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12 Sep 2006
by Ned Macey
The Denver Broncos are a perennial playoff team poised to make a run at the Super Bowl. Most analysts expect them to win the AFC West. The St. Louis Rams are a team whose day has passed. Most analysts project them to finish third in their division.
That conventional wisdom was tossed aside as the Broncos offense faltered Sunday, and they fell to the Rams 18-10 in St. Louis. Bronco Nation is soothing itself by recalling last year's Week 1 whipping at the hands of the Miami Dolphins. The Rams are convinced they have a new, powerful defense capable of leading them back into the playoffs. Is it possible they are both right?
Research in Pro Football Prospectus 2006 showed that Week 1 results were no more surprising than any other week. Results that seem surprising, such as perhaps Tampa Bay's shutout loss to Baltimore, prove to be no more than an early sign of the two teams' true qualities.
The article also showed that losses on the road are not nearly as ominous for future performance as home losses. No 13-win team since 1993 has ever lost Week 1 at home. Seven of nine 13-win teams who opened on the road, including the 2005 Broncos, lost their first game.
Opening on the road in St. Louis is a particularly difficult task. The Rams are a dominant team at home, especially with Marc Bulger at quarterback. As the CBS broadcast pointed out, he is now 21-4 as a starter at home, an NFL best. Bulger's success is only partially attributable to his own play. Just as significant a reason for his stunning home record is how much better the St. Louis defense is at home.
Over the past four seasons, the Rams offense has scored 245 more points at home than on the road. The disparity is even greater on defense, with 268 fewer points allowed in St. Louis. 650 points allowed in 32 games is hardly reason to break out the champagne, but when compared with 868 in 32 games on the road, it is the difference between adequate and horrendous.
These rationalizations do little to ease the nerves of jittery Broncos fans who question Jake Plummer's ability to lead their team to the Super Bowl. Plummer, the obvious goat of the game, was sacked four times, completed only 50 percent of his passes, and most importantly, turned the ball over four times. When an established quarterback on an elite team has four combined interceptions and fumbles, it is usually written off as a bad day. For instance, Tom Brady threw four interceptions against Kansas City last year. Matt Hasselbeck had two interceptions and two fumbles the opening week of last season. Daunte Culpepper and Brett Favre both did it multiple times last year. Heck, Favre has done it once every year since 2001.
Plummer is unlikely to earn the same free pass other quarterbacks get after similar performances. His last outing in the AFC Championship game also saw him turn the ball over four times. More importantly, the Broncos drafted Jay Cutler in the first round this year. The pick was a clear indictment of Plummer, a 31-year-old with several seasons of quality football left. When a team one game away from the Super Bowl uses a rare top-12 pick on a quarterback, the management lacks confidence in its signal-caller.
To make matters worse, Cutler dominated the pre-season, a fact which proves litte about his ability but excites fans who have tired of Plummer. It took the television cameras only one turnover to give their obligatory Jay-Cutler-on-the-sideline shot. Broncos fans look east to Pittsburgh and see Ben Roethlisberger, the 11th pick two seasons ago, put together a 15-win season and a Super Bowl championship in his first two seasons. Why can't Cutler do the same?
Of course, Roethlisberger replaced the ineffective Tommy Maddox. Plummer, on the other hand, has had three very good seasons since signing with the Broncos. In DPAR terms, he has amassed 50.4, 56.4, and 88.0 points above replacement. That ranked him in the top 11 all three seasons. Since 1997, the first year for which DPAR has been calculated, only one rookie has posted a higher DPAR than Plummer's worst season as a Bronco. Roethlisberger had an impressive 75.3 DPAR as a rookie. The second highest rookie total was Charlie Batch with 31.1 in 1998. Table 1 shows all the totals, and the performances are not particularly impressive.
If the Broncos want to punt this season in hopes of getting better quarterback play a year or two from now, then maybe playing Cutler makes sense. If this year is a priority -- and for a team coming off a 13-3 season how can it not be -- Cutler's presence is a complete distraction. The only way playing Cutler this season makes sense is if his mere presence has put too much pressure on Plummer, rendering him incapable of playing at his established level.
