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Numbers Rarely Lie

Predicting the 2014 NFL season — with the help of a few key stats

An essential part of preparing for the 2014 NFL season is looking back at what just happened. About all I remember at this point from 2013 is the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl and Ron Rivera acting out that fan fiction I wrote about the coach who always goes for it. There’s a lot more to take away from 2013, but that’s hard to do with any sort of perspective while free agency and the draft are sucking up all the oxygen. But now that we’re past the Sturm und Drang of Johnny in Vegas and Teddy’s pro day, it’s time to take a look at the bigger picture of 2013 to understand how it will influence 2014.

That can mean only one thing … nerdy stats! There are several underlying numbers that serve a useful role in measuring how a team will play. But — and let’s repeat this all together again, because it only makes us stronger — the NFL’s 16-game season is a teeny-tiny sample, and there are myriad aspects of the game that have no predictive value for the future. (Think about how the 2012 Packers were affected by their run-in with the replacement officials.) There’s also the human factor. You know: We can be pretty sure the Giants are likely to avoid suffering the most injuries in the league next year, but if Eli Manning decides to retire and they’re stuck with Ryan Nassib, their performance is likely to be terrible anyway.

That said, there are a lot of really useful statistics that can help us successfully gamb— er, predict what will happen in the NFL next season. Let’s meet them, shall we?1

Point Differential

It’s true in just about every sport: Point differential is a better predictor of a team’s win-loss record than its previous win-loss record. Wins aren’t created equal. A three-point victory over the Jaguars at home isn’t the same as blowing out the 49ers by 28 points at Candlestick. (Side note: It’s going to be really weird to have to start saying “Levi’s” next year.) Win-loss record gives us only 16 observations to project 2014 performance. If you make the case that a team can give up a touchdown or score one on every single play, point differential allows for thousands of observations in a single season.

How did it project 2013? Reasonably well, with one notable exception: the Colts. The 2012 Indianapolis squad went 11-5 while being outscored by 30 points, a performance that history suggested was virtually unrepeatable. But with Andrew Luck taking a step forward and the AFC South collapsing into a smoldering tire fire, the Colts went 11-5 again in 2013, this time outscoring their opposition by 55.

Besides Indianapolis, the teams with wacky point differentials mostly behaved as we expected. The four other clubs that outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by more than one win in 2012 were the Falcons, Texans, Titans, and Vikings. Those teams were 41-23 during their glorious 2012 campaigns; last year, their combined record was a dismal 18-45-1. Seven teams underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by at least one win in 2012, and while the Browns and Giants declined, the Lions, Jaguars, Saints, Chargers, and Seahawks improved. Those seven improved by an average of 1.4 wins over their previous record in 2012.

What teams should this affect in 2014?

One obvious candidate for improvement is Houston. The Texans’ season collapsed after a 2-0 start, but they were competitive in many of their 14 losses. They’ll benefit from a new head coach and better quarterback play, but they also weren’t as bad as their record suggests. The same is true for Atlanta, which shockingly fell to a 4-12 season. The numbers suggested that the Falcons would decline after a 13-3 season in which they had the point differential of an 11-win team, but nobody could have seen that kind of season coming.

On the flip side, there are those dang Colts. Indianapolis went from being the “luckiest” team in the league in 2012 to the second-luckiest last year. Denver and New England, helmed by legendary quarterbacks, got more wins out of their point differentials than you might expect. It’s entirely possible that having a superstar quarterback who comes up with big plays when you need them can make it easier to outperform your point differential year after year — then again, you could have said that about Matt Ryan and the Falcons until last year. At the top of the list to decline are the New York Jets. More on them in a little bit.

Record in One-Touchdown Games

It’s almost impossible to win a large percentage of close games in the NFL. Even if there was something unique about your team that gave it a late competitive edge, the attrition rate in football is so high as to render many of those advantages moot over a time frame of any significance. Great teams stay great by avoiding close games altogether — they just blow out the competition. Teams with a gap between their point differential and their win-loss record often have that gap come down to their performance in close games, so you’ll see some familiar faces from the last list here.

