Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
12 Nov 2004
by Aaron Schatz
by Aaron Schatz
Time for a closer look at the first half of the season through the lens of our advanced Football Outsiders statistics. This week I look at each team in the NFC, next week the AFC.
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. For those new to Football Outsiders, DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) 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, opponent, and so on. We use this statistic rather than simply yards or first downs, because DVOA rewards progress towards both. DVOA is further explained here.
Remember that since DVOA represents efficiency at scoring points, defensive DVOA is better when it is negative. In total DVOA, you add in the opposite of defense so that better defense leads to a higher total DVOA. Trust me, it makes sense. The average DVOA, according to the baseline established in 2002-2003, is 0%. However, you'll notice a few more positive ratings than negative ones this year. As has been reported, this has been a big year for the offenses. If it continues for the next eight weeks, I'll have to adjust the baselines in the offseason.
There is also a special teams rating that turns field position gained on kicks and punts as well as field goal efficiency into a percentage that can be added to offense and defense. You can read more about how that works in this article, and you can see this year's special teams performances broken down here.
All included numbers are through Week 9. All statistics are given a rank from #1 (best in league) to #32 (worst in league). If the math confuses you, just ignore the stats and focus on the rank.
We have a new addition to this midseason reports this year: DVOA projected for the rest of the season. In the preseason, I created a complicated system that predicted how teams would fare in 2004 based on year-to-year trends from the past four seasons. It predicted a number of surprises, including big seasons from the Jets and Chargers, and even some of the teams it seemed to have screwed up are coming around (Green Bay, Tampa Bay).
For the midseason, I've created a similar system that projects DVOA as well as record for the remainder of the year. It is based on an analysis of midseason trends from the past four seasons and comparison of past teams with current teams based on first half strengths and weaknesses plus remaining strength of schedule. I run down the projected records after the section on each division, along with predictions for the two wild cards. The projected DVOA ratings for the NFC are at the bottom of this article. Unlike in the preseason, there are no subjective changes here (for instance, Minnesota's rating is not changed due to the Moss injury). Obviously, one bounce of the ball either way means an extra win or loss, and so these predictions are guaranteed to be less than 100 percent accurate. Such is life in the NFL.
If you find the comments about your favorite team interesting, the best way to help spread the word about Football Outsiders is to link to our articles and discuss them on your favorite team message boards. I'll even give you some direct links for each division: NFC East, NFC North, NFC South, and NFC West.
These articles appeared in edited form this week in the New York Sun, and the AFC midseason report will appear there as well, Tuesday through Friday, before appearing here in a week.
The NFC East was supposed to represent a battle between Hall of Fame coaches, with Joe Gibbs returning to coach Washington and Bill Parcells entering his second year in Dallas. Instead it is Andy Reid, a pimply-faced teenager compared to Gibbs and Parcells, who has his Philadelphia Eagles clearly dominating not just the division but the entire conference.
The Philadelphia loss to Pittsburgh this past weekend ruins the impossible dream of a perfect season for the Eagles. But it does nothing to change the fact that mediocrity in the NFC gives this team a clear path to the Super Bowl. Only one other team in the conference has six wins and the only one team remaining on Philadelphia's schedule currently has a winning record. According to DVOA rankings, the Eagles are still the top team in the league, and teams two through nine below them are all AFC squads.
Nevertheless, the loss to the Steelers should worry Philadelphia fans a bit because it exposed the clear weakness of the Eagles: run defense. The 2003 Eagles allowed 4.5 yards per carry, one of the worst totals in the league, and were 29th in run defense DVOA. Before this week, it seemed like this year's Eagles had at least improved their rush defense to a league average level, but opposing ground games had been somewhat limited by the fact that opponents were always playing from behind. That wasn't a problem for Pittsburgh, and the Eagles let aged back Jerome Bettis run up his biggest yardage total in three years. After that performance, the Eagles are now 25th in run defense DVOA; based on yards per carry they are actually now worse than last season, allowing 4.7 yards per carry.
