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Ranking the last-place teams heading into 2012

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By Eric Edholm

It’s always hard to imagine last-place teams turning things around quickly, but it happens nearly every season in the NFL.

In four of the past five seasons, last-place teams from the year before have averaged at least two more victories per team, and the aggregate victory-total improvement the next season was 2.4 games.

The one season that trend did not hold true — 2009, when three teams had worse records and only one was more than two games better — it still delivered us the fairytale Saints going from last place in 2008 to winning it all the next year. (An aside: How long ago does that feel now?)

Of the 40 last-place teams over that stretch, 29 of them improved their records the following seasons, only eight had worse records and two had the same win total as the year prior.

Nine of those teams made the playoffs, nearly two per season. Nineteen finished at least 8-8.

So the point is, it happens: Last-place teams make improvements — sometimes significant ones — more often than not.

With that in mind, here’s one man’s rankings of the last-place teams from 2011 in reverse order of likelihood to make the biggest improvements this season:

8. Vikings (2011 record: 3-13)

There’s a lot of room for improvement coming off the worst season in franchise history, which gives them a chance to earn four or more victories this season. But they have an uphill climb with a brutally tough division, a green roster and personnel changes in the trenches. Plus, with the recent trouble with two of their best players — WR Percy Harvin threatening to hold out and RB Adrian Peterson getting arrested — it hasn’t exactly set a tone of focus for this team that has lost its way after being in the NFC championship game a mere 30 months ago. The talent level appears higher, and the more time QB Christian Ponder gets, the better off he should be after not having an offseason a year ago. The Vikings do have games against fellow 2011 last-placers with the Colts, Redskins, Buccaneers and Rams, so there are chances to win games. If they can take down one divisional opponent (they were 0-6 vs. the NFC North a year ago), the Vikings should be able to best their ’11 mark … barely.

Percent chance of improving their record in ’12: 30
Percent chance of making the playoffs in ’12: 5

7. Colts (2011 record: 2-14)

Maybe the best thing they have going for them, in terms of this study anyway, is the fact that they won only two games. Adding Andrew Luck isn’t an instant cure-all, but he adds talent and legitimacy to a quarterback position in Indy that sorely lacked it a year ago. Plus, he was in a similar position when he took over as starter when Stanford was coming off a four-win season; by the time he left campus, they were a national-title contender. The Colts’ turnaround might be on a similar three-year track, and there will be plenty of ugly this season. The defense was largely ignored in the draft and free agency, and new head coach Chuck Pagano will need time to implement his system. Right now, the thought of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis taking their hands off the ground is a bit frightening, as is trotting out the personnel they have in the secondary. Although the division is not a killer, the Texans proved themselves as strong front runners, and the Titans and Jaguars have good defenses and young quarterbacks with promise. There are a couple of winnable games on the roster, but also some real killers. Winning three or four games might not feel like a ton of progress, but it would be a step forward.

Percent chance of improving their record in ’12: 35
Percent chance of making the playoffs in ’12: 5

6. Browns (2011 record: 4-12)

They might have been higher on this list had they won fewer than four games, but there is legitimate encouragement on the horizon with the drafting of RB Trent Richardson and QB Brandon Weeden, both of whom are in line to be instant-impact players. Many forget (or never realized) that this defense ranked fifth in points allowed and might have been even better had the run stopping not been so spotty. Still, there are questions on both sides of the ball. NT Phil Taylor is out indefinitely, LB Scott Fujita is facing a three-game suspension, and the defensive depth is a real concern. Weeden’s arm looks good, and his maturity will serve him and the Browns well early on, but he needs his playmakers to rise up to the challenge and provide something of a downfield threat. Plus, the division is a bear, and the Ravens and Steelers don’t appear to be sinking fast. It’s hard to imagine this team making the postseason in the loaded AFC North, but the Browns should improve. The question is whether it will be reflected in the win total.

Percent chance of improving their record in ’12: 35
Percent chance of making the playoffs in ’12: 10

5. Rams (2011 record: 2-14)

Like the Colts, winning two games means the Rams have almost nowhere to go but up. And they have two very important ingredients — a proven head coach and a quarterback with talent — towards achieving that end this season. Jeff Fisher took over a rudderless Oilers team in the mid-1990s and made it a perennial contender. He also turned around a Titans franchise that struggled after the departure of Steve McNair, Eddie George and Jevon Kearse and revived that team into a winner again. This is Fisher’s challenge with the Rams, who have won two or fewer games in three of the past four seasons and have cycled through five coaches (including interims) since 2005. QB Sam Bradford has had some moments early in his career, but health remains a concern. Who he’ll be throwing too also stands as a mystery, and the durability of RB Steven Jackson and the play of the offensive line are also unknowns. The NFC West remains a bit light, although the 49ers’ emergence has been a game-changer. If Bradford stays on the field and the defense, which was bolstered heavily through the draft and free agency, improves we could be talking about a five- or six-win team by season’s end, even if they are a ways away from contending.

