of contending for the Super Bowl; only one of them could make it as far as the AFC Championship Game without sending me into shock, and I have serious doubts as to whether that team will be particularly good. One of the teams lost both their starting quarterback and best overall player to the exact same injury on consecutive days, potentially putting both on the shelf for months, and they still might have the best chance of winning the division! I cannot guarantee that this will be the worst division in the league this year, but if it is, and/or the eventual champion has a sub-.500 record, I will not be surprised.

That is but a cursory examination of the on-field ills that plague this division, and if you think this is the sort of guide that will ignore the infinitely more depressing off-field issues at hand, you are sorely mistaken. This is a division of two-bit televangelist front office executives and burnout college coaches reflexively defending their piece of shit position coaches and Ryan Tannehill. If there is any good news to report in this portion of the guide, it’s that since this and all other installments will proceed through each division in alphabetical order, I will be discussing the very worst team in this cesspool first. I’ve been dreading crafting this team’s section ever since I knew writing them up was my unavoidable, baleful destiny.

Houston Texans

Jesus Tap Dancing Christ, where do I even begin with this unmitigated disaster of a franchise? When I survey the Houston Texans, my aspirations for a guide that is focused on my expectations for each team on the field crumble to dust. There is too much despair at every level of this organization for me to ignore, and while that should make my job as a pseudo-educated prognosticator easier, it actually does quite the opposite. I cannot even presume to have a couple of worthy Jack Easterby jokes up my sleeve. He’s been around for a bit now, and all the good ones are taken. And really, I’ve met encountered enough jackoff snake oil preachers in my travels, and met enough saps who fall for that sort of thing, that I sort of fail to think it’s all that funny. I will say this, however; all Cal McNair had to do to avoid joining the lower echelon of NFL owners – the Snyders and Kroenkes and Spanoses and such – was do nothing. Instead, he got taken in by a dime store Joel Osteen, to the complete ruin of the entire team. Good job, dude. Enjoy sitting next to Dan at the next owner mixer, I hear he’s a deeply unpleasant hang.

Once you look to the team itself, the despair only deepens. The best player in the franchise’s brief history all but begged to be let go, and was. The Texans went 4-12 last year, all so they could see the Miami Dophins bear the fruit of their non-labors, as a consequence of the Laremy Tunsil trade. David Johnson’s performance did uh…not exactly justify trading out DeAndre Hopkins. The one bright spot on last year’s team was Deshaun Watson, and I don’t think there’s any way I can overstate the level of sadness and anger that name now evokes. I was shocked and horrified when the allegations of sexual assault against Watson started coming out, and I remain shocked and horrified. I don’t have much to add, except I’m glad the victims spoke out about this behavior. Technically, Watson is still on the team; as of this writing, the Eagles may or may not be attempting to trade for Watson, which if true, leaves me speechless. I don’t see how he could possibly play this year or, for that matter, ever again.

I fully expect Tyrod Taylor to start at QB, thus continuing his career’s work of thanklessly serving as a transitional QB for teams in varying sates of disarray. I’ve always admired Taylor and his tradition of adequacy, although a not-even-all-that-close read of his performance through the years indicates he’s not the sort of QB who will outperform the circumstances surrounding him. Since the circumstances surrounding Taylor on this team are about as bad as they can be – I couldn’t name a single receiver on this team if you spotted me a roster sheet – I have no doubt that to the extent Taylor is discussed at all in the coming months, it will be to get dragged by football’s worst pundits, and that bums me out.

I am likewise bummed out by the saga of new head coach David Culley, who will likewise take a lot of shit in the weeks to come simply for being underqualified and overmatched in his new position. Culley has never served in so high a position as offensive coordinator in the pros, and was last seen in Baltimore, as coach of a deeply underwhelming wide receiver corps. As such, he’s just about the only person in the entire sporting world who could possibly have been enticed by the Houston job. I sympathize – you gotta shoot your shot – but I can’t see this working out for, well, anyone.

Max Points: 1

“With the first pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans select…”

Predicted Finish: 4th

Indianapolis Colts

Here I was, all set to base my Colts write-up around the Carson Wentz/Frank Reich dynamic, and how I thought that even though Wentz has probably suffered some form of irreparable damage perhaps Reich has the best chance of salvaging whatever is left of the poor guy. Wentz’s claim to The Worst Quarterback In Football last season is quite credible, indeed; he posted an abysmal 72.8 passer rating per Pro Football Reference, a mark only uh…’surpassed’ by Sam Darnold among regular starters, and was dead last in Football Outsiders’ DYAR by a lot. It is one thing for Reich to have found a way to squeeze effectiveness out of Philip Rivers despite diminishing physical skills; it is another task to fix whatever is wrong with Wentz.

