Any Given Sunday: Eagles Over Patriots

Any Given Sunday: Eagles Over Patriots
Any Given Sunday: Eagles Over Patriots
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Healy

If you had to predict which team in the NFL would give up three return touchdowns in a game, two of them on special teams, the Patriots would probably be your last choice. Since Bill Belichick became coach in 2000, the Patriots have turned the most unpredictable aspect of football into just another reliable cog in their machine. New England has ranked in the top half of the league in special teams every year since Belichick took over and has cracked the top ten 12 times, including this year (through 12 weeks, anyway). This season's unit had emerged as potentially Belichick's best group yet. Entering the game against the Eagles, New England ranked first in special teams DVOA.

Then on Sunday, the Patriots' dominant special teams didn't just have their worst day of the season. They had the worst day any team has had this season. Their -44.9% special teams DVOA, fueled by Darren Sproles' 83-yard punt return touchdown and Chris Maragos' punt block that led to a 24-yard touchdown return, was also the worst special teams day that Bill Belichick has had as a head coach, and that includes his time leading a cursed franchise.

Given the Patriots' dominance on special teams until this weekend, Sunday's meltdown is different from the normal craziness that can happen on special teams. For games in Week 10 and later, Sunday's game marked the first time that a special teams unit entered the game tops in the league and then posted the worst performance of the season. That -44.9% DVOA is also the lowest rating for a top-ranked special teams unit in Week 10 or later in our data (since 1989).

Worst Special Teams DVOA for Top-Ranked Units, Week 10 and later
Year Week Team Opp Outcome Sp Tm DVOA
2015 13 NE PHI L 35-28 -44.9%
2005 10 NYG MIN L 24-21 -35.5%
1993 17 GB DET L 30-20 -28.0%
1992 17 ATL LARM L 38-27 -21.8%
2014 11 PHI GB L 53-20 -21.3%
2008 11 CLE BUF W 29-27 -20.9%
1992 10 ATL SF L 41-3 -19.3%
2008 13 BUF SF L 10-3 -19.3%
2011 11 SF ARI W 23-7 -19.0%
1999 12 JAC BAL W 30-23 -18.0%

Watching on Sunday, that 2005 Giants game came to mind, with a 90-plus-yard pick-six also adding to the special teams swing. But most of the worst games on this list don't approach the Patriots' rating on Sunday. That low 49ers rating from 2011, for example, mainly came from three missed field goal attempts. Even when they struggle, top-ranked special teams units only implode the way the Patriots did about once a decade.

We know that the Patriots loss would matter more going forward if it was driven by defensive failures or particularly offensive ones, since those units are more predictable, but only one special teams failure from Sunday likely says anything about upcoming games. Nate Ebner's surprise onside drop kick probably won't come up again, but it was a strange decision for two reasons. The Patriots shouldn't have been looking for chances to increase variance with a 14-0 lead as an eight-point favorite. And if you think it's a great play, then why show your hand when you could save it for a big spot? On the other hand, Belichick's explanation that there was little downside seems to have fallen on deaf ears, but that at least deserves some consideration. Surprise onside kicks that go further downfield, like Ebner's drop kick, don't give the opponent the ball in your own territory even when they fail. So Belichick is right for that and right to coach without fear. And to a drop-kick advocate such as myself (for fellow aficionados, here's maybe the best page on Wikipedia), Belichick's creativity means more for the Patriots' Super Bowl prospects than the 20 yards of field position they lost.

While the onside kick was strange but not worrying, the breakdowns on the two touchdowns were more concerning. On the punt block, the breakdowns came both from the blocking and the coaching, with injuries perhaps playing a subtle role. The Eagles had double-teamed Patriots' special teams ace Matthew Slater on a first-quarter punt where he suffered a stinger, just one in a series of injuries that he has racked up this season. If Slater had been on the field for Ryan Allen's punt with 0:15 to go in the first half, the Eagles' decision to not double-team him may have stood out more as an indicator that they planned to bring some heat and prompted a countermeasure. Much more important was the blocking breakdown that occurred on the left side of the line. The mistake on the line happened when Darius Fleming (lined up in the left tackle spot) and Geneo Grissom (lined up at left guard) let Maragos come through untouched. Fleming was signed from the practice squad just 11 days ago, in part to respond to the injury to Jamie Collins, and his role in part reflects the injury dominoes that have fallen on defense.

