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?
06 Jan 2011
by Bill Barnwell
In last year's Quick Reads season-in-review column (which ran on ESPN only), we had a very odd perspective on what had happened in 2009. Thanks to a schedule that ranked amongst the hardest in NFL history, the advanced statistics at Football Outsiders suggested that Tom Brady had been the best quarterback in football.
This year, the numbers say the same thing. We suspect that it will be slightly less controversial this time around. Using our core advanced metrics -- DYAR and DVOA -- we've gone through the full-season totals at each position and identified the best and worst quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends from this past season. There's also a look at which players have had their performance most drastically impacted by their schedule, as well as those players who have had the biggest improvement or decline in their performance from a year ago.
Our annual disclaimer: Numbers are never perfect. While we certainly believe that our metrics do a better job of analyzing a player's performance than anything else you'll see, there are some things statistics can't account for. We'll point out where the data needs some missing context as warranted. Also, remember that DYAR is a cumulative stat, so players who miss time (like Michael Vick) will find it harder to make it to these leaderboards.
1) Tom Brady, New England Patriots: 2,137 DYAR (2,141 passing DYAR, -4 rushing)
2) Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts: 1,674 DYAR (1,674 passing DYAR, zero rushing)
3) Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers: 1,658 DYAR (1,649 passing DYAR, nine rushing)
4) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: 1,622 DYAR (1,521 passing DYAR, 101 rushing)
5) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: 1,366 DYAR (1,366 passing DYAR, zero rushing)
Analysis: Although Brady actually had four more DYAR in 2009, he was more valuable this year because he accrued such an impressive performance in 73 fewer passing attempts. His 53.4% DVOA was the best figure in the league by a much wider margin (Ben Roethlisberger was second at 38.2%) and almost as good as his 56.9% DVOA during the incredible 2007 season. Likewise, Brees's performance gets pushed up by virtue of his 658 pass attempts; according to DVOA, which measures performance on a per-play basis, he was 12th in the league.
1) Jimmy Clausen, Carolina Panthers: -651 DYAR (-607 passing DYAR, -44 rushing)
2) Max Hall, Arizona Cardinals: -511 DYAR (-511 passing DYAR, zero rushing)
3) John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals: -285 DYAR (-285 passing DYAR, zero rushing)
4) Todd Collins, Chicago Bears: -280 DYAR (-280 passing DYAR, zero rushing)
5) Matt Moore, Carolina Panthers: -267 DYAR (-267 passing DYAR, zero rushing)
Analysis: If you were wondering why the Panthers are picking first in the NFL Draft and the Cardinals had the worst record in one of the worst divisions in league history, this list should put you at ease. The other two Cardinals quarterbacks weren't much better, as Derek Anderson finished as the ninth-worst quarterback and Richard Bartel was 12th. The other quarterback on this list, Collins, had one of the single worst victories in NFL history. He got the start against Clausen and the Panthers after Jay Cutler suffered a concussion, and promptly threw four interceptions on 16 dropbacks before being relieved of his duties. It was the worst game of the season by our numbers; unfortunately for the Panthers, Clausen had the third-worst game of the year when he stepped on the field.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals: For the second year in a row, Brady faced the hardest schedule in football according to DVOA. Enough about him, though. The next-toughest schedule for a quarterback who played all season was Palmer's, thanks in part to a divisional slate with two great pass defenses (Baltimore and Pittsburgh) and an above-average one (Cleveland) . There was a difference of 3.6 percentage points between his DVOA and VOA (the same stat without defensive adjustments included) . That's notable, but not much compared to last year, when Brady had a difference of 9.5 percentage points.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Matt Cassel, Kansas City Chiefs: Cassel and the Chiefs rode one of the league's easiest schedules into the AFC West title. While he was able to avoid turnovers (until Week 17) , one of the reasons he was able to do so was a schedule full of forgiving pass defenses. At one point, Cassel played the four weakest pass defenses in football, back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
Most improved: Cassel: Even with that easy schedule, Cassel still handily cleared his numbers from a year ago. In 2009, he was the third-worst regular quarterback in the league, with a DVOA of -24.3%. His 15.2% figure in 2010 moved him up to 16th. If we didn't include adjustments for quality of opposition, he would be all the way up to ninth. Michael Vick would obviously be part of the discussion here as well, but he only threw 13 passes a year ago.
Biggest decline: Brett Favre, Vikings: Well, this one was easy. Last year, Favre was the most improved quarterback (versus his season with the Jets in 2008) , and Cassel actually was listed as having undergone the biggest decline. Favre was fifth in DYAR in 2009, leading the Vikings all the way to the NFC Championship Game. In his disastrous 2010 campaign, Favre was 57th in DYAR. You will remember that there are only 32 teams in the league. Ahead of Favre were such luminaries as Brian St. Pierre, Rex Grossman, and Josh Johnson. Heck, even the pitcher Josh Johnson might have been able to do better.
