Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
19 Aug 2009
by Aaron Schatz
Yes, it's time to add another year to that period of NFL history known to us fondly as "the DVOA Era." Today we are proud to fully unveil all advanced individual and team statistics for the year 1994.
DVOA from the prime years of the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry has proven to be very interesting. The 49ers had the highest DVOA in 1995, but it was the Cowboys who won the Super Bowl. Well, guess what: go back one more year, and the opposite occurs. The Dallas Cowboys had the highest DVOA rating for 1994, but it was San Francisco that took home the Lombardi Trophy.
Now, it seemed a little odd when San Francisco came out as the top team in 1995, but having Dallas as the top team in 1994 seems a lot stranger. After all, that 1994 49ers team is often considered one of the best teams in NFL history. Eddie Epstein ranks them eighth in his book Dominance. What are they doing third in the DVOA ratings for 1994, behind Dallas and Pittsburgh?
The answer is all wrapped up in one game: Philadelphia 40, San Francisco 8 in Week 5. The Eagles outgained the 49ers 437 to 189 yards. Some kid named Charlie Garner made his NFL debut and ran for 111 yards with two touchdowns. This is the game where head coach George Seifert famously benched Steve Young, actually pulling him out of a huddle in the middle of the third quarter. Seifert said it was to prevent injury, since the 49ers were losing by three touchdowns and Eagles' defensive end William Fuller had sacked Young pretty hard on the previous play. Young had only 99 passing yards for the day, with two picks and no passing touchdowns (although he scored one on the ground). San Francisco's DVOA for that game is -113.4%, the worst rating for any single game that season. Philadelphia's DVOA for that game is 141.4%, which I thought was the best single-game DVOA we've ever tracked. That's what we wrote in FOA 2009. Unfortunately, I made a mistake and missed a year when I was figuring out that little bit of trivia, so it turns out Philly's big 1994 win over San Francisco is only second on the list of most dominant games of the DVOA Era. Here's an updated list, noting that the ratings all moved around a little bit when we updated to the new DVOA v6.0 this offseason (I have not yet figured DVOA v6.0 for the playoffs, so those games are missing from the table):
|Best Single-Game DVOA (Regular Season), 1994-2008|
|Year||Team||DVOA||Week||vs.||Score|| Opp DVOA
Rank for Year
Anyway, still a damn impressive performance, and a really awful game that drags the San Francisco rating down for the whole season. The 49ers were 3-2 after that game. The rest of the way, including the playoffs, they went 13-1. The only loss was to Minnesota in a meaningless Week 17 contest, with both Young and Jerry Rice resting for most of the game. Although the 49ers didn't finish the season with the best DVOA rating for 1994, they did go into the playoffs with the highest WEIGHTED DVOA, their loss to the Eagles far in the distant past.
Meanwhile, the 1994 Eagles went on to launch the term "going the full Kotite." They finished eighth in DVOA but went just 7-9, completely falling apart over the second half of the season. After Week 10 of that year, the Eagles were 7-2 and ranked second in DVOA behind 8-1 Dallas. They lost their next seven games in a row. The Eagles' offense ranked sixth in DVOA during the first half of the 1994 season, 23rd in DVOA during the second half of the 1994 season. The defense declined as well, although by a much smaller amount (from third in the first half to ninth in the second half).
Here are the Football Outsiders team efficiency ratings for 1994, measured by our proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system that breaks down every single play and compares a team's performance to the league averaged based on situation and opponent 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 TEAMS DVOA is adjusted for type of stadium (warm, cold, dome, Denver) and week of season. WEIGHTED DVOA gives a stronger consideration to games late in the season. Remember that, as always, defense is better when it is NEGATIVE.
| RANK||W-L|| OFFENSE
| RANK||W-L|| OFFENSE
DVOA for 1994 is now listed in the stats pages:
The 1994 data is also now in the Football Outsiders Premium database, and it comes with some other updates. All DVOA numbers in the Premium database are updated to the newest version of DVOA (v6.0). The only exception is the "DVOA Week-by-Week during the season." That requires me to re-run every season week-by-week, and I hope to get to that soon, but for now those numbers are not updated (and 1994 is not yet included). Adjusted Line Yards numbers are also updated with the new formula that accounts for the difference between shotgun and non-shotgun plays, and ALY/ASR now goes back one more year, to 1996.
