Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

by Ned Macey

Welcome to the first edition of Any Given Sunday, an in-depth look at a major upset from the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game. Rather than just attributing these upsets to the nature of the league, these upsets can be used as a tool to learn more about the teams involved. The idea is not to prove the upset should have been expected but simply to explore what subtle aspects of a team can be revealed in a single game on any given Sunday.

I could not have asked for more choices of upsets in the debut week of this column. Of the ten playoff teams from a year ago facing non-playoff teams, seven lost. Five of the Outsiders' six consensus NFC playoff teams lost to teams we felt would not make the playoffs, including two playing at home. While the most shocking score was probably Miami's demolition of Denver, the most surprising win in my mind (and in the mind of the people in Las Vegas who set the line) was New Orleans's going into Carolina and coming away with a 23-20 victory.

Sportswriters are known to root for the story, and nothing is easier than tying any success or failure of the Saints to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. It is nearly impossible to overstate the impact that such a horrific event can have on anyone with a connection to the city of New Orleans. At the same time, to write that the Saints won because they were playing for the people of New Orleans is a shortcut that overlooks what happened on the field. Nothing proves the shortsightedness of traditional writers more than the fact that I have not seen mentioned that the last time these two teams were seen playing a regular season game, the Saints were beating the Panthers, by a field goal, in Carolina. Clearly more than Hurricane Katrina is at work in the Saints' victory.

None of this is to say that New Orleans is a better team than Carolina. Carolina, despite an inferior record a year ago, had a significantly higher DVOA, ranking 12th in the league compared with New Orleans' 23rd. If Carolina is a potential Super Bowl team, however, and New Orleans is an also ran, how have they beaten them two times in a row? Looking at yesterday's game, one of the most obvious contrasts was between quarterbacks Aaron Brooks and Jake Delhomme. Delhomme was Brooks' back-up in New Orleans, and the Saints committed to Brooks and allowed Delhomme to leave in free agency. With Delhomme's leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl while Brooks' most significant highlight is a backward pass, this decision by the Saints has been widely disparaged. As yesterday showed, however, the difference between these two players is greatly exaggerated.

Last year, Delhomme was the superior quarterback but he was not as good as his conventional statistics suggested. He ranked eighth in the league in passing yardage, fifth in touchdowns, and 12th in quarterback rating. These stats translated well to our more advanced metrics (explained here), with Delhomme posting an impressive VOA of 16.7% (13th in the league). When we account for defenses, however, Delhomme takes a hit. He played a series of poor pass defenses a year ago, and his DVOA (which adjusts for defense) is only 7.5%, just ahead of Carson Palmer (7.2%). His ranking is still a solid 14th in the league, but his DVOA was closer to the 24th best quarterback than to the 11th.

Of course, even with this adjustment, he was significantly better than Brooks, who was the quarterback ranked 24th. Brooks was very bad a year ago, ranking behind Drew Bledsoe, Kyle Boller, Kurt Warner, and Jeff Garcia on a per play basis. Before we write off Brooks, let us go back a couple seasons. In 2003, he ranked sixth in DPAR and 10th in DVOA, both rankings ahead of Tom Brady and Brett Favre. The year before he ranked 10th and 13th respectively, both again ahead of Brady and Favre.

Sunday and in Week 17 a year ago, Brooks was clearly the better quarterback on the field. In this season's contest, he managed the game well and converted 12 first downs among his 18 completions. This being Brooks, he did add a bizarre fumble, but 18 for 24 for 192 along with 32 yards on 3 carries on the ground is a good day's work. (The commentators seemed to think Brooks should run more, but last year was the only season where he has had real value as a runner with a DVOA of 9.0%. The season before, he was actually below average, -1.9% on rushing attempts.) In the last possession of the game, Brooks was 3 for 4 and marched the Saints 49 yards in less than a minute. Last season, in Week 17, he averaged 9.0 yards per attempt and did not throw an interception.

Brooks was helped yesterday by one of the Panthers' few defensive changes from a year ago. Safety Colin Branch was injured in the pre-season, forcing college safety and first round draft pick Thomas Davis to switch back from linebacker. A season ago, with Branch at the safety position, the Panthers ranked third in the league in DVOA against opposing tight ends. On Sunday, Brooks looked early and often to Ernie Conwell, who caught six passes for 71 yards despite not finishing the game due to injury. Last year, Conwell caught only 10 passes in 16 games. Branch may not have been a quality safety overall; his numbers in Pro Football Prospectus -- including only 7 defeats on the season and a 31% stop rate -- are decidedly mediocre. Still, he unquestionably could check tight ends. Without him, the rookie who struggled with Conwell now faces Ben Watson and Randy McMichael in the next two weeks and has two games with Alge Crumpler that may decide the division championship. This is a hole the Panthers clearly need to plug.

