As the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks have shown, it's possible to turn things around very quickly in the NFL. All three teams had losing records in 2011, and all three are making serious noise this season.
With just two weeks to go this season, I thought I'd take a look at six down-and-out teams that are poised to engineer a similar turnaround in 2013. Of course, with plenty of coaching and front-office decisions yet to be made around the league, there are several variables that are impossible to account for at this point. But these six teams all have rosters that are stocked with talent and potential, and should be able to surprise some folks a year from now.
So here they are, ordered according to the likelihood that they'll become winners in 2013:
1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After drafting well (as evidenced by rookie running back Doug Martin's performance) and signing the right free agents (like receiver Vincent Jackson) over the past three years, the Bucs have a good, young roster. We saw things start to click for them during a 6-4 start, though they've fallen off since. Greg Schiano has done a terrific job in his debut season. In Year 2, he'll have a better understanding of the length of the NFL season, and he'll have a firmer sense of when (and how hard) to push his players.
The Bucs have given up a lot of passing yards (310.6 per game, worst in the NFL), and where they really need help is on the back end. Aqib Talib is gone, having been traded to the New England Patriots. Stalwart Ronde Barber, meanwhile, is 37 and might not come back for a 17th season. So they'll have some openings to fill. Can they find a way to keep defensive end Michael Bennett, who leads the team with nine sacks, from moving on as a free agent? They also might want to bring in a veteran quarterback (like Kyle Orton, say) to help mentor young signal-caller Josh Freeman, who has talent but has played hot and cold this season. Tampa Bay should have the cap space to do something.
2) Miami Dolphins
Joe Philbin has hired a good coaching staff, and together they've done a very good job with the second-youngest roster in the NFL. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has stood out, leading a unit that's given up just 279 points, sixth-best in the league. In fact, I'm impressed with the entire organization, including general manager Jeff Ireland, who has done well to improve the team. This was a splintered group, but Philbin and his staff have really pulled everything together.
Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill seems to get better with every game, playing very well in the second half of the Week 15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Dolphins should have plenty of cap money to spare, but they'll have to prioritize whom to sign among a group of potential free agents that includes offensive lineman Jake Long, running back Reggie Bush and receiver Brian Hartline. Still, they've shown they can make the right moves recently, like trading cornerback Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for some extra draft picks in 2013, which they can use to add receivers with size and speed.
3) Cleveland Browns
So much is up in the air when it comes to the Browns, whose new owner (Jimmy Haslam III) will most likely make changes in the front office and on the coaching staff. One thing is certain, though: Cleveland has some very good, young players on defense and offense. With a ton of rookies, including running back Trent Richardson and receiver Josh Gordon, the Browns are the youngest team in the NFL. (Quarterback Brandon Weeden is also a rookie, but he's 29 years old.) Joe Haden, meanwhile, is one of the best young cornerbacks in the league. Since starting the season at 0-5, the Browns have shown nice promise, winning five of their past nine games.
Breer: Brownie points
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I think Weeden is good, though he's not great. Regardless, I think the Browns are still in good shape, because their offensive line and running backs are pretty good. Cleveland can be a tough place to play, with the weather and wind coming off Lake Erie; historically, Browns teams have needed to win with a good running game. The bottom line is, while I expect Weeden to get better, Cleveland can win with a serviceable quarterback. It also doesn't hurt that Weeden's backup, Colt McCoy, can succeed if he has talent around him.
Of course, many things depend on who winds up coaching, but the team should have the cap space to add help in the offseason, and could wind up with a top-10 draft pick, as well. Plus, the AFC North is not going to be as strong as it's been lately, with the aging Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens both descending. The Browns have a chance to be pretty good.
4) St. Louis Rams
Coach Jeff Fisher and his staff have done a fine job with the Rams in Year 1. That franchise had gone through several bad drafts and was firmly entrenched in a losing pattern when Fisher arrived. It's hard to turn around a team like that, especially when you consider all the new guys St. Louis added, but Fisher has what it takes. As a former player with 148 career coaching victories, Fisher has stature among his charges; when he speaks, people listen.
Quarterback Sam Bradford has playoff-caliber ability. He will continue to grow, and his young receivers (including Brian Quick and Chris Givens) will grow with him. St. Louis also has a strong, young defense, led by Chris Long, Robert Quinn, James Laurinaitis and Janoris Jenkins. Not to mention, a good special teams unit, with kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker. They also get the Washington Redskins' first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft as part of the trade that allowed Washington to select Robert Griffin III last April.
The Rams' biggest obstacle is the NFC West; their division is one of the toughest in the league. For what it's worth, though, the Rams (4-0-1) are just one of five teams without a divisional loss this season, alongside the New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers.
