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Rebuilding NFL Teams and the Worst-to-First League, Part 1 of 2

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Can Ron Rivera get the Redskins back to the playoffs this year?

Super Bowl XXXVI - Post Game Photo by Sylvia Allen/Getty Images

The past 27 seasons have not been easy for those Redskins fans who are old enough to remember them, particularly for those who also remember the preceding 11 seasons. I think it’s fair to say, at this point, those Redskins fans who are still remaining have developed an ability to cling to hope that things will get better despite any actual facts or evidence that might get in the way of that.

Reading Hogs Haven over the years, I have noticed something about Redskins fans. Millennial fans have never experienced being fans of a really competitive football team. I do genuinely wonder what drives them. And the older fans, such as myself, seem to have forgotten what it was like. Over the years, there seems to have been a fair amount of drift in what we consider a good season. That’s not too surprising, since the highlight of the last 20 seasons of Redskins football was a single wild card playoff win.

Redskins fans have become so accustomed to losing that we now consider things that we once took for granted, such as winning the division, a 10-win season, or making it to the playoffs, as signs that we’re back to being competitive. And I think there is a fair amount of kidding ourselves that each incoming draft class and the annual offseason face lift has made the Redskins a better team.

In the seven years I have been reading Hogs Haven, I can’t recall a single time that the preseason projections did not predict significant improvement over the previous season. In exactly one of those years, 2015, the predicted improvement came true. The truth is that for the last 20 seasons the Redskins have been a bad football team with a ceiling of 10-wins and wild card playoff appearances, and a floor like the 2019 season.

That could all be about to change. Like many on Hogs Haven, I have long felt that simply adding better players, finding better coaches and getting better schemes would not be enough to fix what was wrong with the team. Rather, Dan Snyder would need to fundamentally change his approach to running the organization. And on December 30th, after wrapping up the worst season since fans first started questioning their RG3 jersey purchases, we got our first indication that real change might be underway with the announcement that Bruce Allen had been fired.

There were indications that this was different from the front office reshuffles we had seen in the past. In the lead up to Bruce Allen’s firing, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported that Dan Snyder had gathered together a small group of football experts from outside the organization to advise on how to fix the team’s problems. That showed a level of self-reflection and a willingness to confront his past failings that many did not think the team owner had in him.

This consultation process, and an examination of what makes winning teams successful, led to the adoption of a new coach-centered approach, following the lead of teams like the Patriots and Seahawks. Ron Rivera was then hired as head coach, to lead the development of a winning team culture, and transformation to a competitive football team.

The excitement building in the fanbase regarding the team’s new direction naturally leads to the question, if he succeeds, how quickly can we reasonably expect to see signs of improvement? There appears to be a common expectation around the league and among fans that a new coach and management team should be able turn a losing franchise into a playoff contender in two to three years. Recently appointed head coaches facing their third losing season can expect to find themselves on the “coaching hotseat.” In fact, Ron Rivera found himself in that position after a 1-3 start to the 2013 season, before engineering an 11-1 finish to save his job and earn his first Coach of the Year nod.

In this two-article miniseries, I will ask whether the widespread expectation of quick turnarounds is at all reasonable. In this article, I will examine the reality of the “worst-to-first” league and ask, how common is it for teams to go from last to first in the NFL standings in a single season? In the second article of the series, I will attempt to determine what a reasonable timeline might be to expect Rivera to turn things around by exploring how long it has taken teams that hit rock bottom to turn things around over the past 20 NFL seasons.


What Does Going Worst-to-First Really Mean?

Before looking at actual numbers we need to consider what we mean by going “worst-to-first.” The overall aim of this pair of articles is to determine what a realistic timeframe might be for the new regime to return the Redskins to being a competitive franchise. The real question then becomes how to define what it means to be competitive. Is it winning the division, going 10-6, sweeping Dallas, winning playoff games, or adding a fourth Lombardi Trophy to the collection?

Different fans might use the expression “worst-to-first” to mean different things, and I suspect that reflects an underlying diversity of opinion regarding what it means to be a competitive football team. I’ll tell you what I think. In my opinion, being a competitive team means being a threat to knock any other team out of the playoffs.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I feel that over the years much of the remaining Redskins’ fanbase has lowered its expectations about what constitutes a good season. I cut my teeth as a Redskins fan in the 1970s and 1980s when the team became one of the dominant forces in the league. I will be satisfied that the Redskins have returned to form when opposing fans look at the season schedule and circle the matchup with Washington as one of the “tough games.” I don’t think that’s really been the case since the first time Joe Gibbs retired.

Now, back to what we mean by “worst-to-first.” In my opinion, winning a division is an extremely low bar to define a competitive football team, since all it really means is that you finished ahead of three other teams. They could all be terrible. For example, the 2008 Bucs, 2015 Texans and Redskins, and 2019 Eagles all won their divisions with 9-7 records and were then quickly eliminated in the wild card round. In fact, the Redskins have won the NFC East three times in the salary cap era without ever becoming a threat to do much in the postseason.

