National Football League teams that win three or more games to close out their regular season and fail to make the playoffs have a worse record the following year.
I knew that was true based on research done years ago at Qoxhi Picks, and the trend continued after it was discovered in the 1990’s. What I didn’t have a full grasp of is why. Shouldn’t a team that won their last three or more games be on a trajectory straight up?
There is a way to gauge team expectations versus team talent and the trouble squads confront when enthusiasm takes hopes well above what the skill level of the team can deliver. A team that does win their final three or more games but fail to make the playoffs is no doubt not that good of a team, how else could they close with a flurry and still miss the postseason unless they had a dire losing record before their end of the season spurt.
It made sense, but until this year it never so clearly had a perfect example of expectations over real talent based on a late season surge. The San Francisco 49ers won their final final five games of 2017 and still failed to make the playoffs, based on a first 11 weeks of the season in which the team won only one game.
The 49ers winning streak coincided with the insertion of recently acquired quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He led the 49ers to wins over the Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Rams.
The final three wins were against teams headed to the postseason, and the victories in Garoppolo’s career were numbers three through seven without a pro loss. He started the first two games of the New England Patriots 2016 season while Tom Brady served his four game suspension for the deflated balls decision. He led the Patriots to wins over the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins before being sidelined with an injury.
How drastically has the five game winning streak to close out the season shifted the expectations for fans and players alike in the City by the Bay? San Francisco runningback Carlos Hyde ended the season after their fifth straight win predicting a 49ers Super Bowl triumph this coming season. If he had made that prediction five weeks earlier, when his team had only one win after eleven games, they would have had him committed. Then, after predicting great things for his team, he abandoned them to sign a free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Never has a team so much exemplified the spirit of why teams that close with a number of wins but are still not good enough to make the playoffs, have poorer records the next season. It is all tied to the expectation/skill level equation.
While the 49ers five game winning streak can certainly be a reason for fans in the Bay Area to lift their hopes from the steep decline the team had experienced over the past four seasons. And, because that winning streak was gained with Grappolo at quarterback, what many considered the necessary ingredients are in place for great things to come.
While hopes are high, we have empirical evidence that the 49ers will join other teams who won less games the season after they closed with three wins or more and failed to make the playoffs. In other words, the 49ers by my numbers will win less games this season than they did last year when they finished with six.
Even the 49ers victory march to close out their 2017 season had some fortuitous situations that favored San Francisco. Garoppolo’s first win was gained in Chicago without the 49ers scoring a touchdown, five field goals providing the one point win, 15-14. The Texans were in disarray when the 49ers visited them and got their second win. The victory over the Titans the next Sunday in San Francisco was the most impressive win of the five, while the season ending triumphs over Jacksonville and Los Angeles were gained the week after the Jaguars had clinched a playoff berth and while the Rams rested their starters after already clinching the NFC West title.
Garoppolo’s timing could not have been better; his five straight wins captured the hearts of San Francisco fans and his value was being compared to Joe Montana’s in some circles. Therefore, the 49ers perhaps had no choice but to make him the highest paid player in the league. That’s right, he makes more money playing quarterback than Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. The man closest to him in salary is Matthew Stafford, who held the Detroit Lions ransom last year before getting the big bucks.
How two quarterbacks that have never won a playoff game could rise to the top of the earning sheet is a subject all its own. What can be seen from the money given Garoppolo is clear evidence of a team with expectations off the charts, and skill level still not far from the squad that opened the season 1-10 last year.
When the season win totals are posted note where the 49ers begin and see if that number doesn’t go up a half game or more. When it does, and right before the 2018 season kicks off, bank on the 49ers going under their season win total.