The punt block is actually a time where Belichick is right that the Patriots needed to coach better, too. Given the game situation -- 15 seconds left in the half on their 38-yard line -- the Patriots should have been looking for the block and could easily have brought both gunners tight to the formation, which would have prevented Fleming from feeling the need to swing out wide and open the hole for Maragos, then just punted towards the sideline. It's an easy second-guess, but Chip Kelly basically said that he called the block because the situation meant he might as well try it.

So the Patriots find themselves in the midst of a decline not only on offense, where they've dropped from first in DVOA over the first eight weeks to eighth over the last five games, but on special teams. There, the drop is even bigger, from first to 25th. However, while the Patriots have now lost two games in a row on special teams mistakes (Chris Harper's muffed punt against the Broncos also cost him his roster spot), that drop in DVOA is mostly about Sunday's game. The Patriots are no longer the best special teams in the league; they now rank sixth. It will take those key injury dominoes getting put back into place for the Patriots' dominant units -- not just their offense but also their special teams -- to again be among the league's best.

The Patriots' Shuffling Line

Last season, the Patriots' offensive line was moderately disastrous as they shuffled units for the first four weeks before finally settling on the unit that kept Tom Brady alive. Even though that unit coalesced with Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer, it's somewhat hard to believe the Patriots ranked second in adjusted sack rate by the end of the season. But Brady has made even average offensive lines look excellent by adjusted sack rate for almost his entire career. Since 2004, when Brady has been healthy, the Patriots have ranked in the top ten every year by adjusted sack rate. (Note that the Patriots ranked 26th in the Bernard Pollard year.)

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Patriots' Adj Sack Rate With Tom Brady
Year Adj Sack Rate Adj Sack Rk
2001 8.7% 26
2002 5.1% 7
2003 6.0% 13
2004 4.8% 5
2005 5.0% 6
2006 5.7% 8
2007 4.1% 4
2009 3.6% 2
2010 4.9% 6
2011 5.4% 9
2012 4.5% 5
2013 6.1% 9
2014 4.4% 2
2015 6.5% 20

This year, however, even Brady's quick decision-making hasn't been able to make this line look good by adjusted sack rate. And it's not about Brady needing to hold the ball longer without Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Through the first nine weeks of the season, the Patriots had almost an identical adjusted sack rate (5.6 percent) as they have over the last four (6.0 percent) since Edelman's injury.

The line has given Brady some of the worst pass protection of his career, making his level of play even more remarkable. Continuity can't wait any longer. Amazingly, the Patriots have started consecutive games with the same five-man unit just once this entire season.

By the VOA

Even on their worst day of the season, the Patriots were above average both on offense and defense. The Eagles, on the other hand, come in below average on offense. They averaged just 4.4 yards per offensive play on the day.

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DVOA (Opponent adjustments included)
PHI -5.7% -13.0% 26.2% 33.5%
NE 16.1% -7.5% -44.9% -21.3%
VOA (No opponent adjustments)
PHI -9.9% 2.2% 26.2% 14.1%
NE 12.5% -11.8% -44.9% -20.6%


31 comments, Last at 09 Dec 2015, 2:59pm

#1 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 08, 2015 - 1:31pm

If you had to predict which team in the NFL would give up three return touchdowns in a game, two of them on special teams, the Patriots would probably be your last choice.

Well my last choice would be KC, the special teams unit coached by the man who hasn't coached a unit ranked worse than 6th since 2005.

Points: 0

#2 by RickD // Dec 08, 2015 - 1:34pm

Good article. Many aspects of the Patriots' play can be expected to improve. As their skill players like Gronk and Edelman come back, the offense should get better. And it's hard to view that special teams' performance as anything other than a fluke. But yes, the O-line is limited and no, it's not going to get much better. Surprised it's that much worse than last season, when there were also many complaints about the line.

Points: 0

#3 by dmstorm22 // Dec 08, 2015 - 1:55pm

"Through the first nine weeks of the season, the Patriots had almost an identical adjusted sack rate (5.6 percent) as they have over the last four (6.0 percent) since Edelman's injury."

