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

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How long should we give Ron Rivera to return the franchise to greatness?

NFC Championship - Arizona Cardinals v Carolina Panthers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The first article of this miniseries explored the reality behind the common perception that NFL teams which have hit rock bottom regularly turn things around overnight. There is some truth to the concept of the “worst to first league”. But dramatic reversals of fortune in a single season, like we saw with the 2019 49ers, are actually less common than many fans seem to think. A lot of teams go from last to first in their divisions in the course of a single season without doing anything in the playoffs. And more often than not, teams that go from last to first in their divisions end up back in third or fourth place the following year, as Redskins fans would know all too well.


Click here to read Part 1 of this mini-series


Over the past 20 years we have seen a lot of offseason tinkering, new coaches, new schemes, elite draft picks, surprising late-round sleepers and undrafted free agents, and more high-profile free agent signings than most of us care to remember. However, none of those additions and new directions brought about more than temporary change to what the Redskins really are, a losing football team.

Like a lot of Redskins fans, I have a sense that this offseason is different. The changes seem to be more fundamental than anything we’ve seen since Dan Snyder bought the team. Ron Rivera, who was brought in to lead the change, couldn’t be more different from the last face of the franchise. What gives me confidence goes beyond the hiring of an excellent set of coordinators and coaching assistants. Although that, in itself, is somewhat of a change, at least on the defensive side of things.


What’s different for the Redskins one year later?


What gives me confidence in Rivera is that he is believable when he speaks about leadership, accountability and culture change. A big reason for that is that he has played this role before. Rivera took over as head coach of the 2-14 Panthers franchise in 2011 and, within a few years, led them to a 15-1 finish and the team’s second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, collecting two AP Coach of the Year awards along the way.

But Rivera is not taking over a franchise that’s built for a deep playoff run this season. Some building blocks are in place, particularly a young, deep defensive line, boosted by the addition of Chase Young, the top overall prospect in this year’s draft. But holes remain in the starting roster heading into the season, and nearly every position group, aside from the defensive line, is full of question marks. It is likely going to take a few years for the new coaching staff to see what they have and fill out the roster with the talent needed to execute the new coordinators’ schemes.

In this article I will attempt to determine what a realistic timeframe might be for Rivera to build a contender out of the rock-bottom franchise he inherited from Bruce Allen. To do that, I analyzed all the cases over the last 20 years in which NFL teams came back from hitting rock bottom to being competitive again and measured how long that transformation took. Without giving too much away now, the results depended very much on teams’ records over this period. So before we look at turnaround times, we first need to have a little look at how the different NFL teams have stratified themselves over the past two decades.


Rivera’s Challenge

To understand the challenge facing Rivera and the revamped management team we need to appreciate where the Redskins are as a franchise within the competitive landscape of the NFL. The NFL is a different league compared to when the Redskins last experienced sustained success. The current state of play is shaped more than anything else by two reforms introduced in the early nineties, free agency and the salary cap. The intention of these reforms was to level the playing field, making it harder for individual teams to sustain dynasties, and hopefully give every team a chance to experience success from time to time.

The table shows the 32 NFL teams ranked to reflect the level of sustained success they have achieved over the last 20 years. Teams are ranked primarily by number of winning seasons, with playoff wins as the tie breaker.

Team Winning Seasons Playoff Wins Conf. Champ. SB Champ. B2B Losing Seasons 11+ Win Seasons < 6 Win Seasons
Patriots 19 30 9 6 0 16 1
Steelers 15 16 3 2 0 9 0
Ravens 14 15 2 2 0 6 2
Eagles 14 14 2 1 2 7 1
Seahawks 14 14 3 1 4 5 2
Colts 14 13 2 1 0 10 2
Packers 14 13 1 1 2 8 1
Broncos 11 7 2 1 3 6 2
Chiefs 11 5 1 1 7 6 4
Saints 10 10 1 1 3 7 1
Chargers 10 5 0 0 4 5 6
Titans 10 5 0 0 6 4 4
Cowboys 10 3 0 0 3 4 4
Giants 9 10 3 2 8 4 4
Falcons 9 6 1 0 8 5 4
Jets 9 6 0 0 4 1 6
Vikings 9 5 0 0 6 4 3
Texans 8 4 0 0 5 2 5
Bucs 8 3 1 1 10 2 8
Bears 7 3 1 0 7 5 6
Dolphins 7 1 0 0 9 3 3
Bengals 7 0 0 0 9 3 5
Panthers 6 8 2 0 8 6 3
49ers 6 8 2 0 10 5 6
Rams 6 5 2 0 10 4 5
Cardinals 5 5 1 0 9 2 9
Lions 5 0 0 0 14 1 9
Raiders 4 4 1 0 14 3 11
Jaguars 4 3 0 0 14 2 9
Redskins 4 1 0 0 11 0 7
Bills 4 0 0 0 9 0 3
Browns 2 0 0 0 18 0 13

