Saturday, February 14, 2009

Profiles In Improvement

One of the perpetual arguments on Detroit Lions' message boards is whether the team should draft Matt Stafford with the first overall pick. I can think of a dozen reasons why it would be a bad idea, but that's beside the point. The one good thing about these types of arguments isn't that anything gets resolved; the Lions will draft who they draft regardless of message board heroism, and the only thing accomplished is positions entrenched. No the real benefit is that people dig so deep for arguments that occasionally a good tangential idea is synthesized as a by-product.

Without going into all of the details, an entire article unto themselves, I thought it would be interesting to go back to see teams that were particularly poor, who rapidly improved to 10 wins or more. My criteria is from 1990 to present, teams that had 15 or fewer victories over a three year stretch (all sub-.500 years) who proceeded to the playoffs within three years. At this point I have no idea how long this article will be. I'll just start with the "A"s and work my way down.

1989 Atlanta Falcons

It is easier to start with the '89 version of this team. 11 wins in 3 seasons. 1989 was Chris Miller's second NFL season and first as a full-time starter. After 1989 Dan Henning was fired and replaced with Jerry Glanville. Glanville won 5 games in his first season and then 10 in 1991.

How they did it: One thing they didn't do was to change quarterbacks. The team was coming off a series of weak drafts, with only Miller from '87, later rounder Michael Haynes from '88 and '89 1st rounder Deion Sanders making significant contributions to their recovery. The falcons held the first pick in the '90 draft, trading it (Jeff George) to Indianapolis for Andre Rison and the 23d overall pick, selecting rushing leader Steve Broussard and tackling linebacker Darion Conner. The '91 draft was outstanding with strong contributions from rookies Bruce Pickens (db), Mike Pritchard (wr) and Moe Gardner (dt). Glanville hired June Jones and installed the run-n-shoot with Miller/Rison/Pritchard/Broussard as the primaries. By 1991 they still had one of the league's worst defenses but the offense had improved 20 spots to 5th in the league and the team won ten games.

Did it stick? No. Glanville last two more seasons with back-to-back six win years. The Falcons traded two first-rounders back to the Colts to reacquire George. Since 1991 the team has had three ten win seasons.

1998 Chicago Bears

This was Dave Wannstedt's last season, coming off seven, four, and four win years to compete a relatively disappointing tenure as Ditka's replacement. He was replaced by Dick Jauron and the team showed little improvement in first two years, until the defense suddenly came together in 2001, moving from 20th to 1st in scoring while the team won 13 games.

How they did it: Honestly, it seems like a mystery. The scoring offenses and defenses jumped way up, the team finished 3d in the NFL in scoring differential in '01, despite the total offenses and defense only improving a small amount. Did they change quarterbacks? Did they ever. In '99 three different quarterbacks got starts, wtih Shane Matthews the 'official' starter, in '00 the same three got starts with second year quarterback Cade McNown getting the most. In their renaissance year of '91 the third stringer Jim Miller was the primary with 13 starts. Coming off of weak drafts in '96 and '97, '98 was fairly strong, despite the selection of Curtis Enis in the first round, with Tony Parrish (ss), Olin Kreuz (c) and Chris Draft (lb) all productive starters selected. The '99 draft was also strong, despite McNown with Marty Booker and Roosevelt Colvin among three starters who would contribute to the '91 team. '00 brought Urlacher, Mike Brown, Dez White and Paul Edinger, adding two pro-bowl defenders to the team. And '01 brought David Terrell and Anthony Thomas who both had very strong rookie campaigns, despite their later struggles.

Did it stick? Yes and no. Chicago has gone 56-56 since 2001 with a coaching change, but they have also gone to the Super Bowl. The defense slipped back to its prior levels in '92 and '93 before improving again to their Super Bowl levels. Offense has remained an afterthought. Ten quarterbacks have started games since the end of '91 and only for parts of '96 have they had a legitimate passing attack.

1989 Dallas Cowboys

1989 was Jimmy Johnson's
first season with Dallas. They won one game that year, following seven and three win seasons at the end of Tom Landry's career. '89 was Aikman's rookie year. By 1991 they improved to 11 wins.

How they did it. The trade, of course. But maybe not. The Herschel Walker deal is widely credited with giving Dallas the players they needed to become dominant but it is less than clear that this is so. They did acquire picks used to draft Emmitt Smith ('90) and Darren Woodson ('92) so maybe that's enough. Most of the rest of the picks and a few playes went to acquiring the #1 overall pick in '91, Russell Maryland, who never met expectations. They had a lot less luck with the other players and picks they acquired. The fact is they already had one foundational draft in '98 with Aikman and also drafting key components of the great blocking team they would develop with Steve Wisniewski, Mark Stepnoski, and Daryl Johnston. They drafted Steve Walsh with the first pick in the supplemental draft who they traded for first and second round picks, one of which became Alvin Harper. They also already had a young Michael Irvin on the roster. Coupled with drafts of Smith and Jimmy Jones in '90 and then Maryland, Harper, Dixon Edwards, Erik Williams, and Leon Lett in '91, the team had ample talent to elevate and begin their run.