Philadelphia fans believe this is the year, and they won't accept another playoff run that doesn't end in a trip to the Super Bowl. But in the playoffs the Eagles will have to tangle with numerous successful running games, possibly including the relentless Shawn Alexander of the Seahawks, the Minnesota Vikings Gang of Four, or the three-headed monster in Atlanta made up of quarterback Michael Vick and running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett. Now that Pittsburgh has laid out the blueprint, beating the Eagles won't seem quite so daunting a task.
The good news is that the Giants have already topped their win total of last season. The bad news is that a winning record masks a team that is not only mediocre but trending downwards. The Giants did have a great game against Minnesota, but given their string of three straight seasons with wins at the Metrodome it seems they match up better with the Vikings than any other opponent. That win was sandwiched by two losses to Detroit and Chicago at home, both characterized by offensive turnovers and an inability to stop the run.
Projections based on midseason trends from the past few seasons predict that the Giants will face a second half decline steeper than any other team in the NFC, particularly on defense. Among the relevant trends: an inconsistent defense over the first half of the season usually translates into a decline in the second half; the Giants have had poor defense in the red zone; and there's been so much improvement over last season that some regression is likely. The poor second half projection doesn't even take into account this week's news that both starting defensive ends, Michael Strahan and Keith Washington, will be lost for the rest of the season due to injury.
On offense, while there is no doubt that Barber has been one of the best running backs in football this season, he's on pace for a career high in carries, and his newfound ability to avoid fumbles is probably nothing more than random chance based on small sample size. The passing game, meanwhile, has fallen off substantially since budding star wideout Tim Carter was lost for the season in early October. In Weeks 1-4, the Giants passing DVOA was 30.6%, ranked seventh in the NFL. In Weeks 5-9, the Giants passing DVOA was -48.3%, worse than every team during that period except Chicago.
At least one NFC wild card playoff entry this season will not require double digit wins, and there's even a good chance that somebody will sneak into the playoffs at 8-8. Last weekend's defensive injuries, however, make it more likely that team will Detroit, Tampa Bay, or St. Louis, rather than the Giants.
Bipartisanship will be difficult to muster over the next four years but there is one thing that unites Democrats and Republicans in our nation's capital: disappointment in the Redskins. Legendary head coach Joe Gibbs returned to cleanse the franchise of the alleged stench left by former coach Steve Spurrier, but the Redskins lost four straight after an opening win against Tampa Bay, and only the nuclear meltdown called the Miami Dolphins has kept the Redskins from ranking as the NFL's worst offense this season.
The surprising start from the Giants mirrored the early failures in Washington, but the two teams have mirrored each other over the past three games as well -- which means the Redskins may be turning things around. The two teams that beat the Giants at the Meadowlands, Chicago and Detroit, both fell to Washington at home. The Washington defense has been as strong in 2004 as the offense has been feeble. They've allowed the fewest yards per game and yards per play in the NFL; DVOA ranks them third against the rush and fourth against the pass.
The trade of cornerback Champ Bailey to Denver was supposed to weaken the Washington secondary, but the Redskins find themselves not only stronger but more balanced on defense. Cornerback Shawn Springs, the ex-Seahawk who replaced Bailey, has reinvigorated his career, while rookie safety Sean Taylor, considered the most NFL-ready player of the 2004 draft, has been as good as advertised. You might remember my offseason analysis of 2003 numbers which showed that Washington was one of the best pass defenses against passes intended for "number one" receivers, but the worst defense in the league on passes to all other receivers. In 2004, however, the Redskins have improved their all-around pass defense, and in fact are now the best defense in the league on passes to "number two" receivers. They are doing a far better job shutting down the entire passing offense even if they allow the top receivers a few more yards.
But the defense can only take Washington to the playoffs if the offense improves. Quarterback Mark Brunell has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL this season, and it is clear that a late-career resurgence isn't coming. Backup Patrick Ramsey might be worse than Brunell, but he also might be better. With a difficult schedule remaining, the Redskins need to take the gamble that Ramsey will provide the offensive improvement that might get them to eight or nine wins. A quarterback change is always a hard decision, but the road to 6-10 is paved with easy decisions.
