Why the worst division in NFL history will rise again

Jason Licht, the new general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was amazed at the emotional balance one can achieve while playing in football's worst division.

His team, already rebuilding, lost its offensive coordinator a few weeks into the season and, in turn, lost 12 of their first 14 games under the new regime. Adding to the dismay was the lingering reminder that seven of those losses were by less than a touchdown.

And yet, on the way home from so many of those games, Licht was confronted with the same feeling, a padded landing created from the eternal optimism of head coach Lovie Smith.

"I mean, we're only two games out!" the general manager told NFL Media in an interview this week.

"We had a record we didn't necessarily want for sure, but we kept saying that. There's a chance we're flying home every Sunday a game out of first place. We played a majority of our games to the end, fought to the end."

It reminded him a bit of 2008 when Licht, then a personnel executive with the Arizona Cardinals, watched his team win what was then considered the worst division in NFL history. Led by Kurt Warner, the 9-7 Cardinals limped into the playoffs and rode all the way to the Super Bowl. Just six short years later, the NFC West is widely considered the best division in the league.

During two separate stints with the Cards in 2008 and 2013, Licht was afforded the unique perspective of seeing a divisional powerhouse rise to life. As a member of the front office, his job was to analyze and project miles down the road. He was able to meticulously note the changes; the way teams build from ashes and strengthen their roster to compete in a heavyweight fight six times per year.

Now, in 2014, he is in on the ground floor of the next buy-low project. The NFC South will undoubtedly be considered the worst division in modern NFL history, and has a best-case scenario of an eight-win team taking it all. Sunday's game between the Falcons (5-9) and Saints (6-8) will go a long way toward determining a champion, but the 5-8-1 Carolina Panthers can still make a run if they win out and the Saints lose one of their two remaining games. Licht has seen these ebbs before, and knows it's only a matter of time before the South comes back.

"We didn't see it coming as much in 2008, but we saw it coming in 2012," Licht said. "Nobody could foresee Russell Wilson was going to be the player he was, but I'm saying that we got the sense that all these teams are finally doing it right. They all have a coach and GM that work together and a great salary cap system.

"We tried to model (Seattle in particular) in Arizona when he hired Bruce (Arians) to be the head coach, made Steve Keim the general manager and Mike Disner to do the salary cap. So we were mimicking them, we thought that was the successful route you need to go."

After this season, the NFC South figures to have a similar renaissance. At least two head coaching vacancies -- Atlanta and Carolina -- have been heavily speculated. The conference comes pre-loaded with premiere talent at the quarterback position (See: Cam Newton and Drew Brees) and now features two coaches that have been to Super Bowls.

"You can see some parallels," Licht said."Between '08 and '12 there was a coaching change in San Francisco, then a coaching change in St. Louis, a new staff in Seattle and, here in Tampa, we're a new staff. I'm certainly trying to do a lot of the things Seattle did. Lovie and I are churning the roster, we have to lead the league (in transactions). We're trying to find the pieces down the road, which we have -- some role players (Note: Licht is right, the Buccaneers lead the league in transactions with 98. The next closest team is the Bears, with 81).

"That's exactly what John Schneider and Pete Carroll did their first year. They made a change on their roster every week. I thought that was smart to take advantage of the first year, not sitting on their hands and to just keep the roster churning."

Licht was speaking as he exited a Buccaneers draft meeting on Thursday, one of many he'll oversee for the next six months. In the not so distant future, he hopes to be discussing the Buccaneers like he is able to talk about the Cardinals or Seahawks. He cannot rest on the knowledge that the division seems to be sinking around him.

In just a few short seasons, they could be a powerhouse once again.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses Jay Cutler's benching and what it means for his future with the Bears. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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