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06 Oct 2015

Any Given Sunday: Rams Over Cardinals

by Andrew Healy

Once in a while, the top upset for this article is completely obvious. If the Eagles had held on to beat the Patriots in 2007 as 24.5-point underdogs, chances are that would have been the game for AGS that week. But most weeks, like this past one, we end up debating what game to write about. And that's part of the fun.

Before we get to breaking down the game that we picked, I thought it might be interesting to check out the contenders. So let's start by recounting the week's upsets, how surprising each one was, and giving a brief takeaway on each one. Depending on how this goes, we may continue with the upset countdown in upcoming weeks.

This Week in Upsets

Week 4 Upsets
Underdog Favorite Score Line Pre-game WP*
STL ARI 24-22 7 30.1%
NYG BUF 24-10 5.5 34.1%
CHI OAK 22-20 3 41.2%
WAS PHI 23-20 3 41.2%
*Win probabilities from Pro-Football-Reference's model based on Stern (1991)

1. Rams (-0.5% DVOA, ranked 17th) over Cardinals (76.4%, 1st)
The champion upset for the week is broken down in detail below.

2. Giants (5.5%, 13th) over Bills (28.8%, 5th)
The Bills committed 17 penalties for 135 yards, a week after Rex Ryan said "We want to be the least-penalized team in the league." One penalty on Richie Incognito wiped out a touchdown pass to Charles Clay. Huge penalty days have not generally been a big deal in terms of wins and losses, at least not recently. Before Sunday, teams committing at least 15 penalties had gone 9-4 since 2010. That includes a win by Ryan's old team in 2013, when the Jets became >the fifth team since the merger to rack up 20 penalties, and the only one to win the game.

3. Bears (-70.2%, 32nd) over Raiders (5.1%, 14th)
Charles Woodson turns 39 on Wednesday. With his fourth-quarter interception of Jay Cutler, Woodson became the third-oldest player since at least 1960 to record a pick. You can probably guess the oldest, but can you guess the runner-up?

4. Redskins (-3.8%, 19th) over Eagles (-2.5%, 18th)
While thinking that Chip Kelly's personnel moves were ill-advised was certainly a first guess, it was impossible to know back in March that they would break this bad. Through four weeks, Ed Dickson has now carried the ball further on running plays than DeMarco Murray has.

Rams 24, Cardinals 22

Entering the game with a historically good -- but not yet adjusted for opposition -- DVOA, the Cardinals lost a squeaker in which most things that could go wrong did. David Johnson fumbled the opening kickoff, which led to the Rams' first touchdown. The Cardinals would commit two more turnovers, while the Rams had none despite Todd Gurley fumbling deep in his own end on a play that qualifies as one of the more remarkable fumble non-recoveries that I have ever seen.

After Gurley fumbled, the ball ended up surrounded by three Cardinals, with no Rams player having clear access.

That's Tony Jefferson's foot next to the ball, Kevin Minter on the ground to the left, and LaMarr Woodley (No. 56) to the right. All Cardinals. The only Rams to enter the fray come from behind Minter.

At this point, the man who would eventually emerge with the ball has just gotten off the ground a few yards away.

On the right side of the screen shot, Rob Havenstein (No. 79) is running towards the pile. When he gets there, he jumps on top.

That's Havenstein on the right, the one Rams player you can see on the pile. Somehow, the ball travels upwards into his grasp and he eventually walks away with it.

Havenstein deserves an enormous amount of credit for not giving up on the play. His effort there even shows that fumble recoveries are not quite 100 percent random. But the fact that the ball could take such an unusual journey into his arms highlights how games can turn -- or not turn in this case -- on strange bounces.

Despite those bounces mostly going against Arizona, the Cardinals likely would have gone ahead inside of two minutes if Carson Palmer had thrown accurately on either of his last two passes. Instead he airmailed The Abolitionist on the first throw and David Johnson on the second.

