Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

31 Dec 2010

FO Mailbag: Best DVOA to Miss the Playoffs

Aaron Agte: I'm a Chargers fan. I was just curious what was the highest rated team by DVOA to miss the playoffs? Other than the worst special teams of all time, are there any other records of disappointment or underwhelming performance the Chargers set this year?

Believe it or not, the Chargers don't even come close to being the worst DVOA to ever miss the playoffs. As of Week 16, the Chargers had 19.3% DVOA, and there have actually been three teams that missed the playoffs despite DVOA ratings above 25%.

By far the best team to ever miss the playoffs, at least according to DVOA, was the 2004 Buffalo Bills. The Bills had 31.2% DVOA that season. That was third in the league behind Pittsburgh and New England, although the Bills would have been behind the Colts and Eagles if those teams had not rested players at the end of the year. Buffalo's weighted DVOA was even more insane. By the end of the year, they were on top of the league at 41.1%. Since that was only the second year of Football Outsiders, we didn't have any clue just how historically weird the Bills' season was; I think at that point we had only parsed play-by-play data back to 2001.

The Bills started the season 0-4, although three of those four losses came by a field goal or less. They were 3-6 after New England clobbered them 29-6 in Week 10. Still, at that point they were tenth in DVOA, including fifth on defense and second on special teams. They had played four games against the Patriots (second in the NFL that year) and the Jets (fifth).

In Week 11, the Bills turned on the juice. They got to the point in the schedule with the NFC West on it -- some things never change -- and won six straight games by an average score of 38-15. You've heard people talk about the Patriots scoring 30 or more points in seven straight games? That Buffalo team scored 30 or more points in all six of those games, and they didn't do it because Drew Bledsoe was leading a powerful offense. They did it with field position -- they dominated games on defense and special teams, ranking first in the league in DVOA for both, and that was enough to give an average offense the field position to score tons of points. They had Sam Adams and Pat Williams at defensive tackle, London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes at linebacker, Lawyer Milloy at safety still in his prime, and Nate Clements before his wallet got too heavy to effectively play cornerback.

So by Week 17, the Bills were 9-6, and all they had to do to get a wild card spot was win at home against a Pittsburgh Steelers team which had clinched the top seed in the AFC and was resting most of its starters. The Steelers started Tommy Maddox at quarterback and some unknown, undrafted free agent named Willie Parker at running back. They pulled Hines Ward after two catches, and Plaxico Burress wasn't even active. They started the usual defense, but pulled some of those guys in the middle of the game. Yet somehow, the Steelers managed to keep things close, and they led 16-10 at halftime. Clements got a pick-six off Maddox in the third quarter, however, and the Bills were 15 minutes from the playoffs.

Then they choked. They choked hardcore. The Steelers scored on a field goal early in the fourth quarter. On the third play of the next drive, Ricardo Colclough knocked the ball out of Bledsoe's hand as he tried to pass -- while his arm was still moving backwards, so it wasn't a tuck rule play -- and the ball fell into the hands of an undrafted free agent in his third year who was making only his fourth start that day, some guy named James Harrison. Harrison took it to the house, 26-17 Steelers. The Bills then went three-and-out, when Bledsoe fumbled a handoff to Shaud Williams on third-and-1, and the Steelers sucked up nearly nine minutes of the game with an absurd 46-yard drive that had Brian St. Pierre handing off to Willie Parker on nearly every play. There were 11 Parker runs, two penalties, one run by Verron Haynes, one by St. Pierre, and then a 33-yard field goal by Jeff Reed. The Bills got the ball back with a little over two minutes left, but had a long return by Terrence McGee called back by a holding penalty on Chris Kelsay. Bledsoe still managed to make it downfield 89 yards in less then a minute, thanks to a 56-yard pass to rookie Lee Evans, who was being covered by someone named "Russell Stuvaints," but they couldn't recover the onside kick and the game ended Pittsburgh 29, Buffalo 24.

