About a month ago, 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 assessed the top 10 teams on the Harvard study list, and compared them to the probability assessments made here, while part II assessed teams 11-20.
Note also that since the study, original promise to do this comparison, and part I of it came out, a few of the study’s numbers have changed. The oddest was increasing an already semi statistically outlandish “95%” chance of Seattle – the top team – making the playoffs, to a now far more outlandish 99%.
Pegging the Seahawks at 99% to make the playoffs defies NFL football reality. (Update: For more on the Seahawks and in general, here’s an analysis of the Harvard study itself, and why many of its numbers are problematic.)
At the end of the regular season, and regardless of results, we’ll do a comparison of both sets of numbers in conjunction with exactly how each team winds up in terms of proximity to the playoffs. Despite general variance and unpredictability, it’ll be very surprising if the Harvard numbers don’t fare much worse overall than the numbers given here.
As in parts I & II, the opening percentage number given in bold represents each team’s chance of making the playoffs according to the HSAC study. The ending percentage numbers, in contrast, are ours.
21. Bears, 25%. This is a reasonable number except for the John Fox effect. Fox has not been an exceptional head coach, but has been a solid one: He made the Panthers (at least for a while), and Denver both highly competitive, even if the bulk of the latter occurred after Peyton Manning arrived.
It’s also hard to assess what the Bears are losing with the firing of HC Marc Trestman after a mere two years. On balance, it’s likely somewhat of a coaching upgrade to switch to Fox – and potentially a significant one.
Also for the Bears, former Saints director of personnel Ryan Pace becomes the new GM, taking over for the fired Phil Emery. And former Saints scout Josh Lucas takes over as director of player personnel, for the fired Kevin Turks.
That might be a bit too much Saints involvement. Yet Franchise nepotism is common in the NFL, and it also often reflects the hire of people one knows, which can also be an advantage; if, sometimes on the flip side, leading to the same inside the box type of thinking and same, perhaps overly limited, set of candidates.
The Bears also brought in Vic Fangio as their new defensive coordinator. From ’95-’05 Fangio was DC for the Panthers, Colts and Texans. And then again DC for the 49ers from ’11-14, the same years Jim Harbaugh was the head coach there.
And for offensive coordinator the Bears brought in Adam Gase, who played the same role the last two years under John Fox – and when the team was on the field, likely somewhat under Peyton Manning – in Denver.
Chicago also lost several players, but made multiple short signings and a few more longer term, including LB Pernell McPhee ($38.75 million/5 years, 15.5 million guaranteed), WR Eddie Royal ($15.5 million, 10 million guaranteed) and S Antrel Rolle ($11.25 million, 5 million guaranteed).
Pernell, a 2011 5th round pick, has had some key plays in big moments, which may have been due to sheer variance as well as his skill, and may possibly have led to a higher perceived than real value. (Perhaps Bears staffers would disagree and say otherwise, I don’t know.) And it’s possible the Bears overpaid; possibly not.
Some criticized the Cleveland Browns $9 million guarantee given to Dwayne Bowe, but the $10 million given to Royals is larger. (Though Bowe’s 9 million guarantee was out of a $12.5 two year deal total, making it more lopsided.) When you take into account the offenses each played for, Bowe is probably a better receiver, although he does turn 31 later this month, whereas Royal is 29.
Included among the player losses are 12 year Bears stalwart Lance Briggs, who last season started 8 games with 24 tackles and 10 assists, and is now retired. And Brandon Marshall, now 31, who broke some ribs and had a collapsed lung from a knee hitting his back against the Cowboys in week 14, and is now with the Jets.
Marshall had 61 catches last year before getting hurt late. But he also had over 100 catches in 2012 and 2013, and in years 2007 – 2009 with the Broncos (one of only five receivers in the NFL to ever have 3 consecutive 100 catch seasons). And the QB throwing him the ball in all those years but for 2009 when he went to Chicago a few years ahead of Marshall? Jay Cutler, still with the team today.
The Bears were pretty awful last year. But that is in some part relative to the general expectation that they weren’t a bad football team. Maybe they were and we just didn’t know it.