Steve Young is the top-rated quarterback of 1994, with one of the top quarterback seasons in recent memory. Young completed 70.3 percent of his passes that season, the only quarterback in NFL history with a completion rate over 70 percent on at least 400 pass attempts. (In FO numbers, with spikes removed, Young's completion rate is even higher.) Young's advanced stats are hurt by the fact that San Francisco played an extremely easy schedule in 1994. If we don't adjust for schedule, he comes out with 1,851 YAR, which would be the fifth best passing season of the DVOA Era. After adjusting for schedule, he comes out with 1,687 DYAR, which is tied with Kurt Warner's 2001 season for tenth in all-time DYAR. The list of top quarterbacks in 1994 is basically a Hall of Fame rundown -- including the first-ever DYAR for Joe Montana -- but there's one big exception in the top seven:
Wait, Jim "Chris" Everett? For the 7-9 New Orleans Saints? Actually, yes. Everett didn't make the Pro Bowl -- look at the NFC competition, for crying out loud -- but he played very well in his first season in New Orleans. The Saints signed him after he had a horrible 1993 for the Rams, completing less than 50 percent of his passes.
Krieg's top ten ranking is a good example of how 1994 was a very good year for part-time quarterbacks putting up great DVOA ratings with a small sample size. Krieg took over when Scott Mitchell (DVOA: -7.1%) was injured at midseason and led the Lions into the playoffs. Chris Chandler started six games for the otherwise-dismal Los Angeles Rams and put up a DVOA rating of 27.9%, with seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. Of course, the Rams couldn't do anything else right so they still went 2-4 in those games, including an 8-5 loss to Atlanta on October 2. The best of the short-term quarterbacks was Mike Tomczak, who started two games when Neil O'Donnell was injured at midseason and had 45.8% DVOA with just 100 pass attempts, converting nearly half of his third-down opportunities.
Down at the bottom of the ratings you'll find David Klinger in his last attempt to start in the NFL, along with fun names like Dan McGwire and (Congressman) Heath Shuler. Also, filed under "it's probably the team not the quarterbacks" were the three men who attempted to replace Warren Moon as quarterback of the Houston Oilers. Bucky Richardson, Cody Carlson, and B.J. Tolliver were all in the bottom five for passing DYAR in 1994.
In rushing, 1994 is a year where DVOA definitely comes down on the Emmitt Smith side of the Emmitt Smith-Barry Sanders debate. Sanders had 1,883 rushing yards that year, but his Success Rate of 46 percent was just 19th among backs with at least 100 carries. Smith had "only" 1,484 yards, but with a 52 percent Success Rate (sixth) and 21 touchdowns, he far surpasses Sanders in DYAR.
One shocking name on the rankings for running backs is the one way down at the bottom: Jerome Bettis. As a rookie in 1993, Bettis averaged 4.9 yards per carry, but things collapsed in his second season. Bettis had barely over 1,000 yards despite 319 carries, which worked out to 3.2 yards per carry and -183 DYAR. He also had more fumbles (five) than touchdowns (four). Despite this, Bettis somehow made it to the Pro Bowl. I'm guessing he made it as an injury replacement -- he's listed on the roster according to pro-football-reference but other sites don't list him on the roster for that season. Even if he was an injury replacement, that has to be one of the worst Pro Bowl picks ever. The next year, the Rams moved to St. Louis and Bettis finished 38th in DYAR instead of 39th. But in 1996, once he was in Pittsburgh, Bettis blossomed (thanks in large part to his offensive line, one would think) and ranked first and fourth in rushing DYAR in 1996-1997.
The best wide receiver of 1994? Well, we had a bit of a shock when we tabulated DYAR for 1995 and Michael Irvin came out ahead of Jerry Rice, but there's no such shock in 1994. Rice is easily the top-rated wide receiver, with 546 DYAR. He also led the league that year by catching 75 percent of intended passes. Rice now has two of the top four wide receiver DYAR seasons of all-time. The only players ahead of him are Irvin (1995) and Randy Moss (2007).
