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It’s Carroll-Harbaugh X! Okay, the Whats Your Deal Bowl may not have quite the hype of Brady/Manning XV, but don’t tell that to folks on the West Coast. Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh are longtime rivals who have managed to alienate 31 other fanbases in the NFL. For the record, Harbaugh holds a 6-3 record over Carroll, including a 4-2 mark in the NFL. Of course, Carroll’s Seahawks won the last two games at CenturyLink Field, the site of the NFC Championship Game.

Let’s begin our preview by analyzing each team’s passing offense:

Sadly, this post is not sponsored by beats by Dre

Sadly, this post is not sponsored by beats by Dre.

Picking between Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson feels like an exercise in hair-splitting. Over the last two seasons, these two have nearly identical passing numbers, ranking 4th and 5th in ANY/A. Kaepernick was slightly better last year, Wilson slightly better this year, and then Kaepernick has been better in the playoffs. By ANY/A standards, this is a complete wash.

What about the weapons? That’s one area where it at least appears like the 49ers have the edge. Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, and Vernon Davis are legitimate stars who combine to give Kaepernick three versatile weapons on every play. A healthy Percy Harvin changes things for Seattle, but with Harvin declared out for the game, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, and Zach Miller represent a clear downgrade from the 49ers bunch.

But remember, when we look at the passing statistics of Kaepernick and Wilson, those numbers already incorporate the quality of each quarterback’s targets. After all, a quarterback’s ANY/A or NY/A averages are not mere reflections of the passer, but of the passing offense as a whole. On the other hand, Kaepernick hasn’t had those three players together for most of his career. In fact, the trio has only been available in 7 of Kaepernick’s 28 career starts. In 10 starts, only Crabtree and Davis were on the team, and in another 10, Kaepernick had just Boldin and Davis.1 The table below shows Kaepernick’s numbers as a starter depending on the availability of his three weapons: [click to continue…]

  1. There was also one start, against Indianapolis, where both Crabtree and Davis were out. []
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“He’s the best coach in football right now.”

That was what John Harbaugh said about his little brother after the game. It’s hard to argue: I’ve said a few times that I think Jim Harbaugh is the best coach in the league, too. (Although I gave my mythical COTY vote to Pete Carroll.)

It was a classy thing to say by the winning coach, especially on a day where he outcoached his little brother. Actually, the more accurate way of putting it would be to say that “John Harbaugh made fewer bad decisions than Jim Harbaugh.” Let’s go through the game in chronological order

The First Snap

I’ve watched enough Jets games to know that there’s a certain level of horribleness that comes with having a pre-snap penalty at the start of a quarter or half. Maybe you don’t want to blame Jim Harbaugh for the 49ers lining up in an illegal formation on the first snap of the game, but let’s just say this: that’s not how the New York media would react if Rex Ryan’s team did that. Jim Harbaugh would be the first to tell you that it was inexcusable to have such a penalty on the first snap of the game, and the team didn’t look any more prepared on snap two, when Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore were on the wrong page of a fake-handoff that instead went to Lennay Kekua.

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The winner of the first Super Bowl

The winner of the first Super Bowl.

Congratulations to Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Joe Flacco, and the Baltimore Ravens on winning Super Bowl XLVII. The Ravens and 49ers treated us to an exciting Super Bowl, and the Hall of Fame chances of Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Matt Birk, Anquan Boldin, and yes, Joe Flacco, are a lot better today than they were 24 hours ago. And while most writers today will focus on the champions, I’m going to go in a different direction.

Two years ago, the 49ers were 6-10 and floundering; they had the 5th worst record in the league from 2004 from 2010 in the pre-Jim Harbaugh era. Today, San Francisco possesses arguably the NFL’s most talented roster and best coaching staff, but is coming off a painful loss in the title game.

When I look at the 49ers, it’s hard not to see the striking similarities to an incredible turnaround executed 52 years ago. From 1953 to 1958, the Green Bay Packers were one of the league’s most poorly-run franchises. The team won just 20 games over that six-year period, the second fewest in the league. Vince Lombardi arrived in 1959, and the Packers won the NFL’s West Division in 1960, losing in the final seconds in the title game that year to Philadelphia. It was a heartbreaking loss, but the Packers used that game as motivation to win NFL titles in ’61, ’62, ’65, ’66, and ’67, with the latter two coming in the Super Bowl.

