Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Nov 2017

FiveThirtyEight: NFL Teams Are More Consistent Now

I will be writing pieces every other week or so at FiveThirtyEight this season, and the first one takes a look at the idea of variance in the NFL. Specifically, we looked at variance in DVOA and found that the last two seasons are the lowest since 1986. Crazy, right? However, crazy is the NFL's first language. Every season is crazy in its own unique way. I talked about what is driving this downward trend in DVOA variation in the passing game, which is really the innovation by the 2007 Patriots and the lack of innovation in the years since.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 03 Nov 2017

14 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2017, 7:28pm by LionInAZ

Comments

1
by ammek :: Sat, 11/04/2017 - 12:00pm

I like this sort of subject and I'm glad to see you're being given the space to write about it, Scott.

There's a lot to think about in the article. I agree with you that 2007 is a key year, although I'd be keen to give coaches other than Belichick credit for innovation: Payton, McCarthy, Reid and Bruce Arians in Pittsburgh were at or near the vanguard of some of the changes which have since been copied all over the league. And the Dick Vermeil Rams and Chiefs were an important influence.

On the issue of variance, what's striking is how the increase in consistency does not seem to have led to an increase in parity, at least not within a single season. The reduction in variance hasn't implied a convergence toward the mean: instead, the superior teams have become more consistently superior while the Browns remain inexorably Browns-like. The best QBs continue to reduce their picks at a similar rhythm to the worst QBs, even though they have less leeway with which to do so. In other words, the inferior teams are not catching up.

I, too, feel that teams no longer have distinct 'identities'; everyone is now trying to follow the same strategic-philosophical path(s) to success, which makes for a less heterogeneous league. It amazes me that, even as defenses sell out to stop the pass, no team has been able to build an efficient and dynamic offense based on rushing in the last dozen years. The success rate on RB runs has barely improved from its historic lows in the mid-2000s.

The onus must surely be on the NFL (rather than on individual coaches) to make the game less predictable while continuing to prioritize safety and minimizing injuries to players. I still believe it's vital to reduce the value of field goals, which are the dullest outcome of a drive: defenses should be better rewarded for making a stop in a league where the drive success rate remains at an all-time high. Personally I think turnovers are exciting, and changes to the rules on what constitutes a fumble (eg the tuck rule) could produce more swing plays.

2
by PaddyPat :: Sat, 11/04/2017 - 4:43pm

"Last dozen years" is a decent figure for describing the rise of the pass, because there were some very strong rushing offenses in Seattle and Kansas City before that--teams where one had the sense that the offense was powered by the ground game.

It is actually striking how weak ground games have become recently. One has to go back to 2014 to find Seattle at Number 1 with a 29.0 rushing attack, with subsequent highs around 17.0. Then Carolina at Number 1 in 2011 at 32.1. But these are clear outliers. In the modern NFL, a rushing quarterback appears to be a vital feature of a powerful ground game, and there are very few players who can sustain passing efficiency and health while rushing frequently...

4
by rj1 :: Sat, 11/04/2017 - 9:14pm

"On the issue of variance, what's striking is how the increase in consistency does not seem to have led to an increase in parity, at least not within a single season. The reduction in variance hasn't implied a convergence toward the mean: instead, the superior teams have become more consistently superior while the Browns remain inexorably Browns-like. The best QBs continue to reduce their picks at a similar rhythm to the worst QBs, even though they have less leeway with which to do so. In other words, the inferior teams are not catching up."

That's not surprising. If you look at "solved" sports where innovation is dead/nonexistent to where everyone in it does it the same way, they're that way too. Take the 100 meters. Everyone that does the event does it the exact same way due to how simple it is. A guy that runs it in 10.2 is always going to beat a guy that runs it in 10.4. If there were more variance in the event, the quicker guy would lose sometimes.

3
by rj1 :: Sat, 11/04/2017 - 9:11pm

I think there's value in figuring out a brutal rushing offense. Maybe with a run-first QB. It'd require the best offensive line unit in the league first.

