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» Four Downs: AFC West

There's a serious need for defensive help in Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Oakland. In Denver, meanwhile, the Broncos must determine whether or not Case Keenum can really be a long-term solution at quarterback.

16 Jul 2007

Divisional DVOA

by Doug Farrar

Last year's NFC West was not a good collection of teams. Seattle won the division at 9-7 despite ranking 25th in DVOA, and it seems that this division title came at the expense of a schedule that can politely be called "less than stellar." While writing the Seattle chapter for Pro Football Prospectus 2007 (which comes out on July 23, plug plug plug) I added up the final DVOA numbers for each division for the 2006 season, to see how much worse the NFC West was compared to the other seven divisions. (For those who may be coming to this article from another site, DVOA is Defense-adjusted Value over Average, our primary advanced metric, and it is explained here.)

Using the combined DVOA for each division, I came up with the following totals:

Division DVOA
NFC East 33.7%
AFC North 27.5%
AFC East 12.3%
AFC South 8.7%
AFC West 0.0%
NFC North -5.6%
NFC South -17.4%
NFC West -57.1%

Zoinks. As you can see, the Seahawks weren't exactly facing a bunch of dynasties on their way to their third straight division championship (especially since they also faced every team in the NFC North and got obliterated by Chicago, THAT division's one respectable representative), which is how a team with a -13.5% total DVOA wins a division in the first place. The 8-8 Rams actually "led" the West with a -5.2% DVOA, but they were swept by Seattle in two games that were each decided by last-second Josh Brown field goals. In the second game, the Seahawks would not have kept it close without a 90-yard Nate Burleson punt return, taking advantage of the Rams' 31st-ranked special teams.

The Seahawks' luck against the division rival Rams wasn't duplicated throughout the division; they were swept by the 49ers (DVOA: -20.3%) and split the season series with Arizona (DVOA: -18.1%). Seattle barely eked out the title, one year after becoming the third team in NFL history to win its division by seven games (the others being the 1975 Los Angeles Rams and 2004 Philadelphia Eagles). This unimpressive title in a bad division illustrated Seattle's overall downturn in performance after 2006. Moral: a division title can hide a multitude of sins.

As we'll soon see, the NFC West has been far more "sinful" than any other division, with five of the ten worst DVOA seasons. Nobody knows this better than the Rams. In 2004, St. Louis became the worst team in the 11-year history of DVOA to win a playoff game when they beat the division champion Seahawks, 27-20, at Seattle's Qwest Field. The Rams sported an 8-8 record and a -23.0% DVOA, ranked 30th ahead of only the 5-11 Bears and the 2-14 49ers. The Seahawks (-5.0% DVOA) didn't have much room to complain.

Remembering this playoff win by St. Louis got me to thinking about the strength of each division through DVOA's history and the fact that DVOA would be a pretty decent barometer of said strength. Because DVOA is accrued on a play-by-play basis, is adjusted for opponent strength, and is situation-oriented (measuring both scoring and the ability to move the chains), it's probably the best way we have to reveal which divisions since 1996 have been the best-to-worst. So, I simply added the total DVOA for each team per division per year, and came up with the numbers discussed below.

This method may be too simple -- there probably should be some sort of adjustment for divisions like the 2006 AFC West, whose 0.0% DVOA (Blutarsky!) was more reflective of the abysmal Oakland Raiders (-30.2% DVOA) then it was of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos, whose 4.0% and -3.7% DVOA pretty much canceled each other out. And should the San Diego Chargers, whose 29.9% DVOA was the second-best in the league next to Baltimore, be penalized by being tied to a league-average division when they only got to play the Raiders twice, even though the Raiders played the Chargers tight in a 21-14 loss in the second game?

It's possible that strength of schedule (as measured by Weighted DVOA), Estimated Wins (which calculates "wins" based on adjusted situational criteria) and Pythagorean Wins (which calculates "wins" based on points scores and points allowed) should be added to the math for a more accurate portrayal of division strength. However, the situational and opponent-adjusted aspects of DVOA keep us out of the woods to a point.

I should also mention Doug Drinen's excellent blog at pro-football-reference.com. His recent post about the best and worst divisions since 1970, based on what he calls the "Simple Rating System", sent me further on my way when thinking about division strength, what it means, how hard it is to accurately weigh, and that DVOA might tell us a great deal.

Here are the five best divisions since 1996:

2004 AFC East: 77.9%

This division featured the best of New England's three Super Bowl teams of the new millennium (2001 DVOA: 6.2%; 2003 DVOA: 22.8%; 2004 DVOA: 35.7%), and this feat was made more impressive by the strength of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in 2004. Buffalo may have finished 22nd in Offensive DVOA, but the Bills ended the season first in DVOA for both defense and special teams and third in overall DVOA at 29.8% (the Colts finished second with 33.8%). This was the first year of the Mike Mularkey era, and the last of three seasons for Drew Bledsoe in Buffalo. The Bills were 6-2 in the second half of the year, but one of those losses came against Pittsburgh's second string in Week 17, keeping them out of the playoffs despite a 9-7 record.

