2021 NFL turnaround candidates: Don't sleep on Cowboys, Jets

We've all felt left out.

It's not an unusual sensation during the playoffs.

If you're a Lions fan, you're thinking to yourself: YES, I ENJOY WATCHING TOM BRADY FLING LASERS IN JANUARY FOR THE SEVEN-THOUSANDTH YEAR IN A ROW, BUT WHEN ON GOD'S GREEN EARTH WILL DETROIT MAKE A DENT IN SOCIETY, ROUGH A COUPLE TEAMS UP AND REACH A SUPER BOWL BEFORE I'M INVARIABLY ENDED BY A 19,000-POUND ENGINE THAT RANDOMLY SEPARATES FROM A BOEING 777 WHILE FLYING ABOVE MY RENTAL PROPERTY?

It's a dark time for supporters of teams that lost their way: Football fans forced to watch superior clubs look and feel like championship material while one's own beloved franchise more closely resembled a band of misfits smoking the good stuff during a failed campaign that left a stench.

Your irritation is acceptable, but don't lose sight of the possibilities. Washington and Cleveland turned putrid seasons from 2019 into playoff journeys in 2020.

That got me pondering which outfits coming off shaky campaigns -- six wins at most! -- might be in for a playoff push come September.

THIS IS THE ESSENTIAL CONTENT YOU'VE BEEN ASKING FOR. Let's go!

Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys
6-10 · Third in NFC East

They were never the same after losing quarterback Dak Prescott to a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle against the Giants in Week 5. In his four complete starts, Prescott scattered defenses for 422.5 passing yards and 31.5 points per tilt. I'm ignoring the ponderous contract drama to presume he'll return to a lineup boasting a superior cast of pass catchers in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb.


A rosy dose of health will make all the difference for a team that placed a whopping 24 players on injured reserve. A battered front five toiled through eight line combinations (tied for third-most in the league, per NFL Research), while play-caller Kellen Moore did his best to dress up Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert as starting material after Andy Dalton was lost to a concussion and COVID-19. I'm not banking on a return to grace for Ezekiel Elliott, but I do like the idea of him increasingly sharing the backfield with spicy sidepiece Tony Pollard.


The defense was not unlike an air dirigible crashing into an unsuspecting village and leaving no survivors. Dan Quinn fizzled out as a head coach in Atlanta, but serves as a tangible upgrade over Mike Nolan at the coordinator spot. Nolan was in the wrong place at the wrong time, unfurling an overly complex scheme on a gaggle of players who never picked up the nuance over Zoom and seemed equally lost when live action commenced. Quinn is a high-energy coach who exited Seattle as a beloved play-caller before landing the Falcons gig. I remain suspicious of Mike McCarthy's ability to operate as a cutting-edge leader in today's environment, but Dallas is a logical candidate to push for the NFC East crown.

Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers
5-11 · Third in NFC South

Urban Meyer's hire in Jacksonville has stirred comparisons to Jimmy Johnson taking the Cowboys reins. But when I ponder Johnson parallels, it's Matt Rhule who comes to mind.


He formed a coaching staff essentially devoid of NFL experience, but pulled off five wins after groupthink had pegged Carolina as one of worst teams in football. Eight of the Panthers' losses were one-score defeats, including a 33-31 heartbreaker at Kansas City in early November. Previous stops at Temple and Baylor revealed Rhule as a shifter of culture -- and we saw hints of it last season in Carolina.


Carolina used all seven of its 2020 draft picks to bolster Phil Snow's defense and came out encouraged by the emerging play of front-door-sized behemoth Derrick Brown, playmaking safety Jeremy Chinn and edge man Yetur Gross-Matos (who did some damage lining up across from 2019 first-rounder Brian Burns).


On offense, coordinator Joe Brady netted head-coaching interviews after authoring an attack that overcame the loss of Christian McCaffrey to wind up as one of the league's more watchable units. Teddy Bridgewater is aptly named for the role he played -- a bridge over troubled waters (apologies) -- amid whispers the club might pursue Deshaun Watson in a trade that would leave the NFC South in a state of panic.


Even if they don't score Watson, the Panthers could nab a franchise signal-caller in a quarterback-rich draft. With innovate David Tepper operating as one of the league's most aggressive owners, prepare yourself for an active offseason potentially filled with a few jaw-dropping lever pulls.


Jimmy Johnson 2.0 resides in Charlotte.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
6-10 · Fourth in NFC West

My reasoning is simple: Kyle Shanahan is a top-three coach. He did more to prove that this season than during San Francisco's Super Bowl run a year ago. No team in football was more harassed with injuries, as the Niners deposited a league-high 31 players on injured reserve. Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Raheem Mostert, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk all missed substantial chunks of time on offense, while Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas and Richard Sherman made a combined nine starts for an overachieving, injury-ravaged defense.


It's fair to wonder about falloff on that side of the ball with inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans replacing the beloved Robert Saleh at coordinator. I trust the Niners to keep the vibe alive, especially on offense, where trusted assistant Mike McDaniel will take over coordinator duties. I had a Niners coach tell me at last year's NFL Scouting Combine -- the last time I hung out with anyone -- that McDaniel was not unlike a mad scientist. A brilliant schemer. A secret weapon who remains.


Will Shanahan and McDaniel be calling plays for Garoppolo or another? San Francisco is a second team to watch on the Watson front. Either way, book the Niners for next year's playoff party. They have every right to seethe over what occurred this past autumn.

New York Jets
New York Jets
2-14 · Fourth in AFC East

Twitter is populated with no shortage of hobby horses who put food on the table by flinging endless arrows at the New York Jets. Said jokesters must find new fodder after floundering coach Adam Gase was shown the door in favor of the previously mentioned Robert Saleh.


"Is this writer including the Jets simply for clicks?" the cunning reader might ask.


Negative. I wouldn't include the Jets if I didn't view Saleh as a transformative hire. Players adore him. Fellow coaches respect his ability to maximize talent. The rookie head coach inherits two juicy defensive starters in safety Marcus Maye (assuming the Jets re-sign him) and big-bodied night terror Quinnen Williams up front.


The offense is anchored by massively shaped left tackle Mekhi Becton. The second overall pick could be used on an affordable rookie quarterback, but it's possible the club decides upon a fresh look at Sam Darnold after the previous regime only did damage. Whatever happens under center -- perhaps even Watson? -- I adore the hire of ex-Niners aide Mike LaFleur to run an offense doused in Shanahan-fueled concepts.


The playoffs are a tall order in an increasingly thorny AFC East, but prepare yourself for an entirely different experience from the Jets.


Hobby horses begone!

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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