Ever since the 2003 NFL season, at least one team who finished last in their division the previous year came back and won their division.
This fact alone proves that the National Football League is a league of parity, and a league of hope for every team (except Oakland, Cleveland and Buffalo). Teams can experience a turnaround in as little as one calendar year – the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins of 2012 are only the most recent examples.
NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt recently wrote a convincing article advocating the Kansas City Chiefs as the team with the best chance to continue that trend, despite the winning ways of the division rival Denver Broncos. The Chiefs were the worst team in the NFL from a record standpoint (2-14) but have many more pieces in place now than they did in January.
Before we look into the validity of his assertion, here are the teams that have little or no shot at completing a last-to-first jump this season:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, New York Jets. Tied at 6-10 last season, the AFC East’s cellar dwellers both have rookie quarterbacks potentially as first-stringers. But EJ Manuel and Geno Smith are no Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson. The Jets and Bills aren’t deprived of talent at every position, but the real battle to watch in this division is whether the Miami Dolphins can make a run at dethroning the New England Patriots for the AFC East crown.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns. I firmly believe that the Browns are on the right track. I’m still not a fan of Brandon Weeden being their starting quarterback – as a 30-year-old second-year pro, he’s old and inexperienced, the worst of both worlds. Trent Richardson can be the focal point of their offense if he can stay off the injury report. The defense looks to improve with additions like Paul Kruger, but Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have too much talent to allow Cleveland out of the basement for now.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars. There is one main difference between the Kansas City Chiefs and 2012’s other 2-14 team, the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Chiefs were a very talented 2-14 team last season, most notably missing a serviceable quarterback, which they now have. The Jags are in complete rebuilding mode, with new head coach Gus Bradley trying to assemble a new, better group of players to take EverBank Field. The Texans and Colts aren’t letting Jacksonville anywhere near the top of the South for a few years.
NFC South: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You don’t have to disqualify this division from the competition, but I will. The Atlanta Falcons finished 13-3 and received the number one seed in the NFC last year, while every other team in the division finished 7-9. Any of the teams can be better than 7-9 in 2013, and I’m sure at least one will end up worse. But it’s not as impressive if the only last-to-first team of the year improves from 7-9 to, say, 10-6.
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals. Many argue that the NFC West has the two best teams in the whole conference – and those who argue that don’t mean the Cardinals. The only team with a worse quarterback situation than the Jets in 2012 slapped a Band-Aid on it by trading for Carson Palmer. While Larry Fitzgerald is thrilled he’ll have a real quarterback to throw to him this year, Palmer isn’t nearly on the same level as Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. Even the St. Louis Rams have the ability to snag a wild card spot this season, but not ‘Zona.
With them all out of the way, that leaves three teams, the most intriguing of which are the Philadelphia Eagles and the Chiefs. Some of Brandt’s main points about the Chiefs concern not their players but their staff; owner Clark Hunt is investing everything he can in order to win, and general manager John Dorsey will be a breath of fresh air after the Scott Pioli regime, if nothing else. Most of all, Andy Reid is an experienced and successful head coach. Last year’s 4-12 record with Philly looked terrible, but he averaged 9.2 wins/year with the Eagles, including eight out of fourteen seasons with at least 10 wins. “Reid, who is known for his offensive accomplishments, should help Kansas City really ramp up the scoring,” writes Brandt.
Trading for Alex Smith from San Francisco further displayed Hunt’s commitment to win. Kansas City knew the Niners weren’t going to move forward him, and he is better than any other quarterback who was available in the draft, in free agency or by trade. They inked number one wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to a long-term contract; they signed two new starting cornerbacks, Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith; their running game, featuring a one-two punch of Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis, was fifth-best in the league in ’12; and they get to beat up on the Chargers twice, the Raiders twice, the Jaguars, the Browns and the Bills on this season’s soft schedule. It’s a recipe for success.
With all of that said in favor of Kansas City, here’s why Andy Reid’s former team, the Philadelphia Eagles, has the better chance of winning their division than the Chiefs do theirs.
A few problems brought the 2012 Eagles down to 4-12, their worst record of the 14-year Reid regime. One was the terrible play of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who in two seasons with Philly was nothing close to what his $60 million ($25 million guaranteed) cracked him up to be. He’s out of Philly now, and in San Francisco under a much more modest one-year contract. The Eagles’ defense will be better without Asomugha, and with new linebacker Connor Barwin. Trent Cole will also move to linebacker, from the defensive line, to fit new head coach Chip Kelly’s 3-4 defense.
There’s the other big problem that’s been improved. Andy Reid’s style of offense was no longer conducive to Michael Vick’s, well, competence. Along with a meager 12 passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown, Vick threw ten interceptions and fumbled eleven times, five of which were lost, for a total of fifteen turnovers in ten games. Until Chip Kelly was hired as head coach, people were talking seriously about making Nick Foles the starting quarterback in ’13. There was no better candidate for Philly’s head coaching job than Kelly. His fast-paced style of offense, which averaged 44.7 points per game during his four-year stint as head coach at the University of Oregon , will make better use of Vick and speedy offensive teammates LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.
The Chiefs can easily be a playoff team in 2013, but that’s different than winning the division. The Denver Broncos just gave Peyton Manning a true number one wide receiver in Wes Welker to add to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and RB Knowshon Moreno. They also added CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and LB Stewart Bradley to a great defense that already features star LB Von Miller. The Broncos are arguably the best team not only in the AFC West, but in the AFC. The New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and 2012 NFC East champion Washington Redskins are not as good, and the Eagles, if all goes well, can compete with all of them for the division title.
The third team worth mentioning is the Detroit Lions. What finally looked like a promising team with staying power in the NFC North took a turn for the worse in ’12, going 4-12 thanks to the dismal play by the defense. Drafting LB Ezekiel Ansah, CB Darius Slay and DE Devin Taylor will help Ndamukong Suh on that side of the ball, but not fix everything. The addition of Reggie Bush to shore up the running game and take pressure off Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson was a smart move as well. The Lions play in a division with three other talented teams that are very hard to predict; last summer, people thought the NFC North’s 4-12 team would be the Minnesota Vikings, not Detroit. With Chicago potentially taking a step back this year, and the Vikes needing more than just 2000 or 2500 rushing yards from Adrian Peterson in order to keep contending, I like the Lions’ chances to get back into the thick of things and make a run at Green Bay for the division title.
Which team do you think will show the most improvement in the 2013 NFL season? Sound off in the comments!
Adam Zielonka is an avid writer from New Jersey, who is currently a freshman double majoring in communication and sport management at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. He was named a Hot 500 Contributor for the months of July 2012 and February 2013. He tweets @Adam_Zielonka.