A How-to Guide for Turning Around a Terrible NFL Team

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIJanuary 15, 2013

The Seattle Seahawks were 31 seconds away from NFC Championship game.
The Seattle Seahawks were 31 seconds away from NFC Championship game.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

With 32 teams in a league as competitive as the NFL is, there are bound to be a handful of terrible teams every year. Otherwise, we would have 20 teams with a record of 8-8 and the rest at 10-6 or 6-10. How those terrible teams react to their situation, and the steps they take to improve their lot will either allow them to quickly turn things around, or to continue being the laughing stock of the league.

The rise and fall of NFL franchises can be attributed to a change in ownership, a new GM or a new head coach or coordinator. It could also include drafting a shorter quarterback in the third round whom everybody else was convinced was too small to start in the NFL.

There is no exact, specific guide for how to turn around a NFL franchise, but there are different methods to employ that will improve team results.

If there was a specific formula that existed, you can be sure that the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams would have ushered it in by now. Those are the four teams that have currently been missing from the postseason for the longest amount of time.

How do you go from being a terrible team one year to becoming a NFL playoff contender the next?

When you think about a team that has been dominating the NFL for the past decade, you would have to strongly consider the New England Patriots. They won three Super Bowls over a four-year span. But even the Patriots had their stretch of playing terrible football.

In a five-year stretch from 1989-1993, the Patriots went: 5-11, 1-15, 6-10, 2-14 and 5-11. Kids in high school and college probably don't remember how bad the Patriots were back then, but they were pretty bad.

Any professional sports franchise that is around long enough will eventually go through a down cycle. These cycles are inevitable in the world of professional sports.

For New England, the turnaround began with the hiring of Bill Belichick as head coach in 2000, and Tom Brady stepping in for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001. From there, they were off to the races.

We don't want to suggest that a team can turn their fortunes around with just making two moves, but getting the right head coach and finding a franchise starting quarterback can be a very good start.

We will start by exploring three teams that have recently succeeded in turning things around by going from terrible to reaching the 2012 postseason: Indianapolis, Seattle and Washington. Then, we will look at what is going on with the four teams we mentioned up top: Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland and St. Louis.



Indianapolis Colts

The Colts experienced a nightmare season in 2011 when Peyton Manning's neck surgeries prevented him from playing for the entire season. The Colts didn't really have a backup plan in place, and it cost Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell their jobs.

The Colts then brought in a new GM in Ryan Grigson, a new head coach in Chuck Pagano and they gave the offensive coordinator job to Bruce Arians. The Colts brought in 33 new players, while retaining veterans Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis to help stabilize the offense and defense.

The Colts turned their offense over to a number of rookies, QB Andrew Luck, RB Vick Ballard, TEs Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and WRs T.Y. Hilton and Lavon Brazill.

We will never know for sure how good this team was destined to be in 2012 if not for the chain of events that began with Coach Pagano being diagnosed with leukemia. The "Chuck Strong" campaign made believers out of the players and fans, and provided true inspiration to the team. Bruce Arians did a great job in Pagano's absence and is a serious candidate for the 2012 NFL Coach of the Year award.

There is no doubt, however, that the Colts were able to reach the playoffs, thanks to the fourth-quarter rallies from their rookie quarterback Luck. Seven times, he brought the team back in the fourth quarter. The ability to come back in the fourth quarter is very difficult for some teams to learn, but it proved to be no big deal for the 2012 Colts.

Going forward, this team now knows that they can win and compete with any team in the league. The rookies will come away with valuable lessons from 2012, and they will be a force going forward.


Seattle Seahawks 

The Seattle Seahawks have seemingly matured overnight from a team that was scoffed at for winning the NFC West division with a losing record of 7-9, to falling just 31 seconds short of playing for the NFC Championship in 2012.

A topic for a healthy debate would be which NFL team improved the most in 2012? Indianapolis, Seattle and Washington would have to in the top tier of that discussion.

What is most interesting about Seattle is that they took the path less traveled. By that I mean, they decided to ignore what all of the experts thought about the 2012 draft class and relied on their own player evaluations. The Seahawks drafted the players whom they thought were best for their team and ignored what everybody else wanted them to do.

