Who Will Be the New Fantastic (Almost) Four?

Long-time readers will be familiar with the Fantastic Four category I throw around here.  When I started the old Blue & Silver Report in ’05, I started annual reviews of the pre-season magazines which are released every June, but gave up, because I found they did not account for the incredible churn that goes on year-to-year in the NFL.  If you looked at their pre-season predictions, invariably they took last year’s playoff field, added one “surprise team” and left it at that.

League rules have promoted parity for more than a generation, and if you look at the playoff fields year-to-year, you’ll notice that half the teams that make the post-season one year are replaced the next.  It’s a roughly 50% turnover.

What’s more, most of the playoff newcomers in a given year were losers the previous year.  It’s not just that  on average, six of the twelve playoff teams are fresh faces, but that four of those six were 7-9 or worse one year prior.  Here’s the full list, going back to 1999 — 48 teams have taken the loser-to-postseason leap in thirteen campaigns, 3.7 per year.   The numbers fell off a bit in ’07 and in ’09, when several 8-8 teams make the leap, but last year, five teams jumped from the doghouse to the NFL penthouse, the third time this has occurred since the ’99 season.

So take a good hard look at those seemingly down-trodden teams.  The 4-12ers, the 6-10ers, the 7-9ers.  Think they’re all doomed to another year of disappointment?  Think again.  Some of them have us “experts” right where they want us.

In today’s NFL no team should be counted out in June.  Not one.

Rams:  13-3, 4-12 in ’98;  S.B. Champs
Colts: 13-3, 3-13 in ’98
Redskins:  10-6, 6-10 in ’98

Giants: 12-4, 7-9 in ’99
Eagles: 11-5, 5-11 in ’99
Saints: 10-6, 3-13 in ’99
Broncos: 11-5, 6-10 in ’99

Patriots: 11-5, 5-11 in ’00;  S.B. Champs
Bears: 13-3, 5-11 in ’00
49ers: 12-4, 6-10 in ’00

Titans 11-5, 7-9 in ’01
Giants 10-6,  7-9 in ’01
Falcons 9-6-1, 7-9 in ’01
Browns 9-7,  7-9 in ’01

Rams 12-4, 7-9 in ’02
Panthers 11-5, 7-9 in ’02;  NFC Champs
Seahawks 10-6, 7-9 in ’02
Ravens 10-6, 7-9 in ’02
Cowboys 10-6, 5-11 in ’02

Steelers 15-1, 6-10 in ’03
Chargers 12-4, 4-12 in ’03
Falcons 11-5, 5-11 in ’03
Jets 10-6, 6-10 in ’03

Giants 11-5, 6-10 in ’04
Bears 11-5, 5-11 in ’04
Bucs 11-5, 5-11 in ’04
Panthers 11-5, 7-9 in ’04
Redskins 10-6, 6-10 in ’04

Ravens 13-3, 6-10 in ’05
Saints 10-6, 3-13 in ’05
Jets 10-6, 4-12 in ’05
Eagles 10-6, 6-10 in ’05

Bucs: 9-7, 4-12 in ’06
Redskins: 9-7, 6-10 in ’06

Panthers: 12-4, 7-9 in ’07
Dolphins: 11-5, 1-15 in ’07
Ravens: 11-5, 5-11 in ’07
Falcons: 11-5, 4-12 in ’07

Packers: 11-5, 6-10 in ’08
Bengals: 10-6, 4-11-1 in ’08

Bears 11-5, 7-9 in ’09
Chiefs: 10-6, 4-12 in ’09
Seahawks: 7-9, 5-11 in ’09

49ers: 13-3,  6-10 in ’10
Texans: 10-6,  6-10 in ’10
Lions: 10-6,  6-10 in ’10
Bengals: 9-7, 4-12 in ’10
Broncos: 8-8, 4-12 in ’10

Rafael Vela
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
Rafael Vela

41 Replies to “Who Will Be the New Fantastic (Almost) Four?”

  1. I wonder how really threadbare the Colts are?

    Or more to the point if they just give Luck an average O-line, playing in that division and cross- matched with the AFC East (Dolphins, Bills BARF)  plus getting KC and Cleveland; is it really too farfetched to see them going 7-5 in those dozen games? 

    Now the NFC North will be a beast for them to deal with, but other than that set of games, I think they could be competitive enough to go 8-8 in Luck’s rookie season. Their defense may still be trash but the thing is they’ll be facing a bunch of teams that had absolute garbage offenses last season.

