We all define the toughness of division in different ways. It could be the average strength of the division across all teams. It could be just the strength of the upper half, or weighted so that the best teams count more than the bottom teams. Depending on what we are trying to answer, you could look at it different ways.
However, I don’t see any way, other than just blindly looking at the win total for the top 3 teams, that you could say the NFC South was the best division in football last year. Nevertheless, I have heard or read this statement numerous times recently. Just so you know I’m not beating a straw man, one was this weekend with John Clayton on ESPN Radio, when he pointed out, in talking about the NFC East and its prospects for this year, that the NFC South went 13-3 against the NFC West. A few minutes later, he then stated that the NFC South was bar none the best division in football. Those two things might be related.
If you go by just wins, without looking at schedule, it tied for the most with the AFC East. If you go by the top 3 teams in wins, it was the only division with 3 teams with a winning record, which is what is driving the talk about the NFC South. The only other division to have 3 teams with 8 wins was the AFC West, and they had something in common with the NFC South. They both got to play the worst collection of division teams ever in last year’s NFC West.
The top 3 teams in the NFC South went 11-1 against the NFC West, and a combined 6-0 against the worst team in football, division opponent Carolina. Against the top three teams in the AFC North (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cleveland) they went 4-5 and were outscored 156-185. In the playoffs, they went 0-2, with New Orleans losing to Seattle and Atlanta getting routed at home by Green Bay. The difference between the NFC South and other divisions was schedule. While they were beating up on Carolina and the NFC West, the AFC East played both the AFC North and the NFC North, while the AFC North then turned and had a winning record against the NFC South.
If we want to exclude Carolina when evaluating the NFC South versus other divisions, using the top 3 teams in each division’s standings, and adjusting for schedule strength, yields the following:
- AFC East (+7.4 points over average, 32 wins)
- NFC North (+5.6 points over average, 27 wins)
- AFC North (+5.0 points over average, 29 wins)
- NFC South (+2.6 points over average, 34 wins)
- AFC West (+1.4 points over average, 27 wins)
- NFC East (+1.4 points over average, 26 wins)
- AFC South (-0.2 points below average, 24 wins)
- NFC West (-7.3 points below average, 20 wins)
We may tend to forget just how historically bad the NFC West was. They were horrific. The South drew a Big East schedule while the AFC East drew the SEC schedule, if you want to make a college analogy.
Okay, so turning to the Bucs. They were a really young team that had little expectations entering the season. Josh Freeman broke out in a big way, Mike Williams emerged as a very productive rookie wide receiver, and LeGarrette Blount revitalized the running game when he became the starter. They got better as the season went on. They parlayed some close wins against that soft schedule into an impressive record, and had a chance at the postseason if they had defeated Detroit at home in December. There are lots of reasons to expect this team to continue to improve. I really liked getting Da’Quan Bowers, a top ten talent who teams shied away from because of injury concerns.
Still, we need to temper expectations by accounting for their schedule last year. Here are a list of the most similar teams to the Bucs since 1990, based on average margin of victory, strength of schedule, and win total. All of these teams, like the Bucs, had a winning season, played a below average schedule (-1.5 to -2.5 points below average for opponents), and were within 2 points of the Bucs margin of victory in 2010.
Year Team WINS MOV SOS N+1 Wins 2010 TB 10 1.4 -2.0 2009 HOU 9 3.4 -1.5 6 2008 MIA 11 1.8 -2.3 7 2008 ARI 9 0.1 -1.9 10 2007 CLE 10 1.3 -2.3 4 1990 CIN 9 0.5 -1.6 3 1990 PIT 9 3.3 -1.6 7 1991 DET 12 2.8 -1.8 5 1995 BUF 10 0.9 -1.8 10 1995 IND 9 0.9 -2.3 9 2000 NO 10 3.1 -2.2 7 2002 NYG 10 2.6 -1.7 4 2003 CAR 11 1.3 -2.2 7 2003 DAL 10 1.8 -2.3 6 2004 GB 10 2.8 -2.4 4 2004 ATL 11 0.2 -2.4 8
3 of the 15 teams had a winning record the following season, with the average win total being 6.5 wins. Were they overconfident after a winning season in which they played an easier schedule but were closer to an average team? Did the schedule just turn? Did the luck in close games turn? Probably a little bit of all of that.
I think Tampa will be better than the average of that group–the young guys should continue to improve, and this team really did start to emerge late. I still think, though, that this is that old case of the team getting better, but the record getting worse, and I think 8-8 would be a good response to a schedule that still doesn’t look too tough, but shouldn’t have as many easy games as last year. I think that’s also true of the NFC South in general. These three teams won’t go 14-4 in close games against the rest of the league, and they won’t have a combined 34 wins. Carolina will be incrementally better, the NFC North is a much tougher draw, and the AFC South, while appearing down, doesn’t offer the complete cakewalk that was the NFC West.
I’m circling 2012 for this Bucs team to arrive in force, and expect them to be competitive but a little short of the playoffs in 2011.
[photo via Getty]