After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
14 Jul 2003
by Aaron Schatz
This is the first of a series of eight articles taking a closer look at every team in the NFL, division by division, using our new statistics such as line yards and DVOA (explained here). Since this is the first division I'm tackling, let me give a guide to what you're going to find here:
First, team efficiency ratings for 2002 for all four teams in the division. Remember, offensive numbers are better the more POSITIVE, defensive numbers are better the more NEGATIVE. Overall total is offense minus defense, so the more positive the better. Schedule strength is harder the more negative, with the hardest schedule ranked #1 and the easiest ranked #32.
Next comes a note on shared opponents. Since half a team's schedule consists of out-of-division opponents shared with the rest of the division, this is pretty important. You'll understand why halfway through the year it seems that every team in the same division has improved in the same way.
Then comes a section on each team, beginning with stats for each skill player and ranks for players with enough attempts to qualify. That includes 49 quarterbacks, 98 wide receivers, and 48 tight ends, plus 51 running backs for rushing and 49 running backs for receiving. New players are marked 02 with their previous team and colored blue, players who are no longer on the team are marked 03 with their new team and colored red. Under the table are listed important rookies and non-skill players who have left or joined the team.
Following this table will be the line yard data for each team's offensive line and defensive front seven, with rank among the 32 NFL teams. After that comes one or two longer comments on major issues affecting the team, followed by a series of bullet points listing interesting facts gleamed from the data.
So, without further ado, the toughest, most balanced top-to-bottom division in professional sports, the AFC East.
OUT: AFC West, NFC North
IN: AFC South, NFC East
HURTS: Offense, especially passing game
HELPS: Rushing defense, to an almost ridiculous extent
|Bryson, Shawn (DET 03)||-25.0%||13||36||-28.2%||-3.1|
|Centers, Larry (NWE 03)||30.1%||11||56||21.7%||3.5|
|Price, Peerless (ATL 03)||9.8%||23||148||1411||10.2%||23||19.4||16|
|Shaw, Bobby (JAC 02)||12.3%||19||74||575||9.6%||24||11.2||28|
|Riemersma, Jay (PIT 03)||18.6%||6||48||377||20.2%||6||11.9||5|
|Campbell, Mark (CLE 02)||-35.1%||48||46||185||-33.8%||48||-20.7||46|
|Centers, Larry (NWE 03)||12.2%||16||63||388||19.0%||15||8.3||13|
Other important additions: S Lawyer Milloy (NWE), OLB Jeff Posey (HOU), OLB Takeo Spikes (CIN), S Izell Reese (DEN), DT Sam Adams (OAK), K Rian Lindell (SEA), RB Willis McGahee (R1)
Other important losses: S Billy Jenkins (FA), K Mike Hollis (NYG)
The biggest change on the Bills offense this year is Josh Reed replacing Peerless Price as the second wide receiver. According to DVOA, Reed and Price were fairly similar in 2002. Reed was used much more often on third down, but that's no surprise for a third receiver.
The surprise is that while Reed and Price both had positive DVOA, Eric Moulds was negative. He had particularly bad performance in the first quarter (-28.5% DVOA) when he caught only 47% of passes thrown to him (59% the rest of the game).
The one place where Reed may have trouble replacing Price is the red zone. Price had 32% DVOA in the red zone, compared to -12% for Reed and -17% for Moulds. A better red zone option might be new pickup Bobby Shaw, 39% on 15 red zone passes in Jacksonville.
Much of the talk about the Bills in the offseason revolved around the unexpected choice of Willis McGahee with their first round pick. After all, the Bills already had Travis Henry, who finished fifth in the NFL in rushing yards, and they had added former Bronco Olandis Gary through free agency to back up Henry in 2002.
Well, it turns out that the Bills may be onto something. Henry finished fifth in the NFL in rushing yards, but he also finished fifth in rushing attempts. Based on DVOA, he's a close-to-league-average back who just happens to get a lot of opportunities. He also seems to wilt at the end of games:
Q1: +5% DVOA
Q2: +22% DVOA
Q3: +19% DVOA
Q4: -38% DVOA
Gary, in his limited 2002 opportunities, also performed at roughly the league average.
Buffalo is one of many teams who seemed to run the least the direction where they had the most success ö they need to send Henry up the middle more often.
Drew Bledsoe is much better throwing to the left side of the field than he is to the right:
Left: +41% DVOA
Middle: +34% DVOA
Right: +9% DVOA
This discrepancy held with every one of Bledsoe's receivers except for tight ends Jay Riemersma, who has left for Pittsburgh, and Dave Moore.
50% of pass attempts to Eric Moulds were thrown on the left side of the field, while Price and Reed were balanced between left, middle, and right.
Buffalo pass defense was not good against wide receivers (#21 in the NFL), but actually wasn't that bad against TE (#9 in the NFL) or RB/FB (#8 in the NFL). The question is, does this indicate that Buffalo's secondary is overrated, or that the pass rush is so bad that the secondary couldn't do its job. Tom Donovan apparently thought the second, since he mostly left the secondary alone in his off-season defensive rebuilding.
