It’s a good thing for the Los Angeles Chargers that Bill Parcells’ famous line — “You are what your record says you are” — isn’t exactly true.
Your record is what your record is, but that isn’t a perfect indication of how good a team is. Inherently, fans know this. That’s why people don’t question when one team is favored against another that has a better record. It’s also part of the reason there is so much buzz around the Chargers right now, despite L.A.’s newest franchise being 7-6.
The Chargers appear to be better than their record. There are a few reasons for that, including the fact that L.A. is 7-2 in its last nine games after starting the season 0-4. But even besides that, the buzz is warranted.
Los Angeles’ AFC team has a Football Power Index (FPI) rating of plus-5.5, which means it is, according to the model, 5.5 points per game better than an average team and the fifth-best team in the NFL going forward despite being only 7-6. That’s the same record, by the way, that the Bills have, despite Buffalo’s FPI rating of minus-5.8, the fourth worst in the league. The Chargers’ success stems mostly from pass plays on both sides of the ball. The passing offense and passing defense rank fourth and third, respectively, in expected points added per play this season.
So is it completely crazy for a team of the Chargers’ caliber to be just 7-6 and have only a 47 percent chance, per FPI, to reach the playoffs?
The 2017 Chargers are one of 16 teams since 2008 with an FPI rating between 5 and 6 following Week 14, and among those, they are one of only two to have a 7-6 record. (The 2008 Eagles, a team with a similar profile, was 7-5-1 at this stage.) Overall, those 16 teams averaged more than nine wins at this point in the season. For what it’s worth: Only one team in that span with an FPI over 6 has had only seven wins at this point in the season and none has had fewer. In other words: The circumstance L.A. finds itself in is not totally crazy but certainly unusual.
FPI evaluates team strength going forward, but what about how the Chargers have actually played over their 13 games this year? For that we can use efficiency, our measure of expected points added per play that is downweighted for garbage time, adjusts for season averages and places teams on a 0-100 scale. The Chargers rank ninth this season with an efficiency of 59.45. There have been 28 teams through Week 14 with an efficiency score within two points of that number through 14 weeks since 2008, and seven of them had only seven wins (including one with a tie).
None of those teams has had a worse record than 7-6. The group averaged a little more than eight wins.
So what happened to put the 2017 Chargers in this situation?
Fans might be quick to point out the two late-game Younghoe Koo kicks from the first two weeks of the season. In Week 1, Koo kicked what would have been the game-tying field goal against the Broncos in the final seconds, but Denver called a timeout first, and his second kick was blocked. The following week, Koo missed what would have been a go-ahead field goal with nine seconds left against the Dolphins.
Before Koo’s attempt against the Broncos, Los Angeles had a 38 percent chance to win; against the Dolphins, the missed kick brought their chances of winning from 80 percent to zero. That second kick, especially, is both significant and relatively unlucky.
But have the Chargers been unlucky overall this year? It’s hard to say — plenty of teams miss plenty of field goals, and plenty of fluky occurrences happen across the league on a weekly basis — but the answer is: probably at least a little bit. Given the level at which they’ve played this season, the Chargers probably ought to have a better record than they do.
So if L.A. reaches the playoffs, the team will likely be the biggest AFC threat to the conference’s two powerhouses, the Patriots and Steelers. But the Chargers still have to get there first.
For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index.