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Worst to first? Could the Giants really pull that off? You never know

Worst to playoffs happens more often than we might imagine in the NFL

NFL: New York Giants Minicamp
Giants first-round draft pick Kayvon Thibodeaux at minicamp.
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals had been an NFL laughingstock for many years. Entering the 2021 season they had a quarterback who had suffered a season-ending injury midway through the previous season, a terrible offensive line that allowed him to take many hits, a below-average defense, and a head coach who was being doubted after two awful seasons in the cellar of the AFC North (2-14, 4-11-1) at the helm. We know how that season wound up -- 10-7, division champions, and one Aaron Donald sack away from a possible Super Bowl victory.

But that worst-to-first story is a rare occurrence, isn’t it? The Bengals had everything going for them in 2021: Star quarterback Joe Burrow back from injury, first-round pick Ja’Marr Chase setting the league on fire, and one of the easier schedules in the NFL. That was true especially within their division, with Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield injured for a good part of the season and Ben Roethlisberger nearing the end of the line.

The first week of training camp is as good a time as any for Giants fans to be optimistic about the coming season. Why not dream? It turns out that worst-to-first isn’t such a rare occurrence in the NFL. In the past five seasons, six teams have gone from last place one year to being division champions the following year. In addition, three more have secured Wild Cards after a previous last-place finish, and yet two more finished with a winning record but missed the playoffs on tiebreakers after being last the year before. In other words, in any given season it’s fair to expect a couple of teams on average to rise from the ashes and become winners. Here’s how it happened.

2017: No time for losers ‘cause they are the champions

Apologies to BBV readers for beginning with the Philadelphia Eagles. But it happened. The 2016 team went 7-9 and finished fourth in the NFC East. Then in 2017 Carson Wentz had his career year, and when he suffered a season-ending injury, Nick Foles did his patented Superman imitation for a while to lead Philly to a 13-3 record and Super Bowl title before going back to being Clark Kent.

NFL: DEC 24 Jaguars at 49ers
Jaguars QB Blake Bortles in action in 2017
Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But they were far from alone. The Jacksonville Jaguars, 3-13 in 2016, went 10-6 and finished first in the NFC South with Blake Bortles at quarterback in both years. It wasn’t a fluke - the Jags gave New England all the Patriots could handle in the AFC Championship Game before succumbing in the fourth quarter. They didn’t go from worst to first via the 2017 draft, in which they selected running back Leonard Fournette with the No. 4 pick and got little else. But they had hit pay dirt the year before with three rookie draftees who came into their own in 2017: CB Jalen Ramsey, LB Myles Jack, and edge Yannick Ngakoue. Add free agents DL Calais Campbell and CB A.J. Bouye in 2017, and they had a championship defense.

That same year, the Carolina Panthers, 6-10 and last in the NFC South in 2016, rose to 11-5 and tied for first with New Orleans in 2017. They lost on tiebreakers though and became a Wild Card. Their offense was aided by a great rookie season from running back Christian McCaffrey, the No. 8 pick, who took pressure off QB Cam Newton. In addition the defense played much better. And Dave Gettleman was fired before the season began. The Panthers lost to the Saints in the Wild Card game.

Honorable mention goes to the Chargers, back in LA for the first time since 1961, for finishing 9-7 in 2017 after a last place 5-11 finish their final year in San Diego. They tied with the Tyrod Taylor-led Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans but were eliminated from the Wild Card by tiebreakers.

2018: Mitch Trubisky makes the leap (for one year, anyway)

Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels discuss the ‘double doink’ call: ‘You almost forget you’re talking to 30 million people’
Cody Parker after the double-doink field goal attempt eliminated the Chicago Bears from the playoffs.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Mike Glennon started four games for the Chicago Bears in 2017, rookie Mitch Trubisky then took over and the Bears finished last at 5-11. After a head coaching change from John Fox to Matt Nagy, Trubisky started in 2018 and had his best season, throwing to free agent signing Allen Robinson. The defense was the NFL’s best, and the Bears won the NFC North at 12-4. Alas, the Cody Parker double-doink field goal attempt ended the season as the Nick Foles-led (him again) Eagles prevailed. The Giants defeated this Bears team, but on a Sunday on which Trubisky was injured and Chase Daniel started.

The 2017 QB class shone in 2018. In addition to Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes, who took the league by storm in his first year as a starter, there was Deshaun Watson. Watson started 7 games in 2017, went 3-4, and spent the rest of the season on injured reserve as the Houston Texans limped to a 4-12 finish. A healthy Watson led the 2018 Texans to an 11-5 record and division title.

2019: The Empire strikes back

All four 2018 AFC division champions repeated in 2019, in addition to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC. No 2018 last place team ascended to the playoffs. However, the San Francisco 49ers, who were 4-12 in 2018 but finished third (ahead of the 3-13 Arizona Cardinals), did win the NFC West with Jimmy Garoppolo as a full-time starter for the first time and came close to winning the Super Bowl.