More likely, Plummer just had a bad game. He was nearly as bad in Week 1 a year ago when he went 22-for-48 with two interceptions. His performance on Sunday was not helped by his teammates in the passing game. The fumble happened when Mike Bell was asked to block Leonard Little one-on-one. The resulting sack was almost inevitable as Bell, despite his best efforts, was bowled over by Little. Newcomer Javon Walker dropped multiple passes and showed some rust. The offensive line never developed a pass-blocking rhythm, and Plummer rarely had the time he was afforded a season ago.
The legitimate concern for the Broncos is that the Rams are not exactly the Dolphins or Steelers on defense. The Rams ranked 29th in DVOA a year ago and were equally bad against the run and pass. The Broncos running game got the message with the two Bells, Mike and Tatum, combining for 161 yards on 25 carries.
The passing offense was undone not just by Plummer's struggles but by an active St. Louis defensive front. Leonard Little dominated the first half, consistently disrupting the pass protection. The Rams blitzed effectively when they came and didn't expose their questionable secondary by blitzing too much.
That secondary held up, particularly Fakhir Brown, whom the Broncos targeted early and often. The journeyman, who followed defensive coordinator Jim Haslett from New Orleans, is far from a Pro Bowler, but he disrupted Javon Walker just enough to hold down the Broncos passing game. Rookie first round pick Tye Hill chipped in with a quality interception on a pass intended for the venerable Rod Smith. The outstanding defensive play of the game goes to linebacker Will Witherspoon, who made an athletic deflection on a pass late in the fourth quarter with the Broncos trailing by eight. Witherspoon epitomized the defense, active and athletic but potentially too small to hold up against the run.
While the pass defense was excellent, the rest of the Rams struggled. The offense, in particular, wasted one golden opportunity after another. Kicker Jeff Wilkins attempted seven field goals on the day, and the Rams never scored a touchdown. Problems in the red zone are nothing new for the Rams or a Scott Linehan offense. The combination of the two seems to have created an impenetrable barrier to the end zone. The Rams' first-team offense scored zero touchdowns in the pre-season and, despite 320 total yards and excellent field position, zero touchdowns on Sunday. If this red zone ineptitude continues, someone better take out an insurance policy on Wilkins's leg.
The Rams have ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in red zone offense each of the past three seasons. Last year was particularly painful, as they ranked 16th in offense overall but 25th in the red zone. Scott Linehan's red zone calls were so bad in Minnesota that Pro Football Prospectus 2005 had an entire essay devoted to them. On Sunday, after an even run-pass mix got them inside the 10-yard line on their first drive, they threw on three straight plays. One failed run attempt on first-and-goal from the 3-yard line was followed by two pass plays. They threw five straight times upon crossing the 30-yard line on their third possession. The only time they ran on consecutive plays in the red zone, they would have earned a first down had Isaac Bruce not dropped a very catchable ball on a third down slant pattern. On no other pass play near the goal line did the pass come close to an open receiver.
Given that the Rams receivers' best attribute is speed, it makes no sense to throw the ball often in the red zone. Linehan was doing this often a year ago with Gus Frerotte as his quarterback and no shiny toy as pretty as Torry Holt, so expect this damaging pattern to continue.
Still, the Rams have hope because their pass defense was revitalized. In 2003, their last year a Rams team won more than eight games, it was that very pass defense that keyed their run to 12-4. The offense and run defense graded out as league average according to DVOA. Their pass defense was fourth in the league. The defense fell apart upon the departure of Lovie Smith, so it is not crazy to hope that the importation of Haslett will make them respectable. Every statistical indicator in our toolbox points toward a bad defense for the Rams, but statistical toolboxes do not call well-timed corner blitzes on third-and-1 that result in 10-yard sacks.
Despite the result, the Broncos are likely to end up with a better record than the Rams. But in a single game, every team's strengths and flaws are magnified. St. Louis is abuzz with talk of their resurgent defense, and Denver talk radio hosts get a free week of content debating Plummer v. Cutler. Odds are that next week the Rams will give up over 20 points in San Francisco, and Plummer will play an efficient game in a victory over Kansas City. For one week, however, the Rams can look at their schedule and conceive of entering a showdown with Seattle in Week 6 undefeated, while Broncos fans can worry about starting 0-3 requiring a switch to their version of Ben Roethlisberger after the bye.
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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