Quick Study: Do NFL Preseason Wins Mean Anything?

The four preseason games each NFL team contests every season are always a bizarre dance of competitiveness. On the one hand, the league does keep score and the players on the field are usually going all out.  On the other hand, a team’s key players may only be on the field for a half, a series, or (if you’re the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson) not at all.

Despite the lack of playing time for starters, though, one can build a logical case that a team’s preseason results still matter. A team with a good preseason record often had strong play from youngsters and backups, and those players will become more valuable as injuries mount and experience builds during the regular season. In addition, other facets of game play, such as coaching strategy or special teams, more closely emulate the regular season during these warm-up games, which could lend more meaning to preseason results.

Then again, there are also numerous examples of times when the preseason clearly serves as a poor proxy for future potential. Tom Brady wasn’t in the building during the Patriots football game this week; unless Brady goes down injured this year, it’s hard to draw any conclusions from how the Pats’ pass-heavy offense will fare based on that game. More famously in recent times, the 2008 Lions finished the preseason 4-0, then lost all 16 games they played in the regular season. Ouch.

Even though preseason pundits love to recall the 2008 Lions, one case like that doesn’t categorically discredit any relevance of the NFL preseason. So what’s the real answer?  We looked at data from the past seven seasons and answered three burning questions about what preseason success means.

Do Preseason Wins Correlate With This Year’s Regular Season Wins?

In short — NO. Our data shows no significant correlation between wins in the preseason and the regular season.  Your team went 4-0?  Too bad, it won’t help.  They started 0-4?  Don’t worry, it’s wiped clean. This doesn’t mean you can’t get excited about a rookie playing well, because that still can mean something. Just don’t put any stock into the wins and losses when you’re assessing your season win totals bets or Week 1 picks.

Do Preseason Wins Correlate With Next Year’s Regular Season Wins?

Play it again, Sam — NO. We investigated this question because we were curious if the promising young talent that evidences itself in helping win preseason games also bodes well for a team’s success a little farther in the future. Again, however, the answer is that there is no correlation. Young talent in the preseason may mean a bright future, but if so, it’s a more distant one.

Do Preseason Wins Correlate With Next Year’s Preseason Wins?

Funny enough…YES!  It’s a weak correlation but it’s still significant, and gives some insight into what preseason wins indicate. Preseason wins don’t mean a team is great, and they don’t mean a team will get better. They just mean that one side tends to put more effort into the win. The Colts and Chiefs haven’t averaged only one preseason win since 2005 because they’re bad; they’ve done so because of how they treat the preseason.  So if you’re team’s doing poorly in the preseason that’s unfortunate, but only if you’re a big fan of preseason football.

And before you say, “Duh, already could have guessed that,” just keep in mind that a startling amount of conventional wisdom about sports is easily proved wrong by the numbers, once a skilled analyst (and not your run of the mill TV sportscaster) digs into the data. In this case, the analysis confirms what most NFL fans probably think. There’s no signifiant correlation between a team’s preseason and regular season wins.