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For NFL-Worst Defenses, Trend Almost Always Points Up The Following Season

In response to a reader question, we take a look at the W/L records of teams with the worst defenses in the league - and how those teams fared in the following season.

Andy Lyons

A question was sent to us via Facebook by Briley Fuller:

Hey BTB, I'd be very interested in seeing the season records of teams with the 32nd ranked defense, I'm curious as to how many teams go 8-8 with a defense like ours last year. Any way y'all could whip something up or have seen something like that?

Like the Seabees, our motto here at BTB is "Can Do!" So of course we can whip up something like that. (And since the question came via Facebook, this is a good opportunity to ask everybody to go over and "Like" Blogging The Boys on Facebook)

The Cowboys finished last year with 6,645 yards allowed, ranking them last in the league. Those yards allowed were the second most in NFL history behind only the 2012 New Orleans Saints, who struggled to a 7-9 record with 7,042 yards allowed. The Cowboys famously finished 8-8.

Teams hemorrhaging yards like that are a fairly recent phenomenon. Of the 100 most inept defenses (as measured by yards allowed) in league history, 87 played in this millennium. Only 13 teams that played in the 90s make the list, and none from the decades before that. Just for perspective, in 1992 the Atlanta Falcons surrendered a league-worst 5,549 yards. In 2013, that would have ranked them a comfortable 17th in the league.

Let's stick with the 100 worst defenses for a bit. Here's an overview of the regular season records of those 100 teams:

The 100 Worst NFL defenses and their regular season records
Record 0-16 1-15 2-14 3-13 4-12 5-11 6-10 7-9 8-8 9-7 10-6 11-5 12-4 13-3 14-2 15-1
No. of teams 1 2 8 7 13 11 11 11 14 6 4 3 3 4 1 1

When your team is a charter member of the Defensive Ineptitude Society, you probably shouldn't expect a winning record (only 22% managed a winning record), but you're not guaranteed a top five draft pick either. There are always extremes of course. The 2008 Lions pulled off a 0-16 record, while 2011 Packers pulled of a 15-1 record, despite sporting the third-worst defense in NFL history

Yards_allowed_vs_wins_mediumThe average number of wins here is a fairly moderate 6.5 wins, which initially looks surprisingly high, given that we're talking about the worst defenses in NFL history. However, we also know that the number of yards you accumulate or give up has almost no correlation with whether you win or lose a game in the NFL. Last season, the correlation coefficient (r²) between yards allowed and W/L records in the NFL was 0.077, as the graph on the right shows. That number tells you that 7.7% of a team's W/L record can be explained by the yards the team allowed during the season. A staggering 92.3% of that W/L record is explained by things other than yards allowed.

As NFL fans, we have been conditioned for years to look at volume stats like yards allowed or points allowed as a measure for success in the NFL. How much someone passes or runs for can make for nice anecdotal discussions in the context of fantasy football, but has next to nothing to do with winning in the NFL.

The two worst defenses of 2011 as measured by yards allowed were the Green Bay Packers (6,585 yards allowed) and New England Patriots (6,577). Those Patriots and Packers defenses were not just bad, they were historically inept. At the time, the previous NFL record for yards allowed in a 16-game regular season was held by the 2008 Detroit Lions, who rode their 6,466 yards allowed all the way to a 0-16 record. The 2011 Patriots and Packers had the worst defenses in league history, yet combined for a 28-4 regular season record (Packers: 15-1, Patriots: 13-3). How is that possible? They had stellar offenses that made up for their defenses.

Of course, when you have one of the worst defenses in the league, odds are that that the rest of your team isn't in stellar condition either. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to the original question about the 32nd-ranked defenses in the league and their regular season records. The table below plots the worst defense of each of the last 20 seasons, and also how they performed the following season.

Worst defense of the Year Following Season
Team Year W/L Yards Allowed W/L Change Yards Allowed Change
DAL 2013 8-8 6,645 - - - - - - - -
NOR 2012 7-9 7,042 11-5 +4 4,891 -2,151
GNB 2011 15-1 6,585 11-5 -4 5,388 -1,197
DEN 2010 4-12 6,253 8-8 +4 5,725 -528
DET 2009 2-14 6,274 6-10 +4 5,497 -777
DET 2008 0-16 6,466 2-14 +2 6,274 -192
DET 2007 7-9 6,042 0-16 -7 6,466 +424
TEN 2006 8-8 5,915 10-6 +2 4,665 -1,250
SFO 2005 4-12 6,259 7-9 +3 5,507 -752
NOR 2004 8-8 6,141 3-13 -5 4,994 -1,147
ATL 2003 5-11 6,108 11-5 +6 5,207 -901
KAN 2002 8-8 6,248 13-3 +5 5,707 -541
CAR 2001 1-15 5,943 7-9 +6 4,646 -1,297
SEA 2000 6-10 6,391 9-7 +3 5,206 -1,185
CLE 1999 2-14 6,046 3-13 +1 5,643 -403
CAR 1998 4-12 5,842 8-8 +4 5,503 -339
OAK 1997 4-12 6,116 8-8 +4 4,550 -1,566
BAL 1996 4-12 5,889 6-9 +2 5,363 -526
CIN 1995 7-9 6,349 8-8 +1 5,469 -880
DEN 1994 7-9 5,907 8-8 +1 5,193 -714

So there's your answer, Briley. The worst defenses in each of the last 20 years combined for just one winning record (the 2011 Packers), and four teams eked out a 8-8 season, including your Dallas Cowboys.

Much more interesting, at least for me, is what happened to those teams in the year following their last-place finish in yards allowed: 19 of 20 teams reduced their yards allowed (by an average of 827 yards, or 13.2%), and 17 of 20 teams improved their number of wins. The median win improvement is three wins, and that bodes well for Dallas in 2014.

For the 2014 Cowboys, the only way is up!


In a follow-up post, neithan20000 will look at defenses ranked by points allowed (we weren't quite as bad, but there might be a larger coefficient), and possibly also look at some advanced stats in the process. Stay tuned!

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