NFL Close Game Analytics: How "Lucky" Wins (or Losses) Predict Future Season Success
Around this time of year, every NFL fan is filled with hope. Between the letting go of bad players and contracts, the addition of free agents and the drafting of rookies, all 32 fan bases have convinced themselves that this year is going to be better than the last.
The truth of the matter is that studying how teams earn their wins and losses the one year can tell us a lot about what their next season is going to look like. Many will say “stats are for losers,” but teams which win a bunch of close games in one year tend to have drastic negative regression the next year.
For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll say that close games are defined as games with a point differential of seven points or fewer. From 2006 to 2016, only 19 teams posted five or more close wins than close losses in a single season (ex: 5-0 record or 8-3 record.) Only about five percent of NFL teams over the last 11 years qualify for this group, a telling sign for how random the results of close games are.
If a team does qualify for this group, this is a red flag for things to come. Of those 19 “lucky” teams, 16 of them (84 percent) regressed in overall record the next year, with only the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, the 2008 Indianapolis Colts and the 2012 Indianapolis Colts being the exceptions. In this 19-team group, the average team won 11.8 games in their “lucky” year and regressed to 7.6 wins the season after. Excluding the clear outlier franchise (Colts), those numbers are slashed to 11.7 and 6.4.
This is bad news for the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-2 record in close games last season) and the Carolina Panthers (7-1 record in close games last season.) Heading into this year, they are the negative regression candidates to highlight, bullet point and underline, following the same blueprint as the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants and Oakland Raiders in 2016, who all missed the playoffs in 2017.
This is not a one-way phenomenon, either. Over the same time period, 20 teams have lost five or more close games than they have won in a single season (ex: 0-5 record, 3-8 record.) The next year, every single one of them improved on their previous season’s total record, averaging 4.4 wins in their “unlucky” season and 8.9 wins the next year. Nine of them even finished the year after their “unlucky” season with double-digit wins.
Last year, the positive regression candidates were the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles, the AFC South champion Jacksonville Jaguars, the Los Angeles Chargers (5-11 to 9-7) and the Chicago Bears (3-13 to 5-11.)
The only positive regression candidate this year is the Cleveland Browns, a team which went 0-6 last year in close games on their way to a 0-16 record. Let me get off the mildest take ever: I don’t think the Browns are gonna be worse than 0-16 this year.
The numbers are clear: 36 of 39 teams (92 percent) which have won or lost an unsustainable amount of close games in single season over the last 11 years had their total record move in a predictable way the next year. In many ways, this is just the function of how the NFL’s parity-heavy system acts. When a team has a good record, teams with worse records, which typically have more long-term cap space up for grabs, are able to pluck away quality players in free agency.
The league also rewards teams with worse records with higher slots in the college draft. On top of that, schedules are in part determined by a team’s place in the division the year before, meaning that if a team won the division in their “lucky” year, they are rewarded with playing all of the division winners in their conference the next season. The NFL system is built to drag down good teams and promote bad teams. When you punch above or below your weight in an outlier season, your future is predictable.
Teams which win close games get worse the next year. Teams which lose close games get better the next year. The NFL has basically incentivized this phenomenon with their salary cap, draft and schedule systems. In the middle of the offseason hope trafficking, if you’re in the mood for prognostication, keep in mind that it is the Steelers, Panthers and Browns turn this year.