Ahh, the magic of the Completely Useless Waste of Time. The CUWoT, for the uninitiated, is my pet name for the masturbatory practice of predicting YOUR FAVORITE TEAM’S RECORD right after the NFL releases its schedule for the year. Last night, at 7:00 EDT, the NFL released its 2012 schedule.
The Lions have 5 games on national television: Thanksgiving against the Texans, two Sunday Night Football games at San Francisco and at Green Bay, a Saturday night game hosting the Falcons, and a Monday Night Football game at Chicago. This is news.
What is not news is everyone going through the schedule, presuming the Lions to be slightly better than last year, then going through the schedule and picking the Lions to lose to every team perceived to be as good or better than whatever "slightly better than last year" means for the Lions. That, my friends, is a completely useless waste of time.
For starters, unlike previous years, the draft hasn’t even happened yet. All 32 teams are going to fill major roster needs—or not—in a week. To pretend we know the relative strengths of these teams in the spring is goofy enough; to pretend we know the relative strengths of these teams when we don’t even know their starting lineups is criminally insane.
But, "slightly better than last year" means 11-5, and so everybody on the planet is picking 11-5. Last season, everyone was picking between seven and nine wins for the Lions, but I stated that the Lions would make the playoffs as fact on May 27th. Because, duh:
Nick Fairley doesn’t need to be a stud. The Lions don’t need to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, or add more backup tackles. The Bears don’t need to implode (though they will), and the Vikings won’t need to keep backsliding (though they will). The Lions don’t need to “learn how to finish,” they just need Matthew Stafford healthy for 16 games. If they get that, the Lions will win ten of those games, at least—and they’ll make the playoffs.
. . . not to put too fine a point on it, but that was as arrogantly definitive of a paragraph as I’ve written—and that’s saying something—and I batted 1.000.
Don’t forget, the NFL is all about variance. As I wrote about in “Detroit Lions, NFL, and Luck,” the correlation between actual team goodness and wins is about 75%. Per point differential and strength of schedule, the Lions were almost spookily in sync with how good they “really” were in 2011. The 2011 Lions expected W-L, based on point differential, was 9.9-6.1. That the record shook out exactly as I predicted was more or less sheer luck. If the Lions are slightly better in 2012 than they were in 2011, variance alone dictates they could finish anywhere from 8-8 to 15-1.
Don't believe me?
In 2010, the Green Bay Packers scored 24.2 points per game, 10th-best in the NFL. They allowed 15.0 points per game, 2nd-best in the NFL. They outscored opponents by 9.2 points per game, 2nd-best in the NFL. With their point differential, they should have won 12.1 games and lost 3.9. They actually went 10-6, snuck into the playoffs as a six seed, and won the Super Bowl.
In 2011, the Packers scored 35.0 points per game, best in the NFL, but allowed 22.4; 19th. Their differential was again second-best at 12.6 points per game, and their expected W-L was 11.9-4.1. They went 15-1, secured a bye, and promptly lost to the Giants (9-7, expected 7.9-8.1).
This method of calculating expected wins, often called Pythagorean wins, indicates something I'd suspected from the eyeball test: the Packers were slightly “worse” in 2012 than 2011, yet made a dramatic five-game jump in the win column.
In that very Pro Football Reference blog post, they note Pythagorean wins correlate much more strongly to next season’s wins than the season they describe—and since 1978, teams which finish 10-6 with between 9.5 and 10.5 Pythagorean wins (like the 2011 Lions), average 9.3 wins in the following season (like this upcoming season).
Food for thought.
What is my point? I have two left to make: penultimately, going through the schedule and picking wins and losses based on “last year’s record + talent additions – talent subtractions” is a completely useless waste of time, but that’s okay when there’s nothing else going on. Doing it immediately before the draft is madness. Lunacy. I refuse to participate.
I called the Lions going 10-6 last season because I thought they were an above-average team sure to make the playoffs, but no more . . . the scoreboard precisely reflected that level of performance. I wouldn’t have predicted a 5-0 start, and I wouldn’t have predicted a miserable October, but in the end the Lions were who I thought they were.
This year, the Lions will be better. If Stafford and Johnson are healthy for 16 games again, the Lions’ on-field performance will be better in 2012 than 2011, even if the draft yields no immediate starters. I base this entirely on the idea that the development of the younger players will have a greater positive impact than the depreciation of the older players’ negative impact.
How many regular season wins will that “slightly better than last year” performance? Well, between you, me, and Pythagoras it doesn’t really matter anymore. The Lions are a playoff team now. The question is, how many playoff games will they win?