In 2011, I read and reviewed John Eisenberg’s excellent book That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory. Eisenberg looked at a subject that always fascinated me: the 1958 Packers, despite being the worst team in the league, had seven future Hall of Famers.
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Fourth and Harbaugh: Which coach is more aggressive?

The puns this week are harribaughl.

The puns this week are horribaughl.

I’m going to hold off until Sunday morning to post my Super Bowl preview, but today, I’m going to look at a possible hidden key to the game. In most playoff games, each coach is faced with a critical fourth down decision. Often times the conservative coach delays the decision to go for it in favorable circumstances early in the game only to be forced to do so in less optimal situations in the final minutes. We also know that in general, coaches frequently fail to go for it early in games when the down and distance dictate a more aggressive approach: even Bill Belichick has been known to cost his team points with conservative fourth-down decisions, as he did in the AFC Championship Game. Which leads to today’s post: Is one Harbaugh more or less aggressive than the other?

Let’s start with how each coach has performed in the regular season, beginning with Jim.
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Not doing a squirrel dance.

Not doing a squirrel dance.

On Sunday, I looked at how the football legacies of certain Ravens would be affected by a win in Super Bowl XLVII; today I will do the same for the 49ers. And the best place to start is with the only surefire Hall of Famer on the team.

Randy Moss turns 36 in a couple of weeks, and he’s caught just 56 passes over the last three years. Super Bowl XLVII may not be his final game, but it probably will be Moss’ last chance to give us one final “Randy Moss” moment. Moss will one day be in the Hall of Fame, despite the fact that he rubbed many fans, sportswriters, teammates, coaches, owners, and a few referees the wrong way. But Moss is a six-time Pro Bowler, a four-time first-team AP All-Pro, and ranks 9th in career receptions, 3rd in career receiving yards, and 2nd in career receiving touchdowns. He’s had 64 100-yard games in his career, second only to Jerry Rice. He’s produced despite a relatively unstable quarterback situation for much of his career (admittedly, some of this was due to Moss): over one-third of his career receiving yards came from Daunte Culpepper, and no other single quarterback was responsible for even twenty percent of his yards. When he finally got a HOF-caliber quarterback, Moss broke the single-season record for receiving touchdowns in a season. But even before New England and Tom Brady, Moss had established himself as one of the greatest receivers in NFL history. If the 49ers win on Sunday, he’ll be like a modern Lance Alworth, who won a forgettable ring with the Dallas Cowboys in 1971.

It’s fitting that Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis are in the Super Bowl together. Willis was only 11 years old when Lewis entered the NFL, and Willis has modeled his game and his uniform number after Lewis. And in turn, if any linebacker has resembled Lewis over the last decade, it’s Willis, and there will be a figurative passing of the torch on Sunday. Even if he isn’t the next Ray Lewis, Willis has paved his own path towards Canton: he has been a first-team All-Pro choice by the Associated Press in five of his first six seasons. Lawrence Taylor, Eric Dickerson, Jerry Rice, Gale Sayers, and Reggie White are the only other NFL players since 1960 to be selected as a first-team AP All-Pro five or more times in their first six seasons. Absent a serious injury or a shocking career turn, Willis will one day be a Hall of Famer himself, but it sure can’t hurt to add a Lombardi Trophy to the resume.
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And then he said, what's your deal?

And then he asked me what my deal was.

A couple of interesting notes, courtesy of Mike Sando on ESPN.com. The first is a good bit of trivia: Jim Harbaugh joins George Seifert, Barry Switzer and Rex Ryan as the only head coaches to reach the AFC or NFC Championship Game in each of their first two seasons as an NFL head coach. The second piece of information provides a possible clue as to how the game might unfold for Atlanta. Including the playoffs, the Falcons have allowed 8.9 yards per rush to quarterbacks this season, the worst rate in the NFL (excluding kneel downs).

To be fair, only three quarterbacks have done anything of note on the ground against the Falcons this year. Michael Vick rushed 7 times for 42 yards in a 30-17 loss. Vick had two first down carries that went for four yards, two third and long carries that went for 10 total yards but no first downs, and then three runs on 3rd and 3 or 4 where he picked up the first down. That’s not good, but not too alarming.
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The teacher and the pupil.