As for the Jets, they finished fourth in DVOA at 26.4% behind a solid season from Chad Pennington and a rushing title from Curtis Martin. The 10-6 Jets beat the Chargers in the wild card round and lost to the Steelers in the Divisional frame. New England took the league by storm with a franchise-best 14-2 record, playoff wins over the Colts and Steelers, and a tight 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Winning a third Super Bowl in four seasons is impressive enough, but when you do so by going 5-1 in a division like this (losing only to the 4-12 Dolphins late in the year), that really is a season for the ages.

2005 AFC West: 73.7%

Another division with three of the top teams in overall DVOA for the season. Denver finished second in DVOA with 30.7%, behind only Indianapolis' 33.7%. The Chiefs (27.5%) and Chargers (21.5%) were slotted fourth and sixth, respectively, behind eventual Super Bowl entrants Pittsburgh and Seattle. Denver's 13-3 season ended in a 34-17 AFC Championship game loss to the Steelers. Neither Dick Vermeil's Chiefs nor Marty Schottenheimer's Chargers made the playoffs. The Bengals (18.9%) and Jaguars (17.0%) had better records, which makes their DVOA inferiority small consolation, to be sure. Filling out the division, as has become customary, was a 4-12 Oakland Raiders team.

2002 AFC West: 62.3%

What, these guys again? Not really, because Oakland and San Diego were switched. The Raiders finished second in overall DVOA (30.9%) behind the Tampa Bay team that would maul them in the Super Bowl. Oakland had a balanced attack, finishing second in offense and seventh in defense. The team that out-dueled Oakland for the Offensive DVOA crown was the Chiefs -- of course, Kansas City could finish no better than 8-8 after ranking 29th in Defensive DVOA, one of the biggest dichotomies between units in recent memory. Denver (16.2%) finished 9-7, and the Chargers matched the Chiefs' 8-8 record despite a -4.4% DVOA. To paraphrase Joaquin Andujar, this was "Onetoughdivision".

1998 AFC East: 57.4%

The 12-4 Jets took the division and their 26.4% DVOA ranked fourth behind Denver, Minnesota, and San Francisco. The Parcells-led J-E-T-S made it as far as the AFC Championship, where they succumbed to John Elway's final comeback. All three AFC wild cards were also taken by AFC East teams. The Dolphins (21.6%) and Bills (16.0%) both finished 10-6, and Miami beat Buffalo in the wild card round before being trounced by Denver. The 9-7 Patriots (8.7%) completed the best of the five-team divisions. The only team in this division to miss the postseason was Indianapolis. Peyton Manning would certainly have better seasons than this ... but in his rookie season, he'd have to be content with a 3-13 record (IND: -15.3% DVOA, 26th overall) and 28 interceptions. The Colts would reverse that record in 1999, but that's a story for another day.

2002 NFC South: 49.0%

Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay led this division with their 12-4 record and league-best 34.0% DVOA; had the Bucs put together even a league-average offense (they finished 21st in Offensive DVOA), they could have been terrifying, since they finished first in Defensive DVOA and 8th in special teams. Their -33.6% Defensive DVOA (remember, Defensive DVOA is better when it's negative) was more than twice the total for any other team that year.

The 9-6-1 Falcons (15.9%), led by Michael Vick in his only truly great season (10th in DPAR for quarterbacks, 825 yards rushing) beat the Packers in that famous Lambeau wild card game. They lost to the Eagles in the following week, as Vick fell to Donovan McNabb, the only QB with a better rushing DPAR that season. The 9-7 Saints (8.3%) of Jim Haslett and Aaron Brooks finished third. Yes, there as a time when Brooks was fairly productive, as well -- he finished right behind Vick in DPAR that year. The 7-9 Carolina Panthers had a -9.2% DVOA in John Fox's rookie year as a head coach, just one season removed from their 1-15 nightmare under George Seifert (-23.7% DVOA).

And now, the FO YukBurgers: the worst Divisional DVOA seasons in recorded history (i.e., back to 1996).

2002 NFC North: -56.2%

Green Bay finished 12-4, but their DVOA in doing so (7.9% overall, 2.1% offense, -9.3% defense) would imply that their record came at the expense of more than a few patsies. That the Pack was the only team in the NFC Norris to finish with a positive DVOA in 2002 goes a long way toward confirming this. The collective DVOA of their opponents (-2.1%, 24th in the NFL) and Pythagorean projection of 9.8 wins would seem to do the rest. This was also the team that lost the aforementioned wild card playoff game to the Falcons, the only time Green Bay has ever lost a home playoff game, after going 8-0 at home in the regular season.

