Camps are about to open and all 32 teams have reasons to think this will be their breakout campaign. Even teams that have been cellar dwellers in recent years come into the season with expectations that far exceed recent actual results.
Take the Jacksonville Jaguars for instance.
This is a team that was playoff calibre for a number of recent seasons, advanced to the AFC Championship Game in 2017 where they were narrowly clipped on the road by the New England Patriots. For a number of years the Jaguars were a legitimate Super Bowl contender, then in 2018 the wheels came off. In the past three seasons Jacksonville has compiled records of 5-11, 6-10 and 1-15.
That NFL worst 1-15 record last year worked to get them the pick of the litter in the rather robust college quarterback market in this year’s draft.
Trevor Lawrence was their choice, as he would have been for anyone with any inkling of what matters most to best assure proficiency at the quarterback position. Teams don’t win Super Bowls without good quarterbacking.
So, a nucleus of a pretty good football team, gone array in recent seasons with horrible play out of the quarterback position by Blake Bortles, now has Jacksonville fans humming with optimism.
While it would take a miracle run for the Jaguars to turn recent disasters into a victory in Super Bowl LVI, there are a number of teams with truly compelling arguments that they are next to pick up the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
My first candidate, and favorite to this point, is the Los Angeles Rams. This year, they put together a conversion of being three years removed from their Super Bowl loss and a pair of building seasons leading to this year’s campaign. The Rams lost the lowest scoring Super Bowl in history when they were shut down by the New England Patriots, 13-3, in Super Bowl LIII.
A down year following a Super Bowl loss is a common occurrence in the National Football League. Yet, even though the Rams struggled with the decline of runningback Todd Gurley, who went from the best runner the league to a stiff, the Rams pounded out a winning 9-7 campaign in 2019. Last year, they were back in the playoffs and opened the postseason with a road win over the Seattle Seahawks, 30-20.
The Rams recent success was achieved behind quarterback Jared Goff, who was the first pick in the 2016 draft. After a rocky rookie season in Jeff Fisher’s last as the Rams head coach, Goff clicked with Fisher’s replacement, Sean McVay. The partnership produced three straight winning seasons in Los Angeles and Pro Bowl honors for Goff. But when the Rams saw an opportunity to add a verteran with immense talent to their roster that was also a first pick in the draft, they packaged Goff and other incentives to acquire Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions.
In Goff’s first four seasons in the NFL he won three postseason games and led the Rams to the Super Bowl. In Stafford’s 12 campaigns, he guided the Lions to three Wild Card games and never won any of them.
And yet, the Rams are looking to Stafford as the final piece in taking them over the hump and to their first Super Bowl win in Los Angeles. The Rams best days in the Super Bowl era were enjoyed in St. Louis where they won three division titles and the Super Bowl to complete the 1999 season.
In Los Angeles, the Rams have twice been to the Super Bowl and lost both times. In addition to the defeat suffered against the Patriots three years ago, they were downed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV.
While nothing is more important on a quarterback’s resume than wins over losses, Stafford comes to Tinseltown with all the promise of the celebrated rookie in Jacksonville. The big difference is that Lawrence in Jacksonville has all the potential not yet realized and Stafford brings more than a decade of NFL experience and is poised to capitalize on his skill set with a much better supporting cast of characters.
Now, wouldn’t it be amazing if Stafford stunk in Los Angeles and Goff led the Lions to their first postseason win in 30 years? And while I wouldn’t bet on that happening, I do think the addition of Stafford in Los Angeles does offer a chance to get the same kind of spike the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers experienced with the additions of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady respectively.
Okay, Stafford is no Manning or Brady, at least if we use wins as a guide, but he does arguably join a much better team than either of those quarterbacks did before they went on to win the Super Bowl with their new team.
But, before I close the book on predicting the Super Bowl winner this year, there are a lot of other teams that offer strong reasons to be included in the championship conversation. In the coming weeks, I will give reasons why the San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills and a handful of other squads could cap the 2021 season in a hail of confetti at SoFi Stadium.