How Important Is The Preseason?

Zach FeinAnalyst IAugust 23, 2008

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are both injured, and their teams are a combined 1-5 in the preseason thus far. The Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers—the teams with the best two records in the NFC last year—are under .500, and the Cleveland Browns—the same team that had a 10-6 record last year—are winless.

But just how accurate are preseason records in predicting a team's regular season record? Is the best preseason team always the best in the regular season, and is the worst preseason team always the proud owner of the Number One pick?

And most importantly, is a team's preseason record always the best predictor in a team's regular season expectations, or is there another statistic that provides a more precise look at a team's forecast?

I looked at every team's preseason record since 2002—the first year of the NFL's newly-aligned divisions—and compared them to their regular season record and, in the case they qualified, their playoff seeding (division winner, wild card winner, or Home Field Advantage; teams with HFA were not included as a division winner). The first table shows how teams fared based on their preseason win total.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total - Based on Preseason Wins
Wins# TeamsWinsWon Division%DivisionWon W.C.%W.C.Won HFA%HFAMissed playoffs
4168.56425%319%16%50%
3488.081123%613%00%65%
2678.601522%1015%812%51%
1507.16714%36%24%76%
0116.9100%00%19%91%

 

As you can see, there was no similarity between preseason record and their regular season win total, nor with their playoff seeding. In fact, teams that had only two wins fared the best in the regular season, racking up an average of 8.60 wins, the most among each win total. Those teams had a considerable margin in percentage of teams with Home Field Advantage, with those eight teams accumulating two-thirds of all HFA bids in that time.

Essentially, preseason win totals do no good in predicting a team's success in the regular season.

The next table shows how well preseason point differential managed to foresee teams' regular season records. For each year from 2002 through '07, I separated teams into four groups based on their point differential: The top-eight teams, the teams ranked 9th through 16th, teams ranked 17th through 24th, and the teams in the bottom eight. I then added the corresponding groups and found out the percentages by dividing each of the numbers by 48 (six years, with eight teams in each group).

Total - Based on Preseason Point Differential
RankWinsWon DivisionDivision%Won W.C.W.C.%Won HFAHFA%Missed playoffs
1 - 89.021123%919%36%52%
9 - 168.461021%613%48%58%
17 - 247.541021%48%36%65%
25 - 326.96613%36%24%77%

 

Separating teams by point differential provides a more accurate prediction of a team's regular season record and playoff expectancy. For each of the figures, the values were ordered by a team's point differential rank, with the lone exception of Home Field Advantage; compare that to the first table, where all but one of the figures were not in the correct order based on the win totals.

And how about Super Bowl teams? How did they fare in the preseason?

Super Bowl Teams' Preseason Records
YearWinnerPreseason winsPoint DifferentialLoserPreseason WinsPoint Differential
2007New York Giants1-17New England Patriots218
2006Indianapolis Colts1-19Chicago Bears213
2005Pittsburgh Steelers318Seattle Seahawks317
2004New England Patriots1-44Philadelphia Eagles1-16
2003New England Patriots454Carolina Panthers450
2002Tampa Bay Buccaneers3-2Oakland Raiders211
 Winner Averages2.2-1.7Loser Averages2.315.5
 Combined Averages2.36.9

 

As of now, five teams have a .500 winning percentage (an average of 2.3 wins is a .575 win percentage) and a point differential between zero and ten points: Buffalo Bills (point differential=0), New York Jets (1), Pittsburgh Steelers (3), New York Giants (0), and the New Orleans Saints (10).

Jets vs. Giants Super Bowl? We'll see.