The 6-10 Vikings (-12.4%) actually posted the division's best Offensive DVOA at 8.5%, but giving up 442 points (30th in the league) and ranking 28th in Defensive DVOA at 15.4% sank them. Minnesota finished the season at a .500 clip after losing their first four, and they'd post three straight winning (though unimpressive DVOA) seasons from 2003-2005 under Mike Tice as the offense exploded and the defense fought for respectability. The 4-12 Bears (-16.3%) won their first two games but then reeled off eight straight losses behind a singularly unimpressive offense by committee and a defense that fell down one year after leading the Bears to a 13-3 record.

As for those poor, poor Detroit Lions? They finished 3-13 with a -35.4% DVOA. It's a copy/paste proposition for the Matt Millen era, current 10-win predictions notwithstanding.

2006 NFC West: -57.1%

Neither the Seahawks, who actually did so, nor the 49ers, who challenged them at the end of the season, deserved to win the NFC West, but rules are rules. Each division has to have a "champion." Seattle's -13.5% total DVOA, a huge drop-off from the 26.2% they posted in their 2005 Super Bowl season, came about through depleted lines on both sides of the ball and injuries to Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander. They had to field most of their starters against a horrid Tampa Bay team in the season finale just to avoid the indignity of an 8-8 division title. The 49ers, who had posted the worst team DVOA in history in 2005 (-56.6%), would find their -20.3% DVOA in 2006 to be the sort of improvement that their 7-9 record would seem to imply after going 4-12 the year before. After setting a pace to give up more points than any team in NFL history through the first half of the season, Team Nolan tightened things up a bit. A super-aggressive off-season makes them everyone's division darlings for 2007.

Forgotten in all this statistical drama were the 8-8 Rams (-5.2%), who posted the division's best DVOA. Extreme early difficulty in the red zone gave way to offensive effectiveness with Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson as the year progressed. If the defense had been league-average instead of 29th at 13.1%, St. Louis might have had something to talk about in Scott Linehan's first season. In Dennis Green's last season, the 5-11 Cardinals crowned the asses of their opponents on a disturbingly regular basis. They had a -18.1% DVOA, including a -7.3% Offensive DVOA, to the surprise of many who speak of the powerful Arizona passing game.

2005 NFC West: -64.5%

We're getting near the basement now ... when the team atop the division represents the NFC in the Super Bowl and there's still this sort of total number, there are issues. Seattle's 23.2% DVOA (13-3 record) was fifth in the league and the best in team history. San Francisco's historically bad DVOA has already been discussed, and this was the 49ers' second straight season at the bottom (a record the Raiders have a very good chance of tying in 2007). St. Louis' -16.0% DVOA, a season after finishing 30th, reflected the competitive ambiguity of Mike Martz' last days. Risk/reward offenses, an increased inattention to special teams, and a defense that was springing leaks just about everywhere told the story.

The 5-11 Cardinals (-12.3% DVOA) were who we thought they were (6.0 Pythagorean wins, and yet another negative Offensive DVOA), which would, improbably, lead to yet another offseason of "Arizona will win the division next year!" predictions. Are we over those yet?

1998 NFC East: -64.8%

This is an interesting case. Three teams at .500 or better, but we're down to second-to-last in DVOA. Mathematical error? Not quite. The worst of the five-team divisions is here because the 10-6 Cowboys were the only team to post a positive DVOA (14.6%), and even they couldn't keep all sides better than league average (4.5% defense). Dallas won the division but lost in the wild card round to the 9-7 Cardinals of Vince Tobin and Jake Plummer (-18.7%). That's the lowest DVOA of any team to win a playoff game until those 2004 Rams came around. The third-place Giants stumbled to an 8-8 mark with Jim Fassel at the helm and the QB tandem of Kent Graham and the "immortal" Danny Kanell (whose jersey our own Bill Barnwell proudly wears while watching NFL games in the Port Authority Bus Terminal). Rounding up this cavalcade of world-beaters was the 6-10 Redskins (-20.2%) of Norv Turner (really!) and Trent Green (yes, indeed), and a 3-13 Eagles team which can be explained as follows: Bobby Hoying, Koy Detmer, and Rodney Peete. Those were the quarterbacks who each took 129 or more snaps from center.

If ever there was a case for the dissolution of the old five-team divisions, it would be the 1998 NFC East. And if ever there were a case for the removal on an entire division from the NFL altogether...

2004 NFC West: -95.7%

At last, the La Brea Tar Pits of competitive professional football. Not only did this division provide the worst division champ and playoff winner in DVOA history (two different teams!), but this occurred in a season that saw an entire conference of below-average divisions. That's right -- the NFC East (-9.3%), South (-20.0%) and North (-34.1%) all fell repeatedly in the mud, and only the Eagles (22.9%) and Packers (1.6%) posted positive DVOA marks. But for pure, unadulterated suckitude, the 2004 NFC West will most likely stand as the model for many years to come.

