Welcome to the 2015 NFL Parity Party!
We finally acknowledged the parity of NFL division winners a year ago. Logically, what would happen after that except that the parity dissipates? If you recall, prior to last season, the NFL had seen 13 straight years of at least one division seeing its previous last place team win the division. As it stands, a worst-to-first has emerged 18 times since realignment in 2002.
Last year, I referred to this as parity. But given that I can sit at this desk and predict 5 division winners without so much as a second thought, “parity” isn’t the word anymore. With confidence, I claim that New England, Indianapolis, Denver, Seattle, and Green Bay will win their divisions. Their quarterbacks are better than their competition. Their coaches, in general, are better. They win every year. And they will win every year until their quarterbacks are gone. With that level of surety, I can’t give the NFL credit for parity, simply because teams are not equal when they have an elite QB. The rules are too favorable, and the elite QB pool is too shallow.
So, what is the word? What name do you give the state of an NFL that sees a last place team go to first place virtually every season? A few choices come to mind.
Carnage Obviously injuries can lead to an otherwise capable team landing in last place one year, and winning its division the next. But carnage implies a lack of safety, and heaven forbid we discuss such issues in football.
Madness Eh. Madness is generally reserved for March and certainly more of a collegiate term. No thanks.
Futility This one actually flies in the face of the parity the NFL loves to tote. Instant negation. We must protect the shield. (Odd, isn’t it? The idea of a shield needing protection. The NFL continues to make no sense, and we continue to love it. I digress.)
Luck Except for the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, no champion has won without some measure of luck. Luck can be the difference between making a bad team awful and a good team great. However sports have far too many moving parts to accept luck as its deciding factor. That would be too lazy.
To find the right word for this apparent oddity, we must dig deeper. I discussed this last year, but several factors have played into a given team’s ascension from bottom feeder to playoff team. A change at the QB position, whether by injury or draft (2004 Atlanta, 2012 Washington, 2013 Philadelphia). A new coach inheriting the right talent for his scheme (2006 Sean Payton/New Orleans, 2013 Chip Kelly/Philadelphia). The wildcat offense (2008 Miami). Mysterious, inexplicable anomaly (2011 Denver/Tebow).
Another factor that most people are unaware of is the way the NFL schedule works. You probably know that each team plays two games against the other teams in its division. That’s no surprise. It probably comes up once or twice when you’re considering picking the Baltimore defense in your fantasy draft because they play Cleveland and Andy Dalton each two times. But there’s more to NFL scheduling than that.
A diehard NFL fan knows that each division plays all four teams from two other divisions each season, one AFC division and one NFC division. In other words, each team in a given division is guaranteed to play six games against division foes and eight more against the same eight teams the rest of their division faces. In short, this assures an even schedule to teams competing for a division title. There is no situation where New England would play Jacksonville, Oakland, and Tennessee while Buffalo would play Denver, Seattle, and Green Bay. So when New England wins its division year in and year out, it isn’t because of favorable scheduling. Every other team in the AFC East played the same teams that New England did – with two exceptions.
These two exceptions are so integral to explaining the worst-to-first pattern that they’re the reason I’m spending nearly 500 words to discuss the ins and outs of NFL scheduling. In case you didn’t notice, six division games and eight non-division games does not add up to 16, young grasshopper. So, the NFL came up with a good, fair, but sneaky solution to that issue. It gets a smidge complicated though, so let me give it to you straight from the NFL:
Every team plays its remaining two games against teams from the two remaining divisions in its own conference — one game at home and the other on the road. The matchups are determined by where the teams finished in their divisions in the previous season. For example, a team that finished the previous year in third place in its division will play the third-place teams from the two other divisions in its conference. (Source)
See what I mean?
It took a lawyer to figure out how to describe that mess. Basically, first place teams play other first place teams. This is why we get a Manning-Brady Bowl every season. They always win their division and they’ve always been in the same conference, so they always play each other. More importantly, though, last place teams will play other last place teams. So, in a division where the winner isn’t as good as the conference’s other division winners and the last place team is better than the other last place teams, you’ve managed a four game swing and no one was the wiser to your tricks, NFL.
So while last year I was singing the praises of the NFL and its wonderful parity, I’ve decided to call it like I see it:
Welcome to the 2015 NFL Artificial Parity Party!
