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 Aug 2006
by Bill Barnwell and Ian Dembsky
Bill: This week, we conclude our look at the Over/Under lines for NFL teams by focusing on the NFC's better half. Among the eight teams included are the Buccaneers, Ian's favorite team, and the Giants, my own. It's with this in mind that I should throw out a bit of a reminder to those newer readers I've seen in the comment threads who aren't familiar with the Scramble for the Ball series: There are many, many articles on this site that involve excellent objective analysis, mounds of research, and careful study. Scramble for the Ball is not any of those things, although we certainly reserve the right to use them. Scramble's an almost entirely opinion-based column, especially when it comes to the topic of gambling, like we've been discussing for the last month. Ian is more inclined to use his gut when gambling. I am more inclined to use data, as my gut has steered me toward Josh "There's been a little complication with my complication" Beckett the last two years in fantasy baseball in as many leagues as possible. That, however, is a painful and irrelevant digression.
Ian: Isn't it Josh "Gopherball" Beckett? Anyways, good point about the column. My writings are indeed based more on my gut feel than the numbers. Of course, my gut instinct has led me to winning my picks pool the past several years, winning most of my fantasy leagues, and (perhaps most importantly) last season's Loser League title. I even went 17-0 my junior year of high school when predicting my "Lock of the Week" against the spread. I wasn't a gambler back then, but it turns out one of my friends was, and made quite a bit of money based on my recommendations.
Enough of that; on to the last installment in this Over/Under series...
Bill: I should really leave most of this to Ian since this is his team, but I will say simply that I think New Orleans and Atlanta are going to win more games, and Carolina isn't giving up much ground. Those wins have to come from somewhere. Under.
Ian: Ah, my beloved Bucs. The jersey names have gone from Testaverde to Dunn to K. Johnson and now to C. Williams, but the love remains the same. How to predict my own team? Should I be honest in that I think they're headed for the over, or go for the always-reliable "reverse jinx" and predict a three-win season? What the heck, I'll go with the truth. This is a 10-win team.
Tampa Bay has an excellent ground game, led by last season's Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams. As long as he can avoid foot problems, the Tampa rushing attack will remain strong. They also have one of the league's better backups in Michael Pittman. The entire offensive line returns from last season, while being helped by their two top draft picks and some free agent acquisitions. Chris Simms looked solid starting last season and should improve. Galloway should return to earth a bit, but Michael Clayton can't possibly be as bad as he was last year. Alex Smith had the kind of rookie season that points toward a solid, productive career. This is an offense that's going places, by ground and by air.
The defense continues to be among the league's better ones, lead still by All-Pro Derrick Brooks. He may not have the sideline-to-sideline burst he had in his younger days, but he's still a leader and about as sure a tackler as you'll find. Simeon Rice has developed his all around game to help with the run. Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly are great against both the pass and the run. Booger McFarland and Chris Hovan form a great interior defensive line. As long as Monte Kiffin is in charge, this is a defense that will keep its opponents in check.
You like New Orleans and Atlanta, but I don't see them threatening the Bucs. Tampa's solid all over the field, and their on their way to a season with Over eight wins.
Bill: This line seems awfully low for a team that was just subject to Murphy's Law last season. Then again, there's a reason the dozens of Leroy Sportsbooks didn't become the Barnwell House of Sports Booking while I was in Vegas. I'm going to go against Vegas and say this is a mortal lock for Over though, for several reasons. The Eagles schedule is a weak one -- 23rd in the NFL. They've strengthened the offensive line, and if Donovan McNabb has all day to throw, it won't matter if he's got Todd Benzinger and Reggie Theus instead of Pinkston and Brown for wide receivers, he's going to find people. Finally, you remember the whole Super Bowl loser's curse: going back to 2000, teams who lose in the Super Bowl average a shade over 6 wins a season the year after? Well, in the second year after their Super Bowl defeat, those teams win an average of 9.5 games.
Ian: The NFC East looks to be very competitive this season. All four teams are ranked in the top half of the NFC, with Philadelphia the lowest of the four. That makes sense. The Giants have a maturing Eli, the Redskins had a great season last year and seem to be adding more talent than they're losing, and Dallas has Parcells and T.O. Philly lost Owens, and hasn't done much to replace him in the lineup. So, gamblers are likely to believe more in the Eagles' divisional foes. You can take advantage.
