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So you're telling me they were 1-15 last year?

An old friend of mine was always mildly irked at the praise thrown at Bill Parcells for turning around moribund franchises. In reality, making a team with a terrible record respectable isn’t all that challenging. Where Parcells added value was in making his good teams great, not in making terrible teams mediocre.

In 1992, one year B.P., the New England Patriots were 2-14, in part thanks to a 1-5 record in one-score games. Throw in some regression to the mean and the first pick in every round of the ’93 draft, and going 5-11 in 1993 wasn’t so much of an accomplishment as it was pre-ordained.

In 1996, one year B.P., the Jets went 1-15. New York was a horrific 0-7 in one-score games. Throw in the #1 pick in every round, and they were an attractive target. Parcells did do a masterful job cleaning up the mess left by Rich Kotite, but getting them to 9-7 looked very impressive in large part thanks to the poor fortunes of the team the prior year.

The Big Tuna again went after the low-hanging fruit again when he took over as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations in Miami (it is here my old friend would get particularly annoyed, noting that Parcells found a way to have his cake and eat it too. If the Dolphins succeeded, Parcells would have “done it again.” Had they failed, well, he wasn’t the coach.) He took over a 1-15 team that was bad but not 1-15 bad; they had faced one of the harder schedules in the league and gone 1-6 in close games. Enter Jake Long, Chad Pennington, and the Wildcat, and the Dolphins went 11-5. Parcells did it again!

In any event, that’s just background. The 2013 Panthers are the real topic today — and they are the lowest hanging fruit any potential coach has seen in decades. Consider:

  • The Panthers are currently 3-9, and little is expected of them going forward. They are now just 9-19 in the Cam Newton era.
  • Despite that, Carolina ranks 4th in Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL Stats efficiency ratings. Now maybe they aren’t the 4th best team in the league, but Brian’s system is purely predictive and minimizes events that shape our views but are unlikely to impact future records. I have no doubt that they’re closer to the 4th best team in the league than the 4th worst, which is where they are by record.
  • Football Outsiders ranks Carolina 18th — which, by the way, still means they’re much better than their record — but even that is misleading. Schatz ranks Carolina 32nd in special teams — a unit that Burke ignores — but instead has them 15th in offensive DVOA and 14th in defensive DVOA. That means excluding special teams the Panthers are above average, and special teams performance is notoriously fickle.
  • So why are the Panthers 3-9? Carolina is currently 0-7 in one-score games.

There’s an even simpler way to show how the Panthers are massively underachieving this year. Net yards per attempt isn’t the only stat in the world, but it’s one of the most important indicators of an offense’s effectiveness. Net yards per attempt is just as important on defense; NY/A differential, the difference between how many net yards you gain per offensive attempt and how many you allow per defensive attempt, is a simple shorthand to highlight the best in the league. Here are the results through 13 weeks (i.e., not counting last night’s game):
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