After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
05 Jan 2012
by Mike Tanier
On my laptop now resides the Football Outsiders Team Efficiency Spreadsheet: the entire NFL season condensed into a few hundred thousand cells of statistics and formulas, all of them highly sortable. It is the football equivalent of The Matrix, in part because it is, in fact, a matrix.
The Team Efficiency Spreadsheet contains super-double-secret DVOA formulas, but those secrets are safe with me, because I do not understand them. It comes bundled with separate passing, rushing, and defensive spreadsheets. It does not contain the Game Charting, which will not be fully cooked for another week or two. But it contains all the tools I need to find any play or combination of plays from the 2011 season, sorted in all sorts of fascinating ways. Did you know that T.J. Yates is 6-of-14 for 162 yards when throwing deep (more than 15 yards downfield) on first down? I do.
Feel free to be jealous.
I know what you are saying: "get your head out of the stat sheet, geek boy, and watch some real, hard-hitting football!" (You don’t say that, of course, but others do). Well, I also have a subscription to NFL Game Rewind. It runs out on Friday, but I also have a credit card. So I can use our spreadsheets to isolate specific plays, then use Rewind to watch them. It means that I can find any play from 2011, analyze it, and comment upon it within the span of a few minutes, all without leaving my dank firetrap of a home office. It also means I have no excuse to not find and analyze plays, which can be a problem when I am trying to cut corners. It’s a trade I am happy to make.
Rummaging through this spreadsheet and the Game Charting takes much of the offseason, and the results get turned into Football Outsiders Almanac and dozens of articles for various sites and newspapers. For the next week or two, I will serve a few appetizers from the "oddities" file: stuff that is not really relevant, but is interesting or enlightening in some small way. Factoids. Tidbits. You get the idea. Here are some:
Longest first-down situation: first-and-35, Titans versus Saints, Week 14. The Titans had just gotten the ball to their own 45-yard line on a Saints roughness penalty, but a Michael Roos flinch and back-to-back penalties by Leroy Harris pushed them all the way back to their own 20-yard line. (One Harris flag negated a 25-yard screen pass to Javon Ringer). Matt Hasselbeck’s pass on first-and-really-really-long was batted into the air by a Saints lineman. Hasselbeck hurt himself during the deflection, because he is Matt Hasselbeck, and the collision of air molecules to his knees and ankles probably causes damage at this point. The Titans, not surprisingly, were forced to punt two plays later.
Longest third-down situation: third-and-35, Chargers versus Broncos, Week 5, Ravens versus Jaguars, Week 7. Let’s focus on the Ravens case, as it was far more precious. The drive started with a Joe Flacco screen to Dennis Pitta which got sniffed out by Daryl Smith for a loss of five. American literary figure Michael Oher held on a Flacco scramble, Ray Rice couldn’t quite haul in a pass over the middle, and Oher held again on another scramble. The Ravens figured a screen to Ricky Williams was just the third-and-forever ticket when everything is working so darn well, but Flacco’s pass was batted back into his face. Flacco caught it and ran, losing eight yards, though at least Oher did not hold. This is what happens to the Ravens offense when you take away the bomb.
Catches by Guys with Uniform Numbers in the 50s, 60s, 70’s, or 90’s: Six, on 11 attempts, for 61 yards. Yes, the "throw to a lineman" completion percentage is higher than Tim Tebow’s "throw to anyone" completion percentage. The Niners blow the league away in this category, with passes to Joe Staley (74) and Isaac Sopoaga (90) that were actual passes, not just deflections that a random lineman gobbled up.
|Figure 1: Whimper Waggle|
The greatest lineman reception of the year, though, was the Whimper Waggle, as shown in Figure 1. It’s third-and-short, it’s the Jaguars, and when the Chargers see an unbalanced line, a covered left tackle, and an eligible Guy Whimper (68), they can be excused for overplaying the Maurice Jones-Drew run threat to the left side. What makes the Whimper Waggle not just a clever play, but one of the greatest events in human history, is that Whimper jukes Eric Weddle (32) in the open field after making a catch. The Jaguars should have designed more plays for Whimper, who displayed better hands and moves than any of their receivers on the Whimper Waggle. And I just cannot stop typing Whimper Waggle. (Yes, nitpickers, it is a waggle, because there is a tight end crossing the middle of the field, even though it is not Whimper who is waggling.)
Longest Penalty: 60 yards, Pass Interference, Mike Adams, Browns. The Ravens got the ball after an interception, lined up in the I-formation, and ... c’mon folks, you have been watching these guys for four years. You knew it’s going to be a play-action bomb up the sideline. The Browns knew it too, so Adams had deep coverage on Torrey Smith, who put a double-move on the cornerback. Flacco’s foot was on his own 30-yard line when he throws, and the ball dropped into Smith’s arms at around the 4-yard line, so it was your basic 66-yard-in-the-air toss. Adams flailed at Smith with his back to the ball and drew the flag; had he turned, he could have made a clean play. The Ravens scored a touchdown a few plays later.
