Editor's note: Due to the Monday holiday, Mandatory Monday moves back a day this week.
How do you calculate hope?
That is a question that has not baffled philosophers throughout the ages at all, because it is an incredibly stupid question that they would not waste their time with. Hope is a complex, ineffable emotion, especially when it comes to a fan's feelings for an NFL team. A team that just finished 5-11 can inspire more hope than one that finished 11-5, assuming the 5-11 team made major changes while the 11-5 team is saddled up for the same-old same-old. But then, a peasant can feel more hope than a comfortable suburbanite, too, if the well in the village is halfway built while the suburbanite is ranting on Facebook about the gubernatorial primaries.
Yes, hope was hard to define and impossible to quantify... until now! The Mandatory Monday team is not afraid to put a number on hope and rank all 32 teams on hopefulness. It's that or work hard on Memorial Day weekend, so both the decision and math were easy.
"Hope" does not mean hope for a 2014 Super Bowl, but hope for a brighter future. Teams at the top of the list are either headed in the right direction, have already arrived there, or have beachfront summer homes in "right direction." Teams in the middle have at least installed the GPS and packed their bags. Teams at the bottom are not expected to win now and would have a hard time convincing anyone that they are poised to win later.
Here is how the Hope Index was calculated:
Recent Super Bowl Appearances: 5 points for the 2013 season, 4 points for 2012, and so on down to 2009. The team did not have to win, simply make it, to inspire confidence that it is still within a championship success cycle.
Super Bowl Quarterback: 3 points for multiple appearances, 2 points for single appearances. These points stack with the last set of points in most circumstances. Again, it's the appearance that matters.
Super Bowl Coach: 1 point. You might think this should be worth more, but Mike Shanahan was a heck of a buzzkill last year, and Ken Whisenhunt does not send people cartwheeling into the streets with spontaneous glee.
Winning Records, Last Five Years: 1 point each.
Playoff Appearance, 2013: 1 point.
Pro Bowl Participants, 2013: 1 point each. When trying to muster enthusiasm, it is easier to point to six Pro Bowlers on the roster than some 9-7 wild card sneak-in, though the combination of both can be pretty potent. The Pro Bowl lists are taken from Pro Football Reference and include injury replacements; in a few cases, players who earned All-Pro notice but were somehow left off Team Rice and Team Sanders were added to the Hope Index scores.
Pro Bowl Participants, 2012: 0.5 points each. These points give a little extra boost for teams that fell off suddenly last year while keeping the perennial sad sacks in their places.
Class of 2012 Quarterback: 3 points. The next set of values reward future possibilities, not past accomplishments. The 2012 quarterbacks pack a powerful psychological cache, so having one is as good or better than having some 37-year old who won a Super Bowl years ago. Brandon Weeden does not count as a 2012 quarterback, Robert Griffin and Kirk Cousins combine to form one, and in a grand compromise, Nick Foles counts as half of one.
New Quarterback: 1 point. Quarterback changes always bring a jolt of enthusiasm, even if they involve mid-round draft picks and Matt Schaub.
New Coach: 2 points. Both 2013 and 2014 coaching changes count here, as most fans give new staffs tons of benefit of the doubt in the first year (and so many new 2013 coaches performed so well).
New Regime: 1 point. New owners, new general managers and deposed despotic coaches of the Shanahan class all get one additional point, again retroactive to 2013.
Major Draft Improvements: 1 point for selecting in the top five, 1 non-stacking point for two first-round picks. We could get far more technical here, but this point boosts the hope for some weaker teams, and it stacks with "new quarterback" points in a few important cases.
Stuck in a Nasty Division: Minus-one point. The AFC East and AFC West contenders are docked a point for having to try to unseat the Patriots and Broncos to get anywhere. All four NFC West teams are docked a point, the 49ers and Seahawks simply for having to cope with each other.
Add the totals up, and Presto! You know how you are supposed to feel about your favorite team. If you feel different, it does not reflect poorly on your intellect or sanity. Probably.
1) San Francisco 49ers: 24.5
The 49ers have come so close for three years, and had such a productive offseason, that hope may give way to a kind of flop sweat. If they don't win, what secret deficiency is holding them back? That kind of neurosis can be controlled with medication: this is the best team in the NFL entering training camp, with all the depth, breadth and youth a sports organization planning to sustain success for a decade could ask for.
2) Seattle Seahawks: 22
More "afterglow" than "hope" at this point. Seahawks fans are not Patriots/Yankees fans, who start worrying about the next championship during the parade call-in show. But with John Schneider playing the salary cap like a Gibson Les Paul, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a repeat performance is that pesky division rival.
3) New England Patriots: 21.5
Rounding up the usual suspects. The Patriots rank ahead of the Broncos because they have had more winning seasons in the past five years. There is no variable for "fanbase so desensitized to success that they complain about 12-win seasons."
