One of the most enduring proclamations of this postseason came from the mouth of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. After a Divisional Round playoff win at Tennessee, Burrow revealed how tired he was of hearing about his squad being an underdog. Burrow wanted the world to know the Bengals had become a really good team, one that was worthy of consideration as a championship contender. Cincinnati proved as much the next week, with a 27-24 overtime win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
Burrow's irritation was easy to understand. After all, a great turnaround story can happen so quickly that it's difficult for the general public to make sense of what's actually occurred. The Bengals have become the latest upstart team to take the NFL by storm, as they're playing in the Super Bowl just two years after picking first overall in the draft. Their rapid rise ultimately made this particular writer wonder where they rank in terms of other amazing turnarounds.
The Bengals aren't the first team to come out of nowhere. They just had all the right ingredients to make it happen, like a host of other franchises.
"If you're going to turn around a losing team, you need to have the right coach, the right players and you have to believe," said former Rams defensive tackle D'Marco Farr, who played for St. Louis when they won a Super Bowl in 1999 and is now a broadcaster for the team. "You also need a tinge of jealousy. When we turned things around (in St. Louis), you'd hear people talk about all the other 29 teams in the league. And they were never talking about us."
There are plenty of ways to define a successful turnaround. Since this story is based on what the Bengals have accomplished, it's best to consider the timetable of their success when comparing them to others. So the only teams that made the cut are those that enjoyed substantial improvement within a three-year period. (Anyone looking for the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers or the 1990s Dallas Cowboys should understand that those teams needed at least four years to reach their greatest heights.)
This is basically a story about teams that rose quickly and never really gave any advance warning of what they could become. So here's the list of the best turnarounds in the Super Bowl era, from 1966 to today ...
1) 1981 San Francisco 49ers
Record: 13-3. Playoffs: Won Super Bowl XVI.
This team might always be known as the epitome of what a turnaround should look like in the Super Bowl era. The 49ers were 2-14 in 1979 when Bill Walsh became their head coach. They won their first championship two seasons later, defeating Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI. Most people can remember the defining moment of that 1981 campaign -- the touchdown pass that 49ers quarterback Joe Montana threw to Dwight Clark to beat Dallas in the NFC Championship Game, a play forever immortalized as "The Catch." What's easier to forget is all the work it took for that franchise to become a dynasty that would ultimately claim five championships over a 14-season run. Walsh had only seven proven players on offense when he arrived. The defense was so bad that it had used 33 defensive backs by the time future Pro Bowl safety Dwight Hicks joined the team midway through that 1979 season. But Walsh had a crafty quarterback named Montana, an innovative short passing attack that would become known as the West Coast offense and an innate feel for the type of players it would take to succeed. The turning point came in the 1980 season, when Montana led San Francisco to a comeback win over the Saints after trailing by 28 points. The 49ers got their signature playoff win against the Cowboys the following year and finished 1981 with a 13-3 record. As former 49ers center Randy Cross said, "We got into this 'Who's next?' mode of thinking. It came up during our first Super Bowl run and by the time we left Detroit (after beating Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI), we were still thinking it. We wanted to keep playing. But by that point, there was no one else to beat."
2) 1999 St. Louis Rams
Record: 13-3. Playoffs: Won Super Bowl XXXIV.
The crazy thing about the players on this team is that they didn't realize how lousy their franchise actually was. The Rams, who relocated from Los Angeles to St. Louis for the 1995 season, only had one winning season in the 1990s, and it came in 1999, when they ended the year beating Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV. St. Louis went 5-11 and 4-12 in the two years prior to that 13-3 campaign. But as defensive tackle D'Marco Farr recalled, the younger players on those squads thought they were just unfortunate. "We always thought we were three or four plays away from winning a lot of the games we lost," Farr said. "We really didn't know we were that bad. But then we got Marshall (Faulk) and Kurt (Warner) and we had finally had all the pieces in place to win. Once we got to that point, we weren't going back to losing." The Rams didn't simply arrive on the scene in 1999. It felt like somebody had detonated them. They lost starting quarterback Trent Green to a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game, and Warner -- who famously was bagging groceries at one point before finding a job with the Rams -- wound up winning the league's MVP award. Faulk, a Pro Bowl back in Indianapolis, became one of the best multi-dimensional threats in league history after being traded to the Rams in April of 1999. They already had enough components in place to feel confident about competing for a playoff spot, including a strong offensive line and a talented defense. The emergence of that electric offense behind Warner, Faulk and a trio of gifted wide receivers took that squad to an entirely different level.
3) 2001 New England Patriots
Record: 11-5. Playoffs: Won Super Bowl XXXVI.
