Why the Difference Between Wins and Losses in the NFL Is Thinner Than You Think
Terrell Owens emerged from a cheering, jumping pack of Philadelphia Eagles teammates, coaches and executives with the Lombardi Trophy in his grasp. Confetti rained down on all of them and the hundreds of media and fans gathering at the base of the on-field platform.
With a hearty half-hug and slap on the back, Owens handed the gleaming silver trophy to his quarterback, Donovan McNabb. McNabb turned and thrust it to the sky, to his teammates and Eagles fans everywhere, while Owens stepped forward to accept the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP.
Owens was overcome with emotion during the speech, and no wonder. His nine-catch, 122-yard effort was one of the most dominant Super Bowl performances of any receiver, ever. Owens' play that game was made exponentially more impressive by his furious aborted rehab of a broken leg and sprained ankle suffered in late December.
With a Super Bowl MVP trophy to put on his shelf and championship ring soon to be on his finger, Owens had forever answered any questions about his heart, desire or attitude. His incredible comeback and dominating effort assured he'd always be remembered as a champion.
Except it didn't happen.
In reality, the Eagles had 46 seconds left on the clock to drive the length of the field and wipe out a three-point New England Patriots advantage—but McNabb collapsed under the weight of his career's biggest moment.
Instead of being glorified, lionized and beatified by sportswriters and fans for all time (like Willis Reed, Michael Jordan or Curt Schilling), Owens' mind-over-matter triumph became an afterthought. Because the Eagles didn't win, Owens' effort didn't matter.
An old saying holds that history is written by the victors, but that's not quite right. George Washington didn't retire to Mount Vernon after two terms as President and write American History textbooks. Neither, then, did NFL fans and media turn the Internet over to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady after Super Bowl XXXIX.
So how did the three measly points that separated winning from losing forever separate Owens from his rightful legacy?
That question cuts right to the heart of why we watch sports.
At its core, every sporting contest is about winning and losing; pitting one player or team against another and seeing who triumphs. As Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi famously said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
Yet of all the sports on Earth, it's football where individual effort matters least.
With two teams of two platoons of 11 players, a highly structured system of plays and downs and the enormous roles of formations and systems, no professional sport on Earth has more buffers between one player's ability and the final score.
Yet we often count "rings" on great football players to quantify their greatness, much as we count "major titles" for great golfers—who compete more against themselves and the course than each other.
Barry Sanders went to the Pro Bowl every single season he played in the NFL and was named first-team All-Pro in six of those 10 seasons. That means that by consensus, he was one of the best players at his position in the NFL from his first snap to his last, and the best player at his position in the NFL more often than not. That kind of consistent excellence is almost unheard-of.
Yet Sanders spent much of his career being compared unfavorably to Emmitt Smith.
Over the first 10 years of their respective careers, Sanders gained 1,306 more yards than Smith on 181 fewer carries and had two more each of Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro nominations. Yet, as a key cog in the Dallas Cowboys offensive machine, Smith scored more touchdowns, won many more games and earned three Super Bowl rings.
Sanders could hardly have done any more to help the Lions win; indeed Smith himself once Tweeted that Sanders is the best running back ever:
heard about what @BarrySanders said...so very flattered but he shd know i think he's the best of all time— Emmitt Smith (@EmmittSmith22) July 13, 2011
The nature of football will always make it hard to separate team performance from individual.
Even worse, "wins" and "losses" are how we gauge team performance.
The sheer number of factors that go into a football game, the relatively few number of plays in a game and relatively few games in a season mean there's a huge opportunity for luck and randomness to influence the outcome.
Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats calculated what portion of every NFL team's wins and losses can be attributed to chance rather than performance. His conclusion? Forty-two percent.
That's 6.4 games every season that are decided not because of a team's performance, but because of fluky wins or bad beats or bad refs or good bounces. A team can go 11-5 one year and 5-11 the next without playing much differently.
Miami Dolphins fans know this well. In 2008, new head coach Tony Sparano took over a miserable 1-15 squad and elevated their average point differential from minus-10.6, second-worst in the NFL, to plus-1.8, 16th-best. This was truly a dramatic turnaround.
Instead of going 8-8 or 9-7, though, as Pro Football Reference's Expected Wins stat would project, the Dolphins racked up 11 wins—enough to take the AFC East crown from the mighty New England Patriots.
Historians will say the Dolphins did it with the Wildcat formation, but really they did it with a plus-17 turnover differential, a huge number that couldn't possibly hold from season to season.
In fact, take a look at the Miami Dolphins' scoring and turnover differentials from 2007 through 2011 and how they correlated with wins and expected wins:
The first thing that sticks out is just how ridiculous that 2008 plus-17 turnover differential is. Before Sparano took over, and in each of his three seasons after 2008, the Dolphins' turnover differential hovered between minus-six and plus-12. That's Chad Pennington's careful protection of the football (he threw just seven interceptions) at work.
The second thing worth noting is that after Sparano took over, the point differential hovered within two points of zero for every year except 2010 (minus-3.8).
Despite the incredible swing from worst to first and subsequent flatline, the Miami Dolphins performed essentially the same during every year of Sparano's tenure, save for Chad Pennington's savvy play in 2008.
In fact, given that the 2011 Dolphins had an almost-identical scoring differential and expected-win total as the 2008 squad, their down-to-down performance had to be much better to compensate for the swing in turnover ratio.
It's just that in 2011, that improved performance happened to generate only six wins, and not 11—so Sparano was fired.
Terrell Owens was an incredible physical talent who worked like a demon and took everything personally. According to Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value stat (which contextualizes total production on each player's team), Owens did more to help his teams win than any receiver in NFL history, save Jerry Rice.
During the playoff run up to that fateful Super Bowl, Camille Paglia of Philadelphia Magazine penned a beautiful ode to Owens called "How T.O. Saved Us." In it, we get a glimpse of the way T.O. would be remembered by at least Philadelphia, if not the NFL world, had the Eagles finished that drive or Adam Vinatieri missed the 22-yard chip shot that provided the final margin of victory:
Terrell Owens rescued Philadelphia. He brought glamour and glitz and an electrifying jolt of good vibrations to the city, which was suffering in the spiritual desert of the 10-year regime of Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie...T.O.’s place in the pantheon of Philly sports superheroes is assured.
Alas, that drive ended on a Donovan McNabb interception. In the next season, squabbles over Owens' contract and conduct blew up Owens' relationships with McNabb, head coach Andy Reid and the entire organization. Owens was suspended, deactivated and eventually released.
Though Owens would remain effective and productive for the remainder of his 15-year career, he never again reached the personal and professional heights of 2005—and he never won a ring. He should be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, eventually.
That Adam Vinatieri field goal is why that sentence ended with "eventually," instead of "in a landslide on the first ballot."
Ultimately, the difference between Owens being revered as a football hero and reviled as a whining diva came down to the difference between winning and losing in the NFL—a difference much thinner than most fans think.
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