2014 was a fun year in the football universe, culminating in a Super Bowl championship for the Seattle Seahawks and a runner-up finish for the Denver Broncos. Though these two squads enjoyed deep postseason runs, not every city is blessed with athletes as accomplished as Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson.
Some teams string along years of dominance through frugal management and brilliant coaching (see: New England Patriots). Others take time to build the foundation of a championship-quality roster (see: Kansas City Chiefs). And every year, a few teams find themselves with the short end of the stick, crashing and burning before they can even figure out what the problem is. But these unfortunate squads are notable not necessarily for the games they lost, but rather for the games they could have won. Football is truly a “game of inches”, so even the most minute offseason changes can turn a bottom-dweller into a contender in a hurry.
Though the number of wins varies greatly around the league each year, the parity in talent levels between NFL teams is not as wide a gap as many would imagine. Whether it's through the draft or free agency or a byproduct of the coaching carousel, not mention a bit of fortune, there are a myriad of ways by which a team can go from worst to first fairly quickly. With that in mind, here are five teams ready to rebound in 2014.
2013 Record: 4-12
2014 Schedule Outlook: Fair
The Bad: Tough division & brutal final stretch - last four games: at Packers, home vs. Steelers, at Saints, home vs. Panthers
The Good: 4 out of last 6 games are at home
Matt Ryan and company return to the field coming off of the franchise’s ugliest campaign in recent memory. With HBO’s "Hard Knocks" filming the Falcons' training camp this summer, the spotlight is on the “dirty birds” to produce in a big fashion in 2014. Two seasons ago, the team nearly wound up in the Super Bowl. The Falcons also made appearances in the postseason in 2010 and '11. The forecast was sunny back then; Atlanta projected as a championship candidate for years to come. How quickly things have changed.
Last season, the Falcons were the victims of a greatly improved NFC South. Cam Newton’s rise to supremacy in the division hasn’t allowed much breathing room for the rest of the division’s teams. When you pair the Panthers’ emergence with the return the Saints had after getting head coach Sean Payton back, it was only natural for the Falcons to drop off a small amount. But four wins is a mark expected at the season’s quarter waypoint in the Peach State. Losing Tony Gonzalez to retirement means it will be tough for the Falcons to return to normalcy in 2014. Still, Julio Jones, Roddy White and a talented group of newcomers will do all that’s humanly possible to get this squad back to relevancy.
In 2013, Jones suffered a tragic, season-ending foot fracture in Week 5. The Falcons lost that game to the Jets, and went on to win just three of their next 11. Jones should be healthy and ready to roll in 2014. Additionally, seven of the Falcons' 12 losses last year were by a touchdown or less, and the majority of the teams that they lost to were playoff qualifiers. Clearly, the Falcons were a few mishaps away from having a vastly different record.
Atlanta has gotten increasingly younger over the past few years and with nine draft picks in 2014, the Falcons addressed one of their most detrimental problems: a lack of depth. With the sixth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons selected Jake Matthews, offensive tackle from Texas A&M. Matthews was an important factor in Johnny Manziel’s collegiate stardom. If the tackle’s superb instincts and size translate to the next level, Matt Ryan will be taking his O-line out to plenty of steak dinners over the course of the season.
Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is a bit of an enigma coming out of the University of Minnesota. He has the physical tools that he needs to excel in the NFL, but scouts questioned his consistency and every-down performance. Aside from those two studs, the Falcons used the remaining seven picks mainly to address some issues in the secondary and with the pass rush. It wasn’t the most star-studded of classes, but the Falcons now have a few more players who can fill the various holes in a thin roster.
Ultimately, the Falcons’ 2014 draft class won’t make or break this team’s season. Young bucks like cornerback Desmond Trufant must improve while new additions, namely defensive tackle Paul Soliai, must prove their worth. New running back Devonta Freeman has been brought in to complement existing backfield weapons Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. But none of those three, or Ryan, will be able to get anything going if blockers don’t create time for them to react. In short, this team will travel as far as its offensive line allows.
With an abundance of offensive talent, all Atlanta truly needs is a solid wall of blockers that allows the team’s playmakers to show why they’re paid the big bucks. The wins this year might come in shootouts, but a W on the schedule is all that matters for coach Mike Smith. If the “dirty birds” stick to the game plan, this season won’t end after 16 games for this squad.
