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?
17 Nov 2013
by Rivers McCown
Bryce Petty finally got to play a full game. Well, okay, almost.
Baylor's starting quarterback checked out with 6:34 to play in the game, 63 points in hand. The Bears got off to a horrendous start, and were down 20-7 late in the first quarter. Two of Baylor's three players with over 800 yards from scrimmage on the season, Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, didn't play. Their top receiver, Antwan Goodley, had 101 yards and a touchdown and it felt like he left about 150 more on the field. They committed 12 penalties for 108 yards. None of it really came close to mattering.
I took this in, live and in person, at Jerryworld in Dallas. (I resisted, for the most part, the urge to watch the gigantic TV screen in front of my face rather than the game itself.) What I saw was the exhausting, inexorable march of football being dragged into the future by Art Briles.
Chris Brown covered a lot of this in his look at Baylor's offense earlier in the year , but what separates Baylor from other spread schools is a matter of schematic philosophy. Baylor has fused together all the important concepts of the last few years -- the read option, packaged plays, up-tempo pace, and so on -- with the willingness to swing for the fences on any play they can. They put you in a position where one misstep in execution leads to a player heading to the house. On every play.
To be sure, Texas Tech isn't a team that is objectively good. They're a fine team. What made them interesting in this game was what they represent: an Air Raid offense that hasn't been taken to the same extremes as Briles has taken Baylor. They had some success early. Their success comes from the other extreme at Baylor: the defense. Practically every snap taken had both safeties within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage -- there was little schematic advantage to watching this game in-person, because all the action was happening so fast. Baylor suffocated the quick passing lanes and waited for Phil Bennett's pass rush to come through. If it didn't, there were one-on-one opportunities to be had deep, and they were often exploited, sometimes successfully, by Tech.
And the reason this all works out in the end? Baylor runs so many of their impressively-devised offensive plays so quickly that it doesn't actually matter if they trail. They are willing to bet that over the course of 60 minutes, their extremes can cover up for the gambles.
Tech, for all their Air Raid scheming and an impressive willingness to go for it on fourth down on the first drive, wouldn't match the extreme. Tech wanted two deep safeties, so Baylor's running game and screens (aided by the wider-than-usual splits their receivers take) were on point. Texas Tech believes in the same ideals Baylor does, but still conceptually views the game as regular old football. Art Briles went for it on fourth-and-1, on the Texas Tech 22, in the fourth quarter. While up by 22 points.
Look, I'm not going to sell you on the idea that Baylor is more talented than their brethren in the BCS chase. They aren't that team. Petty's deep ball comes and goes, and while there is clearly NFL talent on the field, it's nothing more than a lot of other top-40 teams are working with. There is no transcendent talent like Jameis Winston on Baylor.
I'm just telling you that, if you are a football nerd, this is the team you should want to see take on Alabama for all the Tostitos. We got our look earlier this year at the kind of game Nick Saban is capable of playing when he has to, when Johnny Manziel ran out of time to throw the punches he needed to overcome the Texas A&M defense. Saban versus Briles' extremes would be a fascinating match of talent against coaching mettle.
It would also take six hours. Without overtime.
One thing I've begun to notice as I have to write more about more different teams for our ESPN columns is the effect that a mobile quarterback can have on the run DVOA leaderboards.
For starters, note that the scale of run DVOA has not generally been as high as it is for pass DVOA. Denver has a 63.3% pass DVOA that leads the league (so far), and Philadelphia is at a league-leading 20.3% run DVOA with their Chip Kelly running scheme. In 2012, the split was 53.9%/16.5%. 2011, 67.6%/32.1%. 2010, 67.5%/24.3%. You have to go back to 2002 to find a year where the top run DVOA was within 20% of the top pass DVOA. (The Chiefs, naturally, had both that year.) This means that run DVOA rank is more susceptible to swings, because the range is generally tighter than it is with the passing game.
Then, factor in the fact that (a) a new wave of mobile, strong quarterbacks seem to be taking the league by storm and (b) the importance of rushing is declining, as measured by the number of plays that are rushes going down. All of the sudden, those quarterbacks that can scramble and make plays with their feet are becoming more important because they can be their own checkdown receiver. I've watched a lot of Titans tape this year, and let me tell you, I'm much more scared of Jake Locker running than I am of Jake Locker throwing. But even with quarterbacks like Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers, the ability to generate first downs with your feet when the defense nails their call is growing in importance.
And where that shows up more than anywhere, lately, is in rushing DVOA.