The 9-7 Alleged Division Champion Seahawks (-5.0%) were swept by the 8-8 Rams (-23.0%) and faced the weakest schedule that season (-8.6% opponent DVOA). Wildly inconsistent defense and special teams combined with a combustible offense to bring forth one very exasperating squad. Mike Holmgren, beaten down by on-field drama and off-field power struggles, came very close to quitting after this season. Those aforementioned Rams got past the Seahawks again in the playoffs despite a radically imbalanced offense in which Marshall Faulk's wheels had pretty much fallen off entirely, and Mike Martz called 200 more pass plays than rushing plays. The offense had dipped to league average, ending the "Greatest Show on Turf" era once and for all.

The 6-10 Cardinals (-21.6%) were in the throes of great excitement, as the Dennis Green Era had just begun. At one time, it was possible to say that with a straight face. And the 2-14 49ers (-46.1%), in the last gasps of the uber-dysfunctional Terry Donahue/Dennis Erickson era, were just hoping for better days ahead.

And there you have it -- 11 DVOA seasons in the books, and the best and worst divisions coming out of the same year. Ironically, the teams from the two divisions played each other one time each in 2004, and the AFC East emerged with a 13-3 record over the NFC West. Little surprise, really -- with all the variables and crazy things that can happen in a season, there's very little left untold by this sort of swing from best to worst.

Here's the rest of the list:

Division DVOA Division DVOA Division DVOA Division DVOA
2000 AFC East 46.4% 1996 AFC West 20.2% 2006 AFC West 0.0% 2004 NFC South -20.0%
2004 AFC North 44.1% 1997 NFC Central 17.9% 2000 AFC West -0.5% 1996 NFC West -20.1%
2002 AFC East 39.9% 2000 NFC Central 15.4% 2005 AFC South -2.9% 1999 NFC East -21.8%
2005 NFC East 38.2% 2001 AFC West 13.1% 1996 NFC Central -4.3% 2002 AFC North -23.6%
1997 AFC Central 38.1% 2001 NFC West 12.7% 2006 NFC North -5.6% 1997 NFC East -24.2%
2004 AFC West 37.6% 2006 AFC East 12.3% 2003 NFC South -7.0% 1997 NFC West -24.8%
1999 AFC West 34.1% 1999 AFC Central 12.3% 2002 NFC East -7.6% 2000 NFC West -28.4%
2006 NFC East 22.0% 1997 AFC West 9.5% 2004 NFC East -9.3% 1997 AFC East -28.7%
1999 AFC East 30.5% 2004 AFC South .1% 2001 AFC Central -9.6% 2000 NFC East -30.2%
2006 AFC North 27.5% 2006 AFC South 8.7% 2005 NFC South -11.2% 1996 AFC East -30.8%
1996 AFC Central 26.3% 2003 AF C West 7.7% 2003 NFC North -12.9% 2005 AFC East -33.8%
1998 NFC Central 25.1% 2000 AFC Central 4.3% 2001 AFC East -13.1% 2004 NFC North -34.1%
2005 AFC North 24.7% 1996 NFC East 3.4% 1999 AFC Central -13.3% 2002 NFC West -34.3%
2003 AFC South 23.2% 1998 AFC West 2.8% 2001 NFC East -16.3% 1999 NFC West -34.8%
2003 AFC East 22.0% 2001 NFC Central 1.2% 2003 NFC East -16.9% 1998 AFC Central -36.3%
1998 NFC West 21.6% 2003 AFC North 1.0% 2006 NFC South -17.4% 2005 NFC North -37.1%
2003 NFC West -17.4% 2002 AFC South -37.2%

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 16 Jul 2007

46 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2008, 1:50pm by Joshua


by Charles the Philly Homer (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 1:29pm

"That the Pack was the only team in the NFC Norris"

Either that's a typo, or the NFC North's tears cure cancer - too bad the NFC North has never cried.

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 1:29pm

Wow, I feel like I just had this conversation, though I guess I never bothered to post the pre-99 results.

Doug, did you think about normalizing divisional scores to 4-team divisions? The '98 NFC East "rises" from 2nd worst to 5th worst (-51.8%, by simple math) with this adjustment. It's a crude metric, admittedly, but what this really is measuring is "How bad is the average team?", and I think normalizing the number of teams in a division helps in that regard.

by B (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 1:36pm

I notice there seems to be a kind of symmetry in the best/worst divisions. 2002 had two of the best divisions and one of the worst, and 2004 had the best and worst divisions. The 2004 NFC west was no surprise as the worst division of all time. Weren't those Rams the worst team to ever win a playoff game? Against Seattle, naturally.

by Brian (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 1:39pm

Concur on the observation about Seattle.

But it's a little misleading to rank the best all-time divisions with total or average DVOA, records, etc.

