Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

09 Sep 2014

Any Given Sunday: Dolphins Over Patriots

by Rivers McCown

Welcome to the Tuesday after The Day The Patriots Dynasty Died. This isn't like all those other times the Patriots died. This is, like, seriously, the for real day. Nothing can save them.

Watching it back, I was reminded of another early-season Patriots game this column covered. It's rare that New England's offensive line is overwhelmed and the defense winds up with four sacks, but it does happen.

But let's get into the panic porn. ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss pointed out on Twitter that Tom Brady had a, um, interesting game here. Brady was 2-of-18 for 65 yards on throws at least 15 yards downfield. The 16 incompletions are the most in ESPN Stats & Info's database, which goes back to 2006. Brady's fourth-quarter stats: 6-of-20 for 31 yards. Brady's DYAR: -129. That puts him behind only Josh McCown for Week 1, and Brady didn't spend part of his Week 1 playing the new hit iPhone App "Screen Pass Pinwheel."

The offensive line had no blameless parties. The big talk exiting the game was the rotation between Ryan Wendell and Jordan Devey, which ceased when Wendell was hurt in the third quarter. Rotations are quite rare among offensive linemen, and since Gary Kubiak is the only coach in recent memory to use them, they've got another demerit. It's hard to put into words just how bad Devey was, but it somehow got worse when the Pats were forced to go to him as an every-down starter.

Which, again, is not to say that Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, Nate Solder, and Sebastian Vollmer did not struggle as well. Four sacks. Six quarterback hits. What we can only expect will be a boatload of quarterback hurries once the charting is done. It wasn't pretty.

The Pats had some built-in excuses and puzzling usage beyond just the line. Rob Gronkowski looked slow, and received only 38 of a possible 86 snaps. The timing was clearly off with him as Brady completed just 4-of-11 balls in his direction. For some reason, the Patriots decided to continue with the illusion that Brandon LaFell is an NFL player, giving him 38 snaps. He caught no balls in five targets. Bill Belichick ran the ball just 20 times despite being within three points until the final 3:48 of the fourth quarter. The Dolphins were down to Jason Trusnick (a 30-year-old special teams ace) and Jelani Jenkins (a 2013 fourth-rounder with 124 snaps of experience) at linebacker.

The odds are that, as usual, this won't be the end of the New England dynasty. There's still a lot to shake out about their offense, especially at receiver and in the interior of the line. These kinds of games can happen while plans are in flux.

If this is the only price the Pats have to pay for the Logan Mankins trade, it'll be worth it. But there's always the chance that it's not.

By the VOA

As always, here are the unadjusted VOAs of these two football powerhouses:

TEAM OFF DEF ST TOT
MIA 2.8% -17.8% 0.1% 20.8%
NE -9.4% 4.9% -10.9% -25.2%

Truly an earned victory for the Dolphins, who were better in every phase of the game.

Here's another table for consumption: the worst Week 1 performances by teams coming off a top-5 DVOA season.

Worst Week 1 Performances Coming Off Top-5 DVOA Season
  Previous Year End of Season
Year Team Wk 1 DVOA vs. Score DVOA Rk W-L DVOA Rk W-L
1999 SF -103.0% at JAC 41-3 25.2% 3 12-4 -29.5% 28 4-12
2011 PIT -92.5% at BAL 35-7 35.4% 2 12-4 22.6% 4 12-4
1991 LARD -79.9% at HOIL 47-17 26.0% 3 12-4 1.9% 13 9-7
2005 NYJ -77.4% at KC 27-7 27.0% 4 10-6 -20.9% 26 4-12
2012 PIT -75.6% at DEN 31-19 22.6% 4 12-4 -1.2% 18 8-8
2001 PIT -67.0% at JAC 21-3 22.6% 4 9-7 17.3% 7 13-3
1994 HOIL -62.7% at IND 45-21 16.3% 5 12-4 -32.3% 28 2-14
1997 SF -56.6% at TB 13-6 29.3% 2 12-4 27.5% 4 13-3
1990 DEN -50.7% at LARD 14-9 19.0% 4 11-5 -7.5% 17 5-11
2003 PHI -50.3% vs. TB 17-0 23.6% 5 12-4 19.6% 6 12-4

The Pats weren't really close to these teams. Of course, their numbers aren't opponent-adjusted for the ā€œDā€ in DVOA yet because it is Week 1. Maybe the Dolphins will go 1-15!

Looking at the teams, the early-season indications sometimes mean something (1999 49ers, 1994 Oilers), and sometimes not so much (2011 and 2001 Steelers). My reading of this is that early falls can be very precipitous if you replace Hall of Fame quarterbacks with untested Jeff Garcia and whichever Billy Joe is nearest to your proximity.

