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Football Philosophy: Empty Victories or Acceptable Losses?

Before I get into this post, I should probably clarify one thing. While this is an Eagles blog, and I am a die-hard Eagles fan, this is not an Eagles post. This article does not break down some element of the Eagles' game, system, or coaching staff. This is a football post, so it will relate to the Eagles just as it will relate to any football team. And since we'll all fans here, I'll delve into how this topic affects the 2011-2012 Eagles, but it will not be the centerpiece.

This is an article for fans of the game - people who will watch a game that's on television simply because it's on television. Also, I'm having a hard time picking a side of the fence to come down on in this argument, so if you are so inclined to sway me one way or the other, that is more than welcome. If you need any more motivation, the outcome of this argument will have a large impact on a new series of posts I will be debuting in the fall, and that series will most definitely involve the Eagles.

I'm posting this here because I know that everyone who comes to this site is a fan of the game, and much more knowledgeable than people who comment on other sites. If there's a group of people who could settle the score on this, it's the fans on BGN and SBNation. Now if I haven't bored everyone away from this post, we'll get started.

The actual discussion of this argument has a personal note to it. Since football and writing are passions of mine, I would send a Monday Morning QB knock-off email to my family about my musings of the NFL during the 2011 season. My uncle, who has a good knowledge of the game, is a die-hard Steelers fan. Since that variety of Pittsburgh fans tend to make excuses about the team - and in times of crisis, the defense - I had fun praising the Ravens' season, especially since they swept the series with the Steelers. My uncle took an interesting position, saying that the Steelers' record was more 'valid' because Pittsburgh's four losses came against good teams while Baltimore's four losses came against bad ones. For the sake of the argument, I claimed that reasoning only implied that the Ravens had defeated good teams while the Steelers had only been able to beat lesser opponents. Still, I wasn't entirely convinced of my own point.

I had a hard time finding cold, hard proof concerning either side of the argument by watching games. I has planning on gaining some insight in the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens, as I mentioned above, beat good teams but played poorly against inferior opponents. The Patriots, on the other hand, had yet to defeat a team with a winning regular-season record. Unfortunately, the game was less than decisive - New England had homefield advantage and barely escaped with a win. On the Ravens' final drive, Flacco tossed a perfect pass to Lee Evans which would have been the go-ahead touchdown had Evans secured the ball properly. Two plays later, Billy Cundiff missed a normally chip shot field goal that would have at least forced overtime. With such circumstantial events surrounding the game, the argument remained open.

So that (finally) brings up the topic. What's in a win? Can it be taken at face value? Or is it only as meaningful as the team that was beaten? I'm going to try and answer these questions and invite you to offer your opinion.

The problem with this discussion is that both sides are counter-intuitive. The "Acceptable Losses" camp states that losing to a few inferior teams is fine if you beat the competitive ones. But if a team is good enough to beat decent teams, shouldn't it also defeat bad ones? Can losses to bad teams and the inconsistency that comes with it be excused if a club plays its best against good opponents? On the other hand, the "Empty Victories" side will accept tough losses to tough teams as long as victory is achieved over inferior opponents. While that argument offers more consistency, how good can a team really be if they can't beat a competitive opponent? Can those "close losses" be shrugged off as long as the team looks great against bad adversaries?

In order to answer the question, I did some digging. I took a look at the relevant teams from 2011 and their schedules. To qualify as a "relevant team," a franchise had to satisfy two requirements: 1) qualify for the postseason and/or 2) finish with a winning record at the end of the season. A quick glance over the final standings revealed some surprising facts. For example, only twelve teams finished with a winning record, but only eleven of them qualified for the playoffs. The only hint of a 9-7 snub this season was Tennessee, while a mind-boggling eight teams finished dead-even at 8-8. From there, it was a pretty steep drop, with only two teams (Seattle and Kansas City) finishing 7-9.

The chart below displays four main statistics for the thirteen teams it lists: the 2011 regular-season record, the average win percentage of opponents they defeated (abbreviated as Victorious Win Percentage, or VWP, for convenience), the average win percentage of opponents they lost to (abbreviated as Defeated Win Percentage, or DWP, for convenience), and then the overall result of their season.