For example, take the days with larger 5, even 6-team divisions. There may be four very strong playoff caliber teams competing for the 1 or 2 post-season spots coming out of the division. Those are probably the most competitive, most dominant divisions.

With your system, it simply rewards divisions that don't happen to have a doormat (like every division should have by birthright).

by ebongreen (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 1:40pm

Filling out the division, as has become customary, was a 4-12 Oakland Raiders team.

So: when does any team really wrap up the title of laughingstock of the NFL? Between the Raiders, Cardinals, Texans and Lions, there are so many cases to be made...

by Doug Farrar (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 1:46pm

#2 - VERY interesting. I hadn't seen your post before. I wanted to start with the "raw" DVOA and see where adjustments would take me over time (this was originally an FO blog post that grew legs), hence the caveat at the beginning. I want to revisit the concept in future. The 4/5/6-team division thing was certainly on my mind, but I first wanted to see how DVOA would handle it in a more rudimentary fashion, just to see how well it worked (it was a bit of an overall DVOA test vs. the Drinen menthod, which I also found interesting).

by Cathedraticum (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:01pm

I wonder if there would be any effect of these scores based on the changing DVOA formula. If I remember correctly the formula has been altered slightly over the years so wouldn't a teams score be different in 1999 using today's formula?

by vanya (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:01pm

So: when does any team really wrap up the title of laughingstock of the NFL? Between the Raiders, Cardinals, Texans and Lions, there are so many cases to be made…

No, the Raiders do have a storied history, and an AFC Championship only 5 years ago, so they're out. The Texans are still too new. It's really a battle between the Cardinals and Lions for "most futile NFL franchise of all time". My vote would be the Cardinals, at least the Lions once had a legitimate superstar in Barry Sanders, and before that had real personalities like Alex Karras. The Cardinals are a team that hasn't found a real home or personality in 60 years of existence. And the Lions have real fans, I've yet to meet a true die-hard Cardinals fan, at least not since they moved to Arizona.

by admin :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:04pm

Re: 7. Every time I adjust the DVOA formula, I retroactively go back and improve all past years with the new equations.

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:09pm

Re #7
The DVOA for previous years has been re-calculated with each upgrade to DVOA. If you go to, say, the 2000 team efficiency page and scroll down, you see that it reflects DVOA version 5.0. Compare, for instance, Aaron's original 1998 DVOA column, made with a previous version of DVOA, with the current 1998 rankings, made with DVOA 5.0.

by dgc (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:29pm

Doesn't Chris Berman often refer to the NFC North as the NFL Norris Division?

by footballprofessor (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:35pm

In terms of Distribution of Power, the NFC South was clearly the worst division in football last year.

NFC E 14.24%
AFC N 13.22%
AFC S 13.02%
AFC W 13.00%
AFC E 12.63%
NFC N 12.32%
NFC W 11.03%
NFC S 10.54%

That's based on the Singer Trend equation which is based on PF/PA.

by Karl Cuba (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:40pm

8: " The Cardinals are a team that hasn’t found a real home or personality in 60 years of existence"
- I assume you meant to say, "the past 60 years of existence"

by dbt (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:42pm

come on, the raiders were in the super bowl this decade! it wasn't that long ago. They can't possibly compete with the cardinals and lions.

(The browns and texans are expansion teams. the 1990s in both baseball and football notwithstanding, expansion teams tend to be real bad for quite a while).

by Eddo (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:44pm

Re: 1, 11
Berman is not alone in referring to the NFC North (and formerly the NFC Central) as the "NFC Norris Division." In the NHL, some of the oldest and traditionally toughest franchises (the Blackhawks, Red Wings, Maple Leafs) were in the Norris Division (before the NHL switched to geographical naming). Therefore, with some overlapping cities (Chicago, Detroit), some of the oldest NFL franchises (Bears, Packers, Lions), and a history of toughness, the NFC Central became known as the NFC Norris.

by dbt (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:44pm

the "norris division" is a reference to the old NHL division of the same name. see wikipedia for more.

by Conor (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:45pm

Another possible method could be what Bill James does with win shares when ranking past starting rotations. Instead of just adding up the win shares for the top 5 pitchers, he'll weight them based on where they rank. In other words, say you have 5 SP with WS of 20,18,13,10,and 8.

The total would be (8*5)+(10*4)+(13*3)+(18*2)+(20*1). When done in baseball, it puts more emphasis on having a deep rotation than a great 1-2 punch. The same kind of idea could be used here; instead of having one awful(or good) team have a large impact, this method is more balanced towards either good teams or bad teams, depending on what you're looking for. Just a thought.

by MRH (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 2:55pm

Here's the summed DVOAs for the current divisions (2002-6):

AFC West: 181.30%
AFC East: 118.30%
AFC North: 73.70%
NFC East: 38.10%
AFC South: 0.90%
NFC South: -6.60%
NFC North: -145.90%
NFC West: -269.00%

And for the previous structure:
AFC West: 79.20%
NFC Central: 67.60%
AFC East: 61.70%
AFC Central: 9.50%
NFC West: -73.80%
NFC East: -153.90%

Highly unofficial; I had the DVOAs in a spreadsheet from some months ago and added the 1996 numbers to it; I'm not sure if I had consisstent versions of DVOA in all of them.