How did it project 2013? How does “great … except for the Colts” sound again? This stat successfully predicted that the records of teams like Atlanta (7-2 in one-touchdown games in 2012, 3-7 in 2013), Houston (5-0 in 2012, 2-9 in 2013), and Minnesota (5-1 in 2012, 4-4-1 in 2013) were unsustainable, but the 9-1 Colts went 5-1 in one-score games in 2013. Including the playoffs, Andrew Luck is now 15-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer during his pro career.2

The close-games metric also highlighted some major pending improvements; the Panthers, who went 2-12 (1-7 in 2012) during Ron Rivera and Cam Newton’s first two years with the team in those games, lost their first two games in 2013 by a combined six points before Rivera decided to make his run for TYFNC MVP. Carolina went 5-0 in one-score games the rest of the way. The Chargers, 1-5 in one-score games during the final year of Norvitude, improved to 4-5 in those games last year. That’s not incredible, but even regression toward the mean was enough to push them into the playoffs. The Lions and the Jaguars needed more help than simple close-game luck, but after going a combined 5-13 in one-touchdown games in 2012, they did manage to go 7-8 in 2013.

What teams should this affect in 2014?

Our poor friends in Houston head this list, too. Remember: The Texans had second-half leads on the Seahawks, Cardinals, Colts, and Patriots last year. They blew them all, of course, but that they were able to stay competitive with teams of that caliber is a good omen for their future performance. Maybe things are better with a healthy Arian Foster running out the clock instead of trolling cat owners. We’ll see. Atlanta, Detroit, and Pittsburgh are all teams without effective running games that struggled to finish deep into the fourth quarter, too.

You might believe that Andrew Luck is some kind of witch in close games. After that fumble recovery at the goal line against the Chiefs in the wild-card round, I wouldn’t argue with you. But Geno Smith and the Jets? Noooope. Their close wins included games that were extended by a pair of questionable personal foul calls on Lavonte David (Bucs, Week 1) and Chris Jones (Patriots, Week 7); wipe those two incredibly unlikely calls off the books and the Jets are 3-3 in close games. Carolina’s performance in one-score contests is probably going to settle somewhere between the 2-14 start to the Rivera era and the 5-0 finish from last year. And the Eagles went 3-1 in close games during the regular season, only to lose a two-point squeaker to the Saints in the wild-card round.

Turnover Margin

Sit through five insufferable minutes of NFL coverage and you’ll hear somebody harp on the value of turnovers at least once. They’re important, and good teams do tend to win the turnover battle, but there’s also a certain amount of randomness and variance from year to year. Most notably, teams at the extreme ends of the turnover spectrum are unable to sustain that level in consecutive campaigns.

How did it project 2013? Very well. The two teams that stood out like a sore thumb at the bottom of the turnover rankings were the Chiefs and Eagles; they were each at minus-24 in 2012, and nobody else was worse than minus-16. In 2013, much of their success was driven by a dramatic shift in this metric. The Chiefs had the second-best turnover margin in football at plus-18, while the Eagles were fourth with a plus-12 figure. Kansas City’s improvement of 42 turnovers is the most anybody’s improved in a single season since the strike year of 1987. The Jets (minus-14) and Lions (minus-12) stayed roughly the same, but the Cowboys and even those absurdly lucky Colts — granted, in the one category where simple regression might have expected them to improve — saw their turnover margin improve by 16 or more from 2012 to 2013.

The five teams at the top of the turnover charts were unable to repeat in 2013, each falling off by at least 15. That included the Patriots, Bears, Giants, and Falcons — but the most interesting case was Washington. A huge chunk of its 2012 success came by avoiding turnovers on offense; Washington turned the ball over a league-low 14 times in 2012. It hit that figure by Week 8 of 2013, and by the time Kirk Cousins had inflated his trade value in December, the D.C. team had turned the ball over 34 times, tied with the Lions for the second-worst rate in football.

What teams should this affect in 2014?

I broke down how 2012’s top five teams in turnover margin did in 2013. The sixth team was Seattle, which improved to plus-20 and won the Super Bowl. The seventh? Houston, which went from a plus-12 figure in 2012 to the bottom of the table in 2013. You’re probably thinking about all those Matt Schaub pick-sixes right now (and more on them in a second), but the defense was actually worse; Houston was 26th in the league in giveaways, but their 11 takeaways were dead last. A healthier secondary and the arrival of Jadeveon Clowney should create more turnovers for Houston in 2014.

The Jets are also going to be a fascinating study. For as much as I went on about their lucky performance in close games, they were incredibly unlucky in terms of fumble recoveries, as Gang Green picked up just 30.3 percent of the fumbles in their games last year, the league’s lowest rate by a comfortable margin. (The Cowboys, who don’t exactly need more bad news right now, paced the league by recovering 67.6 percent of loose balls in their games.)

