Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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Guest Column: And the Loser Is...

Guest Column by Mark Hutson

Several falls ago, I found myself dating a football fanatic from Cincinnati. Needless to say, she was in a deep and dark depression (which is the only logical explanation for why she would have let a dumb lug like me hang around with her). She seethed knowing that her favorite sports team had been the league whipping boy for over a decade. Over the several years prior to our chance meeting she had watched a team like the Falcons rise from the depths of obscurity and, for one brilliant season, reach the Super Bowl. She would bristle at the mention of the Buccaneers, transcending their laughing stock status to become an annual contender for the playoffs, even winning it all in 2002. She seethed as Dick Vermeil turned the Rams around, ruling the NFL airways for three seasons on the arm of a grocery bagger. Even the Eagles, who had seemed to be headed nowhere but down upon her arrival in Philadelphia, found a way to become competitive annually. She stood by and witnessed me celebrate my team, the Patriots, going from 5-11 to Super Bowl champion. Yet through that time, the Bengals wallowed in losing records.

She needed a break. She wasn't asking for a Super Bowl ring. She didn't even need more than one year of respectability. She just wanted to have one December where she could look back at the last few months and say, "this year was different." Yet for a dozen long years, she went wanting.

Then there was this fall. Along comes a man named Marvin Lewis, and suddenly she has a spring in her step. There is a youthful exuberance to her in the mornings. On Mondays, CNN over Corn Flakes slowly gave way to ESPN over, well, Corn Flakes. And though they fell one game short of a winning season, and their playoff run did not come to fruition, the bleeding had been stemmed. She now proudly proclaims to all those who will listen, as well as several who won't, "We are no longer the NFL's worst franchise."

And that got me thinking, who is the NFL's worst franchise? Did one year of 8-8 ball really shift the title from the Queen City to another poor television market, or do the Bengals have to actually find themselves in the playoffs before they could be considered out of the bottom slot? I decided to do what any good boyfriend would, which of course was to spend hours on the Internet and in front of a spreadsheet instead of with her, until I came back with an answer.

However, how exactly does one determine the worst franchise in NFL history? Is it by a lack of championships? A consistent inability to make the playoffs? Does a storied history of winning reprieve a team from recent struggles? Or does a history of horrendous seasons get forgotten by a recent championship or two?

I figured success, and failure, could be measured in a few broad categories: Win-Loss record, seasonal success, playoff achievements. I then quantified each category and looked at how teams performed.

For this analysis, I went with franchise continuity rather than name continuity. For example, the modern day Ravens and the now defunct Browns (Version 1) are considered one franchise, whereas the Browns Version 2 are considered to only have a 5-year history. The Titans are the Oilers-Titans, and the Jets are the Titans-Jets (although, honestly, who remembers the New York Titans?).

Win-Loss Record: The Beat Down Factor

To measure how often a franchise gets truly smoked, add up the number of wins, losses, and ties for each season (I counted ties like the league does, as a half a win and half a loss). Teams that get trounced regularly and often will have a low win-loss record. However, because teams play longer seasons now than in the past, a simple cumulative win-loss-tie percentage would skew the data, weighing modern success/failure more so than historical. So I created a variable, along with the total Cumulative Win Percentage (CW%), called Average Win Percentage (AW%). Quite simply, I determined a team's win percentage for each season (12-4-0 = .750, 6-6-2 = .500), and then took the average of all those numbers. To illustrate the differences between CW% and AW%, take a look at the Steelers (ranked 18th and 17th), who first played a season as the Pirates in 1933. They actually shift an entire percentage point when giving each year equal weighting versus each win (from .499 to .489). Below are the teams with the 16 teams with historical losing records, and their CW%s and AW%s:

Rank Team CW% AW% Rank Team CW% AW%
1 Bucs 0.383 0.382 9 Lions 0.471 0.476
2 Falcons 0.392 0.392 10 Chargers 0.475 0.479
3 Saints 0.403 0.399 11 Eagles 0.475 0.469
4 Cardinals 0.415 0.413 12 Bills 0.480 0.477
5 Bengals 0.428 0.435 13 Patriots 0.483 0.482
6 Panthers 0.444 0.444 14 Colts 0.489 0.490
7 Jets 0.452 0.453 15 Titans/Oilers 0.493 0.487
8 Seahawks 0.470 0.468 16 Steelers 0.499 0.489

(Note: I left out the Texans and the Browns from these charts. The Texans get a reprieve because of their short history. So do the Browns, until we consider the playoff variable, as they have already made their first run)

