What NFL Team Will Emerge as the Surprise of 2009?

Chris DiLeoCorrespondent IApril 21, 2009

DETROIT - DECEMBER 21:  Detroit Lions fans show their disapproval for their teams performance after their 15th loss of the season on December 21, 2008 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. The New Orleans Saints defeated the Detroit Lions 42-7.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Every year there seems to be an NFL team that ascends from the depths of the previous year’s standings and surprises everyone by making the playoffs.

With the NFL draft less than a week away, the anticipation is driving me mad. In the meantime, I have been wondering, who will be that surprise team in 2009?

In order to be considered a surprise team, there has to be unanimous agreement that a team has virtually no chance at making the playoffs.

I am not making any bold predictions on which team that will be, but I feel one of the following teams will succeed in making the postseason in 2009: the Detroit Lions, St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, or Kansas City Chiefs.

My purpose is simply to analyze teams that appear to be in rebuilding mode, or those which tend to get written off as “easy games" on the NFL schedule.

It will be an article discussing the reasons why making the playoffs seems unlikely for each team, rather than offering optimistic reasons why any of them may have a chance to succeed.

To illustrate, let’s take a look back at the last three years.

Last year, both the Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins were surprise teams.

The Dolphins barely managed a victory in their 1-15 campaign in 2007, but astonished everyone by rallying to win the AFC East Title in 2008.

The Falcons suffered a tumultuous year in 2007. Coming off a disappointing 7-9 season in 2006, the Michael Vick fiasco proved too much for the organization to overcome, and they fell to a 4-12 season in 2007.

The Falcons then handed the reins over to a rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, who was supposedly playing behind a shaky offensive line. Expectations were so low, I remember listening to Falcons fans on Sirius NFL Radio saying they were hoping for five wins.

Despite the pessimism of the fans and almost every sports analyst, the Falcons earned a wild card playoff spot, finishing the season at 11-5.
In 2007, it was the Cleveland Browns that astounded everyone.

Managing only 15 wins the previous three years, and having serious quarterback issues to start the year, expectations were are at a bare minimum for the Browns. Yet they finished the season with a very good record of 10-6.

It was only losing a tiebreaker to the Steelers that kept the Browns from winning the AFC North crown. Losing another tiebreaker with the Tennessee Titans kept the Browns from earning the last playoff spot in the AFC as well.

Although the Browns did not make the playoffs, they really shocked the NFL world with their success—enough to make many believe the Derek Anderson to Braylon Edwards connection was going to be one of the new up-and-coming young tandems.

In  2006, it was the Saints’ turn.

After a 3-13 season in 2005, and the devastation and turmoil caused by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints were not given any chance to succeed in 2006.

However, they became the warm-hearted story of the year as they won the NFC South title with a record of 10-6. They went on to fall one game short of the Super Bowl after losing to the Bears in the NFC Championship game.

Now let’s take a look at the upcoming season.

It would seem appropriate to start with the Detroit Lions.

This is an easy choice, being that the Lions are coming off a season in which they became the first NFL team in history to go winless at 0-16. Plus, the Lions have managed only one win in their last 24 games.

They have only made the playoffs nine times in the past 50 years, the last time being in 1999, where they suffered an opening round loss to the Washington Redskins. In fact, their playoff record is a dismal 1-9 in that span.

Since that last playoff appearance, the Lions own just a 40-104 record.

If the numbers do not paint a pessimistic enough picture, the following story really gives an idea of just how much the Lions are expected to be perennial losers.

Never was there a prediction made by an NFL athlete that was mocked more than Jon Kitna saying the Lions would get “at least 10 wins” prior to the 2007 season.

Although a good season, getting 10 wins is not a monumental accomplishment. The fact that there was so much attention and criticism towards Kitna for making this modest prediction indicates what low expectations the sports media has for the Detroit Lions.

After the hot start of 6-2 that year, the Lions seemed unable to handle the pressure of winning. The team busted open at the seams and won only one game the rest of the season.

The Lions' only hope is that a new general manager, a new head coach, and new uniforms can erase the losing attitude in Detroit and bring the team to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

The Oakland Raiders are another team that has struggled for many years.

Since making the Super Bowl following the 2002 season, the Raiders have not had a season of more than five wins. Their record over the last six seasons is a paltry 24-72.

Last season they struggled offensively, ranking 29th in both points scored and yards gained. Their passing attack was virtually nonexistent, ranking dead last in the league with just 148 yards per game.

JaMarcus Russell is a young, developing quarterback with a cannon arm. However, his lack of pass protection and playmaking wide receivers has hurt his progress.

Considering the leading receiver on the team was his tight end Zach Miller—who managed only 56 receptions—it's obvious the Raiders need to give him some help on offense. The leading wide receiver was up-and-comer Johnnie Lee Higgins, who tallied just 22 receptions.

Although the running game has been solid the past two seasons, the Raiders often have to abandon the run because they are always playing from behind.

Their defense ranked 24th in points scored and 27th in yardage allowed. Too often they let opponents take an early lead, then allowed those teams to control the clock by being unable to stop their running attack. The Raiders ranked 31st versus the run, allowing 160 yards per game.

It is seldom pointed out, but I believe a lack of discipline has been the biggest problem in Oakland.

