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?
10 Dec 2009
by Mike Tanier
Destiny ain't what it used to be.
David Garrard suggested this week that the 7-5 Jaguars are destined for greatness. "Yeah, it does feel like a year of destiny and that's great because 2007 felt like a year of destiny. To be at this point right now with seven wins; I bet if you talked to a lot of people before the season, they'd say, 'Yeah, right.'"
You remember the Super Bowl Champion 2007 Jacksonville Jaguars, right? They really were a team of destiny. They beat the undefeated Patriots in the playoffs, then won the Super Bowl when an Eli Manning pass bounced off David Tyree's helmet into Rashean Mathis' arms. This year's Jaguars are a lot like that team, which never existed.
Destiny's Jaguars are 7-5 on the strength of three-point wins against the Chiefs, the Rams (in overtime), and the Bills. They also beat the Jets by two. They have a 41-0 loss to the Seahawks, a 31-17 loss to the Cardinals, and a 30-13 loss to the Titans on their Resume of Fate. Just two weeks ago, the team that Garrard believes is blessed by Fortuna's loving caress lost 20-3 to the 49ers. Yes, Destiny's Jaguars are 1-3 against the woeful NFC West, their one win coming in overtime.
Clearly, Destiny has fallen upon hard times. Team of Destiny talk sounds silly coming from a wild card team that just won a playoff game. It sounds ridiculous coming from the quarterback of a second-place team a month removed from the playoffs. Garrard claims to be silencing doubters, but he's really silencing silence. No one doubts the Jaguars. No one believes in the Jaguars. No one even notices the Jaguars. Not even Destiny. Only 42,079 people attended the Jaguars-Texans game last week, a record low for a team that knows how to set low attendance records. Of course, if the Jaguars do win the Super Bowl, 400,000 people will claim to have been at the game where Chris Brown threw the interception that started the winning streak that ended with Josh Scobee's last-second field goal to beat the Saints in the Super Bowl.
By the way, Scobee is just 5-of-12 on field goals beyond 40 yards, so don't count on that game-winning kick, unless fate plays a hand.
I know I can be hard on the Jaguars. They are currently 21st in DVOA, down in the region where Redskins dwell. I am also too hard on those who engage in innocent magical thinking. What is Garrard supposed to think? That he's 7-5 only by grace of schedule? That there's no reason to practice or battle because the Colts will win the AFC? A little Chosen One mythology will keep the Jaguars striving for every win. And yes, thanks to the schedule and some luck, the playoffs are well within reach. If 2007 felt epic to Garrard, a first-round playoff loss to the Bengals will at least provide a little tingle.
In other news, Florida governor Charlie Crist thinks the Jaguars should draft Tim Tebow. Garrard's destiny may well lie elsewhere.
Last Monday at midnight, the odometer flipped. The warranty expired. Fairy Godmother hooked her wand to the charger and went to bed.
It was December 1. It was time for the Cowboys to stink, and for the Eagles to surge.
My skeptical mindset told me to doubt all of the December trends, even as the Eagles beat the Falcons and the Cowboys lost to the Giants, even as I wrote jokes about them for various articles. Saying the Cowboys are about to go into the can makes good copy, especially when writing to Eagles and Giants fans. Believing it is something else. The same is true about the Eagles. My heart wants to believe they have some holiday magic. My head tells me that the Eagles are always the Eagles, for better or worse, till death do us part.
Still, the numbers don't lie. Here are the Cowboys' win-loss records, by month, since 2005:
The Cowboys are a .618 team overall, but a .368 team in December and January. By starting in 2005, we include their entire recent run of quality football. Go back to 2004, and you have a 6-10 team with players like Vinny Testaverde and Eddie George on the roster. No one cares what those two did in December.
Here are the Eagles, this time going all the way back to 2000, their first good year under Andy Reid:
The Eagles are a .631 team but become a .683 team in December and January. Analyzing a decade of Eagles football means lumping pre- and post-Super Bowl teams, a team on the rise and a team in stasis, Duce Staley with Shady McCoy, Troy Vincent with Asante Samuel, Jeff Garcia with Kevin Kolb, and so on. The "December Eagles" we think of are the 2006-2009 team, 12-3 in December and January but 7-7-1 in November. The sample size is tiny, but the numbers are striking.
Is it unusual for a .618 team to have a run of games where they go 7-12, or a .631 team to have a winning percentage of .683 for a particular type of game? To phrase the question another way, is there a chance that the December record swings are just statistical noise? One way to tell whether statistical blips are really significant is binomial expansion, which tells us how likely a team is to win 28 games out of 41 -- or 30 or 40 for that matter -- given that their overall win expectance is .631. It's a relatively simple bit of algebra: create the binomial (.631W + .369L) to represent the win-loss probabilities, raise it to the 41st power, and find all the coefficients. A good calculator, like my TI-83 Math Teacher Service Revolver, helps.
Here are the probabilities that a team with a true .631 winning percentage will win 26 or more games, purely by chance, in a 41 game sample.