As duly noted in part I, the Bears are a wild card. Not that they will make a wild card playoff spot, but they could be anywhere from a contender to a bad team – although Fox might keep them from slipping too far: 28%
22. Ravens, 24%. Until recently the number published by the Harvard study (and referenced here as well), was 9%. But 24% is still too low.
While the Ravens may not make the playoffs this year, they have every single year but one since Joe Flacco as rookie QB and John Harbaugh as rookie HC joined seven seasons ago. And they lead all NFL teams in total playoff wins during that period.
The original number of 9% was statistically ludicrous. (A 1 in 4 chance is low, but a slightly less than 1 in 10 chance, statistically, is far different.) The study doesn’t seem to note any particular reason for this change in its as of now current and apparently updated form, other than “normalizing” the results so an average of 6 teams would make the playoffs every year. And which doesn’t explain such a change (particularly when most teams are still the same).
The Ravens are in a tough division; they don’t seem to have really improved while a lot of other teams have; The AFC North’s schedule was fairly easy relative to some of the other divisions last year; and several teams will likely vie for the two AFC wild card sports this year, including a likely improved Chiefs and an overall improved NFC East. And, this year the NFC North plays the tough AFC West and tough NFC west: 36%
23. Redskins, 22%. Giving the Redskins about the same chance of making the playoffs as the Ravens (and originally more than twice the chance) is slighty far fetched. This team right now sits on the bottom of a division that may see three competitive teams. (Four if the Redskins join in.) 19%
24. Panthers, 22%. This is a good indication of the study’s considerable flaws. At the end of last year the Panthers were the best team in the weak NFC South. In part probably because of team cohesion, and defensive chemistry;
The study projects the Falcons to have a 55% chance of making the playoffs (which is also too high, see part I), and it’s near silly to claim the Falcons have nearly a two and a half times better chance of winning the division than the winner the previous two years. Cam Newton has also been a little rocky at times; but if he takes that next step, the Panthers are also going to have a heck of a QB.
Since the study came out the Panthers got a little hammered in the injury deparment, losing both starting DE Frank Alexander and more importantly second year WR Kelvin Benjamin for the year.
Benjamin was seemingly the key element in an otherwise potentially very weak receiving corps. And right now, after missing training camp and most of the preseason with a hamstring injury – not good for rookie wide receivers – rookie Devin Funchess is third on that nevertheless still on paper very weak looking depth chart.
Funchess was no small investment either, as the Panthers traded up to snag him, perhaps inadvisedly giving up their 3rd and 6th round picks to move up 16 spots in the second round to 41 overall to grab him. (If your team is that good at evaluating talent that you know Funchess is a steal at that spot, evaluate the best guy available at 57 and then again in the 3rd round, which is a considerable value pick – low salary but still with a reasonably high chance of strong upside – and then again in the 5th round; with both now being picks, as a result of the trade, that simply vanished. (Technically they moved over to the Rams, who made the deal with the Panthers.)
On the flip side, and trade aside, Funchess may have been a nice pick with a lot of potential. And the Panthers could have used some more wide receiving help – in part possibly why they made the trade. But then their by far and away this moment best WR, Benjamin, goes down for the year, and Funchess essentially misses training camp and the preseason.
But we’re trying not to take hard news that came about after the Harvard study into account, so the Panthers are still around even to the slight favorite to win the division over the Saints, with the Falcons possibly in the mix, and with a wild card from this division still probably unlikely. (Also, even taking into account the bad injury news and holdup to any possible early development of Funchess, this team is still at least probably even with the Falcons and Saints overall to win the division, putting them over 30%.) 36%
25. Browns, 15%. This seemed like it would have been a really bad number. But in 2013 the Bears’ Josh McCown filled in nicely for Jay Cutler for several games later in the year, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, despite over a decade of nice quality backup QB work by McCown, said, “hey, he can be our starter!” And made him so.
It was a bad move at the time. And while it still could have worked out (McCown, after all, had played pretty well in 2013), it didn’t.
