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Checkdowns: Quarterback-Receiver Touchdown Pairings

A good article today from our pal Neil Paine, who asks whether Antonio Gates is the second best tight end in NFL history. I won’t weigh in on that subject, but after catching three touchdowns against the Seahawks on Sunday, Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates have now connected on 63 touchdown passes.

That’s the 10th most in NFL history, and the most by any quarterback/tight end pairing. The table below shows all quarterback-receiver combinations that scored at least 50 touchdown passes, including playoffs (and the AAFC). The final column shows the last year in which the duo scored a touchdown; as you can see, one other active combination is on the list, although Drew Brees and Marques Colston have not connected for a touchdown yet this year. [click to continue…]

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Rivers was outstanding in 2013, despite this throwing motion

Rivers was outstanding in 2013, despite this throwing motion.

The Denver Broncos set numerous offensive records last year. The Chip Kelly Eagles had a fascinating offense that was lethal for stretches. The Saints offense was its usual efficient self, and the Chicago Bears under Marc Trestman had one of the best offensive years in franchise history.

Yet all of those teams had at least 61 drives last year that ended in a punt. San Diego , meanwhile, punted just 56 times. The Chargers only had 21 turnovers, which means only 77 San Diego drives could be clearly labeled as failures, or “bad drives.”1

That’s pretty impressive; the 2013 Chargers were just the 36th team during the 16-game era to have fewer than 80 “bad drives” in a season. On the other hand, the Chargers were one of just five of those teams to score fewer than 400 points. San Diego’s offense was very efficient last year, but the 77 “bad drives” statistic is a bit misleading. That’s because the team had just 158 total drives last year according to Football Outsiders, while the average team had 186 drives.

Why did the Chargers have the fewest drives in the NFL? A bad defense certainly helped limit the team’s number of offensive drives: San Diego forced only 82 “bad drives” all year, too. But the main reason was that the offense was not just efficient, but uniquely efficient. According to Football Outsiders, San Diego averaged 3:22 per drive, a full 15 seconds more than the #2 team in that metric, Carolina. And the Panthers were the only other team to average at least three minutes per drive. One reason for the long time of possession is that the Chargers moved at a glacial pace between plays, rating as the 2nd slowest team according to Football Outsiders. The other teams in the bottom four in pace were all run-heavy — Carolina, Seattle, and San Francisco — which marks yet another way in which the Chargers were outliers. In several metrics — first downs per drive, yards per drive, and points per drive — San Diego and Denver were the top two teams in the NFL.  But in pace, Denver ranked 4th, making the Broncos offense look and feel much different than San Diego’s attack.

Another reason the team’s average drive took so long to complete: San Diego averaged 6.85 plays per drive, with New Orleans second in that statistic with 6.35 plays. That’s because the Chargers had a very horizontal passing attack. According to NFLGSIS, Philip Rivers ranked 6th from the bottom in average length of pass at 7.75; only Jason Campbell, Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith, and Chad Henne threw shorter passes. With the exception of Ryan, none of those quarterbacks came close, however, to matching Rivers’ league-leading completion percentage. What we have here is your classic hyper-efficient, short-area passing game, and the Chargers executed it beautifully.

In fact, here’s another unique part of the San Diego offense: it rarely targeted wide receivers. San Diego was one of just three teams to throw more passes to non-wide receivers than to wide receivers. Here’s how to read the table below: the Chargers threw 25% of all pass attempts to running back, 47.1% to wide receivers, and 27.7% to tight ends. Based on those percentages, San Diego ranked 4th in percentage of pass attempts to running backs, 30th in percentage of pass attempts to wide receivers, and 2nd in percentage to tight ends. [click to continue…]

  1. The Chargers were 5/6 on fourth down attempts, so it’s not as though these numbers are skewed by failed fourth down attempts. []
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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 Manning-Joe Flacco-Rahim 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 Sanchez-Rex 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 Brady-Peyton 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…]

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Division Preview: San Diego at Denver

I’m not going to do it again. This time last year, I thought I wrote a very good preview of the Denver/Baltimore game. I looked at both teams, decided that Denver was much, much better, and ended with this:

I think it’s best not to over think this one.

