By Andrew Fultz
For me, there are two catalysts that compel me to watch so much of the NFL regular season. One is fantasy football. Nothing makes that awful matchup between 2013 Jacksonville and Houston watchable like the hope that Andre Johnson will catch a garbage time touchdown pass and add six precious points to your vulnerable fantasy football lead. Okay, it’s still unwatchable, but it makes you care what happens during the game, which is more than we can say when Wake Forest plays NC State in college football.
The other catalyst is parity, and parity has reached a level in the NFL that you have to applaud. To illustrate, check this out: for 13 straight years (and 14 of 15 years) at least one team that finished last in their division came back the next year to finish first. Think about that. Since there are 8 divisions in the current NFL format, there are only 8 teams per year that can accomplish this feat. And every year, at least one does. Impressive, right? What if I told you that 5 times in that 13 year streak more than one team did it? Not bad, huh? Or how about THREE teams accomplishing the feat in the 2005 (Chicago, NY Giants, Tampa Bay) and 2006 (Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans)? And that’s not even getting into the ridiculous NFC South, where this happened every season from 2003-2007.
Now you see the beauty of parity. Every team has a chance in August. Okay, Jacksonville doesn’t. But they’re the only, oh wait, there is Oakland. Sad, sad Oakland. Let us never forget they made the Super Bowl the year before this 13 year streak started and lost by 27. But those are the only two! And even Oakland should expect improvement this season. That’s nothing to scoff at.
Thirteen consecutive years of worst to first in at least one division. Now, those turnarounds usually have very assignable causes. Most often, the turnaround hinged on the last place team either getting a QB back from injury (’04 Atlanta) or acquiring one through the draft (’12 Washington). Sometimes it’s hinged on a new head coach (’06 New Orleans). Last year, Philadelphia did both by hiring Chip Kelly and finding a QB in Nick Foles. Sometimes, it’s an anomaly, like when Tebow helped Denver do it in 2011. Although to be fair, 4-12 to 8-8 would only accomplish that feat in a division as bad as the AFC West was in 2011. But he did it and we can’t take that away from him. A wrinkle or scheme change can bring about the turnaround, a la Miami and the wildcat offense in 2008.
Whatever the cause, parity is easily the NFL’s cash cow. Buffalo hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999? Doesn’t matter. Sammy Watkins will lead us to first.
Cleveland plays in a division with three perennially tough defenses and drafted a QB who’s too small to take hits in the NFL? Whatever, man! Manziel won the Heisman as a frosh and beat Alabama!
The Rams play in the toughest division in pro sports? So what? Sam Bradford will,well, we don’t know what he’ll do, but our defense is good!
I could do this all day, but let’s talk legitimately about each of the 2013 last place teams and then rank their chances to get to first in 2014.
Worst to firsts in 13-year streak: 1 (Miami – 2008)
I actually think there’s a chance they could pull it off. I always liked Sammy Watkins’ skill set at Clemson. I also like the explosiveness of C.J. Spiller. Add to that the Buffalo defense, which played at a high level for a lot of last season, and you have a legitimate hope here. But as we’ll see with most of the last place teams, everything rises and falls on the QB, and I don’t have faith in E.J. Manuel. Plus, any discussion of the AFC East begins with New England, and while they have their issues, I just don’t see their problems carrying enough weight to cost them the division.
Verdict: Possible, but unlikely.
Worst to firsts: 1 (Baltimore – 2006)
Shall we just list the top 10 reasons this won’t happen?
1) Pittsburgh will be better than in 2013.
2) Baltimore will be better than in 2013.
3) Cincinnati won’t be worse than in 2013.
4) Josh Gordon is suspended for the season. [Editor’s Note: He isn’t yet, but I would say this is a very safe assumption at this point.]
5) Brian Hoyer still leads the QB competition.
6) Brian Hoyer will never be as good as the fans think his backup will be.
7) Ben Tate is the starting RB.
8) New head coach.
9) The previous head coach didn’t even hold the job for a full 365 days because the Cleveland front office is ridiculous.
10) #9 isn’t even a reason for this year, but it has to be brought up because it might as well be a reason for next year when they’re last again.
Oh look, an entire blurb about the Cleveland Browns without mentioning the 22nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and former Texas A&M quarterback. You’re welcome.
Verdict: Are you kidding? At least the NBA season begins on October 28. Only 2 months of dreadful football until Lebron and Love raid the Eastern Conference.
