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New York Times, Post Week-5 (2014): From 0-2 to 3-2

This week at the New York Times, I look at a pair of teams that have gone from 0-2 to 3-2, a statistical rarity, and a league-wide passing trend:

About three weeks ago, you probably heard some variation on the following statistic: Since 1990, only 12 percent of teams that started 0-2 ended up making the playoffs. Seven teams started 0-2 this season, but two of those have rebounded with three-game winning streaks.

Andrew Luck leads the N.F.L. in passing yards and touchdowns while posting a 100 passer rating. His Colts lead the league in points scored, and Indianapolis has the second-best point differential in the N.F.L., behind the San Diego Chargers. The Colts, division champions in 2013, are back on top of the A.F.C. South, tied with the Houston Texans for the division’s best record. As a result, it is probably hard to even remember that only three weeks ago, the Colts were one of those struggling 0-2 teams.

The A.F.C. South was the worst division in football last year, and not much has changed in 2014. In interdivision games, A.F.C. South teams are 5-11, the worst record of any division. That is one of the biggest reasons the Colts were able to jump from last to first place so quickly. Indianapolis has feasted on its poor division.

You can read the full article here.

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Predictions in Review: NFC 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, the NFC North, and the AFC East. Today, we finish the series with a look at the NFC East.

Eli Manning was about as good in 2012 as he was in 2011, July 15, 2013

On the surface, Eli Manning’s numbers dropped significantly from 2011 to 2012; after further review, his “decline” was entirely due to two factors: attempting fewer passes and lower YAC by his receivers. And since Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks were largely responsible for those declines, it seemed fair to wonder how much of the blame should go to Manning. [click to continue…]

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Can you believe we get to play in the NFC East?

Can you believe we get to play in the NFC East?

Let’s pretend that each team in the NFC East is equal in strength. That’s probably not true, of course, but I wan to stipulate that Eli Manning = Robert Griffin III = Tony Romo = Nick Foles, and that goes for the other 52 players on each of their teams, too. If that’s the case, the schedules will play a big role in determining the eventual champion.

The Cowboys and Eagles are tied atop the division at 5-5, with Dallas having the easiest remaining schedule (opponents have a 0.435 winning percentage) and Philadelphia having the second easiest (0.472). Washington (0.508) and New York (0.533) are both 3-6, with even more challenging schedules the rest of the way than the two division leaders.  But I think it’s instructive to look at the schedules in a different way.

As you know, each team plays six games against the other three teams in the division. Of the remaining ten games, eight are the same — and this year, they come against the AFC West and NFC North. The final two games of the season are what I’ll call “Strength of Schedule” games, as they are determined by each team’s rank in the division in 2012. That means Washington, the #1 team in the division in 2012, is scheduled to play last year’s division winners from the NFC South and NFC West, the #2 team gets the runners up from those divisions, and so on. Let’s start there, because these “SOS” games already put one team behind the eight ball.

In the tables below, I’ll put a 1 in the cell if the team won the game, a 0 to represent a loss, and a 0.5 to indicate that the game has not yet been played.
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Last night, David Wilson ran 84 yards for a touchdown on the Giants first play from scrimmage. Without being touched. How does that happen? Let’s start with a look from the end zone right at the snap:

Giants Jets Wilson Snap

The Jets are lined up with four down linemen: from left to right, you can see DE Muhammad Wilkerson, first-round tackle Sheldon Richardson, backup NT Damon Harrison, and outside linebacker/edge rusher Garrett McIntyre. At linebacker, we see Calvin Pace, David Harris, and Demario Davis — the new starter whom Rex Ryan has compared to Ray Lewis — tight inside the tackles. Left cornerback Kyle Wilson is off screen, covering Rueben Randle on the Giants right, while the Jets show a single-high safety look: Dawan Landry, the free agent addition from Jacksonville, is 13 yards off the line of scrimmage, while safety Antonio Allen (the Jets 7th round pick a year ago and expected starter in 2013) has creeped towards the line. What’s not shown: a few seconds earlier, the Giants motioned TE Brandon Myers to the offense’s left before the snap, causing Antonio Cromartie to line up right in the face of Hakeem Nicks and Allen (39) to drop down closer to the line of scrimmage (he was ten yards off the line before Myers moved).

