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For the 49ers, run defense is more of a suggestion

For the 49ers, run defense is an aspirational thing.

In 2013, the Bears allowed 100-yard rushers in six straight games: those players were Eddie Lacy, Reggie Bush, Ray Rice, Benny Cunningham, Adrian Peterson, and DeMarco Murray. Chicago was the 5th team since 1960 to allow such a streak.

In 2007, the Browns began the season by allowing 100-yard games to Willie Parker, Rudi Johnson, LaMont Jordan, Willis McGahee, Sammy Morris, and Ronnie Brown.

In 2006, the Rams had their own six-game stretch of allowing opposing running backs to hit the century mark: those backs were LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Maurice Morris, DeAngelo Williams, Frank Gore, and Edgerrin James.

In 1998, the Bengals allowed an opposing runner to hit the 100-yard mark in six straight games: Priest Holmes, Kordell Stewart, Eddie George, Napoleon Kaufman, Terrell Davis, and Fred Taylor were the stars there.

The first time, since at least 1960, that a team allowed a player to rush for at least 100 yards in six straight games came in 1979, against the Raiders.  Oakland only allowed six 100-yard rushers all season, but it happened in consecutive weeks  by Paul Hofer, Earl Campbell, the 7th best player named Mike Williams in NFL history, Rob Lytle, Chuck Muncie, and Mike Pruitt.

But now, for the first time in NFL history, the San Francisco 49ers have allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven straight games. Fozzy Whittaker went 16-100 in week 2, Christine Michael had 20-106 in week 3, Ezekiel Elliott had 23-138 the next week, David Johnson went off for 27-157 in week 5, LeSean McCoy ran roughshod 19-140-3 the following week, and Jacquizz Rodgers had 26-154 last week.

Today? Mark Ingram had 15 carries for 158 yards.  Up next week? A rematch against David Johnson and the Cards.


This week at the Washington Post: what to do with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Colin Kaepernick made his first NFL start less than three years ago, on a Monday night in November 2012 against the Bears. His 10th career start came for the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, when he threw for 301 yards and rushed for 62 and nearly led San Francisco to a fourth-quarter come-from-behind victory. In his first 16 career starts — the equivalent of a full regular season — he accumulated the following stat line: 259 completions in 433 pass attempts for 3,627 yards, with 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, along with 674 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. At that point, Kaepernick was still three weeks shy of his 26th birthday, and appeared to be one of the game’s most valuable assets: a young, talented quarterback.

You can read the full article here.

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On February 3rd, 2013, the Baltimore Ravens defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. The next day, I compared Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers to Vince Lombardi’s Packers, who also lost their first appearance in the NFL title game. San Francisco, which made it to the NFC Championship Game the year prior and would again the following season, seemed set up to emerge as one of the dominant teams of the ’10s.

But the amount of roster turnover experienced by the 49ers since February 3rd, 2013, is incredible. Just 2.5 years later, only seven of the 22 starters from that day are still on the San Francisco roster. And even that probably overstates things, as Colin Kaepernick’s career has taken a downward spiral, Vernon Davis may be on his last legs, NaVorro Bowman is a question mark after a brutal knee injury, and Aldon Smith makes more headlines these days off the football field than on it. Oh, and Ahmad Brooks may lose his starting job to Aaron Lynch. [click to continue…]


Patrick Willis and the Hall of Fame

There are six modern players in the Hall of Fame who primarily played the inside linebacker position.1 Ray Lewis will be number seven. Brian Urlacher, who retired the same year as Lewis, will likely be number eight. And Patrick Willis is now very likely to be number nine.

There is only one knock on Willis’ star-studded career: he played in just 112 games, spanning 8 seasons. But let’s compare Willis to the other six modern HOF inside linebackers (Mike Singletary, Nick Buoniconti, Jack Lambert, Harry Carson, Willie Lanier, and Dick Butkus), Lewis, and Urlacher. The best way I can think of to compare defensive players is through Approximate Value, the all-encompassing metric created by Pro-Football-Reference.com. I’ll leave it to a different writer to debate the merits of whether AV is an appropriate metric by which to measure Willis.

Through seven seasons, Willis accumulated 104 points of AV: he recorded 16 points as a rookie, then 13, 19, 15, 16, 16, and 10 in 2013. Those other eight inside linebackers averaged 83 points through seven seasons, which puts Willis’ remarkable start to his career in the proper light. In fact, other than Willis, just three defensive players have recorded over 100 points of AV through seven seasons: Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Alan Page. [click to continue…]

  1. AV goes back to 1960, so I am defining modern as players who entered the league in that season or later. That means we have to exclude Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke, Bill George, Joe Schmidt, Mike McCormack, Les Richter, Chuck Bednarik, and Bill Willis. []
Kaepernick looks primed for a career season

Kaepernick looks primed for a career season.

Colin Kaepernick won’t be hurting for weapons this year, which may be why San Francisco decided to give him a massive contract extension prior to the season. So will this be a career year for the young quarterback? Even if he plays well, he may not throw for 4,000 yards due to game script; after all, the 49ers held an average lead 5.9 points last year, and as a result, the team ranked 31st in pass attempts. San Francisco figures to be excellent again, but Kaepernick should produce very strong efficiency numbers in 2014. Assuming they all stay healthy and make the roster, check out the quintet of weapons Kaepernick will have at his disposal:

  • Anquan Boldin was dominant for San Francisco last year, and 2013 marked the sixth time in his career he’s topped the 1,000-yard mark. He maxed out with a 1,402-yard season with Arizona in 2005.
  • Michael Crabtree was limited to just five games after recoving from a torn Achilles, but he recorded 1,105 yards on a run-heavy 49ers team in 2012.
  • Steve Johnson had 1,000-yard seasons in 2010, 2011, and 2012 (with a high of 1,073 in ’10) with the Bills, but will be a 49er in 2014.
  • Tight end Vernon Davis has actually never had a 1,000-yard year, but he did gain 965 yards and score 13 touchdowns in 2009.
  • Brandon Lloyd may not even make the roster, but the man drafted by San Francisco 11 years ago has seen some success in between his stops with the 49ers.  Two years ago, he gained 911 yards for the Patriots, and in 2010, he led the league with 1,448 receiving yards while playing in Denver.

As of a year ago, only eight teams in NFL history had ever fielded a roster with five players who gained 1,000 receiving yards in a season at some point in their careers. But none of those teams entered a season with five former 1,000-yard receivers: for each of those teams, at least one of the five players had a 1,000-yard season at some point in the future.

But the 2014 49ers would only become the second team to enter a season with five players who had previously gained at least 965 receiving yards in a season. Can you guess the first? [click to continue…]


In January, I calculated the AV-adjusted age of every team in 2013. In February, I looked at the production-adjusted height for each team’s receivers. Today, we combine those two ideas, and see which teams had the youngest and oldest set of targets.

To calculate the average receiving age of each team, I calculated a weighted average of the age of each player on that team, weighted by their percentage of team receiving yards. For example, Anquan Boldin caught 36.7% of all San Francisco receiving yards, and he was 32.9 years old as of September 1, 2013. Therefore, his age counts for 36.7% of the 49ers’ average receiving age. Vernon Davis, who was 29.6 on 9/1/13, caught 26.5% of the team’s receiving yards last year, so his age matters more than all other 49ers but less than Boldin’s. The table below shows the average age for each team’s receivers (which includes tight ends and running backs) in 2013, along with the percentage of team receiving yards and age as of 9/1/13 for each team’s top four receiving leaders: [click to continue…]


Predictions in Review: NFC West

During the 2013 offseason, I wrote 32 articles under the RPO 2013 tag. In my Predictions in Review series, I review those preview articles with the benefit of hindsight. Last week was the AFC West; this week, the NFC West.

Let’s begin in Arizona, where I actually got one right.