If you’ve read this far, then you know what we’re here for. If you’ve skipped down this far, then know that you’ve scrolled far enough. But before you skip this part too, let me level with you. The last place teams from a year ago are significantly bad and have done little to improve. The new passing rules favor quarterbacks so strongly that we’re probably about to watch this fascinating series of worst-to-firsts fade away. That being the case, in addition to a worst-to-first prediction, I’m also going to give you a prediction for the team’s chances to grab a wildcard spot and to not finish last in the division again. All in the name of being optimistic.
On to the team discussions!
Worst to firsts: 1 (Miami – 2008)
*I will not make broken jaw jokes. I will not make broken jaw jokes. I will not make broken jaw jokes*
The end of Rex Ryan’s tenure was sad and embarrassing, even for a regime just one year removed from the butt fumble. They have to be better than they were. Revis Island has relocated back to Jersey. Brandon Marshall will make Eric Decker not invisible again. And new head coach Todd Bowles is a legitimate defensive mind. The problem, however, is three-fold.
1) Buffalo should also be better, Rex Ryan notwithstanding.
2) Miami will be better.
3) Angry Tom Brady will be looking to drop 50 every week. Up by 20 in the fourth quarter, Angry Tom Brady will be running the two minute offense like it’s the Super Bowl. I’ve never been much of a Brady fan, but I’m looking forward to every minute of Angry Tom Brady football this season. After all the absurdity of #DeflateGate, I can’t wait to watch Angry Tom Brady go to work. Let me say it just one more time. Angry Tom Brady. It’s gonna be fun.
In all seriousness, this division belongs to Brady/Belichick until Belichick retires in ten years.
Okay, phew. I made it. No broken jaw jokes!
Division Verdict: They’ll take it on the jaw from this division. Doh!
Wildcard Verdict: Bowles is good. We’ll see.
Last again? This is a tough division to predict because every team is expected to improve. They will be more competitive. The QB play will hold them back, but hey, at least you’re not starting Tyrod Taylor. I’d say Buffalo grabs this spot in the 2016 article, especially if Lesean McCoy’s injury turns out to be worse than was initially reported.
Worst to firsts: 1 (Baltimore – 2006)
This is supposed to be an optimistic piece. I know that. But can I just be blunt here? On what earth and in which multiverse is this happening? The best news is that center Alex Mack is back and they might be able to run a little bit. After that, Pittsburgh finished last season on fire. Baltimore is still significantly better. And the fact that you share a division with Andy Dalton and manage to save him the dishonor of being the division’s worst quarterback is astounding. I’ll stop. We’re all ready to move on, aren’t we?
Division Verdict: Maybe Cleveland can adopt the four most famous words in the history of Kentucky football.
Wildcard Verdict: “Wait ‘til basketball season.”
Worst to firsts: 1 (Houston – 2011)
When offered good news and bad news, I always take bad news first because I hope the good news will soften the blow of the bad. As such, let’s recall that Andrew Luck will play in this division for the next 12-15 years. Additionally, Marcus Mariota has thrown two touchdowns and completed 70% of his passes. Yes, the preseason doesn’t matter for most, but for a rookie QB, it kind of does. The goal this season won’t be a division title. Be competitive. Challenge Jacksonville for third place. Get seven six four wins.
Say what? Where’s the good news? You play Jacksonville twice, Oakland, and the Jets. If you can split with Jax, that almost gets you to the goal I just set.
Division Verdict: Rebuilding takes time.
Wildcard Verdict: Rebuilding takes more time than one season.
Last again? While I’d say Jacksonville is a better team, the aforementioned scheduling practices pit them against Baltimore and San Diego to Tennessee’s Oakland and Cleveland. Again, if Tennessee can manage a split with Jacksonville, they should avoid back-to-back last place finishes.
AFC West: Oakland
Worst to firsts: 4 (Kansas City – 2003, 2010; San Diego – 2004; Denver – 2011)
Ever notice how weird the Raiders logo is? The swords are fine, but why is he wearing an old leather football helmet? And why is his picture framed by a shield shape? And the weird half smile thing is pretty creepy. Like, “Let’s play football but also be best friends and hold hands.” Plus, he’s wearing an eye patch and also squinting and then you realize that this exact face is the one the Raiders scout team must have been making during the scouting combine for the last 25 years.
