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Miller: Who will be NFL's 2018 turnaround stories?

By
Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange
Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers could make a quick turnaround following a strong finish to the season. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI
Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers could make a quick turnaround following a strong finish to the season. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo

For the second time in three years, there is a team in the Super Bowl that had a losing record just one year earlier. In fact, only one of the four teams in the conference championship games this season had a winning record last season.

Trend or aberration? Maybe a little of both. The Philadelphia Eagles were 7-9 in 2016 and 13-3 in the 2017 regular season. The 2015 Carolina Panthers finished 15-1 in the regular season after winning the division the year before with a 7-8-1 record.

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But you have to go back to the 2001 season, the start of New England's reign of terror, to find a team that actually won the Super Bowl a year after finishing with a losing record - something that has happened only three times in 51 years. (The Eagles would be the fourth, were they to pull off the upset in Minneapolis.)

The 2000 Patriots finished 5-11, last in the AFC East. The 2001 Patriots were Tom Brady's coming-out party and a huge underdog before beating the Rams in the Super Bowl.

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With that in mind, it's possible to identify some of the teams that could spring a similar surprise in the 2018 season, and there is a surprisingly long list of candidates.

We will start with San Francisco, which was the hottest team in the NFL at the end of the season, winning five straight games after Jimmy Garoppolo was installed as the starting quarterback. The 49ers still have plenty of holes, but they have ample salary-cap room to address them and a good situation in the draft including a pick in the top 10 and four among the first 75.

San Francisco's finish to the 2017 season conjured memories of 1980, when the 49ers won three in a row late in the year behind a second-year quarterback named Joe Montana, establishing him as the starter heading into the 1981 season, when the 49ers won the first of their five Super Bowls.

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The 49ers in 1981, by the way, were the first team to win the Super Bowl a year after finishing with a losing record. (The other one, before the 2001 Patriots, was the Rams in 1999).

Granted, that was a different era, but even Montana never posted numbers like Garoppolo's five-game average of 312 yards passing while completing two-thirds of his attempts. Tom Brady, who led the NFL in passing yardage this season, averaged 286.1 yards a game. In Montana's most prolific season, he averaged 263 yards a game.

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Remember, too, Garoppolo did this while learning on the fly without benefit of a training camp with the 49ers. It will be interesting to see if head coach Kyle Shanahan can do for Garoppolo what Kyle's father, Mike Shanahan, once did for Steve Young with the 49ers.

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What other teams have the potential to pull off a miraculous jump in 2018?

--Houston. Before Deshaun Watson got hurt, he was the biggest new thing in the NFL, throwing 18 touchdown passes and passing for 1,472 yards in five games while the Texans were averaging 39 points a game. The kid is a potent weapon on a team that is built around a great defensive line. Of course, the Texans' chances would be enhanced were J.J. Watt, who missed all but eight games the last two seasons, able to come back healthy.

---Oakland. Which are the real Raiders? The ones who went 12-4 a year ago or the ones who finished 6-10 this season? The key players, like quarterback Derek Carr and defensive end Khalil Mack, are still in the prime of their career. The key here will be the ability of old-now-new head coach Jon Gruden to get Carr to perform like he did in 2016 (28 touchdowns, six interceptions, 96.7 rating) instead of like he did in 2017 (22, 13, 86.4).

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--Tampa Bay. A fall from 9-7 to 5-11 did not cost a head coach his job, but Dirk Koetter could have been gone if the Bucs, not the Raiders, had been able to entice Gruden to return. He will be under the gun in 2018 to find quarterback Jameis Winston some help in the form of a decent running game and also to do something about a defense that allowed the most yards in the league in 2017.

--Chicago. New head coach Matt Nagy already scored a significant victory in getting defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to re-up. The Bears, despite a debilitating run of injuries, ranked 10th in the league on defense in 2017, not quite rekindling memories of the Monsters of the Midway, but good enough to carry a team with a rookie quarterback. Mitchell Trubisky appeared to be a quick learner and showed improvement as the season went along, but now the Bears will need to put some help around him, particularly some receivers who actually can catch the ball.

--Indianapolis. Incoming head coach Josh McDaniels should be able to help, provided quarterback Andrew Luck comes back to full health after missing an entire season.

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--N.Y. Giants. New head coach Pat Shurmur must walk a tight line between grooming a quarterback replacement for Eli Manning and getting more out of Manning than he showed the last two years. For starters, he must reduce his interceptions.

Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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