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Through six weeks, the 49ers and Browns were both 0-6, while the Giants were 1-5. That’s bad, but it’s notable because those were the only three teams in the NFL with a record that was worse than 2-4. And on the flip side, only two teams — the 5-1 Chiefs and 5-1 Eagles — had a record that was better than 4-2. In other words, 27 of the 32 teams in the NFL were within two games of .500; or thought of differently, 84% of the NFL teams had a winning percentage between 0.333 and 0.667.

That… is… unusual. The graph below shows the percentage of NFL teams that had a record between 0.333 and 0.667 after six weeks in each year since 1970. As you can see, 2017 has set a new mark for parity: [click to continue…]

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Chicago upset Baltimore in week 6, and rookie QB Mitch Trubisky picked up his first career victory in the process.  But if you want to award credit to the Bears for the win, the passing game would be a distant third.

The Bears picked up a first down on just 23.8% of all passing plays, and that includes a halfback pass that went for a touchdown; Trubisky gained 4 first downs on 20 dropbacks.  But the Bears defense was outstanding, limiting the Ravens passing offense to a 20.5% first down rateJoe Flacco had a 48.8 passer rating; for his career, he is 2-16 in the regular season when he has a passer rating below 55.0.

But for Chicago, it was the running game that carried the day.  The Bears passed on just 28% of dropbacks, and Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard combined to run 50 times for 199 yards. They also caught two passes for 23 yards and threw one pass for a 21-yard touchdown.  Given how competitive the game was (Chicago had a Game Script of just +3.3), you could argue it was the most run-heavy game of the season.

The full week 6 Game Scripts data below: [click to continue…]

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Young Running Backs Are Taking Over The NFL

Kareem Hunt has dominated the NFL so far

Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, and Dalvin Cook (who is now on IR after tearing his ACL in week four) were all drafted in 2017.

Jordan Howard, Ezekiel Elliott, Alex Collins, and Derrick Henry were all drafted in 2016.

Todd Gurley, Jay Ajayi, Melvin Gordon, and Ameer Abdullah were each drafted in 2015.

Those 11 running backs are all ranked in the top 20 in rushing yards. Last year, 11 of the top 20 rushing leaders were also were 1st, 2nd, or 3rd year players, but that is pretty unusual. The table below look at every NFL season since 1970, and shows the number of players in the top 20 in rushing that were in their first, second, or third years, and the total number of players in their first three years. [click to continue…]

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The Purple People Eaters

Last Monday, I provided some initial thoughts on the relative values of completion and passing first down percentage. The next day, I looked at how teams with disparate performances in those two metrics. And last Wednesday, I looked at the best passing offenses in NFL history in first down rate on passing plays.

Today? A look at the best pass defenses at preventing first downs.  This time, I am also going to era adjust these ratings. In 1969, the Vikings faced 459 pass plays (410 pass attempts, 49 sacks) but allowed only 88 passing first downs. That’s a remarkable rate of just 19.2%, the best since World War II.   It’s also the best rate on an era-adjusted basis.  The league average in the NFL in 1969 was 29.0%, which means this iteration of the Purple People Eaters was 9.8% better than league average, the highest differential ever. [click to continue…]

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Brown is averaging more yards per game than his uniform number.

Yep, that’s pretty good.

Dating back to December 16, 2012, and including the playoffs, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown has 578 receptions for 7,755 yards in his last 77 games. Brown has 48 catches in six games this season for 700 yards, a 116.7 yards per game average.

Before the 2015 season, I wrote that Julio Jones had maintained a 100 receiving yards per game average over 57 straight games. I did not include the postseason when I wrote that post, but Jones still would have qualified had I done so: he had 5,703 receiving yards in his last 57 regular season games and 305 receiving yards in his 3 playoff games during that time. Through the end of last regular season, Jones was still keeping this pace up, at 7,417 receiving yards through his last 74 games.

And following the Super Bowl, Jones was at 7,751 yards — or just 4 yards behind Brown’s pace — through his last 77 games. Even through week 3 of this year, Jones had 8016 receiving yards in his last 80 games, but he has had two poor games since: as a result, he’s fall slightly under the 100 yard/game pace in his last 82 games.

But Jones still is at over 100 yards per game through his last 79 games (that’s because the first 3 games in his 82-game streak weren’t great). In his last 79 games, Jones has 7,932 receiving yards, a 100.4 yards per game average. [click to continue…]

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Last week, I introduced the first version of the SRS ratings. Well, there were some big upsets this week which have moved the rankings.

Clemson, which ranked 5th last week and 2nd in the polls, was upset by a Syracuse team that ranked 73rd in the SRS.

Washington, which ranked 8th in the SRS, was upset by Arizona State, which ranked 45th last week.

Washington State looked to be soaring this time a week ago: they ranked 14th in the SRS and were 6-0. But the Cougars were obliterated 37-3 by a Cal team that ranked 58th in the SRS a week ago.

Auburn, Texas Tech, Texas, and San Diego State were also SRS top 25 teams that suffered a loss in week seven.

Even Georgia moves down this week by virtue of a sluggish win over a terrible Missouri team. Entering this week, Missouri was 0-4 against FBS opponents (Auburn, Purdue, South Carolina, Kentucky) with an average loss of 23.25 points; therefore, a 25-point home win over Missouri drops 3 to 4. Right now, Ohio State and Penn State joint Alabama in the top 3.

