Which NFL Teams Are Most Likely to Regress Towards the Mean (and beyond)?

7 months and 8 days… That’s how long it will be from last season’s Super Bowl to this season’s opening kickoff.

With everything that’s being going on in 2020, you would be forgiven if you feel that the 2020 NFL season has crept up very quickly. And as you’re scrambling to consume as much information and data as humanly possible in order to try and get yourself back up to speed, one piece of data you’ve probably browsed is last year’s standings. “Oh right, yeah, now I remember that the Packers went 13-3, and the Bengals? Boy, they sucked!” you’ve probably said to yourself as you’re scrolling through the standings.

Yes, the standings paint a good picture as to how any given teams’ season has gone, but it’s not a great indicator of how they will perform in the future, as it only tells you a binary outcome (whether a team won or lost), and not how they came to their final record.

One question I always ask myself when a new season approaches is, “how did teams perform in close matches last season?”. There is an old adage that “good teams win close games”, and that may be true to an extent; but is winning close games year after year sustainable? I wouldn’t have thought so. In “theory”, close games should be won or lost somewhere around the 50% mark, and I’d have thought that winning / losing anything close to 100% is just lucky… or unlucky, depending on which side you’re focussing on.

For this article, I have researched “which teams won 5 or more close games (1 score, <8 points) than they lost”, and conversely, the same for the teams that lost 5 more close games than they won, and the findings were very compelling to say the least.

It’s important to note that a lot of factors dictate how a team performs from season to season, e.g. new coach, new roster, new quarterback, new city, just to name a few. So while I outline the parameters and criteria of a team that is most likely to regress to the mean (for better or worse), other factors obviously cannot simply be ignored nor dismissed.

Right, let’s dig into data from the last 10 years (2010-2018).

We’ll start with the “lucky” teams first:

From 2010-2018, 21 teams won at least 5 more close games than they lost, and they averaged 11.76 total wins for the home and away season. Of these 21 teams, 19 made the playoffs. Probably no surprises there. But how did they do the next season?

Of the same 21 teams, they averaged just 7.38 wins the following season - a losing record. That’s a combined 4.38 less wins from the season prior.

How many improved their W-L record the next season? Zero…

How many of the 19 teams that made the playoffs made it the following season? 6 (31.58%).

31.58% is actually lower than the number who NFL teams who qualify for the playoffs (prior to the new playoff system) – 12/32 = 37.5%.

So, which teams qualify for this season? The Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, and the Houston Texans.

If history is to repeat, don’t expect any of these teams to improve on their W-L record. In fact, expect only one of these teams to make the playoffs this season, maybe two, considering that the new playoffs expanding from 6 teams per conference to 7 will help their causes.

The two teams who would be most vulnerable from this list would have to be the Seahawks and the Texans, considering the fact that 91% and 80% of their total season wins, respectively, were won by just one score. If these teams won roughly half of the close games that they played in, you’re looking at two very ordinary records come season’s end.

For what it’s worth, I’m definitely not buying Packers stocks this year either.

We can’t write this article without having a look at the unlucky losers, so here we go…

From 2010-2018, there have been 18 teams that have lost at least 5 more close games than they won. Surprisingly, none of these teams qualified in the playoffs, and they average a measly 4.09 total total wins for the season. But how did they do the following season?

These teams averaged 8.36 wins the following season, which is a +4.27 bump. 100% of these teams improved their total win loss record, and 44% of these teams qualified for the playoffs the following season.

Wait a minute… these bunch of 4-12 (on average) teams historically have a better chance of making the playoffs and with a better winning record than the bunch of 12-4 (on average) teams. As Chris Farley once said to Happy Gilmore as he was taking off his tank top, “That… Is… Correct”.

4 teams qualify under the criteria coming into this season: The Cowboys, Chargers, Bengals and Lions.

You’d be brave (borderline mental) to suggest that the Bengals are going to make the playoffs in 2020, but hey, the Colts did when they jumped from 2 wins to 11 in 2011/2012 after qualifying for this list and taking a QB with the first pick in the draft… so is it really that far fetched?

It’s discouraging that all 3 Lions’ wins (minus the tie) came from close games, but with the Packers being a strong “lucky winner” and that they are most likely going to regress, could the Lions take advantage of it?

The two who I believe could be primed for the picking are the LA Chargers and the Dallas Cowboys.

Despite getting rid of Philip Rivers last season, the Chargers replaced him wit a more-than-adequate veteran in Tyrod Taylor – who, mind you, has a winning career record playing with the Browns and the Bills. Not too many quarterbacks can say that in the 21st century. The Chiefs should have them covered for the division, but I give the Chargers just as, if not more of a chance taking out 2nd place than their division rivals in the Raiders and the Broncos. With an additional playoff spot up for grabs, don’t be sleeping on the Chargers.

There is always pre-season hype around “America’s Team”, and I (almost) never buy into it. In fact, followers will remember that I backed the Eagles to win the division over the Cowboys last season, but this season is the first time I’m buying Cowboys stocks. Not only were they “unlucky” to have an 8-8 record, but they had the equal best Net Yards Per Play in the league (1.3 yards). This means for every play, they average 1.3 yards more than their opponents. On top of this, every top 11 point-differentials belonged to playoff teams last season, except one – you guessed it. Despite having the 6th best PD in the league with +113 (for comparison, the 13-3 Saints had a PD of +116), the Cowboys just missed out on the playoffs. It’s also worth noting that no NFC East team have won the division back to back since 2004, so history is not on the Eagles side to go back to back.

With the Giants and Redskins being borderline non-competitive, and there being a new coach in town with a stacked roster, maybe the stars are finally aligning in Dallas.

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