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?
24 Nov 2013
by Rivers McCown
One of the assertions I made in my ill-fated Deadspin article (sorry, cuz!) on Baylor was that at this point of time in football analytics, we are still popping holes in conventional wisdom. One of the things I offered anecdotally -- for the second time this year, I might add -- is that if the 2009 Texans were so good at play-action (second-biggest positive DVOA difference despite starting nobody but Ryan Moats and Steve Slaton until the last few games of the year), why would anybody think that the success of the play-action pass is in any way tied to the back?
Well, since Deadspin asked me to clarify the position, I went ahead and actually did the research on it. I intentionally left out 2009, because I wanted the Texans example that I knew about left out, lest it skew things. I took the 2010-2012 seasons, found the 10 teams with the biggest positive and negative differences in DVOA for each season, and lined their seasonal running DVOAs up next to them to see what a pronounced effect the run game had.
So, turns out, the 30 teams that were the best with play-action ... actually had a lower rushing DVOA than the teams that were the worst at it. I point your eyes to the table below.
|Play-Action DVOA Swings: Top and Bottom 10, 2010-2012|
|10 Biggest Drops||10 Biggest Increases|
|Team||Year||+/- DVOA w/PA||Run DVOA||Team||Year||+/- DVOA w/PA||Run DVOA|
So, what can we learn from this? That the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence?
I'm not exactly ready to jump to the idea that a good running back doesn't help the play-action pass in a way that isn't necessarily picked up in the broad view of stats. Maybe a good running back makes five or ten extra defenders jump the run a year? Does that seem like a feasible hypothesis?
But when you look at this sample, it's hard to follow the thinking that went through the minds of say, Ryan Grigson and Pep Hamilton with the Trent Richardson trade. Coaches and analysts routinely talk up the importance of the running back in selling the play-action fake, but at the NFL level, recent history says it just doesn't matter. Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy were two of the best backs in the NFL over the past three years, and their teams were among the 10 worst with play-action twice in those three years. Did the trifecta of Chris Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling, and Ryan Williams instill fear into the hearts of the 2012 Cardinals opponents? (Or, at least, the same fear that they instilled in the Cardinals themselves?)
One theory I have going forward that I'll try to come back to in the offseason is just that we need to evaluate a team's success on certain play types -- screens, play-action passes, deep balls -- in the context of who is coaching the team. I have only anecdotal evidence, of course, but it feels to me like that matters much more than who the actual players are.
Until then, I think we've got some convincing evidence that the success of the running game does not necessarily mean anything for the play-action passing game.
by Andrew Potter
In theory, a Calvin Johnson versus Darrelle Revis matchup should be delectable: the league's best receiver against arguably the premier man coverage cornerback in the game. In practice, Tampa Bay has largely deployed Revis in zone coverage and ranks a mediocre 18th against number one receivers. Johnson, of course, leads the league in receiving yards, DYAR, and touchdowns -- if Tampa do plan to use Revis in his natural role, this is the obvious game in which to do so. For the Buccaneers, Bobby Rainey follows up his outstanding game against the terrible Falcons with a much tougher matchup against Detroit's fourth-ranked run defense (-19.3%), but Mike Glennon -- quietly having a very good rookie season, ranking 15th by DYAR and 14th by DVOA -- should find more opportunities against the 27th-ranked pass defense. Still leading the division despite last week's disappointing loss in Pittsburgh, avoiding further disappointment here is imperative for the Lions: it could be years before they get a better opportunity to finally win the NFC North.
Minnesota came into 2013 with the league's best running back coming off a career year in which he almost single-handedly dragged the team into the playoffs despite an unimpressive passing offense, whereas the Packers entered 2013 with a great passing attack but no clear answers in the ground game. While the Vikings have struggled, the Packers seem to have found their answer: Eddie Lacy ranks seventh by DYAR and eighth by DVOA despite missing time with a concussion. However, the dependence of Green Bay's running game on its passing attack has been plain in the past two weeks: the Packers posted negative rushing DVOA in both games, having previously not done so since Week 1. Scott Tolzien (-19.%) has been serviceable at quarterback in place of Aaron Rodgers (32.9%, third), but unlike Rodgers he won't win games on his own and his presence won't open holes for the ground game. A strong running game being hampered by a lack of passing threat? Vikings fans can tell them all about how that works out.
