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Franchise Turning Points: NFC South

A look back at the key moments that changed the history of each team in the NFC South.

Alex Hickey

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The Talking Heads posed the question “Well, how did I get here?” in the 1980 song “Once In A Lifetime.”

It’s applicable to anyone, of course, with football fans and their respective favorite teams being no exception. Football Insiders is taking a division-by-division look at the turning point in each franchise’s recent history that can answer that very question.

After a little draft-time break, we resume our series with arguably the most unique – and last year the weakest – division in football, the NFC South.

New Orleans Saints
Turning Point: Bountygate

Saints fans will forever blame Roger Goddell for torpedoing their franchise’s chances at a second Super Bowl when he suspended Sean Payton for the entirety of the 2012 season, but in reality he may have just slammed shut a door that was already closing.

The greatest opportunity at recapturing Super Bowl glory was lost in San Francisco in the 2011 Divisional playoffs.The Saints squandered the lead they took on an insane Drew Brees-to-Jimmy Graham touchdown connection with just 1:37 left to play. Had they held on, the Saints would have hosted the NFC title game against the Giants at the Superdome.

Payton’s one-year suspension the following season for his approval of the team’s “bounty” program proved to be a nail in the competitive coffin. New Orleans has made the playoffs once in the three years since the bounty scandal broke, and with Brees getting older and Graham traded to Seattle their arrow is pointing downward.

Atlanta Falcons
Turning Point: Drafting Matt Ryan

The Atlanta franchise plummeted to rock bottom in the wake of the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal. (You can say one thing for the NFC South – it’s sure big on scandals. Rae Carruth, of course, puts bounties and dog killing to shame).

They received twin saviors in the form of head coach Mike Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, which goes to show how far things had fallen.

Both gave the Falcons a sense of stability that had never previously existed, but stability led to something else new to the franchise – expectations. And when Atlanta stopped meeting those expectations, usually due to some baffling in-game decision by Smith, he was finally shown the door.

So now Ryan is left alone to carry the mantle of Falcon respectability. Before long, he should have them back in the playoffs. But will he be able to do anything once he gets there?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Turning Point: Hiring Raheem Morris

Historically speaking, the Buccaneers are possibly the strangest franchise the NFL has ever seen. They began life as a punchline, losing the first 26 games in franchise history. Coach John McKay memorably quipped, “I’m in favor of it” when asked about his team’s execution.

But within four years they were the first expansion team to win a division title and play in a conference championship game. Then, another long, putrid phase before Tony Dungy brought them to respectability and Jon Gruden took them to the top.

The Gruden Era came to a close when the Bucs fell apart in 2008 and the team made the decision to name young defensive coordinator Raheem Morris – he had only held that job for a month – head coach.

Morris is long gone – replaced by the laughable Greg Schiano, who in turn was replaced by retread Lovie Smith – but Tampa Bay has not reached the playoffs since.

Carolina Panthers
Turning Point: John Kasay’s illegal procedure

They coulda been a contender.

In 2004, we stood a mere 1:04 away from the first overtime in Super Bowl history when Jake Delhomme (!) found Ricky Proehl (!!) for a 12-yard touchdown to tie the mighty Patriots.

And then John Kasay messed up real bad.

The typically dependable veteran kicker – dependable by kicker standards, at least – sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds. It was as unthinkable a penalty as could be committed in the scenario.

Tom Brady got the ball at his own 40, and the rest was academic. The Pats needed only six plays to go 37 yards and set up Adam Vinatieri for the winning 41-yard field goal.

Carolina has not sniffed a Super Bowl since, with the only playoff win coming courtesy of getting to play a Cardinals team quarterbacked by Ryan Lindley.

Alex Hickey can vividly recall most significant NFL events going back to Walter Payton's final game in 1987, including the ones that didn't make him cry. Since 2008, his full-time job has been covering college football, specifically McNeese State, for the Lake Charles (La.) American Press. Free time is spent informing, amusing or annoying you for Football Insiders.

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