Questioning the Narrative on Larry Fitzgerald, June 20, 2013

The conventional wisdom was that Larry Fitzgerald was going to have a bounce-back year in 2013. That view was widely-held: in fact, I caged a lot of my negative Fitzgerald comments with caveats, as it felt like criticizing Fitzgerald was just something football writers didn’t do. Fitzgerald was one of the game’s best wide receivers when Kurt Warner was under center, and it felt wrong to argue with folks who wanted to give him a pass for the mediocre numbers he produced with John Skelton/Ryan Lindley/Kevin Kolb. With Carson Palmer in Arizona in 2013, the expectation was a big year for Fitzgerald. Instead, he produced 82 passes for only 954 yards, although he did score 10 touchdowns.

For the second year in a row, Fitzgerald failed to lead his team in receiving yards per game, with Andre Roberts (2012) and Michael Floyd (2013) instead earning those honors. So what’s happened with Fitzgerald? I have no idea, but he’s certainly not the same player he was during the Warner/Anquan Boldin days. And while the touchdowns made sure he wasn’t a complete fantasy bust, he gained just 22.2% of all Cardinals receiving yards in 2013, somehow falling short of his 23.6% mark in his miserable 2012 season. [click to continue…]


It’s Carroll-Harbaugh X! Okay, the Whats Your Deal Bowl may not have quite the hype of Brady/Manning XV, but don’t tell that to folks on the West Coast. Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh are longtime rivals who have managed to alienate 31 other fanbases in the NFL. For the record, Harbaugh holds a 6-3 record over Carroll, including a 4-2 mark in the NFL. Of course, Carroll’s Seahawks won the last two games at CenturyLink Field, the site of the NFC Championship Game.

Let’s begin our preview by analyzing each team’s passing offense:

Sadly, this post is not sponsored by beats by Dre

Sadly, this post is not sponsored by beats by Dre.

Picking between Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson feels like an exercise in hair-splitting. Over the last two seasons, these two have nearly identical passing numbers, ranking 4th and 5th in ANY/A. Kaepernick was slightly better last year, Wilson slightly better this year, and then Kaepernick has been better in the playoffs. By ANY/A standards, this is a complete wash.

What about the weapons? That’s one area where it at least appears like the 49ers have the edge. Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, and Vernon Davis are legitimate stars who combine to give Kaepernick three versatile weapons on every play. A healthy Percy Harvin changes things for Seattle, but with Harvin declared out for the game, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, and Zach Miller represent a clear downgrade from the 49ers bunch.

But remember, when we look at the passing statistics of Kaepernick and Wilson, those numbers already incorporate the quality of each quarterback’s targets. After all, a quarterback’s ANY/A or NY/A averages are not mere reflections of the passer, but of the passing offense as a whole. On the other hand, Kaepernick hasn’t had those three players together for most of his career. In fact, the trio has only been available in 7 of Kaepernick’s 28 career starts. In 10 starts, only Crabtree and Davis were on the team, and in another 10, Kaepernick had just Boldin and Davis.1 The table below shows Kaepernick’s numbers as a starter depending on the availability of his three weapons: [click to continue…]

  1. There was also one start, against Indianapolis, where both Crabtree and Davis were out. []
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Cap Space Versus Production For DEN/NE/SF/SEA

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and Seahawks, and are four of the best organizations in the NFL. Over the last two years, these four teams are the only to win 23 games in the regular season or 26 games if you include the playoffs. In the salary cap era, being an excellent team means managing the salary cap well. And, broadly speaking, managing the cap well means finding good values for cheap and making sure the players you spend a premium on deliver commensurate production.

So is that true for New England, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle? The invaluable Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap has salary cap data for each team in the league, which can answer half the problem. But how do we measure production? I decided to use the ratings from Pro Football Focus, since the website provides a rating of every player on every team (although I excluded special teamers from my analysis today).

One note about PFF data, which comes from Nathan Jahnke, a writer at the website. As he explained to me, PFF’s ratings are not necessarily designed for comparisons across positions. For each position, zero is average, but the magnitude a player’s rating can get to is somewhat dependent on the position they play. For example, PFF has never had a safety over a grade of +30, while five 3-4 DEs hit that mark in 2013. For my purposes today, this is not a big concern — it just means view the graphs with an understand that these are not designed to be the perfect way to compare a player. But in general, I think they work well. (And, of course, don’t think that just because Brandon Mebane has a higher rating than Russell Wilson that it means PFF thinks Mebane is a more valuable player.)

To avoid people using my graphs to scrub data and steal the hard work put in by by Over The Cap and Pro Football Focus in assembling the salary cap data and player grades , I have decided not to label either axis with salary information or player ratings. Just know that the X-axis (that’s the horizontal one) is for salary, and players on the left are cheap and players on the right are expensive. The vertical or Y-axis shows the PFF grades from worst (on the bottom) to best on top). Note: to compare across teams, I have used the exact same dimensions for both axes across all four graphs. [click to continue…]


By all accounts, this was an underwhelming quartet of games played on The Best Weekend in Football. Last year, the division round gave us an incredible Russell Wilson comeback where the Seahawks scored three fourth quarter touchdowns before falling short against the Falcons and the Peyton ManningJoe FlaccoRahim Moore classic. Seattle won this year but in boring fashion, and Broncos fans undoubtedly prefer this year’s rendition of Neutral-Zone-Infraction to last year’s heartbreak. In 2011, the 9-7 Giants pulled off the rarest of upsets: outclassing the 15-1 Packers and winning a game as huge underdogs while managing to look like the better team in the process. The day before, Alex Smith lead the 49ers in a home upset over the Saints in one of the more exciting playoff games of our generation. In 2009 and 2010, the brash Jets won road games as heavy underdogs in convincing fashion against the Chargers and Patriots. This was the halcyon era of the Mark SanchezRex Ryan Jets, also known as years 3 and 2 Before The Buttfumble. In 2008, the Ravens (over the Titans), Eagles (Giants), and Cardinals (Panthers) all won as road underdogs. The year before, the Giants shocked the Cowboys before that was our Tony Romo-adjusted expectation, and the Chargers won as 11-point underdogs in Indianapolis preventing a Tom BradyPeyton Manning upset (no such road bump this year).

In some ways, the results this weekend were a good thing. Perhaps we will remember this as the year the division round of the playoffs felt like eating a salad – a bit unsatisfying at the time, but better for us in the long term. No one would complain about seeing more Andrew Luck — actually, maybe some of us would — but getting an AFC Championship Game of Manning and Brady just feels right. We have become so accustomed to seeing fluky teams like the Chargers make runs that we’ve forgotten that it can be very good when the results match our intuition. Back in April I said that the Patriots and Broncos were on a collision course for the AFC Championship Game, although my reasoning wasn’t exactly spot on (“the key to their success is keeping Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Amendola healthy, although the Patriots will be fine as long as two of them are on the field.”)

But it’s not as if I had some special insight: as noted by Will Brinson, the 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots, and Broncos were the four teams with the best preseason odds. No one would complain about seeing more from the Saints and Panthers, but I don’t think many would argue with the idea that the 49ers and Seahawks are the two most talented teams in the league. A few years from now, there won’t be much we remember from the division round. But I have a feeling it set up two conference championship games that will be very memorable. [click to continue…]


Division Preview: San Francisco at Carolina

At least 400 total yards were gained in every game this season. When Nick Foles threw 7 touchdowns against the Raiders, Oakland actually out-gained Philadelphia, and the two teams combined for a season-high 1,102 yards that day. On the other end of the spectrum was San Francisco/Carolina I, when the two teams combined for just 401 yards. That first game was essentially the NFL’s version of LSU/Alabama, and I don’t think the rematch will be very different.

When these two teams take the field on Sunday, the opponent will feel familiar for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is because of the week ten match-up. But these teams are also mirror images of each other. Consider:

Kuechly and Kaepernick are just two of the many stars in this game

Kuechly and Kaepernick are just two of the many stars in this game.