While the reforms of the early nineties may have been intended to encourage greater competition and make it difficult to sustain dynasties, things didn’t quite work out that way. While a few of the dynasties of the pre-cap and early-cap eras fell by the wayside, including our own Redskins, they were replaced by a new ruling order. At the top of the table, seven teams with 14 winning seasons or more (Patriots, Steelers, Ravens, Eagles, Seahawks, Colts, Packers) have worked out how to operate within the new framework to emerge as perennial contenders.

Approximately seven “bottom dwellers,”, with five or fewer winning seasons in 20 years, have consistently struggled to take advantage of the levelling effects of the cap-era reforms to achieve more than a few brief periods of success. The Redskins are third from the bottom of this group, and the league as a whole. They are one playoff win in 20 years ahead of the Buffalo Bills, and both of those teams are comfortably ahead of the Browns in last place.

But before we start feeling superior to the lowly Browns, the Redskins are only one of three NFL teams (also Browns and Bills) with the dubious distinction of having fewer than two playoff wins and no 11-win seasons in the last 20 years. Detroit just misses membership in this exclusive club by virtue of a single 11-win season. Detroit and the Browns distinguish themselves from, even this fine company, by being the only two teams ever to lose 16 games in a season.

In between the perennial contenders and the bottom dwellers are 18 “up-and-down” teams which have experienced periods of competitive play interspersed with losing periods, to varying degrees over the last two decades. While it might surprise some to see the Broncos, Saints and Chiefs in this group, these teams have all experienced longer or worse losing periods than the teams above them in the table. They might be viewed as a transitional group, because of their playoff success.

From this viewpoint, it becomes clear that Ron Rivera and the new Redskins front office are not taking over a team that has been close to contending for a very long time. Rather, they are taking over one of the few NFL franchises that has managed to avoid achieving any kind of real or sustained success over the past 20 years, despite operating within a framework that is designed to encourage competition. While most of us would like to see the Redskins back to having the sustained success of the 1980s, it would be a major achievement for Rivera and crew just to move the team into the next bracket of “up-and-down” teams.

As we will see later on, the three brackets of teams that I have identified here take different amounts of time to come back from hitting rock bottom.


Methodology - Slump Analysis

To get an idea of how long might be reasonable to expect the Redskins rebuild to take, I identified all the cases in which NFL teams went from hitting rock bottom to being competitive over the 20-year period from 2000 to 2019. Measuring the turnaround times was trickier than it might appear, and there will be plenty to argue about for those who are so inclined.

To start with, I had to settle on criteria for hitting rock bottom and for returning to competitiveness. Since the object of this exercise is to get an idea of how long it might take to turn around a team like the Redskins are now, I set the “rock bottom” criterion as close as possible to the Redskins’ 3-13 2019 season record. It’s actually fairly rare for teams to finish with three or fewer wins, having only happened 45 times out the 638 team seasons since 2000. That places the 2019 Redskins’ record in the bottom seven percent of performances in that period. To give myself a bit more to work with, I bumped the rock-bottom threshold up to five or fewer wins. A 5-11 team is still pretty terrible, and the difference between 3-13 and 5-11 could just be 2 meaningless games toward the end of the season.

Defining the return to competitiveness was even more challenging. After experimenting with a variety of increasingly complicated methods to define winning streaks, I decided to keep it simple and the set the bar right around the height of achievements during the last 20 years: 11 regular season wins (never achieved) OR a playoff win (achieved once). My reasoning for going 11, instead of 10 regular season wins is that the Redskins, like many other bad teams, have got that far before without becoming a threat to do much of anything in the postseason.