The biggest example to me, having spent a lot of time in the AFC South this year, is Andrew Luck. Going into Week 11, the Colts were the seventh-best rushing team in the NFL by DVOA, at 8.1%. I've had other writers ask me how the Colts can be that high despite Trent Richardson looking like a complete abomination. Below I'm listing every Colts runner with more than 10 carries in 2013. Look at how those splits go:
|Colts Runners, 2013 (Through Week 10)|
You know what happens if we remove Luck from that table? The Colts would have an -0.9% DVOA on runs. That would drop them from seventh place (going into Week 11, again) to a tie for 13th with Oakland. And all that extra value? Luck isn't exactly running a lot of designed draws -- he's run a few, of course, like the touchdown that sealed the San Francisco game -- but generally speaking all this positive value is coming straight from the quarterback's ability to scramble when he's under duress or his options are covered.
The thing is, generally speaking, the range of quarterback run DVOA is much like the range of quarterback pass DVOA. This year, the high qualifying rush DVOA is Michael Vick's 67.7% on 29 carries. The No. 1 rusher by DVOA coming into Week 11, Stevan Ridley, is at 20.3%. There are 10 quarterbacks with a higher rushing DVOA than that. While some of them are actually rushing (like Cam Newton), a lot of this high DVOA just comes from the ability to scramble for first downs. Let me finish up by going back to Tennessee, and we can look at what Locker and Ryan Fitzpatrick have done for their run game. Again, this is a list of all runners with 10 or more carries through Week 10 for the Titans:
|Titans Runners, 2013 (Through Week 10)|
Here's what happens when we take the quarterback runs out of Tennessee's rushing offense: they drop to -8.4% DVOA. With 1 DYAR. They are essentially a replacement-level running game without quarterback contributions.
So look, we're not going to be able to go back in time and change rushing DVOA. There are too many Jim Everett runs from the early 90's where we're not sure if he was scrambling or he just took off. We can play around with the numbers we have from recent years, and use them intelligently. We can suss out the context of what these numbers actually mean.
But if that seventh-place rank for Indianapolis surprises you in light of the fact that Richardson runs like a pile of bricks, and you're apt to talking up the fact that this number doesn't really represent the Indianapolis running game, you have a fair point.
It represents the edge the Colts have by employing one of the best rushing quarterbacks in the league, not the actual effectiveness of their running game. That's a distinction that needs to be noticed and appreciated.
by Andrew Potter
In an AFC East which surprisingly features three of the league's top ten defenses (the Dolphins are 16th), the struggles of these rookie quarterbacks are easy to understand. Still, starting quarterbacks EJ Manuel (-15.4% DVOA, 34th) and Geno Smith (-24.8%, 38th) are both bottom ten in DVOA among the 42 qualifying passers, which explains why New York and its fifth-ranked defense (-11.2%) is stuck battling for a wild card and (along with Manuel's injury) why Buffalo is stuck once again playing the role of potential spoiler. If New York's form in oddly numbered weeks continues, they'll end this game as the clear favorite for the AFC's sixth seed. If their form in even-numbered games continues, that fifth-ranked defense may yet again be wasted by another inept offense (-21.7%, 30th). That, more than anything else, has been the hallmark of the Rex Ryan era.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has been quietly exceptional this season: his 841 DYAR ranks fourth of 42 qualifying passers, and his 21.8% DVOA ranks eighth, despite a slew of injuries to his receivers, a nonexistent running game (-13.8%, 26th), and a very bad defense (13.4%, 29th). Now his one consistent target throughout this season, Tony Gonzalez (77 DYAR, 8.2% DVOA), is questionable for Sunday's game; which along with Roddy White's lingering injuries could leave Ryan devoid of all of his starting receiving targets. Tampa Bay has also lost a starting receiver to injury, and is now down to its third-string running back after Mike James broke his ankle against Miami, but the no-longer-winless Buccaneers will fancy their chances against Atlanta's fourth-worst DVOA defense. A Falcons loss would leave them level with the Buccaneers for last place in the division; last year's NFC Championship appearance must feel like a very distant memory.
The last time the Detroit Lions won a regular season game in Pittsburgh, three different Lions threw touchdown passes and Bill Stits had both a touchdown pass and a touchdown interception return. This game provides a great opportunity to end that near-60-year streak: Detroit is currently on course to finish ahead of Pittsburgh in defensive DVOA for the first time in the DVOA era (2.6% versus 9.1%), and the Lions have so far outperformed the Steelers in every major DVOA category except special teams. Calvin Johnson (247 DYAR, second) has been putting the Mega in Megatron recently, and faces a Pittsburgh defense which is 20th against number one receivers (5.5%). Detroit's defensive strength is stopping the run (-15.6%, sixth), and Pittsburgh's running game has been bad (-9.8%, 24th), so it will most likely be the performance of Ben Roethlisberger which determines whether the aforementioned Stits interception remains the Lions' last game-winning score in Pittsburgh.