At the start of the 2001 season, there wasn't anything to suggest this team would end up winning a title. The Patriots finished last in the AFC East with a 5-11 record a year earlier. Their starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, sustained a sheared blood vessel in his chest after a hit from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis in Week 2. Their best wide receiver, Terry Glenn, barely even played that year because of off-field problems and a feud with head coach Bill Belichick. All the Patriots had was a second-year backup QB nobody knew much about, a roster filled with a number of experienced veterans and a head coach who was coming into his own. Turns out, that was more than enough. That 2001 Patriots team -- a squad that defined itself in a year that was scarred by the events of 9/11 -- won because of its undeniable chemistry. Belichick set the expectations for that team with his first training camp in 2000, when he rode his squad so hard that former Patriots center Damien Woody said, "It seemed like we had veterans retiring every day." Belichick also added players whom he had known on previous teams, defensive talents like Bryan Cox, Roman Phifer and Anthony Pleasant. More than anything, Belichick won big with the sixth-round pick he invested in Tom Brady in 2000. The Patriots flourished because there was never a moment that overwhelmed their young signal-caller. He never flinched when he faced a St. Louis Rams team that was a huge favorite in Super Bowl XXXVI, and he ultimately led the Patriots to five more Super Bowl wins over the course of 20 years with that franchise.
4) 2003 Carolina Panthers
Record: 11-5. Playoffs: Lost in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
This team was arguably the most resilient on this list, and not just because Carolina was 1-15 in 2001. The 2003 Panthers reached Super Bowl XXXVIII by literally playing more drama-filled games than any franchise in league history at the time. They played in five overtime games on the road and won four of them, which was a league record. They tied another league mark by winning seven games by three points or less and earned their last two NFC playoff wins on the road, including a double-overtime win over the Rams. What made this team so fun were the contributions that came from players who had been largely unheralded. The quarterback, Jake Delhomme, started his career as a practice-squad player for the New Orleans Saints. The most dangerous wide receiver, Steve Smith, had to prove to skeptics that he could be more than just a dynamic returner. That defense had a dominant line featuring blossoming stars like tackle Kris Jenkins and end Julius Peppers. Head coach John Fox used every trick imaginable to motivate this team to an 11-5 record, and most of them worked. If not for an errant kickoff late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXVIII -- an error that put the Patriots in position to kick the game-winning field goal -- this Panthers team might have created an argument that it had mounted the greatest turnaround ever.
5) 2021 Cincinnati Bengals
Record: 10-7. Playoffs: Reached Super Bowl LVI.
The Bengals might end up higher on future versions of this list if they can pull off one last upset in this postseason and beat the Rams in Super Bowl LVI. It's been a remarkable run thus far, and it can't be overstated how much this franchise has accomplished since it selected LSU quarterback Joe Burrow with the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Bengals had five straight losing seasons before reaching the Super Bowl this year (the Rams are the only other franchise in history with more years of futility before winning a conference championship). They had just six wins in the two years prior to this breakthrough season, which is the fewest amount a team has produced prior to a Super Bowl year. The Bengals also had plenty to overcome when this season began, including Burrow bouncing back from major knee surgery and playing in a division that placed three teams in the postseason in 2020. Cincinnati responded by growing up in a hurry. Rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase blossomed into a superstar on an offense brimming with talent. A defense that had relied heavily on a variety of free-agent acquisitions discovered an identity and a penchant for forcing turnovers in the postseason. The collective character of this squad can't be denied, either. The Bengals beat the Titans in the Divisional Round despite giving up a playoff-record nine sacks and then won the AFC championship despite trailing by 18 points to Kansas City in the first half. Entering this postseason, the Bengals hadn't won a playoff game in three decades. Now, they're one win away from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history. "I think if you would've told me coming into the league, when I got drafted, that we would be here this year, it would be a shock," Burrow said after the AFC Championship Game. "Like I said earlier, now I'm not surprised. I've been playing this whole year and I knew we'd have a chance to be here."
6) 1998 Atlanta Falcons
Record: 14-2. Playoffs: Lost in Super Bowl XXXIII.
It's fitting that we're discussing this team just a few weeks after the passing of former Atlanta head coach Dan Reeves. It was the best coaching job he ever did during a career that ended with him winning 201 games. The Falcons were 3-13 in 1996, the year before Reeves replaced June Jones as head coach. They were 14-2 by 1998, with only a loss to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII spoiling the fun. This team makes the list for multiple reasons. For one, they had 11 more wins in 1998 than in 1996, which is tied for the highest swing in a three-year period in league history (matching the 1998 New York Jets). They also beat one of the most prolific offenses this league has ever seen: the 1998 Minnesota Vikings, in the NFC Championship Game. Let's not forget that Reeves underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery late in that regular season and returned in time to lead the Falcons to that epic upset over Minnesota. There was a lot to like about this team -- including the banging of burly running back Jamal Anderson and the dependability of a disruptive defense -- but the most obvious characteristic was its heart.
