It’s no secret that the Eagles sucked last year. The team was 23% worse than league average in Points Scored and 22% worse than league average in Points Against. There are a lot of explanations for what happened, but there’s no denying the fact that the team’s production was awful. I’ve previously discussed the Turnover issues, specifically predicting that the 2013 team will perform better if for no other reason than better luck.
Today, let’s expand that topic a bit, moving beyond turnovers.
What happens to a team the year AFTER it performs TERRIBLY?
To find such teams, I looked at the last decade in the NFL (2003-2012) and found every team that was more than 20% below league average in BOTH Points Scored and Points Against.
There are only 15 such teams (out of 320 in the sample). Also, 3 of these team seasons occurred last year (Eagles, Raiders, Jacksonville). Since I can’t see the future (still working on that), those obviously won’t help us much.
That leaves 12 teams from which to draw information from. Here they are:
These are the WORST teams of the NFL from 2003-2011. What happens the following season?
On the right side of the table, I’ve shown the CHANGE in Offensive and Defensive performance relative to league average (Points For and Points Against). I’ve also shown the CHANGE in Wins for each team in the subsequent season.
To overemphasize, those numbers are CHANGE, not absolute. So the 2004 Cardinals won 6 games (4+2), not 2.
Now that I’ve cleared that up, let’s look at the results, which I’ve highlighted in Red. On average, the teams improved their offensive production by 13% (relative to league average) and their defensive performance by 18%. Those are obviously HUGE gains. Perhaps most importantly, the teams above, on average, improved by nearly 4 wins.
There a number of reasons for expecting a large improvement this year from the Eagles. Injuries, bad luck, new coach, etc… However, another major factor is that the NFL is DESIGNED to ensure really bad teams don’t stay bad for long. That’d be a big problem for developing and keeping fans. To alleviate this, the NFL uses two strategies: The NFL Draft, and the Schedule.
Everyone here is probably familiar with both (definitely how the draft works). Quickly, the NFL schedule uses the standings to create the non-divisional match ups each year. So the Eagles, by virtue of finishing last in the division, will play other teams this year that also finished last in their respective divisions. The upshot is that the Eagles have games next season against the Lions, Bucs, and Cardinals.
For the teams in the chart above, these factors also played a role in the subsequent improvement. Basically, if your team is terrible, you SHOULD get an impact player in the draft (perhaps more than 1). Also, by pitting bad teams against each other, the league ensures that at least one of them will win those games (ignoring the rare tie).
That does a long way to explaining the general improvement, but I’m still surprised at the average magnitude. If you look closely, you can see that 3 teams are pulling the average way up, the 2012 Colts, the 2008 Dolphins, and 2010 Rams.
What happened to each of these teams? I explored this a few months ago, but let’s go again.
2011-2012 Colts: This one is easy. Andrew Luck. The 2011 Colts were terrible and were then awarded the #1 draft pick. The team also got a new coach (Chuck Pagano), though I’m going to assign most of the credit to Luck, perhaps the greatest QB prospect in my lifetime.
2007-2008 Dolphins: The team improved by an amazing 10 wins. Why? Well the Dolphins, after finishing with 1 win, received the #1 overall pick, selecting Jake Long. The team also changed its front office (bringing Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland in) and its coaching staff (hiring Tony Sparano). The team also brought in a new QB, Chad Pennington.
My twitter followers will know that Chad Pennington has a career passer rating above 90 and holds the NFL record for completion percentage (66%). He was a lot better than people remember.
2009-2010 Rams: Again, the team received the #1 draft pick and took a QB, Sam Bradford. The coaching staff did NOT change, though Steve Spagnuolo was entering just his 2nd year (so 2010 was his first year with “his” quarterback).
What does it all mean?
The Eagles will be better in 2013 than they were in 2012. There are MANY factors working in their favor. Additionally, as seen above, a new coach is often the key to a quick turnaround. Note that the new coach effect sometimes flames out, but for now we are just looking at next season.
Also, the common denominator above is a new QB. The Eagles don’t exactly have one of those (I’d be very surprised if Barkley won the job), but it’s not like Nick Foles has been a long-time starter, so I believe he can have a similar effect (I’m not expecting Luck-level improvement here).
However, another key from above is the importance of high draft picks. Put simply, Lane Johnson has to be an impact player…
IF Johnson isn’t a bust, the Eagles can easily win 7-8 games, with a realistic chance at getting to 9-10 wins and a division title. To get to 7 wins, the Eagles need to win 3 more than last year. 7 of the 12 teams above improved by 3+ wins.
Also, looking at combined Offensive and Defensive performance relative to league average, if the Eagles improve by just the average measure above (+13%, +18%), the resulting performance would correlate to almost exactly 7 wins. (Maybe I’ll run that graph tomorrow).
P.S. If gambling were legal, the following lines would look VERY attractive to me:
Eagles Division Title: 5/1
Eagles Wins Over/Under: 7