Bengals Looking to Overachieve Again
NFL Offseason - Every year, we here at Football Outsiders do our best to accurately forecast the upcoming season. We run thousands of simulations taking into account major offseason personnel changes, players returning from injury, potential development from draft picks, continuity on the offensive line, and numerous other variables in an attempt to provide the best predictions out there.
Considering how difficult predicting the future can be, 2021 went quite well. There was a .74 correlation between our mean projected wins and teams' actual win totals, and a .73 correlation between our projected DVOA and teams' actual DVOA. For the most part, teams were more or less as good as we anticipated them being.
For the most part, that is, because there's always an exception or two that falls through the cracks, a team that unexpectedly gels or crumbles. You didn't exactly see too many people predicting the Cincinnati Bengals would come out of the AFC when all was said and done!
Today, we're looking at the five teams that outperformed their win projections the most, looking at just what we missed and whether or not last year's success was sustainable, or just a mirage.
A quick methodological note before we begin. Our rankings are based on how many standard deviations each team beat or fell short of its projection, rather than just looking at the raw numbers. When you run thousands and thousands of simulations, it's a very rare team indeed that has an average DVOA over 20.0% or performs better than 12-5. But each NFL season only happens one time, so outlier results not only happen, but are expected—someone keeps rolling sevens all season long, it's just difficult to predict who. We're not here to explain that the best teams are better than their projections because that's how simulations work. We want to focus on the teams that got grouped wrong to begin with: the bad teams that became average or the average teams that became good.
1. Cincinnati Bengals (1.32)
Projected Wins: 7.2; -0.80 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 10 +0.52 Standard Deviations
If you count the three playoff games the Bengals won en route to their narrow defeat in Super Bowl LVI, they would be way out in front on this list. In a season as out-of-nowhere as any in recent memory, Cincy rode the Joey-to-Ja'Marr combo, a red-hot kicker, and a defense that turned extremely stingy in the postseason to the cusp of a most unexpected championship.
OK—but what have you done for me lately?
Before the Bengals won the AFC title, they won the AFC North, proving their unexpected rise was also a regular-season phenomenon. There were many factors (including slight but noticeable uniform changes and adding a long-desired Ring of Honor to Paul Brown Stadium—hey, sometimes karma matters!). Joe Burrow playing the whole season was of course reason 1-A. The emergence of Ja'Marr Chase as a dominant downfield threat who opened up the entire offense was 1-B. Most surprising was the run defense, which was top-15 all season, a stunning development after horrific showings in the previous couple of years. Cincy's pass defense remained iffy at best (24th overall), but stuffing the run allowed the Bengals to hang around in games despite slow starts (29th in first-quarter offense DVOA). Other teams were unable to drain clock, and the Bengals took over after halftime (fifth in third-quarter offense DVOA). They were also top-ten on offense in "late and close" situations, and rookie kicker Evan "Ten-Time Future All-Pro" MacPherson won multiple games with late kicks, even before his amazing postseason.
While Cincy fans are obsessing over making a Super Bowl return trip, clearly that will be difficult, even though the team has done a yeoman's job of fixing the offensive line in free agency. The Bengals actually had a negative DVOA (by a single percentage point, but still) in 2021. Leaving aside all the luck (health, opponent, on-field) required to make a title run, the roster as it currently stands still has holes, and escaping the loaded AFC looks tougher than ever after the recent flurry of trades and signings. The Bengals could well improve in both projection and results in 2022 but still fall short of another conference championship—or for that matter, a division title.
Tennessee Titans (1.28)
Projected Wins: 8.4; -0.06 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 12; +1.21 Standard Deviations
If we were going by actual win differential instead of using standard deviations, Tennessee would be on top of this list. Projected to win 8.4 games, they actually won 12, a difference of 3.6, or nearly a full game over Cincy's 2.8. But of course, they won precisely zero playoff games.
The Titans captured the AFC's top seed despite losing Derrick Henry for the back half of the season, only to be felled by Cincinnati in the divisional round (Henry played in the game, but alas, so did Ryan Tannehill). As it happens, the Titans weren't better statistically than the Bengals in the regular season, either, finishing below the Cats in DVOA and turning in the lowest DVOA ever for a top seed.
