Holding out hope for 0-2 teams in the NFL: A fan’s view

Much ado is made about the dreaded 0-2 start to an NFL season. Teams starting the season with a 0-2 record have their backs against the wall and face heavy odds of making the playoffs, it's often said. Every season during Weeks 2 and 3, we are constantly subjected to stories about the grim statistics involving 0-2 teams amounting to anything.

Don't worry, Vikings fans. Your team still has hope of reaching the playoffs, despite your 0-2 start.
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I have always found this concept to be very difficult to believe. How could a team's season be "over" after just two games?! Now that I have some fancy new statistical analysis software for a grad school class, though, I naturally used it for the first time, not for my homework, but to see just how bad an 0-2 record really is in the NFL.

Thanks to the fine folks at Pro Football Reference and at the NFL, I compiled a bunch of statistics on the teams that have started the season with an 0-2 mark between 1990 and 2010. I recorded their final win tally, whether or not they went to the playoffs, and their progress in the playoffs.

Then I ran some basic descriptive statistics.

The Numbers

In that time frame, 173 teams have started 0-2. In 1998, 2006, and 2008, it happened 11 times. In 1990, 1991, and 1997, it only happened six times.

Who has gotten off to a rough start the most often? Sadly, since they're my favorite team, it's the Seattle Seahawks, who have started 0-2 nine times in those 21 years. Make it 10 times after this season. Ugh.

Of those 173 teams, only 22 have reached the NFL postseason. There's the stat that we get bombarded with every year. Teams that start 0-2 make it to the playoffs just under 13 percent of the time.

I noticed, however, as I was entering the final win totals on these 173 teams that an awful lot of them wound up having absolutely horrendous seasons. The 1-15 Indianapolis Colts of 1991, the 1-15 New York Jets of 1996, the 1-15 San Diego Chargers of 2000, and who can forget the 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2008? And those were just a few of many.

For these teams, their 0-2 start didn't have a thing to do with them missing the playoffs. It was simply the beginning of a long nightmare. There was no hope for these teams to start with.

Measuring Hope

So I decided to code each team with a "hope" variable. It's very simple. I figure that if a team finishes the season with a 6-10 record or worse, they had no hope of reaching the playoffs anyway. It's a stretch to make the NFL playoffs with an 8-8 or 9-7 record (yes, the Seahawks made the playoffs last year with a 7-9 record, but that was an anomaly), so it stands to reason that if a team finished at 6-10 or worse, having anything other than an 0-2 start would have had no effect on their playoff aspirations.

Likewise, any team that finished at 7-9 or better had some hope, and perhaps if not for that 0-2 start, it would have reached the post-season.

Hope Prevails

Code the teams, crunch the numbers, and lo and behold, of those 173 teams that we started with, it turns out that 101 of them had no hope. The average final record each year for those 101 hopeless teams was 4-12. And, of course, none of them reached the playoffs.

Of the 72 teams that had hope, though, the mean (average) final record each year was 8-8, while the mode (most frequent) was 7-9. Fifteen of those 72 teams finished with 10 wins or more. And as we discussed previously, 22 of those teams reached the playoffs.

A team with hope that starts a season 0-2 makes the playoffs nearly 31 percent of the time.

Even more encouraging is that the 22 teams that made it the post-season have a combined 20-19 record in the playoffs. Eight of those teams won their divisions. Four teams went to the Super Bowl. The 1993 Dallas Cowboys, the 2001 New England Patriots, and the 2007 New York Giants won their respective Super Bowls after starting the season with two straight losses.

So, you see? For fans of the 2011 Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams, Colts, and Seahawks, there's no reason to give up yet. You just need to have some hope.

Well, actually, fans of the Chiefs, Colts, and Seahawks can go ahead and hang it up. Those teams are hopeless.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some homework to do for statistics class.

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Updated Saturday, Sep 24, 2011