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14 Sep 2004

2001 DVOA Ratings and Commentary

by Aaron Schatz

During the season, this is where you will find my weekly update of the DVOA ratings along with commentary, but that's not here today. Five words to explain why I'm not doing a long, involved commentary after one week: Buffalo 31, New England 0.

Seriously, it is hard to know anything after the first week. Does the New England run defense really miss Ted Washington? Or is Edgerrin James finally all the way back from his knee injury? Or both? Or neither? Is Quentin Griffin really going to step right in to replace Clinton Portis with no dropoff? Or is the problem that the Kansas City run defense still sucks? Or both? Or neither? One week isn't enough to answer these questions with any kind of confidence.

So no weekly commentary today. For those curious, you'll find the top five teams for Week 1, in each category, listed over to the left. In the meantime, I'll use my usual Tuesday space for a different purpose -- to present the long-awaited 2001 DVOA ratings.

The 2003 Super Bowl put me in a bit of a weird position.  Since I started this website, I've made no secret of the fact that the Patriots are my team.  As they slashed through the 2003 season like Sherman in Atlanta, I was often accused of Patriots bias.  At the same time, I was writing every single week that the Carolina Panthers were the most overrated team in football and they just kept winning and proving me wrong.  When the Super Bowl came I was stuck trying to write about how the Patriots were the best team in football and the Panthers were a fluke without sounding like a homer.  It was really difficult.

Now, however, it can finally be admitted to the world that the 2003 Panthers really were similar to the 2001 Patriots.

The 2001 New England Patriots were a colossal fluke.

In fact, they were even more of a colossal fluke than the Panthers, because they not only won the whole thing but won it over a team that was far better over the course of the season than the 2003 Patriot team that the Panthers almost beat in Super Bowl XXXVIII.  From the second week of the season until the minute the Super Bowl kicked off, the St. Louis Rams were the dominant team of 2001.  Sixty minutes of football later, they had lost out on the championship, outplayed in one game by a generally weaker team.  Fate is a kick in the nuts sometimes.

One of the common complaints about Football Outsiders is that "the only stat that matters is wins."  That's a statement made by people who don't want to learn why teams win and lose, how teams can improve themselves, or which teams are likely to win next year.  But the statement is true when it comes to the past.  As a New England fan, I'm not afraid to admit that the 2001 Super Bowl victory was a colossal fluke.  It doesn't make the victory any less sweet, and it doesn't take the Patriots' name off the Lombardi Trophy.  Other teams may have played better during the season, but the Patriots won when it counted.  No matter how much I write that the 2003 Panthers were overrated, last January I would rather have been a Carolina fan than a Green Bay fan.  (I should point out that the Patriots' 2003 championship was emphatically not a fluke; they were the best team in football by January.)

I have more to say about the Patriots, Rams, and other interesting teams of 2001, but first let's run the numbers.  These are the Football Outsiders team efficiency ratings for 2001, measured by our proprietary Value Over Average (VOA) system that breaks down every single play and compares a team's performance to the league averaged based on situation in order to determine value over average.  (Explained further here.)

DVOA represents adjusted statistics.  OFFENSE and DEFENSE DVOA are adjusted for opponent quality and to consider all fumbles, kept or lost, as equal value.  SPECIAL DVOA is adjusted for type of stadium (warm, cold, dome, Denver) and week of season.  NON-ADJ TOTAL VOA does not include these adjustments.  DVOA is a better indicator of team quality.  VOA is a better indicator of actual wins.  WEIGHTED DVOA gives a stronger consideration to games late in the season.  Remember that, as always, defense is better when it is NEGATIVE. Estimated wins, variance, and other numbers here.

(Ed. note: Whoops, seems I used a slightly earlier version of special teams in putting the tables together. As a result, the numbers were slightly off. They are now fixed. Any rank in red has changed due to the slight adjustment in special teams ratings.)