I'm not about to compare Donovan McNabb to Tom Brady in the general sense, but McNabb possesses the Brady-like quality of simply getting the ball to the open man. He's got an accurate throw, and he's good at spreading the ball around between wideouts, tight ends and running backs. He also is good about running when the opportunity presents itself to keep the chains moving. With a healthy McNabb at quarterback, as long as he doesn't have a prima donna receiver bitching him out on the sidelines, the Eagles are going to be in good shape to win a lot of games.
This division will be a tight one; no team is likely to dominate their NFC East foes. The Eagles will rebound from last season to regain their status as a perennial playoff contender. Nine wins should be attainable, I'm also going Over.
Bill: On a side note, the man famous for setting up Vegas odds in the eighties and nineties has a fine, fine product for sale on eBay. I know there has to be one reader out there who has one of these things. Or one column co-writer.
Bill: In 2005, the NFL's schedulemakers blessed the Bears with the third-easiest schedule in football. This led to an 11 win season and a playoff birth. Well, this year, the schedule-makers decided to get their revenge and show the Bears that they can't just rely on an easy schedule to rack up wins by ... giving them the easiest schedule in football?!? This isn't how the scheduling's supposed to work. Regardless, Bears' opponents are projected to have an average DVOA of -9.6 percent over the course of the season, the lowest such number in the league. Thanks, NFC North.
I wrote in the Packers section of last week's column that I thought the Bears would regress to the mean; but the schedule will mitigate some of the drop. I'm worried about team chemistry here, though -- the team's best offensive player and probably best defensive player both want new contracts and have been expressing their frustration pretty vociferously. Lance Briggs even got demoted to the second string for a couple of days so Leon Joe could start instead. When I hear the name Leon Joe, it makes me think of Glass Joe and that puts me in a good mood. Let's say Over because of the offensive improvement combined with the weak schedule, with a side prop bet that the Bears will win more games than Rex Grossman will start. I know the words "prop bet" just made Ian's ears perk up.
Ian: I once went through a phase where I'd bet that a given hockey player wouldn't score a goal that night. Sure, I had to lay money, but I think I was 10-for-10 on those bets before walking away ahead. Did I mention that if Steve McNair leads the NFL in touchdown passes I win $1,000? Yup, I love prop bets.
Bill: You are really pinning your hopes on the Ravens passing attack this season. You are a brave, brave man Ian.
Ian: Oh, right, the Bears. In a division where Brett Favre, Brad Johnson and Jon Kitna are your opposing quarterbacks, defense can definitely win you games. Thankfully, the Bears have an excellent defense, built on speed, speed, and more speed. You're not going to run away from Bears tacklers. They're agile, they tackle well, and they're the kind of players that swarm to the ball, never giving up on a play. The offense still has a ways to go to impress me, though Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson should do a good job of motivating each other to stay at the top of their game. Muhsin Muhammad can still make plays. This offense should make enough of them to help this Bears team make the Over.
Bill: Another quick side note: don't ever make a prop bet that involves Shaquille O'Neal making free throws. If you do, don't watch him miss free throws while you are playing $2/$5 NL Hold'Em and downing Corona's at the Rio. This is a bad idea.
Bill: Oh, how it pains me to write this. The Giants are as Under as under can be for me. I have faith in precisely three Giants players: David Tyree, Antonio Pierce, and Tim Carter, and the only faith I have in Tim Carter is that he's going to get hurt and miss ten weeks of the season after Sam Rosen talks about his explosiveness and breakout potential earlier in the game. So, suffice to say, not much faith at all.
Offensively, the Giants have all kinds of warning signs. Eli Manning regressed as 2005 went on, and he still makes multiple throws a game where he looks like a seven-year-old playing Madden, throwing off his back foot without rhyme or reason to no one in particular. And yes, I play Madden against seven-year-olds frequently. I have self-esteem issues. Plaxico Burress, whose connection with Manning was so strong in the early going, was mailing in games like they were proofs of purchase. There are already rumors that this year will be his last in New York. Amani Toomer has less left than Pete Shelley. Tiki Barber's workload is pointing to a performance drop starting right about ... now. On the bright side, Chris Snee's glands haven't acted up recently.
