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Which NFL players and coaches are under the most pressure in 2021?

The media and some fans are questioning Bill Belichick's greatness after a subpar year without Tom Brady.Kathryn Riley/Getty

The NFL is in the midst of a six-week break for the summer. It’s one last chance to take a breather and get your mind and body right before training camp begins in late July and the grind of the season sets in.

For many in the NFL, this slow time on the calendar is much needed. Once the season starts, there will be constant pressure to perform — pressure to win now, to meet expectations, or to prove that you belong in the NFL.

Let’s take a look at the players and coaches (and one general manager) who are under the most pressure entering the 2021 season (in no particular order):


Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa: His rookie season was underwhelming, getting benched twice for Ryan Fitzpatrick and admitting he didn’t know the playbook well enough. But the Dolphins have handed Tua the keys in 2021, and now he doesn’t have any excuses. The Dolphins got rid of Fitzpatrick, added receivers Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, and built up the team around Tua. If he doesn’t show significant improvement this year, the Dolphins probably have to start all over again at quarterback.

Rams coach Sean McVay: He has a sparkling 43-21 record in four seasons, and is coming off a nice 10-6 campaign that included a playoff win. But that wasn’t enough for McVay, who made the controversial decision to dump 26-year-old Jared Goff — who took the Rams to a Super Bowl in 2018 — in favor of 33-year-old Matthew Stafford, who has never won a playoff game in his 12-year career. Stafford will be under pressure to perform this year, but the real pressure is on McVay, who authorized the swap at quarterback.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick: Hardly anyone doubted Belichick’s greatness through his first two decades with the Patriots. But then Tom Brady went to Tampa Bay and won a Super Bowl in his first season, while Belichick flopped at 7-9. Belichick took a beating with media and fans, who questioned whether he was truly a great coach or whether he was carried by Brady for all those years. Think Belichick isn’t feeling the heat? He responded by spending an NFL record $175 million fully guaranteed on over 25 free agents this offseason, remaking the Patriots on the fly. If Belichick doesn’t get the Patriots back to double-digit wins and a deep playoff run again, his legacy will become more complicated.


49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo: He probably won’t be long for the Niners past this season due to their commitment to No. 3 draft pick Trey Lance. So 2021 will be Garoppolo’s audition for the other 31 teams to prove that he’s a worthy starting QB. Not only does he have to play well, but Garoppolo, who has started 32 regular-season games and missed 25 starts because of injury, has to stay healthy.

Patriots QB Cam Newton and Bears QB Andy Dalton: The two 2011 draft classmates are obviously just place-holders for first-round picks Mac Jones and Justin Fields. If Newton and Dalton are to remain starting quarterbacks into October and later, they better get off to a good start in September. The first time each quarterback throws an incompletion, fans are going to be howling to put in the rookies.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson: Vrabel has a 29-19 record in three seasons, with two playoff appearances and a trip to the AFC Championship game. But you could sense the desperation in the Titans’ moves this offseason when they overpaid for pass rusher Bud Dupree and aging receiver Julio Jones, whose trade market wasn’t robust. The Titans went 11-5 last year but were a disappointing one-and-done in the playoffs. It feels like major changes could be in store after this season if the Titans don’t make a deep playoff run.


Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury: Hailed as an offensive guru when he was hired two years ago, Kingsbury has been underwhelming. His record is 13-18-1, his offenses finished 16th and 13th in points scored, and he has yet to make the playoffs despite having former No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray at quarterback. The Cardinals are all-in this year after signing J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Malcolm Butler and other veterans. If they don’t show significant improvement, Kingsbury could be all-out after the season.

Colts QB Carson Wentz: His 2020 season in Philadelphia was an unmitigated disaster, to the point that the Eagles pulled the plug and shipped him off to Indy. There was a lot of finger-pointing between Wentz and his former coaches behind the scenes, but now Wentz has no more excuses. He’s playing for a great coach in Frank Reich, and is surrounded by a solid team that went 11-5 last year. This is Wentz’s last chance to prove that he’s a franchise QB.


