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The NFL’s 101st season promises to be one of its most captivating, occurring in a year already defined by a pandemic, racial unrest and with a seismic American presidential election yet to come.
But even though social issues are sure to remain on the front burner for many of the league’s players, it’s hard to imagine COVID-19 won’t continue to predominantly shape pro football in 2020. In a typical year – when teams reap the benefits of player acquisition, organized team activities, minicamps and training camp – building and/or maintaining continuity can be the primary factor defining success, even more so than talent. There’s a reason teams like the Patriots, Steelers, Seahawks, Saints and Ravens have been consistently good for so long – even when their rosters aren’t dominant.
Tom Brady’s departure from New England likely signals no team will benefit more from longstanding cohesion than New Orleans. Head coach Sean Payton, who arrived in the Big Easy alongside quarterback Drew Brees in 2006, is so confident in the DNA of a club that’s won the NFC South three years running, he canceled the Saints’ virtual offseason.
“No doubt about it, the Saints have a leg up on some of these teams that have new offensive coordinators, new head coaches, totally new systems,” says NFL Network analyst Shaun O’Hara, the starting center for the Super Bowl XLII champion New York Giants.
“I think the first couple weeks, it’s gonna be pretty fun to see what Sean Payton has been cooking up in the lab. … I think they’re definitely gonna come out of the blocks pretty fast.”
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The value of stability is even apparent to organizations in the midst of significant change.
After a one-year league sabbatical following his 2018 firing from the Packers, new Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy – long Green Bay’s primary play-caller – retained Dallas’ Kellen Moore, who oversaw the league’s top-ranked offense in 2019, his first year as an offensive coordinator at any level.
“That continuity’s been huge, been important for me. And not just me, but I’d say everybody within this offense – from some of the veteran offensive line guys to the receivers,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said earlier this month.
“I had a talk early on with McCarthy, and it was just the importance of it being Kellen’s show and the way that he does things. The majority of the quarterbacks you look at in the league that have had a lot of success have stayed in the same system. So that was the big importance for him is to keep me and the rest of this offense in the same system and take what we’ve done over the past few years and grow on that.
“We’ve had some success, but we’re just trying to take that to the next level.”
It takes a full roster of players and coaches rowing in the same direction to succeed in the hyper-competitive NFL crucible. But as important as superstars, established veterans and even fresh rookie legs so often are, few things trump the value of an entrenched quarterback or a coaching staff that has established a successful culture and schematic familiarity.
In a (fairly simplistic) bid to compare the league’s 32 teams on a continuity scale, I’ve assigned one point for every season a starting quarterback or head coach has been in place, and a half-point per year for the offensive and defensive coordinators. The resulting “continuity ranking” was both unsurprising and revealing.
1. New Orleans Saints (35): Now entering his sixth season, DC Dennis Allen is one of the longest-serving in the league yet the babe of this group. More importantly, his unit has incrementally improved annually, ranked 11th overall in 2019. But the Saints’ bread and butter is their offense, where Brees and Payton have long been lighting up scoreboards. (And the attack barely lost a beat in 2012, when longtime coordinator Pete Carmichael called the shots during Payton’s season-long suspension.) Payton’s preeminence as a play-caller combined with Brees’ record-setting pedigree and veteran savvy should once again have the Saints in Super Bowl contention.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (32.5): QB Ben Roethlisberger, selected in Round 1 of the 2004 draft, has been the starter almost since Day 1. Coach Mike Tomlin came aboard three years later and has led Pittsburgh to a pair of AFC titles and one Lombardi Trophy. Much depends on Big Ben’s ability to rebound from major elbow surgery – he’s struck an optimistic tone this summer – but if Randy Fichtner can re-elevate the offense to a level commensurate with Keith Butler’s defense (ranked fifth overall in 2019 but first in both sacks and takeaways), the Steelers should have a legitimate shot at a record seventh Super Bowl crown.
3. New England Patriots (24): Crazy to think they rank this highly given the departure of Brady and fact their defensive coordinator post is officially vacant – though Bill Belichick has been getting a lot of help from his son Steve (the linebackers coach) and former Pats LB Jerod Mayo. But it’s Belichick, now entering his 21st campaign at the helm of the dynasty he’s overseen, who’s been most responsible for establishing the famed – and occasionally infamous – “Patriot Way.” And given that track record – which is also largely due to OC Josh McDaniels, heading into Year 9 of his second stint with the franchise – it’s tough to foresee this group going over the cliff even without TB12. It should be fascinating to see what Belichick and McDaniels can cook up given new QB Cam Newton‘s anti-Brady skill set.
