Quick Reads: 2014 In Review
by Vince Verhei
When looking back at the individual stars of 2014, one thing becomes immediately clear: It was a very, very good year to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers finished with an offensive DVOA of 22.5%, second in the league behind Green Bay and their best DVOA in our records going back to 1989, topping the 16.3% they posted in 2004 (Ben Roethlisberger's first year. As such, it's not surprising to see them dominating the individual leaderboards, be they passing, rushing, or receiving.
Using our core advanced metrics -- DYAR and DVOA -- we've gone through the full-season totals at each position and identified the best and worst quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends from this past season. There's also a look at which players have had their performance most drastically different from their conventional statistics, as well as those players who have had the biggest improvement or decline in their performance from a year ago.
Our annual disclaimer: Numbers are never perfect. While we certainly believe that our metrics do a better job of analyzing a player's performance than anything else you'll see, there are some things statistics can't account for. We'll point out where the data needs some missing context as warranted. Also, remember that DYAR is a cumulative stat, so players who miss time (like Carson Palmer or Nick Foles) will find it harder to make it to these leaderboards.
(More information on these statistics is available here.)
1) Aaron Rodgers, GB: 1,667 total DYAR (1,563 passing, 104 rushing)
2) Ben Roethlisberger, PIT: 1,544 total DYAR (1,598 passing, -54 rushing)
3) Peyton Manning, DEN: 1,403 total DYAR (1,433 passing, -30 rushing)
4) Drew Brees, NO: 1,234 total DYAR (1,212 passing, 27 rushing, -5 receiving)
5) Tony Romo, DAL: 1,221 total DYAR (1,198 passing, 23 rushing)
Analysis: For the first time since 2002, the leader in passing DYAR is not named Peyton, Tom, or Drew. Ben Roethlisberger becomes the first player since Rich Gannon (Think about this! Rich Gannon!) to wrest the DYAR crown from the Holy Trinity of quarterbacks. It was kind of an odd out-of-nowhere late-career surge from Roethlisberger, who had never finished higher than seventh in passing DYAR before this year.
When we include rushing value, however, Roethlisberger is surpassed by Aaron Rodgers, who is also not named Peyton, Tom, or Drew. So any way you look at it, there is a new king of quarterbacks this year. Rodgers actually led the league in passing DVOA, but finishes behind Roethlisberger in DYAR because he had 85 fewer passing plays.
It is worth noting that although Roethlisberger did lead the league in DYAR, it was actually a below-average league-leading season. In fact, it was not one of the top 30 seasons we've measured since 1989. The hyper-inflated passing stats of this era have strongly boosted the depth of the rank-and-file quarterback, making it harder for those on top of the heap to stand out.
Mind you, the old guard isn't exactly lying down and playing dead. Peyton Manning is third this year (his 13th top-three finish, which is ridiculous), and Drew Brees is fourth (his seventh top-four finish, and his tenth straight year in the top 10). Tom Brady was sixth, just missing this table; not counting the 2008 season, when he tore his ACL, Brady has now finished sixth or better in ten straight years.
1) Blake Bortles, JAC: -855 total DYAR (-955 passing, 100 rushing)
2) Josh McCown, TB: -618 total DYAR (-665 passing, 47 rushing)
3) Robert Griffin, WAS: -394 total DYAR (-371 passing, -23 rushing)
4) Michael Vick, NYJ: -225 total DYAR (-229 passing, 4 rushing)
5) Zach Mettenberger, TEN: -206 total DYAR (-211 passing, 5 rushing)
Analysis: Bortles finishes with the third-worst passing DYAR total on record, behind Bobby Hoying's -962 with Philadelphia in 1998 and Jacksonville's own Blaine Gabbert, who had -1,010 in 2011. The struggles of fellow Jaguars passer Chad Henne (he had a -54.6% DVOA this year in 94 passing plays, much worse than his previous career worst of -24.6% in 2012) suggest that the problems in central Florida run much deeper than the quarterback position. And hey, at least Bortles can run pretty good.
Also on the list are Josh McCown and Michael Vick, a pair of washed-up veterans who split time with second-year passers. In McCown's case, he was clearly so much worse than Mike Glennon (a -41.9% DVOA for McCown, compared to -2.9% for Glennon) that there is no logical explanation for why McCown should have been starting by the end of the year -- unless the Buccaneers were deliberately tanking for the top pick in the draft, in which case, hey, mission accomplished. Glennon should make a decent enough backup for Marcus Mariota; McCown has somehow accumulated 12 NFL seasons under his belt and should be ready to enjoy a long retirement. (No, seriously, Josh, please retire.) I don't know what's left to say about Michael Vick, except that if you throw out Week 17, a game where the Miami Dolphins defense was clearly not trying, Vick actually beat Geno Smith in passing DYAR, -229 to -242. (Smith, however, had a much higher DVOA, -21.4% to -36.9%. And again, that's throwing out the Week 17 game, far and away Smith's best game of the year.)