There are some very good teams on the “decline” side of the ledger, and I expect most of them to be good again in 2014, but they probably won’t be quite as good as they were a year ago. Take the 49ers, for example: They posted a ridiculous plus-28 turnover margin in 2011. With much of the same personnel the following year, their margin was plus-nine; still good, but not stratospheric.3 The Seahawks will still probably post another good number next year, but it almost surely won’t be in the plus-20 range.

Defensive Touchdowns Allowed

There’s virtually no consistency in terms of the number of points your offense gives up on defensive touchdowns. The year-to-year correlation in points “allowed” by an offense from 1999 to 2013 is 0.008. In other words: What happened last year is of no predictive value whatsoever. It can also have a pretty large impact on the way your defense looks, too. The ’99 Dolphins are the best example. They allowed 336 points, the 19th-best total in the league. But their offense allowed a staggering nine touchdowns that season, including seven pick-sixes from Dan Marino and Damon Huard. Strip out those 54 points and they were a great defense; Miami was actually fifth in DVOA that year, and when its offense allowed only a single touchdown return the following season, the Dolphins returned to third in the league in scoring defense.

How did this metric project 2013? Very well, although I don’t think this has quite as large of an impact on team performance as the measures we’ve just run through. There were six teams that allowed five defensive return touchdowns or more in 2012; the Cardinals, Lions, Jaguars, Chiefs, Eagles, and Titans cut that figure by more than half, down to an average of 14.7 points per offense. There were five offenses in 2012 that allowed fewer than 10 points on returns; they combined to allow an average of 21.2 points on returns last year.

The stingiest offense in terms of giving away points in 2012 belonged to the Houston Texans, who gave up just a single safety while not allowing a single fumble or interception return for a touchdown all regular season. That’s two points. How did they do in avoiding pick-sixes in 2013 … oh dear.

What teams should this affect in 2014?

Bet you thought the Texans would be at the top of that list, too! Well, so did I, but we remember that Houston’s pick-sixes were clumped together. They came in five consecutive games from Week 2 through Week 6; perhaps out of sheer terror, Houston’s quarterbacks didn’t throw a single pick-six the rest of the way, and the Texans allowed only a fumble recovery for a touchdown and a lone safety after their bye. Chicago instead wins the dubious prize, with three pick-sixes and a whopping four fumble returns for touchdowns on the way to 44 points allowed. Houston’s quarterbacks ended up tied with the Jets, Giants, and Rams as league leaders with five pick-sixes. It’s no surprise that the league leaders in fewest defensive touchdowns allowed are run-heavy teams like the Chiefs and 49ers, and those teams are unlikely to be touchdown-friendly in 2014, but all it takes is one or two lapses of concentration to fall to the middle of the pack in this category.

The Bottom Line

I could easily go on with another half-dozen statistics — defensive touchdowns scored, strength of schedule, fumble-recovery rates, injury totals, and team age all come to mind — but you get the picture. There’s still plenty of time to run through the numbers, and I’ll highlight plenty more findings as we get closer to the 2014 campaign. But, in looking at the underlying performances and luck from last season, we can draw a couple of conclusions.

First, the Texans are primed for an immediate comeback toward the middle of the NFL pack, even if the combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tom Savage they’ll run out at quarterback might preclude them from being a playoff contender. Virtually every metric I can find suggests they were an underrated and unlucky team last year, and that’s without considering how they repeatedly juggled quarterbacks and quit on their coach. With even average luck next year, Houston should be a 7-9 or 8-8 team. And if it has a few bounces break its way — picture Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt wishboning Andrew Luck — the Texans could very well be next year’s surprise playoff team. Washington and Atlanta were also among 2013’s more unlucky teams.

Some teams will also fall. The Chiefs are likely to take a step backward after their remarkable sprint to the playoffs. Indianapolis would be on that list again, albeit not as notably as it was a year ago. Even the defending champs should slip a bit; the Seahawks will still be a very good team in 2014, but 13-3 for a second consecutive season might be tough, especially given how arduous the rest of the NFC West has become.

Oh, and the Jets? As usual, nobody knows what’s happening there. My only suggestion is that it’s better to be pleasantly surprised than it is to be wildly disappointed. 

Filed Under: NFL, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, Bill Barnwell, Ron Rivera, Andrew Luck

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell