NFL Football Strategy Versus the Harvard Study Team Projections, part II: Teams 11 – 20

Note, this was published’/posted late yesterday, September 6, 2015. Not August 30th. Who knows what wordpress is doing. If you know, please tell me.
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A few weeks back, a popular Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) study projected each NFL team’s percentage chances of making it into the 2015 NFL playoffs.

Part I looked at the playoff probabilites of the first ten teams of the study, and tried to offer more realistic numbers. Here in part II we’ll look at teams 11-20. And, as with teams 1-10, the study’s numbers continue to present numerous question marks; although the wildest are yet to come, with teams 21-32. [Update: Part III, covering teams 21-32, can now be found here. An assessment of the study itself and more detail on some of its worst numbers, is also now available here.]

Once again the first percentage figure given in bold represents the probability of that team making the playoffs according to the study. The last percentage figure given in bold in contrast, represents thay team’s playoff chances as assessed here.

11. Texans, 50%. Last year this team managed to do the near unthinkable: Give up 24 points in the span of about 90 seconds. (And they started that 90 second span with the football, and weren’t even punting.)

The Texans aren’t very strong at quarterback. But they weren’t last year either.  And Brian Hoyer, the likely starter (now so named), played well early last year for Cleveland, then fell apart: though not necessarily from a leadership perspective, where he seems to have great attributes; but from a being able to hit the open receiver with the ball perspective.

Originally an undrafted rookie free agent signed by the Patriots in ’09, Hoyer never seemed as gifted with accuracy as some other QBs; a big liability, since accuracy is key. However, he showed early last year he has the potential to sometimes throw well enough. And he’s shown a strong ability to lead teams, and win games.

Hoyer’s succes may be due in part to the arrival of Mike Pettine as head coach in 2014 – when he saw most of his NFL starts. But it’s also likely not completely random that of the now 22 different starting Browns QBs since the team’sresurrection” in 1999, only 1 has a winning record: Hoyer. 3-0 in 2013. (The Browns also went 1-12 its other 13 games in 2013). And 7-6 last year. (The 22 different starting Browns QBS are these twenty plus rookies Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw. Josh McCown, this year’s iffy week 1 starter, will be No. 23.)

The fact Hoyer started off 2014 strong, then played poorly later in the season doesn’t bode all that well. But his overall record for an otherwise losing team suggests potential; and Houston will have a strong leader this year at QB.

All that said, the Texans are a relatively strong team in a relatively weak division, perennial winner Indianapolis aside. With a panopoly of quarterbacks, but most frequently Ryan Fitzpatrick (now with the Jets), the Texans were a solid 9-7 last year – one year removed from starting off the season as a projected Super Bowl contender before finishing out that same year with 14 straight (but often close) losses.

It’s hard to quibble too much with the SAC study’s number here. The Texans may make the playoffs, they may not:. Which, sounds like something at least in the ballpark of 50-50.

The real issue, unless they can overcome the Colts, is their wild card chances. Projecting wild card teams is a bit of a “wild card” itself. One that has much to do not just with how strong each team is, but how much disparity winds up existing between upper, upper middle, lower middle and lower teams, and who in that structure winds up playing who. (And how they do, and against whom.)

Several of the following AFC teams could also win their division, but might be stronger picks for possible wild cards: Ravens, Chiefs (or Broncos), Chargers, Bills, Bengals, Steelers (maybe), Bills, Dolphins (maybe), Jets (possibly), Browns if Manziel starts soon and can translate some of that college magic. (Pettine has the Browns finally competing – at least he did last year.)

Are the Texans close to the top of that pile? Maybe, maybe not, but they “should” have four relatively easier games against the Jaguars and Titans, if not as cush as those four were last season. And this year they also play the division that, along with said AFC South itself, was arguably the worst in football last year – the NFC South. And while they may not be cush games, right now a team would be better off playing the Falcons Panthers Saints and Bucs than any other of the NFC divisions this year.