The Giants know what is coming: a handoff to David Wilson, who will read the Jets defense to determine whether he bursts up the gut or bounces outside. From a numbers game, the Giants like what they see: even after Allen comes down, the math looks even. Assuming Nicks can handle Cromartie (he will), the Giants have the center, left guard, left tackle, Myers (a yard off the line) and TE Bear Pascoe (playing the traditional fullback slot) to block five Jets – Harrison and McIntyre on the line, Harris and Davis in the second level, and Allen.

In theory, you would think the Giants would have the C block the NT, the uncovered LG would make a beeline towards Harris (52), the LT would take care of McIntyre, and Pascoe and Myers would be assigned to Davis (56) and Allen (39). Some of that happens — the center (backup Jim Cordle) handles the nose; he also gets an assist from LG Kevin Boothe, who nudges Harrison away from the play a second before he manhandles Harris (a mismatch for most linebackers, so we can’t be too harsh on Harris). LT Will Beatty also overpowers the RDE, McIntyre, unsurprising considering (1) Beatty is a pretty good player and McIntyre is a backup 3-4 OLB, and (2) Beatty outweighs him by 64 pounds. Credit the Giants for good blocking, but blocking your assigned man doesn’t turn into 84-yard runs very often. The real cuprit on the play is Allen, but he was only the last domino to fall.
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Year QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yards TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Y/C PRate ESPN QBR Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A Sk%
2004 1-6-0 95 197 48.2 1043 6 3.0 9 4.6 5.3 11.0 55.4 13 83 4.57 3.21 6.2
2005 11-5-0 294 557 52.8 3762 24 4.3 17 3.1 6.8 12.8 75.9 28 184 6.12 5.63 4.8
2006 8-8-0 301 522 57.7 3244 24 4.6 18 3.4 6.2 10.8 77.0 25 186 5.59 4.99 4.6
2007 10-6-0 297 529 56.1 3336 23 4.3 20 3.8 6.3 11.2 73.9 27 217 5.61 4.82 4.9
2008* 12-4-0 289 479 60.3 3238 21 4.4 10 2.1 6.8 11.2 86.4 62.56 27 174 6.06 6.00 5.3
2009 8-8-0 317 509 62.3 4021 27 5.3 14 2.8 7.9 12.7 93.1 69.75 30 216 7.06 6.89 5.6
2010 10-6-0 339 539 62.9 4002 31 5.8 25 4.6 7.4 11.8 85.3 65.88 16 117 7.00 6.09 2.9
2011* 9-7-0 359 589 61.0 4933 29 4.9 16 2.7 8.4 13.7 92.9 59.39 28 199 7.67 7.45 4.5
2012* 9-7-0 321 536 59.9 3948 26 4.9 15 2.8 7.4 12.3 87.2 67.39 19 136 6.87 6.59 3.4
Career 78-57-0 2612 4457 58.6 31527 211 4.7 144 3.2 7.1 12.1 82.7 213 1512 6.43 5.94 4.6

In 2011, Eli Manning threw for 4,933 yards and won the Super Bowl. Last year, he threw for 3948 yards and missed the playoffs. It’s tempting to think that something was “wrong” with Manning last year. Another narrative would be that 2011 was a career year far out of line with anything else he’s done, which would make 2012 was the real Manning. I’m not sure I buy either of those explanations.

Let’s start by comparing Manning’s numbers in 2011 and 2012. Yes, his passing yards dropped, but that’s a meaningless metric on its own. He threw 53 fewer passes in 2012, a partial explanation for why his yards declined. And while his yards per attempt did drop from 8.4 to 7.4, about 20% of that dip was mitigated by the fact that he took fewer sacks (his Net Yards per Attempt dropped from 7.7 to 6.9). In addition to improving his sack rate, Manning’s touchdown and interception rates were virtually identical, which means his decline was limited to pass attempts and yards per attempt.

We can break down the numbers on why his yards per attempt declined thanks to some additional data courtesy of NFLGSIS. In 2011, Manning averaged 8.4 yards per attempt. That was a result of three things: a 61.0% completion rate, 5.82 yards after the catch (per completion), and 7.92 Air Yards per Completed Pass. In 2012, Manning averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, with a 59.9% completion rate, 4.33 average YAC, and 7.97 Air Yards per Completed Pass.

