Close Game Records and Teams to Highlight for the 2019 Season
One of the most interesting phenomena in the NFL is what happens to teams that do extremely well or extremely poorly in close games. In practice, people in boardrooms have made decisions to attempt to promote parity in the league with relative weight based on a team’s record. In the NFL draft, slotting is based on the reverse order of the regular season standings and the results of the playoffs. Part of the NFL’s scheduling process is based on where a team placed within its own division. On top of that, NFL free agency is built to redistribute non-quarterback talent (they hardly ever hit the open market) across the league, with teams with above .500 record more often seeing players leave and sub-.500 teams more often being the buyers.
So what happens to teams playing well below or above their talent level? That is how the close game phenomenon manifests itself. As we mentioned last August, close games (games with a point differential of seven points or less) are generally coin flips. Teams with the best records over a long period of time have a closer to .500 record in close games but a clearer record in decisive games (games with a point differential of eight points or more.) This is also true in college football:
When applied to college football, this logic also holds up. Over the last decade, Alabama, Boise State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Wisconsin have combined to post an FBS best 457-48 record in decisive games. Collectively, they have gone just 97-71 in close games, a win percentage of just 58 percent. This means that even the best of the best, the programs which blow teams out the most while also avoid being blown out, barely have any significant ability to win single-score games over a large period of time. Truthfully, the ability to win close games is more of a myth than a tangible trait.
The team with the best close game win percentage over the last decade? Ole Dominion with an 11-4 record. Wyoming (30-17) ranks eighth and Louisiana-Lafayette (26-15) ranks ninth. Close game numbers are mostly bunk. The truth is, no matter how important we anecdotally claim winning close games is, 1) winning close games is not nearly as stable year to year as winning decisive games is and 2) the vast majority of wins at the FBS level come from decisive games.
Close games are important. They can decide if you are in or out of the postseason. With that being said, a team’s record in decisive games is a much better number to use for projecting what teams will do in the future than their overall record.
This is where the NFL’s feedback loop for “parity” breaks down.
When teams lose five or more close games than they won (in theory, dropping their win total by 2.5+ games versus their talent), they have immediately improved their record in the next season in 21 of 21 instances since 2006. On average, these teams improved by 4.6 wins the following year.
When teams win five or more close games than they lost, they have immediately dropped in record in the next season in 18 of 21 instances since 2006. It is worth noting that the three times this rule was broken it was by the Indianapolis Colts, over the course of multiple coaches and quarterbacks. They are massive outliers in close games in general, especially relative to their decisive game record, and I do not have a sound explanation of why they are the NFL's exception. On average, these 21 teams worsened in record by 4.2 wins the next season.
If you took a time machine back to 2006, you could go 39-2-1 predicting that unsustainably good close game records would lead to an immediate drop-off and unsustainably bad close game records would lead to an immediate rise. The NFL devours itself through its parity machine (outside of quarterback play and head coaches), but three or four teams a year become easy reads because of how they performed in close games the year prior. When the process is right 94 percent of the time, you take it for its word.
Last year, the teams we worried could fall off were the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers, who both made the 2017 playoffs with a combined 24-8 record. In 2018, they both missed the playoffs. The teams to watch out for in 2019 are the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys.
While the Rams are coming off of a Super Bowl loss, it is worth noting that the 2015 Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, who met in the Super Bowl, were highlighted as teams to regress the next season. Both eventually missed the 2016 playoffs entirely with a .500 record after combing for a 27-5 record the year before. If you are a betting man, it is probably better to think of Los Angeles as a team that is on the bubble of playing during Wild Card Weekend in 2019 than one that will be competing for a first-round bye.
The Cowboys, who barely got to double-digit wins in 2018, are in a more concerning place. They are out of a first-round pick because they traded it for wide receiver Amari Cooper, plus they have some major decisions to make in terms of veteran contracts. Over the next 13 months, these players are potentially eligible to hit unrestricted free agency: quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, receiver Amari Cooper, tackle La’El Collins, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback Byron Jones. Mind you, this is with over $60 million still tied up in the dead caps of offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick, who are currently scheduled to make $167.3 million in cash over the remainder of their contracts.
In decisive games last year, Dallas had a 2-4 record. On paper, they were playing closer to the talent level of a sub-.500 team than a playoff team. The worst way they could potentially trip themselves this offseason would be by throwing out extensions left and right and tying down large portions of their cap and rolling out with the team they fielded last season. They need to approach this offseason like they just went 7-9, a difficult task when they do not have a first-round pick, have plenty of mouths to feed and hosted a playoff game a month ago.
Like last year, there is only one progression candidate: the Carolina Panthers. After going just 2-7 in close games (5-2 in decisive games), the Panthers are quietly a team that could bounce back to the playoffs. With all the talk about quarterback Cam Newton’s shoulder, there is not much optimism about the team right now but the numbers claim that they are more talented than people give them credit for.
Every non-Colts team put in the situation that the Rams, Cowboys and Panthers are in currently have had predictable outcomes during the entirety of the Roger Goodell era. The NFL's system is built to tear down and build up teams based on what their record was the previous year, but playing on one extreme or the other in close games can mess up all of the parity mechanisms. The process pumps out what is virtually inevitable, and three teams should be noted, highlighted and underlined for the upcoming NFL season.