Every team is not a viable contender
Will the Jets or Redskins become the latest franchise to miss the playoffs one year and earn a Super Bowl berth the next?
Only two seasons before their Super Bowl XXXVIII berth, the Carolina Panthers won just a single contest, concluding the dismal 2001 campaign with a 15-game losing streak. A year later, under rookie coach John Fox, the Panthers won seven times and then, in the recently completed season, fell four seconds shy of forcing a Super Bowl overtime and earning a chance to culminate one of the great franchise resurrections in NFL history.
The lesson for moribund clubs everywhere, in the wake of the remarkable turnaround in Carolina, seems to be that all things are possible now in a league that seems constantly in flux. But are all things really possible for all teams and, in truth, will all 32 of the league's franchises actually report to training camp in five months with the same degree of Super Bowl viability for 2004?
Sorry, guys, but probably not.
At a time when the league ought to consider replacing the Vince Lombardi Trophy with a glass slipper, given the number of upstarts that have appeared in the Super Bowl over the last six seasons, there are still some teams that won't be legitimate fits. For Cinderella to advance to the Super Bowl ball, after all, a team usually has to have put at least one foot forward the previous year on the potholed road back to respectability. Not all upstarts, it seems, are created equal.
And as some Carolina veterans acknowledged during Super Bowl week, the final mile on that road is sometimes more treacherous than the first few steps.
Not only has it been done in the NFL but, in the last six seasons, the ascent from chump to conference champion has been accomplished with some regularity. Five times in the last six seasons, the Super Bowl has featured a franchise that posted a losing record the previous year. Only in Super Bowl XXXVII, when Tampa Bay (9-7 the year before) and Oakland (10-6) faced off, was the streak snapped.
In six of the past eight title games, in fact, the Super Bowl included at least one team that had a losing record the year before. The biggest bounce: St. Louis went from 4-12 in 1998 to a Super Bowl XXXIV championship the following year. That was Year 3 of the Dick Vermeil plan with the Rams and, while St. Louis was last in its division in 1998, there was an underlying feeling the team was on the cusp of a breakout season.
"You have to get to a certain level, a jumping-off point, or just catch lighting in a bottle," said former Atlanta tailback Jamal Anderson, whose power running led the Falcons to a surprising Super Bowl XXXIII berth in 1998. "It's hard to just jump out of the weeds and into a Super Bowl game. You sort of have to be poised to make the move."
It would appear, on first glance and without benefit of a crystal ball to conjure up what kind of personnel moves will be made in the offseason, there are a handful of franchises that had losing marks in 2003 but could make a Super Bowl push in '04. Here is a look at a few teams, all of whom finished with fewer than eight victories in 2003, which might be the Panthers of 2004:
|Fall from grace?|
Here are three teams that could slide a bit in 2004:
-- Len Pasquarelli
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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