The line of critics that panned their 2012 draft class was quite long.

But, the reality was that the drafting of Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson were brilliant moves. Head coach Pete Carroll was ridiculed for opening up his training camp to allow three quarterbacks to have an open competition for the starting job, right up until the end of the preseason.

That decision allowed Carroll to be convinced that Wilson was the right choice. How many people were laughing at Carroll when they went on the road and beat Washington in the playoffs and took Atlanta right down to the wire?

The Seahawks remind me of NFL playoff teams from 20-25 years ago that offer an aggressive defense to go along with a solid running game. But they are also unique because they can score points in bunches when they were putting up those 50-point games. They proved it again to Atlanta in the fourth quarter.

The future looks much brighter for Seattle. They have an aggressive, hard-hitting defense that will keep them in most games. Wilson is just tapping into what he can do at the NFL level, and no doubt the offense will be even more dynamic if they give him a couple more weapons to work with.


Washington Redskins

 The Redskins have been struggling as a franchise. They had gone 12 years since the last time they won the NFC East division.

Daniel Snyder's approach has gravitated toward making a splash with big-name free agents and big-name coaches. The franchise is learning that they can become better just by making better draft picks.

Washington approached their turnaround by mortgaging their future to draft Robert Griffin III. The Redskins were willing to trade away three first-round draft picks to the St. Louis Rams for the right to draft RG3. They bet the farm that Griffin could turn around the team, and he could rally Redskins fans around the team again. Mission accomplished on both fronts.

The Redskins supplemented the Griffin pick by signing WR Pierre Garcon in free agency and by drafting RB Alfred Morris in the sixth round. The Redskins backed up Griffin by drafting rookie QB Kirk Cousins. That now looks like a wise move, considering the serious knee injury that Griffin suffered in the playoffs.

How effective was Griffin this year for transforming the Redskins into a playoff contender? In 2011, the Redskins offense averaged 18.0 points per game, which ranked them at No. 26 in the NFL. In his rookie year, Griffin led Washington to a No. 4 overall ranking, averaging 27.3 points per game. That is a 50 percent increase in one year, which is rather remarkable.

The Redskins last won the NFC East division in 1999, so the fans were ready for somebody to come on board that could make a difference. Down the stretch, the Redskins won their final seven games, which included a stretch of going 5-0 against NFC East rivals.

It was a remarkable run that the Redskins pulled off. You have to hope that the next time we see RG3 on the field that he will still resemble the player we were amazed by in 2012. If he isn't ready, the Redskins would then turn to Cousins, which is why they can't afford to trade him away.



Now we turn our attention to the four NFL team that own the longest streaks of failing to qualify for the postseason. We will examine what they are doing to end their playoff drought.


Buffalo Bills

Buffalo hasn't been to the postseason since 1999, the longest such streak in the NFL. The Bills have tried their hand at hiring ex-head coaches who had some prior degree of success like Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey. That has only contributed to their losing streak getting even longer. The losing culture that has existed in this franchise continues to linger and has to be changed.

I interviewed ex-Bills and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly for a Bleacher Report article. In the interview, I asked Kelly how a team learns how to start winning when they are accustomed to losing. He thought for a second, laughed and then replied.

"Just win. It is a process you go through together as a team from mentally hoping you can win, to taking the field knowing that you will win."

The Bills' approach to turning around the organization is starting with an overhaul of their front office. Buffalo is going with a youth movement and a hi-tech approach—out with the old and in with the new.

Pro Football Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson (94 years old) named Russ Brandon (45 years old) as the new team president. GM Buddy Nix (73 years old) will eventually retire and Assistant GM Doug Whaley (40 years old) will be taking over for Nix. That could happen as soon as the 2013 draft is completed, but that is not set in stone yet.

Buffalo replaced Chan Gailey (61 years old) with ex-Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone (48 years old). All of these changes have occurred since January 1, 2013, so the Bills have turned over a new leaf with the new year. They have been transformed from a old and sleepy organization into a young 40-something front office that wants to be on the cutting edge.

