While some like retired coach Bill Parcells may say you are what you record is, the truth is there usually is not much difference between a 7-9 team and a 9-7 team. The latter may sneak into the playoffs, but the difference from 7-9 and having to sit at home for the playoffs could have been as small as two plays going a certain way.
It’s a missed field goal at the end, or a tipped pass that gets intercepted. Sometimes it is not even what your team fails to do, but what the opponent botches in the clutch to help you out.
Fortunately, we have a large group of statistical methods to analyze a team beyond just their record. Not all 9-7 teams are created equally, and the same is true for any record.
Some teams overachieve and win more games than their statistics say they should have, while other teams underachieve and lose more games than expected.
We will look at which teams led the way in each category in 2011, and how that might relate to their performance in 2012.
Last year I used a regression model to predict a team’s win percentage based on five independent variables:
- Net Points – Points scored minus points allowed
- Net Yards – Offensive yards minus defensive yards (sacks included in passing yardage for both)
- Turnover Differential – Takeaways minus giveaways
- Third Down Differential – Third down conversion percentage (offense) minus third down conversion percentage (defense)
- Passer Rating Differential – Offensive passer rating minus defensive passer rating
Data was used from all regular season teams from 1995 through 2010. A better model could surely be built, but this one serves its purpose for now.
In 2011, the three highest ranked teams and their predicted win percentage in parentheses were the Green Bay Packers (.862), New Orleans Saints (.852), and New England Patriots (.800).
No surprises there. The bottom teams were the St. Louis Rams (.141), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (.144), and Indianapolis Colts (.172).
Again, not many arguments for the worst teams of 2011.
2010 Overachievers and Underachievers
In the article from last year, I noted the three teams who were the biggest overachievers and underachievers in the 2010 season. This was defined as the teams with the largest differential between their predicted win percentage and actual win percentage.
Here is a summary of how those teams fared in 2011.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars (+2.06 wins in 2010, -0.86 wins in 2011)
After an 8-8 record in 2010, the Jaguars slumped to a 5-11 record in 2011. Blaine Gabbert had a difficult rookie season, and the team scored a franchise-worst 243 points. Jack Del Rio was fired during the season.
2. Seattle Seahawks (+1.76 wins in 2010, -1.32 wins in 2011)
This is what happens when 7-9 does not win your division like it did for Seattle in 2010. Seattle was outscored by 97 points, but still made the playoffs and even beat New Orleans. Seattle finished with the same record, outscored their opponents by six points, but finished third in the NFC West. After overachieving in 2010, the 2011 team actually underachieved, as they were predicted to have 8.32 wins, but finished 7-9 again.
3. Chicago Bears (+1.72 wins in 2010, -0.30 wins in 2011)
Chicago may have been hitting their stride last season, looking to match or improve on their 11-5 record in 2010. With five straight wins, the Bears were 7-3, but that’s when things fell apart as Jay Cutler was lost for the season with a thumb injury. Matt Forte and Johnny Knox would also not finish the season, and Chicago went just 1-5 down the stretch to finish 8-8. Caleb Hanie was a turnover machine, with an obscene 8.8 interception percentage.
1. Tennessee Titans (-2.20 wins in 2010, +0.84 wins in 2011)
The Titans were just 1-8 to end the 2010 season. However, they moved on from the Jeff Fisher regime to Mike Munchak, and signed veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. The team started 3-1 last year, but then suffered humiliating losses to Pittsburgh and Houston. The Titans were a real enigma last season, and never won or lost more than three consecutive games on their way to a 9-7 finish, which was better than their 6-10 performance in Fisher’s final season.
2. Green Bay Packers (-2.11 wins in 2010, +1.21 wins in 2011)
The Packers often grace these underachieving lists because they have great statistics, but win fewer games than predicted because of all their losses suffered when they need a fourth quarter comeback and/or game-winning drive. They are the best front-running team in the league, but have just a 7-26 (.212) record at fourth quarter comebacks under Mike McCarthy. In 2011, they came back with a 15-1 record, or five more regular season wins than the Super Bowl team from a year earlier.
3. San Diego Chargers (-2.11 wins in 2010, -0.56 wins in 2011)
It has been a frustrating pair of seasons for San Diego the last two years. While they still score a lot of points, their performances in close games leave much to be desired, which leaves Philip Rivers with a lot of hollow stats (mostly yardage) in the end. They were just 8-8 last year, so they failed to improve their record like Tennessee and Green Bay.
