One of the more fascinating elements in sports is the process by which teams behave unexpectedly over the course of a season. Think Leicester City, from the English Premier League, or the 2013 Boston Red Sox, who rolled to a World Series title after a 69-win season the year before. On the flip side, there are horror stories of teams tabbed as preseason darlings who crash and burn faster than Jeb Bush. The 2015 Washington Nationals- everyone’s preseason pick that year to win the World Series-come to mind.
This phenomenon exists in the NFL, perhaps more than in any other sport. Just look back to last year. With roughly the same roster, the Carolina Panthers went from winning a mere 7 games in 2014 to nearly pulling off the second 16-0 regular season of all-time. Over in Washington, Kirk Cousins led the Redskins to the playoffs after a last place finish, becoming the twelfth team in the last thirteen years to go from worst-to-first. In contrast, the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys, two teams many believed were legitimate Super Bowl contenders before the season, had disastrous years. While these sort of fluctuations happen in other sports, particularly in the MLB, they are not quite as pronounced and they do not happen as consistently as they do in the NFL.
Explaining why teams rise and fall can sometimes be easy. Even Patrick Star could tell you that Baltimore and Dallas declined dramatically last year because Joe Flacco and Tony Romo suffered season-ending injuries. But how do you explain the rise of a team like Carolina or Washington?
In short, the best way to predict the future is to study the past; and what the past tells us is that there are seven key indicators that are vital in understanding why teams improve or regress. Those indicators, in no particular order, are as follows: point differential, record in one score games, the plexiglass principle, injury rates, strength of schedule, turnover margin, and fumble recovery rates. For the record, some of these indicators, like point differential and the plexiglass principle, can be used to identify overperforming or underperforming teams in any particular sport. Others, like turnover margin and fumble recovery rates, are obviously more specific to football.
The main reasons why these indicators are useful in predicting future performance is that either a) history has taught us that there are particular patterns to look out for with them or b) that they tend to be unstable from year to year. Let’s look at each one more closely to see why this is true.
Say Team X and Team Y each win the first game of their season against similar opponents. Both teams are 1-0, so they must be equal to each other, right? Well what if Team X only won by a field goal and Team Y won by five touchdowns. I would say Team Y looks to be the better team. In essence, win-loss records can be deceptive. That’s why point differential has been proven to be a better predictor of future performance not just in football, but in other sports as well.
There is a common formula known as Pythagorean Win Expectation that calculates what a team’s win percentage should be based on their point differential. This expected win percentage is very revealing. Teams who underperform in a given year, meaning that their win-loss record is worse than their Pythagorean win expectation, improve by roughly two wins the next year. In contrast, teams who overperform, meaning that their win-loss record is better than their Pythagorean win expectation, regress by more than 1.5 wins.
Record in One Score Games
Contrary to popular opinion that some teams can be “clutch” or have that “it factor,” winning one-possession games in the long-run is mostly a 50/50 proposition. For example, Matt Ryan developed a reputation for being clutch in the first few years of his career: In 2012, for instance, he led the Falcons to a terrific 8-2 mark in one-score games. The following season, Ryan’s magic must have worn off because the Falcons went only 3-7 in close games. Unless you have a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, teams will regress to the mean in these type of games.
This theory was first made famous by noted baseball sabermetrician Bill James. As that article I linked in James’ name states, the plexiglass principle says that teams that improve one year tend to fall back to Earth, rather than improve, in the next, and vice versa. A noted example of this theory in effect was last year’s Carolina squad. After a 12-4 campaign in 2013, they regressed to 7-8-1 in 2014. The plexiglass principle states that the Panthers would have expected to improve in 2015, and improve they did.
The primary metric to identify which teams suffered the most injuries is called Adjusted Games Lost, which adds up the amount of games missed by starters over the course of a season. Ironically, the New York Giants have found a way to suffer the most injuries to key players each of the last three years. However, they are the exception, not the rule. For example, the three teams that suffered the least amount of injuries last year- Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Seattle- ranked both 16th, 25th, and 18th respectively in the same category the year before.
