One of the prevailing narratives in the neverending lovefest between the NFL and the mainstream sports media is that only in the NFL can you go from worst to first overnight. We hear story after story of teams that missed the playoffs and/or finished last in their divsions one year coming back the very next season and winning their divisions, maybe even getting to the Super Bowl. And yes, this type of thing does happen fairly often. But it’s nowhere near as easy as you would believe.
Listening to some of these stories, you would think that the same team that goes 5-11 this year can come back next year, get some better luck in close games and enjoy better health, and make the playoffs with the same guys. That is so not true. The truth is, most teams that win the Super Bowl were in the playoffs the year before. And most of the new playoff teams were in the playoffs themselves pretty recently. If you look at the biggest examples of this, you’ll see what I’m saying.
The 1999 St. Louis Rams
In 1998, the Rams went 5-11 and finished dead last in the NFC West. Coach Dick Vermeil was down to his last chance, and wold likely be fired if things didn’t change in 1999. Well, things did change in a big way. The Rams went 14-2, lighting up the scoreboard with the greatest show on Turf on their way to a totally unexpected Super Bowl title. So how did they manage to pull off this miracle? Well, it turns out they had a few minor offseason acquisitions that may have played a small role in their turnaround: they traded for Marshall Faulk and drafted Torry Holt. And oh yeah, there was a Pro Bowl receiver named Issac Bruce who returned healthy for 16 games after missing 11 the year before. And there was a small bit of luck involved: their newly acquired starting quarterback Trent Green got hurt, opening up a chance for an unknown by the way of Kurt Warner to take over. Think about that: in between 1998 and 1999, they added a Hall of Famer (Faulk) and an All-Pro (Holt), promoted a possible Hall of Famer (Warner) and got a full season from another possible Hall of Famer (Bruce). You don’t think that will change things any?
The 2001 Patriots
The 2001 Pats started off very similar to the Rams: 5-11, last in their division, a coach looking like he was going to be in trouble if things didn’t turn around. And they ended the same way, as Super Bowl champions. So did this ragtag group of survivors manage to get better performances out the same gang that was lousy in 2000? Of course not! Like the Rams, they had some acquisitions and promotions that made more than a small impact on things. They drafted Richard Seymour, a major game changer on the defensive line, Pro Bowl offensive tackle-to-be MattLight and signed running back Antowain Smith, a former starter in Buffalo who wold go on to run for 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns that season. And then of course, there was the matter of the starting quarterback: Drew Bledsoe went down in week two giving way to a guy named Brady. New Hall of Fame quarterback, new starting running back, new All Pro defensive end,and new All Pro offensive tackle. That’s a lot to add to a team.
The 2002 Panthers weren’t as bad as the other teams on the list; they did finish fourth in their division but were a respectable 7-9. The year before, however, was a 1-15 disaster. So it wasn’t like they’d been a contender recently. They were rolling out the likes of Rodney Peete at quarterback and Lamar Smith at running back. Then came the offseason. They brought in quarterback Jake Delhomme (there was a time when that was a good thing), Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis, and drafted All-Pro tackle Jordan Gross. They also benefitted from the return to health of 2002 draftee Deshaun Foster, giving them a one-two punch at running back. They also got a breakout seaosn from wide receiver Steve Smith. So again, major acquisitions fueled the ascendance.
2008 Falcons and 2008 Dolphins
The 2007 Falcons were a mess, stuck in the aftermath of the Michael Vick debacle. Their new head coach, Bobby Petrino, quit after a Monday night game with a few weeks left in the season. Their starting running back was 32 years old and would be out of the league after the season ended, and they had to replace Vick with a crap sandwich of Joey Harrington, Chris Redman, and Byron Leftwich. Their final record was 4-12 with no light at the end of the tunnel. Then came the summer of 2008. They got a new coach in Mike Smith, a new running back in All Pro-to-be Michael Turner, and a new quarterback in rookie Matt Ryan. Next stop was a first place finish in the NFC South after a n 11-5 bounce back. So like every other team that pulled off the worst to first turnaround, the Falcons added a quarterback and at least one other major skill position player.
The Dolphins followed the same pattern. In 2007 they were 1-15 and did a 180 in 2008, going 11-5 and winning their division. The 2007 squad rolled out Cleo Lemon and a 37 year old Trent Green at quarterback behind a lousy offensive line. The 2008 unit replaced Lemon and Green with Chad Pennington, brought in Ricky Williams to back up starting running back Ronnie Brown, and drafted All Pro tackle Jake Long with the first overall pick. They also got a bounce back season from linebacker Joey Porter. Major changes, major recovery.
What’s the moral of the story here? Worst to first can happen in the NFL. But it’s not anywhere as easy as the media paints it to be. You have to replace your quarterback and add at least one other big time player on offense to do anything remarkable. If your favorite team finished last in 2010, could they make the playoff in 2011? Sure. But pulling that off requires major changes, specifically an upgrade at quarterback. If that hasn’t happened for you, then you probably forget about it. Don’t believe the hype. Things can get better for you, but they usually take some time.