This is the time of year when every NFL fan sees the glass as half full. Camps are aglow with happy news. Players are in the shape of their lives. The bad boys have become good citizens. The rookies are dazzling and the marginal are ready to be stars.
Of course, there’s good reason for optimism in a league that promotes parity, where the line between 6-10 and 10-6 can be razor thin. The draft, the salary cap and free agency ensure that no team is quite as good or bad as it seems and good times are just over the horizon.
The numbers bear it out. Over the last 10 seasons, 58 of the 120 playoff berths went to teams that missed the postseason the year before. That’s almost exactly half. So six new teams reach the playoffs in a typical year.
Over the last decade, 30 teams made the playoffs after being 6-10 or worse the year before. The team with the worst record in the league has reached the playoffs the next season two years running: The Colts in 2012 and the Chiefs in ’13.
This is a reason for both hope and regret for Buffalo fans. While it’s encouraging to see that half the playoff field turns over on an annual basis, it’s maddening to know the Bills have missed 14 years in a row.
There are various reasons why teams make the leap. Two of the biggest are improved coaching and quarterback play. Last year, the Chiefs brought in a capable QB in Alex Smith and a proven coach in Andy Reid.
Upgrades in assistant coaching can have a big effect. Some teams have talented young players who emerge as major contributors. Having key players return from injury is a factor. A strong crop of rookies (the Seahawks two years ago) can lift a team to the playoffs. A soft schedule helps.
Last year, Kansas City played all four teams that finished last in the AFC divisions (same as the Colts a year earlier). The Chiefs won 11 games, but only one against a team that finished with a winning record.
I’d like to believe the Bills are ready to make that leap. But after 14 years, I’ve learned to be skeptical. There are too many questions about quarterback EJ Manuel, and his backups, to buy in at this point.
Here are six teams, three from each conference, that have a good chance of making the jump:
Steelers: They went 6-2 in the second half last year, drilling the Bills along the way. Mike Tomlin, one of the best coaches in the business, should keep them on the right track. Management continues to trim veterans in a move toward youth.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, 32, is the key. Big Ben took every snap in 2013 and threw a record 584 passes. He won’t need to do as much if the Steelers get their running game going. Le’Veon Bell came on strong as a rookie. LeGarrette Blount came over from the Pats after a monster finish (as Bills fans no doubt recall).
Dick LeBeau, who turns 77 next month, is still running the defense. His unit needs to stop giving up big plays. Rookie Ryan Shazier, who looked good early in camp, adds to a strong linebacker corps that includes Jason Worilds.
Texans: It’s hard to like a team that lost its last 14 games. But Houston has a new coach, Bill O’Brien; a new starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick; two stars coming back off injury in tailback Arian Foster and linebacker Brian Cushing, and the No. 1 overall pick, linebacker Jadeveon Clowney.
Fitz is smart and experienced enough to manage the offense and get the ball to ace wideout Andre Johnson, who ended his holdout. The Texans will rely on their defense. J.J. Watt is a terror at defensive end. Cushing sets the tone and Clowney will make big plays.
Houston is suspect in the secondary, but you can say that about most of the teams in the NFL nowadays.
Jets: Critics said they might have been the worst team in the league last year. But Rex Ryan got them to 8-8. Rex always finds a way to be better than the Bills.
Geno Smith is a big question mark at quarterback, like Manuel. The difference is, the Jets brought in a backup who could challenge him, Mike Vick. Don’t be surprised if Vick is No. 1 when the Jets come to town Nov. 23. Free agent signees Eric Decker and Chris Johnson upgrade the offense.
The defense is great, and teams that are elite on one side of the ball stay in the playoff hunt. The D line, led by defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson, could be the best in the AFC.
Bears: Chicago set records for total offense and passing yards under new coach Marc Trestman last season. They also had a historically bad defense, which has been largely revamped. It should make for an intriguing opener when the Bills travel to the Windy City on Sept. 7.
Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery give Da Bears perhaps the NFL’s best receiving duo. Matt Forte could be the best two-way back. Quarterback Jay Cutler was having his best season before he got hurt last year.
The Bears signed Jared Allen, 32, who is second among active players in sacks. They added rookie Kyle Fuller to a solid secondary, so the D should be better.
Washington: Coming off a 3-13 season, the ‘Skins are poised for a bounceback campaign in the weak NFC East. They have a new coach in Jay Gruden. They added solid free agents in wideout DeSean Jackson and D-end Jason Hatcher. Quarterback Robert Griffin III is back from a knee injury.
They fit the profile of a team ready to make a playoff leap. Griffin has a lot to prove, but he’s an elite talent. It’ll help if tailback Alfred Morris, who rushed for 1,613 yards two years ago as a rookie, performs at a high level.
Linebacker Brian Orakpo, a three-time Pro Bowler, should be motivated by playing on a one-year franchise tag.
Buccaneers: Another team with a new quarterback (Josh McCown) and coach (Lovie Smith). Tampa finished 4-12, but has a lot of talent, especially on defense. Smith knows defense and won three division titles with the Bears. Another former head coach, Leslie Frazier, coordinates the D.
McCown, sensational as an emergency starter in Chicago last season, is an upgrade at QB. Running back Doug Martin, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie two years ago, is back from a shoulder injury. Two rookies, wideout Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, will boost the attack.
The Bucs signed two quality defensive free agents - end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner. Linebacker Lavonte David is one of the more underrated players in the NFL.