What we need is not always what we get.
This is perhaps self-evident, living in a world where a simple walk around the block now requires a protective mask. In the end, we're all the same: We plan the best we can, we try to make the right decisions when given the chance, and we cross our fingers for some good fortune along the way. NFL franchises are the same way. They've spent the balance of this unprecedentedly bizarre offseason trying to build their teams into eventual champions. But even the best-run organizations have to traffic in the uneasy realm of blind faith. There's only so much you can control.
With that in mind, let's take a look at six pivotal situations surrounding players, coaches and teams in the NFL and break down how those situations could ultimately decide the team's fate in 2020:
The Buffalo Bills need ... Josh Allen to take the next step. It's all there now. A solid offensive line, an improved receiving group led by Stefon Diggs and a weakened AFC East no longer lorded over by Tom Brady. This should be Buffalo's division ... but is Allen the guy behind center to take the Bills to the next level? It's one thing to be a franchise on the come up -- a fair way to describe the Bills in 2019 -- but they won't make the step up to legit Super Bowl contender unless Allen improves as a passer. That means making gains in accuracy, decision-making and ball security. Does the big man have it in him? The Bills believe it, as do most of their fans. This is the pivotal year.
Bill Belichick needs ... Jarrett Stidham to be ready -- or does he? The New England Patriots said goodbye to Brady, but declined to get into business with any big names in a historically deep free agent QB class. Then, in a move I'm convinced was made (at least partly) to confound people like me, the Patriots opted not to take a quarterback in the draft. Cam Newton is still out there, but Belichick and the Patriots may actually be serious about putting all their eggs in the Stidham basket -- with Brian Hoyer as the world's least-trustworthy safety net. Of course, there's also the possibility that Belichick -- diabolical genius that he is -- wouldn't mind going down in flames in 2020 if he was in love with a QB in the 2021 draft class. The Hooded One always keeps us on our toes ... you gotta give him that.
Sam Darnold needs ... Adam Gase to know what he's doing. We'll stay in the AFC East (who said this division is boring?) and focus on Darnold, the talented former first-round pick who's been trapped in green purgatory in his first two pro seasons. New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas is trying to change that in 2020, running point on a complete overhaul of the offensive line while adding wide receiver Breshad Perriman in free agency and Baylor star Denzel Mims through the draft. Tight end Chris Herndon looms as a potential X-factor after his 2019 was wiped away by suspension and injuries. But does New York have the right man to turn these pieces into a functioning offense? The list of skill players who went on to thrive after leaving Gase's system is growing (see: Ryan Tannehill, DeVante Parker, Kenyan Drake and Mike Gesicki). The nightmare of every Jets fan is Darnold maturing into a star quarterback on somebody else's team because of ineptitude from the coaching staff and front office in Florham Park. It's high time for Gase to prove Peyton Manning right.
The Chicago Bears need ... Khalil Mack to go off. A year ago, the Bears thought their biggest issue was finding a kicker who wouldn't yack on his cleats come playoff time. Chicago then regressed all over the place in 2019 en route to a 8-8 third-place finish in the NFC North. Mitchell Trubisky was the easy guy to blame for the team's struggles, but that's a little too neat. The defense wasn't nearly as dominant as it was during its 12-4 season of 2018, and Mack -- the unit's unquestioned centerpiece -- finished with just 8.5 sacks, the second-lowest total of his career. Mack was still a handful, but the opposition was able to neutralize him some with double- and triple-team blocking assignments. Enter Robert Quinn, the big-money, free-agent acquisition who will be asked to take some of the spotlight off Mack. If Quinn can replicate his 2019 production in Dallas (11.5 sacks), a healthy Mack should return to the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. This Bears team needs a truly great defense to matter in 2020.
The Pittsburgh Steelers need ... Big Ben to still be Big Ben. Ben Roethlisberger was the franchise rock in Pittsburgh for a decade and a half before an elbow injury ended his 2019 season after two weeks. Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges both failed to spark the offense when given their opportunities, and the Steelers -- somewhat curiously -- have so far opted against upgrading their depth chart behind Roethlisberger, now 38 years old and coming off reconstructive elbow surgery. It's perhaps notable to take a look at a couple other future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who entered the league in the same year as Big Ben. Eli Manning lost his job to Daniel Jones and retired in January. Philip Rivers is starting over in Indy after a turnover-marred 2019 campaign spooked the Chargers into starting over with Justin Herbert. If Roethlisberger's '04 draft compadres couldn't duck Father Time, what chance does Big Ben have? Every player is different, of course, and -- who knows -- Roethlisberger could end up rejuvenated by the time off. It just feels like a substantial roll of the dice in Pittsburgh.
The Carolina Panthers need ... to be right about Cam Newton. After back-to-back seasons were compromised by injuries, Carolina decided to get out of the Cam Newton business. In March, the team announced it had given Newton permission to seek a trade (a farce rightly called out by Cam), then cut ties with the former MVP when no trade suitors materialized. Newton currently resides in limbo, the travel and team facility restrictions of a COVID-19 world no doubt playing a role in his continuing unemployment. Cam will get work eventually, and one can imagine the competitor in him has been gifted with a full tank of motivational fuel. The Panthers pivoted to Teddy Bridgewater, a perfectly fine system quarterback who lacks the dynamism of a healthy Newton. If Bridgewater is steady and the Panthers win, Carolina fans will have no problem with the team's decision to move on from the greatest player in franchise history. But if Bridgewater struggles? If the Panthers aren't winning? And if Newton finds a starting job elsewhere and returns to his old ways? It will be seen as one of the great organizational gaffes in recent memory. Forget "Keep Pounding" ... I'd recommend keep praying.