In Week 11, nine of the thirty active NFL teams started a quarterback who wasn't their opening day starter. A tenth, St. Louis, was on a bye but would otherwise have done so. In seven cases, the starter was injured and inactive, leaving three teams who started a different quarterback voluntarily: those teams have a combined record of 5-25. Two of the three meet in this game, with the atrocious Jaguars (-57.1%, 32nd) astonishingly having the chance to move out of last place in the division with a win over the very bad Texans (-23.9%, 30th). Both quarterback changes are justified as the current starters are much better than their immediate predecessors, but both teams are bad enough that it hasn't really mattered: this is a game for draft position and very little else. One of those Sundays when even a win feels like a defeat … or, for the few remaining optimists, even a defeat feels like a win.
Opposites collide in this divisional game at Arrowhead stadium, as the Chargers and their excellent passing offense (50.7%, second) visit Kansas City's very good DVOA pass defense (-15.7%, third) while the Chiefs and their struggling offense (-3.2%, 18th) get to host San Diego's dreadful defense (22.0%, 32nd). The Chargers come into this game on a three-game losing streak, but their pass offense (50.7%, second) remains elite: the worst game of their season is better than any Chiefs passing performance since Week 4. The Chiefs defense has feasted on bad opponents, but recently had an awful game against Cleveland and its only big game since Week 6 came against the Jeff Tuel Bills. Still, they've only allowed more than 17 points once while the Chargers have only allowed fewer than 20 twice (one of those was against the Jaguars), so something will have to give for the Chargers to win this one and keep themselves in the playoff hunt.
Finally getting some of the mainstream recognition their strong play deserves, DVOA darling Carolina visits a Dolphins team which still has a good chance at the second AFC wild card berth: Miami's 16.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, per our playoff odds, is barely lower than the Jets and Steelers and higher than the other contenders for the AFC sixth seed. The Dolphins remain mediocre, however: an average defense and a below-average offense with a penchant for the type of close games until recently considered Carolina's bête noire. For Miami to keep this game close against a run-heavy Panthers team, they will have to shore up a run defense ranked 30th by DVOA and find a way of attacking Carolina's solid, balanced defense (seventh against the pass, third against the run) with their own mediocre offense (22nd passing, 15th rushing). The more likely outcome by far is Carolina taking another step toward a wild card berth of their own: a far more likely proposition for the Panthers than for the Dolphins.
Last week's home win against the out-of-conference Lions leaves the Steelers as second-favorites for the final AFC wild card place according to our playoff odds projection, which says more about the general standard of the AFC than it does about the Steelers. Pittsburgh is an average team in an average division, with an average offense (2.4%, 15th), average special teams (1.9%, 14th), and a below-average defense (6.3%, 23rd). That makes the Steelers considerably better than the Browns, who are the fifth-worst team in the league by DVOA yet are also somehow (barely) in the AFC playoff picture. Despite their low DVOA, the Browns have already beaten the Bengals and the Ravens at home, and adding the Steelers to that list would not be a shock. Cleveland's defense in particular matches up well against Pittsburgh: nobody in the league is better against number one receivers (-34.8% DVOA) and they're respectable against other receivers (16th against number two, 13th against 'other'). Cleveland's weakness is tight ends (27.1%, 32nd), and Heath Miller (-15.6%, 38th) is not the Heath Miller of old. A sweep of the division at home would place the Browns ahead of the Steelers and possibly Ravens, and set up a potential winner-takes-all showdown at Heinz Field in Week 17.
This game features a pair of backup quarterbacks whose fortunes stand in stark contrast since being thrust into their respective starting roles. Josh McCown has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league while filling in for Jay Cutler, and his 22.6% DVOA ranks sixth among all quarterbacks with at least 83 passes. On the other sideline, Kellen Clemens has been a huge downgrade from Sam Bradford, and his -20.5% DVOA ranks 38th of 43 qualifying passers. Both defenses are middling (13th versus 16th) but the Rams secondary is the weaker of the two, so a Rams upset will require their vaunted defensive line (second by Adjusted Sack Rate) to overcome Chicago's upgraded protection (fourth by Adjusted Sack Rate). Otherwise, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte are likely to find space against a Rams defense which is bottom of the league against number one receivers and running backs, and on current form McCown is just as likely to find them.