How did Tennessee win so many games with such meh metrics? Well, the pass defense was strong (11th in DVOA), mainly achieved by pass rush (10th in adjusted sack rate) and strong coverage of tight ends and backs (top-10 in both stats). Wideouts did just fine against a mediocre Titans secondary though. Indeed, the Bengals loss was a microcosm of the season—nine sacks were great, 348 passing yards allowed were not.
Really, there is no precise metric to explain Tennessee's success. There was an "analytics and experts be damned, no one believes in us!" vibe as the Titans started 8-2, including wins over the Bills, Chiefs, Colts, and Rams in an incredible four-game stretch that pretty much earned Mike Vrabel Coach of the Year honors. The 4-3 stretch to close the season—which included a trio of wins by a field goal or less, a loss to the Texans, and losses to playoff-bound Pittsburgh and New England—was more telling of Tennessee's actual quality, especially without Henry on the field.
The big fella (according to Pro Football Reference, Henry's alternate nickname is "Tractorcito," which is many, many standard deviations better than "King Henry") will be back for his age-28 season in 2022, and the injury that cost him half the season kept him from a third consecutive 300-plus-carry campaign, a likely benefit. Nevertheless, Tannehill and his monstrous contract remain at quarterback, and our (very) very early (repeat: very) DVOA projections have the Titans in much the same spot as they finished last year, 17th overall. The team has been mostly quiet thus far in free agency, retaining pass-rusher Harold Landry (to the tune of $35 million in guaranteed dough), choosing center Ben Jones over guard Rodger Saffold, and letting wideout Julio Jones and running back D'Onta Foreman (who was very good in Henry's absence) leave.
The AFC South remains a tire fire, so 2022 could look similar in Nashville, with more wins than the metrics would indicate, either projected or actual. Just don't bet on Tennessee repeating as top seed.
3. Arizona Cardinals (1.11)
Projected Wins: 8.1; -0.25 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 11; +0.87 Standard Deviations
Admit it, you forgot the Cardinals won 11 games in 2021, right? The season ended with such a thudding kerplop, including a division title-losing defeat to Seattle and a humiliating first-round playoff rout by the Rams, that the team's 7-0 start feels ancient—like it was achieved by the Chicago Cardinals, not the Arizona version.
Once again, the Cards rode the rollercoaster straight down when winter arrived, losing five of their last six games (including the postseason). Quarterback Kyler Murray once more started the season as a giant and proceeded to lose stature until he seemed smaller than his actual 5-foot-10. The offseason has been dominated by talk of Murray's disgruntlement and the status of his social media display. And, oh yeah, the all-time franchise leader in sacks bolted in free agency.
Pessimism, thy color is red and thy spirit animal is a bird!
Let's take a moment to remember that the 2021 Cardinals did plenty of good things under Kliff Kingsbury. The Cards won three more games than the season before for the second straight year. They were 10th in overall DVOA, and a surprising sixth in team defense. Impressively, since the pass rush was just 15th in adjusted sack rate, the pass defense was fifth in DVOA, a feat achieved mainly by taking away opposing top wideouts (third against enemy No. 1s) despite not having much in the way of a lockdown cornerback (Byron Murphy is decent but not exactly Patrick Peterson in his prime). Overall, Vance Joseph's unit played far better than the sum of its parts.
The offense, led by Murray's quicksilver play, was nigh-unstoppable for two months. The unit topped 30 points in seven of the first nine games in 2021. But Kyler & Co. managed the feat just twice the remainder of the way. Worries about Murray's slight stature and history of wearing down over the season, as well as Kingsbury's resume of fast starts followed by tire blowouts when the holidays approach, were exacerbated as the Cards faded.
Arizona's prospects for 2022 are in flux, depending on Murray's whims, contract jealousies, and biorhythms at any given moment. The aforementioned sack champ, Chandler Jones, left in free agency, as did offensive pieces Christian Kirk and Chase Edmonds, without any offsetting imports of note (as yet). DVOA-speaking, the Cards remain a borderline top-10 club in our premature projections, but the sense is they would do well to approach their 2021 record.
One thing seems certain—they won't add three wins this time around.
4. Philadelphia Eagles (1.09)
Projected Wins: 7.0; -0.92 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 9; +0.17 Standard Deviations
WIP RADIO HOST: Vinny in Fishtown, you're on the air.
VINNY: Yo, first-time long-time here. How long we gotta put up with the way Howie Roseman is running the Iggles, huh?
WIP: What do you want? They overachieved this past season, you know.
VINNY: That's a stinking blob of Cheez Whiz, man, you know that.
