The NFL moves and shifts faster than you think. Since the league went to its current standings and schedule format back in 2002, an average of six teams have made repeat trips to the playoffs each season, meaning half of the playoffs turn over from season to season. Just five of the 12 teams that made it to the playoffs in 2017 made it back to the postseason in 2018, and even that was up from four the previous season.
Is the NFL just total chaos outside of the Patriots inevitably winning 11 or more games? Maybe, on the surface. It would have been difficult at this time last year to see perennial contenders like the Steelers, Vikings and Panthers taking a major step backward and missing the postseason, while struggling franchises like the Bears and Colts rode stunning streaks into the playoffs. There is a place you might have gotten tipped off about those very teams (and a handful of others) declining or improving: this very column from one year ago.
Over the past two years, I've identified 11 teams whose underlying statistics seemed to portend a coming decline in this column. Ten of those 11 teams have declined, while one -- the 2018 Titans -- managed to maintain its 9-7 record. The group has declined by an average of 4.2 wins from its prior record, and though 10 of the 11 teams had made the playoffs during their successful season, not one made it back to the postseason the following year.
I think that streak will break in 2019. There are some talented, successful teams on this list, and though I think they won't hit their high-water marks of 2018, they're still likely playoff teams. My column on teams likely to improve started in California, so let's go back there to start this list:
Los Angeles Rams (13-3)
Point differential in 2018: plus-143
Pythagorean expectation: 10.9 wins
Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 6-1 (.857)
FPI projected strength of schedule: 15th-easiest
The Rams traded draft picks and created cap space to try to build a Super Bowl winner last season. They came within just a few plays of winning football's biggest prize, although Saints fans might argue that the Rams didn't deserve to be in the game to begin with. Even before the missed call on Nickell Robey-Coleman that extended the NFC Championship Game, the Rams were fortunate in a few ways in 2018.
Start with that 6-1 mark in close games, because it's almost impossible for even the best teams to maintain. Since 1989, 12 other teams have gone 6-1 in one-score games, winning an average of 11.9 games over the full season. The following year, those same teams were a combined 39-45 in one-score games. Each team saw its win total decline, and the average fall was just under four wins.
That's a small sample. Let's expand it out to all the teams that won five more close games than they lost, so we'll include teams that went 5-0 and 7-2 along with the 6-1 Rams. That's a group of 27 teams, and after going 173-38 (.820) in games decided by seven or fewer points, those same teams went 89-111 (.445) in one-score games the following season. You can't count on L.A. winning 85% of its close games again in 2019.
When looking at what actually happened in those games, you'll see just how narrow some of these victories really were:
In a Thursday night shootout against the Vikings, the Rams punted on fourth-and-1 up 38-31 with 2 minutes, 30 seconds to go. The Vikings drove to midfield, only for a Kirk Cousins stripsack to end the game.
The following week, down 33-31 late in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks drove to the Los Angeles 35-yard line with 3:53 to go, but then a pair of offensive line penalties pushed them back and forced a punt. The Rams tried to run out the clock and were stuffed on third-and-1 before lining up to punt. After Sean McVay's players encouraged him to go for it, the Rams converted on a Jared Goff sneak to end the game.
In the rematch against the Seahawks, Seattle was down 36-31 and drove to the Rams' 35 again, only for its drive to end when Russell Wilson failed to connect with an open Tyler Lockett on the sidelines to extend the game.
After kicking a field goal to go up 29-27 on the Packers with 2:09 to go in Week 8, the Rams were about to hand the ball back to Aaron Rodgers ... only for Ty Montgomery to fumble away the ensuing kickoff.
In the 54-51 instant classic with the Chiefs on Monday Night Football, the Rams went on defense after a Gerald Everett touchdown with 1:49 to go. The Chiefs had two drives with an opportunity to tie or win, but after going 30-of-38 for 438 yards with six touchdowns and an interception on the first 13 drives of the game, Patrick Mahomes threw interceptions on each of the final two drives.
