Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
18 Dec 2013
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Mike: I saw someone assert, recently, that baseball had the most parity in US professional sports.
Tom: This person is clearly wrong, unless he's referring to gross difference in winning percentages, something I would attribute to baseball's 162-game season resulting in compressed records, especially given that pitchers vary in caliber the way starting quarterbacks do.
Mike: Winning percentage is probably what he is referring to, but it might be interesting to look at champions, because while baseball fans whine about the Yankees and Red Sox and whathaveyou, our NFL fan bretheren also have the Patriots and the Steelers on our side.
Tom: The NFL playoffs are now a ridiculous crapshoot. Only two of the last 13 Super Bowls have been won by teams that had the No. 1 seed in their conference.
Mike: I am not sure that is a recent development.
Tom: The team with the best DVOA in the league has won one of the last 13 Super Bowls. From 1975 to 1999, the Super Bowl winner was not the top seed of its conference only seven times (1997 Broncos at No. 4, 1992 Cowboys at No. 2, 1990 Giants at No. 2, 1988 49ers at No. 2, 1987 Redskins at No. 3, 1980 Raiders at No. 4, 1978 Steelers at No. 2). It should be noted that prior to 1990, the NFL prevented divisional rematches in the playoffs before the conference championship game. For example, in 1989 the 49ers had the best record in the NFC but hosted NFC North winner Minnesota in the conference semifinal because the wild card winner was their divisional mate the Los Angeles Rams.
Mike: A 72-percent success rate for the top seed seems pretty good. That is also an 88-percent success rate for the top two conference seeds.
Tom: Before 1975, the conference championship game host alternated by divisions, which is really screwed up and deeply weird if you think about it. So the unbeaten 1972 Miami Dolphins played the AFC Championship Game on the road, in Pittsburgh.
Mike: Football was pretty screwed up back then.
Tom: It's a low-key kind of weird how intelligently the league is actually set up now.
Mike: The NFL is by far the best run and organized league in sports.
Tom: Then you look at old things like this, and you recognize how good we have it today.
Mike: In any case, the old pattern was that a top seed, or more accurately the top two seeds, were almost certain to win the league championship. That has not borne out, recently.
Tom: Beginning with the 2000 Ravens, everything went to heck. I do not see an obvious explanation for that. The coming of the salary cap leading to greater turnover makes sense, but the cap took effect in 1994.
Mike: Well, let's look at DVOA. We have DVOA back to 1989. In the 90s, the top seed won a little over every other year.
Tom: Of the Super Bowl winners from 1989 to 1999, three were not the top team by DVOA (1994 49ers at No. 3, 1995 Cowboys at No. 2, 1997 Broncos at No. 2).
Mike: So, the top team by either DVOA or conference seed won every year in the 90s except 1997. For the 1990s, that leaves us with two pretty good predictors that could probably be combined into one very good predictor. That is not true of the 2000s.
Tom: And in 1997, the No. 1 team in DVOA played the No. 2 team in DVOA in the Super Bowl. And then we get to the 2000s (team ranking according to DVOA):
The bar for Super Bowl champion, by DVOA, is much lower in the 2000s than in the 1990s. And yet, we've seen the Patriots and the Steelers both win multiple titles.
Mike: So I suppose our next question is, do the teams of the 90s have a higher average DVOA than the teams of the 2000s?
Tom: The Super Bowl winners, you mean?
Mike: Yes. Well, and the actual No. 1 DVOA teams. Theoretically, the 90s DVOA leaders are so much better than the average team that both the No. 1 seed and the championship immediately follow. Also theoretically, the 00s DVOA leaders are closer to average and therefore more vulnerable than their 90s brethren.
Tom: The best team in DVOA from 1989-1999 averaged 35.9%. The best team from 2000-2012 averaged 34.3%. That's not a noticeable difference to me.
Mike: More importantly, considering the small sample size it is nowhere near a statistically significant difference.
Tom: Absolutely not.
Mike: So the best teams are still just as much better than the competition. Why do they keep losing?
Tom: I wish I knew. The one thing that does jump out looking at the numbers is there were four teams that had the best DVOA in the record with a DVOA under 30% in the past thirteen years, compared to two in the decade of the 90's.
Mike: That's still just 5% away from the average of the top teams, however. Again, probably not significant. Liberalization of passing rules is one possible culprit, but that is only the second half of the 2000s. And the top offensive team by DVOA has not fared well, either, with only the 2006 Colts topping the league in offensive DVOA and winning the Super Bowl. So having the best offense in an offense-friendly environment also does not seem to yield championships.