In the AFC, the South plays the East, where there are more possible contenders – but no real powerhouses (yet) -unless the Patriots somewhow do it again despite a few odds against them this year. If the Texans are strong this year, they can improve their chances by dealing at least three of those teams a loss. Throwing in the chance that they take the division – albeit towards the low side (despite the Harvard study’s goofy prediction that the Texans and Colts have failry similar odds of making the playoffs) – and it’s about a toss up.

One problem: A guy named Foster; Australian for “beer.” (Not the guy who made the 49ers final 53 who until just recently was a superstar rugby player in Australia though – that’s Jarryd Hayne– but Arian.)

Arian Foster was signed by the Texans in 2009 as an undrafted rookie free agent; released, then added to their practice squad the next day.

He made his NFL debut on November 23, 2009, and by now, along with the Chiefs’ Priest Holmes (originally signed by the Ravens in ’97), he might be the best running back to go undrafted ever. Or at least since Joe Perry. (Not the Aerosmith guitarist and brother to Journey’s Steve, but the other 49ers Joe, who played in the 1950s.)

Since 2010, no player in the NFL, Fosters first full season, has averaged more total yards from scrimmage per game than he, and it’s not even that close. Foster’s been hurt a few times however, and is hurt again. This is not good news. But as he’s expected back by early October, possibly slightly sooner, it may not hurt the Texans too much. Same number: 50%

12. Giants, 48%.  Yes anything can happen when Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning are thrown together. And football wise, almost anything has. Thus this team can never be counted out.

And like many teams the Giants did have a few key injuries last year – most notably to Victor Cruz, who, along with last year’s late starting rookie sensation Odell Beckham Jr., on paper now helps form quite a formidable looking duo for Ole Eli to throw to.

Then on the flip side there’s defensive tackle Jason Pierre Paul, who the Giants needed to return to his disruptive form to up their chances. Pierre-Paul, instead, seemingly elected to ignore that old adage we (hopefully) all learn as kids: Be extra careful with fireworks. And essentially all but got his fingers blown off playing with them, leading ultimately to amputation of the right index one.

Fingers are key in football – thumb first, index second (unless you’re a QB, then it’s ring finger second) so this will slightly limit his ability, unless he develops a compensating skill or awareness. And it has led to a tricky situation for both “JPP,” and the Giants, who after the fireworkds injury this summer rescinded their long term contract offer; one which Pierre-Paul didn’t appear all that ready to sign anyway.

The two sides, however, are expected to work something out for this year at least; and although it’s a little unclear, JPP should be back on the field around six games, possibly less, into the season.

The Giants have some marquee names, and have established a track record of being dangerous in the playoffs under Eli; but they’re not all that great at getting there.

While they could be strong again (and overall the team should be better than last year, but surprises to the continued downside do happen as well in the NFL), 48%, which is near 50-50, is too high.

While this could easily change a few weeks into the season, unless enigmatic Dallas – now expected to be strong – returns to their 8-8 form or worse, right now they have to be third to win the NFC East behind the Cowboys and Eagles. And the Redskins, if less likely, could always surprise. 38%

13. Saints, 48%. The Saints may make the playoffs, but they’re not necessarily a tossup to do so.

RIght now, even with a key season ending injury to the one solid WR on the Panthers (which happened after the Harvard study) – last year’s rookie sensation Kelvin Benjamin – and one to starting DE Frank Alexander, the Panthers are still on par with the Saints to win the division; and while right now the Falcons are not, they probably aren’t all that far behind.

Even though the AFC South has a likely easier interconference matchup this year than last, it’s still unlikely a wild card will emerge from the division. So giving the Saints essentially a 50-50 chance to win a division whem they are likely around average among three legitimate contenders (with the chance at a wild card being somewhat offset by the chance the Buccaneers surprise and somehow go worst to first, which “does” happen in the NFL – although rookie no 1 pick QB Jameis Winston doesn’t yet look like he’s ready to lead the team there) is unsupportable. 40%

14. Steelers, 45%. This actually seems like a decent number. And given Pittsburgh’s quarterback, their head coach, and their long term pattern, it’s hard to not give the Steelers the benefit of the doubt, .