Every preseason report about the Dallas Cowboys boiled down to the same synopsis: great coach, great defense, but an offense of over the hill veterans that would probably prevent a return to the playoffs. But the Cowboys have followed the exact opposite storyline. Their attempt to build an offense around the 1998 Pro Bowl roster has actually proved moderately successful, but the regression of the defense is the most surprising backwards movement since Michael Jackson debuted the moonwalk.
Last year the Cowboys led the NFL, allowing only 254 yards per game, and were second allowing only 4.3 yards per play. Most importantly, nobody could run on them. This year they've allowed 5.8 yards per play, 29th in the NFL, and have caused only five turnovers, worst in the league. The drop in run defense is particularly egregious: DVOA says they have gone from second-best against the run in 2003 to 27th in 2004. There's no easy answer for what happened here, and other than safety Darren Woodson there are no major injuries to blame. Cornerback Terence Newman, so great in his rookie year, has been mediocre, and the revolving cast of cornerbacks opposite him has been terrible. The defensive linemen, like ex-Charger Marcellus Wiley, have aged in dog years, unable to get a good pass rush and ineffectual against the run.
With no positive trends to speak of, and a difficult late-season schedule that features Seattle, Baltimore, and Philadelphia twice, the Dallas season is effectively over. It's time for the Cowboys to see sit down the veterans and get some experience for young players like quarterback Drew Henson and running back ReShard Lee, while Parcells decides whether he wants to build this team from scratch again or return to an easy, stress-free life on the Jersey Shore.
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH: Philadelphia 13-3, New York 8-8, Washington 7-9, Dallas 5-11.
Of the NFL's eight divisions, the NFC North provides the most interesting race going forward. Only two wins separate all four teams, and each team has a distinctive personality: a scoring juggernaut in Minnesota, underachieving veterans in Green Bay, a feisty young offense in Detroit, and a feisty young defense in Chicago. The top two teams are trending downwards, the bottom two upwards, and the lack of quality teams in the conference means all four have a shot at the postseason.
In the topsy-turvy world of the NFL, where teams go from conference champion to last place in a matter of months, nothing defies expectations quite like a team that does not defy expectations. With the Minnesota Vikings, what you see is what you get.
In 2003, DVOA ranked the Vikings offense fifth in passing and fourth in rushing. Through nine weeks of 2004, the Vikings offense is in the exact same place: fifth in passing and fourth in rushing. Minnesota was terrible on special teams last year, and they are terrible this year. Their defense collapsed in the second half of 2003, and they are still one of the league's worst in 2004. Consistency, apparently, is the hobgoblin of little Mike Tices.
But Minnesota's hold on the division lead is as tenuous as the injured hamstring of star receiver Randy Moss. The offense has not been the same since he left the field midway through the Week 6 contest against New Orleans, although the quality of the Minnesota running game helped mask the decline. The Vikings started the season 4-1, averaging 352 passing yards per game and 8.7 net yards per pass attempt, including sacks (passing DVOA: 57.3%). Since Moss was injured, the Vikings are 1-2, averaging 187 passing yards per game and 5.7 net yards per pass attempt (passing DVOA: 7.8%). Minnesota isn't saying how many more games Moss will miss, but he won't be on the field for the pivotal game with Green Bay this weekend. (As Al points out in Scramble for the Ball this week, even with Moss the Vikings would be trying to break a very strong pattern of dome teams losing late afternoon or night games in cold weather.)
The problems on the Minnesota defense serve as a good argument for relaxed trading regulations in the NFL. It was nice to have Mewelde Moore in reserve when two running backs got injured and a third served a drug suspension, but you don't normally see a team depend on fourth-stringers. If the NFL moved its trading deadline later into the season, and relaxed the salary cap regulations to encourage player-for-player trading, the Vikings could turn one of their talented backs into something they need a bit more -- like a talented defensive player at any position.
