Football is a game that records team performance over a short sample size. 16 games. A team’s performance and talent can be tarnished by traumatic black cats eviscerating their record with a tough schedule, unfortunate one possession record, injuries and pestilence evaporating a team, and a poor turnover differential, and, at the same time, Fortuna will crawl down from the clouds and shine glory and love on others. Teams who are ruined or benefit from these measures usually do for one season, and not year to year.
Last season, by looking at these numbers this time of year, I guessed Cleveland, Houston, Tampa Bay, Chicago, and the New York (G) would improve. Only Tampa didn’t, who stayed at 5 wins thanks to their league worst defense, coaching, and their love of turning the ball over. Cleveland jumped from 0 to 6 wins, Houston from 4 to 11 wins, Chicago from 5 to 12 wins, and the Giants from 3 to 5 wins. On the opposite end, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Carolina, and Arizona were the best regression candidates. Buffalo went from 9 to 6 wins, Pittsburgh from 13 to 9 wins, Carolina from 11 to 7 wins, and Arizona from 8 to 3 wins. Each team missed the playoffs.
All of this was done just by looking at the lucky nerd football loser regression stats, while taking in account a team’s offseason. This is important. Teams aren’t subjected and sloshed around by fate alone. The numbers offer teams the ability to better evaluate their own performance, understand their own record, figure out where they are correctly trending, and how much they need to invest into their roster for the following season.
Now that the offseason is dead, and each roster is firm, these are the teams most likely to improve and regress for the 2019 season.
The San Francisco 49ers traded a 2018 second round pick for Jimmy Garopolo at the 2017 NFL trade deadline. The 49ers went 5-0 when he learned enough to start, and as a result, the team became a trendy 2018 playoff pick. In week three he tore his ACL, occurring at a point early enough in the season to expect him during this upcoming preseason. The 49ers shuffled through quarterbacks and running backs, and watched their pass defense bawl in shambles.
Their replacement quarterbacks threw 17 interceptions last season, and as a team, they threw 20 of them, or 1.2 a game, behind only Buffalo and Tampa Bay. They finished 29th in adjusted games lost, they lost 2.6 more games than expected, and went 3-6 in one score games—games decided by eight points or less. Not only did they lose close games, but they lost close games with backup quarterbacks and a depleted roster.
The best player they lost this offseason is Pierre Garcon, I guess, I don’t know, they didn’t lose anyone really. Starving and open they had plenty of cap space and added Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford, Tevin Coleman, Jordan Matthews, David Mayo, and Jason Verrett. They also drafted Nick Bosa with the second overall pick, and added additional pass catchers. Last season wasn’t the season to pick the 49ers to make the playoffs. This season is.
The Jacksonville Jaguars dealt with injury issues of their own. They lost 285 games to players on the injured reserve, and finished 27th in adjusted games lost. Cam Robinson, Austin Seferain-Jenkins, Brandon Linder, Marqise Lee, Niles Paul, Andrew Norwell, Jeremy Parnell, Josh Walker, Josh Wells, and DJ Chark were all offensive starters, and offensive starters who became the offensive starters after the offensive starters were hurt, who missed extensive periods of time. The Jags were based around their pass defense and power run game. After losing their entire offensive line, Fournette, and having to win because of Blake Bortles, they fell apart.
The Jags also didn’t get the same schedule benefits as the Texans and Colts because of their 2017 AFC South Championship, and they didn’t get to play themselves. They went 2-6 in one score games, and had the third worst turnover differential in football at -12. Jacksonville’s 2017 was a tight ecosystem of winning in a very specific way. In 2018 they weren’t able to overcome the offensive injuries, and their pass defense was no longer an all-time great one.
This season they changed out Bortles with Nick Foles, and lost multiple starters to make this happen. Seferian-Jenkins, Carlos Hyde, Tashaun Gipson, Malik Jackson, Parnell, and Donte Moncrief are all now elsewhere. The argument could be made that last season was the normal, and 2017 was the outlier. But the Jags have answers to the most important starters they lost aside from Telvin Smith’s sudden decision: Ronnie Harrison for Gipson, Calais Campbell and Josh Allen for Jackson, and Jawaan Taylor for Parnell. If Foles is even mediocre they should be a +.500 team in 2019.
The other team I like most to improve is Tampa Bay. They won five games in each of the last two seasons, but last season they finished among the bottom in the league in nearly every ‘lucky’ stat category. Last season they threw so many interceptions. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston combined to throw 26 of them, and as a team they had an interception rate of 5.8%. They finished with the second worse turnover differential of -12, won 1.5 less games than expected (30th), went 4-7 in one score games, and were last in adjusted games lost.