5
by Alexander :: Sun, 11/05/2017 - 4:11am

Maybe, but Andy Reid and this site have basically known this from the opening of this site: Running exists to open up pass routes. Just based on DVOA, the worst passing attack in the league is often still better than that team's rushing attack. The best rushing attack will underperform that team's own passing attack. The rules prefer passing.

6
by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 11/05/2017 - 6:59am

I saw the highlights of the Jets-Bills TNF game and there were some horrible fumbles by the Bills. Those were the sort of plays you saw regularly in the 80s and while coaches raged, they accepted it as almost inevitable.

Except coaches like Belichick said "You're benched if you fumble" and Coughlin showed that Tiki Barber could be taught to hang on to the ball.

Add in the fact that, as the article states, the dink&dunk offense gets rid of the ball quicker making QBs harder to sack which reduces strip-sacks and it's another way of turning the ball over that's gone.

Add in that coaches are more willing to throw short of the sticks, or dump off a screen pass when it's 3rd&medium or 3rd&long and you've got even more risk aversion.

Add in that a team handed the ball at its own 40 with 20seconds left in the first half would prefer to kneel down than to work the ball ten yards downfield and take a Hail Mary shot at trying to score before halftime.

And while it's easy to criticise the risk averse nature of coaching these days there's a reason for it. It mostly works. Get rid of the dumb plays that hand the opposition wins.

14
by LionInAZ :: Thu, 11/09/2017 - 7:28pm

It was also shown that Adrian Peterson could be taught not to fumble, at least until he forgot those lessons.

Anyway: I don't believe that coaches are more risk adverse than they were in the sixties and seventies. It's just that they had less real talent and couldn't afford to bench talent because of mistakes... not to mention a greater tolerance for vicious play that caused turnovers.

7
by Mr Shush :: Sun, 11/05/2017 - 8:53am

I've thought for years that never (or almost never) punting was very likely to be the optimal approach.

8
by ChrisS :: Mon, 11/06/2017 - 11:55am

"The shotgun is important, because the average shotgun play since 2007 produces a DVOA that is 8.7 percentage points higher than non-shotgun plays." Isn't this really just the higher prevalence of passing from the shotgun (80-90%?) than from under center (50-60%?)? A more interesting comparison would be passes from the shot-gun versus passes under center.

9
by Chip :: Mon, 11/06/2017 - 11:02pm

Nothing like pandering to the mainstream with a Jay Cutler SUX lol gif.

Really has nothing to do with the article.

10
by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 11/07/2017 - 3:38am

Pretty sure the paragraph right above that explained why it's there.

"Now that almost every offense has tried to copy New England, we’re in a period in which no one really wants to be different. If you try something different, it is usually met with mockery. Take the Wildcat, for example. Miami used the formation — in which a running back receives a direct snap — in 2008 to shock the Patriots in an upset win, and then continued to sprinkle it in for one playoff season. In 2017, the Wildcat is basically an internet meme — it’s most notable appearance this season was when Jay Cutler used it to express his general disinterest in being a Dolphin."

11
by Chip :: Tue, 11/07/2017 - 9:09am

Pretty sure I get that. You know if he moves, he gets lit up right?

Point is if you want to come off as an interesting, innovative writer, don't waste your time with the lowest common denominator. Save that for ESPN. Just distracts from an otherwise good article.

Focus on the innovations: shotgun %, receiving RB, slot WR, etc. not Cutler.

12
by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 11/08/2017 - 1:21am

The article is about variation more than Cutler, wouldn't you say? Maybe you have an idea to suggest for an eyecatching and compelling photo to feature that doesn't include any NFL players or coaches?

13
by doktarr :: Thu, 11/09/2017 - 12:35pm

I think you're selling read option waaaaaay short here. I just watched the Chiefs absolutely dismantle the Broncos with read option plays on Monday Night. It's a significant element of the playbook for a large number of teams, and there's nothing gimmicky about it.

No, nobody runs read option all the time, but it's a legit package and it's here to stay.