03 Nov 2006
Guest column by Douglas Walters
Eight weeks of football have passed this year, and there is one big question that remains unanswered: are the Chicago Bears for real? There have been comparisons to the 1985 Bears team that went 15-1 and won the Super Bowl. There has been talk of an undefeated season. Statistically, Chicago is one of the most complete teams in the league. Sounds like they should be wearing rings come February, right?
Allow me to step forward as the Bears' harshest critic. Do I think they will reach the playoffs? Absolutely. Do I think they will reach the Super Bowl? They're one of my favorites. Do I think they have a good chance of winning? Absolutely not. Using a new way of looking at the NFL, I intend to once and for all silence those who seek to begin production of the Super Bowl Shuffle, Volume 2.
Readers on this site have become very well acquainted with statistical analysis. It is fascinating to see the work that Football Outsiders has done to shed some light on new ways of looking at numbers. I'd be hard pressed to find anything more detailed and comprehensive. I think we can call this Fundamental Analysis -- looking at all of the factors that cause wins and losses. I would propose that there is a second angle that we need to use when analyzing the NFL. I would call this Technical Analysis, or Trend Analysis -- looking at the effects alone.
The main principle behind this work is the proven fact that football teams move in trends. A secondary principle would be that history repeats itself in football, just as it does in the rest of the world.
Using the winning percentage of each team over the past forty years, I created graphs that depict the movement of each team. The movement was in all aspects predictable. Some research into the stock market affirmed my conclusion: there are numerous ways to measure, analyze and forecast the movement of each team. I don't need to know how efficient a team is in the red zone, or how many yards per attempt the quarterback has. All I need are the effects, the wins and losses, and I can accurately tell you how the team will perform over a given period of time.
Of course, the first argument against any of this would be, "How can 22 guys running around a field be anything other than random?" My answer is this: human beings follow patterns, both physically and psychologically. Without getting into some discussion about whether Freud or Jung was right, I think we can all agree that we have routines, habits, etc. Football players have them too. When you combine the patterns of all people involved in the team, you get the team pattern. Take 16 teams, put their patterns together, and you get a conference pattern. The proof is in the charts.
As you can see, each season's winning percentage is plotted on the graph. The trend line marks their overall pattern of movement. I don't think this requires much explaining, and it does support my conclusion that Chicago is definitely a contender to reach the Super Bowl. Their success last year provided them with some upward inertia.
I'd like to present the New York Jets as our case study in movement around a trend. Take a look at exhibit A, the Jets graph dated back to 1996.
Their sudden drop to 1-15 marked a significant deviation from their trend. What happened next surprised a lot of people.
A sudden jump back over .500 put New York back in the AFC picture.
Their phenomenal season in 1998 carried them all the way to the AFC Championship game. The only problem was that they weren't really that good -- they had deviated from their trend and were doomed to regress back towards their trend.
And so the Jets fell back into their steady trend over the next few years. Strangely enough, they fell apart last year due to injury, and are primed for a comeback season in 2006. Currently they are 4-4. To some, the roller-coaster ride they took in the late nineties was horribly random. To me, it was simply several years of corrective movements that got them back on their historical trend.
Now for the bad news, Bears. Like I said before, the combination of 16 team trends gives us a conference trend. Logically, there are two ways to measure conference supremacy: Super Bowl wins, and inter-conference play wins. Each team plays four inter-conference games per year for a total of 64 games over the course of the season. Look at the following charts and take note of the similarity in trends.
Look at the past two years in particular: in 2004 the AFC won 44 out of 64 inter-conference games, and then won the Super Bowl. That was a peak year in all regards. In 2005 the AFC won 34 out of 64 games and the Super Bowl. Given that any waves regress to the mean we can assume that the NFC will win more inter-conference games this year, but not the Super Bowl. After Monday night, the AFC leads the current season 17-16.
The Super Bowl chart really puts the nail in the Bears' coffin. It doesn't matter how many wins they have this year, or how many points per game their defense gives up -- it's still an AFC-dominant year. I think if I was going to put money on anything (don't take that to mean that I'm recommending this) I'd have to take the Colts over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Indianapolis has been playing so well, for so long, against the best conference in football, that this season may very well be their best ever. Their win over the Broncos is a testament to their ability to dominate both technically and fundamentally.
Is it destiny, fate, or some other mystic power that guides teams to wins and losses? No. It may seem sometimes that teams or players are "due," but in reality it is just a simple trend that rises and falls with the physical and psychological strength of the team. I do have to say, however, that just as the best stock market analysts use both fundamental and technical methods of analysis, the best football analysts should do the same. There will certainly be occasions when teams are able to "buck the trend," so to speak, and the technical analysis of Football Outsiders will provide the answers. Even as I write this article, I'm anxious to see where DVOA puts the Colts after their big win over Denver (in the last rankings, I had the Colts at the top while FO had them ninth).
A final note: just as Football Outsiders has developed DVOA as their rating and ranking system, I have developed PRS (Probability Rating System) as the rating and ranking system of Trend Analysis. I use historical values as well as current values to rate each team. You can find all of this, along with other in-depth articles, on my blog. I'd appreciate any feedback you have for me, as I am always looking for more ways to update my work.
95 comments, Last at 29 Nov 2007, 8:55pm by footballprofessor