Following Carlton’s fourth win in a row under Brendan Bolton, I thought it'd be interesting to look at the turnarounds of previous winners across the history of the AFL/VFL.
The last time was West Coast, who went from 4 wins for the whole of 2010 to go on a seven-game tear at the end of the 2011 season, finishing in 4th, making it to a preliminary final where they were smashed by eventual premiers Geelong. This was the squad's high water-mark, dropping to 5th, 9th and then 13th in the next three years before bringing in Adam Simpson.
We have to go back another 12 years to the Brisbane Lions teams of 1998/99 for the previous last-place-to-finals team. People will recognise that this is Brisbane's 2nd and 3rd years in the competition following their merger with Fitzroy, with a large list struggling to gel together. Of course, this team would be more successful than West Coast, winning the 2001/02/03 premierships, albeit with only one former Fitzroy player left.
Prior to that, there's only a one-year gap between this Brisbane team and the 1998 Melbourne Demons, who managed to rise to fourth from the previous year’s last place.
The most impressive turnaround has to be the 1976/77 Magpies, who managed to go from last to first, drawing and then losing the Grand Final to North Melbourne. This was also the commencement of the infamous Colliwobbles era, where they would make four Grand Finals in five years, losing all of them.
In the history of the AFL/VFL, nine teams have made the finals after finishing last in the previous year. On average, that’s one turnaround team every thirteen years. Since the inception of the AFL, it’s been every nine years. If Carlton manage it this year, it’ll be every six.
Obviously, the likelihood of this occurring is shifted by the various changes to the structure of finals systems which have made it easier to secure a contemporary finals berth than those of the 70s and 80s. You also get some weirdness in the pre-McIntyre finals system (prior to 1931), creating fun results like the 1916 Fitzroy team which finished in both last place AND were the eventual premiers.
Data from the ever useful AFL Tables.