Projected Record: 10-6, Wild Card berth
2013 Record: 7-9
2014 Schedule Outlook: Easy
The Bad: At Patriots Week 12, then at Bears, at Packers Weeks 16 & 17
The Good: Face the yardage-anemic Vikings twice. Jets, Dolphins & Buccaneers also are on the schedule
The Detroit Lions have the tools to navigate the 2014 season deftly and end up in the driver’s seat of a very winnable NFC North. Yes, they finished third last year behind the Packers and Bears, but the Lions are due for a successful season.
Even with Calvin Johnson snatching every football in sight, Detroit has struggled to meet its potential each and every season. Now, with quarterback Matthew Stafford signed to a three-year, $53 million extension through 2017, it’s time for the Lions to show up. It’s no secret that first-year head coach Jim Caldwell and his revamped coaching staff inherits a touchy situation in Motor City. The good news for Caldwell is that a stacked offense and a serviceable defense should secure his job for years to come.
Stafford has arguably the richest treasure chest of play-toys of any QB in the NFL. Between Reggie Bush, Megatron, and the newly acquired Golden Tate, plenty of touchdowns are going to be scored. The real question is: exactly how many TDs will be scored, and how fast will they reach the end zone? On the defensive side of the ball, there are a few more pressing questions. Will the secondary hold up? Will a skilled pass-rushing unit finally penetrate the opposing pocket? These are just a few of the unanswered issues heading into the season.
Detroit is betting on its defensive roster to improve based on physical training and an increased familiarity with schemes after doing little in the offseason to add new pieces to a decent unit. The Lions see 13-year veteran Rashean Mathis as the potential solution at the cornerback position. This display of complacency should tell you all you need to know about the state of the Detroit secondary. However, the team did sign James Ihedigbo, who comes off a standout season in Baltimore, at the safety spot. You’re only as good as your weakest link. If that saying is true, the Lions will live and die with their defensive backs in 2014.
Detroit decided to upgrade its already potent offense this draft. With the 10th overall pick, management had a ton of potential routes in which the franchise could be redirected. By taking Eric Ebron, a freak athlete who starred at tight end for North Carolina, the Lions made their intentions clear. Detroit is choosing to approach the NFL, a quarterback’s league, by surrounding its own field-manager with a loaded arsenal of weaponry. If Stafford can’t get the job done with this supporting cast, it’ll be hard to defend his role as an NFL starter.
The Lions’ other picks were mainly oriented towards a long-term vision, but the team’s second-round pick caught some eyes. Kyle Van Noy, a popular BYU linebacker and rusher, was a projected top-10 pick if he had left school a year ago. After his senior year, his stock fell off and he was forgotten as prospects like Khalil Mack stole the limelight. Detroit doesn’t mind; Van Noy will compete for the starting strong-side linebacker job from day one.
Last season, this team simply collapsed under pressure – Lions fans are familiar with this occurrence. The team won just two of its last eight games. This would be considered a dismal outcome for any team, much less a postseason hopeful. But with all five pieces on an excellent offensive line returning, a new and improved coaching staff, and an explosive offensive toolbox, the Lions are destined for the playoffs in 2014. Shaky defense and special teams means that the bulk of Detroit’s wins must come from overwhelming offensive performances. But Jim Caldwell doesn’t mind grinding out a win, and he’ll take as many as he rightfully can in his first year in Motown.
Projected Record: 11-5, win NFC North
2013 Record: 6-10
2014 Schedule Outlook: Merciful
The Bad: At Chicago to open things, at Denver in Week 14, wrap up at New England in Week 17
The Good: Play the lowly Jets twice. Toughest two-week stretch is Weeks 5-6: at Detroit followed by home vs. New England
Last year was a rough outing for the Buffalo Bills. They performed valiantly, competing up until the last minute in almost every game, but still walked away with the worst record in the AFC East. In reality, the Bills’ record could have easily been 10-6 instead of 6-10. To elaborate, the Bills lost to New England by two points in their first game and later fell short against Cincinnati and Atlanta in overtime. These three missed opportunities demonstrate just how frustrating 2013 was for the organization. This year, expect a reversal of fortune for Buffalo, as the Bills have found continuity and have added a few big-time players to the roster via the NFL Draft.
