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Do Preseason Records Matter?

  - Cut to the Chase: NFL 2004 Teams to Watch

As we approach the start of preseason games, you often find different reactions from NFL handicappers to the exhibition matchups. Some players are drooling at the thought of having real NFL lines to bet into (whether from a sheer love of the action or from having particular approaches geared to preseason betting), while others roll their eyes and wait for the real season to begin.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, I’m here to tell you that you should pay attention to the preseason results: they can be very helpful in predicting how certain teams will do in the regular season.

The fundamental question is simply do the preseason won-lost records have any bearing on how a team performs for real? The answer is yes! Moreover, in last year’s analysis in this space (see '03 Preseason Notes), the two top teams we mentioned as “looking good” for the 2003 season based on the preseason results were New England and Carolina…not too shabby!

Our data sample covers the seasons from 1997 to 2003 (a seven-year span) and we will begin by simply tracking all teams based on how many preseason wins they accrue:

Preseason
Wins
Number of
cases
Average
Wins
Average
Change
Wins:
10+
Wins:
7-9
Wins:
<7
0
15
6.9
-0.1
2
7
6
1
59
7.3
+0.2
15
18
26
2
63
7.6
-0.4
21
17
25
3
56
8.9
+0.1
23
22
11
4+
24
9.0
+0.7
11
8
5

First some explanation of the terms above: "Average Wins" reflects the average wins during the regular season, "Average Change" represents the difference in regular season wins this year compared to last year, and the three "Wins" categories show the number of teams reaching certain win levels.

Can you detect the pattern in this table? More preseason wins = more regular season wins on average! Preseason results do seem to matter in that teams with three or more preseason victories are markedly better than teams with fewer wins, and the rare teams which go winless in preseason are indeed facing trouble in the regular season as well.

Another way to make the case that teams should go for wins in the exhibitions is that teams which won three or more games went on to win 10+ games in the regular season 46% of the time, whereas of the teams which were winless in the exhibition season, only two of fifteen or 13% were able to post double digit wins.

The next logical progression for our research though is to break out the teams by their prior season performance, and we'll do that using our traditional "G-A-P" criteria where a Good team gets 10+ wins, an Average team gets 7 to 9 wins, and a Poor team has less than 7 wins.

Good Teams: 10+ prior year wins
Preseason
Wins
Number of
cases
Average
Wins
Average
Change
Wins:
10+
Wins:
7-9
Wins:
<7
0
2
7.0
-6.0
0
2
0
1
15
8.0
-2.8
5
5
5
2
20
9.0
-2.7
11
5
4
3
24
9.5
-2.0
12
10
2
4+
7
9.2
-1.9
3
3
1

The good prior-year teams end up winning over two games fewer the next season (the “nowehere to go but down” syndrome), but so long as they notch a couple of preseason wins they are in reasonable shape for another strong regular season effort.


Average Teams: 7 to 9 prior year wins
Preseason
Wins
Number of
cases
Average
Wins
Average
Change
Wins:
10+
Wins:
7-9
Wins:
<7
0
6
7.3
-0.9
1
3
2
1
19
7.1
-1.0
4
5
10
2
23
7.2
-0.5
6
7
10
3
20
9.1
+0.8
8
8
4
4+
11
9.9
+1.7
7
3
1

A very strong division here -- prior season average teams that post three or more preseason wins have averaged 9.4 wins and have hit the magic 10 win mark 48% of the time, while prior season average teams with less than three preseason wins have averaged 7.2 regular season victories and only made the 10+ level 23% of the time!

At the same time 3+ preseason win teams have had bad regular seasons only 16% of the time, while fewer preseason wins has coincided with a tough year 46% of cases! So view this class as one where preseason records are mighty important!


Poor Teams: less than 7 prior year wins
Preseason
Wins
Number of
cases
Average
Wins
Average
Change
Wins:
10+
Wins:
7-9
Wins:
<7
0
7
6.5
+2.3
1
2
4
1
25
7.1
+2.9
6
8
11
2
20
6.5
+2.0
4
5
11
3
12
7.5
+3.2
3
4
5
4
6
7.0
+2.0
1
2
3

There's only modest evidence that poor teams with good preseason records stand a better shot of being competitive in the regular season. What leads to the big turnaround for the sadsacks of the previous season is a subject deserving of its own article.

From the above then we can conclude with the following:

  • Preseason wins are generally a positive sign for a team
  • Three plus wins is a very good sign, zero wins is a particularly negative sign
  • Good teams can succeed regardless of their preseason
  • Average teams are much better prospects if they post three preseason wins
  • Poor teams have shown a somewhat better shot of moving up in "class" off a good preseason
With the preseason concluded we can follow up with an update on which teams to watch for based on this research!

2004 Outlooks based on Preseason Performance

Prior Year Good Teams (10+ Wins)
A good preseason doesn't indicate much for these squads, but a bad exhibition record (0 or 1 wins) is ominous...only 5 of 17 teams (29%) in such circumstances have made it back to ten wins the next year. Here then are high-expectation teams getting off on the wrong foot:

In Trouble: New England, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Green Bay, St. Louis

Prior Year Average Teams (7 to 9 Wins)
This is the group where preseason performance has mattered the most. Three or more exhibition wins and teams have averaged over nine wins in the regular season and reached the magic ten plus level 48% of the time. Two or fewer preseason wins and it's barely seven wins on average and only 23% of such teams have made it to double digit victories.

Looking Good: Tampa Bay
In Trouble: Cincinnati, Chicago, Minnesota, New Orleans, San Francisco


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