Throw in the interception the Rams forced from Drew Brees on the opening drive of overtime in the NFC Championship Game and you can see a trend here. A struggling Rams defense managed to come up with takeaways and huge plays exactly when they mattered most. Though Wade Phillips & Co. were happy with the results, it's tough to count on a defense stepping up at exactly the right time that often after being unable to make big plays before the fourth quarter.
The fumble recoveries won't happen as frequently. Los Angeles recovered 71% of the fumbles in its games last season, including 12 of the 14 fumbles it forced on defense. That 71% figure was the highest fumble recovery rate going back to at least 1991, which is where the NFL's publicly available fumble data begins. If we look at the 50 highest fumble recovery rates going back through 1991, those teams recovered an average of 64.8% of their fumbles in Year 1 and then an average of 50.2% the following season.
It's not a Phillips thing, either. Though the former Cowboys coach is a brilliant defensive mind, his defense as a head coach or defensive coordinator had recovered 48.6% of fumbles from 1991-2017. On average, defenses recovered 48.2% of fumbles over the same time frame.
Though it didn't really matter because the offense was so dominant, the Rams' defense fell from sixth in DVOA to 18th a year ago. Are they likely to be significantly better in 2019? They lost a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber starters in Lamarcus Joyner and Ndamukong Suh, then added 34-year-old Eric Weddle and 33-year-old Clay Matthews this offseason. Aqib Talib, who was by far the Rams' best cornerback a year ago, turned 33 in February. Those are three great players with fantastic résumés, and both Talib and Weddle played very well last season, but history tells us they're more likely to decline than improve as they age. The Rams lost Talib for a chunk of 2018, but they were 13th in defensive Adjusted Games Lost, so it's not as if they project to be significantly healthier in 2019.
Even if the defense improves, we should expect at least a modest offensive decline. I don't buy the idea that the Patriots gave everyone a blueprint on how to stop the Rams in the Super Bowl -- McVay has had an entire offseason to make adjustments against defenses that might sell out to stop outside zone -- but the league already suggested it is going to target holds on the backsides of run plays this season, using a block from star Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth as one of the examples.
I don't think the league is actually going to dramatically change the way it calls offensive holding, but there are absolutely legitimate concerns about the Rams' offensive line. L.A. is rebuilding the interior of its line after losing Rodger Saffold to the Titans and moving on from center John Sullivan, whose experience helped set and reset protections for Goff at the line of scrimmage. Goff had both Saffold and Sullivan on the field for nearly 89% of his snaps over the past two seasons.
The Rams will put their faith in youth, with 2018 draft picks Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen taking over at left guard and center, respectively. Goff will take more responsibility in helping to set protections. Austin Blythe, who won the right guard job last season while Jamon Brown was suspended, is the elder statesman on the interior with 18 career starts. Whitworth deserves to be in the Hall of Fame after he retires, but he turns 38 during the season. If his level of play slips -- and there's not a lengthy track record of offensive linemen playing as well as Whitworth in their late 30s -- offensive line could be a real problem for Los Angeles.
It's also fair to wonder if the Rams will be as healthy on offense as they were a year ago, given that they were the second-healthiest unit in football on that side of the field based on Adjusted Games Lost. McVay's ideal offense over the past two years has been to run the same 11 players out on the field for every single offensive snap outside of goal-line situations. Until Cooper Kupp tore his ACL in midseason, McVay was mostly getting his wish.
The Rams were also first in offensive Adjusted Games Lost in 2017. Though the precocious coach has attempted to maximize the chances of keeping his stars healthy by monitoring their practice schedules and keeping some out of every preseason game, there's no way to perennially avoid injuries. It's possible that the Rams might project as healthier than most offenses, but history suggests they will deal with more injuries on offense in 2019.
