During the summer of 2011, after the Buccaneers had surprised many in the NFL with a 10-6 campaign the previous fall, the “Answer Man” on Buccaneers.com did some research on teams that improved by at least seven wins from one year to the next. He found 23 such teams, beginning with the 1962-63 San Diego Chargers of the AFL and ending with the 2009-10 Buccaneers, who had rebounded impressively from a 3-13 campaign in 2009. Each team was tracked over a five-year period, with the low-win season being termed “Year -1,” the improved season “Year 0,” the next season after that improvement “Year 1,” and so on. (Rumor has it that the Answer Man is returning soon, by the way, if you happen to enjoy his work.)
The initial study was in response to a fan’s question regarding whether teams that made such a rapid improvement could make it stick in the years that followed. In his first-ever video segment, the Answer Man discussed his findings, which indicated that teams tended to regress to about .500 in Year +1 but then once again rebound to stay above .500 the next two years. The numbers in the chart could certainly be read either optimistically or not, and indeed ESPN.com’s NFC South blogger, Pat Yasinskas, picked up on the study and accurately noted that Year +1 had not been especially kind to many of those teams.
As it turns out, the Bucs would unfortunately fall into the trend noticed by Yasinskas, following their 10-win campaign in 2010 with a 4-12 finish in 2011. Of course, only two of those 23 teams didn’t regress at all in Year +1, which actually isn’t surprising. The fewest wins a team could have after improving by seven is, of course, seven, but in most cases we’re talking about a team going from a four, five or six wins to 11, 12 or 13. There’s not much farther up you can go from there. Twenty of the 23 teams won at least 10 games in Year 0, and nine won at least 12. Still, almost half of the 23 teams (11 in all) dropped by at least four wins in Year +1, so the Bucs were definitely in the middle of that trend.
The good news? Of those 21 teams that regressed in Year +1, a whopping 16 of them then improved again in Year +2. The Bucs were in the middle of that trend, too, going from 4-12 in 2011 to 7-9 in 2012. This is where the numbers, while interesting, don’t tell the whole subjective picture. The Bucs improved by three wins from 2011 to 2012, which seems somewhat modest, but it was clear that the team was much more competitive this past fall. The ’12 Bucs didn’t lose a game by more than one score until Week 15 and, overall, were outscored by their opponents by just five points. The 2011 Bucs were outscored by 207 points.
So, what’s next? Well, that’s where it gets tricky. The numbers are all over the board. Of the 22 teams on the list that have now completed their five-year span in the study (the Bucs have one more years to go, and three teams that have since joined the list – 2010-11 San Francisco, 2011-12 Indianapolis and 2011-12 Minnesota – are still a few seasons away), eight improved from Year +2 to Year +3; 13 got worse and one remained the same. The average move was a decrease of half a win, but there are quite a few outliers, including two teams that improved by five wins and two that got worse by six or more. Interestingly, the only two teams that improved again from Year 0 to Year +1 both got worse in the years that followed (though, again, there wasn’t much farther up they could go after two improvements).
More likely, there just isn’t much of a connection between a team that improved by 10 wins and the squad it fields three years later, particularly if there was one or two rough years in between, as was the case for many of those teams. The Buccaneers, for instance, brought in a whole new coaching staff in Year +2 and made some drastic changes to the lineup via free agency and the draft. It’s interesting to examine the trends of teams that have had similarly quick turnarounds, and it’s probably fair to assume some sort of link between cumulative Year 0 and Year +1 results, but there just may not be much predictive value in the chart’s numbers three years later.