Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

04 Aug 2014

ESPN: Most Likely Teams to Go Worst to First

Part I of II today at ESPN Insider. Based on FO simulations, which team is most likely to go from fourth place to first place this season? The surprising answer is Buffalo, followed by Houston and Tampa Bay. In last place among the last place teams: Oakland.

Posted by: Tom Gower on 04 Aug 2014

29 comments, Last at 06 Aug 2014, 2:46pm by mehllageman56


by Sporran :: Mon, 08/04/2014 - 12:52pm

Out of curiosity, in what percentage of your simulations did no team jump from worst to first? I'm guessing that, with 8 divisions of four teams each, the odds of at least one team doing it are pretty good.

by Tom Gower :: Mon, 08/04/2014 - 2:43pm

Good question, by which I mean it's one I didn't consider in writing the piece. Assuming they're independent, the 8 respective odds give about 70.5% chance of there being a worst to first team.

by PaddyPat :: Mon, 08/04/2014 - 8:32pm

If Buffalo has the best odds, that doesn't sound like very good odds. Running over them, (and I don't get Insider) it seems like Minnesota is highly unlikely, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Oakland likewise, so it's just a discussion of whether Washington has a shot vs. Houston, Tampa Bay and Buffalo. It seems to me that Washington and Houston both have a greater history of success. Teams like Buffalo, coming off decade+ spans of losing tend to progress slowly toward becoming winners, at least as far as the eye test goes.

After 15 years of losing, Tampa Bay went from 6-10 in Dungy's first season to 10-6 in his second, but they only came in second in the division.

After more than a decade of losing, Cincinnati went 8-8 in consecutive years before breaking through at 11-5 and winning the division in 2005.

After almost a decade of ineptitude, Detroit went 2-14 and then 6-10 under Schwartz before breaking out at 10-6 in 2011, which, again was not good enough to win the division.

There's sort of a pattern here, am I wrong?

by PaddyPat :: Mon, 08/04/2014 - 8:34pm

Maybe Jim Haslett's first season in New Orleans is a counterargument? Still, these teams don't tend to dominate when they finally start winning, they tend to just be more solidly competitive.

by theslothook :: Mon, 08/04/2014 - 8:35pm

I guess it depends on your definition of what constitutes poor vs mediocre and long vs medium term. The rams were pretty terrible, but the GSOT pretty much vaulted them overnight. The colts were also vaulted overnight as well.

I think Washington actually has more than just an outside shot of being a rebound team. Their qb will be healthier, they got desean in free agency which simultaneously weakened the division leader. Cowboys are a mess on defense and who knows what to believe with the Giants.

by mehllageman56 :: Mon, 08/04/2014 - 8:52pm

I would think Minnesota would have the best chance out of all of them. Sure, they weren't good last year, but they have a new defensive coach in Zimmer, and probably the most pro-ready of the rookie quarterbacks. The offense has talent, it's just a matter of QB play and the defense. Plus, the rest of the division really isn't that great; no one could even manage 9 wins last year. Sure some of that is due to Rodgers and Cutler getting hurt, but those defenses were pretty bad last year.

I wouldn't expect Buffalo to finish first just because they'd need 13 wins to beat out the Pats.

by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 11:38am

I think a healthy Aaron Rodgers would preclude Minnesota from winning the division.

by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 1:12pm

Probably, but they aren't the juggernaut the Pats are. Perhaps Washington has a better chance, but I don't think the Eagles will automatically fall apart either.

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 1:46pm

This might be me as a Brady hater, but I think Rodgers is moderately better than Brady at their respective stages in their careers and while NEs defense was ravaged by injuries last year, GBs was quite injured as well. We have evidence they can play competent defense.

I don't know who's team is better, but I think saying they aren't the juggernaut the Pats are both underrates the Packers and overrates the Pats.

by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 4:40pm

I'm a Jets fan. The Pats just got Darrelle Revis. Do you realize how much better their defense will be this year because of that?

