Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Audibles at the Line: Week 16

The FO crew takes on the top contenders as the playoff field rounds into shape. Plus: the great Drew Brees debate of 2014.

13 Nov 2003

NFC Midseason Report

by Aaron Schatz

Last week, I took a look at where each AFC team stood at the midpoint of the season, including breakdowns of offense, defense, and special teams.  Today we'll take a look at the 16 NFC teams.

Before I get started, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all the new readers who have arrived this week because of TMQ, and I'd like to thank everyone who has emailed me about the statistics.  If I haven't gotten back to you, it's because I'm swamped with the newborn, the increased attention to the site, writing this article, and the fact that I returned from paternity leave this week and am back to writing my regular column the Lycos 50.  I'm hoping to get back to everyone, so bear with me.  I also plan to run a mailbag with some answers to particularly interesting questions, so if you don't want your question included for some odd reason please let me know.  Also, I've had a lot of requests for access to the database along with offers to help us crunch the statistics.  I'm not sure if I'll have time to organize anything until the offseason but I am keeping everyone in mind.  If you made a note about helping crunch statistics in a comment thread to one of the articles, please email me separately so I can jot down your name and email with the others and not somehow overlook it. 

Back the NFC midseason report.  I've got a lot of numbers for those who like statistics and a lot of commentary for those who don't.  But before we get to the commentary, I have to give the requisite explanation of the numbers.  (This is the exact same as last week, so if you want to skip it click here.)  For those new to Football Outsiders, VOA takes every single play during the season and compares the result to the league average, normalizing for a number of variables including down, distance, location on field, and so on.  I'm using this rather than simply yards or first downs, because VOA rewards progress towards both.  VOA is further explained here.  Remember that since VOA represents efficiency at scoring points, defensive VOA is better when it is negative.  In total VOA, you add in the opposite of defense so that better defense leads to a higher total VOA.  Trust me, it makes sense.

Most offense and defense numbers (including pass/run splits) are given as DVOA, which is VOA adjusted for the quality of opponents faced.  To show how teams have been affected by their schedules so far, I also give VOA for total, offense, and defense.  I've colored these non-adjusted numbers red so they stand out.  (Note: The adjustments for rushing based on current game score aren't quite perfect, so you'll notice a few bad teams who face offenses running out the clock are higher rated in rush defense than they should be... I'm working on fixing that.)

Special Teams numbers represent actual points.  FG/XP gives the points the kickers have been worth compared to how often average kickers hit from the same distances.  The other four numbers give the amount of "expected points" that a team gains in field position compared to average special teams play.  You can read more on that here.  I had to shorten punt return and kick return to "Pu-RET" and "Ki-RET" to save space so forgive the ugly headings.  These numbers are then turned into a total DVOA number which can be added to offense and defense to get total team efficiency.  (Note: Since special teams performance is based on 2002 averages, and early 2003 performance has been much better than last year's performance, you'll notice that there are more positive special teams than negative.  I can't fix that until the offseason.)

Individual player discussions in the comments may discuss the statistic DPAR, which is defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement.  This represents the total number of points scored due to plays where this player passed/ran/caught the ball, compared to a replacement-level player in the same game situations.  DPAR is further explained here.

Strength of schedule numbers give the average DVOA for all teams that have been played (past) or will be played for the rest of the season (future).  The final number given, projected record, is an estimate of the team's final record.  For all remaining games, wins are rewarded to any team 40% higher than its opponent in total DVOA, all games pitting two teams within 10% of each other count for .5 wins to each team, and games where the gap between opponents falls between 10% and 40% are on a sliding scale of determining how likely each team is to win.  (WARNING: This is totally unscientific, a broad guess on my part, not based on analysis of how teams have done in the past based on mid-season DVOA.  To paraphrase the great Keith Woolner, "DVOA and DPAR aren't meant to be predictive, but are instead evaluating the value or quality of a player or team's performance in the past." I mean, last week totally messed up the AFC predictions.) Numbers in parentheses are estimated playoff seeding.

An interesting note for those Titans fans upset that the AFC article picked Indy over Tennessee: After last week's games, with the Colts losing and the Titans destroying Miami, the prediction now has Tennessee at 13-3 winning the division with the Colts at 12-4 snagging the wild card.  The second wild card switches from Miami to Denver.

One more note: you may remember our early article that introduced the Pythagorean Theorem to football.  Introduced by Bill James, it says that a baseball team's record can be estimated using runs scored and allowed.  It works for football as well, and when a team's Pythagorean record differs from its regular record, I've noted that.  This could be an indication of luck, and luck can turn around.  This theorem is going to be really important when we discuss Carolina and Tampa Bay.

