The NFL tends to operate with the same basic barometer — “Just win, baby!” — thanks to the parity that results from a hard salary cap and an annually impactful draft. The reality is, unless your name is Jeff Fisher, you have to make the playoffs in your first two years as a head coach or you’ll be looking for work.
But success can still be relative for teams in different stages of rebuilding, ascending and ready to contend. The strength of the division, the conference and the schedule can set different bars from team to team.
Here at All22.com, we’re going division by division to set the bars for these teams for this season. Here’s what will make for successful seasons in the AFC South:.Houston Texans (9-7, first place, lost to Kansas City in wildcard round in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Texans win 11 games and the division and reach the AFC Championship Game. Last year was a nice step into postseason play for Bill O’Brien’s group, and after a big free-agent spending period that netted starting quarterback and running back, Houston should be ready to take the next step — we’re thinking to the doorstep of the Super Bowl. It’s an unheard of for the franchise that spawned in 2002, but it’s reasonable in a wide-open AFC.
Why it should happen: Houston has a quarterback now. Brock Osweiler still has plenty more to prove than his $37 million guaranteed would suggest, but the 6-foot7, 243-pound passer will bring a clear-cut starter to a team that hasn’t had one yet under O’Brien. After the way the Texans shuffled through four starters last year and still won the division, he should be an improvement. The signing of Lamar Miller will take the pressure off Osweiler, and together, they’ll take some expectation away from the defense, specifically J.J. Watt, who seemed overextended last season. The AFC South should be better than it was a year ago, but it still isn’t as strong as some divisions.
And if it doesn’t: The Texans might be a year away, or they could add to a long narrative that you don’t build a team through free agency. That’s certainly not all they’ve done, as the selections of Watt and rising star possession receiver DeAndre Hopkins were their draft picks. But we could start to see that throwing a $72 million contract at a quarterback with seven career starts was a little bit reactionary now that Osweiler has to do far more than Denver required of him.
Indianapolis Colts (8-8, second place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Colts win 11 games, win the division and reach the AFC Championship Game. It’s the level the Colts were at in 2014, before injuries wrecked their franchise quarterback. Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson are going to have to deliver something substantial to show last season was just an aberration. Luck needs to show last year’s turnover and accuracy issues were related to injuries and the crippling forces around him and not something deeper.
Why it should happen: Luck seems to be healthy after a injury-plagued 2015. That was Indianapolis’ own doing after ignoring pass protection for too long, but this year, the team drafted center Ryan Kelly in the first round, as well as three other offensive linemen. If Luck is healthy and isn’t forced into the situations where he forces turnovers, he should be able to take advantage of an offense that is still loaded with weapons in T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Dwayne Allen and capable running back Frank Gore.
And if it doesn’t: It’s quite possible Pagano and Grigson could be looking for work. It’s surprising enough that both were able to survive last season, and at some point, owner Jim Irsay has to realize how easy it is to get good management to run a team led by Luck. If Luck isn’t able to bounce back, he might start to face some questions nobody saw coming just a few years ago.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11, third place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Jaguars win eight games. After the way it spent this offseason on both sides of the ball, it’s time for Jacksonville to take a big step forward after five straight years of five wins or fewer. At some point, all the talk about the Jaguars winning the draft has to materialize into victories for coach Gus Bradley.
Why it should happen: After years of searching, the Jaguars have their quarterback. Blake Bortles led the league with 18 interceptions last year, but he took tremendous strides in his productivity, totaling more than 4,400 yards to go with 35 touchdowns. The passing game only looks to get better with young receivers Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas. The 27th-ranked running game should get a boost from newly-signed Chris Ivory. The defense held the Jaguars back last year, but with prized signing Malik Jackson and 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler Jr. rushing the passer and additions Tashaun Gipson and Prince Amukamara defending the throws, Jacksonville should be more competitive in a division with good, young quarterbacks.
And if it doesn’t: A fourth straight losing season might be it for Bradley, especially if it comes by the likely result of his defense yet again not being up to par. General manager David Caldwell’s seat couldn’t be much cooler, either. The Jaguars could showcase what NFL teams often do, that winning the offseason does not at all mean winning the actual season.
Tennessee Titans (3-13, fourth place in 2015)
It’ll be a successful season if: The Titans win six games behind a healthy Marcus Mariota. It’s taken time to flip the talent level in Tennessee, which was the most barren in the league just more than a year ago. With a quarterback to build around in Mariota and the organization’s commitment to establishing the ground game, a few results need to justify what some might see as a backward offensive approach in today’s vertical game.
Why it should happen: Mariota’s rookie season went about as well as anyone could have expected given how steep the transition from Oregon was. He established himself as a dual-threat quarterback who can work through a mess around him, and this year, that mess should be significantly cleaned up. The Titans have reworked the offensive line and added talented running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to create what should be a good ground game. The vertical threat isn’t there, and the defense still needs some work, but a clear offensive identity that’s tough to stop could pick off a few more wins.
And if it doesn’t: It’ll stunt the growth of a franchise quarterback who might suddenly be stuck in a system that isn’t a good fit. First-year coach Mike Mularkey and first-year general manager Jon Robinson will have more than this year to work with if they can avoid disaster, but fans might start to wonder how long this rebuild will need.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.