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New York Times, Post Week-3 (2014): Arizona Magic

This week at the New York Times, I take a look at the most underrated GM/HC combo in the league: Steve Keim and Bruce Arians. Keim probably should have been the GM of the Year in 2013, while Arians has been dominant against the spread.

In 2012, the Arizona Cardinals won only five games, prompting the organization to make significant changes. Steve Keim was promoted to general manager on Jan. 8, 2013; nine days later, Bruce Arians was hired as Arizona’s next coach. Keim and Arians immediately helped turn around the Cardinals: Despite being in the N.F.L.’s toughest division, Arizona surprisingly won 10 games in 2013. And with a 3-0 start this season, Keim and Arians are again exceeding expectations.

Entering this season, the focus in the N.F.C. West was on the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, a team that has played in the N.F.C. championship game in each of the past three years. Las Vegas set Arizona’s projected wins total at only 7.5, a result of a difficult schedule and the significant roster turnover experienced by the team in the off-season. The Cardinals were replacing four of the team’s defensive starters from 2013 — Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and Yeremiah Bell — while a fifth, Tyrann Mathieu, is still limited as he recovers from anterior cruciate ligament surgery. A sixth defender and the team’s best pass rusher, John Abraham, is already lost for the season after playing only one game.

You can read the full article here.

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Ellington races for a long touchdown

Ellington races for a long touchdown.

In November, I wrote about the unique running back by committee taking place in Arizona. At the time, Rashard Mendenhall was averaging 3.1 yards per carry, while backup Andre Ellington was averaging 7.2 yards per rush on 54 carries. I thought it would be fun to revisit the Ellington/Mendenhall time share now that the season is over, and to use a slightly different methodology.

Mendenhall ended the season with 687 yards on 217 yards, a 3.2 yards per carry average. Ellington finished his rookie year with 118 carries for 652 yards, producing 5.5 yards per rush. One way to measure the magnitude of the difference in the effectiveness of these two players — and boy was there a large difference — is to simply look at the delta in the players’ yards per carry averages. In this case, that’s 2.36 yards per carry.

Where does that rank historically? Some teams — I’m looking at the Lions in the early Barry Sanders years — gave only a handful of carries to their backup running backs. So one thing we can do is to take the difference in the yards per carry between the team’s top two running backs and multiply that number by the number of carries by the running back with the lower number of carries. In each instance, I’ve defined the running back with the most carries as the team’s RB1, and the running back with the second most carries as the RB2. In Arizona’s case, that would mean multiplying -2.36 (Mendenhall’s average, since he was the RB1, minus Ellington’s average) by 118, the number of carries Ellington recorded. That produces a value of -278. [click to continue…]

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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…]

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New York Times: Post-Week 12, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I analyze the Cardinals, the Steelers, and some record-setting points and yardage numbers.

Bruce Arians is doing it again. A year ago, he helped turn the Indianapolis Colts from the worst team in the N.F.L. in 2011 to a playoff team in 2012. Hired as the team’s offensive coordinator, he was named the Associated Press coach of the year for his work as the interim head coach after Chuck Pagano, who was found to have leukemia, took a leave of absence. The Arizona Cardinals hired Arians as their head coach after firing Ken Whisenhunt, and now Arians is a viable candidate for the same award with a different team.

After Kurt Warner retired in January 2010, Arizona’s passing attack crumbled. From 2010 to 2012, the Cardinals completed just 54.0 percent of all passes, the lowest rate in the league. Also, no team was sacked more often or threw more interceptions than Arizona. Arians was hired to fix an attack that was among the worst in the league, and while the team started slowly — Arizona began the year 1-2, then 3-4 — the Cardinals (7-4) have been red hot over the last month.

Over the last four games, quarterback Carson Palmer has completed 69.0 percent of his passes, averaged 8.9 yards per attempt and thrown 8 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. Over that time, the team is averaging 30.25 points a game and is 4-0. And while Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald remain the stars in the desert, two young players have provided the missing spark to the offense.

You can read the full article here.

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Ellington races for a long touchdown

Ellington races for a long touchdown.