Weakness Becomes Strength

One of the biggest problems we face as analysts is looking at what happened in any one given game of football and discerning what that means going forward in the absence of any other possible evidence. Are the Titans the best team in the NFL? Probably not. Are they better than the Chiefs without Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Flowers, Derrick Johnson, and Mike DeVito? You betcha. How much does that mean going forward? We don't know enough yet to know for sure.

In the context of this match, we have a Miami offensive line that was universally pegged as a weakness coming into the season dominating what was thought to be a solid front seven in the running game.

Normally, when a team rushes for 191 yards on five yards a carry, you'll find that anchored by a couple of long bursts or two. A C.J. Spiller 85-yard touchdown run. A long 45-yard gain by Marshawn Lynch after he stiff arms a safety to the ground.

The longest Dolphins run was 15 yards. Knowshon Moreno finished with 48 YAR, and Lamar Miller added nine more.

The Dolphins didn't do anything fancy here. There was no read-option. Most of the runs were right up the gut on Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. This, despite the Dolphins playing castoffs Samson Satele and Daryn Colledge, both street free agents this offseason, in the middle of their line. It strains the limits of credulity to imagine, let alone watch, this outburst happening.

Do we believe that Bill Lazor is a genius? That Richie Incognito was poisoning drinks? That Daniel Thomas was just that bad?

It's clear that we should have an upgraded view of the Miami offensive line going forward, especially once Mike Pouncey gets back. They're not going to be the worst unit in the league again.

At the same time, given what we know about the past, it's hard to believe there wasn't at least some element of flukiness in the results of this game.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 09 Sep 2014

9 comments, Last at 11 Sep 2014, 1:45am by Rivers McCown

Comments

1
by Luke McKenna :: Tue, 09/09/2014 - 2:10pm

Would be interested to get thoughts on how big of an impact the retirement of Dante Scarnecchia is on the performance of the NE offensive line.

2
by theslothook :: Tue, 09/09/2014 - 2:52pm

I don't know how you would begin to model that accurately using data. In fact, most of the plaudits for Scarnecchia are through narratives(though in this case, I think the narrative is true). The pats in the past have had mix and matches on the offensive line and have installed many lower round picks and been fine. This was very stunning.

9
by Rivers McCown :: Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:45am

Yeah, that's why I didn't really go down that path. I know Barnwell was ascribing some of the troubles to losing Dante, and I think that has some basis in reality. I don't know how we begin to account for it.

3
by RickD :: Tue, 09/09/2014 - 3:54pm

What baffles me more than anything else is how the just-add-water-instant-offensive-line for the Dolphins thoroughly outplayed the veteran line of the Patriots. Were they so reliant on Mankins? So far it seems like it.

4
by Noah Arkadia :: Tue, 09/09/2014 - 4:09pm

I might have mentioned the line pass protecting very well all through the preseason. Ja'Wuan James has been much better than advertised and, somehow, Satele has fit right in. Dallas Thomas was killed by McCoy in the Tampa game and promptly replaced by Shelley Smith, who is easily the best run blocker in the unit and has done fine.

But actually running the ball well? Not just well, but great. And against that strong Patriot front 7? No, that's downright funky. I'd be very surprised if this doesn't end up being the best rushing performance of the season for the Dolphins.

As to the Patriots, they are either terrible against the run or faced some kind of god-like one-time-only force they could not, nay, dare not oppose.

------
Who, me?

5
by Displaced Cane :: Tue, 09/09/2014 - 9:28pm

This Miami boy is relishing the victory but wondering if the Pats' front 3 wasn't a little gassed from the brutal heat (even Hurricane alum Vince Wilfork).

6
by James-London :: Wed, 09/10/2014 - 4:24am

I wonder if the NE gameplan was bad. There were at least two instances when Cam Wake was unblocked (2nd play of NE's first TD drive) or was one-on-one with a TE (first strip sack).Both resulted in big hits on Brady. Belichick is a better coach than me, but not accounting for the All-Pro pass rusher seems sub-optimal.

The performance of the Miami O-line was a very pleasant suprise. One swallow doesn't make a summer, but that was nice

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

7
by RickD :: Wed, 09/10/2014 - 1:35pm

Belichick doesn't have much to do with the offense. That would be on Josh McDaniels. Without knowing more, a failure to block Wake could either be by design (seems unlikely) or as a result of miscommunication.

8
by Robert Grebel :: Wed, 09/10/2014 - 9:57pm

That Daniel Thomas was just that bad?

As someone who has charted the Dolphins a lot over the last two years, the answer to this question is yes. Yes he was. Miller was never great, but Thomas was unwatchable.