A quick note here: the assumption that the Eagles are a .631 team is based on all 16 games, not on games from September through November. Take away December-January games, and their winning percentage drops to .614, making their December record more striking and the likelihood of sudden improvement occurring by chance smaller. Taking away successful games when measuring the odds of success creates a powerful selection bias, and I think it contributes to the perception that the Eagles do something drastically different in December.
There is a 10.4 percent chance that an Eagles-quality team will go 28-13, purely by luck of the draw, given a 41-game sample. Add the chances that the team would win 29, 30, or more games, and it creeps close to 30 percent. That's not overwhelming evidence, but it does suggest that random chance could be a major factor, if not the sole factor, in a December illusion.
If we start the study in 2006, it is harder to indict random chance as the sole culprit. The 2006-09 Eagles have a winning percentage of .593 but have gone 12-3 in December. The binomial is (.593W + .407L), raised to the 15th power. The chance of going 12-3 strictly by chance is 5.8 percent. It grows to just over eight percent when the chance of winning 13-15 games is factored in. It climbs to almost 20 percent if the chance of going 11-4 is included -- an 11-4 December record would still be cited as evidence of the Eagles late-season excellence -- but that is a bit of a dodge. The sample size is small, and events with a 5.8 percent chance of occurring happen daily, but there may be forces at work beyond random noise.
As for the Cowboys, here are the probabilities for winning seven games or less in December, given a .618 overall winning percentage:
The chance that the Cowboys are winning seven games or less simply because of random factors adds up to about 2 percent. That could still just be the luck of the draw, but there's reason to look elsewhere.
Binomial expansion of the win-loss records suggests that the Cowboys' December slip isn't just the result of random chance. The Eagles' upward trend, meanwhile, could be the result of random ups and downs, but there may be other forces at work. Win-loss record analysis is limited, however. Let's check in on the DVOA, which will take away schedule vagaries and fluky wins, telling us how well the two teams really play in December.
The 2008 Eagles enjoyed their highest DVOA of the season in a December victory over the Giants. Their other DVOA spikes occurred early in the year, and while they appear to have enjoyed a late-season upward trend, it's pretty slight. Remember that they lost to the Redskins, and that one of their best December performances came against the Browns, who had stopped scoring touchdowns.
The 2008 Cowboys are hard to analyze because their worst games occurred midseason, when Brad Johnson started at quarterback. Their December games were all in line with their early-season performance, except for their season-ending loss to the Eagles (-18%).
The 2007 Eagles, who finished 8-8, enjoyed three positive DVOA games in a row at season's end, but only one of those games was out of line with their season performance. More on that in a moment.
The 2007 Cowboys (13-3) posted DVOA ratings of -63% and -78% in December, plus a -11% DVOA against the Lions in a Week 14 win. They were clearly trending downward at season's end.
The 2006 Eagles (10-6) enjoyed their highest single-game DVOA of the year in Week 16; more on that game in a moment. The rest of their December percentages are in line with what they did in other months, save for back-to-back low-DVOA efforts against the Titans and Colts in November, when Donovan McNabb got hurt and Jeff Garcia was still rusty. Their trend line in Pro Football Prospectus 2007 is nearly flat.
The 2006 Cowboys posted negative DVOA in four of their five December games, with a season-low against the Saints (-56.2%) in Week 14. The team's overall DVOA for the year was 9.7%, so the late slump was significant, and the Cowboys' trend line slopes noticeably downward starting in mid-October.
Over the last three years, the Eagles' DVOA improvements in December have been modest, save for one-game spikes in 2007 and 2008. The Cowboys' DVOA declines were noticeable in 2006 and 2007, and they may have been masked in 2008 by a longer midseason slump.
Now here's the little detail I haven't mentioned: Remember the Eagles' out-of-line DVOA game in December of 2007? It came in a 10-6 win against the Cowboys, which earned a DVOA of 98%. Remember that season-high DVOA in December of 2006? It came in a 23-7 win against the Cowboys, earning a DVOA of 73%.
Remember last year's season finale, the game this website dubbed "Eagles Porn?" DVOA isn't impressed by long fumble and interception returns, so the Eagles' DVOA of 60% wasn't their best of the year. The Cowboys' -18% DVOA was already mentioned. It was the Eagles' third impressive December win against the Cowboys in three seasons.
The Eagles' December improvements have been slight, and their record is only slightly better than chance would dictate. The Cowboys' December declines have been more drastic, probably aren't the result of chance, and are borne out by DVOA for 2006 and 2007. The Eagles play the Cowboys every December, and the Eagles are 3-0 in those games.
Maybe the Eagles' perceived improvement is caused by the Cowboys decline.
