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?
05 Nov 2009
by Mike Tanier
It starts in a little town called Beltway. On a morning not too long ago, the rest of the world disappeared and the town of Beltway was left all alone. The players on the Beltway football team were never sure whether the world was destroyed and only Beltway was left untouched, or whether the town had somehow been taken away into another dimension. They were, on the other hand, sure of one thing: the cause. A monster had arrived in the town and purchased the football team.
He took away the scouting department, the infrastructure, and the draft choices, moving the entire franchise back into the dark ages - just by using his mind. The players of Beltway, and the few fans and reporters that remain, have to smile. They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because, once displeased, the monster can wish them away or change them into a grotesque, walking horror. This particular monster knows every thought; he can feel every emotion.
Oh yes, I did forget something, didn't I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster. His name is Danny Snyder. He's 43 years old, with a New Economy Wunderkind's face and guileless eyes. But when those eyes look at you, you'd better start thinking happy thoughts, because this is Walkthrough.
Inside team headquarters
Vinny: Good morning, Danny. It sure is a beautiful day, isn't it? A wonderful, beautiful day.
Uncle Zorny: It's an awful hot day, I think.
Vinny: You shouldn't say that, Zorny. It's a downright beautiful day! Say, what you doing there, Danny? It sure is good, whatever it is.
Danny: I'm signing three-headed gophers to $100-million contracts.
Vinny: Ummm … great! What a great idea. No one ever signed a three-headed gopher to play football before.
Danny: I'm tired of playing with it. You be dead now, gopher, you be dead!
Vinny: Well, it's mighty fine that you did that Danny. Wasn't it Zorny? Zorny? Well, it sure was. We love you Danny. We love that boy!
Out on the practice field
Sherm: Oh hello, Danny. It's real good that you came out to the field to watch us. Is there something I can do for you?
Danny: No fans are coming to see us play. Not a single one. I like it when fans come to see us.
Sherm: Well Danny, it's real good when fans come to see us. But you remember what happened the last time they came? Some of them brought signs criticizing the team and, well, you wished them away into the cornfield. If you keep wishing people away, well, there won't be nobody left.
(Danny starts to get upset)
Sherm: Oh gosh, no! What am I thinking? Tell you what, Danny. Next week, we'll try to get some new fans to come out and root for the team.
Danny: And I can turn them into funny animals!
Sherm: Yes, it's real good when you turn fans into funny animals.
Danny: What's that typing sound I hear? Is that Wilbon the reporter up in the press box?
Sherm: Yes it is. There aren't many reporters left. You wished them all away.
Danny: I don't like people who don't like me. I don't want them saying bad things about me. I don't want them interviewing people in the parking lot. I want them to GO AWAY!
(Vinny bursts in)
Vinny: Wilbon the reporter was in the press box and he just disappeared!
Sherm: Yes, and it's a good thing that Danny done that, right? A darn good thing!
At the team meeting:
Sherm: Zorny, as a sign of all of our appreciation, we wanted to give you some gifts: a Perry Cuomo record and some peach brandy.
Zorny: That's not what I want. I want to call some plays again. To coach again.
Danny: I don't like the way you call the plays. Now Sherm, read the game plan the way I like it.
Sherm: Okay, Danny, just the way you like it. Handoff, up the middle. Handoff, up the middle. Short pass to Cooley. Oh, Cooley's in the cornfield, isn't he? How about a short pass to Fred Davis. Would that make you happy, Danny?
Zorny: That's right, Cooley is hurt. There's only five or six players left on the roster. Soon, Santana will be gone and London will be gone. And Danny turned Clinton into that hideous, crazy-looking creature over there.
Clinton: Actually, I just like dressing this way.
Zorny: Then, what will be left? Only what Danny provides: tomato soup players, dinosaur free agents. He's a monster! Someone has to stop him!
Danny: I don't like the things you say about me.
Zorny: Don't you see? Soon there will be no more coaches, no more personnel executives left who are willing to come here. And then the whole franchise will dry up. C'mon people, will someone have the guts please sneak up behind him, attack him in the press or at least refuse to follow one of his crazy no-criticism directives? C'mon, do it while he's thinking about me!
Danny: YOU’RE A BAD COACH. YOU’RE A VERY BAD COACH.
With a point of his finger, Danny turns Zorny into a Piplup.
Vinny: Danny, please wish Zorny into the cornfield.
Danny: No. He was a bad coach so I turned him into a toy. And I will turn anyone else who thinks bad thoughts and turn them into toys.
Sherm: Oh my, is it snowing outside?
Danny: Yes. I control the weather, too.
Sherm: Do you have any idea what the snow does in Beltway? The few fans we have left will disappear! Even a half inch shuts the whole place down!
Vinny: Quiet, Sherm. It's a good thing that you did, Danny. And tomorrow's gonna be another good day.
No comment. No comment at all.