4) Denver Broncos: 20.5
This system was not designed to put the NFL's Big Four on top, but just about any system that measures recent success is going to whisk the Niners, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos to the front of the line. It's not just the recent Super Bowl appearances and quarterback bonafides, because recent winning records, Pro Bowlers and other indicators point to one conclusion: there are four contenders, and then there is everyone else.
5) Kansas City Chiefs: 19
Ten Pro Bowlers and Andy Reid's credentials make the Chiefs surprising top-five hope generators. Granted, you have to buy into Reid's infrastructure-focused principles to be a true believer. "Yeah, we are building in the trenches, drafting for skills instead of needs, and remaining fiscally solvent. Hooray Chiefs!" Reid is building something that looks very similar to the early-2000's Eagles, right down to the aggressively unimpressive receiving corps. After the Herm Edwards, Todd Haley and Romeo Crennel regimes, that looks a lot better to Chiefs fans than it sounds to Eagles fans.
6) Baltimore Ravens: 18
A team that has proven for nearly 15 years that it stands a better-than-average chance of slopping out 10 or 11 wins and short-sheeting some opponents in the playoffs.
7) Houston Texans: 16.5
Shocked? Let's crunch the numbers. The Texans had three winning seasons in the past five years, nine 2012 Pro Bowlers (worth 4.5 points), and rang all the bells for new coaches, quarterbacks, regimes (general manager Rick Smith is still in place, but Bill O'Brien clearly carries a ton of clout), and the first pick in the draft. In other words, the system spots a team that had strong infrastructure through 2012, collapsed suddenly, and is now back with new leadership and an influx of young talent. Granted, there is no "dissatisfied Andre Johnson" variable or Ryan Fitzpatrick restrictor plate on quarterback enthusiasm, but you don't have to be a Texans diehard to see the possibility of a quick 2014 turnaround, plus sunny skies beyond.
8) New Orleans Saints: 16
The Saints are riding on fumes of old successes, two or three car lengths behind the Broncos and Patriots. There is no specific variable holding back NFC teams, but it is hard to rack up huge Pro Bowl totals in a conference where two teams hog so much of the awesome.
9) Cleveland Browns: 14.5
Another surprise contender. If you do not feel the Browns buzzing now, you sure did on Day One of the draft, before Josh Gordon's possible suspension became public and Jimmy Haslam starting shouting at Johnny Manziel like the schoolmaster in Pink Floyd's The Wall. Yes, "new coach" and "regime change" are loaded concepts in Cleveland, but the big driver in the Browns' numbers is the team's six Pro Bowlers in 2013. Add two first-round picks to a decent young core, give the reins to a well-regarded young coach, and you have enough optimism to absorb the loss of a star wide receiver, at least partially.
10) Green Bay Packers: 14
Like the Saints, they offer a recent Super Bowl title and championship-proven leadership. That gets you much further in the AFC.
11) Philadelphia Eagles: 13.5
The Eagles tap various elements of the Hope Index: three winning records in five years to represent the past, coach-quarterback-regime points for the future, and five 2013 Pro Bowlers for the present. These ratings would look very different if a "wide receiver anxiety" variable were added -- the Texans, Browns and Eagles would all drop -- but does anyone want to give wide receivers that much power?
12) Indianapolis Colts: 13.5
Andrew Luck does most of the heavy lifting here, with residual Peyton Manning influence doing the rest.
13) New York Giants: 13
There are two types of teams hanging around the 12-to-14 Hope Point scene. Some, like the Colts and Eagles, are riding the new coach, new quarterback, new-attitude trolley. The others are gasping and sputtering by on "this coach and quarterback won a Super Bowl or two" dregs. The Giants fall into the latter category, with most of their point production generated by events that occurred before March of 2012. The fact that three NFC East teams are knotted close to one another says a lot about a division that shifts every single year.
14) Washington Redskins: 12.5
The Redskins get a "regime change" point, in addition to coach change points, despite the fact that they did not replace their general manager. Parisians probably felt pretty good when Robespierre was sent to the guillotine, too. If this score seems a little high, try to remember how you felt about Robert Griffin III this time last year, and keep in mind that Redskins fans are the most optimistic fans on the planet. Redskins fans were penciling in 10 wins when Rex Grossman and John Beck were the quarterbacks. These folks have hope, and the probably still have the T-shirts to prove it.
15) Chicago Bears: 12.5
The Bears sent five players to the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons and get credit for Phil Emery's attempt to reimagine the salary cap and Marc Trestman's attempt to reimagine Jay Cutler. As awful as the Bears defense was last season, the fact that the offense improved drastically was an encouraging sign. Fixing defense? That's something that comes naturally for the Bears.