In practice, setting the threshold at 11 wins primarily served to capture teams that lost playoff games at the start of competitive runs, while weeding out a lot of bad teams having the odd good 10-6 season. The playoff win criterion captures any legitimately competitive teams that finished the regular season below 11 wins.

The final, and trickiest, part of the analysis was to decide when to start counting the beginning of a worst-to-first run. Since the goal of this analysis is to determine how long it takes to turn around a non-competitive franchise, it is essential to start counting from the first time the team hit rock bottom during a continuous non-competitive period, rather than the last time. To be sure I captured the first rock-bottom season in a run, I defined slumps around each sub-six-win season by counting back to the last winning season.

Putting that all together, I arrived at the following method for measuring franchise turnaround time: 1) Identify all the rock-bottom seasons (five or fewer wins) from 2000 to 2019. 2) For each rock-bottom season, define the beginning of the slump by counting back in time to the last winning season. In cases where the slump started before 2000, I counted back as far as 1994, the beginning of the salary cap era. But if the slump lasted longer than that (e.g., Bengals 1991-2004) it was excluded from analysis to avoid counting seasons in the pre-cap era. 3) Measure the turnaround time by counting forward from the first rock bottom season within the slump to the first season with more than 10 regular season wins or a playoff win.

To illustrate how that worked, let’s have a look at the San Francisco 49ers’ record from 2000 to 2019.

The team had three competitive periods during the last 20 years, counting the 2019 season as one, separated by two long slumps. In the first slump, starting in 2003 and ending in 2011, the team had three rock-bottom seasons (2004, 2005, 2007). The turnaround time, counting from the first rock-bottom season in 2004 to the first competitive season in 2011, was seven years.

The second slump started when the record dipped from 12 wins in 2013 to eight wins in 2014. The record crossed the rock-bottom threshold with a five-win season in 2015. Following that, the team did not post a competitive season record until 2019, when they went 13-3 and won the NFC Championship. While the 2018-19 record improvement is frequently cited as a single-year “worst-to-first” run, it actually took the team 4 years to turn things around after going 5-11 in 2015. During that span the team cycled through three head coaches, three quarterbacks, and made four top-10 draft picks.

As a second example, let’s have a look at Ron Rivera’s handiwork in Carolina.

The Panthers have turned things around twice in the last 20 years, once as a young expansion franchise, after falling to 4-12 in 1998, and the second time under Rivera’s leadership. Rivera took the reins from John Fox following an abysmal 2-14 finish in 2010. In the first year under Rivera, the team’s record improved to 6-10, with the help of record setting performance by Rookie of the Year Cam Newton at QB. In Rivera’s third year as head coach (2013), the team posted its first winning record and playoff appearance since 2008. By his fifth year as head coach, Rivera’s Panthers were back in the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history. Rivera’s accomplishments in reversing the team’s fortunes was recognized with two AP Coach of the Year awards, in 2013 and 2015.

By my method of counting, this turnaround took three seasons from hitting rock bottom in 2010 to posting the 12-win season, but no playoff win in 2013. Despite the lack of playoff success, the team was clearly back to being competitive, and posted a playoff win the following season (becoming the second team ever to do so after qualifying for the playoffs with a losing record). The year after that, the team went 15-1, won the NFC Championship, but came up short against the Broncos in the Super Bowl.


How long does it take to come back from rock bottom?

Now for the results. In total, I identified 38 cases from 2000 to 2019 in which teams came back after hitting the rock bottom threshold of five or fewer wins. The qualifying turnaround times ranged from one season (9/38 cases) to a maximum of 13 years (Detroit Lions 2001-2014, Oakland Raiders 2003-2016). The average turnaround time across the league, as a whole, was 4.6 years.

However, not all teams are created equally. As you might expect, the time taken to turn things around differs considerably amongst the three tiers of teams I identified above. The seven perennial contenders at the top of the league table only contributed six slumps to the analysis. As a group, these teams rarely have seasons below six wins and, when they do, they tend to turn things around very quickly. Four of these teams (Patriots, Steelers, Ravens, Colts) have not experienced back-to-back losing seasons in the last 20 years; and the most back-to-back losing seasons by any team in this group was four (Seahawks). The longest turnaround by any team in this group was five years (Eagles 2012-2017). None of these teams experienced more than one qualifying slump, and the Steelers didn’t have any. The average turnaround time in this group was only 2.5 years.

