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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):

1Denver Broncos7.345.351.99
2San Francisco 49ers6.765.121.65
3Houston Texans6.855.691.16
4Pittsburgh Steelers6.25.121.09
5Carolina Panthers7.126.081.04
6Seattle Seahawks6.575.610.96
7Cincinnati Bengals6.585.740.84
8Atlanta Falcons7.096.50.6
9Green Bay Packers6.455.870.58
10Detroit Lions6.566.060.49
11Washington Redskins7.26.950.24
12Chicago Bears5.585.40.17
13Dallas Cowboys6.836.760.08
14Baltimore Ravens6.296.240.05
15Miami Dolphins6.176.120.05
16New England Patriots7.117.10.01
17St. Louis Rams6.016.03-0.02
18New York Giants6.937-0.08
19Cleveland Browns5.95.99-0.09
20Buffalo Bills6.056.2-0.15
21Indianapolis Colts6.456.65-0.19
22San Diego Chargers5.926.22-0.3
23New York Jets5.65.95-0.35
24Tampa Bay Buccaneers7.187.67-0.49
25New Orleans Saints6.857.46-0.61
26Minnesota Vikings5.275.99-0.72
27Oakland Raiders6.327.23-0.91
28Tennessee Titans5.826.98-1.16
29Arizona Cardinals4.625.84-1.22
30Philadelphia Eagles5.687.04-1.37
31Jacksonville Jaguars5.387.05-1.67
32Kansas City Chiefs5.597.41-1.82

Carolina is fifth in this metric. Following their early-season struggles, the Panthers fired GM Marty Hurney, and the writing is on the wall that Ron Rivera will not be coaching this team in 2013. Despite having a “down” year, Cam Newton actually leads the league in yards per attempt. The regression to the mean forces are so strong that they could lure Bill Parcells out of retirement. More realistically, though, they could lure the Bill Parcells of this generation out of the booth: Jon Gruden.

Gruden could get used to watching Cam.

The good-natured jabs at Parcells at the beginning of the post underscore two key points: Parcells was in high enough demand that he could wait for the perfect job to open up and he was smart enough to recognize a good opportunity. I’d argue that Carolina is probably the largest sleeping giant (whatever that means) of the last 20 years. Whoever coaches the 2013 Panthers will probably win 8 games without breaking a sweat. True, the NFC South will be tough, but the Panthers have a strong nucleus and will have some high draft picks.

Jon Gruden has been courted for years. If he’s waiting for the perfect opportunity to open up — one that maximizes praise for turning around a team while minimizing the amount of work and skill actually required to do so — then this is it. The cushiest jobs go to those in the highest demand, and no one has a better agent than Gruden. And if he gets a chance to deliver his old boss two losses a year, all the better. I’m sure he learned something from Al Davis after all.

  • Neil

    Has anybody released any win over-unders for 2013? Get your bets in on the Panthers while the gettin’s good!

  • Two more “simple” stats supporting your argument:

    1) Underachieving pythagorean wins by 1.5, which is third behind SD (-2.0) and DET (-1.7).
    2) Underachieving our estimated wins by 2.6, which is second behind SEA (-2.7).

    Only issue I see is that we were in the same place before this season: “Man, CAR is a great regression-to-the-mean play in 2012 because they undershot pythagorean wins by 1.5, and they’ll probably be better than 0-4 in close games.” Of course, seeing SD on this list makes me then start to wonder if pythagorean win differential (or for FO’s purposes, estimated win differential) follows coaches around. Seems like, more often than not, Norv-led SD has lost more games than expected.

    • Hopefully, this was obvious, but that last point about pythagorean differential following coaches was just a general musing, not anything related to the specific idea of them replacing Rivera w/ Parcells.

    • Chase Stuart

      The interesting thing with Carolina is that they actually don’t resemble the 2011 Panthers all that much, because they ranked 4th in offense and 32nd in defense according to DVOA, while this year they’re extremely balanced.

  • Doug

    Your old friend would just get *mildly* irked? He has remarkable restraint.

    Also, at what point in the last 25 years has Parcells made a good team great?

    • Chase Stuart

      Yeah, that guy was a real gem.

  • Richie

    It would seem that one factor involved with a teams’ record in one-score games is coaching decisions. For instance, Rivera’s choice to punt to Atlanta earlier this year. If a coach is actually less good at end-game decisions, his teams would continually struggle in one-score games.

    Has anybody done a study to see if the regression in W-L record for one-score games is different from year to year between teams who change coaches and those who keep their coach?

  • Lucas

    Do you guys have a stat for your blood alcohol content when writing articles? Carolina is a bottom 16 team. Have you watched them play defense?

    • Danish

      Essentially this is an average offense, an average defense and a terrible special teams, that have only three wins – half of what we’d expect for a mostly average team. So no one is really arguing that they are a top-10 team. What Chase is saying is that even though they are a bad(ish) team, they do very well in metrics we know is correlated with winning next year.

    • Dan

      The point of the article wasn’t to say they are good now, it was to say their turnaround potential is off the charts, and that a coach would jump at that opportunity. Obviously a 3-8 team it bottom 16, we don’t need you to clarify that for us. He’s saying the ability to bounce back (Bengals of 11, Colts of 12) is high for NEXT year (hence why he said 2013). And actually, this year their defense has been keeping them in games and their offense is struggling. That’s why they’re ranked higher in defense than in offense, something this article pointed out. And I’m going to have to side with them, stats are always better evidence than brilliant deductions of “whats your blood alchohol content.”

      So all in all, pretty worthless comment you made there. You sure you aren’t drunk?

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