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Jacksonville is not a freebie: 0-6 teams and luck

The recent "success" of teams following an 0-6 start is a cautionary reminder that there is no such thing as a free win in the NFL. The San Diego Chargers should remember this as they travel to Jacksonville to take on the winless Jaguars.

Doug Pensinger

From the 0-6 2011 Colts' stunning 62-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints to the 0-6 2011 Rams' stunning 31-21 victory over that same New Orleans Saints team one week later, the recent history of 0-6 teams covers a broad spectrum of seventh game results. And, by and large, 0-6 teams have fared better than you may think. Before we get into the recent history of NFL teams who have started 0-6, let's first go over how much luck and skill determine the result of an NFL game.

Luck versus skill

Think about it this way: if the result of an NFL game was entirely dependent upon the skill level of each team, we would see a 19-0 team and an 0-16 each season. On the other hand, if the result of an NFL game was entirely dependent upon luck, we would see an overwhelming distribution of teams with 7-9, 8-8, and 9-7 records, and a 15-1 team would be expected just once every 128 seasons. Clearly, the result of an NFL game is dependent upon both the skill of the teams and some amount of luck.

Brian Burke from Advanced NFL Stats has plotted expected win distributions for a variety of luck/skill levels. On the same chart, he overlaid the actual distribution of wins seen in the NFL. The result shows that the distribution of wins in the NFL most closely mimics a distribution where wins are 52.5% determined by skill and 47.5% determined by luck. For the sake of ease/clarity in this discussion, let's round that to 50/50.

Here's an easy way to think about how a 50/50 split in skill and luck determines a team's record: for 8 games a season the better team wins, and for 8 games a season the result is determined by a coin flip. Therefore, the worst you should project a team to finish is 4-12, as they'd lose all 8 of the skill games and would (on average) win 4 of the 8 luck games. Conversely, the best team shouldn't be projected to win more than 12 games.

Don't believe this? Take a look at what Vegas projected in 2013. Or 2012. Or 2011. You get the point: luck is a significant factor in determining the result of an NFL game. Vegas knows it (and bounds its win/loss totals accordingly) and now you can explain it.

So where does that leave us? With the understanding that even if Jacksonville is the worst team in the NFL, that the worst we should consider their true winning percentage is .238.^

^ This is derived using the 52.5% skill figure cited above, not the rounded 50/50 share.

0-6 teams in the past decade

Year Team Game 7 Result Final Record
2011 Colts L 7-62 2-14
2011 Dolphins L 17-20 6-10
2011 Rams W 31-21 2-14
2010 Bills L 10-13 4-12
2009 Titans W 30-13 8-8
2009 Buccaneers L 7-35 3-13
2009 Rams L 6-42 1-15
2008 Bengals L 10-38 4-11-1
2008 Lions L 17-25 0-16
2007 Rams L 6-33 3-13
2007 Dolphins L 28-49 1-15
2005 Texans W 19-16 2-14
2004 Dolphins W 31-14 4-12

The combined record for these teams following their 0-6 start is 40-89-1, good for a .310 winning percentage. Their record in their seventh games? 4-9, a .307 winning percentage. Not a ridiculous sample size, but this reinforces what's written above: that NFL wins and losses are very much decided by randomness.

While none of these teams made the playoffs -- in fact, the only team to start 0-4 and make the playoffs is the 1992 Chargers -- some of them played over .500 ball after their 0-6 start: the 2009 Titans actually went 8-2 from there on out, after swapping out Kerry Collins for Vince Young; the 2011 Dolphins went 6-4, with a 6-6 record after swapping out Chad Henne -- more on him later -- for Matt Moore in week six; the 2008 Bengals went 4-5-1, with a 4-6-1 record after Carson Palmer's elbow injury ended his season in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The previous paragraph illustrates another point: when a team is 0-6, they're desperate. The coach feels the hot seat and is probably more inclined to make bold changes than he ordinarily would. Whether it's the result of changing out the quarterback or modifying their philosophy altogether, 0-6 teams have won more games over the remaining ten games than theory says they should win: they won 40 (and tied another) when the worst team, in theory, would win just 31.

Reasons Jacksonville isn't a .238 team

The final sentence of the previous section also leads to an important note: six games doesn't appear to be enough to definitively determine the worst team, ie. that .238 theoretical team. Are you sure the Jaguars aren't better than the Buccaneers, Giants, Vikings, or Steelers? After all, Jacksonville's losses are against the Broncos (6-0), Chiefs (6-0), Seahawks (6-1), Colts (4-2), Rams (3-3), and Raiders (2-4). Those teams are 21-10 excluding their wins against Jacksonville! So while the Jaguars look awful -- in record, point differential, FO metrics, and PFF metrics -- it could be the case that it's as much about who they've played as who they are.

And in case you weren't aware, Chad Henne will be starting against the Chargers this week...not Blaine Gabbert. This alone should be enough to lift Jacksonville from "freaking awful" to "bad".

As a starter in Jacksonville the past two seasons, working with roughly the same cast, Jaguars backup quarterback Chad Henne put up a -8.1 PFF passing grade in 797 snaps. So basically -1 per 100 snaps. Over that same time-frame, Blaine Gabbert was "worth" roughly -2.1 per 100 snaps. To put that in perspective: that's roughly the same difference in performance as it is between Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer this season.

In more classical statistics: Henne's career QB rating (74.6) is 8.2 points higher than Gabbert's, his yards-per-attempt is 1.1 more than Blaine's, and he completes 6% more of his passes. As a Jaguar, Henne has taken a sack once every thirteen passing plays, while Gabbert takes a sack once every eleven passing plays. So while few would argue that Henne is good, the difference between him and Blaine Gabbert is statistically measurable.

Furthermore, Justin Blackmon averaged nearly 90 yards a game receiving last season in the seven games in which Henne got extensive playing time, and has 236 receiving yards from Henne in the 1.5 games he's had with him at the helm in 2013. Chad Henne can get Justin Blackmon the damn ball, and that's before even considering the Chargers porous secondary.


0-6 teams aren't cakewalks. We know this because NFL games are largely dictated by luck and because the history of 0-6 teams isn't as poor as their record would lead you to believe. They win around 30% of the time going forward, which is closer to a coin flip than it is to an automatic win.

When you add in their quarterback change and hellacious schedule they've played to-date, it only reinforces the point. Hell, the Jaguars are even wearing a new jersey kit against the Chargers this week. Anything to change their fortunes, right?