The Vikings have the hardest remaining schedule in the NFC North, and five of their six division games have yet to be played. Even if they fail to hold onto the division title, however, the Vikings should be able to come out of the jumbled mess that is the NFC playoff picture with a wild card -- provided the Moss injury is not worse than reported. But no defense means no Super Bowl.
With Green Bay and Minnesota both looking strong, Detroit fans had tempered expectations for the 2004 season. All they wanted was some development from the young players on offense and the end of Detroit's ridiculous streak of 24 straight road losses. Since the offense has improved from disgraceful to reasonable, and the Lions have won not just one but three games on the road this year, the season has to be considered a resounding success.
Now the Lions have the postseason in their sights, but their playoff odds may not be as strong as they think. The remaining schedule is not hard, and eight wins might be enough to take an NFC wild card, but midseason trends are not favorable to the Lions, and their biggest hurdle is inconsistency. Our metric called DVOA VARIANCE shows Detroit as the NFL's least consistent team over the first half of 2004.
As you might expect, the bulk of that inconsistency comes from the young offense, not the veteran defense.
(Detroit's VARIANCE is 18.3% on offense but only 6.8% on defense.) Third-year quarterback Joey Harrington looks like a future star one play and an undeveloped rookie the next, with a frustrating habit of scrambling when he has no chance of gaining a first down. Harrington has become heavily dependent on rookie wideout Roy Williams, who started his NFL career with 17 catches for 277 yards and four touchdowns in his first three games. Since then he has been in and out of the lineup with injuries, and the other Detroit receivers are simply not talented enough to get open consistently when Williams is not distracting the defense.
Detroit's offense can get away with fewer yards because they are so good at protecting the ball, best in the NFL with only six turnovers. But both the offense and defense are worse on third downs than they are on first or second. That's bad news for Detroit, because while this aspect of a team usually improves from year to year -- a major reason why San Diego's offense has improved while Seattle's has struggled -- it doesn't usually improve during the season.
To the list of unexpected list of MVP candidates -- Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Tiki Barber -- one more name must be added: Grady Jackson.
Well, perhaps an MVP vote would be overstating things, but there is no denying the importance of Jackson to the Green Bay defense. The Packers picked him up off waivers from New Orleans in mid-2003 and, as we wrote in the preseason, his arrival coincided with a major drop in yards and points allowed. The Packers were 4-4 without Jackson, and at midseason their defense ranked 26th in DVOA. With Jackson, the Packers were 6-2 and ranked third in defensive DVOA.
Jackson was injured halfway through the first game of the current season and in his absence the Green Bay defense reverted back to its performance from the first half of 2003. The Packers won that first game and the two since Jackson's return; with him gone, they were 1-4. The Packers have suffered numerous defensive injuries, and Jackson was just one player, but Jackson significantly improves the Packers both by plugging up the middle of the defensive line and through a ripple effect whereby the rest of the defense can shift to responsibilities that play to their strengths.
We can't expect the Packers to return to the defensive dominance they showed at the end of last season, but midseason trends do foretell a league-average defense over the second half of the season. Average defense combined with their still-potent offense (tenth in DVOA despite the Monday Night Meltdown against Tennessee) would make them a dangerous team, and statistical projections show the Packers as the third-best NFC team over the final eight games, behind only Philadelphia and Seattle. Their two meetings with Minnesota, Sunday and Christmas Eve, will determine the division champion.
Of the four NFC North teams, Chicago is the farthest from making a run at the playoffs, and most observers would easily dismiss them from the discussion due to offensive ineptitude. But it is difficult to count out any team, particularly one in a cold weather city, which goes into the second half of the season with an improving defense.
Lovie Smith's arrival as head coach has caused a defensive improvement from the Bears nearly as big as the defensive collapse left by his departure from St. Louis. Their strength is pass defense, and only Baltimore has done a better job against passes on third down (rookie Nathan Vasher has been surprisingly effective as nickel back). The Bears have impressed despite significant defensive injuries, and many of those players are now returning as reinforcements: linebacker Brian Urlacher and cornerback Jerry Azumah in the last two weeks, cornerback Charles Tillman in the near future.
