- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“Started from the bottom now we’re here
Started from the bottom now my whole team [bleeping] here”

Virtually every year this century, at least one NFL team could’ve blasted Drake’s popular rap song throughout the locker room at season’s end. I wouldn’t be surprised if commissioner Roger Goodell, who began working for the league as an administrative intern in 1982, hums the tune each time he walks into his office.

Finishing last in one season doesn’t preclude teams from finishing atop the division 12 months later. The NFL credo of “any given Sunday” can be extended to “any given year.” You never know which team will execute the worst-to-first turnaround, but chances are great we’ll see at least one.

Beginning with the Chicago Bears in 2001, 22 teams have gone from cellar-dweller to division champ in one season. The feat failed to materialize only twice in the last 15 years, 2002 and 2014. Even more amazing are the multiple reversals of fortune that occurred within the same season.

Chicago, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants pulled it off in 2005. Baltimore, New Orleans and Philadelphia did likewise in 2006. In fact, more than one team has made the journey in seven of the 15 seasons since 2001.


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Granted, NFL teams only have to leapfrog three division opponents, compared to four in MLB, five in the NBA and a minimum of six in the NHL, and all NFL worst-to-firsts aren’t created equal. But it goes to show that cities like Washington can keep hope alive against all logical expectations and sometimes be rewarded.

The 2003 Kansas City Chiefs and 2009 New Orleans Saints won their respective divisions after finishing with 8-8 records the year before. That’s far less impressive than the sweeping U-turn Miami made in 2008. The team was 1-15 under Cam Cameron in 2007, starting Cleo Lemon, Trent Green and John Beck at quarterback, but the following season, coached by Tony Sparano with Chad Pennington taking snaps, the Dolphins went 11-5.

More typical is the increased win total Washington just generated, from four in 2014 to nine this season. That’s the same spread we witnessed the last time Washington went bottom-to-top, from 5-11 in 2011 to 10-6 the next year.
The 2012 playoffs went horribly wrong, but that’s not always the case for teams making quantum leaps. Sometimes the reaches dizzying heights.

The 2001 Patriots and 2009 Saints won Super Bowls one year after last-place finishes. The 2003 Panthers won two playoff games and reached the NFC title game. Washington is considered among the long shots to go far this postseason, but Jay Gruden’s team has a puncher’s chance Sunday against the visiting Green Bay Packers and whoever might be next.

Kirk Cousins and offensive coordinator Sean McVay have hit their stride, operating with precision and carving up defenses through passing and play-calling. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Cousins’ primary targets — Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder — have evolved to form one of the league’s most formidable foursomes.

There’s no telling how much further ahead Washington could be if Jackson had not missed the first eight games (minus the first three plays from scrimmage in the season-opener). His speed changes everything for the offense, opening the field for his fellow pass-catchers and giving Cousins a legitimate deep threat. There wasn’t a completion longer than 43 yards through the first nine games; since his return, Jackson has snared three touchdown passes of 56 yards or longer.

Washington fooled us early in the season, touting its commitment to a bruising rushing attack that produced 161 yards and 182 yards in the first two games. That’s back when Cousins was considered more caretaker than gamebreaker. But the passing game has carried the team into the playoffs and given the franchise newfound respect.

A headline on Fox Sports’ website blares “3 reasons why the Washington Redskins can win the Super Bowl.” It lists Cousins, his supporting cast and the “stout front seven” on defense. A Bleacher Report headline says Washington “cannot be overlooked in 2016 NFL playoffs.” In addition to the quarterback and his weapons, the article mentions the precedent of weak-division champs wreaking havoc in the postseason.

Last year, the 7-8-1 Panthers beat the 11-5 Arizona Cardinals. In 2010, the 7-9 Seahawks beat the 11-5 Saints. Just as last year’s results aren’t always relevant to a team’s success the following season, the way teams start a season don’t always coincide with the way they finish.

Washington ended the season with seven consecutive victories when it went worst-to-first in 2012. This year’s team is on a four-game winning streak. It probably doesn’t have another three wins ahead — that would be a ticket to the Super Bowl — but that’s OK.

This team started from the bottom and has room to grow.


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