The NFL is the league prone to seeing the biggest improvement in a team from one season to another. The fact that the NFL season is 16 games means a team can get all the breaks in a season and it never quite catches up to them. It's hard for a fluke to happen in MLB, as the 162-game schedule eventually evens things out and the best teams rise to the top.
In the NFL, a last place team can very well be at the top of their division the next year. There are many factors that could help a team accomplish that feat. Maybe they hit a home run with a high draft pick and they get a rookie phenom. Maybe the team got a new coach who came in and provided a huge spark in a change of culture. Sometimes a team simply has a bad year because they are decimated by injuries and a healthier season means a more successful one.
This list will be covering a range of teams that finished dead last one year and became a playoff team the following year. However, we'll be ranking based on the final accomplishment on that improvement. That means the list will also feature teams who hovered around the .500 mark, miring in mediocrity only to take that enormous step the following year. Some resulted in a deep playoff run, including a run all the way to the Super Bowl. This list may serve hope to some of you out there who are suffering thanks to your team's terrible 2015 season. There is hope that things can quickly turn around, as you'll see on this list.
17 1963 Oakland Raiders
The 1963 Raiders saw a nine win difference between '62 and'63, going from a dismal 1-13 to 10-4. What changed the culture in Oakland? That would be the arrival of one Al Davis. While the current era of NFL fans may remember the late Al Davis as simply an overbearing owner obsessed with speed, he was a trailblazer in the early days of the AFL and a big reason why the merger was able to happen.
Davis took over head coaching duties from 1963-66, eventually transitioning into ownership and serving as the AFL Commissioner.
16 2012 Indianapolis Colts
Two words: Andrew Luck. The Indianapolis Colts decided to have a terrible season at the best possible time, as the 2011 team was forced to play without Peyton Manning, who had undergone neck surgery. The season proved the team was all about Manning and they fielded starters like Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter. The Colts landed the first overall pick and took Andrew Luck, while also firing GM Bill Polian and head coach Jim Caldwell. The 2012 Colts overcame adversity, as coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia.
Bruce Arians came in as interim coach and led a dramatic turnaround, bringing the Colts to an 11-5 record, with a 9-3 record under Arians. The Colts won the AFC South behind a phenomenal rookie season from Luck, but would lose in the wildcard round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
15 2013 Kansas City Chiefs
The 2012 Chiefs were an absolute mess. The team had not yet figured out Matt Cassel was not a viable starting quarterback for a winning team and they eventually turned to Brady Quinn when Cassel suffered an injury. The team also faced tragedy when Jovan Belcher murdered his pregnant girlfriend then shot himself in front of GM Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel.
The Chiefs would clean house after the season, aiming for stability with a well established head coach in Andy Reid and a solid QB in Alex Smith. The team stormed out of the gate in 2013, starting 9-0 before four divisional losses brought them down to earth for an 11-5 finish. They would meet the Colts in the playoffs' opening round, where they would blow a 28-point lead. Still, it was quite a successful season by all accounts.
14 2008 Miami Dolphins
Looking back, this is by far the flukiest turnaround on this list. The 2007 Miami Dolphins were able to muster just one win and needed overtime to do it, in Week 15 against Baltimore. The 2008 Fins were led by rookie head coach Tony Sparano and Josh McCown was set to be their starter going into Week 1. By a stroke of luck, the Jets landed an un-retired Brett Favre from the Packers, so New York quickly dumped Chad Pennington. Pennington ran away with the Dolphins starting job, providing a huge upgrade at QB. In another big stroke of luck, Tom Brady tore his ACL on opening day, opening up the door to the AFC East title.
The Dolphins benefited from an extremely weak schedule and edged out the Patriots for the division. They would then get blown out by the Ravens in the wildcard round and haven't been to the playoffs since.
13 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers put forth a disappointing 2003 season after several years of looking like Super Bowl contenders. The 6-10 year allowed them to select Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft and they quickly turned things around. They would go 15-1 in 2004 with the rookie under center. Nine players went to the Pro Bowl, with six enjoying All-Pro seasons.
Bill Cowher's Steelers would again fall short in the playoffs, this time to the Patriots in the AFC Championship. They would finish the job the next season, winning their fifth Lombardi Trophy
12 1999 Indianapolis Colts
The Colts had been cellar dwellers for years. The 1999 team was coming off a tough year for rookie Peyton Manning, who had thrown 28 interceptions in his 1998 rookie year, en route to a 3-13 record for Indy.
They made huge trade the following offseason, sending Marshall Faulk to the Rams for two draft picks. Both teams benefited from the trade. On the Colts' side, it opened the door for rookie Edgerrin James who was just as important to the Colts' turnaround as Manning, who cleaned up on his turnovers. James would rush for over 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie. The Colts flipped their record to 13-3, earning a first-round bye. They would lose their opening playoff game to the eventual AFC Champion Tennessee Titans.
11 1981 Cincinnati Bengals
The 1981 season saw two teams experience dramatic turnarounds to reach the Super Bowl. We'll start with the runners-up. The 1981 Bengals were coming off a 6-10 record in 1980 and had won only 14 games in their previous three seasons. Quarterback Ken Anderson got himself a nice weapon when the Bengals drafted Cris Collinsworth that year and the Bengals would pull a dramatic turnaround, going 12-4 and winning the AFC Central.
Their playoff run included the famous Freezer Bowl, in what was the coldest game in NFL history. The Bengals would fall short in the Super Bowl, losing to a team that would prove to own the decade.
