FO Mailbag: Best DVOA to Miss the Playoffs
Aaron Agte: I'm a Chargers fan. I was just curious what was the highest rated team by DVOA to miss the playoffs? Other than the worst special teams of all time, are there any other records of disappointment or underwhelming performance the Chargers set this year?
Believe it or not, the Chargers don't even come close to being the worst DVOA to ever miss the playoffs. As of Week 16, the Chargers had 19.3% DVOA, and there have actually been three teams that missed the playoffs despite DVOA ratings above 25%.
By far the best team to ever miss the playoffs, at least according to DVOA, was the 2004 Buffalo Bills. The Bills had 31.2% DVOA that season. That was third in the league behind Pittsburgh and New England, although the Bills would have been behind the Colts and Eagles if those teams had not rested players at the end of the year. Buffalo's weighted DVOA was even more insane. By the end of the year, they were on top of the league at 41.1%. Since that was only the second year of Football Outsiders, we didn't have any clue just how historically weird the Bills' season was; I think at that point we had only parsed play-by-play data back to 2001.
The Bills started the season 0-4, although three of those four losses came by a field goal or less. They were 3-6 after New England clobbered them 29-6 in Week 10. Still, at that point they were tenth in DVOA, including fifth on defense and second on special teams. They had played four games against the Patriots (second in the NFL that year) and the Jets (fifth).
In Week 11, the Bills turned on the juice. They got to the point in the schedule with the NFC West on it -- some things never change -- and won six straight games by an average score of 38-15. You've heard people talk about the Patriots scoring 30 or more points in seven straight games? That Buffalo team scored 30 or more points in all six of those games, and they didn't do it because Drew Bledsoe was leading a powerful offense. They did it with field position -- they dominated games on defense and special teams, ranking first in the league in DVOA for both, and that was enough to give an average offense the field position to score tons of points. They had Sam Adams and Pat Williams at defensive tackle, London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes at linebacker, Lawyer Milloy at safety still in his prime, and Nate Clements before his wallet got too heavy to effectively play cornerback.
So by Week 17, the Bills were 9-6, and all they had to do to get a wild card spot was win at home against a Pittsburgh Steelers team which had clinched the top seed in the AFC and was resting most of its starters. The Steelers started Tommy Maddox at quarterback and some unknown, undrafted free agent named Willie Parker at running back. They pulled Hines Ward after two catches, and Plaxico Burress wasn't even active. They started the usual defense, but pulled some of those guys in the middle of the game. Yet somehow, the Steelers managed to keep things close, and they led 16-10 at halftime. Clements got a pick-six off Maddox in the third quarter, however, and the Bills were 15 minutes from the playoffs.
Then they choked. They choked hardcore. The Steelers scored on a field goal early in the fourth quarter. On the third play of the next drive, Ricardo Colclough knocked the ball out of Bledsoe's hand as he tried to pass -- while his arm was still moving backwards, so it wasn't a tuck rule play -- and the ball fell into the hands of an undrafted free agent in his third year who was making only his fourth start that day, some guy named James Harrison. Harrison took it to the house, 26-17 Steelers. The Bills then went three-and-out, when Bledsoe fumbled a handoff to Shaud Williams on third-and-1, and the Steelers sucked up nearly nine minutes of the game with an absurd 46-yard drive that had Brian St. Pierre handing off to Willie Parker on nearly every play. There were 11 Parker runs, two penalties, one run by Verron Haynes, one by St. Pierre, and then a 33-yard field goal by Jeff Reed. The Bills got the ball back with a little over two minutes left, but had a long return by Terrence McGee called back by a holding penalty on Chris Kelsay. Bledsoe still managed to make it downfield 89 yards in less then a minute, thanks to a 56-yard pass to rookie Lee Evans, who was being covered by someone named "Russell Stuvaints," but they couldn't recover the onside kick and the game ended Pittsburgh 29, Buffalo 24.
Thus ended the greatest DVOA season to never make the playoffs, and the Bills' best chance to make any postseason appearance between 2000 and 2010. Oh, and oddly, this was Brian St. Pierre's only regular-season appearance until he showed up in one game for the Cardinals last year and then came off his couch to start for Carolina this year.
The second- and third-best seasons to miss the playoffs were both the Kansas City Chiefs, in 2005 (10-6, 25.5%) and 2002 (8-8, 25.4%). Seriously, if people think that DVOA overrates the Philadelphia Eagles, they should consider the early-00's Chiefs. They were fourth in the league in DVOA in 2002 despite going 8-8. The next year, they were first at 13-3 but couldn't win a playoff game. In 2004, they went 7-9 but ranked tenth in DVOA. In 2005, they were fifth at just 10-6.