The simple maths problem that will define the AFL in 2017

Ryan Buckland Columnist

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Fremantle are due a big bounce-back season. (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

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And we’re back! The 2017 AFL season is 71 days away, so it’s the time of year when predictions are flying left, right and centre. Here are some early thoughts, with a simple maths problem at their core.

The simple maths problem is as follows. There are 198 wins to go around 18 AFL clubs in any given year. Last year, Fremantle and Essendon, experiencing extraordinary years for different reasons, racked up four and three wins respectively. That left 191 for the other 16 teams.

And, like that, the Western Bulldogs win the 2016 premiership.

Okay, it’s more complicated than that. But bear with me.

If betting markets are rational, and the over/under projections of one prominent book are accurate, Fremantle and Essendon will increase their combined win total from seven to 22. The Dockers’ over/under is set at 10.5 and the Bombers’ at 11.5. Those are real numbers.

We’re left with 22 (projected wins of Essendon and Fremantle) plus 191 (wins of the 16 other teams in 2016) equals 213, which is 15 more wins than there are to go around the 18 team competition.

Either the market is right, and there’s going to be some dramatic changes, or the market is wrong and something like status quo will reign. Really, it’s probably somewhere in the middle.

Regardless, history shows two bad teams tripling their prior-year win totals in a single season is rare. In 2004, the 7.5-win (prior year) Geelong Cats and five-win Melbourne Demons increased their win totals by 7.5 and nine, respectively, but from higher bases. 2007 was a crazy year, with 71 wins out of a total of 176 changing hands from the year prior – four teams increased their win total by six or more wins, at the expense of a broad swathe of clubs dropping a couple of wins each. The aftermath of West Coast’s cocaine club cleanout produced a couple of malleable years: the Eagles collapsing from 15 wins to four in 2008, only to bounce back and then some in 2011 (four wins to 17).

Watching a bad side become a decent side in the space of a year is not a regular thing. But, 2017 might not be a regular year – at least not when it comes to these two sides.

Joe Daniher Brendon Goddard AFL Essendon Bombers 2016 tall
Essendon’s 2016 year was the definition of irregular; the AFL had to change the rules to allow the Bombers to compete. On that alone, a snap back to reality might be in prospect.

From here though, there are far too many questions to be answered about the Bombers to predict a borderline winning season with any confidence.

The return of Dyson Heppell, Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley mean the Dons regain three of the top 50 players in the competition, and some more-than-handy pieces in the remainder of the cohort. Add them to the pieces like Zach Merrett, Joe Dahiner, Darcy Parish and David Zaharakis, and all of a sudden, something’s there that wasn’t before.

The Dons have the list profile of a premiership contender – no, really, they’re the fifth oldest and fifth most experienced team. But unlike other teams with their level of experience, Essendon have none of the continuity. Is that enough to treble their win total in a single year?

The Dockers were in a similar twilight zone in 2016, albeit one driven by injury and absence rather than supranational anti-doping penalties. In this respect, Fremantle face similar questions coming into the 2017 year, with a host of star players returning and a motley crew of new additions. Their demographics are remarkably mixed heading into the year. The Dockers have a league-high nine players aged 29 or older at Round 1 in their squad, but are bereft of ‘prime age’, guys aged 24 to 29 (nine, a league low). The building blocks are all in the tier below: 17 players aged 21 to 24, and the group that Fremantle added four players to in last year’s trade period. The Dockers aren’t going to be a great team right away, but are they going to be a middling one?

Where are those 15 extra wins going to come from? The questions are challenging and numerous. Even if you don’t rate the chances of these two teams, the potential warping of win totals is a fun lens to view the upcoming season through.

Besides, the past two years of jockeying and trading and scheming have been leading up to this moment. Almost every team is geared to win now. The 2017 AFL season is going to be lit.

Of last year’s finalists, North Melbourne and Hawthorn look the most vulnerable. The Roos delisted half an average AFL team worth of experience – from a loaded position, yes, but 1717 AFL games is 78 home-and-away seasons.

Hawthorn traded out their heart (Sam Mitchell) and soul (Jordan Lewis), in an effort to stave off father time. Add Bradley Hill to the list, and it emerges the Hawks shipped off 666 games of experience to the rest of the competition. Maybe we shouldn’t be down on them, there could be black magic at work. That’ll fix Jaeger O’Meara’s knee.

What to make of the Western Bulldogs? From the early part of the season, it was clear they were competing with a sub-optimal list situation due to injury – yet they won the flag from seventh position. Are we sure they’re good? Are we sure they’re not good? More questions loom than we can contemplate now.