As for the Buckeyes, yes, they rank #2 despite a 15-point home loss to Oklahoma. Why? They beat Rutgers by 56, Maryland by 48, Nebraska by 42, UNLV by 33, and Army by 31 points: those are the worst losses each of those five teams have had this year. They also beat Indiana by 28, and the Hoosiers have only had one loss worse this year (31 points to Penn State). Yes, the Oklahoma loss was bad, but it’s not easy dropping 40-point wins against Big 10 teams. Think of the SRS as a proxy for the Vegas rankings: and right now, I expect Ohio State to be a home favorite against Penn State in two weeks.

As always thanks to Dr. Peter R. Wolfe for providing the weekly game logs. Below are the SRS ratings through 7 weeks: [click to continue…]

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The Jaguars used the fourth overall pick on LSU RB Leonard Fournette. The addition of Fournette was supposed to change the team’s identity, and it seems… to have worked? Fournette finished with 28 carries for 181 yards and 2 TDs, although the last of those carries was a 90-yard touchdown run when the game was over. Still, the Jaguars finished with 37 carries against just 16 pass plays: that’s a 30% pass rate, easily the lowest of the week. Jacksonville has a great defense and seems to have figured out its running game, and that may be the formula for success for this team.

Blake Bortles completed just 8 passes on his 16 dropbacks for only 5 first downs, but that was enough given that the Jaguars forced five interceptions and returned two of those for touchdowns. The Raiders and Bears were the other teams that showed up as run-happy this week, which probably isn’t surprising given that both teams were starting new quarterbacks in week five. For Oakland, EJ Manuel had 29 dropbacks but gained just 137 yards, while the running game had 25 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown (Manuel had two carries for 15 yards). For Chicago, Mitch Trubisky picked up just 108 yards on 26 dropbacks, while the running game had 115 yards on 29 attempts (with Trubisky picking up 22 yards on the ground on three carries).

Below are the week 5 Game Scripts data:
[click to continue…]

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Today at ESPN, you can hear me talk about football for 42 minutes before talking about the Jets. If you are an iTunes listener, you can listen here.

If you enjoyed today’s show, let me know in the comments, or let Bill know here.

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How Vegas Has Changed Its Mind On The Week 6 Games

Back in May, CG Technology released point spreads for games during each of the first 16 weeks of the season. Today, I want to check how the spreads for the week 6 games have changed since then.

There are 22 teams we can analyze using this method. Here are those 11 games, sorted by the games that have changed the most. [click to continue…]

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Two guys who were pretty good at picking up first downs.

On Monday, I provided some initial thoughts on the relative values of completion and passing first down percentage. Yesterday, I looked at the difference between the 1972 and 2017 Jets when it came to those two metrics, along with a breakdown of every team’s passing performance so far in 2017.

Since passing first down percentage — which is simply the number of passing first downs a team gained divided by their pass attempts (including sacks) — is so important, I wanted to present a list of the top teams in NFL history using this metric. My data on first downs goes back to 1950, and since then, the top three teams all have something in common: Peyton Manning. The 2004 Colts picked up a first down on a whopping 44% of passing plays, the most in league history. That team is followed by the 2013 Broncos and the 2006 Colts, and the 2016 Falcons and 1984 Dolphins round out the top five. Here’s how to read the table below, which shows the top 200 passing offenses by this metric. The 2004 Colts completed 67% of their passes, had a sack rate of 2.6%, and 67.4% of their completed passes went for first downs. The final column is what the table is sorted by: the percentage of pass plays that went for a first down.

The table below shows the top 200 teams by this metric: by defaut, it only lists the top 20, but the table is fully sortable and searchable. [click to continue…]

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Back when passes were completed for first downs.

The New York Jets have the second best completion percentage in the NFL through five weeks.  That’s a shocking thing to say for many reasons, including the key fact that 38-year-old Josh McCown has taken every snap at quarterback for the team this season. The Jets are completing 71.6% of their passes, which is truly remarkable for this franchise.

Today I want to compare the 2017 Jets to their predecessors from 45 years earlier. The 1972 Jets were an interesting team.  That year produced a low key entry for the best Joe Namath season: he went 7-6 (missing one game due to injury) but led the NFL in passing yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt, Net Yards per Attempt, and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt.  Namath was the best QB in the NFL that year, and was named a first-team All-Pro by the Pro Football Writers, the NEA, and Pro Football Weekly.1 But Namath completed just 50% of his passes that year, and as a team, the Jets completed just 49.6% of their passes.

It’s easy to look at the 2017 Jets with their 71.6% completion rate — a whopping 22 points higher than the ’72 squad — and conclude that, era adjustments aside, the 2017 Jets passing offense is more efficient. To be clear, era adjustments are enormously important when comparing passers across eras. You almost never want to compare players from different eras without making those adjustments. But today is the rare day where that’s not where I want us to focus. Because as discussed yesterday, completion percentage ignores two key elements of a passing game. [click to continue…]

  1. Namath was a 2nd-team choice by the AP, which went with Earl Morrall, 9-0 QB of the undefeated Dolphins, as their first-team choice. But it’s not controversial to say that Namath was the best QB in the NFL that year, given that he led in ANY/A and won the majority vote for best QB, and also beat out Morrall in the organizations that made All-Conference (Sporting News and UPI) votes rather than All-Pro votes.  Of the five organizations that chose between Namath and Morrall, only one went with Morrall. []
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Against the Saints in week four, Jay Cutler completed 20 of 28 passes for 164 yards, which translates to a sparkling 71.4% completion percentage. But that was about as misleading as it gets. Cutler also was sacked four times — a 12.5% sack rate — and several of those completions were pretty meaningless. In fact, Cutler threw just 7 first downs against New Orleans.

