Lots of stats, but few wins have defined the Walsh/Montana era

Lots of stats, but few wins have defined the Walsh/Montana era.

The San Francisco Times
September 23rd, 1981

I’m not here to tell you that Bill Walsh is a bad coach.  And I’m not here to tell you that Joe Montana can’t possibly succeed in the NFL. It’s just that if they want to still be here in two years, some changes are in order.

Walsh comes from the great Paul Brown coaching tree, and like his mentor, Walsh likes to throw the ball. That strategy, while unconventional, can work well when you have a Hall of Famer like Otto Graham or even a great talent like Ken Anderson. It doesn’t work when you have a scrappy young player like Montana. And lest you forget, Brown never won anything without Graham, and Brown’s Bengals went 55-56-1 with zero playoff wins.

Undeterred by that evidence, Walsh went about bringing Basketball On Cleats to Candlestick Park. Was his first year a success? San Francisco finished third in passing yards, 4th in first downs, and 6th in total yards. Quarterback Steve DeBerg led the NFC in completion percentage, too. But while Walsh’s horizontal passing game led to lots of yards and first downs, the team won only two games.  Running backs Paul Hofer and Wilbur Jackson each caught 50 passes, but to what end?

They were two of only nine running backs to hit the 50-catch plateau in 1979, but what good is it passing to your running backs when you can’t attack a defense vertically? In a telling statistic, Baltimore was the only other team to have two running backs catch 50 passes, and the Colts went 5-11. The 49ers ranked 3rd from the bottom in rush attempts that season, but were above average in yards per carry.  Maybe somebody should tell The Genius that San Francisco could have benefited from more runs and fewer passes.

The man who thinks he’s the smartest person in every room surely was going to learn from his 1979 failures, right? In 1980, Montana was handed the reins.  How did he do? Walsh continued with his horizontal offense: Montana completed 64.5% of his passes, the 4th highest by a quarterback in NFL history (behind the great Ken Stabler and two Brown robots, Anderson and Graham). But the team went just 2-5 in Montana’s starts.

Fullback Earl Cooper was a nice player at Rice, but he was drastically overused by the 49ers last season.  In addition to a team-high 171 carries, he caught 83 passes — but for only 567 yards.  Cooper became the first player in NFL history to catch 80 balls and not get 700 yards, much less 567 yards. Cooper averaged an anemic 6.8 yards per reception, and prior to last year, no player with fewer than seven yards per catch had come within 20 passes of Cooper’s 83 grabs. In other words, the 49ers relied more heavily on a player doing so little more than any team in NFL history.  Sure, the 49ers ranked 5th in passing yards, but they ran just 415 times, the second fewest number in the league. The team led the NFL in pass attempts and went 6-10 with an eight-game losing streak in the middle of the season. Genius. [click to continue…]

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Rivers was outstanding in 2013, despite this throwing motion

Rivers was outstanding in 2013, despite this throwing motion.

The Denver Broncos set numerous offensive records last year. The Chip Kelly Eagles had a fascinating offense that was lethal for stretches. The Saints offense was its usual efficient self, and the Chicago Bears under Marc Trestman had one of the best offensive years in franchise history.

Yet all of those teams had at least 61 drives last year that ended in a punt. San Diego , meanwhile, punted just 56 times. The Chargers only had 21 turnovers, which means only 77 San Diego drives could be clearly labeled as failures, or “bad drives.”1

That’s pretty impressive; the 2013 Chargers were just the 36th team during the 16-game era to have fewer than 80 “bad drives” in a season. On the other hand, the Chargers were one of just five of those teams to score fewer than 400 points. San Diego’s offense was very efficient last year, but the 77 “bad drives” statistic is a bit misleading. That’s because the team had just 158 total drives last year according to Football Outsiders, while the average team had 186 drives.

Why did the Chargers have the fewest drives in the NFL? A bad defense certainly helped limit the team’s number of offensive drives: San Diego forced only 82 “bad drives” all year, too. But the main reason was that the offense was not just efficient, but uniquely efficient. According to Football Outsiders, San Diego averaged 3:22 per drive, a full 15 seconds more than the #2 team in that metric, Carolina. And the Panthers were the only other team to average at least three minutes per drive. One reason for the long time of possession is that the Chargers moved at a glacial pace between plays, rating as the 2nd slowest team according to Football Outsiders. The other teams in the bottom four in pace were all run-heavy — Carolina, Seattle, and San Francisco — which marks yet another way in which the Chargers were outliers. In several metrics — first downs per drive, yards per drive, and points per drive — San Diego and Denver were the top two teams in the NFL.  But in pace, Denver ranked 4th, making the Broncos offense look and feel much different than San Diego’s attack.