Obviously, McVay also seems likely to shift away from using Todd Gurley as an every-down back. The Rams were able to get by with C.J. Anderson when Gurley missed time last December, then drafted Darrell Henderson to help shoulder some of the workload, but the check the Rams made out to Gurley last summer tells you that they think he is a unique, irreplaceable talent. If Gurley only plays 70% of Los Angeles' offensive snaps, they aren't going to be as effective as they were when Gurley was on the field 90% of the time.
L.A. might also contend with a tougher schedule if the 49ers take an expected step forward and the Cardinals compete with Kyler Murray at quarterback. The Rams lose a home game to London, which has historically hurt teams, but I'm less concerned because they'll be playing the Bengals. The sky isn't falling in Los Angeles, and there are going to be weeks when the Rams look downright unbeatable, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that we'll see them fall off from their 13-3 record.
New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Point differential in 2018: plus-151
Pythagorean expectation: 11.2 wins
Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 5-1 (.833)
FPI projected strength of schedule: 11th-toughest
Let's add the other team from the NFC Championship Game into the mix, because the Saints are in a similar situation to the Rams. Nobody doubts they are a wildly talented team. They have probably the deepest roster in football and an excellent coach in Sean Payton. Even as I'm projecting a decline into the 10-win range, I would be shocked if New Orleans missed the playoffs.
To get to 13-3, though, a lot has to go right. Teams have to win a lot of close games, which is tough to do. The Saints went 5-1 in those one-score games a year ago, and some of those wins were pretty narrow. In Week 2, they beat the Browns by three points on a late field goal in a game in which kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two extra points and a potential game-tying field goal. In Week 3, they beat the Falcons in overtime after a late comeback, and New Orleans only failed to go to overtime against the Ravens in Week 7 because Justin Tucker, of all people, missed an extra point with 24 seconds left in a 24-23 game. A fourth-quarter fumble by backup running back Stevan Ridley with the Steelers up four points in Week 16 stopped a likely scoring drive in a game the Saints eventually won with a late touchdown pass.
The Saints don't have a track record of pulling out narrow wins with their Hall of Fame combination of Payton and Drew Brees. Before 2018, they were 40-37 in games decided by seven or fewer points with Brees in the lineup and Payton on the sidelines. (Those numbers leave out the 2012 season in which Payton was suspended.) They were 1-3 in those same one-score games with a similar core of talent in 2017.
Just as the Rams were remarkably healthy in 2018, New Orleans ranked sixth in Adjusted Games Lost. The players who missed significant time generally weren't core pieces, including wideout Ted Ginn Jr. and slot corner Patrick Robinson, although star left tackle Terron Armstead did miss six games. The Saints are already dealing with one injury to a core talent in defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who tore an Achilles in the playoffs and won't participate in training camp.
Even if Armstead plays 16 games, this team will find it difficult to be as impressive in the red zone in 2019. The Saints averaged 5.45 points per red zone trip in 2018, and though they have the personnel to make magic happen inside the 20, they haven't shown an ability to keep that up over an extended period of time. Brees & Co. had averaged just under 5.0 points per red zone trip with Payton in the fold, and red zone performance is generally inconsistent from year-to-year. A half-point or so per red zone trip doesn't sound like much, but that would have amounted to about 31 points for the Saints last season. Plug that into a Pythagorean expectation formula, and it was worth about a half-win to them in 2018.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the possibility that Brees might not be the same quarterback he once was as he enters his age-40 season. Brees looked like an MVP candidate through the first 11 games last season, but the future Hall of Famer looked more like Dak Prescott or Marcus Mariota from Thanksgiving on. Including the postseason, here are Brees' splits before and after Thanksgiving:
My colleague Mike Triplett asked Brees and the Saints about the late-season swoon, and neither party seems concerned about it carrying over into 2019. I'm going to take a closer look later this month at the decline and what happens to elite quarterbacks like Brees as they age. Even if Brees bounces back to his usual self, expecting any quarterback to post a QBR near 90 is too much to ask for any significant length of time.