All included numbers are through Week 10.  All statistics (except for non-adjusted VOA) are given a rank from #1 (best in league) to #32 (worst in league).  Schedule ranks go from #1 (hardest, most positive) to #32 (easiest, most negative).  If the math confuses you, just ignore the stats and focus on the rank.  If your team is #28 in everything, they suck.  If they are in the top five in everything, you are probably living in Kansas City.

If you would like to see what we wrote about these teams prior to the season, you can check out these IN FOCUS articles: NFC East, NFC North, NFC South, NFC West.


NFCEAST



TOTAL
  DVOA Rank VOA
DAL 18.3% 8 28.3%
NYG 3.3% 13 1.0%
PHI -6.7% 20 -6.5%
WAS -7.6% 23 -9.2%
OFFENSE
DVOA Rank VOA PASS Rk RUSH Rk
-6.5% 21 -3.1% 2.0% 16 -13.6% 26
-2.5% 16 -3.5% 0.1% 20 -6.1% 18
-10.3% 25 -11.2% -24.3% 27 5.3% 8
5.1% 11 1.8% 3.1% 15 7.5% 6
DEFENSE
DVOA Rank VOA PASS Rk RUSH Rk
-23.9% 2 -30.5% -25.0% 3 -22.5% 2
-7.1% 10 -5.8% -9.8% 10 -3.9% 15
-0.9% 17 -2.1% 4.1% 16 -6.6% 9
13.5% 27 11.8% 25.9% 28 1.1% 21

 


SPECIAL TEAMS
  DVOA Rank XP/FG Rank PUNT Rank Pu-RET Rank KICK Rank Ki-RET Rank
DAL 0.9% 16 2.3 15 2.1 19 -2.9 20 3.9 15 -0.4 15
NYG -1.3% 26 -3.2 27 -7.2 28 5.0 7 4.2 14 -5.9 28
PHI 2.7% 5 1.1 19 -1.3 21 1.7 12 9.4 5 2.3 9
WAS 0.8% 17 4.9 12 -4.7 25 1.2 13 6.2 9 -2.5 22
SCHEDULE Projected
Record
Past Rank Future Rank
-9.7% 32 -2.9% 25 12-4 (1)
2.1% 12 2.0% 13 7-9
1.6% 15 2.7% 11 9-7
3.8% 6 -4.9% 27 7-9

DALLAS COWBOYS (7-2, Pythagorean 6-3)

Man, before the season who could have expected this?  The Tuna really is pretty amazing, but usually he doesn't get this kind of result in his first year with a new team.  I wrote a lot about Dallas back in Week 5, and since then I think that the conventional wisdom has come around to what I was saying back then.  The Dallas offense, which at that point was "#1 in the NFL" (ha ha) is really nothing special.  It's nice that Quincy Carter isn't taking his team out of games with bad turnovers, but the "Hey, Quincy doesn't completely such this year" talk has been an avalanche of damning with faint praise.  The defense, on the other hand, well, I think they are for real despite the easy schedule.  According to DVOA, they have only played two below-average games this year: the Week 1 loss to Atlanta (which now looks like a fluke) and Week 8 loss to Tampa Bay, which was pretty close to average.  The game with the Patriots this weekend could be 10-3 or so.  The Cowboys schedule looks easier by our ratings than it does by record, as after the Patriots they play a who's who of teams we have ranked lower than you would expect (Carolina, Philly, Washington, and the plummeting Dolphins).  The projection gives them the number one seed because they have more "likely wins" against NFC teams than St. Louis does, but I think the Rams are getting the top seed.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (6-3, Pythagorean 4-5)

It's nice that the Eagles are winning games, and Donovan McNabb sure led a nice last drive on Monday night, but clearly there is something wrong with him.  I'm not going to dive back into that whole controversy from earlier in the season, but he's just not playing well in general.  He's been better than average the last two weeks, but was pretty bad for the entire season before that.  Who knows, perhaps he has turned the corner.

The Eagles are one of the more "lucky" teams of 2003, winning more games than their stats would indicate, which makes them the opposite of the teams they will compete with for the playoffs.  Much of the NFC wild card race will be psychological.  One spot will probably go to either Seattle or St. Louis.  The other spot is likely a competition between the Eagles/Cowboys division loser and three teams that have so far lost more games than you would expect from their actual performance: Tampa Bay, San Francisco, and Green Bay.  Each of those teams could pass Philadelphia/Dallas for the second wild card spot -- our numbers still say Tampa would be the most likely -- but it depends on which team's coach can convince his players that the season isn't over and that the playoffs are in sight.  I'm guessing that coach is not Dennis Erickson, by the way.