The badness of the old NFC East is almost entirely Arizona; the other four teams sums to about 2%.

The NFC West wasn't very good before ARI came aboard, then they became terrible.

If not for the expansion Browns, the AFC Central would have been atop the old division standings despite the Bengals.

The AFC West has been tough throughout the DVOA era.

by DoubleB (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 3:14pm

Re: "Norris" Division

I've always believed the reference referred to the mediocrity of the NFC Central between the mid 70's and mid 90's. Between Super Bowl XI and XXXI, only 1 NFC Central team competed in the Super Bowl (85 Bears). The Norris also struggled during this time against the Smythe division (losing 9 consecutive playoff series in the 80s).

by MRH (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 3:17pm

I have always thought that it was an advantage to be the champion of a weak division in terms of making the Super Bowl. It gave teams a chance to pile up easy wins, get less beat up, and increase their chances of having a 1st rd bye.

In the era of 5-6 team divisions, the coference Super Bowl reps came from divisions with a median DVOA of -8.70%.

Since going to four-team divisions, the median is 15.35%.

Small data sets, but they support my hypothesis in the pre-2002 divisional arrangement and contradict it post-2002.

Since I think having a weak division ought not help a team make the Super Bowl, it looks like the 4-team division set up is an improvement.

by Raiderjoe (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 3:25pm

re: 2005 Afc wesy section
Raiders in last place not customary, just bad trend recrently.

by Joe T. (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 3:42pm

Great Article!

by Kyle (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 3:55pm

"the “immortal� Danny Kanell (whose jersey our own Bill Barnwell proudly wears while watching NFL games in the Port Authority Bus Terminal)"

Bah, that is nothing. My father is the proud owner of an autographed, authentic Danny Kanell helmet. It rests atop the piles of merchandise and memorabilia, literally so - on top of the cabinet, collecting dust, completely out of sight. But never out of mind.

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 4:08pm

Since 1990, the AFC West's second-worst season, in terms of PythWins (normalized to 4-team division) is 31.4 wins. That's pretty good.

Also, I don't think I would have guessed the NFC Central had at least 32.0 PythWins (4-team normalization) every year from 1993-2001.

PythWins, 1990-95 (normed to 4-team divisions)
Most: 1992 NFC West, 37.0 (4 teams)
1990 AFC West, 36.7 (5 teams)
Fewest: 1992 AFC East, 26.8
1991 AFC East, 27.1
In fact, from 1990-93, when the Bills made the Super Bowl, the AFC East finished under 30.0 PythWins each year. Bonus fun fact: the 1991 49ers are probably the only team ever to finish 2nd in the league in PythWins and miss the playoffs. They finished #2 in part because they killed the Bears, 52-14, on MNF the last game of the regular season when seedings were locked in place. Without that game, they fall to 4th.

Work beckons, but I'll try to run PythWins further back this evening.

by ebongreen (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 4:47pm

Well, there's current futility, and there's “most futile NFL franchise of all time�. The Cardinals have flirted with respectability on several occasions. The Bengals went 14 consecutive seasons without a winning record, but now they're on a roll. The Vikings have been to four Super Bowls and lost them all, as have the Bills. The Saints and Falcons were perennial losers for years. The Packers had a thirty-year span of ugliness between the Glory Years and the Favre Years.

What are our benchmarks for futility here? It seems to come in so many flavors... :-)

by CA (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 4:48pm

This was also the team that lost the aforementioned wild card playoff game to the Falcons, the only time Green Bay has ever lost a home playoff game, after going 8-0 at home in the regular season.

Correction: The Packers subsequently also lost a home playoff game to the Vikings in 2005 (after the 2004 season).

by Jason Mulgrew aka The Mul Dawg (not verified) :: Mon, 07/16/2007 - 6:48pm

Thanks for reminding me of the 1998 Eagles. I threw up in my mouth.

Any word if I am mentioned in the PFP 2007 book? A little Mul-Dawg shot out or a Lord J Rocka word or two, perhaps?

by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 12:50am

1980-89 PythWins
* All stats normalized to 16 game season
* All stats normalized to 4-team division

Best Divisions
1984 AFC West, 39.0
1986 NFC West, 37.0
1989 NFC West, 37.0
1981 NFC East, 36.6

Worst Divisions
1989 AFC East, 27.4
1984 AFC East, 27.6
1984 AFC Central, 27.6
1987 NFC Central, 28.3 (strike)

Best teams:
1985 Bears, 14.1
1984 49ers, 13.6
1986 Bears, 13.1

The top AFC team was the 1987 Browns at 12.2, followed by the 1989 Broncos at 12.1.