Percent chance of improving their record in ’12: 50
Percent chance of making the playoffs in ’12: 10

4. Buccaneers (2011 record: 4-12)

We’ve seen coaching changes kick-start organizations that fell off track, and Greg Schiano’s no-nonsense style might provide an immediate boost. He has a franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman, who was given too much power and leeway last season and took a nosedive statistically. Even modest improvement in his performance will give some kind of lift. This was a 4-2 team a year ago that lost 10 straight following an upset of the Saints in Week Six, and the Bucs’ defense allowed no fewer than 31 points in the final five games. And though that unit should not collapse as quickly as last season’s model, there remain worries, including the recent arrest of CB Eric Wright, the injury to DE Da’Quan Bowers (who could be out until midseason or longer) and the status of DT Brian Price, who has been mourning his sister’s death. But with an improved run game (witness the additions of rookie RB Doug Martin and OG Carl Nicks) and some breakout candidates on both sides of the ball (DT Gerald McCoy, DE Adrian Clayborn and WR Arrelious Benn, among others), the Bucs should be better. The Saints’ horrific offseason doesn’t hurt matters, but a tricky schedule awaits.

Percent chance of improving their record in ’12: 60
Percent chance of making the playoffs in ’12: 15

3. Redskins (2011 record: 5-11)

The Redskins’ longest rushing play last season was 39 yards, and they had exactly two (two!) pass plays that went for 50 yards or more. Their third-longest pass of the season came on a trick play from Brandon Branks to Santana Moss for 49 yards. The team needed offensive juice — badly — and addressed it with rookie QB Robert Griffin III and some help at receiver with Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. That should help a ton. Griffin could be the league’s Rookie of the Year, and the Redskins clearly believe he can and will help now; otherwise they never would have traded three first-round picks to get him. He’ll have time to get assimilated into the NFC East, with only one divisional game in the first nine contests, and the schedule has some soft spots (four last-place teams). When you consider that the defense is in pretty good shape and that the Redskins beat the Giants twice last season and lost three other divisional games by one score, the chances for a bump is there. But RG3 still must prove himself amid sky-high weekly hype, the pressure of playing in D.C. and in a division that remains a gauntlet.

Percent chance of improving their record in ’12: 65
Percent chance of making the playoffs in ’12: 35

2. Chiefs (2011 record: 7-9)

If the Chiefs do nothing better than get better health this season, they should be better. Losing S Eric Berry, RB Jamaal Charles and TE Tony Moeaki by Week Two last season, and later having QB Matt Cassel go down, drove a stake into the season. Don’t scoff at Cassel completely; he had helped right the ship after an 0-3 start and was playing better before his season-ending injury. Having a full season with WRs Dwayne Bowe, Jonathan Baldwin, Steve Breaston and Dexter McCluster, plus Moaki at tight end, should make for a steadier offense. Plus, the team made some underrated additions through free agency (ORT Eric Winston, RB Peyton Hillis), countered for the loss of CB Brandon Carr (signing Stanford Routt) and might have found an anchor on defense in NT Dontari Poe. Playing in the wide-open AFC West means the Chiefs have a chance to take the division a year after finishing a mere game back, but winning seven games in 2011 means they have to win a lot of games to improve in the standings in ’12.

Percent chance of improving their record in ’12: 70
Percent chance of making the playoffs in ’12: 45

1. Bills (2011 record: 6-10)

If the Bills do not win more games, then something is wrong. They added two top pass rushers in Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, drafted two potential rookie starters in CB Stephon Gilmore and OLT Cordy Glenn and have quality players returning at running back, on both lines, in the secondary and on special teams. The Bills’ final seven games are against teams that finished .500 or below last season, and lest we forget that they started out 5-2 a year ago and were the toast of the league before collapsing in losing eight of the final nine. A lot of it had to do with poor QB play as Ryan Fitzpatrick cooled off following a hot start, but injuries also played a significant role. The pressure now is on Fitzpatrick and head coach Chan Gailey to at least compete with the Patriots in the division and fend off the pesky Jets and Dolphins to make a run at the postseason. There’s no question that’s the goal this season, and it’s reasonable, especially with the healthy return of RB Fred Jackson, C Eric Wood and DT Kyle Williams. The young core of talent is there, and some sort of improvement is almost a certainty.

Percent chance of improving their record in ’12: 85
Percent chance of making the playoffs in ’12: 50

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