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Resting Starters Database

Adam Steele is back for another guest post. You can view all of Adam’s posts here. As always, we thank him for contributing.


In the same vein as Bryan Frye’s kneel, spike, and first down data and Tom McDermott’s adjusted SRS ratings, I want to contribute some corrections in data distortion. From a stat geek’s perspective, there’s nothing more annoying than strong teams resting their starters in the final week of the season, as it pollutes season long statistics with a game’s worth of junk data. In a 16 game season, even one meaningless outlier can have a big impact on season totals and averages. The most egregious example is the 2004 Eagles, who stormed out to a dominant 13-1 start only to mail in their final two games by a combined score of 58-17. Philly’s season totals look far better (and far more accurate) once those two meaningless games are removed from the sample. I went back to 1993 and noted every game where one team sat their starters and/or played vanilla football with no intention of trying to win. In some instances, a team was clearly going full bore in the first half, then waved the white flag after halftime. In these games, I pulled out the junk data from the second half only.

There are obviously going to be some judgment calls in deciding whether or not a team was really trying to win a given game. For example, this past season’s week 17 matchup between Seattle and Arizona could be viewed two different ways – Arizona was trying to win (at least in the first half) and Seattle just stomped them, or the Cards weren’t really trying even though their starters played the first half. I chose the latter. The one notable game I purposely left out was the week 17 Packers/Lions shootout from 2011. The game was technically meaningless for both teams, and Green Bay kept Rodgers on the bench, but otherwise all the starters played and were clearly playing to win. If the Packers didn’t care, Matt Flynn would not have thrown six TD passes. If you dispute any of the games I’ve listed, I’m happy to discuss and reconsider!

How to read the table: The first five rows are self-explanatory; “Type” designates whether the whole game should be discarded or just the second half; Points, PaTD, and RuTD indicate the points and offensive touchdowns scored during junk time (the stats I believe should be removed from the season data). Defensive numbers can be found by simply looking at the offensive numbers from the team’s opponent.

Team-OppYearWkTypePtsPaTDRuTD
TEN@IND201517Full2412
INDTEN201517Full3020
SEA@ARI201517Full3631
ARISEA201517Full610
WAS@DAL201517Half1010
DALWAS201517Half910
BUF@NE201417Full1711
NEBUF201417Full900
DEN@OAK201317Half300
OAKDEN201317Half1420
BAL@CIN201217Full1702
CINBAL201217Full2310
TB@ATL201117Full2420
ATLTB201117Full4523
OAK@KC201017Full3112
KCOAK201017Full1001
TB@NO201017Half1310
NOTB201017Half600
CIN@NYJ200917Full000
NYJCIN200917Full3704
GB@ARI200917Full3312
ARIGB200917Full710
IND@BUF200917Full701
BUFIND200917Full3030
NYJ@IND200916Half2601
INDNYJ200916Half601
TB@NO200916Half1701
NOTB200916Half000
NE@HOU200917Half1401
HOUNE200917Half2112
NO@CAR200917Full1001
CARNO200917Full2311
ARI@NE200816Full710
NEARI200816Full4732
TEN@IND200817Full000
INDTEN200817Full2310
TEN@IND200717Full1601
INDTEN200717Full1010
SEA@ATL200717Half2421
ATLSEA200717Half2730
IND@SEA200516Full1310
SEAIND200516Full2822
CIN@KC200517Full300
KCCIN200517Full3713
ARI@IND200517Full1310
INDARI200517Full1720
SEA@GB200517Full1711
GBSEA200517Full2311
MIA@NE200517Half1510
NEMIA200517Half1620
PHI@STL200416Full710
STLPHI200416Full2011
ATL@NO200416Full1301
NOATL200416Full2611
ATL@SEA200417Full2620
SEAATL200417Full2822
IND@DEN200417Full1420
DENIND200417Full3321
PIT@BUF200417Full2910
BUFPIT200417Full2402
NYJ@STL200417Full2910
STLNYJ200417Full3231
CIN@PHI200417Full3813
PHICIN200417Full1010
DEN@GB200317Full300
GBDEN200317Full3112
PHI@TB200117Full1720
TBPHI200117Full1301
TEN@PIT199917Half1610
PITTEN199917Half2921
STL@PHI199917Half1420
PHISTL199917Half2110
SF@SEA199717Full900
SEASF199717Full3841
PIT@TEN199717Full600
TENPIT199717Full1601
DEN@SD199617Full1001
SDDEN199617Full1610
SF@MIN199417Full1420
MINSF199417Full2101
DAL@NYG199417Full1001
NYGDAL199417Full1510
PIT@SD199417Half2121
SDPIT199417Half2002
PHI@SF199318Full3730
SFPHI199318Full3422

My plan is to eventually do this all the way back to 1970, then publish the “real” points scored and allowed for each team by prorating the pristine data to a full season.

  • DAL @ WAS Week 17 2007–Cowboys locked in, Redskins had to win to get in
    MIA @ WAS Week 17 1999–Redskins had clinched NFCE, Rodney Peete QBd second half.

    • Adam

      Thanks, Rich. I knew there would be a few I missed!

      • OK. But the Dolphins took out Marino at half and put in Damon Huard. Stephen Davis, who had rushed for 1.400 yards, sat it out. But maybe I’m unclear on your criteria.

