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Predictions in Review: NFC North

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. Previously, I reviewed the AFC West, the NFC West, the AFC South, the NFC South, and the AFC North. Today, the NFC North.

The Detroit Lions will win more games in 2013, June 21, 2013

In 2012, Detroit finished 4-12, but they seemed like an obvious pick to have a rebound season. The Lions went 3-9 in games decided by 8 or fewer points that year, which was the worst mark in the league. Since such a poor record is usually a sign of bad luck rather than bad skill, Detroit wouldn’t need to do much to improve on their 4-win season. The Lions had 6.4 Pythagorean wins, and no team fell as far short of their Pythagorean record in 2012 as Detroit. There was one other reason I highlighted as to why Detroit would win more games in 2013: the Lions recovered only 33% of all fumbles that occurred in Detroit games. As a result, the team recovered 7.6 fewer fumbles than expected.

Of course, none of this was a surprise: Vegas pegged Detroit as an average team entering the season. And even though the Lions did finish 7-9, a three-win improvement wasn’t enough to save Jim Schwartz’ job. After a 3-9 record the year before, the 2013 Lions went 4-6 in games decided by 8 or fewer points, which included losses in the team’s final three games.  Detroit did improve when it came to fumble recoveries, but only slightly: the Lions recovered 42.6% of all fumbles in their games in 2013, which was 3.6 recoveries fewer than expected.

What can we learn: When it comes to records in close games and fumble recovery rates, we should expect regression to the mean.  Last year, the Colts (6-1) and Jets (5-1) had the best records in close games; Andrew Luck has been doing this for two years now, but no such benefit of the doubt should be given to the Jets. Meanwhile, Houston (2-9) and Washington (2-7) had the worst records in close games. All else being equal, we would expect both of those teams to improve on their wins total in 2014 (for the 2-14 Texans, it will take some work not to win more games in 2014; and, of course, such rebound seasons are already baked into the Vegas lines).

As far as fumble recovery rates, well, that’s one area where the Jets are hoping for some regression to the mean.

The 2012 Chicago Bears had the Least Strange Season Ever, August 2, 2013

Here’s what I wrote about the 2012 Bears:

The 2012 Bears played two terrible teams, the Titans and the Jaguars. Those were the two biggest blowouts of the season for Chicago. The Bears had five games against really good teams (Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, and the Packers twice): those were the five biggest losses of the season. Chicago had one other loss, which came on the road against the next best team the Bears played, Minnesota.

But the Bears didn’t just have a predictable season. That -0.89 correlation coefficient [between Chicago’s opponent’s rating and location-adjusted margin of victory] is the lowest for any 16-game season in NFL history. In other words, Chicago just had the least strange season of the modern era.

This post was not about predicting Chicago’s 2013 season but analyzing a quirky fact I discovered. The Bears struggled against the best teams in 2012, and that cost Lovie Smith his job. In 2013, Chicago’s season was much more normal; in fact, the Bears had a slightly “stranger” season than the average team.

The Bears did manage to defeat the Bengals and Packers (without Aaron Rodgers), but Chicago still finished below .500 against playoff teams thanks to losses to New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Green Bay (with Aaron Rodgers). After a 2-6 performance against playoff teams in 2012, I suppose a 2-3 record is an improvement. But the irony is that the reason Chicago’s season was less normal in 2013 wasn’t due to better play against the best teams, but because Chicago lost to Minnesota and Washington. In the first year post-Lovie, the Bears missed the playoffs because they lost to two of the worst teams in the league, causing them to miss out on the division title by one half-game. Here’s one stat I bet Lovie Smith knows: from 2005 to 2012, Chicago went 30-0 against teams that finished the season with fewer than six wins. As for which teams had the strangest and least strangest seasons in 2013? Check back tomorrow.

Can Adrian Peterson break Emmitt Smith’s rushing record?, August 3, 2013

What a difference a year makes. Eight months ago, the debate regarding whether Adrian Peterson could break Smith’s record was a legitimate talking point. After a “down” season with 1,266 yards in 14 games, nobody is asking that question anymore. Of course, Peterson never had much of a chance of breaking the record anyway, which was the point of my post. Not only had Smith outgained him Peterson through each of their first six seasons, and not only did Smith enter the league a year earlier than Peterson, but Emmitt Smith was also the leader in career rushing yards after a player’s first six seasons.

Peterson just turned 29 years old. He ranks sixth in career rushing yards through age 28, but Smith has a 1,119 yard advantage when it comes to rushing yards through age 28. Barry Sanders has them both beat, of course, but he retired after his age 30 season. The problem for Peterson? He needs to run for 8,241 yards during his age 29+ seasons to break Smith’s record. The career leader in yards after turning 29 is Smith with 7,121 yards.

What can we learn: Unless Peterson finds the fountain of youth, Smith’s record won’t be challenged for a long, long time.

Witnesses to Greatness: Aaron Rodgers Edition, August 30, 2013

In late August, I wondered if we had taken Rodgers’ dominance for granted. After all, he had a career passer rating of 104.9, the best ever. Then in 2013, he produced a passer rating of … 104.9, the fifth best mark among qualifying passers.

