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The NFC South and the many ways teams fail

Every team in the NFC South is a warning to others.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The NFC South was one of the NFL’s great divisions in 2017. Three of four teams made the playoffs—the Buccaneers were still basement dwellers at this point—and all three had double digit wins. Led by franchise signal callers and powered by quality rosters, the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and New Orleans Saints figured to be in the mix among the NFC’s better teams for at least the short-term.

Instead, they fell off one-by-one, with the Saints the last team to truly give up that dream. The Buccaneers experienced a brie Tom Brady-led renaissance, but the 2022 season was a sobering one for a once-proud division. The Bucs won it at 8-9, and the remaining three teams in the division all went 7-10 en route to an embarrassing finish. The Bucs were immediately drubbed in the Wild Card round, and we braced for this to be a bad division again in 2023.

This bad, though? No chance. The Saints are “leading” the division today at 5-5 and have a positive point differential, but their offense is lackluster and their defense randomly explodes into a fiery mess of old guys and underperformance. The Bucs are temporarily back in second place at 4-5, but they’re as inconsistent and unfinished a team as you’ll find in the NFL today, prone to big swings between competence and putridity. Our Falcons are 4-6 and underperforming their expectations at a level that is rage-inducing, and they’ve now lost three increasingly embarrassing games in a row. The only reason they’re well clear of the basement is because the 1-8 Panthers are dwelling there, and they may well clear house again this offseason because they A) stink and B) David Tepper is big red-faced finance weirdo who seem prone to ragequit on front offices and coaching staffs.

It is bleak out here, man. It’s also instructive, in a way, because each team is showing us unique ways to fail in today’s NFL:

  • The Saints are showing what happens when you double down forever on an increasingly creaky roster and lackluster coaching staff. Drew Brees is gone, Sean Payton departed, and Cam Jordan and company are aging out of excellence, but the Saints keep pushing the cap hits down the line, re-structuring like mad, and counting on one or two big signings to push them over the top. Amusingly, their drafts have mostly been really good; it’s the investments in Derek Carr and insistence on holding on to players who just aren’t as good anymore in the hopes of chasing fading glory that is killing this team. When they’re finally ready to take those big cap hits, if they ever are, they’ll be doing so with a decimated roster. Saints fans have argued with justification that the cap is kind of made up and you can just keep rolling those hits forever; you can, but there are team-building costs associated with doing so that New Orleans is showing us in real-time.
  • The Buccaneers are proof that if you chase relevance with a Hall of Fame quarterback, it works! For a little while. This year, the Bucs basically ate their gigantic cap hits in a way the Saints refuse to, and tried to muddle through with the skeleton of a good roster and some patches. That’s not an awful approach—they just won a Super Bowl and had to see the writing on the wall post-Brady—but it predictably has led to an uneven effort this year with Baker Mayfield delivering better-than-expected but hardly great results. The Bucs are probably not going to simply go away the way I hoped they would, given the strength of their roster overall, but they’re sitting comfortably in quarterback purgatory and may well still be there in 2024 with cap space to burn. Theirs is a mild failure that will intensify if they can’t solve the under center problem.
  • The Falcons are in a rough spot because they’ve invested significantly in their current roster and coaching staff and simply haven’t seen the results. This isn’t the Saints endlessly hitting on an 18 at the blackjack table or the Buccaneers biding their time until they can try to dig out of a hole; the Falcons were supposed to be dug out of their hole in 2023. Instead, they may not have a quarterback, may not have a coaching staff they’ll want to roll with beyond this season, and have a roster that’s expensive and underachieving, complete with three top ten picks expended on weapons for an offense that flat out stinks. It’s not hard to imagine the Falcons solving quarterback, reloading with their solid 2024 cap space, and contending next year in a still-shaky NFC South, but it’s not hard to imagine them failing to fix what ails them and muddling along as a mediocre team for years to come. This is a new kind of failure for Atlanta, but it’s an extension of the mediocrity they’ve been mired in for far too long, too.
  • The Panthers are a cautionary tale for the Buccaneers and Falcons, given that they are a team with huge capital expended at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff who stink out loud. I still think Bryce Young can be a good quarterback but question whether he’ll still be one by the time Carolina sorts this out; I still think Frank Reich and his staff can probably right the ship given time but question whether Tepper gives them that time. In the here and now, the Panthers are breaking their highly-touted quarterback on the wheel of an archaic and frankly stupid offense while their coaching staff flails around with seemingly no new ideas worth noting. Considering the Panthers gave up their 2024 first rounder to get Young and that’s not threatening to turn into the top pick of the draft, this is a disaster that could torpedo Carolina’s chances of being a decent team for years to come. They have to get what comes next right and put Young in a position to succeed or they may be the next Buccaneers, a basement-dweller every year with no satisfying plans and a coaching carousel.

All this failure makes the short-term future for this division impossibly bleak, because it’s tough to imagine any of these dumb, bad teams suddenly putting it together over the final seven weeks. It also puts a big question mark on the 2024 season, when two of the teams in the division might be starting over with their coaching staff and quarterback and the other two may well turn over their coaching staffs, as well.

The NFC South was great once, and it will be great again at some point down the line. In the moment, though, it’s another miserable season in an awful division, and every team here can serve as a cautionary tale for others in some regard. These four fanbases are just along for the ride, which is ablaze and airborne and headed for the oil refinery.