Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

21 Mar 2014

They Coulda Been Contenders (But Fortunately Were Not)

If the NFL playoffs had expanded to 14 games in 1990, back when it expanded to 12, we would have coped with lots of 8-8 playoff teams in the last 20+ years. Here are some of the worst, including the Schottenheimer Redskins and Bubby Brister Eagles.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 21 Mar 2014

24 comments, Last at 25 Mar 2014, 3:05pm by nat


by nat :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 9:46am

For all that we hate the idea of bad teams in the playoffs, over the past ten years, sixth seeds have been the very definition of competitive, winning half their wildcard games.

If you think of games with the teams separated by 15% or less in DVOA as quality match ups, 14 of 20 3rd v. 6th games fit the definition.

If the playoffs had been expanded to include a 2nd v. 7th game in each conference, 11 of those 20 would have been quality match ups.

Expanding the playoffs would likely give us one more reasonable playoff game each year, and one dog. That's not ideal. But it isn't as horrible as many people think.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:05am

I guess the best case I can make for it is if adding more playoff teams makes getting the number one seed more valuable.

by RickD :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 11:18am

The difference among the records of the top seeds often comes down to strength of schedule.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 3:06pm

I'm of two minds about the idea. On the one hand, It would be fun to have one more playoff game to watch on wildcard weekend. On the other hand, "making the playoffs" will become less of an accomplishment for the NFL's middle class.

I'm pretty sure I remember there being a lot of resistance to expanding to 6 teams/conference in 1990. If they hadn't expanded then, we would have missed out on a lot of compelling games, and about as many deserving teams as undeserving teams would have missed the playofs. You do have to stop at a certain point, though. I wonder if what that point is can be statistically proven (i.e. the number of teams per conference you can expand to until you start letting in more bad teams than good teams)? Intuitively, I think the number intuitively seems like 8, but I don't really know.

by BlueStarDude :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:22am

RE: "Tebow willed Bears backup running back Marion Barber to fumble in overtime"

A truly memorable game. It doesn't even get to OT if Tebow doesn't first will Barber to inexplicably run out of bounds and stop the clock, which allows Denver to get the ball back and tie the score.

by MC2 :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:26am

I think the best argument for expanding the playoffs in the NFL is the same as the argument against expanding the MLB playoffs. In baseball, since you play such a long season, it's much more likely that the cream will have a chance to rise to the top. So, there's very little chance that a team with the 4th or 5th best record in the NL is actually the best team in MLB, even though they may very well end up winning the World Series (1997 Florida Marlins, anyone? No? Well, how about the 2003 Marlins?).

In the NFL, on the other hand, the season is so short, and injuries play such a big role, that it's very possible that a team's final record may not be at all indicative of the actual quality of that team. Given that, it's not really very convincing to point to the number of 8-8 teams that would have hypothetically made the playoffs, since many of those teams may have actually been much "better" than 8-8, and simply not had the chance to prove it. Of course, some of them may have actually been worse than 8-8, so it cuts both ways.

Ultimately, I'm not really a big fan of expanding the playoffs, but it's certainly better than the ridiculous 18-game regular season, especially if Goodell insists on continuing to make radical changes to game play on the basis of his supposed "commitment" to player safety.

by Sifter :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 2:56pm

I like your reasoning about the short season-more variability, and I think it's why we've seen a lot of fairly random playoff surges in the last few years. Teams are just closer together than most fans think, a classic sign of that variability. On that front I don't mind expanding the playoffs. My only request is that the playoff tournament have less than half the teams in it. Can't fathom sports where at least half the teams qualify for the playoffs: I'm thinking of the NBA and NHL which have long seasons to sort out the riff-raff, yet they still let 16 of 30 teams in, allowing 'losing' teams to enter the tournament.

by MC2 :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:21pm

Yeah, I agree that letting over half the teams in the league make the playoffs is crazy. And right now, the situation is even worse in the NBA, because of the huge disparity between the conferences. For example, last time I checked, Toronto was 3rd in the East, but they would be 10th in the West. That's just absolutely insane!

