The Vikings' quarterback seemed to regress in his second season. Did that tell us more about the player, or the Minnesota offensive scheme?
01 Feb 2007
by Aaron Schatz
There aren't a lot of hidden stories in Super Bowl XLI. The Bears have a strong defense and a weak offense. The Colts have a strong offense and a weak defense. That defense improved dramatically in the playoffs, but nobody knows how much to trust that turnaround compared to the 16 games that came before. The coaches are best friends and they run the same defensive scheme. Peyton Manning is looking for his legacy and Rex Grossman is looking for people to finally stop giving him crap. Miami is a nicer place to visit than Detroit. Dwight Freeney and Lance Briggs are ready to get paid. If Adam Vinatieri misses a field goal with the game on the line, the universe may implode. Bob Sanders may be the most important defensive player in the league, and you can say the same thing about Tommie Harris. They are important because Sanders is playing and Harris is not, so score one for the Colts there.
This year's previews are a little more numbers-oriented than in the past, but that's because we've actually split the previews in two for FOX. Michael David Smith and Mike Tanier wrote a more scouting-oriented preview last week that complements this article.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. We've got more numbers below than a roulette wheel manufacturing plant. Of course, Football Outsiders tracks so many stats that I can guarantee I missed something. Probably a few things.
For discussion during the game, we're going to try something new, an actual message board. Hopefully this will help with our server issues and we won't crash in the middle of Super Bowl Sunday. Click here to go to that board.
|IND OFF||CHI DEF|
|DVOA||33.8% (1)||-20.3% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||29.7% (1)||-12.2% (4)|
|PASS||56.7% (1)||-24.5% (2)|
|RUSH||7.5% (6)||-14.7% (5)|
|1st DOWN||28.8% (2)||-6.2% (13)|
|2nd DOWN||20.3% (2)||-29.7% (1)|
|3rd/4th DOWN||71.5% (1)||-31.8% (4)|
|RED ZONE||25.1% (7)||-1.0% (12)|
We all know that offense is the strength of the Colts, and defense the strength of the Bears. By this point, Taoist monks in the highest reaches of the Tibetan mountains know that offense is the strength of the Colts, and defense the strength of the Bears, and they don't even have televisions.
2006 Colts are the second-highest offense in the decade for which we have DVOA stats, ahead of any Rams or Broncos offense from their Super Bowl years, but behind the 2004 Colts. They are number one or two in nearly every imaginable statistical split except the red zone. They allowed the fewest number of sacks in the league. They converted 56 percent of third-down opportunities, and no other team converted more than 50 percent -- in fact, only one other team converted more than 45 percent.
The Bears defense was also the best in the league for much of the season, but took a tumble after defensive tackle Tommie Harris was injured against Minnesota in Week 13. (A "tumble," of course, looks like the line moving up in the graph below because DVOA gets worse the higher up you go.) The "Tampa-2" defensive style used by both of these teams depends on getting a pass rush from the front four, so that seven players can be in pass coverage, and Harris may be the best pass-rushing tackle in the league.
Here are the same splits as we listed above, but for Chicago's defense only, separated into the 12 games with Harris and the six games without him (including the playoffs):
|Bears defense before and after Harris injury|
|Weeks 1-13||Weeks 14-20|
|DVOA||-30.2% (1)||0.4% (13)|
|PASS||-42.3% (1)||2.5% (17)|
|RUSH||-16.2% (6)||-3.3% (12)|
|1st DOWN||-4.3% (14)||-10.4% (9)|
|2nd DOWN||-40.8% (1)||4.6% (16)|
|3rd/4th DOWN||-63.4% (1)||10.9% (22)|
|RED ZONE||-35.9% (3)||81.0% (32)|
The Bears have actually been better on first down, but the defense has declined in nearly every other situation. The biggest collapse comes in the most important situations: third down and the red zone.
In Weeks 1-13, Chicago opponents converted only 30 percent of opportunities on third or fourth down. Since Week 14, they've converted 40 percent of opportunities.