Vikings QB Kirk Cousins and coach Mike Zimmer: Cousins has earned $94 million over the past three years, but he has just a 25-21-1 record and only one playoff appearance to show for it. He has $35 million fully guaranteed in 2022, but the Vikings drafted Kellen Mond, and if Cousins doesn’t improve significantly, the Vikings could look to move Cousins after this season. Zimmer is 64-47-1 in seven seasons as head coach but has just two playoff wins. He badly needs a deep playoff run this year.

Broncos coach Vic Fangio: The Broncos already sent former football boss John Elway packing this offseason. Fangio, who has a 12-20 record in two seasons as head coach, will need either Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater to show significant improvement this year, or Fangio will be next out the door.

Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy: Jerry Jones showed a lot of patience — maybe too much — with previous coach Jason Garrett. But Jones isn’t getting younger, and now he is spending $40 million per year on quarterback Dak Prescott. If McCarthy doesn’t improve significantly on last year’s 6-10 record, Jones may not be so patient.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst: Aaron Rodgers reportedly is holding out because of him, which has led to much of the fan base turning on Gutekunst, too. All he has to do is mend fences with Rodgers, get him back in the fold, and duplicate the success of the last two years, when the Packers went 26-6. No pressure.


Out with the old

Four teams have sights on building new stadiums

The Buffalo Bills are one of four teams eyeing new stadiums in the near future.Jeffrey T. Barnes

Since the Rams and Chargers moved to Los Angeles and the Raiders to Las Vegas the last few years, the NFL has experienced relative peace in regard to building new stadiums. But now four teams have its sights set on a new stadium within the next several years.

The Bills’ lease with Highmark Stadium — which opened in 1973 and is the fourth-oldest stadium in the NFL — expires in 2023. Instead of continuing the lease, the Pegula family, which owns the Bills, is looking at building a new stadium that could open in 2025 or ’26, likely on the same site in Orchard Park, N.Y. If the Bills do get a new home, they may temporarily play games in Toronto or at Penn State. It is unclear if the Pegulas plan to seek public money for the project.

Washington owner Daniel Snyder was in Los Angeles last month and told TMZ he was touring stadiums to gather intel for his own big project back home. FedEx Field opened in 1997, is the ninth-oldest stadium in the NFL, and Snyder is looking at several sites in Maryland and Virginia to find the best fit. Both Washington and Buffalo have reportedly hired Legends Global Sales, the firm owned by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, to sell sponsorships and premium seats for their new stadiums.

Panthers owner David Tepper wants to replace 25-year-old Bank of America Stadium, the league’s eighth-oldest stadium. He is adamant that “I’m not building a stadium alone” and envisions a three-way partnership between the team, taxpayers and personal seat license-holders.

And the Bears are seriously flirting with the suburb of Arlington Heights, Ill., to build a new stadium to replace Soldier Field, which underwent major renovations in 2003 and has the NFL’s smallest capacity at 61,500. The Bears recently submitted a bid to buy Arlington Park Racecourse and announced a sponsorship deal with the nearby casino that is owned by the track. The Bears have played at Soldier Field since 1971 and have a lease through 2033, but can buy out of it.

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is not amused by the prospect of losing the Bears to the suburbs.

“Like most Bears fans, we want the organization to focus on putting a winning team on the field, beating the Packers finally and being relevant past October,” she said. “Everything else is noise.”

Who was Brady referring to?

Here are some best guesses: Trubisky No. 1

Tom Brady created a real whodunit last week when he said on the trailer to HBO’s The Shop that he was surprised that one team decided to stick with its original quarterback last year instead of signing Brady in free agency.

“I was thinking, ‘You’re sticking with that [expletive]?’ ” Brady said.

Clarity was not provided when the episode aired Friday night. So who was Brady talking about? My best guesses:

1. Mitchell Trubisky. The Bears were one of three finalists for Brady, as detailed in last year’s autobiography by broadcaster Jim Gray. And it’s totally plausible that after a long flirtation with Brady, Bears GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy decided to give Trubisky, their hand-picked quarterback from 2017, one last chance to prove himself instead of turning the team over to a 43-year-old Brady. The Bears instead traded for Nick Foles, who cost only half of Brady’s salary ($12 million compared with $25 million), and was suited to play the role of veteran backup behind Trubisky.

