Why Ravens, Seahawks Were Underachievers in 2021
NFL Offseason - Every year, we here at Football Outsiders do our best to accurately forecast the upcoming season. We run thousands of simulations taking into account major offseason personnel changes, players returning from injury, potential development from draft picks, continuity on the offensive line, and numerous other variables in an attempt to provide the best predictions out there.
Considering how difficult predicting the future can be, 2021 went quite well. There was a .74 correlation between our mean projected wins and teams' actual win totals, and a .73 correlation between our projected DVOA and teams' actual DVOA. For the most part, teams were more or less as good as we anticipated them being.
For the most part, that is, because there's always an exception or two that falls through the cracks, a team that unexpectedly gels or crumbles. You didn't exactly see too many people predicting the Cincinnati Bengals would come out of the AFC when all was said and done!
Last week, we looked at the teams that overachieved in 2021 based on our projections. Today, we'll look at those that fell short.
A quick methodological note before we begin. Our rankings are based on how many standard deviations each team beat or fell short of its projection, rather than just looking at the raw numbers. When you run thousands and thousands of simulations, it's a very rare team indeed that has an average DVOA over 20.0% or performs better than 12-5. But each NFL season only happens one time, so outlier results not only happen, but are expected—someone keeps rolling sevens all season long, it's just difficult to predict who. We're not here to explain that the best teams are better than their projections because that's how simulations work. We want to focus on the teams that got grouped wrong to begin with: the bad teams that became average or the average teams that became good.
In this installment we examine the teams that underachieved their wins projection by the most standard deviations in 2021. As we did with the overachievers, we begin in the AFC North.
1. Baltimore Ravens (1.40 Below)
Projected Wins: 10.5; +1.23 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 8; -0.17 Standard Deviations
Yes, the Ravens season was defined by injury, including several damaging hits that took place before the first kickoff (Marcus Peters, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards). Nevertheless, Lamar Jackson managed to David Copperfield his way to victory after victory in the front part of the campaign, pulling out miraculous come-from-behind wins against the Chiefs and Colts. Jackson and Justin Tucker also somehow turned tepid ditchwater into Châteauneuf-du-Pape in Detroit, finding a way to win when Jackson put Tucker in "position" to kick the winning (and record-setting) 66-yard field goal.
Obviously, this was unsustainable, as evidenced by a pair of bludgeonings at the hands of division rivals Cincinnati. But the team's solid infrastructure and coaching seemed able to buttress even this damaged roster, and a playoff berth was assumed. Then came Week 12, when Jackson badly sprained an ankle and was lost for the season. After that, the Ravens fell into a death spiral, losing their final six games to finish 8-9 and miss the playoffs.
With the wild game of musical chairs going on in the NFL this month, it is easy to forget about the Ravens, but they should be well-placed for a rebound. The injury tsunami is unlikely to happen to such a magnitude again, and the return of dynamic playmakers such as Jackson, Dobbins, and Peters should augment studs such as tight end Mark Andrews and emerging wideout Rashod Bateman to return the offense to its accustomed spot near the top of the DVOA table (after finishing first in 2019 and 11th in 2020, Baltimore was 17th in 2021). Star safety Marcus Williams was signed to a rich deal to fill a position of need in the secondary, and a back four of Williams, Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and Chuck Clark is among the best in the league (if healthy). The Ravens will also benefit slightly from a last-place schedule.
But don't automatically assume a huge bounceback in Charm City. Jackson, despite his late-game heroics, had a mediocre season before the injury, finishing 19th among quarterbacks in DVOA. His return to form is more critical than ever given the amount of star power at the quarterback position in the AFC. Just as worrying was the trench play—or, perhaps more accurately, the edge-of-the-trenches play. Although Baltimore was first in the NFL in adjusted line yards on defense, they were 31st in adjusted sack rate as Calais Campbell aged and several developmental players failed to evolve in the manner Ravens pass-rushers generally have in the past (a fact that may have cost defensive coordinator Wink Martindale his job). Meanwhile, the offensive line was tied for 29th in adjusted sack rate allowed as All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley continued to struggle with injuries and retreads like Alejandro Villanueva couldn't stem the tide. (Morgan Moses was signed to play right tackle, which should be an upgrade, if a slight one.)
As mentioned above, the Ravens track record gives them the benefit of the doubt. But the team is counting on everything to simply click back into its proper 2019-2020 place. Topping eight wins might be easily attainable, and getting off this "underachievers" list doable as well. But returning to the top seed in the AFC will require a confluence of actions that will be hard to replicate.
2. Seattle Seahawks (1.38)
Projected Wins: 9.9; +0.86 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 7; -0.52 Standard Deviations
Well, what did Seattle expect after trading a superstar quarterback?
