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A New Life For Four NFL Teams

These teams reversed their fortunes from last season. How did they do it, and what does it teach us?

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by Austin O’ Connor

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1. Philadelphia Eagles Reimagination tools: Innovation, Adaptability Last year, the once-proud Eagles tumbled into last place in the NFC East. At season’s end, the organization plucked coach Chip Kelly from the University of Oregon to replace longtime head coach Andy Reid. Kelly’s fresh approach—among other things, he runs a much faster offensive system, employs an unorthodox practice schedule and relies heavily on stats-based sabermetrics—paid off: The Eagles flew back to the top of their division. The turnaround wasn’t without obstacles, though. The team navigated a summer controversy surrounding receiver Riley Cooper’s racist comments caught on an online video that went viral. Cooper was disciplined but was kept on the team and delivered his best-ever season. And, after starting quarterback Michael Vick was injured early in the season, Kelly turned to backup Nick Foles, who threw 27 touchdowns to lead the team to an 8-2 record and a playoff berth.

Quote: “This isn't a football deal. This is a life deal.” —Chip Kelly, on allowing Cooper to stay with the team after undergoing sensitivity training

2. San Diego Chargers Reimagination tools: Luck, Perseverance Careful, reasoned planning is well and good, but many successful reimaginings have an element of good fortune. For proof, look to the 2013 Chargers. Four weeks ago, a loss at home to the Cincinnati Bengals dropped their record to 5-7. But suddenly, fortune shined. The teams ahead of the Chargers in the standing kept losing just as they found their stride, reeling off four wins to end the season. Good luck struck again in the season’s final week, when a game-winning field goal try by Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop that would have ended the Chargers season clanked off the goal post as time expired. The Chargers won in overtime, securing an unlikely playoff berth. Of course, it’s never all luck. Quarterback Philip Rivers flourished this season under new boss Mike McCoy, 41. And rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen, who nearly quit football out of frustration early in the season, emerged as one of the league’s best new talents.

Quote: “Don’t give up.”—Keenan Allen, reflecting on his early season struggles to the San Diego Union Tribune.

3. Carolina Panthers Reimagination tools: Patience, Confidence Through four games this season, the Panthers were 1-3 and speculation was rampant among football writers and NFL pregame pundits that third-year head coach Ron Rivera would be fired. But then the pieces of the 51-year-old Rivera’s puzzle for success—a staunch defense bolstering an offense led by budding young star quarterback Cam Newton—began to fall into place. The defense ranked second in the league and the team won 11 of its final 12 games. The 12-4 record represented a five-win improvement from 2012, and a remarkable turnaround from early-season ineptitude. In early October, Rivera was on the hot seat. Suddenly, after staying the course, he’s three wins away from the NFL throne. Quote: “I’m a good football coach. I know that somewhere along the line, if I get things in my favor, I can be successful. That’s sort of what’s happening now. You’ve got to be patient.” —Ron Rivera to USA TODAY, on bouncing back from adversity

4. New Orleans Saints Reimagination tools: Resilience, Responsibility 2012 was a lost year for Saints coach Sean Payton. The 50-year-old, who led the moribund franchise to its first-ever Super Bowl title in 2009, was suspended by the NFL for the entire season for his part in the so-called “Bountygate” controversy, in which Saints personnel were accused of offering cash incentives to players who injured opponents. In his absence, the Saints stumbled to a losing record and missed the playoffs. Payton was reinstated this year and returned the team to its winning ways, posting an 11-5 record and returning to the playoffs. The coach was angry about the penalty, but took responsibility and apologized for his part in the scandal. He has said that his time away from the game, though involuntary, let him reconsider his career and more fully appreciate his job and success.

Quote: “If you can’t let it go, it can haunt you. If we continue to hold that bitterness and anger, it becomes counterproductive.” —Payton, interviewed on ESPN Radio about his return from suspension

Photo credits:CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 23: Coach Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers celebrates as time expires in a win over the Oakland Raiders at Bank of America Stadium on December 23, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Carolina defeated Oakland 17-6. Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 29: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints celebrates after his team defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 29, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images