Did it stick? Yeah. Dallas made the playoffs the next five seasons, winning three Super Bowls, before fading out with two more playoff appearances at the end of the decade.

2002 Dallas Cowboys

After the dynasty of the '90s faded the 'boys shuffled coaches. The Dave Campo era ran from '00 to '02 with three consecutive five win seasons. After '02 Campo was fired and Parcells was brought in to right the ship. It took him all of one season to take the team from five wins to ten and a playoff berth, as the team defense improved from average to the best in the NFL.

How they did it. After terrible drafts from '99 to '01, the course was altered in 2002 with the team landing Roy Williams, Andre Gurode (g), and Antonio Bryant (wr) who each played significant roles on the ten win team. Parcell's first draft brought in Terence Newman, Al Johnson (c) and Jason Witten who all started as rookies. They also acquired Terry Glenn. Quincy Carter started all sixteen games before being jettisoned the following winter. Even with Glenn, Witten, and Bryant the offense was below average. Even with the #2 scoring defense the team only managed a 29 point scoring differential for the season. The defense drove the team. Roy Williams was All Pro, Dexter Coakley made his final Pro Bowl. La'Roi Glover was picked up from New Orleans prior to '02 and in '03 made his fourth of six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.

Did It Stick? The team regressed in '04 but continued to build and climb. After a great draft in '05 they signed Terrell Owens, promoted Tony Romo and returned to the playoffs in '06. In '06 and '07 they had top five offenses (scoring and total) and were widely regarded as the best NFC team during th e'07 season. The discipline that Parcells brought seemed to wear off by '08 and we are all well familiar with the chaos in the Cowboy locker room.

1988 Detroit Lions

This seems like the natural transition point for this team. This was Darryl Rogers' fourth season as head coach. He was fired toward the end of '88 by Wayne Fontes during a three year stretch of five, four and four wins. Fontes was retained and by '91 the team improved to twelve wins, a trip to the conference championship, and their only playoff victory from 1958 - present.

How they did it Barry Sanders is the simplest answer. Like the Falcons, the Lions moved to a version of the run-n-shoot in '89 which they continued to run throughout Fontes' tenure. After picking up two foundational offensive linemen in the '85 draft they had a terrible '86 and '87 draft, picking up only one (very good) nose tackle between them. '88 was their first foundational draft, with important components Bennie Blades (s), Chris Spielman (mlb), William White (s), and Erik Andolsek (g). Andolsek was killed following the '91 season. 1989 brought Sanders, Mike Utley (t), Ray Crockett(cb), and Rodney Peete(qb). Utley was paralyzed midway through '91 but started the first half of the season at RT. In 1990 they added Dan Owens (dl), Marc Spindler (de), Tracey Hayworth (lb), and Willie Green (wr). They did not add any starters to the 1991 team through the '91 draft. They did pick Herman Moore in the first round but he had a very limited role as a rookie. The team defense was top ten in Rogers' last year and remained near that spot through '91. The big improvement was in the offense which went from last in the NFL to 9th overall.

Did it stick? Yes. The '91 pythagorean for the team was 9 wins, not 12, and they maintained a 9 win pace pretty much throughout the '90s. After the loss of Utley and Andolsek '92 was significantly off but starting in '93 the team made the playoffs five times in seven years, and led the division in victories for the decade.

1992 New England Patriots

The '92 Pats were at the rock bottom, coming off the second year of a disastrous two year stint under Dick MacPherson among rumors that the team was leaving Boston. In the 28 team NFL New England was 27th in offense and turnover differential, 23d in defense. They started four different quarterbacks in 1992, who collectively got punished for 65 sacks. Following the '92 season they replaced MacPherson with Bill Parcells and drafted Drew Bledsoe with the first pick in the draft. In 1994 they won ten games, qualifying for the playoffs as a wild card.

