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08 Dec 2003

Second Half Success

by Michael David Smith

It sounds like a good theory: If you want to pick the surprise teams for next year, take a look at which of this year's weaker teams came on toward the end of the season. If a team misses the playoffs in 2003 but finishes with a winning record in the second half of the season, it stands to reason that the team's progress will continue in 2004.

And this year's limited sample would seem to lend credence to the theory. Two teams failed to make the playoffs in 2002 despite having winning records in the second half of the season - New England, which finished 5-3 after a 4-4 start, and Seattle, which finished 5-3 after a 2-6 start. Sure enough, both of those teams appear poised to make the playoffs this year.

But an examination of all the teams since 1990 that failed to make the playoffs despite a winning record in the final eight games reveals that those teams usually don't make the playoffs the next year, either.

Let's say, for example, that in August of 1998 you had wanted to pick the surprise teams of the season. So you took a look at which 1997 teams seemed to turn it around in the second half of the year. In the NFC, you would have noticed that the Falcons were 1-7 halfway through the season, then caught fire to go 6-2 during the last eight games. You would've said the Falcons would be the surprise team of the NFC. Sure enough, the Falcons made the Super Bowl. You would have looked like a genius.

But if you had applied the same thinking to the AFC, you would have looked like an idiot. The Bengals were identical to the Falcons in 1997: 1-7 in the first half, 6-2 in the second half. But the Bengals regressed to 3-13 in 1998. That earned them the third pick in the 1999 draft, which, in typical Bengals fashion, they used on Akili Smith.

(And while I would hate to pile on the Bengals of the Bruce Coslet era, here, just for kicks, are the other players the Bengals picked that year: Charles Fisher, Cory Hall, Craig Yeast, Nick Williams, Kelly Gregg, Tony Coats, Scott Covington and Donald Broomfield. When Marvin Lewis opened his first training camp this year, he didn't invite one of those players. Wouldn't you think they'd get at least one decent player through dumb luck?)

But I digress. Here is the full list of teams that missed the playoffs despite a winning record in their final eight games since 1990, when the league expanded to six playoff teams.

Year Team Final 8
Next Year
Next Year
1990 IND 5-3 7-9 1-15 ---
1990 PIT 5-3 7-9 9-7 ---
1990 SEA 6-2 9-7 7-9 ---
1991 MIA 5-3 8-8 11-5 lost AFC Championship
1991 PHI 7-1 10-6 11-5 lost divisional playoff
1991 MIN 5-3 8-8 11-5 lost wild card
1991 SF 6-2 10-6 14-2 lost NFC Championship
1992 IND 5-3 9-7 4-12 ---
1992 GB 6-2 9-7 9-7 lost divisional playoff
1993 PHX 5-3 7-9 8-8 ---
1994 IND 5-3 8-8 9-7 lost AFC Championship
1994 LA Raid 5-3 9-7 8-8 ---
1994 NYG 6-2 9-7 5-11 ---
1994 ARZ 5-3 8-8 4-12 ---
1995 SEA 6-2 8-8 7-9 ---
1995 MIN 5-3 8-8 9-7 lost wild card
1995 NO 5-3 7-9 3-13 ---
1996 CIN 6-2 8-8 7-9 ---
1996 TB 5-3 6-10 10-6 lost divisional playoff
1997 CIN 6-2 7-9 3-13 ---
1997 ATL 6-2 7-9 14-2 lost Super Bowl
1997 WAS 4-3-1 8-7-1 6-10 ---
1998 NYG 5-3 8-8 7-9 ---
1998 WAS 5-3 6-10 10-6 lost divisional playoff
1999 BAL 5-3 8-8 12-4 won Super Bowl
1999 NYJ 6-2 8-8 9-7 ---
1999 CAR 5-3 8-8 7-9 ---
2000 JAX 5-3 7-9 6-10 ---
2000 GB 6-2 9-7 12-4 lost divisional playoff
2001 ARZ 5-3 7-9 5-11 ---
2001 SEA 5-3 9-7 7-9 ---
2001 WAS 5-3 8-8 7-9 ---
Average wins 5.0 8.0 7.9  
2002 NE 5-3 9-7 season still in progress
2002 SEA 5-3 7-9 season still in progress

So from 1990 to 2001, 32 teams missed the playoffs despite having a winning record in their final eight games. Of those, only 12 made the playoffs the following year.