The game was close to a draw by VOA. The opponent adjustments bump the Rams ahead by DVOA.

Team Off Def ST Total
ARI 2.5% 5.6% -3.7% -6.9%
STL 8.0% -6.3% 9.9% 24.2%

Team Off Def ST Total
ARI -2.4% 3.9% -3.7% -10.0%
STL -3.3% 4.1% 9.9% 2.5%

The Weirdest Team in the NFL

Pulling off big upsets is nothing new for the Rams. Since Jeff Fisher took over as head coach in 2012, the Rams have won eight times and tied once when underdogs by a touchdown or more. The team with the second-most wins as a big underdog, Tampa Bay, has only pulled off the feat four times.

Team Records as Big Underdogs Since 2012
Team Record Win Pct Wins Above Exp
STL 8-11-1 0.425 3.359
TB 4-10 0.286 0.447
JAC 3-24 0.111 -2.631
OAK 3-20 0.130 -2.327
NYJ 3-11 0.214 -0.555
MIN 3-10 0.231 -0.583
WAS 3-5 0.375 0.919
IND 3-5 0.375 0.904
SD 3-3 0.500 1.341
ARI 2-11 0.154 -1.156
CHI 2-5 0.286 0.247
NYG 2-3 0.400 0.703
CLE 1-15 0.063 -3.146
TEN 1-11 0.083 -1.876
Team Record Win Pct Wins Above Exp
KC 1-8 0.111 -0.979
BUF 1-7 0.125 -0.860
CAR 1-3-1 0.300 0.056
PHI 1-2 0.333 0.285
DAL 1-2 0.333 0.207
PIT 1-1 0.500 0.410
CIN 1-1 0.500 0.397
MIA 0-7 0.000 -1.734
ATL 0-4 0.000 -0.876
DET 0-4 0.000 -1.144
NO 0-2 0.000 -0.529
SF 0-2 0.000 -0.529
BAL 0-2 0.000 -0.590
HOU 0-1 0.000 -0.240
GB 0-1 0.000 -0.264
SEA 0-1 0.000 -0.289

Fisher's lost his first three games with the Rams as big underdogs, so they have gone 8-8-1 since then. Only the Raiders and Jaguars have had more opportunities as a big underdog since 2012, but the Rams still stand out. For teams that had at least two games in the sample, only the 3-3 Chargers have a better winning percentage than the Rams. Using the individual game lines to estimate how well St. Louis did relative to expectations, nobody comes close to the Rams. Their 8.5 wins is over three more than would have been expected based on the pregame lines.

Unfortunately, under Fisher, the Rams have underperformed expectations in their other games by almost as much, making them football's weirdest team. Since 2012, the Rams are 6-6 as a favorite and 14-18 in all the games not listed above. This year, the Rams have now won as four-point and seven-point underdogs but lost as one-point underdogs and three-point favorites.

To figure out whether the Rams' weirdness means anything going forward, let's look at some potential explanations for their success when least expected:

Theory 1: Jeff Fisher is really good as a big underdog.
Not really. In his long history with the Oilers/Titans, Fisher went 7-26 as a big underdog, winning about one game less than would have been expected.

Theory 2: The Rams have gotten to play division opponents as a big underdog.
Not so much. FO editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz has written about this before, looking at a big sample of games. And since Fisher took over, the Rams are 4-6-1 against the NFC West as a big underdog and 4-5 against the rest of the league.

Theory 3: Teams with good special teams pull off more upsets.
Probably not. The Rams seemingly get a big special teams play or two in every big upset. Their upsets started happening when the special teams improved from 27th in DVOA in 2012 to fourth in 2013. The special teams have stayed in the top ten the past two seasons.

But while big plays on special teams have keyed the Rams' wins, game-to-game randomness is likely more important than the level of their special teams. The worst team at pulling off big upsets since 2012, the Cleveland Browns, have had mostly good to excellent special teams according to DVOA.