Conversely, in the last 20 years, six teams have finished last in their divisions with non-losing records and 12 more have done so after posting halfway respectable 7-9 records. So, going from worst to first within a division is not necessarily the dramatic reversal in fortune that I think “worst-to-first” is meant to imply.

When I think of going “worst-to-first”, I think of a dramatic improvement in season records from one year to the next, like the 49ers pulled off last year, posting a 13-3 regular season record and winning the NFC Championship after going 4-12 in 2018. Therefore, in the analysis that follows, I will use a stricter definition of “worst-to-first” that reflects a dramatic reversal of team performance. For those readers who place great importance on winning the division, I’ll have a look at that when I’m done with the teams that really did go worst-to-first.


Is the NFL really a worst-to-first league?

The worst-to-first league expression reflects a common perception that NFL teams regularly go from last to first in the standings in the course of a single season. If that’s true, then it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect Rivera’s team to turn the Redskins around in one or two seasons. But is it?

To answer this question, I examined season records of all NFL teams over the last 20 years (2000-2019) to determine how often teams had gone from having the worst regular season record one year to having the best regular season record or winning a championship the following year in their conference or the league as a whole.

Only one team has accomplished this feat in 20 years. The 2016 Dallas Cowboys led the NFC at 13-3 (one win behind the NFL-leading Patriots) after finishing last in the conference at 4-12 the previous season (but one loss shy of the league worst Browns and Titans). No other team that finished with the worst record in the conference or league has gone on to post the best regular season record the following year or win a championship. So, the expression “worst-to-first league” is clearly an exaggeration.

Several teams have come close, though. Six teams that finished last place in their conference or the league one year have gone on to post top-five records in their conference and make the playoffs the following season: 2004 Chargers (12 wins, tied for 3rd place in AFC), 2008 Dolphins (11-5, tied 4th place in AFC), 2010 Chiefs (10-6, tied for 5th place in AFC), 2011 Colts (11-5, 4th place in AFC), 2013 Chiefs (11-5, tied 3rd place in AFC), 2012 Eagles (10-6, tied 5th place in NFC). All of them were eliminated in the wild card round. Three teams have gone a step better by winning a playoff game the season after a last-place finish: 1999 Saints (10-6, tied 4th place in NFC, wildcard win), 2005 Saints (10-6, tied 2nd place in NFC, divisional playoff win), 2010 Broncos (8-8, wildcard win).

In addition, four teams have finished first in their conference or the NFL after posting 6 or fewer wins the previous season. The most spectacular of these “near-worst-to-first” turnarounds was the 2001 Patriots finishing 11-5 and winning the Superbowl following a 5-11 finish in 2000. The other “near-worst-to-first” teams are: 2004 Steelers (15-1, 1st in NFL, 2003 record 6-10), 2019 Packers (13-3, tied 1st in NFC, 2018 record 6-9-1), 2019 49ers (13-3, tied 1st in NFC, 2018 record 4-12).

In summary, while only one team has truly gone from worst to first in the last 20 years, 13others have either gone from worst to top-five-record/playoff winner or have finished first after winning six or fewer games the previous season. That makes one worst-to-first and 13 near-worst-to-first finishes in 20 years, or one occurrence in 70% of seasons on average. It would be fair to say that the NFL is a near-worst-to-first-league, if you are comfortable characterizing the league by something that only happens in seven out of ten seasons. And that really doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as worst-to-first.

All quibbling about terminology aside, if Ron Rivera is able to coach the Redskins to a top-five regular season record or a playoff win in 2020, he will have achieved something that doesn’t occur every year in the NFL. Such an achievement would be worthy of a third AP Coach of the Year nomination.


Worst-to-First in the Division

While I don’t feel that winning the division would mean the Redskins have got where they need to be, it would mean finishing ahead of three teams I particularly hate, which would be very satisfying. It is also something that good teams do all the time and which the Redskins have only done twice in two decades. So it would be a great sign of progress in Rivera’s first year at the helm. Also, I know many fans don’t share my view and place a lot of stock in division leadership. For all of these reasons, I decided to get over my reservations and have a look at teams going worst-to-first in their divisions.

In the past 20 seasons, 24 teams have accomplished this feat which equates to an average of 1.2 times per season. I’d call that a regular, but not super common event, since it happens in slightly more than one out eight divisions a year. On average, teams that went worst-to-first had 4.7 wins in their “worst” year followed by 10.9 wins the following season. The 6.2-win average differential between “worst” and “first” seasons represents a substantial improvement. There would not be many disappointed Redskins’ fans if the team finished Chase Young’s rookie season with a 9-7 record.

The most impressive improvement in regular season record was posted by the Miami Dolphins, who went from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008. But not all the teams that went from worst to first in their divisions did so via drastic improvements in win totals. Three of the 24 teams went worst-to-first by virtue of respectable, if not earth-shattering four-win improvements, and five of the teams did so via improvements of five wins.

