The NFL playoffs finally heat up, as a wild finish in Dallas and a tight game in Kansas City go some way to making up for the blowouts that preceded them.
23 Nov 2007
by Stuart Fraser
Opponent adjustments are one of the signature concepts at Football Outsiders, and frequently one of the most important in explaining the difference between FO metrics and more conventional statistics or win-loss records. The DVOA commentary about Team X, which is 3-6 but nonetheless above 6-3 team Y, will often refer to the relative strengths of schedule.
But what about the individual players? Quick Reads concentrates on the week that's just happened, so there's rarely a chance to go back and revisit the schedule adjustments for offensive skill position players over an entire season. With that in mind, I went through the archives and looked for the quarterbacks and running backs with the strongest opponent adjustments since 1996 -- players who were nowhere near as good (or as bad) as their conventional statistics suggested.
Before we head off into examining the figures, a brief pause to explain some terminology I'll be using in the rest of the article. I've defined an opponent adjustment as negative or down if that player's DPAR is lower than their unadjusted PAR. This means the player played against a weaker-than-average (substantially weaker than average, if he's appearing in this article) schedule in terms of the ability of the defenses to stop his particular brand of offense. Conversely, an opponent adjustment is positive or up if DPAR is higher than PAR, and implies an RB playing against good run defenses or a QB throwing into the teeth of a good pass defense.
I started this article because I was surprised at the disconnect between the popular perception of Ben Roethlisberger's 2007 season and his struggling-to-crack-the-top-10 rank in DPAR. It turns out there is a current player on the list of quarterbacks with the largest penalties from opponent adjustments -- but it isn't Roethlisberger. Through Week 11, Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck has 71.5 PAR but only 53.2 DPAR. Even though the season isn't finished yet, that difference of 18.3 is good for ninth place on the list of negative opponent adjustments. The Seahawks' future schedule has an even lower average DVOA than their 32nd-ranked past schedule, so Hasselbeck may end up the most "overrated" (by unadjusted statistics) quarterback since DVOA stats begin in 1996.
The collection of cupcakes faced by the 1999 Rams is fairly well known, so seeing Warner atop this list isn't particularly surprising. Warner didn't face a pass defense with a negative DVOA between Baltimore on opening Sunday and Philadelphia in Week 17, and got two divisional matchups with the 49ers, whose 43.5% DVOA pass defense eclipses even this year's Jason David-inspired Saints as the worst pass defense in DVOA history.
Warner also shares (with Peyton Manning) the dubious distinction of appearing in this list twice, which has a lot to do with the sustained ineptitude of their respective divisions. The NFC West never seems to have more than one good team in it; the 2002 division realignment, though it is hard to believe, actually strengthened the division, bringing in the Seahawks and removing the listless Falcons and Saints. The AFC South is now emerging from the doldrums but for some time featured the expansion Texans and the Titans journeying through cap purgatory. Highlights of the 2000 Carolina schedule, from quarterback Steve Beuerlein's point of view, included Minnesota (31st in pass defense DVOA), Seattle (27th), and divisional opponents San Francisco (29th), St. Louis (25th), and Atlanta (20th). The best pass defense the Panthers faced was that of the Washington Redskins, whose -20.7% DVOA was only good for 7th in a year which, like 2004, was just uneven, not bad, as Jets fans can attest:
Once again the list is dominated by the 2004 season, with a single interloper from 2000. 2004 had a strange distribution of pass defenses. Six teams had a passing DVOA worse than 20%, twice as many as in the previous year. It's not unreasonable to assume that the league's stricter enforcement of illegal contact rules starting in that season affected teams disproportionately. Whatever the reason, two of these six teams (Oakland, Kansas City) were in the AFC West, and another two (St. Louis, San Francisco) were in the NFC West. These divisions faced each other in interconference play, leading to some fairly lopsided schedules. On the other side of the country the AFC North and East, featuring five of the best six pass defenses in that year, were beating up on each other, which places Browns and Bengals quarterbacks on the upwardly-adjusted list.