Arizona is one of many teams in the NFL employing a running back by committee philosophy, but no team — now, or at any point in modern history — allocated time quite like the Cardinals. Through nine weeks, Rashard Mendenhall has 105 rushes for 323 yards, giving him a miniscule 3.1 yards per carry average. Mendenhall arrived in the desert this offseason, as part of a reunion with new Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. The duo worked together for three years in Pittsburgh, where Mendenhall rushed for 3,309 yards and 29 touchdowns and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. But Mendenhall hasn’t been close to the best back added this offseason, as Clemson’s Andre Ellington — a sixth round of the 2013 Draft — has 388 yards this year on 54 carries. Thanks to his spectacular 7.2 yards per carry average, he has outgained Mendenhall despite seeing roughly half as many carries.

How crazy is it for one back in a committee to average more than four more yards per carry than the other back? I ran the following query for every team since 1970:

  • First, I noted the two running backs who recorded the most carries for each team
  • Next, I eliminated all running back pairs where the lead back had over 150 more carries than the backup.
  • I also eliminated all pairings where the lead back was a lead back in name only due to injury to the starter (otherwise, years where Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden ranked second on their team in carries would be inappropriately included). To do that, I deleted sets where the “lead” back — defined as the back with the most carries — averaged fewer carries per game than the second running back.

After running through those criteria, the table below shows all situations where the backup averaged at least one more yard per rush than the lead back. As always, the table is fully searchable and sortable. It is currently sorted by the difference between the YPC average of the backup and the starter, but you can sort by year to bring the recent instances to the top.
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So far this season, one thing is obvious: the NFL scheduled Thursday night games every week for the express purpose of screwing with people who do data analysis. Even though week three has started, I’m not ready to close the door on week two, in which nearly every game was competitive into the fourth quarter. But that doesn’t mean the game script for every game was close.

Winner LoserBoxscorePFPAMarginGame Script
Green Bay PackersWashington RedskinsBoxscore38201817.9
Atlanta FalconsSt. Louis RamsBoxscore3124713.4
Oakland RaidersJacksonville JaguarsBoxscore199108.2
Seattle SeahawksSan Francisco 49ersBoxscore293267.7
New England PatriotsNew York JetsBoxscore131036.4
Denver Broncos@New York GiantsBoxscore4123185.5
Cincinnati BengalsPittsburgh SteelersBoxscore2010103.9
Miami Dolphins@Indianapolis ColtsBoxscore242043.3
San Diego Chargers@Philadelphia EaglesBoxscore333033.2
New Orleans Saints@Tampa Bay BuccaneersBoxscore161422.2
Houston TexansTennessee TitansBoxscore302461.3
Chicago BearsMinnesota VikingsBoxscore313011
Kansas City ChiefsDallas CowboysBoxscore17161-0.1
Baltimore RavensCleveland BrownsBoxscore1468-0.8
Buffalo BillsCarolina PanthersBoxscore24231-1
Arizona CardinalsDetroit LionsBoxscore25214-1.3

Steven Jackson was injured early in his revenge game against the Rams (and is expected to miss two-to-four weeks), but consider: Atlanta had 45 pass attempts against just 16 running plays in a game in which their average lead was 13.4 points. And that was with a gimpy Roddy White! Last year, I noted that the Falcons were the most pass-happy team in the NFL after adjusting for game script, and it appears that the model hasn’t changed in 2013.

There weren’t any huge comebacks this week, a byproduct of all the competitive games. The Cardinals scored nine points in the fourth quarter to beat the Lions, in a game where Detroit’s offense was shut out in the second half. Matt Stafford and company gained just 90 yards and four first downs on 24 second half plays, enabling the Cardinals to steal a win. Half of the team’s six second half drives were three and outs, one was a fumble on the second play, and the final drive was five plays and ended on downs. The only successful drive of the half was a 51-yard march that put the Lions at the Cardinals 27, but David Akers’ field goal attempt was blocked.

But while the offense had an off day, there’s a hidden factor that explains why Detroit didn’t score more than 14 offensive points (DeAndre Levy intercepted a Carson Palmer pass for 66 yard touchdown, accounting for the other seven points).
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In 2008, Larry Fitzgerald had a fantastic regular season capped off by a historically great postseason; in the Super Bowl, he set the record for receiving yards in a season, including playoff games, with 1,977 yards. Of course, 2008 was decades ago in today’s era of what have you done for me lately. The table below shows Fitzgerald’s stats over the past four seasons. The final two columns show the total number of receiving yards generated by all Cardinals players and Fitzgerald’s share of that number.

