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?
14 Nov 2006
by Ned Macey
Two weeks ago, the Falcons were 5-2 and coming off consecutive wins over 2005 playoff participants in which Mike Vick starred. They faced upcoming games against the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, who had a combined three wins. Two weeks and two losses later, the Falcons are falling apart. Cleveland is still rebuilding, but they have won two out of three, and only one of their six losses has come by more than a touchdown. The defense is developing, and they just need a quarterback to make them a playoff contender.
Vick is a lighting-rod, a player whose unique set of talents makes him difficult to evaluate. Football Outsiders' advanced statistics can certainly measure the relative success of both his running and passing plays. Vick's combined passing and rushing ability have him firmly established as a legitimate NFL starter but hardly one of the game's best players. Our similarity scores suggested that Vick could still develop into a legit passer, like similar players Steve McNair and Steve Young, but as Aaron Schatz points out over on the FO FOX blog, things aren't looking optimistic right now.
Admittedly, these numbers exclude two important aspects of measuring Vick's output. First, they cannot take into account how his presence frees up his running backs. This impact is likely very real but overstated by Vick's supporters.
More importantly, it does not account for a very pedestrian receiving corps. Despite numerous investments in draft picks, the wide receivers are among the worst in the league. Admittedly, Vick has a propensity to stare down receivers, but he is not having trouble with safety help. His receivers cannot get separation in single coverage, and Vick lacks the ability to consistently fit the ball into tight spaces. Both of his interceptions came on balls where his intended target had one-on-one coverage and the defender made a better play on the ball. The pre-season loss of Brian Finneran, Vick's most consistent wide receiver, is holding back the offense.
The NFL media propagates an absurd notion that certain quarterbacks are "winners," and this notion led to a certain deification of Vick following the 2004 season. At that point, the Falcons had made the playoffs in both of his full seasons as a quarterback. In 2002, he was outstanding according to our advanced metrics. In 2004, he had a J.P. Losmanesque season but was bailed out by good teammates, some good fortune, and an easy schedule.
Two years later, Vick has improved from his 2004 level but failed to recapture the magic of 2002. Meanwhile, the team around him has regressed, and the NFC has improved. The Falcons will need Vick to be one of the ten best quarterbacks in football to make it to the playoffs, and unfortunately, he spent the past two weeks proving he was not up to the task. His two breakout performances gave Atlanta narrow wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, two teams who are a combined 7-11.
On Sunday, Vick was far from his best. He completed less than half his passes, threw two interceptions, and fumbled the ball away on a potential game-winning drive. The rest of the team did not have enough talent to overcome an inferior opponent without Vick on top of his game.
The Falcons have been remarkably consistent in the Jim Mora era. Their overall DVOA has been -2.7%, -3.5%, and -7.7%. Vick's struggles were their problem in 2004. In 2005, it was a defense with a DVOA of 10.9%, 28th in the league. This year, Vick is playing worse than a year ago, and the team is getting killed by its special teams. The good news is that much of this is the result of the Michael Koenen as place kicker experiment, a mistake that has been remedied.
A more troubling development for the future of this year's team is the decline of the running game. The Falcons started the year with a spread option look that confounded opponents. Since the offense got on tape, however, defenses have adapted, and the running game has been slowed.
Starting with the New Orleans game in Week 3, Warrick Dunn has been a non-factor. He has averaged less than four yards per carry in five out of seven games, including a 21 carry, 73 yard performance on Sunday. The only recent game he impacted was against the Giants when he broke a 90-yard TD run. A season ago, he only ran for less than four yards per carry twice in 16 games a season ago.
Jerious Norwood, the impressive rookie averaging 6.8 yards per carry in a reserve role, was inactive with a knee injury. Given Dunn's age and Norwood's superior production, it is legitimate to question if Dunn's toughest opponent is Father Time.
Meanwhile the rebuilt defense is losing players left and right. Big-time acquisition John Abraham remains fragile and has only played two games. Ed Hartwell, last season's major acquisition, has also played only twice. Cornerbacks Jason Webster and Jimmy Williams missed Sunday's game, and even stalwart defensive end Patrick Kerney was lost for the season on Sunday with a torn pectoral muscle. Current information has Hartwell, Abraham, Webster, and Williams all returning in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, the Falcons are slipping out of the playoff race and need them now.
The Falcons' depleted defense did not cost them on Sunday, as the Browns managed only 17 points. That may be all you need to know about the Browns offense. Charlie Frye still can hide behind the "young quarterback" tag for another year or so, but he is inaccurate, prone to mistakes, and on the Joey Harrington career path. The seeming blind faith in such an unproven commodity by the Cleveland front office is mind-boggling.
