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Two Steps Back

Posted by Jason Lisk on July 30, 2007

The Kansas City Chiefs had a regular season record of 47-33 over the last 5 seasons, tied with the San Diego Chargers for the most wins by a team that did not make at least one conference championship game appearance over that time. Many of the key pieces that contributed to those wins are no longer in place heading into next season. Trent Green was recently traded to Miami. Future Hall of Famer Will Shields retired in the offseason, one year after future Hall of Famer Willie Roaf retired. Priest Holmes has faded away without officially retiring as of yet, replaced by Larry Johnson. The Chiefs have transitioned from Dick Vermeil to Herm Edwards, and it appears as though the previous era has come to a close.

I am going to look at the prospects for franchises who had similar periods of some decent regular season success, but did not advance far into the playoffs over the entire period. These are teams, like Kansas City, that were on a plateau of perpetual promise. I searched each franchise starting in 1966 and moving forward in time, and set the following parameters to identify similar "plateau" teams from the past:

  • The team won at least 50% of its games over a five-year period;
  • The team never had a record worse than 6-10 (or its equivalent) in any single season, and never had a record worse than 14-18 (or its equivalent) in any two consecutive years within the five-year period;
  • The team did not advance to a conference championship game in any of the five years in question; and
  • The team did not win two-thirds or more of its games in the final year (year 5). (This is to avoid catching emerging teams, such as 1996 Denver).

I moved forward chronologically until a five-year period for a franchise met all the criteria. Some franchises continued to meet the criteria for a plateau team in additional seasons. I did not include those unless they involved a completely independent five-year period. For example, New Orleans 1986-1990 and New Orleans 1991-1995 are both included; New Orleans 1988-1992 is not.

Kansas City 2001-2005 met all the criteria, along with 38 other teams since 1966. Some of these plateau teams were directly on the heels of a more successful period--13 of these "plateau" periods immediately followed a season where the franchise had been to a championship game or beyond. Others emerged from losing seasons to show promise, but then stall. Still others, like New Orleans of the early 1990's, Philadelphia of the mid-1990's, and Miami from the start of this decade, were seemless continuations of previous plateau periods.

Here is the list of the "plateau of perpetual promise" teams, listed in chronological order, with the five year record for the team also listed.

team   years          record
=======================================
sdg  1966-1970      38-27-5
ram  1967-1971      49-16-5
det  1969-1973      40-26-4
cin  1973-1977      46-24
was  1973-1977      47-23
crd  1974-1978      44-28
mia  1975-1979      47-27
nwe  1976-1980      50-26
chi  1976-1980      40-36
atl  1977-1981      41-37
min  1978-1982      36-36-1
buf  1979-1983      40-33
gnb  1981-1985      37-35-1
cin  1982-1986      39-34
dal  1983-1987      45-34
nyj  1983-1987      41-38
sea  1984-1988      48-31
nor  1986-1990      46-33
phi  1987-1991      48-31
mia  1987-1991      42-37
oti  1988-1992      49-31
pit  1989-1993      45-35
min  1989-1993      44-36
rai  1991-1995      43-37
nor  1991-1995      45-35
phi  1992-1996      46-34
mia  1993-1997      45-35
buf  1994-1998      43-37
kan  1994-1998      51-29
sea  1995-1999      40-40
was  1996-2000      41-38-1
mia  1998-2002      50-30
den  1999-2003      44-36
nyj  1999-2003      42-38
gnb  1999-2003      51-29
nor  2000-2004      42-38
bal  2001-2005      42-38
kan  2001-2005      44-36
ram  2002-2006      41-39
===============================================

Let's start with the bad news. Here are the next three seasons post-plateau period. "Bad" stands for the percentage of teams that won one-third or fewer of their games in a season (5-11 in a 16-game schedule). "Good" stands for the percentage of teams that won at least two-thirds of their games in a season (11-5 or better). "Play" is for playoff appearances, "Champ" is for Championship Game Appearances, "SB" is for Super Bowl Appearances, and "WIN" is for Super Bowl Wins.