When you hear the 71.4% completion rate, you think: pretty good. You’d be wrong. Completion percentage ignores sacks (it shouldn’t), and it treats a completed pass for a first down the same as a completed pass for zero yards. On 32 dropbacks, Cutler threw just 7 first downs — a 21.9% rate that is more meaningful than his completion percentage. Why is it more meaningful? Well, the Dolphins were shutout against the Saints.

Want another example? Against the Redskins in week 3, Derek Carr completed 19 of 31 passes, for a nominally effective 61% completion rate. But Carr was also sacked four times (which, again, should be in the denominator when looking at completion percentage) and picked up just three first downs. Three! So while he completed 61% of his passes, Carr threw for a first down on only 9% of his pass plays against Washington.

How about from this weekend? In his first start of the year, Titans quarterback Matt Cassel completed 66% of his passes and produced a passer rating of 85.5 against Miami. That’s pretty good, right? Well, it isn’t when you have drives that like this that increase your completion percentage and passer rating:

Cassel was sacked six times on the day and threw for just 9 first downs. So while he was 21/32 on the stat sheet, he was also 9/38 at throwing for first downs, a very poor 24% rate. The Titans had 14 drives, and one of them was a 4-play drive for -3 yards that resulted in a field goal because it started at the Dolphins 24; the other 13 drives produced one touchdown, two fumbles, and ten punts. Tennessee lost, 16-10, despite Cassel completing 66% of his passes: or, maybe they lost because Cassel completed 66% of his passes playing that style.

A high completion percentage shouldn’t be any offense’s goal; instead, it feels like more and more quarterbacks (and offensive coordinators) are treating it like the ends and not the means.

The graph below shows completion percentage in the NFL (excluding the AFL) from 1950 through five weeks of 2017. That line is in blue and plotted against the Left Y-Axis; as you can see, it’s been increasing steadily over the last seven decades.  Plotted in orange and against the Right Y-Axis is the percentage of pass plays that have gone for first downs.  That’s also increasing, although it’s been a little bit bumpier. [click to continue…]

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For the last few years, I have introduced the first edition of the College Football SRS Ratings after five weeks. I’m a week late this year, so it’s time to release the first college football ratings. And while it’s too early to put too much weight on these ratings, they help to at least begin framing the discussion of which are the most impressive teams in college football. As a reminder, here is the methodology:

1) For each game not played at a neutral site, 3 points are given to the road team. After that adjustment, all wins and losses of between 7 and 24 points are recorded exactly as such. This means that a 24-10 road win goes down as +17 for the road team, -17 for the home team.

2) With one exception, wins of 7 or fewer points are scored as 7-point wins and losses of 7 or fewer points are scored as 7 point losses. So a 4-point home win goes down as +7 (and not a 1) and a 1-point home loss is a -7 (and not a -4). The one exception is that road losses of 3 or fewer (and home wins of 3 or fewer) are graded as ties. So a 21-20 home victory goes down as a 0 for both teams.

3) Wins/Losses of more than 24 points are scored as the average between the actual number and 24. This is to avoid giving undue credit to teams that run up the score. So a 75-point home win goes down as a 48-point win.

Once we have a rating for each team in each game, we then adjust each result for strength of schedule. This is an iterative process, where we adjust the ratings hundreds of times (to adjust for SOS, you have to adjust for the SOS of each opponent, and the SOS of each opponent’s opponent, and so on.) in Excel. Then we produce final ratings, where the SRS rating is the sum of the Margin of Victory and Strength of Schedule in every week. [click to continue…]

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Let’s travel back in time to December 7th, 2013.

Adrian Peterson was 28 years and 255 days old, and had just rushed for 211 yards in a win against the Bears. Peterson, who had rushed for 2,097 yards in 2012, was looking to repeat as rushing champion: he had just cracked the 1,200-yard rushing mark in 2013, while no other running back had yet hit 1,100 yards.

Frank Gore was 30 years and 201 days old, and had just had another mediocre week.  Against the Rams, he rushed 15 times for only 42 yards, his second poor game in a row and his sixth straight game with fewer than 100 rushing yards. He ranked 10th in the NFL in rushing.

Gore, by virtue of being two years older and having entered the NFL two years earlier than Peterson, had just finished his 128th game; Peterson had just completed his 101st.  But despite the two-year head start, Peterson had edged in front of Gore on the career rushing list.  In fact, his stellar effort against Chicago extended Peterson’s career edge to 397 yards: the Vikings star had 10,057 rushing yards, while the 49ers star had 9,660.

