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.