Football is coming! Teams are going to be breaking out and surprising the world soon! This is exciting! Last week, I wrote about the more subtle indicators of performance in football and what they meant for the teams at the extreme ends of the success spectrum. At the beginning of that piece, I noted that better than one in four of the teams that go 6-10 or worse in a given season follow that disappointing campaign by making the playoffs. With 10 candidates in line for the dead-cat bounce this year, it would be fair to expect at least two of the league’s down-and-out to rise up into an unexpected playoff berth in 2013.
So, which of the 10 teams will make that leap? There’s no smoking gun, but after going through those underlying metrics and factoring in some perspective on the real-world dynamics surrounding each organization, I’ve sorted the teams out by the evidence of a possible leap in their respective favor. There are no guarantees when it comes to these sorts of elite improvements, but I’m pretty confident that the top-ranked team has a significantly better shot of making the playoffs than the bottom-ranked one (#jinxed).
And let’s start with that bottom-ranked team, which spent millions of dollars this offseason on the wrong side of the ball …
10. Tennessee Titans
Arguments in favor of a playoff run: Lower-than-expected fumble recovery rate in 2012, massive improvements on offensive line
Arguments against a playoff run: Outperformed Pythagorean expectation last year, solid in close games, difficult out-of-division schedule
Tennessee brought in the likes of Andy Levitre, Shonn Greene, Delanie Walker, Chance Warmack, and Justin Hunter this offseason to create bigger holes for Chris Johnson and throwing lanes for Jake Locker. That’s great and all, but the only move the team made to repair its defense — the one that allowed a league-high 29.4 points per game — was to bring in Bernard Pollard. Maybe they can play the Patriots every week?
In any case, they’ll need to play at a significantly higher level, because there’s nothing to suggest that the Titans outplayed their record in 2012. They actually had the Pythagorean expectation of a 4.8-win team and went 4-3 in games decided by one score or less. Even worse, their relatively easy schedule should get tougher in 2013: While the Titans get to play the AFC West, they also have to suit up against the mighty NFC West and face games against the Jets (more on this later) and Steelers. Barring some enormous improvement from Locker, this will remain a bad football team.
9. Oakland Raiders
Arguments in favor: Great unknown at quarterback
Arguments against: Great unknown at quarterback, strip-mined team assets to gain salary cap flexibility
Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie is doing such a drastic job of tearing down his roster and rebuilding that I think he might actually be tanking for Andrew Wiggins. Just like last offseason, McKenzie laid off or chose not to re-sign many of his team’s highest-paid players, even getting rid of Carson Palmer after writing off his horrific trade as a sunk cost. Matt Flynn is in, as are up to eight new veteran starters on defense, all signed to short-term deals in free agency. A quarterback with limited experience and a bunch of cheap veterans on defense was actually the path Bill Belichick took to his first Super Bowl victory, but it’s going to be awful hard for the Raiders to repeat that feat with this crew.
And like the Titans, there’s just nothing in the numbers suggesting that the Raiders were anything but a bad football team last year. It doesn’t preclude them from competing — a Peyton Manning injury and a breakout season from Flynn might be enough to do it — but their candidacy has little going in its favor.
8. Arizona Cardinals
Arguments in favor: Schedule can’t be any harder than it was last year, possible quarterback upgrade
Arguments against: Daryl Washington is suspended, they still play in the league’s toughest division
Arizona played the league’s hardest schedule last year per Pro-Football-Reference.com, but they didn’t beat up on the weaklings; their four-win streak to start the season came against teams that eventually finished a combined 33-26 against other teams. Unfortunately, although they get the AFC South this upcoming year, they also have to play the NFC South, with their two additional tilts versus two of the teams toward the top of this list. So their schedule will likely remain among the 10 toughest in football. Replacing Kevin Kolb with Carson Palmer could help, but it’s going to be a tough go.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars
Arguments in favor: Weak division, upgrade at quarterback, underperformed point differential, poor record in close games, enormous injury rate
Arguments against: Justin Blackmon suspended, 2-14 is a huge hill to climb
Look at all those arguments in favor! If the Colts regress and the Titans aren’t very good,1 the Jaguars will be in an awful division. Their schedule wasn’t tough last year, but they did play some good teams very close: They had the Vikings beat at home in Week 1 before Blair Walsh’s 50-plus-yarder to tie it and force overtime, they beat the Colts in Indianapolis, nearly beat the Texans in Houston before gassing out in overtime, and played the Patriots tough at home in Week 16. Those are signs of hope. They had the point differential of a 3.4-win team, were 2-5 in one-score games, and were the league’s second-most injured team, per the Football Outsiders statistic Adjusted Games Lost.2 Throw in what should hopefully be a full season of Chad Henne over Blaine Gabbert, and there’s reason to be hopeful in Jacksonville.