Conventional NFL statistics, which rank the Bears ninth in yards allowed, understate the quality of this defense. The impotent Bears offense has left the defense in poor field position -- the average opposing drive has started at the 33-yard line, 29th in the league -- and overworked -- the defense has been on the field 65 plays a game, also 29th in the league. Since promising young passer Rex Grossman was lost for the year in Week 3, the Bears have tormented fans with a pair of inadequate quarterbacks and an inconsistent ground attack.
Even if they finish 6-10, the Bears are worth watching over the second half because they are likely to provide a fascinating example of how the sports media provides analysis without context. Chicago has a strong defense and weak offense, but their second-half schedule is packed with teams that are the exact opposite, including the Colts, Vikings, and Texans. The likely result is to make the Chicago offense look like it is improving, while the Chicago defense will look like it has regressed. Superficial improvement in the passing game looks nice, but to make a run at the playoffs the Bears will need a step forward of far greater significance. Don't count on it.
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH: Green Bay 9-7, Minnesota 9-7 (wild card), Detroit 8-8, Chicago 7-9.
The NFC South looked like it would provide the best divisional race in football, since it is home to the past two NFC Champions and the consensus "most exciting player in football," Michael Vick. As often happens in the NFL, expectations did not prove correct. Carolina and Tampa Bay have struggled, and the Falcons have built a three-game division lead not because of Vick, but despite him.
Only two teams in the NFC have six wins or more, and the Falcons should be very grateful that they are one of them. According to DVOA, the Falcons are really just an average team with some lucky breaks, and trends don't point to them improving over the second half of the year.
Atlanta's success so far has been driven by the run, both on offense and defense. Everybody knows about Vick's rushing abilities, and according to our quarterback stats Vick has been worth 13.2 points more than a replacement level quarterback when he runs with the ball -- more than twice the value of the second-best running quarterback. But it isn't all Vick; for the second straight year, the running back tandem of Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett has been quietly effective (Duckett this year more than Dunn).
On the other side of the ball, the Atlanta defense has allowed only 3.1 yards per carry -- if you count only seven games. That eighth game, however, was a shocking 56-10 debacle which saw Kansas City run up 271 yards on the ground with eight rushing touchdowns. They rebounded the next game, allowing the well-regarded Denver running game only 68 yards, but the secondary fell apart and let Jake Plummer throw at will.
The declining defense is a worry, but not as much as Vick's struggles. His difficulty adapting to the timing patterns favored by new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp have resulted in some very un-Vick-like performances: 115 passing yards and three turnovers against Arizona, 119 yards and two turnovers against Kansas City, 198 yards and four turnovers against Detroit.
In Atlanta's last game, however, the Falcons seemed to finally step back from Knapp's regimented scheme. They gave Vick more freedom to scramble and improvise, and Vick responded with his best game of the year: 252 yards through the air and 115 more on the ground.
It would be a strange turn of events if the defense is declining at the same time Vick is finally back on track. Perhaps by year's end, after confounding experts with their improved defense and struggling quarterback, the Falcons will turn out to be the team everyone expected.
Projections based on midseason trends indicate that Tampa Bay, not Atlanta, will be this division's best team going forward. The Tampa Bay defense is playing well, if not at the level established during the run to the Super Bowl two years ago, and the offense has improved dramatically since Brian Griese took over as quarterback midway through a Week 5 victory over New Orleans.
Yes, Brian Griese, the same quarterback who could never live up to the legacy of John Elway in Denver and then struggled through a horrible five games in Miami last season. Over the first four and a half games of the season, Brad Johnson and Chris Simms averaged 6.4 yards per pass attempt and an interception per game. Since Griese took over, he's averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt with only one interception.
Based on DVOA, the Tampa passing game was 30th in the league over the first four weeks (-25.0% DVOA) and has been seventh in the league since (+34.2% DVOA. This is almost the opposite of the New York Giants passing game, as if Brian Griese and Kurt Warner were starring in one of the endless body switch comedies of the late 1980's. Where is Judge Reinhold when you need him?