2. Ryan Tannehill. He was my original guess, considering that at the time Tannehill was known as an inconsistent quarterback who was dumped by the Dolphins, and whose excellent 2019 performance could have been considered a fluke. But Brady is so close with Titans coach Mike Vrabel that I think Brady, while he publicly flirted with the Titans, knew the whole time that Tannehill would return to the Titans, and Brady was just using the Titans for leverage with other teams.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo. Another guy that makes a lot of sense in theory, but I don’t think is the answer. Garoppolo was just coming off a Super Bowl appearance, so of course the 49ers were sticking by him. And Brady and Garoppolo also share the same agent, so Brady should have had all the inside knowledge.

4. Derek Carr. This makes sense on paper, but I never got the impression the Raiders were all that serious about Brady.

5. Drew Lock. I’m not sure Brady much considered going to the Broncos, and I think the Broncos wanted to see what they had in their very young, very inexpensive quarterback.


Sixty-five percent of players have at least one shot

A few quick updates:

▪ A league source said 65 percent of players have taken at least one shot. There is still a lot of hesitance among certain players to getting vaccines, but the source noted that the 65 percent is higher than the national numbers for Americans ages 18-24 (48 percent) and ages 25-39 (50 percent). Players will no longer have to adhere to COVID protocols once they are fully vaccinated (two weeks out from their final shot).

▪ The NFL and NFL Players Association agreed last week that vaccinated players who get sick with COVID still will get their weekly roster bonuses as if they participated in a game. Unvaccinated players who get COVID not only will miss out on roster bonuses, but teams could classify the illness as a Non-Football Injury, giving the team the right to withhold weekly salary. Together, they are another strong set of incentives that should encourage players to get the vaccine.

▪ Erie County (N.Y.) officials reversed course last week and said they will no longer require fans to be vaccinated to attend a Bills game, citing the low number of COVID cases in the community.

Extra points

The Patriots could be breaking out some throwback uniforms with the NFL changing its helmet rules.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

The NFL will allow teams to add a second helmet for the season. This means teams that changed their helmet colors — like the Patriots in going from white to silver in the 1990s — can once again dust off their classic throwback uniforms. But Patriots fans hoping for Pat Patriot and the red uniforms will probably have to wait until 2023. The NFL’s memo stated that the deadline for submitting uniforms for the 2022 season already has passed, so unless the Patriots anticipated this rule change, they may have to wait until 2023 to break out the true throwbacks. However, in 2022 they can still use the second helmet with an alternate jersey, like Color Rush. Other teams that can revive old throwbacks are the Bucs, Seahawks, Eagles, Broncos, Titans (Oilers) and Falcons … Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown said he’s staying in Foxborough throughout summer vacation to train and get ready for camp, which is smart on his part. Brown gets a $200,000 bonus if he weighs in at 365 pounds on July 15 … A real bummer to see the Bucs announce that training camp will be closed to the general public and only open to VIP season ticket-holders and sponsors. Training camp practices are a wonderful way for kids and football fans to get a close look at the team, and for the team to build organic relationships with fans. Plus it may be the last opportunity to watch Brady in training camp … The NFL Combine may be moving from Indianapolis as soon as 2023, with the NFL set to open up the process to bidding. The Cowboys will put in a bid to host the event at The Star, the new stadium in Los Angeles is an obvious location, and several warm-weather sites make plenty of sense. Coaches and scouts will grumble about moving the event from Indy, which has a perfect little downtown setup. But there’s money to be made … From the Nothing Good Happens in the Offseason department: Chiefs pass rusher Frank Clark, the centerpiece of their defense, was arrested twice this offseason on felony gun charges. In both instances, authorities discovered an Uzi firearm sticking out of a bag in Clark’s car during a traffic stop. Clark has a court date in October … The 2021 season is going to be a big one for the Manning family. In August, Peyton is going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame; in September the Colts will honor him with a Hall of Fame ring; and in October he will be the lone person inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame. Also in September, the Giants will retire Eli’s jersey and induct him into their Ring of Honor.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.