Put a Hold on Predictions for NFL in 2011: Why This Year Will Be Different

Bill WashinskiContributor IIIJuly 26, 2011

You can hold off on the predicting the records for each NFL team, the odds for who will win the Super Bowl, and every other article or thought about who is going to win the Super Bowl this year, at least until after this week.

People in general have a very predictable (pun intended) model of forecasting.  They tend to believe that whatever is trending is going to continue to trend.  This is certainly not limited to just football, but also in life. 

In the late 1990s, people jumped into the market late when stock prices were already high. In 2005 and 2006, they rushed to buy homes - the problem is they were getting in late on the trend out of fear that the prices were going to go too high they wouldn't be able to afford. What actually happened is they wasted money by jumping in late on the trend.

The problem is simple: by and large people are not good at recognizing the changing of trends. And right now, we've got a huge one.

It is a mistake to simply assume that the three teams that have consistently out-performed the rest of the league over the last decade - Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis - will continue to do so this year simply because they have in the past. 

There are some realities that are taking place this year that make this particular period unique in comparison to other off-seasons.

The Salary Cap is Declining:  This is unprecedented; the Salary Cap has always went UP. Not this time: it has declined by $9 million. 

The first thing to get your arms around is what is each team’s salary cap situation?  Good luck on finding that out accurately – two articles by John Clayton done a week apart revealed two completely different sets of data regarding where certain teams are regarding being over or under the cap.

Granted, it’s not a coincidence that three teams – Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and New England – have represented the Super Bowl in nine of the last ten Super Bowls, and other teams like Philadelphia and Baltimore have remained consistently successful even in the Free Agency era of the NFL.

All of these teams face similar problems – first is clearing space to get under the Salary Cap, second is finding adequate replacements for the lost players, and third is to get under contract the star players who are either franchised (Woodley, Ngata, Mankins, Manning) or in their final contract years (Flacco, Polamalu). 

Even a team like Green Bay that on the surface looks to be in great shape, coming off the Super Bowl and looking like they are in very good salary cap shape, still face challenges. It’s easy to forget that the Packers were very close to missing the playoffs (if the Giants' punter kicks the ball out of bounds against the Eagles, the Packers don’t even make the playoffs and there is a different Super Bowl Champion). 

The Pack will have to make decisions on what players to retain, especially considering they have a considerable amount of talented players that were injured in 2010 who they may decide that it may be in the best interest of the team to part ways - Ryan Grant, for example.

In “normal” years, these teams that have front offices with a proven record of success would be able to maintain most of the core of their team, but this year will prove to be more challenging. 

With the requirement of every team to reach the “Salary Floor,” teams that spent far less than the previous salary floor last year now have to spend money to move up.  This means that organizations that normally wouldn’t enter into the Free Agent market will have to make sizeable impacts.

What that means is with the bevy of quality players that will have to be let go from the better teams, combined with players who are already free agents, more players will be on the open market. As a result, it will be more difficult to convince an Ike Taylor to remain in Pittsburgh (a team with an already thin secondary) when other teams who on normal years wouldn’t even enter the free agency arena (like Tampa Bay) will make contract offers that are more than a team like Pittsburgh has the ability to match.

So this year comes with a “double whammy,” with the combination of very quality players that will be available from some of the leagues more established and successful teams along with the normal “non-spenders” being forced into the marketplace. 

The result could be seeing a very unexpected and successful season from more than one team similar to the 2001 Patriots, who delved into the Free Agency pool after the 2000 season. While they did not sign any “blockbuster” names, they did acquire a number of quality players that in the end helped turn them from a five-win team to an 11 win team that won the Super Bowl.

While it is sexier to look at the big names who sign and monitor their success and the success of the teams that acquire them, those teams are rarely the ones that win the Super Bowl.  Since the beginning of Free Agency in 1993, you can count on one hand the number of teams that the acquisition of a major free agent put them over the top, but unquestionably, the acquisition of quality players that simply filled the roles that teams with a very solid core in place have made a huge difference in winning. 

The impact of role players is always overlooked in sports, but having players that are willing to put aside selfishness and play for the best of the team and do the dirty work that does not get credit very often results in teams that have more success.  In the coming week, a lot of those guys will be available, and the result is that we may see a season in 2011 that does not resemble the one that we had in 2010 at all.

If you want to put your odds down on a team to win the Super Bowl or predict their final records right now, than you're buying a house in January of 2006 or buying Microsoft and Intel in March of 2000 because you're basing it on a past performance when a major change in the trend is coming. 

Here's to hoping you didn't lay down too much money if you made a wager; there are enough homeowners being foreclosed on because they fell too far underwater on their homes already.