It was all the way back in Week 1 against Washington that Chip Kelly's Eagles revolutionized the NFL with their new brand of offense, putting up points by the bucket load on their way to a blowout divisional victory … or, as has since been revealed, the good-but-not-transcendent Eagles (16.7%, fifth) scored a bunch of points against a bad Washington defense (8.1%, 24th). Still, DYAR leader LeSean McCoy (175 DYAR) gets another crack at the aforementioned bad defense this weekend -- this time at home, and with DVOA leader Nick Foles under center. Meanwhile, Washington's offense has improved toward mediocre (0.9%) and faces an Eagles defense (10.3%, 30th) which is even worse than its own. Week 1 was Washington's second-worst offensive performance of the season by DVOA; to repeat last season's late surge to a division title, they'll probably have to win a shootout here.
Arizona takes its top-two DVOA defense (-19.5%) into Jacksonville to face the league's worst offense (-44.5%) -- a situation in which those defenses allow an average of thirteen points (50 total, in four games) since 2008, and score an average of five themselves (21 total). Only Seattle has lost a game matching those criteria -- against Arizona last year -- and the Seahawks won the reverse fixture 58-0. Even Arizona's lackluster offense (-13.0%) should be able to score fourteen points against Jacksonville's 31st-ranked DVOA defense (19.4%), which makes Arizona favorites to win comfortably. Jaguars fans will take heart from the possibility that their offense is not quite as bad as advertised -- Chad Henne (-20.9%) is a big improvement over Blaine Gabbert (-81.9%) -- but even with Henne under center the offense hasn't had a single game above -20% DVOA. Thus, the substantially-less-bad starting quarterback remains a bad starting quarterback, and the history remains on the side of the Cardinals.
On the subject of Blaine Gabbert, the former first-round pick is currently the only quarterback between Terrelle Pryor and last place in the quarterback DVOA rankings. Pryor's -463 DYAR is the worst in the NFL, but he may not get the chance to “add” to that this weekend as he battles to overcome a knee ligament sprain. That would provide us with a game featuring Matt McGloin and Case Keenum as the starting quarterbacks, which illustrates how the season has gone for these two franchises. Like Keenum, McGloin began the season third on the depth chart yet currently has a higher DVOA (18.1%) than his team's opening-day starter (Pryor, -40.8%). Unlike Keenum, he's unlikely to have a shot at the starting job unless Pryor's injury is worse than it seems or he achieves something spectacular against Houston's middle-of-the-pack defense (0.4%, 21st). Keenum has made an impressive start to his professional career, and currently ranks seventh by DVOA; a continuation of that form should result in a Texans victory, and is certainly achievable against a poor Oakland defense (9.1%, 27th). Whatever the result, however, this game has few implications for anything other than draft position.
Josh McCown returns to the starting lineup for Chicago, after Jay Cutler's comeback from a groin injury was ended early by a sprained ankle. McCown has been very efficient in relief of Cutler this season, and his 25.6% DVOA would rank eighth in the league if he had enough attempts to qualify, but Baltimore will provide his toughest test so far. The Ravens defense ranks sixth in DVOA through Week 10 -- one place above the more acclaimed Kansas City Chiefs -- and has kept the team in the wild card hunt despite the travails of its offense (-20.1%, 29th). Against a middling Bears defense (-3.1%, 13th) which lost another key player this week, that offense will have a better-than-usual chance in Chicago, but even with Chicago's offensive improvement and defensive decline this is still likely to be the tight defensive battle most expected when the schedule was released.
The 2013 AFC playoff picture is oddly suited to the AFC North: a stramash of defense-first teams with flaws on the other side of the ball, allowing for a potential playoff upset or two (or four, see the 2012 Ravens) by teams who aren't quite good enough on offense to be consistent contenders. Two such teams go head-to-head in this game, both technically in the hunt for either a wild card or the division title: a Cleveland win here would place them half a game back with a head-to-head tiebreaker, despite being comfortably worse than the Bengals by DVOA (12.2% versus -10.1%). The Bengals, however, have the league's best defense at home (-32.6%) and are unlikely to be threatened by Cleveland's weak road offense (-15.8%, 26th). Only Green Bay has scored more than ten points this year when visiting Paul Brown Stadium; the Bengals have only failed to score more than ten once since 2009. All indications, then, point toward a Bengals victory taking them one step closer to the playoffs, where they are likely to find an opponent with a very familiar feel.
