breaking the .500

Guest Post by Simon of Four Minute Drill(@headedforhades)

From a statistical standpoint, there is one yardstick by which teams can be roughly measured at the end of the season as having had either something of a successful year, or one that was rather lacking – the 8-8 record. A record which means teams have demonstrated either consistent inconsistency, or a violent mid-season swing of form.

A season that more often than not would be described as, well, average.

Of course, being below ‘average’ doesn’t always mean complete failure – but it does almost always guarantee you won’t be playing in January. Since the NFL came in to being in the 1920’s, only 2 teams have made the Play-Offs with a sub-.500 record (’82 strike season excluded); the Seattle Seahawks (7-9 in 2010) and the Carolina Panthers (7-8-1 in 2014).

In both of those cases, the rest of their respective divisions fared even worse, meaning the Seahawks and Panthers made the Play-Offs only on the back of being in an even poorer division.

So what of those teams who failed to break the .500 barrier in 2014? Which, if any, will be able to improve to a winning record? With Free Agency all but done, and the Draft on the horizon, let’s take a look at some of the contenders.

Miami Dolphins (8-8)

For the second year in a row, the Dolphins returned a perfect .500 record on the season, but it could (and perhaps should) have been so much better. 6-4 going in to Week 12, Miami’s defense went AWOL, giving up 193 points in the last six games of the season, losing four of them in the process. Joe Philbin will no doubt be hoping the arrival of Ndamukong Suh through Free Agency will go some way to arrest the slide.

The demise of the defense overshadowed an offense that improved greatly from a lowly 26th in the league in 2013 to rank 11th this time around on points scored. Ryan Tannehill passed for over 4,000 yards for the first time in his NFL career and showed some promise as a quarterback ready to take the next step.

If Tannehill continues to grow, and Suh’s arrival adds some much needed steel to the latterly porous defense, I think the Dolphins should be able to record their first winning season since 2008. If they don’t, expect Philbin to be the first coach looking for work come January.

Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

Much like Miami, the Falcons were a team let down badly by their defense in 2014. Ranked 27th in points allowed and dead last in yards allowed, Mike Nolan’s men crippled a season for the Falcons that held much promise. The arrival of new Head Coach Dan Quinn from Seattle will perhaps herald more of a defensive mentality in Atlanta, something that was never going to happen with Mike Smith at the helm.

The offense faired much better, despite coming in to the season without retired Falcons legend Tony Gonzalez. Matt Ryan had another stand out year, throwing for almost 4,700 yards and 28 touchdowns. He and Julio Jones proved a formidable partnership over the year, combining for a total of 1,593 yards on 104 receptions (albeit for only 6 scores).

When you consider the number of injuries to the offensive line during the season – at one point or another, the Falcons lost 5 offensive linemen to injury – I think those numbers are even more impressive.

Expect Dan Quinn and new Defensive Co-ordinator Richard Smith to look to strengthen the pass rush in the Draft and, if the offense continues to tick, the Falcons to dominate a weak NFC South in 2015.

New York Giants (6-10)

2014 saw a third straight year of downward trajectory for the Giants in a season punctuated by key injuries, and yet another defense that failed to stand up when it counted. Tom Coughlin’s team struggled all season to get any sort of momentum going to keep pace with the front-runners in the NFC East, losing 6 in a row mid-season.

The loss of Victor Cruz for the season to a freak injury in Week 6 was a huge blow for an offense learning yet another new system and Rashad Jennings’ season-long battle with injury only served to compound their problems. On the upside, one undoubted high point of the season was the performance of Odell Beckham Jr.. The Giants’ 1st round pick in the 2014 draft had a standout year, which ultimately led to his being awarded the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

If Cruz can regain fitness and form ahead of 2015, Eli Manning will have one of the best receiver pairings at his disposal next season, as well as a multi-dimensional threat from the back field in the form of former New England Patriot Shane Vereen. All tools which could make the Giants offense a potent force in a tough division and enough to drag the Giants back to winning ways.

Chicago Bears (5-11)

Whether the Bears can turn around their from after a dismal season will depend largely on new Co-ordinator Vic Fangio and whether he can install some sort of order on that side of the ball.

Coming in to the 2014 season, much improvement was needed of their 30th ranked (points per game allowed) defense which, ultimately never materialised. In fact, if anything, the defense actually got worse, ranking 31st in the league, saved only by the Oakland Raiders. Fangio has his work cut out.

The Bears have looked to strengthen through Free Agency, and will switch to a 3-4 system for 2015 – a system Vic Fangio knows and operates well, having consistently had his defenses rank in the top 10 during his time with the 49ers. How quickly the improvements will come will be key to playing their part in turning around the Bears’ season.

Offensively, 2014 was something of a horror show for the Bears. Jay Cutler struggled with accuracy all season before ultimately being benched as starter in favour of Jimmy Clausen. New Head Coach John Fox will hope Cutler’s form improves in 2015, but don’t expect it to be a given that he’ll be the starter.

The loss of Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets will be a significant factor this season I think, although it seemed neither party were particularly interested in staying together for 2015. The Bears will have to find a replacement for him through the Draft.

Fox and Fangio will bring some grit to the Bears in 2015 and, if Cutler can regain some accuracy and the Draft is kind, they should limp over the .500. Just.

As for the rest

I don’t see any others being able to make enough of a difference to creep past the 8-8 mark.

Yes, the Panthers, Saints, and Vikings were all nearly there in 2014, but I see them having poorer campaigns in 2015.  The Vikings offensive line will continue to hamper Teddy Bridgewater’s development, and the Panthers will struggle to compete as others around them improve. As for the Saints. Oh the Saints.

Whilst the Jets will undoubtedly have a better year in 2015 (they have to, don’t they?!) I think Todd Bowles will need a couple of years at least to turn the ship around there. That said, there is a small part of me that thinks they may surprise a few, so remain an outside chance of 8-8 or better.

Similarly, I think we’re a year out from the Raiders starting to compete regularly, having had a comparatively poor Free Agency. I mean, Trent Richardson?

It’s likely all of the above teams’ target to better the break even mark in 2015 but for some, “average” would be a welcome moniker.

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