There is no clear solution to the quarterback mess in D.C., where the coach has publicly knocked his quarterback and the quarterback has publicly knocked his teammates, but it looks as if everyone there is going to be stuck with each other for at least another season. Better pass protection might help; Griffin's 13.4 percent sack rate was the highest for any player since David Carr's 76-sack rookie season for the expansion Texans in 2002. As for Mettenberger, the Titans have the second pick in next year's draft and should at least consider taking a quarterback, though Mettenberger himself believes he can be "the guy." He did nothing on the field to show that in 2014.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Drew Stanton, ARI
By the NFL's passer rating formula, Stanton officially ranked 28th out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks. In DVOA, though, he was 13th among that same group. Stanton's completion rate of 55 percent was the worst in the league, but his 13.0 yards per completion were second only to Brian Hoyer (13.7). As a result, his 40 percent Success Rate on passing plays was still bad, but bottom-ten bad, not worst-in-the-league bad. His sack rate and interception rate were also much better than average, making him an odd mix of long-baller and game manager. Stanton also played a much harder portion of the Cardinals' schedule than Carson Palmer did; Palmer's DYAR drops by about 100 when we add in opponent adjustments, while Stanton's goes up by 50.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Teddy Bridgewater, MIN
The Vikings rookie ranked 22nd in passer rating, but 31st in DVOA. In some ways he is the anti-Stanton, 11th in completion percentage, but that's padded with a lot of dumpoffs, and Bridgewater's Success Rate is actually a little below average. He also has the 11th-highest interception rate, and the sixth-highest sack rate.
Most Improved: Joe Flacco, BAL
Flacco's DVOA climbed from -17.5% in 2013 to 15.4% this year. The addition of Steve Smith no doubt had a lot to do with it.
Biggest Decline: Josh McCown, TB
McCown's DVOA, seasons with at least 100 pass plays:
Can you spot the fluke year? Lovie Smith, apparently, can't. For the detail-oriented, I will note that McCown's DVOA dropped by 74.0% from 2013 to 2014.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson finished with 284 rushing DYAR, breaking the all-time quarterback mark of Michael Vick's 261 set in 2006. Wilson had 33 runs of 10 or more yards in 2014; only seven running backs had more.
1) Le'veon Bell, PIT: 519 total DYAR (206 rushing, 313 receiving)
2) Marshawn Lynch, SEA: 454 total DYAR (362 rushing, 92 receiving)
3) DeMarco Murray, DAL: 437 total DYAR (381 rushing, 56 receiving)
4) Eddie Lacy, GB: 300 total DYAR (190 rushing, 110 receiving)
5) C.J. Anderson, DEN: 265 total DYAR (199 rushing, 66 receiving)
Analysis: This is just the seventh time a running back has amassed 300 receiving DYAR in a season. Marshall Faulk did it four times (with the Colts in 1998 and with the Rams in 1999, 2000 and 2001), while Charlie Garner pulled it off for the 2002 Raiders and Larry Centers did so for the 1995 Cardinals.
Lynch led all running backs in rushing DVOA (23.3%), but finished second to Murray in DYAR because Murray racked up 113 more carries. Lacy gets lots of credit for his power running style, but his receiving prowess sometimes gets overlooked because the Packers have so many other weapons. Anderson's presence here is a stunner because he only became a regular player in Week 10. Since then, he is second among running backs in rushing DYAR (behind Lynch) and fifth in receiving DYAR.
1) Darren McFadden, OAK: -109 total DYAR (-32 rushing, -77 receiving)
2) Andre Williams, NYG: -73 total DYAR (-24 rushing, -49 receiving)
3) Doug Martin, TB: -60 total DYAR (-24 rushing, -35 receiving)
4) Knile Davis, KC: -53 total DYAR (-50 rushing, -4 receiving)
5) Ben Tate, CLE: -48 total DYAR ( -37 rushing, -11 receiving)
Analysis: The problem for this quintet was basic inefficiency. Martin, Tate, and Davis finished 1-2-3 among qualifying runners in lowest Success Rate, Williams was fifth, and McFadden was ninth.