NEW YORK GIANTS (4-5)

If you're waiting for me to say something controversial, like I did in the preseason when I wrote that Jeremy Shockey might not be that great, you're out of luck.  This year, the conventional wisdom about the Giants holds.  Yes, their special teams really are that bad, except for punt returns. Yes, turnovers are killing them: Their offense is ranked #16 in DVOA, but if you took turnovers away from every team in the NFL the Giants offense would move up to #8.  I don't see them turning it around to make the run at the playoffs this year, not with all the other NFC teams that will be just as hungry -- and have played better than the Giants, even if their records are just as mediocre. 

WASHINGTON REDSKINS (4-5)

Like Rob Neyer blabbing about walks until the cows come home, I'm going to hammer this into the ground: The "Fun and Gun" Redskins are a better rushing team than they are a passing team.  They were last year, ranking #15 in rushing but #27 in passing, and they are this year, ranking #6 in rushing but #15 in passing.  I don't know, maybe it is because nobody expects them to ever run the ball.  On the other hand, the offense/defense mix has significantly changed from last year.  In 2002 they were #9 in defense and #25 in offense, and this year they are #11 in offense but #27 in defense.  The schedule is about to get easier, so they might look like they are making a bit of a run, but they really won't.  By the way, it just has to be asked one more time: How does a team waive its only backup quarterback and find themselves forced to play a guy who just signed, has never played in the NFL, and knows nothing about the offense?  It boggles the mind.  Lord Valdemort indeed.

NFCNORTH


TOTAL
  DVOA Rank VOA
CHI -30.9% 31 -28.0%
DET -30.2% 30 -27.2%
GNB 4.7% 12 -0.9%
MIN 16.2% 9 25.8%
OFFENSE
DVOA Rank VOA PASS Rk RUSH Rk
-24.9% 30 -18.2% -48.2% 31 -1.0% 11
-25.7% 32 -21.9% -29.3% 28 -20.7% 31
13.0% 7 12.1% 22.7% 6 3.3% 9
25.7% 1 33.5% 38.3% 2 12.2% 4
DEFENSE
DVOA Rank VOA PASS Rk RUSH Rk
7.8% 23 11.6% 9.0% 22 6.6% 27
6.1% 21 6.9% 23.7% 26 -12.8% 6
8.4% 25 13.1% 15.5% 24 -0.4% 19
8.1% 24 6.2% 7.2% 18 9.3% 32

 


SPECIAL TEAMS
  DVOA Rank XP/FG Rank PUNT Rank Pu-RET Rank KICK Rank Ki-RET Rank
CHI 1.7% 9 5.1 11 5.5 11 1.8 11 -8.4 29 4.0 6
DET 1.6% 10 8.4 4 -5.2 26 6.8 4 -5.4 25 4.9 5
GNB 0.1% 20 5.1 10 -1.5 22 4.2 8 -6.3 27 -1.1 20
MIN -1.5% 28 -0.2 23 -6.0 27 -1.8 17 5.5 12 -5.8 27
SCHEDULE Projected
Record
Past Rank Future Rank
-2.3% 25 8.7% 3 4-12
-3.2% 27 14.9% 1 4-12
3.1% 9 -2.8% 23 8-8
-6.6% 31 -0.1% 17 11-5 (4)

MINNESOTA VIKINGS (6-3)

Why Vikings fans should be worried:


Week/Opponent GNB (1) CHI (2) DET(3) SFO (4) ATL (5) DEN (7) NYG (8) GNB (9) SDG (10)
Defense DVOA -63% 4% -16% -24% 25% -6% 39% 43% 74%

Remember, a positive number means more points, and this trend means that the Vikings are giving up a lot more points over the past three weeks -- actually, more like the past five weeks, considering that Atlanta rating.

I asked Geoff Larson of VikesGeek.com to write me a paragraph on Minnesota's defensive problems, and he ended up writing a little bit more than that.  So his analysis of the Viking defense -- including their record of drafting and signing defensive players -- as a guest column.  It seems like every baseball team has a blog devoted to it, and the Cubs and Red Sox might have 40 each, but VikesGeek is one of the few team-specific NFL blogs out there.  We're trying to collect links to as many team-specific blogs as possible, so if you write one, please let us know so we can exchange links.  Incidentally, another team with a good team-specific blog is...

