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Parsing luck from skill can be a difficult task when assessing an NFL team’s season, but there’s little question that some stand to benefit from good fortune while others are set off course by a handful of bad breaks.
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we took a look at five teams who could enjoy a significant swing if they don’t fall prey to random chance again this season. But what constitutes luck in the NFL?
Three factors stood out as possible contributors to a team’s fortune. Injuries are to be expected in a general sense, but a year of widespread losses can often be an outlier. Bad records in one score games can also be an indicator of luck, or at least a possible regression to the mean. And while some groups are more turnover-prone based on their tendencies, teams lagging behind the rest of the league can get a boost from random chance involved with some giveaways or takeaways.
These teams can’t depend on those factors alone for improvement, but merely breaking even could contribute to a more fruitful season.
Los Angeles Chargers
Perhaps the season-opener served as a harbinger for the franchise’s fate in what would become its final season in San Diego. In a 33-27 overtime loss to the Chiefs in which they gave up a 21-point lead, the Chargers also watched as wide receiver Keenan Allen suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament. Close losses and injuries came to be two of the defining themes of the 5-11 season.
The Chargers finished the season with a league-high 21 players on injured reserve, including Allen, cornerback Jason Verrett, linebacker Manti Te’o and running back Danny Woodhead. The team’s first seven losses (and nine total) were all by eight points or fewer, though it also won four of its games by the same margin. If the Chargers can avoid another calamitous run on both fronts next season, the first season in Los Angeles should be a little more even-keeled.
Owner Shad Khan wasn’t keen to his team’s shortcomings on bad luck, as he fired coach Gus Bradley late in a 3-13 campaign that fell well short of expectations after a free agency spending spree. But the promotion of Doug Marrone to head coach and return of Tom Coughlin, this time in the front office, both suggest that Jacksonville brass doesn’t believe it’s too far off from a breakthrough.
Quarterback Blake Bortles has been turnover prone, with 51 interceptions in three years. But last year featured some bizarre bounces, including back to back weeks in which he was picked off after the ball deflected off his intended target’s foot. With an emerging defense, Marrone may look to put Bortles in more low-risk situations that would help Jacksonville improve on a -16 turnover differential that was third-worst in the NFL. The Jaguars also went 2-8 in games decided by eight points or fewer.
Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson took the NFL by surprise in the opening weeks of their debut season, as the rookie quarterback and coach helped key a 4-2 start with wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings. Then the offense stalled out at midseason, a struggle that coincided with a 10-game ban for right tackle Lane Johnson.
Suspensions are not tantamount to injuries in terms of luck, and Wentz must find a way over the rookie wall (16 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, nine fumbles) he hit last year. But newly signed Alshon Jeffery can win the 50-50 balls that last year’s underwhelming supporting cast couldn’t, while Torrey Smith’s deep speed will make defenses respect more facets of the passing game rather than waiting to pounce on short-to-intermediate throws. Also boding well for Philadelphia: the team finished with a +36 point differential (second best of all losing teams) despite an imposing schedule, and it went 1-6 in games decided by eight points or fewer.
A devastating non-contact knee injury to Teddy Bridgewater was enough to blow up the Vikings’ plans one week before the season, and the hits kept on coming for a beleaguered offense. Running back Adrian Peterson was sidelined for most of the season, while offensive tackles Matt Kalil, Andre Smith and Jake Long were all lost for the year. Even Mike Zimmer wasn’t safe, as the Vikings coach missed a game in December after undergoing emergency surgery to repair a detached retina.
Latavius Murray might not be able to single-handedly lift a running game that ranked last with a historically woeful 3.2 yards per carry. But having a fully healthy offensive line, with Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers stepping in for Kalil and Smith, could have a ripple effect on the rest of the offense. Sam Bradford, meanwhile, will have a full offseason rather than a couple of weeks to settle in for a potential second season as Bridgewater’s fill-in. More reliability from the kicking game could also prove integral after Blair Walsh’s shaky year shrunk the team’s margin for error.
General manager Ryan Pace likely didn’t envision Matt Barkley as a starter in 2016 when he signed the heretofore journeyman to the Bears’ practice squad in September. By November, however, Barkley had to take over the reins to an already depleted team (19 players finished the year on injured reserve) with Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer sidelined.
The Bears’ problems extended well beyond quarterback, and Mike Glennon is something of a mystery box option with just 18 starts in his career. But a healthier group with improved deficit should help the team close out the games it couldn’t in 2016, as it went just 1-6 in games decided by eight points or fewer. More help could also come from turnover improvements. Though the -20 differential was inflated by Barkley’s late-season interception spree, the Bears had some of the worst luck on fumbles with just three defensive recoveries and 12 lost on offense.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
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