Now the Browns are trying the same magic trick.
True, they have Johnny Football, aka Johnny Manziel, sitting in the wings. And if McCown falters they will probably say “let it rip” Johnny. And Manziel didn’t show enough last year to conclusively prove he won’t make it in the NFL as a quality starter. So it could be exciting yet.
But it’s somewhat hard to evaluate, as last year the Brown’s also had Brian Hoyer as their starter for 13 games (although for the last several he played very poorly). And teams seem to play better when Hoyer starts, and thus win more often. In 2013, before now second year HC Mike Pettine got there, the Browns went 4-12 overall, yet 3-0 in the games Hoyer started.
It’s kind of head scratching. I mean, if the argument for going with Josh McCown is, “well, we have Johnny Boy waiting in the wings” (reasonable enough), why wasn’t that the argument for going with Hoyer: Out of the so far 22 total starting QBS the Browns have had, not counting McCown, who will be starter week 1 and number 23 overall since the franchise was resurrected from the football graveyard (having earlier been turned into a large black bird in 1996 and moved to Baltimore in something famous enough in Ohio to be known as “the move”), the only one who even has a winning record is Brian Hoyer.
That’s out of 22 total starting QBs. One. One, has a winning record. Hoyer. Letting him go is one thing. But to 1) let him go. and 2) choose McCown, a long time backup, who the Bucs just made the same mistake on last year and who is entering his 13th year in the NFL (it would be 14th but McCown played for the UFL in 2010), is quite another.
Bad Browns, bad.
Bad Harvard study too, as Pettine shouldn’t be counted out so quickly. But that’s what perhaps silly studies that then get popularly picked up by multiple news sources and hat try to assess a team’s chances based upon subjective core player evaluation, miss; among many other things. 26%
26. Vikings, 12%. This is a joke. Anyone who thinks the Vikings are 1 in 8 to make the playoffs hasn’t been closely watching football the last several years.
Note, the Vikings will probably miss the playoffs: Again, if they are given a four times, or a 300% greater, chance of making the playoffs than this Harvard study gave them, the odds would still be that they are (slightly) more likely to miss the playoffs than not.
And even if their chances were a whopping 65%, they would still miss the playoffs 1 out of 3 times.
This NFC North division could be tough. The Packers lost their stud wide receiver Jordy Nelson for the year. Nelson had over 1500 yards for them last year, and made some solid catches. (Though we’re not supposed to take that into account, as it happened after the original SAC study came out). But they’ve been perennial contenders, and there’s no real reason to think they won’t be strong this year. And the Lions look to be as well. As for the Bears? Well, see above.
But the Vikings improved last year under first year HC Mike Zimmer; also surprised the league a few years back and won the division in 2008 and 2009; second year QB Teddy Bridgewater showed some smooth moves his rookie year, and could be a force this one; and they get back what was not long ago the undisputed best running back in the NFL. This might not seem like a lot, but it’s double – double – the study number. And probably conservative: 24%
27. Rams. 10%. I’m just gonna say it. Almost no one does it seems. Possibly because he’s just one of those guys. You know, the guy that just handles it all well, and we don’t want to diss, because they just, well, handle it all so well.
But after many years of watching his teams often fail to wrap up when tackling (and he’s been 5 straight seasons, 2 with the Titans, then a year off, then 3 with the Rams, without a playoff appearance), it’s time: Head Coach Jeff Fisher is a little overrated.
That being said, he’s still a very good head football coach, and smooth as silk the way he seems to handle most things. (I wish he was a little less smooth about poor tackling though.) And this year the Rams have a legitimate shot.
That’s even with the fact that while their former number one overall draft pick QB is back after missing most of the last two years with injuries (and some injury time before that as well), he’s unfortunately back with the Eagles, who the Rams traded him to in the offseason. And who, if he stays healthy, is going to surprise a lot of people; because Sam Bradford is a natural.
Unfortunately, in preseason the Rams at times looked sloppy tackling once again – particularly for a defense that could potentially be a powerhouse (though I’m trying not to take that into account, and the tackilng could also have been a fluke that won’t happen as such in the regular season.) And they are starting two rookies on the offensive line, which could be problematic for them once again. But this “10%” number is far, far, almost ridiculously, too low.