In Weeks 1-13, the Bears defense faced 73 plays inside the red zone, and only allowed touchdowns on 11 of them, with three takeaways. Since Week 14, the Bears defense has faced 39 plays inside the red zone, and allowed touchdowns on 13 of them, with zero takeaways.
The good news for Bears fans is that the Chicago defense finally reverted to form in the NFC Championship victory against New Orleans. According to single-game DVOA, it was Chicago's best game since the Harris injury. It was the first game since the Harris injury where the Bears played above-average pass defense, and the first game where they had more than two takeaways.
The Bears didn't improve in the red zone, but they only faced one play in the red zone all game, the 13-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston at the end of the first half. It's interesting to note that the Bears have only faced one goal-to-go situation in the last three games, and that was a completely meaningless first-and-goal from the ten in the last two minutes of their loss to Green Bay.
The red zone matchup here is interesting because of the pass/rush splits. DVOA ranks the Colts fourth in red-zone passing and 15th in red-zone rushing. The Bears defense ranks 24th against red-zone passing but seventh against red-zone rushing. We often criticize the Colts for going pass-wacky near the goal line, but it's probably a good idea in this game.
Another Chicago weakness -- even before the Harris injury -- has been defending passes to the opposition's number one receiver. If your best receiver can find the holes in the Cover-2 zone, you can rack up a lot of nice medium-sized gains. If you go deep on the safeties -- the weakness of the defense since Mike Brown was injured early in the year -- you can get a few big plays too. The Bears ranked 21st in DVOA on passes to number one receivers.
But in the playoffs, the Bears have held the opposition's top receiver in check. Together, Darrell Jackson and Marques Colston caught 9 passes out of 23 for 111 yards. (Obviously, Colston's drops did contribute to this success.)
|Yards per pass vs. Chicago, by position|
|Position||Wk 1-13||Wk 14-17||Wk 19-20|
The defense against wide receivers is one of the things that has rebounded in the playoffs. With the caveat that two games is small sample size, the table to the left shows yards per pass against the Bears split into three time periods: 12 games with Harris, the final four games of the regular season, and the postseason. That running back number is huge thanks to Reggie Bush's 88-yard touchdown; without that, it's a more reasonable 6.1 yards per pass.
The Colts rarely move their wide receivers around, with Reggie Wayne on the left side and Marvin Harrison on the right. The Bears rarely move their cornerbacks around, with Nathan Vasher on the (offensive) left side and Charles Tillman on the right.
Wayne and Harrison were equal partners during the regular season, but the same can't be said for Vasher and Tillman. According to the Football Outsiders game charting project, opposing quarterbacks throw at Tillman nearly twice as often as they throw at Vasher. In fact, though the data is not yet complete, we've charted more passes at Tillman than any other defender in the league in 2006. Lest you think this is a one-year phenomenon, last year Tillman was thrown at 50 percent more often than Vasher, and was second in the league in pass targets behind Ike Taylor.
If Manning follows this same pattern, there are going to be a lot of passes to Harrison. That means that Harrison has to break out of his long-time playoff funk. People talk about Manning's struggles in the playoffs, but frankly, Harrison's playoff record is much worse.
Harrison was held under 50 yards in each of the Colts' playoff games this year. There's a good reason for this. Kansas City, Baltimore, and New England all concentrated on shutting down Harrison and Reggie Wayne. But Harrison's playoff problems didn't start this year. Harrison hasn't had a playoff game with more than 52 yards or five catches since the wild card blowout of Denver in 2003. That was the only 100-yard playoff game of his career, and the only playoff game where he ever scored a touchdown.
Of course, if you plug one hole in the dam, another opens up. Shutting down Harrison and Wayne leaves huge empty spaces in the middle of the field for Dallas Clark and, to a lesser extent, Bryan Fletcher and Ben Utecht.
During the regular season, Indianapolis averaged 9.1 yards per pass when Manning threw to wide receivers, 6.9 yards per pass when he threw to tight ends (including just 6.3 on passes to Dallas Clark). During the playoffs, Indianapolis is averaging just 5.8 yards per pass when Manning throws to wide receivers, but 9.2 yards per pass when he throws to tight ends (including 9.7 for Dallas Clark).