This offseason they were up against the cap. The improvements were slim in free agency. Shaq Barrett, and Deone Bucannon were added to their new 3-4 defense. They lost Alexander and Vinny Curry. But they made five straight defensive selections in this year’s draft. And most importantly, they changed out their entire coaching staff. Dirk Koetter was replaced with Bruce Arians, Todd Monken with Byron Leftwich, and Mark Duffner and Mike Smith with Todd Bowels.
This season is Winston’s last chance in Tampa Bay, and he finally gets to play in a perfect offense where he can throw far and deep to their professional sand beach volleyball pass catching group consisting of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Breshard Perriman, Cameron Brate, and O.J. Howard. Additionally, defensive efficiency is less consistent than offensive efficiency, and the Bucs have a defense filled with early drafted young players who haven’t produced yet. Better coaching, better scheme fits, potential, and previous heartaches are all reasons why the Bucs should be better in 2019.
The Giants and Panthers also should improve in 2019. I just didn’t enjoy their offseasons as much. Eli Manning is still the quarterback in New York, and the Giants added a backup quarterback instead of an immediate starter with their first pick, I don’t understand DeAndre Baker, and the Odell Beckham Jr. trade made them a worse team for this season. Carolina went 3-7 in one score games, finished 26th in adjusted games lost, and Cam Newton’s injured shoulder led to him throwing the football like a plate of cafeteria mush in a 1990s food fight. If Newton is healthy they should be a playoff team. No one has any idea if he is or not.
The Rams lost in the Wildcard Round in 2017, lost in the Superbowl in 2018, and if we follow the logical progression of events, should win the Superbowl in 2019. There’s a few problems here. Los Angeles went 7-1 in one score games, had a turnover differential of +11, and won 2.1 more games than expected based on their point differential. Last year was a dream season for Los Angeles.
The Rams had a mediocre defense, and were led by the league’s best run offense. The Rams finished 1st in rush offense DVOA with a rating of 21.3%, which was greater than 22 teams’ passing offenses. Todd Gurley had 17 touchdowns, and averaged 4.9 yards a carry. 36% of their plays were play action passes, and they averaged 9.4 yards a play, second only to New England on these throws.
Their run game is going to be worse this season. This outside zone smashing offensive line lost starters Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan, and the Rams won’t know who will replace them until this summer. Gurley is suffering from some mysterious malady. Darrell Henderson should be great right away, but he’s not going to overcome the offensive line losses. Jared Goff hasn’t shown he can play outside of the system and generate offense for others on his own.
Their mediocre defense only added veterans Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle. The NFC West will be better, and they have to play the AFC North, Chicago, and Dallas. They probably won’t take the next step next season, and even then, they may fall out from a playoff spot entirely next season.
The easiest team on this list is the Miami Dolphins. They were really bad last season! They finished 27th in DVOA and won 7 games. They went 2-3 with [NAME REDACTED] at quarterback and 5-6 with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, and were pretty bad at everything. The reason why they won seven games was pretty simple. Miami had a one possession record of 7-1 and their average opponent had a DVOA was -3.3%, the fifth easiest.
They beat Chicago 31-28 in overtime after fumbling at Chicago’s one yard line, witnessing Cody Parkey miss a game winning field goal, and then finally kicking one of their own to win. They beat New England after Rob Gronkowski fell down trying to stop a rugby try game winner. Aside from that, the best team they beat was Tennessee in week one.
This season the Dolphins want to be bad. They want to lose games so they can figure out their quarterback situation and be in position to draft someone if Josh Rosen isn’t it. Rookie Christian Wilkins is probably the best player they added to their team after they sat on their cap space. This Miami team is my pick to be the league’s worst team in 2019.
Dallas was the other team to benefit from their one possession record. The Cowboys went 9-3 in close games. They play in the NFC East, and no one ever wins that division in back to back seasons. They are a young team though, and those typically improve, but progression isn’t always linear. I’d pick against them winning the division in back to back seasons and for them to fall from 10 wins. Dak Prescott throwing for more than 200 yards would do so much for them.
The last two teams are veteran quarterback led teams who were great in 2018, but whose record was slightly overinflated. The Chargers finally won some close games and went 5-1 after being destroyed by similar circumstances over the last few seasons. The Saints won 1.8 more games than expected, which tends to happen when you win 13 games, but they were also really healthy and had a +8 turnover differential. There were seeds of Drew Brees deteriorating in last year’s postseason too. Both teams didn’t have the cap space to get better, and the Saints didn’t even have the draft capital either. Both will probably be playoff teams again, but don’t expect the same exorbitant win totals.