Oh, right. Football.
Derek Carr has shown some promise, and Amari Cooper has some real potential. But listen, the entire AFC is owned by incumbent quarterbacks. Brady rules the East. Luck owns the South. Flacco and Big Ben share the North. And for one last year, Manning owns the West, after which the West falls to Phillip Rivers. It’s not that the Raiders aren’t actually showing signs of life in the front office, because they finally are. It’s just that a quarterback driven league won’t be won by a team without one.
Division Verdict: Maybe one day, but not today.
Wildcard Verdict: The AFC is a tough wildcard to crack for a good team, and this isn’t one.
Last again? Unless Peyton gets hurt early, yes. If Peyton gets hurt early, probably still yes.
Worst to firsts: 4 (New York – 2005; Philadelphia – 2006, 2013; Washington – 2012)
With the news last week that Kirk Cousins will be the starter this year, you may think their chances have spiked. But Washington has won only one game that Kirk Cousins started and finished. That game was his rookie season. Since then, he’s been mysteriously ignored by Washington ownership because they wanted so bad to be right about RG3. Now that they’ve given up that ghost, it’s time to admit that Cousins was outplayed by Colt McCoy last season and give him a shot.
Not that it would matter. Philadelphia has been on a roll in the meaningless preseason. And although Dallas is wrong to assume they can lose Demarco Murray and maintain his production solely because of the offensive line, they’ve improved the defense and should finish top two in the division. All this ignores the fact that the Giants will be sporting Odell Beckham and Victor Cruz on the same field all season.
Division Verdict: There’s a better chance they change the name.
Wildcard Verdict: Still no.
Last again? The NFC East is one of the wildest divisions in the NFL. The Giants have one of the widest varieties of possible outcomes in the league. They could win the Super Bowl. They could finish last in their division. Dallas and Philadelphia should be good – I expect them to finish first and second in the division – but both of those franchises have met high expectations with middling mediocrity before. That said, Washington is approaching early 2000’s Oakland Raiders bad. Bad owner who likes to meddle. Bad coach hires/firings. Bad free agent signings. Bad drafts. The list goes on. That kind of stank doesn’t wash off after one season.
Worst to Firsts: 1 (Chicago – 2005)
At this point, we know Jay Cutler isn’t very good. The sooner everyone accepts that, the better. Let’s face it. We’ve all accepted it. So here’s the thing with Chicago, John Fox has taken worse quarterbacks to the Super Bowl. Additionally, Detroit got worse in the offseason, and Minnesota is starting a sophomore quarterback. All that bodes well for the Bears.
(Optimism! I did it!)
Now you have to consider that this is the division sporting the league’s best QB, and ultimately that dashes all hope for a worst-to-first bid. Then, Minnesota should be significantly better with Adrian Peterson back and Teddy Bridgewater improving. And for Detroit, “getting worse” still means “playoff contender.”
I expect improvement from the Bears, but they’re the worst team in this division.
Division Verdict: Aaron Rodgers.
Wildcard Verdict: Stranger things have happened.
Last again? I don’t know. I need to see them play a few games first. At the very least, Fox > Trestman.
Worst to firsts: 6 (Carolina – 2003; Atlanta – 2004; Tampa Bay – 2005, 2007; New Orleans – 2006, 2009)
The NFC South practically invented the worst-to-first. Michael Vick’s broken leg paved the way for Carolina in 2003, and set up Atlanta’s own worst-to-first bid the next season. Each team accomplished the feat in the four years between 2003 and 2006. It’s a thing of beauty. Well, it was. Last year was ugly. A sub-.500 team managed to squeak into the playoffs thanks to some fantastic futility. As such, this division should scream worst-to-first bait in 2015. After all, going worst-to-first ultimately comes down to flipping win differential from one season to the next.
In other words, how many games can the last place team improve and how many games does the first place team regress? Find a number small enough, and you have a shot. So, 7-8-1 Carolina should seem vulnerable, since that mark somehow won the division in 2014. But then you look at the bottom and see lowly Tampa Bay and its two measly wins, that means you need a 4.5 game swing between Carolina and Tampa Bay, while assuming Atlanta and New Orleans perform similarly to last season (and why wouldn’t they? Neither had a very impressive offseason).
