Rising From the Ashes: Which NFL Cellar Dweller Takes the Next Step?
One of the great things about the NFL is the capacity for teams to rise up in short order. Look at Miami. The 1-15 Dolphins are already a thing of the past, as the team orchestrated a 13-3 turnaround to take home the division. They fell to 7-9 this year thanks to an array of injuries and a three-game season-closing skid, but they were still a team no one wanted to face.
Who will be that team next year? No one can predict a double-digit win turnaround, but what teams are capable of moving up a step next year in the form of a three- to four-win boost? That is the question we will try to answer. Rather than using the "cellar" term literally and taking the last-place team of each division, the cutoff has been put at double- digit losses—a good marker point for teams in need of a fix.
St. Louis Rams
Why They Will: They hold the most proven building block among basement teams in 26-year-old running back Steven Jackson. He is already the type of player that can put a team on his back and will a team to victory. The Rams also have the inside track to acquiring Ndamukong Suh with the first overall pick in the draft. Steve Spagunuolo looks like a coach that can move a team in the right direction.
Why They Won’t: The team is a wreck. Steven Jackson has had some injury history, and the mileage will add up quickly. Second overall draft pick Jason Smith is still suffering from a Week 13 concussion, and there is concern about permanent damage that may end his career before it ever really gets started. The team may have some pieces in Jackson and Laurinaitis, but it essentially has holes at every position but running back.
Final Verdict: They have a coach that, given the proper time frame, should be able to make the team competitive once more. They do, however, have the most holes of any team in football, and they have to hope they don’t wear out Jackson before things start to come together. They won’t have a Lions/Raiders seven-year streak, but next year, don’t expect much.
Why They Will: Detroit actually looked like a professional football team. The team’s passing game looks to be an asset, with Matthew Stafford appearing like he will be able to mature into the front-line quarterback the Lions had been hoping for. Along with wide receiver Calvin Johnson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, the unit is young and talented. If the trio had not been beset by injuries, the unit would likely have placed higher than 21st.
The Lions also have the benefit of a much better-looking front office, with head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew working to change the culture of the long-suffering franchise. Also, if St. Louis feels compelled to address the need for a quarterback, Ndamukong Suh falls right into Detroit’s lap.
Why They Won’t: The Lions defense is still atrocious, ranking dead last in the league in total yards and last against the pass. If the offense was settled, they could focus their attentions on solely on the group, but Detroit still needs to address problems at running back and O-line, especially finding a suitable left tackle to replace overmatched Jeff Backus.
They are also trying to make strides while playing in a solid NFC North, with Minnesota and Green Bay both perennial threats and Chicago looking to avenge its disappointing 7-9 finish.
Final Verdict: Detroit will continue to make strides. As long as Mayhew has a solid draft and can find a free agent or two, the team should be able to crawl into four- to five-win territory next year. They aren’t going to be fighting for a playoff spot right away, but they are slowly undoing the damage of the Matt Millen regime.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Why They Will: The team was playing much better football to close out the year, taking two of their last three games, including a shocker against the New Orleans Saints. Once Josh Freeman cuts down on the turnovers, he looks like he should mature into a solid starting quarterback for a team that has run through a decade’s worth during the past three years.
When healthy, Cadillac Williams looks like he has the wheels to lead the team’s running back committee, posting solid numbers once he was back to full health. Tampa Bay’s defense also looked much improved once Head Coach Raheem Morris uninstalled his system and returned to what has historically worked for the Buccaneers.
They also posted great numbers against the pass, ranking 10th in the league in pass defense, ahead of eight of the league’s 12 playoff teams.
Why They Won’t: The pass defense statistic is a bit deceiving. Teams put up less passing yards because they held enough leads over Tampa that they could afford to grind clock against the Bucs' league-worst rushing defense. With only nine starts, Josh Freeman tossed almost as many picks as fellow rookie Mark Sanchez (18 to 20). Will his half-season of experience mean a slightly longer learning curve compared to Day One starters Sanchez and Stafford?