Peterson, at 28 years old, had a career average of 100 rushing yards per game; Gore, at 30, was at 75 rushing yards per game for his career.  At the time, it would have been laughable to wonder who would finish with more career rushing yards: Peterson was better, younger, and was already in the lead!

But the next week, Peterson injured his foot against the Ravens, and he dealt with foot and groin injuries for the rest of 2013.  In 2014, he missed nearly the entire season due to a suspension after being indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to his son.  In 2015, he had another great season and led the NFL in rushing, but in 2016, a knee injury limited him to just 72 yards in three games, his second season in three years with under 100 rushing yards. And this year? He’s now with the Saints, but has only 27 carries for 81 yards through four games: he ranks 3rd on New Orleans in rushing and 8th in yards from scrimmage.   Since December 7, 2013, he’s rushed for only 1,771 yards.

As for Gore? Well, he’s just kept chugging along, rushing for about 65 yards seemingly every week. He’s basically doubled Peterson since then, with 3,486 yards since that poor game against the Rams in his age 30 season.  So despite being older, a less effective player, and behind in the standings, Gore has now jumped out to a 1,428 yard career edge on Peterson.  That’s the largest his lead has been since 2008, when Peterson was in his second year with the Vikings.

The best way to understand Gore and Peterson’s career, though, is with a visual. In the graph below, I’ve plotted Gore’s (in Niners red) and Peterson’s (in Vikings purple) career rushing yards through each week of the NFL since 2005.  Their totals are marked against the Left Y-Axis. Gore had a lead of over 2,000 yards by the time Peterson entered the league, but you can see that Peterson’s line — once it starts — is much steeper. Eventually, he overtook Gore, and that lead hit its peak in early December 2013. Since then, he’s flattened out other than his strong 2015 season, and while Peterson is just shy of 12,000 rushing yards, Gore has already topped 13,000.

Plotted against the Right Y-Axis is the amount of Gore’s lead: some weeks he would beat Peterson, of course, but in general, that lead kept declining until that Peterson injury in 2013 and his suspension in 2013.  His lead went back down again during 2015, but Gore’s advantage is again on the rise: [click to continue…]

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Week 4 Game Scripts: Buffalo Runs To Victory

The Buffalo Bills and their run-heavy ways are at it again. The Bills upset the Falcons in week 4, but it wasn’t because their offense stole the show. Buffalo scored only 23 points, and that included a defensive touchdown, a 55-yard field goal, and a 56-yard field goal. The Bills had just 15 first downs, and four of the team’s 8 drives ended with three or fewer yards. But Buffalo is going to stick with the ground game, even when it isn’t working. And that makes them a unique team in 2017.

The highlight for the offense came on a 19-play, 82-yard drive that took over 11 minutes off the clock. Here’s the full summary: bonus points if you can figure out whether or not this counts as run-heavy:

Full Play-By-Play Table
Quarter Time Down ToGo Location Detail BUF ATL EPB EPA Win%
3 8:20 1 10 BUF 12 LeSean McCoy left tackle for 8 yards (tackle by Keanu Neal) 14 10 -0.350 0.290 44.4
3 7:49 2 2 BUF 20 LeSean McCoy for 2 yards. Penalty on Eric Wood: Offensive Holding, 10 yards 14 10 0.290 -0.780 49.1
3 7:31 2 10 BUF 12 Mike Tolbert right guard for 7 yards (tackle by Dontari Poe) 14 10 -0.780 -0.600 48.1
3 6:51 3 3 BUF 19 Tyrod Taylor right end for 5 yards (tackle by Deion Jones) 14 10 -0.600 0.540 42.1
3 6:17 1 10 BUF 24 LeSean McCoy right end for 7 yards (tackle by Keanu Neal) 14 10 0.540 0.940 39.7
3 5:29 2 3 BUF 31 LeSean McCoy right tackle for 7 yards (tackle by Deion Jones) 14 10 0.940 1.470 36.4
3 4:51 1 10 BUF 38 Mike Tolbert right guard for 3 yards (tackle by Brooks Reed) 14 10 1.470 1.330 36.5
3 4:14 2 7 BUF 41 Mike Tolbert left guard for 6 yards (tackle by De’Vondre Campbell) 14 10 1.330 1.420 35.4
3 3:35 3 1 BUF 47 LeSean McCoy right tackle for 4 yards (tackle by Deion Jones) 14 10 1.420 2.320 30.4
3 3:02 1 10 ATL 49 Tyrod Taylor pass complete deep left to Zay Jones for 18 yards 14 10 2.320 3.510 24.5
3 2:19 1 10 ATL 31 LeSean McCoy right tackle for 4 yards (tackle by Keanu Neal) 14 10 3.510 3.510 23.6
3 1:39 2 6 ATL 27 LeSean McCoy right tackle for 7 yards (tackle by Sharrod Neasman) 14 10 3.510 4.240 19.8
3 1:01 1 10 ATL 20 Mike Tolbert left end for 8 yards (tackle by Damontae Kazee). 14 10 4.240 5.040 16.1
3 0:09 2 2 ATL 12 Patrick DiMarco left guard for -2 yards (tackle by Grady Jarrett) 14 10 5.040 3.890 19.3
4th Quarter
4 15:00 3 4 ATL 14 Penalty on John Miller: False Start, 5 yards (no play) 14 10 3.890 3.100 22.5
4 15:00 3 9 ATL 19 Tyrod Taylor pass complete short middle to Andre Holmes for 10 yards 14 10 3.100 5.140 14.5
4 14:20 1 9 ATL 9 LeSean McCoy left end for 6 yards (tackle by Brooks Reed and Keanu Neal) 14 10 5.140 5.530 12.4
4 13:37 2 3 ATL 3 LeSean McCoy right tackle for 1 yard (tackle by Brooks Reed and Grady Jarrett) 14 10 5.530 4.950 13.3
4 12:59 3 2 ATL 2 Tyrod Taylor pass complete short left to Jordan Matthews for 1 yard 14 10 4.950 3.550 17.7
4 12:09 4 1 ATL 1 Penalty on Tyrod Taylor: Delay of Game, 5 yards (no play) 14 10 3.550 2.990 18.8
4 12:03 4 6 ATL 6 Steven Hauschka 24 yard field goal good 17 10 2.990 3.000 18.6