Marrone wasted no time in hiring his new coordinators. First, he hired ex-New York Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, much to the chagrin of Rex Ryan who wished that Pettine wouldn't take the Buffalo job. Pettine routinely led the Jets overall defense to a top-10 finish, and they were the No. 1 overall NFL defense in 2009.

Marrone brought along his offensive coordinator from Syracuse, Nate Hackett, who wants to bring the K-Gun offense back to Buffalo. Hackett is the son of Paul Hackett, so even though Hackett has never been an NFL offensive coordinator, he has been exposed to it for a long time.

As to the earlier mention of hi-tech, the Bills want to develop a full-blown analytics department, which is akin to the "Money Ball" approach in MLB of the Oakland Athletics.

Brandon will oversee this department. The goal is to create a department that employs statistical analysis to discover opponents' trends and weaknesses. If the department allows them to find some players who are being undervalued around the league, all the better.

In addition, the Bills have been doing a better job in drafting talent, and that is due to the efforts of Nix. Since Nix arrived, he has drafted C.J. Spiller, Stephon Gilmore, Marcell Dareus and Cordy Glenn.

Then, there was the big free-agent splash in the 2012 offseason where the Bills opened up the purse strings to sign defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. The plan in 2013 is to use Williams, Anderson and Spiller more effectively, thanks to the hires of Pettine and Hackett.

Marrone wants the Bills to be an aggressive, attacking team. That is not how Bills fans would describe the teams that were led by Gailey or Jauron.

The biggest question mark that remains is who will be the quarterback that leads Buffalo back to the postseason? Ryan Fitzpatrick has clearly struggled with his opportunity, and the 2013 NFL draft class doesn't appear to have anybody who plays at the level of Luck, Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson.

Of course, all of these forward-thinking plans are subject to the longevity of Ralph Wilson. Once Mr. Wilson passes away, all bets are off until the new owner's plans are unveiled.

Buffalo has signed a new lease agreement that will keep them in Western New York for the next seven to 10 years. However, if the new owner is offered enough money to relocate somewhere else (Los Angeles for example), it would be foolish to not be concerned. After all, the Buffalo Braves are now the hottest team in the NBA, except that they are better known as the Los Angeles Clippers.


Cleveland Browns

They have been out of the playoffs since 2002. The Browns are now owned by Jimmy Haslam, who purchased the team last October from Randy Lerner.

Haslam has cleaned out the old regime and is putting his own people in place. Gone are team president Mike Holmgren, GM Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur. Instead, Haslam brought in CEO Jon Banner, team president Alec Scheiner and new head coach Rob Chudzinski.

One way to rebuild from a terrible team is to make a blockbuster trade or two. The Browns took a step in that direction in the 2012 offseason when they allowed Atlanta to move up and draft Julio Jones. Cleveland picked up some valuable draft picks in the deal.

In the last few drafts, the Browns have stockpiled some young talent by selecting DT Phil Taylor, DL Jabaal Sheard, WR Greg Little, RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden and T Mitchell Schwartz.

Cleveland has the No. 6 overall pick in 2013, so they have the chance to either add another playmaker or trade down and stockpile more draft picks.The Browns already cashed in their second-round draft pick when they picked up WR Josh Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft.

Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com wrote that the Browns are expected to hire ex-San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. That would be a major coup for Cleveland and would boost the stock of their young offensive stars, as Turner would upgrade the offense. 

The Browns decided to turn their offense over to the rookies in 2012 and let them learn on the job together. That was basically the same path that the Indianapolis Colts utilized in completing their turnaround.

The biggest difference in comparing the two organizations is the gap that exists between starting quarterbacks Luck and Weeden. But there is a striking resemblance in the trio of Weeden, Richardson and Gordon compared to the trio of Luck, Ballard and Hilton.

The offense was in a dire need of a talent transfusion. For a three-year span from 2009-2011, the overall Browns offense finished with a ranking of 32, 29 and 29. Does that qualify as terrible football? You bet. The rookies drafted in 2012 helped to make a slight improvement to No. 25 overall in 2012, but that still isn't good enough for a postseason berth.

