2009 Quick Reads Year in Review
by Bill Barnwell
With another year of Quick Reads in the books, it's time to look back at the regular season and compile each week's totals into our cumulative year in review.
Using our advanced metrics, DYAR and DVOA (explained here), we'll be taking a look at the best and worst players at each position, identify players that have improved or declined from a year ago, and reveal which players are the league's most underrated and overrated by their traditional statistics.
No numbers are perfect, of course, so we'll also point out where we disagree with the data. Also, remember that DYAR is a cumulative statistic, so players are rewarded for answering the bell every week and doing the most with their many attempts. Some numbers might also look strange due to rounding (like Philip Rivers' totals, for example).
1) Tom Brady, Patriots: 2,159 DYAR (2,170 passing DYAR, -11 rushing)
2) Philip Rivers, Chargers: 1,918 DYAR (1,919 passing DYAR, -2 rushing)
3) Peyton Manning, Colts: 1,911 DYAR (1,932 passing DYAR, -21 rushing)
4) Drew Brees, Saints: 1,884 DYAR (1,846 passing DYAR, 39 rushing)
5) Brett Favre, Vikings: 1,797 DYAR (1,803 passing DYAR, -6 rushing)
How are Peyton Manning and Drew Brees not, in some order, 1-2? The answer is strength of schedule. The difference between Brady's DVOA and VOA (our DVOA statistic, minus the defensive adjustments) is 9.5 percentage points, the largest such figure in the league for any quarterback with more than 100 attempts. That makes sense when you look at Brady's schedule: Over the course of the season, the Patriots played the pass defenses DVOA ranked first (the Jets, who they played twice), second (Panthers), third (Bills, again twice), fifth (Broncos), sixth (Ravens, with a second matchup this weekend) and ninth (Saints). That's half a season against defenses ranked in the top ten, plus two games against the defense ranked 11th (Dolphins). Brady had only one game against a pass defense ranked in the bottom five. Based on our numbers, Brady played the hardest schedule of pass defenses of any quarterback in the last 15 years.
If we ranked the quarterbacks by YAR -- without opponent adjustments -- Manning would be first, Brees would be second, and Brady would fall to sixth. The numbers suggest that it was a landmark year for quarterbacks; the DYAR totals of Brady, Rivers, Manning, and Brees are all high enough to rank amongst the top ten passing seasons since 1993 (the first season in our database).
1) JaMarcus Russell, Raiders: -722 DYAR (-755 passing DYAR, 33 rushing)
2) Matthew Stafford, Lions: -498 DYAR (-531 passing DYAR, 33 rushing)
3) Matt Cassel, Chiefs: -483 DYAR (-460 passing DYAR, -20 rushing)
4) Keith Null, Rams: -402 DYAR (-394 passing DYAR, -7 rushing)
5) Derek Anderson, Browns: -342 DYAR (-361 passing DYAR, 19 rushing)
Russell's -722 DYAR is not only the worst by a wide margin, but it stands as the fifth-worst single-season quarterback DYAR in the 16-year history of the metric. He finished ahead of only David Carr (2002, -1075 DYAR), Bobby Hoying (1998, -1004 DYAR), Alex Smith (2005, -910 DYAR), and Akili Smith (2000, -733 DYAR). Russell recorded positive DYAR only twice during the season, in Week 1 (19 DYAR) and Week 15 (17 DYAR). On a bright note, he finished last for the week only once.
Null's inclusion on this list is also remarkable considering that he only played four games, but his week-by-week DYAR totals go -191, -60, -85, and -67. He never made it out of the bottom six in DYAR during any of the weeks he started.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Matt Ryan, Falcons. Outside of Brady, Ryan had the biggest difference between his DVOA and VOA, 8.3 percentage points. (Backup Chris Redman was at 9.1 percent.) Although Ryan's sophomore season was considered a disappointment by most, his DVOA only fell from an elite 30.4% in 2008 to a very good 16.7% this season. If you believed that Ryan was a star a year ago, his advanced metrics suggest that's still the case.
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Aaron Rodgers, Packers. Rodgers led the NFL in fantasy points and was fourth in quarterback rating, but those figures overestimate his value. There's a difference of 5.7 percentage points between Rodgers' DVOA and his VOA, which means that he played an easy schedule. (Among starting quarterbacks, only Alex Smith had a bigger difference.) Neither quarterback rating nor fantasy points account for sacks taken, and Rodgers' 8.5 percent sack rate was among the league's highest. Finally, the Packers ran 176 non-spike drives through the first 16 games; only six teams in the league got more opportunities to pick up yards and points than Rodgers' Packers.
Most improved: Brett Favre, Vikings. A middling season from Favre against a weak slate of pass defenses a year ago pegged him with a -2.2% DVOA that ranked 26th in the league, his first time outside of the top 20 in the history of the statistic. After dumping most of the interceptions and healing up his wing, he was fifth in the league in DVOA this year.