It's Week 9, and the statistics have started to settle. Quarterbacks now have about 150 attempts, running backs about 100 carries, so small-sample aberrations are disappearing. Tim Hightower isn't among the top 10 receivers anymore, though he is 11th, and the leader boards aren't completely dominated by players who faced the Lions (Rams, Chiefs) defense, although there are still some schedule-related anomalies. (If Jared Allen faced the Packers every week, he'd be in the Hall of Fame by Christmas).
But not all of the extraordinary numbers have washed out of the stats sheets. For example, central tendency and mean regression have not yet brought Chris Johnson's yards per carry to earth yet. That means there's a slim chance that Johnson could average over six yards per carry for a full season, a truly unique accomplishment.
Here are four unusual stats, culled from the league leader boards and various Football Outsiders spreadsheets. After a breakdown, let's explore what the stat means for the player and his team, then determine whether November's strange stat will still stand out in January.
The Stat: Chris Johnson's 6.9 yards per carry.
The Breakdown: Johnson has had some breathtaking "outlier" runs this season: 91 yards against the Texans, 89 and 57 yards against the Jaguars, 48 yards against the Patriots. and a handful of 30+ yarders. Long runs like these always skew a player's per-carry averages, but in Johnson's case the distortions are so extreme that it's hard to call them distortions. For Johnson, the anomaly is the reality. Check the breakdown of his carries by length. I somehow missed one carry:
|Yardage||No. of Runs|
Exactly half of Johnson's carries amount to a zero-sum game: 17 no-gainers, 20 losses, and 22 short plunges add up to essentially no rushing yards on 59 carries. That means Johnson averages just under 14 yards per carry on his "productive" runs of three or more yards. That's boom-or-bust taken to unheard-of levels.
When one 90-yard run adds several tenths of a yard to a back's rushing average, it's appropriate to account for that play by removing it or adjusting it in some way (DVOA shaves the excess yardage off long runs to account for the somewhat random difference between a 55-yarder and an 80-yarder). In Johnson's case, we must be careful: with ten 20+ runs this year, big-play capability is one of his established skills, and it makes no sense to adjust it away. But just to get a better look at Johnson's per-carry average with some of the helium removed, let's pretend all of his long runs came from the opponent's 40-yard line. That will rob Johnson of 125 yards, the excess yardage he gained on his four longest carries.
Take all those yards away, and Johnson still averages 5.87 yards per carry. And he's still sixth in the league in rushing.
The Implications: Johnson's per-carry average suggests that he should get a lot more opportunities, but his per-play breakdowns indicate otherwise. Handing off to Johnson is statistically almost like passing: there's about a 50 percent chance of a minimal gain or a negative play. Giving him 30 carries would force the Titans into even more second-and-13 and third-and-15 situations after stuffs. Sometimes, the Titans need a dose of slow-and-steady LenDale White to provide two to five reliable yards.
The Future: With Vince Young at quarterback, the Titans will probably be very run-intensive for the remainder of the season, and they have proven that they will run the ball when trailing in games. Johnson will get more carries in the second half of the season, and based on his splits, his yards-per-carry almost have to drop. It's hard to imagine them slipping below 5.0, and if he can somehow stay above 6.0, he will have one of the most remarkable running back seasons since Barry Sanders averaged 6.1 yards per carry in 1997.
The Stat: Cleveland's 2.55 yards per pass attempt on third down.
The Breakdown: The Browns are a bad stat factory, churning out mystifyingly awful numbers every week. Their passing statistics on third down are bad even by their standards. Derek Anderson completes just 32.1 percent of his third-down passes, netting just 12 first downs in 56 attempts. At 2.55 yards per third down pass, the Browns are worse than the Lions (4.33), Rams (4.65) and Raiders (3.32).
Check out the Browns' third down passing breakdowns over the last three games:
Against the Steelers: 1-of-7 for one yard, one touchdown, two sacks, two fumbles lost, one interception, and one first down.
Against the Packers: 4-of-9 for 27 yards, one interception, one sack, one fumble lost (one recovered), and two first downs
Against the Bears: 1-of-7 for 10 yards, one interception, one fumble, no first downs.
The three-game totals: 6-of-23, 38 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, three sacks, four fumbles, three first downs. The three sacks lost 27 yards, so the Browns netted 11 yards on 26 pass attempts, or 0.423 yards per attempt. Suddenly, that 2.55 figure we started with looks pretty good.
Oddly enough, the Browns average 5.17 yards per third down carry, and they are 10-of-19 on third down rushing conversions. The team has had some success with Josh Cribbs' "Golden Flash" Wildcat plays and Jerome Harrison draws on third down. It's easy to see why Eric Mangini would resort to such tactics when you see the passing breakdowns.
The Implications: The Browns have been held under seven points in nine of their last 14 games. That's a pretty big implication.
The Future: Eventually, Brady Quinn will win back the starting job, and the Browns offense will start creeping back toward the bottom of the league average. Right? Right? Someone please tell me that's right.
The Stat: Shane Lechler's 52.3 gross yards per punt.