Like Drew Brees of San Diego, Griese has reinvigorated his career and, like Brees, it is now clear he was written off too early. Watching Miami's performance this season makes it obvious that Griese wasn't really the problem with that team. Run an offense that plays to Griese's strengths -- for example, Tampa is running the same waggle/bootlegs that brought him so much success at Michigan -- and he'll win despite a lack of Manning-size numbers. Griese won't still have six times as many touchdowns as interceptions when the season is over, but he should continue to provide an effective offense for a team that still wins primarily with defense.
Even if their improvement continues, Tampa Bay has no chance for the division title without a complete Atlanta collapse. But the NFC has a jumble of three-to-five win teams jostling for the wild card. Tampa will be in the thick of that race, thanks in part to an easy remaining schedule, and may have the inside track on winning a possible tiebreaker. Two of its losses are out of conference, and so is its hardest remaining opponent, San Diego.
Through nine games of the 2004 season, the Saints have the best special teams in the NFL. John Carney has been the second-best kicker in the league behind David Akers of the Eagles, and Michael Lewis has been great on punt returns. Nevertheless, while special teams play is important, it is not a good sign when this is the only thing your team does well.
Every aspect of offense and defense has been poor, although the secondary particularly stands out. Only Indianapolis has given up more passing yards this season, and "Let the Good Times Roll" is now the slogan of opposing quarterbacks instead of New Orleans natives.
The Saints are the anti-Patriots. New England is celebrated for being more then the sum of its parts, while New Orleans is definitely less than the sum of is parts. The Patriots win even though no player is particularly known for putting up big numbers. The Saints put up big numbers and rarely win. (This year running back Deuce McAllister isn't even doing that -- he averages a pathetic 3.5 yards per carry and has been no better than replacement level.) They have been able to win three times because, according to DVOA, they have played the league's second-easiest schedule so far.
The Saints made very few roster changes last offseason; in fact, they've made very few roster changes over the past couple of offseasons. Coach Jim Haslett went 10-6 in his first season, 2000, and the Saints have kept running the same plays with mostly the same players year after year in an attempt to replicate that one flash of glory. This stagnation has kept New Orleans from a Miami-like meltdown, but it also keeps them from a Pittsburgh-like renaissance. This franchise desperately needs to blow up the roster and start over.
Of course, while some teams blow up their own rosters in an attempt to turn things around, other teams have their rosters blown up by outside forces. Such is the case with the Carolina Panthers.
Many people expected that the defending NFC Champions were a one-year wonder, but Carolina's struggles have exceeded the most negative expectations. The main culprit is an egregious string of injuries that have left quarterback Jake Delhomme flailing around like a single Army infantryman trying to take Fallujah with nothing more than a rifle and a canteen.
The Panthers lost their main wide receiver, Steve Smith, in the season's first week. Running back Stephen Davis hasn't been fully healthy all year, and backups DeShaun Foster and Rod Smart are both out for the season. Things are even worse on defense. Tackle Kris Jenkins, the heart of the Panther defense, was lost for the year after four games. End Mike Rucker was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Linebacker Dan Morgan has played at reduced effectiveness because of injury, as have cornerbacks Artrell Hawkins and Chris Gamble.
There is hope for the second half of the year, if an attempt to go 6-10 instead of 3-13 can represent hope. On a play-by-play basis, judged by DVOA, Carolina has actually played better than seven other teams this year despite their solitary win. They've played the fourth-hardest schedule in the league so far but project to play the easiest schedule over the final eight games, with only one opponent currently over .500 (Atlanta) and a series of games inside their own division or against the struggling NFC West. But statistical projections can't take into account the "mail in the season" factor that could have Carolina battling Miami for the first pick in the draft.
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH: Atlanta 10-6, Tampa Bay 8-8 (wild card), New Orleans 6-10, Carolina 5-11.