Added to the mix is the fact that multiple key pieces of the offense are major injury question marks. Cadillac Williams has spent more time dinged up than healthy in his five-year career, and tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. has missed 36 of a possible 96 games in his six-year career.
Final Verdict: This one is up in the air. Josh Freeman will be a solid quarterback, but he doesn’t have Mark Sanchez’s running game or Matthew Stafford’s stud receiver to aid his progress. They will take baby steps forward as long as Winslow and Williams can stay relatively healthy, and they may match Detroit for wins in 2010, but the Lions will reach the 8-8/9-7 plateau faster than Tampa.
Kansas City Chiefs
Why They Will: Kansas City looks like they hit a home run when they replaced dissident running back Larry Johnson with Jamaal Charles. Charles closed the year with four consecutive 100-yard games (three of the four considerably above 100). He put up 1,120 yards despite not seeing significant reps until Week 10 of the season.
Matt Cassel didn’t set Kansas City on fire, but he posted respectable numbers given the team’s overall deficiencies. With the emergence of Charles, Cassel no longer has to carry the offense by himself. The team may have gone 1-3 in its last four games, but each loss was by a touchdown or less, and they dominated Denver to close the year.
Why They Won’t: In his big roster turnover, Scott Pioli added several aging vets that were expected to provide leadership. Third overall draft pick Tyson Jackson failed to impress in his first year. At wide receiver, midseason spark plug Chris Chambers is going to be a free agent, and wideout Dwayne Bowe is not exactly on the same page as coach Todd Haley. The Chiefs need a drastic revamp of their receiving core if Cassel is to have any chance of success.
Final Verdict: Not rosy. Cassel has been in the league enough that his upside doesn’t rate with Stafford or Freeman. The team is in dire need of a true No. 1 receiver, and possibly a two and three given Bowe’s propensity for the doghouse and Chambers’ free agent status. They will be gaining new holes as older vets like Mike Vrabel retire and Todd Haley’s hard-driving manner may alienate players. Barring something drastic, look for them to mostly run in place and post a similar record next year.
Why They Will: One of the good things about having a team fall way below expectations is that there is a roster of players capable of more. Getting Shanahan could likely help make up concussion-hampered running back Clinton Portis’ mind about coming back. The Redskins are strong up the middle defensively, with Orakpo having a good rookie year behind mammoth Albert Haynesworth. If they can find one more really good D-lineman, they should have a powerful front seven. That already decent defense (ranked eighth overall against the pass) should see improvement behind the addition of Jim Haslett.
Why They Won’t: The offense is full of question marks. Will Jason Campbell be resigned to quarterback the team? If not, who do they get? If so, can he make the step that he has failed to make in several years as Washington’s quarterback? Behind him, will Clinton Portis return after another concussion ended his year prematurely? Even if he’s back, how much mileage does he have left? Finally, can Daniel Snyder keep his hands off and give Shanahan the space to put his system into place?
Final Verdict: The revamped staff of Washington should help to change the culture of the team. Shanahan has the resume and power to tell Daniel Snyder to pound sand. If they can secure decent quarterback play (from Campbell or his replacement) and New York’s collapse carries through to 2010, there is no reason Washington can’t make a run at 7-9/8-8 and third in the division.
Why They Will: They were arguably the best "bad" team at the end of the year. They won four straight against teams like Pittsburgh and Jacksonville to close the regular season after putting a scare into 13-3 San Diego. They finally seem to have found some offensive weapons with Joshua Cribbs and Jerome Harrison. Despite ranking second to last in yards allowed, Cleveland ranked nine places higher in points allowed, proving some capacity to bend without breaking.
Why They Won’t: Eric Mangini was retained, a questionable move of an unpopular and unproven guy. Joshua Cribbs wants out after balking at the contract offer. Jerome Harrison may be a flash in the pan, emerging only in the last three games; when game-planned for, will he be as effective? Brady Quinn is still a question at quarterback. They found their answer on Derek Anderson, and the answer’s “no.”
