In the NFL, many playoff contenders are not defined by outright excellence so much as perseverance.
Regular-season results are seldom a pure reflection of teams’ roster strength, as injuries and other challenges can test any franchise’s resolve. And this year has proven to be no exception to that rule. But some groups are more equipped than others to find some degree of success amid otherwise suboptimal circumstances.
With that in mind, we asked USA TODAY Sports’ NFL reporters and columnists: Which NFL figure — be it a coach, player or general manager — has done the most with the least this year?
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Jason Garrett. Him again? Well, yes. With Garrett, once the embattled coach of the Dallas Cowboys, now pushing the buttons in his first year as offensive coordinator for the Giants, his improving unit has salvaged some hope and December relevance after things were so bleak during the first half of a season that went sideways when star running back Saquon Barkley suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week 2. Look at them now: The Giants head into a Sunday matchup of, um, “division leaders,” at Seattle with the franchise’s first three-game winning streak since 2016 while Garrett’s offense produced a season-high 386 yards with more than 37 minutes of possession time (most in a game by the G-men since 2013) in the Week 12 win at Cincy.
No, Garrett, whose Cowboys offense ranked No. 1 in the league for yardage last season, hasn’t suddenly produced a juggernaut without Barkley. But the offense has been resourceful, cutting down on the turnovers and demonstrating red zone efficiency that is sorely needed with six of New York’s past seven games decided by 3 points or less. Wayne Gallman, Jr. (five consecutive games with a rushing TD) has found a rhythm in filling in for Barkley while the most productive target in the passing game is a tight end, Evan Engram (44 catches). That the quarterback, Daniel Jones, is the leading rusher with 403 yards, most ever by a Giants quarterback (eclipsing Fran Tarkenton’s 306 yards from 1967) is further illustration of the duct-tape job that Garrett has done with his unit. Now he’s challenged to keep it flowing as Jones nurses a hamstring injury and Colt McCoy steps in, seeking his first victory as a starter since beating Garrett and the Cowboys in 2014. In any event, after losing its best player, starting 0-5 and then 1-7, the Giants (4-7) lead the NFC East with a tiebreaker edge gained in a sweep over Washington (4-7). Garrett doesn’t have the glitzy weapons he had in Dallas, but is demonstrating that he can indeed still make some chicken salad.
As with any year, quite a few impressive coaching jobs in 2020. The Browns’ Kevin Stefanski, Panthers’ Matt Rhule, Giants’ Joe Judge — all first-year NFL HCs, it should be noted — and the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan, whose roster has been ravaged by injuries, all come to mind. But I think the most impressive sideline performance to date must be attributed to the Dolphins’ Brian Flores. He’s working with quite a few rookies and newly added free agents — not an easy recipe for success during a pandemic — but has managed to blend those disparate parts into a club that currently holds a wild-card spot and could still win the AFC East. Aside from CB Xavien Howard, there probably isn’t a Pro Bowler on Miami’s roster. Flores has also done a nice job managing a tricky quarterback situation between rookie Tua Tagavailoa and vet Ryan Fitzpatrick, the duo leading the Fins in six of their last seven games despite a switch from Fitz to Tua and then back. Brian Flores, 2020 coach of the year? You’d have to say he’s at least a serious frontrunner.
When the Panthers wooed Matt Rhule from Baylor to Carolina, they coughed up seven years and $62 million of compensation. The implication: This team was a rebuilding project, and ownership was willing to be patient. Rhule had proven he could turn around Temple and Baylor’s programs, and Panthers owner David Tepper eyed a similar result with his franchise. At 4-8, the Panthers aren’t on pace to snag a playoff spot. But they’re playing scrappy, tough football despite changing coaches amid a pandemic and despite losing All-Pro multipurpose threat Christian McCaffrey for nine of their 12 games. The league’s best teams can’t rest easy knowing the Panthers fell to 9-2 New Orleans by just 3 points and to 10-1 Kansas City by 2. They beat a talented Cardinals team and bested Detroit by 20 with a quarterback fresh out of the XFL. Growing pains, no doubt, exist. Carolina will need time to amass talent on par with much of the league, and Rhule blamed his coaching in last week’s 28-27 loss to the Vikings. “I try to look and see where the fault lies,” Rhule said, “and today I would put it squarely on us as a staff, which starts with me.” That transparency and accountability sets the tone in the organization. It won’t translate to a winning record in 2020, but Rhule’s ability to maximize his roster and instill a blue-collar culture so readily is a win for the franchise’s long-term future.
I’d have to say Kyle Shanahan. The Super Bowl runner-ups have been hit hard by injury this season, currently have a league-high 15 players on injured reserve — many of them starters or key contributors. Yet, the Niners remain competitive at 5-6 and are coming off of a sweep of the Los Angeles Rams, who had been leading the NFC West. The fact that this team is hovering around .500 without their starting quarterback, top pass-rusher and many other leading play-makers on both sides of the ball is a huge testament to the work that Shanahan and his assistants have done.