A New Season

Tonight is the final night of the NFL preseason, and next Thursday the lights come on for real.

There’s a certain Schrodinger’s Cat-ness about the start of every sports season, but it especially true for football and the NFL in particular. By this, I mean that no one actually knows what will happen in the upcoming season. Right now, it’s a cat in a box.

I said that the NFL is more so than other sports, and two reasons are the small sample size and schedule strength.

The NFL plays 16 games. That’s it. The difference between the playoffs and a Super Bowl win or a losing season can be miniscule. An inch or less at the right or wrong time. A freak snow storm.  Rain. Fog. A poorly wiped down football. I can give examples of each of these things changing the result of a game, and each game is 6.25% of a season, not to mention luck in the single-game elimination format of the playoffs.

Luck plays more of a part in the NFL than in any other team sport. Take, for example, David Tyree’s catch in the first of two Super Bowl victories by the New York Giants over the New England Patriots. A desperation heave and a catch that just barely missed touching the ground, but it was enough to give the Giants a chance that they ultimately took advantage of.

I can give you a long list of plays that were just as close even closer. The Immaculate Reception. The Catch. Wide Right. The Music City Miracle.

Statisticians have proven that in games decided by less than one score, which in the NFL is 8 points, the records and quality of the teams involved are irrelevant. The 13-3 Seahawks beat the 2-14 Texans 23-20 in overtime in 2013. This game was decided on a few plays here or there that could quite easily have gone the other way. We know the Seahawks won now because the cat has been released from the box, but when the two teams went out to the overtime coin flip the odds were 50-50 as to which team would win.

Part of this is that the actual qualitative difference between the best teams in the NFL and the worst teams is actually very small. In college, of course, this is not true, and high school football even less so.

Because the talent difference is so small, injuries can make an extraordinary impact. Sometimes, a team suffers a huge number of injuries and their year is just gone. Sometimes, a single injury, such as the one that knocked Tom Brady out for the year a while ago can end a season. With one exception, injuries are actually a function more of luck than anything else. The exception is age. Older players get hurt more than younger ones, so if you see a team relying on veterans do not be surprised if they have more injuries than a younger team.

Another aspect of luck involves the schedule. The NFL has 32 teams. Clearly, there’s no way in a 16-game season a team can play all the others, especially since each team plays the three other teams in its division twice.

The NFL actually has an intricate schedule that is essentially laid out in perpetuity. Each team plays six games in its division, four games against another division in the NFC, four games against another division in the AFC, and then two games against teams who finished at the same spot in their respective divisions (2013 3rd place team in one division will play two games against teams that finished 3rd in their division as well). The other divisions and extra games rotate each year.

Yet not every division is created equal. For example, AFC South had the unfortunate luck to play the NFC West in 2013. The NFC West was loaded, with records of 13-3, 12-4, 10-6, and 7-9. By contrast, the NFC North in 2013 was very weak, and that gave the AFC North an advantage.

Probably every year there is at least one team that plays better than some others but because of their challenging schedule they don’t even make the playoffs. Arizona, who went 10-6 in 2013 but 8-7-1 Green Bay and 9-7 San Diego made the playoffs instead of them. Bad luck for the Cardinals that they played in the best division in football in 2013.

If you pay attention to football prognosticators, the smart ones will reference schedule strength. However, because of the fluid nature of the NFL no one really knows who will be strong in the upcoming year. The NFL currently admits 12 teams to the playoffs each year. On average, 5.7 of those teams did not make the playoffs the year before.

Yes, you read that right. Half of the playoff teams are different each year, and they are not necessarily the weaker of the playoff teams.

The easy safe route is to predict a team that was bad in one year will be bad and a team that was good will be good. Hence, most of your big name prognosticators will fall into this trap. If you see a prognostication that has nearly all of the previous season’s playoff teams returning recognize that either the author was lazy, doesn’t know the facts, doesn’t care, or some combination of these.

But the facts show this to be a lie. Some teams will have long stretches of excellence or failure. The New England Patriots are an example. However, they are the exception no the rule.

This makes prognostication even harder. If schedule strength matters, and it does, how can one predict it when we know that half of the playoff teams won’t be there? And hence, how can one predict which teams will benefit and which will suffer?

One can’t.

Wyrd will have her say.

Yet, despite knowing all of this, it remains irresistible that we must make our best guesses at what the upcoming year will hold. In this, I am no different.

So, next week, either Wednesday or Thursday. I will release my bold predictions and team capsules for each team. I’m sure you are all waiting with bated breath.

I’ll give you two hints. One, I will pick somewhere between 4 and 8 new playoff teams. Two, the Seahawks will not be one of the teams that I predict to fall out of the playoffs. Obviously, they were good enough to win last year, and not in a flukey manner, but just as importantly they are one of the younger teams in the league.

In fact, history tells us that Seattle is more likely to win a couple more Super Bowls in the next few years than to miss the playoffs because of that youth. The other teams that have won Super Bowls with about their age profile were the 1974 Steelers, 1981 49ers, and 1992 Cowboys, all of whom became dynasties. If you want the statistical breakdown, look here: http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/seattle-seahawks-youth-could-portend-a-dynasty-yes-really/.

In any case, come back in a week and see what I think will happen in the 2014 NFL season.

 

 

 

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