NFL Parity: Any Team Is Just One Season Away From Playoffs
Even the Detroit Lions.
Just like that winless franchise, the 2007 Miami Dolphins were an NFL laughingstock during last season's 1-15 campaign. One year later, Miami has the chance to complete the biggest turnaround in NFL history. The Dolphins (8-5) can clinch the AFC East title by winning their final three games.
"It's something to hold your head up high about because last year was the opposite," Dolphins defensive end Vonnie Holliday told South Florida media this week. "You wanted to stay in the house and not come out because it was a bad situation. Now, you're sitting here at this time of the year exactly where you want to be — in the hunt."
Every year since the NFL switched to an eight-division, 32-team format in 2002, at least one team with five or fewer wins one season has rebounded to reach the playoffs the following season. But never have four such clubs qualified in the same year.
Conversely, three of the four teams in last year's conference championships (San Diego, Green Bay and New England) may fall short of the postseason. Two other 2007 playoff squads — Jacksonville (4-9) and Seattle (2-11) — are already eliminated from contention; Washington (7-6) would be on the outs if the regular season ended today.
The cliché that the NFL is a "year-to-year" league has never rung truer. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome knows that first-hand.
Baltimore experienced an eight-game swing when dropping from 13-3 in 2006 to 5-11 last season. The Ravens are soaring once again at 9-4 entering Sunday's pivotal AFC North match-up against visiting Pittsburgh (10-3).
"Were we really good enough to be a 13-3 team? I don't know, but we definitely weren't a 5-11 (caliber) team last year," Newsome said in a telephone interview. "There are certain things and positions that can affect a team's success."
Let's begin at quarterback. The Ravens (Joe Flacco), Jets (Brett Favre), Dolphins (Chad Pennington) and Falcons (Matt Ryan) all have new ones who have started every game. Last year, those teams fielded a combined total of 11 starting quarterbacks.
After being traded from Green Bay, the 39-year-old Favre has proven it wasn't a mistake for him to come out of a brief retirement. Pennington, who was released by New York after the Favre acquisition, has proven a steadying influence for a young Dolphins offense. As for Ryan and Flacco, both are disproving the notion that rookies can't handle the NFL's most difficult position.
"Did (Flacco) impact our team to the point that it's because of him that we're in a division race and fighting for the playoffs? Yes," Newsome said. "You can say the same thing about Matt Ryan and (Tennessee running back) Chris Johnson."
Just like when Eric Mangini led the Jets to the playoffs in 2006, new head coaches in Miami (Tony Sparano), Atlanta (Mike Smith) and Baltimore (John Harbaugh) have experienced quick success. None of the three were big-name hires or had previous NFL head-coaching experience, but they each had a plan to kick-start their struggling franchises. Sparano, Smith and Harbaugh built quality coaching staffs that include three former head coaches at offensive coordinator — Dan Henning (Miami), Mike Mularkey (Atlanta) and Cam Cameron (Baltimore).
"Sometimes a different voice or different approach can be the difference between a playoff team and 6-10," said Newsome, whose team parted ways with head coach Brian Billick last January after nine seasons. "But eventually, it still comes down to players. You've got to have both."
The talent being fielded in Baltimore, New York, Atlanta and Miami is significantly different than at this point in 2007. The Ravens are healthier defensively and have gotten steady play out of left tackle Jared Gaither, who replaced the retired Jon Ogden. Besides trading for Favre and standout nose tackle Kris Jenkins, New York embarked on a wild free-agent spending spree, acquiring key players in left guard Alan Faneca, right tackle Damien Woody and outside linebacker Calvin Pace. New management in Atlanta (Thomas Dimitroff) and Miami (Bill Parcells/Jeff Ireland) used a combination of the draft and free agency to replenish their rosters.
While all four franchises have provided some of the NFL's best feel-good stories in 2008, it's also entirely possible that the Dolphins, Ravens, Jets and Falcons will fall short of the playoffs once again. But at least Baltimore, Miami, Atlanta and New York have something that wasn't there at this time last year — hope.
"That's the beauty of the NFL," Pennington said. "Regardless of what happened the year before, it's a new season every year."
This article originally published on FOXSports.com.
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