Worst to firsts: 1 (Houston – 2011)
Houston is an intriguing team. For one, they went first to worst from 2012 to 2013, and while I’m initially inclined to blame that on injuries, the scary version of the Texans 2013 season is how close they were to 0-16. How close? They overcame a 21-point deficit to beat San Diego on the opening Monday night of the season, and needed overtime to beat Tennessee in Week 2. They never won again. That means two losses (TWO!) to perennial doormat Jacksonville, but also hides the fact that New England needed two 53-yard fourth quarter field goals to beat them in December.
So how do you make predictions about a team that nearly beat Tom Brady, but lost twice to Jacksonville? It’s easy, actually. You predict the head coach is fired (he was), and that the starting QB is no longer on the roster (he isn’t).
What that leaves you with is Bill O’Brian as your new head coach. O’Brian did well with not very much at Penn State, and I think he has a very good chance to be successful in the NFL. The defense should be plenty good enough with J.J. Watt and company, especially with Jadeveon Clowney playing his opposite. Arian Foster should be healthier, as well. Again leading us to the starting QB, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fortunately, with what should be a very good defense and a strong running game, Fitzpatrick may not need to do much more than manage the game. Unfortunately, game manager is about the highest height you get from Fitz.
Verdict: Eh, maybe.
Worst to firsts: 4 (Kansas City – 2003, 2010; San Diego – 2004; Denver – 2011)
Say what you want about the Raiders (heaven knows I’m about to), but their front office sure does try to outsmart everyone. They never do, of course, but oh how they try. For all the good the late Al Davis did for the league, he probably did that much bad for his own team. I don’t need to go there really, but the whiffs on first round draft picks, the revolving door that was the head coaching position, the hiring of Lane Kiffin, the…I should stop. I should have lead with hiring Kiffin, and then I should have stopped. We could probably blame Al Davis for the entire Lane Kiffin phenomenon.
That’s some very damning evidence, Raiders fans.
Anyway, the Raiders are kind of like the Yankees of the NFL. And before you choke on your coffee, I don’t mean that they’re deeply hated perennial winners with a proud history of fortune and success.
Okay, so they are deeply hated, but they’re the Yankees in that they overpay for talent that’s past its prime and expect success with it. They love their players to have more name than game. Recent history is full of such examples, but let’s talk this offseason: Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, and Maurice Jones-Drew. Those guys may still have something left in the tank, but I’m not buying it. I’m also not buying them crawling out of the basement of a division that sent three teams to the playoffs last year.
Oh and remember that nearly 0-16 Houston team mentioned above? It was led by Matt Schaub, your Oakland Raiders QB for the time being.
Verdict: There’s always next year.
Worst to firsts: 4 (New York – 2005; Philadelphia – 2006, 2013; Washington – 2012)
Now here’s a team whose chances I like. They were a playoff team in 2012 (a worst to first, at that) and almost certainly would have been better last year if RGIII had been healthy. As mentioned above, teams whose offense gets better by returning a now healthy starting quarterback are ripe for going worst to first.
Next, an offense that will be improved by getting healthier at QB also added Desean Jackson.
On top of that, there was some classic addition by subtraction in the firing head coach Mike Shanahan. With that, comes first-year head coach Jay Gruden, whose list of accomplishments is headlined by coaching Andy Dalton to three straight playoff appearances as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. So now, an offense that would have improved just by getting healthier at QB and adding Desean Jackson, also gets a brighter and more forward thinking offensive mind at head coach.
The Washington Professional Football Franchise should not be overlooked this year, NFC East.
As for the rest of the division, we have Big D (now short for Definition of Mediocre), who I’ll go out on a limb and predict will finish 8-8. Good enough to win the AFC West in 2011 (TEBOW!), but not the NFC East, ever.
Thanks to a new offensive coordinator and improvement at the RB position, the Giants will almost certainly be better in 2014. And let’s be real, this team loves to play the role of angsty teenager, underachieving when you expect greatness and winning Super Bowls when you expect dumpster fire. Don’t sleep on the Giants.
Finally, the 2013 division winning Philadelphia Eagles. Their biggest lost was Desean, but they’re adding a fully rehabbed Jeremy Maclin, Darren Sproles, and second round draft pick Jordan Matthews. The three of them together should be able to fill the void left by Jax. The defense and special teams can’t be much worse than in 2013, which leaves the Eagles as the team to beat for the division crown.
Verdict: Good chance. Can they play well enough on D?