Prediction: Denver 31, Baltimore 13

A year later, and we’re in the same boat. The Broncos just had another marvelous run, again capturing the #1 seed in the AFC on the back of a spectacular season by Peyton Manning. The opponent looks overmatched, at least on paper: the 2012 Ravens had an Simple Rating System score of +2.9, while the 2013 Chargers are at +2.7. The 2012 Broncos had an SRS grade of +10.1, a number that has risen to +11.4 this year. About the only good thing we could say about the 2012 Ravens (relative to Denver) was that they were getting healthier. About the only good thing we can say about the 2013 (relative to Denver) is that they’re getting hotter. And, I suppose, they’re healthier, too, at least compared to a Broncos team that is missing Von Miller, Ryan Clady, Rahim Moore, and Dan Koppen. So no, I’m not just going to assume Denver will win and move on.

I suppose some of you out there are thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. The Chargers beat the Broncos in Denver in the regular season. Doesn’t that mean something?” Well, tell that to the 1934 Bears, who went 13-0 and beat the Giants in the Polo Grounds in the regular season only to lose 30-13 at that same spot in the playoffs! Okay, presumably Denver/San Diego won’t flip on the shoe selection of the competitors, but the larger point remains: road teams that played a rematch in the playoffs against a team they beat at that same venue in the regular season are just 18-32.

Here’s how to read the table below. In 2010, the Seahawks went on the road to play the Bears after beating them in the regular season, 23-20. Seattle met in Chicago in the Division Round of the playoffs, and the Seahawks were 10-point underdogs. Seattle lost, 35-24.
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Wildcard Preview: San Diego at Cincinnati

Every few years, a team like the 2013 Chargers makes the playoffs. This season, San Diego’s offense ranked 3rd in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, while the defense ranked 3rd to last in the same metric. And these teams, without exception, have flamed out in the playoffs. The Chargers also ranked 2nd in NY/A and 2nd to last in NY/A allowed, but I’m going to focus on ANY/A for the rest of this post.

The worst pass defense to win the Super Bowl was the 1976 Raiders. That year, Oakland’s pass defense produced the 10th worst ANY/A allowed average in the league. The only other Super Bowl champion that ranked in the bottom half of the league in ANY/A allowed was the 2011 Giants, who just barely qualify (New York ranked 17th in ANY/A allowed, or 16th from the bottom).

The table below shows each team since 1970 that ranked in the top five in ANY/A and in the bottom five in ANY/A allowed. Because of the different numbers of teams throughout the league’s history, I ranked teams from worst to best when calculating the ANY/A allowed ranks. The most recent team prior to the ’13 Chargers to make the playoffs while meeting those thresholds was the 2005 Patriots. That team, quarterbacked by Tom Brady and coached by Bill Belichick, ranked 5th in ANY/A and 4th from the bottom in ANY/A allowed. New England went 10-6 that year, and then 1-1 in the playoffs. As you can see, the postseason results for this group have been pretty uninspiring. And, as Chargers fans will notice, it includes a pair of Air Coryell teams: [click to continue…]

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How did I end up with John  Hadl's helmet? It's actually a funny story

How did I end up with John Hadl's helmet? It's actually a funny story.

In 2011, Mike Mularkey and Joe Philbin were offensive coordinators for high-powered offenses. Those success seasons — on the backs of elite quarterbacks and wide receivers — were springboards for head coaching jobs in 2012. Mularkey’s work with Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez got him the top spot in Jacksonville, while Philbin (with an assist from head coach and play caller Mike McCarthy) parlayed big numbers from Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, James Jones, and Randall Cobb into the Dolphins head coaching job. Mularkey, of course, was one-and-done with the Jaguars, while Philbin had an uneven first year in Miami.

