Considering no human being has successfully proven the ability to tell the future—and please, please do not include Nostradamus in any rebuttal to that statement—the only true way our species can try and predict what will happen in time is by looking what has already happened in the past.
Simply put, historical data remains the most accurate way of forecasting future events. Mind you, the accuracy rate of past events for predicting the future is certainly not 100 percent. Not even close. But we can formulate a better look at most situations by examining a sample of similar events in the recent or distant past.
Enough with the lengthy discussion of telling the future. How does this relate at all to the 2012 Green Bay Packers?
Next year’s Packers are somewhat of a rare team in NFL history. They will become just the fifth team to follow up a season in which they won 15 regular season games and lost just one.
Four other teams went 15-1 in the regular season: The San Francisco 49ers in 1984, the Chicago Bears in 1985, the Minnesota Vikings in 1998 and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004.
Two teams—the 49ers in ’84 and Bears in ’85—won the Super Bowl during their 15-1 years, while the Vikings lost in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game and the Pittsburgh Steelers were beaten by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The Packers, of course, became the only team to ever lose their first playoff game during a 15-1 season when the New York Giants upset Green Bay at Lambeau Field last January.
What happened to those same four teams the next season? A mixed bag of results, albeit four other instances does leave us with a small sample size.
The 1985 49ers added a rookie receiver named Jerry Rice but struggled on the defensive side of the ball holding leads. San Francisco needed a two-game winning streak to finish 10-6 and sneak into the playoffs, where the New York Giants dismantled the 49ers, 17-3. Three years later, the 49ers would once again win the Super Bowl.
In 1986, the Bears followed up their 15-1 season with a 14-2 campaign. Led by a the game’s No. 1 defense—and one that actually gave up less than points than the ’85 defense—Chicago became a heavy favorite to win a second straight Super Bowl. But that same defense faltered in the divisional round of the playoffs, as the Washington Redskins scored 20 unanswered points to knock off Chicago by the final of 27-13. The Bears would win 24 regular season games over the next two seasons but their postseason struggles continued. By 1989, Chicago’s attempt at a dynasty was over.
A year after the Vikings’ heartbreaking loss to the Falcons, Minnesota rebounded from an early 2-4 start to qualify for the playoffs at 10-6. After beating the Dallas Cowboys at home, the Vikings ran into the buzzsaw that was the ’99 St. Louis Rams, who eventually went on to win the Super Bowl. The Rams scored 49 points to upend Minnesota in St. Louis, 49-37. The Vikings would have a 11-5 season the next year before falling off from the NFL’s top teams.
The one success story of post-15-1 seasons came from Pittsburgh, who finished 11-5 in 2005 but won four straight playoff games to become Super Bowl champions. 7-5 at one point, Pittsburgh rattled off eight straight wins overall. The Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10, in Super Bowl XL.
Here are other relevant stats and numbers from the four teams after 15-1 seasons:
- The combined regular season record of the four was 45-19, with each of the four cracking 10 wins the next season.
- No team missed the playoffs, but the results were relatively poor once there. If you take away the Steelers’ four wins in 2005, the three other post-15-1 teams went just 1-3. Overall, the four teams went 5-3.
- Three of the four teams gave up more points defensively the next season. Only the ’86 Bears gave up less the next season.
- Three of the four teams scored fewer points. Only the ’05 Steelers scored more.
- The turnover differentials for each team fell drastically in each follow up season. The 49ers went from +16 in ’84 to just +1 in ’85. The Bears were +23 in ’85 but even in ’86. The Vikings saw the biggest fall, from +14 in ’98 to -10 in ’99. And the Steelers went from +11 to +7.
What does history tell us about this year’s Packers, then?
1. There should be no worries about the 2012 Packers missing the playoffs. 10 wins is the likely basement amount for this team, just as long as the quarterback position stays healthy. But even Joe Montana, Jim McMahon and Ben Roethlisberger missed games in the season’s following a 15-1 campaign. Winning the division might not be a slam dunk, however, as just two of the four teams accomplished that (Bears, Steelers).
2. The offense may regress. But considering the 2011 Packers scored the second most points in NFL history, this might have been expected. While coach Mike McCarthy is on the record saying 35 points a game is the new standard, expecting that might be wishful thinking even for an offensive team this talented. Keep in mind: The 85′ 49ers featured Montana is his prime (29 years old), a new toy in Rice and even got the NFL’s first ever season of 1,000 yards rushing and receiving from Roger Craig. But that team went from 475 points to just 411 in 1985. Teams have had all spring to copy and piggyback what the Chiefs and Giants did to the Packers offense late in 2011.
3. Packers fans can only cross their fingers that a defensive regression doesn’t take place. But considering the 2011 Packers were far-and-away the worst defense of the five 15-1 teams, that scenario is not a big worry. Green Bay’s defense should be better in 2012 almost by default.
4. Turnovers will tell much of the story. The Packers were +24 in turnover differential last season, and they’ve been plus in that category for all but one season since McCarthy took over (Green Bay was even in 2006). A drop off is almost certain to happen, just as it did from 2009 to ’10, when the Packers were +24 but then dropped to +10. While no one is predicting a fall of 14, that drastic a drop off would be significant. Green Bay turned it over six times—including four in the loss to the Giants—during the final two contests after just 12 in the first 15 games.
5. Will any struggles in the postseason carry over for Green Bay? The 49ers and Bears began their playoff difficulties after their 15-1 seasons, as the two combined to go 1-6 in the postseason over the next three seasons. The Vikings went 2-2 over the next two seasons, but the icing on the cake was a 41-0 defeat to the New York Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship Game. Minnesota never recovered. The ’05 Steelers are the model for the ’12 Packers, however, as they turned their postseason difficulties during their 15-1 season into a four-game run to win it all the next.