With one final game left for the Buffalo Bills in a disappointing 2009 campaign, the focus now shifts to one of the most important offseasons in Bills history. The first step came back in November with the firing off Dick Jauron after the team’s pathetic 42-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
There are sure to be many, many more steps along the path to rebuilding. If you’re feeling a sense of hopelessness about this team, you’re probably not alone. It’s unknown how long a complete turnaround could take (let’s hope it’s somewhat faster than evolution), but a few teams have shown the Bills that it can happen rather quickly and unexpectedly if done properly.
Take for instance the Bills opponent last Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons were a complete mess in 2007, on the field and in the public eye. The franchise quarterback, Michael Vick, was embroiled in dog fighting allegations and was later sentenced to 23 months in prison. Head coach Bobby Petrino resigned a day after his team was blown out by New Orleans 34-14 on Monday Night Football and shockingly was introduced as the head football coach at Arkansas that same day. Petrino didn’t even bother to tell his players face to face that he was resigning; he left a note in each locker of his players telling them he was leaving.
So the star quarterback went to jail, the head coach went running back to college football and the Falcons were left with a public relations disaster to clean up. There was no face of the franchise. There were more questions than the Falcons had answers for. But in the offseason, Atlanta underwent a tremendous makeover. The Falcons found a new general manager in Thomas Dimitroff, who was responsible for spearheading the overhaul. His tasks were simple: find a new head coach, find a new quarterback and make the Falcons relevant again following their disastrous 4-12 mark in 2007.
Dimitroff hired Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith. Smith took the Falcons from the outhouse to the penthouse in just one year, producing an 11-5 mark in 2008. Smith was named AP NFL Coach of the Year, taking the Falcons on a seven-win swing from 2007. What’s more impressive about Smith is he didn’t the luxury of a Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. He did it with a rookie quarterback and first time starting running back.
Atlanta drafted quarterback Matt Ryan third overall in the draft in 2008 and become the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Ryan was the first quarterback since Peyton Manning in 1998 to throw for 3,000 yards in a season. Ryan threw for 3, 440 yards and 17 touchdowns, while finding instant chemistry with receiver Roddy White. White enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2008, posting career marks in receptions (88), receiving yards (1,382) and touchdowns (7).
Former San Diego running back Michael Turner was brought into the fold by Dimitroff. Turner, who served as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup, was thrust out of Tomlinson’s shadow and into the starting role in the Falcons backfield. Turner finished second in the league in rushing with 1,699 yards. He had a franchise-best 17 touchdowns, earning his first Pro Bowl trip and finishing second in the MVP voting.
Miami was a bigger train wreck than Atlanta. The Dolphins went 1-15 in 2007, playing some of their worst football in franchise history under coach Cam Cameron. Miami was in need of a thorough house cleaning, basically starting over from scratch. What would follow in the wake of going 1-15 was improbable and remarkable. The Dolphins hired Bill Parcells as their executive vice president of football operations. Parcells hired former Dallas Cowboys offensive line coach Tony Sparano and drafted Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long with the first overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Parcells also signed former Jets castoff quarterback Chad Pennington.
The Dolphins went 11-5 and were AFC East champions in 2008, a year removed from a one win season and the first pick in the draft. Long quickly established himself as one of the premier young tackles in football. Pennington revitalized his career throwing 19 touchdowns. The Dolphins unleashed the Wildcat formation. Joey Porter, who was signed from Pittsburgh, led the NFL with 16 ½ sacks. It all led to the Dolphins winning their first division title since 2000.
Sparano proved he wasn’t just a puppet with Parcells pulling all the strings behind the scenes. He brought back passion, discipline, accountability and respectability to South Beach in just one short season. Miami became just the second team in NFL history to improve their previous season’s win total by 10 games. A little luck goes a long way, too. Miami reaped the benefits of New England losing Tom Brady to a season ending knee injury the first game of the season.
Both Atlanta and Miami made the playoffs in 2008. Both teams lost on Wild Card Weekend; the Falcons lost to Arizona and Miami lost to Baltimore. That’s hardly the issue here. To go from desperate and depressing seasons one year to division titles and playoff berths the next is truly astonishing. These two teams have established successful blueprints on how to go from rags to riches. Understand that for every Atlanta or Miami there’s an antithesis, like Cleveland or Detroit. They haven’t figured it out yet despite numerous attempts to right their respective ships.
It may seem improbable, but it’s far from impossible. With the right direction, the right hirings and the right personnel, the dark clouds can be pushed away.