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Predictions in Review: AFC East

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, the AFC North, and the NFC North.  Today, the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills website complains about team’s schedule, June 24, 2013

Last summer, the Buffalo Bills website argued that the NFL schedule makers did Buffalo a big injustice by giving the team six games against teams coming off extra rest.  That was the most in the league: no other team had five such games, and as it turned out, the two other teams that had 4 games against teams with extra rest were the two most disappointing teams in the NFL (Houston and Atlanta). Meanwhile, the Chiefs, 49ers, and Patriots were the only teams in 2013 not to face an opponent coming off extra rest, and all three wound up making the playoffs.

So yeah, the Bills had a legitimate gripe. But what actually happened?

  • The Jets played the Patriots on Thursday night in week two, and then hosted the Bills ten days later in week three. The Jets won, 27-20.
  • The Jets then got to play the Bills in week 11 after New York’s week ten bye. That wasn’t so helpful for Gang Green: the Bills crushed the Jets at home, 37-14.
  • Another division opponent, Miami, got to play Buffalo after the Dolphins’ bye week. But the Bills went into Miami in week 7 and won, 23-21.
  • While the Bills were beating Miami, the Saints enjoyed a bye. In week 8, Buffalo went to New Orleans and was slaughtered, 35-17.
  • In week 12, the Bills were off, but the team’s week 13 opponent, Atlanta, was playing on Thursday night. So Buffalo’s game off the bye came against a team with 10 days rest. In Toronto, the Bills collapsed at the end, ultimately losing in overtime, 34-31.
  • In week 14, the Jaguars played on Thursday night and won their third game in a row; in week 15, Buffalo edged the Jaguars, 27-20.

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Mike  Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

Mike Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

In March, Miami signed deep threat extraordinaire Mike Wallace from Pittsburgh. Also this offseason: general manager Jeff Ireland allowed left tackle Jake Long to leave and sign with the Rams, and the Dolphins have filled his position by moving right tackle Jonathan Martin to the blind side.

Much has been made of Martin’s inability to handle that role. Leading up to the 2012 draft, much was made of how Martin only projected as a right tackle in the pros, even though (or perhaps because of what evaluators saw when) Martin played on the left side at Stanford with Andrew Luck. Miami played Martin on the right side of the line for the first eleven games of the season last year, but switched him to the blind side after Long suffered a season-ending injury. Pro Football Focus graded Martin as a terrible pass blocker in his rookie season, and he was even worse in the five starts he made at left tackle: In those games, he allowed an incredible 17 hurries, two hits, and two sacks.

I thought it might be interesting to run some tests on left tackles, building off a study that Jason Lisk ran on offensive linemen:

To do this, I looked at all offensive linemen since 1978 who made at least 1 pro bowl and started 80 or more games in their careers, and then found any season in which that player played in fewer than 10 games before age 34, after starting more than that amount the previous year at the same position. I then compared the team performance in things like points, yards per attempt, sack rate, and rushing yards per carry. As it turns out, we don’t have very many cases that allow us to look at this (19 players). If I had reliable game by game data for offensive linemen participation, I could broaden the study, but for now, I can’t tell which games a lineman missed, like I can with a quarterback or running back. My goal in setting this up the way I did was to find pretty good tackles and try to see if there were any differences the following year when they missed a large chunk of the season.

Our 19 offensive tackles averaged 15.1 games the year before the injury, and only 6.3 games played during the injury season. That’s a difference of 8.8 games played, or over half a season.

In his conclusion, Lisk noted that “The likely effect on a per game basis when playing versus when out with an injury was somewhere between 0.7 to 0.8 Net Yards per Attempt dropoff.” Well, what if we run the same study but (1) limit ourselves to left tackles1 and (2) look at the yards-per-reception average of the team’s leading receiver? There are only 12 situations to examine, a sample size far too small to really use, but here are the results:

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  1. I changed the cutoffs to 14 starts in Year N and fewer than 9 starts in Year N+1 []
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Season in review: AFC and NFC East

This season, I published power rankings after each week where I stated my updated projected number of wins for each team. The point of those posts was to put in writing my thoughts at that time, so that once the season was over, I could look back and see how I did. Over the next two weeks, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

The picture below graphs my projections for each team for each week of the season. I’ve also added the Vegas futures win totals for each team from the pre-season as the first data point in each graph and the final number of regular season wins for each team as the final data point. My projected win totals for each week N come following the conclusion of week N (i.e., my week 1 power rankings were released after week 1).

