Avoiding mistakes entirely as an NFL franchise is next to impossible. It’s one of the most competitive leagues in the entirety of professional sports, and simply isn’t conducive to consistent success for most teams. There’s no surefire method that allows for perfect decision-making 100% of the time. Of course, everyone has their successes occasionally, but it’s really the mistakes and the severity of them that can make or break a franchise. It’s no surprise that the most catastrophic errors are usually applied to the NFL’s worst teams on a perennial basis.
Since 2010, the league has seen a lot of turnover, and a lot of marquee decisions being made by most of franchises. We’ve seen new stars emerge, and older ones regress, along with plenty of miscalculated coaching hires and draft picks to go along with it. Some teams have overcome these mistakes, to remain a consistent threat, and for others it’s meant the difference between relevance and mediocrity. Let’s take a look at some of the most critical errors made by each team during this time, and how they’ve impacted the status of the franchise as a whole.
Ranked below are the biggest mistakes for all 32 NFL teams since 2010.
32. Arizona Cardinals: The Carson Palmer Acquisition
When Bruce Arians was hired as the head coach in Arizona in 2013, he needed a quarterback to execute his high-flying and high-risk offense. Instead of going after a young quarterback in the draft however, he opted for a veteran option in Palmer, and the Cardinals were able to land him in a trade from Oakland.
The strategy paid off for several years, and Arizona fans were happy to see Palmer under center instead of the likes of someone like Matt Leinart, but ultimately this move was a failed endeavor. The Cardinals never made it past the NFC Title game with Palmer, and now they’ll be looking to get a young franchise quarterback in the offseason anyway. They could have had one by now, and have set themselves back about five years now, with Arians’ job potentially in question.
31. Atlanta Falcons: The Second-Half Of Super Bowl LI
It may be unfair to boil a team down to less than one game of on-field play, but last year’s Falcons squad had no reason not to come out with a Super Bowl victory. With a 25-point lead, they could have essentially ran out the clock, but decided instead to utilize their standard gameplan, which included a ton of deep drop backs for Matt Ryan, and passing the ball in general.
Playing not to lose is usually the right move, but Dan Quinn should have realized that the deficit for New England was almost insurmountable if Atlanta was just able to to not turn the ball over. The Patriots ended up coming back, in what was perhaps the most ridiculous Super Bowl ever played. It’s unlikely that the Falcons get as good of a chance to win it again.
30. Baltimore Ravens: Not Acquiring Offensive Skill Players
The Ravens have been carried by their defense for years, and it’s not a surprise that they continue to struggle with forming a dominant offense. Sure, they’ve had the likes of Steve Smith on their receiving corps, but usually their isn’t much in support of Joe Flacco in the Baltimore offense. After going to the Super Bowl in 2012 off the back of their defense, they’ve struggled to be complete on both sides of the ball.
Running back has been a major issue for them, and now so is their receiving corps now that Smith is gone. Aging veterans such as Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace aren’t enough to get it done, and the team also has a 1st-round bust on their resume in Breshad Perriman. Improvement definitely needs to be seen in the quality of their skill players.
29. Buffalo Bills: Hiring Rex Ryan
Always a curious move from Buffalo, it was actually met with mixed opinion when it initially happened before the start to the 2015 season. Ryan was coming off several poor seasons with the Jets, but had gone to an AFC Title game with the team just several years prior. It was clear the Bills were willing to try anything, considering their lack of playoff appearances since 2000, and Ryan was thought to be just unorthodox enough to work.
Instead, the team never finished with an above-.500 record and Ryan was out in due time. It was the most high-profile coaching hire in a long time for the Bills, and they should have gone with a better option. Ryan’s deficiencies showed early and often.
28. Carolina Panthers: Harnessing Cam Newton
It’s been a Jekyll & Hyde past five years or so for the Panthers, who have seen a trip to the Super Bowl, along with several underwhelming seasons. While Cam has been one of the catalysts for their success, he’s also been the primary reason for some of their detriments. There are few players who attract more attention to themselves than Newton does. If he could just be more consistent on and off the field, it would go a long way to stabilizing the Panthers roster.
There’s no doubt that the Panthers need Cam, but they also need him to stay “inside the lines” on more occasions than he’s shown over the years. His temperament has been questionable at times, and his style of play can be drastically erratic when he finds himself out of control on the field.
