This is Part II of an article I wrote about identifying teams set to improve or decline in 2016 based on a series of underlying statistics. I’m not going to go through a detailed explanation of those seven key indicators again because that would be redundant. But just so we’re on the same page, those indicators are as follows: point differential, record in one score games, the plexiglass principle, injury rates, strength of schedule, turnover margin, and fumble recovery rates. Check out Part I if you need more information about any of these metrics.
As evidenced by how Part I took a look at teams who are expected to improve in 2016, this article will look at the teams poised to underachieve. The order in which I rank these teams is based on the likelihood of them declining.
Honorable Mentions: Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals
5 Minnesota Vikings
Record in 2015: 11-5 / Predicted Decline: 1-2 Wins
The Vikings had a good year in 2015, making the playoffs for the first time since 2012. However, despite Minnesota’s 11-5 record, they were one of five teams to noticeably outperform their pythagorean win expectation, which suggests that based on their point differential, the Vikings profiled more like a 9 or 10 win team. Research by Bill Barnwell indicates that teams that exceed their projected win total by 1-1.5 games like the Vikings did decline by an average of 1.5 wins the year after. Another factor working against Minnesota is the plexiglass principle, which says that since they improved by 4 wins, they are bound to decline this year. We saw this happen to teams like Cleveland, Detroit, and Dallas last year when they all made massive jumps in the standings from 2013 to 2014 only to fall back to the mean in 2015.
When you combine these two factors along with the reality that Green Bay, now that Jordy Nelson is healthy, should be tougher this year, the Vikings will have a tough time repeating as NFC North champions.
4 New York Jets
Record in 2015: 10-6 / Predicted Decline: 2-5 Wins
The Jets had the second biggest jump in their win total from 2014 to 2015 (+6 wins). As I said with the Vikings, teams that make these jumps usually fall back to Earth the following season. In 2014, for instance, the Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers, who had improved on their record by nine and five games respectively, declined by a total of 7 wins. However, there were two other teams that year, Philadelphia and Arizona, who were theoretically supposed to regress as well, but didn’t. Given that the Jets have a strong defense and one of the best receiving cores in the NFL, there is reason to believe that they can be an exception to the rule.
But there are two big reasons why this is unlikely. The first is their schedule. New York played the league’s 4th easiest slate and is projected to face the league’s 7th toughest batch of opponents this year based on 2015 win percentages. It’s always difficult to forecast whether these strength of schedule estimates turn out to be true, but if you just look at New York’s first seven games, you can tell that this year won’t be easy.
The second, and most obvious, reason the Jets could decline is the uncertainty surrounding Ryan Fitzpatrick. If he remains unsigned, then the Jets have about as much of a chance to get back to around 10 wins as a 16 seed has of upsetting a 1. But if he does come back, which I think he will, then the Jets have hope. Even so, they will still have a tough time matching their 10-win output from a year ago due to the poor history of teams coming off big increases in their win total and a much tougher schedule.
3 Atlanta Falcons
Record in 2015: 8-8 / Predicted Decline: 1-3 Wins
It might seem tough to imagine Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the Falcons regressing after what was a disappointing 2015 season. Yet the reality is that Atlanta was lucky to be 8-8. There are three reasons why. First, they were fortunate enough to play one of the league’s easiest schedules. Second, they were one of the healthiest teams in the league last year, something that isn’t necessarily sustainable from year to year. And lastly, the Falcons got lucky in the turnover department, as they were fifth in the league in fumble recovery percentage. Again, that isn’t something that Atlanta can count on again.
Sure, at least Atlanta has arguably the league’s best wide receiver and a good quarterback getting him the ball. But in 2016, they won’t be feasting on the likes of Tennessee and Jacksonville. Rather, they project to have the league’s toughest slate. Atlanta had enough trouble beating the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Matt Hasselbeck as is last year, and that was with a slew of factors working in their favor. There’s a good chance they won’t be as lucky this season.
2 Denver Broncos
Record in 2015: 12-4 / Predicted Decline: 2-4 Wins
The defending champion Broncos will need another herculean effort from their terrific defense to stave off what projects to be a serious decline. Last year, Denver had a staggering 11-3 record by one score or less, including two playoff wins over Pittsburgh and New England. Their remarkable success in close games contributed to the Broncos outperforming their Pythagorean win expectation by a full two wins, suggesting they profiled more as a 10 win team. Teams with this great of a disparity between their record and point differential who have not upgraded their quarterback, historically, have gone on to decline by an average of 2.5 wins. In particular, the 2014 Jets, the 2012 Packers, and the 2012 Chiefs come to mind, as they declined by a total of 13 wins (4 win decline for NYJ and GB, 5 for KC) after overperforming by at least 2 wins.
This isn’t to say the Broncos got lucky last year; just what happened is not sustainable. For instance, teams that have won at least 75% of close games in a given year have combined to win only about 50% of those same games the following season. Just look at how the three teams with the most wins in one score contests in 2014 fared in 2015: After going a combined 17-3 in one score games, the Packers, Lions, and 49ers went on to post a total record of 10-11 in those same situations this past year. The good news for the Broncos is that they return a superb defense that gives them a great chance of at least performing a little better than an average team would in these situations.
Of course, the elephant in the room is who will step up and be the team’s quarterback. I have no idea who will win the job, but whether it’s Mark Sanchez or Paxton Lynch, Denver will have an incredibly hard time matching last year’s 12 wins, and even winning the AFC West. Fortunately, their defense should prevent them from totally collapsing.
1 Carolina Panthers
Record in 2015: 15-1 / Predicted Decline: 3-5 Wins
Where do I begin with the Panthers? First, they overperformed more than any other team last year: They had a 2.6 win difference between their win total and Pythagorean win expectation. As I explained while talking about Denver, we know that teams like this struggle the year after they overachieve. In addition, Carolina was a terrific 8-1 in one score games. Cam Newton is one of the league’s best quarterbacks, but he was only 11-15 in close games before last year. Simply put, winning close to 90% of one score contests isn’t sustainable.
I talked earlier about how the Jets are poised to fall back to Earth after a 6 win jump from ’14 to ’15. Same goes for the Panthers, who made an incredible 8 win jump last year. Moreover, the Panthers are coming off a year in which they benefitted more than any other team off turnovers (+22 margin). Carolina’s defense may be great, but it’s extremely unlikely that they can count on forcing that many turnovers again. Remember, turnovers are relatively unpredictable.
Wait, I’m not done yet: There are even more factors that don’t project to go Carolina’s way this year. The Panthers played the league’s easiest schedule in 2015, feasting off opponents from the AFC South and a weaker NFC East, and were the league’s fourth healthiest team as measured by Adjusted Games Lost. I can’t speak to how healthy Carolina will be this year, but I do know the schedule will at least be a little tougher (12th in strength of schedule).
NFL teams are lucky if a couple of these factors work in their favor. Carolina, literally, had everything go their way in 2015 that isn’t dictated by pure skill and talent. Luckily for the Panthers, they still have more than enough depth and star power to remain one of the better teams in the NFC. However, the writing is on the wall for a massive decline after a sensational 15-win season, so much so that not only do I think it is unlikely they will go back to the Super Bowl, but I’m starting to have doubts that they will repeat as NFC South champions.
Von Miller photo courtesy of Doug Pensinger/Getty Images; Adrian Peterson photo courtesy of Bruce Kluckhorn/USA Today Sports; Brandon Marshall photo courtesy of Getty Images; Matt Ryan photo courtesy of Jason Getz/USA Today Sports; Demaryius Thomas photo courtesy of Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports; Thomas Davis photo courtesy of Skreeter Lecka/Getty Images