Probably the most important game of the week in terms of its implications for the postseason hopes of both teams, this game features two of the league's top eight defenses and two of its bottom five offenses. The matchups are even more extreme: Baltimore has the league's second-worst running game by DVOA (-28.7%) while the Jets have its best run defense (-35.9%), and the Jets have the 26th-ranked running game (-15.0%) against Baltimore's top-five run defense (-18.0%). That means both teams are likely to be forced to rely on their passing games, which clearly favors Baltimore: the Jets pass defense (7.9%, 18th) is comfortably worse than that of the Ravens (-1.7%, tenth), and the Ravens pass offense (-2.4%, 23rd) is far better than that of the Jets (-27.7%, 30th). Given that the Ravens also have home field advantage, all signs point toward these two franchises having identical records at the close of play, adding further murk to an already cloudy AFC wild card picture.
A second game in which both teams are likely to start backup quarterbacks; this time DVOA considers both backups to be upgrades over the starter. Ryan Fitzpatrick (0.9%) is 20th by both DYAR and DVOA, and faces an Oakland pass defense which ranks 22nd (13.5%); Matt McGloin (-1.9%) has been barely less efficient than Fitzpatrick, but faces a slightly tougher opponent (3.3%) and has so far been a much larger upgrade for his team. Surprisingly, both teams have the same record, but unsurprisingly only one is considered to have any realistic chance of making the playoffs. A road win here would be a significant boost to Tennessee's chances; a loss would see them all-but-entirely eliminated.
Arizona boasts the best defense in the league by DVOA: top four against the pass (-14.6%, fourth) and the run (-22.5%, second), the Cardinals play host to an Indianapolis offense which is far more efficient running (12.8%, third) than passing (9.8%, 15th) despite its much-heralded quarterback. The Cardinals offense has struggled and currently sits 25th with a -11.7% DVOA, but the Colts defense has proven unable to sustain its early season form and currently languishes 24th with a DVOA of 6.6%. That makes the Cardinals just about favorites, but by the numbers this is a tight game between two evenly-matched teams. The Cardinals need the win more as they fight to keep pace at the top of the NFC; it would be a surprise to see anybody other than the Colts atop the AFC South in Week 17 irrespective of the outcome here.
Despite starting the season 0-6, the New York Giants have now won four straight games and a win at home against Dallas would leave both teams one game behind the Eagles for the division lead. The Giants have a balanced top-ten defense by DVOA -- 11th against the pass and sixth against the run -- but an offense underperforming in both the passing (27th) and running game (29th) and dire special teams (31st). Against Dallas, that's not a bad matchup: the Cowboys have the 12th-ranked offense and 25th-ranked defense, but Dallas does boast the second-best special teams DVOA and enjoys a particularly large advantage on punt returns (7.1% versus New York's -24.7% on punts). Given how close the reverse fixture was in Week 1, the numbers don't say anything surprising: no outcome would be a shock here.
If it wasn't for the names of the quarterbacks, what would this be? The clear best team in the AFC, with its outstanding offense (35.1%, first) and improving defense -- Denver's defense has shown notable improvement since Week 6 -- travels to visit a solid but unspectacular opponent with a declining, injury-decimated defense (-2.1%, 14th) and an inconsistent offense (8.7%, 11th) which has been much better in its past two games. Both teams are very good, but one is playing for home-field advantage whereas the other will be happy to win a division they lead with some margin for error. Denver is the clear favorite by the numbers, but a New England victory wouldn't be that much of an upset -- though for the Patriots to win, they'll probably have to outpace the Broncos in a shootout. Hey, did you hear who the quarterbacks are in this one?
Editor's note: There will be no Three-Cone Drill next week as we take a lap for Thanksgiving. See you in two weeks.
11 comments, Last at 25 Nov 2013, 6:20pm by speedegg