A year-to-year win percentage doesn't translate as well into a quickly readable meaning over the course of the season, and I wanted to make things a bit more clear. If I told you that on average, the Buccaneers were going to win only 38.2% of their games in any given season throughout their history, you know that's bad, but you might know exactly how bad. So, I took these numbers and turned them into a year over year +/- rating (the formula is weighted per year rather than the cumulative plus/minus rating), and came up with the numbers below, per year:


Rank Team Adjusted
+/- per Year
Rank Team Adjusted
+/- per Year
1 Bucs -3.64 9 Lions -0.79
2 Falcons -3.26 10 Chargers -0.75
3 Saints -2.95 11 Eagles -0.68
4 Cardinals -2.24 12 Bills -0.59
5 Bengals -2.19 13 Patriots -0.52
6 Panthers -1.78 14 Colts -0.33
7 Jets -1.45 15 Titans -0.20
8 Seahawks -0.93 16 Steelers -0.01

Essentially, this means that traditionally the Bucs lost 3 or 4 more games than they won every year throughout their history. They have bounced around 6-10 and 7-9 mark since the schedule expanded, or they were often mired in 5-9 or 6-8 seasons during their earlier years.

Seasonal Success: The Ho-Hum Theory

What makes a season a success? I went back and forth over whether this meant having a winning season or actually requiring a playoff berth. I finally decided that since I was including several franchises from before the playoffs even began, and since the ratio of teams to playoff berths has constantly been changing, that it would be easier to create a seasonal variable that was more consistent year to year and leave playoff qualification for the playoff success variable. Quite simply, if your team wins more games than they lose, that's a good season. Sure, going 10-6 and missing out on the playoffs (2003 Dolphins, I'm looking at you) is not entirely satisfying, especially on draft day, but at least the fans go to bed happy on Sunday nights more often than not. That's got to count for something.

So, to measure a season as a success, I came up with a very simple variable. If a team loses more games than they win, they lose a point for the year. They win more, they gain a point. .500 seasons count as zero if you are scoring at home (or if you are alone). The numbers are totaled to give a raw Aggregate Winning Seasons (AWS) value. A negative number means that the team has had more losing seasons than winning ones.

These numbers are used for what I call the Ho-Hum Theory. If you've ever witnessed your team go 8-8, you know what I'm talking about. At the end of the season, you tend to say something along the lines of, "Sure, it's disappointing, but it could have been a lot worse. I don't really have much to complain about. Lets see what next year brings." To get a longer, more historical feel for that, I've bumped that theory out to a 2+ year time frame. If your team has a successful year, be it at 9-7 or 14-2, you are most likely going to be at least somewhat pleased. But the next year they end up having a losing record. You can look back over the past year and call it a mulligan. "After the great year we had before, we were ready for a little slip. Its okay, though, let's see if we can return to form." It also can work in reverse, with a winning season making up for a year of losing, too. So what we are left with, after we cancel all the seasons out, is the raw Not Ho-Hum Number (though I'm still calling it AWS, because it is easier to type). The theory can be extended further to several years of dynastic dominance or misery, saying, "Aure, we've had a tough few years, but did you see us in the 90's? We were smoking people left and right!" This is central to the Ho-Hum Theory. Here are those Ho-Hum numbers for those same 16 teams as above, both aggregate and per year of existence, ranked in order (and adding in two teams with a number of losing seasons, but overall winning records -- Jacksonville and Kansas City):


Team Rank AWS Team Rank AWS/Year
Cardinals 1 -33 Saints 1 -0.49
Falcons 2 -18 Falcons 2 -0.47
Saints 3 -18 Panthers 3 -0.44
Bucs 4 -11 Cardinals 4 -0.40
Eagles 5 -10 Bucs 5 -0.39
Bengals 6 -9 Bengals 6 -0.25
Jets 7 -8 Jets 7 -0.18
Lions 8 -4 Eagles 8 -0.14
Panthers 9 -4 Jaguars 9 -0.11
Steelers 10 -4 Seahawks 10 -0.07
Chargers 11 -2 Lions 11 -0.06
Seahawks 12 -2 Steelers 12 -0.06
Bills 13 -1 Chargers 13 -0.05
Jaguars 14 -1 Bills 14 -0.02
Colts 15 2 Colts 15 0.04
Titans 16 2 Titans 16 0.05
Patriots 17 5 Patriots 17 0.11
Chiefs 18 8 Chiefs 18 0.18

Here, we see that the Cardinals have the edge historically, though the Saints have the edge in terms of per year misery. In their 37 year history, the Saints have played seven winning seasons, five .500 seasons, and 25 losing seasons. The Saints have had 18 years out of 37 where, according to the Ho-Hum Theory, they have been unable to say, "Well, this year was an off year, but did you see us last year?" Half of the time the Saints have been in existence they have had a losing season that couldn't be offset with a winning one to look forward or backward to. Ouch. Peal the band-aid off quickly next time.

