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With only two weeks left in the NFL regular season and the calendar drawing to a close, the new year ahead provides a natural opportunity to reflect on 2021.
From a series of notable injuries to rampant absences due to COVID-19, the last few months of football has produced plenty of twists. But some preseason predictions have aged poorly, regardless of unforeseen circumstances. Looking back on our own set of prognostications from September, we found some ill-fated calls that warranted further explanation.
With that in mind, we asked USA TODAY Sports’ NFL reporters, columnists and editors:
What was your worst or most regrettable preseason prediction in 2021, and where did it go wrong?
The Cleveland Browns in the Super Bowl? Yeah, that would be it. In real time, the Brownies are 7-8 … good enough for last place in the A-North. So, I drank the Kool-Aid. Oops.
This may also be a warning about expecting great things from teams that you saw in training camp. Boy, did they look good playing against each other in August. After last year’s impressing uprising in Kevin Stefanski’s first year, I thought that Cleveland would finally avoid falling into their typical pattern of following a winning season with a thud. Should have known better. Hey, I thought, too, that OBJ was primed for a big comeback that would make for a tremendous January. Well, Odell Beckham Jr. may still have a great playoff run, only for the Rams. Jadeveon Clowney? Nice addition opposite Myles Garrett, but not enough. Nick Chubb is still the man, but the offense has been such a mess. Hello, Baker Mayfield. After keeping the INTs to a minimum last year, what a regression. Bottom line: Can I change my pick?
Not to brag, but my predictions weren’t wildly inaccurate. I correctly guessed seven of the eight division leaders entering Week 17. My lone miss, Cleveland, was hampered primarily by significant injuries to quarterback Baker Mayfield. Injuries also derailed the playoff berths I bestowed upon Baltimore and New Orleans. So perhaps my most naïve predictions weren’t the teams I did predict to succeed in the postseason and rather those whom I overlooked. New England and Cincinnati, take a bow. I should not have underestimated Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s ability to squeeze the most out of a talent pool. Clearly, whether New England advances through this postseason or not, Belichick has again established a foundation. And Joe Burrow: Keep energizing the city, franchise and offense in your impressive, precocious manner.
On an individual level, my most askew prediction was awarding offensive rookie of the year honors to Bears quarterback Justin Fields. I still believe Fields has physical, emotional and intellectual gifts that can translate to the NFL. His 12 games, including 10 starts and just two wins, should not be the final assessment of him. Of course, Fields’ 58.9% completion rate and 7:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio reflect his current ability to a degree. But I believe they more so reflect the no-win situation surrounding him, a degree of disarray I underestimated. Even the most talented rookies – hello, Trevor Lawrence! – need support to succeed. Here’s hoping Chicago gives Fields more next year.
Where to start? Was it my belief that the Browns would be good? Or that the Raiders would reach the playoffs? Or maybe that Washington would repeat as NFC East winners? Yeah, that’s gotta be it. I should’ve known better. That team hasn’t made the playoffs in back-to-back years since 1992. How silly of me to think that they could string together some success in consecutive seasons. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s injury right off the bat was an unexpected blow, and the defense that was supposed to have carried the team back to the postseason has regressed mightily. Now, the wheels appear to have come off, again. So, yeah, shame on me for forgetting the history of my hometown team. That’s my most regrettable prediction.
While splitting from the pack is a good way to make your picks stand out, doing so against your better judgment can leave you with regret and frustration. That’s how I feel looking back on my two worst NFL predictions of 2021. I definitely went too bold with my defensive player of the year pick of Chase Young, who I assumed would make a significant leap from his Pro Bowl form as a rookie in 2020.
Yes, the season-ending ACL tear he suffered in November would have ruled him out for such an award regardless of how well he had been performing. But Young was well short of elite before then, recording just 1 1/2 sacks in nine games as part of an underperforming Washington defensive line. Worst of all, I made the pick specifically to avoid going with T.J. Watt or Myles Garrett, who I thought would be chalk picks but now are the leading contenders for the award.
And speaking of going bold for the mere sake of it … I, too, have some explaining to do about selecting the Browns to win the AFC. My New Year’s resolution: Don’t buy into a team that needs everything to go right to cover for its inadequacies at quarterback.
All things considered, I actually think I’ve done OK with my preseason predictions — at least much better than I’ve fared in previous years. Still, there are a few I’d like back. Between picking the Browns as the AFC North winner, to Christian McCaffrey as the Offensive Player of the Year and Justin Fields as the Offensive Rookie of the Year, I’m going to say I regret the McCaffrey one most. In particular, it’s because I simply didn’t see the Panther offense taking this much of a slide this year, even factoring in the team’s questionable handling of the quarterback position.
McCaffrey is still a special player, there’s no question. But, with his injury history, it has gotten to the point where it’s fair to question whether he can continue to be a workhorse running back in the NFL. Since Carolina made McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in NFL history with a four-year extension in April 2020, he has appeared in only 10 of the team’s 36 games. Here’s to hoping he can get a stretch of good health in 2022 and beyond, because when he’s on the field, he’s one of the most electric players in all of football.
Now, with all of that said, if only I had been able to see the breakout of Cooper Kupp coming …
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