Another reason the team’s average drive took so long to complete: San Diego averaged 6.85 plays per drive, with New Orleans second in that statistic with 6.35 plays. That’s because the Chargers had a very horizontal passing attack. According to NFLGSIS, Philip Rivers ranked 6th from the bottom in average length of pass at 7.75; only Jason Campbell, Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith, and Chad Henne threw shorter passes. With the exception of Ryan, none of those quarterbacks came close, however, to matching Rivers’ league-leading completion percentage. What we have here is your classic hyper-efficient, short-area passing game, and the Chargers executed it beautifully.

In fact, here’s another unique part of the San Diego offense: it rarely targeted wide receivers. San Diego was one of just three teams to throw more passes to non-wide receivers than to wide receivers. Here’s how to read the table below: the Chargers threw 25% of all pass attempts to running back, 47.1% to wide receivers, and 27.7% to tight ends. Based on those percentages, San Diego ranked 4th in percentage of pass attempts to running backs, 30th in percentage of pass attempts to wide receivers, and 2nd in percentage to tight ends. [click to continue…]

  1. The Chargers were 5/6 on fourth down attempts, so it’s not as though these numbers are skewed by failed fourth down attempts. []

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Yesterday, we looked at which quarterbacks were the best at yards per completion after adjusting for league average. Today, we’ll do the same thing for wide receivers and yards per completion.

Lofton tries to hide from the creamsicle uniforms.

Lofton tries to hide from the creamsicle uniforms.

A small tweak is necessary to the formula. You can skip down to the results section if you don’t care about the math, but I suppose most of my readers want to know what goes in the sausage. We can’t just use league-wide yards per completion rates, since that average includes receptions by non-wide receivers. One way around this is to calculate the league average YPC for wide receivers only; that’s easy to do for 2013, but less easy to do for the earlier years of NFL history when the distinction among the positions was not so clear. So, after playing around with a few different methods, I’ve decided to instead use 120% of the league average YPC rate, and give wide receivers credit for their yards over expectation using that inflated number.

For example, in 1983, James Lofton caught 58 passes for 1,300 yards for the Packers, a 22.4 YPC average. That year, the average reception went for 12.63 yards; 120% of that average is 15.2, which means we would give Lofton credit only for his yards over the product of 15.2 and 58, or 879. Since Lofton actually had 1,300 yards, he gets credit for 421 yards over expectation.

The next year, Lofton caught 62 passes for 1,361 yards (22.0). Since the average reception went for 12.66 yards, Lofton gets credit for his yards over (120% * 12.66 * 62), or 942. Lofton therefore is credited with 419 yards over expectation, nearly identical to his performance in the prior year. In fact, those were the 10th and 11th best season in NFL history by this method. [click to continue…]

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In 2013, the average completion went for 11.63 yards. That’s a pretty low number historically, although it’s actually a bit higher than some of the recent NFL seasons. Take a look at how Yards per Completion has generally been declining throughout NFL history:

ypc

If you want to discuss the quarterbacks who excelled in this metric, controlling for era is crucial. One simple way to measure the best passers when it comes to YPC is to measure how they fare in this metric relative to league average, and multiply that difference by the player’s number of attempts. For example, Nick Foles averaged 14.2 YPC last year, which was 2.6 YPC above average. Over the course of his 317 pass attempts, we could say he provided 529 yards above the average completion. That was the highest in the NFL last year, while Matt Ryan produced the lowest average. [click to continue…]

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If you’re reading this blog, chances are you already know all about our friends at Football Outsiders and the terrific analysis they provide every year. However, if by some chance you don’t know of them, or maybe you haven’t heard about their outstanding annual book, they now have copies of the 2014 Football Outsiders Almanac available for purchase. The book is jam-packed with FO’s signature data (including game-charting stats), plus the usual stat-geeky essays, team and player previews, and 2014 projections. And it’s not just the NFL, as Football Outsiders has some pretty sharp minds (Matt Hinton, Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau) covering the college game, too.

For the second year in a row, I have contributed to the Almanac. I wrote team essays for the Giants  and Jets (only one of those teams has a great defense and a terrible offense!), along with player comments for both of those teams. If you enjoy my work here, you’ll probably enjoy reading what I wrote about those teams.

Football Outsiders has been a supporter of Chase Stuart for a while and Football Perspective from the beginning. But don’t confuse this for charity post: the FOA is a great guide, and I’m sure anyone who buys it will be very happy.

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Testaverde led the Jets to the AFCCG in 1998

Testaverde led the Jets to the AFCCG in 1998.

