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?
06 Oct 2005
by Aaron Schatz
After three weeks of the 1999 season, the New England Patriots were 3-0. In two of those wins, Drew Bledsoe led the Patriots down the field on a game-winning drive during the final two minutes. Though each game was decided by just three points or less, the Patriots showed that they knew how to win when the game was on the line, and were a leading Super Bowl contender.
After three weeks of the 2004 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars were also 3-0. In two of those wins, Byron Leftwich led the Jaguars down the field on a game-winning drive during the final two minutes. Though each game was decided by just three points or less, the Jaguars showed that they knew how to win when the game was on the line, and were a leading Super Bowl contender.
What do these two teams have in common? Each team began its season with three straight close wins that could have easily been losses. And each team failed to make the playoffs. The 2004 Jaguars were 6-7 the rest of the way, while the 1999 Patriots were 5-8.
The 1998 Oakland Raiders and 1999 Miami Dolphins also each won three straight close games during the first half of the season, then each went 2-6 over the second half of the season. That Dolphins team actually backed into the playoffs, only to famously get crushed 62-7 by Jacksonville.
These are the cautionary tales for all those who would quickly jump aboard the bandwagon of the 3-0 Washington Redskins. The storyline is tempting: an experienced head coach and a veteran quarterback who last year each looked like the game had passed them by, seeking redemption with clutch victory after clutch victory. The reality is a deeply flawed team that has narrowly beaten three other flawed teams thanks to some good timing and a lot of luck.
According to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) -- which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent, explained here -- Washington has been the 22nd best team in the NFL so far this season. They rank 16th in both offense and defense. They are 29th in special teams because they only have positive yardage on three of 16 punt returns and have returned only one kickoff past the 30-yard line.
How has Washington won three games with such mediocre performance?
Washington won its first game against offensively-challenged Chicago, which had a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start.
Dallas outplayed Washington for 56 minutes before 39- and 70-yard touchdown passes to Santana Moss. Long-bomb touchdowns of this type, though great plays that deservedly gave Washington a one-point victory, do not usually indicate that a team will win games in the future.
Washington won its third game in overtime when Seattle's Josh Brown missed a field goal that would have won the game at the end of regulation. In fact, though the league's kickers have hit 81 percent of field goals this year, those kicking against Washington have only hit three-of-six. In overtime, after Seattle outplayed them for 60 minutes, the Redskins exposed Seattle's fatal flaw by converting three straight third-and-long situations to set up the winning field goal.
Despite its 3-0 record, Washington has actually seen a decline from its best unit, the defense. Washington is allowing 5.8 net yards per pass, up from 5.4 last year. The run defense is allowing 3.7 yards per carry, up from 3.3 last year. And while Seattle is a strong offense, Chicago and Dallas most assuredly are not. Washington's defensive DVOA ranked third in 2004, but so far is 16th in 2005.
While the defense has only sacked the opposing quarterback four times, Washington's spotty offensive line has allowed ten sacks. And running back Clinton Portis, who saw a historic drop in his yards per carry average last year, hasn't been that much better this year. He's averaging just 4.1 yards per carry and has only one run longer than 13 yards.
There is one place where the uplifting Washington storyline is really true: Mark Brunell really has played better this year. His completion percentage of 57% and average of 7.0 yards per pass are his best numbers since 2002, and he has thrown only two interceptions. (His DVOA was -22.8% in 2004, but so far in 2005, it is 20.5%, currently 11th in the league.) Of course, that completion percentage is actually lower than last year's 62% completion percentage from Patrick Ramsey, the quarterback Brunell replaced, and the high average of yards per pass will drop as the touchdowns that beat Dallas get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.
Meanwhile, Washington's schedule is about to get a lot more difficult. The next two weeks, they go on the road to face two powerful AFC West teams, Denver and Kansas City. They still have two games against defending NFC champion Philadelphia and two games against the newly-powerful offense of the New York Giants, plus games against Tampa Bay and San Diego.
The Redskins may soon learn that clutch performance is a harsh mistress. After starting 3-0 and then beating the expansion Browns, the 1999 Patriots lost their next two games by a combined three points. The 2004 Jaguars, after winning their first three games close, later lost at home to Tennessee by three points and to Pittsburgh by just one point.
With three close wins already in the bag, the Redskins have a reasonable shot at the playoffs. But when their luck evens out -- as it inevitably will -- that difficult schedule also makes them a reasonable candidate for a collapse.
This article appeared in Tuesday's edition of the New York Sun.
Addendum: Since 1996, seven teams have strung together three straight regular season wins of three points or less. Four are mentioned above, and the other three were cut from the Sun article for space:
Washington fans who disagree with the premise of this article are hereby invited to make the case that this year's team has more in common with the 1999 Titans than it does with the other six teams mentioned above.
Second Addendum: Another interesting thing about the Washington Redskins is that our counterparts at Baseball Prospectus spent the season making this exact same argument about the Washington Nationals. For a comparison, read this article written by Joe Sheehan in mid-June. At the time, the Nationals were in first place with a 37-27 record despite being outscored by opponents. The Nationals went 44-54 the rest of the way and finished in last place, albeit in a division where no team had a losing record.
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