The NFL season brings with it hope and optimism, except for a few realistic souls. In a few days, some of that optimism will be crushed with the five straight three and outs and a 20 point halftime deficit. Which teams are going to be in the competition for the bottom of the league, and the top spot in the next draft? It’s always a complete fool’s errand to try to pick any one team out of a bucket, but let’s see the archetypes and candidates.
To finish last, you not only have to be bad, you have to have a soul crushing collapse, and be utterly non-competitive. That is hard to do in a league that prides itself on leveling the field. What do the teams that fall apart look like? Here are the types, after going through all 49 teams that went 3-13 or worse since 1990, so you won’t have to.
1. THE GOOD TEAM THAT LOST A VETERAN QUARTERBACK (Examples: 2011 Colts, 1994 Oilers, 1992 Seahawks, 2004 49ers, 2009 Buccaneers, 2010 Panthers). Most of these teams let a veteran who had been with the team for awhile go elsewhere. The Colts lost Manning without taking a snap. Those veterans may have been masking other issues that came to light once the quarterback position dropped off a cliff. Only 9 of the 49 teams to drop to 3-13 had a pythagorean expectation of a winning record the previous year, and 7 of those 9 did so with a quarterback change or quarterback injury to the starter.
Current candidates: Most of the teams held on to their starters, so none until someone blows out a knee in week one.
2. THE TEAM WITH THE STARTING QUARTERBACK LONG IN THE TOOTH AND A DECLINING ROSTER (2007 Dolphins, 1990 Patriots, 2008 Lions, 2011 Vikings, 1997 Colts, 1995 and 1996 Jets, 1996 Saints).
Some of these teams signed veterans to fill holes. Others stuck with a long time veteran and saw him get beat up behind a questionable line. Remember the Trent Green era in Miami? It lasted less than the McNabb era in Minnesota. You all remember Jim Everett going to the Saints, right?
Current candidates: Arizona Cardinals, they’ve brought in Palmer fresh off his stint in Oakland to hopefully improve a dreadful offense. The problems are the line, and the loss of first round pick Jonathan Cooper, and a defense that was very good. That defense has warning signs and suspensions, and a new coordinator. Maybe the Arians-Palmer-Mendenhall route will lead to a big turnaround, or maybe it will just be the next Jets of the mid-1990’s.
3. THE NEIL O’DONNELL ALL-STARS (1998 Bengals, 1996 Jets, 2012 Chiefs, 2006 Raiders, 2001 Panthers, 2001 Bills).
Plenty of teams have gone with a “winner” at quarterback who put up questionable numbers, only to find that winning depends on things besides being a winner. Neil O’Donnell is the patron saint of this group, going from winning with the Steelers to stinking up the joint as opening starter for both the Jets and Bengals in dreadful seasons. You didn’t have to be just a NFL winner either, as the Panthers went with 29 year old Heisman winner Chris Weinke to replace Steve Beuerlein, and went 1-15.
Current candidates: Most people think the Chiefs are a bounce back candidate. I think they are a bounce back candidate. But if things go poorly in year one with so much turnover, let’s just remember that they have been a dreadful team for two years straight, and Alex Smith has a lot more in common with Neil O’Donnell and Ken O’Brien than Peyton O’Manning.
4. THAT GUY STARTED? (1992 Seahawks, 2004 49ers, 1994 Oilers, 1994 Redskins, 1998 Eagles). John Friesz, Hugh Millen and Cody Carlson were once opening day starters and could be generously termed as journeymen. Matt Flynn would have been a great addition to this team.
Current candidates: Oakland Raiders. Even going with Pryor over Flynn, this team, like many others who have been dreadful, is replacing a known veteran with an unknown player not drafted highly or with previous starting experience.
5. REALLY BAD TEAM STAYS BAD (2009 Lions, 1998 Colts, 1993 Bengals, 1991 Colts, 2002 Lions, 2011 Rams, 2000 Chargers).
Some of these teams had decent but deceptive years the season before, after a stretch of losing. Some had quarterbacks that would turn out good, while others had busts.
Current candidates: Jacksonville Jaguars. Blaine Gabbert is back. The Jaguars are in the middle of a big rebuild with a new front office. This is not a one year process. Gabbert feels like the next coming of David Klingler, but at least David Shula is not there, right?
My pick: The obvious choice is the Raiders, who have had so much dead money and loss of personnel that it would take a great effort from Terrelle Pryor to get this team to competitively below average. Arizona is my pick for a darkhorse as a high variance pick, with the downside if things go badly to recreate the 2007 Dolphins, with Bruce Arians in the role of Cam Cameron, Carson Palmer playing Trent Green, and Bill Parcells pulling a Bill Parcells a year later and moving to the desert, Hall of Fame jacket now in hand. A tough schedule, defensive turnover, and the loss of Cooper on a line that desperately needed him mean the Cardinals have quite the range of outcomes in 2013.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]