Geelong retooled a little in the off season, although their biggest holes remain: midfield depth and forward line talent. The pieces the Cats have added are all interesting, like last year, and we will take some time putting the puzzle together before Round 1. Right now, our working assumption must be that Patrick Dangerfield – 35-Brownlow-medal-vote Patrick Dangerfield – regresses a little from his historic season. Will he and captain Joel Selwood back up their herculean 2016s?

Patrick Dangerfield Geelong Cats AFL Brownlow Medal 2016

Are West Coast going to be as good with a Jonathon Giles-Nathan Vardy duo in the ruck as they were with Nic Naitanui-Scott Lycett? While Lycett might be fit in time for Round 1, his lack of a pre-season is concerning.

Wait, what am I talking about? The Eagles are the only team with two current Brownlow medallists on their list, and they belong together in a skills sense like gin and tonic.

Adelaide did nothing – okay, practically nothing – to get better in the off season. But are they already good enough? All I know is my gut says maybe. The Crows got one excellent player out of the Crouch brothers last season, and they’d be hoping to double up in 2017. If they do, everything else is looking neat, including their fixture.

In a lovely piece of symmetry, the Hawks and Swans have both won 50 home-and-away games since Lance Franklin moved north as a free agent. Both have played in two grand finals, with Hawthorn winning two flags to Sydney’s zero. We took a long look at who is winning the Lance Franklin deal late last year, finding at this early stage everyone is doing just fine. Like the Crows, Sydney will hit March 23 with their team mostly intact, albeit with some changes in role for a handful of players. They will enter the year full of confidence.

Speaking of confidence, the Giants are the darling of the markets. The expansion side, who expanded their mature-age contingent once again this off-season with the addition of Brett Deledio, have the highest projected win total among the sharps (14.5 wins), and are the shortest price for the premiership ($4). The Greater Western Sydney best 22 looks frightening, with their draftee core surrounded by excellent pedigree veterans on every line. They are going to be a fun watch all season. Trust me.

All four clubs that finished between ninth and 12th on the ladder will harbour genuine ambitions to play in September in 2017. They are realistic ambitions, too. The Saints, Power, Demons and Pies have been building deliberately for the next two or three years – St Kilda joined the near-term riser club after last year’s outperformance. Questions abound, and jobs are on the line.

Richmond have as many questions as any side, after last year’s debacle. The loss of Chris Yarran will rob the Tigers of a boost to the area of the ground where they most need it, although that is hardly where the problems begin. As 2016 progressed, it became crystal clear that Richmond’s strategy was in need of a complete overhaul. They missed the invitation to the pace and space party, doubling down on ball control without the playing stocks. Confused? We’re not the only ones.

Their Round 1 opponents, Carlton, look to have bitten the youth-movement bullet. Another trip to Western Sydney during a curbside collection, and the discard of a few more veterans, means the Blues enter the 2017 season with their youngest list since the pre-Mick Malthouse era. Their aggregate experience level is 17th in the competition – ahead of only Brisbane. The rebuild kicks up a gear this season. Brendon Bolton will still find some wins, though.

And then we’re left with the bottom four. The Dockers and Dons are predicted to surge, leaving the poor, downtrodden Queensland sides to pick up the scraps.

Gold Coast hit the reset button, their only real strategic move. There’s plenty to like at the Suns but, like the Dons, there is a ton of uncertainty driven by the newness of the situation – the Suns have nine new players brought in via trade, free agency or the first round of the draft. More than anything, the Suns will be hoping their new crop of draftees are durable; ability to avoid injury simply had to be the number one attribute on Gold Coast’s draft board.

Brisbane, by contrast, have a leave pass this season, with a new coach – the latest graduate of the Alastair Clarkson Coaching Academy, albeit leaving with a BCom rather than a BA – and by far the youngest and least experienced list in the competition. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned if the Lions go 0-22, or shouldn’t care about them at all. It is to say that the media scrutiny dial should be wound down to a two or three rather than a nine or ten. Besides, the Lions are intriguing.

Off the field, the albatross hanging around the league’s neck is the continued glacial pace of collective bargaining agreement negotiations. In February last year, I wrote the CBA is the second most important document in the game – behind the Laws of the Game itself – given it governs almost everything that isn’t the rules themselves. That we’re sitting here, in the middle of January of the following year, with no agreement suggests trouble.

The impact of the AFL’s new financial model, including the ownership of Etihad Stadium, will be felt in 2017. We don’t know the model yet, and I’m not holding my breath, but like the CBA this is remarkably impactful. Although, the Western Bulldogs were one of the teams hamstrung by the poor returns of playing under the dome, and they just won a premiership, so…

There’s plenty of time for those geeky things in the weeks and months ahead. Football’s back, and there’s a whole heap to get to in the next 71 days. Let’s do it.

Ryan Buckland
Ryan Buckland

As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.

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