Clark is probably the Colts' playoff MVP so far, but now he has to go up against the best defense in the league covering tight ends. Lance Briggs is the best cover linebacker in the NFL, and Brian Urlacher isn't far behind.
What does it mean to be the best defense against tight ends? The Bears allowed a 57 percent completion rate on passes to tight ends, sixth in the league. They intercepted six passes to tight ends, second in the league. Ben Watson was the only tight end to have more than 40 yards in a game against Chicago. And the Bears allowed just three touchdowns to tight ends.
Of course, Dallas Clark isn't really a tight end most of the time, he's a slot receiver. The Bears ranked sixth against "other receivers," i.e. receivers who did not start the game. Wes Welker was the only one of these receivers to catch a touchdown against them. When you look at things from a scouting perspective, however, you can see where the Bears might have trouble with Clark as a slot receiver. Lance Briggs may be great in coverage, but there's a reason he's not a safety or cornerback, and, as noted above, safety is the weakest position on the Chicago defense. The Colts will probably try to send Clark deep to take advantage of those safeties.
The best way to keep Manning from finding an open man deep is pass pressure, of course. Can the Bears bring the pressure without Harris? Actually, even with Harris and a big rookie year from defensive end Mark Anderson, the Bears didn't really sack the quarterback that much. They had 40 sacks, but they faced a lot of pass attempts, so they ended up just 21st in adjusted sack rate.
The Bears did not blitz much during the regular season, but they've been doing it more in the playoffs. A lot of these are zone blitzes, with one or two linebackers coming, and defensive end Adewale Ogunleye dropping into coverage. The Bears like to come up the middle, so if Jeff Saturday is really the "non-QB non-RB MVP," as Gregg Easterbrook wrote this week, this would be a good time to prove it. The Colts ranked first in adjusted sack rate, but a lot of that has to do with Manning's ability to get rid of the ball quickly as well as his newfound skill for 2006 -- mobility. Yes, Peyton Manning was actually mobile this year. He had four rushing touchdowns, but that's not really what we are talking about here. We're talking about Manning's ability to feel pressure, move in the pocket, and keep plays going without throwing the ball away. (The best example of this all year was the play in the first Patriots game where Manning bought himself enough time to throw deep to Marvin Harrison, the same play where Rodney Harrison hurt his shoulder.)
In the Football Outsiders game charting project, we asked charters to mark whenever a pass was hurried. Again, this is unofficial data, and imperfect, but 12 percent of Colts passes were marked as hurried -- about average. Yet 56 percent of those plays ended up successful by the same standards we use for DVOA. Cincinnati was the only other team above 50 percent. Manning isn't as good when hurried as he is when he has time to throw. But "not as good" for Peyton Manning is better than almost any other quarterback in the league. (Ned Macey writes a bit about this in a FO FOX blog post today.)
As for the Bears, despite their low adjusted sack rate, the Bears ranked fourth in passes marked as hurried (16 percent) and third in success when they hurried a pass (offense had just 41 percent success). So again, strength against strength.
All this talk about passing, and we have yet to discuss the Colts' running game. Let's start with our adjusted line yards stats. Adjusted line yards takes each run and weights it based on an estimate of how much the offensive line bears the responsibility. Lost yardage is penalized extra, and no run counts for more than 10 yards. You can read the specifics here. We break that down into five directions. Here's how the Indianapolis offense and Chicago defense did during the regular season, along with rank among all 32 teams.
|Adjusted Line Yards, 2006|
|Team||All Runs||Rk||L End||Rk||L Tackle||Rk||Mid/Grd||Rk||R Tackle||Rk||R End||Rk|
The Colts did not miss Edgerrin James one teeny bit this year. Edge averaged 4.2 yards per carry last year. Joseph Addai averaged 4.8 yards per carry this year. Regular FO readers may remember that last year, Edge set a record for consistency, with the highest success rate of any running back with at least 75 carries in a season. This year, Addai broke that record. The Colts have an offense set up to get the running back regular 4-6 yard gains. That doesn't mean that Edge wasn't talented, but it looks like Addai is just as talented.
