Monday, August 10, 2009

Watch out for the Lions in 2009

What would you say if I told you the Detroit Lions have a 21% chance of making the playoffs this year?

Considering that only 37.5% of all teams in the NFL make the playoffs in any given season, you'd probably think odds a little over half as good as that would be too high. To be sure, strange things can happen: Jay Cutler could bomb in Chicago, Green Bay might not fix its defense with the 3-4, Adrian Peterson could get hurt (gulp!), and Matthew Stafford could be the best rookie quarterback in league history. And BAM! The Lions take the NFC North, or at least get enough in-division victories to secure a Wild Card berth.

Some people get their ideas through meditation, others get them in the shower...this unlikely scenario came to me, as many great ideas likely do, by watching Alge Crumpler in last night's Hall of Fame Game between the Titans and the Bills.

Say what?

Apart from noticing Crumpler's girth (was he always that big?), my first thoughts upon seeing him was why the Falcons let him go to the Titans in the first place. He was a reliable receiver for the team for seven years, averaging 45 catches and just over 600 yards per season, numbers most tight ends would be more than happy with. The natural reason, of course, was that the Falcons were rebuilding after a 4-12 year and thought they could afford to let their high-priced veteran player go.

So what happened? Matt Ryan is what happened. The Falcons went 11-5, made the playoffs, and, in the offseason, traded for future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez to play tight end for them in 2009. Now, Gonzalez is a better receiver than Crumpler, to be sure. But why didn't the Falcons just hang on to Crumpler and accept that it might just take a couple years to be competitive? And what if Matt Cassel leads the Chiefs to a good record and playoff berth this year? Will the Chiefs regret giving up Gonzalez (not to mention Jared Allen last year)?

The trade deadline in baseball recently passed, and you see similar things in MLB: high-priced veterans being traded to contending teams in exchange for cheaper prospects. In MLB, with no salary cap, legions of minor leaguers, and a powerful players' union able to negotiate huge guaranteed contracts for its constituents, it probably makes more sense, even if your team thinks it can contend in a couple years. That kid from AAA might not be as good as your All-Star, but he's reasonably decent and makes about 1/50th the money. And if the situation is reversed in a year or two, you can make a deadline deal of your own and trade him for a pricy veteran.

The point is, why do NFL teams let their top talent go when they have a bad year or two (or 10, in the case of the Lions)? With a draft that actually works (more or less) in distributing top talent to the worst teams in the league, more moderate contracts, a salary cap, and a shorter schedule, which leads to greater fluctuations in win-loss record than true talent level would normally account for, why not hang on to your good players? You're not going to save that much money and might pull out of your nose dive quicker than you think.

But how quickly do teams "turn it around" in the NFL and go from awful to playoff hopeful? To answer this, I counted an "awful team" as one that went 4-12 or worse since the 1988 season (with 1987 being the strike year). I then counted how many years it took that team to make the playoffs after its awful season. If a team hasn't yet made the playoffs since its awful season, I didn't count them in the survey. And some teams' playoff-counting team counted against multiple awful teams. For instance, the 1997 and 1998 Bears are counted as taking four and three years, respectively, to make the playoffs, owing to the 2001 Bears' playoff run.

57 teams over 21 seasons meet these criteria. Their average wait to make the playoffs was 3.19 years, distributed below:

1 Year12 teams
2 Years16 teams
3 Years7 teams
4 Years8 teams
5 Years6 teams
6 Years3 teams
7 Years3 teams
8 Years2 teams

Of the 57 teams to go 4-12 or worse over this span, nearly half (28) made the playoffs within two years. Suddenly, blowing up the whole team doesn't seem like such a good idea.

Of course, it could be that blowing up the whole team was why those teams made the playoffs. Maybe the players Kansas City received in the trade for Jared Allen will be the reason they make the playoffs in 2009. (The Tony Gonzalez trade won't bear fruit for a while, though; the Chiefs dealt Gonzo for just a 2nd-round pick in 2010.)