How is NE's overall adjusted sack rate 6.5% if they were well below that for nine weeks, and then still below that for the other four?

Is this a really weird appearance of Simpson's paradox? I feel like I'm missing something really basic that explains this.

Points: 0

#10 by Perfundle // Dec 08, 2015 - 2:58pm

Simpson's paradox only applies when you're comparing two groups. This is definitely an error, since the average of two quantities, even weighted, can't be higher than each the individual components.

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#17 by dmstorm22 // Dec 08, 2015 - 4:29pm

You're right about Simpson's paradox, thought maybe there was some other paradox that I am not thinking of that could explain it.

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#4 by Independent George // Dec 08, 2015 - 2:11pm

The Patriots shouldn't have been looking for chances to increase variance with a 14-0 lead as an eight-point favorite. And if you think it's a great play, then why show your hand when you could save it for a big spot?

What if the objective wasn't to score again, but to give opposing teams one more thing to have to prepare for? If the kick succeeds, then future opponents have to cut their already-limited practice time to devote to defending against it. If it fails, they're already up 14-o against an inferior team with lots of time left to play. In normal situations, they really aren't giving up much.

There is no other coach in the league where I think this was possible, but I absolutely believe Belichick is that subtle. Success gives them maybe another 1-2% edge in special teams in future games, and failure has almost 0 downside. They just picked the wrong day to anger the Random Number Generator.

Points: 0

#8 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 08, 2015 - 2:26pm

Does this really take any more preparation time than a normal short kick? If anything it just tips the return team off.

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#28 by Andrew Healy // Dec 09, 2015 - 12:03pm

Love this idea and I did give it some thought when it happened. Seems hard to believe he's going to trot it out in a playoff game--and I agree with Tuluse that it just gave the Eagles time to adjust--but it would be pretty awesome if he knows other teams' game preparation patterns enough that he'll get them to spend some practice time on this (and that he was thinking of that).

Points: 0

#29 by dmstorm22 // Dec 09, 2015 - 1:31pm

I don't understand what there would be to prepare for.

The better use of Ebner to me was the 2nd onside kick, where Gostkowski faked kicking it right and Ebner kicked it left. That was different and would need some degree of preparation.

The pooch kick was just that, no difference if it was Gostkowski or Ebner, goal for defense is just to cover the kick.

Points: 0

#31 by Kevin from Philly // Dec 09, 2015 - 2:59pm

In the post-game interviews, I think I remember one of the Eagles players saying that they had seen that before on film, and that was the reason they were ready for the play. If that's true, I think that Belichick's plan backfired.

Points: 0

#5 by Will Allen // Dec 08, 2015 - 2:18pm

The effect of injuries on special teams play is an area ripe for further inquiry. I suspect that it does not simply have an effect when a new player is on a special teams unit, replacing an injured player, but also when a player on the special teams unit has his overall snap counts increase substantially, when he replaces an injured player on offense or defense.

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#26 by Andrew Healy // Dec 09, 2015 - 11:44am

Jonathan Freeny fits that description exactly, by the way. He continues to play most of the special teams snaps now that he's seeing most of the defensive ones, too.

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#6 by Will Allen // Dec 08, 2015 - 2:20pm


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#7 by Dave Bernreuther // Dec 08, 2015 - 2:20pm

Well, as expected/predicted by someone else in the Audibles thread, if you just zero out the STs, New England has a healthy edge in the other two phases.

Hardly a surprise. And yeah, hardly predictive.

I actually called the Sproles return to my girlfriend while the ball was in the air. But it was in a "well, if the Pats are going to lose the ST and luck battle once per olympiad, it only makes sense for them to REALLY lose it" way. Sure enough, he took off. She's a Pats fan, so she was just staring daggers at me for the next five minutes after checking to see that I hadn't paused the DVR prior to the play...

