Dec 15, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) reacts after the Chiefs rushed for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Chiefs defeated the Raiders 56-31. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

How Does Chiefs Cinderella Story Translate to Playoff Victories?


The Kansas City Chiefs are the “Cinderella Story” for the 2013 season of the National Football League. It seems that every few years, one of these teams comes along. Many call it the “worst to first” phenomenon. Sometimes there’s a big shake up on the team or within the front office that predicates the change. Sometimes, the change came a year prior, but it took a full season for the pieces to fall into place. Sometimes — like this year — teams who should be winning are losing and teams that should be losing are winning.

The truth is, sometime we can point to one specific event that changed a team’s course going into the season following a down year, but sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

Was it the strength of schedule? Was it the new head coach or the new quarterback? What was the cause of the complete turn around?

In going back twenty years — to the 1993 season, because that was the last time the Chiefs won a playoff game and it seemed like a nice round number — I took a look at each team that finished dead last in the league and then what their record was the following year. I also looked at the win differential which was the amount of wins from one year to the next. Take a look:

Year

Worst Team

Rec

Rec Next Yr

Win Differential

1993

Cincinnati Bengals

3-13

3-13

0

1994

Houston Oilers

2-14

7-9

5

1995

New York Jets

3-13

1-15

-2

1996

New York Jets

1-15

9-7

8

1997

Indianapolis Colts

3-13

3-13

0

1998

Indianapolis Colts

3-13

13-3

10

1999

Cleveland Browns

2-14

3-13

1

2000

SD Chargers

1-15

5-11

4

2001

Carolina Panthers

1-15

7-9

6

2002

Detroit Lions

3-13

5-11

2

2003

SD Chargers

4-12

12-4

8

2004

SF 49ers

2-14

4-12

2

2005

Houston Texans

2-14

6-10

4

2006

Oakland Raiders

2-14

4-12

2

2007

Miami Dolphins

1-15

11-5

10

2008

Detroit Lions

0-16

2-14

2

2009

St. Louis Rams

1-15

7-9

6

2010

Carolina Panthers

2-14

6-10

4

2011

Indianapolis Colts

2-14

11-5

9

2012

Kansas City Chiefs

2-14

11-3*

9*

*Still two games to play in 2013 season

After breaking down these numbers, we see that the Chiefs could potentially tie the best team turnaround in a single season in the last 20 years. Currently, the 1999 Colts and 2008 Dolphins own 10 game improvements on a season following being the worst team in the NFL. If the Chiefs should win on Sunday against the Colts, they would tie that number as they would have 12 wins after posting just 2 a year ago. Plus, with still one more game to play, they would have the opportunity to break that record and post a season with 11 more wins than last year; something not done in at least the last 20 years.

Once I figured out the numbers over the last 20 years, I wanted to see how many of those teams that posted turnaround seasons actually made the playoffs. What I found was, that only four teams who have finished in last place one season have made the playoffs the next  year. The 1999 Colts, the 2004 SD Chargers, the 2008 Dolphins and the 2012 Colts all punched tickets to the post season the year after they finished in last place.

In trying to figure out what the catalyst for that turnaround was, I looked to see if there were any significant changes made to the team the year after they finished in last place.

Obviously these teams all received — at least initially — the first overall pick in the following year’s draft. That’s what happens when you finish in last place. But, as most fans know, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a single season turnaround. In fact, with our first team, the 1999 Colts, it took them two years.

mannindraftThe 1997 Colts finished with a 3-13 record. With the first pick in the following year’s draft they took Peyton Manning and the rest is history. Well, almost. Manning didn’t perform as well as many hoped and the Colts finished his rookie year with the exact same record as the year before. It wasn’t until the next year that the team had a 10 game turnaround and went to the playoffs. In fact, their 13-3 record earned them the #2 Seed in the AFC and they faced the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round. They were then beaten by the Titans who were on their way to a Superbowl victory.

 

Those Chiefs fans who have been around for awhile likely remember the ’04 Chargersa-rivers042504 team. Drafting Eli Manning with the first pick, the slower Manning brother declared that he wouldn’t play for the Chargers, apparently fearing that he would turn into another Ryan Leaf. Thus, the Chargers made the “Trade of the Century” with the New York Giants who drafted Phillip Rivers just two picks later. Not only did the Chargers give up the younger Manning sibling, but a king’s ransom in draft picks. In fact, the Chargers only picked two players that year.

However — at least at first — the trade seemed to be worth the cost. The Chargers went from “worst to first” that year and found themselves in the middle of an eight game turnaround. Not only did they make the playoffs that year, but they actually hosted a Wild Card game against the New York Jets. The Jets wouldn’t be denied, though and quickly dispatched the Chargers before moving on.

FGSparanoAs mentioned before, the 2008 Dolphins had quite the turnaround from their previous season, tying the 1999 Colts with a 10 game upturn. The big story in Miami that year was the hiring of head coach Tony Sparano and the drafting of quarterback Chad Henne. That year, everything seemed to click as the Dolphins went from winning only one single game in 2007 to posting an 11 win season in ’08 and securing the #3 Seed in the AFC. However, once Wild Card weekend rolled around, the Baltimore Ravens came to town and ended the Dolphins hope at post season glory.