Defensively, the Giants swapped out Will Allen for Sam Madison, which would've been great for the 2000 Super Bowl (if only we'd had Allen then), but not so worthwhile now. Will Demps will be replacing Brent Alexander, but the Giants needed a good coverage safety, not a run-stopper. Demps is too similar to Gibril Wilson for their pairing to work effectively. And yes, the Giants did shell out the big bucks for Redskins #56 (sadly, that's the last time I can make that joke), moving him to the strong side. Arrington was good in coverage last year according to our Game Charting project, but he had the best rushing yards against of any linebacker in the NFL.
I also know that the Giants lost Kendrick Clancy this offseason but, well, I'm a little skeptical of his impact. I know that his stop rate was really high last year -- #2 in the league -- but it seems very odd that he would have gone from being a reserve to one of the best tackles in the league. When you combine this with the fact that Fred Robbins was #1 in the league alongside him, this seems like some sort of schematic issue that's throwing off the system -- like the Dolphins' Damien McIntosh last year at LT.
Ian: I see that one of us went the "reverse jinx" route. Things aren't that bad. Eli Manning is making the kind of bad throws a young player makes? Really? That's a terrible sign, since he's already a seven-year veteran. Oh, wait, he's still in just his third season in the league. Plaxico Burress taking plays off comes with the package; you take the bad with the good. Hey, if he's headed to free agency, he's exactly the kind of guy that will go crazy trying to earn his next paycheck.
The running game is still top-notch; even more so now that Brandon Jacobs has emerged as one of the best short-yardage backs in the league. Not so good for Tiki Barber's fantasy value, but great when in the red zone and forcing opposing defenses to choose among covering Burress out wide, Jacobs up the middle, or Shockey in the back of the end zone.
The Giants defense starts with its defensive line, which is a great one. Michael Strahan and Osi Unemyiora are an excellent tandem of pass-rushing defensive ends. First round draft pick Mathias Kiwanuka looks like the real deal. Being able to rest defensive ends without losing much in field presence is a luxury many teams would love to have.
LaVar Arrington may never be quite 100% this season, and the secondary isn't a standout group, but the Giants are talented enough that I think they're headed to the playoffs as a wild card. They're also headed for the Over.
Bill: Question: Do the Redskins succeed because of the way they do things, or in spite of them?
In defense of the former, the Redskins do some very smart things. They pay top dollar for coaches, which is one of the reasons Al Saunders made his way to the East Coast. In much the same way that John Burkett and Chris Hammond owed some of their money from free agency to Leo Mazzone, Chris Cooley is about to be indebted to Saunders. With Cooley's recent comments that his big day against Dallas last year cost one of his fantasy teams a playoff victory, commissioner Inspector 2-2 may want to watch some of the trades going on between the two in the Redskins' Locker Room league this year.
Speaking of the greatest man in the history of the entire NFL, Clinton Portis is hurt. Already. Portis' response was to criticize the NFL for having four preseason games, saying "Knowing I'm going to carry the ball 350 times, you want to avoid as much wear and tear as possible." This struck me as a little strange; it's not as if Joe Gibbs couldn't have held Portis out for a couple of games if Portis felt so strongly about it. Regardless, the injury brings the "in spite of" camp's voices to the forefront.
The Redskins have no depth. Zero-none-whatsoever. And please, take the reminders of the Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd acquisitions to "Give me a Breaksville" (video missing); Randle El's a great punt returner, and an utterly fantastic quarterback, but he's not a good receiver. Last year, he was below replacement-level. Lloyd's career high catch percentage is 48 percent; that's simply not NFL-caliber. Santana Moss blows away Lloyd as a deep threat, and he caught 63 percent of the passes thrown to him last year. What the Redskins needed was a possession receiver to create space for Moss; the Panthers needed the same thing and got Keyshawn Johnson, who fits the bill perfectly. They can use Cooley in that spot, but Saunders has promised to deploy Cooley in a variety of different roles, and even if they do, it doesn't mean the answer at WR is Randle El or Lloyd.
Going back to Portis, though, his injury is the first of several that should reveal the blight behind the Redskins' starting 22; even if they are smart enough to give Rock Cartwright the, well, rock, it's hard to imagine him being as good as Portis for that many carries. Other positions, particularly the offensive line and defensive front seven, are worse. Finally, Shawn Springs was the best corner against the pass in football last year. He's 32 and will be out 3-6 weeks because of a torn ab. See, that's why you shouldn't do situps, kids. If you don't have abs to tear, you don't get hurt. Under.