GREEN BAY PACKERS (4-5, Pythagorean 5-4)

I don't want to anger any Packer fans who hate the Vikings or vice versa, but these are basically the same team except that the Packers are a little less of everything that the Vikings are.  The Packers have a really good, balanced offense, and the Vikings have a league-best balanced offense.  The Packers have a below-average defense, and the Vikings have a below-average defense.  The Vikings have had really bad special teams, and the Packers have slightly less-bad special teams.

The one major difference is that the Vikings are horrible against the run and okay against the pass, and the Packers are the other way around.  That's a big change from last year, when yo' momma could run on the Packers but nobody could pass on them.  There was some discussion of this after my Week 7 trends column, here's what Brandon from Packers Blog had to say:

Two reasons for the improved run defense. Rookie middle linebacker Nick Barnett leads the team in tackles, he is all over the field, and he is a sure tackler. Last year's middle linebacker, Hardy Nickerson, was MIA all season long. So far Gilbert Brown hasn't missed a game, knock on wood, and his bulk in the middle makes a big difference. The Packers struggled badly in the last few games of 2002 without big Gilbert in the middle.

The weak pass defense is a surprise. I wonder if Darren Sharper is still struggling to come back from injuries, although he has looked better recently. Marcus Anderson, the strong safety, isn't good in coverage, but he is good in run support. The Packers have lost depth from last year's secondary; Matt Bowen, Tod McBride, Bryant Westbrook, and their replacements, Antuan Edwards and Bhawon Jue, have been torched.

They say that whoever loses this weekend's Battle of the Bays is pretty much out of the playoffs.  With the Vikings defense turning back into, well, the Vikings defense, the Packers might still have a shot at the division even if they lose this weekend.  The matchup of gimpy-thumbed Favre vs. Tampa defense does not bode well for the Packers, but lady luck seems to have it in for the Bucs this year.  Remember the number one rule of picking games against the spread: the NFL makes no sense.  I think we proved that Week 10, didn't we?

CHICAGO BEARS (3-6)

go Bears offensive DVOA with Kordell Stewart as QB, Weeks 1-6: -36%
The Chicago Bears offensive DVOA with Chris Chandler as QB, Weeks 7-10: -12%

Hmmm, it does seem to make a difference.  Even the defense is playing better!

The Chicago Bears defensive DVOA, Weeks 1-6: +16% allowed to offenses
The Chicago Bears defensive DVOA, Weeks 7-10: -3% allowed to offenses

Anyway, I hope you Bears fans enjoyed winning a couple of games over the last month because you are about to enter hell.  The third-hardest remaining schedule includes the Rams, Broncos, Vikings, Packers, and Chiefs, although if the Chiefs have lost once already they might lay down and let random people from the stands run the ball against Chicago in Week 17.  The one bright spot is that the Packers, Vikings, and Redskins are Weeks 14-16 and none of those teams are doing well against the pass this year.  The perfect time to introduce one Rex Grossman to the life of an NFL starting quarterback.  Minnesota 41, Chicago 27.

DETROIT LIONS (3-6)

Hi!  We're also about to enter hell!  In fact, it's even hotter in Detroit.  The Lions get the hardest remaining schedule in the NFL -- they get the Rams, Vikings, Packers, and Chiefs, plus the Seahawks in Seattle and the Panthers, which means their schedule is even harder if you think Carolina is better than my ratings think Carolina is.

If you want to look to Detroit's future, there are two bright spots.  First, the special teams are pretty good.  Second, the rush defense has been phenomenal this year.  That's really strange, since last year the Detroit rush defense was horrific -- you would pick up third-string running backs off waivers in your fantasy league just to play against the Lions.  That #6 ranking is not a mirage created by the fact that teams are piling up very short runs to get rid of the clock in the fourth quarter.  If you only consider plays when the game is within a touchdown either way, the Detroit rushing defense is still ranked #6.  What did they change this offseason?  Is part of this Boss Bailey?

