Yesterday I wrote an article detailing the underlying indicators of improvement, and why I liked five teams in particular to increase their win-totals in 2017.
Yet in the words of Robert de Niro in Heat…there’s a flip side to that coin. Those same underlying indicators can also help identify teams that are likely to decline before the season begins, as well. So without further ado, here are five teams that I think will have noteworthy declines this upcoming regular season, relative to their 2016 records.
1 Miami Dolphins
Record in 2016: 10-6 / Predicted Decline: 3-4 wins
Last year’s Dolphins benefitted from an easy schedule and unsustainable success in close games to make the playoffs. Miami somehow managed to play nine of the ten teams who picked in the top ten of this past year’s draft, and went 8-1 in those contests. However, seven of those wins came by just one-score, and it’s obvious they were lucky on many instances. I mean, they needed overtime to beat the Browns, a goal-line stand to beat the 49ers, a last-minute drive to beat Jared Goff’s Rams, and a kickoff return to comeback against the Jets!
Miami probably won’t be as lucky this season, as they project to face the second toughest schedule in the league. And based on their mediocre rankings in both offense and defense last year, I highly doubt the Dolphins will be up for the challenge.
2 Detroit Lions
Record in 2016: 9-7 / Predicted Decline: 2-3 wins
While they made the playoffs last year, Detroit was mediocre in many respects. But even that might be putting things nicely: after all, the Lions ranked just 27th in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric in 2016. They were sandwiched between the Jaguars (gasp) and the 49ers (bigger gasp!). Moreover, Detroit was 0-6 against playoff teams last year, so they clearly couldn’t hold a candle to high-caliber competition.
Thankfully for the Lions, they had Matthew Stafford to bail them out, as they went 8-4 in one-score games. Stafford even managed to break the single-season record for 4th quarter comebacks (eight). Hat’s off to him, but he’s unlikely to match that feat in 2017. Teams that over-perform in one-score games tend to decline in the same situations the following season. For example, Stafford was just 23-25 in one-score games entering last year; and he has had seasons in which he has gone 6-2 (2014) and 2-8 (2012).
In short, Detroit can’t continue to rely on Stafford’s heroics. They’ll regress this season after they failed to make significant improvements to their already shaky roster.
3 Oakland Raiders
Record in 2016: 12-4 / Predicted Decline: 2-3 wins
To be clear, the fact that I think the Raiders will decline doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t think they can’t make a deep playoff run. I just think they’re unlikely to match their 12-4 regular season record from last year.
Here’s why. For starters, Oakland’s point differential in ’16 (+31) suggested they profiled as a 9-win team. Teams with a 3-win disparity between their actual and expected win-totals have historically declined by an average of 3.4 wins the following season. And in some cases, you have extreme examples like last year’s Panthers, who regressed by 9 wins after outperforming their point differential in 2015 by 2.9 games.
The main reason for these declines is usually unfavorable luck in close games after an uncharacteristically “clutch” year. Without question, the Raiders match this description, as they were 8-1 in one-possession contests in ’16, often relying on Jack del Rio’s bold, late-game decisions (i.e. the game-winning two-point conversation at New Orleans Week 1). Additionally, Oakland plays in a very tough division. Especially if the Chargers improve as much as I think they will, the four AFC West foes will beat up on one another as each vie for playoff berths.
The good news for the Raiders, though, is that they are well-coached and well-quarterbacked. That will prevent a massive regular season decline, and should leave them in good position to challenge the Patriots in the AFC playoffs.
4 Kansas City Chiefs
Record in 2016: 12-4 / Predicted Decline: 2-3 wins
Unlike the teams mentioned above, there aren’t any strong statistical indicators pointing to a Chiefs decline. But I still sense that something is fishy with this team. After all, they ranked just 16th in offensive yards per play and 19th in defensive yards per play last season. In other words, there isn’t anything that stands out about this Kansas City team.
Actually, there is one thing that is impressive about the Chiefs: their ability to control the turnover battle. Kansas City finished with the top turnover margin in the NFL last season, which explains why they were able to claim one of the AFC’s top two seeds despite profiling as an average team based on their yards per play rankings. However, as I explained briefly yesterday, turnovers are pretty unpredictable on a yearly basis. For instance, Houston went from having the NFL’s fewest takeaways in 2013 to the most in 2014.
The Chiefs have finished in the top five in takeaways each of the past two years, and Alex Smith has proven to be careful with the football. But Kansas City could find itself in trouble if they suddenly lose their strong grip on the turnover battle. If that happens, their relatively pedestrian offense and defense will no longer be enough for them to seriously contend in the AFC.
5 Dallas Cowboys
Record in 2016: 13-3 / Predicted Decline: 1-3 wins
The plexiglass principle states that teams who experience a massive upswing in their win-loss total relative to the year prior tend to come back down to earth the following season. Boy do the Cowboys match this criteria, as they went from having the NFC’s worst record in 2015 to the best in ’16–a 9-win turnaround. Plus, when you consider how Dallas lost a couple of supporting pieces on its offensive line, as well as three integral players in the secondary, it’s understandable why Vegas currently has Dallas’ over/under total at a relatively lukewarm 9.5.
But I think those who envision the Cowboys collapsing forget how great they were offensively last season. Their three best lineman–Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin–are still in town, meaning the Dak Prescott/Ezekiel Elliott show should once again be one of the NFL’s best attacks. That alone will allow Dallas to remain very competitive, even if matching last season’s win total is unlikely.