Why team chemistry is key to success in NFL and why it makes season predictions impossible

One of America’s favorite pastimes is making predictions for the upcoming NFL season. Everyone has an opinion and the average fan loves to compare his/her own picks to those of the experts.

It’s a fun exercise and one I’ve done since I was in elementary school. Some years I come off as a brilliant prognosticator and others it appears as though I’m totally clueless.

[Related: Complete 2014 NFL season preview]

Most people, especially the talking heads on TV, base their picks on factors such as talent, coaching and recent reputation. While all of those elements are important, my four years spent as an editor with NFL.com/NFL Network showed me what truly separates the good teams from the bad: chemistry.

And that’s why almost everyone’s annual season predictions are so flawed. It doesn’t matter if you are Peter King, Jimmy Johnson, Deion Sanders or the guy at Cash Saver’s deli counter; odds are you will miss on several of your picks.

Sometimes it’s obvious which teams have great chemistry. The Patriots almost always excel in this area due to the leadership of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Likewise, you rarely hear of any significant dissention on teams with Peyton Manning.

For just about every other team, however, it’s impossible to know how players are getting along behind closed doors. Even daily beat reporters have such limited access that unless a team is completely imploding like last year’s Redskins, it becomes difficult to gauge the crucial chemistry x-factor.

Team chemistry factors into every sport (which is why I was skeptical when the Oakland A’s made all those trades recently), but it takes on greater significance in the NFL for a variety of reasons. First of all, football requires more teamwork, cohesion and trust than just about any other sport. Once you get to the pro level, however, there are several more strains on chemistry than in high school or college.

Money, fame and scrutiny all increase exponentially in the NFL, making it that much harder for teams to develop those strong bonds vital to being successful. NFL players are also adults with families and life stresses that high school kids and college students don’t face. All of those things matter and make it a futile effort to try and guess how all the teams will perform in the upcoming season.

Every year provides examples of why team chemistry is so critical.

The 2012 Colts had one of the least skilled rosters in the entire NFL, but rallied around cancer-stricken coach Chuck Pagano and landed in the playoffs with 11 wins.

On the other hand, the 2013 Lions were loaded with top-level talent all across the field but were plagued by a series of off-field incidents and arrests and on-field issues with discipline and players doing their own thing. The result: a late-season collapse and missed opportunity to claim a wide-open NFC North.

A lack of chemistry also explains why the Cowboys have disappointed for so many years despite having considerable talent. If it’s not players having run-ins with the law, it’s players getting in visible arguments with coaches and themselves on the sidelines or criticizing each other in the media.

So with all that in mind, I’ve still spent a lot of time having a blast making my 2014 NFL season predictions, even if I know they are bound to be full of wrong picks.

There are two surprise picks I feel pretty confident in, though. The 49ers had so much turmoil in the offseason and drama in the preseason that it would be shocking if they have good enough team chemistry to make serious noise. I expect them to surprise many and miss the playoffs. Likewise, I think the Redskins will benefit greatly from being rid of the Shanahan-RG3 soap opera and will be a threat in the NFC East.

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