Continuing the hopeful thread, Cam Newton has no one to throw to. Matt Ryan has a screen door protecting him. And Drew Brees lost his favorite receiver *cough* tight end, Jimmy Graham. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay got the best performance from a rookie wideout not named Odell and probably shouldn’t be worse at QB than they were a year ago.
So, is all this enough to cover the 4.5 wins needed to jump to the top? Possibly, but unfortunately, it’s unlikely for a division that bad to be that bad again. If 7-8-1 is good enough to win the division again this season, it will be such an embarrassment that the NFL will change a playoff rule or two. But that won’t happen. New Orleans or Atlanta will emerge ahead of Carolina, and Tampa will likely finish squarely on the bottom.
Division Verdict: In a division this bad, you always have a shot to finish somewhere between first and last.
Wildard Verdict: In a division this bad, you have to win the division to make the playoffs.
Last again? In a division this bad, you always have a shot to finish somewhere between first and last.
Worst to firsts: 0
It’s still never happened here. Eighteen times in 14 years, but never here. In the world of crazy NFL turnarounds and collapses, the NFC West has never had a worst to first, despite having easily been the NFL’s worst division multiple times since realignment. Those days are in the past now. The modern NFC West has touted two playoff teams for three straight years.
Two years ago, it touted the NFC’s, if not the NFL’s, two best teams. Last year, the 49ers self-imploded thanks to weird owners who apparently don’t know how to handle success and the regression of Colin Kaepernick, and the West still sent two teams to the playoffs. That second team, Arizona, spent a lot of time with Drew Stanton at quarterback, in case you don’t understand how great Bruce Arians’ offensive mind and Todd Bowles’ defensive mind are.
Now, Bowles has moved to greener pastures (Get it? Green. Because he’s the Jets coach now.) and San Francisco has an owner’s puppet at head coach, so the NFC West has opened up. In the meantime, St. Louis has replaced an injury prone, limited quarterback with a different, less talented, and yet still injury prone quarterback. They’ve also added an immensely talented, injury prone running back, and done nothing to improve their unthreatening receiving corps. The defense should be okay, though, and this is a Rams team that beat Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco in 2014 with the likes of Austin Davis and Shaun Hill at QB.
So, while this division is still firmly in the hands of Seattle, the Rams have a chance to make some noise and maybe challenge for a wildcard spot. I wouldn’t count on it, and Arizona is still the favorite to finish second in the West, but the Rams have a chance.
Division Verdict: Beat. The. Niners. (for third place)
Wildcard Verdict: The NFC West may very well get a second team to the playoffs, but it won’t be St. Louis.
Last again? A month ago, I would’ve guaranteed the 49ers would be last. Now I’m hearing some good things from them, and I still think they’ll be pretty bad. What the heck, I’d rather write about the 49ers here next year, so let’s get it done! Third place for the Rams, baby!
Ranking Their Chances
I’ll give you some rankings below, but I’m not bothering to rank these teams’ chances of going worst-to-first. Six of them – Tennessee, Cleveland, Oakland, Washington, Chicago, and St. Louis – have virtually no chance because the rest of their division is too much better. The Jets have a tall mountain to climb to beat Angry Tom Brady. That leaves us with Tampa Bay, who probably has the best chance because they play in the most puzzling division in sports.
Since I don’t want to put my name on a list that says Tampa Bay has a better chance to make the playoffs than seven other teams, I’m not making the list. The worst-to-first streak ended last year, and a new streak begins this year; a much more sensible streak that sees no team jump from worst to first.
With no worst-to-first list, I considered doing a “Most likely to make the playoffs” list, but the depth of the AFC meant the four AFC teams would immediately fall to the bottom four. There’s no fun in that either.
As such, I’ll give you the most optimistic list I can. Without further ado, I give you the “Last Place Teams Least Likely to Repeat Last Place in 2015” list. Got a nice ring to it, eh? Since that title is woefully unclear, the team least likely to be last in 2015 is #1 and the most likely last place team is #8.
1) New York Jets
2) St. Louis
4) Tampa Bay
Agree with Andrew’s Worst to First picks? Or do you disagree? Tell us your predictions in the comment section below!