by Jim Glass
Do Teams that Lose Clutch Games The Win More in the Playoffs -- and that Win Clutch Games, Lose More?
"Great teams win close games" they say. If so, the Falcons are sitting pretty. But is it true? Does winning close games during the regular season foretell victory in the playoffs? Being a sports stats geek I thought I knew -- but before running the numbers I had no idea the answer is both so counter-intuitive and stark.
The argument: To win close games takes clutch play, and it is clutch play that shows the skill and character a team needs to win tough games on the way to a championship. Think of Joe Montana throwing "the pass". Everyone knows this, it is common sense. So winning close games in the regular season gives confidence in post-season success.
But wait, says the sports stats geek, it's not so obvious. If team B thumps the same opponents that team A does by bigger margins, the larger scores it runs up shows it's better than A. That's common sense too.
Not so, says Mr. Clutch Play. If B is better why doesn't it win more games? Wins are all that count. If B scores more without winning more then it isn't better -- it is wasting points, inefficient, lacks character. In the playoffs the opposition is tougher, the scores are closer, and the proven ability to win close games delivers victory ... The stats geek may make some response to this, but what's the point? At best the result is an infinite loop.
To break the loop I looked at the records of all NFL teams that made the playoffs after winning 11 or more games during the regular season over the last 15 years, 1995 to 2009. There are exactly 100 teams in this pool, as it happens. The object, simply enough, was to compare the playoffs records of the teams that won the most close games during the regular season to those that won the least.
In particular, the idea was to compare teams with the same regular season w-l records -- 12-4 teams to 12-4 teams, 13-3 to 13-3, etc. -- to see if the number of close ("clutch") wins and losses ("failures in the clutch") a team has portends anything for it in the playoffs, hoping that a clear pattern emerges. It does!
NFL games are decided by a median margin of 10 points, so I defined a "close game" as one decided by 10 points or less, and those decided by 11 or more as a "big win" or "big loss". (There's a reason for picking 10 points as the divider, apart from the nice 50-50 split it gives, that's discussed below.) The rest follows simply...
To begin with, gross number results...
Most close wins:
* Of the 100 teams, nine won nine-or-more close games during the regular season. Their subsequent record in the playoffs: 8-9.
* The 15 teams with the best records in close games during the regular season were a combined 103-11, 90%, in them. In the postseason they had a record of 15-14, 52%. (One Super Bowl was won among them -- but random chance would predict 2 SB winners among 15 teams.)
So it doesn't look like winning close games in the regular season gives any edge at all above 50-50 in the postseason -- but for believers in winning close games it gets worse!
Fewest close wins:
* Only seven teams of the 100 had losing records in close games during the regular season, going 18-30, 38%. In the playoffs these seven "very worst" close-game teams went 14-4, 78%, and won three Super Bowls.
Do you want your team to *lose* close games to win a championship!?
Super Bowl winners:
Let's look at things from the side of the 14 SB winning teams (the 10-6, 2007 Giants didn't make the cut). Their W-L records in...
* The playoffs, 46-0, 100% (obviously).
* The regular season, 175-49, 78%
* Close games during the regular season, 62-36, 63%
* Big wins/losses during the regular season: 113-13, 90%.
The 63% indicates some ability to win close games, but not a lot -- and even less than it seems. All the 100 teams averaged a 71% win rate in close game, so the SB winning teams were a little *worse* at winning close games than rest.
On the other hand, the 90% wins in "big" decisions looks like it might be a better indicator of playoff success than regular season W-L. Back to this in a bit.
Playoff results by win cohort:
By regular season W-L record, here's how winning close games matched up with winning playoff games. Teams in each "win cohort" (11, 12, etc.) are divided into a high and low group by close-game win percentage. Given are the number of teams in each group, their average win pct in close games, and their playoff record. (The three 16-0 and 15-1 teams are omitted for being too small a group):
14-2 (nine teams)
top 4 (94%): 8-3, 1 SB winner
low 5 (78%): 8-3 2 SB winners
13-3 (25 teams)
top 12 (86%): 7-12
low 13 (70%): 16-10 3 SB winners
12-4 (28 teams)
top 14 (75%) : 17-12 2 SB winners
low 14 (61%) : 21-10 4 SB winners
11-5 (35 teams)
top 20 (71%): 15-19 1 SB winner
low 15 (51%): 19-14 1 SB winner
The lower, "less clutch" groups win consistently.
* The "higher halves" had a season record in close games of 343-103, 77%, but a postseason record of only 47-46, 51%.
* The "lower halves" had a worse season record in close games of 229-142, 62%, yet a better postseason record of 64-37, 63%.
Go figure. Maybe you really *do* want your team to be poor at winning close games to win a championship.
Big wins and big losses.
