As I was looking at the NFL playoff picture earlier this week, the stories of two teams jumped out at me. Both are examples of another characteristic that differentiates the NFL from any other sport in America. We are barely a month into the NBA season and teams like the Mavericks and Nets are already pretty much done. Similarly, the Braves and Twins were toast before the calendar in the long baseball season even flipped to May. In college football, losing a single game is the end of national title hopes for many teams.
The NFL is a whole different ballgame though. There are two teams this year that are almost unrecognizable from the start of the season. Here is a look at each sudden turnaround.
I was in attendance to watch this team struggle to break 200 yards of total offense in a Thursday night loss in Cincinnati. The loss dropped them to 1-3. At that point, I was not sure they would win another game. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill looked lost and rookie head coach Adam Gase seemed to be in over his head.
A spark on the ground from little known running back Jay Ajayi completely changed this team’s fortunes. Ajayi was not even on the active roster when the season began. He rattled off a string of 100+ yard games and led them on a hot streak.
Even with last Sunday’s blowout loss at Baltimore, Miami still sits at 7-5, and just a game out of the final AFC wild-card spot. Tannehill is a more than adequate starting quarterback when he does not have to make plays all on his own. The ground game of Ajayi has helped control the clock and keep the defense fresh as well.
Whether they make the playoffs or not, Dolphins fans have gone from hopeless to hopeful in about two months. All it took was some very small changes in personnel and philosophy. Again, to see such a dramatic turnaround so quickly in any other sport is extremely rare, but in the NFL, the Dolphins are not the only great turnaround story this year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Quite a few folks thought Tampa Bay may be a pleasant surprise heading into the season. Despite the optimism, a 1-3 start that included a home loss to the hapless Rams seemed to be a death nail for their season.
Unlike the Dolphins, it is difficult to pinpoint the roots of this turnaround, but somewhere along the line everything started to click. The play of young quarterback Jameis Winston stabilized under the guidance of rookie head coach Dirk Koetter. He committed just a few less turnovers and started to carry this team to a few wins, all while dealing with a revolving door of starters at running back.
However, the big story in Tampa Bay is the defense. Over the last three games, the Chiefs, Chargers, and Seahawks have all been held under 25 points. That is as impressive a three-game stretch as you will ever see from a defense, particularly when you consider that the Kansas City game was on the road.
The line backing and secondary groups have some of the most low-profile good football players in the entire NFL. I am talking about guys like Lavonte David and Bradley McDougald.
The Bucs are holding down the last NFC playoff spot. They are also very much alive in the NFC South division race. Much like in Miami, even if Tampa Bay does not make the playoffs, this season has to be considered a massive step in the right direction.
Turnarounds in the NFL can be just as quick and dramatic in the other direction. The Eagles and Vikings were surprise hot starters this year and are now sinking faster than the Titanic, but that sudden nature is part of what makes the NFL so fascinating. There are a few of these stories every year.
Reversals in NFL fortune can take place over the long haul too. Two years ago, the Raiders flirted with going winless. They are now legitimate Super Bowl contenders behind Derek Carr. The Broncos were 4-12 in 2010 before John Elway came back into the picture as an executive. They have not missed the playoffs since.
So, if you like where your team is at, enjoy the view while it lasts. If you are an unhappy fan, all it takes is a few good moves to get things going in a good direction. Even the Browns will be good someday… I promise.