After the projections for most of the week was below-zero weather, the latest reports indicates that by kickoff, the temperature in Green Bay should be in the single digits. The temperature of a game is more open to interpretation than you think: in a lot of the games below, there are different reports depending on which source you use.  That said, I’ve found six playoff games that had a temperature of zero degrees or colder:

  • The Ice Bowl: The classic cold-weather game: the temperature was reportedly −15 degrees with an average wind chill around −36, although PFR has it at -2 degrees and -23, respectively. The Packers won 21-17, after Bart Starr‘s quarterback sneak for the winning score in the final seconds.
  • The Freezer Bowl: In 1981, the Chargers played in Cincinnati in -9 degree weather; add in the 27 miles per hour winds, and it felt more like −37 degrees. PFR has those numbers at -6 degrees, wind 24 mph, wind chill -32. Cincinnati won 27-7, to advance to the Super Bowl.
  • The 2007 NFC Championship Game: This was the Giants/Packers game where half of Coughlin’s face turned Giants red. New York won in overtime, 23-20, before upsetting the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The gamebook lists the temperature at -1 degrees, with a wind chill of -23. PFR has it at -7 degrees, with a brutal wind chill of -27.
  • Washington at Chicago, 1987: PFR has this one at -3 degrees with a wind chill of -20. Classic Ditka weather! Here’s the video to the CBS intro with John Madden and Pat Summerall (note that the broadcast states it was 12 degrees, with a wind chill feel of -5.). Washington won, 21-17, and eventually won the Super Bowl.
  • Indianapolis at Kansas City, 1995. Lin Elliott misses three field goals for the Chiefs, and the Colts win 10-7. PFR has it at 0 degrees, – 15 with wind chill.Some other playoff games come closer.
  • When Los Angeles traveled to Buffalo in 1993, it was zero degrees with, according to NFL.com, a wind chill at -32! Jeff Hostetler, who never had a bad playoff game, lost his only playoff game here despite throwing for 230 yards and a touchdown (with no interceptions) on 20 passes. Jim Kelly threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Bill Brooks, and Buffalo won 29-23. PFR lists the temperature at 3 degrees with a wind chill of -14

A pair of playoff games in Lambeau Field in 1996 and Soldier Field in 1963 probably could have been sub-zero games, but noon-time starts kept the temperature on the positive side of the ledger. Ten years ago, the Titans game in New England got the Saturday Night treatment, which allowed the temperature to drop down to 4 degrees with a wind chill -14. And the Browns/Raiders game known simply as Red Right 88 was at 2 degrees with a wind chill of -20.

It looks like today’s game will join the list of freezing playoff games, but may not make the top five.

San Francisco’s Turnover Margin

I think the 49ers are the vastly superior team here, so my pregame analysis will be limited. The Packers are a very average team, and a healthy Aaron Rodgers only makes them above-average. San Francisco led the league in points differential through two quarters and through three quarters, and I can still see this team becoming the next Lombardi Packers. But here’s an interesting stat from Bill Barnwell: [click to continue…]


New York Times: Post-Week 3, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I examine the disappointing San Francisco 49ers.

From the moment Coach Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco in 2011, the 49ers have been one of the N.F.L.’s best teams.

In Harbaugh’s first two seasons, the 49ers ranked third in combined wins (24) and points differential (275), trailing only the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers in both categories. In those two seasons, San Francisco allowed 502 points, easily the fewest in the league. Even after losing in the Super Bowl in February, Harbaugh’s 49ers seemed poised to become the next dynasty. But after defeating the Packers in Week 1, San Francisco has been outscored, 56-10, in the last two weeks.

In Seattle, the 49ers were 3-point underdogs, and lost, 29-3. At home against the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco was a 10 ½-point favorite, and lost by 20 points. For the season, San Francisco has fallen short of expectations — defined as the point spread in the game — by an average of 17.5 points a game (only the Giants, at 18.3 points, have been more disappointing). How have teams with similar expectations and results fared over the course of the rest of the season?

From 1990 to 2012, 14 teams have met three criteria: won at least 10 games in the previous year; on average, were favored to win the first three games of the next season; and failed to cover the spread by, on average, at least 10 points. On average, those teams won 12.5 games the previous season but just eight in the season in question, an indication that the slow start is a sign of mediocre things to come.

TeamYearPFPASpreadDifferenceN-1 RecordYear N Rec

The 2001 St. Louis Rams and the 2006 Chicago Bears lost in the Super Bowl, then both finished 7-9 the next season. The 2006 New Orleans Saints made it to the N.F.C. championship game, then started 2007 with four losses, and finished 7-9. Three games is a small sample size for the 49ers, but last year’s success guarantees nothing but high expectations. And only one of those 14 teams — the 2007 Saints — fell as far short of expectations (as measured by points differential relative to the point spread) as this year’s 49ers.

There might be more hope for a turnaround if San Francisco’s struggles were contained: unfortunately for 49ers fans, the team has struggled in every aspect of the game. The biggest surprise has been the fall of a dominant rush defense.

Two years ago, the 49ers did not allow a rushing touchdown until the 15th game of the season; last year, three of the team’s four linebackers (Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis) were named first-team All-Pro by The Associated Press, as the run defense finished in the top five in rushing yards, yards per carry and touchdowns allowed.

This season, the 49ers have allowed six rushing touchdowns. The struggles are not just at the goal line: Harbaugh’s 49ers allowed 170 rushing yards just once in his first 38 games (including the postseason). But they have allowed more than that in back-to-back weeks this season against the Seattle Seahawks and the Colts.

You can read the entire article here.


Not doing a squirrel dance.

Not doing a squirrel dance.

Last year, I wrote about how rare and impressive it was to see Ray Lewis and London Fletcher still playing at high levels. Lewis did not have a great 2012 season, but managed to walk away from the game as a defending Super Bowl champ. Fletcher was even better, and was named a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.

Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value system goes back to 1950. Only five times since then has an inside linebacker recorded 10 points of AV at age 36 or older: London Fletcher and Sam Mills are each responsible for two of them, with Bill Pellington (’64 Colts) rounding out the group.

Fletcher has never missed a game in his career, a remarkable accomplishment for the 15-year veteran. Consider that only three linebackers have appeared in more games than Fletcher (240): Bill Romanowski (243), Junior Seau (268), and Clay Matthews, Jr. (278). And all three of those players were outside linebackers, giving Fletcher more games than any inside linebacker in NFL history.

Which is pretty incredible for a player who received no awards or postseason recognition until turning 34. If all you knew about Fletcher was his performance from age 34+, you would assume he was a first ballot Hall of Famer. In 2009, he made his first Pro Bowl, and Fletcher was sent again in 2010 and 2011. The last two years, he’s been a second-team All-Pro, giving him some recognition in each of the last four years. Fletcher is on the short list (with Mills and Lewis) for the title of most successful inside linebacker from age 34+.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Patrick Willis, who has now made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons. The only other defensive players to do that: Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene, Dick Butkus, and Merlin Olsen. That’s mighty fine company, but it’s hard to find any flaws in Willis’ game. Not a fan of Pro Bowls? Since 1970, Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Willis are the only defensive players with five first-team All-Pro honors in their first six seasons.
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Vernon Davis as Art Monk

After the voters did not select Shannon Sharpe as part of the 2009 Hall of Fame Class, I wrote this post comparing Sharpe to Art Monk. While many viewed Sharpe as a receiver playing tight end, I noted that the Redskins used Monk not just as a wide receiver, but as an H-Back and as a tight end. My friend and football historian Sean Lahman once wrote this about Monk:

Even though Monk lined up as a wide receiver, his role was really more like that of a tight end. He used his physicality to catch passes. He went inside and over the middle most of the time. He was asked to block a lot. All of those things make him a different creature than the typical speed receiver…. His 940 career catches put him in the middle of a logjam of receivers, but he’d stand out among tight ends. His yards per catch look a lot better in that context as well.

I haven’t heard anyone else suggesting that we consider Monk as a hybrid tight end, but coach Joe Gibbs hinted at it in an interview with Washington sportswriter Gary Fitzgerald:

“What has hurt Art — and I believe should actually boost his credentials — is that we asked him to block a lot,” Gibbs said. “He was the inside portion of pass protection and we put him in instead of a big tight end or running back. He was a very tough, physical, big guy.”

