Tuesday, July 09, 2019

The Adjusted Pythagorean Record in the NFL Part III: The Biggest Overachievers

Over the past few weeks, I’ve introduced the Adjusted Pythagorean Record in the NFL and identified a few teams worthy of keeping an eye on in 2019. Now I want to take a look at the APR outliers, that is, the teams that have over or under-performed the most relative to their APR. This post will examine the biggest overachievers and later in the week, we’ll look at the biggest underachievers.

First some housekeeping notes. While I have APR data going back to 1970 (the first season after the AFL and NFL merged), we will only be looking at teams that played sixteen regular season games so that every team is on the same level. The time period covered is 1978 through 2018 with the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons excluded. In addition to listing the difference in each teams’ actual record and their APR, I will also include their record in close games (eight points or less), their turnover margin, and their non-offensive touchdown net. With that out of the way, let’s count down the NFL’s biggest overachievers of the past forty years.

Despite allowing more touchdowns (31) than they scored (24) on offense, the Detroit Lions actually won the old NFC Norris in 1993. While the Lions were fortunate to win ten games based on their play, they were a little unlucky in the sense they only got eleven games out of star running back Barry Sanders. 1993 marked the only season of Sanders’ illustrious career where he did not play at least fifteen games. Despite the abbreviated campaign, Sanders still managed to top 1000 yards on the ground and finished second to MVP Emmitt Smith in rushing yards per game. The Lions made their hay in close games, finishing 6-1 in the regular season, but in somewhat ironic fashion, their season ended in a four point home loss to the Green Bay Packers (the first career playoff win for Brett Favre).

The old Los Angeles Rams allowed one more touchdown (26) than they scored (25) on offense in 1978, but managed to win twelve games and the NFC West. The Rams started out hot, winning their first seven games, but went just 5-4 after mid-October. The Rams won their fair share of close games, but also benefited from a plethora of non-offensive touchdowns. The Rams scored eight non-offensive touchdowns (while allowing only two) with defensive back Rod Perry taking three interceptions back for touchdowns en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance. The Rams did win their playoff opener, but lost the NFC Championship Game in non-competitive fashion to the Dallas Cowboys.

Young readers of this blog might be surprised to find out the Indianapolis Colts used to reside in Baltimore. 1983 marked their final season in Maryland and while the Colts finished with a mediocre 7-9 record, it could have been much worse. The Colts allowed twice as many touchdowns (44) as they scored on offense (22). The Colts were a little lucky, but not exceptionally so in any category. No, the reason the Colts rank as one of the NFL’s largest overachievers is because when they lost, they really lost. As you can tell by their close game mark, the Colts lost four close games. Their other five losses came by a combined 103 points (roughly 21 per game if you are scoring at home). The Colts were actually 6-4 at one point and at least theoretically in contention for a playoff appearance before dropping five of their last six games. College football enthusiasts may recognize the coach of the Colts, Frank Kush. Kush coached Arizona State for more than two decades and shepherded the Sun Devils from the Border Conference to the WAC and finally to the (then) Pac-10. Alas, allegations of player abuse and interference into the investigation of those allegations caused Kush to be terminated. Kush coached the Colts for parts of three seasons and 1983 was as good as it got. He was fired the next season once the Colts were all settled in Indianapolis. Kush won just eleven games as an NFL coach, or one less than he won as coach of the Sun Devils in 1975.

Hey look, it’s the Colts again. Led by Captain Comeback and some guy with two first names, the Colts somehow managed to win nine games and qualify for the playoffs despite allowing twelve more touchdowns (37) then they scored on offense (25). Aside from Jim Harbaugh and Paul Justin, the Colts also had two eventual Hall of Famers on their roster in Marshall Faulk and Marvin Harrison. At the tender age of 23, after accumulating over 3000 yards from scrimmage in his first two seasons, Faulk somehow managed just three yards per carry for the Colts in 1996. Meanwhile, Harrison showed flashes of brilliance down the stretch, scoring five touchdowns and accumulating over 400 receiving yards in the season’s final five games. In their playoff game, the Colts actually held a halftime lead over the Steelers (in a rematch of the 1995 AFC Championship Game), but were soundly beaten in the second half.

Its weird Kansas City stands as the largest overachiever in the NFL. The Chiefs actually allowed more than twice as many touchdowns (37) as they scored on offense (18), but they were not exceptionally fortunate in close games and actually had a negative turnover margin. Like the 1983 Baltimore Colts, when the Chiefs lost, they lost big. In their five defeats that were not classified as close, they lost by a combined 165 points (or 33 per game)! Despite their struggles, the Chiefs only finished a game out of first place in the mediocre AFC West. In fact, had the Chiefs beaten just one more of their non-AFC West opponents, we could have been looking at a four-way 8-8 tie atop the division.

Check back later this week for the biggest underachievers.

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