27. Chicago Bears: Firing Lovie Smith
Smith may have been “tenured” to say the least in Chicago, but they also had nobody better to replace him with. The Bears canned Smith after the 2012 season, with the thought that a more offensive-minded coach could get more out of Jay Cutler and the offense. While that was partially true at times, it didn’t amount to any more victories for the Bears.
Smith is now the head coach at Illinois, but as one of the best defensive minds of his generation, nobody should be ruling out a return to the NFL. The Bears should have held on to him until they had a suitable replacement. Instead, they’ll likely be going on to to their third coach since Smith when the 2017 season concludes and they let go of John Fox,
26. Cincinnati Bengals: Sticking With Marvin Lewis
With the news that Lewis will finally be leaving the team as head coach this offseason, it appears that the Bengals have now finally made a move to correct this mistake. Still, it really should have happened five years ago or so, as Lewis proved that he’s not able to elevate the team to any kind of playoff success whatsoever.
His continuity with the Bengals has been one of the strangest sagas in the league for over a decade now. Lewis is a good football mind, but there’s proven to be a cap on how much he can win at the highest level, and Cincinnati has only begun to figure that out. They’ll hope their next coach will be more formidable in the postseason.
25. Cleveland Browns: Too Many To Count
Not to be belittling, but the Browns have truly been the biggest dumpster fire in the league in so many ways over the years. They simply have made so many ill-advised decisions that it’s impossible to pick just one. From drafting the likes of Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel, to hiring a baseball-based front office team, they’ve had more missteps than anyone else.
And there’s no reason to expect it to change, at least at the current moment. Perhaps new general manager John Dorsey can buck the trend of mediocrity that has plagued this franchise for the last 17 years, but nobody will be expecting it. The Browns have more errors on their resume than anyone else.
24. Dallas Cowboys: Poor Draft Choices On Defense
Tony Romo had the potential to win the Cowboys another Super Bowl if the team wasn’t so one-dimensional and top-heavy. Year after year, Dallas squandered their draft picks on so-so (or worse) defensive players such as Morris Claiborne, Randy Gregory and Jaylon Smith. A refusal to compliment Romo (and Dak Prescott) has hurt them for years.
Some of the blame can be attributed to Jerry Jones, and his propensity for star players on offense, whether they’re needed at the moment or not. You can bet that if the Cowboys had a top-10 defense at any point in the Romo-era, that they would at least have had a crack at the Super Bowl. Instead, they were bounced early in the playoffs the few times they got there at all.
23. Denver Broncos: Drafting Tim Tebow
The Tebow era was unlike anything we had ever seen in professional sports all things considered, and it was over fairly quickly. The former Florida quarterback was one of the biggest talking points going into the draft, and the Broncos bit the bullet and took him with their 1st-round pick. They needed a franchise player for the future, and they were in the camp that believed he could be the one.
On the back of a great defense, Tebow was able to get to the playoffs and even win a postseason game. But his deficiencies were soon shown, and he was simply not an NFL-caliber quarterback when it was all said and done. The Tebow failure set the Broncos back several years until they acquired Peyton Manning, but they ended up recovering with a Super Bowl victory.
22. Detroit Lions: Not Giving Stafford A Quality Coaching Staff
The Lions certainly found a franchise quarterback when they drafted Matt Stafford 1st-overall in 2009, but poor offensive coaching has hindered him from becoming a top-5 player at his position. Nothing wrong with Jim Schwartz and Jim Caldwell as football minds, but if Stafford had a truly transformative offensive coach, he’d be in a better spot than he is now.
If you’re going to take a quarterback 1st-overall, it just makes sense to surround him with a staff that can get the most out of him. Stafford was taken by a defensive-minded head coach, and never had the opportunity to develop under the right system.
21. Green Bay Packers: Relying Too Much On Aaron Rodgers
As exhibited this season when Rodgers went down with injury, the Packers have shown that they need him to be healthy to have any hope of fielding a competitive team. Neither their head coach (at the moment) or roster are good enough to elevate them to good standing. They absolutely rely on Rodgers and his elite play to get the job done.
A more concerted effort is needed going forward to bolster the team as a whole, so they aren’t dead in the water if Rodgers is to go down with an injury. And besides that point, Rodgers can’t play forever, and they need to start making moves to ensure that they have a quality team after he regresses or retires. The Packers are top-heavy, and that’s never a good thing as an NFL team.