YearRecYdsYPRTDARI Rec YdsPerc
200997109211.313420026%
201090113712.66326434.8%
201180141117.68395435.7%
20127179811.24338323.6%

2009 was the last season of the Kurt Warner/Anquan Boldin Cardinals. The 97 receptions and 13 touchdowns look great, although hitting those marks and not gaining 1,100 receiving yards is very unusual. Fitzgerald was only responsible for 26% of the Cardinals receiving yards that season, although one could give him a pass since he was competing with another star receiver for targets.

Can Fitzgerald rebound in 2013?

Can Fitzgerald rebound in 2013?

In 2010, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, and Richard Bartel were the Cardinals quarterbacks: as a group, they averaged 5.8 yards per attempt on 561 passes. Arizona’s passing attack was bad, but without Boldin, Fitzgerald gained 34.8% of the team’s receiving yards. Steve Breaston chipped in with 718 receiving yards yards while a 22-year-old Andre Roberts was third with 307 yards. In other words, Fitzgerald performed pretty much how you would expect a superstar receiver to perform on a team with a bad quarterback and a mediocre supporting cast: his raw numbers were still very good (but not great) because he ate such a huge chunk of the pie. After the 2010 season, I even wondered if he could break any of Jerry Rice’s records (spoiler: he can’t).

In 2011, Skelton, Kevin Kolb and Bartel combined for 3,954 yards on 550 passes, a 7.2 yards per attempt average (Kolb was at 7.7 Y/A). That qualifies as a pretty respectable passing game and Fitzgerald appeared to have a monster year, gaining 35.7% of the Cardinals’ receiving yards (Early Doucet was second with 689 yards and Roberts was third with 586 yards). It’s always hard splicing out cause and effect, but my takeaway is that with a more competent passing game, Fitzgerald continued to get the lion’s share of the team’s production but unlike in 2010, this led to great and not just good numbers.
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Even the mighty Lions couldn't stop Quan.

Yes, that's a picture of the Lions in a Super Bowl post.

Anquan Boldin is back in the Super Bowl. Four years ago, Boldin and the Cardinals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. That season, Boldin was one of the game’s best wide receivers, catching 89 passes for 1,038 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns in just 12 games. His production was slightly less impressive in 2012 — 65/921/4 in 15 games — but he was still a valuable member of the Ravens offense.

He signed with Baltimore in the 2010 offseason, and after a few heartbreaking post-seasons, Boldin and the Ravens are back in the Super Bowl. Since he was one of the team’s starting receivers this year, that makes him the 7th wide receiver to start for two different teams that reached a Super Bowl.

How many of the first six can you name (either with or without any hints)? For each receiver, the one hint shows the two Super Bowl franchises. Let us know how you did in the comments: as always, the honor system will be strictly enforced.

Trivia hint for WR1 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR1 Show

Trivia hint for WR2 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR2 Show

Trivia hint for WR3 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR3 Show

Trivia hint for WR4 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR4 Show

Trivia hint for WR5 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR5 Show

Trivia hint for WR6 Show


Click 'Show' for the Answer for WR6 Show

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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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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 3

This week’s Fifth Down post looks at the surprising 3-0 Cardinals. Did you know that Arizona has been an underdog in each game this season? Since 1978, Arizona is just the 7th team to start 3-0 despite being given points by Vegas each week:

  • 2010 Kansas City Chiefs: The 2009 Chiefs were 4-12, and 2010 wasn’t expected to be much better. But despite being underdogs against San Diego, Cleveland and San Francisco, the Chiefs won all three games, en route to a 10-6 season and an unlikely division championship.
  • 2007 Green Bay Packers: Surprised to see the Brett Favre Packers on here? Green Bay had gone just 8-8 the prior season and faced a brutal early schedule in ’07. The Packers were a 3-point underdog against Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb’s Philadelphia Eagles in the opener and 2.5-point underdogs against the eventual champion New York Giants in week two. In week three, San Diego — 14-2 the prior season — was a 5.5-point favorite at Lambeau Field. Green Bay would start 4-0 and finish the regular season 13-3, but the team’s hopes ended in overtime in the N.F.C. Championship Game against the Giants.
  • 2004 Jacksonville Jaguars: Jacksonville had back-to-back-to-back crazy, last minute wins to start the season 3-0. In the season opener in Buffalo, Byron Leftwich threw the game-winning touchdown on 4th and goal from the 7 with no time left to Ernest Wilford, giving the Jaguars a 13-10 win. Jacksonville led Denver 7-6 in their home opener the next week, but the Broncos had the ball with 37 seconds left on the Jacksonville 23-yard line. Then Denver running back Quentin Griffin fumbled, Akin Ayodele recovered, and the Jaguars were 2-0. The theatrics continued the next week against Tennessee. Trailing 12-7 with 13 seconds remaining, Fred Taylor scored a one-yard touchdown to keep the streak alive. But the anemic offense eventually caught up to the Jaguars, who missed the playoffs after going just 6-7 the rest of the way.
  • 1997 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tampa Bay drafted Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in 1995. Tony Dungy came in 1996, and Tampa finished 6-10. The Buccaneers drafted Ronde Barber in 1997, and the key cogs that formed one of the league’s most dominant defenses were then in place. Tampa upset San Francisco at home and then won at Detroit and Minnesota in week three; the Bucs would eventually go to 5-0, before finishing 10-6 and earning a playoff berth.
  • 1996 Carolina Panthers: Dom Capers completed one of the great coaching jobs in NFL history, taking Carolina from an expansion team in 1995 to the N.F.C. Championship Game in 1996. Carolina beat Atlanta and New Orleans, but really caught the attention of the NFL when they defeated San Francisco 23-7 in week three. Behind an excellent defense and an efficient offense, the Panthers finished the season 12-4.
  • 1992 Pittsburgh Steelers: Chuck Noll’s last season was 1991, when Pittsburgh stumbled to a 7-9 record. Expectations were not high for rookie head coach Bill Cowher’s team in ’92. As 12.5-point underdogs in Houston, the Steelers pulled off the upset 29-24, before handily defeating the Jets and Chargers in weeks two and three. Pittsburgh finished 11-5 and made the playoffs.

What can we make of the Cardinals’ surprising start despite being underdogs? Combining the three games, Arizona has been underdogs of 17 points so far this year. How does that compare to other 3-0 teams?

From 1990 to 2011, there were 111 teams that started the season 3-0. Only the ’92 Steelers were bigger underdogs at -18 points. The table below divides the 111 teams into four groups, based upon the total number of points they were given (or they gave) in their first three games. For example, 19 of the 3-0 teams ended up being given more points than they gave (i.e., were underdogs) in their first three weeks; on average, they were 2.4-point underdogs, and on average, they ended the year with 9.5 wins (which means they were an even .500 over their last 13 games). As you can see, there is a pretty clear relationship between expectations and ultimate results.

Spread            #Tms   Avgline SeaWins
Underdogs         19     +2.4      9.5
0-9.5 pt Favs     29     -1.6     10.2
10-19.5 pt Fav    37     -4.9     10.9
20+ point Favs    26     -7.9     11.7

You can read the full post here.

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Nine years ago today, Anquan Boldin dominated Week 1

Even the mighty Lions couldn't stop Quan.

Nine years ago today, Anquan Boldin became a household name in his very first game. Boldin gained 217 receiving yards, the most in week 1 of an NFL season since Frank Clarke in 1962 and the most by any player in his first game.

It was as amazing was it was unexpected. Boldin was a second-round pick who had an solid college career but one tarnished by an ACL tear that caused him to miss his junior season and struggle at the Combine. He wasn’t even the highest wide receiver drafted by the Cardinals, who selected Bryant Johnson in round 1 despite the fact that he never won a college football game. No one had high expectations for the Arizona offense, with Jeff Blake at quarterback and Dave McGinnis as head coach; the Cardinals would ultimately end up last in the NFL in points scored. As an unheralded rookie on a bad team, Boldin wasn’t one of the top sixty wide receivers drafted in fantasy leagues, and probably wasn’t even among the top 100. That makes his production even more incredible.

The table below lists the best fantasy performances by wide receivers in week 1 of the NFL since 2000, with 1 point per reception, 0.1 points per receiving yards, and 6 points per touchdown. The “Exp” column shows the experience level of the receiver; the last column shows the player’s Average Draft Position among wide receivers, if in the top sixty.
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