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Season in review: AFC and NFC South

Last week I reviewed the seasons of the teams in the AFC East and NFC East and in the AFC North and NFC North. Today we’ll review the interesting seasons from the AFC and NFC South divisions.

In the AFC South, I had the bottom three teams projected for between 5 and 6 wins for a five week stretch starting after week two. As we now know, that was resolved quite definitively by the end of the year:

AFC South

Houston Texans

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 14 (after week 15)
Minimum wins: 10 (after week 1)
Week 1 comment: Going to win the AFC South going away; this team could win 12 games, but concerns about injuries and the potential to rest starters late keep them at 10 wins for now.

A miserable December ruined what should have been a marvelous season in Houston. At no point did I project any of the other AFC South teams to finish within even three games of the Texans. When they were 5-0, I wrote: Not only do the Texans still have 6 home games remaining, but they have 4 more games against the AFC South and get the Bills and Lions. Even without Brian Cushing, I don’t see why they don’t win 8 more games.

The Texans schedule was easy, but they also had dominant seasons out of J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson. Left Tackle Duane Brown was outstanding, and Houston is as good as any other team in the league when they’re at their their best. Unfortunately, they might be undermanned in a gunfight with the Broncos or Patriots, and it looks like now they’ll have to beat both of those teams to get to New Orleans. Still, I give the Texans a fighting chance; Matt Schaub has struggled in primetime games, but that doesn’t really mean anything. In the end I think the week 17 loss submarined their playoff hopes, and the team will be left wondering how good they could have been if Cushing stayed healthy.

Indianapolis Colts

Pre-season Projection: 5.5 wins
Maximum wins: 10 (after week 12 through the end of the year)
Minimum wins: 4 (after week 1)
Week 1 comment: There will be growing pains in Indianapolis. But nobody feels bad for their fans, nor should they; the Colts will be contenders each year for a decade, starting next season.

I never got on board with the Colts this year and it only looks worse in retrospect. On the other hand, even though Indianapolis finished 11-5, they were still outscored by 30 points in 2012. They struggled to beat Brady Quinn and the Chiefs and split with the Jaguars. The Colts won just two game by more than a touchdown.

While I missed on the Colts overall, I was on board the Andrew Luck bandwagon early on even when his numbers were terrible. I wrote this before the Colts-Packers game: Andrew Luck-Aaron Rodgers I won’t steal the spotlight from Tom Brady-Peyton Manning XIII; by the time these two teams play again in four years, we may be looking at the best two quarterbacks in the league. I highlighted how Luck was being undervalued by conventional statistics after week 7, and wrote this after week 8: A wildcard darkhorse? I don’t think the Colts are very good — they’re just 29th according to Football Outsiders — but a win over Miami this weekend puts them in the driver’s seat. I finally projected them at 10 wins after week 12, and noted: Basically clinched a playoff berth with win over Buffalo and Steelers loss. Hard not to like this team.

They may not be very good, but they certainly are likeable. Even after the upset win over the Texans, Houston is just the 10th team to make the playoffs after being outscored by at least 30 points.
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Not opposed to occasional acts of piracy.

Greg Schiano made an interesting comment the other day which went against conventional wisdom.

“It’s a fine line between being a physical, aggressive football team and getting a flag. You gotta be careful. I don’t ever want to be the least penalized team in the league, because I don’t think you’re trying hard enough then…. But I certainly do want to be in the top 10. That’s where you should be. You should be — five through 10 is a great place to be as a penalized team.”

Schiano’s statement makes some sense. Not all penalties are the same, even though they’re usually grouped that way. False starts, late hit penalties, excessive celebrations, delays of game and “12 men on the field” are examples of penalties that drive every coach crazy. When we think of undisciplined teams or stupid penalties, these are the ones we envision. Other penalties, like offensive holding or defensive pass interference might not be bad at all, and might be symptomatic of rational thinking. If a lineman believes the likelihood of his man getting to the quarterback is higher than the likelihood of him getting called for a penalty if he holds the defender, then holding may be the wise course of action. Similarly, a defensive back that tries to prevent a touchdown on pass interference isn’t necessarily committing a bad penalty. Intentional grounding is rarely a penalty that really hurts the team, as it’s usually called when for the quarterback, the alternative is usually a sack (or worse).

Off-sides, roughing the passer or certain penalties associated with hits (defensive receivers, leading with the helmet, etc.) are correlated with aggressive behavior. They should be minimized, of course, but I would not shocked to discover that they were generally correlated with positive play. The point being there are many types of penalties, an issue I’ve touched on before.

Still, I performed a regression analysis on penalties and team success. The results show that fewer penalties appears to be very slightly correlated with winning. A team with 80 penalties on the season would be expected to win 52.4% of its games, while a team with 100 penalties on the year would be projected to win 50.1% of its games. To jump just one win in a 16-game season, the results here indicate that a team would need to commit 54 fewer penalties. That’s absurd on its face,, which means that there is not necessarily a causal relationship between penalties and winning. Which is exactly what Schiano implied.