The 1998 season was one of my favorite years in NFL history. It was also a pretty weird one. We had Terrell Davis rushing for 2,000 yards, rookies Randy Moss and Fred Taylor making defenses look silly, and a quartet of old quarterbacks stun the football world. Doug Flutie came out of nowhere Canada to lead the Bills to a 7-3 record after being out of the NFL for nine years. Randall Cunningham, who had retired after the ’96 season, came off the bench in ’98 to produce one of the best backup seasons in NFL history. The other two quarterbacks are the stars of this post.

Vinny Testaverde had a very up-and-down career, although he was almost certainly a much better quarterback than you remember. Okay, Testaverde has lost more games than any other quarterback, but he played on some really bad teams throughout his career. Testaverde retired with a career winning percentage of 0.423. In 1998, he started 13 games for the Jets; based on that career winning percentage, we would have expected him to win 5.5 games in 1998. Instead, Testaverde went 12-1 in the regular season, giving him 6.5 more wins than we would expect. If that sounds remarkable to you, it should: that’s the 2nd largest discrepancy of any quarterback in NFL history in a single season (minimum 40 career wins). [click to continue…]

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Thoughts on Running Back Yards per Carry

July 23, 2014 Rushing

Regular readers know that I’m skeptical of using “yards per carry” to evaluate running backs. That’s because YPC is not very consistent from year to year. But it’s also not consistent even within the same year. For example, In 2013, Giovani Bernard rushed 92 times for 291 yards in even-numbered games last year, producing a […]

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The Top Quarterbacks And The Receivers They Threw It To

July 22, 2014 Receiving

Last week, I looked at the top receivers and the quarterbacks who threw it to them. Today, we flip that question around and look at which receivers the top quarterbacks threw to. I used the exact same methodology from the previous post, so please read that for the fine details. For Peyton Manning, 20% of […]

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Yards per Route Run, Yards per Target, and Targets per Route Run

July 21, 2014 Receiving

Yards per Route Run, a metric tabulated by Pro Football Focus, is one of my favorite statistics to use to examine wide receiver performance.  To me, it’s the wide receiver version of yards per pass, as it takes production and divides that by opportunity.  However, there are some folks who prefer Yards per Target to […]

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Worst Passer Ratings In Every Year Since the Merger

July 20, 2014 History

In 2013, Geno Smith had the worst passer rating (66.5) in the NFL. The year before, Mark Sanchez had a passer rating of 66.9, which was very nearly the lowest in the league (Matt Cassel had a rating of 66.7). But while the Jets didn’t quite do it, a couple of teams have managed to […]

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Fantasy: Running Back Workload Part II (FBG)

July 19, 2014 Fantasy

Last week, I began my analysis of how to measure workload for running backs. Today brings Part II, another attempt to analyze workload and fantasy production. Last year, Joique Bell finished as the 15th best running back in fantasy football. Prior to 2013, Bell had just 82 career carries, all of which came in 2012.  […]

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The Best Adjusted Rushing Teams of All Time

July 18, 2014 Rushing

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a list of the best rushing teams in 2013 using Adjusted Yards per Carry. That metric, you may recall, is calculated as follows: Rushing Yards + 20*RushingTDs + 9*RushingFirstDowns We can use the same formula to grade every team across history. To account for era and quantity (having […]

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The Rashard Mendenhall/Andre Ellington Time Share Part II

July 17, 2014 History

In November, I wrote about the unique running back by committee taking place in Arizona. At the time, Rashard Mendenhall was averaging 3.1 yards per carry, while backup Andre Ellington was averaging 7.2 yards per rush on 54 carries. I thought it would be fun to revisit the Ellington/Mendenhall time share now that the season […]

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Is Chris Johnson Better than Chris Ivory?

July 16, 2014 Rushing

Over the last three years, Chris Johnson has rushed 817 times for 3,367 yards, a 4.12 yards per carry average. Over the last three years, the Jets have had running back seasons where a rusher recorded at least 150 carries: Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory in 2013, and Shonn Greene in both 2011 and 2012. […]

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Rushing EPA and Yards per Carry

July 15, 2014 Rushing

Today I want to look at how traditional rushing statistics compare to rushing Expected Points Added, one of the main stats used over at Advanced Football Analytics. In my analysis, I used the EPA numbers for each team in each season from 2002 to 2013. Stickiness from year to year Yards per carry is not […]

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The Top Receivers And The Men Who Threw It To Them II

July 14, 2014 Quarterbacks

One of my first posts at Football Perspective was one of my favorites: the top receivers and the men who threw it to them. I like referencing that post from time to time, so I decided to update the numbers through the 2013 season. I looked at all regular season games since 19601, and calculated […]

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Fantasy: Running Back Workload (FBG)

July 13, 2014 Fantasy

Over at Footballguys.com, I try to unravel the relationship between workload and age. Eight years ago, Doug wrote three articles on the topic; sadly, I’m not sure we’ve come very far since then. So I decided to at least begin the process of measuring how much of an impact “mileage” really has on running backs. […]

