Sunday, November 19, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Four new teams will make the NFL playoffs; will Bucs be one of them?

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If you're wondering whether this is the season the Bucs return to the playoffs, I have some good news: At least four new teams — and an average of 5.7 — have made the playoffs every season since the NFL realigned in 2002.

And now the bad news: Despite that rate of turnover, parity in the NFL is a myth. The majority of teams new to the playoffs weren't all that far away the season before.

The Times analyzed each playoff field since 2002, focusing on the teams that were new to the postseason, and we found that the Bucs are a longshot to clinch a berth this season. Of the teams we studied, two-thirds were better than the 2015 Bucs in the season before they made the playoffs. That doesn't mean they're a lost cause — they've made a larger leap before. After a spleen-busting 2006 season, the Bucs went 9-7 in 2007.

In the chart below, we've plotted the performance* of each team over two seasons — the season they made the playoffs (the white bars with black outlines), and the season directly before (the red bars). What did those teams do to break through? A handful made sweeping personnel changes and made the jump in one season. Many addressed a major weakness that had been holding them back. A few needed just a little bit of luck.

*About the data: For a measure of team strength, we used Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, which stands for defense-adjusted value over average. DVOA is calculated by comparing a team's success on each play to the league average. It considers factors such as down, distance, field position, score and opponent.

Say a team has a DVOA of 5 percent. That means they played 5 percent above league average. Ten of the 12 teams to reach the playoffs last season had a value of at least 5 percent.

• • •

Blame it on the schedule (5 percent DVOA or better)

Average win increase: 2.4

For teams that are strong but not dominant, their playoff hopes can hinge on the difficulty of their schedule. In some seasons, they must prove their worthiness against higher quality opponents; in other seasons, they might go relatively unchallenged. And in a 16-game sample, that can make all the difference.

The Chiefs and Chargers, for example, were two of the best teams in the NFL in 2005 but failed to clinch even a wild-card berth. Kansas City (10-6) had the AFC's fourth-most difficult schedule, and San Diego (9-7) had the conference's most difficult. Of the five teams with the AFC's easiest schedules, four won at least 11 games and reached the playoffs.

The NFL schedule was kinder to the Chiefs and Chargers in 2006. Thanks in part to a weaker slate of opponents, both secured the playoff berths that had once eluded them.

Eleven of the 18 teams in this group had an easier schedule the next season, according to Pro Football Reference data.

Notable: Since 2002, two teams missed the playoffs one season and won the Super Bowl the next: the 2009 Saints and 2011 Giants. The G-Men, who were better in 2010, became the first team to win a Super Bowl after allowing more points than it scored during the regular season.

Team from 2015 that fits the tough luck profile: Jets (but played AFC's second-easiest schedule)

• • •

You don't have to be good (5 percent DVOA to minus-5 percent)

Average win increase: 3.7

There's not a strong pattern that ties these teams together. Many improved. Some even rose to dominance — the Steelers in 2004 after drafting Ben Roethlisberger and the Seahawks in 2012 after drafting Russell Wilson.

But in a few cases, teams declined or stayed about the same. This reveals much about how the NFL really works. Teams aren't always rewarded for outperforming and outworking their competition. You can be a monument of mediocrity and still get to the playoffs — all you need is for a team in your division to have a down season.

Consider the 2014 and 2015 Texans — same coach (Bill O'Brien), basically the same slop at quarterback (an assortment of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallet, Brian Hoyer and T.J. Yates), same record (9-7). O'Brien deserves credit for squeezing wins out of a thin roster, but the reason the Texans were a playoff team last season and not the year before has more to do with the decline of Andrew Luck and the Colts.

Notable: In 2003, the Vikings started 6-0 and lost seven of their final 10. In 2004, they started 5-1 and again lost seven of their final 10. What made them a playoff team in 2004? The NFC was unusually weak; both wild cards were 8-8.

Teams from 2015 that fit the mediocre profile (and teams to keep the closest eye on): Ravens, Rams, Raiders, Lions, Bills

• • •

It's bad, but it's not that bad (minus-5 percent DVOA to minus-20 percent)

Average win increase: 4.0

Most of the teams in this cluster didn't blow things up and go into a full-scale rebuilding phase. With significant talent already in place, the teams addressed a specific weakness to make the playoffs the next season.

In some cases, the answer was a change at quarterback. Michael Vick and Eli Manning, for example, led their teams to the playoffs in their first full seasons. In other cases, the answer is finding a weapon for the incumbent quarterback, as the Ravens did in 2014 when they signed Steve Smith.

After the 2001 season, the Colts sought to fix their defense because, well, they didn't have one. So they hired Tony Dungy just days after the Bucs had fired him. During Dungy's first season in Indianapolis, the Colts drafted defensive end Dwight Freeney, a future Hall of Famer, and went from one of the league's worst defenses to a league-average defense. That improvement helped lift them into the playoffs, where the defense promptly reverted to 2001 form and surrendered 41 points in a shutout loss to the Jets.

Notable: In 2012, the Saints allowed the most yards (7,042) in NFL history. When coach Sean Payton returned in 2013 after a year-long suspension, he hired Rob Ryan to fix the defense. That worked for a season, but then New Orleans found out there weren't any actual plays on Ryans' play call sheet — just photos of bikini models and chili cheese nachos. … Chris Simms' ruptured spleen during a Week 3 loss pretty much sums up the Bucs' 2006 season. After the offense scored the second-fewest points, Tampa Bay signed Jeff Garcia. In 2007, the Bucs improved by a touchdown per game.

Teams from 2015 that fit the below-average team profile: Dolphins, Saints, Cowboys, Falcons, Jaguars, Chargers, Colts, Eagles, Bucs, Giants, Bears

• • •

Dumpster fire! Put it out! (minus-20 percent DVOA or worse)

Average win increase: 6.4

These were the worst of the worst, the unlikeliest of teams to leap into playoff contention in a single season.

To make such a turnaround, these teams underwent dramatic change. Nine of 15 fired their head coach, 12 made a change at quarterback and eight changed both.

Take the 2007 Dolphins, who narrowly avoided 0-16. In 2008, Tony Sparano took over as head coach, and Miami signed quarterback Chad Pennington, who started all 16 games for the second time in his 11-year career. That was 15 more starts than reigning MVP Tom Brady, whom the Patriots lost to a knee injury early in the season opener. Miami and New England both finished 11-5, but the Dolphins had a better conference record and won the AFC East.

Notable: After the Eagles lost 12 games for the first time in Andy Reid's career, they fired Big Red and hired Chip Kelly. Nick Foles took over as the starting quarterback six games into the 2013 season and posted the best touchdown to interception ratio (27/2) in NFL history. … Five days after the Eagles fired Reid, the Chiefs asked him whether he would waste timeouts for them. He agreed and installed Alex Smith as his quarterback. Smith's main qualification: He wasn't Matt Cassel or Brady Quinn. Reid and Smith went on to complete the largest one-year turnaround in recent memory.

Teams from 2015 that fit the hot mess profile: 49ers, Titans, Browns

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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