Whether or not they return veteran running back Steven Jackson next season is yet to be determined. However, at the end of the day, it all comes down to Fisher, who seems to know that when it comes to fixing the culture, the little things -- like bringing the parents of the Rams' draft picks to St. Louis to show them where their sons will be playing -- can go a long way. It's always good when a player's mom will tell him, "Boy, that Coach Fisher is a nice guy."
5) Carolina Panthers
I like the Panthers, and I like what coach Ron Rivera has done. There's certainly a chance they'll replace him, but if they do, they run the risk of interrupting the progress they've made, as the new guy will likely want to install his own systems and schemes.
The Panthers have some good, young players on defense, like Luke Kuechly and Greg Hardy, but most importantly, they have Cam Newton at quarterback. Newton gives them a chance to win every week, and that's all you can ask for out of a signal-caller. He's undoubtedly the centerpiece of this team, and the biggest reason to feel optimistic about Carolina's future.
What worries me is that the Panthers are likely to run into cap trouble, and they're carrying three pricey running backs (Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert) they don't need. They'll have to make some tough moves to correct that, and it'll also make it tricky to give Newton more receiver help. Veteran Steve Smith is having a pretty good year (66 catches for 1,056 yards), but he'll be 34 next season, and when it comes to receivers and longevity, you never know. (Smith might play another three years, or he might not be able to run a lick in 2013.) Brandon LaFell is a solid No. 2 or 3 receiver, but he's not a No. 1. Still, the Panthers have Newton, and that can make up for a lot.
6) Philadelphia Eagles
I think the Eagles have good players on their roster. Expectations for Philadelphia will not be nearly as high in 2013 as they've been the past few seasons. If rookie quarterback Nick Foles continues to develop, and if some key injured veterans (like offensive linemen Jason Peters and Todd Herremans, running back LeSean McCoy and receiver DeSean Jackson) can play a full season, Philly might surprise.
I like Foles much more of late; he seems to be a much better athlete than I thought he was. He just didn't look like a quarterback to me, but he has a quick release and has played well.
The coaching situation obviously represents a big question mark, but the Eagles could be in much worse shape than they are. When the cupboard is bare, it's very difficult to win, no matter who's coaching. But this team has players.
BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR ... OR THE YEAR AFTER
As long as we're thinking ahead, here are four teams that I don't think will turn things around next season:
Oakland Raiders: The Raiders are a prime example of the "bare cupboard" rule. Dennis Allen is a great coach, but the roster is pretty thin. Allen should get the Coach of the Year Award just for winning four games with that team.
Jacksonville Jaguars:Blaine Gabbert is not the answer at quarterback. The Jaguars haven't done enough in the draft to help themselves. The guys they drafted four or five years ago should now be the cornerstone of their team, but they're not.
Tennessee Titans: This team is tough to read, because quarterback Jake Locker has talent, but he's inconsistent. He'll look great one play and horrible the next, which has been his history dating back to his college days at Washington.
» Here's a story that might give us some insight as to why Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has been so good filling in for Robert Griffin III. Cousins was working out at Michigan State before the draft last April when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner jumped into the drill. Fichtner told Cousins that he'd seen enough of his memorized drills and asked him to throw a 17-yard out from a seven-step drop. The kid said, "OK," stepped up there and did it. Clearly, he wasn't afraid of being put on the spot.
» The startlingly good play of first-year quarterbacks might have something to do with the adoption of the helmet radio. The device keeps quarterbacks from having to look over at the sideline and trying to decipher signals from three guys waggling signs. They also don't have to spend time memorizing what those signals mean. Now, instead of working on that for a couple of hours per week, they're free to devote their energy to football.
» Last week, I wrote that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck should be the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, but after watching Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson continue to improve, I'd like to change my vote (as I'm entitled to do). The more I see of Wilson, the more I like him; he's like a golfer who shoots 100 one week, 90 the next and 80 the week after that. At this point, I'd give the award to Wilson over Luck.
» For as much talk as the rookie crop of quarterbacks is getting, rookie kickers could challenge that group when it comes to first-year success. Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens, Blair Walsh of the Minnesota Vikings and Zuerlein of the Rams have all had standout debut campaigns, while Kai Forbath (who is not technically a rookie, having been signed by the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent last season, though he didn't see any game action until 2012) has nailed all 15 attempts he's taken for the Washington Redskins. These young kickers are putting up unbelievable numbers, and I don't think we talk enough about them, especially considering all the close games we've seen.
» I noticed two unsung heroes in Week 15. Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy had two sacks in the Panthers' 31-7 win over the San Diego Chargers, contributing to a team effort that held the Bolts to 164 total yards and limited their time of possession to 22:28. Veteran Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, meanwhile, had another stellar outing in a win over the St. Louis Rams, contributing 14 tackles and a sack. Greenway has 140 tackles on the season, leading a team that won just three games in 2011 to the brink of playoff contention.