Biggest decline: Matt Cassel, Chiefs. Cassel's 2009 season is a monument to how much schedule, scheme, and the talent around a quarterback can affect his numbers. Cassel was the best quarterback in the league by DVOA over the second half of the 2008 campaign, with heavy thanks to a schedule that ranked as one of the easiest pass defense slates of the last decade. (You'll note that fellow AFC East quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Trent Edwards looked particularly good in 2009, either, with some thanks to how easy their schedules were the year before.) Cassel went from Moss and Welker to, well, Chris Chambers and Bobby Wade.
1) Chris Johnson, Titans: 456 DYAR (343 rushing DYAR, 113 receiving)
2) Ray Rice, Ravens: 369 DYAR (241 rushing DYAR, 128 receiving)
3) Pierre Thomas, Saints: 301 DYAR (220 rushing DYAR, 81 receiving)
4) Ryan Grant, Packers: 293 DYAR (251 rushing DYAR, 41 receiving)
5) DeAngelo Williams, Panthers: 262 DYAR (175 rushing DYAR, 88 receiving)
Johnson led the league in rushing DYAR with more than 100 to spare, although his league-leading total of 343 rushing DYAR was the third-fewest for a league leading back in the DYAR/DVOA Era. It's yet another sign of how the league is moving further towards the pass with each season; as recently as 2005, Johnson's rushing DYAR would've ranked fifth in the league, not first. Despite all his yards, Johnson did not earn a historic DYAR total because his highlight runs were combined with a lot of carries stuffed for a loss or no gain.
Of course, Johnson was also great as a receiver; his 113 receiving DYAR ranked seventh in the league, with Darren Sproles' 181 receiving DYAR pacing the league. Two backs in the past 16 years have led all backs in both rushing and receiving DYAR: Marshall Faulk in 2000 and Brian Westbrook in 2007.
1) Glen Coffee, 49ers: -119 DYAR (-85 rushing, -34 receiving)
2) Larry Johnson, Chiefs/Bengals: -103 DYAR (-91 rushing, -12 receiving)
3) Darren McFadden, Raiders: -67 DYAR (-80 rushing, -27 receiving)
4) Marshawn Lynch, Bills: -64 DYAR (-41 rushing, -23 receiving)
5) Jacob Hester, Chargers: -59 DYAR (-33 rushing, -26 receiving)
Coffee's 83 carries yielded seven first downs, while 22 of those carries went for either no gain or a loss. Johnson had -115 rushing DYAR while he was on the Chiefs; the good news is that he picked up 24 DYAR as a member of the Bengals, but the bad news is that Jamaal Charles gained 233 DYAR behind Johnson's former offensive line. Hester was used almost exclusively in short yardage and got stuffed too frequently.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Steven Jackson, Rams. Jackson managed to get up to 217 DYAR despite playing with the carcass of Marc Bulger, Kyle Boller, and Null at quarterback. He also played against one of the league's toughest run defense schedules. If only he got to play the Rams on Sundays, too!
Worse than his standard statistics made him look: Willis McGahee, Ravens. McGahee's 14 rushing touchdowns cause his numbers to leap off the page, but the majority of those touchdowns come as a result of opportunity, not ability. He's no more of an elite goal-line back than anyone else on the roster, and with a difference between his VOA and DVOA of 5.4 percentage points, he faced a pretty easy schedule this year.
Most improved: Chris Johnson, Titans. Perhaps it's boring to pick the same player twice, but Johnson was seventh in rushing DYAR and 48th in receiving DYAR a year ago. He improved in all facets of the game, becoming both more consistent and breaking big plays more frequently. Playing with Vince Young, who attracts more attention as a potential runner than Kerry Collins, probably helped; our research suggests that running backs derive a reasonable advantage when they play alongside a running quarterback.
Biggest decline: Brandon Jacobs, Giants. While former teammate Derrick Ward fell off in Tampa Bay, Jacobs was surrounded by the same quarterback and offensive line, and went from second in the league in rushing DYAR to 85th. A back that had 300 rushing DYAR a year ago went all the way down to a grand total of 4.
1) Sidney Rice, Vikings: 476 DYAR
2) Vincent Jackson, Chargers: 452 DYAR
3) Wes Welker, Patriots: 423 DYAR
4) Miles Austin, Cowboys: 397 DYAR
5) Randy Moss, Patriots: 395 DYAR
What a strange group of players. It includes two undrafted free agents, a player that apparently dogs it all the time, and a receiver (Rice) whose team tried to give up on him by signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh this offseason. Remember, kids: These are the professionals.
Rice pulled ahead of Jackson in the season's final week, thanks to the sudden case of narcolepsy enveloping the entire Giants' defense. Jackson made up for it by narrowly winning the DVOA race, with his 39.6% DVOA beating out Robert Meachem (39.2%) and Rice (35.4%).