Is it possible that Frye could mature into a capable game-manager? Anything is possible, and Frye shows flashes of potential. Those flashes are far outweighed by bad plays that have made him one of the least valuable quarterbacks for two consecutive seasons.
One reason for optimism is that the Browns are starting to deploy some decent receiving talent. Kellen Winslow, Jr. has fought his way back from a knee injury and is one of the most productive tight ends in football. He made a pair of outstanding catches on Sunday. Braylon Edwards is not all the way back from his knee injury and drops too many balls, but he definitely has big-play ability. He scored a touchdown and was missed by Frye on a potential huge play on Sunday. Injuries to Joe Jurevicius have left the team hampered a bit, but the receiving talent is definitely good enough for an average passing game.
Frye is not helped by a running game that is completely inept. The line was overpowered routinely by the Falcons on Sunday. Reuben Droughns is a tough runner, but that does not mean he is good. On Sunday, it was 54 yards on 21 carries, and he has averaged four yards per carry just once all season.
What success the Browns have had this year is mostly attributable to their defense. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, is it possible that, on the defensive side of the ball, Romeo Crennel misses Bill Belichick less than Belichick misses Crennel? The Browns defense is statistically equivalent to the Patriots this season and was better a year ago. In 2004, Crennel's last year in New England, the Patriots ranked 6th in DVOA defense while the Browns ranked 23rd.
Injuries are to blame for some of the Patriots problems, but the Browns are not exactly healthy. Sunday's game was vintage 2004 Patriots. Down Leigh Bodden, Gary Baxter, and Daylon McCutcheon, their pre-season top three cornerbacks, the pass defense excelled with Daven Holly, Ralph Brown, and Jereme Perry. What, no Earthwind Moreland? Safeties BrodneyPool and Brian Russell both had strong games and protected the untested cornerbacks.
The defense does have talent, and like any good Belichick-tree defense, much is in the linebacking corps. Andra Davis and Kamerion Wimbley are a menace to copy editors and opposing offenses alike. They were all over the field on Sunday, helping in large part to contain Vick. The elusive quarterback got free for two big gains, but considering his 40 pass attempts, holding the damage to two big running plays is a win. The Browns brought pressure often, but the rushers maintained their discipline.
The Browns have seven games to decide if Frye really is their future, or they are going to waste additional years "developing" a mediocre quarterback. That decision likely is tied to the future of Crennel in Cleveland. Nobody doubted he could coach defense, but he has already switched offensive coordinators, and the offense still struggles. A tough remaining schedule will leave them with a good draft pick to help continue the rebuilding policy. Adding a talented offensive lineman in the draft and someone like Byron Leftwich through a trade would go a long way toward getting the Browns to .500.
The Falcons have had more success than Cleveland but are equally at a crossroads. The team is not getting better under Mora, and maybe more importantly, Vick is not getting better. They have a brutal remaining schedule that will make a playoff spot difficult to earn. If the Falcons do not show improvement, some hard questions need to be asked. Should they keep going after big name veterans to fix an average defense or rebuild through the draft? Is this the right coaching staff to get the most out of their franchise player? Can that player succeed with this receiving corps? Vick is an amazing talent, and as a fan of football, I hope to see him succeed. A potential second consecutive disappointing season makes that possibility more remote.
The Browns' win over the Falcons was far from the only shocking result on Sunday. Five other teams with at least a .500 record fell to an opponent with a worse record. That does not even count surprisingly close wins by Indianapolis and Denver or amazing comebacks by Baltimore and San Diego. It was certainly a wild weekend in the NFL.
The NFL Sunday Ticket offers Short Cuts, a feature allowing you to condense every play of a game into 30 minutes. I sat down and spent a little over two hours watching these upsets to provide you with a quick thought or two on what transpired and what to expect going forward. Many of these teams have appeared in this space in previous weeks, and reference may be made to those articles.
This game was defense optional. The Steelers held on thanks to a late fumble by Terrance Copper. As I noted a few weeks ago, Pittsburgh is better than their record. Their secondary has holes, so they might not be a top 10 team, but they will win more than they lose down the stretch.
New Orleans is basically the same team as the St. Louis Rams with better special teams. The defense ranks 25th in DVOA, and the secondary let Pittsburgh receivers run free all afternoon. Their linebackers fill gaps well but have trouble covering outside runs. Their safeties, Josh Bullocks and Omar Stoutmire, have to be questioned after the team gave up five plays of at least 35 yards.