With Michael Crabtree likely to miss most if not all of the 2013 season due to a torn Achilles, the 49ers may consider moving Vernon Davis from tight end to wide receiver. The most likely explanations for Davis playing exclusively at wide receiver in mini-camp are (a) he doesn’t need more practice at tight end while his route-running could probably use some refining, (b) the 49ers have several young tight ends who could benefit from more reps in mini-camp, and (c) the wide receiver group is currently depleted, and it’s June, so why not try something outside the box?
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Brodie (left) and Tittle (right) on the 49ers. Photo by Associated Press/1960 Photo: 1960, Associated Press.

Entire books have been written about the West Coast Offense. Friend of the program Chris Brown has an excellent primer on some of the principles of the system. Due to time constraints, this post is not going to dissect a voluminous playbook, translate Spider 3 Y Banana into English, or discuss the role of motions or shifts in the offense. This post will not help you find the winning edge.

I thought it would be interesting to see if certain statistics could help identify teams that ran a West Coast Offense. My initial thought was that an effective West Coast Offense would manifest itself in three key statistics:

  • Completion percentage. The WCO is built around short passes that work as a substitute for running plays. These long handoffs lead to high completion percentages for the quarterback.
  • Yards per completion. Short passes imply lower yards per completion. Ideally, we’d analyze yards per completion after removing yards after the catch, but that’s not something the NFL kept records of historically. Still, I think a low yards per completion average can be a good indicator that a team ran a West Coast Offense.
  • Passing first downs. In a West Coast Offense, teams are moving the chains through the air. With fewer long gains and a pass-first mentality, one would expect a lot of passing first downs.


If you’re a historian, you can skip this section. The classic story told about the birth of the West Coast Offense takes us back to before the AFL-NFL merger. In 1969, the Bengals had Paul Brown as head coach and Bill Walsh as the assistant coach/offensive coordinator. That year, quarterback Greg Cook had one of the great rookie seasons in history, but injuries to his rotator cuff and biceps ruined his career. The team turned to backup Virgil Carter, a very smart and accurate passer but who was destined to be a backup because of his size and weak arm. Those factors led Walsh and Brown to implement an offense that catered to Carter’s strengths and hid his weaknesses.

Carter wasn’t just smart for football. In 1970, he published a seminal paper that was the precursor to the Expected Points models we see today; in ’71, Carter led the NFL in completion percentage, but ranked third to last among the 21 qualifying quarterbacks in yards per completion. The Bengals ranked 9th in passing first downs, and those statistics seem to jive with the picture we all have in our heads of a West Coast Offense.
[click to continue…]


More division wins than non-division wins

The Rams finished with the best division record in the NFC West last year at 4-1-1, but St. Louis went only 3-7 in games against non-NFC West opponents. The Jaguars were 0-10 in non-division games last season, but beat both the Colts and Titans to finish 2-4 against the AFC South. Since the merger, three teams have won six more games against division rivals than against non-division opponents. Two of those teams did so in 1998, when the Cowboys went 10-6 thanks to a 8-0 record against the NFC East and a 2-6 mark against the rest of the league (in the playoffs that year, Dallas lost to an NFC East team, a choke that was presumably not Tony Romo’s fault). Over in the AFC, the Titans finished 7-1 against the AFC Central and 1-7 against the rest of the NFL. Technically, the ’82 Dolphins went 7-1 against the AFC East and 0-1 against Tampa Bay during the strike-shortened season, so they fit the criteria, too.

In the new eight-division, four-teams-per-division format, each team plays six games against division opponents and 10 games against non-division opponents. The table below shows all teams since 2002 that won more at least 1.5 more games against division rivals than non-division opponents:
[click to continue…]


The winner of the first Super Bowl

The winner of the first Super Bowl.

Congratulations to Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Joe Flacco, and the Baltimore Ravens on winning Super Bowl XLVII. The Ravens and 49ers treated us to an exciting Super Bowl, and the Hall of Fame chances of Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin, and yes, Joe Flacco, are a lot better today than they were 24 hours ago. And while most writers today will focus on the champions, I’m going to go in a different direction.

Two years ago, the 49ers were 6-10 and floundering; they had the 5th worst record in the league from 2004 from 2010 in the pre-Jim Harbaugh era. Today, San Francisco possesses arguably the NFL’s most talented roster and best coaching staff, but is coming off a painful loss in the title game.

When I look at the 49ers, it’s hard not to see the striking similarities to an incredible turnaround executed 52 years ago. From 1953 to 1958, the Green Bay Packers were one of the league’s most poorly-run franchises. The team won just 20 games over that six-year period, the second fewest in the league. Vince Lombardi arrived in 1959, and the Packers won the NFL’s West Division in 1960, losing in the final seconds in the title game that year to Philadelphia. It was a heartbreaking loss, but the Packers used that game as motivation to win NFL titles in ’61, ’62, ’65, ’66, and ’67, with the latter two coming in the Super Bowl.

In 2011, I read and reviewed John Eisenberg’s excellent book That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory. Eisenberg looked at a subject that always fascinated me: the 1958 Packers, despite being the worst team in the league, had seven future Hall of Famers.
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Super Bowl XLVII Preview

Before we get to my preview, I feel the need to point you to some excellent Super Bowl previews I saw this week:

The Ravens can stop the zone read, but at what cost?

In Colin Kaepernick’s nine starts, the 49ers have averaged 159 rushing yards per game on 4.9 yards per rush and have rushed for 14 touchdowns; at the same time, they’ve averaged 8.1 ANY/A through the air. That makes them close to unstoppable, much like the Seahawks when Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch were dominating defenses over that same stretch.

The Packers could not stop the Pistol offense.

The Packers chose to let Kaepernick beat them on the ground. He did.

For San Francisco, their dominance starts up front, and their offensive line needs only sustained success to rival what the lines of the ’90s Cowboys or ’00 Chiefs delivered. According to Pro Football Focus, left tackle Joe Staley is the best tackle in the league, while right tackle Anthony Davis is the second best run-blocking tackle in the league (behind only Staley). PFF ranks both Mike Iupati and Alex Boone as top-five guards in the league, and places both of them in the top three when it comes to run blocking. Center Jonathan Goodwin also ranks as an above-average center, and the 34-year-old veteran is more than capable of anchoring a line filled with Pro Bowl caliber players. As if that wasn’t enough, Vernon Davis is one of the top two-way tight ends in the league, while TE/H-Back/FB Delanie Walker and FB Bruce Miller provide excellent support in the run game.

Without any schematic advantage, the 49ers have enough talented beef up front to have a dominate running game. But add in what Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have been able to do with the Pistol formation and the zone read, and you have a running game that borders on unstoppable.

We saw that against the Packers, as Colin Kaepernick broke the single-game rushing record by a quarterback. The beauty of the zone read is that it gives the offense an extra blocker, an advantage the 49ers didn’t need. After the Packers were shredded by Kaepernick, the Falcons focused on containing the quarterback. Take a look at the photograph below, courtesy of Ben Muth of Football Outsiders.
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Ever wondered which Super Bowl teams were the oldest or youngest? I went and calculated the AV-adjusted age of every team to appear in the Super Bowl. (AV stands for Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value system, which assigns an approximate value to each player in each season; you can read more about it here.) You can probably guess who the oldest team was, but the youngest might be a bit of a surprise. Baltimore and San Francisco both come in roughly in the middle of the pack, with the Ravens slightly older than the 49ers. This also jives with Football Outsiders’ snap-adjusted ages article.

Bill Barnwell wrote a good article yesterday summarizing the success of Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens general manager. That made me curious to see what percentage (based on AV, not total players, naturally) of the players on each Super Bowl team had never before played for another team. Great general managers do more than build their teams through the draft (and Barnwell specifically praised Newsome for that, including the trade for Anquan Boldin), but the question of what percentage of the team is “homegrown” is still an interesting one.

For the Ravens, 73% of their players (as measured by AV) have never played for another team, with Boldin, Cary Williams, Jacoby Jones, Bryant McKinnie, Matt Birk, Bernard Pollard, Corey Graham, and Vontae Leach being some notable exceptions. On the other side, 75% of the 49ers have only worn the red and gold, although Justin Smith, Jonathan Goodwin, Randy Moss, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Mario Manningham (at least, in the regular season) were key contributors who are not home-grown 49ers.

