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How do teams bounce back? (Part 1)

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There are recent examples of teams having awful seasons and then having great seasons one year later. How did they do it? And, more importantly, did the Chargers do the things in the off season that the other teams did to improve themselves?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Ground Rules

Starting with the 2010 -€” 2011 season cycle and concluding with the 2014 -€” 2015 season cycle, I identified teams that were 5 -€” 11 (or worse) in the first season and improved to 10 -€” 6 (or better) the next season.  There were seven teams in that period that went from "awful" to "really good" by bettering themselves with five wins or more in the course of one off season.  Not every team on this list was able to make the playoffs in their comeback season with a 10-6 record, but most did.

TEAM

YEARS (RECORDS)

Games+

Point Differentials

Indianapolis

2011 (2-14): 2012 (11-5)

9

-187 | -30     (+150)

Washington

2011 (5-11): 2012 (10-6)

5

-79   | +48    (+127)

Minnesota

2011 (3-13): 2012 (10-6)

7

-109 | +31    (+140)

Kansas City

2012 (2-14): 2013 (11-5)

9

-214 | +125  (+339)

Philadelphia

2012 (4-12): 2013 (10-6)

6

-164 | +60    (+224)

Arizona

2012 (5-11): 2013 (10-6)

5

-107 | +55    (+162)

New York Jets

2014 (4-12): 2015 (10-6)

6

-118 | +73    (+191)

CHARGERS

2015 (4-12): 2016 (?)

?

-78   |  ?

This was a high-level review.  I took a look at the starters for the two years, leading passer in both years, significant players (regarding tackles, sacks, and passes defended) on defense for both seasons, the strength of schedule, and any change in coaches or systems.  If there was any other factor that looked like it materially contributed to either the crappy season or the comeback year, I commented on that, too.

What I was looking for was any common threads in these turnaround seasons.  Why would I do this?  For the same reason I did the autopsy on the 2015 season; to evaluate if there is a reasonable basis for optimism or pessimism for us Bolt Fans going into 2016.

I suspected a common thread in these situations and saw it among 5 of the 7 cases of a dramatic turnaround.  There were also six instances in which the seven teams shared another significant change between the bad season and the significant improvement next year.

Let's start with the most dramatic improvements.

The Colts 2011 & 2012

"Suck for Luck" was the 2011 battle cry.  In a manner similar to the Wayne's World Suckut®, they sure did suck!  The plan itself worked out the way the Colts' fans hoped it would, though.

The team began 2011 with an aging Peyton Manning on IR and many experts predicting that he would retire after getting off season neck surgery.  The Colts relied on various QB's that year and all of them were horrible.  This was an old team, with bad QB's, that had to play an above average strength of schedule (SoS).  They were equally crappy playing on both sides of the ball; finishing 28th in both scoring and scoring allowed.

The team changed radically in the offseason.  A new head coach was brought in.  Luck was taken as the 1st overall pick and started all 16 games in 2012.  Both sides of the roster saw wholesale changes, as they tried to get younger and more athletic.

There are some fascinating things about this team:

Offensively, they improved from 28th to 18th in scoring.

Defensively, they improved from 28th to 21st in points allowed.

Despite being on the "below" side of average, they went 11-5, outperforming their expected W-L record by four wins.

Their offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, coached the team for most of the season.

There were five new starters on offense and a similar number on defense.

The defense changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4 system.

This is a perfect example of a team that was an overachiever; there was no statistical dominance, but a team that did "just enough" to win.  There is that situational football thing I was talking about not too long ago.  They got a wild card slot and lost the game.

The 2012 Colts are a case study in how fast a rebuild can achieve success in the NFL.  I also can't remember seeing a team with a negative point differential in the season won more than nine games.  This team was a true anomaly and not just for the bounce back season.

Kansas City Chiefs 2012 & 2013

Romeo Crennel coached his first full season with KC in 2012.  It was his last.  The team played horribly, even the defense, which was loaded with talent that most GM's would have given a body part or two to have.

Sure, the offensive line was not all that good, and the QB combo of Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn was just plain awful.  (Often forgotten in the general below-average-to-poor play of Matt Cassel was that he did QB a 10-6 KC team that made the playoffs in 2010.)  The O-line problems still do not excuse finishing dead last in the league in scoring offense and a defense that finished 25th in the league in points allowed.

That offseason saw some changes.  The two largest ones were a new Head Coach (Andy Reid) and a new QB (Alex Smith).  The offensive system was changed.  A new defensive philosophy was installed.  Some additions to the offensive line were made, including the investment of the #1 overall pick on a left tackle that (so far at least) has not been the dominating force he was expected to be.

With the change at QB, move to a West Coast type offense, two new starting o-linemen, and some new supporting cast members, the Chiefs' offense rampaged through the league in 2013.  They finished 5th in total scoring.  The defense, which (mostly) stood pat regarding starters, improved to 6th in the league in scoring allowed.  The team went from losing games by 13 points to winning them by 8.  Of all of the turnaround teams reviewed, statistically, this one was the most dramatic.

SoS accounts for a small part of the bounce back.  The Chiefs had a 2012 schedule that was below average strength (-0.7).  After finishing dead last in the AFC West, the SoS for 2013 was -1.7.  There were very few personnel changes, but there was a new QB and entirely new coaching staff.

Comparisons

These two teams made the largest improvement in wins out of the seven that fit my ground rules.  The common factors with the two teams were new coaches and new QB's.

What did they not have in common?  Indianapolis made more changes to starters than the Chiefs, and it showed.  KC started 9-0 in their comeback year; Indianapolis initially went 2-3.  Indianapolis had the more dramatic SoS change, going from .4 to -2.8.  Indianapolis overachieved, with the season point differential, their predicted record was 7-9.  KC was simply overwhelming in 2013 and matched their expected win target.

Keep Andy Reid and Bruce Arians in mind for Part 2 (to be published tomorrow), as they are both involved in the stories of Philadelphia and Arizona.  We'll also look at the Jets in Part 2.  We'll conclude with a review of Washington and Minnesota in Part 3, along with a summary of what we learned and a comparison of our favorite team to the other 7.