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ESPN's List of the Best NFL Teams of the Decade is Absolute Trash

When it comes to advanced stats and arcane analytics in sports, I treat them like I do cigars, classic black and white cinema and country music. I dabble in them. They're not a lifestyle. 

Basically I apply a sort of corollary to the Dwight Schrute Idiot Standard. When the metrics "prove" some thing I ask "Would an idiot believe that?" And if the answer is "yes," I do not believe that thing. I'm sure a truly devout SABREmetrician could find some sort of obscure stat buried deep in the box scores to demonstrate that some pitcher was better over two seasons than 1999-2000 Pedro Martinez. But it wouldn't be valid to any sentient being who witnessed Pedro Martinez throw baseballs in 1999-2000. If your science proves a false hypothesis, it was never science to begin with. 

Which brings me to this little bit of end-of-the-decade junk science nonsense which ESPN (paywall) first posted toward the end of last year and reposted now just to re-bait the click that everyone ignored then. Suffice to say, the World Wide Leader hasn't sat on the Scientific Method's face and wriggled this hard since they were denying that cold air makes inflated things lose pressure.

[I]t's time to identify the best teams and players of the past decade using Football Outsiders metrics: DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) for teams. ... 

DVOA measures success on each play based on down and distance, then compares that to an NFL average baseline adjusted for situation and opponent. ... Ratings each year are normalized, accounting for changes in the NFL's offensive environment. ...

It's important to remember that DVOA is measuring efficiency on a per-play basis, rather than looking at top-line wins and losses. And while we are including playoff performance here, it doesn't render the regular season moot. So we have a lot of teams ranked higher than teams that beat them in the postseason, and our top 10 overall list for this decade includes only one Super Bowl champion. Often, winning a Super Bowl is about getting hot at the right time rather than dominating the league over the course of the entire season.

And if that doesn't already sound like the Terms and Conditions you scroll through to click that you've read them so you can get on with your life, you haven't read anything until you go beyond the top five. The Seahawks make the list again:

9. 2014 Seattle Seahawks (+31.1%)

This is the first of four Seattle teams to appear in our top 10 for the decade, part of the four-year Seattle "DVOA dynasty." From 2012 to 2015, the Seahawks finished No. 1 in our regular-season ratings each year, although they only won the Super Bowl in 2013. This 2014 team finished fifth in the league in offense and led the league on defense for the second straight season but wasn't as good on special teams as the other DVOA dynasty Seahawks squads.

Of course. That makes perfect sense. You know doubt remember that string of Super Bowls won from 2012-15 and Pete Carroll walking around with more gold on his fingers than the Dwarf Lords in "Lord of the Rings." Oh, right. DVOA only determines which teams are the "best," not the ones who actually win championships. Which is just about getting hot at the right time. You know, when the season comes down to the best teams playing each other in a winner-take-all, single elimination tournament. The real measure of greatness is efficiency on a per-play basis. That's what counts.

I mean, who else would you put on the top of this list? The 2014 Patriots, who went 13-2 after September, became just the third team to score 28 points on Seattle all season and, oh yeah, beat them in the Super Bowl, ending their dynasty before it began? 

How about the 2016 Pats? All they did was go 17-2, lead the league in point differential with +191, an absurd 57 points more than the No. 2 Atlanta Falcons, whom they also happened to beat in the Super Bowl. 

I suppose there's no room for New England in 2018. That was the year their dynasty was supposed to end. Their quarterback was going over a cliff. There were rifts and power struggles and Pliability Wars and after they won their first playoff game the QB admitted "Everybody thinks we suck." All that team managed to do was knock their seventh MVP out of the postseason (Kurt Warner in 2001, Peyton Manning twice, Steve McNair in ’03, LaDainian Tomlinson in ’06, Matt Ryan in ’16 and 2018 Patrick Mahomes), win a classic AFC title game at Kansas City and hold the 12th highest scoring offense in league history to a field goal. And - see if you've heard this before - win the Super Bowl. 

But that doesn't make any of these teams the "best." Not by the standards of the spreadsheet geeks laboring in the Football Outsiders nerd factory over at ESPN. I suppose we ought to be grateful it was Seattle getting all this analytics love. Because if it was Indianapolis, they'd be hanging four banners for this.