When it comes to AV-adjusted age or measuring how ‘home-grown’ each team is, neither team really stands out from the pack. The ’78 and ’79 Steelers featured 22 starters that were all home-grown, although making placekicker Roy Gerela the lone outlier (and since AV does not include kickers, both Pittsburgh teams were at 100%).

In addition to the AV-adjusted ages and “home-grownness” of each Super Bowl participant, the table below includes where each team (since 1970) ranked in points for, points allowed, yards, and yards allowed, and whether or not the team won the game. The table is fully sortable and searchable, and the rows for San Francisco and Baltimore will remain highlighted after sorting.

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In September, I started a post by asking you to make this assumption:

Assume that it is within a quarterback’s control as to whether or not he throws a completed pass on any given pass attempt. However, if he throws an incomplete pass, then he has no control over whether or not that pass is intercepted.

If that assumption is true, that would mean all incomplete pass attempts could be labeled as “passes in play” for the defense to intercept. Therefore, a quarterback’s average number of “Picks On Passes In Play” (or POPIP) — that is, the number of interceptions per incomplete pass he throws — is out of his control.

After doing the legwork to test that assumption, I reached two conclusions. One, interception rate is just really random, and predicting it is a fool’s errand. Two, using a normalized INT rate — essentially replacing a quarterback’s number of interceptions per incomplete pass with the league average number of interceptions per incomplete pass — was a slightly better predictor of future INT rate than actual INT rate. It’s not a slam dunk, but there is some merit to using POPIP, because completion percentage, on average, is a better predictor of future INT rate than current INT rate.

So, why am I bringing this up today, at the start of Super Bowl week? Take a look at where Sunday’s starting quarterbacks ranked this year in POPIP (playoff statistics included, minimum 250 pass attempts):
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Super Bowl History

Now that the Super Bowl matchup is set, I thought I’d start the two-week period with some Super Bow history. The table below lists some information from each of the first 46 Super Bowls. With Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick facing off, that ends five-year streak where at least one of the two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl had previously won (or been in) a Super Bowl:

YearSBWinnerPFLoserPALocationSTQBOpp QBMVP
2011XLVINew York Giants21New England Patriots17IndianapolisINEli ManningTom BradyEli Manning
2010XLVGreen Bay Packers31Pittsburgh Steelers25ArlingtonTXAaron RodgersBen RoethlisbergerAaron Rodgers
2009XLIVNew Orleans Saints31Indianapolis Colts17MiamiFLDrew BreesPeyton ManningDrew Brees
2008XLIIIPittsburgh Steelers27Arizona Cardinals23TampaFLBen RoethlisbergerKurt WarnerSantonio Holmes
2007XLIINew York Giants17New England Patriots14GlendaleAZEli ManningTom BradyEli Manning
2006XLIIndianapolis Colts29Chicago Bears17MiamiFLPeyton ManningRex GrossmanPeyton Manning
2005XLPittsburgh Steelers21Seattle Seahawks10DetroitMIBen RoethlisbergerMatt HasselbeckHines Ward
2004XXIXNew England Patriots24Philadelphia Eagles21JacksonvilleFLTom BradyDonovan McNabbDeion Branch
2003XXXVIIINew England Patriots32Carolina Panthers29HoustonTXTom BradyJake DelhommeTom Brady
2002XXXVIITampa Bay Buccaneers48Oakland Raiders21San DiegoCABrad JohnsonRich GannonDexter Jackson
2001XXXVINew England Patriots20St. Louis Rams17New OrleansLATom BradyKurt WarnerTom Brady
2000XXXVBaltimore Ravens34New York Giants7TampaFLTrent DilferKerry CollinsRay Lewis
1999XXXIVSt. Louis Rams23Tennessee Titans16AtlantaGAKurt WarnerSteve McNairKurt Warner
1998XXXIIIDenver Broncos34Atlanta Falcons19MiamiFLJohn ElwayChris ChandlerJohn Elway
1997XXXIIDenver Broncos31Green Bay Packers24San DiegoCAJohn ElwayBrett FavreTerrell Davis
1996XXXIGreen Bay Packers35New England Patriots21New OrleansLABrett FavreDrew BledsoeDesmond Howard
1995XXXDallas Cowboys27Pittsburgh Steelers17TempeAZTroy AikmanNeil O'DonnellLarry Brown
1994XXIXSan Francisco 49ers49San Diego Chargers26MiamiFLSteve YoungStan HumphriesSteve Young
1993XXVIIIDallas Cowboys30Buffalo Bills13AtlantaGATroy AikmanJim KellyEmmitt Smith
1992XXVIIDallas Cowboys52Buffalo Bills17PasadenaCATroy AikmanJim KellyTroy Aikman
1991XXVIWashington Redskins37Buffalo Bills24MinneapolisMNMark RypienJim KellyMark Rypien
1990XXVNew York Giants20Buffalo Bills19TampaFLJeff HostetlerJim KellyOttis Anderson
1989XXIVSan Francisco 49ers55Denver Broncos10New OrleansLAJoe MontanaJohn ElwayJoe Montana
1988XXIIISan Francisco 49ers20Cincinnati Bengals16MiamiFLJoe MontanaBoomer EsiasonJerry Rice
1987XXIIWashington Redskins42Denver Broncos10San DiegoCADoug WilliamsJohn ElwayDoug Williams
1986XXINew York Giants39Denver Broncos20PasadenaCAPhil SimmsJohn ElwayPhil Simms
1985XXChicago Bears46New England Patriots10New OrleansLAJim McMahonTony EasonRichard Dent
1984XIXSan Francisco 49ers38Miami Dolphins16StanfordCAJoe MontanaDan MarinoJoe Montana
1983XVIIILos Angeles Raiders38Washington Redskins9TampaFLJim PlunkettJoe TheismannMarcus Allen
1982XVIIWashington Redskins27Miami Dolphins17PasadenaCAJoe TheismannDavid WoodleyJohn Riggins
1981XVISan Francisco 49ers26Cincinnati Bengals21PontiacMIJoe MontanaKen AndersonJoe Montana
1980XVOakland Raiders27Philadelphia Eagles10New OrleansLAJim PlunkettRon JaworskiJim Plunkett
1979XIVPittsburgh Steelers31Los Angeles Rams19PasadenaCATerry BradshawVince FerragamoTerry Bradshaw
1978XIIIPittsburgh Steelers35Dallas Cowboys31MiamiFLTerry BradshawRoger StaubachTerry Bradshaw
1977XIIDallas Cowboys27Denver Broncos10New OrleansLARoger StaubachCraig MortonRandy White1
1976XIOakland Raiders32Minnesota Vikings14PasadenaCAKen StablerFran TarkentonFred Biletnikoff
1975XPittsburgh Steelers21Dallas Cowboys17MiamiFLTerry BradshawRoger StaubachLynn Swann
1974IXPittsburgh Steelers16Minnesota Vikings6New OrleansLATerry BradshawFran TarkentonFranco Harris
1973VIIIMiami Dolphins24Minnesota Vikings7HoustonTXBob GrieseFran TarkentonLarry Csonka
1972VIIMiami Dolphins14Washington Redskins7Los AngelesCABob GrieseBilly KilmerJake Scott
1971VIDallas Cowboys24Miami Dolphins3New OrleansLARoger StaubachBob GrieseRoger Staubach
1970VBaltimore Colts16Dallas Cowboys13MiamiFLJohnny UnitasCraig MortonChuck Howley
1969IVKansas City Chiefs23Minnesota Vikings7New OrleansLALen DawsonJoe KappLen Dawson
1968IIINew York Jets16Baltimore Colts7MiamiFLJoe NamathEarl MorrallJoe Namath
1967IIGreen Bay Packers33Oakland Raiders14MiamiFLBart StarrDaryle LamonicaBart Starr
1966IGreen Bay Packers35Kansas City Chiefs10Los AngelesCABart StarrLen DawsonBart Starr

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  1. Co-MVP with Harvey Martin []

And then he said, what's your deal?

