While serving as a panelist in the very awesome Cheesehead Nation Blogcast last week, I responded to a poll question that has since given me a lot of consternation. The question in and of itself is simple enough: how many wins do you expect the Packers to have in 2009?
In my eternal objectivity, I predicted an 8-8 record this upcoming year. I justified it on the belief that the Packers were not as bad as last year's 6-10 record would suggest, but also acknowledging that the 3-4 transition and continued flux along the offensive line would dampen any major improvements.
Fair enough. But, I then also looked at my very poor track record in predicting the Packers' win totals the past four seasons.
2005: Coming off a 10-6 season, but with a new GM and lost free agents, I predict 9 wins. The Packers go 4-12.
2006: Given the new regime of MM and a rebuilding effort, I predict 6 wins. The Packers go 8-8.
2007: Believing the Packers are improving, but that the four-game win streak that ended 2006 was against poor competition, I predict 7 wins. The Packers go 13-3.
2008: Thinking the Packers were good, but captured lightning in a bottle in 2007, I predict 10 wins. The Packers go 6-10.
This trip down memory lane led me to two conclusions: number one, don't trust my predictions.
But the second conclusion was more thought-provoking: the Packers have been highly erratic over the past five seasons. There certainly hasn't been much consistency from season to season, at least as far as the final record is concerned. I mean, from 10 wins down to 4, then back up to 13, then down again?
You might be just as accurate by throwing darts blindfolded as trying to scientifically predict how the Packers will do in an upcoming season. So, exactly, how erratic have the Packers been?
Well, if you take the seasons I mentioned, 2004-2008, and look at the difference in wins from season to season, The Packers end up with a total of 22 differential points (10 to 4 (6), 4 to 8 (4), 8 to 13 (5), and 13 to 6 (7)....6+4+5+7 = 22). This means that the Packers, on average, will see their record change by 5.5 wins per season over the last five years.
That's a lot of ups and downs, but how does it compared to other teams in the league? Is this just a symptom of leaguewide parity, in which every team experiences rags to riches followed by a "penthouse to outhouse" soon thereafter?
I did the same analysis with all the other teams in the league over the same time frame, and in the end, the Packers are indeed one of the most inconsistent teams in the league.
In fact, only three teams had more differential points: Baltimore (24), Miami (23), and, ironically, the Jets (23). This means that the Ravens, on average, see their record change by 6 wins each year.
Now, consistency isn't necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. You can be consistently good (like the Colts, who had only 6 differential points) or consistently bad (like the Raiders, who also had only 6 differential points). The difference is that the Colts averaged a little over 12 wins per season, while the Raiders averaged only four. The Colts were consistently good, and the Raiders were consistently bad.
And like the Packers, the Jets, Ravens, and Dolphins have mixed in some exciting playoff seasons with some miserable losing seasons in a short span of time. As you might expect, all four teams seem to be riding a roller coaster the past few years. The Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5 last year, accounting for 10 of their 23 differential points.
So, what does this mean? Statistically speaking, the average number of differential points over the past five seasons in the NFL is 13.5, or an average change of a little over three wins per year. The Packers' 22 differential points places them outside the first standard deviation (+5.08, or 18.5 differential points) and nearly outside the second (23.5 dp). If you are a numbers guy, the Packers are well outside "the norm" in terms of lack of consistency.
But, is it a big deal that the Packers are particularly erratic the past few years? Can the big highs and lows be explained off easily enough? Or, are we really in a club with the Jets and Dolphins?
Obviously, the progressive regime change from 2004-2006 didn't do the Packers any favors, and it is also noted that the Packers have undergone a tremendous overhaul of the Mike Sherman roster in 2004, mostly through the draft. The ups and down can easily be attributed to an organization that is trying to muster up some major changes and shakeups over that time period (note: we're going on our fourth DC since 2004).
But that brings us to the ups and downs on the McCarthy era, from 8 wins to 13 to 6, and begs the question as to what we should expect in 2009: if the Packers tend to move 5 wins in one direction or another each season, is it logical to expect an 11-5 season, based on the data?
Certainly, it makes my prediction of an 8-8 season seem to be (again) very conservative. And there are a lot of positive factors that would contribute towards why the Packers could indeed have a division-winning season, from the addition of Dom Capers to the revitalization of the defense, to another year of growth from A-Rodge and getting a lot of key players off the injury list and back on the field.
But, as I postulated a while back, perhaps one of these seasons was an aberration. Perhaps this is a team on the rise (8 wins to 13 wins), marred with a lot of offseason distractions, injuries, and defensive disarray that makes 2008 the exception. Or, perhaps this is a very average team (8 wins and 6 wins) that happened to get extremely lucky and injury-free in 2007.
The unusual wins differential per season is present even under McCarthy's regime (12 differential points since 2006, bested only by Baltimore, Detroit, and Miami). What will be interesting to see is if the Packers even out over the next few seasons and play more consistently each year. Again, consistency in and of itself can be good or bad...it will depend if the Packers end up being consistently around .500 each year, or consistently between 10-13 wins each year.
Or, perhaps, the Packers will continue to be one of the most erratic teams in the league, which isn't all bad, either. I'm sure that fans of the 49ers, Lions, and Raiders would welcome at least one winning season every three years or so.
Differential Points by team (sum of changes in record year-to-year from 2004-2008)
NY Jets 23
Green Bay 22
Tampa Bay 18
Kansas City 16
New Orleans 16
New England 15
San Diego 14
NY Giants 12
St. Louis 10
San Francisco 9