But, at least for the immediate present, none of this hand-wringing matters. Wentz injured his foot and will be on the shelf for another 4 – 11 weeks. Normally, this is where I would sing the praises of King of Backups Jacoby Brissett, but alas, Brissett has taken his talents to South Beach. Instead, the Colts will have to start out the season with either one Jacob Eason, a fourth round pick from 2020, or sixth round rookie Sam Ehlinger. Neither of these options inspires confidence, exactly, and it’s fair to say that whoever wins the starting job will be instructed to keep the wheels on until Wentz returns and little else. The good news is that the Colts’ defense should be good enough to prevent total disaster, even if the offense is less than effective. Darius Leonard is one of my personal heroes, and I am warmed by news of his massive new contract. Also, I want to give props to defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who for the past few years has been running a Tampa 2 scheme like it’s 2006 or something, and getting great results from doing so.

The Colts are tremendously well coached on both sides of the ball, but just because a coaching staff is good doesn’t always mean that they can summon the eldritch wizardry necessary to overcome injuries and talent deficiencies. Unless one of Eason or Ehlinger proves to be a capable starter, or at least a high-level backup, I’m not sure how the Colts are gonna score points. To make matters worse, All-Universe guard Quenton Nelson is out with the same injury that got Wentz, and has a similar return time table. This will make life more difficult both for whoever ends up under center and whoever is receiving handoffs. I really want to believe that the Colts would wrest away control of the division this year, but the more I think about it, the harder that becomes to envision. Even in a weak division, asking a crew of backup QBs – one working behind an injured line, mind – to keep the team afloat in the standings long enough to remain competitive is a tall ask. And, the more I consider the plight of Carson Wentz, the more I’m compelled to acknowledge that his eventual return might not actually brighten this team’s prospects all that much. That’s a real shame.

Max Points: 6

After all this doomsaying, it is worth remembering that the Colts have plenty of talent and the best coaching staff in the division to match, and that should mean the team will be greater than the sum of their parts. But their schedule could be a lot easier; when I survey it, I see very few guaranteed wins. The NFC West and the AFC East are both tough divisions, with no easy outs except the Jets, and even the Jets might prove surprisingly frisky. They are also cursed with facing the Buccaneers for their 17th game. But, just like every team in the division that isn’t the Texans, they at least have the good fortune of playing the Texans twice.

Predicted Finish: 2nd

Jacksonville Jaguars

Some of the more frequent readers of this humble blog may have noticed that, despite my not-infrequent NFL columns, I have never written any sort of draft preview and/or draft hype piece, and I have done my very best to avoid mentioning the draft in any other context. The reason for this is simple – I don’t give a rat’s ass about the draft! None of these guys have done shit! The list of players who did deeply impressive things in college who went on to mere adequacy (or far less) is too long to cite here; ask any fan of any team to think about their favored squads recent drafts, and they will be able to name enough draft day disappointments that they will need all of their fingers and toes (and then some) to count them off.

Pre-draft analysis largely discards this reality, instead choosing to puff up the draft as a nexus of excitement, worthy of both hype and careful scrutiny, rather than a dull chore that will come and go without broader consequence for two thirds of the teams participating in it. It is precisely this context-deficient hype that allows pundits to call Trevor Lawrence the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck and present this comparison as cause for celebration rather than the dire warning it obviously fucking is. The lesson of Luck’s time in the league should be clear as day; a poorly run football team can fuck up absolutely anything, including a generational quarterback prospect. That so many observers seem to be excited to see what Lawrence will do for the Jaguars rather than terrified at the potential of his ruin makes me wonder whether these people have been watching that same sport I have.

Let’s face it, the Jaguars are as poorly run as football teams get. Their decision to hire Urban Meyer as head coach can only make sense as a marketing stunt designed to drum up interest in the team among the locals. This will go one of two ways. Either Meyer will turn the Jaguars around, or he will not; in either case, he will retire abruptly, and before his work is done. Their decision to retain Trent Baalke as general manager does not and cannot make any sense, as Baalke was last seen running Jim Harbaugh out of San Francisco so he could ruin the 49ers unimpeded. In order to give Lawrence some, uh…weapons, the Jaguars have signed Tim Tebow to play at tight end – again with the pandering to the locals – and used their additional first-round pick to select running back Travis Etienne, despite running back being the one position group on the team that isn’t in dire need of a talent infusion; James Robinson is pretty alright! They did this despite not having anyone of note on the defensive roster other than Myles Jack, and despite last year’s team finishing 31st out of 32 in defensive DVOA. If the Jaguars succeed to any extent this year, it will be because Lawrence willed it so, and I find that cause for concern.