The drive opened with NINE straight running plays, and 15 of the 18 plays were rushes! A pass on 1st-and-10 following those nine runs was the only non-third down pass of the drive. That’s just crazy. The Bills ended the day passing on just 39% of plays despite this being a back-and-forth game throughout.

Below are the week 4 Game Scripts: [click to continue…]

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They’re not very good.

You’ve undoubtedly heard that only one team in NFL history has started a season 0-4 and made the playoffs. That team was the 1992 San Diego Chargers, who shocked the world by going 6-10 in 1990, 4-12 in 1991, and then making the playoffs in 1992 after an 0-4 start.

But as Jason Lisk has pointed out before, many stories about 0-X teams missing the playoffs ignore the fact that 0-X teams usually are not very good. There are four 0-4 teams in the NFL right now: the two worst teams in the NFL by record last year, the Browns and 49ers, and two pretty good teams from last year, the Giants and Chargers. If New York or Los Angeles was to make the playoffs this year, it would be pretty remarkable. But probably not as remarkable as you might think.

Prior to 2017, there were 113 teams that began a season 0-4 in the 16 game era, which might make you think there’s only about a 1% chance of making the playoffs from this far behind. Indeed, of that group, the ’92 Chargers won 11 games, no team won 10 games, and the 2004 Bills were the only team to win 9 games.

But what would the Giants or Chargers need to do to make the playoffs? Probably win 10 games: i.e., finish 10-2 in their final 12 games. How rare is that? Prior to 2017, there have been 1,116 team seasons during the 16-game era. And 80 of those teams went 10-2 or better in their final 12 games (including the ’03 and ’07 Patriots, and ’04 Steelers, who went 12-0). In other words, about 7% of NFL teams finish 10-2 in their last 12 games. Which is a lot higher than one percent.

So the real question when discussing the Chargers and Giants isn’t how likely is an 0-4 team to make the playoffs, but how likely as the Chargers and Giants to play like a top 7% team the rest of the season.

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The Jacksonville defense ranks 32nd in rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per carry allowed, making it the worst rushing defense in the league by either measure. Some of this is the result of the small sample size of a four-week season: Bilal Powell had a 75-yard fluke touchdown run on Sunday against the Jaguars, and backup Elijah McGuire had a 69-yard run a couple hours later that, while not fluky, is probably not going to happen every four games.

But that’s not what’s weird about the Jaguars defense.  What’s weird is that opposite the worst rushing defense in the league is the stingiest pass defense, in terms of both yards (meaningless) and ANY/A (very meaningful). The Jaguars lead the league in sacks, with 18, while ranking 3rd in passer rating (which doesn’t include sacks). So this is a really strong pass defense, at least through four games.

In theory — more on this in a minute — a team shouldn’t be really good at pass defense and really bad at rush defense, absent some extreme roster composition. And with Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Paul Posluszny, Myles Jack, and Telvin Smith, the Jaguars front seven has more than enough talent to turn this thing around.  If I had to guess, the rush defense will improvement significantly, while the pass defense will still play like a top-10 unit the rest of the way.  In other words, this should be a really good defense, not just a really great pass defense. [click to continue…]

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Over their last 16 games — the final 12 games of 2016 and the first 4 games of 2017 — the Cleveland Browns are 1-15. Over the Browns last 16 games before that, Cleveland is 2-14: Cleveland began the 2016 season 0-4, and was 2-10 over the final 12 games of 2015. But the first game in that streak was the 5th game of the 2015 season, a rare Browns victory. Which means if the Browns lose to the Jets on Sunday, Cleveland will be 1-15 in their last 16 games, and 1-15 in the 16 games prior to that.

How bad is a 2-29 stretch over 32 games? Well, the Browns are just the fourth franchise to pull off that feat.

The World War II Cardinals

The Chicago Cardinals lost 29 games in a row during World War II, and went 1-36 during one 37-game stretch. [click to continue…]

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Making The Playoffs With A Backup QB

The Texans opened this season with Tom Savage as the team’s starting quarterback. This was intentional, and by that I mean Houston really wanted to do this (as opposed to situations like the 2016 Patriots or 2014 Panthers who opened the season with — despite what pedants might say — their starting quarterback on the sidelines due to suspension or injury). Even the 2016 Cowboys opened the season with Prescott as their starting quarterback, although that wasn’t exactly how they opened the preseason.

