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?
19 Aug 2004
by Al Bogdan and Aaron Schatz
Last year when we launched Football Outsiders in late July, the first Scramble for the Ball featured Ian and Al giving their picks on all 32 Over-Under lines for the season. Here we are twelve months later, with another NFL season on the way, and it is time to go through the Over-Under lines for 2004. Unfortunately, workload keeps Ian from participating this year, so Aaron is stepping in to trade opinions with Al on expectations for the upcoming season. We'll be using the lines listed by Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman in his recent column on SI.com, since they seem to be in the general ballpark of the lines being given by most Vegas oddsmakers.
You'll find the first half of our AFC discussion here, along with discussion thread.
You'll find the second half of our AFC discussion here, along with discussion thread.
You'll find the first half of our NFC discussion here, along with discussion thread.
If you are new to the website, you'll see a lot of discussion of our statistics, particularly DVOA (defense-adjusted Value Over Average). Click here to read about that and click here to see a glossary of some of our other terms and statistics.
We did the NFC backwards, so today's column starts with the five different teams all predicted to win nine games this year.
Atlanta Falcons -- 9.0
Aaron: Well, it is time to revisit the dumbest thing I have ever written at Football Outsiders. Last year, when my methods were still in their infancy, and I was trying to make a funky statement instead of sounding like a homer by picking the Patriots, I picked Atlanta as my choice for Super Bowl champion. Uh, whoops? You may remember that originally Michael Vick was supposed to be back by Week 6, and that didn't happen. I misjudged Doug Johnson based on the very small sample size of his 2002 performance, which was a big mistake. But the biggest reason why Atlanta collapsed last year was the dramatic decline of the Falcons' pass defense. I mean, this wasn't normal year-to-year inconsistency, this was the equivalent of Halle Berry following up Monster's Ball with Catwoman.
So while we can talk about how it is nice to have Vick back, and we can question whether he'll master the West Coast offense, and I do need to mention the very good 2003 performance of the Atlanta running backs, and Alge Crumpler is darn swell, the major question here is the pass defense. If it doesn't improve, none of the rest of this stuff means anything. There were some good signings here, like Rod Coleman, who led all defensive tackles in sacks two years ago. But the cornerbacks signed don't really excite me. Jason Webster was out most of last season, and was a featured player on the 49ers defense back in 2002 -- when they were #27 in pass defense DVOA. Aaron Beasley was subpar last year and comes from the Jets, not a team known for its pass defense (#24 in pass defense DVOA last year). First-round pick D'Angelo Hall is fast and very well regarded, but when I see a cornerback described as "a bit undersized" I get images of Chris Canty dancing in my head. Let me tell you, they aren't very pleasant. The schedule is average, but this division is tough. I definitely can see Atlanta going to the playoffs with a 9-7 record and some tiebreakers, but it would take 10-6 to go over this line and with the secondary such a huge question mark I can't go there. Bill Simmons says never bet against Vick, but Vick ain't playing cornerback, so I'll go UNDER.
Al: I don't want to bet against Vick, but I will bet on him missing at least three games because of injury this year. Especially with Atlanta's offensive line. The Falcon line was below average at preventing sacks last season and has weaker personnel this year than last year. New coach Jim Mora Jr. made a great move by stealing Alex Gibbs from under the Giants' noses by making Gibbs his assistant head coach. If there's a better O-Line coach in football, I don't know of one. Or maybe I just really like any coach named Gibbs. Anyway, the line can't be expected to better than it was last year, which means more pressure on Vick, more scrambling from Vick, and more hits on Vick.
And what about new coach Jim Mora Jr.? Other than having the same name as a once successful coach, what business does he have being a head coach? When I think of the 49er teams from the last five years, great defense doesn't come to mind. In fact, if you look just at basic points and yards allowed, the 49er defense was measurably worse during Mora's tenure than it was before.
|JIM MORA YEARS||PRE-JIM MORA YEARS|
Why is Jim Mora Jr. a head coach when the Patriot assistant coaches couldn't even get interviewed for vacant head coaching jobs? I don't get the NFL sometimes.
Combine a poor defense with a new head coach that doesn't impress me and the inevitable Vick injury and I have no choice but to go UNDER.
Dallas Cowboys -- 9.0
Al: Boy, am I glad I didn't write this one before my honeymoon. Now, I have as much faith in Bill Parcells to put out a winning team as I do in any coach in football. I still have no idea how he got a team lead by Quincy Carter, Troy Hambrick and Terry Glenn into the playoffs last year. Well, OK, I do know how Dallas got into the playoffs, it was the Dallas defense. Even if the defense is once again stellar, I just can't see how they can carry an offense that somehow got worse in the offseason to the top of the best coached division in football. I mean Vinny Testeverde, Eddie George and Keyshawn Johnson would probably carry you to your fantasy league title in 1998, but it's been almost that long since any of the three were valuable players in the NFL. You can make an argument that only Johnson has been effective this century, and that was back in 2001 when he could only find the end zone once despite catching over 100 footballs.
