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Super Bowl LI: Atlanta Falcons’ Rise Shows How Unlikely Rams’ Stasis Has Been

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The Atlanta Falcons are headed to the Super Bowl after going 8-8 in 2015. The Rams haven’t had a winning season since 2003. Those facts are in competition with each other.

Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Over at ESPN today, Bill Barnwell has a piece looking at the Atlanta Falcons and some of the reasons they were able to go from an 8-8 team in 2015 to an 11-win, Super Bowl-attending team in 2016.

He lists six reasons, and to be fair, all of them played a part in the Falcons’ ascendancy this season -- the randomness inherent in a 16-game schedule, the timing of their run vs. the division, health, Alex Mack at center propelling an offensive improvement, their offensive coordinator propelling an offensive improvement and their potential MVP QB propelling an offensive improvement (I might have added a seventh reason in combining the latter three...).

There’s no doubt that in order to make the Super Bowl in any given season, you need a variety of factors all to fall just right, especially in the postseason. But what I left with as a Rams fan pertains largely to Barnwell’s first reason for the Falcons’ improvement and how foreign it has been to the Rams’ destiny of the past dozen years or so.

The NFL offers a popular vein of parity in its system thanks somewhat to the short schedule it maintains. With just 16 contests, the sample size is short enough that fluctuations away from a team’s true capability level can have an overwhelming effect on the final record. Barnwell alludes to the converse situation in baseball citing the Cubs’ 2016 season and the fact that in their 162-game regular season, there are multiple 16-game runs therein that are hardly indicative of their true quality.

So before we get to the Rams angle here, it’s worth laying down the idea of fluctuation as Barnwell discusses re: the Falcons:

We can use the binomial distribution to estimate just how things could have gone for a 10.6-win team like the Falcons. Atlanta actually won 11 games this season, which isn't necessarily surprising, as the most likely outcome for a 10.6-win team would naturally be to win 11 games. That would occur 20.7 percent of the time, and the Falcons would win 11 or more games in 53.4 percent of simulations. And 5.6 percent of the time, a team of this caliber would win 14 or more games. On the flip side, though, a team can play excellent football and still (at least theoretically) struggle to win games. There's a 5.4 percent chance a team with Atlanta's Pythagorean expectation would post a losing record.

Hate this level of randomness? Try hoops. Teams are far less likely to put up similarly impressive win rates over a longer season. The equivalent to an 11-win NFL season, in terms of winning percentage, would be a 56.4-win NBA campaign. A team with that Pythagorean expectation would make it to 56 wins or more only 39.9 percent of the time, a significant drop from the 53.4 percent case over a 16-game sample. It would also post a losing season only 0.1 percent of the time, down from 5.4 percent in football.

...

We grossly underestimate just how much randomness impacts each NFL season, even though we know that nearly half the teams (48.2 percent) who make the playoffs in a given year have failed to make the postseason the following year since the league went to its current playoff structure in 2002. It's way easier for a team to make a leap over 16 games than it is over 82 or 162. The shorter the schedule, the more likely it is teams will do something totally unexpected.

“It's way easier for a team to make a leap over 16 games than it is over 82 or 162.”

“It’s way easier.”

“EASIER.”

The Rams haven’t posted a winning season since 2003, despite the ease of doing so by deviating from their true quality. It’s hard not to accidentally pull off a winning season once in a while thanks to the variance cooked into the way NFL seasons work. And yet, here we are.

Consider the last 11 years spanning the seasons under the Rams’ last three head coaches: Scott Linehan (2006-08), Steve Spagnuolo (2009-11) and Jeff Fisher (2012-16). For the Rams not to pull off a winning season almost by accident is a statistical fluke in and of itself. Just look at the rest of the league:

2006-16 NFL Team Overall Records

Team W L D Pct Win Yrs Playoffs
Team W L D Pct Win Yrs Playoffs
ARI 91 84 1 0.517 5 4
ATL 96 80 0 0.545 6 5
BAL 103 73 0 0.585 7 7
BUF 73 103 0 0.415 1 0
CAR 90 85 1 0.511 3 4
CHI 87 89 0 0.494 4 2
CIN 91 82 3 0.517 6 6
CLE 52 124 0 0.295 1 0
DAL 101 75 0 0.574 6 5
DEN 103 73 0 0.585 6 5
DET 66 110 0 0.375 3 3
GB 114 61 1 0.648 9 9
HOU 88 88 0 0.500 6 4
IND 112 64 0 0.636 8 8
JAX 61 115 0 0.347 1 1
KC 81 95 0 0.460 6 5
LAC 97 79 0 0.551 6 5
LAR 54 121 1 0.307 0 0
MIA 77 99 0 0.438 2 2
MIN 86 89 1 0.489 4 4
NE 138 38 0 0.784 11 10
NO 101 75 0 0.574 5 5
NYG 96 80 0 0.545 6 5
NYJ 84 92 0 0.477 5 3
OAK 62 114 0 0.352 1 1
PHI 94 81 1 0.534 6 5
PIT 111 65 0 0.631 8 7
SF 84 91 1 0.477 3 3
SEA 98 77 1 0.557 7 8
TAM 67 109 0 0.381 4 1
TEN 81 95 0 0.460 4 2
WAS 71 104 1 0.403 3 3

Yes, the Rams are the only NFL team not to produce a single winning season in the last 11 years, but only three other franchises (the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars) have only logged one winning season in that span and just one (the Miami Dolphins) has had only a pair of winning seasons in that span. This means nearly 85% of the teams in the NFL have had at least three winning seasons in the last 11, a 27.27% success rate.

It’s just very, very, very hard not to win either deservingly or otherwise from time-to-time in a sport with so few matches.

That the Rams have failed to do that in their last 11 seasons is an unenjoyable near-miracle accomplishment. It’s one that you’d have to bet they won’t be accomplishing again in the next 11 years if only on the odds.