NFL Football Fragments: When Is Improvement a Bad Thing?

Paul PreibisiusAnalyst IDecember 8, 2009

Sometimes utter collapse can be better for a team than showing some reason for optimism, especially in the closing half of a season. Miami is a perfect example of this. The 1-15 debacle two years ago was the trigger for a thorough purge that rapidly charged the team back to respectability.

After a division crown last year, they will most likely miss the playoffs this time around, with injuries and an 0-3 start to the year giving them just a little too much to overcome. Yet they are proving to be stiff competition, as evidenced by their 22-21 duel with the New England Patriots.

One has to wonder, if Miami had done just enough to eke out a 4-12 or 5-11 record in 2007, does Parcells get brought on board for a thorough housecleaning? Or does Cam Cameron get a pass because it was his first year as head coach? You could contend that NFL use of the wildcat offense has Miami’s miserable year to thank.

Miami used that springboard for a rapid turnaround while many teams continue to flounder and return less than expected results. In some sense, the conclusion could be drawn that these teams that continually put up just enough at spurts to give hope, are causing themselves damage by allowing a front office to simply try and fine-tune the team.

Washington and Oakland both are giving fans reason to hope for 2010.

The Redskins are 1-3 in their last four games, but have played three playoff teams in the Eagles, Saints, and Cowboys tight, losing by an average of 2.3 points. Jason Campbell especially has looked much better, after being considered almost a placeholder by midseason.

The Raiders have had more literal success, posting a 2-1 record as of late in defeating the Bengals and Steelers. Like Washington, they have drawn off of improved quarterback play (this time by way of a personnel change in benching Jamarcus Russell in favor of Bruce Gradkowski).

Four games remain, and anything can happen, yet one has to feel both of these teams are much more optimistic now than they were at midseason. Where this could have an impact though, would be if these players and teams showed just enough in the final stretches to save a few jobs that probably should be lost.

Will Gradkowski and his receiving corps be given the keys to 2010? Will Jason Campbell return as Washington’s leader? Will those moves pay off if they come to pass?

Oakland has seen late-season encouragement before. Russell had shown enough progress to close 2008 that he was given multiple chances for success in 2009, keeping his starter’s role for two or three games longer than he probably should have. They were encouraged by a 3-3 finale to that 2008 year, enough that they banked on the progress of many young players and retained interim coach Tom Cable.

They also stayed somewhat quiet in the free agent market (Greg Ellis aside), especially on the offensive side of the football, where they needed the most improvement.

The beginning of this year saw the number of young players the team had pinned its hopes on falter, en route to a 2-7 start that wrecked any chance of a late season push getting them anything but a cheaper draft pick. If the team feels the Shilens’ injury and the rookie learning curves of Murphy and Heyward-Bey justify another year with the same cast, this team could once again struggle.

Given a full year, will a team burned by Russell’s dead-weight contract be reticent to pursue a franchise quarterback and put their faith solely on Gradkowski? Once again the team could struggle out of the gate.

Washington entered the season with higher expectations than Oakland (and find themselves with one less win than the Raiders as well), banking on the signing of mammoth Albert Haynesworth to push this team into the crowded NFC East race.

Now that they rest at 3-9, serious doubt surrounds the team. Yet progress has been made. They have played good teams to tight matches, and look ready to steal at least one big upset by season’s end.

Jim Zorn is likely gone from the team, so this push probably won't save his job.

Jason Campbell and other pieces of the offense are another question. Campbell is the type of player you want to succeed. He works hard and does not hold prima donna viewpoints.

He is also highly inconsistent and can spend one game in All-Pro form (four games with a passer rating over 95) and the very next looking like a journeyman at best (four games rating below 75).

If he continues on this pace in the last six games, he will probably do enough to earn one more year. Whether that year is with a drafted franchise guy sitting behind him is uncertain.

The team’s late improvement may also be enough for the team to keep riding Clinton Portis, whose body was ready to break down even before the season-ending concussion.

One big free agent was not enough last offseason. Will the team learn from this mistake or try to pair one big name with a new coach and a team that seems on the cusp and fail because of it in 2010? This remains to be seen.

San Francisco, after some early season buzz, has cooled from the encouraging end to 2008. Mike Singletary’s leadership made the team relevant again, and a fast start to the year gave the team the appearance of a playoff team emerging despite very little change in the offseason, especially offensively.

The initial fire that Singletary brought to the team has since faded.

They have gone 2-6 since that opening four game charge, and are realistically (albeit, not yet mathematically) out of the playoffs. Will the team use Alex Smith’s improvement and Crabtree’s late start as a sign to go with another similar offseason? Will the young inconsistent team mature into a contender over the course of an entire season? Or will the team put its faith in the signs of optimism, and continue to fall short?

Another long term victim of this trend rests in the cold north of Buffalo. Three consecutive 7-9 years have led to frequent offseason speculation that they are one right move away from playoff contention. Giving Lee Evans a playmate in Terrell Owens would break up double teams and open up the field to make this team a legitimate wild-card contender.

They quickly slammed the door on that notion, opening the year at 1-4. Will the lessons of the past three offseasons be enough for this team to realize the flaw in their “almost there” approach that has attempted to fine tune a team that needs a deeper reworking? Or will the buzz of a new head coach, paired with the improvement of a 3-4 record the last seven games be enough to keep the team’s personnel office in neutral?

Many other teams are showing signs of life. Some will likely make good on improvement to generate an impressive 2010 year. Others will regress early, only to finish with mediocre results.

The Tennessee Titans will probably give Vince Young the year to prove himself after returning to the starting lineup, an apparently changed man. The future success of this team sits squarely on his arm and Chris Johnson’s legs.

Any team can play the phoenix and rise from the ashes of a dead season to make the playoffs the following year. Some teams even succeed with the "just a small tweak to push it over" approach (see Saints, New Orleans).

Most teams that remain stagnant, hoping a few encouraging signs will be enough to "take the next step" with a relatively unchanged team, will continue to underwhelm the following year. Losing can often become a culture in a given town, and considerable shakeups are necessary to remove a team from a several-year funk.

The team that realizes this, and makes the needed changes, will likely be the one to raise eyebrows in 2010.


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