Dominic Rhodes was pretty much the same player this year that he was last year. Addai outplayed Rhodes throughout the regular season, although Rhodes has been very good in the postseason.
Like their pass defense, the Bears' run defense also weakened without Tommie Harris. But the decline has been much smaller, and, just like the pass defense, the run defense bounced back against New Orleans. Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush combined for just 37 yards on the ground in 10 carries.
The strengths and weaknesses of the Colts running game and the strengths and weaknesses of the Bears run defense really match up. The Colts are better running up the middle than around the ends, and the Bears have better defense up the middle than around the ends. The Colts rarely break a long run, but the Bears allow more long runs than you might expect. The Colts' running backs are rarely stuffed for no yardage, except in third- or fourth-and-short situations. The Bears stuffed running backs more often than any team except Minnesota, but were just average in third- or fourth-and-short situations.
To beat the Colts, you have to be able to do three things. You have to stop the run. You have to put pass pressure on Manning. And you must have defensive backs and linebackers who are good enough to stop both the wide receivers and the tight ends.
The Ravens could do all this, but the offense self-destructed. The Patriots had the first two, but not the third. The Bears can stop the run, and they can have the coverage or the pass pressure. Without Harris it will be hard to have both, but last week's game against New Orleans is a very good sign for Bears fans. If the Bears play like that against the Colts, they should hold down Manning enough to give their offense a chance to win the game.
Some of you are probably giggling at those last nine words, right?
|CHI OFF||IND DEF|
|DVOA||-3.9% (18)||11.3% (27)|
|WEI DVOA||-9.8% (24)||-4.0% (12)|
|PASS||-10.5% (23)||5.3% (18)|
|RUSH||2.8% (9)||15.6% (31)|
|1st DOWN||-11.1% (22)||6.1% (22)|
|2nd DOWN||11.0% (7)||6.5% (22)|
|3rd/4th DOWN||-13.3% (24)||30.1% (30)|
|RED ZONE||1.1% (16)||18.6% (29)|
The weighted DVOA rating and the week-to-week graph below both show what's been going on with the Colts' defense over the past three weeks: a massive, historic turnaround.
If the Colts' defense plays as well this week as it did against the Chiefs and Ravens, this thing isn't even going to be a game. But just two games really aren't enough to tell us that the Colts have suddenly become one of the best defenses in football. And, as we expected, the Colts defense regressed a bit against the Patriots -- better than it had been most of the season, but not as good as it was in the first two playoff games.
The Bears offense has also declined over time, but not by much, and not equally for the run and the pass. Most of Rex Grossman's shaky games came in the second half of the year. But Thomas Jones improved from 3.8 yards per carry in the first half of the season to 4.4 yards per carry in the second half. Cedric Benson was even better, averaging 4.7 yards per carry over the last eight games and is finally fulfilling his promise as the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft.
Analyzing how each team does on each down is also complicated by the Colts' playoff performance. The Colts have dramatically improved on both first and third down, and frankly, the third down performance is ridiculous. In the playoffs, only 10 of 40 third- or fourth-down attempts have converted for a new set of downs. During the regular season, the Colts allowed conversions on half of third- or fourth-down attempts, when no other team was above 46 percent.
The Bears offense has an intriguing split when it comes to third downs. The Bears ranked 10th in DVOA on third-and-long (7+ yards to go), but 23rd on third-and-short (1-3 to go) and 31st on third-and-medium (4-6 to go). At the same time, the Bears ranked sixth in DVOA on third-down runs, but 28th in DVOA on third-down passes.
How do you get a combination of "good on third-and-long" and "bad on third down passes?" It turns out that Grossman was reasonably good at converting passes on third-and-long, but horrible when it came to passing the ball on third-and-short. This reflects his general strengths and weaknesses -- he has problems with accuracy and decision-making, but does well with the deep ball.
|Conversion Rates for Passes on 3rd/4th Down|
|Bears offense||Colts defense|
|Yards to Go||Reg. Sea.||Rank||Reg. Sea.||Rank||Playoffs|
The table to the right shows how often Chicago converted pass attempts on third/fourth down at different distances, with rank among the 32 offenses during the regular season. I've also listed where the Indianapolis defense stood during the regular season -- and how it has done in the playoffs.
