Ready For An Encore Performance?

Winning is important. Perhaps more so in the NFL than any other professional sport. With just 16 games on the annual slate, teams cannot afford to lose, especially in today’s modern climate that continually asks not what you have done for me, but what you have done for me lately.

When a team improves (i.e. it beings winning) it immediately captures the attention. Everybody is watching to see if one winning season can turn into another, or if that season of glory is merely a blip on the radar.

Sometimes teams bounce back from an improved season and achieve success for the long term.

The Dallas Cowboys secured a winning record for the 16 years after posting a 7-7 record in 1965. The San Francisco 49ers tallied a 3-6 record in the strike-shortened 1982 season before reeling off 16 consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins. The 2000 New England Patriots were 5-11 before posting 12 straight winning seasons. Some teams turn things around for the long term.

But for every tale of a rise to supremacy, there comes a story of a team that merely flirted with success before tailing off once more.

After eight losing seasons, the Atlanta Falcons went 10-6 in 1991 before losing another three consecutive seasons. After four straight losing seasons, the 1994 Cleveland Browns won 11 games and made a postseason appearance, only to post a losing record in each of the next four seasons. As coincidence would have it, the 2002 team (9-7) that broke that trend would go on to post another four losing seasons, while the 2007 winning season (10-6) was followed by five (and counting) losing seasons. Perhaps the most impressive (albeit for the wrong reasons) streak belongs to the Arizona Cardinals, who posted a 9-7 record in 1998, the team’s only winning season from 1985 to 2008.

Some teams simply whiff at the chance of long-time improvement.

We’ve taken a look at the five teams that registered the most improved record in 2012 and established whether or not these teams have a chance to repeat their success or will go the way of those teams that simply bother the sporting consciousness for one year before diving back into mediocrity, or worse.


Indianapolis Colts

2011: 2-14 | 2012: 11-5 | Improvement: +9

With nine wins more than the previous season, Indianapolis proved to be the most improved team of 2012. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances surrounding this particular ascent to glory.

Prior to 2011, the Colts had won seven of eight division titles (2003-07, 2008-10), never winning fewer than 10 games in a season. Then came Peyton Manning’s injury and the subsequent ‘Suck for Luck’ campaign that was almost thwarted by two late-season wins. So, with Luck at the helm, the Colts went on to win 11 games and book a playoff berth. Now, can they do the same this year?

Pros: the Colts face the league’s third easiest strength of schedule this season, thanks in part to division rivals the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans looking set for another dismal year … The signing of Ahmad Bradshaw will add some punch to a running game that ranked 22nd in the league last year, and will divert some of the attention away from Luck … With his cancer in remission,  head coach Chuck Pagano will be on the sideline for a full year, which should *bring some stability to the team.

Cons: the Colts lost (or chose not to pursue) veteran DE Dwight Freeney to free agency this summer, which may not be a problem on the field – the team drafted Florida State’s Björn Werner in the first round – but does mean the Colts lose a leader … *There’s no denying the team bonded with their ‘CHUCKSTRONG’ movement last year, which means there could be a let-up in emotion this season … Will it be a case of the sophomore jitters for Luck? … The Miami Dolphins, St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs all figure to be improved, and all appear on the Colts’ schedule.

Verdict: The Colts’ schedule is tougher than the numbers suggest – only 10 opponents finished with a worse record last season – so winning 11 games again, not to mention booking a return trip to the postseason, looks unlikely.


Minnesota Vikings

2011: 3-13 | 2012: 10-6 | Improvement: +7

Undeniably the Cinderella story of last season, the Vikings went from three-win disaster zone to 10-win playoff team. Adrian Peterson made a lot of headlines as he rushed for 2,097 yards, camouflaging a lot of the Vikings’ weaknesses in the process. Can be expect the same again?

Pros: Nobody really expects the Vikings to be postseason-bound, so once again they’ll be playing will little pressure, which certainly makes things that tiny bit easier … The team still has AP and he has the potential to have another season like last, where he ran for 24 percent of his 8,849 career rushing yards … the club signed Matt Cassel at (backup) quarterback, which could be a good and bad thing.

Cons: The Vikings waved goodbye to two of their top three receivers, trading Percy Harvin to Seattle and releasing Michael Jenkins, bringing in veteran Greg Jennings and rookie Cordarelle Patterson … QB Christian Ponder remains an unfinished product and with Cassel on the bench, we could be looking at our next quarterback controversy … The scheduling gods hate the Vikings; Leslie Frazier’s side faces trips to the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, , Dallas and Seattle, all games that will be tough to win.

