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15 Sep 2015

Any Given Sunday: Bills Over Colts

by Andrew Healy

For ten years, we have used this space to highlight a notable upset and look at where the teams involved might be headed this season. We will often default to the biggest point spread, but not this week. With apologies to Rams and Titans fans, no game this week gave more cause for rethinking what we thought we knew than the systematic dismantling that took place in Buffalo on Sunday.

Some thought the Colts' offense might be historically good this year, but Rex Ryan's defense held that offense without a point until late in the third quarter. And how they did it felt eminently repeatable. Coaching an excellent secondary for the first time in years, Ryan consistently brought blitzes that he had forgone towards the end of his tenure with the Jets. The pressure that he can bring will only get scarier when Mr. Big Stuff (defensive tackle Marcell Dareus) returns in Week 2.

More on the blitzes to come in a bit, but let's start with the simplest reason this game might mean more than your garden-variety season opener. Unlike in 2004 when the Bills blew out the Patriots in Week 1, the regime has changed this year. Maybe everything is different now that Sexy Rexy has replaced Dour Doug.

Does a big season opener mean more when it comes on the heels of a coaching change? If we go back to 1990 and look at all the cases where teams covered the Week 1 point spread by more than a touchdown, we can see how much a surprising season-opening performance means for wins the rest of the season.

Season Openers and Future Performance for Teams with New Coaches
Week 1 outcome Cases Wins Previous Year Wins This Year After Week 1
Much better than expectations 39 5.77 7.19
Close to expectations 77 5.84 6.75
Much worse than expectations 39 6.03 6.28

"Much better than expectations" for the season opener means a team beat the point spread by more than a touchdown. "Much worse" means a team did more than seven points worse than the spread. "Close to expectations" covers everything else.

When teams have a new coach, they do about half a win better the rest of the season after a surprising Week 1 performance (7.19 wins) than when they did about as well as expected before the game (6.75 wins).

That extra half a win is significant, so the Bills are not who we thought they were before Sunday's game. But it turns out the extra half a win the rest of the year predicted by a gangbusters Week 1 is almost the same for teams that had no coaching change.

Season Openers and Future Performance for Teams with Returning Coaches
Week 1 outcome Cases Wins Previous Year Wins This Year After Week 1
Much better than expectations 151 8.33 8.29
Close to expectations 254 8.76 7.80
Much worse than expectations 144 8.72 7.23

If anything, Week 1 means slightly more when there is coaching continuity. Among teams whose coaches returned, previous-year wins are almost half a win lower (8.33) for the teams that had a big Week 1 compared to teams playing close to expectations (8.76), a bigger difference than for the teams with coaching changes. The half-win difference in the right column is thus a little harder to achieve since the teams with big Week 1 performances were starting from a lower level the previous season.

So, despite the exciting opening, let's hope Ryan is not rushing off to get that Tyrod Taylor tattoo just yet.

Luck's Losses that Have Nothing to Do With Luck

On Sunday, Andrew Luck was erratic. Operating under constant pressure and with his receivers almost never gaining separation, Luck completed a number of throws with almost no margin for error. At the same time, his near-interceptions in the first half were not the right kind of risk-taking passes that Luck sometimes makes later in games when behind. In the first half, Luck badly underthrew T.Y. Hilton on two passes -- Ronald Darby picked off one of them, and Stephon Gilmore should have had the other. Luck came dangerously close to throwing picks several other times while the game was still close, contributing to the Bills' tally of 12 passes defensed on the day.

Luck was facing a stacked deck for much of Sunday. It was hard not to wonder how much he wished his general manager was more interested in spending premium draft capital on offensive linemen than on failed running backs or on yet another diminutive speedster. While it's certainly not all or even mainly on his shoulders, Luck has lost by big margins at an alarmingly high rate (also see Scott Kacsmar's Colts chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac).

Consider this comparison of Luck's losses with another less-heralded quarterback and try to guess the mystery passer:

Name Games Started Double-digit Losses AY/A in Double-digit Losses
Andrew Luck 49 12 5.52
? 65 10 5.42

OK, hint: Luck shares a given name with the mystery quarterback and almost nothing else, including hair color.

Yes, Luck compares unfavorably here to Andy Dalton. He carries less blame than Dalton for some of these games, as the Colts have averaged (16.8) points in those losses, four points more than the Bengals did in their ten defeats.

But in an important sense, those blowouts indict the Colts more than it appears at first. In the AFC South, Luck has just one double-digit loss. Outside football's worst division over the last four years, the Colts have lost more than a third of their games (11 out of 31) by double-digit margins.

Rating the Units

Reflecting the Colts' paper-tiger warning signs, our projections had them lower than most, with a season-long DVOA projection (4.6%) that ranked them 12th in the league. Their 9.3 projected wins and 61 percent playoff chances ranked fifth only because they projected to have the third-easiest schedule.

According to VOA (not DVOA for now since the opponent adjustments will start in Week 5), the Colts' defense was their weakest spot on Sunday.