Mentioned above is the idea that record in "big" wins and losses may be a better indicator of future playoff performance than regular W-L record. Now it seems even more logical. Record in big wins and losses is the flip side of record in close games -- if two teams have the same w-l record, and one won its games "closer", then the other won its games "bigger". Since close game w-l record seems to be a negative indicator of playoff success, you'd expect "big game" w-l record to be a positive one. But how much so?
* Four teams had 10 or more "big" wins in a season. Their playoff record was 11-1 with three SB wins (the fourth team was the 18-1 Patriots).
* Twelve teams had 9 or more "big" wins. Their record was 24-7 with five SB winners, plus three SB runners-up. So of these 12 teams 8 were in the Super Bowl.
I could continue, but you see the point: "big" wins are really indicative of playoff success.
From here one can quickly propose a simple W-L rating system that is indeed more effective at predicting future w-l than the standard w-l percentage. Count big wins and big losses, and add in close games as ties worth half a win. So a team with 6 big wins, 2 big loses and 4 close games is 8-4, .667. I'd call this a power rating but that name's already being used by everybody, so for the moment I'll call it a KickButt percentage -- the percentage of games a team has won big.
Here's how regular W-L pct compares to KickButt pct in playoff predictive power. Among the 100 playoff teams...
• The top 37 teams by regular W-L pct had records of 13-3 or better (total: 497-95, 84%) and in the playoffs they produced a record of 43-31, 58%.
• Just the top 24 teams by KickButt rating, 11.5-4.5 or better (total: 289-95, 75%), produced the same 43 playoff wins against only 15 losses, a 74% winning pecentage.
Maybe the most interesting to me of all the posts here at Advanced NFL Stats is the one showing half of NFL game outcomes are determined by luck. I'd always known there was a lot of chance in football, but *how much* was a point of endless argument and unsure opinion. To see it credibly quantified ... wow.
That was origin of using 10 points, the median w-l point differential in NFL games, in defining what's a close game. Half of all games are determined by luck, and it's reasonable to believe most of those games are the closest ones, so if you treat the 50% of games that are closest as ties you eliminate most of the luck. What remains is a W-L record much more solidly on the merits.
With all the talk here about "Atlanta" lately, I thought that using this idea to get a fix on how teams that win a lot of regular-season close games perform in the playoffs could be interesting. I expected to find that close games were determined mostly by luck in the critical moments, and a little by the quality of the team. Super Bowl champions winning 63% of close games fits well with that. I also expected that a Kickbutt pct would have better predictive value than normal W-L pct.
But I did *not* expect to find that the best teams in the playoffs do *worst* in close games, and the teams that do *worst* in close games do the best in the playoffs. Winning close games shows a weakness? That seems counter-intuitive.
I can think of three possible explanations:
1) Error. Whenever one reaches a conclusion that contradicts common sense and common wisdom the first possibility to consider is "mistake". I've done all this quick and dirty on the fly, I may have screwed up. Feel free to double-check, all.
2) Statistical bias. Half of all games being determined by luck is a *lot* of games. Yet almost all the teams with 11 or more wins have a good positive number of close game wins -- only seven had losing records in them. Possibly *many* of these teams are in the playoffs only because they've been lucky in so many close games. Then the teams that haven't been as lucky but have the same W-L record must be *better*.
Those seven teams that had really bad luck in their close games, losing them on net, had to be really superior to still get 11+ wins in the season -- so in the post-season they killed the teams there on luck and collected three SB titles.
3) "Hermball", or the conservative coaching strategy: "play safe to just stay close to have a chance to win at the end with superior execution". Yet a close end is going to be determined mostly by chance anyhow, while this sacrifices the chance for big wins ... but as much as I hate Hermball, I don't think this adds up to enough. My guess is #2.
One final thought: Throwing out close games or treating them as ties to estimate a team's strength is nothing new, but doing so systematically based on an objective measure of luck in game outcomes, as far as I know, *is* new. Since the idea is based on an insight presented here, and "KickButt" maybe isn't the best of names, we could call it the Burke Index or Burke Percentage instead (if our host wants his name associated with such a thing).
I'd print KickButt/Burke ratings for Atlanta and the rest of the league, but this has gone too long already.
For all who have troubled to read all the way to here, thank you for you interest (and tolerance).
PS: Factoids for any who may be interested:
* The team among these 100 the with the best KickButt number was St Louis, 1999: 14.5-1.5 (13-0 in big games, 0-3 in close ones). The 16-0 Pats were second (13.5-2.5)
* The bottom team by the same measure was Miami, 2008: 7.5-8.5 (officially 11-5).
* The team that gained the most from close wins was Indianapolis, 2009: 9-0 in close games (5-2 in others, for a KB 9.5-6.5 v 14-2 official).
Saturday, December 4, 2010
by Jim Glass