20. Houston Texans: Playing Quarterback Carosuel
The Texans have had some great defenses over the years with some marquee players such as Brian Cushing, Jonathan Joseph, and of course, J.J. Watt. The only problem is that they have adamantly refused (until the 2017 draft), to acquire a legitimate option at quarterback that can make their offense formidable. It’s hurt them on several different occasions when they could have gone far in the playoffs otherwise.
Deshaun Watson figures to change all of that, assuming he comes back healthy from his ACL injury. That still doesn’t excuse the fact that this has been a team without a legitimate player at the most important position on the field for most of the last seven years.
19. Indianpolis Colts: Mishandling Of Andrew Luck
Make no mistake about it; the Colts buried Luck, and he may never recover from it. From inadequacy in the front office, to a so-so coach in Chuck Pagano calling the shots, his career has been potentially derailed. Luck should be looking for a ticket out of Indy as soon as possible, because they have failed to compliment him in any way since taking him 1st-overall in 2012.
Luck’s talent level would have won any halfway-competent roster a title by this point. Unfortunately, the Colts are not it, and although they’ve made a change at general manager, they may be too far behind the 8-ball for anything to change at this point.
18. Jacksonville Jaguars: Drafting Blaine Gabbert
In what was the worst quarterback draft in recent memory, the Jaguars selected Gabbert in 2011, expecting him to be a franchise player for the long-term. He struggled immediately, and he was never able to capitalize on the hype surrounding him. He did transition into a career-backup, which is better than nothing, but for Jacksonville it was easily the biggest misstep in recent memory.
They’ve only recently begun to recover from the decision, fielding their first competitive team in a long time this season. The failure of Gabbert to produce goes to show how debilitating the lack of a quality quarterback can be, and also prove that it can set you back five or so years if it does indeed happen.
17. Kansas City Chiefs: The Alex Smith Trade
Some will say that the Smith-era in Kansas City has been a success, considering they’ve been a playoff team for every season he’s been under center. On the other hand, Andy Reid has usually made the postseason regardless of who is playing quarterback for him. Smith’s naturally risk-averse play hasn’t sunk the Chiefs, but it hasn’t elevated the team either, which is what you’d expect out of your starting quarterback.
The selection of Patrick Mahomes in this year’s draft was one that had been coming down the pike for a while now. The Chiefs need an elite quarterback talent (or at least the potential for one), and Smith simply isn’t it. A starting quarterback change will likely be coming in 2018.
16. Los Angeles Chargers: Moving To L.A.
The Chargers don’t have the pedigree of a team that can afford to take risks. They had a quality fanbase in San Diego, and even though they moved in-state, it still wasn’t the best decision. It’s a team with limited national interest attached to them, and they’ve alienated the one group of die-hards that they have.
Moving to L.A. may have seemed like the sexy choice, but ultimately it’s going to hurt the entire franchise. The Chargers are looking at a possibility of regression once they lose Philip Rivers as their franchise quarterback, and the limited L.A. fanbase won’t be able to sustain them.
15. Los Angeles Rams: Giving Jeff Fisher Opportunity
Fisher was on the downswing as a head coach when hired by the Rams in 2012, and they held on to him far too long. He proved that he wasn’t able to elevate the roster, and the team was complacent enough to give him plenty of chances, despite the fact that he was cemented as a 7-9 head coach at best.
Essentially, the Rams were content with milling around for five seasons while Fisher did nothing to improve the trajectory of the franchise. It was a directionless coaching reign, and it took until this past offseason for the team to see the light and finally move on. With Jared Goff as the franchise quarterback, and an innovative head coach in Sean McVay, they’ll undoubtedly be in better shape.
14. Miami Dolphins: Paying Up For Ryan Tannehill
The Dolphins caught a bad break when Tannehill’s season was ended with an ACL injury in training camp. It was unfortunate for both parties, but the reality is that the team is likely to regret the contract they gave him for reasons other than the injury. Tannehill simply is a limited quarterback that isn’t worth the kind of big money that the best players at the position make in this day and age.
The teams expended an 8th-overall pick for him back in 2012, but it’s clear that Tannehill’s ceiling isn’t that of a championship-winning quarterback. While having him under center will guarantee the team won’t be a disaster, it’s very unlikely that he’ll elevate the roster in the way that a truly great quarterback could.