12 minutes. That's all it takes to change the public perception of two teams, and possibly their fortunes as well.
Conventional wisdom says that the NFC West is a close race between two teams that have not played up to expectations. In reality, Seattle has been the best among the pack of NFC contenders looking up at Philadelphia, while the Rams have been one of the worst teams in football. But reality is obscured by the events of October 10, when Seattle's defense abruptly collapsed with nine minutes left and a 27-10 lead against the Rams. St. Louis scored 23 unanswered points during the fourth quarter and three minutes of overtime, and that win changed the face of the entire season for both teams.
If Seattle doesn't squander that game, they are 6-2 while St. Louis is 3-5. They have a commanding three-game lead in the division, their loss to Arizona is interpreted as a fluke, and NFL observers unequivocally proclaim them the strongest NFC challenger to the dominant Philadelphia Eagles.
Instead, Seattle has gone from an extremely popular Super Bowl pick to a team that has picked up the dreaded title "enigma." In fact, so many people have dismissed the Seahawks as overrated that they are now in the strange position of being underrated. According to DVOA, Seattle has played better than every other team in the NFC except Philadelphia.
Every game and every quarter has to be considered when considering how well a team has performed, and how well they will do going forward. But while those 23 St. Louis points change the facts in the standings, and make it harder for Seattle to obtain prime playoff position, it is a mistake to overvalue 12 minutes of poor play in the larger context of the entire season when looking forward to the second half.
Seattle's defense is not playing as well now as it did in the season's first three games, but it is still much improved over last year. The offense has been surprisingly average all year, but finally showed signs of life in last week's 42-27 win over San Francisco. Past trends say that the Seattle offense will most likely return to its place as one of the league's best over the final eight games.
Seattle is also helped by their schedule. It doesn't seem easy at first glance, but it projects as the NFL's second-easiest remaining schedule because the Seahawks play a number of teams that our metrics expect to decline, including Atlanta, Minnesota, and St. Louis. The NFC West may seem close now, but at season's end Seattle should have a clear hold on the division title. Seattle and Atlanta play in the final week, and that game probably determines which team earns the second seed in the playoffs and the all-important first round bye.
All those rosy predictions for Seattle become much less probable if the Rams manage to beat the Seahawks for a second time this Sunday. But the Seahawks should be favored to beat the Rams for the same reasons that New England beat the Rams last week, plus the added emotional desire for revenge.
Just as Seattle's fourth quarter collapse changed the outlook for the Seahawks, so it also changed the outlook for the Rams. Without that win, the Rams are 3-5, in the ignoble position of being tied with the Arizona Cardinals. Instead, they are a playoff contender despite terrible performance on special teams and the worst defense in football. According to DVOA, 11 teams with losing records have played better than the Rams this season.
Rams fans must wonder if ex-defensive coordinator Lovie Smith not only left to be head coach for Chicago but replaced his players with mannequins on the way out of town. The Rams defense is allowing a ton of yardage, and their ability to force turnovers has disappeared faster than Fahrenheit 911 at an Alabama movieplex. Last year the Rams led the NFL with 46 takeaways, 24 interceptions and 22 fumble recoveries. This year they have two interceptions and five fumble recoveries.
Before last week, Rams fans could at least take heart that the Greatest Show on Turf was once again worthy of its name. Now they have to wonder about an offense that struggled against a Patriots secondary cobbled together from an undrafted rookie, a practice squad refugee, and a wide receiver playing cornerback for the first time. At least the ground game provides reason for optimism, as Marshall Faulk has rebounded from an injury-wracked 2003 and rookie Steven Jackson has showed Pro Bowl potential in relief.
Even if the Rams were playing like a 4-4 team instead of a 2-6 team with a couple lucky breaks, they would be staring up at Seattle thanks to a difficult second half schedule that includes chilly November trips to Green Bay and Buffalo along with home games against the Jets, Eagles, and Seahawks. A win over Seattle on Sunday keeps the Rams in the thick of things, but they will more likely lose and continue the downward slide to 7-9.