4. Seattle Seahawks (20): Coach Pete Carroll made his NFL return in 2010 and drafted Mr. Unlimited, QB Russell Wilson (in Round 3), two years later – and since 2012, Seattle has never had a losing record, missing the playoffs just once. The Seahawks are five years removed from their most recent Super Bowl appearance, and many experts – including this one – have picked apart aspects of the roster since the Legion of Boom peaked. But regardless of any perceived or legitimate weaknesses, a franchise built on a competitive culture perennially remains one of the league’s most relevant.
5. Atlanta Falcons (17.5): QB Matt Ryan has been under center for 12 seasons, the high-water mark coming in 2016 when he was league MVP (followed by the low-water mark in Atlanta’s infamous Super Bowl LI flameout). Ryan, coach Dan Quinn – he’s entering Year 6 – and many holdovers from that Super Bowl squad are still searching for the promised land, which seems further than ever on the heels of two 7-9 campaigns. Quinn probably has to deliver the goods in 2020 and might do so following last season’s 6-2 finish, which ended with the promotion of Raheem Morris to defensive coordinator after he helped finally galvanize players on that side of the ball.
6. Baltimore Ravens (15): QB Lamar Jackson has only been the starter for a year-and-a-half but crafted an MVP campaign in 2019 unlikely to be soon forgotten. Every reason to believe he and longtime coach John Harbaugh, who’s been at his post since 2008, can lead what’s arguably the AFC’s deepest roster to the franchise’s third Super Bowl triumph. And Baltimore’s score is a touch misleading given Don “Wink” Martindale has been on staff for nearly a decade but has only been the defensive coordinator since 2018.
7. Green Bay Packers (14.5): This is all about QB Aaron Rodgers, who’s embarking on his 13th (and maybe final?) season as Brett Favre’s successor … backed by what’s still a relatively new staff. Will be interesting to see how long (if ever) it takes for Matt LaFleur and Co. to make a philosophical shift toward first-round pick Jordan Love, Rodgers’ apparent successor.
8. Detroit Lions (13.5): Aside from a few injury-curtailed years, including 2019, QB Matthew Stafford has been the guy for most of the past 11 seasons. He was on track for a career year last season before his back betrayed him and will likely have to exceed that level to keep coach Matt Patricia employed into 2021.
9. Kansas City Chiefs (10.5): Amazing to consider what this offense has morphed into under Andy Reid, entering his eighth season in K.C., and Super Bowl MVP QB Patrick Mahomes, who readily admits he’s still learning the nuances of a position he didn’t begin playing until high school. And the reigning champs, with the assistance of highly regarded OC Eric Bieniemy, could realistically elevate this attack with the help of first-round RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
T10. Las Vegas Raiders (10): A little hard to believe – maybe? – but Derek Carr is set to begin his seventh season under center for the Silver and Black. Aside from an MVP-caliber 2016 campaign, he’s been reliable if unremarkable … and needs Jon Gruden’s vision to crystallize around him pretty soon.
T10. Philadelphia Eagles (10): QB Carson Wentz and coach Doug Pederson have been tied at the hip since 2016 … Wentz’s numerous injury absences notwithstanding. Coordinator Jim Schwartz has also been on staff since 2016, and he’s fielded steady to spectacular defenses.
12. Houston Texans (9.5): Bill O’Brien and QB Deshaun Watson are well-known commodities at this point, though the latter will be challenged to maintain his ascent in 2020 without WR DeAndre Hopkins. Rookie coordinator Anthony Weaver takes over a defense that ranked 28th in 2019.
13. Minnesota Vikings (8): Gary Kubiak, who was on staff as an adviser in 2019, takes over as the offensive coordinator, and his experience and expertise should be quite a boon to QB Kirk Cousins. Seventh-year head coach Mike Zimmer is one of the game’s preeminent defensive minds and will likely need his wellspring of knowledge to guide a group with several inexperienced players.
14. Buffalo Bills (7.5): Coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane only arrived in 2017 but have already stabilized a long forlorn franchise, orchestrating two playoff trips in three seasons by drafting and developing players while make surgical moves in free agency. They now have a golden opportunity for Buffalo’s first AFC East crown since 1995.
