The NFL Luck Factor: Records Lie, Numbers Don’t

As one of the lowest scoring teams in the NFL, Brock Osweiler's 4-2 Texans have been living a charmed life. (Getty Images)

As one of the lowest scoring teams in the NFL, Brock Osweiler’s 4-2 Texans have been living a charmed life. (Getty Images)

– Bill Annechino

Week 6 is a great week because it’s right in that sweet spot of overreactions where week 4 is too soon to react to anything and by week 8, your team pretty much is what it is. In week 6, it’s not too early to start feeling good about your team’s chances and it’s not too late for your team to right the ship. There are a few things we know for certain at this point, like the Patriots and Vikings are good and the Browns and Bears are bad. We also, through the magic of advanced stats, know which teams are primed for regression, both positively and negatively. In this column, I’m going to look at a few teams that I think are succeeding with smoke and mirrors, and a few teams that I would expect to turn things around.

To do this, I am going to look at a few numbers. Expected records are calculated using a Pythagorean Win Expectation, and the projected records are calculated using current win-loss records. I will be taking the difference between the projected wins and the expected wins, and I will be calling this number the Luck Factor. The mean Luck Factor for the NFL was an even 0, which stands to reason. The standard deviation, meanwhile, sits at 2.3, so anything beyond a +/- 2.3 should be considered highly unusual. A good way to think of this Luck Factor is to put it into the perspective of Wins Above Replacement in baseball, where a Luck Factor of 0 would indicate that a team played exactly as well as they would be expected to, based on their points scored and allowed. So, over the course of a full season, a team with a Luck Factor of -2 can say that “Luck” cost them 2 wins.

First, let’s look at the team that has been the luckiest in the NFL so far. The Houston Texans have a point differential that would suggest a 6.5-9.5 team. However, they sit at first place in the AFC South with a record of 4-2, on pace for a 10.7-5.3 season, giving them a Luck Factor of 4.2 (see how that works?). Would you believe it if I told you that 3 of their 4 wins have come against the Bears, Titans and Colts? How about if I told you that, when they played the Vikings and (Brady-less) Patriots, they lost by a combined 45 points? By virtue of playing in the worst division in the league, the Texans have posted a winning record and seem to be in good position to make the playoffs. However, it would be surprising to me if they finished between the 10 and 11 wins they are projected to have. They simply do not score enough points, and their defense is allowing more points than you would expect, given its reputation. I think that 8-8 could very well win the AFC South this year, and the Texans may be well on their way to that record.

David Johnson and the Cardinals have been one of the unluckiest teams in the league so far. (Getty Images)

David Johnson and the Cardinals have been one of the unluckiest teams in the league so far. (Getty Images)

Let’s continue with a tale of 3 teams: the Cardinals, the Eagles and the San Diego Superchargers. These teams all rank among the unluckiest teams in the league, with the Cardinals posting a Luck Factor of -3.4, the Eagles with a -3.0 and the Chargers bottoming out at a -3.7. They all have plus-offenses, with each team on pace to post over 400 points (the Eagles doing so in 1 fewer game than the other 2). We all know that the Chargers defense is bad, but their offense has been so good that they have looked like a team that would finish 9-7, rather than the 5.3 wins they are projected to have. This makes sense because, if you’ve been watching the Chargers this season, you know that they have blown multiple 4th quarter leads in stunning fashion. They let the Chiefs and Saints come storming back, and the Colts were able to strip rookie tight end Hunter Henry on what should have been a game-sealing drive. So both in advanced stats, and actual game film, the Chargers have been extremely unlucky. It’s nice when we numbers confirm what our eyes are seeing, isn’t it?

The Cardinals and Eagles, meanwhile, are “unlucky” because they are talented teams who are underperforming, albeit in largely different ways. The Cardinals have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL and were a popular preseason Super Bowl pick. They already have 2 blowout wins on their resume this year, but their offense has failed to get off the ground in their 3 losses. Consider that, in their 3 losses, they are averaging 17.3 points per game. Meanwhile, they are averaging 33.7 points in their 3 wins, meaning they are essentially twice as good in the games they are winning as the games they are losing. You won’t find a more high-variance team in the league than the Cardinals, whose highs are as high as any team in the league, but their lows are among the worst. Their Luck Factor comes in at a -3.4, good for the 4th least-lucky team in the league. This suggests that teams that are able to blow teams out like the Cardinals do rarely end up being flummoxed as often as the Cardinals have been this year. However, this low Luck Factor means that the odds are they are going to turn their season around. They are projected to finish at 8-8, but they are expected to be an 11.4-4.6 team. Given this team’s proven knack for going on long winning streaks, the Cardinals are as good a team as any to turn their fortunes around.

