When picking NFL division winners for 2012 there is a statistic that you must know. There has been a worst-to-first turnaround in nine consecutive seasons. That means a last place team bounced back the following year to win the division. Nine teams finished in last place or tied for last in their division last season and will hope to extend the worst-to-first turnaround to 10 straight years. Which last place team in 2011 can pull this off?
Washington Redskins: The Redskins are an intriguing team. 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III arrives in the nation’s capital with high expectations. Griffin is a threat with his arm and legs, and has a very high upside. If the Redskins were to win the division, Griffin would have to have a rookie season comparable to Cam Newton in 2011. The Redskins have some talent around their quarterback and any running back can run for 1,000 yards under Mike Shanahan. The Redskins will be better this season, but a strong division will keep them out of the playoffs.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings will be another basement dweller if they continue to play and try to develop quarterback Christian Ponder. The 12th pick in the 2011 isn’t ready to succeed in the NFL. Backup quarterback Joe Webb is a better option if the Vikings want to win this season, but it is understandable that Minnesota will focus on their investment. Running back Adrian Peterson is coming off a major knee injury and the Vikings are in a division with three teams who have Super Bowl aspirations. The Vikings will be picking early in the 2013 draft.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Last year the 49ers won their division behind the inspiration of first year coach Jim Harbaugh. This year Greg Schiano is the head coach who is making the transition from college to the pros. Schiano was a great motivator and turned the Rutgers football program into a contender in the Big East. Quarterback Josh Freeman faced a sophomore slump last season and will be eager to rebound in his third season. The Buccaneers improved the offseason by spending big bucks in free agency on wide receiver Vincent Jackson and left guard Carl Nicks. They drafted safety Mark Barron and running back Doug Martin in the first round of draft, and both are likely to start immediately. The Saints don’t have a coach and had a turbulent offseason with the bounty program investigation. The Panthers don’t have a great defense and I think Cam Newton will struggle in his second year. My pick is the Buccaneers winning the NFC South beating out the Falcons.
St. Louis Rams: It will be another long year in the Gateway City for the Rams. There are question marks around the division, but the 49ers should win the NFC West. A leaky offensive line and no big name targets will make it a tough season for quarterback Sam Bradford. Running back Steven Jackson will be asked to carry a lot of the offensive load. New coach Jeff Fischer won’t bring the Rams near the postseason this campaign.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins have a rookie head coach and quarterback. Joe Philbin spent the last four seasons as the Packer offensive coordinator. Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill was named starter by Philbin. Tannehill had an average year in his last season at Texas A&M. The Dolphins have the weakest unit of wide receivers in the league as Davone Bess is the best of the bunch. Miami will finish last in the AFC East.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills fell apart last season and finished tied for last in the AFC East. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick started well, but struggled down the stretch and supposedly was playing injured. Fitzpatrick should be healthy and has a strong running game with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Buffalo made a big free agent splash by signing defensive end Mario Williams to join defensive tackle Marcell Dareus on the line. Buffalo is a long shot to win the division with the Patriots still the class of the AFC East, but they could be in the wild card hunt.
Cleveland Browns: The Browns are starting a 28 year-old rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden who won the job over Colt McCoy. Another rookie joins Weeden on offense in electric running back Trent Richardson. The Browns don’t have many dangerous weapons and have an average defense. In a division where three teams made the playoffs in 2011, it will be an uphill battle for the struggling Browns.
Indianapolis Colts: Another last place team that will get a lot of attention because of their rookie quarterback. Andrew Luck takes over for Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. The former Stanford quarterback has a bright future, but doesn’t have much support around him. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne will be a veteran target and tight end Coby Fleener played with Luck in college. It will take time for defensive-minded head coach Chuck Pagano to install his 3-4 defense and philopshy. The Colts won’t finish last, but the Texans should win the AFC South.
Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs finished a game behind the division winning Broncos in the crowded AFC West. Kansas City has a new coach in Romeo Crennel, who was promoted after doing well as interim coach. Matt Cassel has a important season and must perform well. The Chiefs will get a boost to their backfield as Jamaal Charles returns from injury and Peyton Hillis was signed. The Chiefs have a sold defense that should be better under Crennel. I don’t trust Peyton Manning’s health in Denver and not convinced Carson Palmer is the answer under center for Oakland. I think Kansas City will oust an underachieving San Diego, and join Tampa Bay as the teams that go from worst-to-first.