Which new regime will take its team from last to the playoffs?
With Buddy Nix being eased into semi-retirement this week in Buffalo, the NFL in 2013 will now have eight new general managers on the job to go along with the eight new head coaches who have been hired since the close of the regular season. All told, the league saw 10 teams make a change at either the top of its front office or the top of its coaching staff, with seven of those going with an entirely new decision-making tandem, depending on how you choose to quantify the Chip Kelly-Howie Roseman remodeled power structure in Philadelphia's post-Andy Reid era.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the change occurred at the bottom rungs of the league, with six of the NFL's eight last-place teams -- Arizona, Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Kansas City and Philadelphia -- hiring a new head coach and installing a new top personnel decision-maker.
Let's take a mid-May look at those six and project their overnight turnaround possibilities in 2013, based on their current talent level, their divisional competition and the strength of the positive vibes generated by the fresh starts they've made. After all, Washington, Minnesota and Indianapolis were all playoff teams in 2012 after enduring last-place finishes and finishing a combined 10-38 the year before. So miracles do still happen on an annual basis in the NFL, and chances are decent that at least one of these teams will execute the cellar-to-postseason maneuver. Here's how we handicap the nowhere-to-go-but-up bunch:
Kansas City Chiefs
All you need to know about the state of the Chiefs roster is they sent six players to the Pro Bowl, becoming the first team to ever accomplish that despite totaling fewer than than six victories. And now, with an upgrade at the game's most pivotal two spots in quarterback Alex Smith and head coach Andy Reid, there's no reason Kansas City can't dream big this year. Oakland and San Diego don't scare anyone in the AFC West, and Denver's tough closing schedule (four of its last six games are on the road) could mean the Broncos take a step back in relation to their sterling 13-3, No. 1 seed regular-season of a year ago. This much I'm confident of: The Kansas City team that went from 4-12 in 2009 to 10-6 and a division title in 2010 had a lot less going for it than this year's Chiefs squad.
For starters, Eagles believers probably know the NFC East is an equal opportunity division and has been for quite some time. All four teams have won the division once in the past four years, and the last team to repeat as champions were the 2003-04 Eagles. It doesn't take 12 or 13 wins to claim the East, either. The most recent three division champs went 10-6 or 9-7, so it's not a mountain that can't be scaled in one expedited burst, as the Redskins just proved. There's so much change underway in Philly, and that usually requires an acclimation period of sorts and enduring the baby steps phase of the rebuilding process. But Chip Kelly doesn't really strike us as the patient type, and if he can find a hot hand at quarterback, solidify the offensive line and shore up that sieve-like secondary, the Eagles have the skill-position weapons to win with. This isn't a club facing a three-year slog back to contention.
Stop us if you've heard this one before, but so much of the Bills' hopes are tied up in not getting beat by their own quarterback. If rookie E.J. Manuel can follow the trend set by most other first-round passers since 2008, delivering more than expected early, Buffalo has the skill-position talent and potential on defense to be a surprise wild-card contender in the AFC. But if Manuel isn't ready and Kevin Kolb resembles an injury-prone version of Ryan Fitzpatrick, it'll probably be more of the same misery and mediocrity that Buffalo fans have known since Doug Flutie took his cereal box and went home. The Bills have been an early season tease more than once recently, but with three home games in September, there's fodder for another fast start and maybe some mojo-building under new head coach Doug Marrone.
I'm convinced better days are ahead for the Browns, but I'll give you the three biggest reasons 2013 probably isn't going to produce the end of their 10-year playoff drought, tied for the second-longest in the league behind Buffalo: Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Cleveland's division is simply devoid of a soft touch, and even if you view the aging Steelers as being on the descent, the Browns can't count on automatic wins in any of their six AFC North games. Until that dynamic changes, it's hard to find math that adds up to a Cleveland playoff run.
There's the making of something pretty good on defense for the Browns, and with new coordinator Ray Horton, Cleveland won't have to score 30 points to win. But the offense remains a weapon-needy work that's very much in progress, and there's probably too much initial hope being placed in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's and new head coach Rob Chudzinski's ability to transform Brandon Weeden (or Jason Campbell) into an upper-half-of-the-league quarterback.
You can like a lot of what the Cardinals accomplished this offseason on the coaching, front office and roster-building side and still not be able to make a legitimate case for them to leap-frog the 49ers">49ers, Seahawks or Rams in the NFC West standings. And therein lies the problem: You can't make the playoffs as a last-place team in the NFL. It's mathematically impossible because there are only two wild-card clubs in each conference.
I can see Arizona being obviously improved, finishing in the seven-win range, and playing its division mates tough. But the Cardinals don't have the firepower to match what San Francisco, Seattle or St. Louis can put on the field this season, and adding the below average Carson Palmer at quarterback only rates as an upgrade because Arizona was almost comically outmatched at the game's most crucial position last year.
There's no illusion of instant success or a quick-fix mentality in place with the Jaguars' new leadership team of general manager Dave Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley. That was obvious when Jacksonville ignored the quarterback position in the draft and opted for smart, cornerstone pieces like offensive tackle Luke Joeckel and safety Johnathan Cyprien with its first two picks. It's going to resemble and unfold along the lines of an old-fashioned building program with the Jaguars, and job one in Jacksonville in this year's draft was to repair a secondary that had become a glaring weakness. As he proved in Seattle, Bradley knows how to win with a defense that's strong in the back. But it's also entirely correct to frame this as the last year the Jaguars can afford to enter the season with a question mark at quarterback. Either Blaine Gabbert blossoms in 2013, or it's over for him in Jacksonville. If Chad Henne beats him out for the starting job, next spring will be all about finding the Jaguars' future franchise arm.