NFCSOUTH

 


TOTAL
  DVOA Rank VOA
ATL -27.3% 29 -34.7%
CAR 0.4% 14 -5.1%
NOR -11.3% 24 -11.2%
TAM 27.7% 3 29.0%
OFFENSE
DVOA Rank VOA PASS Rk RUSH Rk
-11.6% 26 -17.5% -40.5% 30 22.4% 1
-1.5% 18 -2.7% -0.3% 21 -2.5% 12
-6.4% 22 -2.9% 0.6% 18 -14.5% 27
6.2% 10 7.8% 12.9% 11 -2.9% 13
DEFENSE
DVOA Rank VOA PASS Rk RUSH Rk
16.6% 29 18.1% 38.7% 32 -4.9% 13
3.1% 19 7.4% 9.4% 23 -4.3% 14
6.4% 22 9.8% 7.3% 19 5.5% 26
-23.0% 3 -22.7% -32.3% 1 -12.1% 7

 


SPECIAL TEAMS
  DVOA Rank XP/FG Rank PUNT Rank Pu-RET Rank KICK Rank Ki-RET Rank
ATL 1.0% 14 -0.4 24 3.9 13 6.8 3 8.0 7 -12.7 31
CAR 5.0% 2 13.1 1 3.5 16 -5.1 22 7.7 8 9.6 3
NOR 1.5% 11 3.7 13 12.2 2 -2.8 19 -0.3 23 -3.8 26
TAM -1.5% 29 -6.2 30 8.1 7 -13.5 31 6.1 10 -2.8 24
SCHEDULE Projected
Record
Past Rank Future Rank
7.9% 2 5.1% 7 4-12
2.7% 11 -11.9% 32 11-5 (3)
2.9% 10 -7.7% 29 7-9
1.6% 14 -5.3% 28 10-6 (6)


CAROLINA PANTHERS (7-2, Pythagorean 5-4) and
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-5, Pythagorean 6-3)

e San Francisco 49ers went 14-2.  Out of those 14 wins, five came by a margin of three points or less, and two more were by a margin of four points.  The 49ers made the playoffs but lost the NFL title game to the Giants.

In 1991, the San Francisco 49ers underwent two major changes.  Joe Montana was injured, leaving the quarterback position to Steve Young and Steve Bono, and Roger Craig retired.  Otherwise, the team had basically the same personnel.  The team began the year 2-4, and after ten weeks they were 4-6.  The losses were by 2, 3, 6, 5, 3, and 7 points.  They then won their last six games to finish 10-6 but they didn't make the playoffs, losing the wildcard on tiebreaker to the Falcons.

Same team.  One year they win all the close games, the next year they lose them all.  This, in many ways, is the difference between the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Carolina Panthers are currently outperforming their projection based on actual points scored and allowed by .225, which rounds to two wins.  Only one team in the last two decades had a larger margin between actual wins and projected wins, the 1992 Indianapolis Colts.  The Tampa Bay Bucs are currently underperforming their projection based on actual points scored and allowed by .222, which rounds to two wins.  Not a single team in the last two decades had a larger negative margin between actual wins and projected wins.

The Panthers have won five games so far by three points or less.  Assuming I didn't miss a team while checking, only five teams in the last two decades have won that many games by three points or less in an entire season: 1990 49ers, 1986 Giants, 1998 Cardinals, 1998 Raiders, and 1999 Titans.

The Bucs have lost four games so far by three points or less.  Now, that's a little bit more common, and they won't even make it into rare company if they lose one more that close.  But if they lose two more by three points or less, they'll match only three teams from the past two decades: 1994 Oilers, 2000 Chargers, and 2001 (hey, guess who) Panthers.

The common perception of Tampa's difficulties this year is that they can't hold leads in the fourth quarter.  Is that true?

  • In the Week 2 loss to Carolina, they were losing 9-0 in the middle of the third quarter before coming back 9-9 and then having the extra point that would have won the game blocked.  They lost in overtime.
  • They were never in the game Week 7 against San Francisco.
  • In the Week 9 loss to New Orleans, they were losing 14-0 after three quarters and managed to come back to tie the game with two minutes left, then let the Saints get into field goal range and lost 17-14.
  • In the Week 10 loss to Carolina, they were losing 20-7 after three quarters and managed to come back to take the lead 24-20, before giving up that absurd Jake Delhomme drive and losing 27-24.
  • That leaves the Week 5 loss to Indianapolis, which truly was one of the all-time great collapses, giving up 21 points in five minutes.

To me, the Bucs don't look like a team that can't hold on to fourth quarter leads.  They look like a team that keeps getting into an early hole, but three out of four times climbed out of the hole only to not quite hold on to the comeback.  The Indianapolis game is the great exception, but let's remember that the final two touchdowns may never have happened if the referees knew their own NFL onside kickoff rules.