Passer rating stinks, as we all know, but Rodgers is dominant in nearly every metric. If we break passer rating down into its four parts we see:

  • Entering 2013, Rodgers was the career leader in completion percentage. Drew Brees now holds a 0.1% edge over Rodgers in this category. Rodgers completed 66.6% of his passes last year, the 5th best mark of 2013.
  • Rodgers was the career leader in interception rate entering 2013, and still holds that crown. Believe it or not, his 2.1% interception rate last year ranked only 12th.
  • With a 5.9% touchdown rate in 2013 (5th best), he remains the active leader in touchdown percentage. Everyone ahead of him on the career list began their career before 1960.
  • Rodgers was the active leader in yards/attempt prior to 2013, and then he had another dominant year by producing an 8.7 average (2nd best). He’s now widened his lead in this metric and should remain the active leader for the foreseeable future.

What can we learn: That Rodgers is the man? Of course, this year we got to see that first-hand. The Packers went 6-3 in Rodgers’ 9 starts and 2-4-1 without him, but remember, he threw just two passes in his Bears start, which the Packers lost. Count that as a non-Rodgers game, and Green Bay went 6-2 with him and 2-5-1 without him. From there, one might infer that he added 3.5 wins to the Packers last year, tied for the 4th most ever from a quarterback relative to his backups.

The only area where Rodgers struggles is with sacks, and it’s worth remembering that all of his other rate stats are slightly inflated because they do not include sacks in the denominator. He’s still the man, of course, but sacks, era adjustments, and the fact that he isn’t done producing top seasons is why he “only” ranked 12th and 14th on these lists.

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Here is a recap of the 2012 Chicago Bears season.  Notice anything strange? Trick question!

Score
Week Day Date OT Rec Opp Tm Opp
1 Sun September 9 boxscore W 1-0 Indianapolis Colts 41 21
2 Thu September 13 boxscore L 1-1 @ Green Bay Packers 10 23
3 Sun September 23 boxscore W 2-1 St. Louis Rams 23 6
4 Mon October 1 boxscore W 3-1 @ Dallas Cowboys 34 18
5 Sun October 7 boxscore W 4-1 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 41 3
6 Bye Week
7 Mon October 22 boxscore W 5-1 Detroit Lions 13 7
8 Sun October 28 boxscore W 6-1 Carolina Panthers 23 22
9 Sun November 4 boxscore W 7-1 @ Tennessee Titans 51 20
10 Sun November 11 boxscore L 7-2 Houston Texans 6 13
11 Mon November 19 boxscore L 7-3 @ San Francisco 49ers 7 32
12 Sun November 25 boxscore W 8-3 Minnesota Vikings 28 10
13 Sun December 2 boxscore L OT 8-4 Seattle Seahawks 17 23
14 Sun December 9 boxscore L 8-5 @ Minnesota Vikings 14 21
15 Sun December 16 boxscore L 8-6 Green Bay Packers 13 21
16 Sun December 23 boxscore W 9-6 @ Arizona Cardinals 28 13
17 Sun December 30 boxscore W 10-6 @ Detroit Lions 26 24

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Season in review: AFC and NFC North

On Monday, I examined the seasons of the teams in the AFC and NFC East. Today I will do the same for the AFC and NFC North, starting in the AFC.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (after weeks 2, 5, and 9)
Minimum wins: 8 (after week 16)
Week 1 comment: Sunday Night was one of the best games I’ve seen from Ben Roethlisberger. An elite team that will be favored to win most weeks, although questions remain about the offensive line, the running backs, and the age of the defense.

Pittsburgh started off 6-3 and looked like a contender, but tanked in the second half of the season once Roethlisberger went down. Even when Roethlisberger returned, the offense never quite looked right. Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, and Rashard Mendenhall were unexciting plodders, which is an improvement over the 25 carries that went to Baron Batch. No Steeler finished the season with more than two rushing touchdowns. In the passing game, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both failed to match last year’s lofty numbers. The potential was there, but the results were not in Pittsburgh in 2012.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense performed well by conventional measures — through week 16 (which is when they were knocked out of the playoff race), they ranked 1st in yards allowed and first downs allowed, and ranked 2nd in net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards and rushing yards per carry allowed. But the defense wasn’t really up to Steelers standards — through week 16, they ranked 10th in points allowed and, more damningly, had forced more turnovers than just three teams. Pittsburgh allowed 5 4th quarter game-winning drives, which ultimately cost them the playoffs.

Baltimore Ravens

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (first after week 3, last after week 13)
Minimum wins: 9 wins (after week 15)
Week 1 comment: Great performance on Monday Night, but I have to imagine missing Terrell Suggs is going to hurt this team. He’s too good to simply expect business as usual in Baltimore, and their schedule (AFC West, NFC East, Houston, New England outside the division) is riddled with traps.

The schedule was riddled with traps, but the Ravens rode some late-game success and excellent special teams to a 9-2 record. At that point, I wrote: I still don’t believe in this team, because they aren’t going to have amazing special teams or amazing 4th and 29 conversions every week.

