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The Unfortunate Four

If you’re a Chargers, Vikings, Eagles, or Bills fan, fear not. Whether or not your team adds an impact rookie or signs a big-time free agent, 2017 is bound to be a better year than 2016.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Patriots won the Super Bowl because they had a disciplined, no. 1 scoring defense, an efficient special teams group, and Tom Brady. But as all champions do, New England benefited from a little bit of luck, too. During the regular season, they fell into the league’s easiest schedule despite a first-place finish in 2015, and they lost just nine of their tied-for-second-worst 27 fumbles. Then, in the playoffs, they drew a first-round matchup with the worst starting quarterback in the NFL, saw Le’Veon Bell only get six carries in the AFC championship, and had about 20 late-game plays go exactly right in order to pull off that miracle comeback against the Falcons. Sure, they didn’t have Brady for the first four games of the year, and yes, Rob Gronkowski didn’t play beyond Week 12, but more often than not, the Patriots seemed to have fortune on their side.

The saying goes “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” but for a few teams this past season, no amount of preparation could have saved them from injuries, bad bounces, bad kicks, lost fumbles, and tough schedules. There’s no one number that encapsulates bad luck, but all of these factors play a part. In the NFL, the short 16-game slate prevents these variables from averaging out across the league, and that means luck plays a bigger factor in each season than anyone would like to admit.

So while we don’t know how the draft or free agency is going to shake out, we do know that some teams — regardless of whom they acquire or lose this offseason — are likely to see some improvement in 2017 due to the same factors that spiraled out of their control in 2016. Here are the four squads that suffered the worst luck last season.

San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers

The Chargers were the inverse of the Patriots in 2016. It started with injuries: San Diego lost its top receiver, Keenan Allen, 27 snaps into Week 1. Running back Danny Woodhead went down in Week 2. Starting middle linebacker Manti Te’o was lost for the year in Week 3, and cornerback Jason Verrett was lost to an ACL injury in Week 4. Third-overall pick and eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa didn’t play until Week 5 because of a hamstring injury. By the end of the year, 21 players were on the injured reserve.

It seemed like some higher being had it out for the Chargers, and their record in close games did nothing to dispel that notion. San Diego lost four of its first five games in heartbreaking fashion, falling 33–27 to the Chiefs in Week 1, 26–22 to the Colts in Week 3, 35–34 to the Saints in Week 4, and 34–31 to the Raiders in Week 5. The Chargers blew late leads in each game, and they held a greater than 99-percent win probability in two of them. Based on those win-probability models, the odds that the Chargers would lose all four of those games was about 1 in 30 million, as The Wall Street Journal noted. Per Pro Football Reference, San Diego would’ve won all four two-thirds of the time. That type of bad luck held all year, too: Of the nine Chargers games that ended within one score, San Diego won just four. And just to put a rotten cherry on top, the Chargers finished second-to-last in fumble recovery rate (losing 14 of their 22 fumbles), another variable that’s proved to be random.

Now, we could point to a lack of a “clutch gene” or call the Chargers “choke artists,” but a team’s record in close games doesn’t hold from season to season. San Diego’s average margin of defeat was just 5.8 points, and despite a 5–11 finish, the Chargers ended the year with a point differential of minus-13. Plug their points-for and points-against into the Pythagenpat formula for Pythagorean expectation as the good folks at Rotoviz did this week, and you’ll find that the Chargers finished 2.61 wins under what you’d expect — the lowest in the NFL.

The good news for Los Angeles fans? Teams that win fewer games than the Pythagorean expectation tend to improve the following season.

Minnesota Vikings

After a devastating preseason knee injury, Teddy Bridgewater was gone before the Vikings’ regular season started, and running back Adrian Peterson fell victim to an MCL injury in Minnesota’s second game. By the end of Week 3, the Vikings had lost their two most important offensive players, and while the trade for Sam Bradford served as a stopgap, the Vikings were forced to completely change their offensive identity on the fly. They went from a smashmouth, ball-control run team to a finesse, quick-passing squad, and the new equation didn’t work. Minnesota finished 26th in overall offensive DVOA after finishing 16th in 2015, and dropped from eighth in rush DVOA last year to 29th in 2016. Of course, it didn’t help that by year’s end, tackles Andre Smith, Matt Kalil, and Jake Long were on the injured reserve.

The Vikings finished 8–8 with a plus-20 point differential. They were 2–4 in one-score games, with all four of those losses coming in quick succession from Weeks 9 through 13. They had the sixth-worst fumble recovery rate in the NFL (losing 11 of 20), and it didn’t help that normally exceptional kicker Blair Walsh delivered his worst year as a pro. As Football Outsiders posits, field goal percentage is almost entirely random from season to season; it seems that you either have one of the elite, dependable two or three kickers out there, or you have a guy who hits anywhere from 75 percent to 95 percent in any given year. In nine games, Walsh missed four field goals (hitting just 75 percent of his attempts) and four extra points before being released.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles ended the season in last place of the NFC East with a 7–9 record, but finished with a whopping plus-36 point differential. That was not only better than two teams that finished ahead of them in the division (the 8–7–1 Redskins at plus-13, and 11–5 Giants at plus-26), but outpaced the 12–4 Raiders (plus-31), the 10–6 Dolphins (minus-17), the 9–7 Titans (plus-3), the 9–7 Lions (minus-12), and the 9–7 Bucs (minus-15). This meant that Philly ended the year 2.21 Pythagorean wins below expectation — despite being dealt the second-toughest schedule in the NFL, per DVOA.

A big reason for all of that was Philly’s 1–6 record in one-score games. In those seven games, their average margin of defeat was just 4.3 points, including two one-point losses to the Lions and Ravens. The moral of the story? The Eagles were better than their record might indicate, and if they just go .500 in one-score games next season, they should be in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Buffalo Bills

Much like the Chargers, the injury bug got Buffalo early on this season. Their top pick in last year’s draft, defensive end Shaq Lawson, missed the first six games recovering from offseason shoulder surgery; and their second-round pick, projected starting inside linebacker Reggie Ragland, tore his ACL in training camp. Dealing with complications from offseason foot surgery, Sammy Watkins spent half of the season on the injured reserve, and in the eight games he did play, he was a shadow of himself. To top it all off, the Bills lost Pro Bowl center Eric Wood to a broken leg in Week 9.

In the end, the Bills finished 7–9 with a plus-20 point differential. That put them 1.66 Pythagorean wins below expectation, and while they weren’t quite as bad as the Eagles in this regard, the Bills finished 2–5 in one-score games, losing by three points to the Dolphins twice, by six to the Jets and Seahawks, and by a touchdown to the Steelers.

Adding to all this, kicker Dan Carpenter struggled badly as well. He missed five extra points on the year — only Seattle’s Steven Hauschka and Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent missed more (six) — and after connecting on 85 percent or better on field goal attempts in each of his previous three seasons as a Bill, his accuracy dipped to 76 percent in 2016. His two missed field goals (from 45 and 46 yards, respectively) in Buffalo’s 34–31 Week 16 loss to the Dolphins, which eliminated the Bills from the playoffs. There are still plenty of issues with the defense, but new head coach Sean McDermott could see some improvement for no reason other than a couple of more bounces going his team’s way.