7) 2018 Los Angeles Rams
Record: 13-3. Playoffs: Lost in Super Bowl LIII.
All you have to know about the Rams before Sean McVay arrived in 2017 is that their offense stunk. They ranked last in the NFL in scoring. Their rookie quarterback, Jared Goff, looked clueless. Their record reflected those issues: They were 4-12 in the season before hiring McVay, their first back in Los Angeles. The change that happened after that moment was immediate. The Rams won 11 games in 2017 and then 13 in 2018, when they lost to New England in Super Bowl LIII. As deflating as that defeat was, the culture McVay created set the stage for where the Rams are today. That once-feeble offense led the league in scoring in 2017 and finished second in that same category in 2018. McVay turned Goff into a two-time Pro Bowl QB, while the Rams haven't had a losing season since firing Jeff Fisher in 2016. That Rams team also went into New Orleans and won the NFC title in overtime, beating a Saints squad that had been the top seed in that year's playoffs. The Rams have made plenty of noise this season with a team that has made a number of blockbuster moves to produce a championship. That 2018 squad was cut from a different cloth. It had to start at the bottom and build itself into a contender.
8) 1991 Dallas Cowboys
Record: 11-5. Playoffs: Lost in the Divisional Round.
The Cowboys obviously would be higher on this list if they had won a Super Bowl this season, the third year of their turnaround. They actually achieved that in Year 4 under head coach Jimmy Johnson, in Super Bowl XXVII, but nobody's complaining about that little blip. Dallas became the team of the 1990s, with three Super Bowl wins in four years. Johnson wasn't around for the last championship, following the 1995 season, after a fallout with owner Jerry Jones led to him resigning and Barry Switzer coming on as his replacement. What Johnson did do in building those Cowboys into a dynasty can't be underrated. Dallas went 1-15 in 1989, his first year on the job. They were 11-5 two years later, but not even a loss to Detroit in the NFC Divisional Round was enough to deter people from thinking the Cowboys were going to be a monster for years to come. The most important move of that 1991 season actually proved to be Johnson's decision to hire Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. Turner helped the maturation of quarterback Troy Aikman while also developing a running attack that put Emmitt Smith on a path to become the league's all-time leading rusher. It also didn't hurt that the Cowboys cut their teeth in the NFC East, back when the Giants and Washington won Super Bowls in that decade, as well. "People talk about your football family being your second family," said former Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston. "That's what we had in Dallas."
9) 1998 New York Jets
Record: 12-4. Playoffs: Lost in AFC Championship Game.
Bill Parcells already was a legend in New York before he accepted the job as the Jets' head coach in 1997, having won a pair of titles with the Giants. What he did after that added to his legacy even more. It wasn't just that Parcells inherited a team that went 1-15 the year prior to his arrival. It's that the Jets had been coached by Rich Kotite for two years before that point, which speaks to the level of incompetence that had been festering within that franchise. All Parcells did was improve that team to 9-7 in his first season. The Jets went 12-4 the next year and lost to the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. How did Parcells work such magic? He put his faith in long-time veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who rewarded that confidence with the best season of his 21-year career. Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson enjoyed a breakout season, while Curtis Martin -- whom Parcells had signed away from his previous employer, the New England Patriots -- led a strong ground attack. There also were plenty of those familiar faces who helped Belichick win in New England playing defense for that Jets team (with Belichick operating as the defensive coordinator). It's sad to think this franchise didn't get more out of this group, as Parcells retired (for the second of three times) after the 1999 season and Belichick moved on to New England. But it was fun while it lasted.
10) 1999 Indianapolis Colts
Record: 13-3. Playoffs: Lost in Divisional Round.
This was the year when all the promise surrounding quarterback Peyton Manning, the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, became real. The Colts won three games in Manning's rookie year and three in the 1997 season before that. They went 13-3 in Manning's second season, as all the pieces for a devastating Colts offense fell into place. Manning matured dramatically, going from a QB who threw 26 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions as a rookie to one who threw 26 and 15, respectively. Running back Edgerrin James ran for 1,553 yards as a rookie. Marvin Harrison nearly doubled his reception total (going from 59 to 115) and actually did double his receiving yardage (776 to 1,663). These three would be the foundation of an explosive offense that would define the Colts throughout the 2000s. This team wasn't good enough to move past the Divisional Round that season -- and James wasn't even with the Colts when they eventually won the Super Bowl in 2006 -- but the '99 Colts were special in their own right. It made Indianapolis believe that better days definitely were coming soon.