Those Colts playoff numbers are ridiculous. Again, the sample size is small -- but the sample size is small for the entire concept of "the Colts defense has improved in the playoffs." The only place here where the Colts have not improved is third-and-10+ yards, which happens to be the place where the Bears' have the most success, compared to the league average.
Chicago's third down splits look even more interesting after we see how the Bears use their slot receiver. Chicago doesn't play a lot of multiple-receiver sets on first or second down, so there aren't many passes to wide receivers other than Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian. But on third down, the third receiver (primarily Rashied Davis) is Grossman's favorite target. 67 percent of passes to Chicago's non-starting receivers were thrown on third or fourth down. The league average was 40 percent, and Baltimore was the only other team above 55 percent.
This is not necessarily a good thing. Most of those third-down passes to Davis fall incomplete or end up too short of the sticks.
|Chicago Intended Receivers by Down|
|3rd/4th Conversion Rate||47%||35%||30%||52%||28%|
|*Includes Mark Bradley in Weeks 9-10, when Berrian was injured.|
It's a good thing for the Bears that Muhammad is the go-to guy on third down, because that's a big Colts weakness. The league-average completion rate to number one receivers on third down was slightly below 50 percent. Against the Colts, it was 68 percent.
My guess is that a lot of those missed passes to third-and-short bad throws forced by pressure. But for all the talk about Rex Grossman getting rattled by the pass rush, the Bears only allowed 25 sacks this year -- and for all the talk of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Colts only had 25 sacks.
Many Colts fans would argue that the sacks don't matter, because all those times where Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis hurried the quarterback into a bad pass aren't counted. Again, the Football Outsiders game charting project comes in handy. 12 percent of charted passes against Indianapolis were marked as hurries, which is league average. And 50 percent of those passes were successful for the offense -- only Detroit and Cincinnati allowed more success on passes where the quarterback was marked as "hurried."
What about the flip side of that, hurrying Grossman? Guess what -- it certainly backs up everything our eyes tell us about the Bears' offense. 20 percent of charted passes for the Bears were marked as "hurried," the highest percentage in the league. The Bears were only successful on 42 percent of those hurried passes, not the worst figure in the league, but below average.
There has been some thought that fear of the Colts' speed-rushers causes offensive linemen to jump offsides or hold, but it doesn't seem to be the case. Colts opponents were only called for offensive holding 12 times during the regular season, the lowest total in the league. Of course, I wrote an article for the New York Times before the season suggesting that the officials may have more to do with what penalties are called than the actual teams involved. The Colts were only called for 11 holds, opponents for 12. The Bears were called for 23 holds, sixth in the league -- and their opponents were called for 26, third in the league.
(Super Bowl referee Tony Corrente called more penalties than any other official in the league this year, which should be interesting. Doug Farrar wrote more about this on the FO FOX blog.)
The fact that the Bears like to throw deep, and the Colts are going to be vulnerable deep, can also be seen thanks to a new feature in this year's NFL play-by-play. Beginning in 2006, official scorers marked passes with a direction as well as a distance, either "short" or "deep." Deep meant the ball traveled at least 15 yards through the air; short was everything else. Not every official scorer stuck with the program, and there are some passes unmarked, but it's still an interesting way to look at the passing game.
Here's a look at how often passes proved successful, based on length and direction. This doesn't include sacks, of course, but it does include pass interference. I've split the Colts into regular season and playoffs to show you the difference.
|Success Rate on Passes based on Length and Direction|
Notice that the Colts' defense is much improved on short passes, but actually worse on deep passes. Bring Bob Sanders up to play the run, and what are you leaving open? That's right, the deep middle of the field, which happens to be Chicago's favorite place to throw the ball.