But if the Texans make the playoffs, it will be because of Deshaun Watson (at least, as opposed to because of Tom Savage). Absent injury, Watson will be the team’s starting quarterback for the majority (if not all) of Houston’s wins in 2016. That separates Houston from teams like the 2016 Dolphins or 2014 Cardinals, who may have made the playoffs with backup quarterbacks but still saw Tannehill and Palmer lead their team in wins.

So how rare would it be for a playoff team to make the playoffs while riding a true backup quarterback? Obviously the definition of a true backup is open to interpretation, but I am referring to situations where the quarterback who led the team in wins was not atop the team’s depth chart as the season began (excluding injuries/suspension — Watson didn’t begin the year on the bench for that reason). [click to continue…]

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Field Goal Rates Throughout NFL History

Yesterday, I wrote about Nick Lowery and why I think he was the greatest field goal kicker in NFL history.  That post was pretty long — I probably should have broken it into two parts — but I’d welcome any more discussion on the topic here or there.

So today I’ll keep it short and sweet: a reminder on how necessary era adjustments are when discussing field goal kickers. The graph below shows the field goal success rate throughout history. From 1960 to 1964, the average success rate was 50 percent. Over the last five years, the average rate was 85 percent.

Even more remarkable is that kicks are being attempted from farther away now, too. In 1960, the average kick was from 30.9 yards away; the average successful kick was from 26.2 yards out, while the average miss was from 36.0 yards away. Well, in 2016, the average kick was from 37.7 yards away; the average successful kick was from 36.2 yards out — farther than the average miss in 1960! — while the average miss was from 46.2 yards away.

The graph below shows the average length of each field goal attempt, in blue, each field goal made, in orange, and each field goal miss, in gray. [click to continue…]

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Lowery, Anderson, Andersen, and Stenerud In Four Charts

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the best field goal kickers in NFL history. That was a threepart series where I measured how accurate each field goal kicker has been after adjusting for era and distance. The result? Nick Lowery was, by a clear margin, the most valuable field goal kicker in NFL history. He made kicks at a rate nearly 10% higher than league average after adjusting for era and distance, an astonishing level of success considering his reputation hasn’t quite matched his production.

Today, I wanted to update that post and also provide a comparison of the four men generally considered in contention for the title of top field goal kicker in history: Jan Stenerud, the first pure placekicker to make the Hall of Fame, Morten Andersen, who became the second such Hall of Famer this year, Nick Lowery, my choice for the best kicker ever, and Gary Anderson, who had a long and distinguished career.

I used a simple methodology this time around to compare the four kickers: I catalogued all field goal attempts in NFL history into five yard ranges (i.e., 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, etc.). Then, I looked at the league average success rate that season and calculated the expected number of field goals an average kicker would be expected to make from that range. So if the league average rate on kicks from 40-44 yards was 75%, a kicker with 8 field goal attempts from that rage would be “expected” to make 6 of those attempts. Finally, I calculated how many field goals each kicker made above expectation, and then created the following four charts. So if a kicker made 7 out of 8, he would be at +1.0. I have coded particularly good outcomes in blue, and bad outcomes in red. Let’s get to it.

Jan Stenerud [click to continue…]

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Unsustainable (But Fun!) Stats Through Three Games

Three games is an extremely small sample size, so let’s consider today Freaky Friday. What stats are great to look at but have no chance of being sustainable?

Jared Goff is currently averaging 10.14 ANY/A; no player has ever reached double-digit ANY/A over the course of a full season. If Goff were to miss the rest of the season, he would actually break the record for most attempts in a season with double digit ANY/A.

Alex Smith has a 132.7 passer rating over 84 attempts; no player has reached such lofty passer rating levels over a season with even 34 attempts.  Smith is also completing over 77% of his pass attempts: no player has done that in a season with even 40 attempts.

Another Chief, rookie RB Kareem Hunt, is having a remarkable season, too.  He’s averaging 133.7 rushing yards per game, which would rank as the 2nd best in NFL history if he maintained that average.  Hunt is also averaging 179.3 yards from scrimmage per game, more than 15 yards per game higher than any player has ever produced in a season.  Among players to average at least 45 receiving yards per game in a season, Hunt is also the leader in rushing yards per game by a wide margin.

And here’s one from Adam Harstad: Redskins RB Chris Thompson is averaging over 30 rushing yards and 70 receiving yards per game; that’s probably not sustainable.  Another unsustainable Thompson stat: among players with at least 12 receptions and 12 rush attempts, Thompson would be just the 5th player since the merger to average 8 yards per rush and 16 yards per reception.

Perhaps more sustainable is what Antonio Brown is doing.  In 2015, he averaged 114.6 receiving yards per game, the 9th best mark in league history.  Right now he is at 118.0 yards per game, which would land in 6th place over the course of a full season.

Patriots addition Brandin Cooks is averaging 25.6 yards per catch through 10 catches. If that holds, he would be just the 4th player since 1990 to do so (minimum 10 receptions), and none of the first three had more than 16 receptions.

Jadeveon Clowney has three fumble recoveries in three games.  The record for fumble recoveries by a defensive player is 9, set by Don Hultz with the Vikings in 1963.