Worst teams:
1987 Falcons, 2.3 (strike)
1982 Colts, 2.4 (strike)
1981 Colts, 2.4
1986 Bucs, 2.6
1989 Cowboys, 2.8

In 1984, the 3rd, 4th, and 6th best teams by PythWins were in the AFC West.

The 1989 Cincinnati Bengals finished with 11.1 PythWins, 3rd in the NFL, and finished last in the AFC Central. That year, the AFC Central was as tightly packed as any division ever, with Cleveland atop at 9-6-1, followed by the Oilers and Steelers at 9-7, then the Bengals at 8-8. Of course, their PythWin total was slightly inflated by their 61-7 victory over the Oilers, a game where Sam Wyche onside kicked up 45-0.

In 1980, all 3 AFC divisions finished with 32.0 PythWins or more. Of course, 5 of the 6 NFL divisions that year had 32.0 or more PythWins, with only the NFC Central at 29.8 failing to meet the mark. 2000 is the only year since 1980 where all divisions in one conference finished with 32.0 or more PythWins (AFC East 34.2, Central 33.3, West, 32.2). 2004 is the only year since 1980 where all divisions in one conference finished with fewer than 32.0 PythWins (East 30.4, North 28.4, South 31.0, West 24.2); alas, that year, the AFC South only had 31.7 PythWins, so not all the AFC divisions were over .500.

In terms of balance between the divisions, 1994 may well be the most balanced year in NFL history. PythWin totals, by division: 32.1, 31.8, 31.7, 32.0, 32.0, 31.9.

by Zac (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 1:04am

I was just thinking about how lucky Seattle was to switch from the AFC West to the NFC West in the 2002 realignment. They probably wouldn't have made the playoffs in 2003, 2004, and 2006 if they hadn't switched. That means Mike Holmgren would have probably been fired. Who knows what else would have happened differently?

by Vash (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 2:29am

1: Actually, they beat out the Blackhawks to win the division thanks to a missed field goal by Jeremy Roenick in the season finale.

by pharmboyrick (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 3:39am

The AFC West has been the best division over the last 30 years.

There is not a DET or ARI that perputually drags the overall quality of the division down. San Diego and Oakland make extreme swings in terms of one of them being elite and the other a 'lottery pick' team. While Denver and KC are usually good and often elite. When Den and KC are not good, both are still usually .500 teams.

Seattle and the Colts were the big winners in the re-allignment. Seattle bc they were dropped in by far the worst division and the COlts bc they were taken out of the Patriots division. The biggest loser was probably TB because they left a weak division in the Norris to get into a very competitive division.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 10:00am


Seattle barely eked out the title, one year after becoming the second team in NFL history to win its division by seven games (the other being the 1975 Los Angeles Rams).

2004 Eagles - 13-3.

Everyone else - 6-10.

Isn't 13 minus 6 equal to a 7 game lead? And that was including an extra two game pre-season at the end of the year.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 10:07am

The overall weakness of the NFC West during the Shawn Alexander era is another reason he is a stats fraud. His numbers have been compiled against the worst cuumulative opposition ever in recent memory.

by Mark from Pittsburgh (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 10:40am

I say the Detroit Lions are the most futile. My complex statistical formula docks them an extra -10,000 DVOA points for forcing us to look at them every year on the aptly-named Turkey Day.

At least the Cardinals only make us pay attention to them once a year, in Week 1, when all the sports people file their contractually obligated "Are the Cardinals for real?" reports. Then Phoenixians go back to, I don't know, watering their sand or something.

by jebmak (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 1:35pm

I'm going with the team that has won one playoff game in 40+ years. Also, anyone who was their head coach over that time frame never head coached again. That is pretty futile.

Go Lions!

by bravehoptoad (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 2:29pm

The team I feel sorriest for in the realignment is Miami. They're down in sunny Florida, and all three of their conference mates are in the wintry Northeast. That's a big temperature disadvantage.

by Elric (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 2:36pm

Anyone else notice that the 1999 AFC Central is listed twice and the NFC Central isn't listed for 1999?

by vanya (not verified) :: Tue, 07/17/2007 - 2:56pm

The team I feel sorriest for in the realignment is Miami. They’re down in sunny Florida, and all three of their conference mates are in the wintry Northeast. That’s a big temperature disadvantage.

They had the same temperature disadvantage in the 70s and 80s and it didn't seem to bother them any. In fact Pats fans (and maybe Jets/Bills fans) used to whine that it was the other way 'round - you couldn't go down and win in Florida when you were acclimated to the Northeast. I feel sorry for Miami because their owner is a disaster.

by steelberger (not verified) :: Wed, 07/18/2007 - 9:47am

RE 25: "The Bengals went 14 consecutive seasons without a winning record, but now they’re on a roll."

