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The Bucs Are Just One of Many Historically Terrible Teams That Could Make a Playoff Push in 2020

Tampa Bay hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007, but with the addition of Tom Brady, the team looks like a contender. What other woebegone franchises could be playing deep into January?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tom Brady was looking for a change of scenery, so like any well-to-do Northeasterner nearing retirement, he set his sights on Florida. It was a shocking development when the six-time Super Bowl winner left the Patriots for the Buccaneers in March. When he was joined by the newly unretired tight end Rob Gronkowski, it became clear Tampa Bay was having a moment. Today, The Ringer is breaking down all things Bucs, from Brady’s learning curve with a new team to the great Gronk revival, and whether a moribund franchise can resurrect itself with Brady at the helm.

Tom Brady leaving the Patriots is a weird fact that we all haven’t processed yet, and him choosing the Buccaneers is the type of random move that suggests we’re living in a simulation. It’s mind-bending that Brady, the most successful quarterback in football history, willingly joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one of the least successful football franchises ever. Brady has almost won as many NFL games (249) as the Buccaneers have in their entire 45-year history (273).

This year, the over/under figure on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is 9.5 wins. To put that in perspective, the Bucs have just seven seasons with 10 or more wins in their existence—fewer than Tom Brady has since tearing his ACL in 2008. The Bucs have been a joke since they entered the NFL in their creamsicle uniforms and went 0-14 in 1976, a depth of despair not matched until Detroit went 0-16 in 2008 (and again when Cleveland did it in 2017). This is the team that pissed off Bo Jackson enough that he swore off football for years rather than play for Tampa Bay. But even as the Browns, Lions, and Jaguars have taken a more prominent role as the NFL’s losers in recent years, the Bucs still lug their history around. The Bucs have the worst winning percentage of any remaining franchise at just 39 percent. Meanwhile, Brady has won games at a rate of 77 percent; if Brady were a team that would be by far the best figure. This isn’t just a superdupermegastar going to a random team—Brady is the best team athlete ever going to one of the historically worst franchises in the sport.

But this year, the Buccaneers aren’t the only historically terrible franchise hyped for a rebound. A number of traditionally awful teams are getting buzz as potential playoff contenders. The Buffalo Bills have almost the same odds as the Patriots to win AFC East. The Detroit Lions are projected to win the NFC North, according to Football Outsiders, which would be their first division title since 1993. The Arizona Cardinals are contending for just their fourth division title since 1975. The New York Jets are contending for—just kidding. Let’s look at the five (not six) teams who have historically been dreadful but might be serious playoff contenders in 2020, especially since the league expanded the format from 12 to 14 teams.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Why they could go 11-5

The aforementioned greatest quarterback of all time has joined Tampa Bay. Even if Brady isn’t in his prime, or his post-prime, or his post-post-prime anymore, he’ll be better than Jameis Winston was last year. Winston threw 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in 2019—a first—and an NFL-record seven pick-sixes. Brady has thrown just seven pick-sixes in the past 10 years. Winston threw more interceptions in the two Bucs games announced by Rich Eisen (nine) than Brady did in the entire 2019 season (eight).

Any turnover reduction will help Tampa Bay’s defense, which played well last year but often had their efforts ruined by Winston’s ball insecurity. Tampa Bay returns most of its key defenders from last year and the coaching staff led by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, so the Bucs may offer Brady a better defense than the Pats could have if he had stayed. Tampa Bay also certainly offers a better offense. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin might be the best receiving duo in the NFL, and Tampa Bay’s tight ends are certainly the league’s deepest with Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, and Cameron Brate. One season of Brady could be enough for a historic Tampa Bay turnaround.

Why they could go 5-11

The Buccaneers are sailing into uncharted waters. Brady turned 43 last month. The only quarterback in NFL history to start more than one game at age 43 or older is Vinny Testaverde, who started six games for the Panthers in 2007. Midway through the season, Brady should have more starts at quarterback than every other 43-year-old combined. While his career is one of a kind, there is no blueprint for how this is going to go, and it is not cynical to wonder whether Brady will have some growing pains going from New England—the most ruthlessly efficient pro football factory in America—to Tampa Bay. Brady wouldn’t be the first person who incorrectly thought a move to Florida would solve their midlife crisis.

Buffalo Bills

Why they could go 11-5

The Brady-Belichick Patriots won the AFC East in 17 of their 19 seasons (89 percent)—a higher rate than condoms prevent pregnancies (85 percent). But Brady is gone, leaving an opportunity for someone other than the Patriots to win the AFC East. While the rebuilding Dolphins and Jets are pegged as steep underdogs, sports books peg the Bills with roughly the same odds to win the division as the Patriots. Buffalo has not won its division since 1995, the year before Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen was born.

Allen is the most important player on this team, and in 2019 he made big strides. “My mindset has changed from ‘How can I throw a touchdown?’ to ‘How can I get a first down?’” Allen told The Ringer last year. The Bills traded for receiver Stefon Diggs in the offseason and drafted running back Zack Moss. Along with receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, tight end Dawson Knox, and running back Devin Singletary, this is Buffalo’s best offensive skill group in years.

The Bills went 10-6 last year and made the playoffs. It was the second postseason appearance in three years under head coach Sean McDermott, who has established a strong defense that has been top six in the NFL by Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric each of the past two seasons.