Theory 4: The Rams could be more prone to ups and downs as a young team.
Very plausible, so this bears watching. The Rams were the second-youngest team in the league last year. The year before, they were the youngest. The Rams' defense has been very good in November and December under Fisher, seemingly just on the cusp of turning the corner.

While the Rams' youth could help explain their big upsets, other young teams such as the Browns have not shown the same volatility, so let's go with a simpler explanation as the most important one.

Theory 5: The Rams success as big underdogs has been largely randomness.
Double true. The Rams got the Johnson fumble on the opening kick and other random bounces in their upsets. They also got some luck with opponents, as one big upset came against a Texans team that would finish the season 2-14 and was living on past reputation. The Rams' chances in Green Bay this week depend much more on whether they finally are turning the corner than their recent upset history.

The Keep Looking at Wins Stat of the Week

The Rams' decision to invest the tenth pick of the draft in Todd Gurley paid off in a big way on Sunday. Looking at games before Week 5, Gurley became just the fourth running back under the age of 22 (since 1960) to run for over 100 yards.

Running Backs With Early-Season Games Over 100 Yds Before Age 22
Player Date Tm Opp Att Yds Y/A TD
Todd Gurley 10/4/15 STL ARI 19 146 7.68 0
Darren McFadden 9/14/08 OAK KAN 21 164 7.81 1
Laurence Maroney 10/1/06 NE CIN 15 125 8.33 2
Clinton Portis 9/22/02 DEN BUF 18 103 5.72 1
Jamal Lewis 9/24/00 BAL CIN 25 116 4.64 1
Edgerrin James 9/19/99 IND NE 32 118 3.69 1
Edgerrin James 9/12/99 IND BUF 26 112 4.31 1

And maybe even more promising than the breakout from their very young back, the Rams' line opened big holes for Gurley in the second half. That line entered the game ranked 29th in Adjusted Line Yards, but will surely move up this week.

Posted by: Andrew Healy on 06 Oct 2015

13 comments, Last at 07 Oct 2015, 7:31pm by Kevin S Mesa


by ankush93 :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 2:41pm

Very well researched and in depth analysis. Thanks!

by Andrew Healy :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 3:08pm

Thanks for the kind words.

by ammek :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 2:48pm

Those Cardinals uniforms are awful. Serves them right.

Cleveland going 1-15 as big underdogs is worth highlighting. They weren't that far away on Sunday, but I guess "not far away" is pretty much the team motto.

by D2K :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 3:38pm

The Rams getting the win is considered an "upset" by the public I am sure, but I dont think its surprising to anyone outside of the lowest common denominator. The Cards had yet to play an actual NFL level defense and the Rams have arguably the best defensive front in football.

That OL in Zona may still be the achilles heel in the long run, especially when they have to go on the road to face teams that actually get after the passer. Palmer is a statue and Arians offense is one that is predicated on long developing route combos and deep QB drops and with an offensive line that is still a major work in progress that could spell trouble against the better defensive fronts in football.

That Big/Heavy Dime defense that Zona employs works great against pass first teams but against teams that have a power back (Gurley) and will play smash mouth football for 60 minutes it becomes susceptible to giving up long gains on the ground and we saw that on Sunday.

With that said, the turnovers were absolutely brutal.

by BJR :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 4:15pm

Well it was obviously a surprise to the guys setting the lines in Vegas. And the line stayed solid at around -6.5 all week, right until kick-off, so there was no strong evidence of any 'sharp' money backing St Louis.

Watching the game, Palmer did get hit and hurried throughout, but no more than you would have expected against a defensive line that good. They still moved the ball well throughout.

Really, the Cardinals should not have lost that game. Gaining nearly 500 yards of offence but scoring only one TD tells you all you need to know.

by Kevin S Mesa :: Wed, 10/07/2015 - 7:31pm

Exactly. I was one of those with money on the Cardinals. And if you told me they were going to gain 447 yards of offense I would've bet even more.