It was a bad year to find bad running backs; only one of these players would have made last year's bottom five. This year's worst runner by DYAR (Houston's Alfred Blue, -87) would not have made the bottom 50 going back to 1989.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Jerick McKinnon, MIN
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Though he ran for only 538 yards this season before undergoing back surgery in November, McKinnon finished 15th in DYAR. His Success Rate was quite low at 42 percent, but he still averaged 4.8 yards per rush, with 13 of his 113 runs going for 10 yards or more, including four runs of 20 yards or more.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Joique Bell, DET
Bell slowly amassed a career-high 861 yards on the ground this year, but he also put a lot of balls on the ground, leading all running backs with five fumbles on running plays.
Most Improved: Lamar Miller, MIA
From a DVOA of -7.8% in 2013 to 17.8% this year, Miller blossomed in his third season. Yes, his Week 17 97-yarder against the Jets helped, but Miller was extremely reliable all year long, leading the league in Success Rate (57 percent) while fumbling just twice.
Biggest Decline: Andre Ellington, ARI
We dubbed Ellington the top prospect in all of football in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, so we're just as disappointed in him as anyone else is. His 17.2% DVOA in his rookie year in 2013 fell to -13.3% this year, as he apparently fell victim to the same curse that has ruined the career of pretty much every Cardinals running back since the team moved to Arizona in 1988. (In 27 years, the team has produced only six 1,000-yard rushers, and five of those averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry.)
1) Antonio Brown, PIT: 587 total DYAR (553 receiving, 5 rushing, 30 passing)
2) Emmanuel Sanders, DEN: 512 total DYAR (480 receiving, 31 rushing)
3) Randall Cobb, GB: 484 total DYAR (478 receiving, 6 rushing)
4) Jordy Nelson, GB: 481 total DYAR (all receiving)
5) Dez Bryant, DAL: 435 total DYAR (all receiving)
Analysis: Antonio Brown led the league in receptions and receiving yards this year, so it's hard to say he flew under the table, but none of us quite realized what a great year he was having until the dust settled in Week 17. Brown was just the 14th wide receiver ever to gain 500 receiving DYAR in a season:
|Year||PBP ID||Team||DYAR||DVOA||Passes||Catches||Yards||TD||Catch %|
Emmanuel Sanders, the man Brown replaced in Pittsburgh (sorta), has flourished in his new home as well. Nelson is a holdover from last year's list, while his teammate Cobb set career highs with 91 catches, 1,287 yards, and 12 touchdowns in his fourth season. Bryant's career has been a little up and down; he is fifth this year and was third in 2012, but hasn't finished higher than 13th in any other season.
If we expanded this list to six names, we would add Odell Beckham, Jr. The Giants wideout finished with 394 DYAR, the second-best rookie season ever, and he did it despite missing a quarter of the season.
1) Cecil Shorts, JAC: -147 total DYAR (-184 receiving, 37 passing)
2) Andre Johnson, HOU: -89 total DYAR (all receiving)
3) Brandon Gibson, MIA: -57 total DYAR (all receiving)
4) Marqise Lee, JAC: -36 total DYAR (-42 receiving, 6 rushing)
5) Riley Cooper, PHI: -33 total DYAR (all receiving)
Analysis: Similar to the "bad" running backs, the "bad" receivers this year aren't all that bad -- with one exception. Cecil Shorts finishes with the fifth-worst single-season DYAR on record, behind only 2006 Chris Chambers (-294), 2004 Bobby Wade (-210), 1994 Kelvin Martin (-188), and 2003 Az-Zahir Hakim (-185)
There were other receivers who certainly stand out. Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson and the Jets' Percy Harvin would both have made the bottom five in receiving DYAR alone, but both topped 100 DYAR rushing to lift themselves from the bottom. Only three other receivers have ever topped 100 DYAR rushing: Harvin in 2011 (183), Patterson last year (118), and Jacoby Ford with the Raiders in 2010 (112).
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Terrance Williams, DAL
Williams caught only 37 passes, tied for 77th among wideouts, and only tied for fourth on the Cowboys alone. However, those 37 catches came with a 16.8-yard average and eight touchdowns, and so Williams finished 20th among wideouts with 219 DYAR.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Andre Johnson, HOU
85 receptions tied Johnson for 11th among wide receivers, but with a Catch Rate below 60 percent, barely 11.0 yards per catch, and as many fumbles (three) as touchdowns, he was the second-worst wideout by DYAR. That being said, remember that quarterback and receiver stats are still intertwined, particularly because we are measuring receivers using both complete and incomplete passes. We don't really think Andre Johnson is one of the "five worst receivers in the NFL." He just was one of the five lowest in this specific metric, which means he wasn't as good as standard stats made him look.
Most Improved: Steve Johnson, SF
In 2013, Johnson posted a -15.5% DVOA as Buffalo's No 1 receiver catching passes from EJ Manuel, Thaddeus Lewis, and Jeff Tuel. That DVOA climbed to 23.4% when catching passes from Colin Kaepernick as San Francisco's third or fourth option. Context matters, folks.
