While no one ever wants to throw in the towel, at some point, it can be beneficial for teams that are out of contention to begin looking ahead.
As the playoffs begin to fade from sight, the challenges and hurdles that must be dealt with next year come into focus, prompting the more prudent decision makers to pivot their gaze from the short term to the long. In some cases, this might mean playing a previously untested youngster over a known quantity with a limited ceiling. In other cases, it might mean strategically resting an important piece with an eye toward future longevity.
Here are four teams that, for all intents and purposes, are out of it -- and some players they should turn to with 2014 in mind.
1) Washington Redskins
Robert Griffin III doesn't seem to be the same player he was when he dazzled as a rookie. He's not making the same sorts of big plays in, say, third-and-long situations that he did before injuring his knee in his debut campaign. Looking ahead to next season, the Redskins obviously could use some additional help, especially on defense. However, they're currently without a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, as it was part of the package sent to the St. Louis Rams back in 2012 for the right to select RGIII. Given those two issues, the Redskins might be wise, once they're firmly out of playoff contention, to think about sitting RGIII for a couple of games and giving backup Kirk Cousins an extended look.
This is not likely to happen, thanks to the "never really out of it" illusion that can come with playing in the weak NFC East, as well as the acrimony that surrounded coach Mike Shanahan's decision to hold RGIII out of the preseason while he continued to recover from knee surgery. But if I were the Redskins, I would at least begin to think about making this move -- especially if the division slips out of reach a few games down the road and, say, RGIII suffers a few nicks or bruises that threaten to affect his health.
Presuming Griffin is the team's future at the position, it makes sense to ensure he'll be 100 percent next season. As for Cousins, he's not, strictly speaking, the kind of unknown quantity who usually gets late-season burn; the second-year pro garnered a fair amount of buzz after filling in for RGIII last year. However, giving Cousins yet another prominent showcase could stoke additional interest among potential trade partners, pushing up the price for acquiring him, and perhaps landing Washington some extra draft picks with which to fill some roster holes come May.
Again, there are several reasons Washington probably won't do this, not least among them the likelihood that coach Mike Shanahan will need to win a few more games to guarantee he'll keep his job. Ultimately, though, I wouldn't be too concerned about the kerfuffle spawned by the recent comments in which RGIII seemed to criticize the team's play-calling. I've known Shanahan a long time; he's dealt with a lot of talent over the years, and I think he usually has a pretty good relationship with his players.
2) Minnesota Vikings
One of the Vikings' most pressing tasks is to find a quarterback, especially one who can handle playing outdoors. (Remember: For the next two years, the team will be playing outside, at the University of Minnesota's stadium, while its new home is constructed.) And because Minnesota should already know what it has in Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, the reins should be turned over to Josh Freeman.
Freeman is something of an enigma, in that he seemed to put it all together in 2010 with the Buccaneers ... before the wheels fell off ahead of his ouster from Tampa Bay in early October. While he didn't play well in his debut with Minnesota after the Vikings picked him up, it's worth noting that he likely was hamstrung by a limited playbook. Now that he's had a chance to get used to the Vikings' system, the team needs to let him show what he can do -- and that means playing him for more than one or two weeks. Minnesota's schedule would provide a good litmus test as to what Freeman is capable of. If he can keep his team in games against opponents like the Bears, Ravens and Eagles, the Vikings can go into the draft secure in the knowledge that they don't urgently need a signal-caller.
Of course, the possibility that Leslie Frazier is coaching to keep his job makes for a tough dilemma: Does he go with the relatively untested alternative that might help the team down the line or the familiar option that might give him the surest chance to win the next game? That might be why Frazier announced on Wednesday that he'll stick with Ponder as his starter for at least one more week. Still, if the team wants to get a true picture of Freeman's potential, the 25-year-old has to see the field.
Another key piece to evaluate is rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Essentially drafted as the replacement for traded-away dynamo Percy Harvin, Patterson has gotten off to a slow start in the passing game, making most of his impact as a kick returner while collecting just 21 catches, 196 receiving yards and one touchdown. That's not very surprising, given Patterson's lack of collegiate experience (he spent just one season at Tennessee after transferring from junior college) and the complexity of coverage schemes at the pro level. Now, however, with 10 games under his belt, Patterson should be able to show the Vikings if he has what it takes to thrive in the NFL. On Sunday against the Seahawks, Patterson made the first start of his career and led the team in targets -- though he finished with just three catches for 28 yards.
Finally, on defense, Minnesota would do well to give more playing time to two rookies: tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Michael Mauti.
3) Houston Texans
Like the Vikings, the Texans are facing a huge question for next season: Who will be their quarterback? And like Minnesota, Houston would be smart to make sure to get a good, long look at potential answers on the roster. That means sticking with promising youngster Case Keenum and even giving some playing time to T.J. Yates -- while avoiding any temptation to go back to Matt Schaub.
Keenum exploded onto the scene with three strong starts before being benched for Schaub in Sunday's loss to the Raiders -- but the veteran Schaub completed just 12 of 25 passes, failing to get into the end zone when it mattered most. Keenum also struggled that day, but consider what he'd accomplished heading into the weekend: in three games, he'd completed 56 percent of his passes for 822 yards, seven touchdowns -- including five to veteran receiver Andre Johnson -- and no interceptions. The Texansmust firmly move on from Schaub and really see what they have in Keenum. It makes sense that the team will turn to the youngster again in Week 12.
Like Frazier, Kubiak is facing questions about his future with the team, and that will, of course, color the decisions he'll make as the rest of the season plays out. Ultimately, I don't think Kubiak will be fired, though Houston probably has to go at least 3-3 the rest of the way for him to be secure.
4) Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta has been one of the biggest disappointments of the season, dropping from 13-3 in 2012 to 2-8 in 2013. With little to do but play out the string, the Falcons should look to solve two key roster questions going forward:
1) Can they get better play out of the left tackle position?
2) Do they have anyone who can replace veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, assuming he doesn't return for an 18th season?
As for the former, the Falcons should give more playing time to Valdosta State product Ryan Schraeder. The one-time basketball player, who has seen action in seven games but has yet to start, might prove to be the solution there. Regarding the tight end position, rookie Levine Toilolo, drafted out of Stanford in the fourth round last April, is tall and athletic enough to start, though he might not be strong enough to contribute as a blocker. The trick, of course, is figuring out how to ask a long-serving veteran like Gonzalez to take a seat.
The running back position ended up being a key weakness for this team, with veteran free-agent addition Steven Jackson totaling just 192 yards in what has been an injury-filled season thus far. It's tough to know when the window closes for a running back, but it looks to have definitely shut for the 30-year-old, who is currently nowhere near close to matching discarded veteran Michael Turner's 10-touchdown output last season. Unfortunately for the Falcons, I don't see anyone on their roster who could solve that problem next season. Jacquizz Rodgers is more of a change-of-pace/third-down guy than someone who can shoulder a lead role.