Tom: I do a couple radio spots, and both of them in recent weeks have asked about who's going to win the Super Bowl. The best I feel like I can do is give a list of teams that are maybe good enough to win it. And talk about last year's Ravens and the 2011 Giants, teams that showed very few signs of particular greatness until playing well enough in the postseason to come away with the Lombardi Trophy. You read or listen to Aaron talk about it, and you can tell he's frustrated that the best team in the league has stopped winning the Super Bowl. As an analyst, I'm just as frustrated as he is.
Half a dozen years ago, we tried to look if there were anything teams that actually did win the Super Bowl had in common. We tried it in 2006. The Colts came out as awful by that metric. They won the Super Bowl. We tried again in 2007. The Patriots and Giants came out badly. They, of course, met in Arizona. We have not tried again, nor do I see a particular reason to.
I consoled myself with the subjective knowledge that the team that won was always a team with a demonstrated theoretical capability of playing at a high level on both offense and defense. Then Baltimore last year won. I could sort of see Joe Flacco winning the deep pass lottery for a few weeks, like an inconsistent Eli Manning did play well for a few games in a row for the first time in 2007, but defensively? Their two best games of the season, by a mile, came completely out of the blue, in the postseason against Denver and New England. And it wasn't like they got a great player back so it made sense narratively, like with Indianapolis and Bob Sanders.
I'm basically at the stage where I'm (a) pulling my hair out and (b) throwing my hands up in the air and giving up, which is a really awful position to be in.
Mike: My only other thought is perhaps that while the difference between the top team and the average have remained unchanged, the difference between the top team and other playoff teams has shrunk?
Tom: The 1991 Redskins, the best team in DVOA history, won the Super Bowl. The 2007 Patriots, second-best, did not.
Mike: With a similar spread between the 91 Redskins and the 49ers, as compared to the 07 Patriots and Colts.
Tom: Right, and neither team faced their top conference competitor in the playoffs.
Mike: Back of the napkin math refutes this hypothesis, also; the top of the league was roughly as dense in the 1990s as it was in the 2000s.
Tom: In the Super Bowl, though, the Redskins faced the AFC's best team in the Bills, while the Patriots played an average Giants team that wasn't in the top five in the NFC by DVOA. The Redskins won. The Patriots lost. It's so non-obvious it feels random. Maybe it is, or maybe I'm just not smart enough to come up with the right explanation for what's going on.
Mike: It does feel random, but it stands in stark contrast to decades where the process of selecting a champion was almost entirely non-random. Something changed around the turn of the century that snapped a very long trend.
Tom: Maybe, just maybe, any year now, the best team in the league will start winning the Super Bowl again. But I will not believe that until it actually happens.
Mike: I don't get who Santa is supposed to be in this commercial. It is like he is some kind of horrible combination of Steve Jobs and Billy Mays. It feels like it's referencing something, but without an actual reference the clip is just bizarre and annoying.
Tom: Keep in mind all of these people are Santa's employees. Steve Jobs, maybe, or even more cult-ish. The elves are also really eager to believe Santa's claim that his watch just took a picture, despite them perhaps having no knowledge about a watch's ability to do so nor anything beyond Santa's word as evidence. Maybe Santa did project the picture he just took on the screen, but we're not shown that.
Mike: The issue is that Jobs' presentations were much less emphatic than Santa's in this commercial.
Tom: And when Mrs. Claus calls, we get the projection of the "watch" with the call signal from Mrs. Claus. But it's about as realistic as the Duke Nukem Forever trailer.
Mike: He made the product speak for itself, almost, whereas here Santa is wildly gesticulating and shouting. Perhaps it's another edition of 'Samsung thinks Apple is stupid and evil and everyone who likes Apple is stupid.' This would all be less of a problem if the Galaxy Gear weren't such a thoroughly useless device, based both on reviews and Best Buy's reported 50 percent return rate.
Tom: One of the issues is they introduced a wearable device at a time where the specific wearable device is as unpopular as it's been in several centuries. The "it's a miracle" line at the end seems like it's a traditional thing to say, about whatever new gimmick Santa comes up with that year. Or at least the way the elves say that makes me think so. But what the heck is going on with Carly Rae Jepsen there, aside from the obvious "call me"/phone connection? Santa already seems to have his employees pretty well brainwashed, so what does he need to spend money on song licensing for, especially when his apparent business is non-revenue?
Mike: Aw, I thought Eli Manning single-handedly led a resurgence of the wristwatch!
Tom: Unstoppable, just like Eli Manning throwing interceptions!