Backing up this over the hill crowd is a group of players with little experience that we know little to nothing about. Drew Henson's been hitting .240 in the minors for the past three years. The Cowboys are high on Julius Jones, but he didn't really have that great of a college career. Antonio Bryant has shown flashes of talent but has never had more than 750 yards receiving in his short NFL career and has already pissed off his head coach before the season even has begun. Next season, when Henson has a year back in football under his belt and we see what Dallas has in Jones, maybe I'll be able to predict ten wins for the Cowboys. But I have to go UNDER this year.
Aaron: You know, I was ready to write a pithy response about how Dallas had Bill Parcells going for them and everything else going against them. But your response had me thinking. Yes, Eddie George is toast, but I think you underestimate Keyshawn Johnson; although he is hitting the age of decline, he was one of the top 20 wide receivers in DPAR in 2001 and 2002 and he was 23rd in 2003 despite playing just half the season. There's no way Testaverde can play as well as he did in limited action with the Jets last season, and he's not my idea of a Super Bowl champion quarterback, but he's got to be better than Quincy Carter. The defense will probably take a small step backward, but I don't see any reason to think they'll take a big step backward. Bill Parcells is still one of the greatest coaches of all time and his teams have always improved by at least three wins in his second season. The other element here is, for the second year in a row, a really easy schedule. The AFC North is awful, they play both Chicago and Detroit at home, we both agree they would rather play New Orleans than any other team from the NFC South, and the Giants are going to be terrible. I thought Dallas would be an easy under pick but you've got a veteran offense that doesn't impress anyone but won't make many stupid decisions, combined with the Tuna's remarkable motivational skills, a good defense, and an easy schedule of teams that would seem to be prone to the kinds of mistakes that veterans take advantage of. I cannot believe I am writing this -- and if Testaverde gets injured and they don't sign another veteran quarterback, they are screwed -- but I think this is a team more likely to go 10-6 than 8-8. I noted in the discussion on the Pittsburgh article that the Cowboys only beat one team with a positive DVOA last year; to win ten games this season, they might only need to beat two of them, and I think they can do it. I'm going to say OVER.
Al: I wouldn't be so quick to say that Vinny will be better than Quincy would be this year. Quincy threw for over 3000 yards last season. Vinny will be 41 this season. Only one QB in the history of the NFL 40 or over has ever thrown for more than even 2000 yards in a season - Warren Moon in 1997 for Seattle.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- 9.0
Aaron: With the possible exception of Charlie Garner's age, every objective measure points towards a rebound by the 2002 Super Bowl Champions. They underperformed their Pythagorean projection, based on points scored and points allowed, by 2.2 wins. They underperformed their "estimated wins" projection, based on DVOA in total and in specifically important situations, by 3.8 wins. We think of them as blowing close games last year, but with the exception of one ridiculous, memorable Monday night, the Bucs didn't blow big leads last year -- they fell behind, clawed their way back, and saw their late comebacks fall short. In the second half of close games (eight points or less either way) Tampa had the league's best offensive DVOA and fourth-best defensive DVOA. They project as having one of the league's easiest schedules -- not only due to who they play, but due to who they play at home. Denver, Kansas City, and Seattle, who project as their three hardest non-division opponents this season, all come to Tampa. The older players on that defense have moved on but the younger players are all still here and in their primes. Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, Ronde Barber, Anthony McFarland -- these are all good or great defensive players, and now they are joined by underrated ex-Bronco linebacker Ian Gold. Ex-Cowboy cornerback Mario Edwards is a nice addition also, although, let's be honest, a steak sandwich would provide better coverage than Tim Wansley. Obviously Vegas realizes all of this, which is why the line is nine games, but it will be a major historic anomaly if this team doesn't rebound into the double digits. OVER.
Al: I'm with you on Tampa. They're the best bet in that division to end up with double digit wins. Jon Gruden has pretty much completely revamped his roster from last season and I like a lot of the moves that he's made. I've already written too much about how much I don't like the Charlie Garner signing, but I like the other two RBs Tampa signed this offseason - Jamel White and Brandon Bennett. When Michael Pittman returns after three weeks from his suspension, Tampa could put together a very effective rushing attack with those four RBs. Tampa's offensive line was below average last year and all the Bucs did was bring in four potential new starters, including Todd Steussie from last year's NFC champions. On defense, Tampa should still be solid on defense, even with the loss of their two mainstays Warren Sapp and John Lynch. They're still Tampa. Even if they have an off year they'll be a top ten defense.