Worst to firsts: 1 (Chicago – 2005)
This is a tough division. Green Bay will have a healthy Aaron Rodgers. Chicago has had Jay Cutler studying under Marc Trestman all year. Detroit is a top heavy team with huge upside. And Minnesota has the best running back of the last 15 years. I like the skill position pieces in Minnesota. Obviously, Adrian Peterson gives you a chance to be special. Cordarrelle Patterson spent the latter half of last season demonstrating why he was a first round pick. Norv Turner is a very good offensive coordinator. But Minnesota is most likely breaking in a rookie quarterback in a division that boasts Rodgers, Cutler, and Matthew Stafford. In this division, I just can’t drink the Bridgewater. Plus, they’re playing their home games outside this year. That’s just…ew.
Verdict: Ice cold.
Worst to firsts: 6 (Carolina – 2003; Atlanta – 2004; Tampa Bay – 2005, 2007; New Orleans – 2006, 2009)
This division loves its worst to firsts. In fact, it’s the only division during the streak to have its worst to first go on to win the Super Bowl (‘09 New Orleans). The division winner was last the previous year five straight years from 2003-2007.
From 2003-2006, each of the four teams accomplished the feat. The NFC South lives for this kind of thing.
Well, it did 7-10 years ago. Things have changed in the NFC South, but you know what hasn’t? Drew Brees still plays for New Orleans. Matt Ryan still takes snaps in Atlanta. Cam Newton is still Superman in Carolina. Which means that as much as I like Lovie Smith’s head coaching ability and as much as I loved how Josh McCown played in relief of Jay Cutler last year, I can’t see this one happening. Atlanta is healthier. New Orleans got better. Carolina has a great defense. So, I like this division to finish with Tampa squarely on the bottom. Sorry, Buccos.
Verdict: Can you trade for Drew Brees and Sean Payton?
Worst to firsts: 0
It’s never happened here. Eighteen times in 13 years, but never here. In the world of crazy NFL turnarounds and collapses, the NFC West has never had a worst to first. What’s most surprising about that fact is that this division has been a special brand of bad more than once during this streak. Consider this, the NFC West sent a 9-7 or worse team to the playoffs as division winner four times (one of those being a 7-9 Seattle team) since the streak started in 2003. For reference, the other seven divisions have combined to do that six times in that frame, and that includes the 9-7 Super Bowl-winning Giants of 2011.
All of that to say that the NFC West has kind of been its own brand of bad. Its own brand being some impressive highs (four Super Bowl appearances, one win) and some very lowly lows (looking at you, St. Louis). Did you know the NFC West is the only division since 2003 to send three different teams to the Super Bowl? Coincidentally, their three losses were to AFC North teams. Small world. They are to be commended for their successes.
But St. Louis and Arizona have both turned in some real stinkers. But instead of pointing to one and two win seasons, let’s look at this fun example. The key to going worst to first is how many wins you can add between seasons, obviously. That’s why a new starting QB or head coach can make the difference needed to go worst to first. So you might think that since a 7-win team won the division in 2010, that season was the golden opportunity for the previous worst team, right? But pitiful St. Louis had won a single measly game in 2009, meaning they would have needed a seven game turnaround in one season. Absolutely doable (see file South, NFC), but not for a team that won just one game the previous year.
And that’s why the NFC West has never gone from worst to first. Nice history lesson, eh? Come again? What was that? What about this year? The 2014 season? Do we even need to discuss this division’s chances this year?
I’m not even sure the defending Super Bowl champs, whose roster remains mostly in tact, will win this division. I’m even less optimistic about a Rams team with a quarterback playing in his make or break year, a questionable at best receiving corps, and a young defense. Maybe when Seattle and San Francisco start to lose some of the great young pieces they’ve done such a great job drafting, but not 2014. Or 2015. Maybe by 2016 the Rams will have drafted high enough, often enough, and well enough to have a chance.
Verdict: Third place is attainable, since the Cardinals got worse in the offseason.
Ranking Their Chances
And that’s it. We made it. Good job, everyone. Unless you just scrolled to the bottom for the list. In which case, shame on you. Read those words up there. Starting with the best chances to go worst to first, ending with the worst. (Hey, if the Rams do win the division, they’ll have gone worst to first twice in one year!)
5) Tampa Bay
8) St. Louis
Agree with Andrew’s Worst to First picks? Or do you disagree? Tell us your predictions in the comment section below!