  2. That 2003 New England team really tells a tale to me, though not listed here. 2001 NE won a superbowl. 2002 NE had a bad run defense up the middle and missed the playoffs. 2003 fixes that issue, gets a work horse back, and wins the next two SBs. In 2001 they were a fluke and in 2002 they were what we thought; a fluke of a SB winner. Then in 2003 settling down their run D they come to be viewed as a dynasty

    1. Nitpick: Dillon actually joined the Pats in ’04.

      The one thing I’ll always wonder about the Pats fate is how willingly does a MERC free agent like Harrison jump aboard if they didn’t win that fluke Super Bowl title in ’01?

      1. Bigger question: does Tom Brady ever get a chance to develop if they don’t get the fluke SB title in 01?  A sixth-round pick with an 85.7 passer rating doesn’t usually get to start another season in the NFL, unless he’s wearing a shiny Super Bowl ring.

        The Tuck Rule is the single-most influential play of the last decade.

        1. Amen. Matt Moore had a 87 rating last year; and Miami had such confidence in him they signed David Gerrard and drafted Tannehill.

          The Tuck Rule Game and Miami taking a pass on Bree’s are the two biggest “what if” scenarios in the last decade.

          1. What if revisionist historians ever lament the Cowboys passing on Aaron Rodgers not once but twice?

            I’m just throwing that out there while fully acknowledging that going into that draft Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers were considered such generic interchangeable QB prospects you might as well say they were QB templates.


          Well, the thing is I’ve played that scenario out in my head before
          too. And it seems like a quick reflexive almost automatic response to just
          assume that Brady probably would’ve been the guy shipped out because up to that
          point Bledsoe was indeed THE GUY, THE SUPERSTAR, THE FACE of that franchise. However, I’m not sure it’s the case because would anybody besides the fanbase really
          have been that firmly in Bledsoe’s corner?

          Although I’m no Patsies authority it certainly seemed like the
          ultimate pragmatist Belichick was ready to stick with Brady for the long haul.
          After all, he’s the guy who abruptly cut Kosar mid-season during his failed HC
          stint with the original Browns. So he’s certainly never played (hometown)

          Also speaking of lackluster results AND production, the Pats
          were coming off a 5-11 season in 2000 and Bledsoe hadn’t had an elite passing
          year since ’97 (’98-’00; ratings of 80.9, 75.6 and 77.3; overall TD/INT ratio
          of 56-48 including throwing 21 picks in ‘99.) While this wasn’t quite the video
          game STATS era yet, those were pedestrian-to-pathetic passer ratings; even
          giving Bledsoe the leeway of being a former top overall pick who led that
          franchise to a Super Bowl.  I mean as
          pedestrian as Brady’s 86.5 rating seems now overall his performance and record
          as a starter was far better than anything Bledsoe had accomplished for four years.

          Also they’d only had one playoff win in the four seasons
          following the Super Bowl appearance. Worst of all, after a 6-2 start to the ’99
          season, Bledsoe’s record after that was a miserable 7-19 counting the 0-2 start
          to ’01.  

          Now the only question is would Kraft have caved to the
          pressure from the fanbase? Well, there’s the whole issue of all the megabucks
          the Pats were slated to pay Bledsoe considering he had just signed a ten-year,
          103 million dollar deal in that ’01 offseason.  Hmmmm…..stick with a declining player you owe all
          that money to or give the new guy a shot? On the flipside, throw away the QB of the future and pay all that money to a seemingly declining player who just turned 30. And I realize we’re looking at Brady
          through not only what he ultimately became but the prism of other
          unearthed-type guys like Warner, Delhomme and Romo.

          Like I said, I’m hardly the authority as I sure as hell didn’t
          care about keeping up all too closely with a team like the Pats; especially as
          awful as the Cowboys were in those dark days. So I may be misremembering how
          loyal Kraft was to Bledsoe. But I’m almost certain Belichick had made his mind
          up that Brady was his guy.

  3. Tampa has some very good players on both lines, and are above average elsewhere. If Freeman can step up his game, and I think he will, they win that division. The new coaches will inspire what was already a talented roster there.

    I think Buffalo’s defense will be much improved, and they’ll have enough on offense to end up winning the AFC East. Pats take a step back, Jets step sideways, and Miami is further away than their GM thinks.