(… whispered aside…)
Wait, you mean the underachievement took place before the Hawks traded away the best passer in franchise history?
Just so. Seattle played under the clouds of disharmony all season, with Wilson's now-he's-happy/now-he-ain't act casting a long shadow over the team and its future. The Seahawks had won at least nine games in each of Wilson's first nine seasons under center in the Pacific Northwest, with win totals in the double-digits eight times. That extraordinary level of consistency kept their projection high, and when the team at last stumbled, it virtually assured that Seattle would end up highly placed on a list like this.
The issues were legion even beyond the palace intrigue at the team's facility in Renton, Washington. On the field, Wilson suffered a gnarly finger injury in Week 5, came back too soon, and finished with a subpar season by his lofty standards (he still was 12th in DVOA and 15th in DYAR). Meanwhile, the pass rush cratered (tied for 31st in adjusted sack rate), the overall pass defense was poor (26th in DVOA), and the long-maligned offensive line continued to struggle to protect Wilson (tied for 25th in adjusted sack rate). Unlike in previous seasons, Wilson couldn't overcome the lack of protection. Star wideout DK Metcalf fell from fifth in DYAR in 2020 to 41st in 2021, symbolic of the lack of the consistent deep passing attack the Seahawks rode to prominence under Wilson. Not much has been done as of this writing to drastically improve the problem areas.
Now Wilson is gone, traded to Denver for a huge haul of assets. The star quarterback had been Seattle's nuclear power—even as the rest of the NFC West improved by leaps and bounds, the Seahawks had to be reckoned with because No. 3 was under center. Without him, the team faces a difficult rebuilding stretch, regardless of the bounty they got in return from the Broncos. No matter the quality of the rest of the squad—and with the likes of Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Noah Fant, Chris Carson, et al. around, they retain tons of playmakers—everything rests on the passer who succeeds Wilson. At the moment, that is Drew Lock, who inspires Absolute Zero confidence. Even if (when?) the team upgrades, will a Baker Mayfield-level player be enough to restore the team to its usual double-digit wins?
Even with the 17th game, that seems unlikely.
3. Denver Broncos (1.01)
Projected Wins: 9.3; +0.49 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 7; -0.52 Standard Deviations
Quick quiz: who had the better DVOA/DYAR in 2021, Teddy Bridgewater (Denver's inept passer who singlehandedly held the team back from its win projection and deserved spot atop the NFL pyramid) or Russell Wilson (Denver's new quarterback, the savior brought in to rescue the Broncos from Teddy's all-consuming mediocrity)?
You probably already guessed the answer, merely because we posed the question. Teddy was 14th/10th, Russell 15th/12th. That isn't to say that Bridgewater is better at the position than Wilson, because he demonstrably isn't. And the name of the game in the modern NFL is upgrading at quarterback. Still, the idea that Denver is a turnkey operation just waiting for a competent quarterback to return the team to its rightful place in the Super Bowl might be shining a light on the wrong dark corner.
The Broncos were chugging along at 7-6 after blowing out the Lions 38-10. They then scored 10, 13, and 13 points over the next three games, all critical losses. They managed 24 in a closing loss to Kansas City, which at least would have kept them off this list if they hadn't given up 28 and lost that one, too. A major factor was red zone production. It was a bugaboo all season for the Broncos—21st in touchdown percentage, 20th in red zone DVOA, 30th in red zone rushing DVOA (though somehow fourth in red zone passing DVOA!). They lost to the Bengals thanks to a strip-sack near the goal line late in the game, and the touchdown success rate over Denver's final three games was just 43%, bottom-third in the league.
The Broncos have a rep of a team with a great, rising defense, but they were merely 20th in DVOA, and mid-pack in adjusted sack rate and coverage of top enemy receivers. It was a unit that was greater than the sum of its parts, leading the league in fewest missed tackles and generating the ninth-best pressure rate despite trading Von Miller, but other than rookie corner Patrick Surtain there were few stars. The team swiped pass-rusher Randy Gregory out from under Dallas to help out the pressure rate, but it remains to be seen what the effect of losing Vic Fangio will have on the defense in 2022.
Denver was +13 in point differential, suggesting a 9-8 team, and that underperformance would make a bounceback likely for 2022 even without Wilson. Red zone performance isn't necessarily translatable across teams, but it is notable that Seattle with Wilson was third in touchdown percentage in 2021. Improving the run game when the offense gets down deep is critical, and with young rusher Javonte Williams leading the way that seems probable—plus, it can't get much worse.
Obviously the expectations are high for the Broncos. Merely avoiding a repeat appearance on this particular list won't be enough to satisfy fans desperate for the return to glory they seem to feel is their birthright ("We haven't been good since 2015—oh the humanity!"), but given the incredible potency of the AFC in general and the AFC West specifically, it might have to suffice.