TEAM

2011 Record

VWP

DWP

Season Result

Atlanta

10-6

0.375

0.657

Lost in Wildcard

Baltimore

12-4

0.485

0.454

Lost in Championship

Cincinnati

9-7

0.327

0.705

Lost in Wildcard

Denver

8-8

0.446

0.594

Lost in Divisional

Detroit

10-6

0.394

0.771

Lost in Wildcard

Green Bay

15-1

0.458

0.438

Lost in Divisional

Houston

10-6

0.413

0.521

Lost in Divisional

New England

13-3

0.423

0.563

Lost Super Bowl

New Orleans

13-3

0.442

0.438

Lost in Divisional

New York

9-7

0.465

0.590

Won Super Bowl

Pittsburgh

12-4

0.412

0.735

Lost in Wildcard

San Francisco

13-3

0.418

0.583

Lost in Championship

Tennessee

9-7

0.396

0.545

Missed Playoffs

Before going into analysis, I want to address an issue perceptive readers probably noticed. I am writing a post which argues that a win cannot be taken at face value and then proceeded to take the wins and losses of their opponents at face value. That may seem like a double standard, but keep in mind that this argument concerns individual teams, not groups of them. For example, the Falcons found ten victories against teams who averaged a 6-10 season. While it is reasonable to argue whether or not one 6-10 team is better or worse than their record (the Dolphins come to mind), it doesn't make as much sense to argue that all ten 6-10 teams are better or worse than their records. In other words, averaging out the wins and losses of a group of teams should, most of the time, be representative of how good those teams were as a whole. (Ideally, I should have found a way to measure a team's competency independent of wins and losses, but that's a topic for another post.)

Now we'll try and wrap our heads around that chart up there and make sense of it all:

THE ACCEPTABLE LOSSES CAMP (These teams had a DWP that was larger than their VWP)
Members: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Houston, New England, New York Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Tennessee

Here's their statistics from the chart:

TEAM

2011 Record

VWP

DWP

Season Result

Atlanta

10-6

0.375

0.657

Lost in Wildcard

Cincinnati

9-7

0.327

0.705

Lost in Wildcard

Denver

8-8

0.446

0.594

Lost in Divisional

Detroit

10-6

0.394

0.771

Lost in Wildcard

Houston

10-6

0.413

0.521

Lost in Divisional

New England

13-3

0.423

0.563

Lost Super Bowl

New York

9-7

0.465

0.590

Won Super Bowl

Pittsburgh

12-4

0.412

0.735

Lost in Wildcard

San Francisco

13-3

0.418

0.583

Lost in Championship

Tennessee

9-7

0.396

0.545

Missed Playoffs

The most obvious fact about this camp is that it has the majority of the teams in it. Another notable fact is how both participants in the Super Bowl show up on this list. On the surface, it appears their argument of "acceptable losses" may be right, but digging deeper reveals that it may not be so cut and dry. For instance, no team with VWP below 0.400 or a DWP above 0.600 won a playoff game. Those four playoff teams (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, Atlanta) were more or less dominated in their playoff appearance; the Steelers did force overtime, but this is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the best regular-season defense in the NFL gave up over 300 passing yards to Tim Tebow and 29 points to a relatively anemic Denver offense. Not exactly a clutch performance by any means.

However, every team with a VWP greater than that of the Steelers (above a 0.412) won at least one playoff game. The Super Bowl Champion Giants had the best VWP on the list. On the other side of the coin, every playoff team who had a DWP lower than 0.600 also won at least playoff game. It's hard to tell how the Titans would have done in the postseason, but since they did not satisfy the trend it may not be coincidental that they also missed the playoffs. Let's take a look at the remaining teams.

THE EMPTY VICTORIES CAMP (These teams had a VWP that was larger than their DWP)
Members: Baltimore, Green Bay, New Orleans

And now their statistics:

TEAM

2011 Record

VWP

DWP

Season Result

Baltimore

12-4

0.485

0.454

Lost in Championship

Green Bay

15-1

0.458

0.438

Lost in Divisional

New Orleans

13-3

0.442

0.438

Lost in Divisional

The smaller sample size is harder to dissect, but expected. There are only so many winning teams in a given season and it is relatively unusual to beat teams that are better than the ones you lost to. But what does it mean when a team does exactly that? Green Bay had the worst playoff performance out of those three teams, and arguably a worse performance than the Wild Card teams on the other list (with the exception of Atlanta). New Orleans and Baltimore both won a playoff game and the Ravens were at least two plays away from going to the Super Bowl. They also had the highest DWP of their camp and the highest VWP on the entire list. Even so, they still lost in the postseason.

