Over the past 3 seasons in the NFL, the percentage of teams with winning records the prior year and losing records the year immediately following is a staggering 38%. (For the purposes of this article, I will refer to these teams as regression teams.) In the 6 years prior, so 2008-2014, this number was just 23%.
Why is there such an increased variability in team success from 1 year to the next? A variety of factors will help answer this question. The biggest one might surprise you.
Chasing The Bucks, Not The Titles
When NFL players have breakout years, they want more money. When they want more money, they demand more money from their current teams. When they don’t get the contract extensions they feel they deserve or when they become free agents, they test the open market. When they test the open market, it just takes one team willing to pay them more than their current team is willing to pay (deservedly or not) and POOF…They’re gone.
This vicious cycle disrupts the continuity of teams from year to year and helps explain why teams regress. All professional sports are businesses. Can you really blame professional athletes for chasing the money?
When you and I perform better at our jobs, we ask for raises too. For fun, let’s quickly imagine if NFL players were motivated purely by success rather than money. We would see a lot more Kevin Durant situations where players take less money to stick with teams who have much better chances of visiting title town. Instead, we see good players leave good teams so they can rot with their riches on perennial pretenders.
The Tortoise And The Hare
It’s human nature for people to get complacent when they achieve success. Having a winning record and making the playoffs when you haven’t recently done so proves you’re doing something right. If you just continue to do what gained you that success, you will continue to be successful, right?
This is an instinctive philosophy but a bad strategy if you want to remain ahead of the curve. All teams that experienced losing seasons are still hungry. Failure is an immense motivator that drives losing teams to change their processes and personnel until they too become successful.
This tortoise and the hare concept contributes to the oscillation of many NFL teams from good to bad to so-so from one year to the next.
Injuries And Suspensions
Obviously, the more of your key players that get hurt or suspended for longer periods of time, the more difficult it will be for your team to win games and make the playoffs.
In some ways, injuries and suspensions can be avoided. Slide more if you’re a quarterback. Don’t initiate contact with your helmet. Stay disciplined so you aren’t making unsportsmanlike plays. The list goes on and on.
Many injuries, however, are simply the result of hard play. If you want to compete at the highest level in the NFL, avoiding contact at all costs isn’t the way to do it. Injuries are inevitable. The teams that experience the most injuries, especially to key players, are going to lose more games than normal.
Ok, great. Those ideas explain why teams regress. We get that. But why is the rate of regression so much greater the last three years compared to the six years before that?
Over the past several years, there have been many rule changes introduced with the aim of improving player safety. Many actions players took 15 years ago both on and off the field didn’t draw a penalty flag or a suspension.
Today, we see an increasing number of on the field plays and off the field actions resulting in penalties and suspensions. Hits on defenseless players, leading with the crown of the helmet, helmet to helmet contact, hits at or below the knee of the quarterback while in the pocket, getting caught taking PEDs…the list goes on
In addition to implementing new rules which have increased penalties and suspensions, a major focus of the NFL has been managing concussions. This began with the 2013-2014 season. Players are required to pass a series of evaluations (concussion protocol) before being medically cleared to return to the field.
Everyone has a different opinion as to how much the safety measures in the form of rule changes have improved player safety. I’m not here to debate that. I’m simply saying the rule changes designed to improve player safety are the biggest reason we’ve seen the regression rate spike the last three seasons.
Stricter rules have caused more players to miss more games in recent years than ever before. When starters miss games, the backups are thrust into the leading roles, and, for the most part, we are reminded why they are backups in the first place. When that happens, their teams lose more games.
In the past, if a player was accused of domestic violence or had a concussion, that player likely wouldn’t miss a game. Today, we frequently see these events cause players to miss multiple games.
Now, in no way am I saying these rule changes aren’t warranted or don’t improve player safety; however, simply put, these rule changes are the biggest reason why winning teams are experiencing regression.
The carousel of injuries and suspensions is ever-growing making it difficult to predict which teams’ players will stay on the field, and further, predict which teams are expected to be successful from year to year.
Up until now, my tone may have made it seem like NFL regression is a bad thing. It’s not. It’s actually quite the opposite. I get that everyone wants to see his or her favorite team win the Super Bowl every year, but if we look at this completely from an unbiased perspective, an NFL with more parity is a more interesting NFL.
NFL Regression Predictions
Now that I’ve hashed out the “why” regression is happening at a much higher rate, let’s get into some predictions for the “who” the NFL regression teams will be and who will ascend to take their places for the 2018-2019 season.
Quick note: Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to predict which teams will experience the most injuries and suspensions next year, so while it’s interesting to note the effect rule changes resulting in increased injuries and suspensions have had on team regression, it doesn’t offer me any assistance in predicting which teams will fall and rise. Some of the other factors mentioned in this article lead me to the following predictions.
Exit Detroit Lions. Enter Green Bay Packers.
The Lions will regress purely for reasons outside of their control. The division will see Aaron Rodgers back healthy. Also, the Minnesota Vikings don’t appear to be falling off with Mike Zimmer and his #1 NFL scoring defense leading the way with an efficient offense to boot.
Enter Oakland Raiders.
The hiring of head coach Jon Gruden will bolster the offense. If the Raider’s franchise QB, Derek Carr, can stay healthy, look for the Raiders to regain the success they had in 2016-2017.
Exit Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills. Enter Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans.
I don’t think I need to drive this point home too hard if you saw the Jaguars and Bills face off in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs. The only thing that has been consistent for either of these teams this year has been Jacksonville’s defense which was tremendous again against the Bills. Neither of these teams has seen much success the last several years. Don’t expect a taste of it this year to translate into winning seasons for either team next season.
You might say their defense alone (with no real notable free agents going into the offseason) is good enough to get 9 wins even if Blake Bortles and the rest of the offense are subpar. This is a strong argument if you couple it with the fact that Luck and Watson aren’t guaranteed to return to their peak levels of play.
I’m just not buying it. Bortles will return to mediocrity. You might see some offseason off the field shenanigans from members of the defense as they try to prove they are as untouchable off the field as they were on the field this season. Throw in some complacency and the improvement of division foes, and voila, reintroduce the underachieving Jaguars.
As for the Bills, don’t forget they benched their starting QB midseason and barely snuck into the playoffs. Without going into more detail, let’s just say there are more than a few things broken in Buffalo (no reference to fans falling through folding tables intended).
Exit Tennessee Titans.
Like the Jaguars, the Titans benefitted from a banged up AFC South division. The Colts and Texans will be much stronger in 2018-2019. The Titans will have much tougher division games next season leading to their regression below .500.
Exit Los Angeles Rams. Enter San Francisco 49ers.
This one may astonish you, but hear me out. While they performed wonderfully this season, the Rams still have the youngest head coach in NFL history and a very young QB. It will be tough for this youthful tandem to repeat the success they had in 2017-2018.
Aside from what they can control, the Rams might be looking at the most competitive division in the NFL. “Hungry to get back to the playoffs” is an understatement for the Seattle Seahawks even with the Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril injuries looming. After what the Arizona Cardinals did WITHOUT David Johnson and Carson Palmer (finished 8-8) and what the 49ers did WITH Jimmy Garoppolo (5-0), wins will be much more difficult to come by for the Rams.