Tony Dungy's philosophy is to limit big plays and yards after catch, and the Colts definitely did that during the regular season. Yards per catch is not an official statistic, but we track it with the Football Outsiders game charting project. The Colts allowed only 4.2 yards after catch on the average charted pass, less than any team except Cleveland. The Bears had 4.6 YAC, slightly below the league average.
Also, as noted in this FO FOX blog post, we allowed charters to mark the defender on a pass as "Hole in Zone" rather than giving a specific name. The Colts had more passes marked "Hole in Zone" than any other defense -- more than 10 percent of charted passes.
Back to the standard play-by-play, the Colts allowed just 49 passes over 15 yards, the lowest total in the league. The allowed just 23 passes over 20 yards, and 12 over 25 yards -- again, both totals were the lowest in the league.
in the air
|M.Jackson + K.Hayden||26||9.7||31%||8.9||4.0|
There's one more issue revolving around the Colts pass defense, and that's the sprained ankle that Nick Harper sustained in the AFC Championship game. Right now, Harper is questionable, and Tony Dungy is calling him "iffy." If Harper can't play, either Kelvin Hayden or Marlin Jackson will share time opposite Jason David. Hayden and Jackson have both served as nickel back during the season, with Jackson, a better tackler, usually playing if Dungy feels a run might be coming. Harper isn't really more than an average cornerback, but either of those players is a step down. We don't have many charted passes for either Hayden or Jackson in the game charting project, but I can combine the two to get a more useful number, and it isn't pretty. I've also listed average pass length in the air to show that Jackson and Hayden aren't giving up extra yardage because they're stuck covering guys going deep on third-and-long.
When you are forced to play an inferior cornerback, you want to give him safety help. But you can only have one safety deep for help if the other safety is playing up close to the line. Bob Sanders cannot be two places at once. (He's fast, but not that fast.)
Of course, talking about eight in the box gets us to the improvement of the Indianapolis run defense -- and the improvement of the Chicago running game. Like we did for the Colts offense above, let's break down the adjusted line yards.
|Adjusted Line Yards, 2006|
|Team||All Runs||Rk||L End||Rk||L Tackle||Rk||Mid/Grd||Rk||R Tackle||Rk||R End||Rk|
Make no mistake, the Bears like to run. Chicago had 471 carries from running backs during the regular season, tied with Kansas City for the most in the league. And the Colts faced 463 carries from running backs, more than any defense except Oakland -- which is particularly ridiculous considering that Colts opponents were normally trying to play catch-up.
61 percent of runs against the Colts were marked as middle or guard, the second-highest percentage in the league. Interestingly, even though it was their best direction for running the ball, the Bears only ran middle/guard 44 percent of the time, below the league average of 49 percent.
Part of the reason for that low percentage might be that, when the rest of the Chicago running game improved at midseason, runs up the middle did not. Here's a look at adjusted line yards, split into the first and second half of the season. I've also added a third line that includes the playoffs.
|Chicago Adjusted Line Yards, Before and After Midseason|
|Weeks||All Runs||L End||L Tackle||Mid/Grd||R Tackle||R End|
Given Dwight Freeney's reputation for playing poorly against the run, you are probably shocked to see the Colts defense ranked first against left end runs. I explored that paradox on the FO FOX blog back in December. The conventional wisdom is that Freeney takes himself out of running plays by constantly speed-rushing to the outside. If you run behind your guard and tackle, he's taken himself out of the play. But if you run a wider run around the end, you are going to run right into Freeney as he's on his way towards your quarterback. This is also true with Robert Mathis, to a lesser extent, which explains why the Colts also do well against right end runs.
The answer to this problem is simply to not run around end against the Colts. Only 13 percent of runs against them went left end or right end, compared to 22 percent of runs leaguewide.
Yes, you say, but what about the playoffs, when the Colts have been playing better defense against the run? The table on the right shows running back carries against the Colts in the playoffs. The yardage here is standard, not adjusted line yards.
|RB Carries vs. Colts, 2007 Playoffs|
The Colts have been working to stuff the run -- not only with eight in the box, but with Freeney and Mathis rushing inside more often than they spin outside. That's worked against those runs up the middle, but running behind your tackles is still successful. Well, running behind your left tackle -- the right tackle numbers are skewed by Corey Dillon's 35-yard scamper on fourth-and-1. The Bears were better this year running behind left tackle John Tait, and that's what they should do a lot this Sunday.
