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Do Surprise Teams Exist in the NFL?

Okay, let’s say I can tell you–right now–that the Seattle Seahawks will win 10 games in 2009.

Those ten wins would be 150% more than the four they won last year.  Those six additional wins would seem, to fans of the Seahawks, like 8 or 9 wins added because of the fact that the team would be not only winning more games, but because the lowered expectations that come with a 10+ loss team will vanish.  In essence, they would have to be a team on par with the division winners they have produced in past years, and five months from now, we could look back at the 2008 Seattle Seahawks and wonder exactly what the hell happened to cause that mess.   The 4-12 team would essentially be forgotten.  There’s no way, right?

Let’s face it: if the Seahawks win ten games in 2009, no one will be surprised in the slightest.

Does that mean it’s fair to say we’ve reached a point where there’s no such thing as a surprise team?  Hardly.  I think though, that the standards for a surprise team have been increased.  The bar has certainly been raised.

The 1999 Rams are widely regarded as the first salary cap era team to flip the league on it’s head.  Though the cap itself was instituted in 1993, the 90’s were dominated by the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, and Green Bay Packers back in a decade which was ruled by the NFC (yes, just ten years ago).  Furthermore, the strength of the Rams that year had little to do with the salary cap and revenue sharing, however, the fact that the team was so dominant that year can be partially attributed to the cap-related downfall of the aforementioned powerhouses in their conference.

The Rams were a surprise team because they went from 4-12 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999 in an era where that simply did not happen.  Note that the circumstances could not be replicated.  Kurt Warner had, to date, the best season ever by a quarterback, and in my opinion, still the best.  The Rams traded for an all-pro running back that year using a top five draft pick to land him.  Their first draft choice in 1999 was a receiver by the name of Torry Holt.  They didn’t exactly come from no where, but because they didn’t have an established quarterback in either Trent Green or Kurt Warner going into the season, they weren’t suspected, and more directly they weren’t suspected because when this happened, having only 4 wins the prior season was a death sentence.

Now, let’s fast forward ten years.  How many surprise teams have there been since the 1999 Rams?  Are you counting the 2001 Patriots? The 2001 Bears?  What about the 2003 Panthers?  The 2004 Chargers?  The 2005 Bears? The 2005 Bengals? The 2006 Saints? The 2007 Giants? The 2007 Packers?  The 2008 Falcons? The 2008 Cardinals?  All of those teams fit neatly into one of two categories: 1) mediocre regular season teams who went on an unexpected run of playoff success, 2) surprise regular season startups who failed to accomplish anything substantial in the playoffs.

The great teams don’t pop up out of obscurity.  In 2008, the 10 highest-finishing teams in Total DVOA included 9 teams who have appeared in the super bowl in the last decade, and the San Diego Chargers, who have been one of the best teams for the last five years.  Going back a year adds the Packers, Jaguars, and Cowboys to the mix, but no one was shocked to see those franchises in the postseason.

Not correctly predicting an outcome doesn’t make the outcome a surprise, necessarily.  It’s tough to predict who might make the super bowl.  If there was reason to believe that the Colts, Chargers, Patriots, and Steelers would all fail to win the AFC this year, no one would pick them.  However, the consensus is that one of those teams will represent the AFC in the super bowl.  The fact that 12 other teams would be considered underdogs does not make it a surprise occurrence that a team other than the four favorites might go to the super bowl in the better conference.  It’s just so happened that the aforementioned group is SO dominant that only the 1999 Titans, the 2000 Ravens, and the 2002 Raiders have come out of the AFC since the retirement of John Elway.

Very often, it’s the circumstance surrounding a run that created it.  Some circumstances are traceable and projectable (this is essentially the type of projections that Football Outsiders makes annually), others require inside information and the lack of bias to uncover, and thusly are uncovered only after the fact by revisionists.  But circumstancial factors are not surprising in nature because we all know they have a great impact on the game of football and sports in general.  The aptitude of the predictions that come from the evidence do not change the fact that circumstances create variance in win/loss outcomes.

In a sport that bills it’s college draft as a made for TV event, has turned OTA’s into a newsworthy annual occurrence, and promotes it’s network as a 24/7/365 source of football-related news, normal variance is not a surprise.  A surprise team would have to be one of the ten worst teams from the preseason power rankings run to a 12-4 record and destroy other powerhouses in the playoffs en route to a super bowl championship.  Essentially, the Cleveland Browns would have to beat the Steelers and Patriots in consecutive playoff games to reach the level of the 1999 Rams.  And you know what, it’s been a decade since the last, true worst-to-first NFL success story.  It could happen.

But with a liberal use of media-driven labeling non-withstanding, surprise teams are no more frequent in the NFL than in any other sport, and acutally, probably less frequent.

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