Worst to first: can it happen in the NFC North in 2014?

While some teams have already established themselves as Super Bowl contenders, the Minnesota Vikings are looking to climb up from the cellar of the NFC North to playoff contenders. A surprise rise from divisional worst to first is not as improbable as you might think.

Parity is at an extreme in the NFL. For eleven consecutive seasons at least one team who finished last in their division turned things around to capture the divisional title the very next year. As a matter of fact, the worst to first campaign has happened 15 times in the NFL since 2003.

Last season the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles both went from the bottom to the top in the first season under a new coaching staff. Will the Vikings follow their lead this season?

Eight NFL teams have a crack at the worst to first feat. Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Minnesota, Oakland, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Washington face the unenviable challenge of trying to keep the consecutive streak alive. I’m not an odds maker, but I certainly think the Vikings have as good as any chance to pull it off.

So, who was the last NFC North team to go from worst to first? The Chicago Bear did it in 2005. Quarterback Rex Grossman spent most of his first 3 seasons sidelined with injuries and Kyle Orton, a 4th round rookie from Purdue, took the reins in week 2 and lead the Bears all the way to the playoffs. Orton’s play wasn’t the real story behind the Bears’ rise to the top. The defensive unit lead by second year defensive coordinator Ron Rivera made major improvements to finish 2nd in the league in yards per game after being ranked 21st in that category in 2004. The 2005 Bears’ defense also climbed all the way to 1st in points allowed.

If the Vikings aspire to finish on top of the NFC North this season, an improved defense under new head coach Mike Zimmer is an absolute must. And one of the biggest keys to improving the Vikings defense will be finding a way to keep Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith healthy and on the field for most of the season.

A new coaching staff and fresh concepts on the defensive side of the ball, plus personnel acquisitions like DT Linval Joseph, CB Captain Munnerlyn and first round draft pick LB Anthony Barr have me optimistic that the Vikings’ defensive struggles are in the rear view mirror.

I’m not expecting a top ten D right out of the gate in 2014, but Zimmer has enough young talent to take a leap forward very quickly. Most Vikings fans have high hopes that sooner or later Zimmer will have the defense ranked near the top of the NFL leader board… and my fingers are crossed for sooner rather than later.


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Carl Knowles

Carl Knowles (Contributor) is a former member of the Professional Bowler Association and an avid lifelong Vikings fan. When he is not bowling you can find him on websites and forum pages sharing his creative insight and enthusiasm for the Minnesota Vikings any chance he gets. Carl was a Phoenix Institute of Technology and Purdue University standout who currently enjoys the challenge of being a graphic director in the printing business. You can follow him on twitter @carlknowles_vt.

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  1. The Vikings don’t need a top-10 defence to get back into the playoffs. If they had had even a mediocre defence last season, they’d have won the division. How many last-minute collapses do you get with a 16th-to-24th-rated squad? Fewer than the Purple gave up last year. I got tired of writing variations of “if they’d held up for the last two minutes, they’d have won the game.”

    1. They don’t need a top 10 defense to make the playoffs, but that’s not the ultimate goal. A stellar defense will trump a stellar offense almost always. I think last years super bowl is a perfect example of that.

  2. I absolutely believe we can go from last to first.
    Especially if Zimmer just keeps his head about him and doesn’t get caught up in all the hype about him being such a long-time overlooked head coach; ‘Defensive genius’, ‘Players love him’, etc.
    Look what happened to Childress. A guy I had never heard of all of a sudden was this QB Guru, Offensive genius, groomed McNabb and so on.
    All that went to his head and he actually started believing it and BAM! all of a sudden he’s the smartest guy in the room, the next Belichek. We know how that all turned out; Worst Coach in the history of the Vikings and probably the NFL.
    Just stay the course Zimmer and take us to the promised land

    1. I’m not a Chilly-fan, but he wasn’t the worst coach in Vikings history. That dishonour still goes to Les Steckel, and Les Frazier, with 3-win seasons under their belts.

    1. Steckle was only the coach for a season. Childo cost this team 5 years due to his ineptness.

  3. I’d put money on them today to win the division. Despite the inept jobs by both the offensive and defensive coordinators last year…..the team had many big wins, many winnable games, and just 2-3 that they got spanked.

    Yes, they have positions to be concerned about, primarily LB and QB, but there isn’t a team that isn’t exposed somewhere.

    The QB performance, even if it was Cassel or Ponder, will be much more improved and efficient with a scheme that utilizes the extreme talent at the skill positions. Imagine the upside if Teddy comes along and proves to have the playmaking ability he showed in college. Lights out.

    1. I’m not near as concerned about the LB position as most everyone else seems to be. Especially if Mike Mauti is fully rehabbed and can stay healthy. Remember, before his knee injuries he was projected as a 1st or 2nd round pick. Also, if Barr is the guy Zimmer thins he is, he’ll be a huge improvement at LB. Greenway will be inspired this year to put all the naysayers in their place too. And then there is Cole and even Hodges who can potentially make that jump.
      QB scares me more than all of the positions but you’re right; If Teddy can show the potential he did in college, we’re going to the SuperBowl! (Ok, that’s a bit of a reach but not for 2016)

      1. Unproven is perhaps a better word than concerned…..I agree with your assessment of that bunch.

        1. And lets not forget that our D-line has potentially gotten WAY better and that also bodes well for our LB’s.

          1. Agreed, the revitalized D-Line with Joseph anchoring the center and hopefully, Floyd taking the next step forward, will make a huge difference. The Williams Wall masked the really bad secondary the Vikings had, for years. Another year of rebuilding the defense should see the LB corps settled out, and the ‘new’ guys like Mauti, Hodges, and Cole, proving themselves one way or the other.

  4. we won’t have worse QB play than last year, and our D will be better, too, so yeah, we can do this


  5. Worst to first is a possibility. In 1993, I came in last place in the Traverse County demolition derby. The very next year I won the whole thing!

    FYI, never enter a demolition derby driving a ’71 AMC Pacer.

    1. Hey, where’s your little brother been?
      In fact, where has he and Coach and Freds been?

  6. Man, I’d forgotten how mediocre the rest of the division was last year. Yeah, worst to first is a real possibility but I think we’d have a better chance with Bridgewater starting than with Cassel.

    The defense should be better but there are still some big question marks.

    1. I loved the Griffen, Joseph and Wootten signings and drafting Crichton but is Floyd the real deal? I think Williams was still a Top 10 starter at RDT last year and an effective NT when called upon to fill in. Floyd could probably use another year on the bench, but I’d love to be wrong.

    2. I loved signing Munnerlyn and Cox and wish Chris Cook only the best but do we have a legit third corner on the roster? Will Cox, Robinson, Prater or James be able to play well enough on the outside when Munnerlyn slides into the slot?

    3. There’s a whole lot of youngsters in the linebacking corps, but how many of them will become capable NFL starters this year or ever? Barr will probably be forced to start this year no matter how raw he might be. Can Mauti’s knees stay healthy for a full season? Is Cole the real deal or just a bit of a folk hero? Hodges was a disappointment last year – come on, he couldn’t push Marvin Mitchell to the bench – so I’m a little surprised about the optimism around him; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Watts take his roster spot. Finally, folks are whistling past the graveyard on Greenway. It’s been three bad years in a row and I just don’t think his body will allow him to ever play as well as he did four and five years ago.

    I’d be satisfied with 7-9, pleased by 9-7 and ecstatic with 10 or more wins.