And then there's the Lions. 12 of 57 teams -- about 21% -- made the playoffs the year after their "awful" year. And the awful year wasn't just a blip on the radar during an otherwise good run. Interestingly, as I look at those 12 teams, none of them seemed to be "good" for any significant length of time before their awful season, and a few -- like the 03-04 Chargers, 98-99 Rams, 98-99 Colts, and 95-96 Jaguars -- were very good for several years after making the playoffs for the first time following a lengthy period of mediocrity (or nonexistence, in the case of the Jags). The Falcons were the most recent team to accomplish this feat, so maybe Matt Ryan can lead them to a new era of dominance in the NFC. And maybe Matthew Stafford can usher in a new era of prosperity for the Lions, if not in 2009, then at least by 2010.

Or maybe he'll just be Joey Harringon, Part II.


Peter said...

I agree that teams sometimes turn around quickly and suddenly their rebuilding moves look a little hasty. Playing devil's advocate, I have to wonder about a few things.

Do teams that suddenly look good benefit from having been so bad? For example, a terrible team gets higher draft picks (I think it's interesting that the NFL draft isn't serpentine. I agree, but it's something to remember) and usually the league tries to give a team with a bad record a softer schedule the following year. Also, terrible teams trade away veterans for multiple talented youths who may be unproven. Hit on a winner or two between trades and draft, play an easy schedule, and watch defenses try to adjust on the fly to a new-look team, and bam! The wins roll on in.

I love the stories of the Falcons (even though I still hate them from that game in '99) and the Dolphins over the past two years, but I suspect that one or both will come down to earth a bit this year. They'll both have tougher schedules and opposing defenses will be ready for they stuff they pulled last year. Also, their divisional opponents who may have had an off year last year (Saints, Patriots) should prove to be more of an obstacle on the road to the playoffs.

It seems that the league is so good at synthesizing parity that they swing the pendulum of bad teams impressively far to the other side. The correction in that metephor suggests losing seasons for both, but much closer to .500 than in 2007.

Ownership/management/coaching can keep a team consistenly in the doldrums (Lions) or stubbornly on top (Patriots), but for the most part, teams' win-loss records seem to follow a crude SIN wave over time.

Jason said...

My general point is that any team, no matter how bad, can turn it around in a year or two and, therefore, maybe shouldn't dump its veterans to acquire riskier talent (young players, draft picks).

With a few exceptions (Matt Ryan notably), rookies aren't going to have a major impact on a team for their first year, so I don't think draft picks contribute, as a whole, to the rapid turnaround. As for schedules, I think those are fairly minor considerations, as we know that NFL teams in a division play against 12 common opponents and play 2 games against each other.

As for the notion of "hitting on a winner" with your draft pick(s), would you rather have a proven quality veteran or a player who might or might not be good (and probably won't, as mentioned, for a year or two)? The Chiefs got a first- and third-round pick for Jared Allen. Would you rather have one or two possible stars (the picks) or one definite star (Allen). (Nothing's guaranteed, but I'd assume there's as good a chance of Allen continuing to be a star as there is of KC's draft picks developing into star players.) Granted, Allen was somewhat on the outs with KC management, but Tony Gonzalez definitely wasn't and the Chiefs dumped him, too, after trading for a quarterback and signing him to a big-money deal! Doesn't really make sense to me.

I just thought about the Rams and Colts in 98/99. The 1998 Rams were 4-12 but they traded away the #4 draft pick for a great player (Marshall Faulk). The 3-13 Colts picked Edgerrin James with that pick, and I suppose the Rams might have done the same if they hadn't traded the pick, and he might have had the same great rookie season. The additions of Kurt Warner and Torry Holt and a healthy Isaac Bruce certainly didn't hurt, but it still could be regarded as unusual that a 4-12 team traded away a high draft pick for a proven veteran -- and how did that work out? :)

Peter said...

Worked out pretty darn well for the Rams, as I recall. It was fun to watch another team put up ridiculous offense right after Minnesota had. I thought football was going to turn into a shootout dominated sport.

Agree with your point about having one known star vs. having a few high picks. A star in hand is worth 4 in the draft, or something like that.

I also agree with the main premise of your original post; I do believe bad teams can turn themselves around quite suddenly and dramatically. I only meant to offer another potential ingredient to those turnarounds in the leagues 'parody' machine.

I'll just say this: Gonzalez would've helped the Falcons more last year than this year. Perhaps the takeaway from this dialogue is that teams who do awful should start looking into the type of trading that's associated with the 'win-now, the window is closing' mentality, because if they're truly on the brink of turning things around, they might as well load up and go all out immediately.

Very interesting stuff.