For Cleveland, the change won't happen overnight, it will take more time. But they appear to be headed in the right direction. Another strong draft class in 2013 will help, and you can bet that the Browns will be looking to add more weapons to their offense and let Turner do what he does best.


Oakland Raiders

The Raiders have been missing from the postseason since 2002. Oakland was in the same boat as Cleveland back in 2009 when they were really struggling on offense. In fact, Cleveland was No. 32 overall, while Oakland was No. 31, the two worst offenses in football.

That terrible performance can be attributed to the infamous JaMarcus Russell, one of Al Davis', R.I.P., many draft picks that blew up in his face.

The Raiders actually had a team that was talented on both sides of the ball as recently as 2010. The overall offense was ranked No. 10, and the overall defense was ranked No. 11. Despite the high rankings, the Raiders only managed to come up with a 8-8 record, and they missed the playoffs.

Ironically, the Raiders were 6-0 in AFC West division games that year but went 0-6 against the rest of the AFC. That prevented them from breaking their playoff drought. 

How does a team that is basically top-10 on both sides of the ball only go 8-8? For one thing, Oakland had a -2 tally in turnovers, as they gave the ball up 26 times and took it away 24 times. In addition, the Raiders led the NFL in number of penalties that year (148) and in penalty yards (1276).

Being undisciplined leads to taking bad penalties at inopportune times. That is one thing you could usually count on with the Raiders. They would be undisciplined and take dumb penalties.

Now that Mr. Davis is gone, the Raiders had to work on changing the way that the franchise operated. The team hired Dennis Allen to be the head coach and hired Reggie McKenzie to work them out of a terrible salary cap mess.

But the days of the Raiders trading away key draft picks and signing players to big deals that put them in bad shape for the future with regard to the salary cap are probably over. The team will be run with a more sensible approach by trying to rebuild through the draft and making smart moves in free agency.

Oakland made a rather significant jump in their defensive unit in 2012, as they jumped up from No. 29 overall in 2011 to No. 18 this year. That is a testament to the sound coaching of Allen. He has the team on the right track.

While the defense is improving, the offense is a different story. Carson Palmer is 33 years old and struggled during 2012. Like clockwork, Darren McFadden seems to get injured every year.

The Raiders went 2-4 in the AFC West, but the two wins were against Kansas City, an anemic team in 2012.

McKenzie will stabilize the operation, and the Raiders will start rebuilding the team through the draft. As a result of completing the aforementioned work, it may take two years or more for the Raiders to reach contender status again.


St. Louis Rams 

Like Cleveland, the St. Louis Rams changed their fortunes by trading down in the first round of the draft with the goal of stockpiling multiple high draft picks. The Rams trade with Washington (drafted Robert Griffin III) allowed St. Louis to pick up an additional first-round draft pick in 2013 and 2014, allowing it to add to the haul they made in 2012.

In 2012, St. Louis added DT Michael Brockers, WR Brian Quick, CB Janoris Jenkins, WR Chris Givens and K Greg Zuerlein. That is a solid nucleus for the Rams to build on.

The other notable change with the Rams was the hiring of Jeff Fisher as head coach prior to the 2012 season. Fisher was able to reach the players and get them to play a more physical, attacking style on defense. As a result, the Rams were clearly more competitive in 2012. You only have to look at their series with the San Francisco 49ers, one of the teams playing in the NFC Championship Game.

The overall defense improved from No. 22 overall in 2011 to No. 14 in 2012. They now need to improve the offensive line and pass-blocking for Sam Bradford, who continues to take too many hits.

The Rams were tied with the 49ers at the end of regulation in both games this year. In St. Louis, the Rams won it in overtime. In San Francisco, the game wound up in a tie. The Rams improved in the first year under Fisher, going from 2-14 to 7-8-1. They aren't all the way back yet, but they are definitely getting closer.



As you can see from the various teams that we have detailed, there are a number of ways a team can go from terrible status to being a contender. Some teams realize that turnaround is much quicker for them than others, and for those teams that come to this realization, they should consider themselves fortunate.

Thanks for checking out the presentation.


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