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Best of Teams; Worst of Teams

Arizona and Pittsburgh's place in NFL history
By Paul Bessire, WhatIfSports.com
January 23rd, 2009

If the Arizona Cardinals pull off yet another upset to win Super Bowl XLIII over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kurt Warner can borrow a page from Charles Dickens with a very unique NFL distinction. He will have been the quarterback to lead both the best and worst Super Bowl Champions in the sport’s history.

If the Pittsburgh Steelers win on February 1, we will have witnessed just the 29th best Super Bowl champion ever.

Before the Cards and Steelers play each other, we thought we'd see how they fared against the previous 42 Super Bowl winners. As we determined last year in a similar exercise that simulates every Super Bowl winner against every other champion 100 times (using regular season statistics), the 1999 St. Louis Rams are the best Super Bowl champion in NFL history. At that time, 1970 Baltimore Colts ranked as the worst Super Bowl champion. According to our Super Bowl XLIII prediction, there is about a 35% chance that that will change. For more information on how this is done, please see the About the Analysis section below.

2008 Arizona Cardinals

The chart below ranks the ten worst Super Bowl champions (if the Arizona Cardinals win). The rank is out of 43; the record the actual regular season record; the winning percentage from the simulated games against every other champion and the pf and pa the points for and points against per game from those simulated games.

Rank Team Record Win % PF PA
34 1983 Raiders 12-4 37.7% 18.0 21.7
35 2004 Patriots 14-2 37.6% 17.7 22.7
36 1981 49ers 13-2 37.0% 17.3 22.1
37 1976 Raiders 13-1 36.9% 20.7 23.8
38 1997 Broncos 12-4 33.4% 19.9 25.5
39 2001 Patriots 11-5 28.3% 17.3 25.1
40 1980 Raiders 11-5 25.6% 15.0 22.9
41 2006 Colts 12-4 21.5% 21.9 31.4
42 1970 Colts 11-2-1 20.9% 14.9 24.2
43 2008 Cardinals 9-7 15.3% 17.2 30.7

The Cardinals only win 15.3% of their games, ranking them last and keeping them within 10% of just two teams (the 1970 and 2006 Colts). In fact, Arizona cements its status as the worst Super Bowl champion by failing to win more than 50% of the time against any other champion.

Why are they so bad? Just look at the important factors to winning football games and how the Cardinals ranked in among the 32 NFL teams, primarily on defense. Arizona finished the season ranked 28th in scoring defense (26.6), 22nd in yards-per-pass allowed (7.2), 11th in yards-per-rush allowed (4.0), 30th in average kick return allowed (25.0), 30th in average punt return allowed (13.1) and 17th in turnover margin (0). On offense, they were ok at passing the ball, but not much better overall, ranking sixth in yards-per-pass (7.7), 31st in yards-per-rush (3.5), 25th in average kick return (21.7) and 27th in average punt return (7.2). Of the critical indicators of team success, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals only ranked in the top half of the NFL in two categories. And this comes in a season with no excellent teams and several really bad teams.

A weak division got Arizona into the playoffs. The switch that was flipped once the post-season began is impressive – and a Super Bowl win is a Super Bowl win – but these Arizona Cardinals would clearly be the worst Super Bowl champion in NFL history.

2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

The case for the Pittsburgh Steelers place in history is not as bleak, yet they would still go down as a below average Super Bowl champion. Re-doing the analysis with this Steelers squad among the 43 instead of the Cardinals, Pittsburgh ranks 29th with a winning percentage of 45.5% (close to average), 14.5 points scored and 15.4 points allowed per game in the simulations. While many of the bottom ten teams are plagued by defensive issues, Pittsburgh’s offense keeps it from being elite. In fact, the defense gives up the fifth fewest points per game behind the 1985 Bears (13.1), 1979 Steelers (14.3), 1973 Dolphins (14.3), 2002 Buccaneers (14.3) and 2000 Ravens (15.5).

The Steelers rank just behind similarly built teams like the 2007 Giants, 1969 Chiefs and 2000 Ravens. Besides the nine teams listed above that fill out the bottom of the rankings, Pittsburgh ranks ahead of the 1990 and 1986 Giants, the 1967 and 1966 Packers and the 1982 Redskins.

Here are Pittsburgh's ranks in the NFL in 2008 for the important factors to winning football: first in scoring defense (13.9), first in yards-per-pass allowed (5.4), first in yards-per-rush allowed (3.3), first in average kick return allowed (19.1), fourth in average punt return allowed (6.8) and 11th in turnover margin (+4). On offense, they were much worse, ranking 13th in yards-per-pass (7.1), 29th in yards-per-rush (3.7), 29th in average kick return (20.3) and 31st in average punt return (6.0).

Whether such mediocrity is good (no dominant teams) or bad (no great teams) for the sport is debatable, but it is clear that Super Bowl XLIII will not feature one of the all-time best. Hopefully, the game lives up to our prediction and can go down as a classic unto its own.

About the Analysis

To come to this conclusion, sports simulation website, WhatIfSports.com used its free NFL SimMatchup technology (you could do this too!) to simulate the 43 Super Bowl champions against each other 100 times each. This means that each team played 4,200 games and 88,250 games were played in total (took about an hour). At the end, we looked at all of the games and ranked teams by winning percentage to find the top ten. This is the most accurate and thorough approach to ranking teams from different eras.

When running these games, the simulation “engine” factors in actual regular season statistics that are adjusted equally on a historical and relative (to other teams that season and to strength of schedule) basis. This means that if a team or player had a record breaking rushing season against a schedule that includes very weak rush defenses, the team or player will still perform well, but may not perform as well it did that year. This also means that the computer does not have to try to figure out how a 230 pound offensive lineman can block a 330 pound defensive tackle. Everything is in the numbers and relative to the context of that season.

There are about 15 team and 10 individual stats that are utilized. Durability, playbook and "touch" distribution are important, but the most important statistics are on a per-play basis. For that reason, the most important statistics by which teams should be measured are yards-per-rush for and against, yards-per-pass for and against, sacks-per-pass-attempt for and against and interceptions-per-pass-attempt for and against. Furthermore, we found that almost all of these teams seemed to have well better than league average yards-per-pass-attempt figures on both offense and defense. In fact, we would suggest that those two figures relative to other teams are the most important non-scoring-related statistics to use when predicting the Super Bowl champion for any season.

Record has nothing to do with this analysis, but do not confuse that with a neglect for "heart" or "clutch." The engine is not a measure of athletic ability - 40-yard dash times or bench press numbers are not included – it looks at overall football ability. Those can always be found in the numbers. Strengths, weaknesses, consistency, comfort under pressure, etc. All of those "intangible" factors show through in the numbers. And teams with better numbers typically win – especially when the games are played A LOT of times.

Paul Bessire is the Senior Quantitative Analyst and Content Manager for WhatIfSports.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. With any comments, questions or topic suggestions, Paul can be reached at BtB@whatifsports.com. Thanks!

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