With NFL franchises opening their facilities again this month, a ray of hope shines in the lockerroom of the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers finished in last place in the loaded NFC South in 2019, which earned them a last-place schedule in 2020. It includes four games against fellow bottom-feeders of a year ago – Arizona, Detroit, Washington and the Los Angeles Chargers.
The NFL implemented a balanced-scheduling format in 1984, which pits first-place teams against fellow first-place teams, second-place teams against fellow second-place teams and so on. Since then, there have been some miraculous turnarounds by cellar dwellers. That ray of hope the Panthers see comes, in particular, from the 1999 Indianapolis Colts, 2008 New York Jets and 2017 Philadelphia Eagles. Those three were among the teams to vault from worst-to-first in a single season.
There have been 226 teams play last-place schedules since 1984 and 164 of them improved their record from the previous season. Forty-seven teams finished with a worse record and another 15 finished with the same record as their last-place season. Thirty-one of those 226 teams went from worst-to-first in winning division titles and another 18 teams qualified for the playoffs as wild cards. Four even went on to win the Super Bowl in their resurrection season.
The most recent was the Eagles, who went from 7-9 in 2016 to 13-3 in 2017, a six-game improvement. The 1999 St. Louis Rams, 2001 New England Patriots and 2009 New Orleans Saints also used a last-place schedule as a springboard to a championship season.
The Rams and Patriots both hoisted the Lombardi Trophy with new quarterbacks that season, Kurt Warner in St. Louis and Tom Brady in New England. The Rams charted a nine-win improvement in their championship season and both the Patriots and Saints improved their records by six games.
The 1999 Colts and 2008 Dolphins both improved their records by 10 games, tops in the balanced-scheduling format era. Edgerrin James won the NFL rushing title as a rookie in 1999, helping the Colts go from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3. The Dolphins added a new coach (Tony Sparano) and a new quarterback (Chad Pennington) in 2008 to improve from 1-15 to 11-5.
In addition to the 1999 Rams, three other teams charted nine-game improvements playing last-place schedules: the 2012 Colts, 2013 Chiefs and 2016 Cowboys. Like the 1999 Rams, the Colts and Cowboys won with a new quarterback – rookies Andrew Luck at Indianapolis and Dak Prescott in Dallas. The Chiefs brought in both a new coach (Andy Reid) and a new quarterback (Alex Smith) in their turnaround season.
The 2020 Panthers have followed the Kansas City script, bringing in a new coach (Matt Ruhle) and a new quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater). Of the eight teams playing a last-place schedule this season, only one other franchise brought in a new coach – Ron Rivera with the Washington Redskins.
Three other 2019 last-place teams could go with rookie quarterbacks in 2020 – Joe Burrow with the Cincinnati Bengals, Tua Tagovailoa with the Miami Dolphins and Justin Herbert the Los Angeles Chargers. All were Top 6 selections in the 2020 NFL draft. That leaves three other last-place finishers who maintained the status quo in returning the same head coach and quarterback from 2019 – Arizona, Detroit and Jacksonville.
There have been 26 seasons in the NFL’s salary-cap era. In 22 of them, a team resurrected from a last-place finish the previous season to a playoff berth the next. History will again be an ally of the eight last-place finishers in 2019.