However, with the departure of long time defensive coordinator staple Dick Lebeau and an ongoing remaking of the defense, this year is more uncertain than many; and the team could run all the way to the Super Bowl, or, perhaps, even more likely, simply struggle.

The Browns seem to still struggle with personnel moves, but they were competitive this year. QB Josh McCown is competent, if realistically a backup and not the starter the Browns are (right now) using him as, but Johnny Manziel also has a shot, if the team struggles under McCown, to turn it around.

The Bengals seemed stacked. (They’ve just been remarkably good at losing once getting into the playoffs, going a wild 0-6 once arriving there – and often losing solidly as well – under head coach Marvin Lewis, now nevertheless in his 13th season as their head coach.)

And while the Ravens don’t seem any better on paper, they’ve made the playoffs (and been pretty good in the playoffs as well) every year but one since he and then rookie QB Joe Flacco joined the team in 2008.

During that stretch, Harbaugh also has more playoff wins than any other coach in the NFL. (And once again, though losing this time, they also gave the Patriots a pretty good battle in the AFC championship semi final last year.)

37.5% of the 32 teams playing in the NFL already make the playoffs (one of the reasons, along with the loss of a great playoff structure, including byes, and thus far more meaning to later season games, that expanding the field would dilute the value of both making the playoffs as well as the great majority of late season games involving good teams).  And to say the Steelers don’t really have better than an average shot at making the playoffs seems a stretch. But since the Harvard study has made so many – though given this team it also wouldn’t be a surprise if they make it to the AFC Championship game – we’ll make the slight stretch here. 38%

15. Eagles, 41%. Head coach Chip Kelly himself is a wild card. And this Eagles team has been semi remanufactured, with a score of offseason moves that on balance may have improved it.

One key move was the acquisition of QB Sam Bradford, in the last year of his original former 2010 No. 1 pick rookie contract with the Rams; and who, if he stays healthy, is going to “surprise” a lot of people this year.

Bradford’s a natural, who can throw a football like most Fox News Contributors can auto condemn almost anything Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton do. He was only the second sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. (Tim Tebow did it in 2007, and Manziel did as a freshman in 2012, although the following year Jameis Winston was apparently younger than Manziel had been.)

And as a rookie in 2010, Bradford lit the NFL on fire, before it became less surprising for rookie quarterbacks to do so.

However, given the fact Bradford’s had season ending injuries both of the last two years (playing in 7 games total), ended his senior year with early season ending surgery, and missed 6 games in 2011 from a high ankle sprain that bothered him most of the year, that “if” he stays healthy is a big one.

Then there’s back up Mark Sanchez. Sanchez didn’t win very much when pressed into starting duy late last year (but did play solidly). But he’s also a former No. 4 pick overall who, along with Rex Ryan, a marginal offense, and a solid defense, somehow clawed his way to two conference championships his first two seasons in the league. (And being one of the few rookie quarterbacks to ever do it – and possibly the only won, as Russell Wilson and the Seahawk’s furious comeback attempt against the Falcons in the Conference semi final for 2012 fell just short.)

Given all this, and the fact that the Eagles, injuries or not, were better than the Giants last year, putting the Giants ahead of the Eagles should be done on objective plus subjective assessment; not a statistical study of “core” players that at least in theory is supposed to be analytically objective, but that can’t be very robust when multiple starters, as well as the team chemistry, are left out.

An argument can  of course be made to do it, but it’s the weaker argument than the reverse: 50%

16. Bills, 39%. That’s almost a 4 in 10 chance. Given that the Bills haven’t even made the playoffs this entire century (technically, this entire new millenium, since they last qualified during the 1999 season), this seems a fairly confident number.

However, the number is too low. Not too high.

Yet one of several teams that have a strong chance of surprising this year is their rival, the Miami Dolphins. But the Harvard Study put the Dolphins at 77%,giving them (somewhat ridiculously) the highest chances of making the playoffs out of any of the AFC’s sixteen different NFL teams. (It has been lowered to 74% – see below – which still puts them first.)

The Dolphins may make the playoffs, and may even be a serious contender in them. But the Bills chances of making the playoffs are likely a little higher than the Dolphins.