Dallas DE Demarcus Lawrence has 7 sacks through three games, which is another unsustainable pace.  The record, of course, is 22.5* sacks, set by Michael Strahan in 2001.

 

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Week 3 Game Scripts (2017): Jaguars Ring the Ravens Bell

The Jaguars obliterated the Ravens in London in week 3: Jacksonville led 10-0 after the first quarter, 23-0 at halftime, and 37-0 entering the third quarter. The Jaguars led 44-0 with 3:30 minutes left, before the Ravens scored the final points of the game.

It was the best Game Script of the season, thanks to both an incredible defensive performance Baltimore’s first 11 drives ended with three turnovers, seven punts, and one turnover on downs, and averaged a total of just 10.5 yards per drive! The offense’s first ten drives resulted in five touchdowns, three field goals, and two punts, and averaged 40 yards per drive (which would jump to 48 yards/drive if you eliminated the drives that began in Ravens territory and resulted in a touchdown).

The full week 3 Game Scripts below: [click to continue…]

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I have spent a lot of time thinking about the player protests during the national anthem since Colin Kaepernick ushered in this movement over a year ago. The amount of time I’ve spent thinking about it has only intensified over the last few days, of course. And while I have a lot of thoughts on the topic — and the dozens of offshots and related topics — I am not quite ready to put pen to paper on it.

I also know that what I have to say matters a lot less than what you have to say. I have a ton of respect for this community, and my hunch is a lot of you have thoughts on this topic, too. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, and also provide an outlet that you may have been looking for to voice your mind. So we’ll take a day off from the football content and let you guys lead the way.

Chase

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Alex Smith And The Biggest Career Turnarounds

Smith, Harbaugh, and Kaepernick in San Francisco

On Saturday, I wrote that Alex Smith had turned his career around in a remarkable fashion. In his first 44 starts, he lost 28 times.  And after a win on Sunday, Smith has lost just 28 times in his last 95 starts! That made me wonder: which quarterbacks have turned their careers around in a similar fashion?

To measure this, I calculated each quarterback’s actual career winning percentage from 1950 through 2016 along with their adjusted winning percentage.  What was the adjustment for? Well each start gets weighted more heavily than the last one.  So for a quarterback with 100 starts, his last start gets a weight of 100, his second-to-last start gets a weight of 99, his third-to-last start a weight of 98, and so on.  His second start gets a weight of two, and his first start gets a weight of just one.  In other words, this is heavily skewed towards starts that come later in a quarterback’s career.

By this measure, Smith’s adjusted career winning percentage (including his three starts this year) is 0.669, which is 0.075 higher than his actual winning percentage of 0.594.  That’s pretty significant, but it’s not the largest disparity. That title goes to Billy Kilmer, who had a terrible record with the Saints but a very good with the Redskins.  He had an actual career winning percentage of just 0.539, but weighted for games that came later, it was 0.632, an increase of  0.092.

The 179 quarterbacks who started at least 50 games (from 1950 to 2016) are listed below. Smith ranks as the 5th biggest “late bloomer” on the list. [click to continue…]

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Something Is Wrong With Cam Newton

It doesn’t take an expert to realize that something is wrong with Cam Newton. Whether the cumulative effects of the various injuries he has suffered throughout his career have taken a toll on him, or there’s a specific injury causing a problem, it’s now clear that Newton is a shell of his former self.  In Newton’s last 16 games, he’s thrown just 16 touchdown passes… while throwing 16 interceptions.  In Newton’s MVP season of 2015, he averaged more than two passing touchdowns per game, and just over half an interception per game.  The Panthers scored just 9 points against the Bills last week, but the bottom fell out yesterday.

Facing what had been a historically bad Saints defense, Newton produced the single-worst game of his career:  He threw 26 passes but gained just 167 yards, while taking four sacks and losing 28 yards.  That’s an ugly 4.6 NY/A, but it gets much worse when you realize he had no touchdowns and three interceptions.  That translates to a 0.13 ANY/A average, the worst statistical performance of Newton’s career. Again: this came against the Saints.

This game also dropped Newton’s ANY/A over his last 16 games to below 5.00.  That’s right: over Newton’s last 16 games, he has the following stat line: 279/520 (54%), 3,528 yards (6.8 Y/A), 16 TDs, 16 INTs, 42 sacks for 337 yards, and 4.97 ANY/A. The graph below shows Newton’s single game ANY/A (in blue) and trailing 16 game ANY/A (in black) for each game of his career (playoffs excluded): [click to continue…]

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Jared Goff, John Brodie, and The Biggest ANY/A Increases

Last season, Jared Goff produced one of the worst rookie seasons in recent history. He ranked dead last in ANY/A, over a 1.5 adjusted net yards per attempt behind every other qualifying passer. Well, this year, through three games, Goff ranks first in the NFL in ANY/A.

It’s really early, but Goff’s performance made me wonder what was the biggest increase in ANY/A year over year in football history (minimum 200 attempts both seasons). In the pre-merger era, the answer is John Brodie (although we are really using AY/A here because we don’t have sack data). He averaged 3.99 AY/A in 1960 and 8.23 AY/A in 1961, representing an increase of 4.24. In the post-merger era, it’s Nick Foles at the top, thanks to his remarkable 2013 season. The table below shows the top 100 year-over-year increases: [click to continue…]

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As of Christmas Day, 2010, Alex Smith had a career record of 18-31. At 13 games under .500 with a 0.367 winning percentage, it sure seemed like Smith was a draft bust.  His head coach, Mike Singletary, didn’t seem to have much use for him, just like Mike Nolan before him. Before Jim Harbaugh resurrected Smith’s career, it seemed like he would be yet another draft bust.

