Monday, January 10, 2011

No "Next Year" for the Kansas City Chiefs

A little "sports blogging" on a slushy, snowy Monday afternoon...

I grew up as a fan of the hard luck Boston Red Sox. Every October, at least until 2004, a familiar phrase reverberated through all of New England: "There's always next year."

Yesterday, after services at church, I rushed home to lie on the couch and watch the Kansas City Chiefs look awful in losing to the Baltimore Ravens. They lost 30-7, but the score wasn't even that close.

But the Chiefs are a team on the right path, right? They are a young team that's bound to improve, right? There's always next year, right? Quoth the raven, "Nevermore! (At least not in 2011.)"

At the beginning of this season I listened to Kansas City sports radio personality Nick Wright predict an appearance in the playoffs by the Chiefs. Wright's argument was a bit unorthodox. Wright pointed to history to show that every year a couple of NFL teams win at least 5 more games than they had won the previous year. He surveyed teams capable of such a dramatic improvement and thought that the Chiefs were a likely bet to improve their win-loss record by 5 games. They did. The Chiefs went 10-6 this year, a six game improvement over last year's 4-12 record.

Unfortunately, indicators point to a regression for the Chiefs next year. This year they played a last place schedule and also had the good fortune of playing the mediocre AFC South and the anemic NFC West divisions. The teams they played in 2010 had a combined record of 106-150, a winning percentage of just 41%. Only 3 of their 16 games were played against teams with winning records. They only played two teams that made the playoffs and one of those teams, the Seattle Seahawks, made the playoffs despite a losing record. Before the playoff embarrassment against Baltimore, the best team Kansas City played all season was the 10-6 Indianapolis Colts.

Next year, the Kansas City Chiefs face a much tougher schedule. This, of course, assumes that there will be a 16 game NFL season next year. It isn't certain that teams will play a 16 game season. It is entirely possible that there may not even be a 2011 NFL season at all. But, assuming there is one, the Chiefs will be tested. They will face eight teams that sported winning records in 2010 and six teams with ten or more wins. In 2010 they faced Indianapolis and twice played the 9-7 San Diego Chargers. The Chiefs 2011 schedule has them playing those teams again in addition to the New England Patriots, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, and Chicago Bears. All five of those teams have a legitimate shot at playing in the Super Bowl.

The NFL likes to proclaim its parity. It likes to mention how a very bad team can become a very good one in a short period of time. The Chiefs would seem to be proof of this. However, when listening to these claims of parity, make sure you read the small print. For the last decade, three teams have dominated the AFC. The Colts, Steelers, and Patriots have each won more than 2/3 of their games. (The Patriots have won more than 3/4 of theirs.) Together, these three teams have represented the AFC in eight of the last nine Super Bowls and either New England or Pittsburgh is likely to return to the Super Bowl this year. In thirty chances, these three teams have won ten or more games a whopping twenty-five times.

In the interest of full disclosure, the NFC's track record in the past decade paints an entirely different picture. In the past nine seasons, nine different teams (St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Arizona, and New Orleans) have played in the Super Bowl. If either Atlanta or Green Bay advances this year, the NFC would be a perfect ten for ten. Compared to the sustained dominance of the "haves" over the "have nots" in the AFC, the NFC practices pigskin socialism. But, what is important to realize is that neither division permits (new) teams to rise to positions of sustained excellence. The exclusive club is off limits in the AFC; in the NFC there is no club. That is bad news for the Chiefs.

So, what will 2011 bring for the Kansas City Chiefs? If we are lucky, they will have the chance to play in 9 months. But, it is very hard to find a team with a track record of steady and incremental improvement. Nick Wright used trends to predict a Chiefs playoff appearance. If these larger trends hold true, don't look for the Chiefs to get back there in 2011.

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Curious Football trend: the curse of the Superstar Running Back?

Seventeen running backs rushed for 1,000 yards in 2010. 17 out of 32 teams (53%) featured a running back who reached 1,000 yards. Of the 12 teams to make the playoffs, 7 (58%) had a 1,000 yard rusher. In some ways that is not surpising. A team with a 1,000 yard rusher is more likely to win than a team without one. You don't say.

In another way, this statistic is surprising. Teams that make the playoffs win a lot of their games. Teams that win a lot of their games tend to frequently have leads late in the game. Teams that often have leads late in the game tend to hand off the football to the running back in order to run time off the clock. This is how the Bears' Matt Forte and the Patriots' BenJarvus Green-Ellis got their 1,000 yards. (By the way, BJGE's nickname is "Law Firm." One of the best nicknames ever!)

It would be a bit more accurate to look at total team rushing. A team could have a pair of running backs with 800 yards each and be a dominant rushing team despite the lack of a 1,000 yard rusher. However, of the ten best rushing teams in the league, only four made the playoffs!

What do superstar running backs Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Stephen Jackson have in common? Their teams all missed the playoffs. And, now the NFL's second leading rusher, Jamaal Charles, is out of the playoffs. If the Atlanta Falcons, one of the remaining eight teams in the playoffs, reach the Super Bowl, it will be the first time in five years that a top-5 rusher has played in the Super Bowl. If Atlanta doesn't make the Super Bowl, then we might be able to blame it on the curse of the superstar running back.