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Fantasy: Running Back Production In Wins and Losses (FBG)

July 12, 2014 Fantasy

Over at Footballguys.com, I looked at which running backs have produced the most extreme fantasy splits in wins and losses. With few exceptions, running backs generally score more fantasy points in wins than in losses.  For example, Adrian Peterson has averaged 22.2 FP/G over the last four years in wins, and 14.8 FP/G in losses, […]

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2014 MVP Odds and Historical QB MVP Performance

July 11, 2014 Vegas

On July 8th, Bovada released some early MVP odds, so I figured it would be fun to take a few minutes and examine which players seem like the best and worst bets. Bovada listed odds for 40 players. For example, Peyton Manning has odds of “3/1″ which implies that he has a 25% chance of […]

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Not-Entirely-Awful NFL Futures Bets

July 10, 2014 Vegas

In the 1990s, there was a hedge fund called Long Term Capital Management that almost brought down the world economy. LTCM made enormous bets on very arcane things such as the spread between two kinds of bonds. Their whole reason-for-being was that they would find small inefficiencies in prices and borrow like crazy to take […]

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Up, Up, and Away: The Most Recent Vegas Futures Odds

July 9, 2014 Statistics

A few days ago, I was in Vegas with friends and without a car. So I took the chance to shop NFL futures odds to the extent that I felt it was worth it to walk to a given sportsbook. I decided the 3+ mile walk to the Superbook was not worth the opportunity cost […]

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Examining the variation in rushing throughout NFL history

July 8, 2014 Rushing

There is no doubt that in modern times, passing is king. But until pretty recently, we were at the peak level in NFL history with respect to individual rushing performance. On the team level, rushing production ebbed and flows, with high points in the late ’40s, mid-’50s, and mid-’70s, but on the individual level, the […]

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Jimmy Graham Is A Tight End for Franchise Tag Purposes

July 7, 2014 Current Events

On July 3rd, arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that Jimmy Graham is a tight end for purposes of the NFL’s franchise tag. You can read a very good analysis of Burbank’s ruling from Jason Lisk here. But after reading Burbank’s full report, I wanted to add my thoughts. And let’s start with a high-level overview. Football […]

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Analyzing the rushing stats of each team in 2013

July 6, 2014 Rushing

A couple of weeks ago, Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics (formerly Advanced NFL Stats) wrote a great post on the value of a first down. From that post, we concluded that the marginal value of a first down is 9 yards, and we’ve previously determined that the marginal value of a touchdown is 20 […]

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Trivia: Pro Bowlers on NFL Champions, Part II

July 5, 2014 Super Bowl

Last weekend, we looked at the team with the most Pro Bowlers to win a championship. Today, we look at the reverse: the team with the fewest Pro Bowlers to win it all. As a technical matter, the Pro Bowl hasn’t always been around, so some pre-1950 teams and the 1960 Oilers (there was no […]

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Best AV-Weighted Winning Percentages of Defensive Players and Hall of Famers

July 4, 2014 History

Yesterday, I looked at the best AV-weighted winning percentages of offensive players. Today, we examine the same numbers but for defensive players and kickers since 1960. Again, players who entered the league prior to 1960 are included, but for purposes of this study, only their 1960+ seasons count (assuming they produced at least 50 points […]

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Best AV-Weighted Winning Percentages of Offensive Players

July 3, 2014 History

Yesterday, I looked at the weighted career winning percentages for running backs, with the weight being based on each player’s yards from scrimmage in each season of his career. Today, I want to do the same thing but for all offensive players, using PFR’s Approximate Value ratings. By this methodology, Dan Koppen has the highest […]

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Steven Jackson and Running Back Records

July 2, 2014 Rushing

One of my very first posts at Football Perspective looked at the weighted career winning percentages of various running backs. You can calculate a player’s weighted career winning percentage in lots of ways, but here’s what I did: Calculate the percentage of yards from scrimmage a running back gained in each season as a percentage […]

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Thoughts on the value of a rushing first down

July 1, 2014 Statgeekery

Last week, Brian Burke provided some excellent data on the value of a first down. I began working on today’s post last offseason, but as you’ll see in a few minutes, I wasn’t quite comfortable with the results. But here’s what I did. For all teams from 1989 to 2012, I recorded for each team’s […]

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Average margins in Wins and Losses

June 30, 2014 History

Okay, some fun trivia to kick off the week. Do you know which team last year had the worst points differential in games they lost? I’ll put the answer in spoiler tags. Where does that rank historically? I thought it would be fun to look at the teams since 1950 with the worst average margin […]

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