But since Christ Day, 2010, Smith has had a sparkling 0.713 winning percentage, thanks to a 63-25-1 record. Smith lost 28 of his first 44 starts, but he’s only lost 28 of his last 94 starts. The graph below shows Smith’s career marked in terms of games below/above .500. His low point was 13 games under .500, reached three times (most recently in mid-December 2010) but now he’s a career high 25 games above .500: [click to continue…]

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Young as a Yuck

Steve Young went 91-33 as a starting quarterback for the 49ers, a 0.734 winning percentage. He also went 3-16 as the quarterback of all other teams (which, in this case, is just the Bucs), for a 0.158 winning percentage. That’s remarkable, but is it as remarkable as say, what Jake Plummer did? With the Broncos, Plummer went 39-15 (0.722), but he was 30-52 (0.366) with all other teams (here, just the Cardinals).  Young has a larger differential, but he started just 19 games in Tampa Bay; Plummer started over 50 games with both teams.

One way to “deal” with this is to add X number of games of .500 play to both sides.  I’ve used 40 games before, which is probably within the range of reasonable.  This helps smooth out small sample sizes: Young would therefore be 111-53 with the 49ers (0.677) and 23-36 (.390) outside of San Francisco.  As you can see, his 49ers adjusted winning percentage only changes by about 6% by adding 40 games of .500 play, but his Tampa Bay adjusted winning percentage rises by 23% because of the small sample size.  That’s the point.   Now, Young has a 29% better adjusted winning percentage in San Francisco than outside of San Francisco.

Plummer? His Denver record would become 59-35 (.628), while his non-Broncos record would be 50-72 (.410), giving him a 22% better adjusted winning in Denver.

I did this for every quarterback in NFL history (prior to 2017) and checked to see which passers had the biggest differentials in terms of adjusted winning percentage as quarterback of one team (minimum 10 starts) versus the rest of their career. Young was in fact the leader by this metric, with Plummer coming in at #4. Steve DeBerg was 2nd: he was 21 games under .500 in Tampa Bay and 21 games under .500 in San Francisco, and he also went 7-9 in his starts in Denver, Miami, and Atlanta. On the other hand, he was 31-20-1 as the starter with Kansas City. As a result, his adjusted winning percentage was 23% higher with the Chiefs than it was outside of Kansas City.

Billy Kilmer went an impressive 50-23-1 later in his career as a Redskins starter, but just 11-28 with the Saints (and 0-1 with the 49ers) at the beginning of his career.  In other words, he was a 1970s Plummer. Here’s how to read the table below, using Jim Plunkett — who was 19 games above .500 with the Raiders, and 19 games under .500 when not with the Raiders as an example. Plunkett went 38-19 with the Raiders for a 0.667 winning percentage and a 0.598 adjusted winning percentage (after adding 40 games of .500 play). When not with the Raiders, Plunkett was 34-53 for a 0.391 winning percentage that jumps to 0.425 after adding 40 games of .500 play. Plunkett’s actual difference in winning percentage was 0.276, but just difference in adjusted winning percentage was 0.173, the 10th largest on the list. [click to continue…]

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I was a little late in getting out the week 1 Game Scripts, but hopefully these will come out every Wednesday or Thursday for the rest of the year.

The Cowboys, Eagles, and Chargers stood out as pass-heavy this week. Dak Prescott finished with 50 passes (plus two sacks), easily a career high and only the second time he’s thrown even 40 passes in a game. Ezekiel Elliott, meanwhile, set career lows with just 9 carries and 8 yards. Dallas was blown out by Denver, but still: a -11.5 Game Script usually yields more like a 68% pass ratio, not 79%.

Philadelphia was even more pass-happy: this game was close throughout, but Carson Wentz had 52 dropbacks (and 4 rushing attempts), while Philadelphia running backs had just 13 carries. LeGarrette Blount, after recording a team-high 14 carries in week 1, was on the field for just six snaps and had zero carries against the Chiefs. Wentz didn’t convert half of his dropbacks into completions, so it’s tough to see the explanation here for abandoning the ground game. Darren Sproles led the team with 10 carries, but it seems unlikely that he will ever get much more than that. So the either the Eagles will either become the most pass-happy team in the NFL or return to Blount or Wendell Smallwood for a larger role.

The Chargers led for much of the second half against Miami, only falling behind in the final minute. But that didn’t stop Philip Rivers from recording 40 dropbacks, compared to just 13 rushes for the Chargers running backs. Melvin Gordon rushed 9 times for 13 yards with a long of 11 yards, so he obviously was not getting much done. And Rivers completed over 75% of his passes and averaged over 10 yards per completion. In that context, it made a lot of sense. But that doesn’t change the fact that for a team with a Game Script of +1.8, passing on over 75% of their plays (excluding Rivers’ final run of the game to center the ball) is extraordinarily pass-happy. [click to continue…]

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