I’m certain I could give even more reasons not to expect much of anything from the Jaguars this year, but all this negativity is starting to get to me. Obviously, anyone looking at the team with a clear head will note that, even with their quarterback of the future in place, no one should expect much from the Jaguars this year. It will be enough for the team to simply seem like they’re headed in the right direction by seasons’ end. This requires finishing ahead of Houston in the division and not much else. And, while I spilled no small amount of ink railing against draft hype not two paragraphs ago, I must confess that enough smart people have said enough good things about Lawrence that I’m willing to believe he is up for this task. I just hope, for the sake of the sport, that he doesn’t get ruined in the process.

Max Points: 4

The Jaguars won’t be good, exactly, even if they do end up overachieving. But, they do have the good fortune of playing the Texans twice and the Bengals once, and if things go well they could even be in a decent position to capitalize if the Colts and/or Titans struggle. That said, even the best possible version of these Jags will be capable shitting the bed against a bad team from time to time, so be careful with your points, especially when they’re playing even worse teams.

Predicted Finish: 3rd

Tennessee Titans

I gotta say, I am legitimately resentful that, in choosing to write about all 32 NFL teams, I have put myself in a position where I have to write about the Titans. I thought I was going to keep my team write-ups quick and dirty! I thought I was going to spout my opinions on each team unburdened by such things as “evidence” or “well-considered points”, and instead, I’m 2500 words in and constantly hustling for hyperlinks that are both credible and not hidden behind paywalls to back up my crappy takes, and I still haven’t gotten to the shitty Titans just yet! And, once I’m done, I have to write up a whole other division by Thursday! Fuck! I’m too tired for this shit! I sleep maybe five hours a night these days! I have to stay awake while my wife is feeding the baby because the little guy loves nothing more than taking a big old dump during meals and that’s my job to fix, and now I gotta write about these frauds!? Goddammit!

Ok, I’m calm. Anyway, I went into last year thinking that the Titans were frauds, and their run to the AFC Championship Game after the 2019 season was a total fluke, one enabled by a weak, depth-deficient conference. As such, I predicted that they would slide all the way to 3rd in the division and finish well short of the playoffs. Instead, they went 11-5 and won the division outright before punting their season away on 4th and short near midfield in the Wild Card Round. What happened to cutting off your dick to win a Super Bowl, Mike? Still, decent teams face plant in the early playoff rounds all the time. I was forced to eat shit as I watched Ryan Tannehill’s extremely punchable face lead these dorks to something approaching modest glory.

Now that the new season is upon us, I am once again filled with the urge to declare the Titans frauds, but when I survey the detritus-choked landscape of this forsaken division, I am forced to ask myself just who the fuck I think is going to take first, if not the Titans? So, in the spirit of forwarding opinions that are maybe only somewhat justifiable that serves as this guide’s sole impetus, I hereby declare that the Titans are indeed frauds, but they’re gonna win the division anyway, if only because somebody’s gotta.

The Titans’ continued success will rely solely on the continued success of their offense, because their defense may as well not exist, and is hardly worth contemplating. To that end, there are two immediate causes for concern. Derrick Henry surpassed 370 touches on the season last year, and the list of running backs who remained productive in the years after they surpassed this threshold isn’t all that long. It is therefore extremely reasonable to expect him to take a dip of some kind; just how much of one remains to be seen. On top of that, offensive coordinator Arthur Smith left to take the head coaching job in Atlanta, and if you think that’s not going to cause at least some problems then you are forgetting the Tragedy of Steve Sarkisian. Also, Julio Jones arrived via trade, and while he was a force of nature in his prime, there’s no reason to believe he’s still at that level, being on the wrong side of 30 and coming off of a major injury. But as long as he’s on the field, he should be able to provide some juice, and perhaps that’s enough.

Max Points: 12

Curse the 17th game! Were it not for that abomination, I would call the Titans the platonic ideal of an 8-8 team, but alas, there’s no such thing as an 8-8 team anymore. Instead, I will have to root around for some other cliché to describe a team that’s good enough to win the easy games on their schedule, and not much else. Their first place schedule leaves them stuck facing both Buffalo and Kansas City, which sucks for them, but they do have the good fortune of playing the Texans twice. Feel free to go big when they’re playing crappy teams.

Predicted Finish: 1st

NFC South / AFC East / NFC East / AFC West / NFC West / AFC North / NFC North

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