The tiny drop in completion percentage is more than offset by the better sack rate, and if Manning was throwing incomplete passes instead of taking sacks, that’s a good thing. As for what happens when he completed a pass, his entire decline was in the form of yards after the catch. In 2011, he ranked 3rd in Air Yards per Completed Pass and 6th in YAC per completion; in 2012, he ranked 2nd in AY/CP and 30th in YAC per completion.

Now there’s some evidence to indicate YAC might be more on the quarterback than Air Yards. Other studies, and what I think is popular opinion, is that YAC is more about the receiver than the quarterback. But let’s further investigate why the Giants dipped in YAC. The table below shows a more precise breakdown. For both 2011 (in blue) and 2012 (in red), you can see the number of Receptions, Air Yards per Reception, YAC per reception, and Yards per Reception. The rows show each of the Giants top three receivers, top tight end, and top running back, along with the other players at wide receiver, tight end, and running back.
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In October 2009, Neil Paine wrote that Eli Manning had seemingly turned the corner, starting with the five-game stretch from week 17 of the 2007 season that ended in the Super Bowl. And since that post, Manning has been even better, with his 2011 season standing out as the best year of his career. I thought it would be fun to chart Eli’s career game-by-game according to ANY/A. Actually, since that chart would be incredibly volatile, I’m going to do it in five- and ten-game increments.

The chart below shows the average of Manning’s ANY/A in each of his last five games (playoffs included) beginning with the fifth game of his career in 2004. Of note: the black line represents the league average ANY/A (which, if we’re talking about the last 2 games of Year N and the first 3 games of Year N+1, is 40% of the Year N league average and 60% of the Year N+1 league average), and the two big purple dots show the two Super Bowl victories (or, more accurately, the Super Bowl win, the prior three playoff wins, and the week 17 game).

weekly ELI
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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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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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The third and fourth most popular quarterbacks in New York this week.

There are few nights as precious as tonight, the official start of the 2012 regular season. Even after tonight, 255 regular season games remain for us to enjoy. As usual, the defending Super Bowl champion hosts the opening game, and it didn’t take the NFL schedule makers long to decide on an opponent. This will be the 6th time in 8 meetings that the Giants and Cowboys will meet on primetime television. And as usual, the media will turn this game into another referendum on Tony Romo and Eli Manning.

Public perception says that Manning is the better quarterback, based largely exclusively on his post-season success and reputation as a clutch quarterback. And there’s a good reason he has such a reputation: Manning has won 8 of his last 9 playoff games and tied NFL single-season records with seven 4th-quarter comebacks and eight game-winning drives in 2011. Romo has a reputation as the chokiest of chokers, is 1-3 in playoff games, and has been less stellar than Manning late in games. While Manning has 21 career 4th quarter comebacks and is 21-22 in games where he had an opportunity for a 4th quarter comeback, Romo is just 13-20 in 4th quarter comeback opportunities. But let’s leave that to the side for now.

Because based on their regular season statistics, Romo absolutely crushes Manning, at least statistically. The gap shrunk significantly in 2011, but Romo’s track record of production and efficiently is considerably more impressive. Manning entered the league in 2004 but struggled his first three years; Romo first started in 2006 and was above average immediately. But let’s just focus on the past five seasons. The table below displays the statistics each quarterback produced from 2007 to 2011. Note that since Romo has missed time due to injury, I have added a third row, which pro-rates Romo’s numbers to 80 starts:
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The NFL's version of Two Face.

The 2011 Giants were one of the more confusing teams in recent memory. Will this year’s the Giants play like the defending Super Bowl champions or the team that allowed more points than they scored last season? Jason Lisk points out that there’s a third option, and we should consider the 2011 Giants as a 13-7 team that faced an extremely difficult schedule.

Let’s start by recognizing that the 2011 Giants faced a difficult schedule in the regular season; not only was the NFC East competitive, but New York also faced the top four teams in the NFL outside of their division. In 2011, the Giants ranked 13th in the Simple Rating System. For the uninitiated, the SRS is a predictive system, which means it could theoretically place a 3-5 team ahead of a 7-1 team. The SRS mimics the points spread you would see in Las Vegas rather than a power ranking system. As the name implies, it’s simple in the sense that it only looks at two variables: strength of schedule and margin of victory. Each game is given equal weight. A win by 10 points over a team that is 5 points below average is equal to a 5-point win over an average team. The SRS is always just the sum of the margin of victory and the opponent’s rating. Unlike many systems, in the SRS, the values have meaning. A team with an SRS rating of +6.0 means that team is six points better than average.