TEAM TOTAL
DVOA
W-L NON-ADJ
TOTAL VOA
WEIGHTED
DVOA
RANK OFFENSE
DVOA
OFF.
RANK
DEFENSE
DVOA
DEF.
RANK
SPECIAL
DVOA
S.T.
RANK
1 STL 39.6% 14-2 45.6% 33.5% 1 25.6% 1 -20.8% 3 -6.8% 28
2 PHI 32.4% 11-5 30.5% 24.4% 3 -1.3% 12 -24.6% 1 9.1% 1
3 TAM 21.0% 9-7 21.7% 23.5% 5 -1.7% 13 -19.5% 4 3.2% 7
4 SFO 20.6% 12-4 24.7% 31.4% 2 16.1% 2 -6.9% 14 -2.4% 21
5 PIT 17.7% 13-3 24.5% 20.5% 7 11.5% 4 -8.9% 12 -2.7% 23
6 OAK 16.4% 10-6 16.3% 11.9% 9 15.4% 3 -3.4% 18 -2.4% 22
7 NYJ 14.0% 10-6 20.1% 9.0% 11 -1.1% 11 -13.2% 8 1.8% 8
8 GNB 13.8% 12-4 24.4% 11.3% 10 2.1% 8 -11.0% 11 0.7% 11
9 SDG 10.2% 5-11 8.9% -9.0% 19 -3.8% 16 -13.9% 7 0.2% 14
10 CHI 9.0% 13-3 14.8% 21.0% 6 -8.0% 20 -12.3% 10 4.7% 4
11 MIA 8.7% 11-5 3.8% 12.0% 8 -11.9% 23 -15.9% 6 4.6% 5
12 BAL 4.7% 10-6 1.5% -1.0% 15 -12.7% 25 -18.1% 5 -0.7% 18
13 WAS 3.3% 8-8 1.7% 23.5% 4 -9.7% 22 -13.0% 9 0.1% 15
14 DEN 2.6% 8-8 7.7% -9.2% 20 -7.6% 18 -8.5% 13 1.7% 9
15 JAC -1.3% 6-10 0.6% 1.5% 13 2.4% 7 4.2% 23 0.6% 12
16 NE -1.4% 11-5 4.3% 7.5% 12 -8.7% 21 -3.4% 19 3.9% 6
TEAM TOTAL
DVOA
W-L NON-ADJ
TOTAL VOA
WEIGHTED
DVOA
RANK OFFENSE
DVOA
OFF.
RANK
DEFENSE
DVOA
DEF.
RANK
SPECIAL
VOA
S.T.
RANK
17 KAN -1.7% 6-10 -8.1% -7.3% 18 4.4% 6 6.0% 24 -0.1% 16
18 SEA -1.9% 9-7 -5.5% 0.7% 14 -3.1% 14 -4.0% 16 -2.8% 24
19 CLE -3.9% 7-9 -9.2% -26.0% 28 -22.9% 30 -22.1% 2 -3.1% 26
20 NYG -6.2% 7-9 -1.5% -17.1% 24 -3.8% 15 -6.0% 15 -8.4% 30
21 NO -9.6% 7-9 -10.3% -14.9% 23 -12.2% 24 -2.1% 20 0.5% 13
22 TEN -10.4% 7-9 -11.9% -5.3% 17 1.9% 9 11.8% 28 -0.5% 17
23 ATL -11.6% 7-9 -14.0% -19.2% 25 -7.6% 19 9.7% 25 5.7% 2
24 ARI -14.0% 7-9 -13.4% -5.0% 16 1.2% 10 13.7% 29 -1.5% 20
25 IND -14.3% 6-10 -16.5% -11.5% 21 6.8% 5 16.1% 30 -4.9% 27
26 DAL -20.4% 5-11 -26.2% -12.2% 22 -20.4% 29 -1.3% 22 -1.4% 19
27 CIN -22.8% 6-10 -22.7% -29.9% 30 -15.6% 28 -2.0% 21 -9.2% 31
28 CAR -23.2% 1-15 -23.9% -25.5% 27 -32.8% 31 -3.9% 17 5.7% 3
29 DET -25.2% 2-14 -33.4% -24.6% 26 -14.8% 27 11.1% 26 0.8% 10
30 BUF -32.2% 3-13 -36.6% -26.4% 29 -13.3% 26 11.4% 27 -7.5% 29
31 MIN -33.7% 5-11 -37.4% -35.1% 31 -7.1% 17 23.5% 31 -3.0% 25

The Rams aren't the best team of the four years of the "DVOA Era" (2002 Tampa was +40.9% DVOA) but they were far ahead of the rest of the NFL in 2001.  Notice that not only do they have the top-ranked offense, but also the #3 defense.  They had been #26 on defense the year before, so this was a huge jump.  But since 2001, their defense has remained strong while the offense has declined.  I've written about how people still think the Rams are a high-flying offense, when the team is really driven by its defense.  The defense has now ranked in the DVOA top ten three straight years, while the offense was poor in 2002 and average in 2003.