Buffalo's pass defense really toughened up on third down, going from +9.7% VOA on first and second down to -28.7% VOA on third and fourth down.
Buffalo was far better at defending passes to the left (#4 in the NFL) than up the middle (#27 in the NFL) and to the right (#23 in the NFL). However, since the same cornerbacks don't necessarily always stay on the same side of the field, this doesn't necessarily say that CB Nate Clements (who, as the usual RCB, would defend passes to the offense's left) is better than CB Antoine Winfield (who, as the usual LCB, would defend passes to the offense's right).
|Griese, Brian (DEN 02)||7.0%||15||468||3043||11.6%||11||28.9||14|
|Lucas, Ray (FA 03)||-5.3%||27||172||1115||-18.3%||35||-8.0||24|
|Lucas, Ray (FA 03)||-13.7%||24||27||132||-10.0%||24||-5.3||28|
|Griese, Brian (DEN 02)||-5.3%||17||25||117||-0.8%||17||-2||19|
|Thompson, Derrius (WAS 02)||-8.8%||10||77||2.9%||-1.5|
|Thompson, Derrius (WAS 02)||-5.9%||64||93||773||-7.4%||66||-7.2||68|
|Ward, Dedric (NWE 03)||-38.6%||39||172||-37.3%||-21|
|Carter, Cris (FA 03)||-71.2%||17||70||-70.9%||-15.3|
Other important additions: LB Junior Seau (SDG), S Sammy Knight (NOR), LB Eddie Moore (R2), CB Terrell Buckley (NWE)
Other important losses: LB Twan Russell (ATL), LB Derrick Rogers (NOR)
Egads, is it possible Ray Lucas wasn't as bad as we all thought? Believe it or not, yes, Ray Lucas actually comes out higher than Jay Fiedler according to DVOA. The reason? He faced much harder defenses.
Put aside the horrible game against Buffalo, perhaps the worst game ever played by a quarterback, and Lucas wasn't that bad. In his other four games, Lucas faced Green Bay, a very stingy pass defense, and three teams that were about average. Fiedler, on the other hand, got games against Detroit and Minnesota, two of the three worst pass defenses in the NFL, and among his other nine opponents only New England and Oakland had good pass defense.
Here are the stats for the Dolphin receivers, with Fiedler and with Lucas.
Miami's pass attack was fairly balanced to all sides of the field, though it is interesting to note that three-fifths of Ricky Williams' 59 passes were on the right side. Dave Wannstedt might want to change this in 2003. WR Chris Chambers had 25% DVOA right and -20% DVOA left, while new WR Derrius Thompson, playing in Washington, was his mirror image: 38% DVOA left, -15% DVOA right.
FB Rob Konrad was particularly strong in the red zone, as his 81% DVOA was the third-highest among players with more than 5 red zone passes (scroll down the page for someone even more impressive).
Miami ran more of its rushing plays up the middle than almost any other team; they might want to consider running behind more often behind LT Mark Dixon. The two weeks the Dolphins did not run well to the left were two of three weeks Dixon was injured (week 5 vs. NE, week 6 at DEN).
Miami's pass defense was the opposite of Buffalo's: great on passes thrown to WR (#2 in the NFL), but not so great on passes thrown to RB/FB (#21 in the NFL) or TE (#25 in the NFL). This would seem to indicate that the way to beat Miami's defense is to throw the ball short, with lots of screens.
|Cloud, Mike (KAN 02)||-22.3%||49||115||-15.4%||-11.5|
|Edwards, Marc (JAC 03)||-3.5%||31||96||3.8%||-1.3|
|Centers, Larry (BUF 02)||30.1%||11||56||21.7%||3.5|
|Ward, Dedric (MIA 02)||-38.6%||39||172||-37.3%||-21|
|Hayes, Donald (JAC 03)||-40.5%||31||149||-38.9%||-16.8|
|Cleeland, Cam (STL 03)||-7.3%||31||21||112||-11.9%||34||-2||28|
|Baxter, Fred (CHI 02)||-7.4%||8||51||-1.5%||-0.8|
|Centers, Larry (BUF 02)||12.1%||16||63||388||19.0%||15||8.3||13|
|Edwards, Marc (JAC 03)||14.7%||11||32||196||29.8%||8||5.4||17|
|McCrary, Fred (SD 02)||-57.9%||49||31||96||-57.0%||49||-17.6||48|
|Cloud, Mike (KAN 02)||-1.6%||9||48||-2.7%||-0.1|
Other important additions: OLB Roosevelt Colvin (CHI), S Rodney Harrison (SDG), DT Ted Washington (CHI), CB Tyrone Poole (DEN), DT Ty Warren (R1), CB Eugene Wilson (R2), WR Bethel Johnson (R2)
Other important losses: S Lawyer Milloy (BUF, why Bill why?), S Tebucky Jones (NOR), CB Terrell Buckley (MIA)
This was a mediocre offense all the way around in 2002, but look at the directional rushing, and it is pretty clear what this team's biggest hole is. The right side of this line sucks. Belichek seems to somewhat grasp this, running far more plays to the other side, but people who get on Antwoain Smith should check out those numbers. Smith's strength is the north-south game, but more importantly the Patriots have a Pro Bowl caliber center. Look at Smith compared to third-down back Kevin Faulk in defense-adjusted line yards -- the "more shifty" Faulk displays the exact same tendencies.
|adjusted line yards||Left||Mid||Right|
Run behind Damian Woody and you're in business. Run behind any of the revolving members of the right side of this line (Adriam Klemm, Joe Andruzzi, the departed Greg Robinson-Randall) and you're back on the bench, watching Law and Malloy chase the other team's receivers around the field some more.
