Which 'Futile Four' NFL Team Will Be the Last to Play in a Super Bowl?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystFebruary 4, 2014

Which 'Futile Four' NFL Team Will Be the Last to Play in a Super Bowl?

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    With their 43-8 win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seattle Seahawks became the 19th different team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy as NFL champions.

    Nine more teams have at least been to the NFL's biggest game, even if things didn't turn out as planned.

    That leaves four teams. Four NFL clubs who have yet to so much as see the mountain, much less climb it.

    They are the NFL's "Futile Four," the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars.

    However, as the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts have shown in recent years, it doesn't take long to go from doormat to playoff contender.

    So, which of these teams are the closest to doing that, and which are furthest away?

    Most importantly, who is going to be the NFL's version of the last kid picked for dodge ball, the 32nd team to play in the Super Bowl?

    Let's take a look.

Detroit Lions

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    Playoff Appearances (since 1970): 10

    Conference Championship Appearances: 1 (1991)

    Last Playoff Appearance: 2011 (Lost in Wild Card Round)


    After more than two decades of futility, the Detroit Lions appeared to be headed in the right direction in 2011. Quarterback Matthew Stafford topped 5,000 yards through the air, and the Lions won 10 games for the first time since 1995.

    However, the Lions backslid badly in 2012, winning only four games. At the midpoint of the 2013 campaign, the Lions appeared headed for their first division title since 1993, but a 2-6 finish knocked them out of playoff contention and cost Jim Schwartz his job.

    Now, new head man Jim Caldwell is tasked with getting a talented but underachieving Detroit team back into the playoffs.

    There's a lot to like, especially on offense.

    Stafford has had his issues over the past two seasons, but the fact remains he's still been very productive. Even after five years in the league, Stafford's all of 25 years old.

    Throw in superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson, running back Reggie Bush and an improved offensive line, and the Lions have the firepower to be among the NFL's elite offenses.

    The real challenge faces new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

    Talented (and highly paid) though he may be, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. This time, as Brian Manzullo of the Detroit Free Press reports, it's allegations that Suh continually tested Schwartz's authority as head coach.

    Establishing a culture of discipline needs to be priority No. 1 for Austin and Caldwell. After that comes fixing a secondary that finished 23rd in the NFL in pass defense in 2013.


    Why the Lions Will Be First

    Detroit is by far the best offensive team of the "Futile Four." While Johnson and Bush aren't young, they aren't exactly old, either. The team also has a solid front seven, anchored by Suh and linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy.

    If the Lions can add a complementary receiver and upgrade the defensive backfield, they'll be well on their way, but it's improvement from Stafford that will be pivotal to a Super Bowl run.

    With that said, Detroit's the most stable team of this group at the NFL's most important position by a country mile, so it has to be considered the front-runner to leave first.

Houston Texans

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    Playoff Appearances (since 1970): 2

    Conference Championship Appearances: None

    Last Playoff Appearance: 2012 (Lost in divisional round)


    The Houston Texans are the youngest team on this list, having only been in existence since 2002. However, entering 2013, the Texans looked to be headed the right way, labeled a leading Super Bowl contender coming off back-to-back AFC South titles.

    Things started off OK, with two straight wins to open the year.

    The Texans wouldn't win again the rest of the way.

    Everything that possibly could go wrong did en route to a 2-14 finish. Injuries mounted on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Matt Schaub pick-sixed his way onto the bench and likely out of town. Head coach Gary Kubiak literally collapsed at halftime as his team collapsed around him.

    Now Kubiak is gone, fired after the season and replaced by Bill O' Brien. He'll probably be joined by the rookie quarterback the Texans select with the first overall pick in May's NFL draft.

    In short, winds of change are blasting through Houston at hurricane force. If the Chiefs and Colts are examples of how quickly an NFL team can be turned around, then the 2013 Houston Texans stand as a cautionary tale as to how quickly one can all fall apart.


    Why the Texans Will Be Second

    The 2013 debacle and the hole it created at quarterback aside, there's a fairly significant talent gap between the Lions and Texans and the other two members of this sad little club.

    On offense, rookie DeAndre Hopkins showed promise of being the complement to Andre Johnson at wideout the Texans have been seeking for years.

    There's a decision to be made at running back, where Ben Tate is a free agent. Arian Foster's big workload the past few years manifested itself in injuries in 2013, but if Tate walks, the Texans can replace him from a deep draft class at the position.

    However, it's on defense where the table is truly set, and there it all begins and ends with end J.J. Watt.

    Watt's numbers may have been down in 2013 relative to the year before, but he was still the NFL's best 3-4 defensive end by a staggering margin, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    In fact, PFF named Watt the NFL's Most Valuable Player for the second straight year in 2013.

    The return of a healthy Brian Cushing at inside linebacker will be a huge boost as well, as Houston's interior defense disintegrated rapidly after Cushing tore his ACL last season.