The VOA numbers seem to agree with this explanation.  Here, for your enjoyment are the numbers for Tampa's offense and defense by quarter, both in all games and in just their five losses and four wins:


Quarter

Defense DVOA Tampa Offense DVOA
All Losses Only Wins Only All Losses Only Wins Only
1 19% 56% -12% -33% -32% -34%
2 -47% -8% -88% 0% -19% 26%
3 -24% -3% -70% 14% -34% 55%
4 -44% -25% -69% 46% 46% 46%
OT -9% -9% -- -11% -11% --

The only game in which Tampa's defense was rated worse in the second half than the first was the loss to Indianapolis in Week 5.  Notice that the offense even digs itself into a hole in the first quarter in wins, but in the wins they come out of the funk a lot sooner.  If you need something to back up VOA, consider that the Bucs have allowed 430 yards in the first quarter of their five losses and 425 yards in the fourth quarter of their five losses.

At a certain point in the season, however, results start to outweigh nice statistics because teams have dug themselves larger holes than they can climb out of.  I think last week's loss puts Tampa at that point.  Based on their ability, they could easily run the table, or even lose just one game, and make the playoffs, but I don't think it is going to happen.  That projection is nice but it's more likely that they go 9-7 and lose the wild card spot on a tiebreaker.  If they start believing their press, they're screwed, and on top of that the projection system gives them a likely win over New Orleans because it doesn't know that the Saints seem to have the Bucs' number.  But, while nothing is 100% positive in the NFL, I am pretty darn sure that unless they blow the team up in the offseason they should bounce back with a 12-4 or 13-3 year -- just like the 1992 49ers, who went 14-2 again after that 10-6 underperformance year.  And then the press will write about how Tampa learned to win close games again even though they will be pretty much the same team as last year and the year before.

The opposite seems to be true for Carolina.  At this point, it would be foolish to think they won't win the division, even if they didn't also get to enjoy the easiest schedule in the league going forward.  They've also started rising up the DVOA ratings because their offensive performance is improving: -11% DVOA through the first six games, +19% DVOA the last three games.  There's no statistical evidence on this that I know of but they would seem to be strong in the areas that are most important in the playoffs (rush offense and defense, special teams).  But I still don't think they are going to the Super Bowl, and I think that next year they'll end up around 7-9 and we'll all talk about "what's wrong with the Panthers."

NEW ORLEANS (4-5)

What's interesting about the Saints is how mediocre they are in every single facet of the game this year (except, apparently, punting).  The only part of their game that's really bad is the running game, which is unexpected because Deuce McAllister is so well-regarded.  Deuce himself is about average this year, with DVOA about 0% (which is almost exactly where he stood last year), and because he runs so often he's tenth in DPAR (Def-Adjusted Points Above Replacement).  The rest of the team is -75% DVOA over 40 carries.  Brooks rates pretty low because, compared to other quarterbacks, he hasn't done a good job of getting a first down on third down scrambles this year.

It's also interesting to see their kick returns ranked #26.  In the rankings for 2002 (which you won't find on the site, I still need to do an article on them) the Michael Lewis-led Saints kick return squad was ranked #3.  

ATLANTA FALCONS (2-7)

And now, I present my excuses for why I picked the Atlanta Falcons as 2003 Super Bowl champions before the season began:

  1. I didn't want to pick Tampa Bay, the team I thought was best in the NFC, because repeating is so difficult.
  2. I didn't want to pick New England, the team I thought was best in the AFC, because I didn't want to look like a homer.
  3. I overlooked the small sample size of Doug Johnson's fine 2002 performance and assumed he could keep Atlanta afloat until Michael Vick returned.  This one I definitely deserve to be belittled for.
  4. Remember when Michael Vick was supposed to be ready to come back by Week 9 after the bye and maybe even for the Week 6 Monday Night game against St. Louis?  Whoops.  I thought that Vick's return would get the Falcons swept up in emotion, as he marched them Tom Brady-like into late January.
  5. I was not aware that we secretly switched Atlanta's great 2002 secondary, ranked #5 in DVOA against the pass last year, with a steaming pile of cow pellets.  But let's be honest, nobody knew this.