Thus ended the greatest DVOA season to never make the playoffs, and the Bills' best chance to make any postseason appearance between 2000 and 2010. Oh, and oddly, this was Brian St. Pierre's only regular-season appearance until he showed up in one game for the Cardinals last year and then came off his couch to start for Carolina this year.

The second- and third-best seasons to miss the playoffs were both the Kansas City Chiefs, in 2005 (10-6, 25.5%) and 2002 (8-8, 25.4%). Seriously, if people think that DVOA overrates the Philadelphia Eagles, they should consider the early-00's Chiefs. They were fourth in the league in DVOA in 2002 despite going 8-8. The next year, they were first at 13-3 but couldn't win a playoff game. In 2004, they went 7-9 but ranked tenth in DVOA. In 2005, they were fifth at just 10-6.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 31 Dec 2010

39 comments, Last at 03 Jan 2011, 11:02pm by Jerry

Comments

1
by Dean :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 1:50pm

I don't remember much about those early '00s Chiefs teams. Are there any parallells which can be made between them and the "overrated" Eagles teams?

3
by JIPanick :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 2:10pm

I think the problem with the Chiefs may not be so much overrating as that through 2005 the AFC West was absolutely brutal. See post 2 for a description of the 2005 version, and observe that the 2002 West produced the AFC champion, #2 in DVOA Raiders as well as a #6 in DVOA Broncos squad. The 7-9 2004 version, while being 10th in total DVOA, was third in the division to the Broncos (6th) and Chargers (9th).

The 2003 Chiefs lost their first playoff game, sure, but that was the day of the single greatest playoff quarterbacking performance of my lifetime, with Peyton Manning winning a punt free shootout in Arrowhead. That was part of a decade long stretch where the Chiefs lost only twice at home after 30 November. Once as a 13-3 squad between John Elway and his first Super Bowl win and the aforementioned Manning game.

5
by MJK :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 2:26pm

Funny, I don't think of that game as the single gratest playoff quarterbacking performance, but instead the single worst defensive performance (by both teams).

Yes, both QB's were amazing, but had either team forced a SINGLE punt, they would have won the game. The Colts only won, if I recall correctly, because they happened to have the ball last...

10
by Eddo :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 3:20pm

That game is famous for having zero punts, but your memory is just slightly off. The game didn't come down the final possession; in fact, the Colts led by fourteen in the fourth quarter, and a Priest Holmes TD brought the Chiefs to within seven. The Colts then turned the ball over on downs, and the Chiefs were only able to run one more play.

It looks like the biggest culprits for the Chiefs' deficit were a second-quarter missed FG and a third-quarter fumble lost.

ESPN's play-by-play.

17
by Duff Soviet Union :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 8:59pm

Worth mentioning about the 2004 Chiefs: They finished 10th in total DVOA....which ranked 9th in the AFC. I don't think DVOA overrated them as much as the conference imbalance was unprecedented.

2
by JIPanick :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 2:03pm

This wasn't even the best Bolts team to not make the playoffs. The 2005 squad went 9-7 and posted 23.4% DVOA.

They had the misfortune of being in the same division as the aforementioned Chiefs (who they split with) and a world beating Bronco team (who swept the Chargers). They added losses to the Eagles (who finished 6-10 but were playing well before the McNabb injury), Cowboys (started 7-3 before collapsing, beat San Diego in the opener), Dolphins (Started 3-7 before a 6 game win streak to end the year, San Diego right in the middle of it), and the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers by 11 total points. They only had two wins by less than a one score margin, giving them a 2-5 record in close games.

12
by perly :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 3:55pm

Let us never forget what a genius AJ Smith is: Antonio Gates missed the opener against the Cowboys after being put on the roster exempt list.

Explanations for complex situations are rarely simple, but looking at the way the Chargers treated Gates and the Saints treated Colston says a lot about why one's in the playoffs and the other is stuck in supposed-to-be land.