    1. Tampa’s an odd team to pin down. There’s no doubt they quit on  Morris. You may be onto something with them.

      But THE BILLS? Honestly, no, they don’t have enough offense. It seems to me they were figured out by November and once teams figured them out their offense was pretty pedestrian when not downright anemic. After their 5-2 start, they scored 161 points over the last 9 games (17.8 PPG.) But that’s not the whole story because even 40 of those came in one game against the Broncos. So they were really a 15 PPG team the second half of the season.

      Now, it’s true they lost Jackson at the midway point but even before that the Jets and Cowboys held them to 11 and 7 in back-to-back games with a fully healthy Jackson to deal with. Even with Jackson, it seems teams had caught up to them by then.

      Let’s not sugarcoat things: Fitzpatrick played like Shitzpatrick after his (and the team’s) white hot 5-2 start throwing 10 TD/16 INT in the team’s last nine games.

      Also I have no idea how the Pats take a step back. I’m sure somebody out there has thought the Pats would take a step back for good as long as there have been folks that think the Cowboys would finally take a step forward.

        1. Oh, I hear you loud and clear on the “anything could and does annually happen” count. But:
          A.) I still don’t see the Pats arbitrarily taking  a step back. For one thing, while I don’t think late bloomer Brandon Lloyd is anything special like a rejuvenated Moss was in ’07, he’ll definitely add something significant to their offense. 

          B.) Denver and SF? Both West divisions are always either straight up crap or close enough to crap. More room to move.

          C.) The ’10 editions of the 9ers and Broncos sucked from end-to-end while the Bills actually got off to a 5-2 start in ’11. Now conventional wisdom chalks that up to losing Jackson but I think there’s more to it than that. You’re comparing teams that were awful making a radical transformation into quality the next season while the Bills were actually a decent team for half of ’11 and awful the other half; the last half. 

          When the bushel of turnovers went away and Ryan Shitzpatrick emerged from the crypt the Bills plummeted back to Earth. Were the 5-2 Bills a team we’ll see for all of ’12? 8-8 isn’t impossible but I think the division title is farfetched.

  4. “In today’s NFL no team should be counted out in June.  Not one.”

    I can’t believe how true this is.  The NFL doesn’t have parity it has mediocrity.  Every single team in the NFL has huge glaring weaknesses that prevent them from being elite.  Likewise every NFL team is a few pieces away from being in contention at all times.  Hell, take the Colts, if they get good play out of Luck and can put together an offensive line around him they’ll make noise in 2013.  The Redskins are a good year from RG3 away from being serious Super Bowl contenders.  

    The Giants last year had a weak offensive line, a patch work (at best) LB corps, and issues at the tight end position.  The Packers the year before had a revolving door at running back and a questionable receiving corps after Greg Jennings.  The Saints before that had a secondary that was questionable against elite WRs, a questionable OL, and a lackluster pass rush. 

    1. “The Giants last year had a weak offensive line, A PATCH WORK (AT BEST) LB CORPS, and issues at the tight end position.”

      Chance Cockburn is exactly why I’m so incredulous that a mere nickel linebacker like Bruce Carter is supposed to be this fantastic missing piece the Cowboys just had to have in the 2nd round because he’s so fab-fab-fabulous.

      Solidifying your strengths is far more important than covering all your bases with niche players.

      1. “Solidifying your strengths is far more important than covering all your bases with niche players.”

        We’re definitely in agreement here.  Every team has weaknesses, they just can’t be Colombo, Alan Ball, Terence Newman type weaknesses.  Other than that every team should probably work on having impeccable strengths and weaknesses that can be balanced by their strengths.  

        As to Bruce Carter, think about how awful Brooking and Bradie were the past two years.  Carter’s a player that gets an absurd amount of hate in Cowboys land.  He’s a freaking rookie, he was by far and away the best special teams player on the team last year and it’d be pretty hard not to be an upgrade over Brooking/Bradie at least in terms of coverage.  He had a torn ACL, no offseason, and had to learn the playbook late.  

        Yeah Brooks Reed and Justin Houston had a better rookie year, well Justin Houston and DeMarco Murray had better rookie years than all the non-Dalton and Reed 2nd rounders, I guess that means that they were all bad picks right?  Wrong.  These guys are rookies there’s plenty of career left for every player in the draft.  Everyone I know who follows UNC or ACC football loves Bruce Carter, they think he was an excellent linebacker in college and there’s really nothing that can prevent him from being a productive professional line backer.  They view him as more of a coverage/playmaking type line backer wereas they view Lee as the thumper.  Yeah he still has to produce, and while you can’t expect a pro-bowl season out of him this year, if he’s even a slightly above average player he’ll still be a big upgrade over Brooking and Bradie.