    Remember, this is a team that was 22-10 from 2011-2012, winning a playoff game each of those seasons.

    If the team hits on a franchise quarterback in May, the Texans could be back in it sooner as opposed to later.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Playoff Appearances (since 1970): 6

    Conference Championship Appearances: 2 (1996, 1999)

    Last Playoff Appearance: 2007 (Lost in divisional round)


    Given how bad they've been the past few years, people tend to forget that the Jacksonville Jaguars once went on quite a little run.

    Over a four-year stretch from 1996-1999, the Jaguars went 45-19. The team made the playoffs all four seasons, coming within one win of the Super Bowl twice.

    Of course, since then it's been a different story.

    The Jaguars haven't posted a winning season since their last trip to the playoffs, going 6-26 over the past two years. Former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert has been a train wreck at quarterback. Fellow first-round pick Justin Blackmon's next suspension (and the end of his time with Jaguars) feels almost inevitable.

    The hits kept right on coming in 2013. Second overall pick Luke Joeckel went down for the year before his rookie reason had even really started. The team lost its first eight games (most in blowout fashion) en route to its third straight year with double-digit losses.

    Add in a second straight (and all but certainly final) down season for running back Maurice Jones-Drew, and it was another ugly season for the Jags.


    Why the Jaguars Will Be Third

    Make no mistake, this is not a situation that's going to be fixed overnight.

    The Jaguars need a quarterback. And a running back. And wide receivers. And...

    There are more than a few holes on that roster, and it's going to take time to fill them.

    The Jaguars have called for patience in that regard. General manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley made it clear from the beginning of last season that they were building for the long haul.

    Then something strange started happening during the second half of last season.

    The Jaguars started winning football games.

    The team went 4-4 over the season's second half. A young defense anchored by veteran linebacker Paul Posluszny improved steadily.

    By season's end, the Jaguars were being mentioned without snickers.

    There's still a ton of work to be done. The Jaguars pick third in the NFL draft in May, and it will be interesting to see if the defensive-minded Bradley will lobby Caldwell to draft South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney over a franchise quarterback.

    The Jaguars aren't going to the playoffs in 2014, but under Bradley, the Jaguars appear headed in the right direction for the first time in a long time.

Cleveland Browns

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    Playoff Appearances (since 1970): 11

    Conference Championship Appearances: 3 (1986, 1987, 1989)

    Last Playoff Appearance: 2002 (Lost  in Wild Card Round)


    It wasn't always like this.

    From 1946-1955, the Cleveland Browns played in an eye-popping 10 straight championship games. The Browns won the NFL title in their first year in the league in 1950, setting off a string of three championships in six years.

    The Browns would again win a championship in 1964, led by running back Jim Brown.

    Since then, there's been heartbreak in every form imaginable.

    The "Red Right 88" playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders in 1980. Three losses to the Denver Broncos in four years in the the AFC title game in the late 1980s, punctuated by "The Drive" and "The Fumble."

    Then, just when Browns fans thought things couldn't get any worse, former team owner Art Modell yanked the team away altogether, moving it to Baltimore.

    Where they won two Super Bowls.

    Since the Browns reentered the NFL in 1999, it's been more of the same. There have been two winning seasons and one playoff appearance. In each of the last six seasons, the Browns have lost at least 10 games.

    The team completely overhauled the front office after Jimmy Haslam bought the team in 2012, but it didn't take long for head coach Rob Chudzinski to fall out of favor. He was fired after a single season, leading one disgruntled player to tell NFL Network's Michael Silver "This organization is a joke."


    Why the Browns Will Be Last

    Many will argue that Cleveland should be higher on this list than Jacksonville.

    After all, the Browns have one of the NFL's best offensive tackles in Joe Thomas, and the league's best center in free agent to-be Alex Mack.

    Wide receiver Josh Gordon led the NFL in receiving yards in 2013. Cornerback Joe Haden is one of the top young players at his position.

    Tight end Jordan Cameron showed great promise in 2013. So did safety T.J. Ward, who recaptured his Pro Bowl form.

    And yet the Browns won four games in 2013.

    For the umpteenth time since the Browns returned in 1999, the team will look to draft its franchise quarterback this year. With five picks in the first three rounds, the Browns are in great position to make big strides quickly.

    Of course, we said the same thing two years ago, before the Browns used the extra first-round pick they got for passing on Julio Jones to draft Brandon Weeden.

    Fans will point out that was a different regime.

    You know, not the regime with the owner, under federal investigation for ripping off customers, who just canned a head coach after one season.

    And that's the rub. It hasn't mattered who owned the team, ran it or coached it.

    If there's been a decision to be made in Cleveland over the past 15 years, the Browns have made the wrong one.

    And to this point, the new regime has offered exactly zero indication this time is going to be any different.