by Cythammer :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:59pm

I don't think that makes sense. Unless you believe that the playoff games are somehow magically a better test of team quality than the regular season (as many casual fans actually seem to), then there's no way that a single game knockout tournament is a better measure of quality than 16 games. Sixteen isn't very much, but… still a hell of a lot more than the one game that half of all playoff teams will get. The reason we've had so many surprising runs from teams with mediocre records is not so much because the regular is a bad indicator of team quality but because the playoffs are the bad indicator. A few games where you play over your heads, maybe combined with your opponents having off days, and you can be Super Bowl champions without being a particularly good teams. 2011 Giants and 2012 Ravens, lookin' at you…

by MC2 :: Sat, 03/22/2014 - 12:57am

I think you misunderstood my point. I'm not saying that the postseason is a better test than the regular season. In fact, it's a worse test. But regardless, it's the test that is ultimately used to determine the champion. So, if your goal is to award the championship to the best team, you want to make sure that the best team at least has a shot to compete for the championship, which they can only do if they make the playoffs.

To use an extreme example from another sport, in 1993, the last year before MLB expanded the playoffs, the two best records in the sport, by far, belonged to the Braves (104 wins) and the Giants (103 wins). However, since those teams were in the same division, and there were no wild cards, the Giants, who could certainly make a case for being the best team in baseball (in fact, they were well ahead of the Braves for most of the season), didn't even get a chance to compete for the championship, or at least, not as good a chance as some inferior teams, such as the Phillies and the Blue Jays, the two teams that actually ended up playing in the World Series.

Of course, all this assumes the existence of a postseason tournament of some sort. Theoretically, if you really wanted to maximize your chances of crowning the best team as champions, you would just give it to the team with the best regular season record.

by dryheat :: Sat, 03/22/2014 - 5:06pm

If the playoffs are of a best of 7, 5, or even 3 format, I'd be on-board with expansion. But in a best of 1 format, I think the regular season has to weed out most of the league.

by BlueStarDude :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:26am

I don't think the 2007 Minnesota Vikings belong that high. Yes, Jackson was terrible, but I remember them as a really good team otherwise, worthy enough for a 7th seed, though I'd so much rather see the playoffs contracted to 4 teams per conference.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 1:21pm

The Vikings certainly had their strengths in 2007, but their pronounced weaknesses went beyond the qb position. Jared Allen hadn't arrived yet, so they lacked pressure on the outside, and were thin in the secondary. Passing against them wasn't too challenging. The receivers were marginal as well.

Now, the 2008 team, with Allen, and more depth in the secondary, well, if that bunch had gotten any help from the qb position at all, it quite easily could have played in the last game, with a good chance to win it. That team really dominated the line of scrimmage, and was a lot of fun to watch.

by TomKelso :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 10:42am

And now we know why Wade (Deadpool) Wilson never really worked as a coach or commentator after his playing days were done...

He kept responding to yellow comment boxes that no one else could see.

(right after this is posted) Hey, look, a yellow comment box!

by mehllageman56 :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 12:39pm

I don't know if I would say the Cardinals weren't that good last year. They went 10-6 in the same division as the Super Bowl victor, and the team that lost in the NFC championship. The last place team in that division is barely worse than any of the teams on your list of embarrassing 7th seeds. And they have the added bonus of not losing to Seattle 43-8, not to mention actually beating the Seahawks on the road.

by Cythammer :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 11:08pm

I agree. They didn't credit for a variety of reason:

They are neither in a huge market, nor are they a storied franchise.
They didn't have a superstar quarterback. Too make matters worse their strength was defense.
They haven't had the success in previous season that is seen as legitimizing a team's current results. In other words, they could've been the exact same team this year, but if they had made a playoff run the previous year, they would've received far more attention.
Their signature win – one of the best wins by any team last year – had to be downplayed because the Cardinals were still a longshot at best to make the playoffs afterwards. It said a lot about the quality of the team, but it doesn't fit in anybody's narratives to hype up a team that is not going to the playoffs.

