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How does having the reigning Defensive Player of the Year factor into team success?

Will the hardware earned by T.J. Watt help rally the Steelers in 2022?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

On the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I answered a question in a comment from a previous BTSC article about how successful teams were when they had a player earn Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY). In answering the question, I took it a step further and looked at how teams did the following season after a player won the award.

While it could be beneficial to look specifically at T.J. Watt as the player who took home the DPOY honor, the bigger factor in professional football is always team success. So rather than look at how individual players performed the following season, I focused on how the teams fared and if they had a winning record, made the postseason, and how far they went in the playoffs.

Just to be thorough, when it came to looking at the Defensive Player of the Year, I went back all the way to 2011 which was the first season since a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers won the award when Troy Polamalu was DPOY in 2010. In those previous 10 seasons, the only time a player won defensive player of the year and did not qualify for the postseason was in 2014 when J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans won the second of his three awards. The Houston Texans were 9-7 but did not qualify for the postseason. Ironically, the following season in 2015 when J.J. Watt again won the award, the Texans were again 9–7 but qualified for the playoffs only to get bounced in the first round.

What is interesting about teams the year they have a player selected as Defensive Player of the Year, although they make the postseason thier success in the playoffs has been extremely limited. Including 2021 and T.J. Watt, teams who end up having the DPOY on their team have gone 5–10 in the postseason with six of those teams losing their first game. The only time in the last 10 seasons where a team had a player selected as Defensive Player of the Year and won multiple playoff games that same season was in 2018 when Aaron Donald and the Rams won two playoff games before falling in the Super Bowl.

All this information is good to know, but what does it tell us about the Pittsburgh Steelers going into 2022? For this, we need to look at how teams who have the reigning DPOY performed the following season. While the information is quite different, it is also quite scattered.

Of the previous 10 seasons, there have been four teams who have the reigning DPOY who did not qualify for the postseason. Of those four, three of them posted losing records the following season with the worst being the Houston Texans in 2013 going 2-14. The only team with the reigning DPOY who managed a winning record and did not make the postseason was the Los Angeles Rams in 2019 who went 9-7.

As for the six times a team with the reigning DPOY made the postseason, five of those teams won at least one game. The only exception was the 2015 Houston Texans which were mentioned previously. Of the other five teams, two went 1–1 and lost in the Divisional round in the 2014 Carolina Panthers and the 2016 Houston Texans. In all, the postseason record for the raining DPOY since 2011 stands at 12–4.

As for the other three teams, they all reached the Super Bowl. One team was already mentioned in the 2018 Los Angeles Rams who went 2-1 in the postseason after a 13–3 record in the regular season and lost in the Super Bowl. The other two teams just so happened to go 4–0 in the playoffs and were Super Bowl champions. They were the 2012 Baltimore Ravens and the 2021 Los Angeles Rams.

Do these examples mean that the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers are destined for greatness? Not necessarily. They could just as easily be the 2013 Houston Texans at 2–14, although they would have to be an extra game on one side of this record due to the 17-game season. But looking at the numbers, it just seemed interesting as to the wide range of how teams finished the following season after having someone named the top player on defense in the NFL.

For more information on the subject, as well as the top five statistics to look at when evaluating cornerbacks, check out the Steelers Stat Geek podcast below: