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What Does A Playoff Roster Look Like? Part 1

The Bears have been out of the playoffs too long. What pieces do they need to get back into contention? It’s complicated.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Chicago Bears Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears have been ruled out of the playoffs so early and so often for the last several years that I have found myself a little lost as to what a playoff team even looks like. Specifically, I find myself gravitating toward statements that sound more like unqualified declarations of ideology than actual observations based in fact. For example, I believe in the value of a strong pass rush, but I find myself wondering about the value of a pass rush on its own. Does it make that much of a difference, or do I just enjoy seeing Aaron Rodgers get sacked?

With that in mind, I am presenting a three-part breakdown of what traits playoff teams have and what traits they lack. This first piece is starting with stat leaders and award winners. I am looking specifically at the last 36 rosters to make the playoffs, and I want to look at whether or not there is even enough of a trend in place to merit a deeper investigation. Is there evidence that a single type of star player that is really essential to making it to the playoffs?

Observation 1: Individual Stat Leaders are for Fantasy Football

Based on what I have read and what conversations I find myself in regarding football, I pulled the Top 10 stat leaders for the last three years across five categories: receiving yards, rushing yards, sacks, interceptions, and passer rating. While there are other individual stats that people talk about, these are the attention grabbers. Additionally, leaders in one category are often leaders in another. It turns out that while these players are nice to have, certainly, they are neither essential nor even all that likely to guarantee an outcome.

Let’s start with raw numbers. Only 42% of playoff teams had a player in the Top 10 in terms of receiving yards (and only 15 of these 30 players made it into the playoffs). Meanwhile, 47% of playoff rosters carried a Top 10 rusher in terms of yards, and 17 of these 30 players made the playoffs. Some of this difference could be due to the fact that teams that are winning tend to run the ball a little more, but this is not all that major of a major difference. We’re talking abut an extra player here or there. What about an elite passer? Not so much. While 18 of the 30 possible top passers made the playoffs, only half of all 36 rosters carried a player with a Top 10 passer rating (this comes with a caveat, though, because the 2015 Green Bay Packers had Aaron Rodgers, who recorded the lowest passer rating of his career that season and placed just barely outside of the Top 10). Fewer than half of all playoff teams had a sack leader or an interception leader, although at least 18/32 interception leaders (there are more than 30 because of ties) made it into the playoffs.

The unreliability of stat leaders in guaranteeing a playoff spot is probably best illustrated by the curious case of the 2017 Los Angeles Chargers. They carried a leader in all five categories. Rivers was 9th in passer rating, Melvin Gordon was 7th in rushing yards, Keenan Allen was third in receiving yards, Joey Bosa was 7th in sacks, and Tre Boston was tied for 5th in interceptions. Of the playoff rosters studied, only the 2017 Saints and the 2015 Bengals were as accomplished. The Chargers were rewarded with a 9-7 record and a chance to watch other teams play in January.

Meanwhile, the 2017 Panthers, 2016 Lions, and 2015 Packers all made it into the playoffs without having a leader in a single category. The active Super Bowl Champions did have a single leader, but he missed the Super Bowl. Carson Wentz sat out the playoffs, and without him the Eagles lacked even a single leader in one of these stat leaders during their championship run across the playoffs.

It is worth pointing at that ⅔ of playoff teams had a stat leader in at least two of these categories, so it’s probably safe to say that having star players helps in general, but there simply is no sign that having a star in a specific category makes all that much of a difference.

Just because I was curious, I went back to 2006, the last year the Bears made it to the Super Bowl. They did not have a player in the top ten in receiving yards, rushing yards, or passer rating. They did, just barely have a player in the top ten in interceptions (Charles TIllman had 5, which was enough for an 8-way tie at 10th), and Mark Anderson was 8th in sacks. That means that they match the rather anecdotal trend that having a star in each of a couple of areas is helpful, but even here this is far from essential.

To some, this conclusion is obvious. Football is a team sport, perhaps the ultimate team sport. However, many people cling to the idea that a team “needs” a particular type of star player to be successful. The reality seems to be that teams can make the playoffs just fine so long as they have collective quality.

Observation 2: Individual honors are for the players, not the teams

This one is obvious, right? Maybe not. After all, there is a certain temptation to want an elite player to elevate a team. This can happen, but it can also not happen.

First, in 2017 All Pros DeAndre Hopkins (WR), Zack Martin (G), and Trent Williams (OT) sat out the playoffs. Joining them on the metaphorical couch were All-Pro linebackers Chandler Jones, Bobby Wagner, and Von Miller. All-Pro defensive backs Earl Thomas and Darius Slay were equally excluded from meaningful January football.

Second, despite its bum reputation, the Pro Bowl is significant. It reflects the combined opinions of players, coaches, and fans. Forget Pro Bowl “alternates” for a minute, whose presence in the Pro Bowl basically means that they were, in fact, out of the playoffs when the Pro Bowl was held. “Actual” Pro Bowlers (those named to starter and alternate positions) are an elite among the NFL. Very few players earn such honors over their career.

Even looking just at Pro Bowl Starters and Pro Bowl Reserve players sees 36 Pro Bowlers missing the playoffs, including 19 of the so-called “starters.” This year alone Patrick Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald were not enough to overcome the limitations of the Cardinals, and Seattle has a stacked roster with good name recognition, but it was on the outside looking in this year.

At the same time, there were Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball who sat out the playoffs. Pro Bowl quarterbacks and Pro Bowl Edge Rushers. While 2017 did not specifically see a Pro Bowl running back out of the playoffs, 2016 saw LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray end their seasons after Week 17. Essentially Pro Bowlers at every position will in fact miss the playoffs on a regular basis.

Is it nice to have a 1000-yard rusher? Sure. Probably. The 2006 Bears didn’t need one and neither did a majority of playoff teams in the NFL over the last three years. Does a top receiving threat make it easier to win games? It is absolutely one way to get there. Does a Pro Bowl wide receiver with a lot of production actually guarantee anything? No more than any other good player, it seems.

This is suggestive of the idea that truisms like building a team in a certain way is less important than building a team with overall quality. The backup quarterback became a very important position for two NFL teams (the Eagles and the Packers). The totality of how the roster works together seems to be more important than the presence of a marquee player at a particular position.

Based on these observations, the Bears seem to need talent in general more than a specific kind of talent (though I remain convinced that nobody really knows what these offensive players will look like next year no matter who else joins them).

Next up will be a look at constructing rosters with a focus instead of “overall.”