According to conventional wisdom, the biggest hole on the 2002 Patriots was rushing defense. The Pats gave up 217 yards to LaDainian Tomlinson, 180 yards to Priest Holmes, even 196 combined yards to Eddie "The Back Fork" George and his Tennessee backup Robert Holcombe.
As every Patriot fan knows, the Pats rushing defense was horrible on the sidelines, and the numbers agree. But take a look at the rushing game in total: the Pats look better than you think. They were above average defending runs up the middle. They faced the best running games in the league, ranking #25 in non-adjusted line yards but #16 after taking defenses into account.
So take a rushing defense that really wasn't that bad, add a first-round pick at DT and a top young linebacker, and hand the team a schedule that replaces Priest Holmes and Charlie Garner with Troy Hambrick and whatever running back Steve Spurrier allows to carry the ball three times. I expect the "Pats improved rushing defense" articles to start around week six.
Despite all their problems against great runners, the Patriots were actually very good at defending passes to RB/FB: -10% VOA, ranked fifth in the NFL without even adjusting for opponents.
Only Marvin Harrison caught more passes over the middle than Troy Brown.
With all the ridiculous comebacks the Patriots made last year, it's no surprise that Tom Brady's numbers rose sharply in the fourth quarter.
Q1: -1% DVOA
Q2: -8% DVOA
Q3: -13% DVOA
Q4: +12% DVOA
OT: +70% DVOA
Brady also was much better on first and second down than on third: -2% DVOA on first down, +8% DVOA on second down, but -15% third down.
The Patriots are seriously going to miss Marc Edwards, who scored a 15% DVOA receiving compared to -58% for new fullback Fred McCrary -- worst in the NFL in 2002. Even stranger, McCrary had 71% of his passes on the right side, the most of any player in the NFL with more than ten passes. (Late note: signing FB Larry Centers -- see Buffalo stats above -- will likely solve this problem.)
The biggest problem with the Patriots defense was third down. The Patriots went from -18% VOA against the pass on first and second down, ranked #5 in the NFL, to +23% VOA on third and fourth down, ranked #29 in the NFL. This discrepancy doesn't appear on third down running plays.
As any Patriots fan will tell you, Brady was always looking for Christian Fauria near the goal line. Only David Patten had more red zone passes than Fauria, and Fauria had a very nice 41% red zone DVOA.
|Anderson, Richie (DAL 03)||5.5%||5||27||18.4%||0.3|
|Conway, Curtis (SDG 02)||50.0%||7||53||71.9%||4.3|
|Coles, Laveranues (WAS 03)||19.3%||6||39||31.3%||1.5|
|Coles, Laveranues (WAS 03)||34.2%||3||134||1264||36.2%||4||61.2||1|
|Conway, Curtis (SDG 02)||-2.7%||55||94||955||1.5%||47||-3.5||57|
|Anderson, Richie (DAL 03)||-6.7%||34||56||347||-6.1%||32||-3.9||37|
Other important additions: DT Dewayne Robertson (R1), RG Tom Nutten (STL), K Doug Brien (MIN),
Other important losses: S Damien Robinson (SEA), K John Hall (WAS), RG Randy Thomas (WAS)
No adjustments can change the fact that the Jets' rushing defense was horrible last year. At least the Jets were average on defending runs to the left, home of John Abraham. As for runs to the other side and up the middle, well, goodbye Josh Evans, hello Dewayne Robertson.
The Jets' rushing defense difficulties were almost entirely related to first down. Running plays against the Jets on first down had +27% VOA, far higher than the #31 rushing defense on first down, Arizona (+17% VOA). But on the other three downs, running plays against the Jets were almost exactly league average.
For extra fun, the Jets' rushing defense was also particularly gruesome in the red zone: +29% VOA. Only one other team, Kansas City, was over +20%.
Supporting his reputation as a clutch player, Wayne Chrebet was amazing in the red zone. He had 92% DVOA, far ahead of anyone else with more than ten red zone passes, and he led the league with nine touchdowns on passes inside the 20. The entire Jets team was great in the red zone -- every player on the Jets with over five red zone passes had a positive DVOA.
The Jets were one of the teams with a clear pattern of consistently keeping receivers on one side of the field: Coles left, Chrebet and Santana Moss right. In fact, third receiver Santana Moss caught a higher percentage of his passes on the right than any NFL player with more than 25 passes. Since new receiver Curtis Conway was 12% DVOA left and -15% DVOA right, he'll fit right into Coles' spot.
Pennington started games strong (+86% VOA in the first quarter). He was only +13% DVOA on first down, but +68% DVOA on second down and +54% DVOA on third down.