The 18 up-and-down teams have a much greater diversity of season records. The three teams at the top of this group (Broncos, Chiefs, Saints) each only had one qualifying slump with the only long one being the Chiefs’ bad stretch from 2007-2012. The next 15 up-and-down teams have experienced periods of competitiveness interspersed with slumps to varying degrees over the last two decades. What distinguishes these teams from the ones above them is that the slumps tend to be longer and deeper. Eight teams in this group had only one qualifying slump, with the longest being the Rams’ bad run from 2007-2016. The ultimate up-and-down team was the Atlanta Falcons with four qualifying turnarounds. The average number of qualifying turnarounds by teams in this group was 1.7. The average turnaround time for the up-and-down teams was 3.7 years.

Now for the bad news, Redskins fans. The teams with the most comparable records to the Redskins over the last 20 years are the six other bottom dwellers. Like the perennial contenders, the bottom dwellers tended to experience fewer qualifying turnarounds than the up-and-down teams, but for very different reasons. These teams had losing records for most of the last 20 years and, in the best cases, only occasionally managed to turn things around for brief periods.

The Cardinals and Jaguars both managed to have two brief periods near the top of the league, in between long, deep losing runs. The Lions, Raiders and Redskins have each managed one turnaround (Lions 2001-2014, Raiders 2003-2016, Redskins 2003-2005). And bringing up the rear, the Bills and Browns have not managed to get past 10 wins or win a playoff game in the last 20 years. The qualifying turnarounds in this group ranged in duration from two to 13 years. The average turnaround time amongst the bottom dwellers who have managed to get competitive for brief periods was 7.3 years.


Summary and Conclusion

Contrary to many fans’ and team owners’ expectations, it usually takes NFL teams a few seasons or longer to turn things around after hitting rock bottom like the Redskins did in 2019. When teams have been able to stage these types of comebacks, it has taken an average of 4.6 years. But those comebacks are not distributed evenly. The top teams in the league are able to bounce back very quickly. Their experience is probably not very informative for Redskins fans.

The teams that have been most directly comparable to the Redskins over the past 20 years seldom manage to bring themselves back to respectability, and when they do, it has taken an average of 7.3 years to come back from hitting rock bottom. Is that what we have to look forward to, the Redskins winning their next playoff game around 2026?

As an ever-hopeful Redskins fan, I sure hope not. And I don’t think that hope is entirely baseless. I believe that teams find themselves in the bottom dwelling bracket for reasons that go beyond talent on the roster and in the coaching department. I have worked in many badly run organizations over the years, and a few that were well run. What is missing from the poorly run organizations are things like leadership, accountability, common vision and a clear organizational identity. The Redskins under Bruce Allen bore a striking similarity to the worst run organization I have worked for.

When I hear Ron Rivera speaking about changing the team’s culture, it gives me hope that we might be on the verge of a fundamental change, rather than the shuffling of the deck chairs we have seen in so many previous offseasons. My hope is that, under the new management team, the franchise will take a step up from being a bottom dweller to being one of the up-and-down teams. In that case, a reasonable expectation for the return to competitiveness might be closer to 3.7 years. Of course, it could happen faster, or it might take much longer. Rivera did it before in Carolina in three years. If he is able to turn things around any faster than that, it would be a remarkable achievement. And it would be unreasonable to expect a turnaround in two years, even if he were taking over a team with a better recent record than the 2020 Redskins.

Poll

If you had to pick one reason, why are you still a Redskins’ fan?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Home town loyalty
    (53 votes)
  • 23%
    Family tradition
    (51 votes)
  • 0%
    Friends/social
    (0 votes)
  • 33%
    I don’t believe in quitting
    (74 votes)
  • 4%
    I’m a glutton for punishment
    (11 votes)
  • 1%
    I love a lost cause
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Addicted to the drama
    (1 vote)
  • 7%
    Same reason I can’t give up smoking/drinking/drugs
    (16 votes)
  • 3%
    Because we’re close
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    I’m not
    (5 votes)
221 votes total Vote Now