Strength of Schedule
With the NFL’s rotational schedule, some teams luck out by facing opponents that play in weaker divisions like the AFC South. Others sometimes get the short end of the stick by playing strong divisions like the AFC North. The trouble with projecting strength of schedule, however, is that it is based on last year’s records, which we know are very much subject to change. We’ll do the best we can.
Turnover Margin & Fumble Recovery Rates
Lastly, forcing turnovers, particularly causing fumbles, is extremely unpredictable. So much so that teams like the Houston Texans were able to go from forcing 11 turnovers in 2013 to 34 in ’14 and back down to 25 in ’15. The only thing some teams can count on is having a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers who minimizes interceptions.
Now, I’d like to get into the real purpose of this article: To share which teams these underlying indicators of future success predict will improve in 2016. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, which will analyze which teams are poised to regress.
Honorable Mentions: Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants
5 Tennessee Titans
Record in 2015: 3-13 / Predicted Improvement: 2-4 Wins
There are two main reasons why the Titans should improve in 2016 after a league-worst 3-13 record last year. The first is the discrepancy between their actual win total and their expected wins based on their point differential, or Pythagorean expectation. Even though the Titans were by no means a good team last year, their Pythagorean win total of 4.8 shows that they profiled more as a 5 win team. Combine that with their poor record in one-score games (2-6), and you have to think that if the Titans perform a little better in close games, they will easily make the jump to 5 or 6 wins.
Another encouraging sign is that they ranked tied for second to last in the NFL with a -14 turnover margin. Why is this encouraging? As we know, turnovers are fickle, which means that teams typically at the very top or very bottom (particularly the bottom) tend to level out the following season. In 2014, the four teams ranked last in turnover margin (New York Jets, Washington, New Orleans, and Oakland) jumped an average of 17.25 spots in the same category in 2015. Moreover, the Titans turnover margin was deceptive last year because Marcus Mariota missed a stretch of games. For a rookie, Mariota was very successful in minimizing mistakes, which is great news for the Titans because winning the turnover battle- or at least not losing it-is a vital ingredient to success.
If I’m wrong, it will be because…
The Titans still lack the depth to be a competent football team. The Tennessee front office seems to understand that while they have their quarterback in place, they are still a couple of years away from surrounding him with a good supporting cast and a respectable defense. With that said, it’s hard to get any worse from here if you’re the Titans, who weren’t even as bad as their record indicated last year. That means it’s very likely Tennessee at least takes a step in the right direction in 2016.
4 Cleveland Browns
Record in 2015: 3-13 / Predicted Improvement: 2-3 Wins
Even though LeBron James and company helped the city of Cleveland get the championship monkey off its back, the mood is still doom and gloom for the Browns. Yet even with an unstable quarterback situation, there’s actually reason to believe the Browns won’t be horrible this year. For starters, Cleveland was a brutal 1-5 in one score games last year. In an old Grantland article, Bill Barnwell pointed out that teams from 1983-2010 that posted a winning percentage under 25 percent in close games in one season went on to average close a .500 record in those same games the following season. Essentially, this means that if the Browns just perform like an average team would, they should go 3-3 in these same games this year.
In addition, the Browns regressed by 4 wins from 2014 to 2015. According to the plexiglass principle, this means the Browns should expect to ascend back to the mean in 2016. Moreover, the Browns were one of the worst teams in recovering fumbles last year, as evidenced by their league high of 18. This isn’t a skill that can be acquired- it’s just a matter of luck that didn’t go Cleveland’s way last year. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Cleveland faced the league’s hardest schedule last year. Even though they play in one of the league’s toughest divisions, the schedule projects to loosen up (projected 21st hardest schedule in the league, based on 2015 win percentages).
If I’m wrong, it will be because…
Well, they’re the Browns. They still have a shaky quarterback situation and a roster that is extremely thin in multiple areas. Even though the stats point to at least a minor turnaround under first year coach Hue Jackson, I think even Browns fans don’t expect a real improvement for at least a couple of years. Yet these indicators don’t lie: Teams that have profiled like these Browns in the past have gone on to have surprising seasons. I wouldn’t bet the house on it, but Cleveland should make some strides this year.
