Rags to Riches: It Starts at Quarterback

Since the start of the 12-team playoff format, 102 teams qualified for the playoffs after a season in which they failed to do so. Of those, 48 returned to the postseason the following year. The difference, almost always, is at quarterback — which is good news for Green Bay.

While the New Orleans Saints play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy on Sunday, the Green Bay Packers and four other rags-to-riches team hope to take a step forward rather than a step back next season.

From 2002 through 2008, 45 teams reached the playoffs after watching the postseason from home the year before. Of those 45, the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers (twice) and Chicago Bears reached the Super Bowl the following season.

However, there's no guarantee the Packers, Patriots, Jets, Bengals, Cowboys or even the Saints — who also didn't qualify for the playoffs last season — will even reach the playoffs next season, much less play for the championship. In fact, those teams are as likely to take a step back as they are to take another step forward.

Since the start of the 12-team playoff format with the 1991 season, 102 teams qualified for the playoffs after a season in which they failed to do so. Of those, 48 returned to the postseason the following year, or just 47.1 percent.

Of those 48 teams, six took the next step and parlayed their playoff appearance into a trip to the Super Bowl the following year: Dallas (playoffs, 1991; Super Bowl win, 1992); Denver (playoffs, 1996; Super Bowl win, 1997); New England (playoffs, 2002; Super Bowl win, 2003); Pittsburgh (playoffs, 2004; Super Bowl win, 2005); Chicago (playoffs, 2005; Super Bowl loss, 2006) and Pittsburgh (playoffs, 2007; Super Bowl win, 2008).

However, while the bulk of the Super Bowl teams have come in the last seven years, the odds of actually getting back to the playoffs have decreased.

Since 2002, only 17 of the 45 new playoff teams managed to get back the next season, or 37.8 percent.

Perhaps none of this is too surprising. More than any professional sports league, parity drives the NFL. Not only are the worst teams given the best draft picks, but they're awarded easier schedules. With most of the teams having relatively similar talent, a key injury (Tom Brady) or a loss of mojo (Brett Favre soap opera) can take a good team out of the postseason equation and let another team rise to take its place.

It's also not too surprising to find a common thread between the teams that return to the playoffs and the ones that don't: quarterback.

Other than, perhaps, a goaltender in hockey, no position is more important than a quarterback. If you've got one, you've got a chance to win year after year after year. If not, playoff seasons come fleetingly, if ever.

Take this season, for instance. Seven teams qualified for the playoffs in 2008 after not qualifying in 2007. Of those seven, four returned to the postseason: Baltimore (Joe Flacco and a stellar defense), Minnesota (added Favre), Arizona (Kurt Warner) and Philadelphia (Donovan McNabb). Those who didn't? Miami (young Chad Henne replaced injured Chad Pennington), Carolina (Jake Delhomme) and Atlanta (Matt Ryan is a good quarterback but the Falcons were hammered with injuries).

Several franchises have been seeking a long-term solution at quarterback for a decade, if not longer. Without a proven winner at quarterback, Atlanta (0-for-6), Carolina (0-for-4), Cleveland (0-for-2), Detroit (1-for-4), Jacksonville (1-for-3), Kansas City (0-for-3) and Washington (0-for-3) are a combined 2-of-25 in repeat playoff performances since 1991. This year's New York Jets reached the playoffs after not making it the year before for the sixth time since 1991. Only once did the Jets return, though if Mark Sanchez develops, they have a good chance to make it 2-of-6 in 2010.

Thus, the Packers appear poised to make the playoffs a habit. By any measure, Aaron Rodgers is one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks. Even with the NFL's youngest roster, his supporting cast is proven with Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley on course to be stars for the next five years, at least. And the defense's problems against big-time quarterbacks not withstanding, it's not like Rodgers needs to throw three touchdown passes every week.

It's a quarterback's league. Have one, and you win. Don't have one, and it's a long, difficult swim upstream.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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