And then he asked me what my deal was.

A couple of interesting notes, courtesy of Mike Sando on ESPN.com. The first is a good bit of trivia: Jim Harbaugh joins George Seifert, Barry Switzer and Rex Ryan as the only head coaches to reach the AFC or NFC Championship Game in each of their first two seasons as an NFL head coach. The second piece of information provides a possible clue as to how the game might unfold for Atlanta. Including the playoffs, the Falcons have allowed 8.9 yards per rush to quarterbacks this season, the worst rate in the NFL (excluding kneel downs).

To be fair, only three quarterbacks have done anything of note on the ground against the Falcons this year. Michael Vick rushed 7 times for 42 yards in a 30-17 loss. Vick had two first down carries that went for four yards, two third and long carries that went for 10 total yards but no first downs, and then three runs on 3rd and 3 or 4 where he picked up the first down. That’s not good, but not too alarming.
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The Packers could not stop the Pistol offense.

The Packers could not stop the Pistol offense.

I have not done a good job fulfilling my pledge to point you in the direction of good football articles. But here’s a great interview by Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News with former Nevada head coach Chris Ault. Ault is the pioneer of the Pistol Offense, and his prized pupil was last seen rushing for 181 yards against the Packers on Saturday night. The whole article is worth a read, but here are some good excerpts:

Q: How similar was the stuff the 49ers were running to what you ran for Kaepernick at Nevada?

Ault: The read plays that they’re running, that’s what we ran. That’s what we did and what we still do. The play-action passes, which I was really excited to see out of the pistol, are things that we did here in Kaep’s senior year. The routes, I can’t tell you the routes are the same, but I thought that was the one thing I had not seen the Niners do, that I saw the Redskins do, was throw the ball with play-action out of the pistol. I thought the play-action passing really helped with the read itself out of the pistol.
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I was on vacation last week, so I provided just a bare bones set of NFL playoff predictions. Technically, my picks went 4-0 on Wildcard Weekend, but that doesn’t count for much when you pick the favorite in every game. With a little more time on my hands, here’s an in-depth preview of Saturday’s games. Tomorrow I’ll be previewing Sunday’s action.

Baltimore Ravens (10-6) (+9.5) at Denver Broncos (13-3), Saturday 4:30PM ET

Manning looks for to win another Super Bowl

Manning points to his glove dealer.

Most of the signs in this game point squarely in the favor of Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Baltimore has wildly underachieved on the road the last few seasons, and in Denver does not seem like the optimal place for that trend to reverse itself. From 2002 to 2010, Manning went 8-0 against the Ravens, including a 2-0 mark in playoff games. If you double his numbers in those games (to approximate a 16-game season), Manning would have thrown for 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions, while averaging 7.8 Y/A and 7.9 AY/A to go with a 65.6% completion rate and a 97.7 passer rating. Manning was similarly lethal in Denver’s win over the Ravens in Baltimore earlier this year.
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Season in review: AFC and NFC West

AFC East and NFC East Season in review
AFC North and NFC North Season in review
AFC North and NFC South Season in review

In the case of the AFC West, a picture can say a thousand words.

AFC West

Denver Broncos

Pre-season Projection: 8.5 wins
Maximum wins: 13 (after weeks 10 through 16)
Minimum wins: 9 (after weeks 3, 5 )
Week 1 comment: Watching Peyton Manning work his magic was a thing of beauty on Sunday night. The less John Fox touches this offense, the better, but I think everyone in Denver already knows that.

Once Peyton Manning proved that he was healthy and back, the AFC West race was effectively over. Officially, that happened in the week 6 comeback over the Chargers. That win only made them 3-3, but here is what I wrote then: According to Advanced NFL Stats, Denver is the best team in the league. Their remaining schedule is absurdly easy, so I’m going to perhaps prematurely give them a two-win bump. Their week 15 game in Baltimore may be for a bye, and I now think Denver is the favorite.

Kudos to Brian Burke’s model for correctly identifying how good the Broncos were early in the year. After week 9, I pegged Denver at 12 wins, and wrote: As a matter of principle, projecting a team to finish 7-1 is never advised. But this seems to be a good place to make an exception.

The next week, I bumped them to 13 wins, and never moved off that number. They got a late Christmas present from Manning’s old team, and now the AFC playoffs will have to go through Denver.

San Diego Chargers

Pre-season Projection: 9 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 1, 2, and 4)
Minimum wins: 6 (after weeks 10 through 13, 16)
Week 1 comment: Unimpressive on Monday Night Football, but the schedule lines up for them to succeed. Philip Rivers is still elite, so expecting them to only go 8-7 the rest of the way is probably more of a knock on them than anything else. A healthy Ryan Mathews back will help.

The Chargers schedule was ridiculously easy, but they lost to the Browns, Saints, and Panthers, and couldn’t beat the Ravens, Bengals, or Bucs. The decline of Philip Rivers from elite quarterback to throw-it-out-of-bounds master is depressing, and it’s easy and probably appropriate to point the blame at the general manager. Going into 2013, San Diego will have a new head coach and GM, and we’ll see if that is what was needed to resurrect Rivers’ career.

It’s not easy to remember, but the Chargers were actually 3-1. At that point, I wrote: An unimpressive 3-1 team with a struggling offensive line. I really wanted to keep them at 8 wins, but their schedule is too easy and Philip Rivers — even in a down year — is good enough to lead them to a .500 record the rest of the way.

But by the time they were 3-4, I had already started with the “I can’t think of anything positive to say about the Chargers right now” comments. I summed up the Chargers season after week 13, when I wrote: This team started 2-0 but hasn’t beaten anyone but the Chiefs since then.

Of course, San Diego being San Diego, the Chargers did finish with 7 wins, but it was another disappointing season for the franchise. It’s hard to think back to September, but Vegas really did project the Chargers to win this division.
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Checkdowns: Biggest failed comebacks

Brady joins Marino on the failed comebacks list

Brady joins Marino on the failed comebacks list.

[UPDATE: There was an error earlier in this post. I believe it is fixed now.]

On Sunday Night, the Patriots trailed 31-3 halfway through the third quarter. But that’s when Tom Brady got hot, and New England tied the game with 6:43 left in the 4th quarter. At that moment, many fans probably had visions of the Oilers-Bills playoff game, where Buffalo came back from a 32-point deficit to win.

And while there are a lot of famous comebacks, the failed comeback is much less memorable. But in fact, this was the 4th time a team trailed by 28 points in the game only to tie or take the lead in the 4th quarter… but ultimately lose.

The table below shows all games prior to 2012 where a team trailed by at least 21 points, was trailing entering the 4th quarter, came back to tie or take the lead in the 4th quarter, but then still lost. The table is listed from the perspective of the eventual winner and shows the final points for and points allowed in the game, along with the biggest lead and the largest fourth-quarter deficit the winning team faced despite the large early lead.


Note that this excludes games this game between Green Bay and Pittsburgh from 1951, where the Packers held a 28-point lead and won, but actually trailed entering the 4th quarter.


Week 13 Power Rankings

Unlike Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick's team won't kiss its sister.

We’re 75% of the way through the regular season. We know the Patriots, Broncos, and Texans are elite teams in the AFC, the Ravens and Colts aren’t as good as their gaudy records, and the Bengals and Steelers will consistently be inconsistent. In the NFC, the Giants remain the benchmark for consistent inconsistency. But if December plays out as another Groundhog’s Day for Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones, the NFC East will again go to New York. The Falcons are going to grab the #1 seed and the NFC North will likely come down to the winner of the Green Bay-Chicago matchup in week 15. The last wildcard is up for grabs — the first is reserved for the NFC North runner-up — but unfortunately the likely prize is just a road game against one of the last two Super Bowl champions.

