NFL Dark Horses Ending the Year in the Stable

Paul PreibisiusAnalyst IDecember 16, 2009

Everyone loves the idea of a "dark horse" pick. Many teams get that label despite the attention they get ultimately flying in the face of the true definition (i.e. little-known). 

Most of those teams, picked to make great steps in the preseason or early in the year, have now found themselves facing the very real possibility of a missing the playoffs entirely after being picked to possibly make some noise. 

Houston is the poster child for this effect. Chosen as the dark horse pick in the preseason by the bulk of so-called experts, the team is now below .500 and fighting just to match its prior year’s 8-8 record. With a high-powered offense that seemed to have all the pieces in place, it was assumed that Matt Schaub’s health was the only stumbling block.

A full year (to this point) of Schaub has made little difference to a team trapped in the toughest (by overall win-loss record among all teams) division in the NFL. They have dropped five out of six inside their own division to stumble into their division’s basement at 6-7.

Ironically, even the 0-6 starting Titans are technically above the Texans at 6-7 but holding a better division record at a scant 2-4.  This team has teetered on the edge of success all year, losing six of their seven games by one touchdown or less, including several late leads that fell apart.

The Texans have had the statistical success expected of them (fourth overall in passing, eighth in total yards, while posting a respectable 13th in overall yards allowed), but a stalled running game and second half letdowns have prevented those stats from translating into success.

Atlanta was also another preseason darling. They had already made the playoffs last year, but with another year of experience for rookie phenom Matt Ryan and the addition of hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, the team was expected to make the jump from relevance to a true playoff threat.

The team is instead at 6-7 (though with some slim chance still present with fewer over .500 teams in the NFC). Ryan playing his age and has been hampered by injuries. Injuries have also dogged Michael Turner, which has greatly hurt a team that was looking to boast one of the NFL’s more prolific offenses this year. Instead of the top five projection, the team is presently 16th in total yards of offense.

Were it not for the fortunate scheduling of Washington and Tampa bay during the second half of the year, Atlanta might very well have been staring down an eight game losing streak (as it stands, those wins against one and four win teams leaves them at 2-6 over the last eight).

One final preseason darling, Chicago, has disappointed to a far greater tune. The hype surrounding the arrival of franchise quarterback Jay Cutler led to some preseason speculation of a potential return to the Super Bowl. 

Brian Urlacher was purported to be in his best shape in years, Cutler would provide the arm to transform the unspectacular receiving corps into a powerhouse offense.

A fast 3-1 start (after a game one speed bump) despite an opening day injury to Urlacher (for the year) did nothing to quash the speculation that they were Minnesota’s greatest inter-divisional challenger. 

Matt Forte’s failure to make good on a solid ’08 along with an ever growing interception total by Cutler finally started to catch up to the team at that point. Chicago has since gone 2-7 with its only wins coming against the St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns, who have a combined a total of just three wins.

Cutler’s knack for forcing plays, paired with no running game (32nd in the league), has proven to fans that one man alone cannot make a team. With little offensive talent around him, Cutler has gone from a pro-bowl quarterback to a hurried trigger-happy mess that has fans eyeballing the success of recently departed Kyle Orton in likely playoff-bound Denver with troubled hearts.

What do these three preseason hot-picks have in common?  Beyond disappointing with sub .500 records to this point, they all also started the year with encouraging signs to their preseason hype.

At the one-quarter mark of the year, these teams had posted a combined 8-4 record.  Since that point the trio has gone 9-18 (or a paltry .333 winning percentage). 

The other commonality is preseason hype based upon the idea of a high-powered offense. Chicago was supposed to be the most balanced, but the Bears' hype was the Forte/Cutler duo, while Houston’s Slaton/Schaub/Johnson combination and Atlanta’s Turner/Ryan/White/Gonzo groupings were looked at to push each team up several slots in the standings. 

To further counterpoint this is the biggest example of a team with a modest 2008 with a lot of preseason hype that has made good, that of course being the New Orleans Saints. Of the teams looking to step from good (or even just decent) to great, this was the one team whose preseason hype was surrounding changes made on defense. 

Cincinnati, likely the biggest surprise among playoff teams, also went the route of swapping high-flying offense for a physical, well-balanced offense and tough defense.  The "new" Bengals retooled their team in the opposite manner of Atlanta, Chicago, and Houston. The results speak for themselves.

What you can take away from this is that teams often suffer when putting a lot of faith in question marks. Be it one guy who had a great year, a la Ryan/Forte/Slaton or optimism over a big pickup in the vein of Gonzalez or Cutler, faith is hard earned by sexy "take the next step" picks.

Along with those teams that have failed to step up, some have also taken a step back. Read their story here: