They Are Who We Think They Are: The NFL Luck Factor Revisited


There's nothing lucky about what the Ravens are doing this season; being perfectly average.

There’s nothing lucky about what the Ravens are doing this season; being perfectly average. (Getty Images)

– Bill Annechino 

A few weeks back, I took a look at some of the luckiest teams in the NFL, based on their projected win-loss record and their Pythagorean Win Expectations. Well, now that we are past the midway point of the season, I figured I would approach this a little differently. There are still a few outliers to discuss, but I’d rather look at the teams that are exactly who we think they are; the teams that are performing pretty much exactly how we should expect them to.

There is exactly one team in the league with a Luck Factor (that’s the difference between their expected wins and projected wins) of 0.0, and it’s the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens have played like a .500 football team, and they also have a .500 record. I’ve been saying that they are one of the teams that moves the needle the least for me, they beat the teams they are supposed to beat and lose the games that they are supposed to lose. In today’s NFL, there are far worse spots to be in. The Ravens are playing unexciting, yet somewhat effective football, and are pretty much the perfectly average team. If you take a look at the two other teams in the AFC North that are contending for the top spot, the Steelers have been unlucky to be .500 and the Bengals are considered lucky to be where they are. In other words, the Steelers are still the pick to come out of the North, in a vacuum.

The Minnesota Vikings are another team that are pretty much exactly where they should be, record-wise. When I took my first look at luck, I pegged the Vikings as a prime candidate for regression. I think that a lot of people probably would have realized that the Vikings were not going to finish undefeated, but I’m not sure if anyone (myself included) would have said that they were going to normalize so quickly. Their Luck Factor sits at 0.1 right now, which is pretty much dead-on. They are projected for 10 wins and have the point differential of a 9.9-win team. They have possibly the best defense in the league, and certainly the most talented defense, but their offense has absolutely fallen off a cliff. The Vikings are a great example of what “regression” means, in layman’s terms. See, we use these “advanced” statistics to try to explain and quantify what we see. The numbers told us that the Vikings were primed to regress, but they don’t tell you how that’s going to happen. We know now that the main cause of this was a one-two punch of poor offensive playcalling and injuries to the offensive line. So, advanced numbers here told us to be expecting something to happen, but not necessarily what it would be. They are just one piece of the puzzle, but can be a powerful predictive tool. Let’s take a look at some more teams who are now performing about as well as we would think they would be.

For a while, I have been predicting that the New Orleans Saints could sneak into the playoffs. Those claims may have looked stupid during their slow start, but they are up to .500 now, and the numbers say that they are playing like a .500 football team. Could 8-8 be enough to sneak into the playoffs in the NFC? That remains to be seen, but what we can say is that the Saints have regressed back towards their true fate, which is probably that of a .500 football team. It was probably a little premature to think that a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback could be one of the worst in the league this year, but the door is still wide open for the Saints to make it into the playoffs. Their offense is the scoring 29.8 points per game, good for second in the league, behind the Falcons. Their defense is pretty bad, but they’re only allowing 1 more point per game than Atlanta. It may not surprise you, then, to learn that the Falcons have a Luck Factor of greater than 1 win, which is fairly significant. I’m not saying that the Saints are better than the Falcons, since the Falcons score more points and give up fewer, but the Saints are not so far off from Atlanta, and I still think they can make a strong run to the playoffs.

The Eagles profile as our unluckiest non-Cleveland team. They have the point differential of an expected 11-win team, yet they are on pace to finish 8-8, which gives them a Luck Factor of -3.0. I choose to illustrate the Eagles to show one of the limitations of this sort of predictive statistic: It doesn’t quite do enough to normalize the effect of an individual game. For example, a team that loses three games in a row by ten points and blows a team out by 30 in their fourth game will have a point differential of 0 over those four games, and a win expectation of 2-2. Their Luck Factor would be -1 because they were actually 1-3 over that stretch. So, the question you must ask is “How much should a blowout win or loss influence what we think of a team?” After all, a team can only win a game so much, so to speak. Pouring it on during a big win can only carry you so far in terms of future success, and sheer point differential fails to address that. Consistency, as I like to say, is a skill. The Eagles have looked great in some of their games and terrible in others, which is to be expected of a team with a rookie quarterback. Which is to say that I think they are much closer to the .500 team they have been so far than what their point differential says they are.

Luck can tell us a lot about a team, but it doesn’t illustrate the whole picture. I think that, if you go back and read what I wrote about a few teams when I first covered this idea, you will see that it is a useful concept when it comes to predicting a team’s future success. As with anything, the more data that becomes available, the more complete a picture that we can get of a team. With this new era of NFL parity (or, as I like to call it, widespread mediocrity), we don’t really know a lot about most of the teams in the league. Let’s keep that in mind this week, as we watch another uninspiring slate of NFL games. The scheduling gods have smiled upon us in that there are only four games that really look intriguing, so I’ll tell you what to watch: Get that channel flip going between Broncos @ Saints and Falcons @ Eagles during the early games. Cowboys @ Steelers is the only thing I’ll be watching during the late games. Seattle marches into Foxboro for the late game, and I think everyone knows that this is the game of the week. Besides those four games, there’s not much of interest beyond rooting for your team and fantasy players.

Bill Annechino– Bill Annechino (Twitter)


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