Late June in the NFL is a time for the collective football community to bathe in a warm sea of tranquility.
The sun is shining. The vibes are good. The daiquiris are going down easy. The music is chill -- that one Cure cover by 311 is getting too much play, but no one has bothered to complain. This collective peace is vitally important. The NFL season is a relentless storm that will test the mettle of all 32 squads and eventually take all out to sea save for one. This is the calm before that storm.
The big-picture reality of the NFL is harsh. Naive optimism of the spring and early summer creates a self-image that can be cruelly distorted by the fall -- a circus funhouse mirror from hell. The season will spawn pressure, expectations and urgency. Which brings us to today's exercise ...
Which teams face the most urgency in the 2023 NFL campaign? That's what I am here to explore. Using the trusty 0.0-to-10.0 scale, I'm focusing on 10 franchises that will have the greatest burden of expectation come September. Let's start from the top, with the first of four teams from the same division.
The Bills have been knocking on the door for a while now. Four straight trips to the playoffs, each run ending short of the Super Bowl. The "13 Seconds" loss to the Chiefs in the 2021 Divisional Round was pure pain for a franchise that's no stranger to heartbreak, but last postseason's home thumping at the hands of the Bengals was somehow more dispiriting. Is Buffalo's once wide-open Super Bowl window suddenly closing? Playing in a widely improved AFC East, there's a huge amount of urgency facing the entire Buffalo operation entering 2023. Look no further than the recent drama around star receiver Stefon Diggs as an example of potential cracks in the structure. Pressure can do that to even the most solid of foundations.
The Jets might not be in true Super Bowl-or-bust mode like their division rivals in Western New York, but the blockbuster acquisition of Aaron Rodgers has made this one of the most important seasons in franchise history. It's difficult to overstate how vital it is for Rodgers to stay on the field, play at a high level and end New York's league-worst -- North American professional sports worst -- playoff drought after 12 long years. If he fails, it could mean the end of Robert Saleh's run as head coach -- and potentially Joe Douglas' run as general manager, too. Rodgers has said and done all the right things since the league-shaking April 24 trade -- but none of that will matter if he can't lift this star-crossed franchise out of irrelevance and into championship contention. It might be the greatest challenge yet for the four-time MVP.
The Eagles are absolutely loaded. If not for a controversial defensive holding call late in Super Bowl LVII, they might be defending champions. They bring back nearly their entire core from last year's dominant group, and Jalen Hurts will enter his fourth season as a top MVP candidate entering his prime. Philadelphia seems set up well for years to come, which should keep the team away from an exercise like this -- and yet, it behooves these Eagles to seize the moment in 2023. If we're being kind, we'll call the NFC unsettled. If we're being honest, it's a watered-down landscape loaded with pretenders. The 49ers appear to be the only other conference superpower, and there's a scenario in which that team starts Sam Darnold in Week 1. The Eagles should contend in the conference for years to come, but the runway might never be as clear as it is right now.
We all love us some Joe Burrow. That dude is the real deal. Talent, charisma, leadership, a sense of the moment, swag for days -- he's everything you want from a franchise quarterback. So, while it's easy to nod your head in appreciation when Burrow tells reporters the Bengals' Super Bowl window is "my whole career," it's also smart to temper that gusto with some reality. Dan Marino probably thought the same way Burrow does, and he never returned to the Super Bowl after his second season. As Gregg Rosenthal pointed out in his Projected Starters series, the Bengals will return their entire offensive core for a third straight year. With Burrow and his trio of standout wide receivers -- Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd -- closing in on free agency, the clock is ticking closer to midnight. Cincinnati does a nice job drafting with an eye on the future these days, but the time to win with this talented, battled-tested core is right now.