Signs this summer indicate they feel like a team, which is bigger than individual names in football. And while Rex Ryan fell off his game after his initial “we’re going to pound the Patriots” novelty lost its flare, he did, with a little luck, somehow bring the Jets to the AFC conference championship game his first two years there as well. Albeit with Mark Sanchez, drafted number 4 overall; and not Tyrod Taylor, the projected starter, and a 2011 sixth round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens who has never started a regular season game.

Taylor may have a good year however. If he doesn’t 2013 no. 15 overall pick (clear reach though it was at the time), EJ Manuel, but for a pattern of occasional, almost head scratching breakdowns, has shown a lot of ability and poise, and has more upside. And Matt Cassel is a competent to very good backup, who can manage a game under former 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who seems to know how to get a lot out of QBs.(Although due to his high salary for third string he just got cut; but Greg Roman will likely do a good job with whoever they bring in, if it comes to that.)

Expect good games between the Dolphins and Bills this year. In fact expect good matchups between all AFC East divisional teams this year, as the three long time stragglers finally try to end their almost a decade and a half near domination by the Patriots, and battle each other fiercely as well. 55%.

17. Bengals, 33%.  I love this number.  Marvin Lewis is, after all, 0-6 in the playoffs. And how long can QB Andy Dalton, who looked like an extremely solid early second round draft choice early in his career, continue to “not quite get it done.”

Can he and the Bengals once again play strong then fall apart when the postseason comes yet again?

If the answer is no, one might be tempted to say this is their year: the year the “patience” (if one wants to be kind enough to use that word) of Bengals management in Lewis’s unbelievably long head coaching reign (only Belichick is longer, by a couple years, and he has six Super Bowl appearances) pays off.

But that’s unlikely. It’s simply hard to go 0-6 in the playoffs, with teams that should have won the majority of those 6 games no less, simply by accident.

So one would think the fall would be to the downside. And 9-7, with a few tough losses, but just missing the playoffs after a fairly unusual 3 straight into the playoffs season run, probably still keeps the team “solid,” but sitting after week 17.After all, when they were the clear favorite and had the chance to cement then win the division last year, they fell apart and into the wild card spot, as Pittsburgh pummeled them, and then again to take the division.

However, much of the above is speculation. (Naturally most season prediction is; but it’s usually grounded in the team’s history, character, cohesion, head coach and overall cadre of players. At least ideally.) And to say the Bengals have a less than average chance of making the playoffs is once again a bit of a stretch.

They may be looking in this year. but it would be more uplifting if my constant clamoring that the Bengals should have replaced Lewis – for nearly two years now – is at least finally undermined when this year they explode and he takes them all the way to the Super Bowl!! (Being as the Bengals simply won’t fire Lewis, at some point the odds are they have to win some playoff games, right? It’s just the odds are low:which is why unless the Bengals seek to just be competitive and and not win Super Bowls, keeping a coach longer than most other teams have kept better coaches, was a clear mistake after 2013: Then repeated, only worse, after 2014. )

This is a good football team, with a better than league average chance of making it again, even if one is down on them. 42%

18. Cardinals, 30%. Yes the Cardinals collapsed last year, as their backup and backup to the backup quarterback play somehow failed to inspire the rest of the team after Carson Palmer went down late with an ACL tear. And they don’t look very strong on paper. (It seems so many teams improved in the offseason. Did the Cardinals, really??)  And Palmer is getting up there in years, and perhaps played better last year than his late to end of career average. And they lost another successful defensive coordinator, as Todd Bowles moved on to coach the New York Jets.

But. But, but, Bruce Arians took a Colts football team with a lot of young players, riding the emotion of their head coachs cancer, and took them into the playoffs Andrew Luck’s rookie year. This earned him the head gig in Arizona for the 2014 season, where they surprised most people, competed, and hit 10-6. Although in a wild division, which came very close to seeing an 11-5 team not make the playoffs, they failed to qualify.  And then last year the Cardinals had a near lock on the division midway through, then fell apart to glide in at 11-5, where they were out-played in the playoffs by the Seahawks.

