Worst to First: The NFL’s Greatest Single Season Turnarounds

We all know anything can happen in the NFL. Great teams can lose, terrible teams can win. Each Sunday brings us a new story. It has been this way since the league started. Every year one team ends up drastically improving their record from the season before. It even happened this past season to the Kansas City Chiefs and the season before to the Indianapolis Colts.

The NFL’s history is filled with Cinderella stories. It's truly one of the things that makes professional football so interesting. This has becomes even more the case since the inception of the salary cap. Because organizations are only allowed to spend so much money to build their roster, players constantly have to move from team to team. This allows a terrible team to bring in new talent and become a competitive force almost instantaneously.

This upcoming NFL season is sure to bring us much of this same excitement. Teams like the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons are loaded with talent and could easily turn it around and have great year. This list should show you not just how often these turnarounds have occurred, but also how amazing they can be. It will remind you that it is not so uncommon for a team to go from worst one season to first the next.


11 2013 Kansas City Chiefs (2-14 to 11-5)

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To start off we should go back to last season. The 2013 Kansas City Chiefs were great. In Andy Reid’s first season as the team’s head coach, he took a 2-14 team to an 11-5 season. This was the first time in NFL history when a team who picked first in the draft was the last team to lose a game. The Chiefs were led by their strong play on defense and special teams. This was supplemented by a well executed ball control style of offense, spearheaded by running back Jamaal Charles and the offensive line.

10 2004 San Diego Chargers (4-12 to 12-4)


The San Diego Charger turned it around in 2004. The season started strangely. The Chargers spent the first overall pick in the draft on Eli Manning. However, Manning refused to sign and was traded to the Giants for the team’s future quarterback, Philip Rivers. After a 4-12 record in 2003, the offense kicked into high gear and led the organization to its first playoff appearance in nine seasons. The team was led by NFL Coach of the Year and Pro Bowlers LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, and Antonio Gates. The strong season abruptly ended in the Wild Card round of the playoffs when they lost to the New York Jets 20-17.

9 2008 Miami Dolphins (1-15 to 11-5)

In 2007, the Miami Dolphins went 1-15. They brought in a new head coach, Tony Sparano, as well as a new Executive Vice President of Football Operations, Hall of Famer Bill Parcells. Sparano and Parcells would go on to lead the team to an 11-5 record in 2008. They changed the nature of the team right away, losing veteran leaders Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor. They brought in star linebacker Joey Porter, who would make the Pro Bowl that year. The Dolphins then went on a stretch to make them the only team in NFL history to win one game and then win their division the following year. People argue this was helped by the injury to Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, but the fact remains that Miami accomplished something incredible. The Cinderella season ended when they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Following the season, quarterback Chad Pennington was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.

8 1999 Indianapolis Colts (3-13 to 13-3)


The Indianapolis Colts would completely change their demeanor in 1999 following a 3-13 record in the season before. In the offseason, they sent star running back Marshall Faulk to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for two draft picks. They then drafted their next star running back, Edgerrin James, who would lead the NFL with 1,553 rushing yards that season. It would also be Peyton Manning's second season as a starting quarterback in the NFL. Manning would lead an explosive offense to a 13-3 record and the AFC East title. The team would made it to the Divisional round of the playoffs, but lost to the eventual AFC Champion Tennessee Titans.

7 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers (6-10 to 15-1)

The 2004 season was the beginning of the Steelers’ resurrection. Following their dynasty in the 1970s, the team had not been on top of the AFC for a long time. They went just 6-10 in 2003. With their first round pick in the 2004 draft, the Steelers selected quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. “Big Ben” went on to post a 13-0 record as the starting rookie quarterback. Bill Cowher’s team finished the regular season with a 15-1 record, beating the franchise’s previous best of 14-2 in 1978. The Steelers sent nine players to the Pro Bowl and Roethlisberger was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year. They made it to the AFC Championship game, but lost to the Patriots 41-27.

6 1929 New York Giants (4-7-2 to 13-1-1)



In the early days of the National Football League, there were no playoffs and there was no overtime or ways of determining a tie breaker. The 1928 New York Giants went 4-7-2. The following year, head coach LeRoy Andrews led the team to a 13-1-1 record. They finished in second place behind the 12-0-1 Green Bay Packers.


4 1988 Cincinnati Bengals (4-12 to 12-4)


The 1988 Cincinnati Bengals are the first team on the list to actually make the Super Bowl. Following a disappointing 4-12 year in 1987, Sam Wyche’s team went 12-4. The Bengals were led by the NFL’s MVP Boomer Esiason who also led the league in scoring and total yards gained. Their running backs Icky Woods and James Brooks were also able to lead the NFL in rushing yards. Despite the Bengals’ strong offensive, they were unable to defeat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII.

3 2001 New England Patriots (5-11 to 11-5)

The New England Patriots dynasty began in 2001. Bill Belichick’s team went 5-11 in 2000. In the second week of the 2001 season, quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down and was replaced by future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. Brady led the Patriots to an 11-5 record during the regular season. The team eventually would meet the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Adam Vinatieri won the game by kicking a last minute field goals as time expired capturing the first of 3 Lombardi trophies in 4 years by Brady's Patriots.

2 1981 San Francisco 49ers (6-10 to 13-3)


In the third season under head coach Bill Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers would improve from a 6-10 record to a 13-3 record in 1981. The tremendous season was put in motion by paying special attention to defense over the offseason. The team selected future Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott with the eighth pick of the draft, as well as Eric Wright who is considered one of the best cover cornerbacks of the 1980s. The 49ers would go on to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals by a score of 26-21 in Super Bowl XVI. Quarterback Joe Montana was named the Super Bowl’s MVP. Bill Walsh would go on to be honored as the 1981 NFL Coach of the Year. The question you may be asking yourself is why they are ranked higher than the 2001 Patriots. After all, both teams won the Super Bowl. Though the Patriots posted a worse record the season before they won their rings, the 1981 Niners improved their record from the year before by one game more than New England did in 2001.

1 1999 St. Louis Rams (4-12 to 13-3)

The 1999 St. Louis Rams are without a doubt the most improved team over a single season. Prior to becoming one of the most feared offenses in NFL history, the Rams had not made the playoffs since 1989 and had not won their division since 1985. After going just 4-12 in 1998, the Rams went on a magical run to the Super Bowl. The Rams' offseason brought in some great talent such as running back Marshall Faulk and wide receiver Tory Holt, their first pick in the draft. Trent Green, the team’s offseason quarterback acquisition, wet down in the pre-season with a season-ending injury. This gave way to Kurt Warner who became the leader of what was to become known as "The Greatest Show on Turf." He would lead the team to a 13-3 record and a win over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV. After spending many years bagging groceries to provide for his family, Warner was named the 1999 NFL MVP and the MVP of the Super Bowl. Marshall Faulk was named the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year and Dick Vermeil was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year.

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