(saying this as a redskins fan with no vested interest in the success or failure of either team)

4
by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 2:20pm

My memory of those chiefs teams was that they were an unstoppable juggernaut on offense paired with a defense that fluttered between mediocre and legendarily bad. Also they had, for a little while there, the best returner of my memory not named hester. Even with the great things peyton manning and tom brady have done in the last few years, i have never seen an offense that scared me as much as those chiefs at their best.

6
by michael (not verified) :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 2:55pm

The Chiefs had an interesting stretch in the '90s-00s. First, they had a great defense (the Schottenheimer years) with a stodgy, unimaginative offense. By the time Vermeil came along and built a high-speed offense, the defense had aged and collapsed. Couldn't put both units together at the same time.

7
by B :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 2:57pm

This might be something I don't understand about DVOA, but could it be that DVOA overrates teams with powerful offenses and suspect defenses because the good offense would stay on the field, thus getting a lot of plays where the can rack up positive DVOA, and the defense has relatively fewer plays, so their bad play doesn't hurt the team's rating as much.
This would be to explain the DVOA love of the 00s Chiefs

9
by Dean :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 3:16pm

In that situation, though, wouldn't the suspect defense then give up lots of long drives and points, which in turn would keep the high powered offense from being able to rack up too much in the way of gaudy numbers.

14
by ABW (not verified) :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 5:51pm

DVOA is a rate stat like yards per play. It doesn't matter how many plays you get, just what you do on those plays.

29
by MJK :: Sun, 01/02/2011 - 1:14am

DVOA is a rate stat, true. But it gathers it's data by looking at all the plays of a ceratin type. So it will have a lot more data to base it's estimate on when it's looking at a good offense or a bad defense than if it's looking at a good defense or a bad offense. In other words, if DVOA says an offense is good or a defense is bad, it's probably right. If it says an offense is bad or a defense is good, there's far more error or variance in that statement, because bad offenses and good defenses give DVOA so few plays to go on.

The yards per play analogy is a decent one. If a RB regularly gets 5 ypc, then he's going to rush a lot, and if he keeps getting 5 ypc, then we know he (or his blockers) are pretty good. But if he only gets 1 ypc on average, then he's not going to get very many carries, and we have no clue if he only got 1 ypc because he's bad, or if he just happened to have a bad or unlucky run and never got a chance to prove that because his team kept going 3-and-out or abandoned the run.

21
by Mike Elseroad (not verified) :: Sat, 01/01/2011 - 5:28am

I've been wondering about that myself.

8
by M :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 3:15pm

Actually, I think the reason for the DVOA love of the 00s Chiefs is due to blowout wins. Despite being (for the most part) a very good coach, Dick Vermeil's teams ALWAYS underperformed their Pythagorean projections. The Chiefs in 2002 outscored their opponents by almost 70 points despite being .500 team, while the 2004 team outscored their opponents by almost 50 points. This isn't a matter of a DVOA bias but rather a team/coach that poured it on in games where they were already cruising. In 2002, they won consecutive games agains (you guessed it) NFC West teams in St. Louis and Arizona by the combined score of 98-10. That will do alot to boost DVOA, even with the dampening that happens late in blowouts.

11
by Jerry P. :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 3:45pm

I remember that year for the Bills because I was living in Buffalo at the time and I had started reading FO the previous season.

It was great because it made me realize that even though some stuff on FO is flawed it is miles ahead of conventional wisdom. The theme that year in the media was that starting McGahee over Travis Henry was what gave the team the spark it needed.

Reality was over that 6 game tear the Bills went on they had something like 32(!) possessions start in opponents territory. This was after the "Misunderstood Rams" article and it was like a textbook example of what that early and underrated article was getting at. I'd be willing to bet the 36.30 average starting LOS per drive is a record over the "DVOA era".