Since this post is more discussion-oriented, I didn't do any of this research beforehand. Rather, I decided what I wanted to look up and then did it as I wrote and left observations for afterwards, as you've seen above. I found it interesting that both Super Bowl teams ended up in the Acceptable Losses camp and considering the roller-coaster circumstances of the Giants' season, I went and did the same thing with each Super Bowl Champions' regular season for the past five years. Check it out:

TEAM

Season

Record

VWP

DWP

New York

2011

9-7

0.465

0.590

Green Bay

2010

10-6

0.475

0.594

New Orleans

2009

13-3

0.419

0.459

Pittsburgh

2008

12-4

0.459

0.727

New York

2007

10-6

0.375

0.750

The overall trend here is simply a lack of one. You could say that all of the teams had a VWP which was less than their DWP, but as I discussed before the chances of that happening are much greater than the other way around. The 2008 Steelers had an absolutely brutal schedule and still came out with a dozen wins, which does speak for something. However, Pittsburgh and the 2007 Giants still break the trend set in my charts above by winning the big game with a DWP above 0.600 or a VWP below 0.400.

So what's the final verdict? Well, with the data presented here, it's clear that this doesn't help indicate who has a better shot at winning the Super Bowl. But that's really the way it should be. A lot of people go snooping for some statistic that will give a clear-cut prediction on who will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February, but where's the fun in that? What makes the playoffs - and the NFL in general - so exciting are the unknowns. Any team can go from worst to first in their division in a calendar year and others can escape the jaws of death in November to win it all in February. The game would lose its suspense and adrenaline if we knew who really had the best shot before it all went down.

That being said, there are still things to learn from this set of data. Looking at the statistics from last year, I do believe earning a high VWP and low DWP increases your chances of having postseason success, even if it doesn't guarantee you'll win the Super Bowl. Specific numbers are relative - the NFL schedule is the most dynamic part of the sport - but I think the trend is there. Balance is key; tipping the data to the extremes (like the Steelers and Ravens last year) both ended up in playoff heartbreak. Personally, I'd consider the Ravens' situation to be the lesser of two evils in that case, since all of the teams on that list had decent postseason positions (whether it be through wins or earning byes), if not the overall success.

So the overall conclusion: achieving a balanced VWP and DWP increases the likelihood of playoff success, but it is not reliable enough to predict the Super Bowl winner. Now, what does this mean for the Eagles? (You thought I wouldn't get there, did you?)

In 2011, the Eagles were so wildly inconsistent that I am not going to waste time calculating their DWP and VWP. They had a fairly even schedule anyway; they played five games against teams that finished 0.500, five games against teams with a winning record, and six games against teams with a losing record. In the five games against teams who were above 0.500, they went an unimpressive 1-4, with the only win coming against the Giants with Vince Young under center. This means they went 7-4 against everyone else, which is still mediocre. This isn't news for fans of this site, but it does make their 8-8 season a little more fitting.

The 2012 situation is actually quite interesting. The Eagles play exactly eight games against playoff teams from a year ago (New York twice, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Detroit). If balance is the key here to postseason victories, then you can't really get more balanced than playing half your schedule against playoff teams. It's certainly an uphill battle for them - the schedule makers were not kind this year - but if they pull out of it with a decent winning record, say 10-6 or 11-5, then they should be primed to do some damage in the playoffs.

This is all assuming that my belief in the statistics is in fact true. I'm looking for your opinion on the matter... Is there something I missed? Does further research reveal more trends or debunk the ones I "found"? Am I just looking for something to believe in when there's really nothing there? Offer your insight. I'm listening. (Also, if you come up with a better name for my statistics than "VWP" and "DWP" that doesn't trip over itself, please let me know.)

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