Of the four years of the "DVOA Era," 2001 is the one with the worst correlation between wins and VOA, and there were some strange things happening that season.  Three teams in particular stand out.  The first is the Patriots, and I want to mention a few more things about their 2001 surprise season.  It's been written that Bill Belichick had a multi-year plan when he got to New England.  The 2001 team was filled with low-cost veteran free agents not because of some secret winning strategy but because those players were supposed to keep the team above water while the young players developed and learned Belichick's system.  When the team went 9-7 in the year after the Super Bowl title, everyone assumed that the 2001 team was a one-year wonder.  If you look at the DVOA ratings for all four years of the Belichick era, however, you see that both the offense and defense gradually improved each year, just as originally planned.  They just happened to win an extremely unlikely championship in the middle.


YEAR RANK TOTAL W-L OFF RANK DEF RANK
2000 22 -10.0% 5-11 -7.5% 21 5.7% 22
2001 16 -1.4% 11-5 -8.7% 21 -3.4% 19
2002 11 12.5% 9-7 4.0% 17 -3.4% 10
2003 2 22.4% 14-2 -0.8% 13 -22.0% 3

(2002 was a very strong year for offense, which is why the offense dropped in DVOA but improved in rank in 2003.)

Over to the right you'll see the return of one of my favorite Football Outsiders features from last season, the game-by-game graph.  The Patriots didn't really make a surge forward at any point in the season.  Just like this year's Pats, they were consistent, finishing 26th in the league in VARIANCE. They had that huge game in Week 3 against Indianapolis, which shocked everyone since the Colts were defending division champs and the Pats had some sixth-round pick at quarterback in his first NFL start.  Then they were up and down, gradually improving but not significantly.  Sometimes the Patriots won close thanks to skill, other times they won close thanks to luck, and partially they won thanks to terrible opponents.  According to DVOA, the 2001 Patriots had the league's fifth-easiest schedule.  They won three games despite a negative total DVOA rating: Week 5 against San Diego (29-26 in OT), Week 9 against Buffalo (21-11), and Week 14 against Buffalo again (12-9 in OT).  The negative rating in the two Buffalo games comes partly due to Buffalo being the league's second-worst team in 2001; the 12-9 win is the infamous game where David Patten fumbled after being knocked unconscious with his head out of bounds, leading the fumble to be overturned on review.

Unfortunately, I haven't had the time to break down the 2001 playoffs yet, so I can't tell you if the Patriots went on a playoff run akin to the 2003 Panthers.  Given that two of the three wins were last-second field goals, I have a feeling the answer is "no."

Just as astonishing as the Patriots winning the 2001 title was the in-season collapse of the San Diego Chargers.  For those who don't remember, the Chargers had gone 1-15 in 2000.  This is the year they traded the first pick in the draft to Atlanta for the picks that became Tomlinson and Brees, and they signed Doug Flutie to quarterback for a year while Brees learned.  The Chargers went 5-2 over their first seven games, with two close losses: 20-16 to Cleveland and 29-26 to New England.  After seven games they had a DVOA of 45.2%, ranking second in the league behind the St. Louis Rams.

Then they lost nine straight games to finish 5-11 and Mike Riley was fired.  But here's the thing -- after a Week 9 loss to Denver that dropped them to 5-4, the Chargers didn't really play that badly.  Check out the chart, and you see the Denver loss sticks out like Ralph Nader on NASCAR Pit Row.  The DVOA system gives San Diego positive ratings in three of the last seven losses, and zero for two others.  Four of those final losses came by only three points.  For the season, the Chargers actually outscored their opponents 332-321.  If Football Outsiders had existed in the fall of 2002, I probably would have written that the Chargers were an underrated team that was likely to bounce back.  And they did, sort of, going 8-8 in 2002, although they declined in DVOA to rank 21st in the NFL.

