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NFL Draft

What Would Be A Successful Season For Each AFC West Team?

  • The Draft Network
  • May 21, 2021
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When the 2021 schedule was released last week, the first thing both fans and media alike did was rush to assign wins and losses next to each game to try and project how teams across the league will do next season. The exercise may seem meaningless here in May, as the season is so far away, but I do believe there are some insights that can be learned from evaluating teams' schedules. I personally went through the AFC West and predicted each of the four teams' win and loss records and if they would make the postseason or not.

While the name of the game in the NFL is to obviously win football games, sometimes measuring success isn’t all about winning. Depending on where a team is in its lifecycle, success could simply mean showing more toughness week in and week out even though the team is losing. 

Measuring success in the NFL is all relative and while winning is the goal for each and every team, in order to truly evaluate if a team had a successful season you need to have context. Here is what I believe each team in the AFC West would define as a successful 2021 season. 

Kansas City Chiefs

This is an easy one. A successful season for the Chiefs is winning the Super Bowl. Period. When your quarterback is Patrick Mahomes and your head coach is Andy Reid, you expect to not just make the Super Bowl, but to win it.

In Mahomes' first three seasons as a starter, he has made it to the AFC Championship Game and lost, won the Super Bowl, and then most recently lost in the Super Bowl. Mahomes and Co. are the clear favorites in this division and really the AFC as a whole. The front office was aggressive in improving this roster and filling holes with a good mixture of young and veteran talent. Specifically, improving the offensive line was a major point of emphasis for this team after the unit struggled for most of the season and was the main reason why they lost the most recent Super Bowl to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now with an entirely new offensive line led by new left tackle Orlando Brown and left guard Joe Thuney, this team is ready to roll, and I fully expect them to be the team to come out of the AFC and play in Los Angeles come February. 

Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders are a bit trickier than the Chiefs but still pretty straightforward. For the Raiders' season to be deemed successful, they have to make the postseason. We are now entering year four of the 10-year contract Jon Gruden signed and we have yet to see a record that’s above .500. That is simply unacceptable, especially when you consider all of the elite talents that Gruden shipped out in order to implement his vision with this football team. Under Gruden, the team has gone 4-12, 7-9, and 8-8 most recently in 2020. While the improvement is appreciated, the Raiders didn’t make Gruden one of the highest-paid coaches in NFL history to go 8-8. 

Las Vegas has all of the pieces to take that next step and be a playoff team. Quarterback Derek Carr is coming off one of his best seasons and Gruden has done a solid job surrounding Carr with quality talent such as tight end Darren Waller, running back Josh Jacobs, and wide receiver John Brown. The offensive line is now a major question mark after once being the strength of this football team as Gruden jettisoned out Trent Brown, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson this past offseason.

Defensively, the Raiders have some solid young players who Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have invested high draft capital in, but they need to all take the next step in order for this defense to improve. Obviously bringing over Gus Bradley as the new defensive coordinator should help, but the NFL is about the jimmies and joes rather than the x’s and o’s and it's time for these young Raider defenders to improve. While Gruden’s seat may not be hot now, I do believe if the Raiders miss the postseason next year things could and should change. 

Los Angeles Chargers 

It would be easy to say that making the playoffs would qualify the Chargers' season as successful—and while that is true, I don’t think that’s the only way for the Chargers to have a successful season. The Chargers are always an offseason darling and are often dubbed a sneaky playoff team because their roster is usually pretty talented, and their quarterback is good. The same is happening now and you’ll be hard-pressed to find playoff predictions for the 2021 season that don’t include the Chargers as a wild-card team.

While I definitely think this team can make the playoffs next year, I think it’s an unfair expectation heading into the season. The team is breaking in a brand-new coach and a brand-new staff. While Brandon Staley is very likely to be an improvement over Anthony Lynn, he is still a first-time head coach. It’s hard to win right away in the NFL and for every Sean McVay or Kevin Stefanski, there's Joe Judge and Brian Flores who might need a year or two to get their football team to where they want it to be. 

A successful season for the Chargers would be winning somewhere between eight-to-nine games, but more importantly, it needs to be a season in which quarterback Justin Herbert builds off his historic rookie campaign and firmly establishes himself as a top-seven (or so) quarterback in the league. Now, if that happens, the Chargers most likely will be in the playoffs, but I think Herbert taking another step in the right direction for his long-term development is more important than sneaking into the postseason as the second or third wild-card team.

Another key indicator of success for the Chargers is if they are better in situational football and special teams. If the team can show marked improvement in those areas and Staley can prove he is a savvy coach, then this team will be in an excellent position for the next five years. 

Denver Broncos

In this circumstance, a successful season for the Broncos may mean one thing for head coach Vic Fangio but could mean something completely different to new general manager George Paton. Starting with Fangio, after finishing his first two seasons with a combined record of 12-20 and missing the playoffs both years, Fangio is squarely on the hot seat. For Fangio, a successful season is a trip to the postseason and getting himself some more job security.

Meanwhile, the ink is still fresh on George Paton’s new six-year contract and he is most likely looking at this season from a completely different lens. For Paton, this is an evaluation year and he’s trying to get a feel on if his key players are building blocks for the future, or assets that he needs to move on from. Specifically, Paton will have his eye on the development of quarterback Drew Lock to see if he is a player that can be the franchise quarterback moving forward. Fangio, on the other hand, won’t really care about the development of Lock and in all reality would rather start newly acquired quarterback Teddy Bridgewater if it meant a better chance at winning football games.

The dynamic of a new general manager inheriting a coach on the hot seat is always awkward and, in most circumstances, results in the head coach getting fired after the season. In a perfect world, Lock takes a step forward and the Broncos make the playoffs and both Fangio and Paton see the success they were hoping for. For Fangio’s sake, I hope that happens.

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