Predicting the 2016 NFL Season: Pythagorean Wins

Cam Newton Carolina Panthers

Where has all the football gone? The NFL is on vacation and will be for roughly six weeks from the last day of minicamp to the start of training camp in late July. To help you through this football-less world we will look at three stats (Pythagorean wins, record in close games and turnover differential) that can be useful in predicting which teams will improve and decline this fall.

First up, Pythagorean Wins.

Winning is everything in the National Football League. An excellent record across a 16 game regular season can get you in the playoffs but it has little value when it comes to predicting how a team will perform the next season. A better indicator of future success is point differential.

Football’s Pythagorean Theorem is a formula that converts the points scored and allowed by a team into an expected winning percentage. As an example, in 2014 Detroit went 11-5 earning a Wild Card while scoring 321 points and allowing 282 points. Based on the Pythagorean formula the Lions should have won 9.2 games. Matthew Stafford and crew outperformed their true level of talent by 1.8 games. This difference in expectations hinted at regression for the Lions in 2015.

A year later Detroit went 7-9 and finished third in the NFC North. There were eight teams in 2014 that exceeded their Pythagorean expectations by a game or more. Those franchises combined records that year were 84-43-1. In 2015 they combined to go 67-61. Six teams underperformed Pythagorean expectations by at least a win in 2014. Five of the six teams improved and by an average of two wins over their previous record.

What teams can we expect to improve and decline in 2016 based on Pythagorean Wins?

TeamPythagorean Differential
San Diego Chargers-1.9
Seattle Seahawks-1.8
Tennessee Titans-1.8
New York Giants-1.5
Dallas Cowboys-1.2
Jacksonville Jaguars-1.2
Baltimore Ravens-1
Cleveland Browns-1
Pittsburgh Steelers-0.7
Buffalo Bills-0.5
Chicago Bears-0.3
Kansas City Chiefs-0.2
New York Jets0
Tampa Bay Buccaneers0
Detroit Lions0.1
Oakland Raiders0.1
Houston Texans0.2
Atlanta Falcons0.2
Miami Dolphins0.2
Philadelphia Eagles0.3
Cincinnati Bengals0.3
New England Patriots0.3
St. Louis Rams0.5
New Orleans Saints0.6
Green Bay Packers0.7
Washington Redskins0.8
Arizona Cardinals0.9
Minnesota Vikings1.2
San Francisco 49ers1.2
Indianapolis Colts2
Denver Broncos2.3
Carolina Panthers2.6

Point differential suggested that San Diego would decline in 2015 and boy did they. A 4-12 record was surprising as the Chargers went winless in the division but injuries played a key role. By the second month of the season San Diego starters, including three offensive linemen, had missed more than 20 games. Philip Rivers overcame the adversity up front (the quarterback threw for 4,792 yards, the second most in the season) but the running game never got going. – Melvin Gordon owners are shaking their head. For as bad as 2015 was, the numbers indicate that the Bolts will improve in 2016.

Another candidate for improvement is Seattle. This might seem unfair, as the Seahawks have had more than their fair share of success the last few seasons. Still their 10-win campaign in 2015 underperformed expectations by nearly two full wins. This is one of the reasons why the Seahawks were installed as one of the early favorites to win Super Bowl LI.

Which teams do we expect to decline? There are five clubs that outperformed Pythagorean expectations by more than a win. Minnesota, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Denver and Carolina with the Broncos and Panthers meeting in the Super Bowl. Looking at theses franchises one could make a case for each to continue exceeding expectations.

The Vikings have Teddy Bridgewater the most accurate passer last season (and a rock-paper-scissors champ) plus an improving young defense. Chip Kelly made Nick Foles look like a competent quarterback in his first season with the Eagles, so making Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert relevant again shouldn’t be too difficult as he takes over as the Niners new head coach. Indy will get a healthy Andrew Luck back, Denver will return a mostly intact all-time great defense and Carolina has Cam Newton – the reigning MVP.

Of course, as compelling as those arguments may be, history tells us it is exceedingly difficult to outperform point differential year in and year out.

Check in next week as we look at records in close games. Finally, with the NFL season just around the corner don’t forget to subscribe to BetLabs. There are currently 12 against-the-spread picks based on Pro Systems for nine NFL Week 1 games.

 

 

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