It’s also still tough to assess their new quarterback Nick Foles. In his rookie year with the Eagles, Foles first played in week 9 and got his first start week 10. And impressed a lot of people. But in one game against the Panthers he threw three easy picks that were all ridiculously dropped. Had they been caught the take on Foles would likely have been different.
But the following year, 2013, he posted a remarkable 13.5 to 1 TD to interception ratio, throwing 27 TDs, and only 2 picks. And he became only the second QB ever to post a perfect passer rating, while also throwing for over 400 yards.
In 2014 he played in only 8 games before getting hurt, and had a much more pedestrian 13-10 TD/interception ratio. And that offense in ’13 and ’14 seemed to buzz under innovative HC Chip Kelly, so it’s hard to know how much that might have helped Foles performance.
Regardless, Foles is an upgrade over the backups the Rams were playing with last year, and his team seems to play well when he’s on the field. But how he does with a still possibly iffy offensive line remains to be seen.
On the one had it’s hard to see why this Rams team couldn’t put it together (provided they get good offensive line play) and contend for the division. On the other hand, if prior history, and what to me seems like a series of up and down draft day decisions over the past several years is any indication (let alone the fact that they were hooked with several extra high picks courtesty of the “RGIII” trade with the Redskins in 2012), it’s hard to imagine them having much of a shot to go deep into the playoffs if they do manage to finally take a bigger step and make it in.
But their defense could be scary. And showed it for a short stint mid late last season, where they outscored an overall middling batch of teams 79-0 over 10 consecutive impressive quarters of play: 0-0 v the Chargers quarter 4 in a game they lost 27-24; a 52-0 win over a bad Oakland team that was in dream land after its first big win in a while – a week twelve 24-10 victory over rival Kansas City for their first win of the season after an 0-10 start; and a 24-0 drubbing of the Washington Redskins followed by a 3-0 first quarter against the Cardinals (in a game they also eventually lost, 12-6.) Before, unfortunately, relapsing back to so so play.
Think what you will of the Rams, but assessing them before this season even starts as having only a 1 in 10 chance, with a significant upgrade (even if a questionable one) at quarterback; another year for those young players; an improving team; a good head coach; and when 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs, is just not realistic.
Our number is still remarkably higher than the study’s, and by halfway into the season, who knows, while they are probably not there yet, it could even look very low, as the Rams could pull it together. I just think they need a new GM first. 35%
28. 49ers, 9%. This is not only the most remade team of the year, it’s probably the most remade team in several, and unfortunately it includes the loss of a probably underrated head coach.
This is a guy who joined them in 2011, taking over a seemingly middling team, and immediately taking it all the way to the NFC Championship game three seasons in a row. There, winning once and losing twice in close games, one of those times on a fluke muffed punt to send the game into overtime and then another to lose in overtime (against the Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl against the Patriots). And in the Super Bowl, putting on a furious comeback effort against the Ravens and head coach Jim Harbaugh’s real brother John (of all people), and almost pulling off a huge comeback at the end.
And it includes the loss of a lot of big name and very successful on field players.
Still, many people rave about the 49ers new head coach Jim Tomsula, and the 49ers also brought in new players as well; and even with a lot of injuries and some key suspensions last year, were still a tough matchup, and finished 8-8. (though again, how much of that was specifically Harbaugh’s doing where other coaches might have failed, is hard to tell.)
LIke the Bears, but possibly with more upside, this team is also somewhat of an unknown wild card. 20%.
29. Jaguars, 3%. It’s hard to say the Jaguars have a chance. They simply have made what appears to be mistake after mistake after mistake. (Though many argue otherwise, and some Jaguars fans don’t like hearing it.) But fact is, make all the excuses you want, this team has won 14 games out of its last 64.