T15. Los Angeles Rams (7): NFC champions not two years ago under whiz-bang coach Sean McVay and former No. 1 pick Jared Goff, the Rams – who are breaking in three new coordinators, including seasoned special teams boss John Bonamego – could be looking up at the rest of the NFC West in 2020.
T15. San Francisco 49ers (7): Was it really just three years ago that rookie coach Kyle Shanahan was in the midst of an 0-9 start even while welcoming midseason trade acquisition Jimmy Garoppolo? Yep. And Robert Saleh has become a highly regarded defensive boss over that period, too.
17. Jacksonville Jaguars (6): Todd Wash has been on staff since 2013 (he was promoted to defensive coordinator for the 2016 season), and Doug Marrone replaced Gus Bradley as head coach late in the 2016 season. Been a good ride, gents, but afraid it comes to an end a few months from now.
18. Chicago Bears (5.5): Glass half-full, QB Mitch Trubisky enters his fourth season as the starter, asterisk and all. Glass half-empty, backup extraordinaire Nick Foles may have to emerge from the bullpen to get coach Matt Nagy to a fourth year in 2021.
19. Los Angeles Chargers (5): Coach Anthony Lynn and Bradley, who runs the defense, have been together here since 2017 and overseen a wide range of results. That trend seems bound to persist as the offense transforms in the aftermath of QB Philip Rivers’ departure.
20. Dallas Cowboys (4.5): Prescott, 27, begins his fifth NFL season as a grizzled vet in North Texas, relatively speaking. McCarthy was probably wise to retain Moore given the results he helped generate in 2019.
T21. Indianapolis Colts (4): Perhaps some baked-in chemistry here as Rivers, signed this offseason, reunites with third-year coach Frank Reich and OC Nick Sirianni. The trio was together in San Diego from 2013 to 2015.
T21. New York Jets (4): Third-year QB Sam Darnold, all of 23, has been here longer than coach Adam Gase and most of his staff.
23. Tennessee Titans (3.5): Midway through his second season, coach Mike Vrabel caught lightning in a bottle thanks to the midseason promotion of veteran QB Ryan Tannehill. Big expectations in 2020 even though this group, including second-year OC Arthur Smith, hasn’t been together very long.
24. Arizona Cardinals (2.5): Air Raid devotees Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray (plus DC Vance Joseph) came together in 2019. They produced positive returns in the second half of the season, and the Cards are being viewed as candidates for the expanded playoff field this year.
T25. Cincinnati Bengals (2): Bayou Bengal legend Joe Burrow joins coach Zac Taylor and Co. following a 2-14 maiden voyage.
T25. Cleveland Browns (2): Third-year QB Baker Mayfield is hoping his union with rookie coach Kevin Stefanski produces a much longer honeymoon than last year’s arranged marriage to Freddie Kitchens.
T25. Miami Dolphins (2): Brian Flores quickly commanded respect of his players in a turbulent 2019 ride. However the second-year coach is already breaking in a pair of new coordinators while marking time until rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa is ready to supplant journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick.
T25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2): Coach Bruce Arians got his coaching band back together in 2019 – OC Byron Leftwich and DC Todd Bowles headlining the staff – and got fairly impressive results given how often efforts were undermined by Jameis Winston pick-sixes. Tom Brady will surely need some more time to acclimate to Arians’ style, but good chance they’re making delicious low-risk biscuits in short order.
29. Denver Broncos (1.8): QB Drew Lock turned in five relatively impressive starts as a rookie. That’s created some Mile High expectations even though the offensive line is largely new, quite a few rookies are being thrust into prominent roles, OC Pat Shurmur was just hired in January and second-year coach Vic Fangio is already down superstar Von Miller on the defensive side.
30. New York Giants (1): QB Daniel Jones has 12 NFL starts under his belt. He might also still be showing the new coaching staff around the team’s facility – though OC Jason Garrett did play here in 2000.
31. Washington Football Team (0.5): QB Dwayne Haskins has seven NFL starts under his belt. He might also still be showing the (beleaguered) new coaching staff around the team’s facility – and, no, DC Jack Del Rio didn’t play here.
32. Carolina Panthers (0): The only team in the NFL this season to feature a new starting quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) , head coach (Matt Rhule), offensive (Joe Brady) and defensive coordinator (Phil Snow). Oh, and defensive mainstay Luke Kuechly retired, too. Stability at running back is surely worth something … right, Christian McCaffrey?
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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