4. New York Giants (0.70)
Projected Wins: 7.1; -0.88 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 4; -1.56 Standard Deviations
Hopes were not particularly high for the G-Men in 2021, and not only did they not come close to meeting them, they were so woeful it forced yet another coaching change. Joe Judge was fired after going 4-13, the third straight Giants coach to not make it to a third season at the helm. Daniel Jones was bad and injured. Saquon Barkley was the 45th-best running back in the league by DYAR. Owner John Mara was loudly booed by home fans as Eli Manning was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor. It was an epic disaster of a season, yet another in a long line for a once-proud franchise. Since 2012 the Giants have just one winning record.
2022 doesn't profile to break that skein, though staying off the underachieving list will mean at least some forward progress. That will be helped by a low initial projection, to be sure. Our way too early DVOA projections have the Giants 24th, and since those were made Denver traded for Russell Wilson, Pittsburgh added Mitch Trubisky, and the Jets and Jags considerably upgraded their roster through free agency around their second-year quarterbacks. It won't be a surprise if next season's Giants win projection is cut in half.
The lone place for optimism is the new braintrust. Mara imported Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll down from Buffalo to be his new general manager/head coach combo. Daboll is given major props league-wide for turning Josh Allen from a slab of beefcake who couldn't hit the side of the barn to an All-Pro level passer. Whether he can turn Jones into anything resembling Allen will be an interesting experiment. Wink Martindale was hired to coach the defense after a strong run in Baltimore. The defense was easily New York's strong suit in 2021, finishing 18th in DVOA as opposed to the offense's ranking of dead f-ing last. But it isn't as though the unit has oodles of talent to play with.
Big Blue's Super Bowl comes in a couple of weeks, when Schoen gets his initial crack at running a draft, one that will see the Giants have the fifth and seventh picks and six of the top 112. They could add more picks by moving players in the next few weeks, including perhaps Barkley, once the second overall pick. It has been a wildfire of disastrous personnel and coaching moves in East Rutherford over the last half-decade. For the sake of the fans of the most popular team in the largest American city, here's hoping they turn things around sooner rather than later.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (0.63)
Projected Wins: 11.5; +1.84 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 12; +1.21 Standard Deviations
This is a weird math thing, but stay with us. Kansas City hit the over on its projected win total, captured a division title, made the AFC Championship Game for the fourth consecutive season, and still underachieved, based on standard deviations from the mean. Trust us, the Chiefs' presence on this list doesn't factor in the 21-3 lead it blew against the Bengals in late January. But the collapse wasn't merely a case of a single bad half undoing what was otherwise a dominant season. The Chiefs had some issues in 2021, and though a good job of mitigating them righted their season and made it a success, many remain for the upcoming season as well.
Kansas City did offense and special teams just fine, finishing third overall in both disciplines. But the defense was merely 24th, and even that ranking represents a solid mid-year adjustment—after Week 8, the Chiefs defense was 31st, ahead of only the woeful Jags. Then, in a staggering turnaround, they held the next five opponents to just 9.6 points per game, turning a 4-4 record that felt kinda icky into 9-4. But that level of play wasn't sustainable, and the remainder of the year, while not as brutal as the initial eight games, felt more familiar, as the Bengals scored 34 and 27 in two encounters, the Chargers put up 28, and Buffalo went down to defeat despite a 36-point effort.
The Chiefs were also far too loose with the football, especially in the early part of the year. Overall they finished seventh from the bottom in percentage of drives ended by a turnover, and the six teams worse than them were the dregs of the league. Again, the Chiefs were so talented that they mostly got away with the sloppy play—until they didn't, losing key interceptions in the second half and overtime that allowed Cincinnati to swipe the trip to the Super Bowl out from under the Chiefs.
As of this writing, not much has changed on the roster, including the defense, one that our pre-free agency projections tabs as the 25th-best by DVOA. The Chiefs re-upped defensive end Frank Clark and brought in safety Justin Reid from Houston to presumably replace Tyrann Mathieu, who looks headed out the door, along with pass-rusher Melvin Ingram and tackle Jarran Reed. The offense made an interesting under-the-radar move in acquiring JuJu Smith-Schuster to complement Patrick Mahomes' weaponry, but its major upheaval took place last offseason, when the offensive line was rebuilt.
The Chiefs are obviously still strong, but standing largely Pat (ouch—sorry) has been complicated by the new faces Kansas City will be facing twice apiece in 2022—Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, Khalil Mack, J.C. Jackson, Chandler Jones, Randy Gregory. The AFC West has gone from simmering to supernova this offseason, while the division's standard-bearer for the last half-decade looked around and thought, "nah, we're good." Maybe the Chiefs are correct, but another season of sloppy play and shoddy defense could well mean Mahomes watches a game on Championship Sunday for the first time.