Verdict: Consider last season a (positive) blip on the Vikings’ ECG. Read back those seven road games – the eighth is against the Detroit Lions for the record – and tell me you see the club winning 10 games. Minnesota will be lucky to get out of 2013 with an 8-8 record.


Denver Broncos

2011: 8-8 | 2012: 13-3 | Improvement: +5

Despite making a postseason appearance in 2011, the Broncos were still one of the most-improved teams of 2012. Of course, that 2011 playoff appearance came off the back of an 8-8 season in which no team from the AFC West deserved a postseason berth. The addition of Peyton Manning revamped the Broncos, who finished tied with Atlanta for best record in the league. Will the Denver steamroller keep on rolling in 2013?

Pros: The Broncos somehow managed to get better on offense this offseason, adding Wes Welker to an already prolific receiving core of Demaryius Thomas as Eric Decker (that’s 3,852 combined receiving yards from a year ago) … Peyton Manning thrived in his return from injury and with no questions about his health this season, he could have the best season of his career … Wisconsin RB Montee Ball could be a second round steal as he replaces the departed Willis McGahee in a ‘running back by committee’ system … The Broncos face a .430 strength of schedule, the easiest in the league.

Cons: Losing DE Elvis Dumervil was tough, particularly under the circumstances in which it happened … After 2012, the Broncos will feature a big fat target on those bright orange jerseys, with the ‘lesser’ teams looking to snatch an upset … An improved Kansas City side might be cause for concern, although probably not this season.

Verdict: Backing any team to win 13 games in the NFL is generally frowned upon, but that schedule and Manning’s history – he’s recorded three 13-win seasons in his last five – makes this a smart bet.


St. Louis Rams

2011: 2-14 | 2012: 7-8-1 | Improvement: +5

The Rams were horrible in 2011. A year later, not only did they resemble a team, they resembled a team on the way up. Jeff Fisher returned the franchise to respectability in his first season; what can he do in year No. 2.

Pros: Fisher brought stability with him to the Midwest, something the Rams’ organization desperately needed; his presence alone allows for improvement … The Rams had a solid offseason, signing low-profile guys like Jake Long and Jared Cook, and importantly, avoided bringing in big contracts for little reward.

Cons: The Rams face a .539 strength of schedule – tied for second toughest in the league – but even worse, the side faces a .613 road schedule, the toughest out there … The team lost WR Danny Amendola to free agency and the incoming West Virginia duo of Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey may take a season or two to replace him … RB Steven Jackson’s departure for Atlanta means second year backs Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead need to step-up; Pead is suspended for the opener following a substance abuse violation …  The on-going uncertainty regarding the Rams’ future in St. Louis could prove an unwanted distraction.

Verdict: While the Rams are certainly on the way up, winning seven or more games could be tough with so many new components taking the field and a relentless schedule. All it takes is knocking-off the 49ers and/or Seattle Seahawks to set the cat amongst the pigeons though.


Washington Redskins

2011: 5-11 | 2012: 10-6 | Improvement: +5

For the first time since 1999 the Redskins finished as the NFC East champions, winning 10 games for only the third time in two decades. How much of that lies at the hands of rookie Robert Griffin III is debatable, but the young dual-threat QB certainly altered the Redskins’ fortunes. Washington is perhaps the most difficult team on this list to assess, not because of its personnel but because of the frustratingly inconsistent NFC East.

Pros: Little tinkering means the side remains strong enough to contend for the postseason … The NFC East has proven to be a crap shoot over the past few years, so all four teams – yes, including the Philadelphia Eagles – could escape to victory … All four teams could also self-destruct so as long as Washington stays the course, the opportunity to win will be there.

Cons: How will RGIII hold-up against injuries and rehabs? It’s the question that will determine the entire season … The Redskins have strength of schedule issues: (1) Despite what last year’s number suggest, home games against Chicago, Dallas, NY Giants, and 49ers will be tough, while the Chiefs, and San Diego Chargers could be troublesome; (2) The side’s road strength of schedule is the sixth toughest in the league … What if Mike Shanahan and RGIII really don’t like each other?

Verdict: If the Giants and Cowboys play up to their potential, Washington will be relegated to 8-8 mediocrity. If the Giants and Cowboys fall further off the curve, the Redskins have a chance. For the sake of it, let’s say the Redskins are in trouble this season.

Next week will take a look at those teams that suffered a down year in 2012 and see what their chances of improvement are.

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