Terrence McGee was tearing it up on punt and kick returns but wasn't getting the press Dante Hall did. Go look it up in the ST ratings. Bills were 18.0 on kick returns to the Chiefs 19.1. Bills punt returns were 11.6 to the Chiefs 3.2. The Bills were miles ahead on kick/punt coverage.

That '04 defense was one of the best defenses ever. Not '85 Bears or '00 Ravens but probably top 10 (or 15) in the modern era (maybe ever but I am not qualified to say). Got no credit because of McGahee mania. McGahee and his 47% success rate.

Fun fact. The Bills lost the first game of the season because on something dumb like 4th and 16 on the Jaguars final drive Nate Clements went up for a pass and had perfect position on Jimmy Smith. Instead of swatting the ball down and giving the Bills the ball around the Jags 15 yard line he went for the interception and Jimmy Smith wrestled the ball from him on the way to the ground for a first down. Jags continue to march down the field for that now semi-famous Ernest Wilford catch.

49ers fans, you were warned!

13
by t.d. :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 4:53pm

You're almost back to the 1991 49ers, who were on a monster roll to close out the season and outscored the opposition by almost ten points a game, but just fell short. That season, the Eagles and 49ers were probably the second and third best teams in the league, and they both missed the playoffs

20
by Vince Verhei :: Sat, 01/01/2011 - 4:51am

49ers lost to the Falcons on a Hail Mary that year (with MC Hammer on the sidelines), and finished tied with them at 10-6 and out of the playoffs, while Atlanta went on to beat New Orleans in the first round.

36
by Mike B. In Va :: Mon, 01/03/2011 - 1:10pm

I remember them unleashing their frustrations on the Bears on the last Monday night game of the season, already knowing they were out of the playoffs. That was one of the worst thrashings I've seen, and featured Al Michaels saying at the end of the game "there is a 49ers defensive back that is 40 yards away from from the ball". (That's paraphrased, but it was something like that.)

I'll never forget that game. When it was 24-7, it wasn't even that close.

38
by horn :: Mon, 01/03/2011 - 4:47pm

That 1991 Iggle D is still the best I've ever seen, at least back to 1985.

Finished 1/1 v run/pass. Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Eric Allen, Seth Joyner and crew in their primes.

54 passing yds, Brad Goebel and 4 turnovers vs TB kept them out of the playoffs. And they were up late before Chandler came in for Vinny and led the comeback at home.

15
by Jerry :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 6:48pm

Wow. A Russell Stuvaints reference. Funny how these things work - he's now "someone named 'Russell Stuvaints,'" while the equally obscure (at the time) Parker and Harrison went on to significant NFL careers.

25
by Israel P. (not verified) :: Sat, 01/01/2011 - 2:28pm

I just went back and looked at the highlights. Larry Foote with a fumble recovery and an interception. James Harrison looks to have added some weight since then.

35
by DRohan :: Mon, 01/03/2011 - 12:58pm

So you don't think Brian St. Pierre's career can be deemed significant?

39
by Jerry :: Mon, 01/03/2011 - 11:02pm

I don't even think Mrs. St. Pierre does.

16
by Joe Mama (not verified) :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 7:16pm

And of course it is the Bills. Being a Bills fan is constant pain.

37
by Mike B. In Va :: Mon, 01/03/2011 - 1:10pm

You have a gift for understatement.

18
by TimK :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 9:38pm

Be interesting to see what happens when DVOA gets back to 1985... the 11-5 Broncos that year were a pretty good team to not make the playoffs.

23
by ammek :: Sat, 01/01/2011 - 11:36am

Were they? PFR's Simple Rating System says they were a bit above average, but nothing special. From a Pythagorian angle, they were expected to earn 9.4 wins. Ten of their games were decided by five points or fewer, or in overtime (four OT games in the season). The schedule was average, mixing a tough AFC West with a weak NFC West (yes, even back then).

