Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

26 Nov 2014

Scramble for the Ball: The DVOA Schism

by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz

Tom: Notwithstanding their loss to Seattle Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals still have the best record in the NFC. They are atop the NFC West, which includes the past two NFC Super Bowl participants, by two games. They have a very strong defense. And, by DVOA, they're the 17th-best team in the league.

Mike, what gives? Are our eyes lying to us? Are the Cardinals a bunch of frauds destined to have a 1991 Saints-like plunge from darlings to flameout?

Mike: I think the Cardinals end up at 17th because of how condensed the league is this year. Aaron has recently told us that Denver has the lowest DVOA of any leader this far in the season.

Tom: Condensed how? DVOA has them basically at average. I don't see how that's a function of condensation.

Mike: Well, look at the teams above them. Arizona is at 1.2%. San Diego at 1.3%. 3.5% for Cincinnati and so on. You have to go up to the No. 8 team in the league to find a DVOA in double digits.

Tom: Funny you mention that. I was on the 1991 DVOA page, since I mentioned the Saints. And in that season as well you had to get up to the top half of the top half to find a team in double digits DVOA. (Saving you a click, that Saints team finished third with 19.6% DVOA.)

Mike: There are a lot of teams hovering around average right now.

Tom: Sure, but most average teams aren't 9-2. What makes the Cardinals different, and is DVOA right that they're average? I should note that I was very down on the Cardinals before this season, picking them as the likeliest team in the league to finish under their Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 win projection.

Mike: It's important to remember that while DVOA is relative to some degree, simply looking at DVOA rank is somewhat misleading. In this case, the 17th-best team is not appreciably worse than, say, the 12th-best team, despite that seeming like a large difference

Tom: OK, I'll buy that.

Mike: I was going to guess strength of schedule, but the Cardinals have actually faced a slightly tougher than average schedule. My gut feeling is that defense-first teams are able to punch above their weight compared to how DVOA sees them, largely because of non-predictive events on defense.

Tom: But in, say, Peter King's Fine Fifteen, the Cardinals are third. They're fourth in ESPN's power rankings. That's still not 12th.

Mike: Those are all controlled by wins.

Tom: Heavily influenced by wins, absolutely. But a team that was viewed as fraudulent coming off a loss wouldn't be ranked that highly.

Mike: Not as much as ESPN NHL power rankings (which are literally just the teams ranked by points), but given the paucity of games in the NFL season, wins have an outsized influence on how we perceive teams.

Tom: I cite King and the ESPN voters not to denigrate them, but to juxtapose a conventional wisdom of how good the Cardinals are with what DVOA, claim-to-fame metric of Football Outsiders, says. Wins are the currency of football. Since they have a legitimately good defense, as even DVOA agrees (ranking them fifth), should we think that their winning ways are likely to continue? If it sounds like I'm just being an interlocutor rather than expressing my own opinions, it's because I'm not sure what I think of the Cardinals.

I think the root of DVOA's disagreement can be found in their passing stats. As a team, the Cardinals rank 30th in completion percentage and fifth in yards per completion. They're only third in the league in interception rate, behind San Francisco and Green Bay.

Mike: I think the root of all these issues is that Arizona is winning in ways that DVOA believes are unsustainable. And here is the statistical weirdness I was looking for: Arizona's overall offensive DVOA is -9.6%, 23d in the league. Arizona's third-down DVOA is 22%. Seventh in the league. So they're not the 1991 Saints. They're the ... what was it? 2006 Redskins?

That would also go a long way toward explaining why the team is held in such high esteem by the commentariat, because bizarrely great performance on third down is viewed as a laudable skill. Clutchitudiness. So what writers see is an exciting team with a shaky but somewhat explosive offense paired with a genuinely good defense. So maybe the 2006 Bears?

Wait, we liked Chicago that year. I didn't like Chicago that year. Oh well.

Tom: Ah, your nemesis Rex Grossman. Is he still your nemesis, or have you replaced him with a different nemesis at this point?

Mike: It very well wouldn't be true nemesisdom if he were so easily replaced!

Tom: Also, one thing we've seen is that particularly strong third-down success on offense may be much more repeatable than particularly strong third-down success on defense. At least if you have a good quarterback. If you want to postulate that this applies to Carson Palmer, I present you the 2013 Arizona Cardinals, who were 15th in first-down offensive DVOA, 14th on second down, and 24th on third down.

And, well, Palmer's now on IR. Your Drew Stanton-related belief can only be supported by "Bruce Arians is a witch."

Mike: The Steelers' front office seemed pretty eager to throw him into a lake.

Tom: Given that he's still around and kicking, and is by far the most successful NFL head coach first hired after age 60, perhaps he in fact is. But I'm still OK with my preseason pick of the Green Bay Packers to win the NFC.

