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?
18 Sep 2007
by Ned Macey
The Saints were the class of the NFC South in 2006, and most everyone assumed they would be the class of the division in 2007. One oddball system seemed to think the Saints would struggle -- ours. Our DVOA projections had the Saints in last place in the NFC South and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in first. After Sunday's thumping of the Saints in Tampa Bay, this wacky projection suddenly appears right on target. When the Week 2 DVOA ratings come out later today, the New Orleans Saints will rank in last place.
The Katrina-stricken season of 2005 obviously had too much weight in these projections, and all the writers at Football Outsiders rejected the system's numbers. Of the 16 people making predictions, 15 predicted the Saints would win the division, with the lone dissenter choosing the Panthers. Not one person had the temerity to pick the Buccaneers to even earn a Wild Card in the inept NFC. (Meanwhile 11 FO staffers, including yours truly, jumped at the overly-optimistic Jaguars prediction and put them in the playoffs in the ultra-competitive AFC.)
Still, as the first two weeks showed, the projection system was not off merely because of an over-reliance on 2005 data. First and foremost was the Saints' aberrant performance on third down a season ago. Their third-down offensive DVOA ranked third in the league at 30.1%. Their overall offensive DVOA ranked fifth at 13.4%. So far this season, they have converted a not-so-special 14 of 33 third down opportunities. Failure to convert on third down not only stalls those drives but prevents the Saints from developing any offensive rhythm.
Secondly, the successful 2006 Saints were also not a complete team. Their defense was mediocre and prone to allowing big plays. One weakness the Saints tried to address in the off-season was their weak secondary. The Saints lured restricted free agent Jason David from Indianapolis to replace the charred remains of Fred Thomas. After two games, David has made Thomas appear medium rare. In truth, however, Sunday's debacle was hardly David's fault. This loss exposed the weakness of the Saints' safeties.
The lack of quality safety play is another glaring problem that was not properly addressed in the off-season. Josh Bullocks and Roman Harper both appear more comfortable near the line of scrimmage than deep in coverage. The Saints' solution to this problem was adding Kevin Kaesviharn, who hardly dominated while a member of the Bengals. The results have been disastrous for the Saints. Jeff Garcia only completed 10 passes against New Orleans, but five went for at least 24 yards. Joey Galloway exploited Bullocks on his second touchdown and beat Harper for a 41-yard reception.
Allowing the big play is not a new phenomenon for New Orleans. The problem is that now the Saints fail to counter them with big plays of their own. Drew Brees averaged a completion of at least 20 yards once every nine attempts in 2006. This year he has only three such completions in 85 attempts. All three have come when the Saints were already trailing by at least 20 points.
The obvious common denominator between the Saints' two opponents, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, is the Tampa-2 defense. Add in last year's debacle in the NFC Championship game against Chicago, and you start to see a trend. This development is not entirely new. The Buccaneers frustrated the Saints in their first meeting a season ago. Brees had no 20-yard completions, but the Saints stole the game with a Reggie Bush punt return.
The Buccaneers learned the importance of holding the passing game in check during the teams' second encounter. Deuce McAllister ran wild in the first game, so Tampa Bay eliminated him in the second match-up. The tradeoff, however, was a pair of touchdowns over 40 yards to Devery Henderson in a 31-14 romp. The two-deep zone effectively eliminates the speedy Henderson from the game. Still not a refined route runner, Henderson has caught only three passes through two games this season for a total of 34 yards. A season ago, Henderson averaged 23.3 yards per catch.
Henderson's failure to provide a reliable second option opposite Marques Colston raises questions about the decision to part with long-time receiver Joe Horn. The aging wideout battled injuries last season and was released in the off-season. The Saints were actually a better offense last year in the games Horn missed.
Nonetheless, another reliable receiver would be extremely helpful. Without Horn, the Saints' second most reliable wide receiver becomes David Patten, who has not caught more than 44 balls since 2002. Presumably Bush fills the de facto role of second receiver, but teams always play nickel when he is on the field, negating the massive advantage he has on linebackers.