Rodgers is definitely better than Brady, and the Packers have better receivers and running backs. They do not have a better offensive line, or defense, or head coach right now. I am merely pointing out how high a hill Buffalo (and the Jets and Dolphins as well) have to climb to dethrone the Pats, compared to the Vikings. Obviously, the Packers are the division favorite, and should go 3-1 against the AFC East this year, unless they lose Rodgers to injury.

by PaddyPat :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 5:21pm

Since Rodgers' ascendance, the Packers have frequently won 11 games plus or minus. That's very good. One can make attributions however one wants (coaching, schedule, defensive strength, offensive supporting cast, etc.) but the point is that the Pats have been somewhere between 14 and 12 wins for four straight years. That's a juggernaut. I don't think the Brady vs. Rodgers comparison has much to do with the comment.

by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 08/06/2014 - 2:28pm

WINS? God god, man. You're on an advanced stats site. WINS?

2013: NE 18.9% DVOA, GB -6.0%
2012: NE 34.9% DVOA, GB 26.3%
2011: NE 22.8% DVOA, GB 27.0%
2010: NE 44.6% DVOA, GB 23.0%
2009: NE 28.8% DVOA, GB 29.1%

Last year Rodgers was hurt, so there goes that year. Otherwise outside of 2010 I don't see what's making NE a juggernaut and GB not.

by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 08/06/2014 - 2:46pm

Sorry I didn't realize how many games Rodgers missed last year, so I cede the point about GB being a juggernaut. I still think they're more vulnerable than the Pats this season, but as long as Rodgers is healthy they should win the division. Watch out for the Vikings though, both Zimmer and Bridgewater are for real.

So that narrows down the options for worst to first to the Team That Shall Not Be Named and the Falcons. Lets say the Falcons, just because Carolina is definitely not repeating.

by jonnyblazin :: Wed, 08/06/2014 - 1:25am

"I'm a Jets fan. The Pats just got Darrelle Revis. Do you realize how much better their defense will be this year because of that?"

I don't know, I'm not sure if the difference between a motivated Talib and Revis at this stage in his career is that great.

by RickD :: Wed, 08/06/2014 - 12:52pm

How about a Talib and a motivated Revis?

Seriously, Revis is better. Talib is plenty good, but Revis is smarter and works as hard as anybody does.

by mehllageman56 :: Wed, 08/06/2014 - 2:04pm

How about the fact that Revis won't get an assault charge during the season? Talib has the talent to challenge guys like Sherman, Peterson and Revis for the crown, but he doesn't always have his head on straight.

by LionInAZ :: Mon, 08/04/2014 - 8:46pm

Huh. I would have picked Atlanta and Washington over any of these teams, mainly because of the QBs.

by Tom Gower :: Mon, 08/04/2014 - 9:37pm

Falcons finished ahead of the Bucs. There's a different tiebreaker for the draft than for division standings.

by colavs19 :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 11:57am

I love your guys' stuff FO, but I think you're really sleeping on this Pats team. This is the best team in the league assuming they're fully healthy. Buffalo at first is a complete joke. I would say Washington or Houston would be the best bets followed by Tampa.

by Aaron Schatz :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 12:11pm

I just want to point out for the record that we've been accused of "sleeping on the Pats." SEE, IT DOES HAPPEN!!!

(And Buffalo being "the most likely worst to first team" is more about the gap between the Bills and New York/Miami, not problems with the Patriots.)

by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 1:25pm

As a Pats fan, crow, then crow some more. That said, I don't understand how the Jets and Dolphins figure that much into the equation, compared with the team that's won or tied for the division lead every year since 2001.

