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The Value of Things: Trailing Pythagoras Part Two

Can we predict worst to firsts?

Pythagoras (c560-c480 BC) Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist. Engraving. Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The hardest part of diving into advanced metrics is establishing relevance. There can be no greater relevance than gambling. Good gamblers don’t overextend themselves. Great gamblers are able to see the trends that matter and adjust accordingly. One of the hallmarks of the NFL is the fact that at least one team will go from ten or more losses to ten or more wins. Last season there were four such teams that went from ten or more losses to making the playoffs.

Being married to a scientist kind of reinforces the concept of the scientific method. A number of statisticians will search long and hard for numbers that will justify their hypotheses and theories. Experiments don’t work more often than not, but that’s okay. They still eliminate factors that are unrelated. We are studying good and bad teams and what they have in common. Ultimately, there will be things we can predict with teams that bounce back.

The prevailing wisdom is that teams that are one year away from being good will lose a lot of one score games. The idea is two-fold. Sophisticated fans will note that teams tend to regress to the mean. In other words, if you lose a bunch of close games you will end up winning those games the next season. Less sophisticated fans will reach the same conclusion for a different reason. They will think it’s about coaching and attention to detail.

So, what we are doing is looking over the last five seasons and comparing teams that went from bad to the playoffs in one season. Some seasons had more than others, but there have been twelve such teams over the past five seasons. We will show their overall record, record in one score games, and record in games decided by nine or more points.

The Numbers

2020 Eagles — 4-11-1 (overall), 3-4 (one score games), 1-7 (nine or more points)

2020 Cowboys — 6-10, 3-4, 3-7

2020 49ers — 6-10, 3-5, 3-6

2020 Bengals — 4-11-1, 2-5-1, 2-6

2019 Cardinals — 5-10-1, 3-5-1, 2-5

2018 Bills — 6-10, 3-3, 5-7

2018 49ers — 4-12. 3-6, 1-6

2017 Texans — 4-12, 1-5, 3-7

2017 Colts — 4-12, 3-6, 1-6

2017 Bears — 5-11, 2-6, 3-5

2016 Jaguars — 3-13, 2-8, 1-5

2016 Rams — 4-12, 4-5, 0-7

Totals — 55-134-3 (.294), 32-62-3 (.345), 23-73 (.240)

Before we really dive into the numbers we should look at the losers from last season to get an idea of what we can expect. The losers had a collective winning percentage of .306 last season. They won 39.2% of their close games. They won 24.3% of their blowout games.

So, ultimately the blowouts are almost exactly on point. Their collective record in one score games was a little worse for the teams above than they were last season. So, maybe there is something there. Yet, the difference isn’t necessarily obscene and when you consider the teams above were slightly worse overall So, that has to factor in at some point.

The eleven teams that lost ten or more games last year combined for 82 one score games. That averages out to 7.45 games per team. The teams that recovered to make the playoffs played in 97 such games. That’s more than eight games per team. Also, remember that was in an 16 game schedule each season. Last year’s teams played in 9.63 blowouts per season where the teams in the above list played in less than eight per season.

What does this all mean? It isn’t so much that the teams above were more or less lucky in those close games but the fact that they played in more close games than the teams that continued to lose the next season. it makes perfect sense. When you are truly bad you get your doors blown off.

What does this mean?

Well, it means two things. First, it means we can’t really predict the Texans will do anything based on the fact that they played in fewer close games than any team in the NFL. They could have won five or six games last year with a little luck, but they have not gotten significantly better and they had a long way to go to be competitive more often than now.

If we are looking at the losing teams that played the most close games we see a tie at nine games between the Washington Commanders, New York Jets, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers, and Atlanta Falcons. Past results would indicate that least one of these teams would make the leap. If forced to choose it would have to be the Commanders and Panthers. They upgraded at quarterback and the Jets, Lions, and Falcons either got worse or have too far to go.

As for the Texans, it just doesn’t look good for this year. I think they should be better, but expecting them to win nine or more games seems a little out of their reach. Yet, they could very well make this list next season. If that happens it will be a big step forward for the franchise.