The recent era of Chargers football can be described by many words, but the one I’d like to focus on is underachieving. Year after year, we’ve seen (relatively) high hopes dashed by season’s end. With a highly capable quarterback in Philip Rivers, you could never entirely count the Chargers out. However, the team never seemed to live up to its “potential”.
In this article, we are going to attempt to quantify that sense of underachievement by way of Pythagorean win percentage. For a more detailed explanation I recommend reading this piece from Football Perspective, but essentially Pythagorean win percentage is an attempt to create an expected win% based on a team’s points scored and points allowed. (Where a lower actual-win% would be underachieving, and a higher actual-win% would be overachieving).
It should be noted that I am not entirely trying to tie the underachieving to the coaching tenure of Mike McCoy (despite picking that as the timeframe); there are many variables that could lead to a team under or over achieving (including coaching, strength of schedule, “freak” moments at the end of close games, “luck”, etc.). In addition, being an underachieving team is not synonymous with being a bad team (and vice versa). A team could have 12 expected wins but still manage 11 actual wins. Simply, the relationship between points scored and points allowed is a better indicator of team strength over time.
Without further ado, let’s first examine the numbers for the 2016 season. The table is sorted by wins over expected, with actual-win% also highlighted for easy reference.
The Chargers fall at 31st in win differential, only 0.02 wins-under-expected above the Jaguars. Much of that -2.7 win difference is likely attributed to the infamous string of games to start the season (not helped by a 24 point drubbing of the Jaguars, which “inflates” the points-scored beyond what is perhaps an accurate representation). The latter parts of the season consisted of “boring” losses though and so while the Chargers fell far below their expectations, the expectation was still a 7 to 8 win season.
Other notable underachievers include the Saints, Bills, Eagles, Cardinals, and Bengals – all finished with losing records despite finishing with positive net points (and expected winning records). Overachievers who stick out include the Dolphins, Texans, Bucs, and Lions – all sporting a winning record despite having negative net points and expected losing records. The Chargers finished with the 26th (T) best record in the league, while they had the 21st best Pythagorean record (ahead of the 4 aforementioned overachievers).
Everyone knows bigger sample sizes are better, so let’s take a look at the Pythagorean records from 2013 to 2016. (I don’t want to overload your screen with tables, so if you’re interested in the single-year results from 2013 to 2015, you can view/download the Excel spreadsheet I used here).
Once again the Chargers finish second to last in win differential (thanks to 2016’s -2.7, their worst in the 4 seasons). Now, roughly 4 wins less than expected may not seem that bad over 64 regular season games, but compared to the rest of the league the Chargers sit among unflattering company. The only team ranking lower is one who just finished their season having gained their only win from playing the Chargers.
To visualize it a different way I’ve included columns showing where each team ranks in Pythagorean W% and Actual W%, with the difference in ranking highlighted. A higher positive difference means that a team was expected to have won more over the time period given the points they scored and allowed. The Chargers rank 3rd in this difference, ranking 3 spots higher in expected win percentage. Only the Bills and Bengals rank higher. The Chargers’ expected W% is still a losing one, however. Even if all the right calls were made and the easiest schedule was had, massive numbers of injuries likely limited the team’s winning potential. All of that said, I believe the numbers support the notion that the Chargers, forgive the cliché, “find a way to lose”. When the conditions get tough and the score gets close, they’re more likely to lose than to snag a win.