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The San Francisco 49ers

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 21, 2007

A few months back, Doug and I discussed the 2006 San Francisco 49ers. While the team went 7-9, the 'Niners looked like fools gold. Consider this post from June, where Doug wrote:

[T]he 2006 San Francisco 49ers had the worst point differential of any 7-9 team in history....There has, in fact, only been one 6-10 team ever to post a worse point differential. And the 49ers compiled this differential against a weak schedule. San Fran was 31st out of 32 last year according to the simple rating system.

So they were either really lucky to be 7-9, or they were a clutch team that played their best football when it counted the most. You can probably guess which way I’d lean.

Here is one more interesting stat: the 49ers were outscored 113-251 in first halves of their games last year. Again, that’s a stat in which people will see what they want to see. But to my eye, it looks like the 49ers will need to improve greatly in 2007 just to finish with the same record. Fortunately for them, they do appear to have gotten better in the offseason, so it looks like that might happen.

The 49ers played a very weak schedule, yet still ranked 24th in points scored, 26th in yards gained, 28th in yards allowed and 32nd in points allowed. That's terrible, of course, but hidden by the 7-9 record. The 49ers average margin of victory was 7.4; their average margin of loss was 18.4. Basically, all that information is wrapped up in their pitiful Simple Rating System Rank of -8.7, second worst in the league (but best in the Bay area!).

Now you might wonder who cares what their simple rating system rank is, the team went 7-9. Here's my counter to that. I performed a regression analysis for each team since the merger using their SRS score as my input and their actual winning percentage as their output. It spit out a formula of:

Projected winning percentage = 0.500 + 0.28 * SRS score

So the 49ers projected winning percentage based on their SRS score was 0.256, while their actual winning percentage was 0.438. That difference of 0.182 led the league last year, and was the 27th biggest positive difference since the merger. Of the first 26 teams, 23 teams saw their winning percentage decrease the next year, one stayed the same, and two showed slight increases. Fourteen of the fifteen teams with the highest differential saw their winning percentage decrease the next season. The average change was a 0.183 reduction in winning percentage the following year.

Going the other way, of the 26 teams that "underachieved" the most -- that is, posted a strong SRS score but a relatively weak winning percentage -- 21 had a better winning percentage the following year, two stayed the same, and three saw small increases. None of the 16 most underachieving teams had a worse winning percentage the next year. The average change was a 0.213 increase in winning percentage in Year N+1.

All of that was really just a long way of saying the 49ers win-loss record looks a ton better than their peripheral statistics, and teams that fit that profile generally regress to their true rating the following year. Now the 49ers made a number of impressive moves this off-season, and that should help them improve -- but it doesn't change the base. The 49ers should improve off a terrible team that ranked 31st in the SRS rating, not improve off a team that went 7-9 last year.

Why am I writing about this now? Because the 49ers are 2-0 in 2007, but it looks more like games 17 and 18 of the 2006 season. Nothing's changed in San Francisco, where they've won both games by a combined four points against two mediocre teams. The 49ers have been out-gained by 259 yards. And they were oh so close to going 0-2, and not 2-0. If Terrence Holt knocks a loose ball out of the end zone in the final minute instead of trying to pick it up, the 49ers lose to the Cards. Only a little more "luck" was necessary to beat the Rams, as a Dante Hall muffed punt late in the game led to the winning score. Note: According to Jeff Sagarin, the Rams are the worst team in the NFL, the 49ers have played the 32nd hardest schedule in the NFL (read: easiest) and rank as the 29th best team.

Certainly it looks like the 49ers are on their way to another season of laughing in the SRS's face. So the question of the day: Do you believe in the 49ers? Do you believe in the SRS? How many more close wins and blowout losses would we need to see out of the 49ers before we can say it's not a fluke? And do they get blown out in Pittsburgh this weekend?