YR   NO.     BAD  GOOD  PLAY  CHAMP  SB    WIN      
===============================================
1    38     .237  .184  .368  .053  .000  .000
2    36     .389  .167  .250  .111  .056  .000
3    35     .200  .086  .200  .057  .029  .000
===============================================

For comparison, taking into account when these teams were playing, and the various playoff structures and league sizes, a randomly selected "average" team should make the playoffs about 38% of the time, reach a championship game 14% of the time, and go to a Super Bowl in 7% of the seasons.

Now, for the good news, for those with patience to endure short term set backs. Here are Years 4-8 post-plateau period:

YR   NO.     BAD  GOOD  PLAY  CHAMP  SB    WIN      
===============================================
4    32     .094  .219  .469  .125  .031  .000
5    31     .097  .387  .548  .355  .161  .097
6    31     .194  .290  .419  .161  .097  .032
7    30     .200  .300  .400  .233  .100  .000
8    29     .241  .207  .345  .207  .138  .034
===============================================

Year 5 post-plateau was a particular good year, and several teams that were emerging by years 4 and 5 continued to be dominant forces for several years. This includes the 1991-1995 Dallas Cowboys, the 1982-1985 Washington Redskins, the 1984-1988 Chicago Bears, the 1988-1992 Buffalo Bills, and the 2001-2004 Philadelphia Eagles. The teams that were re-emerging four to five years later were generally doing so with different stars. In fact, Kenny Anderson of the 1977 and 1981 Bengals was the only quarterback who was the team's leading passer at the end of a plateau period, and again when the team advanced to a championship game four to five years later. Walter Payton (1980 and 1984-1985), was the only running back who was leading rusher at the end of a plateau and again when the team reached a championship game. Only two receivers accomplished the feat--Stanley Morgan of the Patriots (1980 and 1985), and Tim Brown (1995 and 2000).

When we sort these plateau teams by what they did in the first two years after the plateau period, something very interesting emerges. Kicking out the teams that concluded their plateau period since 2002, I sorted the 31 remaining teams into three roughly equal groups. The bottom group I will call the "Two Steps Back" group, consisting of teams that won 11 or fewer games in the two years following the plateau period. The middle group is "Mired in Mediocrity", and were teams that won between 12 and 17 the next two years. Finally, the upper group is the "Reloaded" group, all with 18 or more wins. The numbers below are the combined numbers for years 4-8 post-plateau for each group.

GROUP    NO./Seasons    BAD  GOOD  PLAY  CHAMP  SB  WIN      
=======================================================
TwoSteps    11/52     .096  .462  .615  .365  .192  .077
Mediocrity  10/47     .298  .085  .234  .043  .043  .000
Reloaded    10/50     .120  .300  .480  .240  .080  .020
=======================================================

The Teams that went "two steps back" in the short term really did make the best long-term choice. Most of these teams that stepped back made adept choices with their early draft picks, and laid the foundation for future success. Cincinnati added Anthony Munoz in 1980. Between 1980 and 1983, the Bears drafted LB Otis Wilson, OT Keith Van Horne, QB Jim McMahon, OT Jimbo Covert, and WR Willie Gault in the first round. The Bills added DE Bruce Smith, QB Jim Kelly, OT Will Wolford and RB Thurman Thomas during their "two steps back" (for the Bills, it was actually three years of 8 total wins). The Cowboys drafted Aikman, Irvin and Smith. The Eagles, now famously, selected Donovan McNabb rather than crowd choice Ricky Williams. Seven of the eleven teams who took "two steps back" reached a Super Bowl by Year 8 post-plateau. Almost half of the seasons from years 4-8 were "good" seasons, as defined above.

The "Reloaded" teams that brought in new key offensive personnel while continuing to win also fared pretty well, continuing to post a nice "good" season to "bad" season ratio, and making (and advancing) in the playoffs at an above average rate. 1982 Washington was the only team to win a Super Bowl. Several other "reloaded" teams reached championship games and Super Bowls, including the Rams teams' of the mid-1970's that lost 4 championship games before making the 1979 Super Bowl, the early Marino-led Dolphins teams, and the Steelers after Cowher took over in the early 1990's. Of the more recent plateau teams, Denver (10-6 in 2004 followed by 13-3 and champ game appearance in 2005, the Broncos transitioned to Cutler at QB and WR Javon Walker, and still posted a winning record last year) and Baltimore (13-3 last year) would fall in the "reloaded" category.