So let’s take a moment and look at how the 49ers tie against the Rams could impact playoff seeding. In retrospect, that tie was no better than a loss for San Francisco. As an initial matter, the team is battling Seattle for the NFC West crown. San Francisco plays in Seattle in week 16; if the Seahawks win, they have a legitimate shot at the division. Right now they’re 1.5 games behind the 49ers, and the rest of the Seahawks schedule (ARI, @BUF, STL) is manageable; meanwhile, San Francisco also has to go to New England. If the Seahawks run the table and the Patriots beat the 49ers, the Seahawks win the NFC West.

Had the 49ers defeated the Rams, even losing to Seattle and New England in the last two weeks wouldn’t cost them the division. That’s because Seattle already lost in Arizona, St. Louis, and San Francisco, so the 49ers would have won the tiebreaker. A win would have been helpful, while that tie against the Rams comes out as no more helpful than a loss — in either case, San Francisco would have 10 wins to Seattle’s 11. Since they would have had the tiebreaker, the difference between a win and a tie was much larger than the difference between a tie and a loss (which was essentially nothing).

But perhaps the more important race is against the Packers for the #2 seed. San Francisco is unlikely to lose to both Seattle and New England while the Seahawks run the table, so I think 49ers fans are more concerned about securing that bye. Right now, the 49ers are just a half-game ahead of Green Bay. Since the 49ers defeated the Packers, they would have held the tiebreaker if the two teams finished with the same record. Therefore, just like in the case of the Seahawks, “salvaging” a tie against the Rams will end up having been meaningless.

With that, perhaps it is time to turn our attention to the bottom of the list. We can skip from the top to the bottom after this short break

The Jets, the Eagles, Rex Ryan, the Chargers, Tim Tebow, Andy Reid, Mark Sanchez, Norv Turner

Now that that’s covered, the race for the #1 draft pick is on. Jason Lisk did a nice job handicapping the race, placing the Chiefs in the pole position but giving both the Raiders and Jaguars a better than 20% chance of the top pick. Football Outsiders sees things slightly different, giving both Kansas City and Jacksonville a two-in-five chance of shouting “We’re #1″… in April.

Atlanta Falcons11-1141310.422214-2 but with a Matt Ryan-sized monkey on their backs.
Houston Texans11-1131300.5942The game of the regular season takes place in New England on Monday Night.
Denver Broncos9-3131300.3592From 2-3 to 13-3? The Broncos will be streaking towards the playoffs and Peyton Manning is the favorite to earn his 5th MVP award
New England Patriots9-3121200.5393A win in Houston gives the Patriots a chance for the 1 seed; a loss means they may have to beat Pittsburgh and win in Denver and Houston to get to New Orleans.
San Francisco 49ers8-3-111.512.5-10.5312Hey, at least they didn't tie the Rams!
Green Bay Packers8-4111100.4382At 2-3, who would have guessed that Green Bay could still end up with a first round bye? They're only a half-game behind San Francisco.
Baltimore Ravens9-3111100.6092Stage 1 of regression to the mean happened last week.
Chicago Bears8-4111100.4221That was a tough loss to Seattle, but the Bears still control their own destiny in the NFC North with one game left against each rival.
Indianapolis Colts8-4101000.5472The difference between the 5 and 6 seed in the AFC is enormous, because it's a tall order asking Andrew Luck to win at Denver/NE/Houston.
Pittsburgh Steelers7-510910.4383Ben Roethlisberger may be back this weekend; the Steelers still have enormous upside but rarely flash it.
Seattle Seahawks7-510910.4843Russell Wilson is climbing up the Rookie of the Year charts. He doesn't have to do as much as Luck or Robert Griffin III but he's been excellent.
New York Giants7-5910-10.5632After week 8, I had them at 11 wins. Early in the season I had them at 9. The lesson: don't get confused by what happens to the Giants in the middle of the year.
Cincinnati Bengals7-59810.5162Starting to come around on the Bengals, although that may just be because the bar known as the rest of the conference keeps falling.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers6-689-10.5082Close losses against the Falcons and Broncosshow how far the team has come but are likely season killers.
Dallas Cowboys6-68800.5312It's December - can Tony Romo rewrite history?
Washington Redskins6-68800.4382Own the tiebreaker over the Giants and a much easier schedule.
St. Louis Rams5-6-17.56.510.4841Being able to go toe-to-toe with the 49ers should be a huge confidence booster for a young team.
New Orleans Saints5-778-10.4692Playing out the string in a disappointing season. Saints should consider giving some younger players playing time.
Miami Dolphins5-77700.5232Losing a close game to the Patriots doesn't drop your win total.
New York Jets5-77610.3441Anything between 5-9 and 9-7 is possible. But I doubt Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow, or Greg McElroy quarterback the next Jets team that makes the playoffs.
Buffalo Bills5-77610.4923Another below-average but not terrible year for the Bills. At least they have a great running game.
Minnesota Vikings6-667-10.6642Percy Harvin out for the year is the final nail in the coffin for the Vikings' playoff hopes.
Tennessee Titans4-86600.4842Figuring out how to turn Jake Locker into the quarterback of the future should be the only goal for the rest of the year.
San Diego Chargers4-86600.4062This team started 2-0 but hasn't beaten anyone but the Chiefs since then.
Detroit Lions4-856-10.6412Calvin Johnson's pursuit of Jerry Rice is the only drama left in Lions land.
Carolina Panthers3-956-10.4842It's hard to reconcile this team with their record. Cam Newton still leads the league in yards per attempt.
Arizona Cardinals4-856-10.5862Kevin Kolb looks like Joe Montana compared to Ryan Lindley. The Cardinals were 0-15 on third down against the Jets.
Cleveland Browns4-85410.5312Cleveland is 3-2 in their last five games, which would inspire more confidence if this wasn't a lost season under a dead-end regime.
Oakland Raiders3-945-10.4222A good candidate to steal the #1 pick from KC and Jacksonville due to their weak SOS.
Philadelphia Eagles3-94400.5312Will the Eagles be able to win one last game under Andy Reid? At this point, I'm not counting on anything.
Jacksonville Jaguars2-103300.5002Best case scenario is Chad Henne plays well enough to convince the team to move on from Blaine Gabbert but not so well as to convince them in Henne himself.
Kansas City Chiefs2-103210.5001A tragic week in Kansas City. Thoughts and prayers go out to those impacted by the horrific events.


NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 12

My article for the New York Times this week takes a look at one interesting statistic for each of the eight division winners.

Atlanta Falcons – Record in Close Games
In 2010, Atlanta raced to a 10-2 record on the strength of an improbable 7-1 record in games decided by 7 or fewer points. How a team fares in close games has a heavy impact on a team’s final record, but statisticians agree that such a metric holds little predictive value. The Falcons earned the No. 1 seed in the N.F.C. thanks to their success in close games, but ranked only seventh in the Football Outsiders advanced statistical rankings and 21st in the Advanced NFL Stats efficiency ratings. Atlanta lost badly in its playoff opener, not surprising to those who felt the Falcons’ record was more mirage than reality.

This season, Atlanta has raced to a 10-1 record on the strength of an improbable 7-1 record in games decided by 7 or fewer points. Football Outsiders ranks the Falcons 12th, and according to its founder, Aaron Schatz, the Falcons have by far the worst efficiency rating of any of the 18 teams that have started 10-1 since 1991. Advanced NFL Stats is slightly more generous, placing the Falcons fifth, although the gap between the fifth and 12th teams in its rating is miniscule. The takeaway: Don’t get caught up in the Falcons’ record. It will give Atlanta a bye, but no other guarantees come with it.

San Francisco – Top Pass Defense in the N.F.L.

Last season, the 49ers’ reputation for having an elite defense was built on their superb run defense, which ranked first in rushing yards allowed, rushing yards per carry allowed and rushing touchdowns allowed. But the 49ers were not dominant against the pass, ranking ninth in net yards per pass attempt allowed. This season, the San Francisco defense is without weakness.

The 49ers (8-2-1) actually lead the N.F.L. in net yards per pass attempt allowed. In the process, the 49ers lead the N.F.L. in points allowed, and their defense ranks in the top three in both first downs allowed and Pro-Football-Reference’s Expected Points Added statistic. The run defense remains stout, ranking in the top four in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns allowed, but the improvement in the pass defense makes this an even better defense than the 2011 version. As long as San Francisco continues to shut down opposing passers, it won’t matter very much whether Coach Jim Harbaugh picks Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.