The Ravens also benefited from two 50-yard pass interference penalties en route to gaining a total of 280 yards on DPI, the highest total in the league. All those flags are residue of their scheme, of course: if you keep throwing bombs up the sideline, you increase your odds of getting the defense flagged for general jostling.
Most Yards After Catch on One Play: Victor Cruz, 89 yards, Week 16. You saw the play. He could have run for 8,000 yards before accidently running past Mo Lewis’ house or something. Eighty-nine yards of YAC has to be close to the record. Mike Quick was on about the 19-yard line when he hauled in his 99-yard catch.
Worst Completions: Four Way Tie. There were four completions that lost nine yards this season. Usual suspects Chris Johnson and Reggie Bush joined Chris Ogbonnaya and Isaac Redman in accomplishing this feat. Bush’s play was the worst of the bunch, as the Dolphins were deep in their own territory against the Eagles and ol’ Reg kept flirting with a safety. There were six completions for a loss of eight, including Flacco-to-Flacco and another appearance by Redman. It appears that people who grew up within 10 miles of my home have a strange habit of catching passes for a loss. Redman only had one other reception for a loss, but he only averaged 4.3 yards per catch on 18 catches, because the Steelers believe screens are for receivers and checkdowns are for wussies.
Conversion Rate, Third-and-20 or more: 4.7 percent. Teams were nine-of-193 on third down when needing 20 or more yards to convert, including two pass interference conversions. There were six passing conversions and one rush. The rush was by Ogbonnaya, of all people, against the Steelers, of all teams. Five of the passing conversions came in the fourth quarters of close games, three by a team trailing by seven points or less (Cam Newton to Brandon LaFell against the Packers, Matt Schaub to Joel Dreessen against the Raiders, and Matt Hasselbeck to Lavelle Hawkins against the Bengals). Late in the game, in a desperate situation, a quarterback is much more likely to wing it deep on third-and-impossible than to check down and punt.
Only two of the passing conversions, including Hawkins’, were catch-and-run plays on throws well in front of the sticks. If you want to gain 22 yards on third-and-21, throw the ball 22 yards downfield.
That was fun. Next week, I will unleash a few more!
Raheem Morris had one good season as a head coach, a year of hope sandwiched between a painful rebuild and an almost inexplicable collapse.
Todd Haley did the exact same thing. Wedged between a 4-12 season and the 5-8 record the Chiefs held when he was fired, Haley’s 10-6 result in 2010 looks like a giant middle finger pointed at fans who dared to believe.
Steve Spagnuolo did almost the same thing, though his "good" year was not quite as good. Tony Sparano flipped the script slightly, riding in on Bill Parcells’ coattails, generating enthusiasm with 11 wins and some hinky strategies, then spending three years receding from success an inch at a time.
All four coaches had one thing in common: they had exactly one good year. Morris, Haley, and Sparano are now members of a unique coaching class I call The Jauron Gang: coaches who try to milk a career out of one productive season. Spags falls short because he never produced a winning record.
Since the merger, there have been 19 coaches who produced exactly one full season with a better-than-.500 record. These 19 coaches combined for a 516-713-7 record and a .417 winning percentage that equates roughly to a six- or seven-win season over 16 games. That tells you all you need to know about what these coaches did in their non-winning seasons.
Here is the list so you can spelunk on Pro Football Reference if you like: Neil Armstrong, Bill Callahan, Dom Capers, Bud Carson, Romeo Crennel, Gunther Cunningham, Butch Davis, Dan Devine, Chan Gailey, Todd Haley, Dick Jauron, June Jones, John Mackovic, Jim Mora the Younger, Mike Mularkey, Ray Perkins, Tommy Prothro, Al Saunders, Tony Sparano, and Vince Tobin.
The list is almost as interesting because of who didn’t make it as who did. Rich Kotite had two good years. Bruce Coslett’s only winning record came in a partial season. Bart Starr, a pretty awful coach who the Packers could never bring themselves to fire, squeezed out 8-7-1 and 5-3-1 (in a strike year) records when not going 5-11. There are a lot of bad coaches who try to ride one success into the sunset, but most squeak out another 9-7 season along the way.
These guys are the Jauron Gang because no one milked one great year like Dick Jauron, who finished his head coaching career (probably) with a 60-82 record built from second chances and wishful thinking after he led the Bears to a 13-3 record in 2001. The Bears gave Jauron two more years to repeat the magic, then he rose from an interim position to lose a few games for the Lions, then he managed to go 7-9 three straight years in Buffalo before they tired of him midway through 2009. Looking back on the Jauron era, it was hard to see what anyone thought he did well besides get the defense to line up semi-correctly and keep everyone content and trying hard. But after watching Morris and Haley, you realize that keeping everyone content and trying hard is, in fact, a skill.
