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Monday, April 22, 2024

NFL 2009: A mighty fast recovery

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Take heart, the downtrodden and weak, the underachieving and the unlucky. The NFL last season provided hope that things not only can get better, they can get better in a hurry. Yes, it can happen to you.

As long as you know what you’re doing.

Three teams made sweeping U-turns in the right direction in 2008, and that doesn’t include the surprise NFC champion Arizona Cardinals. Big losers took the express lane and became big winners, bypassing gradual, incremental improvement. No rest stops at .500 here. The Baltimore Ravens turned a 5-11 record into 11-5 and came within one game of the Super Bowl. After enduring turmoil that shook the franchise to its core, the Atlanta Falcons went from 4-12 and last place in the NFC South to 11-5 and second place.

But the biggest turnaround happened in Miami, where the Dolphins zoomed from 1-15 to 11-5, finishing first in the AFC East ahead of the mighty New England Patriots (minus Tom Brady, of course) and Brett Favre and the New York Jets. The 10-game swing tied an NFL record set by Indianapolis in 1999.

More than half of the 2008 playoff clubs, seven, had failed to make the postseason the year before. Carolina improved by a healthy five games. Arizona went a lukewarm 9-7, just one game better than in 2007. But that was enough to win the mediocre NFC West, and a postseason hot streak sent a franchise synonymous with failure to the Super Bowl for the first time.

Other recent seasons have seen major turnarounds. In 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina’s profound and tragic effect on every aspect of life around them, the New Orleans Saints went from 3-13 to 10-6 and the NFC championship game. That year, the Ravens, who seem to be good at this sort of thing, bounced back from 6-10 to a division-best 13-3. The Jets improved from 4-12 to 10-6 and the playoffs. San Diego in 2004 went from 4-12 to 12-4 as Drew Brees energized the offense, emerging as one of the league’s best quarterbacks.

In 1999, when Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning blossomed in his second season and helped reverse the Colts’ 3-13 record, the St. Louis Rams won nine more games than the year before and went on to win Super Bowl XXXIV. Not only were the Rams coming off a 4-12 record, they had lost their starting quarterback during the preseason. And this was a franchise that had failed to win more than seven games in each of the previous nine seasons, which included their move from Los Angeles.

Who knew? Rams coach Dick Vermeil knew. Not all turnarounds happen as quickly as they seem. Even though St. Louis was 9-23 in 1997 and 1998, something good was happening.

“To me, it’s a three-year process,” Vermeil said. “A turnaround is based on more than one year. And if some teams do it faster, that’s great.”

For some teams, many of the pieces are in place for a turnaround despite what the record might show.

“It’s not always about better personnel but about personnel playing better,” said former quarterback Trent Dilfer, who was part of Tampa Bay’s turnaround from 6-10 to 10-6 and the playoffs in 1997 under second-year coach Tony Dungy.

“Tony was a big believer that you don’t make knee-jerk reactions on personnel, but you create an environment where you play better,” said Dilfer, citing how Dungy changed the roles of safety John Lynch and fullback Mike Alstott, among others, to enhance their skills.

Part of the Dolphins’ improvement resulted from how they used running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in the Wildcat offense that’s spreading throughout the league.

Dilfer also noted how Dungy’s confident but calming influence rubbed off on the players and convinced them they were better than their record.

“We were 1-8 [in 1996] and everyone expected him to rant and rave,” he said. “But he said, ‘Stay the course, good things are coming.’ Guys were looking at each other and going, ‘Really?’ This thing was getting worse, and he was saying how close we were.”

Even if a team is losing, what can happen is “the accumulation of a lot of little things, a lot of small wins,” said Vermeil, who started building a foundation with the Rams when he took over in 1997. The club took offensive tackle Orlando Pace, a future Hall of Famer, with the No. 1 pick in the draft. “If you don’t have a good left tackle, you won’t be a good football team,” Vermeil said.

The Rams drafted wide receivers Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim to team with veterans Isaac Bruce and Ricky Proehl and traded a pair of draft picks to Indianapolis for the dynamic and multitalented Marshall Faulk. It was the perfect fit for new offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s innovative, wide-open system. Martz came to the Rams in 1999 along with fellow offensive assistants Al Saunders and John Matsko.

Vermeil likened the new coaches to three first-round draft picks. Of Martz, he said, “I don’t think any coach has taken over the role of offensive coordinator and made a bigger contribution.”

The defense had homegrown stars like Kevin Carter, Grant Wistrom and Todd Lyght and added an obscure, undersized middle linebacker who signed as an undrafted free agent. Not only is London Fletcher still playing, now with the Washington Redskins, he has made more tackles in the last 10 years than anyone.

Who knew? With Fletcher, the Rams got lucky. Luck helps determine the fortunes of any team, good or bad. For example, Vermeil said that going into the season, the Rams were facing one of the league’s toughest schedules. But many of their opponents were weaker than expected. Not only could the Rams beat them, the team gained confidence through winning. And, by playoff time, they were fresher than most teams. The only significant loss to injury was tight end Ernie Conwell.

But the greatest stroke of luck occurred after the Rams were terribly unlucky. After quarterback Trent Green went down with a season-ending knee injury during a preseason game, the Rams turned to the unsung, inexperienced Kurt Warner, the former Arena League quarterback and shelf-stocker. All Warner did was go on to have one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in NFL history, earning league most valuable player honors.

“We thought he could play well enough for us to win,” Vermeil said. “I didn’t know we could win games because of him. I thought we could win games along with him.”