Delhomme, on the other hand, has been unremarkable against the Saints. Yesterday, he was 19 for 31 for 212 yards with 1 TD and 2 interceptions. In one more completion, he had two fewer first downs than Brooks. As an added bonus, he also lost a fumble. A year ago, he only completed 24 of 50 passes at 6.1 yards per attempt against a Saints defense that ranked 25th in the league according to DVOA.

While his results against New Orleans were particularly bad, Delhomme struggles in general to protect the football. In 2003, his first year as a starter, he had the third most turnovers among quarterbacks with 25. Last year he improved to have only 20, but that was still the third most in the league thanks to the pass-friendly environment of last season. Compare this with Brooks, who has a well-deserved reputation for being careless with the football but still turned it over less than Delhomme the last two years.

The Panthers have a formula that depends on a strong rushing game, stout defense, and solid quarterback play. While Stephen Davis's performance was nice to see yesterday, the plan does not work if the quarterback turns the ball over. On Sunday, Delhomme's two interceptions were both in their own territory. The first time they got off the hook thanks to Brooks's reciprocal turnover. The second time, the defense held the Saints to one first down, but the Saints were already in field goal range and John Carney converted. For all you keeping track at home, the Saints went on to win the game by three points.

An impartial observer watching this game would have thought that the Panthers were the superior team. They had several touchdowns called back for penalties. They were much more successful on the ground than the Saints. They only punted one time. Still, there are questions about whether or not Davis will stay healthy for the whole season, and our thoughts on DeShaun Foster are well documented. Their top defensive player, Kris Jenkins, was lost for the season with an ACL tear in the first quarter. While they are glad to have Steve Smith back, they have lost the production of Muhsin Muhammad, the third most productive receiver in football a year ago, and they lack a solid second option. On Sunday, no receiver besides Smith had more than two catches, and in Week 17 a year ago, no wide receiver had more than 2 catches besides Muhammad. Free agent acquisition Rod Gardner was so impressive in camp that he was declared inactive for the game. One game is not a reason to panic, but while the Panthers should still be good, they are far from a perfect team.

The Saints are unlikely to have a successful season for any number of reasons, some related to and some independent of the hurricane. Their 8-8 record was a mirage a season ago, as they ranked 23rd in DVOA. Two of our major indicators for season to season trends, the randomness of fumble recoveries and third down efficiency, both work against the Saints. About the only hope the Saints have of surprising teams is a return of the Aaron Brooks from 2003. Even that year, they were only 17th in DVOA and finished 8-8. The Saints have a long road ahead, but at least for one week, their quarterback was up to the task and provided hope for Saints fans everywhere.


23 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2005, 7:01am

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

I'd love to throw in a snarky comment about Duce McAlliseter but he had a really good game on Sunday, and I have to give him credit for it. Anyways, maybe the best thing about the Saints season is the rest of the division isn't that great either. They've always played Atlanta and TB hard, and with a 4-2 record against the division, they could sneak into a 3rd or even a 2nd seed.

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

Chock this into: Hindsight is 20-20. On saturday I happened to catch the Saints/Panthers final game from last season being replayed on the NFL network. Watching the game, I was reminded of Bill Simmon's rules about teams who don't repeat in the playoffs. One of the rules was a team who wins it's division and loses thier first playoff game. Perhaps the rule should be expanded to include teams taht need to win thier final regular season game at home in order to make the playoffs and don't succeed. That's what ended up happening to the Panthers. If so, we should look for the Bills to not be the sleeper team everybody expects.
Aside to Aaron: I'm sorry to hear about your bad news If there is anything I can do to help, feel free to ask.

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

Good article. Delhomme's propensity for turnovers, especially his fumbles, is something I have been harping on since the Super Bowl run of 03'. Its also interesting that our 'teal curtain' defensive line was not able to get any pressure on Brooks all day. I would have liked to have read your thoughts on how well the Saints pass blocked or how poorly we rushed the passer.

5 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

#3- I think that applying that indicator to predict the Bills not making the playoffs this year is somewhat shortsighted. The primary reason the Bills lost that game to the Steelers was the running of Willie Parker, who at the time was thought to be a typical 3rd stringer but as it turns out is a pretty darn good runner, running behind an elite Pittsburgh OL. If you're going to lose a game fighting for your playoff life, it might as well be to a team that went 15-1. Plus, the Bills D looks stellar this year and McGahee should provide a solid ground attack, and defense and running will take you a long way in this league.

