On Monday, Eagles coach Doug Pederson met with his team one last time to deliver the final message of the 2016 season. “We’re close,” he said.
Malcolm Jenkins, resident NextDawkins who was most likely wearing his best bowtie, recalled of Pederson’s meeting, “This entire offseason [Coach Pederson] wants us to focus on getting to play into January next year, and all of our actions, our training, everything has to be geared toward the offseason on next year.
“We’re not far off.”
On Wednesday, when Howie Roseman was asked about how close the team was, he didn’t quite agree with Pederson’s assessment:
“I think when you look at how hard the team’s playing for [Pederson], and how many close games we were in, you love that perspective from our coaching staff and our players. We have a little different role in the front office here. There’s always going to be things we look at and try to be better, but again, we’re trying to compete with the best teams in the National Football League. We’re certainly not there right now, as we stand. But I feel a lot better than where we stood last year at this time.”
So, which is it? Are the Eagles close or not?
Let’s say they’re getting closer. On the surface, that seems a bit more believable. The Eagles finished the season 7-9, lost more than a handful of close games, had some impressive wins (especially early in the season), found their franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz, and look to improve personnel this offseason. Things are indeed looking up.
Even if we disregard those obvious points, we can say with a fair degree of confidence that the Eagles will win 9 or 10 games next season. How? Pythagorean expectation. It’s a concept created by Bill James for baseball and later adapted to football by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. (I know, right?) It works by applying a team’s point differential to a formula to determine “expected wins.” The formula used to calculate expected wins (see the data viz below) somewhat resembles the Pythagorean equation for right triangles (a^2+b^2=c^2), hence the name. One of the differences between the two is the value of the exponent, which varies per sport. Smart people have determined the proper exponent for baseball is 1.85; for football, it’s 2.37.
But the cool thing is, history has shown when teams lose more games than expected (as determined by Pythagorean expectation), they are likely to improve the following season. Teams that win more games than expected are likely to regress. In other words, a team’s actual performance tends to move towards expected performance over time.
This season, the Eagles scored 367 points, which is 36 more than they allowed. Based on Pythagorean expectation, the Eagles should have won nine games. Since 1983, teams that under-perform their expected win total by two, like the Eagles, usually improve their actual win total the following season by an average of 2.5 wins. A better season awaits.
Interact with the data viz above. The Eagles are one of a handful of teams (Arizona, Buffalo, and New Orleans are the others) that are in a position to improve their record next year in a meaningful way. That is, they have the potential for a record that allows them to get into the playoffs. In fact, if you select the NFC conference and sort the “Next Season Projected Wins” column from largest to smallest, you’ll see that the Eagles are projected to have the fifth best record in the conference, behind Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, and Arizona (Green Bay is the sixth team). Bottom line, they project to be a playoff team.
But how did this model fare last season? If you change the season in the viz to 2015, you’ll see the Eagles performed as expected (7 actual wins, 6.76 expected) so were projected to win seven games again this season. And that’s exactly what happened. While not all of the results for other teams were as clean, many of the Pythagorean trends were confirmed. For example, in the NFC East, the New York Giants were projected to improve (they did), Washington to regress (they did), and the Dallas Cowboys to improve (they did).
You have a right to still be skeptical. As Bill Barnwell wrote, this is a foggy crystal ball. After all, the improvement averages for next season are just that: averages. For every historical team in the Eagles’ position that improved by five wins, there was another that didn’t improve at all. Such is life, kid.
Take solace in the fact that the numbers support your gut. Carson Wentz is the real deal. The coach is confident and the GM is excited. Support your local bowtie salesman, sit back with your craft beer or whiskey of choice, and enjoy the offseason in style.
Note about the exponent (2.37) - I included a slider in the data viz to see how results changed when the exponent moved between two and three. This doesn’t really have any utility for the story other than to satisfy my own curiosity. Most experts seem to agree that 2.37 is the correct value, but the differences are still interesting to see.