I also really like Tampa's schedule over the second half of the year. Their last two road games are against San Diego and Arizona. I can see this team ending the season 5-0 and going into the playoffs as the popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. OVER.
Washington Redskins -- 9.0
Al: I don't think Tampa will end up in Jacksonville this year, however, because of this team. I'm going to say it - Washington is the best team in the NFC. Where is the weakness on this team? Offensive line? According to us, they were a top ten line last season in adjusted line yards. At QB they either have a solid veteran or an up-and-coming youngster that showed flashes of greatness last year. At RB they only have one of the top five at the position. Their WRs now go three deep with the addition of James Thrash. Defensively, the Redskins brought in eight new free agents, all who should see significant playing time. They also brought in Gregg Williams to serve as the assistant head coach of defense. As bad as Williams was as a head coach in Buffalo, he was a very good defensive coordinator in Tennessee. And let's not forget that the team's head coach is the greatest coach of all time.
As much as you like Dallas' schedule, Washington's is even better. The Redskins get Cleveland and Pittsburgh on the road instead of Baltimore and Cincinnati. Against the NFC North, Washington goes on the road to Detroit and Chicago, while Dallas has to play in Minnesota and Green Bay. This team could end up with 12-13 wins. I love this OVER.
Aaron: Yep, I'm with you on Washington, although not all the way to "best team in the NFC." The reasons to like Washington and the reasons to like Dallas are pretty similar, except that Washington will have a better offense and Dallas a better defense. The DVOA prediction system (to be unveiled September 1!) is not high on the Redskins at all, but of course last year's team and this year's team are two totally different teams, and the biggest change is not Brunell or Portis, it's Gibbs. Every year Washington loads up on big name players to make a run and every year they fail, but this year they have the man you call "the greatest coach of all time" (Green Bay and Cleveland fans, not to mention Tuna aficionados, would argue) replacing a guy who -- and I think we all can agree on this -- was not really cut out for the professional game. The main problem with Washington is injuries. A team like New England, which pays very few players top dollar but pays a lot of players average or above average money, has a deeper roster and is better-equipped to handle injuries than a team with a top-heavy player budget like Washington. Unless the Jon Jansen injury is a forecast of things to come, however, I think they go OVER.
Seattle Seahawks -- 9.0
Aaron: It feels strange to do Seattle before St. Louis, because part of the reason that I'm high on Seattle is that I'm not high on St. Louis. Seattle might have the NFL's easiest path to a division title this season with the Rams in decline, the 49ers in who the heck knows, and the Cardinals not yet ready for prime time. All of the skill players on offense should be at their career peaks and we know that LT Walter Jones is going to give up on his holdout within a couple weeks of the start of the season because he goes through this every single season. Bobby "The First Down Machine" Engram is the most underrated player in football and Matt Hasselbeck may be challenging him for that title soon. On defense the Seahawks lost a few of their older players but added a couple of well-regarded free agents, cornerback Bobby Taylor and defensive end Sideshow Grant Wistrom. As an extra bonus, they took those players away from two teams who may be competing with them for the NFC title, the Eagles and Rams. I also don't want to hear about Seattle's "road problems," because they really weren't any worse on the road last year, just more unlucky, and difficulty winning on the road doesn't historically carry over from year to year anyway.
I was all ready to crown Seattle my pick for Super Bowl champion, in fact, until I started playing around with the DVOA prediction system. Throughout each improvement on the system, Seattle projects with an offensive decline due mostly to the fact that they were so good on third downs last season. It's enough for me to pick a different team to win the Super Bowl, although not enough for me to stay away from OVER.
Al: I don't want to like Seattle, but I can't take the under here. If they don't win the NFC West, Mike Holmgren should be out of a job. I'm not as high on Wistrom and Taylor as you seem to be, but the Seahawks are clearly the class of the division. Ten wins should be no problem for this team. OVER.
St. Louis Rams -- 9.5
Al: I predicted a big decline for St. Louis last year, and it didn't happen. So I'll keep doing it until I'm right. The Rams were carried by their defense last year, ranking #4 in defensive DVOA and a surprisingly low #16 in offensive DOA. You have to expect that defensive ranking to drop with the departure of Lovie Smith to Chicago. He was replaced by Larry Marmie who spent the past three seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals. That's right, the Arizona Cardinals. If you took the past three years as a whole, has there been a worse defense in the NFL than that of the Arizona Cardinals? Why would a team ever think of hiring Marmie to serve as their defensive coordinator? Even the team's website can't come up with anything good to write about Marmie's qualifications.
