Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

As part of our ongoing Stat of the Day series, we're digging deep into our spreadsheets to run a new stat every weekday until Super Bowl XLIV.

Today's list is inspired by the Broncos' parting with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, which you can discuss more here. The Broncos let Nolan go despite enjoying the second-biggest year-to-year improvement in defensive DVOA of any team we've ever tracked.

Biggest One-Year Improvement in Defensive DVOA, 1993-2009
Year Team DVOA
Prev Year
That Year
1998 MIA 7.7% -26.0% -33.7%
2009 DEN 24.7% -7.9% -32.7%
1996 DEN 11.0% -20.8% -31.8%
1998 OAK 10.6% -19.4% -30.0%
2001 STL 13.5% -16.3% -29.8%
1996 GB 4.8% -24.3% -29.1%
2009 NYJ 2.5% -23.4% -25.9%
2001 CLE 8.2% -17.0% -25.2%
2000 TEN -2.0% -27.0% -25.0%
1999 PHI 5.6% -17.7% -23.3%

The Dolphins team with a stronger improvement actually had the same head coach (Jimmie Johnson) and defensive coordinator (George Hill) as the previous two years. The biggest difference was maturing talent. Jason Taylor and Sam Madison were in their first years as starters, and Zach Thomas was in his second. They also added Brock Marion as a free agent from Dallas.

Here's a similar list for the most improved offenses.

Biggest One-Year Improvement in Offensive DVOA, 1993-2009
Year Team DVOA
Prev Year
That Year
1999 OAK -28.1% 15.2% 43.3%
1998 BUF -22.0% 15.7% 37.7%
2006 SF -42.0% -7.5% 34.5%
2008 CAR -14.0% 18.0% 32.0%
2006 PHI -9.1% 22.0% 31.1%
2002 KC 7.9% 38.0% 30.1%
2007 NE 15.1% 45.2% 30.0%
1999 STL -17.6% 12.4% 30.0%
2000 PHI -28.7% 0.2% 29.0%
2008 ATL -15.5% 12.9% 28.4%

1999 was Jon Gruden's second season as head of the Oakland Raiders. He fixed the defense in his first year and the offense in his second, primarily by signing free agent quarterback Rich Gannon. The 1998 Bills also jumped in offense thanks to (10 games of) a new quarterback, going from Todd Collins to Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson. They also had a new head coach (Wade Phillips) and new offensive coordinator (Joe Pendry).

You can find a list of the most improved special teams units here. If I put together the same list now, the 2009 Vikings would be third.


27 comments, Last at 03 Apr 2011, 8:49pm

1 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

Josh Mcdaniels doing a Excellent job Mike Nolan didn't Call the Defensive Plays or Invision the Scheme he just did what josh Mcdaniels wanted SO give Josh Credit here

3 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

The 1996 Packers defense remains one of the more underrated units in recent NFL history. Reggie wasn't even the best guy on that defense. LeRoy Butler was the best player.

6 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

Jimmy Johnson knew how to take fliers on guys that ended up working out. He drafted guys that produced in college but people said wouldn't be good in the pros, ran hard practices, let guys compete, and had lots of players NOT from the top of the draft come out and play well. Look at how stacked the 95 Cowboys were, and look at the talent he put together in Miami... He could have been a great GM instead of showing off his shiney silver hair on Fox.

I'm still a big fan of Coach Parcells going 10-6 with the Quincy "Q-Dawg" Carter at QB and Troy Hamrick at RB team in Dallas, or taking the Jets from 1-15 to the Afc Championship in two years, or taking over the "Miss Cleo" 1-15 Miami Dolphins to AFC East Champs the following year...

7 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

As much as I like DVOA it is really hard to grasp that this years Texans and Ravens had a higher Offensive DVOA than the 99 Rams

23 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

With each tweak to DVOA, the 99 Rams have gotten worse and worse. It's shocking really--doesn't pass the smell test. The 99 team is almost universally considered one of the best offenses ever. Just not here. Come on FO! (HOWEVER, the 2009 Rams had a FO preseason mean-win projection of 8+......)

Lastly, Aaron did defend Rams fans on the latest BSR podcast, so I can't completely hate him or his DVOA system.

Carry on.

24 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

Well, let's take a closer look, shall we? Remember, DVOA is not adjusted for era, so the numbers do not need to be tweaked as they traverse the decade.

The 1999 Rams have an offensive DVOA of 12.4%, a little worse than the 2009 Texans or Eagles. They would rank 12th in this year's standings.

The first thing to say is: look at the defense adjustment. The Rams faced one of the worst set of opponents in history. They played just three games against teams with a winning end-of-season record. The rest of the NFC West sucked (yes, already!), going a dismal 8-24 outside the division; and it drew the polarized AFC Central in the interconference lottery. The Rams' non-adjusted VOA of 17% would put it 9th in 2009 — leapfrogging Minnesota, Philly and Houston.

The there's the question of balance. The Rams' rushing offense had 2.8% DVOA, good for 9th. How was that possible? Marshall Faulk ranked 2nd in DYAR and 2nd in success rate, while the offensive line finished 2nd in adjusted line yards. Well, Faulk's 253 attempts were not even three-quarters of the Rams' total. Backup Robert Holcombe was below replacement level, with two fumbles and a weak yards-per-carry average. So, yes, Robert Holcombe helped torpedo the Greatest Show on Turf.