Alex Smith has had an incredible career revival since Jim Harbaugh came to San Francisco. The first six seasons of his career, Alex Smith won just 38% of his 50 starts, but he has an incredible 15-3 regular season record since 2011 (83%). From 2005 to 2012, Smith had an ugly 72.1 passer rating, the worst of any quarterback with 1500 attempts over that span. Since Harbaugh came to town, Smith has a 93.6 passer rating, the 7th best mark of any quarterback over that time frame.

But there are two other, related, metrics, that indicate a fundamental shift in Smith’s style of play. In 2011, Alex Smith led the NFL in interception rate, but he also led the league in sacks. Smith threw an interception on just 1.1% of his passes in 2011 but took a sack on 9.0% of his dropbacks; this year, his sack rate has jumped to 10.9% while he has yet to thrown an interception.

Last year, the average quarterback threw an interception on 2.9% of his passes and was sacked on 6.4% of his dropbacks, meaning Smith’s interception rate was just 39% of the league average while his sack rate was 41% higher than league average. Smith also averaged just 197 passing yards per start, 80% of the league average metric.

It’s extremely early, of course, but Smith looks to be on a similar path this year. Which made me wonder: how often does a quarterback1 have a two-year stretch with (1) an excellent interception rate, (2) a bad sack rate, and (3) a below-average amount of passing yards per game? The answer is very rarely.

There’s a lot of information to present, so I’ve overloaded the table below. This lists all quarterbacks since 1978 who over a two-year period had a sack rate at least 30% higher than average, an interception rate of 70% of league average or lower, and were below league average in passing yards per game. After the traditional categories, I’ve listed each quarterback’s sack rate, interception rate and yards per game, and then how their sack rates, interception rates and yards per game compared to league average. The last two columns show the quarterback’s record over those two years.

Charlie BatchDET1998--1999573413524137340811.3%2.3%180159.9%68.3%80.1%11-11-00.500
Steve YoungSFO1996--199767254393312693809.3%1.8%201134.6%55.6%91.5%21-6-00.778
Jim HarbaughIND1996--199771446902315774469.7%2.1%180140.7%65.4%81.9%9-16-00.360
Jim HarbaughIND1995--199671952053016724099.1%2.2%179145.3%69.2%78.6%14-12-00.538
Jim HarbaughIND1994--199551640152611532919.3%2.1%149156.2%69%64.3%11-10-00.524
Ken O'BrienNYJ1987--198881752632815876319.6%1.8%202134%46.6%91.9%11-12-10.479
Neil LomaxSTL1985--19868925797312411382311.2%2.7%193141.2%65.9%85.8%9-20-10.317
Ken O'BrienNYJ1984--1985691529031158456710.8%2.2%203130.1%52.8%89.9%12-9-00.571
Steve BartkowskiATL1983--1984701532533159164811.5%2.1%213140.5%50.8%94.6%9-16-00.360
Neil LomaxSTL1982--1983559400329177454911.7%3%182147.7%69.6%82%12-9-10.568

During Jim Harbaugh’s 4 years in Indianapolis, he was essentially Alex Smith. He had a 9.6% sack rate and a 2.1% interception rate, while averaging under 180 passing yards per game. When discussing Joe Namath, I noted that he almost never took sacks, which by some measures penalized him because it drove down his completion percentage and increased his interception rate. You can put Alex Smith and the Indianapolis version of Jim Harbaugh on one end of a spectrum and Joe Namath on the other. Both interceptions and sacks are bad, but to some extent, quarterbacks can decide whether they want to throw interceptions or take sacks. Smith, under Harbaugh’s tutelage, has clearly chosen the latter.

On a team with a great defense, that can work. Namath’s defenses weren’t always good, but when they were, the Jets were Super Bowl contenders. When the defenses struggled, Namath pressed even more, and ended up throwing even more interceptions. Smith is never asked to do too much, and Harbaugh has surrounded him with enough talent on the other side of the ball to make that a winning formula.

From 1994 to 1996, Jim Harbaugh went just 20-26 with the Colts. In 1997, Harbaugh had the lowest interception rate in the NFL and the second highest sack rate in the league. But the 1997 Colts ranked in the bottom 5 of the NFL in points allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, interceptions forced, rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed and yards per carry allowed. The team went 3-13 overall, and 2-9 with Harbaugh, indicating that this conservative philosophy has its limitations.