But we could break it down even further. I grouped all teams since 1990 into penalty ranges. As you can see, there does seem to be a small relationship between fewer penalties and winning:

Pen#TmsWin%
57 to 74330.535
75 to 901550.516
91 to 1092780.501
110 to 1291740.487
130-163330.451

Of course, this doesn’t go against what Schiano said. He didn’t want to be below average in penalties, just not number one. And I’m sure he’d want to be number one at avoiding stupid penalties. But I agree with him that the goal of a team shouldn’t be to avoid penalties at all costs, just like a team shouldn’t try to avoid interceptions at all costs. The goal is simply to win, and there being too aggressive isn’t the only option that carries with it a tradeoff — a team that isn’t aggressive enough is also unlikely to win championships.

[Updated: I realized that I might as well post the results of the teams to lead the league in fewest penalties and the eventual Super Bowl champs. The first table shows the team with the fewest penalties each season and how they performed in the post-season. On average, these teams won 9 games. The second table shows all Super Bowl champions since 1990 and where they ranked in penalties; on average, they ranked 12th in penalties.]

YrTeamWin%RecPenPost
2011GNB0.93815-176L-DIV
2011IND0.1252-1476--
2010ATL0.81313-358L-DIV
2009JAX0.4387-970--
2008NWE0.68811-557--
2007SEA0.62510-659L-DIV
2006DEN0.5639-767--
2005CAR0.68811-591L-CCG
2004SEA0.5639-779L-WILD
2003NYJ0.3756-1069--
2002KAN0.58-875--
2001NYJ0.62510-662L-WILD
2000NYJ0.5639-776--
1999ARI0.3756-1070--
1998CIN0.1883-1369--
1997TAM0.62510-677L-DIV
1996IND0.5639-776L-WILD
1995CHI0.5639-771--
1994CHI0.5639-765L-DIV
1993NWE0.3135-1164--
1992NOR0.7512-460L-WILD
1991MIA0.58-862--
1990MIA0.7512-464L-DIV

YrTeamWin%RecPenRk
2011NYG0.5639-79411
2010GNB0.62510-6783
2009NOR0.81313-38913
2008PIT0.7512-49519
2007NYG0.62510-6776
2006IND0.7512-4867
2005PIT0.68811-5996
2004NWE0.87514-21016
2003NWE0.87514-211122
2002TAM0.7512-410314
2001NWE0.68811-59215
2000BAL0.7512-49511
1999STL0.81313-311321
1998DEN0.87514-211516
1997DEN0.7512-411624
1996GNB0.81313-3926
1995DAL0.7512-4908
1994SFO0.81313-310916
1993DAL0.7512-49414
1992DAL0.81313-39111
1991WAS0.87514-2909
1990NYG0.81313-3835
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The man with the second longest TD streak played for the Chargers...

Last year, I noted that Drew Brees had thrown a touchdown in 37 consecutive games and examined his chances of breaking the NFL record. The current mark is held by Johnny Unitas, who threw a touchdown in 47 consecutive games from 1956 to 1960. By the end of the 2011 season, Brees had upped his streak to 43 games, which positions Brees to break the record in week 5 of this season, against his former team, the San Diego Chargers, on Sunday Night Football.

Assuming Brees breaks the record, we can expect a four-hour telecast devoted to the greatness of Drew Brees, which is largely warranted. Brees is a future Hall of Famer and one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the history of the game. And he’ll be breaking one of the oldest records in football, one currently held by the standard bearer at the position.

If you’ve been at Football Perspective for long, you probably know where this is going. How impressive will it be for Brees to break this record? The short answer is, probably not as impressive as you might think.

What are the odds of throwing a touchdown in 47 straight games1? Brees deserves all of the credit and praise he gets for being an elite quarterback, and a Blaine Gabbert-type is obviously not going to be the one to break this record. But the real question we want to ask is what are the odds of a star quarterback throwing a touchdown in 47 consecutive games. We can get a pretty good estimate of that.

In 44 games from 2002 to 2005, Marc Bulger threw a touchdown in 93% of his games, or 41 of 44 games. And in two of the games where he did not throw a touchdown, he threw fewer than five passes. In 73 games from 2000 to 2004, Daunte Culpepper threw a touchdown in 86% of his games. Brett Favre, from 2001 to 2004, threw a touchdown in 95% of his games. Eli Manning, from 2005 to 2011, threw a touchdown in 86% of his starts and was booed by Giants fans in just as many. Peyton Manning, excluding his rookie year, threw a touchdown in 87% of his games with the Colts. Philip Rivers once threw a touchdown in 50 of 54 straight games. Aaron Rodgers has thrown a touchdown in 50 of his last 53 games, with one of his zeroes coming in a partial game against the Lions. Tony Romo has thrown a touchdown in 90% of his games since 2007, and 92% of those games if you exclude two games he did not finish. Matt Ryan has thrown a touchdown in 30 of his last 31 games. Matthew Stafford has thrown a touchdown in 28 of his last 30 games, with one of his shutouts coming in a game he did not finish due to injury. From ’99 to ’01, Kurt Warner threw a touchdown in 93% of his games.