I could go on for 3,000 words about why the Cleveland Browns shouldn't have gotten into business with the scandal-plagued Deshaun Watson, but what else needs to be said at this point? Watson is the face of the franchise now, and the Browns circled the 2023 season from the moment they pulled the trigger on the blockbuster trade with the Texans two Marches ago, knowing the quarterback would likely face a significant suspension in 2022. Watson did indeed serve an 11-game ban last year, then performed poorly in his first six games for the Browns upon return. But he remains a talented, proven player who's just now heading into his age-28 season. Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry has done a nice job building up talent around the QB, and Watson will undoubtedly be helped by a full offseason program and training camp without storm clouds of legal issues and league discipline hanging over his head. I expect Watson to play at a high level and make the Browns a contender in the AFC this season. But if -- after all this -- Watson flops or is merely a league-average QB? Heads might roll in Berea.
On paper, the Dolphins have one of the most talented rosters in the entire league. The offense has speed that keeps opposing coordinators up at night, and the defense -- now led by eternal stud DC Vic Fangio -- approaches the Eagles in terms of depth and potential. Of course, all of this commendable work done by the Miami brain trust will be wasted if Tua Tagovailoa is unable to stay on the field. The team has a new backup quarterback in former Jets folk hero Mike White, but staying the course with the concussion-prone Tua when other options were available on the trade and free-agent market represents one of the great dice rolls in the NFL this offseason. The Dolphins make sense as a Super Bowl team ... but there's also logic to picking them to finish last in the AFC East.
It feels like San Francisco should have a Lombardi Trophy or two to show for the past dozen years, doesn't it? The 49ers had those great teams under Jim Harbaugh, and now they're in the midst of a fine run with Kyle Shanahan at the controls. All in all, six playoff appearances in 12 years with two painful near misses in the Super Bowl. Is this the year the 21st-century Niners finally get over the hump? I'd have them even higher in this exercise if not for the injury-related uncertainty at the quarterback position. When Brock Purdy makes his return from elbow surgery (whether that be Week 1 or further down the line), he'll inherit an offense with more talent at skill positions than any team in football. The roster is well built on both sides of the ball, Shanahan remains one of the game's most gifted play-callers, and -- as stated above in the Eagles breakdown -- the conference appears largely undercooked. When you use your second draft pick on a kicker, you've basically acknowledged your team is in Super Bowl-or-bust mode. Now's the time.
Jerry Jones turned 80 years old last October. It's been decades since his team won something other than the NFC East. The longtime owner remains deeply involved with the day-to-day operation of his beloved Cowboys, a team that hasn't reached the NFC Championship Game since Wonderwall was on the charts. Jones is right to look at his team and see a legit contender that can put up a fight against the Eagles and perhaps come out of the NFC in late January. Mike McCarthy has been on the sideline for back-to-back 12-win seasons in Dallas, but the pressure is on for a deep playoff run. A disappointing campaign in Big D could lead to big changes.
Nobody said life after Tom Brady would be easy, but who said it would be this hard? The 2022 season was a disaster by the high standards of the Patriot Way -- nine losses (including an all-timer) and well-publicized offensive dysfunction that led to friction with a young quarterback and public admonishment of the coaching staff by Robert Kraft. The owner came awfully close to issuing a playoffs-or-bust ultimatum to Bill Belichick in comments this offseason, creating an almost surreal vibe around the most successful NFL organization of this century. Is Mac Jones playing for his starting job this season? (Almost certainly.) Could Belichick be fired if New England doesn't markedly improve? (It's not crazy to think he could!) For a team being widely picked to finish last in its division, the urgency remains compellingly high.
Let's start here: I thought Chicago played this offseason in a smart and sensible manner. The Bears opted to go all in on third-year quarterback Justin Fields, trading out of the No. 1 overall pick and then using that bounty -- along with the rest of their draft class and free agency -- to construct a far more compelling roster than what we saw during last season's 3-14 bloodletting. The decision to stick with Fields as The Future was presented as a no-brainer by Bears brass, but they'll have their fingers crossed the former first-round pick will reward their faith now that he's surrounded by better talent. The second-year tandem of head coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles could be in trouble if Fields is still seen as an untapped resource by this time next year. The Lions were the NFL's feel-good story in 2022 -- if the Bears don't follow a similar trajectory, questions will be asked about this NFC North squad's current leadership.