Speaking of fourth-and-1, the Colts were the worst defense this year in what we call "power situations" -- stopping runs on third/fourth down with 1-2 yards to go. Opponents converted these runs 82 percent of the time. In the playoffs, even stopping the run up the middle, opponents have converted 4-of-6, and one of those failures was the messed-up handoff by the Patriots, which isn't really evidence of improved Colts defense. As for the Bears, they converted 71 percent in power situations, seventh in the league.
|DVOA||7.6% (1)||-3.1% (26)|
|CHI kickoff||18.9 (1)||0.1 (15)|
|IND kickoff||3.4 (9)||-15.7 (30)|
|CHI punts||2.0 (16)||2.5 (8)|
|IND punts||11.7 (2)||-9.7 (29)|
|FG/XP||8.8 (3)||4.8 (8)|
Football teams are made of three parts -- offense, defense, and special teams -- but these parts are not of equal importance. If they were, the Bears would be 14-point favorites in this game, not seven-point underdogs. That's how big their advantage is on special teams.
The Bears had the best special teams in the league in 2006. Actually, according to the FO ratings, they had the third-best special teams of any team from 1997 through 2006.
Yes, Adam Vinatieri is the greatest clutch kicker of all time, but the issue here is not the kickers or the punters. The Colts have terrible kickoff and punt coverage, and the Bears have Devin Hester and an excellent crew that blocks for him.
Combine Hester's dynamic returns with a defense that gets a lot of takeaways, and the Bears started their average drive this year on the 32-yard line (32.2, to be exact). That ranked fifth among offenses. The Colts' defense started its average drive at the 31-yard line (30.8, actually, which ranked 23rd). Each extra yard of field position makes it more likely that Bernard Berrian runs that bomb into the end zone instead of getting tackled on the ten-yard line, more likely that Robbie Gould gets a chip shot field goal instead of a riskier long one, more likely that a Rex Grossman interception becomes a simple change of possession instead of a pick-six.
And that's before we consider the possibility that Hester might just run one back all the way. Hester scored six special teams touchdowns this year, and the Colts allowed three, tied with St. Louis and Jacksonville for the league lead. Of course, Hester also has to get over his case of the dropsies. He didn't just lead the league in touchdowns on special teams; he also led the league with eight muffs or fumbles during the regular season, and muffed three more punts in the divisional round win over Seattle.
Chicago ranked second in DVOA variance during the regular season, while Indianapolis was 11th. If we include the playoffs, the Colts rank fourth in variance. It's easy to imagine the storyline for every possible outcome of this game. There could be a blowout victory for either team, or a close game won by either team. The oddsmakers have favored the Colts, but my personal opinion is that the game is a toss-up.
I wrote about specific issues above, but let's talk about larger trends. First, the trends favoring the Colts. The Colts ended the season as a better team than the Bears. They were fourth in weighted DVOA, while the Bears were just seventh. If we include the playoffs, the Colts are first in weighted DVOA. The Bears have been worse since a specific injury, the Colts better since the return of a specific injured player.
We also have to consider the AFC's current dominance over the NFC. The Bears were not an exception to this general rule. Prior to that disaster against Green Bay in the last game of the regular season, Chicago's only losses had come to AFC teams, Miami and New England. And some people feel that when all else fails, you go with the team with the better quarterback. In this game, that's like asking who would win a war between China and Luxembourg.
But there are also a number of trends that favor the Bears. First of all, the Colts weren't exactly spectacular against the NFC this year. They lost to Dallas, barely beat the Giants, beat Washington by a score that would have been closer if Nick Novak didn't suck, and stomped all over Philadelphia -- in Jeff Garcia's first start, when the Eagles offense was a mess.
Remember that research Bill Barnwell did about what wins in the playoffs? It suggested that total regular-season DVOA is actually a better predictor of playoff success than weighted DVOA. The Colts have the higher weighted DVOA, but the Bears had the higher rating for the entire season.
