In NFL circles, "luck" can be a dirty word. Players and coaches devote their lives to winning games each and every week, so nobody wants to believe those games might be decided by elements out of their control. Everyone has heard that old idiom about how you would rather be lucky than good, but NFL teams try to be good and hope that whatever lucky elements pop up on Thursday, Sunday and Monday go their way.
"Luck" might be too simplistic to describe what I'm discussing. Some elements of the game are truly random and uncontrollable, like fumble recoveries or the success of opposing kickers. Others are subject to massive amounts of variance because they're in small samples, like how a team performs on fourth down. From looking at the history of the NFL, we can get a sense of whether some elements of a team's performance are unsustainable and what that means for their future.
We saw an example of how variance can impact things Monday night. The Commanders played an excellent game against the Eagles and deserved to win, but they got some help along the way. Before that game, the Eagles had fumbled seven times on offense and recovered six of them. We know that offenses typically recover roughly 57% of their fumbles from year-to-year and that there's no track record for teams recovering a significant percentage of their fumbles season after season.
On Monday night, though, Philadelphia fumbled three times. The Commanders recovered them all. Those fumbles led to 10 points (the touchdown on the final play and the field goal after Dallas Goedert was dragged down by his facemask). It also cost the Eagles a scoring opportunity after Quez Watkins fumbled a long catch on the Commanders' 23-yard line.
The Eagles turned a Commanders fumble into a touchdown, too, but you can see how the game might have turned out differently if Washington linebacker Jamin Davis had been flagged or if someone had tapped Watkins while he was on the ground after his catch. Those small margins win or lose games every week.
Let's look back at the first 10 weeks of the season and use the evidence I've found to try to identify teams that have been lucky or unlucky. If you want to substitute fortunate or well-timed for lucky, that's fine, too. I'll get into why each team deserves to be in their respective category and what it means for their season moving forward. I'll also finish with one team that somehow has simultaneously been both lucky and unlucky.
We'll begin with a contender that unexpectedly struggled during an uneven first half:
Unlucky: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-5)
What has gone wrong: Fumble recoveries, tougher schedule, defensive red zone woes
Let's start with the Bucs, who represent a classic example of how things can go wrong in the first half of a season. I won't even touch on their injury woes, which cost them most of their offensive line and nearly all of their receivers for stretches of time. The injuries are going to linger into the second half, given that edge rusher Shaq Barrett (left Achilles) and center Ryan Jensen (left knee) are out for the season.
Take their performance on defense. Outside of the red zone, the Buccaneers have the league's fifth-best defense by expected points added (EPA) per play. Inside the 20-yard line, though, they haven't been anywhere near as effective. They rank 18th in EPA per play allowed in the red zone. Opposing teams have converted 63% of their red zone possessions into touchdowns against Tampa Bay, the eighth-highest rate in the league.
The Bucs ranked 10th in red zone conversion rate on defense in 2021. Past performance isn't indicative of future success, but we know from the broader NFL that teams that play much worse in the red zone than they do outside of it typically see their red zone performance improve as the season progresses. A great defense, most of the time, typically will be great in the red zone or get there as it gets a larger sample.