2004 has been dedicated to shaping this franchise in the image of new head coach Dennis Green. While 3-5 would be a disappointment for most teams, in Arizona it is a sign that the personality transplant has been a success. Cardinals fans might even think that their team has a reasonable shot at the playoffs now that star wide receiver Anquan Boldin has returned from injury. They are advised not to get their hopes too high.
The Arizona offense is better than last season, but this improvement means nothing more than a move from worst in the league to almost worst in the league. The Arizona offense is supposed to be built around three young, fast wide receivers that spread the field, but quarterback Josh McCown is still king of the dump-off pass to the safety valve. Boldin's first two games have not seen much progress, and Cardinals fans must also be wondering if wideout Bryant Johnson is as big a first-round bust as his second-year mate Boldin was a second-round steal.
As for the running game, many column inches have been wasted on the idea that Emmitt Smith is somewhat rejuvenated this season. His total rushing yards are a mirage caused by spreading poor performance over a significant number of opportunities, plus one very good game against a New Orleans defense that would likely give up 100 yards to the South Park Cows with Timmy at tailback. According to Running Back Success Rate, which measures running back consistency based on the down and distance for each situation, Smith has been successful on only 38% of his carries. Only one running back with over 100 carries has been worse.
Green's arrival was supposed to lift up the Arizona offense, but he has lifted up the Arizona defense instead with the help of first-time defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Arizona's
top ten defensive performance is likely to fade over the season's second half, however, due to the same trends listed above that also foreshadow defensive decline by the New York Giants. Like the Giants, Arizona has had trouble stopping teams in the red zone, defensive inconsistency that usually leads to second half problems, and so much improvement over last season that some regression is likely.
This year the 49ers saw the bill finally come due for years of salary cap manipulation, turning last year's 7-9 underachievers into the football equivalent of the 1998 Florida Marlins. From day one of this season the 49ers have been playing for 2005, so their second half should be no different than their first.
San Francisco went into 2004 with a starting lineup filled by young players who spent their early years as backups. The goal this season was to figure out which of these players could be starters on the next successful 49ers team, and which ones would need to be replaced. At least one player has stepped forward as a future star, provided he can stay free of injuries: quarterback Tim Rattay.
Measured by DVOA, Rattay has been one of the top ten quarterbacks in football this season. His time out of the lineup due to minor injuries has even further highlighted his abilities, because backup Ken Dorsey has been abysmal with the same offensive line and receivers.
In five starts, Rattay has averaged 287 yards per game with a 65 percent completion percentage, four interceptions, and nine touchdowns. In San Francisco's other three games, backup Ken Dorsey has averaged 160 yards per game with a 53 percent completion percentage, four interceptions, and not a single touchdown. According to our DPAR stats (Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement, explained here), Rattay has been worth 36 points more than a replacement level quarterback this year, while Dorsey has been worth 12 points below replacement level.
Rattay has been outstanding, but the running game has been equally as disappointing. Kevan Barlow, who had been effective as part of a rushing duo with veteran Garrison Hearst, has been awful as a full-time starter. I noted above that Emmitt Smith has the lowest Running Back Success Rate of any back with over 100 carries, but Barlow is the one back below him with a 36% success rate. Barlow is too young to have broken down completely, however, and it is likely Barlow's drop from 5.1 yards per carry last year to 3.6 yards per carry this year is partially due to a poor offensive line.
Defense is also the source of very little hope, and only a couple of turnovers have kept the 49ers from surpassing the Rams as the league's worst defense. It didn't help things when linebacker Julian Peterson, by far the team's best defensive player, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Many a laptop across this country has been fried by the drool of fantasy football aficionados contemplating a trip to San Francisco by their star players. (Yours truly specifically picked up Brian Griese this week so that I can play him against the 49ers next week.)
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH: Seattle 11-5, St. Louis 7-9, Arizona 6-10, San Francisco 4-12.
NEXT FRIDAY: THE AFC
3 comments, Last at 27 Mar 2007, 12:22am by car remover wax