Of course, 2-14 is still 2-14. That said, teams have made leaps this big from depths this low before. Squads that won two games or fewer in a given year have improved by an average of 4.4 wins the following season since 1989. There’s even an example of a team that went 2-14 and immediately made the playoffs one year later, and the Jaguars won’t have to look far to emulate the example: It was last year’s Indianapolis Colts.3 I wouldn’t suggest that the Jaguars are likely to be a breakout team, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented, either.
6. Buffalo Bills
Arguments in favor: Fumble recovery rate, possible quarterback improvement, performance in close games
Arguments against: Difficult schedule, possible turn to an unprepared rookie quarterback
I hitched myself to the Buffalo bandwagon last year and, well, the scrapes are mostly healed by now. The Bills turned over their coaching staff and brought in quarterbacks old (Kevin Kolb) and spry (EJ Manuel), but their personnel moves this offseason were otherwise disappointing. Of their five best players from a year ago, one (Andy Levitre) is in Tennessee and another (Jairus Byrd) is holding out. Gulp.
The only thing I can really point to with the Bills is their fumble recovery rate. History tells us that teams will recover about half of the fumbles that hit the ground in their games from year to year, but Buffalo managed to pick up only 30.6 percent of the fumbles in its contests last year, which was the worst rate in football. A very similar set of Bills were the fifth-best unit in that same category the previous year, so there’s no evidence that this is a particularly disinterested team with regard to loose balls. Buffalo should pick up a higher percentage of those fumbles this year, and it will likely help them win a game they didn’t win a year ago. That’s still not enough to push them into the playoffs.
5. New York Jets
Arguments in favor: Exaggerated turnover differential
Arguments against: Quarterback is a FEMA site, difficult schedule
Can you believe that the Jets were in the AFC Championship Game — with a chance to stop the Steelers on third-and-6 and get the ball back down five with two minutes left — 30 months ago? It seems like it’s been an eternity, but here we are! New York’s most favorable statistical indicator is also its fatal flaw; last year, its minus-14 turnover differential was the fourth-worst in football. Teams that finish in the bottom five in turnover differential tend to see a marked improvement in that category the following year, as their league-wide rank in turnover margin, on average, improves all the way to 17th.
The average team, unfortunately, doesn’t plan on starting Mark Sanchez at quarterback.
It’s not impossible to imagine the Jets competing. If the Patriots offense collapses, the AFC East could be up for grabs. Rex Ryan coached the Jets defense into competency last year even without Darrelle Revis,4 so they could very well be better with Dee Milliner around in his place this season. They’re better off without some of the veterans they dumped, as guys like Bart Scott were past their expiration date. There are still a few upper-echelon talents on the roster, notably on the offensive line, and they’ll get more out of Santonio Holmes this year than they did last season. Imagine how good they could be if they just … had a better quarterback than Mark Sanchez. Oh well.
4. Cleveland Browns
Arguments in favor: Underperformed Pythagorean expectation, mediocre in close games, injury issues, coaching upgrade
Arguments against: Quarterback issues, long-term health questions
The Browns weren’t as bad as you think! They were 5-11, but they had the point differential of a 6.2-win team and went 3-5 in one-touchdown games, probably owing to the bizarre in-game tactics of Pat Shurmur. Rob Chudzinski doesn’t have an elite pedigree, but it’s simply going to be hard to be worse than Shurmur.