Quarterback: After last week, we had a return to normalcy with the only negative quarterback score of the week, -3, belonging to a New York quarterback who threw five interceptions. The only irregular part was it was Eli Manning and not Geno Smith, the latter of which put up 14 points.
Running Back: Well, Eli did not have a good day throwing, but I am sure the Giants were at least able to run ... oh, hello there, Andre Brown atop the running back standings with 1 point. The runner-up trio with 3 each consisted of Stevan Ridley, Robert Turbin, and Danny Woodhead.
Wide Receiver: Somehow, though, no receivers from that Seahawks-Giants game finished atop the Loser League scoreboard this week as both Victor Cruz and Golden Tate managed a point too many. Mike Brown offset his receiving yards with a fumble for 0 points, while Santonio Holmes, Andre Johnson, Darius Johnson, Andre Roberts, and Tiquan Underwood each had 1 point.
Kicker: Really, though, this might actually be the first time a single team has had a player put up the worst score of the week at three different Loser League positions. Josh Brown did not get to attempt a kick for his 0, while Garrett Hartley missed two field goals to offset his made field goal and extra point, and is no longer employed by an NFL team.
To see how your team did, check out the Loser League results page.
KEEP CHOPPING WOOD: The Denver Broncos went four-and-out on their first possession of the second half, but Andre Caldwell managed to down the punt at the 1 and the defense forced a third-down incompletion from Philip Rivers to Eddie Royal. Bring on the punt team, meaning good field position for the Broncos was likely after a punt from the 7. They still had 23 minutes remaining for a comeback from a 24-10 deficit. Until Nate Irving goes into the neutral zone with the punt team out, giving the Chargers another first down, that is. San Diego would not score on that possession, but they would run off another 6:48 of clock between the Irving penalty and their actual punt, and Denver would get the ball at their own 11 instead of at midfield.
MIKE MARTZ AWARD: The best way to win in the NFL, as a general rule, is by throwing the ball. There are exceptions. One of those is, perhaps, when facing a terrible run defense, and you are having success running the ball already ... oh, wait, never mind, that was last week's write-up about how the Dallas Cowboys failed to run the ball and it helped cost them the game. An NFL team would never make the same mistake like that twice in as many weeks, would they?
Really, though, we will instead harken to Greg Schiano and let him explain the Buccaneers' ill-fated kickoff return handoff that gave the 49ers a clinching touchdown. Greg, take it away: "It was a called play. We were going to run a reverse if the opportunity presented itself the right way. It didn't, yet we still ran it, but it's okay. We made a mistake. Guys make mistakes sometimes." Yes, they do. Here is a hint: When a kicker is putting most of his kickoffs deep into the end zone, as Phil Dawson was that game, just accepting the touchback is probably a good idea instead of trying to do something tricky.
Tom: As a reminder, all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing, while all picks are made without reference to the FO Premium picks.
I thought I had it last week. The San Francisco 49ers scored to go up 23-21 with over four minutes to play, giving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers enough time to pick up a covering touchdown before valiantly losing. The Bucs being the Bucs, they instead collapsed and a 20-14 49ers lead became a 33-14 final. Not the 38-0 I feared, but nor did Tampa cover the 5-point spread. You, meanwhile, chose the Patriots, who lost.
Mike: Yes. Both of those things happened. I've given up trying to figure out the Patriots.
I think I have the Chiefs figured out to some extent, inasmuch as they are really good at stomping bad teams. Indianapolis, as its weighted DVOA indicates, has been playing like a bad team recently. Part of it is injury, part of it is regression. All of it is fodder for Kansas City's stompin' roadshow. Will they win the Super Bowl? Well, as we pointed out above, that is basically impossible to figure out. Will they cover against the Colts in Kansas City? Yeah. Kansas City Chiefs -7 vs. Indianapolis Colts.
Tom: The Miami Dolphins are playing a December road game in Buffalo, and are favored. The Dolphins are a pretty average team. The Bills are worse than that, but they're not that bad. Yes, Buffalo is eliminated from playoff contention and Miami is tied for the lead in the chase for the sixth seed in the AFC, but what would the Bills do, play a rookie quarterback? They've been doing that already. Buffalo is not so bad that Miami should be favored, let alone by a field goal. The early forecast is not particularly cool for December in Orchard Park (48 degrees), but an 80 percent chance of rain (per weather.gov) would make conditions plenty miserable on their own. I'll take the Bills and the points. Buffalo Bills +3 vs. Miami Dolphins.
98 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2014, 4:02pm by Duke