As far as the article is concerned the Saints were my NFC sleeper pick even before the win at Carolina. Why? This team has been loaded with talent for years yet has underperformed. It seems only logical that with enough raw talent together for a long enough time they're due for a good year, and in this weak NFC they could really be a contender. They finished strong last year, winning their last 4, including 3 on the road and 3 against division opponents. Add in the emotional factor of playing for more than just football and having the whole country cheering for them, and you have a mental edge that seems like enough to push the underperforming talent over the hump. But the Saints have been the hardest team to predict in the NFL over the past few years, so I could be dead wrong.

6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

"It is nearly impossible to underestimate the impact that such a horrific event can have on anyone with a connection to the city of New Orleans."

I'm guessing you mean "overestimate" or "overstate"? Other than that, excellent article, and I look forward to more of these. I can only hope that the Browns win enough games this year that they're no longer an automatic selection for the "How in the world did this team lose to them?" article.

I was wondering something about Brooks' rushing stats, since I don't watch the Saints regularly but he always seems to run OK when I see him. At what point does a scramble or rollout change from a passing attempt to a run for purposes of yardage/sacks? I've seen some games where the live stats (they may be changed later) indicate that a QB on a rollout, obviously looking to pass, gets tackled, and they count it as negative rushing yards and a tackle for loss, not a sack. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it (like, if the QB has the ball in passing position it's a sack, if he brings it down it's a run).

I was wondering how often something like this happens to Brooks. He's rolling out, looking to pass, gets tackled from behind, and it goes as a negative rushing play for some reason. Or maybe he just has lots of 7-yard scrambles on third and 12 (to go with the 8-yard completions on 3rd and 10). Or maybe fumbles on sacks get counted as runs? Backward passes to nobody are considered laterals on runs? I just don't know offhand why someone who always seems to run well would have negative DVOA running.

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

As a Saints fan, I think a key to this season is whether the O-line is improved. Their pass blocking was poor last year, and their run blocking was awful. They changed the right side of their line this year, and LeCharles Bentley doesn't look confused playing center anymore (this is his 2nd year there). There's a chance for both the passing and running numbers to significantly improve this year; if it happens, the line will deserve more credit that Brooks or McCallister.

I'm not sure what to think of yesterday's game. The run blocking didn't look significantly better, while the pass blocking was OK. Of course, the Panthers have a very good defensive line, so we'll have to see how they perform against other teams. One big difference is that they didn't have the ridiculous number of false start penalties that they had last year.

8 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

#5- The Bills lost the game because they couldn't score against Pittsburgh's JV. Parker racked up a bunch of yards on a couple long carries, but he didn't even start. As I recall, the Steelers only brought him in (along with Brian St. Pierre at QB) to run out the clock.

9 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

I’d love to throw in a snarky comment about Duce McAlliseter but he had a really good game on Sunday, and I have to give him credit for it.

What makes you say that? His raw numbers are wretched (26 carries, 64 yards, he did get two short touchdowns). And I only counted 9 carries where he picked up a first down and/or significant yardage. So on nearly two-thirds of his carries, the Panthers held him to a bad play, and he didn't have a run longer than 10 yards.

10 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

Deuce McAllister had a good game? Really? Could've fooled me, I think it had something to do with his 2.5 ypc.

Click my name for my writeup of this game.

Stephen Davis did not have an overly impressive game, either. He had one run for 39 yards that accounted for about half. He also had 8 runs go for 3 yards or less (1 one them was was a 1 yard touchdown, though).

On first down, he was 2 for 9 in successful runs. He had a success rate of about 43% (6/14) with 4 of those coming in 1 or 2 yard situations.

11 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

I guess only watching the last 4 minutes of a game isn't a good way to judge how one of the players did, huh? Oh well, that sounds like typical Deuce to me, nice to know some things never change.

12 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

I didn't see the game. For anybody who did, how was the matchup between Julius Peppers and Jamal Brown?

I read some recaps that said Brown did well and others that Peppers wreaked havoc as usual.

13 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

Julius was kept quiet most of the time in the passrush. He was given one play where he was 1-on-1 with Ernie Conwell and that play ended with Brooks on the ground quickly.

Deuce averaged 2.9 yards running to the right, but 3.5 running around the right end. Julius got 4 tackles, IIRC, mostly partial tackles on stuffing Deuce up the middle. He made a solo tackle 6 yards downfield.