2020: The NFC Least

New York Giants v Washington Football Team
Chase Young rushing Daniel Jones with Matt Peart getting ready to block in 2020.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Whether it was the pandemic or just the luck of the draw, every NFC East team was bad in 2020 (Dallas at least had an excuse after Dak Prescott got hurt). But someone had to win the division. The Washington Football Team snuck in at 7-9 after Doug Pederson decided to replace Jalen Hurts with Nate Sudfeld in the second half of the final game of the season. The WFT had finished last at 3-13 the year before. In fairness, the WFT were a better team in 2020, with No. 2 draft pick Chase Young bursting onto the scene. If Sudfeld had stayed on the bench, maybe the 6-10 Giants, who finished third at 4-12 in 2019, would have been a playoff team.

All of this must have been frustrating to the AFC Miami Dolphins, who went from 5-11 and last in the AFC East in 2019 to 10-6 and 2nd place in 2020. Despite their record, the Dolphins were shut out of the playoffs because Baltimore and Cleveland finished 11-5. The 2019 Dolphins had shed themselves of veteran players and were awful the first half of the season. They finished strong, though (a loss to Eli Manning in his final game notwithstanding), and with rookie Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick sharing QB duties took a big step forward in 2020, despite getting little in the way of contributions from their other 10 draft picks.

2021: Not just the Bengals

Super Bowl LVI - Los Angeles Rams v Cincinnati Bengals
Ex-Giant B.J. Hill during the Super Bowl.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Certainly the return of Joe Burrow and the amazing rookie season of WR Ja’Marr Chase are the biggest reasons for the Bengals’ ascent last year from last to first. But they improved elsewhere as well. Free agent signings edge Trey Hendrickson and CB Chidobe Awuzie and the acquisition of DL B.J. Hill from the Giants solidified the defense, which actually carried Cincinnati during the playoffs. Drafted placekicker Evan McPherson made numerous clutch field goals that helped decide games.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles rebounded from a disastrous 4-11-1 season and last place finish in Doug Pederson’s final season as head coach to 9-8 and a Wild Card berth in 2021 under Nick Sirianni. The reasons for this improvement have already been discussed on the BBV pages.

The San Francisco 49ers also rebounded from last place and a 6-10 record in 2020 to 10-7 and a Wild Card berth in 2021. The 49ers were wracked by injuries in 2020, losing key players such as Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Jimmy Garoppolo, Ezekial Ansah, Deebo Samuel, and Richard Sherman for extended stretches. A healthier 2021 49ers team finished third at 10-7, made the playoffs as a Wild Card, and came close to reaching the Super Bowl.

Does this bode well for the 2022 Giants?

It’s certainly a stretch to imagine the Giants making the playoffs this year after a 4-13 finish and non-competitive play at the end of the 2021-2022 season. There are some optimists out there in BBV fandom, though, 14 percent of you to be precise. It’s not as improbable as winning the lottery. The 2022 Giants do have some things in common with many of the rags-to-riches NFL stories of the past five years:

  • Like the 2021 Bengals, they have their starting quarterback returning after missing significant time with an injury. No one will confuse Daniel Jones with Joe Burrow. But the Giants were clearly a much better offense with Jones behind center than without, even with a terrible offensive line, extensive injuries to receivers, and conservative play calling. Blake Bortles and Mitch Trubisky took their teams to the playoffs in the past five years, and Nick Foles won a Super Bowl.
  • Like the 2017 Carolina Panthers, the Giants will have a potential star running back that they did not have last year. Yes, Saquon Barkley played in 2021, but he was not yet fully recovered from his injuries and then got injured again. If Barkley can stay healthy and return to even his 2019 form, if not 2018, he will add a dangerous element to the offense.
  • Maybe like the 2017 Jaguars, Giants draftees from the previous year like Azeez Ojulari, Aaron Robinson, and Elerson Smith, will become stars, third-year safety Xavier McKinney will take another step forward, and the Giants’ defense will be suffocating.
  • Like the 2020 49ers, the 2021 Giants were decimated by injuries. It’s reasonable to expect that their key players will not miss as many games this year and that their record will reflect that.
  • Like the 2021 Bengals, the Giants seem to have improved their pass rush this year with the addition of No. 5 pick Kayvon Thibodeaux. Unlike the Super Bowl Bengals they appear to have improved their offensive line with No. 7 pick Evan Neal and free agent signing Mark Glowinski.
  • The 2022 NFC East on the surface does not look impressive. Not as bad as the 2020 edition that was there for the taking, to be sure. But as Nick Falato explains, the division champion Cowboys look to have regressed, the Eagles are depending on a question mark at quarterback, and the Commanders are similarly placing their faith on a quarterback who has been dumped by his previous two teams.
  • Also like the 2021 Bengals, the Giants have one of the easiest, perhaps the easiest, schedule in the NFL this year. Carolina. Chicago. Jacksonville. Seattle. Houston. Detroit. Six beatable non-division opponents. Hold serve at home in the division, and the record is 9-8, even without any upset victories over better teams like the 2020 victory in Seattle or the 2021 victory in New Orleans.

And none of this even takes into account that the Giants this year are being coached by Brian Daboll, Mike Kafka, and Wink Martindale. Sure, it’s unlikely that the Giants can go from 4-13 to a playoff berth in one season. But it’s July. Stranger things have happened (and don’t tell me that the 2017 Jaguars almost making the Super Bowl and the 2021 Bengals almost winning it weren’t strange). Why not the 2022 Giants?