With yet another snatch-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory game in the books, the Vikings will officially finish with, at most, four wins this season (yes, I've already assumed a loss against the Saints).
While pondering Joe Webb’s most recent attempt to sabotage the Vikings’ draft chances (when he inexplicably lead the Vikes to a win over the Eagles last year, it cost them a whopping five draft slots), I began wondering how long the inevitable upcoming rebuilding project might last. “Self,” I said to myself as I watched Webb’s neck being twisted in inhuman ways on an apparently legal tackle attempt on the final play of the game, “how long does it take for a team to rebuild after sinking this low?”
In an effort to answer that question, I did some digging. I pulled the win-loss records for every NFL team for the last decade, then filtered out all seasons in which a team won five games or more. What remained was a list of 51 teams that have finished 4-12 or worse since the 2000 regular season. Then, I looked at the records of those 51 teams in the seasons after they won just four games or fewer to figure out how long it generally takes to return to the playoffs.
On one hand, those who hold that parity reigns supreme in today’s NFL would be somewhat vilified by the fact that a surprisingly high number of teams managed to make the playoffs just one season removed from having lost at least three-fourths of their games the previous year. In total, eight teams went from 4-12 or worse to the playoffs in the subsequent season, the most impressive of which was the 2008 Dolphins, who engineered a 10-game turnaround in just one year, going from 1-15 in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008. Only two other teams – the 2004 Chargers and the 2008 Falcons – managed to win more than 10 games the year after sinking to 4-12 or worse.
Generally speaking, however, the one-year rebuild is the exception, not the rule. A team that has finished 4-12 or worse in the last decade has won an average of just 6.5 games the next season. A whopping 84% of those teams didn’t make the playoffs the year after bottoming out.
If you assume the Vikes will lose to the Saints and then lose to either Washington on the road or the Bears at home and will finish with no better than three wins, the outlook is even bleaker.
There have been 22 teams that have finished with three or fewer wins in the last decade. Of those 22, only the aforementioned Dolphins and the 2006 New Orleans Saints managed to make the playoffs the next season. Considering the Dolphins have gone 7-9, 7-9, and now 4-9 in the three seasons since mysteriously winning 11 games, let’s chalk up their 2008 playoff appearance as a fluke. As for the Saints, after finishing 3-13 in 2005, they brought in a coach named Sean Payton and a quarterback by the name of Drew Brees the next season and have been to the playoffs four times in the last seven years (including, of course, a Super Bowl title). Assuming there are no Hall of Fame quarterbacks lurking out there this offseason (cough! Peyton Manning! ahem!), I don’t see the Vikings righting this ship quite that quickly.
It’s not necessarily as bad as I would have thought for the bottom-feeding teams, however. Of the 22 aforementioned squads that finished with three or fewer wins, five of them made the playoffs within two seasons of their apocalyptic low point. If you exclude the eternally rebuilding Lions, Bills, Texans, and Raiders – none of whom have made the playoffs at all since 2002, and who account for eight entries on the under-three list – from the list, more than a third of the teams (five of 14) that won three games or less in one season were in the playoffs two years later.
And as long as we’re suddenly looking at the Vikings glass as being half full, let’s explore another possible ray of optimism.
Including the narrow loss on Sunday, the Vikings have lost an awful lot of close games this season. Eight of their 11 losses have been by a touchdown or less. Two of those were by a field goal in overtime or on the last play of regulation. Last week came down to the final play, and in several other games the Vikes had the ball with a chance to win on the final possession. Which is to say, the Vikings aren’t as bad as their 2-11 record indicates. Mix in the slim margin of loss with the absurd number of games lost to injury, and it stands to reason that this team, even if it finishes 2-14 or 3-13, isn’t as bad as your typical two- or three-win team.
As it turns out, people a lot smarter than me have known this for years, and have developed a method to more accurately predict future performance than by simply using a team’s win-loss record from the previous season as their baseline.
The formula is generally referred to as Pythagorean Wins, mainly because the formula used to calculate it looks kind of similar to the Pythagorean Theory most of us learned in middle school, or whenever it is that one learns said theory. It could be that 3rd graders are being taught this stuff now-a-days. Considering my four-year-old is already taking computer classes, nothing would surprise me at this point.
Originally introduced by the great baseball statistician Bill James in the 1980s, Pythagorean Wins assumes a team’s strengths (or lack thereof) are more accurately measured by the number of points they allow and the number of points they score, than by their win-loss record.
To calculate a team’s Pythagorean W-L record, grab your calculator and do some math involving coefficients and division (the exact formula, according to pro-football-reference, is [(Points Scored ^ 2.37) / (Points Scored^2.37 + Points Allowed ^2.37)], and poof!, you have a more accurate representation of how good your favorite NFL team is.
Doing the math for the Vikings, we learn that, through Week 14, the Vikings have 4.4 Pythagorean Wins this year, as opposed to their two real-life wins. So, they’re twice as good as we thought they were! Or, only half as bad, depending on your point of view.
In fact, using the same formula on every other team this year, we learn that the Browns, Chiefs, and Buccaneers are all worse than the Vikings in terms of Pythagorean Wins, despite having won at least four games each (I’ll conveniently ignore the fact that the Vikes have lost to both the Chiefs and Bucs this season).
Point being, there’s some hope that the starting point for this team heading into the offseason isn’t necessarily 2-14 or 3-13. Perhaps the 2011 Vikings are really more like a five-win team. Five wins isn’t a lot, but the jump from 5-11 to the playoffs looks a lot less daunting than the jump from 2-14.
My conclusion: While it wouldn’t be unheard of to make the playoffs in 2012 after finishing with only three wins this year, it would be beating the curve by at least a year. And historically speaking, the odds unfortunately don’t favor the Vikings getting back into the playoffs again for at least two seasons, and would suggest that this team is due for mediocre six or seven-win season in 2012.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and is a contributor to Vikings.com and the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday Mornings on KFAN 100.3 FM.