BUF 50.9% 2.7% 19.9% 68.1%
IND 12.0% 37.0% -18.1% -43.1%

(Ed. Note: These numbers may differ slightly from numbers published later today because they were produced before the two Monday night games; later numbers will normalize the whole league to 0% based on 16 games rather than just 14 games.)

Given that we projected the Bills to rank 27th in offense before the season, opponent adjustments would make the Colts' defensive performance even worse.

On the other side of the ball, it sure feels like these numbers do not give proper due to the Bills' defensive performance. Part of this comes from the Bills not getting credit in some cases when maybe they should. For example, DVOA does not account for the holding penalty Kyle Williams drew that helped end the first Colts' drive. Over the course of the season, playing at this level will translate into better numbers.

If VOA gave proper credit for devastating form tackles, that number would be higher, too. Exhibit A: Preston Brown's Clowneyplanting of Frank Gore. Sweet Fancy Moses.

The Keep Looking at Wins Stat of the Game, Part 1: Bills' Blitz-o-Rama

The Bills brought a blitz (five or more pass rushers) on 26 of Andrew Luck's Luck’s 54 dropbacks, and a big blitz (six or more rushers) on 13 of them. The Colts' line provided little relief from the pressure, as the Bills had success blitzing throughout the game. As dangerous as the Bills were last year mostly relying on their front four to generate pressure, Ryan's aggressiveness yielded immediate dividends in Week 1. (Pass rushing stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.)

Pass Rushers Dropbacks Comp Att Comp Pct Yards Per Play
3 or 4 28 16 25 64% 5.71
5 13 4 12 33% 4.85
6 or 7 13 4 12 33% 3.77

The Keep Looking at Wins Stat of the Game, Part 2: Tyrod Taylor

The Bills did not ask Tyrod Taylor to do much, but there was certainly enough in a few excellent early throws for a Bills fan to dream of the quarterbacking competence they have known so rarely since the year 2000. The Bills' other quarterbacks have rarely visited the efficiency zone that Taylor hit on Sunday.

Bills' Quarterback Career Starts Starts with Over 10 Yds Per Att
Tyrod Taylor 1 1
Matt Cassel 72 2
EJ Manuel 14 0

Posted by: Andrew Healy on 15 Sep 2015

16 comments, Last at 18 Sep 2015, 6:15am by bubqr


by Scott C :: Tue, 09/15/2015 - 4:22pm


Ok, I've never done that before. I feel dirty. Maybe I should say something relevant.

I guess as the year goes on we'll see how much this is due to the Bills being better than expected vs the Colts being worse. The table "Season Openers and Future Performance for Teams with Returning Coaches" is equally relevant to the Colts: Losing big on opening day is not a good sign.

by RickD :: Tue, 09/15/2015 - 4:25pm

"Reflecting the Colts' paper-tiger warning signs, our projections had them lower than most, with a season-long DVOA projection (4.6%) that ranked them 12th in the league."

The Colts were 11-5 last year. They played 8 games against the Texans, Jaguars, Titans, Browns, and Redskins.

Their playoff run included beating the Bengals (which everybody does in the playoffs) and exploiting the Broncos, who've yet to figure out what to do with Peyton's weak arm.

That comes across as a bit more disparaging than I really want, but the point is that the Colts and Luck in particular were heavily hyped for most of the off-season. I just don't see it. They've got a thin roster with talent at the "skill positions" that cannot compensate for the general lack of team strength.

That Rex Ryan could get a team with the #1 or #2 defense from last season to beat them was one of the least surprising results yesterday to me. There seems to be a feeling in the media that the Colts of now should have inherited the success train of the Polian/Dungy/Manning years. But all three have likely been replaced by inferiors at their respective jobs (with all due respect to Luck, being inferior to Peyton Manning is not an insult.) Irsay has been quoted as saying that he thinks Luck should win at least two Super Bowls. While that still could happen, a lot will have to change there, starting with the GM.

by tuluse :: Tue, 09/15/2015 - 5:45pm

I don't know how good the most people expected the Colts to be, but the Bills weren't world beaters last year either and I think "favor the team with the better QB when in doubt" is generally a good rule.

by justanothersteve :: Wed, 09/16/2015 - 3:51pm

They weren't world beaters, but the Bills did give the Packers their one loss in the second half of the regular season. (They won all four games against the NFC North.) Their main problem seems to be being maddeningly inconsistent. If Rex can get decent QB play out of Taylor (or anyone else) they have a shot at winning.

by theslothook :: Tue, 09/15/2015 - 9:29pm

I pretty much agree with everything RickD said. This colts iteration is essentially an inferior copy of the prior iteration - right down to their softness and injury proneness.
They have benefited from a cupcake division and when they have played strong teams, they've been throttled. Grigson's general philosophy is terrible - i can forgive the trent richardson trade somewhat, but overpaying for middling free agents or over the hill veterans has been a terrible strategy since the beginning of time.

Oh - and at least the dungy manning colts v pats games were competitive. The 4 recent pats games have been essentially a giant repeating loop - give up 200 yards to some no name rusher and throw a bunch of picks on offense.

by Scott Kacsmar :: Tue, 09/15/2015 - 4:47pm

Since I had no need to write about this game, I'm going to put two thoughts here.

