Cow Patties from Columbus: 10-6 Edition

Wherein our hero addresses the Ten and Six Entitlement Movement, discussing the need for restraint in playoff expectations in this modern age...

Barry,

My Colts days are over. I gave them a try last week, but I am back to being a Browns fan. There is absolutely no need to worry that I'll start writing Corn Patties From Indianapolis or something. Nope. None whatsoever. In fact, I set fire to the minivan with the #18 decals on the side so I could collect the insurance money.

While I was bummed that the Browns missed out on the playoffs, my youngest brother put things in perspective. Upon waking Monday morning, I received the following e-mail:

Sucks about the Browns not making the playoffs. I'm not sure why, but this picture helped cheer me up…I have absolutely no clue what is happening, but it's still hilarious to me.

StillerKid_Blurred.jpg picture by TheOBR

Once I wiped the snot off my screen, I asked him where he obtained a picture of a chubby, rollerskating, possibly pantsless StillerKid in knee pads. It turns out it's one of his friend's relatives, so it's not like my brother is some sort of deviant.

As far as I know.

-----------------

I wanted the Browns to make the playoffs, but I can't get too worked up now that they've missed the cut. It's not like the collapse of the 2005 Indians, which thrust me into an impenetrable state of reclusive catatonia for the balance of that October. When the Colts' practice-squaders and front office interns removed their helmets and walked off the field after losing their game to Tennessee, I gave a disappointed shoulder shrug and said, "It was fun while it lasted."

The 2005 Tribe were red-hot and had become the trendy pick to win the World Series that year. They were the only team in MLB history to ever field a lineup of nine 15-HR batters. They had league ERA champ Kevin Millwood, 18-game winner Cliff Lee, and the intimidating C.C. Sabathia. They had the best bullpen in baseball. Their late-season run had Ozzie Guillen puking in his office garbage can every night as they inched closer to stealing the division from the crumbling White Sox.

Then Grady Sizemore dropped that fly ball in the Kansas City sun. Then they lost two out of three at home to lowly Tampa Bay. And then the White Sox came into the Jake and swept the Tribe into golf season. In the span of a week, the Tribe went from World Series favorites to missing the playoffs entirely. Their 93 wins were the second-most of any team to miss the playoffs in the wild card era. They let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers.

2007 Browns were a different case entirely. They were a severely flawed team that rode a good offense led by an erratic quarterback, the exploits of a superhuman special teams player, and a soft-serve schedule to an unexpected 10-win season. It would have been fun to cheer for them for another week. Maybe even two weeks if Derek Anderson got hot and LaDanian Tomlinson blew out his knee during warm-ups. But this team's chances of playing in the Super Bowl were on par with Damon Jones' chances of winning the coach's award at the Cavs' team banquet.

And my shrugging off the playoffs has nothing to do with a "be thankful for 10 wins" philosophy. On one hand, I am very happy with 10 wins. After week one, I thought the 1976 Buccaneers would be toasting the Browns each week instead of the Dolphins. On the other hand, I am disappointed with 10 wins, since the Browns left some wins on the table. Most notoriously, they out-sucked the Cardinals and Bengals when those teams brought their "D" game. And there was that last-second loss to the four-win Raiders. And as John Taylor loves to point out, blowing a 21-6 third quarter lead against Pittsburgh was the most costly defeat of the year. So the win total is a mixed bag with me.

Rather, the reason I shrug off the playoffs is because I honestly don't feel this was playoff team. As the season rolled along, I started making jokes about the Browns' quest to become The Worst 12-4 Team In NFL History. I don't know that I can make the same claim about all of the 10-6 teams in history, but I'm sure they are among the worst.

Part of what made this season fun for me was the sensation that we were getting away with something. As a Browns fan, I felt like a 17-year-old sneaking into the casino and winning some money before security came over, checked my ID, and rightfully confiscated my chips. This was a lopsided team that ranked dead last in defense all year until finally making the jump to #31 after the final game. The offense was either great or less than ordinary, depending on the drive. (That mostly had to do with bipolar play of Derek Anderson.) The special teams were mostly excellent, but susceptible to breakdowns here and there. And all this was done against a schedule cooked up by Betty Crocker.

I know Kellen Winslow felt the Browns "deserved" to be in the playoffs. But did they? Were they really that good? I vote no. I'm pleased by the progress the team demonstrated, and I am excited at their prospects for the future, but their record was a schedule-based mirage. The Browns beat one team with a winning record. One! Then again, they didn't get many chances since they only played four games against teams with winning records. When the 1972 Dolphins faced a schedule this wimpy, they ran the table and became immortal for it.

All of the computers in Jeff Sagarin's mom's basement determined that the 10-6 Browns were the 17th best team in the NFL this year. That's right. Not even the top half of the league. They finished 20th in basic RPI, 19th in the Massey Ratings, 18th in the Greenfield ratings, and 13th in Football Outsiders' ultra-nerdtastic DVOA ratings. The Browns' Pythagorian record was 8-7-1.

