It truly can be a daunting task to go from worst-to-first in the NFL, but it’s not impossible, and as always, there’s a chance the Falcons are next in line. Finishing last in 2020 earns Atlanta a last-place schedule in 2021, which the league implemented back in 1984. A balanced-scheduling format pits first-place teams against fellow first-place teams, second-place teams against fellow second-place teams, and so on.
It’s unlikely; however, there have been times when teams showed a miraculous turnaround is certainly possible. The 1999 Indianapolis Colts, 2008 New York Jets, and 2017 Philadelphia Eagles are all holders of the “worst to first” title, but they’re not alone.
Of the 226 teams that have played a last-place schedule since 1984, 164 improve their record from the previous season, 47 finished with a worse record, and 15 with the same record. 31 of those 226 completed the worst-to-first feat in winning a division title. Still, more impressively, 18 qualified for the playoffs as wild cards — four of which would become Super Bowl Champions.
The Eagles went from last place in 2016 to 13-3 and first place in 2017 on their way to winning a Super Bowl on the back of Nick Foles. The 2009 Saints, 2001 Patriots, and 1999 (St. Louis) Rams all vaulted themselves to Super Bowl champions from a last-place schedule. Adam Schein of NFL.com ranked the Falcons as the team with the second-best chance — behind the 49ers — to go from worst-to-first among the last-place finishers.
It’s an Artie party in Atlanta, with Arthur Smith taking the reins of Arthur Blank’s team. The Falcons desperately needed a new head coach with new energy. Ever since the 28-3 catastrophe, Atlanta carried a loser’s lament under Dan Quinn. Anything that could go wrong would go wrong. Smith flips the script, coming from a healthy culture in Tennessee that turned around the Titans in recent years. Look what Smith got out of Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown over the past couple seasons. And he inherits some juicy offensive talent in Atlanta.
It appears Julio Jones could be on his way out, but the Falcons have other horses. At age 36, Matt Ryan still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Calvin Ridley‘s one of the best route-runners in the NFL, and he proved his WR1 chops when Julio was injured last season. Rookie Kyle Pitts is a certified freak, and Smith knows how to use tight ends. This unit is going to put points on the board.
Now, if only Atlanta could petition the league to transfer Tampa Bay to another division …
Schein is right; the only thing standing in the Falcons’ way is the defending Super Bowl champions. Tampa Bay re-tooled their team and essentially returns the same roster that won the Lombardi last season. There is always a bit of luck when winning the Super Bowl because of injuries. I could point towards the Super Bowl matchup between the Chiefs and Bucs as an example. Kansas City’s offensive line was decimated by injuries, while Tampa was the beneficiary of some good luck in that area.
With Arthur Smith leading the way, there is a possibility the Falcons overtake Tom Brady and the Bucs atop the division — with some luck, of course. I believe, though their defense is elite, the Saints will regress over the course of the season, and the Panthers are truly an afterthought. It’s a long shot, but the Falcons could be the next member of the worst-to-first club.