The Saints don't need a dominant Brees to make the playoffs, especially with Teddy Bridgewater waiting in reserve in case of a total collapse. Even with the diminished version of Brees, the Saints went 5-2 in competitive games and came within a brutally missed call of making the Super Bowl. With an above-average defense and a sound running game, they could make the playoffs without requiring much more than competent quarterback play. Getting to 13-3 for a second consecutive year might be beyond New Orleans, even if it remains a Super Bowl contender.
Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Point differential in 2018: plus-15
Pythagorean expectation: 8.4 wins
Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 8-2 (.800)
FPI projected strength of schedule: Eighth-easiest
Let's just start with the big crooked number up there for the Cowboys. They were 8-2 in games decided by seven or fewer points last season. They actually have their own Panthers-esque streak of alternating seasons in which they're great in one-score games one season, only to struggle in those same contests the next.
The Cowboys were 4-1 in one-score games in 2014, 2-6 in those same games without Tony Romo in 2015, 7-2 in one-score games during Dak Prescott's debut season in 2016, 2-2 in those same games in 2017, and then 8-2 a year ago. They were 34-29 in one-score games under Garrett before the 2018 season. I don't anticipate Dallas winning 80% of its games decided by seven or fewer points again in 2019. Teams that have won six more one-score games than they lost in a given year since 1989 went 109-25 in Year 1 and 46-49-1 in those same games the following season.
I can see the argument from Cowboys fans here. Things turned around for Dallas only after the team traded for Amari Cooper. The Cowboys were 3-4 before acquiring their star receiver and 7-2 afterward. What if we only evaluate the Cowboys on their performance after acquiring Cooper? Are they still likely to decline?
Actually, yes. The Cowboys were slightly better than their record during the first seven weeks. While they went 3-4, Dallas outscored its opposition by three points over that stretch, which is roughly the level of a .500 team. And likewise, during their final nine-game run, the Cowboys went 7-2 while outscoring opponents by a total of 13 points, which is also about the level of a .500 team. We would have expected the Cowboys to win 4.8 of those nine games by point differential. Instead, they won seven.
Six of Dallas' seven wins during that late-season surge came by seven or fewer points, with an eight-point win over a Colt McCoy-led Washington team as the lone exception. That game wasn't particularly close, but the Cowboys were either tied or trailing in the fourth quarter in five of those seven victories. If you want to consider them cool customers who knew how to close out games, consider that the defense blew fourth-quarter leads in four of those games, and Prescott fumbled away a red zone possession that might have sealed the team's upset win over the Saints, only for Brees to throw a bizarre interception right to Jourdan Lewis to seal the win.
You might figure that the possibility of a lengthy Ezekiel Elliott holdout would also hurt the Cowboys, but I'm not as concerned as some others might be. For one, I don't think the chances of Elliott holding out deep into the regular season are especially high. He doesn't have much leverage, given that he's still two full years away from even requiring a franchise tag. The Cowboys also have a lengthy record of paying their homegrown talent, even given many of those deals haven't turned out well. I don't think Elliott is going anywhere.
In addition, though it's always difficult to parse out an individual player's value in the broader context of an offense, I think Elliott's impact on the Cowboys' offense is likely overstated. We know that most observers generally overrate the value of running backs given how replaceable they've been around the league; the most recent back who was regarded as transcendent was Todd Gurley, who was ably replaced by C.J. Anderson last season when the latter had been a street free agent. The Cowboys were very successful running the ball before Elliott with DeMarco Murray, a third-round pick who had 392 carries in 2014.
Riddick: Gordon has no leverage with Chargers
Louis Riddick says contract holdouts are all about timing and leverage and Melvin Gordon has neither.