They were also the league’s sixth-most injured team last season, but the Browns just haven’t been healthy as a franchise, going all the way back to the days when their players were seemingly training in a pool of staph. Team health tends to regress toward the mean from year to year, but whether it’s something in the water or something about the physical constitution of the players the Browns were acquiring under their previous management, I’ll be skeptical of their ability to get healthy until they actually do so.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
Arguments in favor: Massive upgrades at quarterback and coach, unusual level of core talent for subpar team, massive turnover differential, fumble recovery rate, friendly schedule
Arguments against: Limited upside of quarterback, astoundingly low level of performance last year
The Chiefs were outscored by better than 13 points per game last season, which was the 14th-largest margin in the NFL over the past 25 years. They were a 2-14 team that wasn’t particularly unlucky to go 2-14 despite having six Pro Bowlers on their roster. What sort of promise can 2013 possibly hold?
Competence. That’s what Alex Smith and Andy Reid can provide, even if greatness proves to be beyond their grasp. Ron Jaworski just placed Smith at 20th in his quarterback rankings. Twentieth doesn’t sound all that great. But think about Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn for a moment. He’s replacing a pair of quarterbacks who couldn’t be trusted with throwing the ball in any but the most desperate moments last season. Upgrading from, say, the 45th-best quarterback in football to the 20th? That’s the move the Colts pulled off last year when they traded in Curtis Painter for Andrew Luck.5 When your quarterback play is that dismal, even improving to league-average can be an enormous, multi-win upgrade.
And the numbers favor a Chiefs revival, too. Kansas City’s turnover differential last year was a grotesque minus-24, which tied them for a spot in the cellar. That offense is extremely unlikely to throw 20 interceptions again with Smith at the helm, and the defense is likely to recover more than five fumbles this time around. The Chiefs recovered only one out of every three fumbles that hit the ground during their games, the third-lowest rate in the league. They also get to play the AFC South, the NFC East, the Bills, and the Browns, which is arguably the easiest schedule in the league. Believe in the Chiefs!
2. Philadelphia Eagles
Arguments in favor: Coaching voice change, massive turnover differential, fumble recovery rate, hidden special teams bounce back
Arguments against: Uncertainty related to coaching change, quarterback play
Although it seems difficult to remember, the Eagles were actually a passable team during the first half of last season. It was after firing defensive coordinator Juan Castillo during the team’s bye week that the Eagles quit on Andy Reid and collapsed, finishing 1-9. There’s still a good amount of the core that made the playoffs from 2008 to 2010 here, and they chose the high-risk, high-reward coaching option this offseason when they added Chip Kelly. Of all the teams on this list, it seems like the Eagles have the highest upside.
The statistical case backing them up is built upon an impossible turnover rate. Philadelphia was the other team with a minus-24 turnover margin, and by recovering 35 percent of the fumbles in their games, they finished just ahead of Kansas City, at 29th. Of course, Kelly has already become the first coach to teach Michael Vick how to avoid fumbling, so that should solve a good chunk of the problems there.
In all seriousness, Kelly’s insistence on getting the ball out quickly should reduce the likelihood of fumbles, and some simple variance should help push the Philadelphia offense back toward the middle of the pack. The defense should also deliver more than the eight interceptions it produced last year, so it’s not difficult to imagine the Eagles actually winning the turnover battle in 2013.
As for the “hidden” special teams numbers, that’s a Football Outsiders statistic that encapsulates how teams were impacted by special teams performance out of their control, including such obvious ones as how reliable field goal kickers and kickoff artists were against them. The Eagles were the fourth-most impacted team in football last year by those figures, with kickers notably going 27-for-29 on field goals against them in 2012.6
1. Detroit Lions
Arguments in favor: Underperformed Pythagorean expectation, awful record in close games, faced difficult schedule, fumble recovery rate, turnover differential
Arguments against: Top-heavy team only one injury away from disaster, difficult division
The probable comeback crown belongs to the Lions, who have just about every statistical indicator tracking in their favor. Their 4-12 season saw them produce the point differential of a 6.5-win team while going 3-8 in one-touchdown games. They had the league’s third-worst turnover margin at minus-16, likely owing to their defense recovering just six fumbles last year. (Their recovery rate of 32.6 percent was the second-worst in the league.) They’ve also dumped return man Stefan Logan, who muffed six times last year and somehow took a knee on the 4-yard line. Remember: Sometimes, competency is enough.
Detroit’s a scary team to back because they’re perpetually running a high-wire act. If one false move puts Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, or Ndamukong Suh on the sideline for any length of time, the team is basically toast. If those guys stay healthy, though, the baseline talent here should be enough to get the Lions past .500 and have them approach the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.