While I agree that they are getting better, since those 14 seasons you speak of...they have 1 winning season in 2 years.

I would hardly call that being "on a roll".

by Polaris (not verified) :: Fri, 07/20/2007 - 2:32am

Just an observation. For a team that played in such a weak division (per DVOA), Seattle did pretty well in the playoffs in 2006.

My point is that you can't always dismiss a team as a "weak" sister in the playoffs even if they had a weak schedule. The playoffs are just that: Playoffs.


by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Fri, 07/20/2007 - 12:06pm

PythWins, 1970-79
*Normalized to 16 game schedule
*Normalized to 4-team divisions

Best Divisions
1976 AFC Central, 39.8
1975 AFC Central, 38.9
1970 NFC Central, 38.9
1976 NFC Central, 36.8

Worst Divisions
1977 NFC Central, 21.9 (TB year 2)
1974 NFC West, 24.7
1970 AFC East, 27.0
1979 NFC Central, 27.4

Best Teams:
1976 Steelers, 14.3
1975 Steelers, 14.1
1975 Rams, 14.1
1970 Vikings, 14.1

Worst Teams:
1976 Bucs, 0.9 (expansion)
1974 Falcons, 1.7
1972 Eagles, 1.7
1970 Patriots, 1.7

There were some REALLY awful teams in the 1970's, as well as some very good ones (1972 and 73 Dolphins each had 14.0 PythWins).

I've used 2.37 throughout as the exponent, but I wonder if the increase in scoring and scoring potential beginning with the liberalized passing rules in 1978-ish didn't change that from what it used to be. I may play around with this later. Note there was at least one sub-3.0 PythWin team every year from 1970-77, and none in 1978 or '79.

The AFC Central was the best division in football every year from 1975-78.

The 1971 Bengals led the AFC Central with 8.7 PythWins, and finished last with a 4-10 record. The 9-5 Browns, with 8.4 PythWins, finished first.

In 1977, every team in the AFC Central had at least 8.1 PythWins. The Oilers, tied for 2nd with the Bengals at 8-6, had 10.4 PythWins to lead the division.

In 1978, PythWins in the NFC Central ranged from 7.2 to 7.7.

Thanks to its strong showing the last five years, the AFC Central ranks as the best division of the 1970's, with 34.0 PythWins on average, followed by the NFC East at 33.1 and the AFC West at 32.6. If you dilute the AFC Central to a 5-team division (by adding 8 to represent a mythical average team and then adjusting 5 to 4), it still ranks best, but at 33.6, not quite that much better.

If I remember, I'll run all-division totals at some point this weekend.

by putnamp (not verified) :: Fri, 07/20/2007 - 5:43pm

Andrew, it's amazing that, after 3 years of dumping on the Seahawks every chance you get (bird jealousy? I don't get it.. why the hate?), you still don't know how to spell Shaun Alexander's name.

Of course, it's not like the Eagles didn't run up some inflated stats a few years ago when not just their division but their entire conference was bad, right?

by mister j (not verified) :: Mon, 07/23/2007 - 3:17pm

Thanks for the anti-Seahawks call. It's amazing how often people hate on the Seahawks on this site. I appreciate the importance of the 'Hawks playing in the worst division, but let's also remember that they played Chicago very well (a 27-24 OT loss at Soldier Field) in the playoffs. They played Chicago much better than the FO #8 ranked Saints did the next week (a 39-14 drubbing).

by Nogdolan (not verified) :: Tue, 08/07/2007 - 12:14am

Once again you show your bias!! Gee I guess Seattle's showing in the playoffs proved the point that they did not deserve to win the NFC West crown huh? hmm I guess it will be another year of inferior reporting here.

by Joshua (not verified) :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 1:48pm

"the only time Green Bay has ever lost a home playoff game"

I have to take big issue with this one. Lambeau field has totally lost its postseason magic over the past half decade. Favre's Packers not only got walloped by Vick's falcons, they also lost to the Vikings in Green Bay in a year when the Vikings had gone 8-8 and backed into the playoffs after that game where Randy Moss walked off the field while the game was still going on, and then they got spanked by the Giants last year in Green Bay in the best Lambeau weather you could ask for.

by Joshua (not verified) :: Thu, 10/09/2008 - 1:50pm

"the only time Green Bay has ever lost a home playoff game"

I have to take big issue with this one. Lambeau field has totally lost its postseason magic over the past half decade. Favre's Packers not only got walloped by Vick's falcons, they also lost to the Vikings in Green Bay in a year when the Vikings had gone 8-8 and backed into the playoffs after that game where Randy Moss walked off the field while the game was still going on, and then they got spanked by the Giants last year in Green Bay in the best Lambeau weather you could ask for.