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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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The Redskins relied on rookies more than most

The Redskins relied on rookies more than most.

The Washington Redskins were powered by a pair of rookie stars in 2012. We all know about Robert Griffin III, but sixth round pick Alfred Morris finished second in the league in rushing. Griffin’s efficiency numbers were unmatched — he led the NFL in both yards per pass and yards per run — en route to 3200 passing yards and 815 rushing yards. Morris gained1,690 yards from scrimmage; add in Kirk Cousins‘ 466 passing yards and 22 rushing yards, and Washington rookies produced 6,193 “yards” in 2012. I put that in quotes because it’s not customary to sum players’ passing, rushing, and receiving yards, but I think that’s the right idea for the point of this post: figuring out which teams have most relied on rookies.

That 6,193 figure is the second most amount of “yards” produced by a group of rookies in NFL history. The leader in the clubhouse? The 2012 Indianapolis Colts, behind Andrew Luck, Vick Ballard, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, LaVon Brazill and Dominique Jones. The third place spot belongs to the 2012 Cleveland Browns: Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin, Josh Cooper, and Brad Smelley combined for over 6000 yards.

What if we instead look at percentage of team yards (defining yards as the sum of all passing, rushing, and receiving yards)? Expansion teams would begin to dominate the list — some AFL teams in 1960, the ’68 Bengals, and the ’02 Texans, for example. But what if we look at only non-expansion teams since 1950?

In that case, the 2012 Colts come in second, behind another Colts team.
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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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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:

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 []

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. []