Giants Top List of 2021 DVOA Underachievers
NFL Offseason - Last week, we looked at the teams that had most overperformed their DVOA projections in 2021. It's only fair, then, that we put the shoe on the other foot and tackle last season's biggest flops.
Today, we are looking at the five teams that most underperformed their DVOA projections. These teams often are ones that struggle with unforeseen circumstances—massive amounts of injuries, or significant suspensions that there was no way to predict beforehand. Other times, it's the fault of a young star not developing as the team would have hoped, or a floundering coach in way over his head. And, if you're at the very bottom of one of these lists, it's generally speaking all three and more.
As a reminder, we're ranking teams by how many standard deviations below average a team fell short of their projections, rather than just raw numbers. We're looking for teams that ended the season in a significantly different group than expected; good teams that became average or average teams that became bad, rather than pointing out artifacts of how simulations work. So, with no further ado …
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected DVOA: 4.6%; +0.42 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: -10.2%; -0.81 standard deviations
The Steelers make this list despite earning a wild-card slot in a year where they were projected to just miss out. This is more thanks to the addition of the seventh seed and the collapse of a team we'll see in a few entries than it is to anything Pittsburgh actually managed to do on the field, as the Steelers finished with the worst DVOA in franchise history (or at least since 1983, when our data currently begins).
You're not surprised to find the dying arm of Ben Roethlisberger behind a large chunk of this. Roethlisberger's -9.1% passing DVOA was the worst mark of his career. He led the league in failed completions by a huge margin, with dozens upon dozens of useless dumpoffs to Najee Harris clogging up his stat sheet; his 6.5-yard average depth of target was also the lowest of his career. We had seen Roethlisberger fading for the past two or three seasons, but 2021 was a pretty rapid end to his career. That's not unusual for top quarterbacks; when it goes, it can go, and there's no way to really project when the cliff is coming. We had some decline baked in; Pittsburgh was projected 20th in offensive DVOA. Instead, they fell to 25th, as they couldn't pass or run the ball effectively for vast portions of the season. Of course, Roethlisberger might have looked a little better if his offensive line hadn't been made out of Swiss cheese and shoestrings; they ranked 28th in adjusted line yards and were regularly overwhelmed by power rushers. That will continue to be a problem, even after the Steelers upgraded from Roethlisberger to … let me check my notes … Mitch Trubisky?! Ah, geez.
But they actually underperformed defensively more than they did on offense. We had the Steelers pegged as the top defense in the league coming into the season; they finished 14th instead. T.J. Watt tied the single-season sack record, but one top defender does not a defense make—or even two, when you add in Cameron Heyward. Pittsburgh ranked 27th against the run, as losing both Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu really hurt. Devin Bush was a disaster at linebacker, and the trade for Joe Schobert didn't exactly pay massive dividends. It was sort of a stars-and-scrubs situation, but we were projecting stars-and-more-stars, so even falling to average was a significant disappointment.
It seems more likely for the defense to bounce back than the offense in 2022—it looks like Alualu and Tuitt will be back, and perhaps Myles Jack can improve somewhat in a new environment. But it does look like the defense will have to drag the offense forward for the foreseeable future.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Projected DVOA: -10.8%; -0.98 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: -29.4%; -2.33 standard deviations
We knew the Falcons were going to be bad; we had them projected 28th, after all. We just didn't expect them to be excavating new floors in terribleness for most of the season. Arthur Smith was supposed to come in and provide some of that Titans' offense to a team that had struggled to find its way in recent seasons, but nearly everything the Falcons tried to do last season didn't work.
Despite the fact that they kept winning games, the Falcons were bottoming out in the DVOA rankings all season long—only late-season swoons by the Jaguars and Giants kept Atlanta from being the first seven-win team ever to be last place in the DVOA rankings. Instead, the Falcons have to settle with only being the worst seven-win team of all time, taking the crown from the 1996 Cardinals. I don't know if you give credit to Smith for winning seven games despite the team crumbling around him, or dock him for coaching such a bad team to begin with. Considering it was Year 1 for him, I lean towards the former, but yikes.
Calvin Ridley stepping out was unforeseeable, but it's not like the Falcons' passing offense was setting records before Ridley left; they were 24th in passing DVOA with him and 29th without him. Even before Ridley left, the departure of Julio Jones left a massive hole that no one was able to step up and fill; Russell Gage led the team with 102 DYAR, putting him 49th in the league. The offensive line ranked dead last in power success and near the bottom in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate. Mike Davis was a massive disappointment, ranked 40th in rushing DYAR (and Cordarrelle Patterson was only 36th, though that was somewhat mitigated by his receiving chops). And that's just on the offense.
Defensively, we called the Falcons an "unknown" coming into the season. Well, now we know—they stink. They generated just 18 sacks all season long, finishing dead last with a 3.8% adjusted sack rate. They were dead last in power rushing situations too, and ended up 29th in adjusted line yards. If you can't stop the run and can't sack the quarterback, you're going to have a long season; A.J. Terrell can't cover everybody. The Falcons came into the offseason with maybe five positions they didn't need to upgrade, and that was before they traded away Matt Ryan. At least Kyle Pitts looks fun!
3. Detroit Lions
Projected DVOA: -8.8%; -0.80 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: -27.2%; -2.16 standard deviations
I don't think anyone but the most optimistic Lions fan was expecting much on the field from the 2021 Lions. The point was building a culture and beginning to drag themselves out of the pit of the Matt Patricia years; success on the field was almost secondary. And that's a good thing, because there wasn't much success to talk about for most of the season!
The Lions come in third almost solely due to their offense floundering. The defense was projected at 6.7%; they finished at 10.8%, which is a little worse, but well within expected prediction tolerances. The offense, on the other hand, went from a -3.2% projection down to -17.7%. And you can blame a lot of that on Jared Goff.
It's much easier to project an offense when they keep the same quarterback than it is to figure out what happens when you replace your signal-caller. (We're already somewhat dreading the 2022 projections.) Under Matthew Stafford, the Lions had ranked 14th and 15th in passing DVOA in 2019 and 2020. Obviously, Goff is a worse passer than Stafford; otherwise, Goff wouldn't have come along with a passel of draft picks in the trade with Los Angeles. But our projections still had Detroit 19th on offense—a step back, for sure, but a mild one.
Instead, the Lions were terrible for about three months. Through the first 11 weeks of the season, the Lions' passing DVOA was -21.6%, worst in the league by a substantial margin. They jumped all the way to 30th overall when you include rushing plays, as they were merely below average behind D'Andre Swift and not reaching Falcons or Texans level defunction on the ground, but things were about as dreadful as could possibly be. The entire offense looked discombobulated and poorly thought out, there was zero chemistry between Goff and his receivers, and while the Lions kept fighting, they were just massively outmatched.
Things changed over the last month and change, however. Dan Campbell took over play-calling duties, and it seemed like a switch was flipped. From Week 12 to Week 18, the Lions ranked 15th in passing DVOA at 10.1%. As Goff got comfortable, his accuracy and consistency improved. Rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown began to get more and more involved with the offense, setting a franchise record for receiving yards by a rookie. Josh Reynolds was picked up off of waivers and was very solid. Penei Sewell settled in on the offensive line. Things gelled, and the Lions offense looked … well, "acceptable" is probably the highest level of praise we can give there, but that's leaps and bounds over where they were in September. Those first few months were so exceptionally bad that the Lions still end up as underachievers, but at least things were pointing in the right direction by the end of the year.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Projected DVOA: 14.6%; +1.33 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: -2.7%; -0.21 standard deviations
I don't think you need any advanced statistical analysis to figure out why the Ravens flopped in 2021; you just need to look at the injury report.
The Ravens led the league last season with 191.2 adjusted games lost. That's the most in the 21st century, even after taking into account the extra 17th game. The list of key players lost for all or part of the season could be the core of a contending roster; they absolutely sank due to everyone getting hurt.
J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill were supposed to be their three-headed monster in the backfield; all of them were lost in preseason. Ronnie Stanley and Marlon Humphrey missed time with ankle and pectoral issues. Rashod Bateman didn't see the field until October, dealing with groin injuries. Twelve different expected contributors ended up on injured reserve at some point during the regular season. By the end of the year, they were signing guys off the street to occupy the secondary, as they were down as many as nine defensive backs in December. They even lost Lamar Jackson for five games.
Honestly, we should be impressed the Ravens played as well as they did despite losing everyone at one point or another. They were 8-3 at one point before the sheer weight of injuries ended up too much to handle. And though they finished with the fewest wins under expectation last season, they remained remarkably competitive despite having a different starting lineup every week on offense and 16 unique starting lineups on defense. That's a credit to John Harbaugh and his staff, as they kept team afloat for months before the bottom fell out under an unprecedented level of injuries. That's not to say that all of the Ravens' problems were injury related—Lamar Jackson hasn't looked like his MVP self for a couple years now, and they needed to find a pass rush even before all the injuries derailed their season. But I'd consider 2021 far more of a one-off fluke year than an actual cause for concern, were I a Ravens fan.
1. New York Giants
Projected DVOA: -8.7%; -0.79 standard deviations
Actual DVOA: -29.6%; -2.35 standard deviations
I feel we should start this entry by quoting Mike Tanier's chapter from the 2021 Football Outsiders Almanac.
If the Giants prove our projections wrong, it will be at least a partial validation of [Dave] Gettleman the actual general manager, as opposed to Gettleman the SNL character. … And it will likely be an acknowledgement of what was indeed a strong offseason for the Giants, whose offense should be fun to watch this season: when Danny Dimes drops to pass, something (long gain, dropped pass, strip-sack, stumble scramble) is going to happen. … That said, the most likely scenario for the Giants is another year of flailing while Gettleman lectures us like a tipsy father-in-law at Thanksgiving.
The Giants did prove our projections wrong, offensively. We had them ranked 22nd—below average, for certain, but not a disaster. Instead, they finished 30th in rush DVOA, 31st in pass DVOA, and 32nd in total DVOA, clocking in at -28.1%. And, as such, both David Gettleman and Joe Judge were fired, no matter how much Judge tried to insist that the Giants were not a "clown-show organization."
The Giants suffered 73.5 AGL on offense last season, which certainly didn't help; by the end of the year, Jake Fromm (instead of Daniel Jones) was throwing to guys like C.J. Board and Dante Pettis. And with Jones at quarterback, the Giants did manage a -4.1% passing DVOA. That still would have been 26th in the league, but it's leaps and bounds beyond what Mike Glennon and Fromm were able to do. Taking into account the injuries at receiver, you can understand why new head coach Brian Daboll might be willing to give Jones a shot in a more stable situation.
But you can't blame all of the Giants' offensive woes on players missing time. The Giants didn't exactly get worse with Saquon Barkley out of the lineup; their run DVOA went from was -29.1% with Barkley to -22.6% with Devontae Booker. The receivers were constantly misused, even when healthy, Kadarius Toney being the biggest example there. The offensive line consisted of Andrew Thomas and four guys who were very much not Andrew Thomas; they finished 31st in adjusted line yards. They were a little better in pass protection, but only because the Giants gave up on throwing downfield by midseason; Jones' 7.2-yard aDOT was fifth-worst in the league.
And every member of the staff failed them. Gettleman brought in no depth for the offensive line, so when injuries started happening they didn't even have promising prospects or quality backups to slide in. Jason Garrett was fired at midseason after his ultra-conservative, stagnant offense went nowhere. And Joe Judge called a sneak on third-and-9, the icing on a cake of incompetence and frustration. All the laps in the world weren't keeping the Giants' offense afloat in 2021.
But at least they finished above our projections in free apology sodas provided for their fan base, so that's something.