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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 2

This week’s Fifth Down post focuses on the blueprint for 0-2 teams to make the playoffs.

Six N.F.L. teams have started the season 0-2, the lowest number since 1997. No doubt the most surprising of the winless teams is the New Orleans Saints, who happen to be the only winless team in the N.F.C.

Over in the A.F.C., the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Tennessee Titans, the Cleveland Browns, the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs are still looking for their first wins. Among the winless teams, the Chiefs head to New Orleans to face the Saints this weekend, in a desperation game for both.

Since 1990, only 22 of the 184 teams (12 percent) that started the season 0-2 ultimately made the playoffs. Of course, most of those 184 teams missed the playoffs not because they lost their first two games, but because they weren’t very good. Since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002, only 11 of the 72 teams that started the season 0-2 would have made the playoffs had they won two more games.

It’s not the case that each team that loses its first two games has a 12 percent chance of making the playoffs. Just like a snowflake, every 0-2 N.F.L. team is unique, if not necessarily pretty. By placing the 22 “0-2 to playoffs” teams into specific groups, we can try to see if there is a blueprint out there for the current crop of 0-2 teams.

Made a key change (6 of the 22 teams)

Six teams made significant changes during the season, which made the team that took the field the first two weeks a different team from the one that made the playoffs.

In 1998, Glenn Foley and Rob Johnson went 3-6 as the starting quarterbacks for the Jets and the Buffalo Bills; they were replaced by the veterans Vinny Testaverde and Doug Flutie, who combined to go 19-4. Both Testaverde and Flutie made the Pro Bowl despite starting the season on the bench.

A similar story took place in Pittsburgh in 2002, as Tommy Maddox revived his career as turned the run-heavy Steelers into a more balanced and explosive offense. And, of course, Drew Bledsoe started the first two games of the season for the 2001 Patriots before Tom Brady took over for the rest of the season, setting the stage for a dynasty.

In 1993, the star running back Emmitt Smith held out for the first two games of the season, and Dallas struggled without him. In 2008, the Dolphins got a similar boost to their running game when they introduced the Wildcat formation to the league in Week 3 against the Patriots.

2012 blueprint: These changes are hard to see until they happen. It’s possible that the Tennessee Titans could switch from Jake Locker to Matt Hasselbeck, who played well at times in 2011. In Jacksonville, Maurice Jones-Drew’s holdout is already over, although it was a poor pass offense that sank the team in Week 2. For the Raiders’ sake, there must be better options on which to pin their hopes than Terrelle Pryor. And unfortunately for the Saints, Sean Payton isn’t walking through that door.

High-scoring offenses (4 of the remaining 16; 4 of 22 over all)

The Saints have scored 59 points through two games, the fourth-highest total of any team to start 0-2 since 1990. The 1994 Patriots (70 points), the  2008 Chargers (62) and the 2002 Vikings (62) were the only teams to score more points, and the Patriots and the Chargers each went on to make the playoffs. Only 15 teams even reached 45 points after two games, and one of those was the 2007 Giants, an eventual Super Bowl champion (the other was the 2002 Atlanta Falcons). That means 27 percent of the teams to score at least 45 points but start 0-2 went on to make the playoffs, and that number probably underestimates New Orleans’s chances considering just how effective the Saints’ offense has been over the past half-decade.

2012 blueprint: The Saints stand out as the 0-2 team most likely to turn it around. High-scoring teams always have a chance to win, and the Saints are still capable of winning a bunch of shootouts in 2012.

You can read the full post here.

Also, my Pro-Football-Reference comrade Mike Kania is at it again with the week 2 penalty data:


Some additional thoughts…

No one who watched the games this weekend came away thinking the replacement referees had no impact on the game.  But to understand exactly what happened, you need to dig deeper than the raw data, which reflects no change on the surface.  I noted last week that: “On average, over the last 10 years, 208 penalties have been called in Week 1. With the replacement referees over the last week, there were 206 penalties, in line with historical averages.”  There were 211 penalties in week two, which wouldn’t ordinarily make anybody bat an eye.

There were some interesting changes in the penalty data in week two.  As you may recall, there were 26 defensive pass interference penalties enforced in week 1 — an extremely high number — compared to just 5 defensive holding penalties and only one illegal contact penalty.  In week two, only 14 defensive pass interference penalties were enforced, but the number of defensive holding (10) and illegal contact penalties (6) each rose by five.  This is more in line with historical data, and a good sign that the replacement officials aren’t simply calling everything pass interference (Ike Taylor’s penalty against the Jets, notwithstanding).

There were fewer personal foul and unnecessary roughness penalties enforced in week one of the 2012 season than in week 1 last year, but things changed quickly in week two.  Teams had 23 total personal foul or unnecessary roughness penalties enforced against them in week 2, compared to just 11 last week.  Of course, as most fans who watched the majority of the games this weekend noticed, there was good reason for the uptick.  With the regular officials not around, the N.F.L. players seemed to treat the replacement officials like substitute teachers, consistently pushing the boundaries to see what they could get away with.  According to Matt Pomery, the manager of NFL Network Research, the average game in week two was 3 hours and 14 minutes, tied for the third longest average game time in regulation (excluding overtime) in a week in the last 20 seasons.

Last week, I hinted that there may be a bias by the officials in favor of the home team, as these less-experienced referees may be more likely to side with the voices of the crowd.  That hypotheses certainly wasn’t disproved this week, as 14 of the 16 home teams won, the first time 14 home teams have won in a week since the league expanded to 32 teams. So far this season, there have been 231 penalties against visiting teams and only 188 penalties against the hosts.  That ratio — road teams having to deal with 23% more penalties — is far out of line with historical data, which informs us that road teams had 7% more penalties enforced against them than home teams from 2000 to 2011.

  • Richie

    In regards to the increased HFA due to replacement refs. If you read the book Scorecasters, this would make sense.

    If I remember correctly, Scorecasters determined that the majority of home field advantage in sports has to do with the officials. The officials are affected (subconsciously, most likely) by the crowd. So they may be just a tiny bit swayed to not call a pass interference on the home team, or to call a pitch a strike (because the home fans are cheering assuming it’s a strike), etc.

    A replacement ref, who is less accustomed to dealing with crowds of 50,000-75,000 people would seem to be more likely affected by the crowd reactions.