The Breakdown: No punter had averaged over 50 yards per punt since the days of Sammy Baugh, before Donnie Jones reached 50.0 on the dot last season. Lechler has always been at or near the top of the league's punting leader boards, but he's never had a season like this. Here's the breakdown on his punts this season by distance:
|Yardage||No. of Punts|
|Fewer than 40||2|
Both of Lechler's sub-40 yard kicks were actually good plays. One was a muffed punt at the 15-yard line by the Giants' Sinorice Moss. The muff led to the Raiders only touchdown, making the punt arguably the team's best offensive play that week. The other was a 39-yard punt to the Eagles 20-yard line and a fair catch by DeSean Jackson. In other words, that punt was as good as a 59-yard touchback.
Speaking of touchbacks, Lechler has only four this season, and they have come on punts of 43, 47, 59, and 69 yards. A 43-yard touchback can be frustrating, but you have to be happy with a touchback after punting from your own 31-yard line. Lechler netted 34.5 yards on those four touchbacks, more than several punters have netted for the whole season on all of their punts.
The Implications: Lechler is such a weapon, and the Raiders offense is so bad, that the team's best strategy may be to concede all third-and-long situations. Instead of risking a JaMarcus Russell turnover, they should run draw plays, let Lechler buy them 50 yards of field position, and give their defense a chance to win the game. That would be a ridiculous strategy for most teams, and it would only allow the Raiders to beat bad or embarrassingly unprepared opponents. Since those are the only opponents the Raiders can beat now, daring conservatism can only help. The Browns are in a similar situation: Their offense is awful, and their punting game is excellent. The biggest difference is that the Raiders defense is a little better, and Sebastian Janikowski is a good long-distance kicker, so the Raiders have a better shot to win 9-6 field position games than the Browns.
The Future: Our research suggests that punts get shorter as the season wears on, thanks to a mixture of weather conditions and fatigue. Trips to Pittsburgh and Cleveland will lower Lechler's averages, but he's not going to tire out. I give him a 50-50 shot at a modern record.
The Stat: The Broncos' 84.2 percent completion percentage to tight ends.
The Breakdown: This statistic isn't as dramatic as the others. There are several tight ends with catch rates in the 80s right now, including Dallas Clark and Heath Miller. But the Broncos are getting surprising productivity from a pair of ordinary tight ends. Daniel Graham has caught 15 of 17 passes thrown to him for 176 yards. Tony Scheffler has caught 17 of 21 passes for 226 yards. Scheffler and Graham ranked first and third in the league in DVOA entering last week, though they dropped to second and seventh after the Ravens game.
For Scheffler and Graham, catch rates only tell part of the story. Tight ends, particularly blocking specialists like Graham, usually catch more than their share of micro-short passes, two-yard outlet receptions in the flat on second-and-10. However, only three receptions by the Broncos tight ends netted less than five yards, and one of those receptions was a touchdown. Scheffler and Graham have combined for 19 first downs and five plays of 20 or more yards. They've been overshadowed by Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, but Scheffler and Graham have kept the chains moving.
The Implications: Versatile tight ends give coaches formation flexibility. When the Broncos leave the huddle with two tight ends, two receivers, and one back, they can line up in anything from a power-running formation to a spread attack. This versatility was used to maximum advantage against the Cowboys. When the Broncos couldn't generate any offense early in the game, they started using more two-tight end power formations. Not only were they able to run the ball, but they were consistently able to isolate Graham against Keith Brooking, resulting in a pair of 15-yard gains.
Interestingly, the No. 1 tight end in the league right now, according to DVOA, is Ben Watson. It's good to be the big guy in a Patriots-style spread offense.
The Future: Tight end catch rates typically settle into the 70s by season's end. With Kyle Orton at quarterback, it's hard to project an 84 percent catch rate for any receiver for an extended period of time. For the Broncos offense to remain productive, Scheffler and Graham must remain high-percentage targets, and they must also keep averaging over 10 yards per reception.
The Top Five weird references that I can never work into a game capsule or Walkthrough, no matter how hard I try:
The Beguiled: There's no relationship at all between football and the incest-themed Clint Eastwood Civil War movie.
Real People: There's nothing funnier than a guy parked next to a No Parking sign, as the late, great Skip Stevenson proved many years ago. I missed my chance to use this reference when Jerry Porter played for the Raiders.
Fibber McGee and Molly: Editors frown on old radio references, which lose most of my under-80 readers. On the plus side, I do get to reuse jokes I first heard on late-night re-airings of Duffy's Tavern, including: "He had a face that could stop a sun dial."
"Six Months in a Leaky Boat" by Split Enz: This song could be the theme of the George Kokinis epoch in Cleveland, but a) Kokinis was on the job for about nine months and b) I don't want to upset anyone who may think I am writing about the Falkland Islands.
The Manchurian Candidate: This tale of brainwashing and espionage seems ripe for sub-referencing. Maybe I will come up with something when the game capsules post on Friday.
81 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2009, 5:13pm by ChicagoRaider