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Four of the biggest one-year turnarounds in NFL history and what the Broncos can learn from them

The Denver Broncos’ offseason reflected an organization intent on making major improvements from last NFL season to this one upcoming, and here are four examples of why that is more than possible

DENVER BRONCOS, NFL Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

Since 2016, the Denver Broncos have spent season after season that even the most kindhearted, optimistic observer would describe as mediocre at best.

The team has not made the playoffs since 2015, had a winning season since 2016, and will be opening the season with a new head coach for the third time in six seasons (fourth time if interim Jerry Rosburg is considered). A team that fielded the hottest offense in the league a decade ago struggled to exceed scoring 20 points for most of this past season.

Therefore, swift and extreme changes had to be made, led primarily by new team CEO Greg Penner and the Walton-Penner ownership group, which included replacing failed prior head coach Nathaniel Hackett with Super Bowl winner Sean Payton and then allowing Payton, in conjunction with general manager George Paton, to upgrade glaring weak spots on the roster in hopes of a successful rebuild.

The goal of course is to turn the franchise from a bottom feeding joke back into a playoff contender. And as fortune would have it, there have been several teams over the course of the life of the NFL where teams have done just that. These aren’t just teams who benefitted from a player or players coming back from injury, either, but teams who just flat out stunk one year to turn it around the next.

Here are four examples the Broncos could learn from if they hope to do the same.

1970 Miami Dolphins

Background: Prior to joining the NFL in 1970, the Dolphins spent four seasons in the AFL lead by one-time NFL coach of the year George Wilson. Unfortunately, Wilson wasn’t able to capture the same magic with the Dolphins, going 15-39-2 during that time with zero winning seasons.

The team would swing for the fences with its subsequent move, hoping to leave nothing to chance, hiring Don Shula, an NFL champion coach who had 70+ wins in seven seasons with the Baltimore Colts. It was a move that echoed into the league that the Dolphins were serious about winning. And when they did.

Shula flipped the Dolphins from 3-10-1 the prior year to 10-4 the following and then spent the following three seasons in the Super Bowl (winning two). He is now regarded as the best coach in Miami Dolphins history and among the greatest in league history as well.

What the Broncos can learn: bold, aggressive moves can pay off. Not since Gary Kubiak has the team hired an experienced head coach to lead the team. Vance Joseph, Vic Fangio, and Nathaniel Hackett were all lifelong assistants with varying degrees of success. Going after not only an experienced coach, but one who could be considered one of the top three or four coaches in the NFL from 2006-2021 in Sean Payton, is as aggressive as the Dolphins grabbing Shula. And while Shula is in a league of his own and can’t be compared to any active coach, it was still a bold move that paid off for Miami, and it can as well for Denver.

1991 Denver Broncos

Background: while looking back at significant one-year turnarounds, why not look at your own history? While the Broncos of the late 80s/early 90s (three Super Bowl appearances from 1986-1989) were far from the poop show that has been the post-Manning era of the modern age Broncos, they still had a major stumble in 1990 into a hole they had to dig out of after an out-of-character 5-11 season.

Yet, on paper, not many major changes were made. Pat Bowlen was still the owner, John Beake was still the GM, John Elway was still the QB, and the defense still had playmakers like Steve Atwater, Dennis Smith, and Karl Mecklenburg. The team did turn over play-calling duties on offense from Chan Gailey to a young Mike Shanahan, and running back Gaston Green emerged, but he was more of a parallel to Bobby Humphrey than an upgrade.

The biggest difference? One-score games. In 1990, the team was 2-7 in one-score games, and in 1991, they flipped that to 8-3 en route to a 12-4 record and AFC Championship appearance.

What the Broncos can learn: football is a game of inches. The best teams capitalize in tight situations. Why does this matter to the Broncos? How often last season did reporters/talking heads repeat the narrative that the Broncos were so-and-so many points away from being a losing team to a playoff team? Eight of the team’s 11 losses were by one score in 2022. The personnel is capable with the right coaching and right attitude. The team may be closer than some think.

2013 Kansas City Chiefs

Background: Ahhh... remember back when the Chiefs were garbage? As in, for most of 2007-2012? Good times...that wouldn’t last. Sick of mediocrity, CEO Clark Hunt fired GM Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel (who had been elevated from an interim just the year before) and hired John Dorsey as GM and Andy Reid as head coach and VP of football operations.

Between the two, the team would sign Alex Smith to play QB, draft Eric Fisher number one overall to be the team’s franchise left tackle, and draft tight end Travis Kelce in the third round. The team went from 2-14 to 11-5. A team that saw a losing record in five of the six previous years has now not seen one since and is currently the top franchise in the league.

What the Broncos can learn: a lesson from within the division — the right leadership means teams don’t have to stay down long. There was a stretch where the Chiefs were the butt of jokes and the Broncos were the class of the NFL. Now those roles have been reversed. The Chiefs had an aggressive, pissed off CEO in Clark Hunt who was sick of losing. The Broncos now have that in Greg Penner, and just as Andy Reid could go from a long career with one team to having success with another, Sean Payton can as well.

2006 New Orleans Saints

Background: Prior to Sean Payton’s hiring as head coach, the New Orleans Saints had exactly two winning records in the prior 13 seasons. The team was among the league’s worst, usually someone teens would try to trick their not-so-football-savvy buddy into picking on Madden. The team needed a facelift, and for a city that had lost so much the year prior in Hurricane Katrina, the whole area needed a reason to hope.

When the team hired Sean Payton to replace outgoing Jim Haslett, the new man in charge helped do just that. Payton got to work right away, with one of his first moves being to recruit Drew Brees to be his team’s new starting QB. Brees had experienced his share of success with his previous team, the San Diego Chargers, but lacked consistency, enough so for the team to move on from him in favor of Philip Rivers.

The new tandem of Payton and Brees would soon set the football world on fire, though, leading the Saints to a 10-6 record and an NFC Championship appearance, a far cry from the 3-13 season that preceded it. Brees, behind the play-calling and tutelage of Payton, went from a good starting QB to one of game’s top three at the position, ultimately leading the team to a Super Bowl. The Payton-Brees years will be forever immortalized in New Orleans.

What the Broncos can learn: does it really need to be said? If the team is eying a significant rebound, they hired the right guy to do it. Payton has already put his stamp on the roster by significantly upgrading the offensive line, insuring the QB position with a capable backup with starter capabilities, and brought in some effective skill players (and perhaps is not yet finished).

As for how he will approach the QB position, many would like to assume Brees was as good for San Diego as he was for New Orleans. The truth is, he wasn’t, and it wasn’t until his partnership with Payton he realized his true potential. After an existential crisis of sorts that he suffered in 2022, Russell Wilson will now have the same opportunity to elevate his game once more. If Payton can dig into his bag of tricks and get Wilson to buy in as Brees did, it could make for a major success story.

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