Now, the good news.  Look up at those statistics.  Yes, Atlanta's rushing offense is really ranked #1 in DVOA.  The quarterbacks have been so bad, the defense has been so bad, that nobody has noticed what a good job T. J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn are doing.  The fact that they split carries doesn't help, and Atlanta's rush offense doesn't score high in the standard NFL rankings because they have only had 212 carries, second-lowest in the league (Detroit has 200, the average is 242).  Think Atlanta is having all that success running the ball when they're losing big, and facing a prevent defense?  Well, if I only include plays where the game is within a touchdown either way, Atlanta still has the third-highest rush DVOA in the league behind Minnesota and San Diego.  And the two backs are both about equally above average.  Through Week 9, Duckett is 13% DVOA and worth 7.7 DPAR (Def-Adjusted Points Above Replacement), while Dunn is 18% DVOA, 6.6 DPAR.  (Week 10 delayed by sudden attack of colic on newest member of family.)

The best-case scenario for the Atlanta Falcons is that they are the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs.  That was the year David Robinson got injured and played only six games, and the Spurs plummeted from 59-23 to 20-62.  Oh, and that got them the first pick in the draft, and they took Tim Duncan, and have since won two titles.  There is no one player in this draft who can dominate like that, but the Falcons are sure to get a very high draft pick that they can use on either a shutdown cornerback or a dominating pass rusher.  If the Falcons are smart they'll build a whole new secondary in free agency (if the Patriots don't re-sign Ty Law, the Falcons need to be on his agent like white on rice).  The passing problems are likely gone with the return of Michael Vick and we know they can run the ball.  If they do things right, they may make my prediction look pretty good, only a year or two premature.

NFCWEST 


TOTAL
  DVOA Rank VOA
ARI -33.0% 32 -37.9%
SEA 23.9% 5 27.6%
SFO 22.7% 6 20.6%
STL 30.9% 2 31.8%
OFFENSE
DVOA Rank VOA PASS Rk RUSH Rk
-12.8% 27 -17.5% -19.5% 26 -4.8% 17
18.7% 5 20.5% 19.6% 8 17.8% 3
13.0% 6 9.4% 20.4% 7 5.6% 7
4.0% 12 2.0% 9.2% 12 -3.3% 15
DEFENSE
DVOA Rank VOA PASS Rk RUSH Rk
16.8% 30 17.0% 33.9% 31 0.3% 20
-4.5% 12 -6.5% -4.2% 12 -5.0% 12
-10.4% 7 -11.9% -17.4% 8 -0.5% 18
-28.2% 1 -31.1% -24.9% 4 -32.1% 1

 


SPECIAL TEAMS
  DVOA Rank XP/FG Rank PUNT Rank Pu-RET Rank KICK Rank Ki-RET Rank
ARI -3.5% 30 -6.2 31 -16.1 32 -6.6 26 0.6 21 10.1 2
SEA 0.6% 19 2.4 14 10.5 3 5.2 6 -8.3 28 -2.6 23
SFO -0.7% 22 -13.3 32 3.9 14 -2.0 18 5.5 13 1.9 10
STL -1.4% 27 7.7 6 -3.9 24 -17.0 32 12.0 3 -6.2 29
SCHEDULE Projected
Record
Past Rank Future Rank
6.0% 4 8.3% 4 4-12
-4.4% 30 0.0% 16 11-5 (5)
3.4% 7 -4.0% 26 9-7
1.5% 16 -10.3% 31 12-4 (2)

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (6-3)

Things I have not had a chance to add to the VOA ratings formula, part 534: home vs. road performance.  That means that the VOA formula doesn't show you this:


Seattle DVOA Offense Defense Special Teams Total
HOME +22.0% -8.1% +9.9% +40.0%
AWAY +14.8% -0.4% -2.2% +13.0%

Actually, I thought they would be a little worse than this on the road.  For the offense, the rushing DVOA stays basically the same but Matt Hasselbeck's passing numbers drop off; the decline on defense is more all-around.  I'm not going to buy into the idea that they will automatically win every remaining home game and lose every remaining road game, but even if they do that makes them 9-7 and they still might get the wild card.  Even more likely is 10-6 since next week they get to play the Anthony Wright Experience (a.k.a. Baltimore). 

ST. LOUIS RAMS (6-3)

As I pointed out in this week's VOA ratings commentary, the ESPN commentators during last Sunday's Ravens-Rams game spent the whole night saying, "Wow, who ever expected the St. Louis defense to so outshine the offense?"  If you've been reading Football Outsiders, you expected it, since we had the Ram defense ranked #4 and the offense only #9.  After last Sunday's defensive slogfest, the difference is even greater, with the offense now #12 and the defense actually ranked #1 in the league.

