In 2012, according to Football Outsiders, the Eagles ranked 25th in offensive DVOA, 26th in defensive DVOA, and 23rd in special teams DVOA. That's remarkably bad. Some people, like Brent Cohen, have projected a big turnaround for the team this year that leans heavily on wishful thinking, Chip Kelly instant results, and large regressions to the mean.
I wanted to try to figure out what the chances of such a rebound season are, so I went through the Football Outsider archives and looked at every squad that, like the 2012 Eagles, finished 20th or worse in both offensive and defensive DVOA. Taking the overall adjusted DVOA for all 113 teams, I recorded how much it changed the next season.
What I found is that most of those teams did, unsurprisingly, improve. In fact, 79.6% of all teams in this group had better DVOA scores in year N+1, and 57.5% improved by at least 10 percentage points. The average delta was +11.9%.
This makes sense. Teams sink to the bottom of the heap for all sorts of reasons, including poor coaching, quarterback play, defensive failures, injuries, turnovers, and more. The Eagles had all of that. Just keeping the offensive line healthy, improving the defensive tackle rate, and recovering a few more fumbles should help this team get better. But the 2012 Eagles ranked 28th in overall team DVOA, at -22.4%. A +11.9% bump is average among the set I examined, but that only gets you to -10.5% -- good enough for a mere 25th place and only 6-7 mean wins on Football Outsiders' 2013 projections.
So if this year's Eagles improve at the average of their predecessor bad teams, we're still looking at a subpar squad. It's possible they improve more, though. 26.5% of all teams I looked at increased their DVOA by at least 20 percentage points. Beyond that, only 8.8% of teams jumped by 30 percentage points or more. That means there's approximately a 1/4 chance that the Eagles get back to what is essentially league-average form and less than 1/10 chance the team approaches the land of the top 10-15 NFL teams.
You can find hope or despair in these numbers. A (minority) chance to rebound to league average is appealing to root for on its own, although there's almost as large of a chance that the team's performance actually declines.
My takeaway is that improvement is likely, but a big swing isn't -- and that shouldn't be surprising. This is a long term rebuilding process, as Jeff Lurie indicated in his interview this Sunday with Zach Berman:
"I just think it's not in wins and losses... It's absolutely instilling a culture in the program that he brings to it, a sense of preparedness, a pride in being the best you can be for the fans and the team, and winning every day - winning the day, each day. And whatever happens, happens."
The Eagles probably won't win tonight in Kelly's debut. Nor are they likely to win many games the rest of the season. Lurie knows what's important is establishing a foundation for success going forward, the way Andy Reid did in 1999.
I don't remember much about the 1998 season (seeing as I was only 10 at the time), but the year the wheels came off the Ray Rhodes express was about as pretty as 2012. The 3-13 record reflected a horrible quarterback trio and 25th-or-worst DVOA ranks in all three phases.
Reid wasn't going to turn that mess around immediately. In 1999 he improved the team's overall DVOA +23.6% (from -34.6% to -11%). That's in the 23rd percentile of best turnarounds in the aforementioned group. The result was only a modest increase in wins, a 5-11 record -- but it laid the building blocks for what was to come.
With the important exception that the team doesn't have a quarterback of the future yet, 2013 is shaping up to be 1999 all over again, or at least I hope it does. Because wins matter much less today than that the losses fuel wins tomorrow.