Genius. Simply genius.
A year ago at this time we had a feeling the Niners were ready to make that giant leap from also-ran to contender. They'd inked cover corner supreme Nate Clements to a gonzo contract. They had the makings of one of the game's best young offenses, with Alex Smith under center and Frank Gore in the backfield. And they ended 2006 by winning two of their last three, including a rousing OT victory over the Broncos at Mile High. So we did a big story on them.
Turned out the 2007 Niners were just the latest in a long string of alleged It teams to bite the turf. In 2006 the frauds were the Cards. In 2005, the Jets. In 2004, the Lions. (The name Joey Harrington still makes us shudder.) What makes it doubly humiliating is that at the same time these losing teams were staying loserish, other loser teams like the 2007 Browns became winners overnight—only we didn't see it coming.
This won't do. So forget our hunches. It's time to give science a try. We asked our friends at Football Outsiders to take a look at the recent history of It teams—those teams that went from .500 or under in one season to the playoffs the next. We wanted to know what factors these teams had in common, and just as important, what factors were irrelevant. What follows is FO's myth-busting report, which we'll use to make our It pick for 2008.
We've never felt more secure in our genius.
IT FACTOR: The Scoreboard
Many moons and Mac systems ago, famed baseball analyst Bill James created a stat called Pythagorean projection, which estimates an MLB team's expected wins based on scoring differential. Turns out, this concept works in the NFL, too. We'll spare you the math and give you the skinny: When a team has a Pythagorean projection more than a win better than its actual record, that probably means it got unlucky and can be expected to improve the next year. That goes double if that team went .500 or over despite underachieving. The 2006 Jags, for example, went 8—8 but had 10.8 Pythagorean wins. Lo and behold, they improved to 11—5 in 2007.
So who were last season's biggest Pythagorean underachievers? Glad you asked.
IT NONFACTOR: Win Streaks
Remember, in 2005, when the Dolphins won their final six games to finish 9—7? Some folks thought Nick Saban was a miracle worker and Miami became a popular 2006 playoff pick. Four months later, the Dolphins were 6—10 and Saban had decamped for Alabama. What happened? Well, Miami's 2005 win streak didn't carry over because that streak actually wasn't very impressive. Four of the wins had come against teams that were 4—12 or 5—11, and the other two W's were by just two points each.
We're not just picking on the Dolphins, though. Of the nine teams since 1990 that missed the playoffs but finished the season with a four-game winning streak or better, only three made the postseason the next year: the 2006-07 Packers, the 2000-01 Pack and the 1991-92 49ers.
IT FACTOR: Health
How silly is it when a coach says something like "Our team has Super Bowl talent, as long as we can avoid injuries"? Please. Nobody in the NFL avoids injuries. Some teams, though, do get hit harder than others. And over enough time, injury rates tend to even out, so teams that lose a lot of games to injury one season will often improve the following season as they enjoy a little bit better health.
In our book, Pro Football Prospectus 2008, we introduce a new stat called Adjusted Games Lost. We took all the games a team lost to injury plus all the games in which it had a player perform at less than 100% (based on that player's status on the weekly injury report), then adjusted that number based on, among other things, whether the injured players were starters or backups. For example, Adrian Peterson's sitting out three games counts for more AGL than Maurice Hicks' sitting out four. With us so far?
Good, because here's the revelatory part. We took a look at the top 10 teams with the biggest yearto-year spikes in AGL since 2002—the teams that went from extremely healthy one season to extremely injured the next. It turns out that in the year following that extremely injured season, these teams averaged two more wins. The only team with fewer wins in the post-MASH year was the 2004 Titans, who were decimated by off-season salary cuts.
Right about now, you've got to be wondering which teams had the biggest AGL spikes from 2006 to 2007.
Presto. Just look above.