Of the eight teams that posted four or five-win improvements, four went worst-to-first by virtue of being the worst team in a strong division in the first year of their turn-around (Chiefs 2002-2003; Panthers 2002-2003; Eagles 2005-2006; Saints 2008-2009), and three did so by virtue of being the best team in a weak division in the second year of the turn-around (Bucs 2006-2007; Broncos 2010-2011; Redskins 2014-2015). Therefore, as I mentioned above, in at least a third of these cases, going worst-to-first in a division was not indicative of the kind of radical change of fortune that we tend to think of. In four cases, a fairly respectable team suddenly became very hot, and in three cases a previously terrible team just cracked a winning record.

The next question is just how good were the teams that went worst-to-first in their divisions? The two times the Redskins accomplished this feat they were quickly eliminated from the playoffs and came crashing down to awful (2013, 3-13) and fairly pedestrian (2016, 8-7-1) finishes the following years. But then there were also a few Cinderella stories. The most spectacular of these is the New England Patriots’ rise from 5th place in the AFC East with a record of 5-11 in 2000 to an 11-5 finish in, en route to the team’s first Super Bowl championship, initiating one of the longest running dynasties in American sports. Two other teams that went worst-to-first in their divisions also went on to win the Superbowl in their turn-around season (Saints 2008-2009; Eagles 2016-2017).

How representative were either of these two extremes? Sad to say, the Redskins are closer to the mark. Of the 24 divisional worst-to-first teams, 14 (58%) were eliminated from the playoffs without winning a game. Of the ten teams (42%) that won at least one playoff game, three exited as wild card winners, three as divisional round winners, one as a conference champion and three as Superbowl champions. In total, only seven of 24 (29%) worst-to-first teams went on to win a divisional round playoff or better following their rise to division leader.

Is going worst-to-first in the division a good indicator of a sustained comeback? Again, the Redskins are the more representative team. Of the 24 divisional worst-to-first teams, three (12.5%) finished first in their division again the year following their meteoric rise to first place. Five (21%) finished in second place the following year, eleven (45%) in third place, and five (21%) in fourth place.

That’s right, 67% (with rounding) of teams that went worst-to-first in their divisions ended up back down in third or fourth place the following season. If we are basing things on worst and first place finish in a division, then, the expression should be amended to “it’s a worst-to-first-to-worst league”. Going worst-to-first in a division, therefore, is more often a result of teams having a single good season than really turning things around.


Closing Arguments

During Dan Snyder’s tenure as team owner, 14 NFL teams have gone from near the bottom of the league or conference to the top in the course of a single season. These kinds of dramatic turn-arounds are not unheard of, but they don’t happen every year. Applying a lower bar, worst-to-first in a division, the frequency nearly doubles. But not all “worst-to-first” turn-arounds within a division represent very dramatic one-year improvements. And more often than not, they are more temporary blips than sustained comebacks.

What it means to be a competitive football team is obviously in the eye of the beholder. Fans who have suffered through the last 27 years of their team being one of the bottom dwellers of the league may be happy with the team starting to win the division more regularly, perhaps with the odd wild card and divisional round playoff win thrown in.

But for fans who remember the Redskins being one of the reigning dynasties of the NFL for over a decade, that is unlikely to be satisfying. Personally, when I think of the team returning to being a competitive force in the league, I think we need to set our sights higher than simply winning the division, making the playoffs, or the great 6-3 start to the 2018 season. Those types of mediocre benchmarks allow too much scope for kidding ourselves that the team is close.

The changes this offseason seem to be more fundamental than any we have seen for at least a decade. I get a sense that Rivera and the new management team have a real opportunity to turn the franchise around that may not have been available to many of their predecessors, but I don’t expect it to happen overnight.

The analysis in this article shows that many NFL teams have turned things around dramatically over the course of a single season. But it doesn’t happen all the time. Most rebuilds take longer than that. It would therefore be unreasonable to expect Rivera to have the team competing for a playoff spot this season. In tomorrow’s article, I will attempt to determine what a more reasonable timeframe might be to see the team once again reflecting some of its former glory.

Poll

How long until the Redskins post a winning record?

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    This season
    (55 votes)
  • 61%
    Next season
    (186 votes)
  • 15%
    2022
    (47 votes)
  • 5%
    2023 or later
    (16 votes)
304 votes total Vote Now

Poll

How long until the Redskins win a playoff game?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    This season
    (17 votes)
  • 48%
    Next season
    (117 votes)
  • 33%
    2022-2023
    (81 votes)
  • 11%
    2024 or later
    (27 votes)
242 votes total Vote Now

Poll

How long until the Redskins’ next Superbowl appearance?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    2020 baby! Chase Young MVP!
    (10 votes)
  • 36%
    Two to three years
    (90 votes)
  • 36%
    Four to five years
    (92 votes)
  • 22%
    Only after a change of ownership
    (57 votes)
249 votes total Vote Now