So in the end, the Browns won 10 games, but finished 7th in the AFC and missed the playoffs. There aren't any numbers out there to indicate that the Browns suffered an undeserved fate.

-----------------

After Sunday's games, I read on ESPN.com that the 2007 Browns became "the fifth 10-6 team in NFL history to miss the playoffs." They even produced a nice little chart that showed the Browns alongside the 2005 Chiefs, 2003 Dolphins, 1991 Eagles, and 1991 49ers.

Of course, that's completely wrong, and it immediately sent me into research mode.

I'm sure what they really meant is that the Browns became the fifth team since the 12-team playoff format went into effect in 1990. But the crux of the matter is that a lot of people seem to think that 10 wins is "deserving" of playoff status, and that it's an unconscionable rarity for a "deserving" 10-win team to miss the playoffs.

Well, the 2007 Browns aren't exactly in exclusive company. Since the merger, here is a list of "wronged" teams who won 10+ games and failed to make the playoffs. All records are 10-6 unless otherwise noted.

2007 Browns
2005 Chiefs
2003 Dolphins
1991 49ers
1991 Eagles
1989 Redskins
1989 Packers
1988 Giants
1988 Saints
1986 Bengals
1986 Seahawks
1985 Broncos (11-5)
1985 Redskins
1981 Broncos
1980 Patriots
1979 Redskins
1976 Bengals (10-4)
1976 Cardinals (10-4)
1975 Dolphins (10-4)
1975 Oilers (10-4)

(I realize that the seven 9-5 teams and the 9-4-1 team that missed the playoffs in a 14-game schedule had better winning percentages than their 10-6 counterparts, but I am sticking to the 10-win mantra for now.)

Quite a list, huh?

How about those 1985 Broncos, who finished 11-5, but missed the playoffs while the 8-8 Browns won the AFC Central? How about those 1979-1989 Washington Redskins, who missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record three times in the span of eleven seasons?

For the rest of this discussion, we'll disregard the 14-team era due to the shorter schedule and the fact that a smaller percentage of teams made the playoffs.

Since the advent of the 16-game schedule, there have been three different playoff eras. First was the two wild card era, in which 36% of the teams made the playoffs. Then came the three wild card era, in which 43% and then 40% and then 38% (AFC only) of the teams made the playoffs as the league expanded. And now there is the current system, in which there are four division winners and two wild cards, meaning 38% of the teams make the playoffs.

In the two wild card era, the 34 teams finishing exactly 10-6 made the playoffs 71% of the time. Eleven of those teams won their division, so when it came to fighting for a wild card, a 10-6 record would get teams into the playoffs 57% of the time. (54% if we include the wild card plight of the 11-5 Broncos of 1985.) So in that era, winning 10 games was no guarantee of making the playoffs, and if you weren't the best team in your division, 10 wins made your wild card chances barely better than a coin toss. The 80s are littered with 10-6 misses, and maybe would have had even more if not for two strike-shortened seasons.

Then came the three wild card era, with its bloated percentage of playoff participants, which made it The Golden Era Of Mediocre Teams Making The Playoffs. Given the watered-down nature of those playoffs, 10-6 was a virtual lock. In the three wild card era, the 35 teams finishing exactly 10-6 made the playoffs a whopping 94% of the time. Even subtracting the 12 division winners, a 10-6 record gave teams a 91% chance of locking up the wild card. My hunch is that this is where the Ten And Six Entitlement Movement was born.

Once the NFL moved to four divisions and two wild cards, the league has settled somewhere between the two previous eras. In the modern alignment, the 23 teams finishing exactly 10-6 have made the playoffs 87% of the time. After subtracting the nine division winners, a 10-6 record has given teams a 79% chance of grabbing a wild card. In fact, a 10-6 team has missed the playoffs in half the seasons under the current format. It's happened like clockwork in the odd numbered years. The trends say someone's going to go home disappointed in 2009.  (I was going to add, "Let's hope it's the Steelers", but then I remembered that I always hope they'll go 0-16.)

The NFL's playoff system is just about perfect right now. Teams in each division play 14 common games now, so division races are fair fights. (Whereas in the seasons before the current alignment, things like "last place schedules" could drastically distort division races.)  And although there are two uncommon games, teams play their division rivals twice, so every team controls its own destiny regardless of schedule. The two wild card slots are more than adequate to provide a second chance for really good teams stuck behind great teams.

Some years, a mediocre "cream of the crap" team grabs the sixth seed. (See "2002 Cleveland Browns.") In other years, a 10-win team misses the playoffs. (See "2007 Cleveland Browns.") No real harm is done in either instance. With the one extreme, all deserving teams made it, and the mediocre team should get bounced after one game. In the other extreme, the 10-win team failed to win their division and was the third-best leftover, leaving them with no valid arguments of deservedness.

There's no reason to tinker with the playoff system.