Lessons Learned

Tom: The nature of making judgments means that, sometimes, something looks like it's true. Then, as you get more evidence, you need to update what you previously said.

When they were 5-2, after shutting out the Cincinnati Bengals, I declared the Indianapolis Colts to be actually good, not just a "meh" team around Andrew Luck. What they are instead is a quarterback, some offensive "skill position" players, a couple good cornerbacks, and a pressure scheme. When the pressure scheme works, or if they're playing a team with a bad offensive line (like Jacksonville this past week), they'll get sacks, the cornerbacks will hold up well, and the defense will be just fine. When it doesn't, their pass coverage gets exploited.

They can beat bad teams, thanks to the defense and the quarterback, and they don't have any bad losses this year. But that more or less establishes their floor or their ceiling. If the opposing quarterback is having a good day, they'll lose when they play a team that is neither particularly good nor particularly bad. Ben Roethlisberger had a phenomenal day. Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton did not. The Colts won the latter two, lost the prior one. I hate that sort of reductive analysis, but I don't know how to describe it any other way.

Eventually, the top two of the AFC will be a top three, or even top four. Sorry, Chargers. Sorry, Colts. You're not there.

Mike: This week I learned I should be thankful for sub-elite quarterback play. Last year I sat by while Chicago's media dabble in insane theories about Josh McCown. Last week McCown (and Lovie Smith!) came to town against their former teams. Smith acquitted himself well. McCown ... yeaaaah ....

Lovie Smith put together a good game plan against a flawed Bears team, which allowed the overmatched Buccaneers to hang with Chicago for a decent chunk of the game. At least, until Josh McCown demonstrated just why last year's conversation was so insane.

Tom: I was actually listening to somebody a couple weeks ago arguing the Bears made the wrong decision. Instead of letting McCown go and committing to Cutler, they should have traded Jay Cutler and signed Josh McCown and played him until they won quarterback draft roulette.

Mike: Well, I think we're all too quick to dismiss non-elite quarterback play.

Tom: As the leading, and perhaps sole member, of the Ryan Fitzpatrick Defender Club, I agree with you.

Mike: I will say that while I think both Cutler deals cost the team too much. On the other hand, there is definite value in having a good-but-not-amazing quarterback.

Tom: My defense of Fitzpatrick only goes to noting he's a below-average NFL starter, which is a far cry from that good-but-not-amazing level.

Mike: Jay Cutler is good. He is not amazing. But he is an above-average quarterback. And an above-average quarterback makes a team competitive, whereas a plain ol' terrible quarterback foils even the best laid plans of his coaching staff. So eat lots of turkey, and enjoy watching the Andy Daltons of the league. They may be infuriating, but they give your team a shot. That may just be enough.

Loser League Update

Full Loser League results for your team for that week and the season to date are available on the results page. Each week Scramble for the Ball highlights the top scorers at each position.

Quarterback: Michael Vick dropped back to pass 25 times against the Buffalo Bills. On those plays, the New York Jets gained 49 yards. That does not include his turnover. Here is a pity 1 Loser League point for your troubles.

Running backs: Frank Gore, viable starting running back and viable Loser League player, managed only 36 yards and fumbled for his 1 point. Darren McFadden got off the bench with Latavius Murray's injury and avoided the Loser League penalty to get 2 points, tying Doug Martin in the first runner-up spot.

Wide receivers: Have we mentioned the Seahawks passing game is struggling? Doug Baldwin had two catches for 6 yards and 0 points. Harry Douglas, Mike-selection-denigrated-by-Tom Cordarrelle Patterson, and Reggie Wayne each had 1 point.

Kicker: Both Chandler Catanzaro and Robbie Gould missed a field goal to subtract from the three points they scored and finish with 1 point.

Awards!

Keep Chopping Wood: On the upcoming holiday, Khalil Mack and Sio Moore can give thanks to Justin Tuck's mindfulness. The veteran's alertness let him call timeout, saving his two young teammates from embarrassment and hurting his team. Moore brought down Alex Smith on third-and-6 in the final minute of Thursday's contest. Rookie Mack, who gave Kansas City left tackle Eric Fisher consistent fits, celebrated with his second-year teammate. Meanwhile, Smith and company lined up for the desperation conversion attempt, grateful for the multiple chances they may have had to convert thanks to the untimely celebration of the youngsters. Tuck called timeout to prevent the most blatant offsides call of all time. Tuck said after the game that he wanted to fight his teammates, and would have if the Chiefs had taken advantage for a conversion and ultimately a victory. The Raiders got their first win, so he will have to just let them getting KCW, and Oakland their first win, suffice.

Mike Martz Award: It is fourth-and-goal from the 2. You are trailing 7-3. You have a good defense and are playing one of the best teams in the league, on the road. What do you do? Kick the field goal!