And then there’s Tom Brady. Since 2007, Brady has thrown a touchdown in 92% of his starts, or 94% if you exclude his game against the Chiefs when he tore his ACL in the first quarter. Brady has also thrown a touchdown in each regular season game the past two seasons, which means he could also break Unitas’ mark in 2012.

There is obviously an upper limit to the question ‘what is the likelihood of an elite quarterback playing at an elite level throwing a touchdown in any given game?’ Last year, I speculated that Brees’ likelihood was around 89-91%, which in retrospect, might be a little low. The upper limit is probably closer to 96 or 97%, although obviously very few quarterbacks could get there. If we assume complete games — i.e., that the quarterback won’t get injured or get benched or rested — maybe a star quarterback in today’s game has a 94% chance of throwing a touchdown in any given game.

... as did the man with the longest streak

In that case, such a quarterback has a 5% chance of throwing a touchdown in 48 consecutive games. In some ways, of course, this is a “what are the odds of that” sort of question. Yes, Brees is at 43 in a row, but he’s not alone. Brady has thrown a touchdown in every game the last two seasons. Stafford has done it in 18 straight games, Rodgers for 17, and Ryan is at 15. And, of course, players like Kurt Warner and Brett Favre and Peyton Manning have played at elite levels for stretches just like Brees.

Perhaps the better question is, assuming 14 elite quarterbacks playing at elite levels play in 48 straight games, and each has a 94% chance of throwing a touchdown in any given game, what are the odds that none of them go 48/48? The answer to that: 48%. In other words, it is more likely than not that some quarterback would break the record.

Brees deserves all the praise in the world for essentially putting himself at the upper limit of elite quarterback play. He deserves credit for having a quick release and excelling at pre-snap coverage, which limits the amount of hits he takes. On the other hand, he’s fortunate to have almost entirely avoided playing in poor weather. He’s fortunate to have avoided injury on the hits he has taken, and to have not played for a coach that chose to bench him for a meaningless game after a drive or two (in fact, he missed week 17 of the 2009 season entirely, keeping his streak alive). He’s also fortunate that he’s thrown a touchdown in 43 games and not 41 or 42 out of 43, like many other elite quarterbacks. Brees has had bad games during this streak — in 7 of them, he’s averaged 4.8 AY/A or fewer — but he always managed to throw at least one touchdown. That’s less skill than luck, and you can read about some of Brees’ near misses here.

The skill involved for Brees is getting himself to that upper limit. Given enough quarterbacks playing at elite levels for enough years, Unitas’ record was bound to fall. Brees happens to be one of those quarterbacks.

  1. Assuming independence and a consistent rate per game []
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One of my law school professors was very quirky, even by law school professor standards. His preferred examination method was multiple choice, but with a twist. After grading each exam, he would then divide the students into quarters based on their test score. He would then re-examine each question, and measure how the top quarter of students performed on each question relative to the bottom quarter. Any question that more bottom-quarter students answered correctly than top-quarter students would be thrown out, and the exam would be re-graded. As he delicately put out, ‘if the wrong students are getting the question right, and the right students are getting the question wrong, it’s a bad question.’

NFL passing records are falling for a variety of reasons these days, including rules changes and league policies that make the passing game more effective. But there’s another reason: for the first time in awhile, the right people are throwing the most passes in the league. And there’s no better example of that than Drew Brees. Since coming to the Saints in 2006, he’s ranked 1st or 2nd in pass attempts four times, and ranked in the top three in net yards per attempt four times. But even since ’06, we’ve seen the passing game evolve, as the best quarterbacks are now the most likely ones to finish near the top of the leaderboard in pass attempts. In 2010, Peyton Manning had his first 600-attempt season… when he threw 679 passes for the Colts. Tom Brady threw 611 passes last year for the 13-3 Patriots, making New England one of just three teams to threw 600 pass attempts and win 13 or more games in a season. The other two teams? The ’09 Colts and the ’11 Saints.

At various points in the history of the NFL, passing was viewed as an alternative to running, and the high-attempt game was the province of the trailing team. But times are changing in the NFL. I calculated each team’s net yards per attempt (NY/A) and total pass attempts (attempts plus sacks) for every year since 1970. Then, I measured the correlation coefficient between NY/A and pass attempts for the league for each of the last 42 seasons. The chart below shows the correlation coefficient between those two variables (NY/A and pass attempts) for the league as a whole for each year since the merger:
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