Ian: I don't have much to add here, though I do want to point out that Ladell Betts is a more-than-capable replacement for Portis. The â€˜Skins also just picked up T.J. Duckett, who should help move the pile while keeping Portis fresh. I don't think the running game is Washington's problem.
Their problem is that Mark Brunell's excellent season last year was much more Mirage than Oasis. I simply don't see him repeating those numbers. Call it gut feel, but it won't be long until Jason Campbell time. I also see the rest of the division leaving the â€˜Skins in the dust. Heavy Under.
Bill: Has anyone in NFL history had an year as bad as Rob Pettiti? I should rephrase that -- has anyone had a year that was acknowledged as bad as often during a season as Rob Pettiti? The only person that comes to mind is Mike Rumph in his rookie season, and he hasn't been up to much. It seemed like he was responsible for everything from the price of oil to Ashlee Simpson in 2005, and he somehow managed to avoid being asked to cab it up in the offseason; of course, the Cowboys did sign two right tackles to take his place. Marc Colombo, the oft-injured former Bear, is apparently beating out Jason Fabini for that spot. If Colombo can just step s'ways (sic) and continue to be fit and working again, he could be a real nifty cheap addition to this offensive line. That being said, even if Colombo does settle in and Torrin Tucker improves, Drew Bledsoe's sack count will still be in the neighborhood of infinity.
The Cowboys defense is going to make or break them this season, though. While Jason Ferguson's play was more akin to Blob 59 last season, moving to the 3-4 might revitalize him some. What the Cowboys have done the last few years, though, is buy all the hybrid defensive linemen and linebackers they could see behind the counter. DeMarcus Ware, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, and Bobby Carpenter are powder kegs on the outside, capable of ending a drive at any time. I like them more than the Umenyiora-Strahan-Arrington troika, to be honest. I'll bet my $500 bottle of wine on the Cowboys going Over. I'm pretty sure I just made a new enemy.
Ian: Everyone who knows me knows that how much I dislike Drew Bledsoe. He's only as good as the rest of the team. If the line is blocking, the running game is clicking, and the receivers are catching passes, Drew can have monster games. When things go poorly though, he can look downright ugly. No one's perfected the "deer in headlights" look in the face of an unblocked rusher like Drew Bledsoe.
Good thing for Drew, though, this is a talented offense. The offensive line may not be great, but they have a terrific group of skill position players, led by Julius Jones and Terrell Owens. Terry Glenn has officially attached his NFL career to the juvenation machine, and Jason Witten is among the league's best receiving tight ends. Drew will likely be an above-average fantasy quarterback thanks to the talent around him, though I'd still never want him quarterbacking my team.
Parcells is doing his best to build a defense he can be proud of, and it's a pretty solid unit. Unfortunately, Dallas is in one of the tougher divisions in football, and when Bledsoe is bad, he's really bad. It will be a good season for Dallas, but the offensive and defensive lines don't impress me enough to predict more than nine wins for the â€˜Boys. I'm going Under.
Bill: My gut immediately tells me under here, simply because of the dramatic level of hype that's been coming the Panthers way. When you throw in Steve Smith's regression to the mean (come on, no one could be as good as he was in the playoffs last year, right?), the Panthers' continued fascination with DeShaun Foster, Mike Rucker hitting 32, and the loss of Will Witherspoon, I see the Panthers being humbled this year. Under.
Ian: I hate Carolina. With division re-alignment, Tampa was poised to be the perennial division winner of the NFC South, with Atlanta and Carolina fighting it out for second, and the 'Aints living in the basement. That was, of course, a pipe dream, and all of a sudden the Panthers are there at the top. They're a tremendously well-coached, tremendously talented team. Jake Delhomme can quarterback my team anytime; he's got the talent to deliver the ball and the swagger to get things done under duress.
Adding Keyshawn Johnson will be huge for this team. The Panthers were an 11-5 team last season with one big glaring hole; Keary Colbert never quite panned out at the second wide receiver slot. They've filled that hole, added a talented insurance policy for DeShaun Foster named DeAngelo Williams, and John Fox is still their coach. I expect they'll split the season series with Tampa, and both teams will make the Over.
