Last year after Week 3, I wrote in this space that "the 2019 NFL season has been very stratified so far." Seven different teams started the season 3-0 (Detroit was also undefeated at 2-0-1) and there were some teams with very high and very low DVOA ratings early in the season, including the New England Patriots with one of the all-time greatest starts and the Miami Dolphins with one of the all-time worst starts.
Here we are in 2020, and once again seven different teams have started the season 3-0. But this year, if Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings are to believed, the NFL season has absolutely not been very stratified so far. There are a couple of very bad teams, but the good teams are all grouped together. With last night's big Baltimore loss, we have no team that has really dominated the league through the early going.
Because the teams are so close together in ratings, this week's DVOA rankings are likely to be a surprise. That surprise starts with the team on top: Indianapolis is No. 1, thanks to a sufficating defense over its last two games. But Indianapolis is only slightly ahead of Pittsburgh, which is only slightly ahead of San Francisco. Seattle and Tampa Bay round out the top five.
The Colts are far from a dominant No. 1 team at this point in the season. Indianapolis is:
- The first team with a loss to be No. 1 after three weeks since the 1989 Cleveland Browns.
- The first team with DVOA below 40% to be No. 1 after three weeks since the 2014 Cincinnati Bengals.
- The lowest team by DVOA to be No. 1 after three weeks since the 2000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were also at 35.2%.
Any look at the top teams in DVOA through three weeks has to insert the caveat that we are not yet including opponent adjustments. They begin after Week 4 and with the ratings so close, would likely have a big impact on the rankings, even at partial strength. The Colts' three opponents, for example, are all below average in DVOA and are a combined 0-6 in their other games. However, you can't completely write off the Colts' defensive performance by blaming the awful offenses in Philadelphia and Minnesota. First of all, Minnesota's offense is not as awful as you might think -- the Vikings did move the ball against the Packers, even if their defense couldn't stop Green Bay. And Jacksonville's offense ranks seventh so far this season; it's the Jaguars defense and special teams that have been the problem.
Pittsburgh is No. 2; DVOA believes that they have been much better than the scores of their games would otherwise indicate. (They've only outscored opponents by an average of 7.3 points per game.) However, two of those opponents were the Denver Broncos and New York Giants, who happen to be our current leaders in the odds to win next year's No. 1 overall pick.
Opponent adjustments will have an impact on San Francisco as well. The 49ers climbed from 15 to third this week by clobbering the New York Giants. They clobbered the New York Jets the week before. That's the two worst offenses in the league so far this season. The DVOA system, of course, does not know about the ridiculous number of injuries the 49ers have suffered this season; it's only looking at the plays on the field and how efficient the 49ers have been.
Based on average DVOA of opponent, only two teams in the current top ten have played an above-average schedule: No. 4 Seattle and No. 9 Kansas City. So things are going to get scrambled a bit once we get another week of data and have enough to start installing the opponent adjustments.
Which brings us to questions about how the Kansas City Chiefs only rank ninth after that dominating victory over Baltimore on Monday night. There are a few issues here. First, the lack of opponent adjustments means the Chiefs don't get a boost (yet) for playing Baltimore. Second, the Baltimore win was not as dominating as it looked early on, since the Chiefs did let the Ravens back into the game in the second half. Kansas City got 38.2% DVOA for the game. Third, the Chiefs' first two wins were not impressive according to the DVOA system. Week 1 was the rare game where both teams ended up with negative DVOA before we even apply opponent adjustments, and Kansas City is currently at -2.8% for that win. The win over the Chargers earned them 23.3% DVOA.
This is where DAVE comes in, our metric that combines 2020 performance with our prior knowledge (preseason forecast) to better project how we can expect teams to play for the remainder of the season. Kansas City is No. 1 in DAVE, because DAVE knows that we expected the Chiefs to be very strong going into the season. But DAVE has its own controversies. For example, the 1-2 New Orleans Saints are still second in DAVE. It's not just because of their high preseason projection. New Orleans is 11th in DVOA so far, higher than two different undefeated teams (Tennessee and Chicago). All three Saints games have earned positive DVOA, in part because a lot of their penalties are less predictive than runs and passes and are not included in our formula. If you missed it, I went more in depth into the loss to the Raiders in last week's commentary. The Saints' had their lowest rating of the year against Green Bay, but it was still positive. New Orleans had 4.3% DVOA and Green Bay had 8.6% DVOA, and both teams drop four spots this week. Both teams will (probably) see their rating for this game improve over time as the opponent adjustments gradually kick in.