        • Adam

          On second thought, you’re probably right that we should discount the second half. The first time I glanced at the box score I didn’t realize the Dolphins were also sitting guys in the second half. It really was a meaningless game for both teams.

  • If you’re leaving GB / DET, you should leave BUF / PIT from 2004. Buffalo was playing for a playoff spot. Pitt had nothing to play for and rested their starters… but they won, which kind of indicates they were really trying.

    Also, the Indy/Det game from that season featured the team pulling Manning really early. Not sure when or if any other starters came with him, but the Colts had TNF that week so they put the Lions to bed fast and then gave key players the rest of the game off to rest up.

    • Adam

      The BUF / PIT game was probably the one I agonized over the most. Upon further reflection, I think you’re right. The Bills were a very good team in 2004, so for Pittsburgh to go on the road and beat them is a good indicator of 100% effort, even if some of the starters rested.

      I remember that Thanksgiving game vividly. Manning was in hot pursuit of Marino’s TD record, and proceeded to toss six TD’s to give the Colts a 41-0 lead. I think Dungy pulled the starters about halfway through the third quarter. Similarly, the Packers led the Bears 42-0 at halftime in a 2014 game where Rodgers threw six TD’s and sat most of the second half. These types of games were borderline for inclusion on this list, but I ultimately chose to exclude them because the games were meaningful for both teams, and because it’s harder to sort them out from the 256 game schedule. Perhaps I could use the PFR play index to search for games with a wide scoring margin after halftime or three quarters, then check each game on a case-by-case basis.

      • sacramento gold miners

        The 2004 Buffalo-Pittsburgh game had the breakout performance of previously unknown RB Willie Parker. Parker would go on to rank third all time on the Steelers career rushing list..

  • sacramento gold miners

    Because of player safety concerns, I think we’ll see more starters missing games, and getting pulled earlier than in the past when the outcome was decided. If I remember correctly, Big Ben didn’t need to play the 2008 regular season game versus Cleveland, did anyway, and sustained a concussion. But concussions weren’t dealt with the same way in 2008, so there wasn’t a big deal made of it.

  • I definitely think you should change the designation of last year’s Week 17 Seattle-Arizona game to “Half.” Given the evidence it doesn’t make sense that the Cards “weren’t really trying” in the first half.

    For one thing, the no. 1 seed was still on the table. Sure, it would’ve meant Carolina had to lose, but they lost the previous week to a far inferior Atlanta team. It’s the NFL — “any given Sunday” and whatnot. What team would decide to play their starters with the top seed potentially on the line and not try?

    For that matter, what NFL team would ever play their starters and not try to win? Especially if they’re led by Bruce Arians, a notoriously aggressive head coach. “Not really trying” seems completely out of line with the Arizona team identity.

    Lastly, the Cards seemed to stumble a bit down the stretch. In the playoffs they barely eked out a victory at home against a not great Packers team and then got stomped by the Panthers. It hardly seems far-fetched that they were legitimately whupped by a team that was better than the Panthers according to DVOA.

    (Full disclosure: I’m a huge Seahawks fan, but I’m also a huge fan of objectivity 🙂

    • Agreed. Watching that episode of All or Nothing, it was pretty clear Arizona went into the game to win and didn’t abort the mission till halftime.

    • Adam

      After reading the comments from you and Bryan, I changed that game to “Half” in my excel sheet.

  • WR

    Adam, can you provide the details on the 2004 Eagles? How much better does that team look with the last 2 games removed?

    • Adam

      Philly’s point differential was +126 with 11.5 Pythagorean wins. If we remove the two meaningless games, those numbers increase to +167 PD and 12.9 Pyth wins. If we prorate the Eagles’ 14 “real” games to a 16 game season, their PD jumps to +191.

      Therefore, I would estimate that those two games cost the Eagles 65 points of score differential and 1.4 Pythagorean wins. Their adjusted PD of +191 would be second in the league behind only the Colts’ +203 (also adjusted).

  • br24

    Also missing KC @ SD Week 17 2013. Chiefs rest Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles, most defensive stars (Hali, Houston, Berry, Johnson, entire game. Lose in OT on two blown calls.

    • br24

      just rewatched lineups via NFL Gamepass. Only starters i can tell played for KC was Eric Fisher.

    • Adam

      Ah yes, the Chase Daniel game where Ryan Succop missed an easy FG and allowed the Chargers to sneak into the playoffs. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Tom

    Adam – this is a pretty ambitious project, especially if you intend to go all the way back to 1970! But I think it’s worthwhile…if our intention is look back and see which teams were really great, or better than such-and-such team, we need to take a look at these games. There’s only so much we can do about a QB throwing for a lot of yards in junk time, but if we know for a fact that a team was sitting all its starters and basically did not care about winning the game, yeah, that game should be thrown out. Would be cool to see a “True SRS” rating (or whatever) and compare it the standard SRS. The 2004 Eagles SRS rating jumps about 5 points when throwing out those games…

    • Adam

      I’d probably need a little help with the earlier years, considering I wasn’t even born yet 🙂 But you nailed my purpose for taking this on…resting starters disproportionately affects the greatest teams, which of course are the teams we are most interested in evaluating. Ever since Aaron Schatz decided NOT to adjust DVOA ratings for resting starters, I’ve been wanting to do this.