Though the Cowboys' offense did drop off in 2017 when Elliott was suspended for six games, those numbers were also influenced by the absence of star left tackle Tyron Smith. When you look at Prescott's passing numbers before the suspension and then with and without Smith during Elliott's suspension, you can see where the drop off really occurred:
In Weeks 1-9: 98 passer rating and 7.1 ANY/A
In Weeks 10-15 without Elliott but with Smith: 86.1 passer rating and 6.0 ANY/A
In Weeks 10-15 without both Elliott and Smith: 63.3 passer rating and 2.7 ANY/A
The best case for the Cowboys improving in 2019 involves their offensive line. They have three of the best linemen in football in Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. Those three missed 21 total games via injury last season, including a full 16-game season from Frederick, who was recovering from Guillain-Barré syndrome. Frederick has returned to the team and is participating in training camp, but it's impossible to know whether he'll be the same player after dealing with the illness. The Cowboys ranked 18th in rushing DVOA in 2018; when they had a healthy offensive line blocking for a full season from Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, they ranked second in the same category. It should be noted that Martin has already needed an MRI on his back during training camp.
If a young Cowboys team takes a step backward, the blame will likely be thrust upon Garrett and/or the various contract situations that are currently enveloping the team's core. I wouldn't be so sure. The Cowboys were a league-average team or worse in 2018, when they finished finished 21st in DVOA -- below the Broncos, Giants and Packers. It wouldn't shock me if Jerry Jones' team were actually better on a game-by-game basis in 2019 yet failed to make it to 10 wins.
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4)
Point differential in 2018: plus-99
Pythagorean expectation: 10.4 wins
Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 5-1 (.833)
FPI projected strength of schedule: Seventh-toughest
This one hurts. When I wrote a less team-specific version of this column for the 2016 season, I pegged the Chargers as one of the teams in football most likely to improve. They improved, although only from 4-12 to 5-11. They made it back on the list of teams to improve for 2017 and jumped from 5-11 to 9-7. The numbers still suggested that there was more bounce in the Chargers, though, and when they made a third appearance on the improve side of this column last year, they went up by three wins and made it to 12-4. Our Chargers have grown up.
Now, sadly, I must recuse myself from the Chargers bandwagon. The numbers no longer project Los Angeles to improve; in fact, this was basically the same team in terms of its underlying performance from 2017-18. You can see what changed pretty clearly:
A Chargers team that had gone 7-20 in games decided by seven or fewer points from 2015-17 went 5-1 in those same games last season. Some of that is finally stumbling onto a valuable kicker in Mike Badgley, who went 15 of 16 on field goals after his predecessors from 2015-18 had combined to go 81-of-107 (75.7%). Badgley should be better than that horror show from years past, but he's probably not going to hit nearly 94% of his kicks over a larger sample in 2019.
What happened instead is that the same heartbreaking losses that happened to the Chargers in close games suddenly started happening to their opponents. Consider that the Chargers had two games that were decided by two-point conversions on the final meaningful snap of the game and won both -- they managed to stuff the Titans and hold a 20-19 lead in London in Week 7, then converted on a two-pointer to complete a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback against their old tormentors from Kansas City in Week 15. That final drive included a fourth-and-7 conversion and a third-and-9 pass interference call on Kendall Fuller to extend the game.
The Chargers benefited from a third two-point conversion going their way when the Bengals were stuffed on a conversion attempt down 23-21 with 1:50 to go in Week 14. Badgley hit a field goal afterward to extend the lead to five. The previous week saw the Steelers go offsides three times in a row as Badgley attempted to hit a game-winning field goal with three seconds left in a 30-30 tie, turning a 39-yard miss into a 29-yard winner. Earlier in the game, the Chargers hit a long touchdown pass on a play where right tackle Sam Tevi appeared to clearly false start before the snap. In Week 9, the Chargers also allowed the Seahawks to frantically drive back from a 25-10 deficit in the fourth quarter and eventually faced an untimed down with zero seconds left on the 1-yard line up 25-17, only to see Seattle false start and David Moore drop a would-be touchdown pass that would have set up a game-tying two-point try. It's as if the Chargers cashed in all their horrific outcome chips for a season of favorable endings.