Why they could go 5-11

Sometimes Josh Allen still tries to do too much.

That play, where he ran for 20 yards on first-and-10 and then flipped the ball backward for a fumble, came with less than 80 seconds left in a playoff game in which Buffalo was trailing by three points. It is as reckless as a football player can be with the ball, and Allen did it after he threw three would-be interceptions in the game that defenders dropped. Even if his cannon arm is a major selling point, he isn’t very accurate with it at any range. Allen is already one of the worst deep passers in the league by completion percentage, but his mental errors could be the downfall of this team.

Detroit Lions

Why they could go 11-5

Last season, Matt Stafford missed games for the first time since 2010. Without him, Detroit went 0-8. This year, Stafford’s back is healed, and the Lions have become a trendy sleeper for the 2020 season. Detroit has not been a laughingstock since Stafford showed up—the Cardiac Cats had three winning seasons from 2014 to 2017 and made the playoffs three times in the past decade—but Detroit has not won its division since 1993.

Last year, the Lions had one of the NFL’s best downfield passing games when Stafford played. Stafford’s throws traveled farther downfield on average than any other quarterback last year, according to NFL GSIS. Looking at expected points added, the best advanced stat available for quarterback play, Stafford was excellent. He ranked first in EPA/play per dropback against zone defenses, third while in the pocket, and sixth on play-action throws, according to Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic. Stafford’s injury overshadowed what was one of the best seasons of his career.

Detroit was also quite unlucky last year. The Lions were the worst team after the third quarter by win expectancy in the past 10 years, according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. The teams in Detroit’s stratosphere in that metric improved by an average of more than three wins the following year.

Why they could go 5-11

Detroit jettisoned cornerback Darius Slay, one of its best defenders, for a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick this offseason. That came after the team dealt another top defensive back, Quandre Diggs, for a fifth-rounder in the middle of last season. Slay said after the trade he had “lost all respect” for head coach Matt Patricia in 2018. Patricia is 9-22-1 in two seasons. (His predecessor, Jim Caldwell, was fired after going 18-14 in his final two seasons.) Patricia has been less than inspiring in the past two years, and it is not encouraging that the Lions have resorted to overpaying former Patriots players like defensive end Trey Flowers and linebacker Jamie Collins.

Cleveland Browns

Why they could go 11-5

All of the reasons everyone loved the Browns last year—Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Nick Chubb—but without head coach Freddie Kitchens. Yes, everyone was too optimistic about the Browns last year, The Ringer included. But the Browns had the toughest schedule in football in 2019, according to Warren Sharp. This year they have the third-easiest. They also have a new head coach in Kevin Stefanski who, unlike Kitchens, is unlikely to wear a shirt that says “Pittsburgh started it.” Cleveland also fixed its biggest personnel issue from last year by signing Titans right tackle Jack Conklin and drafting Alabama left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., who might give Mayfield some time to throw after he was constantly under pressure in 2019. They also have the best running back combo in football with Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns are still exciting. We were just a year early.

Why they could go 5-11

This team is still owned by Jimmy Haslam, and the Browns are on their 12th head coach and 10th general manager in 22 seasons. While Stefanski was solid as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator last season, the Browns are at a disadvantage since their new staff has had limited practice time because of the pandemic. They are competing with John Harbaugh’s Ravens and Mike Tomlin’s Steelers, who are deeply experienced and have plenty of continuity. And while the Browns did improve their pass blocking, some of their issues were due to Mayfield himself, who too often struggled to read coverages and bailed from clean pockets in 2019.

Arizona Cardinals

Why they could go 11-5

The Cardinals are sneaky bad historically. The team is 100 years old but hasn’t won a championship since 1947, has just three division titles since the Gerald Ford administration, and has the fourth-worst winning percentage since the merger. But this year, the team might have its third revival this century, after those led by Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer—and this time the quarterback isn’t making his Arizona debut in his mid-30s. Arizona has last year’s no. 1 pick, Kyler Murray, and superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins running Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense. Kingsbury’s team put up a more impressive run in its first season than its 5-10-1 record suggests, especially with Murray, who showed growth during the season. Most importantly, Kingsbury showed growth too. When injuries and inexperience among Arizona’s receiving corps prevented the offense from going full Air Raid, Kingsbury adapted and made the Cardinals into one of the most efficient rushing teams in football for the second half of the season after trading for running back Kenyan Drake. The offensive line has been the league’s most devastated by injuries for each of the past two years, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric. That’s unlikely to happen again.

Why they could go 5-11

The NFC West looks like the league’s best division with the 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams. Hopkins may not be his superstar self without an offseason of work to practice with Kyler Murray. Arizona’s defense was atrocious last year even with defensive end Chandler Jones racking up sacks, posting a bottom-six pass defense. The Cardinals were the worst in football at defending tight ends, and while Clemson rookie defender Isaiah Simmons could patch up a lot of those holes, Arizona’s pass coverage is still porous. Luckily, if the Cardinals don’t make the playoffs, Kliff Kingsbury’s living room looks like a great place to watch football in January.

A previous version of this story misidentified the coach of the Baltimore Ravens. It is John Harbaugh, not Jim.