1) Eddie Royal, Broncos: -139 DYAR
2) Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders: -106 DYAR
3) Louis Murphy, Raiders: -105 DYAR
4) Bryant Johnson, Lions: -102 DYAR
5) Chansi Stuckey, Jets/Browns: -99 DYAR
On his receiving performance alone, Joshua Cribbs would rank second on this list. Royal had fantasy owners dreaming of a 100-catch season under the idea that he'd play the Wes Welker role in Josh McDaniels's offense, but he caught only 47 percent of the passes thrown to him. Welker's normally in the 75 percent range, and Royal was at 71 percent a year ago. -65 of Stuckey's -99 DYAR came with the Jets, where he caught 42 percent of his targets and had only four receptions for more than eight yards.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Roddy White, Falcons. Much like Ryan, White faced a Murderer's Row of pass defenses this year. Even with Chris Redman at quarterback, he managed to put up big games against teams like the Eagles, and there was a gap of 4.8 percentage points between his VOA and his DVOA.
Worse than his standard statistics make him look: Anquan Boldin, Cardinals. Boldin puts up big numbers thanks to volume, but he consistently faces easy pass defenses thanks to his presence in the NFC West; there were 4.9 percentage points between his DVOA and his VOA. That DVOA is -0.6%, ranking well below cohorts Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston. They play different roles, and Boldin's a great blocker, but Boldin was in the top-20 each of the last two years. He just wasn't that good as a receiver this year.
Most improved: Meachem. Thought of as almost a comical bust following a 2007 season that saw him as a healthy inactive for the entire campaign, Meachem was the Saints' fifth receiver a year ago and was their best receiver during 2009. The bad news is that his huge DVOA and DYAR figures were propped up by a 70 percent catch rate that's not likely to recur. (Meachem was at 79 percent before his final disastrous week across from Mark Brunell.)
Biggest decline: Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers. The famously-erratic Bryant was eighth in DYAR a year ago with 284; this year, thanks to injury, regression to the mean, and the presence of three new quarterbacks, he was down to 3 DYAR.
1) Antonio Gates, Chargers: 358 DYAR
2) Dallas Clark, Colts: 261 DYAR
3) Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings: 221 DYAR
4) Jason Witten, Cowboys: 216 DYAR
5) Brent Celek, Eagles: 201 DYAR
Gates set the single-season tight end DYAR record in 2009, only a year after he seemed a shell of his former self thanks to multiple injuries. He'd finish seventh on the wide receiver charts, behind the five players mentioned above and Reggie Wayne. Gates has four of the top 10 tight end seasons in DYAR history (since 1994). Clark also had one of the top ten tight end seasons, lining up in the slot more often than he did in 2008 but not as much as he did in 2007.
Depending upon where you set the target cutoff, the DVOA leader for tight ends was either Benjamin Watson (49.3% DVOA in 42 targets) or Gates (38.4% DVOA in 116 targets). Obviously, Gates' performance over nearly three times as many targets makes him the more valuable player.
1) Daniel Coats, Bengals: -79 DYAR
2) Donald Lee, Packers: -58 DYAR
3) Joey Haynos, Dolphins: -53 DYAR
4) Desmond Clark, Bears: -51 DYAR
5) Jerramy Stevens, Buccaneers: -50 DYAR
It seems unfair to blame Coats for his struggles; he was penciled in as the third-string tight end coming into camp, but injuries pushed him into the starting lineup. Lee lost his job to Jermichael Finley, and Clark was too busy serving as the Bears' best offensive lineman to catch many passes or run very far downfield.
Better than his standard statistics made him look: Owen Daniels, Texans. Daniels isn't a great blocker, but he runs the same route tree that a wide receiver does, which creates opportunities for Daniels, other receivers, and the running game. Texans fans will have to hope Daniels, who had a difference of 2.9 percentage points between his DVOA and his VOA, will recover fully from his torn ACL.
Worse than his standard statistics make him look: Shawn Nelson, Bills. The Buffalo tight end turned his 30 targets into just 159 receiving yards, and had a difference of 5.1 percentage points between his VOA and his DVOA.
Most improved: Jermichael Finley, Packers. A non-factor last year as a tweener receiver -- too big to be a wideout, too slow to be a tight end -- Finley was uncoverable at times this season. His 76 percent catch rate was behind only Jason Witten amongst qualifying tight ends (minimum: 30 attempts).
Biggest decline: Donald Lee, Packers. Many of Lee's former targets went to Finley instead, as the former starter -- who'd been in the top-five in DYAR and DVOA for tight ends as recently as 2007 -- had the second-worst DYAR in the league. Lee picked up only three first downs on the 14 targets he received on third and fourth down.
(This article originally ran on ESPN Insider on January 6, 2010.)