13. Minnesota Vikings: Drafting Christian Ponder
Another misstep from the horrible 2011 quarterback draft class, Ponder’s deficiencies deprived the Vikings from getting the franchise quarterback they wanted, and it’s a mistake that they’re still recovering from. He didn’t show any flashes of being a great NFL quarterback, and at his best he was barely competent. Not surprisingly, Ponder was out of the league after his fourth season, never to return.
Minnesota may have thought that they solved their quarterback problem with Teddy Bridgewater, but it remains to be seen if he’ll return in good form from the devastating injury he suffered several years ago. The Ponder pick set up a hole at the quarterback position, and Case Keenum’s surprising emergence in 2017 aside, the Vikings may not have filled it at all in the past five years.
12. New England Patriots: Trading Jimmy Garoppolo
For a while, it looked like the Patriots were going to keep Garoppolo as the heir apparent to Tom Brady. That is, until the 2017 trade deadline happened, and they shipped him off to San Francisco in exchange for a 2nd-round pick. While Brady is unquestionably the starter for the rest of this season, how he’ll regress in the proceeding years is up in the air. Garoppolo would have been an immediate replacement.
Even if New England would have had to pay out to keep him, it still might have been a better option than leaving the quarterback position to chance after Brady’s departure. The fact is that he can’t play forever, and Garoppolo has been proven to have command of the Patriots offense in the limited time he’s been on the field.
11. New Orleans Saints: Creating A One-Dimensional Team
Drew Brees has been phenomenal for his entire career, but the Saints have limited his effectiveness because until recently they never invested in the defense. New Orleans has consistently been one of the top offenses in the league for years, but it hasn’t mattered because they always run the risk of being outscored by just about anybody.
While that is clearly changing now, New Orleans should honestly have went to more than one Super Bowl with Brees under center. They’ll get an opportunity to do it this season, but their lack of commitment to the defensive side of the ball in the past seven years has been the reason for underwhelming performance at times.
10. New York Giants: The Transition From Tom Coughlin
At some point, even legendary head coaches need to leave their prized franchises, and Coughlin was no different in New York. Thing is, there should always be a solid exit strategy for when they leave, so the team isn’t scrambling to replace him with sub-par options. The Giants promoted Ben McAdoo from within, and it was an utter disaster once he lost the team early in the 2017 season.
He was fired late in the season, and now undergoing a massive structural shakeup, the Giants are once again looking for a head coach to take the team into the future. The McAdoo firing could potentially have set off a domino effect of bad coaching hires that could plague the team for years. While that’s not a guarantee, they definitely wish they were more diligent in selecting a replacement for Coughlin in the first place.
9. New York Jets: Entrusting Mark Sanchez
Rex Ryan has always been an unorthodox coach, and also one focused heavily on the defensive side of the ball. There’s nothing wrong with this necessarily, but if you’re going to let Sanchez be your starting quarterback, you have to make sure your defense can sustain elite play. The Jets may have made the AFC Title game with Sanchez under center, but his deficiencies were felt soon enough, and the team crumbled in the proceeding seasons.
Clearly, Ryan thought Sanchez was a quarterback who was “good enough” to win in the playoffs if complimented by an amazing defense. This worked to a degree for the one season in question, but few teams would be able to remain viable with a quarterback who has such questionable decision-making. They paid the price, and are still recovering from it today.
8. Oakland Raiders: Lack Of Direction
The Raiders have been a mess in their front office and coaching staff for years now, and it’s really hindered any possible development that could have been made. Prior to the combination of head coach Jack Del Rio and quarterback Derek Carr, the team was cast with haphazard coaching hires and failed experiments such as Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin at quarterback.
There’s a general lack of leadership inside the Raiders as an organization which allows for ill-advised decisions. Sure, they made the playoffs in 2016, but they’ll miss it this year, and once again the team has tons of questions surrounding it. They know they have a franchise quarterback in Carr now, but very little else has been figured out for the long-term.
7. Philadelphia Eagles: Poor Transition From McNabb
After a decade long run with franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Eagles needed an exit strategy that would allow them to continue quality play at the most important position on the field. At the time, Kevin Kolb was seen as the long-term answer at the position, but when he got hurt, Michael Vick was slotted as the starter.
