When receiver Quincy Enunwa suffered a season-ending neck injury recently, the number of NFL-caliber receivers on the New York Jets’ active roster dropped from one to zero.
Taken together, the Jets’ top five remaining wideouts — Robby Anderson, Jalin Marshall, Charone Peake, Chris Harper and Frankie Hammond — average 1.4 years of NFL experience, 18.6 career receptions and 223.8 receiving yards.
The Jets have arguably the worst quarterback group in the NFL, an offensive line that lost its left tackle (Ryan Clady) and center (Nick Mangold) from last season’s 5-11 squad, and a pass defense that last year ranked 31st in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). With games scheduled against teams from the stacked AFC West and NFC South divisions, it’s no wonder that people are saying the Jets are headed for an 0-16 season.
But a winless season takes more than a terrible roster; it also takes terrible luck.
The 2008 Detroit Lions are the only NFL team to go winless in the NFL’s 37 years of 16-game regular seasons.1 Last season’s Cleveland Browns came pretty close — making it to 0-14 before picking up their only win in dramatic fashion in Week 16. The 2008 Lions and 2016 Browns have something else in common: The numbers say their results were profoundly unfortunate.
Pro-Football-Reference.com’s “expected wins” calculation measures what a team’s record should have been based on how many points it scored and allowed. It’s a simple formula that essentially assumes that a team’s close wins and losses should balance out. And it turns out that assumption is mostly right: Deviations between a team’s actual and expected records have a tendency to evaporate across seasons.
According to expected wins, the 2008 Lions should have had 2.8 wins and the 2016 Browns should have had 3.5. In fact, only 11 teams have finished a 16-game season with one or no wins — and those teams averaged 3.0 expected wins. In other words, teams that flirt with zero wins usually have the talent to win a few more games, but they also catch a lot of (bad) breaks, losing more often than could reasonably be expected from the way they played.
So if 0-16 is partly bad luck — which we can’t really predict — and partly bad talent, how do the Jets stack up in the latter department? Let’s start with the 2016 version of the team and then compare it with the four teams since the 2002 realignment that have won zero or one games: the 2007 Miami Dolphins, 2008 Lions, 2009 St. Louis Rams and 2016 Browns. We’ll focus on two power ratings: PFR’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which adjusts a team’s scoring margin for the strength of its opponents, and DVOA, which measures how well (or in this case, poorly) a team plays on a per-play basis.
The 2016 Jets scored 17.2 points per game, more than each of the four one- and zero-win teams did. Last season’s Jets also allowed 25.6 points per game, fewer than any of the four. The Jets posted an SRS of -8.5 — awful, but better than all but the 2007 Dolphins among our list of possibly comparable teams. The 2016 Jets had 4.5 expected wins, also the highest among the group. DVOA was less kind — the Jets’ -32.4 percent is worse than the 2016 Browns’ -30.4 percent and well below that of the 2007 Dolphins’ -21.4 percent.
By these measures, the 2016 Jets were at least as good as, if not significantly better than, all the one- and zero-win squads of this era.
So the Jets were bad last season, but they weren’t 0-16 bad. Knowing nothing else, that means they’d have to have a ton of bad luck to go winless this season — or they would need to suffer a disastrous offseason.
But when it comes to offseason talent gains and losses, the Jets arguably held steady: Free-agent tackle Kelvin Beachum was brought in to offset the loss of Clady, and free-agent cornerback Morris Claiborne was signed to replace Darrelle Revis, who was released. With their first two draft picks, the Jets selected safeties, bolstering their pass defense with Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye.
It wasn’t all positive, of course — these are the Jets, after all. The team tried to address the free-agency loss of top wideout Brandon Marshall by drafting pass-catchers with their next three picks. But middle-round wide receivers ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen and tight end Jordan Leggett almost certainly won’t replace the production of Marshall, a six-time Pro Bowler, let alone Enunwa’s.
The Jets’ air attack is likely to be less effective in 2017 than it was in 2016, even if the motley trio of Josh McCown, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg can combine to be better than the Jets’ league-worst quarterback corps (67.6 team passer rating) from 2016.
But for the Jets not to win a single game this season, their 2017 offense will have to be far less effective than the 2016 version, their defense even weaker — and their on-field luck much, much worse. So take heart, Jet fans: Even with the worst team in football, 0-16 is a tough feat to pull off.