3 San Diego Chargers
Record in 2015: 4-12 / Predicted Improvement: 2-4 Wins
Not only do San Diego fans get to see at least another season of Chargers football, they should be watching a better team in 2016 as well. Last year, San Diego had the largest discrepancy between their win total and their Pythagorean win expectation (1.9 wins). Teams with that large of a difference have gone on to improve by an average of 2 wins the following season.
But wait, there’s more: San Diego was also only 3-8 in one score games, which contributes to the notion that they were a decent team that got very unlucky in pivotal moments. This record will undoubtedly improve next year because unlike some teams who struggle in close games, they have a proven quarterback in Phillip Rivers who usually tends to lead his team to victories in crucial situations. Additionally, the Chargers suffered the sixth most injuries in football according to Adjusted Games Lost. Taken together, these factors explain why San Diego had a five-win decline in 2015, which in of itself is another reason why the Chargers will improve this season.
If I’m wrong, it will be because…
Their defense continues to hold them back. San Diego ranked just 28th in total defense according to DVOA, and there is no sign that any draft picks or free agent acquisitions will help turn that unit around. Even though San Diego will definitely improve on their 4-win total from last year based on all the factors I just mentioned, the extent of the improvement will be up to Phillip Rivers and the Chargers offense.
2 Baltimore Ravens
Record in 2015: 5-11 / Predicted Improvement: 4-6 Wins
The only thing that went right for Baltimore in 2015 was that game-winning blocked field goal return against Cleveland. Other than that, it was almost comical how much went wrong for John Harbaugh’s squad. In the season opener, they lost Terrell Suggs to a season-ending Achilles injury. Then they lost Steve Smith for the season a few weeks later. During this time, the Ravens managed to lose six of their first seven games by one score, with practically all of them coming down to the final possession. Oh yeah, then Joe Flacco tore his ACL.
You have to think that the football gods will reward Baltimore with a bounce back season. After all, this was a team that had the Patriots on the ropes in the 2014 Divisional round before New England went on to win the Super Bowl. That huge decline in wins along with better health, more success in close games, and better luck in the turnover department (31st in turnover margin in 2015) suggests that the Ravens will at least be back in the playoff hunt in 2016.
If I’m wrong, it will be because…
Flacco isn’t the same after his ACL injury. However, all signs point to the former Super Bowl MVP being healthy in time for training camp. With Flacco back, the Ravens should be able to take advantage of a myriad of indicators that suggest they will be one of the league’s most improved teams in 2016.
1 Dallas Cowboys
Record in 2015: 4-12 / Predicted Improvement: 5-7 Wins
Of all the teams I’ve mentioned, the Cowboys have far and away the best case to be the league’s biggest turnaround story in 2016. From a statistical standpoint, the Cowboys underplayed their expected win total by 1.2 wins and were 2-6 in close games after a 12-4 campaign in 2014. Additionally, a year after ranking in the top ten in turnover margin, the Cowboys easily had the worst turnover margin in the league last year at -22. They also were 32nd in fumble recovery rate (as evidenced by their league-low 3 defensive recoveries) and second to last in both interceptions thrown and take-away interceptions.
Why did most of this misfortune occur? Injuries to their two biggest stars obviously! Yet the irony is that even without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, the Cowboys weren’t that bad: They had multiple two touchdown leads against Atlanta in Week 3 before blowing it in the second half; they came back against New Orleans before allowing an 80-yard touchdown on the opening play of overtime; they only lost by a point to Seattle; and worst of all, they somehow lost this game to Tampa Bay (go to about the 2:00 minute mark to see the fumble). Keep in mind that the Cowboys were rotating a combination of Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore at quarterback. How does any team win with those guys?
If I’m wrong, it will be because…
Romo just can’t stay on the field. That’s really the only possible scenario in which Dallas doesn’t improve this year. Unfortunately for Cowboys fans, I suppose it isn’t a sure thing that Romo remains healthy for a full season. Yet if he avoids another devastating collarbone or back injury, the NFC East is easily Dallas’s for the taking.
Flacco photo courtesy of Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports; Mariota photo courtesy of Frederick Breedon/USA Today Sports; Hue Jackson photo courtesy of John Reid/clevelandbrowns.com; Rivers photo courtesy of Gary Lander/Associated Press; C.J. Mosley photo courtesy of baltimoreravens.com; Romo and Bryant photo courtesy of Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports