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Reviving fallen franchises

Posted by Chase Stuart on April 20, 2010

There are six franchises in the NFL that have met the following criteria in each of the past two seasons:

  • Five or fewer wins; and
  • An SRS grade of -4.0 or worse

You can probably guess those teams: the Rams, the Lions, the Chiefs, the Raiders, the Seahawks and the Browns. In this year's draft, they hold the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th, 6th, and 7th picks, respectively. These teams, unsurprisingly, have almost all undergone a regime change: the Rams (Steve Spagnuolo), Lions (Jim Schwartz), Chiefs (Todd Haley) and Browns (Eric Mangini) brought in new coaches last season; this off-season, the Browns also brought in Mike Holmgren to be the team's President and the Seahawks picked Pete Carroll up from USC to be the head coach and executive vice-president. Only the Raiders haven't made a regime change, and well, they're the Raiders.

The other spot where bad teams usually overhaul is the quarterback; true to form, the Rams (Sam Bradford this week, by nearly all accounts), the Lions (Matthew Stafford last season), the Chiefs (Matt Cassel last year), the Seahawks (Charlie Whitehurst last month) and the Browns (for better or worse, Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace aren't Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn) have chosen to make big changes at the highest profile position. Only the Raiders haven't changed QBs, and well, they're the Raiders. Even in Oakland, though, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye or Kyle Boller (again, for better or worse) at least have a chance to unseat JaMarcus Russell atop the depth chart.

Since the merger, 66 other teams met the above criteria. Four of them are the 2007 Chiefs, 2007 Raiders, 2007 Rams, and 2006 Raiders, evidence of just how deep the ineptitude runs at those franchises. Twenty-three of those 66 teams, however, had multiple winning seasons over the four years immediately following their two-year run at the bottom of the league. Eleven of the 66 had three winning seasons in four years, and three of them -- the '98-'99 Eagles, the '87-'88 Chiefs and the '85-'86 Oilers -- had four straight winning seasons.

Those three teams each made significant changes at QB and HC, and also did very well in the first round of the draft in the two years following their bad seasons. The Eagles brought in Andy Reid and drafted Donovan McNabb in '99 and Corey Simon in '00 with their first round picks. The Chiefs signed Marty Schottenheimer and acquired Steve DeBerg at QB, while hitting the jackpot twice in a row with Neil Smith ('88) and Derrick Thomas ('89). The Oilers emerged under Jerry Glanville as coach; Warren Moon was the QB during the lean years but he started to take off during the late '80s. Houston selected Jim Everett in 1986, but traded him for William Fuller and the rights to draft Haywood Jeffires. Their other first round pick, Alonzo Highsmith, didn't work out, but the Oilers benefited from Ray Childress (first round pick in '85), Ernest Givins (2nd round pick in '86), trading for Drew Hill, along with the continued development of young offensive lineman like Mike Munchak (1st round, 1982) and Bruce Matthews (1st round, 1983).

So how did our six teams do last year? It's too early to grade Jason Smith (OT, Rams), Matthew Stafford (QB, Lions), Tyson Jackson (DE, Chiefs) or Aaron Curry (LB, Seahawks); on the flip side, Darrius Heyward-Bey (WR, Raiders) has been labeled a bust by some since the moment he was drafted, and he hasn't done much to refute that charge. Still, I don't believe in calling anyone a bust after just one bad season. The Browns traded out of the #5 spot and Mark Sanchez in order to acquire the 17th pick, Kenyon Coleman, Brett Ratliff, Abram Elam and David Veikune (2nd round pick); with the 17th pick, Cleveland chose not to take Josh Freeman and traded the 17th pick to the Bucs for the 19th pick and Coye Francies (6th round). The 19th pick and Jeremy Maclin didn't look good to Mangini, so he then traded that pick to the Eagles for the 21st pick and a 6th rounder, which turned out to be C Alex Mack and RB James Davis. Mack looks good, and Davis has potential, although it looks like Cleveland passed up some high potential playmakers.