Bill: Remember when I mentioned the Super Bowl Loser's Curse before? No team's won more than seven games the year after they lost in the Super Bowl this entire decade. Seattle's going to be the first. The NFL, maybe making up for some of the officiating issues in the Super Bowl, gave the Seahawks the third-easiest schedule in football. Pro Football Prospectus 2006 projects the Seahawks to have an 83 percent chance of winning 11+ games. 83 percent! I can't argue with that. Over.
Ian: You would think this is a no-brainer, right? I'm not so sure. I've done my best to avoid harping on "strength of schedule," since things change so rapidly in the NFL. I don't think their schedule will be as easy as PFP says it will be. I think Arizona will be much improved, and may take both games from the Seahawks. The following matchups will be tough tests: NYG, @CHI, @KC, @DEN, SD, @TB. The loss of Steve Hutchinson will make things slightly tougher on the run game, though probably not all that much. Darrell Jackson has chronic knee troubles. Nate Burleson was a huge disappointment last season in Minnesota, and shouldn't be viewed as much more than a decent number two wideout. He's certainly not an upgrade over Joe Jurevicius. Jerramy Stevens is out for six weeks with a torn meniscus in his left knee. The injuries and question marks are adding up, which makes it tough to predict 11 wins, especially in the face of the Super Bowl Loser Curse. I can't imagine they'll win fewer than eight games, but I can certainly imagine they'll win fewer than 11. I'm going Under.
Bill: Last week's Scramble comment thread brought up some talk about Michael Vick and how the Falcons' improvement is predicated upon Michael Vick's improvement as a passer, notably in his completion percentage. My thought was to take a look and see if completion percentage exhibited a significant effect on the win-loss records of teams. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to run a real long study, and while I was trying to think of how to analyze this, I was reminded of a quick study Bill James conducted in one of the Baseball Abstracts.
The methodology, which I am stealing for this column, is this: take x groups of players with extremely similar stats, except for one stat, which is wildly different. In this case, the stat will obviously be completion percentage. Then, compare the results of the two players' teams.
The initial pool of quarterbacks I worked with included all quarterback seasons after 1982 (not wanting to pro-rate stats for the strike since I was a little rushed for time and because of the shift in passing completion percentage as time has worn on in football) where a quarterback had attempted over 400 passes. This yielded 357 candidates.
After I started compiling my first 20 groups of quarterbacks, I found that, almost invariably, the quarterback with the high completion percentage would be a quarterback who played years after the quarterback with the low completion percentage. This is because, well, league-wide completion percentage has been increasing as time has worn on.
|Year||Comp. %||Year||Comp. %|
As a result, I needed to do a little bit of work -- my (again, quick and dirty) way of doing this was to subtract the completion percentage of the quarterback from the league average, to get a somewhat relative percentage. This more accurately fit the concept of what we're looking for: quarterbacks whose completion percentage isn't up to snuff versus those whose percentage is.
Again, I found twenty groups of quarterbacks who fit the criteria. While I won't list them all and their statistics, I'll certainly make them available if anyone is interested. A sample comparison:
|LName||FName||Year||Tm||G||Cmp||Att||Cmp %||Adj||Yds||Yds/Att||TD||Int||Team Wins|
Bet no one was expecting me to bring Gary Danielson into the discussion. As you can see, Danielson's adjusted completion percentage was over seven points higher than Chris Miller's. This was, in fact, the weakest split that I allowed in the study; the highest adjusted split, measuring (the accurate) Rich Gannon's 2002 versus Phil Simms' 1984, was 13.09%!
Let's just say, well, I was surprised by the results.
|Team Wins||Completion %||Adj. Comp%||Battle Wins|
You're reading that right -- the quarterbacks with the lower completion percentage actually averaged more wins than the quarterbacks with the higher percentage, despite the higher percentage quarterbacks winning eleven of twenty "battles."
This immediately led me to thinking that a data point was skewing the results, and sure enough, I'd managed to include Jeff George's one-win season with the '91 Colts, where he managed to complete 60.21% (+1.93%) of his passes, versus Gus Frerotte's '05 with the Dolphins, where he could only manage a 52.02% (-8.37%) completion percentage. Sure enough, if you remove the Frerotte/George comparison from the group, you end up with the following results
|Team Wins||Completion %||Adj. Comp%||Battle Wins|
Obviously, with one comparison affecting the data so dramatically, this could really use a larger sample. Again, if anyone wants to see the data with all twenty comparisons, please let me know and I'd be happy to share.
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