1. Boo-urns to Rex Ryan for having his offense start the game with a Wildcat look, which technically means Matt Cassel was the starting QB and Tyrod Taylor was a starting WR. So this technically will not go down as Tyrod Taylor's first start at QB, but he was impressive either way.

2. Most Colts thing ever: down 10-0, Luck could have made some better throws to make the FG shorter for Adam Vinatieri (or to extend the drive period), but this was still very much a game at that point. Vinatieri missed the 52-yard FG and the Bills pulled off the rare double score with touchdowns. The next time Luck took the field with a chance to do anything, he was down 24-0 in the third quarter. So while this was one of Luck's worst games, he didn't inflict a lot of harm before the game got well out of reach for the Colts. This happens too often with this team, which was my whole theme in the FOA essay.

by tuluse :: Tue, 09/15/2015 - 5:44pm

I'm not surprised the Colts did worse the more pressure the Bills brought. One of the major points of Buddy Ryan's 46 was that the more blockers you left in, the worse the situation was for the offense.

by Ben :: Tue, 09/15/2015 - 6:08pm

The Colts offensive game planning was terrible for this game. I can't imagine that anyone was surprised that the Bills blitzed a lot. The offensive line was... competent against the blitz. The Colts just didn't take advantage of the areas vacated by the blitz at all. They also completely gave up on the run in the first half while the game was still close.

It also doesn't help that Luck was very inaccurate this game.

The other major issue is shown in the special teams DVOA. Between muffed punts and bad returns, the Colts had the worst average starting position in the league this week.

The defense wasn't great but managed to have their two worst drives back-to-back to let the Bills go from 10-0 to 24-0 with the halftime double TD.

by Dave Bernreuther :: Tue, 09/15/2015 - 9:56pm

The worst part about the double score is that the Colts won the toss and chose not to defer. As they have at a 100% rate.

Pagano has shown himself to be much more forward thinking than his "run the ball and stop the run" rhetoric in several ways, but someone needs to explain to him all the reasons that taking the ball first is stupid, especially on the road.

by jonnyblazin :: Wed, 09/16/2015 - 1:29am

It wouldn't surprise me if the Colts underperform, considering their GM doesn't seem very bright.

by bubqr :: Wed, 09/16/2015 - 4:32am

Colts have been incredibly overhyped all pre-season(I’ve seen them listed as SB participants or winners quite a lot), and Luck as well (MVP candidate for a lot of people).

This is still a top heavy team, IIRC one of the oldest in the league, with an average at best OL and not a great defense. I know thay are in a weak division, but based on roster talent they are what, the 6th best team in the league at most? I’d put the Hawks, Packers, Pats, Broncos and probably the Cowboys, Ravens and Eagles above them. The all-time hype that accompanies Luck since his Stanford days, that also make him exempt of a lot of criticism even with a significantly high turnover ratio, makes the whole Colts team overrated.

by Independent George :: Wed, 09/16/2015 - 10:26am

This is still a top heavy team, IIRC one of the oldest in the league, with an average at best OL and not a great defense. I know thay are in a weak division, but based on roster talent they are what, the 6th best team in the league at most?

And that is totally unprecedented for the Colts!

ETA: I know it's been the situation since the beginning, but why don't the comments use regular html tags? I always forget to use 'CITE' instead of the more common 'I'.

by bubqr :: Fri, 09/18/2015 - 6:15am

At least we agree - Peyton could carry a roster like this one, and while lots of people seem to think that he can, it's pretty clear to me that Luck is clearly not at that level yet.

by Dave Bernreuther :: Wed, 09/16/2015 - 12:10pm

They added some old bit parts on offense, but they're still pretty young everywhere else. What I think is interesting is that there's a 40% turnover from last year's team.

They have an offense that will be able to score on anyone when it clicks and a defense that can do well enough if it manages to get some semblance of a pass rush with four men (which wasn't possible last year). Losing Jones again hurt badly, but the early returns on Langford and Anderson are encouraging.

Still, just like before, if Luck isn't perfect, they get stomped, which is what happened Sunday. There's little reason to believe that that won't remain the case against good teams, but things can change and there's no single dominant team this year, so if they get in the tournament, and get a little luck and a lot of Luck (the jokes just write themselves), they have a shot.

by Raiderfan :: Wed, 09/16/2015 - 2:28pm

"And there is no single dominant team"

Remember the Titans!

by Brew989 :: Thu, 09/17/2015 - 10:49am

The major theme is that the Colts are a little worse than we thought and the Bills are a little better than we thought.

Preseason rankings of the Bills at 19 or 20 were a bit ridiculous as they were better than that last year, and only got better. The QB excuse, I never bought. Orton was very up and down and they were still top half of the league.

As it stands, they'll be in any game as long as Tyrod Taylor plays catastrophe-free football, which he surely did against the Colts, and has a good chance of doing against the Pats. But we'll have to see how he does when he finally faces a good defense. Maybe Dolphins week 3 will start to congeal the opinion on Tyrod Taylor.