Every team is not a viable contender

Only two seasons before their Super Bowl XXXVIII berth, the Carolina Panthers won just a single contest, concluding the dismal 2001 campaign with a 15-game losing streak. A year later, under rookie coach John Fox, the Panthers won seven times and then, in the recently completed season, fell four seconds shy of forcing a Super Bowl overtime and earning a chance to culminate one of the great franchise resurrections in NFL history.

The lesson for moribund clubs everywhere, in the wake of the remarkable turnaround in Carolina, seems to be that all things are possible now in a league that seems constantly in flux. But are all things really possible for all teams and, in truth, will all 32 of the league's franchises actually report to training camp in five months with the same degree of Super Bowl viability for 2004?

Sorry, guys, but probably not.

At a time when the league ought to consider replacing the Vince Lombardi Trophy with a glass slipper, given the number of upstarts that have appeared in the Super Bowl over the last six seasons, there are still some teams that won't be legitimate fits. For Cinderella to advance to the Super Bowl ball, after all, a team usually has to have put at least one foot forward the previous year on the potholed road back to respectability. Not all upstarts, it seems, are created equal.

And as some Carolina veterans acknowledged during Super Bowl week, the final mile on that road is sometimes more treacherous than the first few steps.

"Looking back, it might have been tougher going from last year and seven wins, to this year, than it was jumping from one win (in 2001) to seven (in 2002)," said wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. "Going into 2002, coming off that ugly season the year before, there were zero expectations for us and other teams didn't really respect us. Then when we got to seven wins, and everybody understood that we had a great defense, people looked at us a different way. You get close to .500 in this league and look like you're on the rise, and it's a different ball game, and the expectations are a little higher. But, hey, I guess we're proof that it can be done, huh?"

Not only has it been done in the NFL but, in the last six seasons, the ascent from chump to conference champion has been accomplished with some regularity. Five times in the last six seasons, the Super Bowl has featured a franchise that posted a losing record the previous year. Only in Super Bowl XXXVII, when Tampa Bay (9-7 the year before) and Oakland (10-6) faced off, was the streak snapped.

In six of the past eight title games, in fact, the Super Bowl included at least one team that had a losing record the year before. The biggest bounce: St. Louis went from 4-12 in 1998 to a Super Bowl XXXIV championship the following year. That was Year 3 of the Dick Vermeil plan with the Rams and, while St. Louis was last in its division in 1998, there was an underlying feeling the team was on the cusp of a breakout season.

"You have to get to a certain level, a jumping-off point, or just catch lighting in a bottle," said former Atlanta tailback Jamal Anderson, whose power running led the Falcons to a surprising Super Bowl XXXIII berth in 1998. "It's hard to just jump out of the weeds and into a Super Bowl game. You sort of have to be poised to make the move."

It would appear, on first glance and without benefit of a crystal ball to conjure up what kind of personnel moves will be made in the offseason, there are a handful of franchises that had losing marks in 2003 but could make a Super Bowl push in '04. Here is a look at a few teams, all of whom finished with fewer than eight victories in 2003, which might be the Panthers of 2004:

  • Atlanta (5-11 in 2003): Rookie coach Jim Mora will have his hands full refurbishing a defense that finished dead last in the league in 2003 and will likely switch back to a more conventional 4-3 front than the 3-4 it misguidedly played the last two years. The good news is that quarterback Michael Vick, the great equalizer, should be healthy. With the mercurial Vick in the lineup, Atlanta won three of its last four games, and former 49ers coordinator Greg Knapp should be able to craft a productive design from the excellent collection of skill-position players on hand. The Falcons made a bold move in bringing in Alex Gibbs to tutor a porous and undersized offensive line. In general, this is a team that needs more size on both sides of the ball, but one that could ride Vick a long way.

  • Buffalo (6-10): There shouldn't be much dropoff, even if cornerback Antoine Winfield somehow escapes in free agency, from the defense that catapulted all the way to No. 2 in the league in 2003. The big task for rookie coach Mike Mularkey, the inventive offensive schemer, is to rehabilitate the career of quarterback Drew Bledsoe, whose numbers fell off precipitously last season. Buffalo could use another outside playmaker, but Mularkey and his staff figure to upgrade the performances of younger veterans like tailback Travis Henry and wide receiver Josh Reed. The offensive line needs a fix but veteran mentor Jim McNally has worked wonders with even less talent than is on hand here. Obviously, the Bills are in a difficult division, one that includes the reigning league champions, and will need more offense to compete.

  • N.Y. Giants (4-12): Don't laugh. The Giants are a team that, back in training camp last summer, appeared poised to go deep into the playoffs. The talent on both sides of the ball, at least in terms of the starting lineups, is certainly playoff caliber. There are myriad playmakers on offense and, when streak-shooter quarterback Kerry Collins is on top of his game, he can light it up. New York needs to get some veterans, like the cornerback tandem of Will Allen and Will Peterson, healthy again. The offensive line needs a quick fix, and should be addressed in the first round of the draft, and the defense could use a bit more quickness. But new coach Tom Coughlin knows how to win and, while there will be some players who find him difficult to accept, he won't tolerate some of the loose play that marked a disappointing 2003 campaign. No way is this a four-win team.

  • N.Y. Jets (6-10): All right, the too-slow and too-old defense will undergo a fairly dramatic offseason overhaul, little doubt about that. And first-year defensive boss Donnie Henderson has never been a coordinator at the NFL level. And, oh, did we mention that the Jets are in the AFC East, a division where contenders spend the year beating up on each other? All that aside, the Jets figure to have quarterback Chad Pennington whole again and ready to carve up opposition secondaries. There are concerns over the health of wide receiver Wayne Chrebet (repeat concussions) and tailback Curtis Martin will be a year older. But with Pennington healthy and coach Herm Edwards raining down some of his fire-and-brimstone motivation, New York could be back in contention in 2004.

  • Tampa Bay (7-9): C'mon now, you don't think a coach as good as Jon Gruden is going to suffer a second consecutive losing season, do you? Granted, the window is beginning to close a bit on the veteran Bucs, and Gruden can often be his own worst enemy with his grass-is-greener personnel approach. But the Bucs have weeded out some distractions, the front office power play victory that sent general manager Rich McKay packing provides Gruden more leeway in terms of acquisitions, and there is still enough veteran leadership here to squeeze out one more Super Bowl appearance. New general manager Bruce Allen, one of the craftiest salary cap managers in the league, will conjure up some way to create room for a few modestly-priced but crucial additions.

  • Washington (5-11): Those naysayers who suggest the game has passed by Joe Gibbs may have to eat their words. Provided, that is, Gibbs can keep the fingerprints of owner Dan Snyder away from the roster. Gibbs never worked under a salary cap or the current free agent system and both will cause him some grief. But the counter-trey and the play-action passes that earned the Redskins three Super Bowl rings during Gibbs first head coach incarnation will still work just fine. Gibbs sorely needs a big, early-down back and bulk on the defensive front. If he can run the ball effectively, though, that will camouflage some of the shortcomings. It will be interesting to see, should Washington complete the trade for Mark Brunell, how the change at quarterback affects the franchise both on and off the field. Certainly the incumbent starter, two-year pro Patrick Ramsey, won't be satisfied playing caddy to Brunell. The fact the Redskins were so stealthy in approaching Jacksonville officials about a deal for Brunell, at the same time Gibbs was publicly saying nice things about Ramsey, could backfire on Snyder and his minions.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.