9 1998 Atlanta Falcons
The 1997 Falcons weren't terrible at 7-9, but their record and run to the Super Bowl in 1998 justifies their spot here. Dan Reeves brought his team to the Super Bowl in just his second year as a head coach and the Falcons were one of the most balanced teams in the league. While the Vikings were making noise with a 15-1 record, the Dirty Birds were quietly putting together the franchise's best season, finishing with a 14-2 record. They would pull a big upset in the NFC Championship, knocking off the explosive Vikings.
Ultimately they would fall to a far superior Broncos team in the Super Bowl.
8 2003 Carolina Panthers
Much like Dan Reeves, John Fox was in his second year as a head coach and his first year, he had already improved his team tremendously, going 7-9 after taking over a 1-15 team. The 2003 Panthers fielded one of the league's best defenses and their young players really broke out, including Julius Peppers and Steve Smith. The team would go all the way to the Super Bowl and nearly pulled off a big upset over the Patriots. The team would fall in a close 32-29 thriller.
6 1988 Cincinnati Bengals
The 1987 Bengals had a tough year in midst of a players' strike, going 4-11. They would follow it with a dramatic turnaround, going 12-4 in '88. The most impressive part though, was Cincinnati proved their regular season wasn't a fluke, as they marched to the Super Bowl and nearly ended the 49ers dynasty before it started. The turnaround can be attributed to Boomer Esiason's MVP season, as he posted over 3,500 passing yards and 28 touchdowns with a 97.4 rating. This was a much bigger feat in those days, folks.
The Bengals nearly capped off the improvement with their first Super Bowl title before Joe Montana's drive for the ages dashed Cincy's hopes.
5 1996 New England Patriots
Bill Parcells loved taking on new challenges late in his career and that trend began when he left the New York Giants to take over the bottom feeding Patriots. His first few years were tough and in his third season, the team finished 6-10. The 1996 season screamed of disaster when Parcells' relationship fell apart with owner Robert Kraft after he vetoed a Parcells draft choice and Parcells vowed it would be his last season in New England.
It seemed Parcells succeeded to spite Kraft, as the team overcame a 0-2 start to finish 11-5 with Drew Bledsoe and Curtis Martin driving the offense. The team would beat Pittsburgh and Jacksonville en route to the Super Bowl where they would fall to Brett Favre's Packers. As Parcells promised, he resigned following the Super Bowl and joined the division rival Jets to be their head coach.
4 2000 New York Giants
Jim Fassel is one of the forgotten coaches who never got a second chance following his Giants tenure. Fassel saw a huge turnaround in his team after a poor 1999 season. After a 7-9 season and a tough stretch to start the 2000 season, Fassel famously guaranteed his team would be going to the playoffs. The Giants would win five in a row following that statement and marched to the Super Bowl following playoff wins over the Eagles and a 41-0 thrashing of the Vikings in the NFC Championship.
The team was led by a revitalized Kerry Collins on offense and a great RB duo of Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber. The defense was their greatest strength, allowing just 246 points and just 3.2 yards per carry. They were no match for the Ravens defense though, who blew out the Giants in the Super Bowl.
3 1981 San Francisco 49ers
Here's that other 1981 team we were talking about. People didn't know it, but in his first two years as coach, Bill Walsh was building something special. A 6-10 finish in 1980 was an improvement from a 2-14 season in '79, but nobody could have anticipated the enormous step in 1981.
This was Joe Montana's first full season as a starter and the wait was worth it, as Montana and his team stormed to a 13-3 record, winning the NFC West. The team didn't have all the pieces of their eventual dynasty, but they still had Dwight Clark, who made 'The Catch' in that year's NFC Championship against Dallas. The Niners capped their turnaround with a 26-21 win over Cincinnati in the Super Bowl, the start of something special.
2 2001 New England Patriots
The Patriots didn't really seem to be going anywhere. They were well removed from the team's Super Bowl appearance a few years earlier. After a 5-11 season under Bill Belichick in 2000, there was no optimism for 2001 and even less when Bledsoe suffered an injury in Week 2, turning the offense over to a skinny QB named Tom Brady. After an 0-2 start, the Patriots would rally around their young quarterback.
They finished 11-5 and caught a break in the divisional round when the infamous "Tuck Rule" saved their season against Oakland. The team would defeat the Steelers in the AFC Championship and headed to the Super Bowl as huge underdogs to the Greatest Show on Turf, the St. Louis Rams. The legend of Tom Brady was born in a heroic game winning drive to bring the Patriots (and Brady) their first of four Super Bowls.
1 1999 St. Louis Rams
A 4-12 Rams team seemed directionless and their 1999 season seemed to be headed for disaster when a devastating knee injury sidelined Trent Green for the season. Kurt Warner was named the starter and had a season for the ages, winning the MVP award. The Rams' offense scored 30 points or more 12 times and won the NFC West with a 13-3 record. He completed 65.1% of his passes and threw 41 touchdowns on 4,353 yards.
The Show would continue in the playoffs with the Rams winning both NFC playoff games, one with a 41-37 shootout over Minnesota, then a 11-6 defensive struggle over Tampa Bay. The Rams' dream season was capped off with a 23-16 victory over Tennessee in the Super Bowl. Warner gave his fairy tale season an appropriate ending, setting a Super Bowl record with 414 passing yards and winning the Super Bowl MVP award.
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