Cowboys Led 2021 DVOA Overachievers
NFL Offseason - Every year, we here at Football Outsiders do our best to accurately forecast the upcoming season. We run thousands of simulations taking into account major offseason personnel changes, players returning from injury, potential development from draft picks, continuity on the offensive line, and numerous other variables in an attempt to provide the best predictions out there.
Considering how difficult predicting the future can be, 2021 went quite well. There was a .74 correlation between our mean projected wins and teams' actual win totals, and a .73 correlation between our projected DVOA and teams' actual DVOA. For the most part, teams were more or less as good as we anticipated them being.
For the most part, that is, because there's always an exception or two that falls through the cracks, a team that unexpectedly gels or crumbles. You didn't exactly see too many people predicting the Cincinnati Bengals would come out of the AFC when all was said and done!
Over the next couple weeks, we'll take a look at the top overachieving and underachieving teams of 2021. Today, we're looking at the five teams that outperformed their DVOA projections the most, looking at just what we missed and whether or not last year's success was sustainable, or just a mirage.
A quick methodological note before we begin. Our rankings are based on how many standard deviations each team beat or fell short of its projection, rather than just looking at the raw numbers. When you run thousands and thousands of simulations, it's a very rare team indeed that has an average DVOA over 20.0% or performs better than 12-5. But each NFL season only happens one time, so outlier results not only happen, but are expected—someone keeps rolling sevens all season long, it's just difficult to predict who. We're not here to explain that the best teams were better than their projections because that's how simulations work. We want to focus on the teams that got grouped wrong to begin with: the bad teams that became average or the average teams that became good.
5. Buffalo Bills (+1.22)
Projected DVOA: 10.7%; +0.97 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: 27.6%; +2.19 standard deviations
Our projections had the Bills as the third-best team in the AFC, but in a tier firmly below the Chiefs—contenders, for sure, but not quite the cream of the crop. Instead, they led the league in VOA, only falling to second in DVOA because they played the easiest schedule of the season. The Bills skyrocketed right past "contenders" status and straight into, at the very least, co-favorites in the conference for the foreseeable future.
There was a fair bit of consternation when we released our projections, which had the Bills ranked 11th in offense a year after ranking fifth. The projections had a potential Josh Allen regression baked in to them … and, to be fair, that happened. Allen's DVOA fell from 25.9% in 2020 to 4.9% last season; he was still very good, but Allen's 2020 would be a career year for most passers, and our projections took that into account. What the projections missed, however, was the Bills running game coming to life midseason. Their 18.4% rushing DVOA from Week 10 on was best in the league as they found an offensive line combination they liked and decided to stick with Devin Singletary as their lead back rather than rotating him with Zack Moss. That took the pressure off of Allen and the passing game to do everything, and Buffalo's overall offensive DVOA jumped from 4.7% in the first half of the year to 14.4% in the second more in line with what Bills fans were hoping before when the season began.
But it was defensive overperformance which really led the way here. The Bills were projected with a -6.3% defensive DVOA, fifth-best in the league. Instead, they hit -18.1%, the second-best mark in franchise history. They managed this despite Tre'Davious White's season ending early due to an ACL tear. Levi Wallace, Dane Jackson, and Taron Johnson all stepped up to the challenge, while Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer remained one of the best safety tandems in the league. Up front, rookies Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham developed faster than anticipated, and Ed Oliver had a career year as the Bills rose from 14th to seventh in adjusted sack rate. They were just OK against the run, but that pass defense was a thing to behold.
Our way too early DVOA projections have the Bills atop the defensive rankings again next year, alongside a top-10 offense. That's enough to put them as the best team in the conference; nothing about 2021 screams "fluke." Plus, you know, adding Von Miller tends to help. Just ask the Rams.
4. Philadelphia Eagles (+1.25)
Projected DVOA: -10.5%; -0.96 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: 3.8%; +0.30 standard deviations
Our projections had the Eagles in the bottom 10 of all three phases of the game. That was spot-on defensively, but no one saw Philadelphia managing to generate an above-average offense in 2021.