Mike McCoy’s work with Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker in 2012 (and Tim Tebow in 2011) helped him become the Chargers head coach in 2013. McCoy is one of three 2012 offensive coordinators who will be head coaches this season. 1 The other two are are Bruce Arians (who goes from OC/interim HC/COTY in Indianapolis to Head Coach in Arizona) and Rob Chudzinkski (OC in Carolina, HC in Cleveland). I’m not sure if Arians really qualifies, but in any event, it’s McCoy who truly represents the “hot shot offensive coordinator –> head coaching job” rungs on the coaching ladder. His 2012 Broncos finished 2nd in points scored, 4th in yards, and 1st in both Net Yards per pass Attempt and Adjusted Net Yards per pass Attempt.

We’re working on our database of offensive coordinators, but it’s not 100% complete just yet. Let me know if I’ve missed any, but the table below represents all of the instances I’ve identified since 1990 where a team hired a new head coach who had been an offensive coordinator for a different team in the prior year. Here is how the McCoy line reads. In 2012, McCoy was the Offensive Coordinator for the Denver Broncos; after the season, he was hired to become the head coach of the Chargers. With the Broncos, his offense ranked 2nd in points, 4th in yards, and 1st in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt.
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  1. As for the other six head coaching changes? Doug Marrone (Syracuse) and Chip Kelly (Oregon) jump from college to Buffalo and Philadelphia, while Marc Trestman goes from Canada to Chicago. Gus Bradley was the sole defensive coordinator hire, moving from Seattle to Jacksonville, while Andy Reid (Philadelphia to Kansas City) was the one “retread” hire. Sean Payton also moves from the naughty step back into the head coaching job in New Orleans. []
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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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For years, I was an unabashed Philip Rivers supporter. I had no preexisting affinity for the Chargers or Rivers, but in all the metrics I care about, Rivers was always one of the best. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, Philip Rivers led the league in yards per attempt. He finished first in ANY/A in ’08 and second in ’09 and ’10; he finished second in NY/A in ’08 and then first in NY/A in 2009 and 2010. Simply put, going into the 2011 season, no quarterback had been better over the last three years.

Rank Player Tm Gms Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Sk Y/A SkYds AY/A ANY/A Y/G
1 Philip Rivers SDG 48 986 1505 65.5% 12973 92 33 103.8 88 8.62 545 8.86 8.02 270.3
2 Tom Brady NWE 33 702 1068 65.7% 8374 64 17 102.9 41 7.84 261 8.32 7.78 253.8
3 Drew Brees NOR 47 1224 1807 67.7% 14077 101 50 98.1 58 7.79 412 7.66 7.20 299.5
4 Aaron Rodgers GNB 47 1003 1552 64.6% 12394 86 31 99.4 115 7.99 730 8.20 7.19 263.7
5 Tony Romo DAL 35 771 1213 63.6% 9536 63 30 94.8 61 7.86 360 7.79 7.13 272.5
6 Matt Schaub HTX 43 1012 1537 65.8% 12183 68 37 94.7 80 7.93 524 7.73 7.02 283.3
7 Peyton Manning CLT 48 1214 1805 67.3% 13202 93 45 95.4 40 7.31 251 7.22 6.93 275.0
8 Kurt Warner CRD 31 740 1111 66.6% 8336 56 28 95.2 50 7.50 354 7.38 6.75 268.9
9 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 43 858 1364 62.9% 10829 60 32 92.5 128 7.94 852 7.76 6.53 251.8
10 Eli Manning NYG 48 945 1527 61.9% 11261 79 49 88.3 73 7.37 507 6.97 6.33 234.6
11 Donovan McNabb TOT 43 887 1486 59.7% 10846 59 36 85.4 95 7.30 684 7.00 6.15 252.2
12 Matt Ryan ATL 46 885 1456 60.8% 10061 66 34 86.9 59 6.91 354 6.77 6.27 218.7
13 Kyle Orton TOT 43 901 1504 59.9% 10427 59 33 84.8 90 6.93 562 6.73 6.00 237.0
14 Joe Flacco RAV 48 878 1416 62.0% 10206 60 34 87.9 108 7.21 788 6.97 5.96 212.6
15 Brett Favre TOT 45 923 1411 65.4% 10183 66 48 88.1 86 7.22 599 6.62 5.84 226.3
16 Jay Cutler TOT 47 981 1603 61.2% 11466 75 60 82.9 98 7.15 625 6.40 5.67 244.0
17 Matt Cassel TOT 45 860 1459 58.9% 9733 64 34 83.9 115 6.67 644 6.50 5.62 211.6
18 David Garrard JAX 46 885 1417 62.5% 9951 53 38 84.7 117 7.02 777 6.56 5.56 216.3
19 Jason Campbell TOT 44 836 1342 62.3% 9250 46 29 85.1 114 6.89 759 6.61 5.57 205.6
20 Carson Palmer CIN 36 719 1181 60.9% 7795 50 37 81.4 63 6.60 481 6.04 5.34 216.5
21 Ryan Fitzpatrick TOT 33 603 1040 58.0% 6327 40 34 74.9 83 6.08 465 5.38 4.57 175.8
22 Matt Hasselbeck SEA 35 668 1141 58.5% 7246 34 44 71.2 80 6.35 503 5.21 4.46 207.0

