To help figure out good value for potential win totals in 2019, it is important to look back at what really occurred in 2018. Several underlying metrics have historically been effective in projecting whether teams are likely to improve or decline in the upcoming season. It’s important to note that it is not advised to blindly rely on one or more of these statistics to affect a team’s win total in 2019. Instead, these stats, along with qualitative factors like roster turnover, schedule, etc should help give guidance into which teams have a good likelihood of improving or declining. These stats should be one tool in the toolbox in determining good value for NFL team win totals.
Record in one-score games
So many games are decided by turnovers, field goals and one play here or there at the end of games. Statistics say that over a course of a season, teams should win about half of the games decided by seven points or fewer. Any extreme win/loss records in those games tend to revert near 50 percent the following season. 73 teams since 1990 have posted a winning percentage of 20 percent or below in one-score games. The following season, their record in one-score games more than doubled to 45 percent. In 2016 and 2017, 18 teams posted a win percentage of 30 percent or worse in one-score games. Out of those 18 instances, 17 of those teams improved their close game record the following season for an aggregate record of 49 percent. Those 18 teams on average improved their overall win total by three games the following season as well. The four teams last season who won fewer than 30 percent of their one-score games include the Panthers, Jaguars, Lions, and Jets.
In the last two seasons, 13 teams produced a win percentage of at least 70 percent in one-score games. Of those teams, 11 saw their win totals decline the next season. In aggregate, those 13 teams had a close game win percentage of 78 percent and those teams saw their close game win percentages decline to 47 percent the following season. Those 13 teams had their win totals decline by an average of 3.3 games the following season from 10 wins to 6.7. The six teams who produced a close game win percentage last season of more than 70 percent include the Cowboys, Washington, Dolphins, Saints, and both Los Angeles teams.
Turnover margin and fumble recovery rate
Turnovers play such a huge role in determining games in the NFL that extreme margins one way or another could greatly impact a team’s season. Within turnover rates, fumble recoveries specifically are very random. The argument can be made that forcing fumbles is a skill but recovering the football is a purely random proposition. Very often, teams that rank at the top or bottom five in the NFL in recovery rate will see their rankings move towards the middle of the pack the following season. Looking back at the last five seasons, teams that ranked in the bottom five in recovery rate have improved by an average of 16 spots the following season. Looking at the other side of the coin, teams in the top five of recovery rates have declined by an average of 13 spots the following season. In both extreme cases, it is expected that these teams will fall closer to the middle of the pack the following season. The Vikings, Falcons, Raiders, Jaguars, and Giants finished at the bottom of fumble recovery rate and should be expected in the aggregate to rank near the middle of the pack this season. The Rams, Seahawks, Washington, Texans, and Panthers ranked as the best teams in fumble recovery rate in 2018 and should be expected in the aggregate to rank near the middle of the NFL in 2019 as well.
A team’s point differential can be a better measure of future wins than its actual win total. The number of wins a team should have won purely based on their point differential is based on their Pythagorean expectation. Many times, teams whose win total are much higher than their Pythagorean expectation will decline the following year. In 2017, the five teams whose point differential was worse than their actual records included Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Arizona, and Tennessee. These five teams saw their win totals decline by an average of 3 wins in 2018. None of these teams made the playoffs after four of them made it in 2017. The Rams, Saints, Dolphins, Cowboys, and Chargers outperformed their point differential the most in 2018. The opposite is true for teams who underperform their Pythagorean expectation. In 2017, the five teams whose point differential was better than their actual records the most included the Chargers, Texans, Buccaneers, Jaguars, and Browns. These five teams saw their win totals increase by an average of 2.6 wins. The 2008 New Orleans Saints and the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles missed the playoffs and underperformed their Pythagorean expectation wins by close to two games each. Both won the Super Bowl the following season. The Giants, San 49ers, Buccaneers, Packers, and Jets underperformed their win total the most in 2018.