Offensively, Marques Colston is one of the best stories in the NFL. He has spent a lot of time facing the opponents' second or third cornerback thanks to Joe Horn and Reggie Bush. He excelled as the primary receiver against the banged-up Steelers. He will need to continue to amaze in the likely event of forthcoming shoot-outs. They have four games remaining against top 10 DVOA offenses. Odds are that despite the hot start, the season-ender against the Panthers will decide the division.
The "bark park" where I bring my dog has better turf than Gillette Stadium featured in a rainy day on Sunday. That is not an excuse for the Patriots, the home team that is familiar with inclement weather, but it certainly was one of the major factors in the game. Tom Brady never looked comfortable in the conditions, and the Jets mixed their blitzes well and basically neutralized the Patriots in passing downs. Brady was sacked twice and went 5-for-8 for only 32 yards and two conversions on ten third and fourth down pass plays.
After the Patriots lost to Denver, I hypothesized that they were changing into a power-running team. Instead, Brady is on pace for the second most attempts of his career even though he is much less productive than the past two seasons. The reason is in large part that the running game has not dominated. It is below average according to DVOA. Meanwhile the defense has struggled at a league-average level, and most of that was before Rodney Harrison suffered an injury. The Patriots are good, but they are not at the level of their last two Super Bowl seasons.
The Jets have a terrible DVOA, thanks in part to their 41-0 loss to Jacksonville. The rest of their games have all been decided by a touchdown or less. Basically, this is an average team masquerading as a playoff contender. The team has thrown the ball well all season, and thanks to some developing young linemen, actually runs the ball at a league-average level. Defense is another story. The Jets have one of the worst defenses in football. Holding down New England on a sloppy field does not change that. Thanks to a joke of a schedule -- one opponent remaining with a winning record -- nine wins is a definite possibility.
Damon Huard had played at an amazing level since taking over for an injured Trent Green. That is until Sunday's game. The benefit of hindsight makes clear that his big games were against bad defenses except for San Diego, a defense whose primary weakness is in the secondary. Against Miami, Larry Johnson was contained, and Huard's windows were much smaller. Huard's early success was in large part due to the heavy focus of defenses on Johnson, who started playing well only after Huard softened up the defense. Miami's talented front seven was able to contain him with seven or eight defenders, and receivers were never running free in the secondary.
Huard only appeared comfortable throwing to Tony Gonzalez, who is out for a few games following an injury. Now is the time to thank Huard for a job well done and turn the team back over to Green. Green is the only quarterback besides some guy named Peyton to rank in the top five in DPAR the past four seasons. The Chiefs have their best defense in years, and it would be a shame to waste it without their best quarterback on the field.
The Dolphins followed their same formula as a week ago, with Joey Harrington carrying more of the weight. Meaningless late season run, here we come.
Nobody thought it was possible that Brett Favre could be playing some of his best football in years and it would be an underreported story. Favre is playing much better than Steve McNair, who is receiving a number of accolades. The Packers have rebuilt their offensive line with young players who are giving new life to Favre and Ahman Green. Favre is on pace for over 4,000 yards and only 12 interceptions. The Packers host the Patriots next week with a shot at .500.
Brad Johnson, another AARP quarterback, played reasonably well, but he is much nearer the end than Favre and is overseeing a putrid offense. Chester Taylor is only gaining yards thanks to a huge amount of carries, and this offense is wasting an excellent defense. With the defense now giving up big plays in the passing game -- hello Donald Driver -- the season is spiraling out of control in Minnesota.
For more on this game, read my Any Given Sunday from these teams' previous encounter, but exchange the name David Garrard for Byron Leftwich. Also, apparently the Jaguars defense can withstand their injuries, as they played great except for one big pass play to Andre Johnson. For Houston, all that has changed is the emergence of Owen Daniels and the elimination of Eric Moulds from the offense.
Going forward, Jacksonville has a decision to make at quarterback. Byron Leftwich was benched officially because of an ankle injury, but his poor performance in a loss at Houston is the more likely reason. Replacement David Garrard "won" the past couple games, and a switch looked permanent. Four interceptions later, we have a full-blown quarterback controversy. Two interceptions went through Matt Jones' hands. Those interceptions highlight the offense's real problem, a lack of quality receivers. Garrard made a number of other questionable throws that were not intercepted. The Jaguars are blessed with a good quarterback and a pretty good quarterback. If the good one's ankle is healthy, they would be making an enormous mistake not to play him.
The Jaguars are now 3-1 against teams with winning records and 2-3 against teams with losing records. They close with four games against teams with winning records and three road games against losers. They have to play more consistently, or they will miss the playoffs.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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