The Eagles, meanwhile, are unlucky because they have been such a complete team that their losses are surprising. Their 34-3 beating of the Steelers ranks as one of the most impressive victories of the entire NFL season thus far. What makes them unlucky is that they have a 1 point loss to the Lions and a 7 point loss to the Redskins this week. History says that a team’s record in 1 score games can be expected to be .500. Being 0-2 at a relatively early point in the season contributes heavily to their Luck Factor of -3. Luck Factor isn’t perfect yet at this early point in the season because it assumes that the Eagles will keep winning and losing games at the pace which they have been so far. What it is saying is that, if this does happen, they will have lost 3 fewer games than a team of their skill level should have.

What I really love about this Luck Factor is that it confirms what I have been saying about teams like the Los Angeles Rams: what they are doing is not sustainable. The Rams are currently 3-3, with a Luck Factor of 2.0. All of their wins have been of the 1-score variety, giving them a record of 3-1. Los Angeles has also won a game in which neither team scored a touchdown, and the 49ers hammered them in week 1 (28-0), which will account for some of this early-ish season Luck Factor. It is important to note that the Rams have only broken 20 points in 2 of their games so far, which suggests a relatively bad team. Their Luck Factor dictates that they are a candidate to regress soon. They are on pace for 8-8, but their Expected record of 6-10 feels a lot more like the team we have seen through 6 weeks.

A humorous by-product of the Luck Factor is that you can use it to infuriate fans of teams like the Giants, by (accurately) telling them that their team has been lucky this season, when I’m sure Giants fans feel like this is far from the case. If you have any Packers fans in your life, tell them that their team has been 3 times luckier than the Eagles this year and see if that person remains in your life.

The Seahawks have been lucky this year, and it goes beyond getting away with pass interference on the last play of the game. (Getty Images)

The Seahawks have been lucky this year, and it goes beyond getting away with pass interference on the last play of the game. (Getty Images)

For me, the idea to write this column came about when I was engaged in a Hard Foul group chat about the Seattle Seahawks. I have long contended that Seattle is one of the luckiest teams in the league, with strong anecdotal evidence supporting this. Remember how the Replacement Ref Fail Mary, Blair Walsh miss, Calvin Johnson/KJ Wright fumble all famously went Seattle’s way? This week, it was more of the same, as the referees missed one of the most blatant defensive pass interference calls of the year when they allowed Julio Jones to be tackled on what would have put the Falcons in position for a game-winning field goal attempt. So, I wanted to know if Seattle really has been lucky or if I’m just a former resident of the Pacific Northwest who can’t stand to see all these Seahawks fans coming out of the woodwork now, whereas when I was growing up in Southern Washington, you wouldn’t have even known our state had an NFL team. Well, I am pleased to announce that the Seahawks have a Luck Factor of 2.1 this season, meaning that they have been lucky. Looking at their schedule and results, it’s easy to see how. They have played 3 1-score games, going 2-1 in those games. In addition, they have been “lucky” to open their season with games against the Dolphins, Rams, 49ers and Jets, before finally playing a good team this week (who they admittedly did defeat). All of these factors combine to create a team that is both statistically and classically lucky.

So now that I have outlined some of the more interesting cases of luck in the NFL this week, you’re probably wondering if I am going to give you, the fans, something you can actually use. Well, I aim to please, so let’s go rapid fire and I will attempt to talk a few of you off the ledge, put early season success into perspective for some of you, and pile on a few miserable fan bases. Washington clocks in with a Luck Factor of 2.7, so it would appear that this 4 game winning streak will not translate to a playoff appearance. Vikings fans, I hate to tell you this but you probably won’t finish 16-0, although your projected win total of 13.1 is nothing to be ashamed of. Broncos fans, your team is essentially exactly who you think it is, so that’s probably a good thing as I would expect you guys to finish with right around 10 wins. Cincinnati is one of my favorite cities to drive through, mostly because I know that, after I cross through, I’m less than 8 hours away from my beloved hometown of Rochester, New York. However, your football team has been neither lucky or unlucky, just ordinary bad. The Colts’ offense has been too good for them to finish with the 5 wins they’re projected to. Combine their Luck Factor of -1.9 with the Texans’ insanely high Luck Factor and the fact that the Titans and Jaguars have almost no Luck Factor, and there’s reason to believe that you guys may be playing football into January.

Being that this is a predominantly Western New York audience, you people are probably wondering if I skipped the part about the Bills. Well, I am pleased to inform you that not only have I not skipped the Bills, I actually have good news. Buffalo started the season slow, but has strung together 4 straight wins to climb into the AFC Playoff picture and a projected record of 10.7-5.3. Unlike Washington’s 4 game winning streak, the Bills’ winning streak is something that I expect them to build on. With a Luck Factor of -1.2 and an expected record of 11.9-4.1, the Bills are a team that the advanced stats believe are a well-rounded football team that has weathered the early storm and is poised to keep playing good football.

That’s all I have for now about luck. It’s a concept that I will revisit many times this season, seeing which teams I figured out and which ones continue to buck the trends. Hopefully you’re happy with your team’s performance and these numbers only give you optimism. I’ve provided a full chart of every team’s Luck Factor, if you didn’t see your team mentioned here or would like a visual representation:

luck_factor_week_6

Bill Annechino– Bill Annechino (Twitter)

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