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AFL versus NFL: expansion teams

Posted by Jason Lisk on April 12, 2009

Let’s start with a thought experiment, in considering how long it might take for a league like the American Football League to become equivalent to the National Football League. How long would it take for a team starting from nothing today to become equal with the rest of the league? If we assume that our new team has equal access to incoming talent, I think the very simplified answer is that it would roughly take as long as necessary for two things to occur:

1) For the incoming talent (where our new team is equal to the established teams) to mature and reach peak age; and
2) For the current star talent in the league at the time of our new team’s inception (which our new team is lacking) to decline and move past peak age.

How many years is this? My thought is roughly somewhere between four and six years. And that number is of course highly variable in an individual team scenario, depending on things such as how the original roster is created, the quality of the coaches and management, free agency, and primarily, luck and skill in acquiring young talent.

When we are conducting such a thought experiment, we also assume equal access to new talent. If I asked you how long it would take for Louisiana-Lafayette to become equal with LSU, the answer is probably "not anytime soon." For now, we’ll set that big issue aside though.

We do have concrete examples to consider in place of our fictional thought experiment: expansion teams. Since 1950, there have been thirteen different expansion teams that joined an existing league. The idea for looking at expansion teams originally came from a comment by mrh in this thread where Chase was ranking wide receivers:

I’d like to suggest another way to view the AFL discount you’re applying. The AFL teams were essentially expansion teams in 1960. They were handicapped in fielding teams by players having contracts in the NFL and by the perception that they were both minor league and unlikely to last, so players didn’t want to sign with them. There is an NFL team that year that had the same expansion status but lacked the other handicaps: the Cowboys. They lost all their games. It is reasonable to assume that the AFL teams were, as a group, no better than the Cowboys and maybe a little worse. But an analysis of how the ‘60 Cowboy wrs fared against the NFL would probably produce a pretty good baseline for the AFL as a whole.

Similarly, the ‘61 Vikings were an expansion team and won 3 games, while the 2nd year Cowboys won 4. That again is probably a good measure of the AFL’s quality as a whole - I’m thinking a bell curve centered on 3-4 wins, with the best team getting 6-7 and the worst zero. Again, the Viking and Cowboy WRs would be a decent baseline to establish the AFL comparison factor. I suspect the factors you’ve guestimated for ‘60-61 are too high.

On the other hand, I don’t think you have the AFL reaching parity soon enough in your factors. The Cowboys reached parity with the rest of the league in ‘65, their 6th season, winning 7 games. From ‘66-69 (and beyond), they were one of the best teams in the league. The Vikings achieved parity in ‘64-65, winning 8 (plus a tie) and 7 in those seasons, dropping back to below .500 for a couple of years, making the playoffs in ‘68 and winning the NFL title in ‘69.

While Dallas and Minnesota were the closest in time to the AFL, I don’t think we have to limit our examination to those two teams. After all, Dallas didn’t actually have any draft picks in 1960, while the AFL teams did sign young draft picks (Minnesota, on the other hand, did have the first overall pick in the 1961 NFL Draft). In that respect, Dallas was more different from other expansion teams than the AFL teams were. Somebody might point out that Dallas was coached by a Hall of Famer in Tom Landry, or that Minnesota drafted one of the all-time leading passers in their first season. It's always a question of relevance versus sample size. I think expansion teams in general are relevant enough to be included.

So I looked at the following 13 franchises, examined their rosters, and recorded the franchise record in each of the first seven seasons.

1953 Baltimore Colts
1960 Dallas Cowboys
1961 Minnesota Vikings
1966 Atlanta Falcons
1966 Miami Dolphins
1967 New Orleans Saints
1968 Cincinnati Bengals
1976 Seattle Seahawks
1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1995 Carolina Panthers
1995 Jacksonville Jaguars
1999 Cleveland Browns
2002 Houston Texans

I included the 1953 Baltimore Colts, who Chase detailed here, even though they had a few more players carried over from the Dallas Texans, because they bear a strong resemblance to the average expansion team in terms of experience, and are formally considered an expansion team by the league. With the aforementioned exception of the Dallas Cowboys, all the other expansion teams were part of the league draft prior to their first season, though there were differences in which pick they were assigned originally, with some receiving the first overall pick, and others falling in line behind established teams.

