If analytics are to be believed, the Eagles have an excellent shot at improving upon last season’s 7-9 record in 2017. Better still, the Giants and Cowboys are likely to experience declines based on the same metrics.
The Eagles were among five NFL teams chosen to improve, while their NFC East rivals make up two of the five picked to decline by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, all based on advanced statistics. A Football Outsiders alumnus, Barnwell uses the gap between a club’s win total and “Pythagorean expectation” from the previous season to find trends that could point to their rise or fall the following year.
Or, in layman’s terms, basic figures such as the Eagles’ point differential (+36), record in games decided by seven points or less (1-8), and strength of schedule (.544) in 2016 – when taken together – can be a sign of things to come. It just so happens the Eagles were statistical outliers in all three categories, which bodes well.
No team has a better stat-nerd case for jumping into the postseason in 2017 than the Eagles. Advanced metrics suggest Doug Pederson's team was already playoff-caliber last season…
Instead, the Eagles became one of five teams in 2016 to post a losing record despite a positive point differential, which is a particularly weird feat because it hadn't happened once in the league across either of the previous two campaigns. Philadelphia's gap between expected wins and actual wins was the largest of those five, owing to that 1-8 record in games decided by a touchdown.
The Eagles also played either the first- or second-most difficult schedule in the NFL based on metrics, while the ’17 slate projects closer to league average, per Barnwell.
Although strength of schedule may be virtually impossible to predict, the Eagles’ point differential and particularly their inability to win close games is something we’ve already touched on here. As many as five losses last season were decided not merely by one score, but one play. Pure regression to the mean could potentially account for an extra win or two in tight games.
That’s before we even consider the development of Carson Wentz, the expectation Lane Johnson won’t be suspended, the additions of LeGarrette Blount and Alshon Jeffery to the offense, and the hope the defense continues making progress in Year 2 under Jim Schwartz.
Compare the metrics to the Giants, who had a worse point differential (+26) and went 8-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer en route to an 11-5 record last season – all while playing the league’s 15th-ranked schedule (.506).
The biggest reason the Giants turned things around is one you'll rarely hear from a fan: They stayed healthy. It's easy to notice when teams struggle with a season of injuries, but teams who are far healthier than the league average often slip through the cracks. By adjusted games lost, the Giants ranked as the most injured team in the league each of Coughlin's final three seasons at the helm. They ranked as the seventh-healthiest team in football last season.
Or look at the Cowboys, who went 7-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer and played the 12 th-easiest schedule (.491) en route to a 13-3 finish.
One of the biggest reasons the Cowboys leaped up the standings in 2016 was their massive improvement in turnover differential…
History tells us the sort of leap the Cowboys made almost always gives way to some decline the following season. Teams that improved by 20 or more turnovers in a given season saw their margin decline by more than 11 turnovers the following year. They declined as a group by an average of more than one win. (Quarterback Dak Prescott) probably won't post a sub-1 percent interception rate next year. That's reality.
And if all of this sounds like a bunch of razzle dazzle with no real substance behind it, consider this: four of the five teams Barnwell predicted to improve in 2016 did just that, while two of the five picked to decline followed suit as well.