Don't get me wrong: The Chargers would have been a good football team without the late-game heroics. They ranked third in overall DVOA and were the only team to place in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive DVOA. They were eighth in the latter category despite getting just seven games from star defensive end Joey Bosa and nine from influential linebacker Denzel Perryman. Tight end Hunter Henry missed the entire season.
L.A. might have expected to be healthier in 2019, but it is already down one key figure, as left tackle Russell Okung deals with a pulmonary embolism. There's no timetable for the star tackle's return, and if he's out, the Chargers would have one of the worst sets of offensive tackles in the league with Tevi on one side and either Trent Scott or third-round project Trey Pipkins on the other. Philip Rivers is a magician in terms of identifying rush packages and setting protections before the snap, but the 37-year-old isn't exactly mobile these days and (rightfully) has no qualms about throwing the ball into the ground and giving up on a play or a series if a rusher is on him right after the snap.
It also appears the Chargers will be without Melvin Gordon to start the season, as the fifth-year running back holds out in search of a new deal. I've written about why I don't think he is worth a big contract, but the 2018 version of Gordon was unquestionably a positive for Los Angeles. The Chargers should be able to get by with Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson as the running back combination, but my concern would be about what happens if one of those two gets hurt. Both missed time last season. If Gordon stays away, the Chargers are one injury from handing regular snaps to Detrez Newsome or Troymaine Pope.
The opposition also projects to be tougher for the Chargers, who faced the league's seventh-easiest schedule last season per FPI. Los Angeles had only five games against playoff teams last season, going 2-3 while being outscored by 23 points. This year, it is projected to face the league's seventh-toughest schedule. Only the Colts and Texans are projected to see their schedules make a larger leap in terms of difficulty this upcoming season. For the second year in a row, L.A. will lose a home game to a foreign market, as it is scheduled to play the Chiefs in Mexico City in November.
I'm glad that the storyline of the Same Old Chargers is over. When Anthony Lynn went for and converted that two-pointer to beat the Chiefs, we got to move on as a nation. It's also fair to note that these Chargers aren't suddenly owed a bunch of victories in close games because they lost in every conceivable fashion from 2015-17. This is one of the most talented teams in football, but with average luck in a division with the Chiefs, it will be tough for L.A. to hit 12 wins again in 2019.
Miami Dolphins (7-9)
Point differential in 2018: minus-114
Pythagorean expectation: 5.2 wins
Record in games decided by seven or fewer points: 5-1 (.833)
FPI projected strength of schedule: 10th-toughest
I don't want to pick on the Dolphins, who pursued a logical offseason plan after years of trying to spend their way into contention with a flawed roster. They weren't going to seriously compete with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback and holes on both sides of the ball, so I can't fault them for heading into a rebuild. You can pick nits with some of the money they absorbed to get mid-to-late draft picks, but I love the move they made to go after Josh Rosen, even if the former Cardinals quarterback doesn't work out in his new digs.
At the same time, unless Rosen is suddenly a superstar in teal, the short term isn't going to be pretty for Brian Flores' team. The 2018 Dolphins were far worse than their 7-9 record indicated, as they posted the fourth-worst point differential in the league despite playing the 10th-easiest schedule. Miami then mostly sat out free agency, losing starting right tackle Ja'Wuan James while targeting former Patriots such as Dwayne Allen and Eric Rowe.
Miami stayed afloat with some late-game magic (the laterals play against the Patriots comes to mind) and a defense that picked off 4.1% of passes, the second-highest rate in the league behind the Bears. As good as Xavien Howard and Minkah Fitzpatrick can be as a duo, it's difficult to count on any team keeping that interception rate on a year-after-year basis. The Dolphins probably won't force as many takeaways in 2019, and that will both see them allow more points and hurt their offensive field position.
Nobody is pretending that they are seriously trying to compete this season, which is a good thing for an organization that has spent most of the past decade trying to trick itself into believing it was a contender. As long as they stay self-aware, the long-term future for the Dolphins will be brighter than it was this time last year. This season just probably won't be pretty.