Neither option ended up being the definitive answer, which sent Philadelphia into a game musical chairs with the quarterback position. The likes of Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford all were put in as the starter over the past several years, with none of them making a great impression. It wasn’t until the Eagles traded up to draft Carson Wentz that their quarterback woes seem to have been alleviated. Unfortunately, they’ll need to wait for him to recover from an ACL injury to see him on the field in 2018.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers: Having A Chaotic Locker Room Environment
Without a doubt, the Steelers have had one of the league’s most impressive offenses for years now. They’ve always been a playoff contender in the AFC, and have a win-first culture that shows itself on a perennial basis. With that said, there sure are a lot of locker room controversies surrounding the team.
From Le’Veon Bell’s holdout, to Ben Rothelisberger’s constant pontifications on retirement, Martavis Bryant’s gripes about playing time and Mike Tomlin trying to be the ring leader of the entire circus, it always seems like this is a roster on the brink of collapse on an interpersonal level. That hasn’t been the case yet, but a more stable environment surrounding the team couldn’t hurt. At least they have winning talent in spades to make up for it.
5. San Francisco 49ers: Firing Jim Harbaugh
There’s a distinct difference in the 49ers’ performance with and without Jim Harbaugh, and it’s a canyon between them. Harbaugh was able to lead the team to a Super Bowl appearance, and without him they’ve crumbled with terrible coaches and no leadership in the locker room. His firing in 2014 spelled disaster in San Francisco, and they can only hope that Kyle Shanahan will dramatically improve on his first season as head coach.
With Harbaugh, the 49ers had an identity and a winning attitude. Poor ownership forced him out of town, and now the franchise is left to regret their decision. Shanahan may be able to improve the fortunes of the team, but there’s a chance that they are too far gone to be saved at this point, and if they are, we’ll all know the reason why.
4. Seattle Seahawks: Throwing The Ball At The Goal-Line
Whatever Pete Carroll was thinking in this situation, nobody will ever know. The Seahawks were primed to score the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl against the Patriots, and promptly made the worst goal-line call in the history of the league. With Marshawn Lynch available to undoubtedly gain the one yard necessary for the score, Carroll opted to throw the ball, which was intercepted by Malcolm Butler, clinching the victory for New England.
The Seahawks have been a successful team over the past seven years, but this one definitely still hurts them. You can’t be that close to winning a title, and then flush your chances down the drain with a inexplicable play call like that. It ended up padding Tom Brady’s resume, and the Seahawks went home distraught.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Selecting Jameis Winston At 1st Overall
Not much has gone right for the Buccaneers since their Super Bowl win in 2003, but taking Winston as the top player in the 2015 draft was supposed to change all of that. Well, it’s taken him longer than expected to adjust to NFL-caliber competition, and some are starting to wonder whether he’ll ever fully make the transition. For every great throw Winston has, he also commits some unforgivable errors from under center.
The Bucs have little choice but to stick with him for now, and potentially shake up the coaching staff around him. There’s no doubt however that they are questioning the decision to take Winston in the first place, and if he doesn’t turn it around within the next year or so, those questions will, quickly turn to outright regret.
2. Tennessee Titans: Hiring Mike Mularkey
When the Titans made the decision to draft Marcus Mariota as their franchise quarterback, most people understood that Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t going to be the long-term head coach. What they didn’t expect, was for him to be replaced by a conservative offensive coach with a run-first mentality.
Mularkey may be a league veteran, but he’s never had much success as a head coach despite ample opportunity. Having such a traditional option who hasn’t been able to elevate his quarterbacks–and most importantly, doesn’t have the successful resume–has probably hindered Mariota’s development up to this point. The Titans are beginning to win games, but if they want to truly contend and make Mariota into a star, they’ll likely have to do it with a coach who has a more “open” playbook to put it lightly.
1. Washington Redskins: The Kirk Cousins Debacle
It would be easy to say that Washington’s biggest mistake over the past seven years was the trade-up for Robert Griffin III. While it was a massive trade that gave up numerous valuable resources, it hasn’t prevented them from being out of playoff contention since, even though Griffin himself never worked out. By far, the biggest error has been the mishandling of the Cousins situation, and their long-term answer at quarterback.
Many would say that the answer is actually right there in front of them. No matter how well Cousins plays, however, the Redskins haven’t budged on offering him a long-term deal, only to franchise tag him in both 2016 and 2017. Needless to say, time is running out.
In all likelihood, Washington has squandered the opportunity to sign Cousins, and he’ll likely move on to a franchise willing to pay out for him on an extended contract. Dan Snyder and the Redskins ownership have dropped the ball yet again.
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