The Cardinals almost certainly win this game if they aren't -3 in turnovers; heck, they were driving for the game-winning FG in Rams' territory with less than 2 minutes even WITH being -3 in turnovers. I don't have more recent data but found an analysis from a couple years ago that found teams with a +3 turnover ratio or better were 244-17-1 from 2008 to 2012. The fact that the Cardinals even had a chance, given the turnovers, tells you they are pretty good.

Not to mention that they got hosed out of recovering what was a clear fumble inside the Rams' 10-yard line based on an inexplicable ruling that the runner's forward progress was stopped... a play that, like the Detroit/Seattle end-zone "bat" play, is not reviewable.

Basically, every ball bounced the Rams' way this game. And the Cardinals still almost won.

by jacobk :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 3:51pm

Also worth noting is that Arizona's red zone magic completely vanished. If you wanted to be mean about it, I could go for an article pulling point by point from last week's rash of "Arizona: Best Team of All Time or Just Best in the NFC?" essays and contrasting them with animated gifs from the game.

by jschroe36 :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 4:12pm

Picking nits here, but the article states "Gurley became just the fourth running back under the age of 22 (since 1960) to run for over 100 yards". But the table indicates Gurley was the 6th such back to achieve this feat.

I'll add that while Gurley achieved the 100+ rushing mark in the 4th week of the season, Jerome Bettis ran for 100+ at the age of 21 in week 5 of the 1993 season. While it was week 5, the date was Oct 3, 1993. Gurley achieved his first 100 on Oct 4, 2015...so very similar time frames.

by Andrew Healy :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 9:21pm

Oh, thanks for pointing that out. Originally the table was for guys who had 100 yards and 5 Y/A, which drops James and Lewis from the group.

by Kevin S Mesa :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 8:28pm

Pretty cool analysis of that fumble. I was amazed that a Ram recovered but didn't realize he basically just jumped on the pile from a few yards away.

A little surprised you didn't also mention that two plays later, the Cardinals recovered ANOTHER fumble, but then it was somewhat inexplicably ruled a non-fumble because the runner had been determined to have had his forward progress stopped. The replay clearly showed the ball was jarred loose almost immediately after being hit, so it made no sense that the official could have determined forward progress was stopped in the millisecond between being hit and fumbling, and yet since that was the ruling on the field, it could not be reviewed.

It seems that now that the NFL allows a clear recovery to stand as a turnover even after the whistle has blown on a play where the runner is brought down to the ground normally, they could allow the same on a forward progress play. I'm not saying that a team should be able to rip the ball out of a RB's arms after seven guys stack him up and the play has been blown dead, but here, it's obvious the ball was loose BEFORE the forward progress call could possibly have been made. Very dumb to have a rule that the fumble could be reviewed if the question is, "Did he fumble before or after his knee hit the ground?" but not if the question is, "Did he fumble before or after his forward progress was stopped."

by Andrew Healy :: Tue, 10/06/2015 - 9:33pm

Agreed on all of that. And I should have discussed that play. What a brutal call and it would have set the Cardinals up at the Rams' 5-yard line.

by Uncle Paul :: Wed, 10/07/2015 - 3:31pm

Your Monday night deadline prevents you from including discussion of the Lions/Seahawks in the lead in. It would be interesting to see how many historical games have swung on one blown rules call (not a judgement call, just the entire officiating team not knowing a clear rule). That was about as blatant as I can recall, and would have put the Lions in the running for some AGS love stories.

by Kevin S Mesa :: Wed, 10/07/2015 - 7:25pm

Yeah, as a Cardinals' fan, it's painful to think that we would have a good chance of being 4-0 if we weren't deprived of a fumble recovery inside the Rams' 10, and the Seahawks could be 1-3 if that penalty was called. The entire NFC West picture is much different because of those two inexplicable calls.