Often times we use stats as a way to rank players, where more of one stat or less of another means a player is good, and less of one stat and more of another means a player is bad. But stats can also be used descriptively without overarching themes of good or bad. Just like some running backs are big and slow and others are small and fast, some quarterbacks are risky and some are risk-averse.

Harbaugh clearly was a risk-averse player in Indianapolis under Lindy Infante. What about the other players on the list? Conservative and risk-averse were good adjectives to describe Charlie Batch’s first two years in the league. In 1998, he had Barry Sanders, but Batch’s numbers were nearly identical both seasons (of course, you would normally expect some improvement by a quarterback betwen year one and two). It looks like he played things very safe as a rookie on a good team in 1998, and let’s not forget how he got the starting job: Scott Mitchell was benched after throwing a pick-six in overtime. We can safely conclude that Batch was told to avoid interceptions at all costs, for many reasons.

Steve Young led the league in passer rating in ’96 and ’97, and for many reasons, doesn’t really feel like a comparable player to Alex Smith. He had already been a two-time MVP by 1996.

Ken O’Brien was a very accurate quarterback who led the league in interception rate in ’85, ’87 and ’88. But he took a ton of sacks, in part because of a below-average offensive line. At his peak he was better than Smith has been so far — in ’85 he was 2nd in yards per attempt and he was 5th in that metric in ’86 — but there are some similarities between the two players.

From 1982 to 1986, Neil Lomax had a 10.5% sack rate but a tiny 2.8% interception rate; despite the conservative nature, his team went just 30-36-2 over that span. Lomax was outstanding in 1984, but otherwise was a solid but unspectacular player during this span (Lomax made the Pro Bowl in ’87 when he led the league in completions, attempts, and passing yards.) Lomax also benefited from consecutive All-Pro seasons from Roy Green in ’83 and ’84, but poor defenses prevented Lomax from compiling a winning record in St. Louis.

In the early ’80s, Steve Bartkowski had some success under Leeman Bennett, and made the Pro Bowl in ’80 and ’81. During those years, he was at or above average in sack rate and also interception rate, but then his interception rate improved dramatically in ’83 while his sack rate fell off for the rest of his career. A likely explanation is the hiring of Dan Henning that season, who may have emphasized a more conservative approach.

The two years before Harbaugh arrived, Smith had a 6.2% sack rate and a 3.1% interception rate, both numbers which were pretty close to league average. But Alex Smith 2.0 is not trying to prove to the world that he’s the #1 pick who can do everything; this version is concerned with minimizing risks at all costs. So far, it’s been a very successful formula.

  1. For purposes of this study, I also limited the group to quarterbacks since 1978 who played for the same team for both years and who threw at least 200 passes in both years. []

[You can find lots of websites previewing each team as we head towards the 2012 season. You won’t find that at FootballPerspective.com, but instead, I’ll share some random thoughts on each franchise based on well, whatever springs to mind. We’ll kick things off with look at the San Francisco 49ers.]

The 49ers are an interesting team to me because they seem like the ideal candidate to regress. Generally, teams that make huge jumps in one season are better candidates to fall back to the pack than elite teams with a history of success. Additionally, defensive teams are generally less likely to retain their success than offensive teams. But since I don’t expect you to just believe me…

I looked at all teams since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that won at least 75% of their games (San Francisco went 13-3 last year) and then separated them based on their records in the prior season (the 2010 49ers went 6-10). There were 155 of them, and how they performed in the year before (Year N-1) their elite season was relevant in determining their record in the year (Year N+1) after that big season. The table below breaks down the teams based on their winning percentages in Year N-1 (for our purposes, that’s 2010 for the 49ers) and then shows how well they performed in Year N+1 (for our purposes, the 2012 49ers):

Year N-1# of TmsN-1 Win%N Win %N+1 Win %
Over 80%2486.3%79.7%67.2%

Just so we’re all on the same page, the top row of that table informs us that of the 155 teams to win at least 75% of their games, 24 of them won over 80% of their games in Year N-1. On average, those teams won 86.3% of their games in Year N-1, 79.7% of their games in Year N, and then 67.2% in Year N+1. The 49ers would represent a team in the bottom row. There have been 25 teams like the 2011 49ers who won at least 75% of their games after having a losing record the prior year (on average, those teams won just 37% of their games – just like the 2010 49ers); in the following year (e.g., the 2012 49ers) those teams won just 53.6% of their games.

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