Remember, Doug Pederson had just been fired, and Carson Wentz sent packing to Indianapolis. The Eagles were coming off of a -18.8% offensive DVOA and needed a full reboot offensively, to the point where swallowing Wentz's massive contract in exchange for future draft picks was a defensible idea. Stick Jalen Hurts under center, suffer through a rebuilding year while you see what you've got, and be loaded enough to bring in the guys you actually want in 2022.
Well, Hurts was … fine. A 0.4% DVOA isn't going to lock him in as the undisputed passer of the future, but it was a significant jump from his -17.6% mark in limited rookie action. He got to the point where the Eagles could use an upgrade at quarterback rather than needing an upgrade. Baseline competence at the quarterback position was a welcome change of pace, and that alone would have shot the Eagles past our projections. But the Eagles also jumped from 18th to third in rushing DVOA as Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen pivoted midseason to focus their offense on a rushing attack which stretched defenses from sideline to sideline, always had the threat of the mobile Hurts breaking off and running, and opened up the deep crossing routes to DeVonta Smith that made up the majority of the Philly passing offense. The Eagles' offensive DVOA was projected at -6.2%; they finished all the way up to 8.2% and grabbed a wild-card spot in the process.
The Eagles and Hurts need to keep improving on offense to avoid getting stuck in seventh-seed no man's land. Hurts' success as almost an option player in November and December doesn't seem likely to be sustainable if he doesn't take a step forward as a passer as well. A receiver or two who could catch passes over the middle would likely help.
3. New England Patriots (+1.42)
Projected DVOA: 4.7%, +0.43 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: 23.3%, +1.84 standard deviations
We could probably just type "Mac Jones" in this entry and leave it at that. The general wisdom was that Jones had the highest floor of the all of the rookie quarterbacks, but I don't think anyone was expecting his ceiling to be as high as it was. Our projections had the Patriots 23rd in offensive DVOA at -5.9%, based in large part on the premise that Jones was a rung below the other rookie starters—we weren't even sure he was going to beat out Cam Newton until a week before the season began, after all.
Jones' 6.1% passing DVOA was 11th out of the 82 rookies who have qualified for our leaderboards since 1983; his 620 DYAR ranks 10th. Yes, he was working in an above-average situation for a rookie passer, but Jones was able to take his college accuracy and decision-making and translate them fairly seamlessly to Josh McDaniels' offense—far from a given for any rookie passer. Jones had an 85.2% catchable pass rate per SIS charting, firmly in the middle of the league; Zach Wilson and Justin Fields held the last two slots, while Trevor Lawrence was about halfway between them and Jones. And it wasn't all dink-and-dunks, either; Jones gradually got better at throwing deeper passes as the season went along. He's not at a level where he was singlehandedly leading New England to glory, but rookies are often lead weights as they adapt to the NFL game. Jones looked ready for prime time from Day 1, and the Patriots' offense benefitted.
It's not all Jones, mind you. New England's defense was projected at -6.7%, but actually finished at -12.8%. A large part of that is the difficulty in valuing all the players the Patriots added this year. The return of all of the 2020 COVID opt-outs plus some major spending in free agency meant that the Patriots had a net approximate value over replacement change of +31, the largest total added since at least 2003. When you're setting records for bringing talent in, it can be hard for projection models to really quantify the effect it will have. It turns out, getting a bunch of good players generally makes a team better than they were before. Who knew!
The Patriots may have some trouble living up to these numbers next season. Defensively, they have lost J.C. Jackson, Kyle Van Noy, and others. Their top outside receiver remains Nelson Agholor, which is somewhat less than ideal for Jones as he continues to grow. Jones is three steps ahead of the rest of the rookie class, but he needs to keep improving if he's going to be the long-term answer at the quarterback position. But suffice to say that the Patriots won't be projected 23rd again entering 2022.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (+1.42)
Projected DVOA: -8.0%; -0.73 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: 8.7%; +0.69 standard deviations
While they don't quite hit the top spot on our list, you could make the argument that the Chargers were our biggest miss. They went from the bottom 12 in our projections to the top 12 in the standings, after all. They still just missed out on the postseason, but with the possible exception of the Colts, no team went from projected afterthought to playoff contender quite as much as the Chargers did.
We projected the Chargers with a 3.8% defensive DVOA; they actually underperformed that at 4.8%. We projected them with a -2.8% special teams DVOA; they barely cleared that at -2.6%. We projected them with a -1.4% offensive DVOA and they jumped to 15.9%, fourth-best in the league. In Football Outsiders Almanac 2021, we wrote that "it is optimistic to assume Herbert can lead a top-three offense right now in order to make up for the defense." I mean, technically, we nailed it; fourth place is in fact not top-three.
Quarterbacks often make significant jumps between Year 1 and Year 2, but Justin Herbert was so good as a rookie that it was easy to think that he had already arrived, fully formed. How much could you really expect him to jump from his 10.2% DVOA as a rookie, eighth best among first-year quarterbacks in our database? Well, it turns out you could expect him to jump to 17.4% with a DYAR in the top five in the league, combining his never-questioned arm talent with a level of accuracy and decision-making that is frankly shocking, considering how he played at Oregon. The Chargers also saw a massive improvement in their offensive line, going from disastrous to passable, and they didn't end up missing Hunter Henry at all. Still, outperforming the projection was 99% Herbert's continued ascension into an upper-tier passer.
And the Chargers may well be better next season, with Brandon Staley having a year to both install his new defense and a busy free agency period to load up on players who can actually play. It's just a shame for them that they're playing in the AFC West. It's almost unthinkable that a player on Herbert's trajectory could go three straight years without making the postseason, right?
1. Dallas Cowboys (+1.94)
Projected DVOA: 5.6%; +0.51 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: 30.9%; +2.45 standard deviations
Our top overperforming team started the year projected to just squeak into the top 10 in DVOA. They finished the season tops overall for the first time since the dynasty years of the 1990s. It would be hard to imagine this season having gone much better for America's Team, assuming you stopped paying attention minutes after Week 18 ended.
The Cowboys outperformed projections on both sides of the ball. Offensively, it's a story of the Cowboys starting out incredibly strongly through six weeks, with a 24.9% offensive DVOA. Dak Prescott then injured his calf and the Cowboys fell to 6.4% the rest of the way as his limited mobility hampered what Dallas was trying to do. That 6.4% mark basically matches their preseason projection of 6.7%, but playing a third of the season at a high level is enough to keep Dallas' overall offensive DVOA at 13.4%, nearly seven points higher than projected. It was just an unexpected twist that the Prescott injury limiting the Cowboys' offense was a new one in 2021 as opposed to the severe ankle dislocation from 2020.
Defensively, however, Dan Quinn came in and turned things around. We had the Cowboys projected firmly in the middle of the pack with a 1.2% defensive DVOA. They finished the year second at -15.2%. Some of that is Quinn producing a much more comprehensible scheme than Mike Nolan, doing a much better job of putting guys in position to succeed and installing a system similar enough to what the Cowboys ran pre-Nolan to let the veterans stay comfortable. Phenom Micah Parsons was the much-deserved defensive rookie of the year, regardless of questions about his actual position. He had to play more snaps than ideal at linebacker because the defensive line of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Neville Gallimore, and Osa Odihizuwa was an absolute monster of a unit. And then you had the turnovers—we can argue all we want about Trevon Diggs' underlying coverage abilities, but it turns out intercepting 11 passes is generally speaking a Good Thing, as is the defense as a whole leading the league with 34 takeaways. That ball-hawking, harassing defense turned Dallas from a good team to one with thoughts of Super Bowl glory. Maybe next year?
The Cowboys entered the offseason first in our way too early projections, but it hasn't exactly been a spectacular offseason to date—it feels like half the team is in "win now!" mode while the other half is dumping players like Amari Cooper to try to save cap space. I would expect the defense to come somewhat back down to Earth as takeaways regress towards the mean. But they kept Quinn, which is huge, and the odds of Prescott getting hurt three years in a row has to be low. Dallas should be right in the mix once again next season.