Still, if these six teams are going to turn it around, the above names should be part of the equation. Who they take in the first round this season, will be another part, at least so conventional wisdom holds. But how much do late round picks and free agency matter? Let's take an in-depth look at the last six teams (excluding the Reid/McNabb Eagles discussed above) to go from cellar dweller to winner overnight:

1993-1994 Washington Redskins: 1993: 4-12, -6.5; 1994: 3-13, -6.1

In 1996 and 1997, the Redskins posted winning records. How did they do it? Not through the draft, as Heath Shuler and Michael Westbrook didn't turn out to be star players. Instead, Gus Frerotte, the 7th round pick of the 1994 draft, became the starter. Shockingly, Frerotte made the Pro Bowl in 1996. Norv Turner was brought in as head coach in 1994, and his offense blossomed once ex-Viking and medical marvel Terry Allen was released by Minnesota and signed with Washington. In '96, Allen led the league with 21 touchdowns. In addition to Turner, two players came to D.C. in '94 that would set the stage for the team's development: WR Henry Ellard and LB Ken Harvey. The Redskins were able to quickly turn things around thanks to the key free agent signings, but the lack of any hits (save Frerotte) in the '94 and '95 drafts prevented any long-term success: Washington had only one winning season from '98 to '04.

1995-1996 New York Jets: 1995: 3-13, -11.2; 1-15, -10.1

Few teams in recent history have looked as hopeless as the Jets did come week 17 of the 1996 season. Following the Dan Marino fake spike, the Jets lost an incredible 33 of 37 games. This, despite a 1996 off-season that the Jets claimed would prove how free agency meant you could turn a team from pretender to contender in the blink of an eye. New York, coming off a 3-13 season, signed a ton of veteran free agents in the hopes of becoming an instant winner. Jumbo Elliott (Pro Bowl LT with the Giants), David Alexander (seven-year starter at C and G in Philadelphia), Harry Galbreath (eight-year starting G for the Packers and Dolphins) and David Williams (six-year starting RT for the Oilers) were supposed to transform the Jets offensive line; they would make life easy for the QB of the defending AFC Champs, Neil O'Donnell, signed to a blockbuster deal. If O'Donnell didn't work out, the Jets also signed QB Frank Reich. And to make sure the new QBs had valuable weapons in the passing game, Jeff Graham (Chicago) and Webster Slaughter (Kansas City) were signed, while the Jets took Keyshawn Johnson with the #1 pick. At RB, ex-Buc Reggie Cobb was picked up from Jacksonville.

All of those moves earned the Jets praise from the beat writers and two more losses than their league-leading 13 "Ls" the prior year. Rich Kotite "stepped down," and Bill Parcells came to New York. The Jets, unwilling to spend #1 pick money for two years in a row (especially since Peyton Manning wasn't declaring), traded down twice in the first round, passing on Orlando Pace and then Walter Jones. They settled on James Farrior, who ended up having most of his career success with the Steelers. So how did the Jets go from 4-33 over the past 2.5 seasons to four straight non-losing seasons from '97 to '00?

The Jets made three huge free agent signings in 1998, picking up Curtis Martin from the Patriots, Vinny Testaverde from the Ravens, and Kevin Mawae from the Seahawks. Aaron Glenn, the first round pick in 1994, and Mo Lewis, a third-rounder in 1991, became stars on defense as surrounding talent was added. Keyshawn Johnson matured, and played a perfect complement to undrafted free agent Wayne Chrebet. In addition, defensive backs Marcus Coleman and Ray Mickens selected late in the '96 draft shored up the pass defense, while 7th round pick Jason Ferguson from the '97 draft improved the run defense. Like the Redskins, the Jets can't point to the early rounds of the draft as the reason for their turnaround. But the next team sure can.

1997-1998 Colts: 1997: 3-13, -4.3; 1998: 3-13, -5.4

With the first pick in the 1998 draft, Indianapolis selected Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. With the 4th pick in the 1999 draft, the Colts took Edgerrin James over Ricky Williams. Having already selected Marvin Harrison and Tarik Glenn with first round picks in '96 and '97, the Colts transformation was complete. Those four players have a combined career AV of 473 and counting. But this sort of plan doesn't always work out. After all, the Raiders took JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden and Darrius Heyward-Bey with consecutive top-ten picks from '07 to '09, and may add a left tackle at the 8 spot this year (Trent Williams from Oklahoma or Bryan Bulaga from Iowa are good possibilities). So going OT-QB-RB-WR is not a surefire plan for success. Sometimes, you need a Bill Polian, too. Detroit took Calvin Johnson, Gosder Cherilus (OT from Boston College), Matthew Stafford and Brandon Pettigrew in the first round of the past three drafts in an attempt to build their offense. So far, they've had little success.

1999-2000 Falcons: 1999: 5-11, -7.1; 4-12, -8.6.