Speaking of Tennessee and Chicago, they are very low for 3-0 teams before we even start considering opponent adjustments. Each team's three opponents so far are a combined 1-5 in their other games. Tennessee and Chicago rank among the ten lowest-rated 3-0 teams in DVOA history. Here's a look at where they rank and how those other teams did for the rest of the year. (Teams with an asterisk are measured in Week 4, so some opponent adjustments are included.) The majority of these teams ended up with winning records and made the playoffs and a couple of them really improved after their "slow" starts.
|Worst DVOA by 3-0 Teams, 1985-2020|
You can read more about Chicago's improbable Week 3 win in this week's Any Given Sunday column.
There's one other team I want to write about today, and that's the Buffalo Bills. If any members of Bills Mafia still read this website, they're probably a bit ticked off that the Bills somehow rank just 10th in DVOA despite their 3-0 record. The Bills are a very weird, unexpected team so far this year. They have essentially been the exact opposite of what we expected. In Football Outsiders Almanac 2020, we wrote that the Bills might have the best roster in the league outside of the quarterback position. Their defense had our No. 1 projection for the preseason. So what has happened instead? Josh Allen has had a spectacular breakout, currently ranking second behind Russell Wilson in passing YAR. But the Bills rank 28th running the ball and a very surprising 24th on defense. They've scored a ton of points but keep letting opponents back into games. It's not just the blown 28-3 lead against the Rams; Miami was beating Buffalo until 6:03 of the fourth quarter last weekend. The rest of the team is not living up to what Josh Allen is doing so far.
Because Allen is playing so well, it feels like this is the best Buffalo start to the season in quite a long time. It's not. It's really not. Buffalo started 3-0 just one year ago! But it's more than that: Buffalo has made a habit of doing this for years now. For the last decade, no team in the NFL has made a habit of starting strong and then stalling out quite like the Buffalo Bills.
This is the seventh season in the last ten where the Bills started the season either 3-0 or 2-1. In each of those seasons, the Bills ranked in the top ten of DVOA after three weeks. In fact, in five of those other six seasons, the Bills had a higher DVOA after Week 3 than they have this year. (None of these Week 3 numbers include opponent adjustments, although the final season numbers do.) The seasons without good starts are shaded:
|Buffalo Week 1-3 Starts, 2010-2020|
The biggest difference between this year and the previous hot Bills starts is that the quarterback performance makes it feel more sustainable. But we've seen that before as well. The Buffalo offense was just as hot in 2011 and 2015, although the 2015 offense was more of a run-based offense when it started out hot. Josh Allen has 409 passing YAR through three games, which exactly matches what Ryan Fitzpatrick did in 2011. Fitzpatrick finished the year with 185 passing DYAR, which means he was below replacement level the rest of the season.
None of this is to say that the Bills are guaranteed to fall apart this year the way they have in so many recent years. This is a different quarterback, a different roster, a different head coach and front office. And the last two times the Bills started hot, their DVOA may have declined but they made the playoffs anyway. What I want to point out instead is that this Bills start is only notable because its the quarterback leading the way, and because of what the expectations were for that quarterback before the season. They're going to have to keep this up for a bit longer before this year becomes different from all the other hot Bills Septembers we've seen over the past decade. If the defense started playing like we expected before the season instead of letting the Rams close a 28-3 lead, it would go a long way towards helping things.
The Bills are not the only team with a habit of starting faster than they finish, just the most extreme one. Here is a list of the five teams from the last decade with the largest average decline from DVOA after Week 3 to final DVOA. Obviously, what happened in 2010 and 2011 doesn't tell us anything about what's going to happen in 2020, but the list is interesting.
|Biggest Average DVOA Fall from Weeks 1-3, 2010-2019|
Atlanta was a bit of a surprise to me, although that's in part because most of the years where they declined significantly came early in the decade. They've gotten better later in the season in three of the last four years. Here's the same list, only on the other side, the teams with the slowest starts over the last decade. And hey, look who's on top.
|Biggest Average DVOA Rise from Weeks 1-3, 2010-2019|
New Orleans is the rare team where this might mean something because the Saints have been playing with the same coach and quarterback for the entire decade. In nine of the last ten years, the Saints have had a better DVOA at the end of the season than they had after Week 3. Just last year, the Saints were 2-1 after three games but ranked only 21st in DVOA. Only once in the decade, 2013, did the Saints rank in the top ten in DVOA after three games. Yet six times in the decade, the Saints finished the year in the top ten. The Saints have a habit of slow offensive starts, too. A year ago, the Saints ranked just 15th in offensive DVOA after Week 3.