2011’s Biggest Overachievers
Now onto the teams from last season who may see a regression in their record this year after overachieving in 2011.
Warning: something was very rotten in the AFC West last year.
1. Denver Broncos (+2.40 wins in 2011)
Peyton Manning may have his work cut out for him in Denver as he takes over, statistically, the worst 8-8 team in NFL history. No 8-8 team has ever been outscored by a larger margin (81 points) than the 2011 Denver Broncos.
Notes: the 1992 Indianapolis Colts actually managed to go 9-7 with a -86 points differential. The 1968 Chicago Bears (-83 points) and 1961 New York Titans (-89 points) each finished 7-7.
The +2.40 wins over the predicted number are the ninth highest by a team since 1995. None of the previous top 10 teams were able to increase their win total the following season.
Denver built their strange record on several blowouts and the six-game winning streak with Tim Tebow, which largely consisted of some miracle finishes. Four straight games the Broncos trailed after the two-minute warning, and still managed to win. Six of their wins were by 1-4 points.
However, Manning and coach John Fox are no strangers to pulling out close wins. Of the 16 teams since 1940 to win at least six games by no more than four points, a quarter of them were either quarterbacked by Peyton Manning (2008-09 Indianapolis Colts or coached by John Fox (2003 Carolina Panthers, 2011 Denver Broncos).
While the 2011 Broncos may be a team unlike any other, they are in a rare position to add a legit franchise quarterback to improve their team. If healthy, Manning immediately boosts the third down differential, passer rating differential, and of course scoring differential for Denver.
Manning can make those 13-10 wins with Tebow a more convincing 24-13 win. He can make the 40-14 defeat a 31-28 victory. This is why Denver has real optimism about actual improvement, and not regression in 2012.
But it all hinges on Manning’s health, and him still being the player we all remember him to be in Indianapolis.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (+2.22 wins in 2011)
Similar to the Broncos, the 2011 Kansas City Chiefs can lay claim to being the worst 7-9 team in NFL history. They were outscored by 126 points last season.
A big factor in the scoring differential was the horrific start to the season, as the Chiefs dropped games to Buffalo and Detroit by a combined score of 89-10. This was even with Matt Cassel and Jamaal Charles still playing.
Afterwards, the Chiefs were 7-7 and only outscored by 47 points. That looks more normal, though the wins were hardly works of art.
- They came back to beat the lowly Colts, who started 0-13.
- They routed Oakland 28-0 in the game Carson Palmer entered before he was ready. Six interceptions were thrown, and the Chiefs returned a pair for scores.
- There was the Philip Rivers’ fumble meltdown on Monday Night Football, which led to a 23-20 overtime win.
- They used their defense to eke out ugly wins over Caleb Hanie and the Bears (10-3), and then beat Tebow in the finale (7-3 at Denver).
The shining moment that probably got Romeo Crennel the promotion to head coach this offseason was the great win over Green Bay, which ended a 19-game winning streak for the Packers.
Kyle Orton was the quarterback that day. He is gone, and Matt Cassel is back healthy as the expected starter. Joining him should be returning starters like running back Jamaal Charles, tight end Tony Moeaki, and safety Eric Berry.
Will these returns plus the coaching change from the fired Todd Haley to Crennel getting a second shot be enough for the Chiefs?
Statistically, they were not your average 7-9 team.
3. Oakland Raiders (+2.08 wins in 2011)
Told you something was very wrong about the 2011 AFC West. By scoring differential, the Broncos are the worst 8-8 team ever, the Chiefs are the worst 7-9 team ever and, as seen above, the Raiders were the fourth worst 8-8 team.
All but one of Oakland’s eight wins was by seven points or less. They beat the New York Jets 34-24.
Like their overachieving AFC West counterparts, the Raiders have a new head coach in rookie Dennis Allen. They also have a different plan at quarterback, as Carson Palmer will now have a full off-season as the starter.
Darren McFadden missed nine games last season, and Darrius Heyward-Bey may have finally figured things out in his third season.
The offense may have some potential, but the defense will really be tested after a porous showing last season. Pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley was released and went to Tennessee, while 2010 first-round pick Rolando McClain was sentenced to 180 days in jail for assault during a fight.
