By Pete Baxter
Among the major American professional sports, the NFL is one of the best at creating consistent parity. This is what has made the league’s great dynasties so few and far between. It is what makes the success of the Belichick/Brady duo so impressive. Such sustained success is likely impossible to ever duplicate in the future.
Therefore, within the league, success can be a fleeting. No matter how stacked an NFL squad may look on paper, the football gods have an unlimited arsenal of weapons at their disposal to bring them back down to Earth. Injuries, age, stale coaching, player’s personal lives, and countless other factors can turn a promising playoff team into a bottom dweller.
With that said, what team has had the worst misfortune so far this year? Who has fallen the shortest of the lofty expectations set by their fans and the media prior to the season?
The Kansas City Chiefs have been the most talked about underachiever so far this season. Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and company are coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and were widely considered favorites to return to the big game this year. However, they currently find themselves at 3-3 and looking fully mortal. Their defense is a disaster, giving up an incredibly bad seven yards per play, and Patrick Mahomes has already exceeded his interception total from last year.
However, it seems safe to say that this is rock bottom for this squad, and they will only climb in the power rankings from here. A huge percentage of pundits kept them in their top-10 in weekly power rankings even when they had a losing record. Let’s face it, Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the gang will find a way to will this team into the playoffs. Despite their slow start, they are still a major threat in this league, and are not worthy of being crowned the league’s biggest disappointment at this time.
More Teams from the Abyss
Other contenders for this dishonor include the Miami Dolphins, whose upward trajectory of the past two years has taken a nosedive. Head Coach Brian Flores has gone from hero to hot seat. The whole world seems ready to abandon Tua Tagovailoa as the team has started an abysmal 1-5.
That said, despite the team’s improvement from 5-11 to 10-6 last season, no one in their right mind really thought they would challenge the Buffalo Bills for the division. Just as few had faith that Tua would show significant improvement. Have they been a disappointment? Certainly. But they do not take the top spot.
Some have considered the Steelers as a disappointment this season. Perhaps that is simply because we are so used to Big Ben and Mike Tomlin finding a way to overcome adversity to find eventual success. However, after watching Ben Roethlisberger at the tail end of last year, I cannot believe anyone honestly thought this team was better than a .500 squad. 3-3 seems to suit them just fine at this point, so they too fall short of the ultimate dishonor.
With that, let’s take a look at the NFL’s most disappointing team of the 2021 season thus far:
The Indianapolis Colts
The Colts take the cake as the league’s most disappointing squad through six weeks.
Expectations were set exceptionally high for this team heading into the season. In 2019, the narrative was that this team was just a quarterback away from contention and bridge quarterback Jacoby Brissett (thrust into action following Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement) took an unfair amount of blame for the team’s mediocre 7-9 showing.
In 2020, the team took the next step with the ghost of Philip Rivers at quarterback. Rivers was far from his prime Chargers form but at age 38 was enough of an upgrade to help the team improve to 11-5 and reach the playoffs. Rivers retired following the season but had helped further the narrative that this was a complete team who just needed a new franchise quarterback to become Super Bowl contenders. The Colts had finished the 2020 season with a top-10 offense and defense.
Most impressively, they had solved the offensive line woes that had helped drive Luck into retirement. They were easily a top-10 unit in 2020 and were considered by Pro Football Focus to be the second-best offensive line in the league entering the 2021 season.
And now, behind that dominant offensive line would be the team’s new franchise quarterback. Enter former MVP candidate and Super Bowl champion Carson Wentz.
High Expectations for Wentz, Higher Expectations for the Team
Carson Wentz had watched his status as an elite quarterback go up in flames during a brutal 2020 season in Philadelphia. Wentz tied for the league lead in interceptions and completed just 57% of his passes. He ultimately lost his starting job to rookie Jalen Hurts. Wentz was hardly the only issue dragging down the Eagles last year. The entire franchise gradually devolved into a complete dumpster fire. Head Coach Doug Pederson was constantly at odds with management and eventually lost his job despite winning a Super Bowl less than three years earlier.
However, Wentz had been good enough prior to that 2020 debacle for most to chalk his struggles up to simply being a symptom of the Eagles’ overall self-destruction. The Colts’ head coach, Frank Reich, had found success as Carson Wentz’ offensive coordinator in 2016 and 2017. Reich helped mold Wentz into an MVP candidate during the quarterback’s second season. He seemed like the perfect leader to help Wentz return to form. It seemed like a no brainer for the Colts to acquire the disgruntled quarterback as the Eagles looked to reboot. The Colts acquired Wentz for a 2021 third-round pick and a 2022 conditional second-round pick.
So, there we had it. The Colts had a great defense, a great offensive line, and a solid arsenal of weapons like T.Y. Hilton, Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. All Wentz had to do was prove he was a viable starter again, and this team would be right back in the playoffs. If Wentz were to return to elite status, this team could become champions. The only questioned seemed to be, could Wentz bounce back?
Not So Fast
Fast-forward to the present, and the Colts find themselves struggling mightily at 2-4 through six games. The team picked by many to win the AFC South find themselves clinging to a one game lead over the abysmal Texans and Jaguars for second place, no threat to the 4-2 Titans. A major disappointment to say the least.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the 2021 Indianapolis Colts is that Carson Wentz, the team’s biggest question mark coming into the season, has been perhaps the team’s biggest bright spot. Wentz was just named Pro Football Focus’s Offensive Player of the Week. He has solved his turnover struggles with just one interception through six games (for an outstanding 9-1 td/interception ratio). Carson Wentz has been really, really good.
What Went Wrong?
The defense has taken a step back. A dominant performance again the Houston Texans in week 6 (which isn’t that much to brag about) has helped the team move up the defensive rankings into the middle of the pack. However, they have gone from a top-10 to a barely top-20 squad for most of the season.
The offensive line has been a huge disappointment. Carson Wentz has been running for his life. Harold Landry of the Tennessee Titans was able to generate a whopping 12 pressures (and five QB hits) by himself against this line in week three. Wentz has been sacked 14 times in six games.
Injuries have played a huge role. Wentz has been banged up himself with two sprained ankles. Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson has found himself on the IR. Cornerbacks T.J. Carrie and Rock Ya-Sin along with Safety Andrew Sendejo have headlined injuries to an obliterated defensive backfield (which was considered one of the team’s few weaknesses already heading into the season). The wide receiving corps has been hit especially hard. Four-time Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton is once again banged up having just returned from the IR. It is now being reported that Parris Campbell is dealing with a foot injury.
Can the Colts turn this thing around? Theoretically, yes.
This would not be the first time Frank Reich has dug his team out of a deep hole. They started the 2018 season 1-5 before winning nine of their last 10 games. Carson Wentz put a severely banged up and short-handed Eagles squad on his back (climbing back into the MVP conversation) and led them to a wildcard berth in 2019.
As noted, they are blessed to be in a weak division. The Jaguars and Texans pose zero threat, and the Titans, while a good team, are beatable. If the Colts can go on a similar winning tear to that of 2018, and the Titans come back down to Earth after their shocking upset victory over Buffalo, anything is possible. Far-fetched and highly unlikely, but possible. However, as injuries continue to mount up, the slim window for a potential turnaround seems to be getting smaller as the weeks go by.
But, regardless, the first six weeks of 2021 have been a massive disappointment for Indy. So much so, that they have earned the title of the most disappointing NFL team of the 2021 season thus far.