When I wrote about this same trend a couple years ago, Pittsburgh was the team that really stood out, and here they are again. I also expected to find New England on this list but last year's super hot start ruined their decade-long record of getting better after September nearly every year.
The Raiders' average DVOA change from Weeks 1-3 to their final DVOA was exactly 0.0%. I thought that was fun.
One more thing on the subject of the Bills, since I enjoy picking fights with their fans so much. There's absolutely no denying that Josh Allen has been fantastic this season. He even has a positive (3.7%) completion rate over expectation according to NFL Next Gen Stats! We're told that we should have known that Allen was ready to take the leap this season. I certainly didn't hear that expectation from any film experts this offseason, but the numbers especially don't suggest that a huge leap forward was coming.
I went and looked for a list of quarterbacks who had similar passing performances to Allen in their first two years. I ignored rushing; we know Allen is valuable on the ground, but the questions were about his abilities as a passer. I found all the quarterbacks who fit these baselines:
- Less than 0 DYAR as a rookie with 200+ passes
- Between -250 and 250 DYAR in Year 2 with 200+ passes
Look at this list and tell me if we were supposed to expect Josh Allen to take the leap in Year 3:
|Similar Career Starts to Josh Allen, 1985-2020|
|Years||Player||Team||Y1 DYAR||Y2 DYAR||Y3 DYAR|
That's right, Josh Allen through three games has more quarterback DYAR than any of these other similar quarterbacks had in their entire third seasons. Obviously, like Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2011, he could go negative for the rest of the year and end up lower than this, but it's more likely that he'll play somewhere between his Week 1-3 performance and his 2018-2019 performance. Even if he's an average NFL passer, he has the best career out of anyone on this list, especially when you consider his rushing value.
Here are three more quarterbacks I thought were interesting. These are quarterbacks who didn't play much as rookies but hit the "similar to Allen" baselines if we look at their second and third seasons. There's a really intriguing comparable here, and it's not the guy who played for the Buffalo Bills.
|Three More Sort of Similar Career Starts to Josh Allen|
|Years||Player||Team||Y2 DYAR||Y3 DYAR||Y4 DYAR|
Josh Allen as the modern Randall Cunningham (only taking fewer sacks) would be a lot of fun.
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These are the Football Outsiders team efficiency ratings through three weeks of 2020, measured by our proprietary Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system that breaks down every single play and compares a team's performance to the league average based on situation in order to determine value over average. (Explained further here.)
OFFENSE and DEFENSE DVOA are adjusted to consider all fumbles, kept or lost, as equal value. SPECIAL TEAMS DVOA is adjusted for type of stadium (warm, cold, dome, Denver) and week of season. As always, positive numbers represent more points so DEFENSE is better when it is NEGATIVE.
Please note that there are no opponent adjustments in DVOA until after Week 4. (It's still listed as DVOA instead of VOA because I don't feel like going through and changing all the tables manually.) Our second weekly table which includes schedule strength, variance, and estimated wins will appear beginning after Week 4.
DAVE is a formula which combines our preseason forecast with current DVOA to get a more accurate projection of how a team will play the rest of the season. DAVE is currently 78% preseason forecast and 22% actual performance.
For certain teams with major injuries, offensive DAVE numbers are approximate, adjusted to split the difference between two ratings that are based on a preseason projection with and without the injured players (Carolina, Denver, New Orleans, and San Francisco).
To save people some time, please use the following format for all complaints:
<team> is clearly ranked <too high/too low> because <reason unrelated to DVOA>. <subjective ranking system> is way better than this. <unrelated team-supporting or -denigrating comment, preferably with poor spelling and/or chat-acceptable spelling>