A Better Way to Rank NFL Teams, From a New Zealander

Illustration by 731 Lexington, Photo by Getty Images

The National Football League should rank teams more the way rugby does, argues a New Zealander who’s an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Niven Winchester, who studies sports rankings as a hobby, calculates in a new academic journal article that team standings would be more accurate if the NFL gave bonuses for scoring three or more touchdowns in a game and for losing by seven or fewer points. Applying the bonus system at present to this season in the NFC would cause San Francisco to drop from third to fifth in the standings and lift Seattle two spots to take its place. In the AFC, Denver and New England would respectively move to first and second place, ahead of Houston.

The idea that win-loss records can be misleading isn’t new. Bookmakers and computerized ranking systems already take criteria other than win-loss records into account. But the NFL has stuck with giving teams one point for a win, a half-point for a tie, and zero for a loss, along with elaborate tie-breaking rules for the frequent cases in which teams have identical records. The standings determine which teams make the playoffs and how easy their playoff schedules are.

Winchester says his system would do a better job of ranking teams in the standings, based on their ability, and would keep fans interested in games whose outcome is clear but that still offer opportunities for bonus points. It would also result in fewer ties in the standings.

“Bonuses have little impact on teams that are clearly dominant but are significant when separating teams that are tightly bunched,” Winchester and his American co-author, Raymond Stefani of California State University, Long Beach, write in a forthcoming article in the journal Applied Economics.

Winchester, 37, is quick to admit he’s no expert on American football. In New Zealand he spent a lot of time trying to improve the rugby standings; when he got to MIT, where he studies the economics of global warming, he decided to apply his knowledge to football. Winchester hasn’t attended a football game since moving to the U.S. three years ago—not even any involving the MIT Engineers. He has watched several NFL games on TV, though. And as a hobby, he has spent hours poring over data about the sport and testing formulas to improve the accuracy of standings.

Winchester’s system would give four points for a win, two for a tie, and one each for scoring at least three touchdowns or losing by seven points or less. He says other systems—say, ones that take the opponent’s quality into account, as computerized ranking systems do—would be more accurate but overly complicated.

Rugby has a system similar to the one Winchester advocates for the NFL. “Of the hundred or so sports played beyond our shores we can learn from football’s nearest neighbor, rugby,” Stefani, the co-author, said in a statement.

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