CFL Pass

And now, the history of going first to worst in the CFL

Last time, we took a look at CFL teams going from worst to first in their division (and there has been an addition to the article: The 1985-1986 Argos were not included in the initial draft. There is also an explanation of my methods in that piece as well), so this time, let’s take a look at teams going from first to worst in their division.

The 1972-1973 Winnipeg Blue Bombers
1972 Record: 10-6
1972 Pythagorean Record: 11-5
1973 Record: 4-11-1
1973 Pythagorean Record: 6-10
This one sticks out to me as the only freefall of its kind, with the Bombers going from first to fifth in a five-team West. The Bombers also fell from first in 1994 to fifth in ‘95, but, as you’ll see more in future articles, 1995 was quite an anomaly. Fifth in the ‘95 North division was actually in the middle of the pack, as all eight extant Canadian teams (minus Montreal at that point) were in the same division in 1995.

This team was a bit unlucky in their first-place season in 1972, according to their Pythagorean expectation, but was even unluckier the next season, and that, along with the Calgary Stampeders getting well more breaks, statistically speaking, put the Bombers at the bottom of the West, even though they outscored Calgary by over 50 points and gave up over 50 points fewer than Calgary!

A rough year for Don Jonas and the loss of Mack Herron to the NFL sent the offense spiraling downward that season, but the defense nearly matched their point total from 1972, giving up only 15 more points.

The 1959-1960 Hamilton Tiger-Cats
1959 Record: 10-4
1959 Pythagorean Record: 12-2
1960 Record: 4-10
1960 Pythagorean Record: 4-10
I mentioned this team briefly in my worst-to-first article, as Hamilton went from last in 1960 to first in ‘61, but let me point out how much of an anomaly the 1960 season was for Hamilton. The Tiger-Cats finished first every year from 1957 to ‘65 except for 1960, and was in the Grey Cup every season as well! They finished no worse than second from 1950 to ‘67, and wouldn’t see fourth place again until 1973, which we’ll get to in a moment.

I haven’t found much to explain the specific reasoning behind the fall from grace in 1960, except for the cold hard statistical reality of going from 162 points allowed in 1959 to 377 points against in ‘60. That indicates to me that there was some sort of issue on the defensive side of the ball that season, be it injuries, coaching, or both, but there’s really not much out there that I could find to give me specifics.

The 1972-1973 Hamilton Tiger-Cats
1972 Record: 11-3
1972 Pythagorean Record: 10-4
1973 Record: 7-7
1973 Pythagorean Record: 8-5-1
This is a weird one. 1973 was a bit of a fluke, as the East was very tight that year, and Hamilton’s 7-7 record was only good for 4th place, while Ottawa won the division at 9-5, with Toronto finishing 7-5-2 and Montreal finished 7-6-1. It’s one of the very few years (if there are even any others like it) where the East 4th place team would have “crossed over” to the West, had the concept existed at the time. Hamilton also didn’t seem to do much worse than the previous year, but luck was clearly not on Hamilton’s side in 1973.

The 1989-1990 Hamilton Tiger-Cats
1989 Record: 12-6
1989 Pythagorean Record: 9-9
1990 Record: 6-12
1990 Pythagorean Record: 6-12
Hamilton went from a year where (almost) everything went right to a season where their already questionable defense (ranked 5th in points allowed in 1989) became a complete liability, giving up a massive 628 points, and while the offense put up 476 of their own, that was only good for seventh in the league (the Grey Cup champion Bombers put up four fewer points to finish last in the league in points scored, but allowed over 100 points less than their next closest competitor), and not nearly enough to make up for their defensive deficiencies.

The 1969-1970 Ottawa Rough Riders
1969 Record: 11-3
1969 Pythagorean Record: 9-4-1
1970 Record: 4-10
1970 Pythagorean Record: 6-8
Losing a legend like Russ Jackson will do bad things to a team. Losing a legendary head coach in Frank Clair at the same time will also do a number on things. Losing them at the same time, as well as losing leading rusher Vic Washington to BC? I think we’ve found our explanation for this one.

The 1971-1972 Toronto Argonauts
1971 Record: 10-4
1971 Pythagorean Record: 8-5-1
1972 Record: 3-11
1972 Pythagorean Record: 5-8-1
A classic example of a statistically lucky team going to the other extreme the next season. The Argos couldn’t catch a break in 1972. After coming just yards short of a Grey Cup championship in 1971, an injury to starting quarterback Joe Theismann and losses in 5 of the 6 games they played in which the winning margin was less than a converted touchdown sent the Argos back to the bottom of the league, a space reserved for them for most of the 60s and 70s.

The 1984-1985 Toronto Argonauts
1984 Record: 9-6-1
1984 Pythagorean Record: 10-5-1
1985 Record: 6-10
1985 Pythagorean Record: 6-9-1

This is another instance of a team riding a high hitting a pothole, much like the 1960 Tiger-Cats. 1984 was the last year of the Condredge Holloway-Joe Barnes carousel which had worked so well, and ‘85 saw five different quarterbacks throw at least 30 passes, and no player carrying the ball more than 52 times. This was the only year between 1982 and ‘88 when the Argos didn’t score more than 400 points. They’d rebound the next year to go back to first place, but I’ve already covered that elsewhere.

The 1991-1992 Toronto Argonauts
1991 Record: 13-5
1991 Pythagorean Record: 11-6-1
1992 Record: 6-12
1992 Pythagorean Record: 7-10-1
This was the year the Rocket burned out. After a dynamic offense in 1991 with the addition of the potential #1 overall NFL draft pick in Rocket Ismail, the team crashed down to Earth in ‘92. Matt Dunigan hadn’t played all that much in 1991 due to injury, but his loss to Winnipeg in ‘92 left the team in the hands of Rickey Foggie, who had replaced Dunigan for most of ‘91 as well. The team took a step back in 1992, as financial woes, an unhappy Rocket, and yet another team going from getting a boost from luck one year going to the other extreme the next.

With the exception of the 1972-73 Bombers, the rest of the teams going from first to worst all resided in the East. This makes a ton of sense, since it’s easier to fall from first to fourth than from first to fifth, although even in years where there were only four teams in the West, no one else fell victim to that kind of fall.

Removing 1995 from the equation (as there were North and South divisions rather than East and West divisions), teams in the West have historically had a 1 in 61 chance (1.6%) of going from first to worst, and teams in the East have had a 7 in 61 chance (11.5%). Overall, teams finishing first in the league have had an 8 in 124 chance (6.5%) of going from first to worst. This is only slightly higher than the chances of going from worst to first.

There seems to be less in common between the teams that have gone from first to worst than those going vice versa. Aside from the Eastern connection, I couldn’t find much of a link between these teams, besides, of course, falling short of or matching their Pythagorean expectation, rounded to the nearest win total, in the season they fell short.

At this point, we know that the extremes of first-to-worst or worst-to-first are rather unusual, to say the least. What about the other places in the standings? Sounds like I have some more work to do! 

– written by Joe Pritchard