Each year there are a number of teams in the NFL that defy expectations. It’s common for teams to go from worst one year to first the next. It’s also just as common for a team hyped up for the wrong reasons to not live up to the public perception.
With NFL training camps set to open in a few weeks, let’s take a look at a few statistical indicators — such as point differential and record in close games — to identify a few teams that could be better than expected for the upcoming season.
Earlier in the week, we took a look at a few teams that could exceed expectations in 2019. Today, we’ll look at a few who might struggle to meet them.
- 2018 record: 10-6
- 2018 expected wins: 8.4
- 2019 o/u: 8.5
No team won more games within one-score in 2018 than the Dallas Cowboys with nine. With three losses added in, Dallas’s .750 winning percentage in close games was the fourth-highest in the league. Just a one-game swing could have altered how we feel about the Cowboys and potentially how the Cowboys feel about the Cowboys. An 8- or 9-win season — Dallas was an 8.4-win team by point differential — could have left the Cowboys out of the playoffs and with a coaching decision to make. But a playoff appearance and playoff win gave Jason Garrett at least another year.
Now the team is betting big on the promotion of Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator to be the change needed for a trip into the modern NFL. That’s a lot to put on a first-time coordinator and play-caller, even if there is optimism coming out of Arlington. The offense will also get a full season of Amari Cooper, who ignited the passing offense after the midseason trade from Oakland. Before the trade, Dak Prescott completed 62 percent of his passes and averaged 6.9 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns against four interceptions. After the trade, Prescott completed 71.3 percent of his passes and averaged 7.7 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns against four interceptions. However, after Cooper, there isn’t much proven talent in the receiving corps. Prescott will be missing safety net Cole Beasley, who signed with the Buffalo Bills in free agency and was replaced by Randall Cobb. Blake Jarwin was efficient at tight end, but Dallas still felt the need to bring Jason Witten back out of the Monday Night Football booth for another season.
Dallas does get the benefit of four games against the Giants and Washington, but will also have to face the Eagles twice as well as the Saints, Packers, Patriots, Bears, and Rams.
A playoff win helps the Cowboys paint the 2018 season as a success, but it also brings with it heightened expectations for the 2019 season, where even an 8-8 finish — just slightly worse than they played last year — will feel like a massive step backward.
- 2018 record: 12-4
- 2018 expected wins: 11.5
- 2019 o/u: 9.5
The 2018 Chicago Bears were really good and deservedly so. Their 11.5 expected wins by point differential were only a half a win off their actual 12 wins. Even the .600 winning percentage off a 6-4 record in close games doesn’t sound the regression alarm. But the other ways in which the 2018 Chicago Bears were good do.
Chicago’s defensive dominance — the Bears were first in yards allowed per drive and points allowed per drive — would be difficult to repeat with no changes in the people involved. The Bears do have some pretty significant changes. The first is defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is now the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Fangio was replaced in Chicago by Chuck Pagano, who has overseen his share of excellent defenses, but Fangio’s impact will be hard to replicate. Fangio also brought cornerback Bryce Callahan to Denver with him via free agency. The Bears signed Buster Skrine to play the slot, but Skrine has never played to the level Callahan did over the past two seasons. Chicago also lost safety Adrian Amos to the rival Green Bay Packers. Amos was one of the league’s best safeties in coverage — he led all safeties in yards allowed per pass snap, per Sports Info Solutions — but he also got the benefit of playing next to Eddie Jackson. That role will now go to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who is on his third team in two seasons.
What makes any defensive regression so devastating for the Bears is how much the defense covered for an average-at-best offense in 2018. Chicago was just 16th in yards per drive and 11th in points per drive but 20th in offensive DVOA. Head coach Matt Nagy schemed up an effective offense, but the execution wasn’t always there. Mitchell Trubisky did finish the season third in Total QBR though much of his value came on the ground, which isn’t something likely to be repeated at the volume it was in 2018.
If there isn’t a step forward from Trubisky in terms of his passing value and the defense is just good, not great, the Bears could find themselves victims to a tougher schedule — projected to be one of the hardest thanks to expected improvement across the NFC North and first-place meetings with the Rams and Chiefs. Even a fall to just nine wins would be a significant underperformance for a team many believe could be a Super Bowl contender.
New Orleans Saints
- 2018 record: 13-3
- 2018 expected wins: 11.2
- 2019 o/u: 10.5
If we’re pumping up two NFC South teams as likely to improve, it’s not a stretch to suggest one of the other teams in the same division is vulnerable to take a step back. The Saints, so close to being last year’s NFC representative in the Super Bowl, are the most likely option.
New Orleans won 13 games in 2018 against an 11.2-win expectation and that 1.8-win difference was the second-highest among all teams last season. Part of that, as you might have guessed, was aided by their performance in close games, where the team went 5-2 and had the fifth-highest winning percentage in the league (.714).
Potentially the biggest question about the Saints is the status of Drew Brees. Brees was an MVP favorite alongside Patrick Mahomes for much of the 2018 season before a significant drop off to end the year. Over Brees’s final four games of the regular season, he had three touchdowns against three interceptions, took seven sacks, and averaged just 6.4 yards per attempt. Up to that point, Brees had 29 touchdowns against two interceptions, just 10 sacks, and averaged 8.8 yards per attempt. He only slightly improved in the playoffs with four touchdowns, two interceptions, and 7.1 yards per attempt across two games against the Eagles and Rams. It’s not hard to imagine the toll a full season took on the arm of a 39-year-old quarterback. Brees just turned 40 in January and it would be fair to wonder about his ability to sustain a high level of play through the latter months of the season.
There could also be a few more defensive questions going forward. The team finished 28th in yards allowed per drive and 20th in points allowed per drive. They got by and still finished 11th in defensive DVOA thanks to the eighth-most turnovers per drive, some of the best starting field position in the league, and one of the league’s best run defenses. More concerning might be some individual play, especially that of cornerback Marcus Lattimore. Individual coverage stats aren’t always sticky from year-to-year, but after a strong rookie season, Lattimore was one of the worst starting corners in yards allowed per pass and success rate, per SIS.
Like the Bears, this doesn’t mean New Orleans is destined to finish below .500, but if last season’s bar was set at “nearly make the Super Bowl,” the 2019 Saints have a much trickier path to make that type of run again.