You are losing 14-6 to one of the best teams in the league, on the road. You face fourth-and-3 at the opposing 39-yard line. What do you do? Punt!

You are losing 21-6 to one of the best teams in the league, on the road. You face fourth-and-10 at the opposing 35-yard line late in the first half. While you now have a semi-competent kicker, over the course of the season you are the worst kicking team in the league. What do you do? Kick the field goal!

You are losing 24-6 to one of the best teams in the league, on the road. You face fourth-and-1 at your own 27 in the third quarter. Your opponent's defense ranks 31st in Power situations. What do you do? Punt!

You are losing 27-6 to one of the best teams in the league, on the road. It is the fourth quarter. You face fourth-and-14 at the opposing 31-yard line. Your kicker missed a long field goal earlier in the game when you kicked. What do you do? Kick the field goal!

Jim Caldwell finally did go for it on fourth down, even later in the game, when the chances of it mattering were even smaller.

Little Mac Lock of the Week

Tom: We did it! We both got our picks right. The Bears made it interesting for a while, but covered against Tampa Bay. Baltimore, meanwhile, got the road upset in New Orleans. We are now both 4-6, on the road back to respectability.

Mike: The long, slow road.

Tom: You're on a winning streak. This may be the first of the season.

Mike: I imagine it is.

Tom: As a reminder, lines are courtesy of Pinnacle Sports and were accurate as of time of writing. All picks are made without reference to the FO Premium picks.

Mike: People seem to have bought into the narrative that Andy Dalton can't win on the road. I like to at least pretend that is just a narrative and not a real split for a non-dome team. At the risk of being incredibly boring ... Tampa Bay is still really bad! Josh McCown is still beyond terrible! Cincinnati is ... good enough. Yes. Good enough. Cincinnati Bengals -4 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tom: Do I go there?

By DVOA, the Falcons should be the favorite when they host the Cardinals. The Cardinals are better, but not by much, and not by nearly enough to overcome to home edge. On the other hand -- and yes, this is a small n -- Matt Ryan has been a turnover machine and Arizona's defense has dominated the Falcons each of the past two seasons. I'll give that game a pass.

I'm actually tempted to take the Jaguars. Like Atlanta, DVOA suggests they should be a slight favorite instead of a 2.5-point underdog against the Giants. But it's too easy for me to see a scenario where the Giants win, and too easy to see Jacksonville doing nothing.

Instead, I'll take the Oakland Raiders +7 at St. Louis Rams. If Latavius Murray clears concussion protocol -- and since he got hurt on a Thursday, I think he should have a good shot to do so -- then the Raiders will have a semblance of a run game, something they haven't had all year. The defense is playing reasonably well, actually ranking 14th in DVOA, and I don't trust the Rams' offensive line to block effectively, while Shaun Hill showed last week he'll make mistakes with the football. I think the Rams should be the favorite, but Oakland has been underrated all year because they kept losing. They're not that bad, and in fact are better than they were last year. They can keep this game close, and maybe even pull out their second win.

Posted by: Mike Kurtz and Tom Gower on 26 Nov 2014

4 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2014, 7:20am by coboney

Comments

1
by Steve in WI :: Wed, 11/26/2014 - 5:36pm

The only reason I wish the Bears had kept McCown and ditched Cutler is that had they done so, with the same personnel and coaches otherwise, I feel pretty confident that they'd be a 1-2 win team right now with a realistic chance at the #1 overall pick in the draft. And that might be enough to get Marc Trestman and Phil Emery fired.

As for Cutler himself, I agree - he's a pretty good but not great QB. At this point it seems incredibly unlikely that he will elevate his game beyond that. It's unfortunate that the Bears defense collapsed just when they finally put enough offensive pieces around him to see if he could lead them to some playoff success.

2
by techvet :: Wed, 11/26/2014 - 6:18pm

Let's see how the Cardinals do with a difficult schedule still remaining. FWIW, I also bought into the McGown mystique but maybe it's just that he lit up bad defenses last year (I'm looking at you, Redskins).

3
by Purds :: Thu, 11/27/2014 - 12:14pm

I agree completely with the Colts analysis. They will hammer a bad team, and lose to any good team that can stop their blitzes and attack with the run. Unfortunately for us Colts fans, while they appear to be a good team, the reality is they are mediocre in a bad division that makes them look good -- and they aren't bad enough to change, I fear. In other words, if they were worse, that might force some fundamental changes that could help them long term. But winning the division again will have them doing the same things, and those don't see to be working. (Grison had a great first draft, but then not so good. His trades have been okay -- Davis -- but not great -- TRich)

4
by coboney :: Fri, 11/28/2014 - 7:20am

The colts are a mediocre team with the best young QB in football, a solid young wr and a decent CB and not a ton else around them. And they look better cause of said QB and especially being in a 'South' division which inflates win totals and stats.