How they did it: It is easy to say Parcells and Bledsoe. This is the second time that Parcells appears in this article, a feat that he would repeat again with the Jets and nearly a fourth time as an executive with Miami in 2008 (they weren't quite bad enough to qualify). This isn't the entire story though. With first round picks they acquired from Dallas in the Maryland deal they picked Eugene Chung and Pat Harlow who teamed with veteran All Pro Bruce Armstrong and '93 2nd rounder Todd Rucci to build one of the strongest offensive lines in the NFL. They also added two starting linebackers in the '92 and '93 draft along with 900+ yard receiver Vincent Brisby in '93. In 1994 they drafted Willie McGinest with their fourth overall selection and he contributed significantly during his rookie season. As with most of these teams, prior drafts had been talent-thin, but the team did pick Ben Coates in the 4th round of the '91 draft. By the 1994 renaissance season he developed into a first team All Pro. Parcells managed to bring the defense up to the middle of the pack, and the offense into the top five, with five players catching over 50 passes, led by Coates' 96/1174/7.

Did it stick? Yes. The team dipped to six wins in '95 before returning to an eleven win season and Super Bowl berth in Parcell's final year in New England. He was replaced by Pete Carroll who guided the team to two more playoff appearances in '96 and '97 before getting sacked following an 8-8 year in '98. He was replaced by Belichick, launching the dynastic Patriots of the early oughts.

1999 New Orleans Saints

In Saints lore 1999 will be remembered as the year that Mike Ditka went crazy and traded his draft for someone even crazier. This was Ditka's third, and last season with New Orleans who totalled 15 victories under Ditka. Ricky Williams had a reasonable but truncated rookie season, rushing for nearly a thousand yards in twelve games. The passing attack was a shambles though, with three starting quarterbacks (including two starts from a young Jake Delhomme!), no real #1 receiver, and a team that finished near the bottom of the league in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Jim Haslett replaced Ditka after the '99 year and the team immediately improved to ten wins and the playoffs.

How they did it: Neither the offense nor defense was quite as bad as they appeared under Ditka, with both units in the middle of the pack for totals. Prior drafts had been thin, but they did pick the core players for a prolific rushing attack, with first rounders invested in Williams, Kyle Turley (t), and Chris Naeole (g) over the prior three drafts. The 2000 draft was still weakened by picks surrendered in the Williams deal, but the Saints did net a lead blocker for Williams with Terrell Smith in the 4th round. More importantly they drafted Darren Howard in the 2nd. He would go on to have a dominating rookie season at defensive end with 11 sacks, a pick and 2 fr in what would be the best season of his productive career. The team signed Jeff Blake away from Cincinnati and little-used Joe Horn away from Kansas City to form a passing threat. They also traded for Aaron Brooks who ended up starting the last five games and in the playoffs. Horn made the Pro Bowl going 94/1340/8 as the Saints only real receiving threat. Williams was limited again, with 1000 yards in 10 games. The offense, and more importantly the defense improved to top ten in all categories, catalyzing the sudden improvement of the team. Haslett installed an attacking defense which blossomed in the system. La-Roi glover made All Pro from a defensive tackle spot with an incredible 17 sacks and 3 ff. Joe Johnson played bookend to Howard, accumulating 12 more sacks for the team. Altogether the team accumulated 66 sacks en route to a home Wild Card victory over the champion Rams and an eventual loss in the divisional round to Minnesota.

Did it stick? Yes. The team didn't improve from 2000 on, but they didn't regress either, until Katrina forced them from the dome.

1996 New York Jets

'96 was the second of Rich Kotite's two year stint as head man for the Jets, and a year in which they went 1-15. Over the prior two years they had won six games in Pete Carroll's only season with the club, and then three in Kotite's first year. This was the eleventh year in a stretch that saw the team peak at eight victories (three times) during the late '80s and early '90s. The team had three quarterbacks get starts in '96, and despite very good production from Adrian Murrell, Wayne Chrebet and rookie Keyshawn Johnson the team finished 27th in scoring offense. Couple with a last place defense the single win fate of the team was sealed. Following the '96 season the team hired reclamation specialist Bill Parcells under whom the team immediately improved to 9-7 in '97. In 1998 the team went 12-4, winning the division and making the playoffs.

How they did it: Unlike other teams the Jets' improvement wasn't heavily linked to successful drafts. From prior years they had a young Aaron Glenn developing into an elite corner by '96. They drafted Kyle Brady in the 1st round in '95 and Keyshawn in '96 to anchor the receiving game. They got almost no help from Parcell's first two drafts. Only '97 7th rounder Jason Ferguson (dt) and '98 4th rounder Jason Fabiani (t) would contribute significantly to the 1998 team. They had to give up picks to hire Parcells from the Patriots, and then traded another 1st and 3d to the Pats for Curtis Martin. After making Neil O'Donnell the regular starter in '97, the Jets went out and acquired Vinnie Testaverde for the '98 season. Behind Martin, Testaverde, Johnson, and Brady the team's offense improved to top five in scoring and totals. Parcells coaxed a very veteran defense to #2 in scoring with All Pro Mo Lewis (lb) making his first Pro Bowl.

