Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
29 Nov 2005
by Ned Macey
After an off-season trade for Randy Moss and the signing of LaMont Jordan, the Raiders were supposed to be a dominant offense. Fantasy owners had visions of 34-31 shootouts with huge numbers posted by Oakland's talented skill players. But in Oakland's loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, it was the unheralded playmakers from Miami who looked like they are a quarterback away from establishing a dynamic offense.
The addition of Moss and Jordan seemed a perfect fit for Norv Turner's offense. Turner likes to emphasize a punishing ground attack with a vertical passing game capable of big plays. Kerry Collins seemed like an ideal quarterback because he is proficient in play action and has a strong arm. The failure to run underneath routes, however, has rendered the system ineffective, and Collins is killing the team with his propensity for turnovers.
The Raiders feature three talented receivers in Moss, Jerry Porter, and Doug Gabriel. When they catch the ball, they are providing big plays. Moss has his highest yards per catch average since 2000. Porter is averaging an impressive 14.4 yards per reception, and Gabriel is even better at 17.0 yards per reception. The problem is that they are rarely catching the ball. Only Porter is catching even half of the passes intended for him, and he is only hauling in 53 percent of those passes.
Oakland's passing efficiency problem was clearly visible on Sunday. Collins padded his completion percentage with throws to Jordan and tight end Courtney Anderson. For the game, Collins completed 13 of 18 passes to running backs or tight ends. He completed only eight of 19 when throwing to wide receivers, and both of his interceptions were on passes intended for wideouts.
Collins' poor passing performance was particularly problematic because the Dolphins' biggest defensive weakness is in the secondary. Coming into the game, the Dolphins ranked sixth against the run but 21st against the pass in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings (which are explained in detail here). They have been particularly poor defending opponents' number one receivers, which makes the poor showing of Moss all the more troubling. In Moss' defense, he has been battling injuries, but he should never be so ineffective against a suspect secondary. Through three quarters he caught only one ball, and in the fourth he added just two catches for 10 yards.
Lost amid Oakland's high-profile skill player acquisitions was the rather pedestrian Raiders offensive line. The Dolphins pressured Collins relentlessly, registering seven sacks including a safety. Barry Sims, a stalwart on the Super Bowl team of 2002, was consistently abused by Jason Taylor. Collins has never been the most mobile quarterback â€“ his 17-yard touchdown run on Sunday was a rare sight â€“ and with so many deep routes, he is holding the ball more than ever. Collins has now gone down 29 times, third most in the league. As a result, Collins has fumbled 10 times on the season, including twice on Sunday.
The rumors about Norv Turner's job are starting to circulate. While the Raiders were a flawed team to begin with, the offense is not performing like most people expected. Turner's entire reputation is based upon his skill as an offensive mastermind, but despite their abundant talent the Raiders are not even among the ten best offenses in football.
By DVOA, the Raiders offense ranks 11th overall, the worst offense in their admittedly powerful division. With the known question marks on defense, this offense could not afford to be only a shade above average. For the season, the Raiders have scored more than 23 points only twice and have been held under 20 six separate times.
The Raiders offensive failings were so obvious on Sunday in part because of the solid play from a Miami offense that was shut out in Cleveland the week before. Coming into the game, the Miami offense ranked 27th in the league in DVOA. The Dolphins achieved their poor ranking in large part because of their 27th ranked pass offense, which dragged down a decent run offense that ranked 13th. Oakland seemed like a particularly poor matchup for Miami because it features a strong rush defense and a terrible pass defense.
But Oakland's pass defense allowed even Gus Frerotte to achieve success. Frerotte has been a complete disaster at quarterback, ranking 30th in DVOA among quarterbacks who have thrown 80 passes. On Sunday, he showed what solid quarterback play could do for the Dolphins, completing 18 of 31 passes for 261 yards. Also, despite being sacked three times, he managed to hold onto the ball. Ball security had been a problem for Frerotte, who had fumbled 10 times coming into the game.
What is unfortunate about Frerotte's general struggles is that the Dolphins actually have decent offensive weapons. On Sunday, they committed to throwing to Chris Chambers and Randy McMichael, and the two combined for 10 catches for 160 yards. Despite obvious talent, Chambers and McMichael have been among the least productive players at their positions. Chambers has always caught a low percentage of passes because of poor Miami quarterbacking, but this year he's catching only 44 percent of the passes intended for him (down from 50 percent over the last three seasons). McMichael is catching only 56 percent of passes, low for a tight end, and the passes he catches are of little value. Barely half of his receptions have netted first downs.
Until Sunday, the inefficient Frerotte had failed to capitalize on the reliable ground game the Dolphins have developed. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams have formed a nice duo, deployed effectively behind an average offensive line. Despite sharing carries with Williams, Brown ranks 13th in the league in DPAR (Defense-adjusted Points Over Replacement), an addititve stat that tends to increase with more carries.
On Sunday, Brown had issues with ball security, fumbling twice. With Brown putting the ball on the ground, Williams stepped in to have his second consecutive strong game, gaining 82 yards on 16 carries. After a slow start, Williams has gained 312 yards on 67 carries over the last five weeks. Running back committees are emerging all over the league, and the Dolphins have the potential to have one of the best.
Ricky's aborted retirement had as much to do with consecutive seasons of over 380 carries as his desire to study holistic medicine. The 383 carries he had in 2002 limited his effectiveness in 2003; decreasing his workload by splitting carries with Brown will prolong his career and increase both players' value.
Neither of these teams is going to make a playoff run, no matter how often Dolphins players note that they are only two games out of first place. Going into the season, however, the Raiders harbored legitimate playoff goals thanks to their high-profile additions. Most pundits assumed that if the Raiders could play average defense, they would have a shot, even in the highly competitive AFC West. In fact, Oakland's defense is only slightly below average, with a DVOA of 0.9 percent. But an offense that is far from dominant is preventing them from keeping up with the Chiefs or Chargers, two teams whose truly powerful offenses overcome unreliable defenses.
In Miami, they are never going to make the playoffs unless they can get a consistent quarterback. The Dolphins have either won or been within a touchdown of winning every time Frerotte has completed 50 percent of his passes. Unfortunately, that has only happened in six of 11 games. They managed to win one of the other five games -- but were beaten soundly in the other four.
The Dolphins have an above-average defense and an adequate running game. But since neither unit is dominant â€“ like the Bears defense or the Atlanta running game â€“ the Dolphins need at least average quarterback play to contend. On Sunday, Frerotte delivered that against a suspect Raiders defense, and the Dolphins won. Nobody thinks he can do it consistently, and filling the hole at quarterback will be Miami's primary task this off-season.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game. On Tuesday morning, DVOA stats may link to tables not yet updated for the current week.
37 comments, Last at 02 Dec 2005, 5:52pm by Ryan Carney