Joe Flacco had a solid but not great year, while Ray Rice continued to prove effective when given the carries. The big issue for Baltimore was defensively. Through 16 weeks, the Ravens ranked 20th in yards allowed, 18th in NY/A, and 24th in first downs allowed. While the Ravens won the North, 8 games out of Terrell Suggs, 6 games of Ray Lewis, and 6 games of Lardarius Webb simply wasn’t enough to give them the defense Ravens fans were used to seeing.
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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.

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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 9

Are the Bears the best team in the NFL? This week at the New York Times, I profiled the incredible season the Bears are having. If you feel like every few years the Bears come out of nowhere with an incredible defense and a questionable offense, you’re right.

The 2012 Bears stand as the next in a long line of Bears teams that wildly exceeded expectations thanks to a great defense. Chicago ranks second in points allowed and rushing yards allowed, and fifth in net yards per pass allowed. Chicago leads the league in turnovers forced and red zone defense. But this year’s defense is doing things no other Bears defense — or any other N.F.L. defense, for that matter — has ever done.

Chicago has returned seven interceptions for touchdowns in eight games. Before this season, no other team had more than five pick-sixes after eight games, and the Bears are only one interception return for a touchdown away from tying the single-season record, held by the ’98 Seahawks (in the A.F.L. in 1961, the San Diego Chargers returned nine interceptions for touchdowns). But Chicago’s defense hasn’t just been a big-play defense. The Bears have allowed only 10 touchdowns this year, and five of them came in garbage time. Matthew Stafford threw a touchdown with the Lions down by 13 with 36 seconds left, and four other touchdowns came in the second halves of Chicago victories with the Bears already leading by 20-plus points. That means the Bears’ defense has allowed only five meaningful touchdowns while scoring seven of their own. Incredible.

Against the Colts, Chicago forced Andrew Luck into three interceptions and allowed just 7 meaningful points. Against the Rams, Chicago scored 7 points and allowed 6. In Dallas, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs scored on interceptions, while the defense limited the Cowboys to just 10 meaningful points and intercepted five Tony Romo passes. In Jacksonville, Tillman and Briggs became the first teammates to score on interception returns in consecutive weeks, and the Bears limited Jacksonville to 3 points.

Against Detroit, the Bears forced six fumbles (recovering three) and held the Lions’ high-flying passing attack to a last-second touchdown; half of Detroit’s 12 drives ended in three-and-outs. Against the Panthers, Chicago’s defense was forced to overcome a Bears offense that gained just 61 yards in the first three quarters and held the ball for only 23 minutes 22 seconds in the game; still, Tim Jennings’s defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter proved to be the play of the game.

Chicago’s performances in the first half of the season were apparently just a warm-up act for Week 9 against Tennessee. On Sunday, on the first play from scrimmage, Charles Tillman forced a fumble, giving the Bears the ball in Titans territory. The Bears forced Tennessee to go three-and-out on each of its next two possessions, with the second stalled drive leading to a punt that was blocked and returned for a touchdown. Later in the first quarter, Hester returned a punt to the Titans’ 8-yard-line, setting up a one-play scoring drive. On the Titans’ next drive, Urlacher intercepted Matt Hasselbeck and returned it for a touchdown. On Tennessee’s next play from scrimmage, Tillman stripped Chris Johnson of the ball, giving Chicago possession at the Titans’ 16. Three plays later, Cutler found Brandon Marshall for a 13-yard score. After the first quarter, the Titans had eight drives, and the four that ended in three-and-outs and punts were the good ones.

Tillman ended the day with four forced fumbles; while not an official statistic, Tillman continues to force fumbles at an unprecedented rate for a cornerback. Unofficially, he now holds the modern record for most forced fumbles in a game, and with seven this season, he could easily exceed the record of 10 forced fumbles by Osi Umenyiora (2010) and Dwayne Harper (1993). If not for the monster season J.J. Watt is having for Houston, Tillman would be a leading candidate for defensive player of the year.

Check out the full article for some historical comparisons and some insight from Aaron Schatz.

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Is Matt Forte an elite running back?

Let’s flash back to December 1, 2011. At the time, Chicago Bears star Matt Forte was having the best season of his career and making a claim to being one of the league’s top five running backs. He was leading the league in yards from scrimmage. He was averaging 5.0 yards per rush. He also ranked in the top three in both receptions and receiving yards by a running back. He had gained 1,475 yards from scrimmage through 11 games, the second most in Bears history.

Forte sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in week 13, costing him the remainder of the season. He has been in disputes with the Bears over his contract for the last two years, but that’s not the focus of this article today. For whatever reason, I’ve often struggled with the notion of Forte being an elite player.

Actually, I know the exact reason. There are two of them. First, Forte was not an elite running back prospect and seems to have average physical skills for a starting running back. He wasn’t a high draft pick and doesn’t have elite measurables (his 40-yard dash time was good, but his metrics in the other tests were underwhelming). This, of course, is just about meaningless when discussing a player who has been in the league for four years. Plenty of players have had average measurables and great careers at the running back position, and it’s not difficult to think of players drafted later than Forte who have turned into great backs.
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