Sports Nut

0-16 to 16-0

OK, maybe more like 9-7. But the Detroit Lions can turn things around—they just need to emulate the Falcons and Dolphins.

Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons (left) and Chad Pennington of the Miami Dolphins.

Hey, Lions fans! No need to fret. Sure, your team just completed the worst professional football season of all time, including the CFL, the World League, even the XFL. But this is the NFL, where waiting until next year actually works. Check out the playoff-bound Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons. In 2007, both franchises suffered through near-Detroit levels of decrepitude. Miami was 1-15. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s rookie head coach bailed on the team for the University of Arkansas, and the team’s dog-killing star quarterback was escorted to Leavenworth.

One season later, the Dolphins and the Falcons are preparing for the postseason ball while the ballyhooed Dallas Cowboys, the even more-hooed Brett Favre, and the New England Patriots, who won 18 straight games not too long ago, will have to watch the postseason on their plasma screens. For the benefit of the poor, destitute Lions, let’s run through how the Miami and Atlanta shipwrecks got salvaged. The bullet points: leadership, astute drafting, quarterback smarts, improved line play, good health, and a dose of well-deserved luck.

The NFL is a top-down league, and owners have more influence than in other sports. In Arthur Blank and Wayne Huizenga, the Falcons and Dolphins are run by a pair of men who inserted their egos into team operations, found out the hard way it was a mistake, and backed off this season to let a football man run the show. Bill Parcells, a master renovator who should have his own show on HGTV, was the first choice of both teams. Atlanta thought it had the Tuna signed, but Parcells wiggled free and headed for South Florida instead. Atlanta settled for a canny personnel man from the Parcells tree, Thomas Dimitroff, late of the Patriots’ omniscient scouting department. Both men set about remaking their organizations to prize toughness, accountability, and smarts.

In a league where players have such short careers and are so prone to injury, shrewd drafting is essential. It’s no coincidence that both teams’ personnel men hit it big with their first picks in 2008. Jake Long, a massive offensive tackle, was taken No. 1 overall by Miami. While the Dolphins’ use of the Wildcat formation has gotten the most attention, Long and his mates on the offensive line were the biggest reason why the Dolphins’ running game has taken off. Matt Ryan was a risky selection for Atlanta at No. 3, with many pundits and fans feeling the Falcons were reaching for a replacement for Michael Vick. But Atlanta hit the jackpot—Ryan is Peyton Manning Jr., a sharp, strong-armed quarterback who can make all the throws but doesn’t force the action.

The Dolphins, too, found themselves a quarterback. Chad Pennington fell into Miami’s lap after the Jets’ shotgun marriage with Favre, and the smart, savvy leader has spent the season showing New York that they chose poorly. Like Ryan, Pennington is extremely risk-averse. While Favre led the league in interceptions, the Jets’ old quarterback threw a mere seven picks; as a result, Miami led the league in turnover margin, with 17 more takeaways than giveaways. Another—more underrated—talent that Ryan and Pennington share is ball-handling expertise. Both guys are exceptional at faking to backs, holding linebackers for that all-important second, and making defenses wonder just who has the ball. Pennington’s mastery was well known; Ryan’s slick hands have been revelatory.

Along with their new QBs, both Atlanta and Miami brought in new coaches. Mike Smith and Tony Sparano have a lot in common. Neither one was a particularly hot name (see Steve Spagnuolo this year) or a reheated old head coach. Smith and Sparano were well-respected line coaches—the guys in charge of the most anonymous, most important personnel groups in the NFL. It’s probably not a coincidence that Miami’s and Atlanta’s offensive and defensive lines surged to the top of the league. While sack differential doesn’t get the same publicity as turnover differential, it’s just as good of an indicator of winning football games. Miami was +14 and Atlanta +17, both right near the top of the table (Tennessee was an astounding +32). The quarterbacks helped here, too. One of Ryan’s best and most precocious attributes is his ability to throw away balls rather than take sacks. Pennington has been beaten up so badly in his career that he learned the lesson the hard way, but he learned.

On the defensive side, both teams revamped a key weapon—sack artists off the edge. Joey Porter, misused by the Fins coaching staff in 2007, was reborn, amassing 17.5 sacks. John Abraham, who struggled in 2007, rebounded with 16.5 for the Falcons, Both added numerous pressures that forced opposing quarterbacks to dump the ball early, helping their teammates in the secondary.

Generally speaking, teams that make quick turnarounds lack depth—if they had a lot of great players then they wouldn’t have been bad in the first place. Without quality backups, maintaining good health is crucial, and the Falcons and Dolphins took their vitamins. In a season defined by injuries to superstars like Tom Brady, Shawne Merriman, and Osi Umenyiora, Atlanta and Miami were the league’s healthiest teams. Who would’ve thought that Chad Pennington would make it through 16 games? The lack of names on the injury report is a combination of improved conditioning and training staffs, and a whole lot of good luck.

Speaking of good fortune, the random turns of the NFL schedule helped both squads. Of the 16 games each season, half are played on a rotating basis against other divisions. Atlanta drew the mediocre NFC North and the putrid AFC West, and the Falcons went 7-1 in those games. Miami was even luckier, playing the AFC West and the truly awful NFC West, likewise winning seven of eight. The Dolphins also won a “road” game against the Bills in December in a Toronto dome, rather than having to play in the snow and wind of Buffalo.

Giddy fans in Hotlanta and South Beach might not want to hear this, but luck tends to even out. In the last 26 years, only one team, the 1976 Baltimore Colts, has sprung from winning four or fewer games in a season to winning 10 or more the next and then improved again the following season. One need only to gaze toward the wreckage in Cleveland to see what happens when expectations are raised, injuries mount, and the schedule toughens.

A return to earth by either team would help clear a path for a current weakling. That a laughable 2008 squad will turn into a surprise power in 2009 is practically guaranteed. If they draft well (no more wide receivers!), get a QB (Sam Bradford? Matt Cassel?), strengthen their line play, and stay healthy, that team just might be Detroit. The Lions have already taken a huge first step, finally dumping remarkably putrid team president Matt Millen this year. Detroit doesn’t need a bailout, just some smart decision-making and a few bounces to go their way for once.