        1. When O-line guru Callahan coaches up Costa (or ________) and thus justifies passing on an obvious long-term starting center in Wisniewski for Carter back in that ’11 draft, we’ll talk more about it. 

          As it is, nickel linebacker is a hole you can live with way before a hole at center.

          1. Well the hole that Carter wasn’t supposed to be nickel LB, in a 34 there’s two starting ILBs in the past the Cowboys have used Bradie and Brooking for at least one of those roles and they’ve been god awful since late 2009 in Brooking’s case and 2010 in Bradie’s.  So that’s a pretty big hole too.  

            Wisniewski isn’t exactly a slam dunk starter either.  He’s probably better than Costa but that isn’t saying much at all.  He played mostly left guard last year anyways and only started three at center.   This isn’t taking Reggie Bush over Mario Williams.  

          2. Romo’s spleen vs. Rob Ryan’s stress levels and beautiful head of hair.

            As for that other starting ILB spot this season, isn’t it generally considered Connor’s to lose?

          3. “Romo’s spleen vs. Rob Ryan’s stress levels and beautiful head of hair.”

            Hey I agree in general, I wasn’t too satisfied with the OL signings. I wanted Evan Mathis.  My point is that Wisniewski isn’t exactly a proven commodity, he had a pretty weak season this year too and spent most of his time at guard.  There were mocks and pre draft rankings that had Carter as a top 15 pick prior to tearing his ACL.  Coming off a torn ACL and no offseason Carter was particularly hampered by the lockout moreso than most rookies.  You can see healthy guys like Murray, Smith, and Nagy were able to play immediately.  

            The other ILB spot? I think Connor is there for depth and probably to start the first few weeks.  Connor’s had injury issues in the past and it’s not unheard of for 34 teams to use at least 3 ILBs too.  This isn’t Madden, there’s plenty of permutations of player packages and it’s still Carter’s second season.  His first full season healthy and Connor was a cheap signing and a very inexpensive hedge.  

          4. Also I don’t think Romo gets enough blame for taking too many sacks.  Drew Brees has a hair trigger release, granted he had an elite OL last year but in 2010 his OL was okay at best.  Jared Allen was all over his ass all day in the NFC Chip, losing Dwight Freeny hurt the colts pretty badly in the Super Bowl too.  QBs generally don’t get enough credit for avoiding sacks or blame for taking too many.  Perhaps it’s Romo, or perhaps it’s the offense…but either way it’s not all on the offensive line.

          5.  Romo’s no angel. But taking unnecessary sacks isn’t his problem. Overextending plays and not having throw the damn ball away in his repertoire is the problem.

            One thing I refuse to fault him for though is having to be a miracle worker with the opposing rush landing in his lap before the ball is barely even snapped.

    2. Super Saints never failed to score a sh*t ton of points in ’09 (something the Cowboys offense hasn’t done since ’07) thus it allowed their defense to do the one thing they did well; ballhawk because the other team was always in catch-up mode. They’re the ideal example of playing exactly their way and other teams not being able to keep up.

      The Packers receiving corps may have been questionable heading into ’10; since they proved themselves to be deeper and more talented than just about anybody once the season got going and the actual games were played their ’10 receiving corps is/was about as far away from a flaw as you can get. Although they do drop a crap load of passes as they did in the Super Bowl in the Steelers and in last year’s playoff loss to the Giants.

      1. Yeah the Cowboys always seem to have a higher YPG ranking than PPG ranking, perhaps it’s bad red zone playcalling or perhaps it’s just bad special teams and field position.  You pointed out that their D was good at ballhawking, it was…it couldn’t cover to save it’s life but they could ball hawk.  That’s an example, IMO, of a team covering it’s weakness with a strength.  

        As to the Packers receiving corps in 2010 look at their leading receivers, it was Greg Jennings and everyone else that year.  Hell they were better in 2011 even.

        1. I don’t know. They had a 1,300 yard guy in Jennings and three other receivers with 50 receptions in that ’10 season.

          In ’11, Jordy actually took Jennings’ place as the 1,300-yard receiver while Jennings dipped to just under 1,000 yards. Finley was actually healthy last season though while Jones and Driver had pretty much the same numbers as they had in ’10. One thing’s for sure, the likes of Kevin Ovaltine never would’ve gotten on the field for them in any season.