Back in 2000, Testaverde's Jets were facing all the good teams that Beuerlein's Panthers avoided -- Miami (first with an excellent -31.8% pass defense DVOA) and Buffalo (eighth) in their division, with Tampa Bay (third), Detroit (fifth) and Baltimore (sixth) also on the schedule. The worst pass defense faced by the Jets was the 23rd-ranked Colts, who would have fallen right in the middle of a list of the bad pass defenses on Carolina's schedule. Though Testaverde couldn't do anything with the return to a more normal schedule the next year (and consequently lost his job to Chad Pennington), three of these quarterbacks showed significant "improvement" in conventional terms their next season. Brooks had the best year of his career, and Palmer and Favre had "breakout" and "comeback" years in their respective next seasons. Favre's "much-improved" first season under McCarthy had very little to do with coaching -- his DPAR stayed almost constant between '05 and '06, but the opposition changed. Palmer combined weaker opponents with improved play coming off his rookie year and ended up with a Pro Bowl berth as a sophomore.
When it comes to running backs, the adjustments are smaller because we're dealing with fewer plays, and DPAR is a counting stat. Unlike the somewhat motley crew that makes up the list of quarterbacks who benefited most from weak opponents, the comparable running back list is rather more star-studded -- probably because the more carries you get, the bigger the adjustments end up being. First, the players with easy schedules:
At first glance there's nothing terribly striking about the 2002 season (from which four backs appear on this table), but the schedule pitted the AFC West (home to San Diego and Denver) and the AFC East (home to Miami and Buffalo) against each other, allowing the 18th-ranked Chargers, the 24th-ranked Bills, the 26th-ranked Patriots, the 29th-ranked Chiefs and the 31st-ranked Jets to, ahem, showcase their run defenses against each other. I'm sure LaDanian Tomlinson and Clinton Portis approved wholeheartedly.
Three of these players crossed the dreaded 370-carry barrier (Tomlinson 2002, Williams 2002, Alexander 2005), and I suppose it makes sense that a featured running back might well be overused when facing a schedule packed with weak opposition. Not only is it smart to run against a bad run defense, but teams playing a weak schedule are going to be ahead more often than usual, and everybody reading this should know by now that you run when you win.
The table of backs who found themselves faced with distinctly above-average run defenses also contains a 370-carry season, which is somewhat harder to rationalize. It probably has more to do with the team than the opponents though; Eddie George's Titans didn't have much in the way of a passing game that season, but their excellent defense made it worth running George into the ground (at least from Jeff Fisher's point of view). This list is also headed by a back who had to come back from overuse:
Here's another player from 2007, but don't expect Jamal Lewis on the list at season's end, since the Browns have one of the easiest schedules going forward. (If we had written this article a week ago, Rudi Johnson would have made the list instead.)
Astute readers will have noticed that the 2000 season shows up in numbers yet again -- lacking the concentrated wackiness of 2004's passing statistics perhaps, but more consistent across the board. The main culprit here is the six-team AFC Central, containing two great defenses in Baltimore and Tennessee, a pretty good one in Pittsburgh, and a solid run defense in Jacksonville, all wailing on each other (and on the hapless Browns and Bengals). To make matters worse for Bettis in particular, he was pounding his head against not only the Ravens (all-time leaders in run defense DVOA, at -41.6%), Titans (2nd in run defense), and Jaguars (8th), but also the Chargers (3rd), Giants (4th), Raiders (5th), Eagles (9th), and the Jets (10th). At least the Steelers (themselves ranked sixth against the run), gave the Bus plenty of chance to practice the skills needed to move the ball on a top-10 run defense. The only team Bettis was missing from the complete top 10 was the Bills. Another reason this adjustment blows the competition away is that the Steelers showed no inclination to stop driving the Bus into these defenses. Bettis carried the ball 354 times, although, given that Kordell Stewart was only completing 52.2 percent of his passes at the time, this might have been a wise decision. Eddie George had 403 carries, but his adjustment is lower because of the arcane 31-team scheduling mechanic. The Titans didn't face San Diego, Oakland or the Jets, though they did encounter Buffalo.
Under the circumstances, the pedestrian-looking 3.8 yards per carry achieved was probably one of Bettis's best seasons -- something those who will consider his Hall of Fame candidacy should consider. Opposition matters.
17 comments, Last at 27 Nov 2007, 4:42pm by Herm?