This Rams offense isn't the same one from a few years ago that could carry a below-average defense to the playoffs. Marshall Faulk is 31 and hasn't played a full schedule since 1999. He hasn't even rushed for 1000 yards the past two seasons. Steven Jackson is going to see some significant time on the field this year. Who knows what you'll get out of him. Torry Holt is still one of the best wideouts in football, but behind him you have an aging Isaac Bruce and not a whole lot more. St. Louis will have a new head coach this season as they finish in the basement of the NFC West. UNDER.
Aaron: Wow. The basement? You're even more down on the Rams than I am. You forgot to mention that a large part of their defensive DVOA came from their ridiculous ratio of fumbles recovered to fumbles caused. The Rams had 22 fumble recoveries in 2003; no other team had more than 17 fumble recoveries. Fumble recoveries are pretty much random. In 2004 there is no way that the Rams are going to pick up that many of the opposition fumbles, even if they cause the same number, but Marc Bulger is still going to be throwing pick after pick to stick the St. Louis defense in bad field position. There's no need to repeat everything else you wrote, and but people should check out the table at the bottom of this article that shows that, except for Holt and Bruce, every single St. Louis receiver, tight end, and running back was a below-average receiver last year except for Cam "Sack o' Nickels" Cleeland. I don't think the Rams are finishing fourth, because either the no-name 49ers will be as bad as many of us expect or the Cardinals will fail to take a step forward because of the receiver injuries. Second is more likely. But this is one of the easiest UNDER calls in the NFL -- especially if you can get St. Louis at 10 wins, which a friend got me in Vegas.
Al: I completely forgot about San Francisco. I take it back, I don't expect the Rams to finish last in the NFC West, but they'll make the race for last place interesting for a while.
Green Bay Packers -- 9.5
Aaron: I wrote a really long essay for Pro Football Forecast about the Packers, and while bits and pieces survived, most of it got cut from the book. So rather than regurgitate it in this discussion, I'm just going to publish it on the website today. The basic gist is that 1) Brett Favre took a big hit from his thumb injury, and if he's fine this year their offense will be better, and 2) the Green Bay defense is very underrated, particularly by Packer fans, and despite the fluke of 4th-and-26 they were improving all year long and were a top ten defense by year's end. Ahman Green will have some decline in yards per carry this year, but they should be able to overcome that, especially if they use a little more Najeh Davenport to give Green some rest. There's a very good chance of Favre hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and calling it quits in January, and it won't be because the Packers sneak into the playoffs at 9-7. OVER.
I'm sick of predicting Brett Favre's demise, so I'm going against my better judgment and going over here. Normally I wouldn't bet on a team led by an aging QB who broke his thumb last year and hasn't had it repaired. No reason for it other than the never bet against Brett Favre rule. I'd avoid this line like the plague. No way I'd ever think about putting money down here. OVER.
Philadelphia Eagles -- 10.5
Al: This line's way too high, but the Eagles schedule looks way too easy to take the under. The Eagles could easily start the year 9-0. Their first challenge may not come until they go to Washington in Week 11. Terrell Owens should be a big addition. Jevon Kearse is overpaid and overrated, but he should help the Eagle pass rush which was average at best last season. Their biggest losses were in the secondary, but there aren't a lot of big time passing attacks on Philly's schedule.
What the Eagles will have to worry about is teams running all over them. Last season the Eagles were #30 in DVOA against the rush. I don't see where Philadelphia addressed this huge weakness from last year. Maybe the addition of Kearse will allow the Eagles to have their other lineman and linebackers concentrate more on stopping the run, but I don't expect a huge turnaround in the Eagles performance stopping the run.
But it doesn't matter with the cakewalk of a schedule the Eagles have. I fully expect them to find a way to lose in the playoffs, but until then they'll be running over the NFC. OVER.
Aaron: Objective statistical analysis is my hallmark, and objective statistical analysis says that the Eagles recovered from early-season problems in 2003 to finish the season as one of the best teams in the NFC. But when I take off my statboy hat and put on my normal fan hat, I have to admit that I have this unexplainable "not quite right" feeling about the Eagles this year. Yes, they finally got the wide receiver that they always wanted, but Owens is definitely past his peak. Yes, they picked up an awesome pass rusher, but Kearse can't seem to avoid injury. With Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor gone, the secondary has the same inexperience problem as the Steelers, and as you point out they were Chief-esque in their inability to stop the run last season. Oh, and the benefit of doing the Eagles last is that we already know defensive end N.D. Kalu is out for the season. They don't have a lot of great quarterbacks on the schedule but a bad secondary makes the bad quarterbacks look mediocre and the mediocre quarterbacks look like Brett Favre. Yes, I know the schedule is easy, but I can't shake this intuition that says, "Everyone is picking the Eagles, so go the other way." (No, I don't know why I'm not getting the same intuition about the Jaguars.) They'll have a shot at the wild card and the division title but I see nine or ten wins and say UNDER.
Next week: The infamous Scramble for the Ball Survivor Fantasy Draft