The final “rags to riches” story from the last 20 years of football was on the field last luckseason. After losing quarterback Peyton Manning to a neck injury for the entire 2011 season — and trying a new strategy in the NFL…quarterback by committee — the Colts posted the league worst record of 2-14. The secured them the first overall pick in the draft that was heralded by every draft expert around as the strongest quarterback class in 10 years. It would seem that lightning could strike twice for Colts owner Jim Irsay as he found his franchise in the exact same position as he did 13 years earlier: In need of a franchise quarterback and in possession of the first pick.

The Colts grabbed the best quarterback of the class, Andrew Luck from Stanford and the rest is history. Where Luck’s predecessor took a full season to figure it out, Luck hit the ground running. He — along with first year head coach Chuck Pagano who spent most of the season in the hospital undergoing treatments for Leukemia and replaced with interim coach Bruce Arians — led the Colts out of the cellar and into relevance once again. The Colts posted a nine game turnaround from ’11 and went to the playoffs. Securing the #5 AFC Seed, they traveled to face the Baltimore Ravens on Wild Card weekend before falling to the eventual Superbowl champs.

In looking at all these teams, I really wanted to take a hard look at their strength of schedule, as that seems to be what a lot of Chiefs detractors have pointed to during this season. Because these four teams all finished in last place, it would stand to reason that they should all have “relatively” easy schedules as they were playing the “last place schedules” as well.

What I found that all four teams discussed had similar schedules, but the Chiefs has been the easiest of the five. The 1999 Colts played teams with a combined record of 89-103 and faced only four teams with winning records. The 2004 Chargers faced the toughest schedule of any of these teams in the last 20 years, matching up with teams who had a combined 100-112 record, with five of them having winning records. The 2008 Dolphins and the 2012 Colts faced nearly identical challenges with the wins and losses of their opponents only differing by a couple of digits — ’08 Dolphins 91-117 and ’12 Colts 93-115. In those seasons, the Dolphins faced four winning teams and the Colts faced five.

So this brings us to the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs. Obviously we know that the main changes that took place in this organization were the

Sep 19, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) talks with offensive coordinator Doug Pederson (left) and head coach Andy Reid (right) during the third quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The Chiefs defeated the Eagles 26-16. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

hiring of head coach Andy Reid and the trade for the Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. In going through the Chiefs schedule, I’ve found that while the “strength of schedule” argument is tiresome and has gotten old this season, there is some validity there. The Chiefs opponents have a combined record of 74-108 with only two games left to play.  The chance of that number coming within even 10 of the next closest schedule — which would be the 1999 Colts — is pretty slim. However, the Chiefs didn’t pick their schedule and they could only play — and beat — the teams on the schedule. And by all rights, those teams should have been a lot better than they were.

Of the Chiefs opponents this year, five — Texans, Colts, Broncos, Vikings, and Redskins — were playoff teams last year.

The more concerning trend I’ve found is not one of the four teams who have gone from worst record in the NFL to playoff team the following year has won a playoff game. All four teams were defeated — whether at home or on the road — and this concerns me.

Everyone in Chiefs Kingdom wants a playoff win, because the Chiefs haven’t had one nfl_a_montana_bl_200since the Joe Montana led Chiefs went to the AFC Championship game following the 1993 season.

Can the Chiefs break this streak? Will the Chiefs “feel good story” from this season translate into a playoff victory for a team — and fan base — that’s been starved for one for longer than many of its fans have been alive?

I guess we’ll all find out soon, in just two short weeks. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Chiefs have the Colts at home for the Arrowhead season finale. One game at a time, boys. One game at a time.

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  • Nicholas Michael Barnes

    We didn’t play the the Vikings this year.

    • Jason Seibel

      You’re right. My mistake. I’m sorry.

      • Nicholas Michael Barnes

        Lol just busting your balls, you’re a good writer.

        • Jason Seibel

          Thanks. I was going through my notes and I think I must have looked at the playoff teams from last year that sucked this year.

  • Gene Haigler

    I think we tie the record this week…break the record next week…and go on to be the first with at least one play-off victory… GO CHIEFS

  • Stephen Allen Purvis

    The first thing I noticed with the teams that did go from last to first… They all DRAFTED a QB to run their offense… Those are all rookies.. Sure their first overall picks.. But they have no real playoff experience… We on the other hand traded for a proven winner.. Well in the last 3 years at least.. Who has came back from a definite against A very good Saints team… I just know wouldn’t have the same confidence in the playoffs if we drafted a QB like the others did

    • Jason Seibel

      That is an excellent point!

    • John Bartram

      On top of that, Alex Smith has taken a beating in his NFL career and handled it with class and professionalism. Different coaches, coordinators, being benched, being booed, etc. It has made him mentally tough and calm and cool QB when it counts.
      He got the right coach, right offense and players and he flourished and STILL got screwed. It’s amazing how often you see SF fans here wishing him well and saying many of those same things.
      I hope the same thing happens to Matt Cassel. There is a good article about him on link from SI to here. I was very happy when the Chiefs got him and though he didn’t live up to his position, in many ways he got screwed too, and always, ALWAYS, handled himself with class. I will always root for him.
      Unless, of course he’s playing against the Chiefs.

      • guest

        Indeed

  • John Bartram

    The Chargers got Phillip Rivers, and the Giants got two Super Bowls out of Eli, though you’d never know from the way he’s playing this year. Yikes!