If fan confidence levels actually correlate to a team’s success on the field, the AFC North may become the most exciting division to watch in the entire National Football League in the coming years.
FanPulse, which is run by SB Nation, interviews fans of all teams around the league. Recently, they assessed the confidence level fans had in their teams by asking them, “Do you believe your team is headed in the right direction?” FanPulse asked this question at three distinct points in the season. The data below tells a bit of the offseason story for each team in the AFC North.
From the “Factory of Sadness” to the “Warehouse of Optimism” the emotions of this fanbase know no bounds. And rightfully so. The Cleveland Browns have excellent young talent at key positions on both sides of the ball. And yet, fans have to reconcile this with the fact that this talent resulted in a 6-10 campaign that was only worsened by the extreme hype and expectations from the offseason. One can’t blame their fans from feeling like they’re heading in the right direction. To be brutally honest, that’s not hard when you’re starting at the bottom, where the Browns have lived for years. That said, the Ravens and others have every reason to treat them as a threat. Turning around a company, organization, or team begins with brutal honesty, and from their draft picks, to their free agency choices, to firing Freddie Kitchens, this team looks ready to confront the facts and move on. They are a team to be respected, not feared, in 2020.
The Pittsburgh Steelers finished last season 8-8. In free agency, they picked up TE Eric Ebron, FB Derek Watt, and OG Stephen Wisniewski. Eighty per cent of fans have confidence in the Steelers going in the right direction.
It seems abundantly clear that this confidence is predicated upon one key variable: Ben Roethlisberger’s health and longevity. At 38, Roethlisberger is two years older than Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers traded up to get a first round quarterback they believe can carry the team after Rodgers. After a tumultuous year with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges under center, it was almost a foregone conclusion the Steelers would look to the draft for a successor. They did not and instead drafted help for Roethlisberger at wide receiver with Chase Claypool and at running back with Anthony McFarland. For a franchise that prides itself on being competitive year in and year out, this is a gamble. Last year, fans witnessed what an elite defense can do without a serviceable arm on offense - middle of the pack.
The Bengals combined record in the past three seasons is 19-28. They’ve finished third or fourth in the division in each of those years.
In free agency, the team didn’t make any big splashes, but it was clear that improving the defense was the objective. They signed several defensive backs, including Trae Waynes from the Minnesota Vikings. They also signed D.J. Reader from the Houston Texans to help the defensive line and Josh Bynes from the Baltimore Ravens to support the linebacker room. Their defense gave up 420 points last year, seventh most.
When you pair those acquisitions with selecting the best quarterback prospect in some time, it’s no surprise that Bengals fans feel confident they are heading in the right direction. Their strategy makes sense. They’re not trying to hit a home run in 2020. They’re trying to build a team that can be competitive in 2021.
The Ravens finished the year 14-2, ending the regular season with the best record in the NFL. This included a 12 game winning streak. Despite a loss to the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs, fans recognize this team is young, have an MVP quarterback, and a head coach and general manager who are proven, with an elite defense to boot.
Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe improve the defensive line. Additionally, the Ravens leveraged the draft to improve options for playmakers on offense and to sure up an offensive line that will miss the All-Pro production of Marshal Yanda. Despite his exit, fans clearly have reason to believe the Ravens are headed in the right direction. No one will argue that.
Confidence is high for all four teams. Their offseasons have all been success stories by this measure. Yet, as we know, not all stories will have a happy ending. Come December, only one or maybe two of these teams will make the playoffs.