WIP: You're right. Fire that fink. Mitch from East Passyunk, you're on the air!
Far be it from us to ever agree with local sports radio, especially the Philadelphia variety. But it's true—the Eagles, as should have been obvious to everyone not bleeding green, did better than expected in 2021. Thanks to the third-ranked rushing attack in the league, and a surprisingly half-decent performance overall from quarterback Jalen Hurts, the Eagles somehow made the playoffs. Sure, they took the expected beating in the wild-card round, but for anyone to be disappointed in such a campaign under first-year head coach Nick Sirianni … well, he or she would have to be from Philly.
Sirianni was a punching bag after his initial press conference seemed to convey a coach more belly-laugh than Belichick. But Nick the Hick did a laudable job coaching to his talent, and designed run schemes on the fly that maximized the team's efficiency. Philly fans also got to enjoy the vicarious thrill of old friends Carson Wentz and Frank Reich imploding in Indy. The idea that those two watched the Sirianni/Hurts duo play on Super-Duper, Out-of-This-World Wild-Card Weekend had to provide even the Vinnys from Fishtowns of the world a wide smile.
As of this writing, the plan is to run it back with Hurts at quarterback, even as the defense will tangle with Commander Wentz twice a season now. With two first-round picks in the draft and newly signed edge rusher Haason Reddick (a Temple grad who no doubt spent some formative days booing the local 11) on hand to help the anemic pass rush (28th in adjusted sack rate), the 2022 version of the Eagles should receive a talent infusion. And of course, they remain in the NFC East, fittingly the direct opposite of the AFC West geographically as well as in pigskin acumen.
As such, another nine-win season is possible, though it might well not earn the Eagles the "overachieving" label. And if you thought Vinny was angry last season…
5. Los Angeles Chargers (0.97)
Projected Wins: 7; -0.80 Standard Deviations
Actual Wins: 9; +0.17 Standard Deviations
The standard impression of 2021 for the Los Angeles team that didn't win the Super Bowl was that of underachievement. The Chargers not only didn't win the Super Bowl, they didn't make the postseason, despite the presence of an emerging superstar at quarterback playing on a rookie deal. It certainly didn't help perceptions that Justin Herbert was watching at home (or, perhaps, bringing grocery carts into the store from the parking lot) while his fellow second-year slinger, Joe Burrow, was playing on Herbert's home field in the big game.
Regardless of optics, the Bolts actually did better than projected—quite a bit better in DVOA and top-five in this category as well. The excellence of their fourth-rated offense offset the expected lousiness of the defense and special teams, a tribute to just how good Herbert (fifth in DYAR) was as a sophomore, along with running back Austin Ekeler (third in DYAR), wideout Mike Williams (10th), and an offensive line that went from 29th to 10th in adjusted line yards and 14th to fifth in adjusted sack rate.
Alas, the other two phases, along with some decisions by first-year coach Brandon Staley best filed under "Learning Curve," conspired to sink L.A.'s postseason chances. The Chargers were just +15 in point differential despite being fifth in the league in points scored, which speaks to the need for a defensive upgrade (see below). Meanwhile, Staley's ultra-aggressive tendencies on fourth downs and two-point tries at times seemed more a cry for help rather than an analytical approach to the game, particularly in critical division losses down the stretch to the Chiefs and Raiders. Turning those two Ls into Ws would have put L.A. in the playoffs, redefined Staley and Herbert's rep, and, most of all, allowed them to top this particular list rather than coming in fifth.
To the team's credit, the Chargers continue to be all-in while Herbert is relatively cheap. One season after attacking the weakness along the offensive line, the franchise has gone after its defensive ineptitude with a vengeance so far this offseason. Trading for Khalil Mack and signing J.C. Jackson and Sebastian Joseph-Day in free agency signal an all-out attempt to fix what ails the team on that side of the ball. Williams was also re-signed to a rich deal to ensure Herbert's weaponry remains advanced. Even special teams, a bugaboo for the Chargers seemingly since the days of John Hadl and Lance Alworth, was addressed. In what may well prove to be the most important move of the offseason, L.A. signed top-flight long snapper Josh Harris away from Atlanta.
Remember, the (Deviation) Devil is in the Details…
Despite the Cold War-style arms buildup in the AFC West, the Chargers—alone on this list, perhaps—seem primed to improve upon their overachievement in 2021 and keep their arrow pointed up.