14 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

One of the rules was a team who wins it’s division and loses thier first playoff game

no, that was MY rule--Simmons' rule was to not pick any division champ to repeat if they had fewer than 10 wins

16 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

Re #6: a backward pass to nobody is counted as a run, which I learned on Monday night. A sack does not count as a rushing attempt for the QB, I don't believe.

17 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

The rule is a pass that goes backwards or sideways is considered a lateral. A lateral is the same as a handoff, so it can happen at any point, but if there's nobody to catch it, it's a fumble. This is why on Aaron's famous pass to nobody, the O lineman had to dive on it.

18 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

As a Saints fan, don't like your choice of our win at Carolina being named the AGS game of the week. SF over Rams??? Miami CRUSHING Denver?
BTW, as you reference, Saints won (AT Carolina) by 3 points in the last game of last year, with a playoff birth on the line for both teams (although Saints lost in the tie-breakers). Why the surprise this year?
Also, after the Saints made it no secret that they wanted to run, run, and run some more, what happened on the first drive of the game? TD run by Deuce after a 9+ minute, 80yd drive, with Brooks 7 for 7. They went out and did what they declared they were going to do.
As for Brooks picking on Thomas Davis, isn't that just good game-planning? A rookie SS (who is prob. much better at LB), not good in coverage, first NFL game, and you don't immediately go after this guy? If the Pats & Brady don't do the same thing this Sunday, it'll be because Davis is on the bench.
As Patrick (#5) says so well, before the hurricane, the Saints should have been right there with the Lions and Cards in everyone's "sleeper picks." As a NO native, my feeling is this--all that talent now has a team-uniting cause, giving hope to our hurricane-ravaged fan base. Some said it could destroy or unite the team. After reading team members comments and seeing their spirit against the Panthers, I say it unites the team and they make the playoffs. After that, who knows? They could be serious McNabb and Vick injuries away from being the NFC favorite.

19 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

Joseph: It was a suprise because Carolina had a lot of injuries last year and lots of people thought they would be better this year. What was forgotten, however, that losing Muhammad and replacing him with a recovered Steve Smith wasn't an improvement. Hindsight is 20/20, right? I guess the Saints are for real.

20 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

Also, after the Saints made it no secret that they wanted to run, run, and run some more, what happened on the first drive of the game? TD run by Deuce after a 9+ minute, 80yd drive, with Brooks 7 for 7. They went out and did what they declared they were going to do.

Right, run the ball ineffectively and count on Aaron Brooks to move the sticks.

Steve Smith was NOT the reason Carolina lost this game. Smith had well over 100yards receiving.

The reason they lost was because

a) Jake turned the ball over
b) Brooks tore them apart
c) Carolina couldn't run, aside from two plays.

21 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

Katrina outright HELPED the Saints.

A football team that is most successful is the one that can play loose and relaxed.

Faced with perennial underachievement, the Saints and Haslett have been on the hot seat to get back to the playoffs....and than Katrina happened.

Now the whole team had something REAL to worry about, and it most definitely reoriented the entire team's outlook on life. Rather than struggling to win games against a tremendous history of franchise failure, I think it turned into the great escape for at least 4 or so hours of not having to think and worry about the very real problems of their hometown being devestated, and just go out and "throw themselves into their work" and playing better for it.

22 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

Or maybe the Saints just won a football game. Just because the win followed Katrina doesn't mean the hurricane "refocused" anything.

23 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Panthers

If it wasn't for all the Katrina business the Saints would have been a lock, as the road team had covered seven in a row in the series going in (now of course it's eight in a row).

And one component of the dreaded "Super Bowl Runner-Up Jinx" held up Monday night when the Eagles lost to the Falcons, since it meant that the team that lost the Super Bowl one year also lost on opening day the following year for the seventh time in a row.

Other facets of the jinx include:

1. Not only has no SB loser so much as reached the conference title game the following year since the Bills lost four straight Super Bowls to begin the '90s, but since then only one SB loser has reached a conference championship game in either of the next TWO years (that was the '97 Steelers, who lost the AFC title game to Denver two years after losing SB XXX to Dallas).

2. With the exception of the 1996 Patriots, no Super Bowl loser in either the 1990s or 2000s has won a Super Bowl in ANY year after losing one.

3. Not only have five of the last six Super Bowl losers finished below .500 the next season, but four of those five were eliminated from contention early: The '99 Falcons started 0-4, the '02 Rams 0-5, the '03 Raiders 2-5, and the '04 Panthers 1-7.

4. Over the past four years the teams that have finished with the NFL's worst overall record (subject to the strength-of-schedule tie-breaker when necessary) have outperformed the Super Bowl losers the following season, with the former going a combined 32-32 to the latter's 25-39.