No member of the Jauron Gang can match their leader’s 82-loss total, but then none of them went 13-3 like Jauron did, either. You probably remember that 2001 Bears season: they won back-to-back overtime games on Mike Brown interception returns, Jim Miller was the proto-Rex Grossman, Brian Urlacher burst onto the national scene, and so on. We have them pegged with the sixth-easiest schedule in the league that year and 9.7 estimated wins, finishing eighth in DVOA. It was a 10-6 or 11-5 season -– the kind Haley and Morris had –- with a little fluff. A 13-3 season is going to get you some benefit of the doubt, but when your biggest selling point is that you are not terrible, you will finish 7-9 as long as your bosses allow you to.
Dom Capers (48-80), like Jauron, rode an unlikely second head coaching season to a long career. Capers had the benefit of working for two expansion teams, meaning he got extra grace periods in both Carolina and Houston. Capers is a little like Norm Van Brocklin, who did not make this list despite a 66-100-7 record because he managed a handful of 7-6-1 type seasons in expansion stints with the Vikings and Falcons. The biggest difference is that Capers is not a crazy person. Capers also brings tactical brilliance with him, so you at least know why he merited some extra chances.
Ray Perkins (42-75) has the third-most losses of the Jauron gang. Perkins was a Don Coryell assistant who took over the Giants in the late-1970s and installed a system that looked nothing like Air Coryell. He managed a 9-7 season in 1981, fell to 4-5, then jumped to his alma mater, Alabama, the moment Bear Bryant retired. Perkins hired Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, so there’s that. Perkins ran afoul of the Alabama boosters by not going undefeated every year, and he returned to the NFL to coach the Buccaneers to a bunch of 5-11 seasons.
Perkins, like Jauron and Capers, was a "lifer" type. He played well with others, and could shift gears from college to the NFL and into and out of coordinator or front office positions. Tommy Prothro (35-51-2) was also a lifer. He went from UCLA to the Rams, where he had his only winning season with the late-era Fearsome Foursome, then spent years slowly rebuilding the Chargers. His teams never won, but he turned Dan Fouts and others over to Coryell before taking over the Browns front office and helping them to their early 80’s success.
Men like these have good football ideas and skills that can help a team. Under better circumstances, they could have been winning coaches. Chan Gailey can be lumped into this lot, I think: an idea man who can shape a college or pro program, but no empire builder. Sparano could be one of these guys. Morris and Spags I am not sure about. Haley is more of a Mora II: if he gets a second chance in the pros and acts the same way he did in Kansas City, his tenure will end even more briskly than this one.
You are probably screaming at your monitor right now: "Belichick was a member of the Jauron Gang when he left Cleveland!" It’s true: he was 34-55, with one 11-5 season. Any member of this generation of gang members could become a Belichick if he spends a few seasons in the wilderness and has a Road to Damascus moment along the way. That is a lot to hope for. Using Belichick as a rubric for a new coach has been bad business sense for the last half-decade, so holding onto a one-year wonder simply because someone else once had an epiphany after six years makes little sense.
Go through the coaching register, and you will not find many guys who pulled out of the early-career Jauron Gang cycle and went on to any real success, particularly in the modern era. Coaches who are going to have any real success, whether as Super Bowl winners or guys who come close year-after-year, do not suddenly drop four-or-five win clunkers into their records after their first successes. They backslide to 8-8 now and then, but they typically build systems that can overcome a rough season and still stay within reach of .500, at least until the crows come to roost after many years.
This brings us around to Andy Reid and Norv Turner. Reid operates at a level hundreds of miles above the Jauron Gang. Turner is a cut above, too, though a skeptic might point out that he would fall in with the gang if not for some favorable circumstances. Only a handful of NFL coaches are ever truly great; the rest aspire to sustained better-than-adequacy, using a few real strengths to mask a severe weakness or two, and sealing the deal with enough common sense to keep the owner content and the players from rebelling. Dean Spanos and Jeffrey Lurie said as much in their press conferences, though it took Lurie 45 minutes to say it.
Behind Door One is a guy who goes 13-3 at his best and 8-8 at his worst. Behind Door Two may be a member of the Jauron Gang, or worse. Eventually, you have to open that second door, but it makes sense to wait a little longer, even if many of us would really love a peek.
Busy busy busy time! My playoff diagrams are appearing on NBC Sports. My musings about Lurie and others are appearing in the New York Times. I will try to get as much of this material as possible onto FO as Extra Points, but I have a habit of being very late with posting or getting the links wrong, so be patient.
Coming soon: have you ever wanted to skip a shower and smell like Justin Forsett? Don’t bother: I am doing it for you. ShowerPill is the only adult bath-replacement wipe endorsed by a backup Seahawks running back, and Walkthrough is the only place where you will find an in-depth product test!
106 comments, Last at 15 Jan 2012, 12:58am by Mr Shush