In professional sports, year to year, no league lends itself to drastic swings in team performance more than the NFL. In the NBA, the only thing that swings things drastically for an NBA team in one year is trading for or signing a big star. In Major League Baseball, teams that get to the top generally stay there because of market size and long term contracts.
The NFL, with short careers and a league whose players are operating under largely short term deals (outside of big marquee stars and most starting quarterbacks) and where injuries are RAMPANT, oftentimes sees as much as 50 percent turnover in the roster of playoff teams from year to year. In fact, oftentimes, one of the two Super Bowl participants misses the playoffs altogether the following season. (What up, Rams!)
There are ALWAYS a few Cinderella teams every year. It's how the late commissioner of the league back in the '80s, Pete Rozelle, dreamt up his best version of the NFL when he was running it. He wanted parity, and he got it. Here are just a few examples from the last couple seasons:
New York Giants, 4-13 in 2021 to 9-7-1 in 2022 (made playoffs, went 1-1 in playoffs)
Detroit Lions, 3-13-1 in 2021 to 9-8 in 2022 (missed playoffs in final weekend of the season)
Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-14 in 2021 to 9-8 in 2022 (made playoffs, went 1-1 in playoffs)
Philadelphia Eagles, 4-11-1 in 2020 to 9-8 in 2021 (made playoffs, went 0-1 in playoffs, made Super Bowl in 2022)
Cincinnati Bengals, 4-11-1 in 202 to 10-7 in 2021 (made playoffs, went 3-1 in playoffs, lost in Super Bowl)
It's also not completely out of the question to see teams go from worst to first in their respective divisions, as displayed by the Jaguars in the season denoted above. Who will the Cinderella team (or TEAMS) be in 2023, because the one thing we know — it will happen.
If we take 11 losses as the threshold for a team to be considered an empirically bad to very mediocre (at best) football team, here are the Cinderella candidates for 2023:
Las Vegas Raiders 6-11
Los Angeles Rams 5-12
Denver Broncos 5-12
Indianapolis Colts 4-12-1
Arizona Cardinals 4-13
Houston Texans 3-13-1
Chicago Bears 3-14
Can the Houston Texans be this year's "worst to first" Cinderella? Let's look at what the "best case scenario" is for each of these seven teams, and see how feasible the "best case scenario" is for each of them, since that's what it will likely take:
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
Jimmy Garoppolo stays healthy all season, and Patrick Mahomes gets abducted by aliens, opening up the AFC West for the first time since Mahomes' reign of terror began in 2018.
CHANCES OF BEST CASE: 6 percent
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Matthew Stafford is able to stay healthy all season, Aaron Donald reclaims his throne as best defensive player on the planet, and Geno Smith and Brock Purdy turn back into pumpkins.
CHANCES OF BEST CASE: 23 percent
Sean Payton is the real deal, he restores Russell Wilson to near-elite QB status, and the defense is for real again. Oh, and Patrick Mahomes gets abducted by aliens.
CHANCES OF BEST CASE: 17 percent
Anthony Richardson is an average quarterback in his rookie season, and Jonathan Taylor resolves his differences with the team, giving them an elite running back for 13 games.
CHANCES OF BEST CASE: 18 percent
Kyler Murray gets healthy, Jonathan Gannon is way smarter than he is cool, and.... never mind. This is a disaster.
CHANCES OF BEST CASE: Negative 341 percent
C.J. Stroud is an average NFL QB as a rookie, the defense takes a DeMeco Ryans-sized step forward, and the offensive line stays healthy all season long, as the other three teams in the division all backslide. Texans go 9-8 and win the division.
CHANCES OF BEST CASE: 15 percent
Justin Fields becomes a competent passer to go with the insane ground game he found a season ago. All the free agency money they spent works out. Minnesota and Detroit turn out to have been vast overachievers in 2022.
CHANCES OF BEST CASE: 22 percent
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