Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Green Bay's thin silver lining


I'm beginning to suspect that Brett Favre doesn't actually spend his evenings reading Down and Distance, but that won't keep me from trying to make him "feel better" about his beat-up and beat-down Green Bay Packers. After Sunday's 19-7 loss at Chicago, the Packers fell to 2-10, their worst record at this point in a season since 1988, the dark days of the Lindy Infante Age. But though the '88 Packers and the '05 Packers had equally dismal won-loss records after 12 games, there is a stark difference in the quality of their play. That difference is most apparent in The Only Stats That Matter: points scored and points allowed. A look at those numbers shows us this year's Green Bay team -- yes, the sorry 2-10 Packers -- have a chance to make history.

We can use the 1988 Packers as a benchmark because that team's numbers are fairly typical for a club that loses 10 of 12. In stumbling to their 2-10 record, the '88 Packers were outscored by 64 points, 246-182; the '05 version, meanwhile, has been outscored by just 3 points, 242-239. As has been remarked upon (too) many times, this year's Packers had actually scored more points than their opponents until the Chicago game. Of course, we all remember that one of this year's Green Bay wins was a 52-3 dismantling of the New Orleans Saints. Take that game out of the equation, and they've been outscored by 52 points, 239-187. That's closer to the 1988 Packers. But wait: One of the '88 team's victories was a 45-3 throttling of the New England Patriots. Take that game away, and their deficit widens to almost 100 points: 243-137.

In fact, if we remove each team's two victories and just count the 10 losses, we find that the '88 team was outscored 229-103, while this year's Packers are down 214-154. Translating that to a per-game basis, the 1988 team lost its 10 games by an average of about two touchdowns, 23-10. The 2005 Green Bay team has lost its 10 games by less than a touchdown: 21-15. That's the remarkable thing about the 2005 Packers: They're losing game after game, but just barely. Compare the two teams' margins of defeat in each of their 10 losses (an asterisk denotes a shutout loss):

What the numbers mean is that the 1988 Packers lost all kinds of games, both close ones and blowouts, but the 2005 Packers have been "in" every game. Indeed, the 12-point loss to the Bears on Sunday was their largest defeat since falling 17-3 to Detroit in Week 1. That Detroit game, meanwhile, was their biggest loss this year, and it was by just 14 points. Of the 31 other teams in the NFL, only six have yet to lose a game by 14 points or more: the 12-0 Colts (obviously), the 10-2 Seahawks, the 9-3 Jaguars, the 9-3 Panthers, the 8-4 Chargers and the 7-5 Cowboys. (The 9-3 Bengals' biggest loss was also by 14, as was, oddly, the 4-8 Browns'.)

The Packers' remaining games are against Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago and Seattle. The Lions are bleeding from every opening at this point, so it's entirely conceivable, if not exactly probable, that the Packers could beat them and/or the Ravens by enough that Green Bay could finish 3-13 or 4-12 yet still outscore their opponents. If they pulled that off, it would be an unprecedented feat. So Brett, if you're still reading, here's what you're playing for: HIStory, baby.

How rare is it for a losing team to score more points than its opponents over the course of a season? Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, just 24 teams (out of 729) have done it (excluding the strike-skewed years of 1982 and 1987). Of those two dozen teams, 18 finished 7-9, which isn't all that different from 8-8, really. Those 7-9 teams ranged from the 1986 Saints and 2000 Chiefs, both of whom scored exactly 1 point more than they allowed, to the 1981 Falcons, who outscored their opponents by a remarkable 71 points.

Six other teams did even "better," outscoring their opponents despite finishing worse than 7-9. Those teams:

2001Chargers5-11332 32111
1990Chargers6-10315 28134
1990Vikings 6-10351 32625
1983Chiefs 6-10386 36719
2002Jaguars 6-10328 31513
2001Jaguars 6-10294 2868

The Packers have the opportunity to overtake the 2001 Chargers as the losingest team ever to come out ahead in points over a 16-game schedule. As Rocky Balboa said to Ivan Drago: Go for it!

Suppose the Packers do set this dubious and utterly obscure mark. What does it mean for their future? Uh, Brett, you might want to look away at this point. When a losing team outscores its opponents, it means it lost a lot of close games. Just look at the Packers this year. Or take those 2001 Chargers, whose offense was keyed by a rookie tailback named Tomlinson and an ancient QB named Flutie. Their five wins came by 27, 17, 14, 11 and 3 points. Their 11 losses came by 10, 10, 10, 7, 5, 4, 3, 3, 3, 3 and 3 points.

Now, when a team repeatedly winds up on the short end of close games, we inevitably hear that that team is "just a few players away" from "taking the next step" and becoming a serious contender the following season. It's a warm and fuzzy idea, but it isn't really borne out by the history. Of the 24 teams cited earlier, 12 had a better record the next year (including this year's Panthers and Chiefs, who have already put up more wins than they did in 2004) -- but six of those teams improved only to 8-8. Ten of the teams had a worse record the next year -- including two that dropped to 2-14 and two that went 4-12. Two teams finished with the same number of wins the next year. Not much to dance about there.

But for Brett Favre and others reading this in the northern Wisconsin gloom, take heart: The Green and Gold is on the precipice of accomplishing something unprecedented. That ought to warm up the ice-fishing hut. Yeah. Sure it will.

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