We're so used to thinking of the Rams as the high-flying offensive juggernaut they were from 1999-2001 that it's hard to think of them as a defensively oriented team that happens to also have a good passing attack.  The Rams' defensive strength is further hidden by the conventional NFL standings, where they are a middle-of-the-pack team in scoring thanks to 20.1 points given up per game, and eighth in yards allowed.  Their defense is constantly facing an opponent in good field position thanks to the Rams' league-high 24 turnovers.  Remember the table from the Giants comment about what the offensive DVOA rankings would look like if all turnovers were removed?  The Rams would move up even more than the Giants -- in fact, they would be #2 in offense with turnovers removed.  (Number one?  Green Bay.)

As I mentioned in the Dallas comments, I disagree with the projection numbers and think the Rams will beat out the Cowboys (and Panthers) for the top seed in the playoffs.  Notice they're listed with the second-easiest schedule remaining.  The problem they need to fix is the running game.  Lamar Gordon is the only St. Louis running back with positive DVOA.  Perhaps Marshall Faulk can turn around his lousy two-year trend if he's 100% healthy, but you wonder if they might as well just sit him and let Gordon go once Gordon himself is healthy again.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (4-5, Pythagorean 6-3)

Here's another one of the NFC teams that has so far had a losing record despite above-average performance on a per-play basis.  They've lost twice, to St. Louis and Arizona, in overtime after losing the coin toss and never touching the ball.  You can say they should never have gone to overtime, and I'm not going to rehash the debate about overtime rules here, but if this was the NFL before overtime the 49ers would be 4-3-2, the Rams would be 5-3-1, Seattle would be 6-3, and things would be a lot closer.

They've also lost two games by one point each.  Week 6 against Seattle they were down 17-0, came back with 19 straight points, and should have had more if Owen Pochman had not blown a field goal and an extra point.  That extra point cost them when Seattle had one last drive and won 20-19.  The other loss was the Week 3 contest against Cleveland where Kelly Holcomb magically transformed into John Elway and the 49ers blew a 12-0 lead.  Still, that's two more games when the team played fairly well, but you don't get 45% of a win when you play fairly well and lose by one point.

I would say that the 49ers were the favorite to turn things around and challenge the Eagles for the second wild card spot.  The schedule is about to get easier.  The pass offense is even better when you take out the game against Minnesota where the Vikings played mysteriously fabulous defense.  The defense hasn't been half bad.  Eventually they have to find a kicker who knows where the hell the uprights are.  On the other hand, I don't have faith in Dennis Erickson, and quarterback controversies never seem to help anyone except Doug Flutie.

ARIZONA CARDINALS (3-6, Pythagorean 2-7)

Before the season, Patrick Laverty and I put a bet on the over/under for the Cardinals, which was 3.5.  I looked at a schedule that included the NFC North and AFC North, and I took the over, and I'm now one win away from collecting my $20.  Had you asked me which games I expected the Cardinals to be able to win, I would not have said, "Green Bay and San Francisco."

Nonetheless, the Cardinals are back to the bottom spot in the DVOA ratings.  But there is hope for the future.  First, they got lucky when Emmitt Smith got injured and they could bring back the much-superior Marcel Shipp.  Second, they have the breakout receiver of the year in Anquan Boldin.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to update the WR DVOA numbers since Week 7 (they require breaking down a second set of play-by-play logs) but through Week 7 Boldin was dramatically better than the rest of the Cardinals receiving corps:


Receiver DPAR DVOA Passes Yards Catch%
Boldin, Anquan 6.6 7.4% 60 674 65%
Jones, Freddie -0.6 -16.6% 35 221 66%
Johnson, Bryant -0.9 -19.1% 32 206 56%
McAddley, Jason -0.5 -23.3% 12 53 33%
Gilmore, Bryan 0.6 -2.4% 11 152 45%
Poole, Nathan -0.5 -29.2% 8 30 38%
Kasper, Kevin -0.7 -46.1% 5 28 20%

By the way, you'll notice that these DPAR (Def-Adjusted Points Above Replacement) numbers are about one-third of what is listed on the WR stats sheet.  That's because, um, when I was doing receiving I forgot to make the adjustment that changes "play value" into points.  Hey, I was in the hospital with a recovering wife and a newborn!  Anyway, I'll try to do new WR numbers after Week 11 and fix that problem when the new numbers go up.

To return to the Cardinals, the problem with Arizona is that they still need an entire defense, more wide receivers, and a young quarterback.  At least they may be able to get the last one in the draft.  Eli's comin', better hide your heart.  Unless he goes to Oakland like I predicted in the AFC article.

 

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 13 Nov 2003

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