Much has been said about Freeman, so I think we’re officially at the “wait and see” point in the game. This may be the year he quiets all the doubters, or 2013 could be another setback season (see 2011). But here’s one thing we do know: in a division with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton, Freeman is widely considered the worst starting quarterback in the NFC South. Freeman ranked 16th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt last year, but that was still behind Brees (6th), Ryan (7th), and Newton (11th, which ignores the 741 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns he provided on the ground).
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Freeman is again the least valuable quarterback in the NFC South. What does that mean for Tampa Bay’s odds of winning the division? The Bucs had the league’s top rush defense in 2012, and traded for Darrelle Revis, signed Dashon Goldson, and drafted Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks in the offseason. With Doug Martin and the return of guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, the running game should be among the league’s best. You could argue that Tampa Bay could win the division without any improvement from Freeman, if the rest of the team is productive enough.
That made me wonder: how often does the team that ranked last in the division in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt end up winning its division? As it turns out, pretty infrequently. Since 1950, only nine teams have pulled off that feat, with nearly half of them coming since the league moved to a four-teams-per-division-for-each-division format in 2002.
The last team was the 2006 Seahawks, who went 9-7 but won the NFC West (and a playoff game against Tony Romo that you might remember). Matt Hasselbeck (4.7 ANY/A) had a down year (Seneca Wallace also chipped in with 4.5 ANY/A on 141 attempts). So how did Seattle win the division? It wasn’t a dominant rushing game (Shaun Alexander was washed up by then) or a great defense, but good fortune. The NFC West was a very bad division — all four teams allowed more points than they scored — and Seattle had the easiest schedule in the league. The West was won by virtue of the Seahawks winnong both games against the 8-8 Rams by two points apiece.
The 2004 Falcons are a different animal because of the presence of Michael Vick. He struggled as a passer but rushed for 902 yards on 120 carries, providing a nice complement to Warrick Dunn (1,106 rushing yards) and T.J. Duckett (509 yards on 104 carries). Still, this was a very lucky team: they scored only three more points than they allowed despite facing a bottom-five schedule. Atlanta ranked 26th in ANY/A, but a 5-1 record in games decided by three or fewer points helped them win the NFC South.
The 2003 Ravens ranked 29th in ANY/A, as Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright played like Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright (with one glaring exception). But Baltimore ranked 1st in Net Yards per Attempt allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed, and yards allowed per drive, while ranking 2nd in turnovers forced and points allowed per drive. Oh, and Jamal Lewis rushed for 2,066 yards. The Ravens actually undershot their Pythagorean record expectation (11-5), but comfortably won the AFC North at 10-6. This is your ideal “everything is great except for the passing attack” team.
The 1999 Buccaneers finished in the top three in points allowed, yards allowed, first downs allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, and net yards per attempt allowed. In other words, they had a really good defense, and nearly upset the Rams in the NFC Championship Game. But the offense was putrid: Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn had down years, and the team rushed for just 3.5 yards per carry. The passing attack was even worse, ranking 24th in ANY/A. Tampa Bay overachieved by winning 11 games — although a 45-0 shellacking in Oakland didn’t help their Pythagorean record — but this was your classic great defense/terrible offense team. And one year before Trent Dilfer(4.3 ANY/A in ’99) become a Super Bowl champion, he pioneered the worst Red Zone offense (26.1%) of the last 15 years. Dilfer did the bulk of the damage, although Shaun King came in and went 4-1 in the final five games of the year and averaged 4.8 ANY/A.
In 1995, Neil O’Donnell and Pittsburgh went to the Super Bowl. In the offseason, O’Donnell signed with the Jets, leaving the 1996 Steelers in the hands of Mike Tomczak. The Pittsburgh passing offense wasn’t that bad, but the rest of the division was that good. Mark Brunell and Vinny Testaverde finished in the top 8 in ANY/A and made the Pro Bowl, Jeff Blake finished 13th in ANY/A, and Chris Chandler and Steve McNair helped the Oilers finish in the top ten in ANY/A. Still, Pittsburgh was the only team in the division to win 10 games, and easily had the best SRS grade, too. That’s because Jerome Bettis (320-1,421-11) was a first-team All-Pro running back, and Erric Pegram chipped in with 509 yards on 97 carries. And, of course, the defense was its usual dominant self, ranking in the top six in literally every major category. Tomczak wasn’t bad — he actually finished above average in ANY/A — which makes this a pretty decent model for the 2013 Bucs.
