This is the time of year when most every fan base has hope. No games have been lost, no players have been injured and roster reconstructions are in full swing -- with the 2020 NFL Draft right around the corner.
Recent examples indicate that the leaders of these teams should face greater scrutiny than most, based on faulty decisions that have kept them running in place, at best, or falling farther behind, at worst. The lowlights:
Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans
Bill O'Brien is both the head coach and the general manager, which is as good a place to start as any.
Most league owners believe in a system of checks and balances when it comes to their football operations. They fear that giving complete control to one person could create an environment in which feelings and personalities influence decisions. Oftentimes, the coach needs a buffer to keep him from making emotional decisions, just as a general manager needs a counterbalance to avoid rushes to judgment on players. The perils of not having a separation of powers can be seen in the moves O'Brien has made over the last two years.
Because coaches regularly feel the pressure to win now, they're known to want to make moves with little or no regard for anything beyond the current season. O'Brien appeared to be guilty of that last August, when he traded valuable draft capital -- two first-round picks and a second-rounder -- for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills, two veterans who could strengthen the 2019 Texans. An experienced general manager might have pushed the pause button, realizing the value of having high draft picks on rookie contracts for at least four years. He would balance the present against the future. O'Brien appeared to go all in, which became more problematic after the Texans were bounced in the Divisional Round -- having blown a 24-0 lead over the Chiefs before amazingly losing the game by 20 points -- and now find themselves without a first-round pick until 2022.
Also, personnel people around the league scratched their heads at how O'Brien mismanaged the situation with the first player he ever drafted in Houston, former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. The error was not in slapping the franchise tag on the standout edge defender last offseason; it was becoming frustrated at the prospect of Clowney sitting out all (or part of) the season because of an inability to come to terms on a multi-year deal, and then trading him in a panic on August 31. Waiting until such a late date meant the Texans had no leverage because teams ostensibly had set their rosters and locked in their salary structures.
An experienced general manager would have known the importance of playing out every scenario ahead of time, then deciding what to do with Clowney before the start of the new league year, which is what the Chiefs and Seahawks did that offseason with their franchised edge rushers. They recognized that they were unwilling to pay the players and decided they would seek to trade them during the first month of free agency. Seattle came away with first- and second-round draft picks in exchange for Frank Clark, while Kansas City secured a second-rounder for Dee Ford.
The Texans got only a third-round pick and two veteran reserves for Clowney, who arguably was the most disruptive of the three players. As if that weren't bad enough, O'Brien appeared to have topped himself with an even more baffling trade last month, when he sent three-time All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals in exchange for oft-injured running back David Johnson, his $10.2 million base salary and a second-round pick.
There are rumblings that O'Brien and Hopkins did not mesh. There also is talk that the Texans feared Hopkins was going to seek a top-of-the-market contract, which would have hindered their ability to build out the roster. A capable general manager possibly could have found a way to make either of those things work. But with no one as a counterbalance to O'Brien, one of the most inexplicable trades in recent memory went through, which is as good a reason as any to doubt whether Houston and O'Brien will get it right in the draft and beyond.
Bob Quinn, Detroit Lions
General manager Bob Quinn fired coach Jim Caldwell after the 2017 season, despite three winning campaigns and two playoff appearances in four years. The explanation was that the club needed to take that next step -- never mind that the Lions had managed just two winning seasons and one playoff trip (no wins) in the previous 14 years.
Since then, with Matt Patricia being brought in to succeed Caldwell, the Lions have gone 6-10 and 3-12-1. Their drafts have been meh, at best, with a decent number of starters but limited impact performers. Quinn and Patricia both came from the Patriots, so it figures they would lean on that background during times of strife. Their free-agent signings in 2019 included three former Patriots -- edge rusher Trey Flowers, cornerback Rashaan Melvin and wideout Danny Amendola -- and this offseason they've added a former Patriot on every level of their defense: tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Duron Harmon.
While some of those moves might prove beneficial, a case can easily be made that the roster was weakened by the trade of cornerback Darius Slay to the Eagles. Slay wasn't just the Lions' best defensive back, he was their best defensive player. Adding Desmond Trufant, who was cut by the Falcons this offseason, does not fill the void.
Perhaps the Lions will use the No. 3 overall pick on Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, who is considered an elite talent and the best available prospect at the position. Or perhaps they will trade back. Whatever they ultimately do, the fact remains they're still searching for their first high-impact, high draft pick under Quinn.
Ryan Pace, Chicago Bears
If Ryan Pace could find talent in the first round the way he locates it in the middle rounds, the Bears would be a force. Unfortunately, Chicago's general manager has struggled to land impact players at the top of the draft.
Pace has made four first-round selections in his five drafts, each coming in the top 10. Two of them -- wideout Kevin White (No. 7 in 2015) and edge rusher Leonard Floyd (No. 9 in 2016) -- are no longer with the team, and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (No. 2 in 2017) has been so disappointing he likely will have to compete with veteran Nick Foles for the starting job this year. Only linebacker Roquan Smith has shown signs of living up to expectations, as the eighth pick of the 2018 draft. Meanwhile, Pace has found steals in the middle rounds, like safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos, running backs Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard, and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski.
Pace's five previous seasons in free agency have been a mixed bag. For every upgrade (such as linebacker Danny Trevathan, defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, wideout Allen Robinson and returner Cordarrelle Patterson) there have been multiple costly whiffs (like linebacker Pernell McPhee, quarterback Mike Glennon, kicker Cody Parkey, wideout Eddie Royal, safety Quintin Demps and tight end Dion Sims).
The trade for edge rusher Khalil Mack before the 2018 season was central to the team's only winning season since going 10-6 in 2012, but the fallback to 8-8 last season reflects deficiencies that can be traced in part to first-round misses in the draft. Imagine if Pace had selected Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson in 2017, instead of Trubisky. Imagine if Floyd had been a capable complement to Mack, who is one of the game's most disruptive players. Imagine if White had been the No. 1 threat the club envisioned.
The fact that we are left to imagine these things is why you have to question whether the Bears will get it right this offseason.