The San Diego Chargers provide the exception to the defense-first AFC playoff trend above: third by DVOA on offense, their defensive DVOA continues to languish slightly behind Jacksonville's at the bottom of the league. The 4-5 Chargers have no chance of winning the AFC West -- or even finishing second -- but like the Dolphins they are only one game behind the New York Jets (before considering tiebreakers) in the race for the sixth seed. Philip Rivers (1,030 DYAR, third) is having a year which would be considered MVP-caliber if the team's record matched his production, and which still should bring him Comeback Player of the Year consideration. Miami's seventh-ranked pass defense will provide a challenge for Rivers, but the Dolphins are an oddly poor matchup: 29th against receiving backs, among whom Danny Woodhead's 157 DYAR ranks second. Woodhead and Ryan Mathews should also find opportunities on the ground, where Miami's 4.2% run defense again ranks 29th (San Diego's run offense ranks 14th at -3.2%). The Chargers defense will necessitate production from their offense: 31st against the pass and 32nd against the run means they're unlikely to shut down even Miami's -3.6% 19th-ranked offense. Miami's season started 3-0 with plenty of promise, before a run of one win in six and the recent off-field controversy threatened to sink it without trace. If they're to have any chance of delivering on that early promise and salvaging their season, this is the type of game the Dolphins simply have to win.
The NFC North has seen some remarkable injury lists this year: the Packers left their game against the Eagles down two quarterbacks and with a lengthy list of other injuries on both offense and defense. Scott Tolzien (-12.3%) will start at quarterback for Green Bay in place of the injured Aaron Rodgers, after last week's Rodgers replacement Seneca Wallace (-53.6%) ended this week on injured reserve. Tolzien played competently while subbing in for Wallace, but the Giants pass defense (0.8%, 13th) is much better than that of the Eagles (20.7%, 28th). New York's recent winning streak has them only two games back in the NFC East despite their 0-6 start, but their offense has been oddly poor at home (-20.1%, 28th). Against a Packers defense which is both bad (11.1%, 29th) and banged up, they have a terrific opportunity to rectify that ailment and continue their attempt at an historic turnaround.
Coming into this game off their first victory on the American continent since 2012, the Vikings travel to Seattle to face a Seahawks team which is better than Minnesota on both offense (10.1% versus -5.5%) and defense (-16.8% versus 8.4%). Seattle's league-leading pass defense (-24.3%) is better than its average run defense (-7.0%, 14th), but not even Adrian Peterson (17th by DYAR, 19th by DVOA) can win games in which his quarterback can't complete a pass. That means Christian Ponder (-8.7% DVOA, 26th) will have to find some kind of success against that imposing Seattle secondary for the Vikings to have any chance in this game -- a very different challenge to that presented by Washington. The Seahawks are closing in on home field advantage, and given the size of that advantage they should be able to have their way with the Vikings in this game.
After a slow start to 2013, San Francisco is once again one of the top teams in the NFL -- and one of the most balanced. Their ninth-ranked offense ranks sixth in both passing and rushing, and their 11th-ranked defense is 11th against the pass and 13th against the run. The Saints are nowhere near as balanced, but their weaknesses are running the ball and defending the run -- not insignificant against this opponent, but generally lesser concerns in the modern game. Passing and defending the pass, they're better than the 49ers; and while the 49ers are excellent against Tight Ends they have struggled against second and third receivers (18th against second receivers, 24th against “other” wide receivers). Struggling to cover secondary and tertiary options is a significant disadvantage against Drew Brees and his array of receiving alternatives; look for those deficiencies to be tested early in front of a partisan home crowd in what could be one of the key games in the NFC's battle for home field advantage.
DYAR, touchdowns, yardage, and MVP race leader Peyton Manning (45.2% ... second) is probable for this crucial divisional matchup against the league leader in those all-important Wins. Denied the opportunity to feast on another backup banquet, the Chiefs will have to content themselves with pressuring a relatively hobbled Manning while attempting to take advantage of an underwhelming Broncos pass defense (14.1%, 24th). The Broncos run defense is much better (-13.5%, ninth), and a tough matchup for an eighth-ranked Chiefs running game (5.4%) which is the focus of their defense-and-ball-control offense. A win here would give Kansas City a huge boost in both credibility and the more important race for the bye, but the more likely outcome -- a Broncos home victory -- would paint the Chiefs nicely into the AFC's wild card picture.
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