A win or two makes a huge difference in the probabilities listed above. Say the Cowboys went 2-1 in those December games, a reasonable result given that the Eagles were starting a backup quarterback in 2006 and had nothing to play for (while the Cowboys were fighting for home field advantage) in 2007. That would make the Cowboys 9-10 in December, the Eagles 10-5. The binomial expansions would change, because both overall winning percentages would change, but the Eagles win probability in particular would grow much closer to random chance: a 14.9 percent chance of winning 10 of 15 games with their new winning percentage, and well over 25 percent when the possibly of winning 11 or more games is factored in. The "other factors" besides random chance in the Eagles' December record could be Andy Reid's adjustments or Donovan McNabb's health. But it might be the Cowboys.
Eagles-Cowboys games also loom large in the perceptions of both regional and national fans. When you think of Cowboys meltdowns, the image of Brian Dawkins stripping Tony Romo pops into your mind immediately, right? Eagles fans forget Redskins losses after Cowboys wins. Three seasons of playoff implications and Terrell Owens story lines brought national attention to these games. If the Eagles didn't keep beating the Cowboys in December, there would be less talk of late-season voodoo in both cities.
I think the late-season voodoo is in one city. We don't usually talk about intangibles like leadership and character at Football Outsiders, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. The Cowboys get worse in December, whether due to Romo's lifestyle, the team's overall discipline, Owens' influence, a poor post-Parcells front office, the inability to handle cold weather, or some combination of all of them. The Cowboys are so bad that they make the Eagles -- who are always playing better than Philly fans think they are -- look better when they face off each December.
Of course, it's not just a December trend, it's a late-season trend. The samples are small. The Cowboys are working hard to address this very issue, even as they claim it doesn't exist. There's no reason to think the Cowboys will collapse this month, except for the fact that they play the Saints, Chargers, Redskins and Eagles: two superior opponents (maybe three), two tough divisional foes.
But there's more to the Cowboys' December Mourn than just talk.
Part Two of a three-part series on football-related holiday gift ideas, most of which are awful. This week: juvenile literature, as in literature aimed at juveniles, not written by overgrown juveniles. Although ...
There's nothing better than exposing youngsters to the joys of reading about football. After all, today's elementary school fan is tomorrow's Walkthrough reader.
Ronde and Tiki Barber aren't just a Buccaneers cornerback and an annoying media gadfly. They are also twins! And authors of a series of children's books! By My Brother's Side tells what happens when Tiki breaks his leg and spends a summer watching Ronde hog all the sports glory. It's recommended for readers at about a third-grade level. "Young fans of the Barber brothers will enjoy this book. Others may wish for a plot with more action and substance," says a Booklist review by Todd Morning. Both Morning and a reviewer on Amazon praise illustrator Barry Root's watercolor-and-gouache images.
Game Day, another book by the twins, is aimed the first- and second-grade crowd. From the Simon and Schuster summary: "Tiki has had seven long touch-down runs this season, and Ronde is proud of his brother, but he can't help feeling a little down when Tiki gets all the glory." You get the impression that this conflict never quite got resolved back in the Pop Warner days. Barry Root is involved in this book as well, so there's probably more watercolor and gouache.
Not content to let football's second family hog all the easy-reader glory, the Mannings also got into the children's book field. Family Huddle, written by Peyton, Eli, and Archie Manning, is the story of a trip to grandma's, where there is much backyard football to be played. Family Huddle is most noteworthy for an appearance by Cooper Manning, the Chuckie Cunningham of the family. Cooper doesn't get a writing credit, but his existence as the oldest and wisest Manning brother is acknowledged.
In addition to instilling some old-fashioned family values, the book teaches kids some basic pass routes, like the buttonhook. At no point does it instruct youngsters to take the field an hour before each game and run through the passing tree. From Publisher's Weekly: "This writing team of two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and their former star quarterback father should score with young fans, despite some heavy-handed clichés and syrupy dialogue." The art is digital, so no gouache, and the price tag ($16.95, marked down on Barnes & Noble to $12.23) makes this a gift best given to the Peyton or Eli-obsessed grade-schooler.
More discriminating (and older) readers will prefer Mike Lupica's Million Dollar Throw, about a 13-year-old with a golden arm and a chance to change his family's fortunes in a passing contest. Lupica holds several advantages over the Barbers and Mannings: He's an actual writer with a long list of adult and juvenile book credits, for starters. Lupica's books are great sports inspirationals aimed at preteen boys who may think that all books for their age group feature abstinence vampires.
Former Bears receiver Tim Green also writes challenging football books for early teens. Bookish boys are more likely to identify with Troy White, the protagonist of Football Genius and Football Champ than with a pint-sized Manning brother or a kid with a million-dollar arm. White isn't an athlete: He's a whiz kid who can predict winning plays, a skill that takes him from obscurity to a job in the Falcons front office. The life of this Football Outsider in Training isn't without difficulty: reporters run smear campaigns to belittle the teenage exec, and mom's boyfriend (an aging Falcons linebacker named Riley Coving ... er, Seth Halloway) is falsely accused in a steroid scandal. There's a lot for a 10- to 12-year-old to sink his teeth into, and the reviews suggest it makes a great starter thriller.
Next Week: Apparel.
113 comments, Last at 15 Dec 2009, 4:25pm by Will Allen