The third of the strange teams of 2001 was the Washington Redskins, who were the opposite of the Chargers, but far, far stronger.  If I remember correctly, 2000 had been the first season where Daniel Snyder tried to play George Steinbrenner, and an 8-8 record despite additions like Bruce Smith and rookie LaVar Arrington was a disappointment.  The Skins brought in Marty Schottenheimer as head coach and proceeded to lose their first four games of 2001 by a combined score of 135-25.  When they fell in Week 5, 9-7 at Dallas, nobody thought that was the beginning of a turnaround, but it was.  The Skins won their next five to even their record at 5-5, and then just when everyone thought they were headed for the playoffs, split the last six games and ended 8-8 again.  The Redskins led the league in VARIANCE and their DVOA game-by-game graph is pretty stunning.

But they weren't playing that badly in those final losses.  DVOA says that they outplayed the Eagles in Week 14, but every time the Redskins got near the red zone something goofy happened.  Eight possessions inside the Philly 40-yard line produced six points.  There were two missed field goals, two interceptions in the red zone, one drive killed by an offensive pass interference penalty and another killed after Derrius Thompson got called for unnecessary roughness after a Stephen Davis run.  Week 15 they played Chicago even and lost 20-15.  At the end of the season, WEIGHTED DVOA said they were the fourth-best team in the NFL, but they watched the playoffs from home.

With all that improvement over the course of the season, you would expect Washington to be set for a big run in 2002, right?  Well, no.  Snyder fired Schottenheimer and brought in Steve Spurrier.  Most of the improvement was offensive, not defensive, and if you remember from the projections article that doesn't carry over to the next season as strongly -- especially if you toss out the previous offensive system and put something completely different in its place the way Spurrier did.  So the Redskins had another mediocre season.

A few more comments about the 2001 season:

  • When you compare their 2001 performance to other seasons, the Bears were a bigger fluke than the Patriots.  But looking at just the 16 games of the 2001 season, the Bears' performance was much more in line with their win total.  They also would have been a better pick entering the playoffs, since they were on the upswing in the final weeks.  Their worst games came early in the season, their best games at the end of the year.  They were just stuck going against an even better team in the playoffs, and unlike the Patriots they had no weather advantage or controversial play to help them beat the Eagles.  Anthony Thomas, by the way, was fourth among running backs in DPAR in 2001.  How did he fall so far so fast?
  • Looking at which teams underperformed their DVOA numbers, Tampa Bay would have stood out as a clear candidate for improvement in 2002.  Wouldn't you know it, the 2002 Bucs won the Super Bowl.
  • Notice the Baltimore Ravens.  The defense that had been all-world the year before was still very good in 2001.  But even though it remained in the DVOA top five, it regressed from -31.5% DVOA to -18.1% DVOA.  I expect the same to happen to the Ravens defense this year, which is why I believe Baltimore will fall apart in 2004.  No team can continue to play defense year after year at the level of the 2000 Ravens or 2003 Ravens, and the offense is still pitiful.  That is Cleveland on top of the Week 1 defense rankings, after all, thanks to a game against Baltimore.
  • The 2003 Ravens actually broke a general rule that applies to the 2001 Cleveland Browns -- no matter how great the defense, you need at least an average offense to avoid mediocrity.  After finishing 25th in defensive DVOA in 2000, the Browns jumped all the way up to #2 thanks to an swarming, blitzing pass defense that ranked first in the league in interceptions and fourth in yards per pass attempt. But their offense -- due in part to a pathetic running back committee that averaged less than 3.2 yards per carry -- was bad enough to cancel that defense out entirely.
  • Arizona had an actual offense, giving their fans hope for the future.  This is the year David Boston had 1598 yards receiving, and both he and Plummer were in the top ten for their positions in DPAR.  Boston's never been the same, but perhaps this was the indicator that Plummer might have success if he could move to a team with better players surrounding him.
  • Even though they went 6-10, you can see the beginning of the current Kansas City Chiefs offensive juggernaut beginning to stir in 2001.
  • Yes, Derrick Mason finishes higher in 2001 receiving value than everyone except Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice.  He's been the most underrated stud receiver in football for a while now.

2001 numbers are now on the site for individual positions as well as team offense and defense.  Special teams should be up shortly.  Offensive and defensive lines won't be available for a while longer.  Feel free to ask questions about 2001 in the discussion thread or in email, I'll likely collect them all into a separate article if there are enough of them.  And I'll do commentary on 2000 in a few weeks.

Many of the questions asked in the discussion below are now answered in this article.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 14 Sep 2004

3 comments, Last at 22 Feb 2007, 10:36pm by parochial school

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