Effects of NFL's changeover systems

makinen

Since we are just a couple of weeks from the 2021 NFL draft, I’m beginning a two-part series on what I call changeover systems. These are data angles that take records and statistics from one season and provide insight as to which teams might be better or worse the next season because of them. They are often extremely predictive. For example, Tampa Bay was a glowing example of a potential breakout team at this point last year, and I wrote in March 2020 that “the Bucs were due for a resurgence … even before Tom Brady.” That proved to be prophetic, and I capitalized with a pair of great futures wagers. I hope we’ll find similar results in this year’s homework. 

In the first half of this series, I will analyze the quality and quantity of teams’ won-lost records by various means. Next week I will sift through a number of key statistical angles that typically lead to significant improvement or decline.

Why are these findings so impactful? I have always felt that the NFL is unlike any other league in that teams can make quick positive or negative turnarounds from year to year. Going from first to worst or worst to first is not unusual, and unlike the NBA or NHL, you can see seasons in which more than half the teams that qualify for the playoffs are different from the previous campaign. I believe this parity contributes to the league’s popularity. Although exceptions exist, such as New England’s long run of success, franchises aren’t typically fixed in long eras of winning or losing. Tampa Bay’s emergence last year from non-playoff team to Super Bowl champion stands as proof.

It benefits the bettor greatly to know which traits lead to teams improving or declining quickly. What is the typical resume of a team that improves greatly from one season to the next? Those who can find the answers can take advantage of not only the futures wagers and season win totals before the season but also the point spreads in the early weeks of the season before oddsmakers can catch up.

Read through the findings the next couple of weeks and make your own assessments of the teams you think might not be what we saw in 2020. Then factor in the free-agent transactions and draft results — and head to the betting window.

Systems of teams that had unusually high or low totals of close wins the previous season

— In 2019, Seattle’s 10 close wins, defined as eight or fewer points, were the most by any NFL team in 29 years. In that span, the 31 teams that managed eight or more close wins combined for an average decline of 2.97 wins the next season.

Teams affected in 2021: Kansas City, Seattle

— The last three seasons have shown a trend against teams that win a lot of close games. In that span, 34 teams won six or more games by eight points or fewer. Only four improved the next season, with an average drop of 2.38 wins.

Teams affected in 2021: Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tennessee

Systems of teams that had unusually high or low totals of close losses the previous season

— Since 1998, 30 teams have suffered eight or more close losses in a season, defined as eight or fewer points. Their combined average improvement the next season was a hefty 3.77 wins, with 28 improving.

Teams affected in 2021: Atlanta, Carolina, Houston

— There have been 61 teams since 2008 that went into the next season after having lost at least six games by eight or fewer points. Of those, 49 improved their won-lost records, including 27 by four or more wins. The average improvement of the 61 teams was 2.93 wins. The Colts and Buccaneers improved by four wins from 2019 last year.

Teams affected in 2021: Atlanta, Carolina, Denver, Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles Chargers

Systems of teams that had unusually high or low totals of blowout wins the previous season

— The last team to win at least nine games by double digits and improve its won-lost record the next year was the Denver Broncos from ’97 to ’98. Since then, the average win decline of the 29 teams that did so was -4.1. 

Team affected in 2021: Baltimore, for the second straight season

— None of the last 15 teams that recorded at least six blowout wins, defined as 20 or more points, improved its won-lost record the next year. Combined, the average win decline of those 15 teams was –3.3. 

Teams affected in 2021: None. Four blowout wins was the highest NFL total in 2020, shared by Tampa Bay and Baltimore

—  Eight teams over the last 26 seasons have won six or more games but none by double digits. The 2020 Las Vegas Raiders became the first of those teams to improve the next year, but combined the teams have averaged a decline of 2.25 wins.

Teams affected in 2021: None. Denver was closest with a 5-11 record and zero double-digit wins last season

— Teams that won five or fewer games, none by double digits, have shown significant improvement the next campaign. In fact, since 2007, the league has had 23 such teams, and 21 improved the next season by an average of 4.04 wins.

Teams affected in 2021: Denver, Jacksonville, New York Jets

Systems of teams that had unusually high or low totals of blowout losses the previous season

— In the last 22 seasons, only four teams went 8-8 or worse while suffering zero double-digit losses. Three of the four won at least four more games the next season, including the Buccaneers a year ago.

Teams affected in 2021: None. Obviously, this is rare.

— Nineteen teams since ’01 have gone 7-9 or worse and suffered zero blowout losses. These teams are natural candidates to improve, and 17 of the 19 did just that by an average of 3.17 wins.

Teams affected in 2021: Atlanta, Minnesota

— As another key sign of how teams can quickly improve from dreadful seasons, over the last 21 years, 33 teams have lost at least nine games in a season by double digits. Of those, 28 improved the next season by an average of 4.07 wins, including Miami (+ 4) and Washington (+ 5) a year ago.

Teams affected in 2021: Jacksonville, New York Jets

— Since ’98, eight double-digit-win teams suffered all their losses by double-digit margins. Those teams dropped dramatically the next season by an average of 5.25 wins.

Teams affected in 2021: None

Systems of teams based on their playoff results from the previous season

— Only two of the last 27 teams that lost in the Super Bowl improved their won-lost record the next season, with an average win decline of 3.4. Those that had seven or more double-digit wins in their Super Bowl-losing seasons declined by an average of 4.0 wins.

Team affected in 2021: Kansas City, but the Chiefs had only five double-digit wins

— Alternatively, the last 28 Super Bowl champions were far better off in maintaining success, with only a 1.2-win drop the next season and an average won-lost record of 10.8-5.2. Only two finished under .500. The most dominant of those teams, those outscoring opponents by 140 or more points, had an average won-lost record of 11.1-4.9 the next season. 

Team affected in 2021: Tampa Bay, though the Bucs were just shy of the latter mark at a 137-point differential

— No team in the last 29 years that went 13-3 or better and failed to make the Super Bowl improved its won-lost record the next season, and only three equaled their marks. The average win decline was 3.86.

Teams affected in 2021: Buffalo, Green Bay

Systems of teams whose won-lost records are trending

— All 10 teams since 2000 that had won fewer games than the previous season for three straight years have improved their won-lost record by an average of 4.8 wins.

Teams affected in 2021: None. Carolina is the closest and is on an 11-7-5-5 win total slide

— Since 2002, only one of the 13 teams that improved their records in three straight seasons continued that trend. The average drop was 4.2 wins, and the average record was 6.5-9.5.

Team affected in 2021: Seattle

— All 13 teams since 2005 that won at least seven games fewer than the previous season rebounded to improve their won-lost records by an average of 4.54 wins.

Team affected in 2021: San Francisco 

— Not quite as dramatically as that, only one of the last 26 teams since ’98 that won at least seven games more than the previous season improved in the next campaign with an average win drop of 3.65. 

Team affected in 2021: None. Five more wins than 2019 was the highest total from last season, accomplished by Cleveland and Miami

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