I don't have ESPN Insider, so I really don't know the whole argument for the Bills, but I do not see it all. EJ Manuel is just as much a question mark as Geno Smith; PFF rated Geno better than Manuel. SEE IT DOES HAPPEN!! Tannehill is simply better than both of them at this point. Sure, the Bills had a better point differential than a 6-10 team last year, but the main reason for this is now the head coach of Cleveland. They have the same defensive personnel as two years ago, when they finished 27th. I don't see them coming close to their defensive rankings as last year, and expect them to give up bombs to lose games just like the Hall of Fame game played this past Sunday.

by PaddyPat :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 1:43pm

I would imagine the significance of Buffalo pushing past New York and Miami in projected performance is the simple truth of the vagaries of the NFL. New England could collapse with a few terrible injuries... although their backup qbs are likely to be much better than Green Bay's last year... Buffalo has a very strong defensive line, a good running game, and now has weapons in the passing game that might give them some separation. I understand the principle here, but New England seems too deep and balanced. The weak spots are defensive line, perhaps wide receiver/ tight end, maybe linebacker depth. Those are the same weaknesses that held them to only 12 wins last year...

by Perfundle :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 1:46pm

you expect the first-string defense to give up bombs like the third-string defense did last Sunday? They didn't even do that during 2012 when they finished 27th, because the actual weakness of their defense has been against the run, for what seems like forever. Since 2005, Buffalo has the worst average DVOA against the run, with their best ranking in that time being 15th.

by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 4:56pm

Here is the Bills' pass defense DVOA the last 4 years:

2013 -22.8 ranked 2nd
2012 13.1 ranked 22nd
2011 11.1 ranked 25th
2010 10.5 ranked 24th

So yes, I don't expect them to have a good pass defense, especially when their star safety fled to New Orleans, and their defensive coordinator left as well. They have a good pass rush, so that will help, but still plays like this happened last year, when their defense was awesome:


Of course that corner is no longer in the NFL, but it was Geno Smith throwing that pass, not Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers, Matt Stafford, Jay Cutler or Peyton Manning. All quarterbacks the Bills face this year, as well as some guy in New England. Twice.

by Perfundle :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 5:45pm

So you're saying that you expect them to do something that every team will likely do sometime in the season, which isn't very insightful. I too expect their defense to regress, but a long pass given up by backups in the first preseason game has nothing to do with it.

by mehllageman56 :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 10:29pm

Ok, you have a point there. But I still think their secondary is suspect. Perhaps Schwartz could cover up the problem, but I doubt he does that good a job of it.

by BJR :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 2:06pm

Subjectively it seems like Houston is the obvious choice here simply because of how poor a division the AFC South is. Jacksonville and Tennessee are two of the worst teams in the league and Indianapolis are a QB injury away from joining them. It won't take much.

by RickD :: Wed, 08/06/2014 - 1:01pm

I would also go with Houston. Indy is going to have to deal with the 1st place schedule while Houston gets the last-place schedule. (OK, that's only a 2-game difference these days, but it could matter.)

Washington is also a good candidate, if RG3 can return to his rookie form under Jay Gruden. But even then I think Philly is in a better position.

Buffalo seems to get hyped in the off-season fairly often. But somehow that never translates into good play on the field. They have a good pass defense, but the Pats completely manhandled them with the running game last season. And on offense, they've got almost nothing.

I suspect the reason the simulations favor Buffalo more than other last-place teams is due to the relative weakness of the Jets and Dolphins. But I'd still have favored Houston. All they have to do is show up with a heartbeat and they're ahead of the Jags, and it won't take much more than that to pass the Titans.

by Rick_and_Roll :: Tue, 08/05/2014 - 5:39pm

Worst to first finishes are usually due to one of three scenarios:

1. An awful division with either no elite team or unexpected decline of an elite team - Denver 2011, KC 2010, Miami 2008 (Brady knee injury)
**Houston would be the best pick here, but if something were to happen to Brady, Buf could fall into this as well.

2. An ascending team, due to a new coach or acquisition of a key player - St Louis 1999, New Orleans 2006
**Reluctantly I would say Tampa fits this best, but the division is very good & their QB situation...

3. A division where all four teams are pretty much equal - Washington 2012, Philly 2013
**Washington, there isn't much separation between the teams in the AFC East. ATL could fall in this as well, but they have more than one team to pass and even Tampa is solid