That research also suggested that defense really does end up more important than offense. If the question is "Is it easier to win the Super Bowl with a shaky quarterback or a bad defense," the historical answer is dramatically one-sided. In one corner, you have Trent Dilfer, Jeff Hostetler, and the younger version of Terry Bradshaw. In the other corner, you have... nobody. From what I can tell, no team has ever won the Super Bowl after finishing in the bottom half of the league in points allowed.
This just gets us into all the numbers you've heard me recite before, all the history that the Colts' defensive improvement in the last three games is supposed to neutralize. The fact that no conference champion had ever allowed this many yards per carry. The fact that no conference champion had ever allowed a completion percentage this high. And the points, oh, the points.
Super Bowl champions with
|Year||Team||Pyth%||Pyth Wins||Real W-L|
The Colts gave up 360 points during the regular season. That's 22.5 points per game. No other team has ever made the Super Bowl after giving up more than 22 points per game. In the era before the Super Bowl, no other team ever won an AFL or NFL championship giving up more than 22 points per game. To find a team that even made it to the last game of the season giving up that many points per game, you have to go back to the 1965 Cleveland Browns, who lost to the Packers in the final pre-Super Bowl NFL Championship game.
Wait, there's more. Eight teams have made the Super Bowl after giving up at least 310 points during the regular season. Seven of those teams lost. In Super Bowl XVIII, the two worst defenses to ever make the Super Bowl happened to be playing each other, so one of those teams had to win. And the 1983 Raiders and 1983 Redskins actually ranked 13th and 11th in points allowed. It was a very offense-friendly year.
15 of the last 17 Super Bowls have been won by a team that ranked either first or second in Pythagorean wins. The Bears were second this year, with 12.4 Pythagorean wins. The Colts were ninth, with 9.6 Pythagorean wins. If the Colts win the Super Bowl, they will become the first Super Bowl champion to ever have a Pythagorean winning percentage below .600 (albeit by a tiny margin).
Of course, just because something is improbable does not mean it is impossible. In fact, not only is this not impossible, it already happened just four months ago.
The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series with just 82 Pythagorean wins. They had the second-lowest Pythagorean winning percentage of any World Series champion in baseball history. Like the Colts, they were coming off two great seasons where they failed to go all the way. Like the Colts, they are led by a superstar who is probably one of the greatest players in his sport's history. Like the Colts, their defense (pitching) fell apart during the regular season, and they looked weak entering the playoffs. Like the Colts, their defense dramatically improved during the postseason, once again making them the formidable team they had been in 2004 and 2005. Like the Colts hope to do, they took home a title that they "deserved" more in previous seasons.
Of course, the Bears can take heart in the outcome of another recent major championship. Remember the line in the Ohio State-Florida game? Rex Grossman sure does.
I will stand by something that I wrote in the introduction to Pro Football Prospectus 2006. The Super Bowl does not tell us which team is the best in the NFL. It tells us which team is the champion of the NFL, which is something different. Judged by history, neither the Bears nor the Colts are a great team. But there were no great teams in 2006, and these happen to be the two teams that got it done when the chips were down. The winner of this game will go into the books as one of the weakest champions in Super Bowl history. As a fan of one of the other weakest champions in Super Bowl history, I'll let you in on a little secret: the celebration afterwards feels just as good.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We've also listed each team's rating split by down, as well as performance in the red zone.
WEI DVOA is WEIGHTED DVOA, which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here). This is the same formula used in this week's FOXSports.com power rankings, and it includes the playoffs. All numbers except for WEIGHTED DVOA are regular season only except where noted.
In some cases, we'll simplify things by referring to "success rate." This removes some of the adjustments, and just looks at how often the offense gains 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third or fourth down.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense.
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice."
Numbers from the Football Outsiders game charting project are unofficial and are missing a handful of regular season games.
(Correction: It used to say that the team that finished first or second in Pythagorean wins has won 17 of 19 Super Bowls. That has been changed to 15 of 17.)
143 comments, Last at 05 Feb 2007, 11:45am by Nathan