Of course the solution for a team to overcome a two-deep zone is a heavy dose of power running. The Saints have a power runner in McAllister, but due to early deficits and his time-share arrangement with Bush, he has only 20 carries through two games. In those 20 carries, however, he has 87 yards. Bush in 22 carries has only 65 yards. Sadly, Bush has reverted to his early 2006 form of dancing in the backfield.
While New Orleans' struggles are generating all the headlines, the other side of the coin was the prediction that Tampa Bay would win the division. Crucial to that prediction of improvement was an experienced quarterback in Jeff Garcia. The veteran probably received too much praise for his play in Philadelphia a year ago, but he actually is an ideal fit for Tampa Bay.
Almost all of Garcia's success has been in a version in the West Coast offense which Jon Gruden still runs. Equally importantly, the Buccaneers had abysmal quarterback play a season ago. Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski were among the five least productive quarterbacks in football. Even when Garcia was surrounded by mediocre talent in Cleveland and Detroit, he never approached those levels of futility, and adding mere competence to the position provides Tampa Bay with a boost.
Equally important for the offense has been Gruden's decision to use the shotgun formation. Garcia has always preferred the shotgun and excelled out of the quarterback-friendly formation on Sunday. Garcia completed four of seven passes for 131 yards out of the shotgun. Increased time in the pocket is particularly important when your best receiver is Joey Galloway. The 35-year-old receiver remains an excellent deep threat and somehow dominated the Saints while making only four catches.
The Tampa Bay offense still has limitations. Ike Hilliard, the "young" starting receiver, is hardly a reliable second option at this stage in his career, and the young offensive line was getting little push on Sunday. If the Buccaneers are going to make a run at the NFC South, they will need a defense as productive as the one that took the field on Sunday. The Buccaneers defense was below-average for the first time in the DVOA era last season but was still a top-10 unit as recently as 2005.
Many of the big names are gone, but the Buccaneers still have talent and an excellent coordinator in Monte Kiffin. The Buccaneers are working in young players along a deep defensive line rotation, but the strength on Sunday was the linebackers. Barrett Ruud has emerged as an excellent run stuffer at middle linebacker, and the venerable Derrick Brooks still has gas in his tank.
Most surprising on Sunday was the quality play of Cato June and Phillip Buchanon. Both players have often been whipping boys of writers at Football Outsiders. In Tampa Bay, however, they are allowed to play to their strengths. June is one of the top coverage linebackers in football. The Bucs funnel running plays toward Ruud and Brooks and let June do what he does best, play coverage. He rewarded them with an interception on Sunday. Buchanon has been abused in man-to-man coverage over the years, but he played well in zone coverage Sunday, exhibiting excellent closing speed.
After the win, the Bucs' projection suddenly does not seem so startling. They have a long history of above-average defenses, and Garcia could spearhead a slightly below-average offense. That spells an average team, which in the NFC can add up to nine wins in a heartbeat. Tampa Bay is still unlikely to be "good" in the conventional sense, but they may be in the playoff hunt well into December, something only a computer could have predicted.
For New Orleans, the good news is that the rest of their division has serious question marks. Perhaps Carolina is the cream of the crop, but the whipping at the hand of the Texans and an uneven history the past few seasons make them far from certain. Our super-optimistic projection of Tampa Bay has them winning about nine games. And after two weeks of the Bobby Petrino era, the Falcons appear much more likely to be in the Brian Brohm sweepstakes than the playoffs.
The Saints have a number of quality players on offense and the defensive line and are arguably still the favorites in the division after the horrendous start. The new coaching regime surprised opposing teams a season ago, but they need to respond to opposing teams' adjustments. They have only one member of the secondary who can reliably cover opposing wide receivers, yet they rarely play safe zones. Their offense relies far too often on the big play when they also have the personnel for a power-running game.
Sean Payton deservedly won the NFL Coach of the Year award last season. If he cannot straighten out this offense, however, he will join an illustrious list of one-year wonder coaches who also won the award. We're talking coaching luminaries such as Dick Jauron, Jim Haslett, Dom Capers, Ray Rhodes, and Lindy Infante. Everything broke Payton's way a season ago, and this year, he will need to coax further improvement out of a talented offense and shore up a porous defense to return to 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.
37 comments, Last at 20 Sep 2007, 2:27pm by dennis