DVOA is more likely to approve of the 1984 Cardinals, who missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker in a stacked NFC East. St Louis spanked both of the following year's conference champions, and split divisional games with all three of the teams that finished ahead of them. The offense was pretty much unstoppable, with Neil Lomax putting up a 4600-yard passing season; but the rush defense got to face Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, John Riggins, Joe Morris and, um, Curtis Dickey, and to no-one's surprise it couldn't handle them.

Also worth a mention: the 1989 Redskins, whose absence from the postseason helped persuade the league to add a sixth conference playoff berth. Washington was an offensive juggernaut and ranked #2 in interceptions on defense, but lost three-quarters of its fumbles and suffered a midseason slump when QB Mark Rypien got hurt, leading to the home defeat against Paul Palmer and his otherwise winless Cowboys.

19
by JonFrum :: Fri, 12/31/2010 - 9:44pm

Ah the halcyon days of Drew Bledsoe.

And some idiot traded him within the division?

22
by Mike Elseroad (not verified) :: Sat, 01/01/2011 - 5:37am

I'm a long time Patriots fan and I vividly remember the 1979 and 1980 Steve Grogan led seasons.

Both seasons they scored over 400 points, beat the legendary Air Coryell Chargers yet missed the playoffs both times.

It was a different game then, but in '79 starting wrs Harold Jackson both finished with 1000+ yards receiving while averaging over 22 yards per reception.

But they lost to some God awful Jets, Colts and Bills teams both of those seasons and those losses helped keep them out of the playoffs.

Lol. I look at the Pats recent run of dominance as a reward for suffering through those sasons.

24
by Jetspete :: Sat, 01/01/2011 - 11:50am

If i'm not mistaken, not only did the Bills need to win that game, but they also needed either the Jets or Broncos to lose. While the jets did indeed lose to the rams, the Jets knew late in the 4th that the bills had lost (jets/rams eventually went into OT).

26
by justanothersteve :: Sat, 01/01/2011 - 4:01pm

I doubt DVOA will ever go back this far. But there were probably several teams that missed the playoffs with better DVOA back when there were no wild card teams in the pre-merger days. The 1962 Lions were 5th in offense and 2nd in defense, but missed because the 1962 Packers were probably Lombardi's best team. The 1967 Colts lost only 1 game (with two ties) and missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker to the Rams. They were 2nd in both offense and defense.

27
by BDC :: Sat, 01/01/2011 - 9:16pm

If memory serves (and I admit, I could be misremembering), I think the 2002 Dolphins were at like 26%, went 9-7 and missed the playoffs, which would put that in second behind the Bills team. Actually, the '03 team was at I think 20% or so, went 10-6 and also missed the playoffs.

33
by Eddo :: Sun, 01/02/2011 - 2:18pm
28
by dk240t :: Sat, 01/01/2011 - 10:04pm

Have we done the flipside: worst DVOA to make the playoffs?

31
by Whatev :: Sun, 01/02/2011 - 5:40am

Well, we might want to wait for the end of the season for that one.

32
by t.d. :: Sun, 01/02/2011 - 10:35am

They've actually already done it: I think it was the 1998 Cardinals, with the 2004 Rams also in the running. This year's Seahawks would be in the discussion

34
by andrew :: Mon, 01/03/2011 - 10:41am

What I want to see is the greatest gulf between the best non-playoff team and the worst playoff team.

30
by SuperBearsSuperBowl (not verified) :: Sun, 01/02/2011 - 3:49am

Another team that would be high on this list would be the 1965 Chicago Bears. They finished +134 in pt differential, highest in the league. Unfortunately they started out the season with a three game road trip (0-3), before catching fire and winning 9 of their last 11 to finish 9-5. Their weighted DVOA would have bene ridiculous at season's end. They avenged a season opening 52-24 loss @SF with a 61-20 thrashing in Week 13 (the famous Sayers 6 TD game.)