Still, tough division or not, and even with a few lesser factors also working against them, very slim chance this team has a significantly less than average probability of making the playoffs.

However, also on the downside, not only are they also still in a likely very competitive division, the NFC West this year plays the NFC North, a division which will possibly host 3 strong teams – two possibly very strong. And they play the AFC North; itself no easy division either. That means the Cardinals will play the Seahawks, 49ers and Rams twice, and the Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, Browns, Bears, Vikings, Packers and Lions, Their last two? Possibly the two toughtest teams from the other two NFC division: The Eagles and Saints. 36%

19. Chargers, 29%.  This isn’t happening either. Philip Rivers is one competive dude. And since Mike McCoy has joined the team as head coach, they’ve been in the mix, and are at least average to make the playoffs, and possibly better. And even if the Chargers right now are potentially looking at third best in the tough AFC West, they could easily challenge the Chiefs or Broncos, or both.  38%.

20.  Cowboys, 27%. This isn’t happening in real “probability” land either. Sure the Cowboys seem to play nearly everyone tough, rarely getting blown out, then wind up 8-8; until last year when, with many of us expecting if anything a down year, they surprised and played like one of the best teams in the league; going 12-4 and coming a blown but micro close dropped catch away from (after a close and semi controversial win over the Lions) from going to the NFC championship game.

The Cowboys lost a highly productive running back in DeMarco Murray. And despite early speculation from several (including myself) that Darren McFadden might surprise and pick up most of the slack, indications are that may not happen. McFadden, who has an injury history, already missed some time, and still doesn’t look like he did when he came into the league. And the running back position overall, with McFadden, Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and John Smith, looks a little shaky at this point. (The Cowboys also just traded earlier today for Seahawks 2013 second round pick – no. 62 overall – Christine Michael.)

But this team is still a solid favorite. And. though of course this applies to a lot of teams, if they jell and play like a team, they will make the playoffs. And they may go deep into the playoffs, as well; nor is them winning the Super Bowl necessarily a real long shot.

They have the players, they get LB Sean Lee back on defense, they had a super powerful potential draft, and picked up Greg Hardy in free agency after his suspension last season. (Hardy sat for all but one game last year,, and will still miss the first four games this one.)

Hardy’s absence was likely one of the key reasons why the Panthers defense for a while fell off significantly from 2013 to 2014.

It’s a team game, and it remains to be seen if Hardy as well as some of the other new pieces can jell here together in Dallas. But this team may have potential. Tagging them at 27% is a joke. And it will remain so even if they go 6-10 or 7-9.

Remember, probabilities are simply about probabilities. A 27% chance means just over a quarter of the time the team will make the playoffs, A 75% chance (which would have ranked 4th highest in the Harvard Study, just below the “Dolphins,” originally) still means the team will miss the playoffs 1 time out of 4 on average.

At issue is the probability itself, not what happens, although how the team winds up can be examined relative to the original projected probabilities, and when all 32 teams are assessed this way, a better assessment can be made after the regular season is over regarding each set of proejctions in total. And we’ll do that, comparing both the Harverd study numbers, and ours here, regardless of season outcome.

Incidentally, I picked the Giants to possibly upset the Cowboys opening week. But that’s mainly because most are picking the Cowboys to win, and the outcome at this early juncture, particularly when these two teams play, is unknown; the Cowboys poor play at home last year in comparision to their road play was consistent, and seemed beyond statsitical fluke; and the Giants have a lot to prove, and it is before a national audience.

Last year, uncharacteristically for their recent history, there is no doubt Dallas outplayed New York when the two teams got together on the field. That may not be the case this year. ( And it’s often not with rivalries in this division, and several others.)

As for the Cowboy: 45%.  And that might be low.

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Update: Again, teams 11-32, including a few dark horse teams with reasonable enough playoff chances that the study also completely missed, is found here: The Harvard study makes some major mistakes with its bottom third of the assessed teams

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6 thoughts on “NFL Football Strategy Versus the Harvard Study Team Projections, part II: Teams 11 – 20

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