But they played tough at times last year; their rookie QB last year, who seemed to me like a bit of a stretch when they took him with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, neverthless impressed some people last season and could at least pan out; the team seems to fully believe in its now 3rd year head coach and former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley; and the league is full of surprises. 8%
30. Buccaneers, 2%. There is this perception that Lovie Smith, brought in last season, is a really good head coach.
Maybe he is. The Bears had a solid winning record under him, made the playoffs a couple of times, and one year somehow managed to get lucky and make it to the Super Bowl as probably the single weakest Super Bowl team in the 2000s so far. (2006 season, and lost to the Colts. I’m also not buying that the Cardinals were when they played the Steelers for the 2008, season. Conventional wisdom called them one of the weakest teams to simply enter the playoffs in a while, and conventional wisdom was way off. I even picked them as the dark horse Super Bowl winner at the very start of the playoffs. And but for a James Harrison pick just outside the goal line on a 5 yard pass that versus a Cardinals touchdown led to a 14 point swing, they probably would have been.)
But the Buccaneers were at least sometimes competitive under departed head coach Greg Schiano, and regressed under Smith. We’ll see in season two. Though obviously they could easily exceed expectations, and given Smith’s prior W-L track record could surprise, no reason to not think they are still one of the poorer teams in the league.
Still, giving them a 2%, or 1 in 50 chance of even making the playoffs, is not realistic given basic NFL variability. This number, though still low, is in part based on the fact that in addition to themselves, their division was still fairly weak last season, and may still lag a little bit this year and has an easier schedule than last year: 10%
31. Titans 2%. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, over six full seasons of coaching, and all with the same team, had an overall losing record. But it wasn’t by all that much. (Until last year’s dreadful 2-14 record with the Titans is tacked on, never mind that the team also got blown out in most of its games as well.) And his prior team twice made the playoffs, getting to the Super Bowl once, where a James Harrison pick of a Kurt Warner pass from the Steelers’ 5 yard line turned into a 14 point swing and likely kept the team with the red bird on its helmet from winning the game.
The Titans have a lot of young, talented players, and with the second pick in the draft had the opportunity to draft a potentially very strong franchise quarterback in Marcus Mariota. (Who this preseason has looked exceptional, although that’s not supposed to be taken into account, so we’ll discount it. However, his very strong upside coming into the league still existed prior to the preseason. And this team overall had some upside as well.)
For the same reasons already addressed, assessing this team, or essentially the chances of any team, at 2% is a statistical joke. Our number, if low compared to many teams, is still a whopping six times greater chance of making the playoffs than the one given by the study. And it may still be too low: 12%
32. Oakland .03%. No team in the now essentially half century of the Super Bowl era has had only a 1 in 333 chance of making the playoffs before a season began, and no team has even been close. Oakland’s no exception, and this “point zero three percent number” is,again, ridiculous.
Also notice Oakland’s pattern last year after beating the Chiefs to shoot their record up to 1-10. They took it light – obviously – and got pounded 52-0 by the Rams, then pulled it together and back at home surprised again, legitimately beating the still tough 49ers – and doing so as large underdogs – 24-13, before then, same pattern, getting pounded yet again, and this time by the Chiefs in a rematch in Kansas City, 31-13. Then guess what. Same pattern still: They won again, and again against a good team. By late last season the Bills were a very good football team, and probably taking Oakland lightly, and on a cross country trip fell to those same Raiders 26-24. And yet after pulling out that win, Oakland continued its pattern as well, getting pounded by Denver in a season ending game, 47-14.
The Raiders might wind up being a better team than the Titans (there is no way to really know), but they seem to be in a tougher division. And their division also plays the NFC North and the AFC North, while the Titans’ AFC South plays the AFC East and the easier NFC South: 10%
Again, the Harvard study, by focusing on the “core” players of a team to assess value, misses that critical full team element, including the contribution of less marquee but still starting players whose strengths or weaknesses can play a critical role in a team’s results; the effect some players can have on how others play; and most of all, it seems to miss a good portion of coaching, and heart.
We’ll also take a look in from time to time before the end of regular season recap to see who’s getting pummeled: Harvard’s numbers, or ours. Guess which one I predict will lose out.