It’s complicated to create these ratings, but I’ve done the heavy lifting1. Here were the SRS ratings for each team immediately after week 17 last season:

Rk
Tm
MOV
SOS
SRS
1New Orleans Saints13-1.611.4
2Green Bay Packers12.6-1.211.4
3New England Patriots10.7-1.49.3
4San Francisco 49ers9.4-1.18.3
5Baltimore Ravens7-0.96.1
6Detroit Lions5.40.66.1
7Pittsburgh Steelers6.1-0.85.3
8Philadelphia Eagles4.30.54.7
9Houston Texans6.4-1.94.5
10Atlanta Falcons3.30.33.5
11Chicago Bears0.80.91.7
12Dallas Cowboys1.40.31.6
13New York Giants-0.421.6
14Miami Dolphins1-0.10.9
15New York Jets0.900.9
16San Diego Chargers1.8-0.90.9
17Seattle Seahawks0.40.40.8
18Cincinnati Bengals1.3-0.90.5
19Tennessee Titans0.5-1.5-1
20Carolina Panthers-1.40.1-1.3
21Arizona Cardinals-2.30-2.2
22Buffalo Bills-3.90.5-3.4
23Washington Redskins-4.90.8-4.1
24Oakland Raiders-4.6-0.3-4.9
25Denver Broncos-5.1-0.2-5.3
26Cleveland Browns-5.60.2-5.4
27Jacksonville Jaguars-5.4-0.3-5.6
28Minnesota Vikings-6.81.1-5.7
29Kansas City Chiefs-7.9-0.2-8.1
30St. Louis Rams-13.42.9-10.4
31Tampa Bay Buccaneers-12.92.3-10.6
32Indianapolis Colts-11.70.4-11.3

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  1. The tricky part is that each team’s strength of schedule is dependent on the ratings of each of their opponents, which is dependent on the ratings of each of their opponents, which includes the original team we’re trying to rate. If you adjust each team’s rating over thousands of iterations, eventually the ratings converge, and we’re left with “true” ratings []
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When thinking about the 2012 Cowboys, it’s easy to focus on Dallas’ star offensive players. Unfortunately, that overshadows the fact that we’re witnessing the prime of the career of what will end up being the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the history of pro football.

There is nothing DeMarcus Ware could have done, or could do in the future, to convince most football fans that he ranks ahead of Lawrence Taylor in any all-time list. That’s not unique to Taylor; some would find it unfathomable to vault a cover corner over Deion Sanders, a middle linebacker over Dick Butkus, or a running back over Jim Brown. So let’s just get that out of the way. To many, ‘LT’ is the best 3-4 outside linebacker ever (if not best linebacker or defensive player, period) and that will never change. To them, this post won’t change your mind one bit. To others, allow me to make the case that when he retires, Ware will have been the best player to ever play his position.

The best 3-4 outside linebacker ever?

The 3-4 defense didn’t enter the NFL until 1974, when the scheme was brought to Houston, Buffalo and New England. Putting aside Taylor, the best outside linebackers to play in this scheme include names like Robert Brazile, Tom Jackson, Ted Hendricks, Clay Matthews, Andre Tippett, New Orleans’ Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas. In today’s game, it’s probably Ware and Terrell Suggs, who also splits his time playing as a 4-3 end. With all due respect to Suggs, and other active stars like Tamba Hali, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews and Cameron Wake, no current player has the body of work to compare to Ware.

The Cowboys star has been named an AP first-team All-Pro four times; among 3-4 outside linebackers, only Taylor has more selections. Taylor (10), Robert Brazile (7), Rickey Jackson (6) and Ware are the only 3-4 linebackers to have been named to six Pro Bowls, and Ware has been a selection in each of the last six years. Ultimately, outside of perhaps a vocal minority that would argue for Derrick Thomas over Taylor (and more on that tomorrow), Ware’s case as the best 3-4 outside linebacker of all-time comes down to whether you could put him ahead of Taylor as a player1.

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  1. Taylor’s legend appears to grow every year, and as a mythical or historical figure, Ware stands no chance of surpassing him. []
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