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The first Monday night of the regular season gives us two football games to enjoy. At 7:00, the Bengals travel to Baltimore giving Cincinnati an immediate chance to prove that last year’s playoff berth was no fluke. At 10:15, the Chargers travel to Oakland and look to show that missing out on the last two postseasons was nothing more than a fluke.

Let’s start with the Bengals. In 2011, Cincinnati lost every game they played against playoff teams and won every game against non-playoff teams. The nine wins came against Cleveland (twice), Buffalo, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Seattle, Tennessee, St. Louis and Arizona. On the other hand, the Bengals lost twice each to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Houston, and lost in Denver and San Francisco early in the year.

That is more an interesting bit of trivia than anything else. No team since the merger had ever done that before, and only two pre-merger teams managed to pull of that feat.1 For the Bengals, the odd split is more an embarrassing blemish that rival fans can point to than anything else. It’s not as if the Bengals can’t beat playoff teams, it’s simply that they didn’t. In 1969, the Cowboys went 0-3 against playoff teams and 11-0-1 against non-playoff teams; the next season, Dallas made the Super Bowl and in 1971 the Cowboys won it. Lombardi’s Packers pulled off the same feat in the middle of their great run: in ’63, Green Bay was 0-2 against playoff teams and 11-0-1 against non-playoff teams a year after having one of the most dominant seasons in football history. The Bengals weren’t a great team last year, but had they gone 7-2 against non-playoff teams and 2-5 in the regular season against playoff teams, would they — or rather, should they — be viewed as any better? Swapping a win against Pittsburgh and Baltimore for losses against say, Cleveland and Seattle?
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  1. In the early ’50s, the playoffs consisted of just a championship game between the two division winners. In 1953, the 49ers lost both games division rival Detroit and to Eastern division champ Cleveland; the 49ers went 9-0 against the rest of the league. The year before, the Rams pulled off the same feat: they lost week 1 in Cleveland, week 2 against Detroit, and week 4 in Detroit, while winning every other game. That gave them a 9-3 record, the same as the Lions, which at the time mandated a play-in game. Detroit beat Los Angeles in that one, too. If you limit the study to just regular season results, you end up with two more teams. In 1999, the Jacksonville Jaguars went 14-0 against non-playoff teams but lost both games to division rival Tennessee; the Titans would also defeat the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game, proving that Tom Coughlin was incapable of winning the big one. And in 1950, the Cleveland Browns were swept by division rival New York but won every other game that season; they didn’t face Western Division champ Los Angeles in the regular season. Cleveland ended the season 10-2, just like the Giants. The Browns avoided losing a third straight game to New York, winning 8-3 in the play-in game, and then captured the NFL championship by defeating Los Angeles the next week. []
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