Looking back at the list, we can see that life has not been much better for the Falcons, Panthers, Cardinals, or Bucs, either.

Did you hear that Courtney? The Bengals aren't in the top five!

Playoff Success: The Anti-Whining Window

For this variable, there were several structural problems I faced. First, how do we create a uniform system to award points in the playoffs when the number of teams in the league -- and in the playoffs -- is constantly changing? What about when the AFL and NFL held separate playoffs and had different champions? How do we account for teams that have short histories, and therefore fewer opportunities to win championships? Well, first, let's define success by starting with championships. The team that wins the championship will garner the most points each year. According to Bill "Boston Sports Guy" Simmons, when your team wins a championship, that opens up a five-year grace period where any accomplishments beyond this are extra credit, and the fans can't feel bad about their team, even if they become the doormat of the league in that period. Let's call it the Anti-Whining Window. His theory sounded logical to me, so I thought I would steal it and carry it further. I would assign an Anti-Whining Window point value to the various playoff outcomes:

5 years for winning a championship: Just as LSU and USC fans are both happy about their national championship, so too must have been the top AFL and NFL teams about their's before the Super Bowl era. 5 points granted for the teams that are holding their title league, whether it was the only one or not.

3 years for making the championship game: I'm sure Raiders fans are not happy after this year, nor was losing the Super Bowl the year before particularly satisfying, but it's not my fault that they had high expectations. Making the championship game should settle fans down for three years.

2 years for winning a division: It's nice to say you were the best team in your division, even if the next year you fell flat. All my Jets fan friends were still smiling about stealing the East on the last day of the season in 2002. Bastards.

1 year for making the playoffs as a wildcard: A satisfying year, even if the team sees a quick exit. Ultimate goal is just to get the shot at the tournament, and one point is the reward you get from me, even if you didn't make it to the big game.

I thought long and hard about how best to deal with winning playoff games, or not making the playoffs due to tie-breakers, or weighting wins deeper in the playoffs, and how to assign a point value for a first round bye versus the value for the actual win to face that team with a bye, and how I was ever going to get to the end of this sentence, and I finally gave up. The playoff structure has changed from the championship going to the team with the best record, then to a game with just the two division winners (with play-in games for ties), and all the way up to our current 12-team 11-game formula, not even mentioning the cluster-nookie that was the 1982 strike season. I decided the above formula was enough, and we would ignore playoff wins that didn't result in a championship berth (and forget about 1982 altogether). The ultimate goal of each team in the season is to 1) make the playoffs, preferably by 2) winning the division in the regular season, then to win your league and 3) appear in the championship game to hopefully 4) win the title. Those levels are the only really important ones, and they are already taken care of in the point system. Sure, it's nice to do some damage when you make it into the playoffs and win a game or two, but I've got Steve Mariucci on the phone from Detroit telling me how satisfying a season it was when the 49ers beat the Giants. Losing in the conference game is probably a better season than a first round exit, but I'm sorry Philly and Pittsburgh, I'm not rewarding you guys for consistently nearly making the big game.

That said, let's have a look at how much playoff success our bottom 19 teams (excluding the Texans again, but including the Browns) have done over their history when it comes to playoff success:


Teams Rank Playoff Points Teams Rank Points/Year
Browns 1 1 Saints 1 0.19
Panthers 2 5 Browns 2 0.20
Jaguars 3 6 Cardinals 3 0.22
Saints 4 7 Falcons 4 0.26
Seahawks 5 8 Seahawks 5 0.29
Falcons 6 10 Bengals 6 0.36
Bengals 7 13 Lions 7 0.40
Bucs 8 15 Chargers 8 0.48
Cardinals 9 18 Jets 9 0.48
Chargers 10 21 Chiefs 10 0.49
Jets 11 21 Eagles 11 0.52
Chiefs 12 22 Bucs 12 0.54
Titans 13 25 Panthers 13 0.56
Patriots 14 27 Titans 14 0.57
Bills 15 28 Patriots 15 0.61
Lions 16 28 Bills 16 0.64
Colts 17 34 Colts 17 0.65
Eagles 18 37 Jaguars 18 0.67
Steelers 19 50 Steelers 19 0.72

Amazingly enough, even though the new Browns have been around for five years and only made the playoffs once, they actually are on pace to make the playoffs more frequently than the Saints. The Saints have only made the playoffs five times in 37 years, winning the division twice. Essentially, in the terms of the playoff success point system laid out above, Saints fans are appeased with a wildcard less than once every five years, or would have to be satisfied with one Super Bowl win every 25 years, at their current rate. Of course, the Cardinals fans have also suffered similarly, only it has been through 84 years of existence, not 37. Then again, you look at a team like the Cowboys, who score a 1.5 per year average (which would be like making the playoffs every year, and winning the division every other year) and these teams are in pretty rough shape. When your numbers are down that low, I think we might be splitting hairs. It just sucks to be a fan of either team come January. And the Falcons aren't too pretty either.  The Fab Five of Failure after December are the Saints, Cardinals, Falcons, Seahawks, and Bengals.