And there's no reason to get mad at the Colts for protecting their best interests, just as they had earned the right to do.

To any members of the Ten And Six Entitlement Movement, I'd say that if you want to play in January, win your division.

Or win more than 10 games.

Whichever it takes.

------------------------

While in research mode, I had thought of something else. Much has been made about how the Browns were trying to clinch the first playoff hat-trick in Cleveland's three-team era. Earlier in 2007, the Cavaliers had won the NBA's Eastern Conference and the Tribe had won the AL Central. The Browns couldn't quite get it done, but they still finished 10-6, which made me wonder if there were ever any seasons in which all three teams finished with winning records?

Granted, this wasn't difficult research. The Browns have had three winning seasons in the 90s and 00s combined. And before that, the Indians had four winning seasons in the 70s and 80s combined. Not much overlap there to begin with, right?

Actually, given the dearth of winning seasons during those two eras, I was shocked that the few winning seasons of the downtrodden team actually produced dual winners in five of those seven occasions. The Browns and Indians both had winning records in 1976, 1979, 1986, 1994, and 2007. (I am old enough to remember the latter three off the top of my head, but those 70s Indians played their cards right, huh?)

If we throw the Cavaliers into the mix, 2007 was only the third time since birth of the Cavaliers that Cleveland experienced winning seasons in all three of its major sports.

2007:
Cavaliers (50-32)
Indians (96-66)
Browns (10-6)
 

1994:
Cavaliers (47-35)
Indians (66-57)
Browns (11-5)


1976:
Cavaliers (49-33)
Indians (81-78)
Browns (9-5)

Spooky…in two of these three "glory" years, the Browns finished four games over .500 and still missed the playoffs.   

And the baseball strike of 1994 was even more of a tragedy since the Indians were on pace to win at least the wild card, which would have clinched the elusive Cleveland playoff trifecta that year.

(Also of note in 1994: Jacobs Field opened, and the Cleveland Crunch won the NPSL title on an overtime goal by Hector Marinaro, ending years of frustration for local Force/Crunch fans, back when fans of indoor soccer actually existed.)

2007 had its share of heartbreak and frustrations, but all in all, it was the best year of Cleveland's three-team era, narrowly edging out 1994 because of the stupid baseball strike.

Eat your heart out, Boston!

--------------

Things are strange down here in Columbus. There is absolutely NO water cooler talk about the OSU-LSU mythical championship game. I kid you not, the first time I heard open chatter about the game was as I was walking out of the office on Friday. Keep in mind, I was bombarded with incessant week-long analysis and hype leading up to the Youngstown State game. And everyone's adrenaline was supercharged for the week leading up to the big game against Kent State. On and on and on….but this game? For a mythical national title? Nothing. Nothing at all.

I get the feeling that people are still so shell-shocked over last year's humiliating loss to Florida that it's hard for them to even speak about this year's game. It's more fun to be the bully than it is to risk embarrassment, isn't it? We'll see what the mood is like Monday. Surely people will be excited on game day, right? And if the Buckeyes win, I guarantee that the members of "Buckeye Nation" will reset themselves to Obnoxious Level 10 and then break off the knob.

I hope they win Monday anyway. I'm not really much of a Buckeye fan (or college football fan), but I know a lot of Browns fans are. So I hope all those Cleveland kids in scarlet and gray win one for the dawgs, and help ease the frustration of the Browns' near-miss.

Despite the creepy Buckeye silence, things are returning to normal on the pro football front. The Browns' resurgence has booted a bunch of Whodey-Come-Latelies off of the Bungle Bandwagon, meaning Columbus is becoming a Browns town once again. Even the Yinzers have stopped sniffing their fingers long enough to realize that their dominance may be beginning to fade just a little. All the Steeler fans in my office felt that they had little chance this weekend in a home playoff game against a wild card team. And I suspect they know that the only thing that separates them from the Browns now is that aura of invincibility. If and when the Browns take a pin to that balloon, look out.

All in all, 2007 was a very successful year.  I wish I had a Browns game to watch this weekend, as September seems a long way away. Heck, the Tribe and Columbus Crew don't start until the final days of March, so even baseball/soccer season is a long way away.

But before I get too bummed about the upcoming void, I can always cheer myself up by looking at this…

StillerKid_Blurred.jpg picture by TheOBR

Later,

Sirk

Steve Sirk, once Art Bietz's co-conspirator at the TruthCenter, has taken to sending a weekly letter to "home base" about life as a Browns fan struggling in the NFL mixing pot of Central Ohio. At some point in life, Sirk determined that suffering through the nexus, dips, valleys, and various low points of being a Cleveland sports fan within geographic proximity of Cleveland itself did not create sufficient emotional pain. Sneeringly dismissive of even basic survival instincts, Sirk elected to reside in Columbus, Ohio, so that he could better be surrounded by fans of winning franchises who could mock his very existence. If you wish to contact an individual of such clearly questionable judgment, you may do so at sirk65@yahoo.com

 


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