Saturday, February 05, 2005

$100 on the over, and Charge it

While doing research for something or other, I came across this piece on listing Las Vegas' supposed over/under on regular season wins for NFL teams in 2004. The predictions don't really interest me. For the most part, they appear to have been keyed to the teams' 2003 finish. Miami, for instance, was at 9.5; taking the over would have been a sucker bet even before Ricky Williams retired.

I was drawn, however, to the end of the list. The over/under on San Diego -- which finished 4-12 in 2003 -- was 4.5. If I were a betting man, I'd have taken the over on that without hesitation. Talk about easy money. And I would have said that even before the Chargers "surprised" the league by winning the AFC West. Reasons:

1. For sure, the '03 Chargers were not a good team. But they weren't what TMQ would call cover-your-eyes awful. They got blown out a couple times, lost some close ones, kicked the crap out of a near-playoff team in the Vikings. Their 4-12 record wasn't pretty, but it wasn't so ugly that you'd get the impression the 2003 season was the start of a long stretch of ineptitude.

2. That 4-12 record was the best "worst" record in the NFL since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. The Chargers' .250 winning percentage was the best by the NFL's "worst" team since 1957, when the Packers and Cardinals both went 3-9. (In the AFL, the '65 Oilers and Broncos both went 4-10, or .286). Further, the Chargers were one of four teams at 4-12 in 2003 (others: Raiders, Cardinals, Giants). Six other teams finished 5-11: Browns, Jaguars, Texans, Falcons, Redskins, Lions. San Diego wound up tabbed the league's worst team (and got the No. 1 pick in the draft) by way of tiebreakers. There just wasn't much difference among the bottom 10 teams.

3. We're talking about a Marty Schottenheimer-coached team. The knock on Marty has never been that he's a bad coach. It's that his teams stink in the playoffs. That 4-12 record was, by far, the worst of a Schottenheimer-coached team. This is a coach who, in 17 full seasons before '03, had 12 winning years, two losing ones and three 8-8s (Including one that, despite closing the season 8-3, got him replaced by Steve Spurrier).

4. Most important of all, the teams at the bottom of the NFL standings one year almost always get better the next year. I looked at every two-year period since 1992-93, the beginning of free agency and thus the start of today's competitive structure. Out of 12 such periods, only once did the team with the fewest victories post a worse mark the next year: The Jets went from 3-13 in 1995 to 1-15 in 1996. In two cases, the worst team's record stayed the same: The Bengals went 3-13 in 1993, then again in 1994; and the Colts posted identical 3-13 records in 1997 and 1998. The other nine teams got better. But there's more: The '95 Jets, '93 Bengals and '97 Colts were far and away the worst in the league in those seasons. San Diego was just one of several teams huddled together in the NFL cellar in '03. So, to get a better sense of how the league's entire lower rung fares, I again went back to 1992. I looked at the performance of teams that finished 4-12 or worse. The numbers may surprise you:
  • Of 48 teams finishing 4-12 or worse, 42 finished with a better record the next year, 4 showed no improvement, and just 2 got worse.
  • The average change was an improvement of 3.18 games.
  • The median change was an improvement of 3 games.
  • The most common result was an improvement of 4 games -- nine out of the 48 teams.
There are so many reasons for these numbers. Bad teams can't get much worse, at least record-wise, so they almost have to get better. Bad teams replace their head coaches, coordinators, GMs, players. Bad teams get high draft picks. All true. But the fact remains: You finish 4-12, you're almost guaranteed to get better. The Chargers would've had to pick up just one more win to top the over/under. That's a no-brainer.

(Update 02/07/05: Raw numbers posted.)

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