Positive and Negative

This category is entirely prejudiced and biased on my part, and therefore will lend no real weight to the final formula. Basically, to heighten the suspense, here are some fun facts that I discovered during this analysis about the teams that top the this list, with a pro point and a negative point for each:

Cardinals
Negative: They hold the record for the longest playoff drought in league history, at 25 seasons (1949-1973)
Positive: According to NFLArchives.com, they were named the Carpets in 1944, which pretty well describes their normal function in the league

Falcons
Negative: Have never had two winning seasons in a row
Positive: That Michael Vick sure is pretty

Seahawks
Negative: Consistently unable to be really good or really bad, just blah. Their AWS has never been more than 2 or less than -3
Positive: Hasselback still thinks they are going to win in overtime

Bengals
Negative: Team with the longest active playoff drought, at 13 years
Positive: Went to the Super Bowl twice, and their QB when they did had a porn actor's name

Lions
Negative: Went 0-11-0 in 1942
Positive: Barry Sanders once juked a defender so hard he wept

Chargers
Negative: Hold the record for most ties in a season (3 in 1965) of any AFL team (Bears have most of any team, with 4 in 1924)
Positive: It's socially acceptable for them to wear powder blue

Browns
Negative: Art Modell sold their soul and history for a chance to play in DC's shadow
Positive: If Browns fans get depressed, William Green can offer a friendly bong hit

Saints
Negative: They didn't have a winning record until their 21st year
Positive: Uh, Bourbon Street?

Buccaneers
Negative: Hold the record for worst season in history, going 0-14
Positive: Chucky just held a press conference announcing that he has just hit puberty and his parents will soon let him go on his first date

Review

We have seen which teams have been beat down the hardest, or lost games at the fastest rate, using the winning percentage variable AW%. The Buccaneers, despite recent success, historically drop games faster than Paris Hilton's underwear (I almost made it the whole column without a Paris joke… damn, so close).

We have looked at how well a team does from year to year with the AWS variable. The Saints have the worst track record in that respect, mostly because it took them twenty years to make things interesting. If you're scoring at home, that's called the "Hey, Dennis Miller finally said something else that was insightful and witty" schedule.  (Ed. note: I assume Mark's talking about recent Dennis, not SNL-era Dennis.  Don't knock SNL-era Dennis.  He was the only good thing about that year with Anthony Michael Hall and Randy Quaid...)

And finally, we see how often the teams we had made the playoffs, and how they did once they got there. The Saints seemed to strictly adhere to the "it's a moral victory" meal plan.

And The Loser Is...

The Saints! With two first places and a third place, the Aints have wrestled with futility throughout their entire existence, consistently rising up to take the brass ring of ineptitude. All that skipping of hard work seems to have paid off. While the Falcons and Cardinals were close on their tail, the Saints' stats don't lie, they just lie down.

Below are the rankings for each team, and the average of their three rankings:


Team +/- per Year
Rank
Playoff Score
per Year
Rank
Win Season
Score per Year
Rank
Average
Saints 3 1 1 1.7
Falcons 2 3 2 2.3
Cardinals 4 2 4 3.3
Bengals 5 5 6 5.3
Bucs 1 11 5 5.7
Panthers 6 12 3 7.0
Jets 7 8 7 7.3
Seahawks 8 4 10 7.3
Lions 9 6 11 8.7
Eagles 11 10 8 9.7
Chargers 10 7 13 10.0
Bills 12 15 14 13.7
Jaguars 17 17 9 14.3
Patriots 13 14 17 14.7
Titans 15 13 16 14.7
Colts 14 16 15 15.0
Chiefs 18 9 18 15.0
Steelers 16 18 12 15.3

Mark Hutson is an economist in Washington, DC. Originally from Rhode Island, he is a diehard Pats fan who borders on irrationality when it comes to Boston sports. He attended college in Philadelphia, where he met several other irrational people who to this day insist that the Eagles would have beaten the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.  Mark, however, strongly believes those Patriots would have won against the '85 Bears, the '99 Rams, the '27 Yankees, Mini-Ditka, and the Visigoths.