Is this an AFL season without terrible teams?

Last week we focused on the possibility that a lead group of between three and five teams was already separating itself from the pack. This week we want to look at the rest of the competition. There’s an evenness becoming evident this year, with a lot of ordinary sides, some of whom will make finals. Even the bottom teams don’t look as bad as the worst teams from many previous years. At this stage, there’s nobody who stands out as being abjectly terrible. There’s nobody currently rating as relatively lowly as the Bombers last year, the early years of GWS, or the hapless Melbourne sides of a few years ago. Subjectively, every bottom side has certainly shown patches of decent footy.

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This isn’t to say that nobody will implode or start truly tanking. The season is long, and there’s always the possibility that one or more of the current battlers go backwards from here. Alternatively, it could tighten up – but it’s worth noting that Essendon (the worst team last year) finished up at a rating of 86% after hovering around the 83%-86% mark all year. That 86% mark was good enough to be among the ten worst team-seasons since 1997.

The middle pack

With Melbourne still looking above-average, the six teams below them continue to jostle and perhaps to separate a touch from the lower group. Collingwood (up 4 places) and North Melbourne (down 4) were the biggest movers, but really, the spread between West Coast (99.9%) and Fremantle (97%) is very small.

None of these teams look brilliant and we can point to flaws in all of them just with a glance at the red and orange cells representing their Midfield, Offensive or Defensive strengths. However, this group logically has to produce finalists, and we have no idea if anyone is going to step up. If not, two of them will stumble into September regardless. This could potentially be a season with a finalist with 11 or less wins, if results break the right (or wrong) way.

Looking further back, we see Essendon, Gold Coast and Sydney slipping back a touch. This maybe suggests that Essendon are about as good as they were in 2015, before their players weer banned. The Swans, amusingly, rise a spot in the ratings despite probably watching their hopes of a quick recovery go up in flames over the weekend, and in spite of their actual figure itself moving backwards. The Swans benefited from Gold Coast slumping a touch more, the swap is largely reflective of changes to the grading of their past opponents. Gold Coast have played Hawthorn and Brisbane who had bad weeks, whilst Sydney have Collingwood, West Coast and the Bulldogs in their history.

But about the Crows…

We do need to look at the top as well, because the Crows can’t be ignored. This time last year, this rating system had the eventual preliminary finalists as a top 4. This includes the Bulldogs, though they did drop off later in the regular season for us, replaced by Adelaide. A word of caution – Geelong briefly looked nearly as good as Adelaide does now in ratings terms after Round 8 last year, but that slumped back to the pack pretty quickly. Samples are still somewhat small at this stage.

Richmond’s previously league-best adjusted defensive strength rating took a relative battering under bombardment from Adelaide’s historic offence and midfield. Hilariously, though, Richmond weren’t disgraced in their twelve goal loss to Adelaide, and only suffered a modest downgrade with no loss of relative position to the competition, still sitting 5th overall and presenting as a probable finalist. The story here is not Richmond, but rather that Adelaide’s performance continues to be stratospheric.

The challenge for the Crows will be maintaining it, but the season they’ve produced so far is a truly rare vein of form, including against good opposition. The Crows have played our current 2nd, 3rd, 5th best teams as well as 13th, 15th and 18th – a slightly above average set of opponents overall, especially considering that they couldn’t play themselves. We want to stress that this isn’t like North Melbourne’s false run at the top of the ladder last year, our system never really rated North. When they were 9-0 last year, North looked about 5th best on raw strength ratings and 8th best with scaling for opposition strength. If the back end of the ladder looks happier than recent seasons, the Crows are currently out on their own at the top.

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