The 1985 Los Angeles Raiders featured Marcus Allen at his best. Allen, an answer to an awesome trivia question or two, as named the AP’s Most Valuable Player ’85, after rushing 380 times for 1,759 and 11 touchdowns, while also catching 67 passes for 555 yards and three more scores. The AFC West that year had four very good quarterbacks: Dan Fouts led the league in ANY/A, Bill Kenney ranked 6th, and Dave Krieg and John Elway, while not having their best years, still finished ahead of Raiders quarterback Marc Wilson, who averaged only 4.3 ANY/A thanks to 21 interceptions on just 388 passes (a 38-year-old Jim Plunkett was better in relief). The Raiders had a very strong defense (9th in points, 4th in yards, 5th in ANY/A, 1st in yards per carry allowed), which included a first-team All-Pro cornerback (Mike Haynes) and three defensive lineman not named Howie Long (who was also a first-team All-Pro) who recorded double-digit sacks (Sean Jones, Bill Pickel, and Greg Townsend). But to be fair, it wasn’t just Allen and the defense: Los Angeles had just 9.3 Pythagorean wins, so the team’s 12-4 record included some good fortune, too. The Raiders swept the 11-5 Broncos that season, with both wins coming by a field goal in overtime.
Seven years earlier, another Los Angeles team pulled off this feat. The 1979 Rams had a lead entering the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, but they were also a 9-7 team that was below-average according to the SRS. Pat Haden wasn’t too bad (4.1 ANY/A) but Vince Ferragamo (2.6 ANY/A) and Jeff Rutledge (4 interceptions on 32 passes) contributed to a 24th-place ranking in ANY/A for Los Angeles (and it was Ferragamo who went 4-1 as a starter and won the two playoff games). The Rams were morally a 9-6 team — Ferragamo’s only loss came in a meaningless regular season finale — but they were really just an average team. Los Angeles committed 49 turnovers, which sounds high — it was the second most in the league — but the Super Bowl champion Steelers committed 52! The Rams finished -8 in turnover margin, but had a top-ten defense against both the run and the pass, and got a strong season out of Wendell Bryant. In reality, Los Angeles was fortunate to be in a bad NFC West (all four teams had negative SRS ratings). In the first round of the playoffs, trailing by 5 with just over two minutes to go, Ferragamo threw a 50-yard touchdown to Billy Waddy to defeat Dallas. In the NFC Championship Game, the Rams shut out the hapless Bucs (offensive SRS of -4.6), 9-0, before their luck ran out in the final quarter of the Super Bowl.The 1967 Oilers are the last team on our list. Houston won the AFL East despite finishing last in the league in ANY/A. The Eastern division had some good quarterbacks — Joe Namath threw for 4,000 yards in New York, Bob Griese made the Pro Bowl, and Boston’s Babe Parilli wasn’t too bad. Buffalo’s Jack Kemp had a bad year, but he still finished above the ugly combination of Pete Beathard and Jacky Lee (who was traded after week four for Beathard). Houston was a bit like the ’03 Ravens: fullback Hoyle Granger led an Oilers attack that finished first in rushing yards, and Houston ranked first in points allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, and rushing touchdowns allowed. The Oilers set a league record for points allowed with 199, a mark broken each of the next two seasons by the Chiefs. Houston’s big stars were rookie safety Ken Houston, cornerback Miller Farr, defensie end Pat Holmes, and rookie rush linebacker George Webster, the greatest monster back in football history and who Doug Drinen once compared to Jevon Kearse. That great defense allowed Houston to go 9-4-1 and not really overachieve (9.1 Pythagorean wins) despite a passing attack that completed 43.1% of its passes, gained only 1,532 passing yards, threw 11 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions.
For anyone still reading, I should probably add an obvious disclaimer. Many more teams have likely won the division with the worst quarterback in the division, but simply didn’t finish in the bottom in ANY/A due to a superior supporting cast, good fortune, or a combination of both. This post sort of feels like a backhanded shot at Josh Freeman, but I can assure you that that was not the intent.
Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams