by Aaron Schatz
This is the fourth of a series of eight articles taking a closer look at every team in the NFL, division by division, using our new statistics such as line yards and DVOA (explained here). Don't be scared away by all the numbers -- the goal of these IN FOCUS articles is to go through all the numbers and translate the most interesting trends into actual English paragraphs for those allergic to endless tables of stats. You enjoy the stats separated by team, or just enjoy the insights of each team's commentary.
The format of these articles is explained at the beginning of the one on the AFC East. Remember, offensive numbers are better the more POSITIVE, defensive numbers are better the more NEGATIVE. Overall total is offense minus defense, so the more positive the better. Schedule strength is harder the more negative, with the hardest schedule ranked #1 and the easiest ranked #32. New players on a team are colored blue and players who have left the team are colored red.
OUT: AFC West, NFC East
IN: AFC North, NFC North
HELPS: Passing and rushing defense. Because of the poor teams in the North divisions, the four NFC West teams start the year with a significant advantage in the wild card race. Now, where have I heard that before? Seriously, our strength of schedule rankings for 2003, based on 2002 DVOA, show the four NFC West teams with the four easiest schedules in the NFL.
HURTS: Nothing stands out
WRONG WAY RUSHERS
Instead of writing one or two main articles about each team, followed by a series of shorter articles, I wanted to write one big article about a problem that seems to be shared by every team in this division. In fact, it is a strange oddity found in the statistics of a number of other NFL teams as well. Why do so many NFL teams run more often in one direction when they have more success in the other direction?
Let's start with some examples from the NFC West:
- San Francisco ranked #20 in the NFL in ALY (adjusted line yards) middle, yet ran 60% of rushes up the middle (4th in NFL).
- Seattle ranked #23 in ALY left, and #21 in ALY right, yet ran 32% of rushes left (2nd in NFL) and 29% of rushes right (3rd in NFL).
- St. Louis ranked #30 in ALY left and #9 ALY middle, yet ran 31% of their rushes left (3rd in NFL) and only 44% of their rushes middle (29th in NFL).
- Arizona ranked #22 in ALY left and #7 in ALY right, yet ran 27% of their rushes to the left (9th in NFL) and only 23% of their rushes to the right (18th in NFL).
This is not a problem only in the NFC West. You may remember from the Washington comment that the Indigenous Persons ran only 15% of their rushes to the right (31st in the NFL) even though they led the league in ALY right. Here are some other teams that don't seem to realize which direction they should be running:
|Team||Good Direction||Adj. Line Yards||Frequency||Bad Direction||Adj. Line Yards||Frequency|
|Baltimore||left||4.34 (3)||23% (18)||middle||3.49 (22)||65% (2)|
|Dallas||right||4.19 (8)||22% (19)||left||3.70 (18)||37% (1)|
|Buffalo||middle||3.93 (5)||40% (31)||left||3.66 (20)||30% (5)|
|New England||middle||4.04 (2)||50% (24)||left||3.69 (19)||31% (4)|
|Tampa Bay||right||4.24 (5)||21% (24)||middle||3.07 (29)||57% (9)|
What is going on here? 20 of the 32 NFL teams have, in at least one of these three directions, a situation where the team's rank in ALY is at least 15 places away from the team's rank in how many rushing plays it runs in that direction. Why? I honestly have no idea, but I have a number of theories:
- Offensive coordinators and head coaches literally have no clue which members of the offensive line are the strongest blockers, or in which direction their running back gains the most yards. Note that the Rams run so much to the left, behind their best-known offensive lineman Orlando Pace.
- Defenses game plan to the offensive line's strengths, thus making the stronger parts of the line actually harder to run behind. If this is a case, though, offensive coordinators are doing a lousy job of responding.
- Offensive coordinators deliberately run more behind their weaker rush blockers, hoping to fool the defenses. If this is a case, they seem to be doing a lousy job of fooling anyone.
- These are one-year blips, particularly in specific cases such as St. Louis. Perhaps the Rams run more to the left out of habit because the pre-injury, shifty Marshall Faulk is better in that direction (in 2003, he was much better middle and right). We know the Patriots run left to avoid running right, because they are so horrible on that side of the line.
- Sorting rushes in seven directions, based on NFL.com play-by-play, instead of three directions, based on ESPN.com play-by-play, would remove some of the evidence of this phenomenon.
- This is all random, and after we have more than one year of line yard stats we'll discover no pattern.
If you have another idea why this phenomenon occurs, please leave a comment in this article's comment section, because figuring out why teams run the wrong way is one of my prime goals for 2003. I will note that the teams that run better up the middle -- such as St. Louis and Buffalo -- at least can be excused for running more plays to the sides, since a run up the middle in general gains, on average, a quarter of a yard less than a run to the side.
There are some teams whose distribution of rush attempts is much closer in line with the team's rank in adjusted line yards in each direction. The best is Pittsburgh, which ranked from left to right 7/24/27 in adjusted line yards and 7/23/23 in rush distribution. Cleveland ranked 21/30/14 in adjusted line yards and 11/27/4 in rush distribution. The Giants, poor up the middle, ranked 14/27/6 in adjusted line yards and 10/26/14 in rush distribution. Their opposites were fellow Jersey-dwellers the Jets, ranked 27/10/22 in adjusted line yards and 16/8/26 in rush distribution. Houston sucked in all directions and had the most directionally-balanced running game in the league.
Now on with some other notes about the NFC West...
|Plummer, Jake (DEN 03)||-22.0%||42||564||3027||-19.1%||36||-101.1||47|
|Blake, Jeff (BAL 02)||-14.6%||34||325||1980||-14.9%||32||-39.5||41|
|Plummer, Jake (DEN 03)||-8.5%||21||35||286||-10.8%||25||-4.4||25|
|Blake, Jeff (BAL 02)||5.6%||14||22||121||6.1%||12||1.5||14|
|Smith, Emmitt (DAL 02)||-8.4%||38||254||974||-8.1%||36||-19.3||42|
|Jones, Thomas (TAM 03)||-25.4%||48||138||511||-26.8%||48||-32.4||49|
|Jones, Thomas (TAM 03)||-19.8%||42||30||113||-23.7%||44||-5.3||38|
|Smith, Emmitt (DAL 02)||-24.5%||24||169||-32.2%||-5.3|
|Boston, David (SDG 03)||-2.4%||54||75||572||-5.9%||62||-2.3||54|
|Sanders, Frank (BAL 03)||9.0%||27||58||429||7.7%||29||6.8||35|
|Jenkins, MarTay (ATL 03)||-11.4%||76||43||250||-15.2%||80||-6.1||64|
|Foster, Larry (DET 02)||-20.2%||30||179||-19.4%||-8.1|
Other important additions: FS Dexter Jackson (TAM), LG Cameron Spikes (HOU), LB James Darling (NYJ), WR Bryant Johnson (R1), DE Calvin Pace (R1), WR Anquin Boldin (R2)
Other important losses: FS Kwamie Lassiter (SDG)
Look up at those rushing numbers. Yes, Marcel Shipp ranked higher than Emmitt Smith. Yes, Marcel Shipp is nine years younger than Emmitt Smith. Yes, Marcel Shipp's receiving abilities make him a more versatile player than Emmitt Smith. Yes, the Cardinals probably have the most apathetic fan base in the league and Emmitt Smith won't sell many tickets. No, I have no idea why the Cardinals signed Emmitt Smith.
I know he's gone now, but I have to comment on the really strange usage of David Boston. The best receiver on the Cardinals had two -- count 'em, TWO -- passes thrown to him in the end zone. I know he missed half the season, but two? Either he had three guys hanging on him every time the Cards got past the 20, or they have no idea how to score.
The Cardinals added a great defensive player in Dexter Jackson to go with the one they already have, LCB Duane Starks. The Arizona passing defense was far better on passes to the right, usually the side Starks is playing on. Opposing QBs had a -15% VOA passing right, but +32% VOA passing left. Why players leave Super Bowl champions to play for this team, I have no idea. They couldn't find a better team to pay the big bucks?
There is potential for the Cardinals to become the Cincinnati Bengals of 2003 -- surprisingly useful to fantasy players. Like the rest of this division, their schedule is very favorable for fantasy points, and like Cincinnati, they'll pass a lot because they'll be behind a lot. Who will be the Cardinal Chad Johnson?
ST. LOUIS RAMS
|Canidate, Trung (WAS 03)||-86.2%||17||48||-84.6%||-12.5|
|Conwell, Ernie (NOR 03)||12.7%||6||30||11.6%||1.0|
|Canidate, Trung (WAS 03)||29.8%||6||62||11.0%||1.5|
|Proehl, Ricky (CAR 03)||7.9%||30||70||516||6.0%||36||6.8||34|
|Conwell, Ernie (NOR 03)||17.3%||7||48||422||16.4%||8||10.3||6|
|Cleeland, Cam (NWE 02)||-7.3%||31||21||112||-11.9%||34||-2.0||28|
Other important additions: RT Kyle Turley (NOR), CB Jason Sehorn (NYG), C Dave Wohlabaugh (CLE), P Sean Landeta (PHI), DT Jimmy Kennedy (R1), SLB Pina Tinoaisamoa (R2)
Other important losses: CB Dre' Bly (DET), CB Dexter McCleon (KAN), RG Tom Nutten (NYJ), P Mitch Berger (NOR)
If we only counted runs by Marshall Faulk, and not Lamar Gordon, the offensive line would rank #12 in adjusted line yards instead of #24. Split by direction, the line would be #25 left, #4 middle, and #15 right.
One reason why Torry Holt is eclipsing Isaac Bruce as the #1 receiver here: Bruce's DVOA in the red zone was a horrid -74.2% on 20 passes, the worst rating of any receiver who was thrown 10 or more red zone passes. Holt was +18.3% DVOA on 12 passes.
Notice how the defensive line yards are much worse on runs to the right. The Rams will have a new strong-side linebacker, rookie Pina Tinoaisamoa, to try fixing this hole, but there will need to be improvement from LDE Leonard Little and LDT Ryan Pickett.
It's a small sample -- only six games -- but no quarterback in the league had a bigger difference than Warner between passing DVOA left and passing DVOA right. Jamie Martin had the same trend, throwing better right. But this isn't apparently a Rams offense thing, because Marc Bulger was actually better throwing left.
(Note: Due to negative pass plays like sacks and batted passes that don't have a direction, passing ratings by direction tend more positive.)
The Rams rushing defense softened on second down for some reason, going from -7% VOA on first down to +13% VOA on second down, then falling to a very good -25% VOA on third down. The pass defense had no similar trend.
The Rams rushing defense also got better when winning:
Losing by more than a TD: +13% VOA
Within a TD either way: -2% VOA
Winning by more than a TD: -24% VOA
The Rams will probably be seriously undervalued in fantasy this year. On top of the fact that they will have lots of returns from injury, the change from their 2002 to 2003 schedule probably benefits Rams fantasy players more than those on any other team. Think Martz isn't happy to have Tampa Bay off the schedule?
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
|Stokes, J.J. (JAC 03)||-19.4%||85||55||332||-19.2%||86||-14.2||80|
|Weaver, Jed (MIA 02)||32.3%||9||75||29.2%||4.2|
Other important additions: DT Travis Kirschke (MIA), OT Kwame Harris (R1), WR Brandon Lloyd (R4)
Other important losses: DT Dana Stubblefield (OAK), LG Dave Fiore (WAS), DE Chike Okeafor (SEA)
People's exhibit 49 for the debate "Are line yards more affected by the offensive linemen or the specific running back:"
While on most teams that used multiple backs, line yards showed the same tendency with both backs, this was not the case with the Niners. And yet, after adjustments, both backs come out as virtually the same value.
When the 49ers swing the running back out for a pass, it is to the left far more often than to the right.
32% of San Francisco's red zone passes went to Terrell Owens. Only four receivers were more commonly used by their teams as red zone targets: Moss, Moulds, Ward, and Gonzalez.
Is that Sharpie in his sock creating a problem when Terrell Owens runs to the right? His receiving DVOA was +37% to the left, +11% to the middle, but -19% to the right.
Jeff Garcia was much more efficient when the 49ers were losing, with a +60% DVOA when down by more than a touchdown but +7% DVOA when winning or losing by only 7 or less. One out of eight passes came when losing by more than a touchdown.
The Niners passing defense had major problems on third down, with an awful +44% VOA on third down but a much better -1% VOA on first and second down.
Who is the better 49er cornerback, LCB and 2000 second-round pick Jason Webster, or RCB and 2000 first-round pick Ahmed Plummer? If VOA is to be believed, the answer is Webster, because quarterbacks were about league-average passing to the right against the Niners (+3% VOA) but far above average passing to the left or middle (+41% VOA). On most teams, remember, LCB is on the offense's right and RCB is on the offense's left.
Other important additions: DE Chike Okeafor (SFO), MLB Randall Godfrey (TEN), CB Marcus Trufant (R1), Ken Hamlin (R2)
Other important losses: K Rian Lindell (BUF), P Jeff Feagles (NYG)
Um, what quarterback controversy?
As noted above, only Dallas ran more often to the left, and only Philly and Buffalo ran more often to the right.
The Seahawks depend heavily on tight ends when they get into the red zone, even more than most NFL teams. In the red zone, one out of every three passes was thrown to Stevens or Mili; outside the red zone, it was one in six.
The Seahawks are far better passing up the middle than to the sidelines. This characteristic of their offense was equally pronounced with both quarterbacks and with all wide receivers as well as Shawn Alexander:
Oddly enough, the Seahawks on the other side of the passing game were also stronger up the middle. The pass defense was actually second in the league stopping passes up the middle, a -27% VOA, but they were pretty bad on passes to the left and right sides, +22% VOA.
Notice from the defensive line yard stats that the Seattle rush defense was actually not that bad on runs to the right. They were also much better in the second half of games, allowing a +24% VOA in the first half but only +4% VOA in the second half.
The farther behind the Seahawks are, the better Shawn Alexander is running the ball:
Losing by more than a TD: +23% DVOA
Within a TD either way: -8% DVOA
Winning by more than a TD: -26% DVOA
(Note: This is already adjusted for the fact that teams run more but gain fewer yards with large leads.)