Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Making The Leap

The NFL is unlike any other American sport when it comes to parity. Each season sees at least one team, who finished last in their division the year prior, make a run to the playoffs. This is almost a guarantee it happens so regularly. The key is to figure out who it is going to be. Finding 'that team' is rather tricky and almost entirely luck. Popular 'that teams' of the past season or two include Jacksonville, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Houston. The Texans are assured of being selected as someone's sleeper team this season. That is even more of a sure thing than having a 'that team.' However, Houston does not fit my qualifications. After all, they went 9-7 last year; they were too good.

To be a true sleeper pick, a team had to have finished last in their division the prior season, or won fewer than 5 games. This had to be a baaad team. So everyone who likes the Bears as their sneaky 2010 team, forget it. They weren't bad enough last season. Go out on a limb for once.

Before we find out The sleeper team of 2010, let's take a look back at how we got here. In 2005, the Philadelphia Eagles finished last in the NFC East with a record of 6-10. Just a year later, they leapfrogged everyone and finished first at 10-6. 2005 also saw the New Orleans Saints at a putrid 3-13. Yet, just a year later, they too jumped from last to first and won their division going 10-6.

In 2006, both Washington and Tampa Bay finished last in their respective divisions. The Redskins won 5 games and the Bucs only 4. The next season, each team went 9-7 and made the playoffs. Oddly enough, 2006 to 2007 also saw the Cleveland Browns make a huge jump in the standings going from last place at 4-12 to 10-6 the following season. Yet, because of a stiff year of competition, 10-6 wasn't quite good enough for a playoff spot.

2007 was the start of perhaps our two best jumps in recent years. The Atlanta Falcons held a record of 4-12, which was good enough for last place in their division. (Are you noticing a pattern?) The next season, the Falcons leaped to 11-5 and secured a wild card berth. In the same time frame, the Miami Dolphins topped those Falcons. In 2007, the Dolphins had the worst record in the league, 1-15. However, just one year later, they topped the AFC East and made the playoffs, going 11-5 in the process.

Now during 2008, the Cincinnati Bengals finished just half a game out of the basement, going 4-11-1. In 2009 though, they topped their fellow AFC North rivals, winning the division at 10-6. In a feat of feats, the Saints make this list again, this time in more grand fashion. 2008 saw them finish last in the NFC South, yet at a respectable 8-8. However, as we all know, last year they jumped to the best record in the conference at 13-3, and went on to win the Super Bowl.

And now we arrive at this season. We have a handful of possible sleepers to choose from for the upcoming campaign. These are our choices, and the only choices. Anyone not on this list does not qualify. If you choose a team not on this list to do well, and they do, no one will care and you will be ridiculed for pretending you actually took a chance on picking something risky. Here are the nominees with their 2009 record, and finish in their division: the Redskins (4-12, last) the Lions (2-14, last) the Buccaneers (3-13, last) the Rams (1-15, last). As for the AFC: the Bills (6-10, last) the Browns (5-11, last) the Jaguars (7-9, last) and the Chiefs (4-12, last). No team qualifies that did not finish last in their division. The Raiders and Seahawks each won 5 games, barely missing the cut.

As you may have noticed, in each of the previous four instances, there have actually been at least two teams that fit the mold of 'that team' status. 2005 to 2006 would have seen three, except the Browns managed to miss the playoffs at 10-6. So remember the rules: a team must go from last in their division, or having won fewer than 5 games, to making the playoffs the following year. Let's break down the choices from least likely to most likely.

St. Louis Rams - Not a chance. Can you even name a single player on their defense? A rookie quarterback with no wide receivers is not a recipe for success. Feel free to draft Steven Jackson in fantasy though. I know I will.

Buffalo Bills - Come on. Literally their best offensive player is a slightly disappointing bust. Lee Evans is a good player, but because of the team he's been on, you have to consider him a bust of a pick. He has never been able to put together back to back 1,000 yard seasons. Nor has he ever caught double digit touchdowns. Yet I find it hard to believe he is not just as good as breakout stars DeSean Jackson and Sidney Rice. The only thing holding him back is the name on the front of his jersey.

Detroit Lions - Get serious. They have a couple really talented, young players, but not much besides that. And really talented does not immediately translate to really successful.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers - You have to be happy that Josh Freeman got so many reps last season. What would make Bucs fans happier though, is if Josh Freeman wasn't their starting quarterback. I figure the defense will be closer to old form this season than they were in '09 however.

Cleveland Browns - Josh Cribbs alone puts this team ahead of Tampa Bay. What puts them behind all the remaining teams is the rest of their roster. Joe Thomas is really good. So, umm, there's that. Shaun Rogers was really good about six years ago.

Jacksonville Jaguars - This will be a popular team to pick as making the leap in 2010. However, they are a popular pick every year, and frankly, it seems they are getting worse. I thought David Garrard, after his stellar 2007 campaign, would start taking next steps, yet he has seemed to just level off. The defense has been disappointing as well. Long gone are the days of Henderson and Stroud dominating the middle of the trenches.

Washington Redskins - I assume this will be the most likely choice for those analysts out there. Obviously bringing in a star like McNabb will do that. However, I never really thought quarterback was their biggest problem. Jason Campbell always seemed serviceable to me. And although serviceable quarterbacks aren't winning titles, they can make the playoffs if the rest of the team is good. The fact is, the Redskins don't have a running back on their team in his prime. They don't have a wide receiver in his prime either. It is very likely that Chris Cooley is their most reliable offensive weapon. The defense is good. There is no denying that. However, I don't see them making the worst to first jump in the NFC East. The rest of those teams are just too good.

And that leaves my choice, nay THE choice, for sleeper team of 2010: the Kansas City Chiefs. They were a popular pick a few years back to make some noise and it never materialized. However, now that everyone is counting them out, it will be their time to shine. This team isn't great. Obviously. If they were, they wouldn't be on this list or have gone 4-12 last season. Yet I can see some signs. They were pretty good last year at running the ball, ranking 11th in the NFL in yards/game, and they should be even better this year. With the addition of Thomas Jones, and just having Jamaal Charles know he'll get lots of carries for once, will definitely propel this team into the top 10 in the NFL in rushing. Their real problem last year was passing and, maybe it's just me, but I still think Matt Cassel can be good. Of course he'll need Dwayne Bowe to get his act together, but Cassel may finally have enough experience. As for the defense, it certainly was not a strength in '09, yet they have some players out there, most notably is Tamba Hali. And as 'people' will tell you, the most important position on a defense is a rush end. So check that off.

I see the Chiefs going 10-6 this season, and making the playoffs for the first time in four years. Feel free to disagree, yet be prepared to be wrong, because I have found and unearthed 'That Team.'

(Image taken from

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