Did it stick? Not really. Parcells stuck around for one more 8-8 season. The team remained a bit better than average through Testaverde's last few productive seasons but never again threatened the elite position they reached in '98. This can't be too surprising for the team that - other than Glenn - was relying on defensive starters who were all in their late 20s and early 30s, and few young replacements on the horizon. Even so, Parcells' ability to transform bad teams into playoff contenders instantly is beyond rare.

1999 Philadelphia Eagles

'99 was Andy Reid's first season with the team, following the decline in Ray Rhodes' last years. The team won five games, following six and three win seasons. This was arguably the worst of the three seasons as the team finished in the bottom ten in offense and defense, slipping from 1998 standards. It only took Reid the one year to turn things around, in 2000 the team improved to 11-5 and a playoff win.

How they did it: Despite the poor records, this cupboard was hardly bare. Rookie Donovan McNabb acquired a half season of experience in '99. Recent drafts had acquired Tra Thomas (t), Jeremiah Trotter (lb) and Duce Staley (rb) among others, along with a young Brian Dawkins already on the roster. In 2000 they added Corey Simon who started all sixteen games, registering 9.5 sacks and 2 ff. McNabb has a great first full season, leading the team in rushing with over 600 yards and passing for 3300+ despite no credible wide receivers. Chad Lewis was the main receiving threat, making the Pro Bowl with 69/735 in his first full season after kicking around the league for a few years. After missing most of 1999 Hugh Douglas returned to defensive end and had his best season, making All Pro with 15 sacks, and INT and 2 ff. Altogether the offense improved from 30th to 17th and the defense from 24th to 10th, 6th in scoring.

Did it stick? Yes. The team continued to improve, making the next two NFC championship games. After adding Lito Shepard, Michael Lewis, Sheldon Brown, and Brian Westbrook in one of the all-time great drafts in 2002 they broke through in their fourth consecutive championship game to compete in the Super Bowl following the 2004 season.

1998 St. Louis Rams

1998 was Dick Vermeil's 2nd with the team and they were continuing to get worse. From six wins in Rich Brooks' last year, they had won five and then four under Vermeil. The Rams other measurable were not improving either, remaining firmly in the bottom quarter in offensive and defensive scoring and totals. To cap things, the team also finished 27th in turnover ratio in '98. In one of the more inexplicable reversals, the team went from four wins to thirteen and a Super Bowl victory in 1999.

How they did it: It is hard to imagine that hiring an offensive coordinator has ever had more of an impact from one season to the next. The Rams hired Mike Martz away from Washington, he installed his Kill The Quarterback Offense and the NFL hasn't been the same since. The team had netted Orlando Pace (ot) in '97 and Grant Wistrom (de) and Roland Williams (te) after the barren '96 Lawrence Phillips draft. Couple with young veterans Kevin Carter and Isaac Bruce the team had an outstanding talent core. Bruce had only played 17 games the in '97 and '98 combined and there was some concern for his career so the team drafted Torry Holt in the 1st round, 1999. Bruce came back healthy and made his second Pro Bowl in 1999. The keys to the offense, and to the season, came at running back and quarterback. The teams leading rusher in 1998 was June Henley with a little over 300 yards. Prior to the draft, the Rams packaged a 2nd and 5th round pick to acquire Marshall Faulk from the Colts. Faulk made All Pro his first season in St. Louis, rushing for 5.5 y/c and nearly 1400 yards, along with catching 87/1048 and a combined 12 TDs. In the off-season they also signed Martz's quarterback, Trent Green who was coming off an outstanding 3400 yard season. The story is well known, Green was lost for the year with his knee in pre-season and former grocery bagger Kurt Warner took over, making All-Pro while passing for 4300/41. The defensive improvement was nearly as impressive, although not as startling. Anchored by All Pro Carter and veteran Pro Bowler Todd Lyght (cb) the team recorded 57 sacks and 29 interceptions, while improving from 24th to 4th in scoring, and from 10th to 6th in total.

Did it stick? Yes. Vermeil retired immediately after winning the Super Bowl and Martz took over. Team slipped slightly, losing in the Wild Card game in '00 before returning to the Super Bowl after '01 with their greatest offensive team in the game that launched Tom Brady's career. The team made the playoffs another two times in the next three seasons, as Marc Bulger replaced Warner and Faulk aged.

This completes the profiles of teams that have overcome multiyear futility to return to contention. If you have made it this far you have digested a lot. I'll save my observations and conclusions for a follow-up article when we can try to make sense of this whole thing.


  1. Thanks. The topic is interesting but I kind of thought the presentation poor and some of the paragraphs really clunky. As with a lot of things I found things toward the end that worked well but didn't feel like reworking the whole thing.

    But we are all our own worst critics, I guess.


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