The Raiders have not had a winning record in the last nine seasons. Any improvement in record would finally get them back to being a winning team, but it will be very difficult in a division loaded with three more teams in a similar position.
2011’s Biggest Underachievers
Finally, a look at the teams that had some numbers, but not enough wins in the end in 2011.
1. Miami Dolphins (-2.26 wins in 2011)
Statistically, the Dolphins are very similar to the aforementioned 2010 Tennessee Titans. For a 6-10 team, they still managed a positive scoring differential (+16).
Also like the Titans, Miami has brought in a new head coach, Joe Philbin from Green Bay, and drafted Ryan Tannehill in the first round of the 2012 draft. Tannehill may not start this season, but it is an option.
Miami was a competitive team last year. They dropped a heartbreaker to Denver after leading 15-0 with minutes to play. They were a victim of one of the Giants’ fourth quarter comebacks. They lost on a late field goal in Dallas on Thanksgiving. Finally they blew a 17-0 lead in New England for their 10th loss of the season.
Though they traded Brandon Marshall and have a depleted receiving corps, Philbin does come from a strong passing background with Green Bay. Chad Johnson is essentially going to be in a make-or-break-my-career season, and could even lead the team in receiving based on the receivers they have.
Reggie Bush is coming off his best season as a runner in the NFL. They have Jake Long at tackle. The defense was the strength of the team, with Cameron Wake as the main pass rusher.
It may not be a sexy pick for a sleeper team with Matt Moore likely starting at quarterback, but I said the same thing about Tennessee last season and they found their way back to 9-7.
It’s a matter of having some of the right parts and adopting enough change for improvement. A new coach can go a long way in providing that.
2. Minnesota Vikings (-2.02 wins in 2011)
The Vikings are coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history. By going just 3-13, their predicted win total of 5.02 was essentially built in the early part of the season when the Vikings could not hold a second-half lead.
- In Week 1, Minnesota led San Diego 17-7 at halftime, but lost 24-17.
- In Week 2, Minnesota led Tampa Bay 17-0 at halftime, but lost 24-20.
- In Week 3, the halftime lead grew to 20-0 over Detroit, but they still lost 26-23 in overtime.
- Minnesota actually led Green Bay 17-13 at halftime in Week 7 (Christian Ponder’s first start), but lost 33-27.
After the bye week, the Vikings’ quality of play just continued to deteriorate. They finished 1-7, and fielded one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history. Passers had a cumulative 107.6 passer rating against Minnesota’s defense. This was despite the most sacks in the league, 50, with Jared Allen (22 sacks) leading the way.
Maybe the worst part was losing Adrian Peterson to a torn ACL in a meaningless Week 16 victory. Peterson is expected to start the season, though it is a mystery how effective the best running back in the game will be.
The 2011 Vikings actually tied the NFL record with nine losses by seven points or fewer.
It would not be a surprise to see Minnesota do better than 3-13, because there’s not much room for them to be worse. Leslie Frazier, and perhaps Ponder, will be out of a job without a significant improvement.
3. Cleveland Browns (-1.71 wins in 2011)
I have to admit the “Dream Team” from Philadelphia would have been more fun to talk about, but they came in fourth after Cleveland with -1.50 wins.
Cleveland went for the big names in the 2012 draft by adding Alabama running back Trent Richardson and 28-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden in the first round. They even used a second-round pick in the supplemental draft on Baylor wide receiver Josh Gordon.
While they have built an impressive offensive line in Cleveland, they have had little worth protecting in the name of skill players. If Richardson and Weeden are the franchise players Mike Holmgren and the Browns think they are, then this could be 2012’s version of last year’s Cincinnati Bengals.
Problem is the Browns play in a division with those same Bengals, and of course perennial contenders from Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
The Browns played their AFC North foes tough last season, though they went 0-5 in fourth quarter comeback opportunities against them (0-6 overall).
Like the other teams we looked at, the Browns will be hoping they changed enough to improve on last year’s unexpected outcome.
Which 2011 team won at the rate closest to what their stats projected? The New England Patriots (+0.20 wins). They were a play away from winning the Super Bowl.
What about the next closest team? The St. Louis Rams (-0.26 wins). They were a play away from the No. 1 pick in the draft.
That’s the NFL in a nutshell. Things never seem to go as planned. You can only expect the unexpected, and expect several teams in 2012 to overachieve and underachieve.
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.