Breaking in a new head coach and quarterback last year proved to be a difficult process. Rookie coach Doug Marrone proved his worth, while quarterback EJ Manuel showed flashes of promise. A knee injury held Manuel out for much of the season and when he saw the field, his stats weren’t exactly eye-popping. But with receiver Robert Woods assuming a greater role in the offense and the addition of the explosive Sammy Watkins, you can count on an enormous jump in performance from Buffalo’s QB.
The 2014 NFL Draft has allowed the Bills to upgrade many positions this offseason. They acquired help on the offensive line by selecting Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandijo and Baylor’s Cyril Richardson. These two will undoubtedly help Manuel make further strides in his game. But the Bills made the most noise in this draft by trading up in the first round to draft Watkins with the fourth pick. We might find that the Bills made a league-altering decision when we look back on this selection in 10 years. Watkins has the potential to be a difference-maker from his first snap in the NFL, and he better do so because the Bills gave up next year’s first-round choice to select him. In free agency, the organization added linebacker Brandon Spikes to an already fearsome defensive unit. Even with the loss of safety Jairus Byrd, it’s safe to say this offseason has been good to the Buffalo Bills.
The franchise is trudging through the longest active postseason drought in the NFL, the last appearance coming in 1999. But this drought can end in 2014 if the Bills win the close ones. Mario Williams, the first overall draft pick in the 2006 draft, has blossomed into one of the league’s best pass-rushers, quietly recording 13 sacks last season. Losing second-year linebacker Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL poses a challenge for the Bills. Still, the defense won't need to do much to see the team finish second in a weak AFC East. On offense, C.J. Spiller flies under the radar but is on a short list of the most electric rushers and return specialists in the NFL.
Clearly, this team has the necessary talent to succeed. The only question now is if that talent will translate to wins. With a forgiving schedule and an improved offensive repertoire, don’t be too surprised if Buffalo snags a playoff spot in 2014.
Projected Record: 10-6, Wild Card berth
2013 Record: 2-14
2014 Schedule Outlook: Ideal
The Bad: Probably not winning the AFC South outright over the Colts
The Good: Gift of a schedule – Open against Redskins at home, second half of season features only three teams with winning records in 2013
It’s rare for a team to be truly worthy of a two-win record. In the case of the Houston Texans, the roster wasn’t the worst in the league but 2013 was a season that completely fell apart. The team’s starting quarterback was traded, the head coach was fired, but the misery did deliver the first overall pick to the franchise. After a league-worst record and a 10-win drop-off from the previous season, one would expect a team to officially enter “rebuilding mode”, a euphemism for sucking. Badly. The Texans waited until the fourth round to grab a quarterback, which may restrict the team’s chances of rebounding. But with little expectation to make noise in the AFC, it’d be characteristic of the underdog Texans to turn some heads in 2014.
The Texans are a mirror image of the NFC's Falcons, minus a steady solution at the quarterback position. Like the Falcons, the Texans were considered dark horse Super Bowl candidates last season but turned out to be monumental frauds. The last 14 games that the Texans played have been losses, including a sweep against the Jaguars. Former quarterback Matt Schaub set the record last season for consecutive games with an interception returned for a touchdown. Star running back Arian Foster was sidelined with a back injury. Coach Gary Kubiak had a mid-season stroke. He was fired about a month later. It was more than a tough season for the Texans. It was a meltdown of epic proportions.
The biggest offseason event for this team was bringing a new head coach into town, Bill Belichick disciple and former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. If O’Brien can fix the offense as quickly as he did in Happy Valley, the Texans' faithful will be delighted with this hire. Under O’Brien, collegiate quarterback Matt McGloin completely stepped up his game and ended up landing with the Raiders.
Free agent pickup Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tom Savage can squeeze the most out of their potential in the new offensive scheme. Andre Johnson and Arian Foster won’t be too mad about it either. Though, all this depends upon a rock-solid offensive line. The problems, which will inevitably arise, will be mental rather than physical with this offense. The talent is there, but learning O’Brien’s complicated system may prove challenging.
Houston is putting a lot of trust in its defense to supply the pressure against divisional villains Andrew Luck, Jake Locker and Chad Henne. To add to an already fearsome defensive line that features the league’s finest pass-rusher in J.J. Watt, the Texans selected South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick in the draft.
It also helps that linebacker Brian Cushing should return from knee problems this year a healthier and more effective version of himself. Houston’s secondary is functional and in signing safeties Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis during free agency, the team shored up an important part of its roster. Notre Dame’s Louis Nix can help out on a thin interior defensive line, but the Texans' defense is still a few years away from being able to stop the league’s heavy hitters.