IT NONFACTOR: Benjamins
Some fans think a big free agent signing will catapult a losing team into the playoffs. When's the last time that happened? Last year, the Niners made lots of noise in free agency. The year before, the Cards threw their money around. Neither squad made the playoffs—or even came close. In fact, only one of the past four Super Bowl champs handed out a big-money deal in free agency before its title season—when Indianapolis signed kicker Adam Vinatieri in the 2006 off-season.
IT FACTOR: Third-down Converstion Rate
If a team is strong on first and second downs, but weak on third down, it will tend to have a better record the following year. Why? Well, our number-crunching shows that over a couple of seasons teams tend to perform as well (or as poorly) on third down as they do the rest of the time, both on offense and defense. Sometimes, but not always, this natural tendency gets a little forward push from the front office. Third-down struggles are a pretty obvious problem, and GMs will generally target their off-season moves at improving third-down performance … which leads to an improvement in third-down performance. Funny how that works.
Back in 2004, we used this trend to project San Diego's big turnaround (Antonio Gates' emergence sure didn't hurt). In 2005, it pointed to Seattle, with new possession receiver Joe Jurevicius, as a Super Bowl contender. Last year, it forecast a playoff run for the Skins, who had signed linebacker London Fletcher in the off-season. Ding, ding, ding.
This year, this trend is a huge reason to be optimistic about Minnesota. On offense, the Vikings ranked fourth in average yards on first or second down but a miserable 27th on third-down conversion percentage. On defense, the Vikings were seventh in yardage on first or second down and 15th in preventing third-down conversions. Enter receiver Bernard Berrian, defensive end Jared Allen and safety Madieu Williams—and behold the power of statistical trends.
IT FACTOR: Fumble Recoveries
Stripping the ball is a skill. Holding onto the ball is a skill. Pouncing on the ball as it is bouncing all over the field is not a skill. In fact, there's zero correlation between the percentage of fumbles recovered by a team in one year and the percentage that team recovers in the next. That means that a significant number of turnovers—huge plays that dramatically impact wins and losses—are essentially random.
So one way to identify It candidates is to look at those teams that were unlucky in fumble recoveries the previous season, as that luck almost certainly will turn around. Take a look at the 2007 numbers to the right to get an idea who's due this year.
IT FACTOR: Young Defensive Talent
It happens all the time: A team invests a ton of draft value in defense over a couple of years, that defense doesn't get any better at first, as all those green players struggle to adjust to the NFL, then—just like that—the young defense takes a collective leap forward. The 2005 Bears are a great example. In 2003, Chicago had six picks in the first four rounds, and used five of them on defensive players, including linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman. In 2004, the Bears used their first two picks on defensive linemen Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, then grabbed cornerback Nathan Vasher in the fourth. The defensive improvement didn't come until these players were in their second and third years, as the Bears jumped from 5—11 in 2004 to 11—5 in '05. Need more examples? The Panthers drafted a lot of defense in 2001 and 2002, then made it to the Super Bowl in 2003. The Cowboys' run last year was built heavily on defensive talent drafted in 2005 and 2006. The Texans fit this model quite nicely. The 2006 draft brought in first-overall pick Mario Williams and stud middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, while the 2007 draft added defensive tackle Amobi Okoye and emerging corner Fred Bennett in the fourth. This crew will be fun to watch in 2008.
There you go. It teams are made by ancient Greek mathematics, a return to health, finding your inner clutchiness, fumblerooskies and young defensive blood, but not by win streaks or spending sprees. So now it's time for our big reveal—the certified, guaranteed, master lock It team of 2008. The Eagles? Nah. They might be Pythagoras' call, but that aging defense means they can't be ours. The Vikings? Tarvaris Jackson. Enough said. The Ravens? Zzzz. That leaves us with one choice—one crazy, insane, ludicrously bold choice. It's a team that's never finished with a winning record in its entire existence, let alone made the playoffs. A team that many experts probably don't think is close to being the best team in its conference or in its state. A team that … sorry, enough prattling.
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