In 1998, the Falcons went 14-2, had an SRS of +10.0, and went to the Super Bowl. But Jamal Anderson tore his knee, Tony Martin went to San Diego, and the rest of the offense (and team) imploded. The Falcons bottomed out in 2000, and mortgaged the farm to trade up for Michael Vick. Atlanta traded its own first round pick, #5 overall, along with its third rounder (used on Tay Cody), its second round pick the next season (Reche Caldwell) and WR/KR Tim Dwight. And while Vick's career in Atlanta ended ignominiously, the Falcons were 23-12 over the next four seasons with Vick under center, and won two playoff games.

So how did Atlanta do it, besides Vick? The Falcons didn't even have a first round pick in 2000, having traded the pick to the Ravens (used on Jamal Lewis) to trade up into the second round of the 1999 draft to take tight end Reggie Kelly. But Atlanta had made key defensive pickups with first round picks in 1998 and 1999; Keith Brooking and Patrick Kerney just toiled for bad Falcons teams until Vick emerged. Atlanta added Warrick Dunn in free agency, and along with 2002 first round pick T.J. Duckett, gave the Vick-led Falcons an incredible running game. Last but not least, after the Falcons took Vick first overall in the '01 draft, they gave him his best weapon one round later: TE Alge Crumpler.

2000-2002 Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys went 5-11 in '00 (-4.6), '01 (-6.0) and '02 (-8.5), but have had a winning season in every subsequent year save for 2004. How did Dallas do it? Like the Jets, they hired Bill Parcells to coach the team. Dallas didn't have a first round pick in '00 or '01 after trading for Joey Galloway (missing out on Shaun Alexander and Andre Carter in the process), but the Cowboys took defensive backs Roy Williams and Terence Newman with high first rounders in '02 and '03. Still, the Cowboys best pick in that bunch was 2003 third rounder Jason Witten. And, in one of the only bright spots of the Dave Campo era, the Cowboys top pick in the '02 draft was used on second-round offensive lineman Andre Gurode, who has emerged into a three-time pro bowl center.

Who were the other big contributors responsible for the turnaround? Left tackle Flozell Adams remained a Cowboy from '98 to '09. La'Roi Glover was a huge addition from the Saints in '02. And Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe, if nothing else, provided more experience than Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter had during the lean years. Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen, third round picks in '97 and '99, elevated their play with guys like Glovers and Williams surrounding them. And former Parcells guys Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson helped make the Cowboys passing game more respectable.

2004-2005 Tennessee Titans:

The Steve McNair-Eddie George-Derrick Mason-Jevon Kearse era Titans ended in 2003 with Tennessee's 17-14 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Divisional round. Kearse signed a record-breaking deal with the Eagles in the off-season and George was released; McNair was injured and played in just eight games in 2004. After that, Mason went to the Ravens, and following the '05 season, McNair followed him to Baltimore. The Titans had won 11 games in four out of five years from '99 to '03, but collapsed as their core four left the team.

The Billy Volek-Chris Brown-Drew Bennett trio could not replace the production on offense. But from 2006 to 2009, the Titans went 39-25. How? The '05 Titans took Pacman Jones and LT Michael Roos; Jones was productive for a couple of seasons and Roos has become one of the best tackles in the league. In 2007, Vince Young and LenDale White were productive early round picks, although 7th round pick Cortland Finnegan might have been the best pick of the bunch.

Albert Haynesworth, a first rounder in 2002, was one of the Titans' biggest gems responsible for the turnaround. The other big addition was former Cardinals defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, signed in the 2005 off-season. And, in a bit of Parcellsian deja vu, the signing of center Kevin Mawae in 2006 helped stabilize the offensive line. In 2008, Kerry Collins and first round pick Chris Johnson helped keep the ship running strong, with Young returning to lead the team to a .500 record last season.

Conclusions

For the Rams, Lions, Chiefs, Raiders, Seahawks and Browns, the 2010 draft represents another chance for them to right the ship. But for the team(s) that turns it around over the next few seasons, it's unlikely to be because of a couple of early round picks in this draft. It will be a combination of some key free agent signings/trades, having had successful drafts in '08, '09 and another one in 2011, and retaining core members of the team who are in their prime now and toiling for a loser. Players like Steven Jackson, Calvin Johnson, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Lofa Tatupu and Joe Thomas could end up being cornerstone stars for winning teams, if they stick around for long enough. Selecting the right coach would be a big help, too, and it's possible that one or more of the above teams have already done so. Still, one great pick on Thursday could make the process a whole lot smoother.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 20th, 2010 at 7:46 am and is filed under History, NFL Draft. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.