Final Verdict: I like Holmgren as a front office guy, but not the move of keeping Mangini, continuity be damned. The bloat of the Anderson/Quinn duo and their contracts will likely keep the team from picking up a starting QB since Anderson’s contract will be on the Browns whether he is or not, the year wrecked whatever trade value he might have. Playing in a tough division, Cleveland will be more competitive next year, but stand still in the win/loss column.
Why They Will: When Jamarcus Russell wasn’t taking snaps, the Raiders looked like a pretty solid team, pulling off upsets or fighting to the end. The team already has a great backfield, with three quality running backs fighting for carries. Oakland’s defense should be able to improve just by liberty of not spending as much time on the field in 2010. If they can re-sign Seymour, they are a defensive tackle away from a dominant D-line to go with one of the league’s better corners.
Why They Won’t: The Raiders' coaching situation. Not only are they unsure if Cable will be retained (reports lean toward no at the moment), but there are no real big candidates should he be let go. Davis’ offseasons are always reason for concern. Richard Seymour is a free agent in an in-demand position. The Raiders have looked a key player or two away from 8-8ish for years now; what’s to change?
Final Verdict: Incomplete, with Davis’ ability to make some odd draft choices, the coaching situation, and they could still lose Seymour. Also in the air is just how they will start the year at quarterback. With a good offseason, they have as much potential as anybody in this slideshow, but they are also the least stable. Assuming Gradkowski/Cable/Seymour are starting, and they get a solid (contributor but not superstar) first- rounder to fill one of their holes, they could go 7-9.
Why They Will: Seattle has brought some excitement into the organization by plucking Pete Carroll from USC, along with much of Carroll’s staff. They have some great pieces to work with; when healthy, the linebacking corps is a potent young unit playing for a coach that has developed some great linebackers (Ray Maualuga, Clay Matthews, and Brian Cushing all coming out of USC in the same year). Carroll has two first-round draft picks to work with and a veteran quarterback that may be on the decline, but that gives them some time to not have to drop a rookie starter in over his head.
Why They Won’t: Hasselbeck is breaking down, and there isn’t a prospect in place behind him. Carroll will be working to install his own system, and thus the team will have first-year growing pains. The team needs to sort out an underachieving backfield that ranked 26th in the league in rushing.
Final Verdict: The crumbling pieces (Hasselbeck) should hang on for long enough for the team to continue to build around. The team has the freedom of a good draft and several youngsters to improve. The defense should take a step forward, while the offense stays somewhat where they are at. While playing in a weak division, that should be enough for Seattle to tack on an extra two to three wins from this year.
Why They Will: They were already the best of the worst. At 6-10, several teams on the list would consider that record a marked improvement. They have one of the most underrated rookie DB’s in free safety Jairus Byrd and his nine interceptions. They posted the second-best passing defense in football and gave up the fewest points of any team on this list (ranking 16th in the league).
Why They Won’t: The team has absolutely no direction. They fired the entire coaching staff and have yet to find a new head coach (with some prospects turning down interview offers). While having an underwhelming year, Terrell Owens was still one of the few top threats on the team and will likely be elsewhere. The quarterback situation is up in the air, with the team holding three young quarterbacking prospects between the ages of 25 and 27 that have all failed to earn a starting role. The pass defense stat is a little deceiving as well. When you can be gouged in the running game, are usually behind, and play the Jets and Dolphins twice apiece, Cleveland, Carolina (while it still was starting Delhomme), Kansas City, and Jacksonville (as well as playing one of your two games against New England in the season opener where Tom Brady was still coated in rust and Wes Welker was absent), it’s easy to hold down the passing yards put up on you.
Final Verdict: They land here as the team most likely to take a step backward next year. Miami should be much improved with Henne’s added experience and Ronny Brown’s health, New England should come out angry after a down year, and the Jets are a young team on the rise. That makes for a tough division for a team that is running out of coaching options and has no clue about their quarterback situation. Three to four wins would not be a surprise.