Mrh made reference to how quickly a team reached league average. For that, I'm going to look at the median result for these franchises. You might immediately point to Jacksonville and Carolina as outliers, having reached the conference championship game in year two. New Orleans is probably the biggest outlier, though, as it took thirteen years before they went 8-8 in 1979. Every other expansion team had recorded at least one non-losing season by year six. The median result is four seasons to record the first non-losing year.

However, we are looking at the American Football League in general, not just trying to estimate the time of arrival for a specific team. Just because a team reaches average doesn't mean they stay there, as illustrated by Minnesota, or Cleveland in 2002, or Carolina's decline after 1996. So what I did next is look at the actual combined winning percentage of the expansion teams in each season. As teams played different numbers of games in a season, I averaged the winning percentages so that the more recent teams weren't given undue weight. Also, because we are trying to gauge the true quality of these teams and eliminate luck as much as possible, I also looked at the expected winning percentage each year, based on the points for and points against. Here are the results of our expansion teams for years one through seven, with both the combined actual and expected winning percentages:

Season		Actual	Expected
============================
1		0.198	0.219
2		0.315	0.285
3		0.429	0.429
4		0.405	0.441
5		0.472	0.483
6		0.486	0.529
7		0.499	0.492
============================

The biggest jump came from season 2 to season 3. If you went by actual winning percentage, it would appear that these expansion teams got worse in season 4; they actually were just really unlucky and slightly better as a whole. Improvement occurred every year up until season six. By year 4, the expected winning percentage equates to 7.06 wins in a 16-game schedule, and I would consider that reasonably competitive. Equality was reached somewhere between seasons five and six.

Okay, but maybe you think I shouldn't be including teams like the Carolina Panthers from 1996 or the Houston Texans from 2002, because they have little in common with what occurred in 1960. When I ran the numbers for just the expansion teams starting within 10 years of the AFL teams in 1960, the numbers are very similar. The "early" expansion teams were a little worse in year 2 (thanks to Carolina being excluded) but were over .500 by year 5 and had a higher winning percentage in years 4-7 than the above cumulative numbers. Remember, the Baltimore Colts won their first NFL Championship in season six, the Cowboys were making championship games by season six, and the Miami Dolphins reached their first Super Bowl in season six and posted the perfect season a year later. So, I'm comfortable with increasing the comparison pool to 13 teams. If anything, they may slightly overstate the early winning percentage, but understate the time to equality. Those numbers above look pretty reasonable for the improvement pattern of a team started from scratch.

The American Football League in 1960 may have been like expansion teams, but they weren't really expansion teams--they were creation teams. Thus, the above numbers give us a good reference point for considering how the AFL may have progressed, but we also need to acknowledge the differences, both pro and con, that would impact how long it would take to become equal to the NFL after 1960.

1) All the expansion teams operated within the structure of the league. Since the draft was in effect for all of them, these teams got to draft early in the draft following their early bad seasons, and accumulate (in theory) above average young talent. This would be a factor in favor of the expansion teams improving faster than the AFL.

2) The expansion teams were generally stocked by some combination of draft picks and castoffs who went unprotected by other league teams. Generally, these unprotected players were either reserves who were relatively unproven, or veterans (some who had been pretty good) who were past their primes and in the final seasons of their career. In contrast, the AFL did not, for the most part, get those veterans. They did get some unproven players who had been on an NFL roster and were free agents. This one cuts both ways, and I'll discuss it in a bit when I talk about age and retention differences, and how the AFL rosters compared.

3) The expansion teams were free to sign free agents and make trades within the context of the league. The American Football League teams, on the other hand, did not get much proven star talent from the NFL as free agents. They did sign some unproven NFL free agents, Len Dawson being a good example of this in 1962. To get something in a trade, you have to give up something, so I'm not sure how big a factor this is, but the ability to sign star free agent talent would mitigate in favor of expansion teams improving faster than the AFL.