The most interesting wide receiver of 1994 is probably not Rice but the one receiver who had more receptions that season: Cris Carter. Carter caught 122 passes with seven touchdowns and a very good 65 percent catch rate. He was chosen first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press. Yet he still ends up ranking 60 out of 68 receivers with -12.1% DVOA. Huh? The issue isn't schedule strength, since his non-adjusted VOA rating isn't much better. Why is Carter so low that year? Part of the issue was butterfingers, although it wasn't the main reason for the low rating. Carter fumbled four times that season, which is very high for a wide receiver. The bigger problem seems to be short routes. Carter averaged only 10.3 yards per reception, the second lowest figure of any receiver with at least 50 passes (Ricky Sanders averaged just 8.9 yards per reception) and much lower than his career average of 12.6 yards per reception. More than 30 percent of his receptions were for five yards or fewer, the highest rate of any receiver with at least 30 pass targets. He also had a weird year where he kept just missing the sticks -- six different times he caught a pass on third-and-long and was stopped one yard short of a new first down.
Ben Coates was the top-rated tight end of 1994, although Brent Jones was a close second. Ricky Watters was the top receiving running back, followed by Larry Centers and Ronnie Harmon.
Some other comments on the 1994 season:
One of the most notable things about these early seasons of DVOA is how team performance was much, much closer bunched together. Remember, 1994 was only the second season with a salary cap and total free agency. Yet compared to today, the best team and worst team were much closer together in terms of results, particularly on defense. Last year, the gap between the best defense (Pittsburgh) and the worst defense (Detroit) was 56.1% DVOA. In 1994, the gap between the best defense (Pittsburgh, because the Steelers never change) and the worst defense (Tampa Bay) was just 32.4% DVOA.
Schedule strength is another good example of this trend. In 1994, the difference between the hardest schedule (Detroit, 4.4%) and the easiest schedule (Pittsburgh, -3.1%) was just 7.5% DVOA. In 2008, the difference between the hardest schedule (Cleveland, 11.0%) and the easiest schedule (New York Jets, -5.9%) was 16.9%, more than twice as big a gap. Sure, last year was a really extreme year for schedule strength because the western divisions were so poor, but the gap was even bigger back in 2005 when those divisions weren't nearly as bad. That year, the gap between the hardest schedule (San Diego, 10.9%) and the easiest schedule (Seattle, -10.5%) was over 20 percentage points of DVOA.
Looking at this historical trend, it isn't surprising that the last two seasons have seen the first 16-0 team and the first 0-16 team in NFL history. The question is: Why? Why has competitive balance in the NFL apparently worsened over the past few years?
We have to thank all the readers who participated in the 1994 transcription project: Bryan Knowles, Stan Buck, Michael Bonner, Sergio Berrecil Lopez, Jeremy Billones, Tom Gower, Kevin Mayo, Moshe Dachs, Ron Berns, James Doyle, Frank Pelkofer, and especially Jeremy Snyder. Jeremy not only did more games than anyone else, he also took care of translating the gamebooks for various teams whose official scorers were using non-standard play descriptions back in the pre-Internet Stone Age. He also went through when all was done and changed play-by-play IDs so that multiple players with the same first initial and last name would not be listed with the same IDs. It was a ton of work.
So what's next? Things have actually speeded up a bit when it comes to transcribing old play-by-play, and we already have 1993 about 80 percent complete. However, we've also hit our first stumbling block: The Week 17 New Orleans at Philadelphia game apparently is the first gamebook that no longer exists. The Hall of Fame can't find it, the Saints lost their old gamebooks in some sort of storage mishap, and the Eagles have great archives except that they are missing the 1993 season. I'm actually contacting NFL Films to see if I can get footage of the game to create my own gamebook. I know there are people in the industry who read FO... if any of you might have access to the television broadcast of this game, please e-mail us. I know we'll eventually hit a season where we can't do every single game, but I was hoping that season would be somewhere in the 1970's, not the 1990's.
59 comments, Last at 26 Aug 2009, 3:52pm by Jerry