"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
18 Sep 2012
by Rivers McCown
Arizona's 20-18 win over the Patriots is a pretty unprecedented result in the scope of Football Outsiders history. As we noted in Audibles, this was the rare case where the Premium DVOA picks database actually agreed with a huge line. Coming into the game, the Patriots were 13.5-point favorites. Not only did our premium DVOA picks think that line was fair, it was also the only game of the week that we gave our most confident (green) rating to. You can count the number of times a 13.5-point favorite has lost, since 2010, on one hand. You can count the number of times we've picked a 13.5-point favorite as a "green" risk against the spread, only to see them lose, on one finger.
I would be lying to you if I said, while watching this game, that what didn't come to mind first were some very bizarre coaching decisions by New England. Aaron Hernandez's high-ankle sprain obviously, to use a well-known sports cliche, sucked a lot of the air out of the offense. But beyond that, there were the bizarre head games between Josh McDaniels, Bill Belichick, and Wes Welker prior to the injury that left him sitting for Julian Edelman. There was New England's perfectly even run-pass ratio despite the fact that, even when sitting in their 2-4-5 nickel scheme, Arizona was usually able to keep that unit quiet. And finally, there was Belichick's odd decision to pull up and take the long field goal on the final drive that Ryan Williams gifted to them, rather than trying to inch closer.
Despite all those issues, and despite the honest-to-goodness actual reasons that Arizona was able to get it close (getting good pass rush on Tom Brady, the blocked punt), VOA is once again not willing to give its seal of approval to this victory. That's really not all that surprising considering, as we mentioned last week, that VOA (and DVOA) are really built for seasonal analysis rather than a single-game performance early in the year. Plus, you know, the fact that New England out-gained Arizona by 142 yards. (To put that in perspective, the Jaguars moved 117 yards total in their Week 2 loss to the Texans.)
|Dewey Defeats Cardinals|
|Team||Total VOA||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA|
So, the Cardinals stand 2-0, which ties them with the 49ers for first place in the suddenly-frisky NFC West, where every team has at least one win. I've seen a few people wonder aloud if this is the least talented of the six 2-0 teams. I can see where conventional thinking would lead you there. After all, this offense has one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL and no franchise quarterback.
But I think, if you look at it another way, that the obvious comparison for these Cardinals are the 2009 New York Jets: a team with a burgeoning star cornerback and several good defensive pieces trying to carry a bad offense to victory.
Obviously, the similarities start with Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis, right now the only two corners in the NFL that are never really assigned safety help. Peterson began to blossom towards the end of last season, and his ability to check one receiver all by himself, normally in trail technique, leaves the rest of the defensive backfield a man up in their quest to shut down the offense. Plus, hey, both teams have (had) Kerry Rhodes!
Up front, those Jets mauled with Kris Jenkins (when healthy) and Shaun Ellis, while the Cardinals have the ultra-versatile Darnell Dockett and 6-foot-8 monster Calais Campbell. Neither team really had (has) what you'd call a dominant pass rusher outside. Who led the 2009 Jets in sacks? Calvin Pace, who only had 8.5. Last year the Cardinals got seven sacks from 2011 fourth-round pick Sam Acho, and he's right around that pace again this year after notching one against Brady and company yesterday. Daryl Washington has proved to be a wise investment in the middle, though the Cardinals can't match the pair the Jets had in David Harris and Bart Scott.
Peterson also plays a big role in another overlooked area: special teams. The Cardinals have ranked 11th, 9th, and 10th in the NFL over the past three years in special teams DVOA, but that has mostly been due to one-year shifts in field-goal accuracy and coverage teams. Peterson returned four punts for touchdowns last season, and while he hasn't broken one yet this season, he's definitely someone teams have to account for. (Between the Cover-0 corner work and his work on special teams and in the Wildcat, it could be argued that Peterson is the most valuable non-quarterback in the league.) And of course, while we like to say that blocked kicks and punts are non-predictive events, that doesn't mean that it's not huge when you can get them. Arizona has blocked eleven field goals in the last three seasons. And with a pair of, for lack of a better term, freaks like Campbell and Peterson, they're probably going to keep generating blocks at a higher-than-normal rate. The 2009 Jets? They finished sixth in special teams DVOA.
Now, of course, the main difference between those two teams was the perception of their quarterback. Mark Sanchez was perceived differently because he was a high first-round pick and a rookie, while Kevin Kolb's washout in 2011 was regarded as more of an umitigated disaster because he was already 27 and had been in the league for four years. Frankly, does it really matter how you have a below-average quarterback? The Jets and Cardinals both invested heavily on a pair of quarterbacks that had red flags. Sanchez had an extremely low Lewin Career Forecast, and there was plenty of tape on Kolb in Philadelphia that suggested he'd have problems dealing with pressure. They did this because the potential of acquiring a franchise quarterback outweighs the risk. They failed, but they weren't necessarily wrong for trying. (Now the degree of trade assets they gave up, that might be questionable, but that's a different discussion.)
Look, at some point in an NFL game, it's third-and-8 and your quarterback is going to have to make a play. If you don't have a good quarterback, it's tough to have a good team. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's impossible to run an NFL offense without one, nor does it mean that a team can't be successful if they do everything else right. If the Cardinals defense puts in a full season of what they've been showing since the middle of 2011, they won't need Kolb to be a great quarterback to win games; they'll need him to not be totally abhorrent. Remember: the Cardinals went 8-8 last year with the 29th-ranked DVOA pass offense.
Based on the tape of this game, the throws are there to be made. Larry Fitzgerald is going to require safety help. Kolb missed a couple of gimme throws on Sunday, including an easy touchdown to Todd Heap, but looked much better under pressure than he normally has. Yeah, the offensive line is in shambles. D'Anthony Batiste's two pass-blocking techniques against Chandler Jones were "hope" and "pray," and they weren't able to get much going in the run game either. But, again, is it really that much worse off than it was last year?
The Cardinals have played a pair of defenses so far, in New England and Seattle, that will rank third and fourth respectively in defensive VOA this week. Yes, that's weighted a bit by, you know, actually playing the Cardinals, but we also projected them in the preseason to be the 11th- and fifth-best defenses this year. Nobody is saying that the Cardinals' offense is suddenly going to break out when they're not facing good defenses, but it is plausible that they could be mediocre. It's also plausible that they could improve some areas of their offense: first-round pick Michael Floyd could prove ready for a mid-season promotion, they could find some scrap heap guys that come in and perform better than the current offensive line, or John Skelton could reclaim the starting job and play better than he did last season.
The 2009 Jets made it to the postseason with the 22nd-ranked offense. That team had a much better running game and offensive line than Arizona does, but it also didn't have any player as good as Fitzgerald. Given the way San Francisco has crapped all over the Plexiglass Principle so far, it's not likely that Arizona is going to make the postseason. But, could they reclaim eight wins? Could they win a few more lucky games like this one and get up to 10? It's not crazy.
Sometimes, in our quick rush to lump teams into "teams with bad quarterbacks" and "teams with good quarterbacks," we forget that there are some defenses that do manage to overcome a bad one. Arizona's stellar young defense may be blossoming into one of those in front of our very eyes.
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