          1. Jesus. Ogletree has 25 career receptions.  Clearly he’s just depth or at best a 4th or 5th WR.

  5. don’t discount the redskins this year …defense is stout…and now they have a QB that is way better than they have had in a long time from the get go ….and he will only get better …they should be feared this year due to the unknowns

    1. I just wonder with RG III what kind of seismic shock it will be for him as a decision-maker competing against NFL defenses instead of Big XII daisies?

      As great as his deep ball seems to be, how much of that was just too easy by virtue of facing Big XII’s thin air defenses? 

      While RGIII will eventually become great, I think teams may get a reprieve this year simply due to how easy RGIII had playing in the Big XII compared to what he’ll face in the NFL and how long it will take him to adjust to the level of competition.

      Once he gets it, and if his accuracy on the deep ball is genuine at this level, you’re eventually looking at a scarier version of Aaron Rodgers.

  6. To make things easier, here’s the list of “loser” options from 2011:

    Wash 5-11
    Minn 3-13
    Car 6-10
    TB 4-12
    Sea 7-9
    StL 2-14
    Mia 6-10
    Buff 6-10
    Clev 4-12
    Jax 5-11
    Ind 2-14
    KC 7-9

    Of that list, I’ll pick Buffalo, Seattle, Carolina, and KC as the likeliest candidates (probably just because they’re the winningest of the losers).  Indy and StL will be better than people think, but I can’t bring myself to pick them.  I also like Mia and TB’s rosters better than some, but I really think the new coaches in both places are very weak.

    1. Carolina, Tamba Bay, KC and Sea I think all will be improved, could easily post winning records and are contenders to make the playoffs, they would be my four

    2. Eh. Carolina, Indy and KC. I’d also say anybody can win that weird NFC West even while I think the 9ers are too solid a team to go right back to 6-10’ville.

        1. The fact that the defense should certainly be able to protect 4th quarters leads may be enough to get them to 10-6.

          The major problem is being matched up against the AFC North. I’ll have to see the Cowboys beat a team like the Ravens or Steelers before I believe they can.

          The NFC South is a hard division to gauge right now. Since I think the Cowboys can only realistically expect to split their own division and against the AFC North that means they’ll need to pretty much run the table against the NFC South.

          1.  I agree that its hard to imagine much better than a split against the NFC East. But I think the Cowboys match up well with the AFC North. The vaunted D of the Ravens and Steelers are not what they used to be. And I can easily see the Cowboys D controlling the North offenses with 8 in the box and letting their newly acquired CBs go man on man against the North WRs. Only Green and Wallace are scary. I’ll take my chances with any other North WR against Carr, Claiborne and Jenkins.

          2. I can’t agree that the Steelers and Ravens D’s aren’t what they used to be. Yes, the Steelers looked old at times and what Tebow did to them was a disgrace. But that’s just one game no matter how shocking the result was.

            But the Steelers and Ravens still ranked 1st and 3rd respectively in points allowed. They should still both easily be top 3-5 defenses next seasons.

          3.  I agree that they still have very good defenses. But when you look at some of the core players on those units: Hampton, Polamalu, Harrison, Reed, Lewis…All of these stars are past their prime. Also factor in that Suggs is out for the year.  So although it is true that they are still good, I don’t believe they are the dominant units that carried their respective teams to superbowls in the past. In other words, I believe the Cowboys can move the ball on these teams and score enough points to win.

          4. The loss of Suggs slipped my mind. His absence will definitely make them a lesser unit.

            I hope they’ve both slipped that far. Also I’m taking into account how hard it was for last year’s Cowboys to score in 3 of 4 division games against the Giants and Eagles; yes, even the one Romo was knocked out of because had he stayed in that game he still would’ve gotten knocked out eventually; except because of an even worse injury. 

        2. I agree we now have better CBs, but pass defense includes a pass rush.  No improvement there, unless our new 3rd rounder can get some sacks as a part time player.  
          I think we’re better at ILB, with the replacement of guys that GM Jerry kept too long.   
          So if our interior OL works better, then we should be two or three small notches better.

      1. umm, into the playoffs.

        the team was one game away last season, and they did get better this offseason, though not in the ways i had hoped.  that, and they dumped alot of dead weight.

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