Every year there are NFL teams that over perform and under perform, it’s the nature of the league. Dave Archibald looks at what happens to the coaches of these teams, and how Vegas Over-Unders effect the likelihood of a coach losing their job.
Every summer, the army of math geniuses that reside in Las Vegas, Nevada, employ their dark arts to project over / under win totals for each NFL team. Before the season, one can bet on a team to overperform or underperform the win total that sports books like Bovada set. Like the defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos to do well again? Bet over 9 wins. Think the Jacksonville Jaguars are getting too much hype? Bet under 7.5 wins.
The over / unders are not just for football fans with risk tolerance and disposable income, however. They serve as a useful proxy for public expectations for the team. Vegas math whizzes are not necessarily looking to predict how the teams will do; they are trying to set lines so that roughly even money comes down on both sides. If they set the line too high or too low, an unexpected injury or breakout performance could cost the casinos money.
Note: Over / under odds were not available for all season in this study, so the lines used were not shaded to reflect the probability implied by the odds.
Simple Twist of Fate
Five teams since 2001 have outperformed their over / under by six games or more in a season, with two +7.5 campaigns in the 2004 season. The Pittsburgh Steelers rode the league’s top defense and rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a 14-game winning streak, while the San Diego Chargers got a breakout from third-year quarterback Drew Brees. The multi-year over performers are a who’s who of the league’s best teams, with the New England Patriots unsurprisingly leading the way. The Arizona Cardinals (111-129) managed to overachieve (+8.5) relative to the sports books despite a losing record, mostly during their recent excellent seasons under Bruce Arians.
Everything Is Broken
The single-season underperformers list contains many of the NFL’s worst teams since 2001: the winless 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16), the 2007 Miami Dolphins (1-15), and three 2-14 teams. The 2011 Indianapolis Colts lost legendary quarterback Peyton Manning to neck surgery. With Manning’s status uncertain, most sports books took the Colts over / under off the board and would not allow bets (this line comes from footballlocks.com). Much as the cumulative season overachievers list is populated with the league’s best teams, the underachievers list features the NFL’s worst franchises, with the Lions, Cleveland Browns, and Oakland Raiders possessing the three worst records since 2001. Three teams with winning records underachieved relative to expectations: the Dallas Cowboys (123-117, -4.5), New York Giants (123-117, -2), and Philadelphia Eagles (141-98-1, -1.5). With Washington appearing in the chart above, the entire NFC East division underachieved according to the sports books.
Masters of War
When a team overachieves relative to expectations, the head coach often gets the credit. A look at the Associated Press Coach of the Year winners makes this clear:
In nine of 15 seasons, the Coach of the Year helmed the team that overachieved most relative to the over / unders. In five of the six other seasons, the Coach of the Year’s team was within one game of the most overachieving squad. The only exception is 2006, when Sean Payton took home the award after his New Orleans Saints overachieved by three games in their first year back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. The Baltimore Ravens and Chargers both finished five games over their lines that year, but San Diego head coach Marty Schottenheimer was fired in the offseason after his relationship with general manager A.J. Smith went south.
While coaches of teams that exceed expectations might win awards, coaches of teams that fall short of expectations might lose their jobs:
Of the seven teams that underachieved by six or more games, six fired their coaches following the season, with Mike Smith of the 2013 Atlanta Falcons the only survivor. Smith’s Falcons had gone 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game in 2012, but after a second consecutive disappointing campaign in 2014, he too was replaced. If a team falls short of expectations by three wins, a coach stands about a 50/50 chance of being fired.
Sooner Or Later, One of Us Must Know
Performance relative to expectations is one of the most common ways fans and pundits evaluate coaches, and the data suggests award voters and front office decision-makers use this heuristic as well. As a tool for measuring a coach’s contribution, however, the heuristic is flawed. A team may underperform expectations for a variety of reasons: injuries, a handful of close losses, or maybe those expectations were inaccurate in the first place. Some teams have come to regret firings based on one poor season. Andy Reid enjoyed more than a decade of success in Philadelphia, but the Eagles let him go after a 4-12 season (-6). The Kansas City Chiefs wasted no time hiring Reid, who led the squad to a 31-17 record and two playoff appearances in the past three seasons. This offseason, the Eagles hired Doug Pederson, an assistant under Reid, in an effort to return to earlier glory. The Houston Texans fired head coach Gary Kubiak after a wildly disappointing 2013 season (-8.5 at 2-14), only to see him win a Super Bowl two seasons later in Denver.
Performance relative to expectations also cheats some of the game’s best coaches out of proper credit. Pete Carroll ushered in a period of prosperity in the Seattle Seahawks organization when he took over as head coach in 2010, including the franchise’s only Super Bowl victory in 2014, but the team’s steady excellence has not inspired the award voters. Expectations are part of the coaching puzzle, but hopefully the members of the Associated Press take a deeper look at Carroll and other coaches that inflate their own expectations through perennial success.