Some observations from this research:

* The Colts won more games after Thanksgiving in 1992 (five) than they won in all of 1993 (four). Those '92 Colts are a good example of why point differential and strength of schedule can be better indicators of a team's quality than simply won-lost record. Yes, the '92 Colts finished the season winning five straight, but all five of those wins were close (their total winning margin was only 20 points), and the five teams they beat finished with a combined 26-54 record. (Ed. note: You may also remember the '92 Colts as the "most overachieving team of all time" from our preseason article on the Pythagorean theorem and football.) It wasn't until 1994 that the Colts started to turn it around, when they drafted Marshall Faulk. He led them in rushing and receptions both as a rookie and again in 1995, when they finally made the postseason in a non-strike year for the first time since 1977.  

* One thing that jumped out at me as I researched this was how many of those teams were in the midst of coaching changes. In fairness to Coslet, for instance, he took over the 1996 Bengals from Dave Shula after seven games and oversaw that turnaround from 2-6 first half team to 6-2 second half team. But in the long run the Coslet-led Bengals were only a little better than the Shula-led Bengals.

The 1991 Vikings missed the playoffs in Jerry Burns' last year but made it in 1992, Dennis Green's first year. Ditto for the Eagles, who missed in 1991 under Buddy Ryan but made it in 1992 under Rich Kotite.

The '92 Packers finished strong in their first year after Mike Holmgren replaced Lindy Infante (who didn't make the playoffs once in his four years), and then made the playoffs in '93. The '95 Colts made the AFC Championship with Ted Marchibroda, but he was replaced by Infante, who went 12-21 in his two seasons. The moral, I guess, is don't hire Lindy Infante to coach your football team.

The '96 Bucs took a little while to get used to Tony Dungy as Sam Wyche's replacement, going 1-7 in his first eight games, but after that they finished 5-3 in '96 and then made the playoffs in '97. Same for the '97 Falcons, who started 1-7 under Dan Reeves after June Jones got the axe, only to finish 6-2 and play in the Super Bowl the next year. And in a few weeks, the coaching cycle will begin anew for the Falcons.

The '99 Ravens made their second-half turnaround in Brian Billick's first year after he replaced Marchibroda, then won the Super Bowl in Billick's second year. And the 2000 Packers had their big second-half turnaround in Mike Sherman's first year after the one-season Ray Rhodes experiment. The Packers haven't missed the playoffs since.

* It's hard to figure out the 1991 49ers. It was their first year without Joe Montana (still on the roster but unable to play because of an elbow injury), and they went 5-5 in their first 10 games with Steve Young at quarterback. But starting with the 11th game, Steve Bono was their starter, and they finished on a 5-1 tear. It's not surprising that they made the playoffs the next year, but looking only at 1991 it's a bit surprising that they did it with Young, who defied his Bay Area critics and led the 49ers to the playoffs (and won the MVP) in 1992.  (Ed. note: This is another team that's been discussed in a past article; check out the Tampa/Carolina comment in this NFC Midseason Report.)

* Like the 49ers, the Eagles lost their quarterback for the 1991 season, started slowly, finished strong and made the playoffs in 1992. But unlike the 49ers, the Eagles got their quarterback, Randall Cunningham, back, and he led them into the playoffs.

* The 1991-92 Dolphins are a strange case. After that 5-3 second-half finish in '91, they got off to a 6-0 start in '92, but then they had a 2-5 stretch, only to win their last three regular season games, dominate the Chargers in the divisional playoffs and then get dominated by the Bills in the AFC Championship.

* The 1998 Redskins lost their first seven games before finishing by winning six of their last nine and continuing with a playoff season in 1999. But the 1999 Redskins were just a mediocre team that won the games they should have won and lost the games they should have lost. The '99 'Skins were 9-1 against teams that didn't make the playoffs and 1-5 against teams that made the playoffs. And by the way, that one win was against the Dolphins, in the last game of the season, when the Dolphins were already locked into the last wild card spot and had nothing to play for. So the Redskins finished 10-6 that year because they had 10 bad teams on their schedule and six good teams. If they had had five bad teams and 11 good teams, I would imagine they would've gone 5-11.

So what can we learn from all this? Basically, that if you're going to Vegas this summer to put some money on Jacksonville based on the Jags' recent success, you might be better off just hitting the roulette table and putting that money on red.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 08 Dec 2003