Points: 0

#9 by Perfundle // Dec 08, 2015 - 2:52pm

Murray's -10.0% DVOA is even more astonishing given his third-down conversion rate:

3rd and 1, Murray left guard for 21 yards
3rd and 1, Murray middle for 11 yards
3rd and 1, Murray middle for 10 yards
3rd and 1, Murray right tackle for 9 yards
3rd and 3, Murray middle for 7 yards
3rd and 1, Murray right tackle for 4 yards
3rd and 1, Murray middle for 4 yards
3rd and 1, Murray left guard for 4 yards
3rd and 1, Murray middle for 3 yards
3rd and 1, Murray middle for 3 yards
3rd and 2, Murray middle for 3 yards
3rd and 1, Murray left end for 1 yard

Of players with at least five third-down runs, he is the only one to convert every one of them. Sure they're mostly 3rd-and-1, but he still had positive DVOA on all of them.

Points: 0

#12 by Pat // Dec 08, 2015 - 3:16pm

Positive gains, at least. Positive DVOA requires you to do better than the league average, and the league average on 3rd and 1 is definitely more than 1 yard.

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#14 by Perfundle // Dec 08, 2015 - 3:44pm

Over the last ten years, it's been consistently around 2.9 yards, so Murray surpassed that on all but one run. He also had a TD on 4th-and-goal from the 1, so he's been horrifically bad on first and second down.

Points: 0

#15 by Pat // Dec 08, 2015 - 4:02pm

Horrifically bad might be a bit much: 7 of those runs (the 4-and-under) are probably negligible DVOA (~0% or below - nominally depends on the opponent). The others are probably pretty strongly positive.

But no disagreement on your overall point.

Points: 0

#24 by TGT // Dec 09, 2015 - 5:15am

Those runs are all third down, and they're good. The argument is that his first and second down runs must be horrible to override his good third downs.

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#27 by Andrew Healy // Dec 09, 2015 - 11:59am

As strange as splits can be, this ranks up there. Check out Murray's DVOA split:
3rd and 4th down: 13 carries, 54 DYAR (ranked third), 47.5% DVOA, 100 percent success rate
1st and 2nd down: 150 carries, -64 DYAR (second-worst), -19.3% DVOA, 39 percent success rate

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#30 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 09, 2015 - 1:47pm

Thanks for the breakdown.

It looks wild at first, but 13 carries also kind of just looks like small sample size.

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#19 by The Powers That Be // Dec 08, 2015 - 6:52pm

And which team is the worst in the league at converting 3rd-and-short this year? The Cowboys.

No, I'm not suggesting they should have resigned him, certainly not for that money. But that's one place I think they really miss having even the 2015 version of Murray.

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#20 by Eleutheria // Dec 08, 2015 - 7:30pm

According the this sites O-line page the Cowboys have converted on 68% of runs on 3rd or 4th and 1 or 2, which is 11th in the league.

Philadelphia led the league in 3rd and short success rate last season and so doing it again probably doesn't have to do with Murray.

You could however argue the Boys drop from 4th to 11th is due to the loss of Murray (but the o-line isn't as potent as it was last year as well).

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#11 by Eleutheria // Dec 08, 2015 - 3:04pm

Do ST not have opponent adjustments? Surely the Eagles ST DVOA should be better then its VOA given they were facing the best ST in the league going into the game.

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#18 by Aaron Schatz // Dec 08, 2015 - 6:17pm

I was never able to make them work in a way that I found satisfactory. Always something on the future possible list of ideas to test.

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#21 by DIVISION // Dec 08, 2015 - 7:38pm

Aaron, how soon before you make an appearance on Bill Simmons' New Podcast?

He always had you on the B.S. Report.

We'd like to hear your analysis on an on-going basis there if you can make it happen.

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#13 by Eleutheria // Dec 08, 2015 - 3:20pm

"The Patriots shouldn't have been looking for chances to increase variance with a 14-0 lead as an eight-point favorite."
Actually I think it's more likely that Belichick, thinking his team was gonna run away with the game, decided to take an opportunity to test strange plays like a drop-kick, and was thinking more about future games then win optimization.

The play dropped the Patriots win probability from 96.3 to 94.8.

Points: 0

#22 by RickD // Dec 08, 2015 - 11:10pm

This is it. And really, the outcome of the drop-kick, while sub-optimal, simply did not cause a 35-point swing. And sportscasters who think it did? What is there to say?

Points: 0

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