As of late, it’s been a tumultuous time for Houston – even Johnson, a career Texan and one of the most underrated receivers in the league, has expressed a desire to leave town. But if a team can fall apart as quickly and unfortunately as the Texans did last year, surely one can reenergize and transform itself in the same span. In arguably the weakest division in the NFL, Houston can contend. Luck’s Colts will likely maintain the top spot, but don’t be shocked if Houston finds reasonable success in 2014.
Projected Record: 8-8, miss playoffs
2013 Record: 3-13
2014 Schedule Outlook: Challenging
The Bad: Difficult non-divisional foes: home vs. Seahawks Week 5, at San Francisco Week 12, at Indianapolis Week 13
The Good: Open season at Houston & head home to play the Jaguars in Week 2, get the Seahawks after 10 days of rest
The NFC East is always an interesting battle. Most fans of the division would tell you that in any given year at least three of its teams are seemingly trying to lose. In Robert Griffin III’s sophomore season, the ‘Skins took a step back, regressing to a 3-13 record, missing the postseason, and finishing last in the division. Thanks to a difficult schedule, I wouldn’t count on Washington making a deep playoff run in 2014. Still, the team should look a lot sharper come when it kicks the season off on Sept. 7.
Mike Shanahan is out and Jay Gruden is in as Washington’s team leader. Gruden, brother of the more famous Super Bowl-winning coach and current ESPN analyst Jon, is an expert in quarterback development, with his most impressive product at the position being... Andy Dalton. Jay has been getting looks at head coach around the league for the past few years, but this is his first venture in the NFL as the leading man. There will be a short grace period for the coach his first two seasons in Washington. Regardless, quick results and a return to the success of 2012, a 10-win season with a playoff appearance, are still the goals for '14.
So what’s the issue with this team? Why couldn’t the Redskins replicate the win count in 2012? It’s simple: keep RGIII healthy, keep his jersey clean and you’ll have a chance against just about any team in the league. With the addition of DeSean Jackson in the offseason, if Griffin has time and is well protected, his passing numbers could very well peak this year. Signing Jackson was a coup, one that divisional foe Philadelphia will be crying about for quite some time. D-Jax can burn any defense in the league, and at the very least he distracts defenders, opening up opportunities for his teammates all over the field. With Gruden calling the shots, the Redskins' offense will be extremely difficult to stop in 2014.
On defense, coordinator Jim Haslett now has full control of personnel decisions. The pass rush should be adequate, with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan coming off the edges. Washington newbie Jason Hatcher, another divisional transfer, will see time at the defensive end position in Haslett’s aggressive scheme. Hatcher is coming off a career-high 11 sacks in 2013 with the Cowboys.
In the secondary, the Redskins added safety Ryan Clark to the aging, but experienced, tandem of DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather. Last year, the team’s defense ranked 30th in points allowed. If Haslett’s newfound independence doesn’t bring major improvements, you can count on another lackluster season.
The ‘Skins’ draft was not as captivating as it was for other teams in the league. In wheeling and dealing for Griffin two years ago, the Redskins set themselves back for a future rebuilding project. This offseason, Washington lacked a true first-round pick. With the team’s first selection coming at No. 47, it’s understandable that no major pieces were added. Still, this is bad news for a team looking for immediate help. The Redskins only used two of their eight draft choices to deal with their horrendous defense – something that could come back to the haunt the franchise later this season. Either way, Trent Murphy, a pass-rusher out of Stanford, and Morgan Moses, an offensive tackle from Virginia, were solid value picks that can help this team moving forward.
From NFC East champs to last place, this is the story of the 2012-13 Washington Redskins. With RGIII and DeSean Jackson running the show, this is one of the most egocentric teams in the league today. It will be fun (maybe not as a Redskins fan) to watch the rookie head coach balance the squad’s personalities while simultaneously fighting to win the NFC East. I don’t think the ‘Skins return to the throne this year, but the franchise will take a step in the right direction after a poor showing in 2013.
Like I said before, with a healthy Griffin, the sky is the limit. As the saying goes, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars." Gruden and company will be aiming high in their first season together, with a slight alteration to that quote: they hope to land smack dab in the middle of the NFC playoff race.
Projected Record: 8-8, miss playoffs