16) Pittsburgh Steelers: 12
The last of the recent champions, and the team that rounds out the top half of the NFL in terms of brighter tomorrows. Give us someone besides Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu to believe in, and it will become much easier to start believing again.
17) Minnesota Vikings 11.5
No one expects the Vikings to compete for a deep playoff run this year. But it is easy to imagine Mike Zimmer, Teddy Bridgewater and a busload of promising recent draft picks coalescing into a contender in the next two or three years. That's the difference between a hope rating and a power rating: the Vikings get credit for things we can imagine happening, not things that have happened.
18) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 10.5
I expected these guys to be higher. But Lovie Smith only gets one point for leading the Bears to a Super Bowl years ago, and there is only one regime-change point to be had, even if you are banishing Loki from Asgard forever. The Bucs had just three Pro Bowl selections last year, which seems low (one was Darrelle Revis), but never underestimate a terrible coach's ability to suppress the quality of his own players.
19) Arizona Cardinals: 9.5
The Cardinals are docked a point for coping with the NFC West, and also because the franchise has experienced so little recent success. Still, any hope at all qualifies as quite a bit of hope for the Cardinals.
20) Carolina Panthers: 9
You have last year's playoff run, seven Pro Bowl participants in 2013 and little else. If we really added a "wide receiver anxiety" variable, the Panthers would fare even worse.
21) Cincinnati Bengals: 9
The system sees the Bengals, like the Panthers, as a 2013 playoff team that has plateaued in terms of optimism. The Panthers have their Pro Bowlers, the Bengals have their string of recent winning seasons, but neither has anything to provide a "this is our time of destiny" jolt to the pleasure centers of the brain. I have rooted for enough late-in-the-success-cycle teams to confirm that it is easier to get jazzed up about a new coach and a young quarterback than for an epic battle to climb from 11-5 to 12-4.
22) Miami Dolphins: 8.5
Ryan Tannehill still gets 2012 quarterback props, the general manager change is worth a point and the Dolphins produced four Pro Bowlers last year. That propels them to the top of the teams that have spent the last half decade or so accomplishing nothing.
23) Buffalo Bills: 8.5
The system sees the Bills and Dolphins as essentially the same team: the Dolphins have more quarterback optimism, the Bills still get a "new coach" boost, but that's it, and each is docked a point for a decade of headers into the Patriots glass ceiling.
24) Atlanta Falcons: 8.5
The Falcons have some past glories and 2012 Pro Bowlers to cling to, but otherwise they are a rebuilding team that hasn't quite assembled all the blueprints yet. I gave the Falcons a regime point for adding Scott Pioli to the front office and I don't regret doing so after a productive offseason. But I won't argue with anyone who would rather have taken a point away.
25) San Diego Chargers: 8
A relative lack of Pro Bowlers and the presence of the Broncos in the same division tamp down the excitement for a new regime and 2013 playoff appearance. This rating may seem low now, but it wouldn't have if all of the other wild card contenders didn't trip over each other in the final two weeks last year.
26) Dallas Cowboys: 7.5
Buoyed almost exclusively by 2013 Pro Bowlers. If Jon Bon Jovi bought the team from Jerry Jones and cleaned house, they would close schools in Texas.
27) Jacksonville Jaguars: 7
The Jaguars are experienced lots of needle flickers because of new coaches, quarterbacks and regimes, but it's still too much like hearing faint grunts from deep down the coal shaft.
28) Tennessee Titans: 6
At least the Jaguars topped the Titans, who get credit for a new regime and Super Bowl coach but cannot even muster a "new quarterback" point (sorry, Zach Mettenberger, but much as I like you, you are a sixth-round pick behind an incumbent and Charlie Freakin' Whitehurst). Titans fans must be looking at the roster right now and wondering when the draft and free agency start.
29) New York Jets: 6
John Idzik still represents a "regime change" point, and Michael Vick combines with a repurposed Geno Smith to make a "new quarterback," but the bottom line is that the Jets lead the league in phrases that must be placed within quotation marks.
30) Detroit Lions: 6
My gut tells me this should be higher. Like the Buccaneers, Texans and Redskins, the Lions stand to improve significantly under a new coaching staff. Jim Schwartz was not an autocrat like Greg Schiano or Mike Shanahan, but was more of a burnt-out substitute teacher (a la Gary Kubiak), so even the most gifted pupils were doing whatever they wanted. On the other hand, these are the Lions.
31) St. Louis Rams: 5
Another team I would like to rank higher. But the Rams twin peaks of optimism are "maybe Brian Schottenheimer and Sam Bradford will turn the offense around" and "maybe the Seahawks and 49ers with quit football for competitive bowling." So there is not a lot of stable footing there.
32) Oakland Raiders: 3
Ladies and gentlemen: your 2010 Pro Bowl team has arrived, four years late!