1) Arian Foster, Houston Texans: 581 DYAR (371 rushing DYAR, 210 receiving)
2) Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs: 555 DYAR (405 rushing DYAR, 150 receiving)
3) LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles: 401 DYAR (223 rushing DYAR, 178 receiving)
4) BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England Patriots: 385 DYAR (354 rushing DYAR, 31 receiving)
5) Danny Woodhead, New England Patriots: 341 DYAR (185 rushing DYAR, 156 receiving DYAR)
Analysis: Four of these five backs derive significant portions of their value from work as a receiver, something still criminally underrated by most observers. An eight-yard gain on a pass play on first-and-10 is just as valuable as those same eight yards on a run play on first-and-10, and they're easier to come by. If we just looked at rushing DYAR, this list would replace McCoy and Woodhead with Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson. In addition, the list includes three undrafted backs and two players taken in the second (McCoy) and third (Charles) rounds. If you're wondering why teams continue to devote first-round picks and significant contracts to running backs, well, so are we. Finally, Green-Ellis and Woodhead obviously benefit from the presence of a dominant passing game. They aren't the fourth- and fifth-best running backs in football in a vacuum, but their level of production this year has been better than all but three other running backs.
1) Laurence Maroney, Denver Broncos: -86 DYAR (-86 rushing DYAR, zero receiving)
2) Chester Taylor, Chicago Bears: -75 DYAR (-105 rushing DYAR, 30 receiving)
3) Mike Bell, Cleveland Browns/Philadelphia Eagles: -68 DYAR (223 rushing DYAR, 178 receiving)
4) Julius Jones, New Orleans Saints/Seattle Seahawks: -61 DYAR (-19 rushing DYAR, -42 receiving)
5) Thomas Jones, Kansas City Chiefs: -61 DYAR (-90 rushing DYAR, 29 receiving DYAR)
Analysis: Maroney only saw action in four games, but it's hard to figure that he could have done much worse in those four contests. His game of the year was a sublime 11-carry, five-yard performance against the Titans in Week 4 that included eight carries for no gain, a loss of yards, or a fumble. Taylor and Thomas Jones were used as the veteran handcuffs to keep their younger, more talented brethren in line, while Bell and Julius Jones are replacement-level backs who were kept desirable only by their agents. Every carry Thomas Jones sees on Sunday ahead of Charles is a victory for the Ravens.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Green-Ellis: The Law Firm had the biggest difference between his rushing DVOA and VOA, clocking in at just under five percentage points. The only player really in the same ballpark was Brandon Jackson of the Packers (3.3 percentage points) .
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Chris Ivory, New Orleans Saints: Although he missed his second chance at the league's worst run defense (Tampa Bay) , Ivory faced a slate of easy run defenses during his time as the lone back standing in New Orleans. There was a difference of five full percentage points between his VOA and DVOA. Among part-time backs, players like Darren Sproles (7.1 percentage points) and Brian Westbrook (seven) also saw their raw numbers inflated by an easy schedule.
Most improved: McCoy: A year ago, Shady McCoy was an afterthought behind a gimpy Westbrook and a question mark for a team that appeared to be rebuilding its offense around Kevin Kolb. Well, things change. With Michael Vick turning around the Eagles' offense, Philly had the third-best rushing DVOA of any team in the past 18 years. McCoy went from 36th in rushing DVOA to fourth.
Biggest decline: Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams: Go figure. Supremely talented back spends years toiling for awful team without complaining once. By the time the team gets a great quarterback and a competent defense, Jackson struggles with minor injuries and has his worst year in recent memory. Even with the dreadful lack of talent that surrounded him a year ago, Jackson finished seventh in rushing DYAR and wasn't far off from our overall top-five. This year, Jackson had -51 rushing DYAR (39th in the league) and -6 total DYAR. Even if we consider how much the Rams rely upon him, Jackson's done much more in the past.
1) Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers: 457 DYAR
2) Brandon Lloyd, Denver Broncos: 406 DYAR
3) Greg Jennings, Green Bay Packers: 330 DYAR
4) Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons: 294 DYAR
5) Andre Johnson, Houston Texans: 287 DYAR
Analysis: Wallace was the number-one player in our Top 25 Prospects list before the season, and just like previous number-one Miles Austin did the year before, Wallace delivered on his promise. Consider that he led the league in DYAR on just 98 targets while the other four guys in this list averaged 149. He naturally led the league with a DVOA of 47.1%; the next-best figure for a guy with 50 targets or more was Austin Collie, and he was at 28.5%. Collie was closer to 22nd place than he was to first. Passes to Wallace produced an average of 12.8 yards; nobody else with 50 targets or more was above 11.0 yards per attempt (DeSean Jackson) .
1) Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers: -153 DYAR
2) Laurent Robinson, St. Louis Rams: -141 DYAR
3) Early Doucet, Arizona Cardinals: -122 DYAR
4) Bryant Johnson, Detroit Lions: -109 DYAR
5) Andre Roberts, Arizona Cardinals: -102 DYAR
Analysis: While we can point to the unsettled quarterback situation in Carolina as the primary driver of Smith's poor season, this isn't the first time Smith has had to spend the year with one of the league's worst quarterbacks throwing to him. Heck, he had a half-decade with Jake Delhomme, and his numbers have never been this bad. Roberts made the bottom five thanks to a dismal Week 17 game that produced -79 DYAR and rated out as the worst individual game for any wide receiver this year.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Wes Welker, New England Patriots: Yes, listing Patriots in this category can get quickly cumbersome, but it's true. There was a gap of 4.5 percentage points between Welker's DVOA and VOA, signaling how dramatically his numbers were affected by a slate of tough schedules. The closest player to him with more than 50 targets is Brian Hartline of the Dolphins, who had a gap of 3.8 percentage points. In other words: The AFC East is hazardous to receiving stats.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Austin Collie, Indianapolis Colts: Before his season ended due to concussions, Collie got to play some of the worst pass defenses in football. His two 10-catch games came against the worst (Houston) and second-worst (Denver) pass defenses in the league, and he got to play twice against the third-worst (Jacksonville) .
Most improved: Lloyd: The Broncos inexplicably signed Lloyd to a two-year contract last offseason, but it ended up being one of the biggest bargains in football. Lloyd raised his catch rate to 50 percent, just enough to become a dominant downfield threat that actually uses his lavish athletic gifts to his advantage. While Denver had the league's worst rushing attack and an injured offensive line for most of the year, Lloyd was the one player they could count on for a big play. His Pro Bowl nod was well-deserved.
Biggest decline: Randy Moss, New England Patriots/Minnesota Vikings/Tennessee Titans: This one doesn't require much in the way of statistics. Moss went from being the sixth-best wide receiver in football in 2009 to a replacement-level wideout and punch line on those rare occasions where he actually does make a catch.
1) Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers: 371 DYAR
2) Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: 249 DYAR
3) Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys: 216 DYAR
4) Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers: 207 DYAR
5) Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots: 160 DYAR
Analysis: Gates managed to lead all tight ends by a wide margin despite suffering from agonizing injuries on both of his feet throughout the year. His 79.5% DVOA is handily the best for any tight end during the DVOA Era (1993-2010) , and he even finished with more DYAR than he did during last year's fantastic season. He did all this on 65 targets! He had 155 more DYAR than Jason Witten -- who had a great year -- in one-half of the targets.
1) Daniel Graham, Denver Broncos: -133 DYAR
2) John Carlson, Seattle Seahawks: -94 DYAR
3) Dante Rosario, Carolina Panthers: -79 DYAR
4) Stephen Spach, Arizona Cardinals: -55 DYAR
5) Martellus Bennett, Dallas Cowboys: -53 DYAR
Analysis: Graham's season was about as bad as Gates's was good: He had a DVOA of -60.7%. Graham caught 49 percent of the passes thrown to him, the worst figure in the league for a tight end with 30 or more targets. The only tight end who was close was Kevin Boss of the Giants, who had a 50 percent catch rate. Boss doesn't appear on this list because he averaged better than 15 yards per reception when he did get the ball. Graham averaged only 8.5 yards per reception, meaning that he both didn't catch the ball very frequently and did little with the rock upon its arrival.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Rosario: Rosario didn't have a good year even after we adjust for strength of schedule, but he faced a tough slate of opposing defenses and probably deserved better than a 55 percent catch rate.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Zach Miller, Oakland Raiders: Miller had a gap of 2.9 percentage points between his VOA and DVOA; that doesn't seem like much compared to other positions, but it's the biggest difference for tight ends with more than 30 targets.
Most improved: Anthony Fasano, Miami Dolphins: Most of the Dolphins ended up having lost seasons, but Fasano ended up having a very nice season when things were all said and done. After ranking 41st in tight end DYAR last year, Fasano moved up all the way to sixth in 2010. The biggest reason why? Consistency. Although he was only thrown seven more passes than a year ago, he improved his catch rate from 58 percent to 65 percent and averaged better than 2.5 yards more per reception.
Biggest decline: Graham: Graham was an effective receiver in 2009, finishing with a 65 percent catch rate and averaging better than 10.3 yards per reception. He's never had a catch rate below 61 percent as a pro, so his disappointing performance this year is likely a one-season fluke.
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