Considering how injured-wracked the AFC's top teams were, I would put Arizona ahead of all teams except the cream of the NFC crop.

by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 4:26pm

I stand by the statement that the 2001 Redskins were one of the most fascinating 8-8 teams in history. Anyone can go 8-8 with a good offense and a bad defense or vice versa, but how many teams have started 0-5, looking like one of the worst teams ever according to DVOA (and the eyeball test), and miraculously dragged themselves all the way to an 8-3 finish behind a defense that was somehow #1 in Weighted DVOA by season's end? Their offense, led by Stephen Davis and not a whole lot else (Tony Banks at QB! Rod Gardner as leading receiver!), was 26th in DVOA but over the course of the season improved to finish actually average by weighted DVOA (16th). Tanier says they were filled with overpriced veterans but that's not really true- Marty took a chainsaw to the roster, and the only really overpriced veterans were Bruce Smith, Dan Wilkinson, and maybe Eric Metcalf (not counting Deion, who retired before the season, or Jeff George, who was cut after Week 2). They weren't exactly fun to watch, but if a coaching performance can be gritty, that was it.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 6:51pm

Schottenheimer was a great, great, coach, and it is indicative of the vapid nature of football pundits generally that he'll never have much of a chance of getting to the HOF.

by Vincent Verhei :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 6:52pm

"For all that we hate the idea of bad teams in the playoffs, over the past ten years, sixth seeds have been the very definition of competitive, winning half their wildcard games."

I dispute this notion that victory in the postseason validates a team's presence there. Bad teams beat good teams in the regular season all the time. Doesn't mean they're not bad teams.

I've seen enough mediocre teams entering the postseason and getting hot and winning (or nearly winning) Super Bowls. I'd much rather see championship teams that are great from September to February. If anything, I'd support playoff contraction.

by Steve in WI :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 7:17pm

But the teams that win three or four games in the playoffs aren't flukes, either. I'd argue that if the so-called great teams really were that great, then they wouldn't lose in the playoffs to 9-7 wild card teams.

I don't really have an axe to grind about what the Super Bowl winner's record is one way or the other, though, as long as they deserve to win the games they win and it doesn't come down to a botched call. I'm not in favor of expansion but neither would I want to see the playoffs contracted. In the current system of two wild cards per conference, I think it's far more common for a deserving team to be left out than for an undeserving wild card team to make it in.

by Cythammer :: Fri, 03/21/2014 - 11:21pm

There's no possible way that a sample size of (at most) four games outweighs 16 games. Of course a team can be great and lose their first playoff games. It's a myth that there's something 'special' about the playoffs. The greatest team of all time (whoever they might be) would still have a chance of losing to the worst team in their season. We could go back and look at all sorts of regular season losses by Super Bowl champions, even the very dominant ones we think of as among the best teams ever. Were they just not trying in those regular season games? Did they know their magical clutchiness winner sauce would kick in once they got the postseason? No. Of course not. Imagine an alternate universe where the Seahawks' playoff win over the Saints was somehow transmogrified into a regular season win and their first playoff game was instead that loss to the Cardinals. That Seahawks team would be exactly equal in quality to ours, but… they would obviously be seen in a very different light.

by t.d. :: Mon, 03/24/2014 - 11:11am

The team that seems to draw this ire most, the 2011 Giants, fininshed 13-7 against a murderers row of a schedule (Packers twice, 49ers twice, Patriots twice, loss to the Saints) I think it's been overstated how unworthy they really were

by Perfundle :: Mon, 03/24/2014 - 3:19pm

I don't think it's so much the record as the fact that they lost by double digits twice to the 5-11 Redskins. You can contrast their reputation with the 2007 Giants, who also faced its share of top teams: the Packers twice, the Cowboys three times and the Patriots twice. That team actually suffered some even bigger losses, but at least they didn't lose to any teams with losing records (the 2011 Giants also lost at home to 7-9 Seattle).

by nat :: Tue, 03/25/2014 - 3:05pm

Teams in the playoffs don't need your, my, or anyone's validation. A sixth seed has at least the sixth best record in the conference. Who else would you have as the sixth seed? Some even worse team?

We're talking about one extra game for each second seed team here. If the 7th seeds are strong enough that a road upset is more than a remote possibility, that seems to mean the 7th seeds will likely give us a quality game to watch.

On the flip side, if we contracted back to 5 teams (with the three best division leaders getting byes), we'd be giving up those 3rd-6th games on Wild Card weekend. If you look at those teams' DVOAs for the past decade, you'd be giving up a lot of well-matched games, including 9 of 20 where the 6th seed was as good or better than the other team by FO's flagship stat.

The Vikings beating the Packers 31-17 in 2004 seems like the only first round win by a sixth seed in the past ten years that was even a bit surprising by DVOA. They differed by a whopping 11% DVOA. It's hard to call that a huge injustice, or the Packers more deserving to move on to the next round.