One of the most dizzying collapses of all time started with an argument between a coach and his quarterback, transitioned into a dispute between that same coach and his wide receiver, and ended with all of them being one of the great cautionary tales in sports history.
The year was 2009, and the Denver Broncos had hired a young head coach. His name was Josh McDaniels. Maybe you've heard of him. Not long after he took the job, he got into a spat with quarterback Jay Cutler. Maybe you've heard of him, too.
The distrust between the two was so thick, Cutler was traded to the Bears before the season even began. Later on, wide receiver Brandon Marshall had his own differences with McDaniels and was traded to Miami after the 2009 season.
Kyle Orton was Denver's starting quarterback, and the Broncos started the 2009 season strong. They were 2-0. Then three. Then four and beyond. Soon, however, came the collapse. An epic one.
They would join a small, distinguished group of NFL teams known for making the wrong kind of history: starting 5-0 and failing to make the postseason.
They serve as warnings to the current crop of 5-0 teams around the NFL: New Orleans, Denver and Kansas City. While all of the statistical measures say 5-0 means you're practically a playoff lock, there are examples like that 2009 Broncos team, among a handful of others, that serve as a dire warning. A 5-0 team can still crumble.
The 5-0 teams that failed to make the playoffs have few traits in common except the misery of falling under their own weight. Some had internal fighting that helped to speed the fall. Others did not. Some had superstars. Some didn't. Some, like the Giants, had Hall of Fame-caliber coaches like Tom Coughlin. McDaniels was in his first year.
The only unifying factor—and something the current 5-0 teams could learn from—is that the losing streaks started suddenly. By the time the organization realized what was happening, it was too late.
So if there's one thing the 5-0's now can learn from the 5-and-d'ohs, it's to move heaven and Earth to stop the slide if there are consecutive losses. Consecutive losses are the Kryptonite to 5-0.
Since 1990, when the league's 12-team playoff format was initialized, 36 of the previous 40 teams that began 5-0—90 percent—made the playoffs. What I wanted to know was, what happened to the four teams that stumbled so grandly after starting so strong?
Those four 5-0 teams that missed the postseason were the 2009 Broncos, 2009 Giants, 2003 Vikings and 1993 Saints. The Broncos and Vikings actually started 6-0.
In many ways, this is a story about cold statistics. This is also a story about frailty. The odds, the statistical analysis, say 5-0 teams are a lock to make the playoffs. Football's past says otherwise, that even 5-0 can lead to disaster.
The Broncos lost eight of their last 10. The Giants would go 3-8 in their next 11 games after winning the opening five. A four-game losing streak in the middle of the schedule doomed the Vikings. Only a few years before Jim Mora's infamous playoff rant, the Saints lost four of their last five.
The situation with Cutler in 2009 was the catalyst for their problems.
"Let me be as clear as I can about this," McDaniels told NFL.com in March of 2009. "We are not trading Jay Cutler—period."
One month later, they did. Orton was good enough to start 5-0 but didn't have the ability to help sustain it. While Cutler can be a knucklehead, he's more talented, and that talent could have pushed Denver into the postseason.
The 2003 Vikings could have made the playoffs had they beaten the horrible 3-12 Arizona Cardinals in the final game of the regular season. The Vikings instead lost the game despite having an 11-point lead with two minutes remaining. The Cardinals scored the game-winner on a stunning 4th-and-25 play. The Vikings were out.
What 5-0 does is provide a cushion, and most of the time, that cushion works.
Not all of the time, though. Sometimes that cushion turns into a rope.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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