They have had many offensive drives into the opponent's territory stall because of consecutive penalties, which were largely due to some kind of mental lapse. Penalties such as false starts, illegal shifts, or holding on the opposite side of the field when a play is developing can be very detrimental to a team’s drive.

Similar mental errors would occur on defense, such as getting a big stop negated because of roughing the passer or some other personal foul.

New head coach Tom Cable was hired to instill this discipline, but even if he succeeds in changing the attitude in Oakland, there appear to be too many holes to fill for the Raiders to excel in 2009.
Next up, the Cleveland Browns.

After their disappointing 4-12 season last year, there have been grumblings that their 2007 season was a fluke.

The Derek Anderson to Braylon Edwards connection failed to emerge in 2008. Edwards dropped too many balls, and Anderson suffered inaccuracy throughout his starts.

Even the running game took a step backward in 2008.

Jamal Lewis looked rejuvenated in the Browns’ surprise season of 2007, averaging 87 yards rushing per game and scoring 11 total touchdowns.

In 2008, however, Lewis’ totals dropped to 63 yards rushing per game and only four touchdowns. Making matters worse, Lewis will be turning 30 before the season starts.

The Browns are again facing serious quarterback issues. New head coach Eric Mangini has not declared a starter, saying only that it will be an open competition.

Unfortunately for Mangini, the choices are not very enticing. Derek Anderson has been inconsistent, and Brady Quinn lacks experience.

Serious improvement is needed for the Browns offense, being that in 2008 they ranked 31st overall in yards and 30th overall in points scored.

But the problems in Cleveland are not limited to the offense.

Defensively, they were not able to generate any type of pass rush, nor were they able to stop the run, allowing an average of 152 yards rushing per game.

The AFC North is a smash-mouth division. Being able to run the ball and stopping the opponent's running game is imperative if there is any hope of success.

Unfortunately for the Browns, they have been unable to accomplish either task. Perhaps Mangini can rebuild this once proud franchise, but success in 2009 appears unlikely.

The Kansas City Chiefs have also hired both a new head coach and general manager in an attempt to rebuild a struggling team.

Todd Haley is replacing Herm Edwards and has declared he wants to “start from scratch” as he takes over the head coaching role. This puts into perspective the expectations the Chiefs have for 2009.

Veteran Pro Bowl players such as tight end Tony Gonzalez, running back Larry Johnson, and guard Brian Waters have all indicated a desire to be traded.

Apparently they can sense that the team is willing to sacrifice short-term success in order to restructure for the future. As they near the end of their careers, they want a chance to win that coveted Super Bowl ring by playing for a team with the potential to win now.

There is a lot of work for Haley and general manager Scott Pioli to do in getting the franchise back to being a contender.

The Chiefs are coming off their worst season in franchise history and have only won six games the past two seasons.

They ranked in the bottom of the league both offensively and defensively. They have many holes that need to be filled up and down the lineup.

The defense especially needs an infusion of talent. They really missed Jared Allen, as their pass rush generated a mere 10 total sacks last year. Their secondary is average at best, and they can surely use an outside linebacker or two.

Many expect the signing of Matt Cassel to help the struggling offense.

However, in order to maximize his potential, the Chiefs need to shore up positions on the offensive line, especially at center and right guard.

Finding a wide receiver opposite Dwayne Bowe is another need. They did sign free agent Bobby Engram, but at 36 years old, his best days may be behind him. The other wide receivers on the team will certainly not strike fear into their opponents: Mark Bradley, Will Franklin, Terrance Copper, Devard Darling, and Jeff Webb.

While Cassel had some success at New England, it is yet to be determined if he did well as a product of the system, or if he truly has the potential to be a winning starting quarterback in the NFL.

If Pioli can bring in talent to Kansas City as he did in New England, the future may be a positive one for the Chiefs. In 2009, however, the outlook does not appear to be very good.

Finally, we have the St. Louis Rams, who have not had a winning season since 2003 and are 5-27 the past two seasons.

They have been unable to score points, averaging just 16 points a game in 2007 and under 15 points a game in 2008.

Marc Bulger has been inconsistent and often injured. He has only played one full 16-game season in his career. In each of the past two seasons, he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.

Left tackle Orlando Pace is now gone, and this adds further doubts as to how the Rams will protect Bulger, who has been sacked 75 times while playing in 27 games the past two years behind a shaky offensive line.

The backup quarterback is Kyle Boller. Boller never lived up to his potential in Baltimore, despite being given numerous opportunities. He may never become a No. 1 quarterback.

At wide receiver, the Rams could be the shallowest team in the league. They have talented Donnie Avery, but they could use some depth at this position, especially with veteran Torry Holt signing with Jacksonville. Laurent Robinson, acquired from Atlanta, has potential, but is unproven.

Defensively, the Rams need help along the defensive line, middle linebacker, and strong safety. This unit gave up 29 points and 372 yards per game in 2008, ranking 31st and 28th respectively.

New head coach Steve Spagnuolo has a big task in turning around the fortunes of the Rams. He did a wonderful job directing the New York Giants’ defense, but it may take a couple years to acquire and develop talent to turn the Rams' defense into a stellar unit.

There you have it. None of these teams appear to have a chance at success in 2009.

Now the question is, which one will shock the league by rebounding into a successful season and making the playoffs?


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