The passing offense, meanwhile, led the league. Even so, at 35% DVOA, it was fewer than five percentage points ahead of Oakland and Kansas City. Again, opponent strength is crucial here: the Rams' 2.5 percentage point advantage over the Raiders becomes 17 percentage points when defense adjustments are removed. In VOA terms, St Louis would have finished 4th this year, a fraction behind Minnesota and Indy (and well behind the Pats). In short, the Greatest Show on Turf was built on the secondaries of the Ditka Saints, 4-12 Niners, hungover Falcons, expansion Browns, Coslet Bengals………

Finally, you have to consider some of the changes that have taken place NFL-wide over the least decade. The Rams' 2.8% interception rate would have been good for 15th this year; their then-league-leading 64.7% completion rate would now be 9th. The passing game has developed a lot in ten years: DVOA does not take that into account. I hope that one day it will, although the 1999 Rams still won't rank among the all-time great offenses, for one simple reason: they weren't.

26 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

And the 2007 Patriots offense was built on the pathetic defenses of the 1-15 Dolphins, 4-12 Jets, and 31st ranked defense of the Bills. As far as games outside of the NFC West, the 1999 Rams still averaged 30.4 points a game (less than a field goal fewer than their total average). Meanwhile, the 1999 Rams had more plays of 30 yards or more (playoffs + regular season combined), and more plays of 50 yards or more (playoffs + regular season combined) than the 2007 Patriots. What's more, they had a far more dominant running game.

And finally, one thing I've never quite understood about you stat heads. You speak about "defensive adjustments," but fail to consider things of this nature: Part of the reason the NFC West defenses that the Rams played were so bad statistically was BECAUSE those teams had to play the Rams twice!

Taken further, consider the OFFENSES of the NFC West. The Rams weren't the only good offense of that division. The Panthers were 4th in the league in scoring and 6th in offense, while the 49ers were the 10th best offense in the league. Only one team in that 5 team division had an offense worse than 19th (average offensive ranking of the division, excluding Rams: 16th (13th with them). By comparison, the 2007 Jets, Bills, and Dolphins were 26th, 30th, and 28th, respectfully (average offensive ranking of the division, excluding Patriots: 28th [21st with them]). Believe it or not, those facts actually ALTER the strength of defense numbers that are used for these adjustments.

But I should expect no less from mathematicians and statisticians. A physicist, on the other hand, would not make such a mistake.

27 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

Not to mention, the Rams offense was NOT a one hit wonder. They put up 526,540, and 503 points in consecutive years. And two years after that they managed to be second in the NFL in scoring.

Now, consider that 2000 team. They put up 38 points against the 5th ranked defense, and again 35 against the Dungy Bucs. Their WORST offensive performance of the year was against the TWENTY-SEVENTH ranked defense.

As for the 2001 Rams (once again leading the NFL in yards and points), they put up 42 against the 5th ranked Dolphins defense (the ONLY team to get even into the 30s against them), in addition to lighting up most of the league for another season of more than 500 points.

The only team that came close in terms of sustained offensive excellence was the early to mid 90s 49ers, who scored the 2nd most points all time in three consecutive seasons (behind the GSOT). But let me guess, it was a result of playing in the NFC West? Or does that argument not apply to the Steve Young/Jerry Rice/Brent Jones/John Taylor/Rick Watters 49ers?

Essentially, in light of more than just artificially isolated numbers (again, the 99 NFC West team had bad defensive numbers in large part due to the fact that the entire division had good offense), the claim that the Greatest Show on Turf doesn't rank among the all-time offenses is down right Glenn-Beck-ridiculous. How on earth you are able to dismiss three straight 500+ point seasons is baffling to me.

10 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

Wondering where the 1999 Colts fit into this--Manning in his second year led the team from 3-13 and presumably a horrid DVOA with an underperforming Faulk and 27 INTs, to 13-3, a playoff bye, a few offensive pro bowlers, Edge with a rushing title and 2,000+ yards from scrimmage....

Then again, that 99 team wasn't exactly dominant--weak D and weaker schedule, but still, I'd assume a pretty big turnaround on O.

13 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

This info is available free to everyone. Click "Team Efficiency" and then, when the page loads, you'll see a window that lets you select the year.

98 Colts: -17.5% overall, -4.3% offense, 12.2% defense
99 Colts: 3.9% overall, 8.8% offense, 4.3% defense
Improvement: +21.4% overall, +13.1% offense, -7.9% defense (meaning, the defense did improve, since lower is better).

15 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

I could see Gannon taking over the Raiders being #1, but Warner taking over the Rams or Peyton taking over the Colts... 3-13 to 13-3? The Rams were 400-1 to win the super bowl the year that they did... I couldn't ever rememeber any less probable champion in pro sports. Maybe the 69 Mets? I dunno, I don't follow baseball that well. The miracle on Ice doesn't count either IMO.

14 Re: Stat of the Day: Most Improved Teams

I'm really liking this SOTD feature. The stats don't always mean much (see Failed Completions, receivers, for the evaluation of) but they're presented as interesting tidbits instead of as the be-all-end-all. And so far they have been interesting.

Keep up the good work.

19 1999 Rams

I was expecting the 1999 Rams to be at the top of the offensive improvement list, so I was surprised to see that they're not even in the top 5. I went back and looked at the 1999 offense page, and overall I was surprised by the numbers. Median offensive DVOA was negative 7.9% in 1999, whereas this year it's positive 6.7%. I know median =/= average, but that seems like a pretty crazy swing. Doesn't the DVOA formula involve tweaks to get average performance close to 0% for the league for that year? The 1999 Rams had the number 1 passing offense at 35.0%; that same number would be good only for 9th this year. Stuff like the prospectus article on "best running back seasons of all time" considered the gap between the best player and the rest of the league as well as raw performance. Doesn't DVOA do this as well? The 1999 Rams has the MVP at the helm; the 2009 9th ranked passing offense has an alternate Pro Bowler at QB.

Maybe some of this is discussed in the article announcing the completion of 1999 stats, but did any of the 1999 data change with subsequent tweaks to the DVOA formula?