Chicago – 11th in Points Scored Without an Offense

As a technical matter, the Bears (8-3) rank 11th in points scored. Just don’t let anyone tell you that in the context of a story about how Chicago’s offense is underrated. The Bears have scored eight non-offensive touchdowns this season — seven on interception returns, one on a blocked punt — and their great defense and special teams consistently set up the offense for success even when those units aren’t scoring touchdowns. Chicago is in the bottom five in Net Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, total yards and sacks allowed. The Bears’ running game benefits from a high number of carries, but ranks below average in both yards per carry and PFR’s Expected Points Added statistic.

The defense is excellent, but a poor offensive line and mediocre wide receiver talent behind Brandon Marshall leave the Bears with one of the worst offenses in the N.F.L. — regardless of how many points they’ve scored. Advanced NFL Stats ranks the Bears’ offense as the second worst in the league.

You can read the full article here.


The teacher and the pupil.

Alex Smith has had an incredible career revival since Jim Harbaugh came to San Francisco. The first six seasons of his career, Alex Smith won just 38% of his 50 starts, but he has an incredible 15-3 regular season record since 2011 (83%). From 2005 to 2012, Smith had an ugly 72.1 passer rating, the worst of any quarterback with 1500 attempts over that span. Since Harbaugh came to town, Smith has a 93.6 passer rating, the 7th best mark of any quarterback over that time frame.

But there are two other, related, metrics, that indicate a fundamental shift in Smith’s style of play. In 2011, Alex Smith led the NFL in interception rate, but he also led the league in sacks. Smith threw an interception on just 1.1% of his passes in 2011 but took a sack on 9.0% of his dropbacks; this year, his sack rate has jumped to 10.9% while he has yet to thrown an interception.

Last year, the average quarterback threw an interception on 2.9% of his passes and was sacked on 6.4% of his dropbacks, meaning Smith’s interception rate was just 39% of the league average while his sack rate was 41% higher than league average. Smith also averaged just 197 passing yards per start, 80% of the league average metric.

It’s extremely early, of course, but Smith looks to be on a similar path this year. Which made me wonder: how often does a quarterback1 have a two-year stretch with (1) an excellent interception rate, (2) a bad sack rate, and (3) a below-average amount of passing yards per game? The answer is very rarely.

There’s a lot of information to present, so I’ve overloaded the table below. This lists all quarterbacks since 1978 who over a two-year period had a sack rate at least 30% higher than average, an interception rate of 70% of league average or lower, and were below league average in passing yards per game. After the traditional categories, I’ve listed each quarterback’s sack rate, interception rate and yards per game, and then how their sack rates, interception rates and yards per game compared to league average. The last two columns show the quarterback’s record over those two years.

Charlie BatchDET1998--1999573413524137340811.3%2.3%180159.9%68.3%80.1%11-11-00.500
Steve YoungSFO1996--199767254393312693809.3%1.8%201134.6%55.6%91.5%21-6-00.778
Jim HarbaughIND1996--199771446902315774469.7%2.1%180140.7%65.4%81.9%9-16-00.360
Jim HarbaughIND1995--199671952053016724099.1%2.2%179145.3%69.2%78.6%14-12-00.538
Jim HarbaughIND1994--199551640152611532919.3%2.1%149156.2%69%64.3%11-10-00.524
Ken O'BrienNYJ1987--198881752632815876319.6%1.8%202134%46.6%91.9%11-12-10.479
Neil LomaxSTL1985--19868925797312411382311.2%2.7%193141.2%65.9%85.8%9-20-10.317
Ken O'BrienNYJ1984--1985691529031158456710.8%2.2%203130.1%52.8%89.9%12-9-00.571
Steve BartkowskiATL1983--1984701532533159164811.5%2.1%213140.5%50.8%94.6%9-16-00.360
Neil LomaxSTL1982--1983559400329177454911.7%3%182147.7%69.6%82%12-9-10.568

During Jim Harbaugh’s 4 years in Indianapolis, he was essentially Alex Smith. He had a 9.6% sack rate and a 2.1% interception rate, while averaging under 180 passing yards per game. When discussing Joe Namath, I noted that he almost never took sacks, which by some measures penalized him because it drove down his completion percentage and increased his interception rate. You can put Alex Smith and the Indianapolis version of Jim Harbaugh on one end of a spectrum and Joe Namath on the other. Both interceptions and sacks are bad, but to some extent, quarterbacks can decide whether they want to throw interceptions or take sacks. Smith, under Harbaugh’s tutelage, has clearly chosen the latter.

On a team with a great defense, that can work. Namath’s defenses weren’t always good, but when they were, the Jets were Super Bowl contenders. When the defenses struggled, Namath pressed even more, and ended up throwing even more interceptions. Smith is never asked to do too much, and Harbaugh has surrounded him with enough talent on the other side of the ball to make that a winning formula.

From 1994 to 1996, Jim Harbaugh went just 20-26 with the Colts. In 1997, Harbaugh had the lowest interception rate in the NFL and the second highest sack rate in the league. But the 1997 Colts ranked in the bottom 5 of the NFL in points allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, interceptions forced, rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed and yards per carry allowed. The team went 3-13 overall, and 2-9 with Harbaugh, indicating that this conservative philosophy has its limitations.

Often times we use stats as a way to rank players, where more of one stat or less of another means a player is good, and less of one stat and more of another means a player is bad. But stats can also be used descriptively without overarching themes of good or bad. Just like some running backs are big and slow and others are small and fast, some quarterbacks are risky and some are risk-averse.

Harbaugh clearly was a risk-averse player in Indianapolis under Lindy Infante. What about the other players on the list? Conservative and risk-averse were good adjectives to describe Charlie Batch’s first two years in the league. In 1998, he had Barry Sanders, but Batch’s numbers were nearly identical both seasons (of course, you would normally expect some improvement by a quarterback betwen year one and two). It looks like he played things very safe as a rookie on a good team in 1998, and let’s not forget how he got the starting job: Scott Mitchell was benched after throwing a pick-six in overtime. We can safely conclude that Batch was told to avoid interceptions at all costs, for many reasons.

Steve Young led the league in passer rating in ’96 and ’97, and for many reasons, doesn’t really feel like a comparable player to Alex Smith. He had already been a two-time MVP by 1996.

Ken O’Brien was a very accurate quarterback who led the league in interception rate in ’85, ’87 and ’88. But he took a ton of sacks, in part because of a below-average offensive line. At his peak he was better than Smith has been so far — in ’85 he was 2nd in yards per attempt and he was 5th in that metric in ’86 — but there are some similarities between the two players.

From 1982 to 1986, Neil Lomax had a 10.5% sack rate but a tiny 2.8% interception rate; despite the conservative nature, his team went just 30-36-2 over that span. Lomax was outstanding in 1984, but otherwise was a solid but unspectacular player during this span (Lomax made the Pro Bowl in ’87 when he led the league in completions, attempts, and passing yards.) Lomax also benefited from consecutive All-Pro seasons from Roy Green in ’83 and ’84, but poor defenses prevented Lomax from compiling a winning record in St. Louis.

In the early ’80s, Steve Bartkowski had some success under Leeman Bennett, and made the Pro Bowl in ’80 and ’81. During those years, he was at or above average in sack rate and also interception rate, but then his interception rate improved dramatically in ’83 while his sack rate fell off for the rest of his career. A likely explanation is the hiring of Dan Henning that season, who may have emphasized a more conservative approach.

The two years before Harbaugh arrived, Smith had a 6.2% sack rate and a 3.1% interception rate, both numbers which were pretty close to league average. But Alex Smith 2.0 is not trying to prove to the world that he’s the #1 pick who can do everything; this version is concerned with minimizing risks at all costs. So far, it’s been a very successful formula.

  1. For purposes of this study, I also limited the group to quarterbacks since 1978 who played for the same team for both years and who threw at least 200 passes in both years. []
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