Biggest Decline: Riley Cooper, PHI
It's a similar story for Cooper, in reverse. In 2013, he had a DVOA of 22.0% catching passes from Nick Foles in a one-of-a-kind season. In 2014, Foles regressed before getting hurt and giving way for Mark Sanchez, of all people, and Cooper's DVOA fell to -17.2%.
1) Rob Gronkowski, NE: 234 receiving DYAR
2) Antonio Gates, SD: 202 receiving DYAR
3) Greg Olsen, CAR: 175 receiving DYAR
4) Travis Kelce, KC: 171 receiving DYAR
5) Jason Witten, DAL: 144.2 receiving DYAR
6) Heath Miller, PIT: 143.6 receiving DYAR
Analysis: We're listing a top-six here because the gap between fifth and sixth place is so air-tight, and also because we wanted to list a Steeler at every position.
This marks the third time in the last four seasons Gronk has led all tight ends in DYAR; in his other two seasons, he finished second and eighth. Gates notches his eighth top-three finish after two seasons outside the top 10. Olsen makes the top four for the second time in three seasons in Carolina after never finishing higher than 20th in four years in Chicago. Witten has now made the top five ten times in the last 11 seasons. So those four, to one degree or another, we're used to. Kelce, a third-round pick in 2013, played in only one game his rookie season; his sophomore campaign was better. He was No. 2 on our Top Prospects list, so maybe that makes up for Andre Ellington a little bit. As for Miller, though he's not thought of as a dominant receiving option, he also finished in the top 10 in 2005, 2007, and 2012.
None of these seasons were historic; Gronkowski's was the 25th-best we've ever measured.
1) Levine Toilolo, ATL: -115 receiving DYAR
2) Mychal Rivera, OAK: -97 receiving DYAR
3) Jermaine Gresham: CIN -78 receiving DYAR
4) Eric Ebron, DET: -71 receiving DYAR
5) Jeff Cumberland, NYJ: -67 receiving DYAR
Analysis: Nobody expected Levine Toilolo to replace Tony Gonzalez, but surely Atlanta was expecting more than this, one of the 20 worst tight end seasons on record. Keep in mind that Toilolo would have been the fourth or fifth option on almost every passing play, and he gets to catch passes from a top-ten quarterback. Rivera, like Toilolo, was a second-year player, while Ebron was a rookie, so they still have time to improve. Gresham, though, has been at this for five seasons now, and has been below replacement level in four of those seasons. If the light bulb hasn't turned on yet, it's hard to see how it could. Cumberland has been below replacement level two times in three years as a starter, but his quarterback situation has been, um, less than ideal.
Better Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Dwayne Allen, IND
Allen finished 11th among tight ends with 110 DYAR despite catching only 29 passes. Allen showed a surprising knack for making big plays, with a 13.6-average gain per reception that would be the envy of many wide receivers. He also scored eight touchdowns in just 49 targets.
Worse Than His Standard Stats Made Him Look: Martellus Bennett, CHI
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Bennett led all tight ends with 90 catches, but he was just 14th with 86 DYAR. Frankly, it's hard to determine the reason for the disconnect. His Catch Rate is good, but not great; his yards per catch is bad, but not awful. He only caught six touchdowns, but never fumbled. He was just an average producer with a very high workload (128 targets, more than any tight end except Gronkowski, who had 131).
Most Improved: Antonio Gates, SD
Technically, Houston's Garrett Graham had a bigger increase in DVOA (from -21.3% in 2013 to 2.4% this year), but that's partially due to small sample size as Graham has been injured this year, missing five games and only collecting 28 targets. So we're going with Gates, who rebounded nicely with a 23.7% DVOA after posting just an 0.9% DVOA the year prior. Gates turns 35 in June, but he's not done yet.
Biggest Decline: Vernon Davis, SF
Once again, the biggest change in DVOA happened to a part-timer (Denver's Jacob Tamme, whose DVOA fell from 23.7% in 2013 to -43.1% this season -- seriously, if you're quarterback is Peyton Manning, how do you post a Catch Rate of 50 percent and average only 7.8 yards per catch?), so we're going with Davis, one of the most disappointing players on one of this year's most disappointing teams. His DVOA fell from 29.2% in 2013 to -27.0% in 2014. A 52 percent Catch Rate (fourth-worst among tight ends) didn't help things, but Davis' home-run ability also disappeared. From 2009-13, Davis averaged 13.8 yards per catch, and never less than 11.8 yards per catch in any season. That average last year sunk to 9.4 yards per catch.