4) When an expansion team joins a league, it has a small effect on other teams and their ability to acquire new talent. For example, the addition of the Houston Texans in 2002 had minimal impact on the Philadelphia Eagles' ability to acquire new talent. At best, it was a ripple effect. This was not true for the NFL in the early 1960's. Twelve professional teams in 1959 became almost double, twenty-two, by 1961. If going from 31 to 32 teams is a ripple, then doubling the number of teams is a hurricane. The established NFL teams in 1962 would not have been getting the same quantity of new talent as five years earlier, which could cause faster decline. Thus, it is possible that this factor closed the gap faster than the expansion model, not by the AFL teams improving faster, but by a decline in established NFL teams. This cuts both ways. We often assume that the AFL would have been continually improving, but the additions of Miami and Cincinnati to 8 existing teams would have had a larger impact than the addition of New Orleans and Atlanta did on the NFL in the late 60's.

Finally, I promised to talk about the differences in how the teams were constructed. When we think of the early AFL, older quarterbacks like George Blanda may come to mind. With the exception of the quarterback position, though, the American Football League was a very young league at its inception. In fact, the average starter age for the AFL in 1960 was 25.2 years. In contrast, the average age for expansion team starters was 26.5 years. Only the Cincinnati Bengals, with an average of 24.8 in their first season, were below the AFL average. The 1960 Dallas Cowboys bore little resemblance to those AFL teams, with the second oldest starting lineup for an expansion team (behind only Carolina).

Expansion teams relied on young unproven players as well, but nowhere near the extent that the AFL did. 22.3% of expansion team starters were age 23 or younger in the first season. For the AFL, that number was a whopping 37.5%. We'll get into the detailed draft battles in the next post, but in 1960 the AFL signed half of the NFL's first round picks, including first overall pick Billy Cannon to the Champion Oilers, third overall pick Johnny Robinson for the Texans, and tenth overall pick and Hall of Famer Ron Mix to the runner-up Chargers. They also signed alot of late round picks and college free agents, like Abner Haynes and Jim Hunt, and guys who had not been able to stick on an NFL roster and were still relatively young, like Lionel Taylor,Don Maynard, or Paul Lowe. (Lowe, by the way, was cut by the 49ers in the preseason in 1959, and was working in the mailroom of Carte Blanche Credit Card Corporation, owned by Chargers owner Barron Hilton when he tried out for the team.) Basically, the American Football League teams threw numbers at the situation. Many of these later round selections would have a cup of coffee in the league and be working back at the farm or the office (or the mailroom) a year or two later, but some turned out to be pretty good. To illustrate this effect, lets next look at the starter retention rates of expansion teams versus the AFL.

Percentage of First Year Starters who were still starting in Years 2-5

		    Year 2	Year 3	Year 4	Year 5
====================================================
Expansion Teams		46.2%	30.4%	21.0%	11.5%
AFL Teams		58.0%	31.8%	25.6%	17.6%
====================================================

As we can see, by season 3, approximately 70% of the starters from both expansion teams and the AFL were no longer starting for that franchise. After that, though, we see that the starters who were still around in the AFL tended to still be around in season 5. This is primarily because of the age factor, as the veterans on the expansion rosters had aged out. The method I used probably understates, if anything, the difference. Guys like Billy Cannon and Jack Kemp had been traded by 1964, and were starting for other franchises.

The net effect of this, I think, is that the AFL teams as a whole were probably worse in 1960 than your average expansion team (though maybe better than the 1960 Cowboys). With so many young players, many of whom would be out of professional football within two seasons, the quality of play was probably more uneven than expansion teams staffed by replacement level starters with some track record. But because there were a few more young players that would develop into stars (and certainly expansion teams had there's as well with guys like Tarkenton or Largent), the AFL may have had a steeper improvement curve as the wheat got separated from the chaff, and the good young talent began to hit peak age.

Of course, the rate of improvement by the AFL depends on the percentage of young talent that went to the AFL versus the NFL after 1960. If the AFL was getting at least a draw in the draft battles, I find it pretty unlikely that the AFL wasn't close to the NFL before 1966. If on the other hand, the NFL was winning the draft wars, then perhaps the AFL's improvement was slower than our expansion comparison. Sometime in the next few weeks, I will attempt to put these draft battles under the microscope.

This entry was posted on Sunday, April 12th, 2009 at 10:49 pm and is filed under AFL versus NFL. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.