AFC East

New England Patriots

Pre-season Projection: 12 wins
Maximum wins: 13 (after weeks 1 and 14)
Minimum wins: 10 (after weeks 6 and 7)
Week 1 comment: Incredible offensive weapons, an improved defense and a cupcake schedule. Only injuries on the offensive line or to Tom Brady could derail them.

The Patriots started hot with a big win over the Titans, but managed to lose nail-biters to the Cardinals and Ravens the next two weeks. A loss in Seattle — which was an upset, at the time — dropped them to 3-3 and my projected total to just 10 wins. An overtime win over the Jets the following week was unimpressive and didn’t cause me to bump them, but I kept steadily increasing their win total after that.

In the end, it was another monster statistical season for Brady and the Patriots. New England broke a record for offensive first downs and finished with the third most points scored in a season. I was a little bumpy in my New England projections, but they ended up landing right on the Vegas number.

New York Jets
Pre-season Projection: 8.5 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 1 and 2)
Minimum wins: 6 (first after week 8)
Week 1 comment: The additions of Quinton Coples and LaRon Landry were easy to mock, but these two could make the Jets defense a top-three unit. So far, so good. Right tackle Austin Howard exceeded expectations by infinity against Mario Williams, and his play this year will be tied to the Jets success on offense.

The Jets best game of the season came in week 1, which inspired a glimmer of early-season hope. In the end, Coples and Landry had strong seasons, but the loss of Darrelle Revis and the disappointing years by Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, and Aaron Maybin prevented the Jets from having a complete defense. Mark Sanchez regressed, and injuries to Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller, and Stephen Hill didn’t help the offense. Rex Ryan lost control of the team, again, and the Jets struggled against good teams early before disappointing against bad teams late. For the second straight year, the Jets lost their final three games of the season, and it appears like they will fire the offensive coordinator again, too.
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This is a starting NFL quarterback in an NFL uniform. Welcome to 2012.

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were drafted as franchise saviors, and have been expected to start on opening day for months; more recently Brandon Weeden in Cleveland and Ryan Tannehill in Miami won starting jobs. Then, last night, Pete Carroll announced that Russell Wilson had beaten Matt Flynn in the Seahawks quarterback battle. Barring injury, we’ll see five rookie quarterbacks starting on opening day for the first time since 1950 (and likely ever). Before Wilson, we were already in record territory, as no more than three teams have ever started the season with rookie quarterbacks since 1950 (and likely ever). In 1969, Roger Staubach, Greg Cook and James Harris were week one starters for the Cowboys, Bengals and Bills. The year before, Greg Landry, Dewey Warren, and Dan Darragh started for the Lions… Bengals and Bills. And in the AFL’s inaugural season, three teams fielded rookie quarterbacks. But on average, less than one rookie quarterback has started a team’s opening game each season since the merger.

Last year, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton were opening day starters, and their success (along with the success of Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan) have undoubtedly made teams become more willing to start rookie quarterbacks. In fact, the youth movement goes beyond just this year’s class: in addition to Newton and Dalton, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, and Blaine Gabbert will be second-year quarterbacks starting in week one this season. That’s another record, breaking the seven such quarterbacks in 2000. Remember 1999, the Year of the Quarterback in the NFL Draft? Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, and Daunte Culpepper were all high first-round draft picks, and all were sophomore starters in 2000. Shaun King, fresh off a strong late-season run for Tampa Bay, joined the group in week 1 of the 2000, as did Jeff Garcia in San Francisco.

What’s the explanation? Luck, Griffin, and Newton were uber elite talents who were too good to sit. Wilson legitimately won the Seahawks job in training camp and preseason, a rare event in any era for a rookie quarterback. But the rest of the group — Weeden, Tannehill, Dalton, Gabbert, Ponder, and Locker — seem to signal a shift in NFL philosophy. The table below lists all quarterbacks drafted in the top 40 — but not in the top 5 — since 1970, and the first year in their career when they started for their team in week one:
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