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NFL Teams Set For a Fall!

   by Scott Spreitzer - 08/25/2009

Last week I wrote about all the poor teams from the 2008 pro football season who are set to improve in 2009. I think a reasonable case can be made that all of the teams 6-10 or worse last year are likely to get at least a little better barring injuries.



What about the other end of the spectrum? This is a sport where “regression to the mean” is fairly common. Are there any success stories from 2008 who are likely to fall flat this year?



Actually, history makes it clear that several of them will fall flat! There are certain indicators I like to use when isolating the best nominees for “overrated” status in the NFL. I’m going to run through some of those for you today.



First, let’s list the teams who finished at 10-6 or better. Last week we talked about everyone at 6-10 or worse, so we’ll take the inverse for this study.



Tennessee 13-3

NY Giants 12-4

Carolina 12-4

Pittsburgh 12-4

Indianapolis 12-4

Baltimore 11-5

Atlanta 11-5

Miami 11-5

New England 11-5

Minnesota 10-6



You probably have some ideas already percolating in your head just from looking at the list. That’s good! Successful handicapping comes from thinking about the future rather than assuming the past is going to stand pat.



First I want to mention that injury luck is a big deal in the NFL. Last week we saw a few teams whose 2008 collapses were largely due to very bad injury luck. Success if often due to very good injury luck! People don’t think about that because good health feels like a normal state. You have to be lucky to be healthy in this brutal sport.



Any of these teams could lose their starting quarterback and fall back. Let’s note that New England did lose its starting quarterback last year, but he’s back this year. That’s a point in their favor for avoiding collapse in 2009. If Tom Brady stays healthy, the Patriots will be better this year. The NY Giants also deserve credit in my view because their defense took some hits early in the season.



Okay, I’ve set the stage. Let’s run these teams through a gauntlet of indicators



STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

Schedules are unbalanced in the NFL because you have 32 teams only playing 16 games. There are tough divisions and soft divisions and everyone plays six games within their division. It’s easier to reach 10-6 or better if you’ve played a manageable schedule. Teams usually don’t catch that break two seasons in a row.



Playing soft schedules in 2008: Miami, New England, Carolina, Atlanta

Playing hard schedules in 2008: NY Giants, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis

Playing relatively neutral schedules in 2008: Tennessee, Minnesota



That lays things out fairly well. I’m going to assume Tom Brady cures a lot of ills, so I’m focusing now on Miami, Carolina, and Atlanta as teams who aren’t quite as good as people think. They built partly artificial records against soft schedules.



TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

There’s a lot of debate in handicapping circles about whether turnovers are based on skill or luck. People used to think turnovers were all random. But years of evidence showed that aggressive defenses were much better at forcing turnovers than passive defenses were. And, efficient quarterbacks are better at avoiding interceptions than gunslingers are.



I still pay attention to this stat and assume some regression to the mean. The key word there is “some.”



Positive TO differentials in 2008: Miami, NY Giants, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Tennessee, Indianapolis

Relatively even TO differentials in 2008: New England

Poor TO differentials in 2008: Minnesota, Atlanta



The combination of “positive TO differential” versus a “soft schedule” should be a warning sign. That’s a team building a record by taking full advantage of easy opposition. Those edges are likely to disappear the following season. So, Miami and Carolina jump out as two teams due to fall back because they appear on BOTH lists.



GENERAL STAT PERFORMANCE

I use a variety of stats to measure performance (yardage differential, yards-per-play differential, third down differential, red zone differential). There’s not nearly enough space to try to run all the numbers right here. Using a compilation from last season, I would classify things this way:



Record was better than stats would suggest: Carolina, Atlanta, Miami, New England, Tennessee



Record was about right: NY Giants, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis



Record was worse than stats would suggest: Nobody (we’re dealing with the cream of the crop and it’s hard to have stats better than “cream of the crop” would suggest).



Interestingly, some of usual suspects show up. Miami and Carolina weren’t remotely 12-4 or 11-5 caliber teams based on this gauntlet. And, given how badly they were crushed on their home fields in the playoffs, it reflects well on the study.



New England would be a nominee to fall back toward .500 if Tom Brady wasn’t returning. They were lucky to go 11-5 themselves though it didn’t get them into the playoffs.



I’m going to put Tennessee in the mix too because 13-3 is a fairly extreme record for a team that didn’t have great stats and played a neutral schedule.



I’ll summarize it this way:



*Pittsburgh and the NY Giants will only get worse if there’s an injury to their starting QB. They had very solid seasons vs. tough schedules. Indianapolis would be in this boat too, but a coaching change from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell is a potential monkey wrench beyond the scope of today’s study.



*Baltimore and Atlanta will rely heavily on second-year quarterbacks, which is a dicey proposition, also out of the scope of today’s study. Those guys played much better than most rookies though, so I’m not ready to assume a fadeout. Should the young guys continue to improve, each will be in position to make a playoff run.



*New England’s 2009 campaign depends on how well Brady returns from a serious injury.



*Tennessee, Miami, and Carolina are very likely to have worse records in 2009 in my view. They weren’t as good as their 2008 records (and they went 0-3 in the playoffs on their home fields!)



*Minnesota was such a generic team and now with the addition of Brett Favre, it’s hard to draw conclusions.



As you prepare your Power Ratings and your September wagering strategies, be sure you’re thinking about what’s going to unfold in the future. That’s true on the high and low ends of the spectrum. 2009 won’t be a replay of 2008. How much money you win this year will be determined by your ability to stay ahead of the market.



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