The "Mired in Mediocrity" teams, on the other hand, died a slow death. These teams did not maintain the same level of play as during the plateau period, but they did not completely collapse over the course of the next two seasons either. The two "mediocrity" teams that actually reached a championship game and beyond are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Seattle 2000-2001 won 15 games. They did so by going 6-10 in 2000 with Kitna, Watters, and Dawkins as leading passer, rusher, and reciever, and then turning things around to 9-7 in 2001, led by new pieces that would be around for the Super Bowl appearance, in Hasselbeck, Alexander, and Jackson. Thus, they did turn over key offensive personnel and get younger, but the record was better in year one than most teams that adopted that strategy.

The Houston Oilers 1993-1994, soon to be the Tennessee Oilers and then the Tennessee Titans, were the other "mediocrity" team to reach a championship game. They did so with 14 total wins in the next two years. In year 1, they went 12-4, had a first round bye, and lost to Kansas City at home. The Oilers then blew things up, and fell all the way to 2-14 the next year. But that giant step backward allowed them to get into the top of the draft and select Steve McNair, the franchise quarterback who would be leading them to the Super Bowl in 1999.

Four teams that finished their plateau period since 2002 qualify as "mired in mediocrity" teams based upon their win totals in the two years that followed. Those teams are 1998-2002 Miami, 1999-2003 New York Jets, 1999-2003 Green Bay, and 2000-2004 New Orleans. Personally, I think New Orleans is most likely to prove to be an exception, despite the fact that the last two years gives them 13 wins, technically placing them at the lower end of the "mired in mediocrity" group. It is rare that a team lands a pro bowl quarterback in his prime, while also finding the running back and receiver of the future in the same season. New Orleans more fits the profile of a "two steps back" team, but one who did not have to go through the growing pains of developing a franchise quarterback in year 2.

The Jets and Green Bay could go either way, though both still have the same quarterbacks in place, and I am doubtful that Favre will still be the QB when the Packers are ready to legitimately contend for the Super Bowl again. Miami is following the pattern of most previous mediocrity teams, unwilling to endure a longer term rebuilding project that could result in a better product in 3-4 years. Thus, entering year 5, the Dolphins have still not found the QB that will lead them to upper level playoff contention, choosing to go with Culpepper last year, and now an aging Trent Green this season.

Turning back to Kansas City, GM Carl Peterson has, until now, been unwilling to embark on a rebuilding project. His last opportunity was following the 1998 season, when Kansas City rebuilt the Vermeil era Chiefs offense through veteran free agents (Holmes, Kennison) and trades (Trent Green, Willie Roaf). There are signs that the Chiefs may be altering their approach this time around, but the signs are mixed. If the Chiefs study their history, the decision should be easy. This Chiefs team has only one guaranteed starter on offense (Larry Johnson) and one guaranteed starter on defense (Derrick Johnson) who were first day selections in the draft between 2001-2005. Thus, it is hard to imagine an immediate "reload" with so little production coming from those drafts that should be forming the core of the roster at this point.

Two decisions will demonstrate the Chiefs' choice. Starting quarterback is the first one. Huard is the safer choice if you want 7-9 wins, but he is not the long term answer. Croyle may or may not be the long term answer, but the Chiefs need to find out, at the possible expense of wins, so they know whether they will need to draft a quarterback the following season. The handling of Larry Johnson's contract demands is the other. Larry Johnson makes the Chiefs a better team in the short term. However, he is not likely to be productive when/if the Chiefs are ready to legitimately compete for championships.

If the Chiefs want to avoid going the way of the Falcons of the mid-1980's, the Jets and Seahawks of the early 1990's, and the Redskins since 2000, they need to make decisions that put them at risk of losing games in the short term, to find out what they have in place for the long term, and what they will need to add over the next two drafts. Of course, you still have to draft the right players if you are selecting early--something prior plateau teams have shown very capable of doing right after the plateau ends.

This entry was posted on Monday, July 30th, 2007 at 3:45 am and is filed under General, History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.