Warner and a suddenly matured Manning that year typify the thread that connects almost all of the turnaround teams.

“I think it starts with the quarterback,” Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “It would be hard to turn something around without pretty good quarterback play.”

Cameron knows this firsthand. As San Diego’s offensive coordinator, he helped Brees emerge as a top-flight NFL quarterback. In 2003, his first year as a starter, Brees threw 11 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions and had a passer rating of 67.5. The Chargers went 4-12. The next year, Brees threw 27 touchdown passes and seven interceptions, with a passer rating of 104.8. Presto, 12-4.

Other factors, like running back LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and a much-improved defense went into it.

“But bottom line, that was the key to the season,” Cameron said.

Cameron was Miami’s coach in 2007 when the newly acquired Green (that guy again) was lost for the season after five games, all losses, after repeated concussions. With Green, Miami was at least competitive, losing three of the games by three points. This time, there was no Warner, or any faint resemblance, to step in. With Cleo Lemon and John Beck at quarterback, the Dolphins won only one game and Cameron lost his job.

As part of a major face-lift, the Dolphins acquired steady veteran quarterback Chad Pennington from the New York Jets, who liked Favre better. The effect was huge. Meanwhile, the Falcons and Ravens also had new quarterbacks, both rookies. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan ended up as the NFL offensive rookie of the year, and Joe Flacco did what his Baltimore coaches asked. In 2006 it was Brees again, this time with the Saints (he left the Chargers after losing his job to Philip Rivers), who helped turn things around.

Pennington, however, was not the biggest catch in Miami last year. It was the year of the Tuna. The Dolphins hired Bill Parcells, made him executive vice president of football operations and let him run the show, as he must. Parcells is the master of the turnaround, the driving force behind the rejuvenation of four previous franchises. He hired Dallas assistant Tony Sparano as head coach, cleaned out the deadwood and created a new environment.

“Bill had immediate success before,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. “I don’t think anyone was shocked they had significant improvement. Maybe people were shocked that they went 11-5 and won the division.”

In Atlanta, the franchise was reeling from a one-two punch in 2007 – the arrest of quarterback Michael Vick on dogfighting charges and his subsequent suspension and the Bobby Petrino fiasco. Hired as coach before the season, Petrino not only proved unfit for the professional game, he bailed on the team after helping saddle it with a 3-10 record.

“Forty-five years in business, and I’ve never been through a year like last year,” Falcons owner and Home Depot founder Arthur Blank lamented in 2008.

Blank went quickly to work, naming Bill Belichick protege Thomas Dimitroff as his general manager. Dimitroff then hired Jacksonville assistant Mike Smith as head coach, drafted Ryan with the No. 3 pick and traded for Michael Turner, who might have been the best running back in the league last season.

“We had a quarterback mature beyond his years who was respected as a leader by the entire team,” Dimitroff said. “And we had a head coach who treated the guys like men, who’s very confident in his approach. … “We had a group of players in the locker room second to none in synchronicity. I really enjoy hearing about how they get along and how they have each other’s back. Given the money in this industry, you don’t always hear that.

“I found out how incredibly important it is to have the right group of players with a resilient mindset,” said Dimitroff, who was named NFL executive of the year, while Smith was coach of the year. “And I think that played a big role continuing through each game, and it continued to build our confidence. It wasn’t an arrogant swagger but a little hop-step that the players believed they could be successful.”

If Atlanta had to deal with problems in 2007, it was nothing compared to what New Orleans endured two years earlier after Hurricane Katrina. A minor footnote to the tragedy was that the Saints had to leave their home, practice in San Antonio and split its “home” games between San Antonio and Baton Rouge, La.

“We had been a team that competed for playoff spots, before the 3-13 season,” Loomis said. “But you look at that year, we got displaced out of New Orleans, we didn’t have a home-field advantage, we didn’t have a practice facility. There were a lot of things going on. We weren’t really a 3-13 team, but circumstances certainly contributed to our record.”

Back home in 2006, with a new quarterback, a healthy Deuce McAllister at running back teaming with flashy rookie Reggie Bush and a new coach, Sean Payton, the Saints helped rejuvenate the area and were rejuvenated themselves. Payton was a career NFL assistant, much like Sparano, Smith and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh who followed him into the head coaching ranks. Coincidence?

“Whenever you bring in a new coach, it’s gonna bring in a higher level of energy,” Loomis said. “I think players know they’re being evaluated, guys who felt established aren’t established anymore. They feel they’ve got something to prove. The level of practices, the level of performance, is heightened.”

In Baltimore, Brian Billick was fired after the 2007 season with an 85-67 record and a Super Bowl championship on his resume. No one doubts Billick’s contributions, but immediately there was a “different mentality,” Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “Different leadership plays a big part. We definitely had that around here, and it worked.”

Although the Ravens suffered their share of injuries last year, especially on defense, it wasn’t as bad as in 2007.

“We had a lot of injuries that year, and they were key injuries,” veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “Last year, we’ve got new coaches, a new philosophy on offense, and we bring in a new quarterback who’s a rookie sensation. But the main thing that separates the teams that can turn it around from one season to the next is injuries.”

The Ravens have remained largely intact for years. Even the ownership transfer from Art Modell to Steve Bisciotti was smooth and seamless. Having a sound structure enables a team to withstand the occasional misstep. That helped the Ravens’ improve from 6-10 to 13-3 under Billick in 2006.

“Organizations win,” Cameron said. “Owners win, general managers win, in conjunction with head coaches and quarterbacks. Then you just work from there.”

The Washington Times, LLC

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