≡ Menu

Turnover Among Targets, Part I

Cam may need to really be Superman in 2014

Cam may need to really be Superman in 2014.

The Carolina Panthers have experienced a lot of turnover this offseason. Steve Smith (Baltimore), Ted Ginn (Arizona), Domenik Hixon (Chicago), and Brandon LaFell (New England) are all gone. Those four players were the only wide receivers to catch a pass for Carolina in 2013, and they accounted for 59% of the Panthers receiving yards. last year. What does this mean for Cam Newton? Last August, a couple of star quarterbacks appeared to be going through some similarly significant turnover among their targets.

Tom Brady lost four of his top five targets from 2012 and the fifth was Rob Gronkowski; in retrospect, most people underestimated how big of an impact this would have on Brady’s numbers. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger’s receivers were a big question mark entering the season, but a monster year from Antonio Brown prevented Roethlisberger’s numbers from tanking. As it turned out, Roethlisberger didn’t wind up having much turnover, but the quarterback who experienced the second-most turnover wound up winning the Comeback Player of the Year award.

For Carolina, I think some of the departures have been overblown. The defense should again be one of the best in the NFL, and it’s not as though the passing game was outstanding last year. Greg Olsen led the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns last year, and he’ll be back in 2014. In addition, the Panthers averaged 7.4 yards per attempt on passes to Greg Olsen last year and 7.1 yards per attempt (the league average) on passes to all other players. Carolina signed Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, and Joe Webb, should draft a receiver or two in May, and has a potential sleeper in Marvin McNutt. I think they’ll be just fine, mostly because that’s all the passing game was last year.

Since it’s still a bit early to figure out exactly how the Panthers passing game will look in 2014, I thought we could use some time this weekend to review some history. Which teams have experienced the most turnover among their targets? And how do we even measure such a thing? [click to continue…]

{ 2 comments }

In January, I calculated the AV-adjusted age of every team in 2013. In February, I looked at the production-adjusted height for each team’s receivers. Today, we combine those two ideas, and see which teams had the youngest and oldest set of targets.

To calculate the average receiving age of each team, I calculated a weighted average of the age of each player on that team, weighted by their percentage of team receiving yards. For example, Anquan Boldin caught 36.7% of all San Francisco receiving yards, and he was 32.9 years old as of September 1, 2013. Therefore, his age counts for 36.7% of the 49ers’ average receiving age. Vernon Davis, who was 29.6 on 9/1/13, caught 26.5% of the team’s receiving yards last year, so his age matters more than all other 49ers but less than Boldin’s. The table below shows the average age for each team’s receivers (which includes tight ends and running backs) in 2013, along with the percentage of team receiving yards and age as of 9/1/13 for each team’s top four receiving leaders: [click to continue…]

{ 8 comments }

Predictions in Review: NFC South

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, and the the AFC South. Today, the NFC South.

Who Will Win 2013 Head Coach of the Year, July 25, 2013

For reasons that are not quite clear to me, I have an unusual fascination with the Coach of the Year award. There’s no harder award to predict in all of sports, since the winner is essentially the coach of the team that had the least predictable (in a good way) season. Still, I threw my hat into the ring in 2014 and predicted that Sean Payton would win Coach of the Year. Here is what I wrote in July:

Rob Ryan is now in charge of a defense that ranked last in yards allowed, net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards allowed, rushing yards per carry allowed, first downs allowed, Expected Points Added, and defensive DVOA. The 2012 Saints also ranked 31st in points allowed. Ryan himself won’t fix that, but first round pick Kenny Vaccaro should begin to help the problem secondary.

But the real reason for optimism is the always explosive Saints offense. Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, and Darren Sproles are three of the more unique players in the NFL, and help give the Saints an outstanding passing offense. Of course, New Orleans passing attack was great before either Graham or Sproles arrived, as the Brees/Payton engine (with a dash of Marques Colston and Lance Moore) is at times unstoppable. …

Predicting who will win AP Coach of the Year is a fool’s errand, but I’m willing to put my chips on Brees and Payton leading the Saints to the playoffs in a “bounceback” year. The real question is whether that will be enough to convince the voters to select Payton.

As it turned out, Payton did lead a resurgent Saints team from 7-9 in 2012 to 11-5 in 2013; unfortunately for him, a playoff berth was not enough to get him Coach of the Year. That honor instead went to Ron Rivera, although in my eyes, Andy Reid was an immensely more deserving choice.

What can we learn: In week 16, the Panthers defeated the Saints on a touchdown pass with 28 seconds left in the game; had New Orleans won that game, the Saints would have finished 12-4 and won the division and a first round bye, knocking Rivera’s Panthers down to the 5 seed. Would that have been enough to swing the COTY award to Payton? Probably not, although it likely would have meant Reid would have won the honor. The Coach of the Year award remains impossible to predict.

Did you just grab my torch?

Did you just grab my torch?.

Julio Jones and Roddy White star in Stealing The Torch, July 31, 2013

My other three NFC South posts were more walks down memory lane than predictions. The Falcons post was a look at other star wide receiver tandems that were similar to Julio Jones and Roddy White in 2012. This was a fun way to look at comparable receivers, but there was nothing fun about the Atlanta offense in 2013.  Jones averaged 116.0 yards per game last year, but that came over just five games. A foot injury suffered against the Jets in week 5 ended what looked to be a special season: Jones was leading the league in receptions (41) and was second in receiving yards (580) at the time. White, meanwhile, had an absymal start to his season that dragged on for months.

Hamstring and ankle injuries caused White to miss three full games and hampered his production in most of the others. At the end of November, he just 20 catches for 209 yards; at that point, the Falcons were 2-9, and I won’t fault you if you put Atlanta on “ignore” for the rest of the year. But White exploded with 43 catches for 502 yards in December, joining Josh Gordon (658) and Alshon Jeffery (561) as the only players with 500+ receiving yards in December 2013.

The Steve Smith Post, August 7, 2013

In August, I decided to compile the loose odds and ends I had collected on Steve Smith over the years. When the time comes, I plan on using that post to augment Smith’s Hall of Fame case. Unfortunately for Smith, the time may be coming sooner than he’d like. On December 1st, I wrote that Smith’s poor production may have been a reason for why Cam Newton’s numbers had declined.

Smith has had largely the same role in the Panthers offense for years, so it’s not unreasonable to compare his advanced metrics from each of Newton’s seasons.  In 2013, Smith caught 58.2% of his targets, which is in line with his production from 2012 (52.9%) and 2011 (61.2%). However, Smith started running much shorter routes — according to NFLGSIS, his average reception came just 8.9 yards downfield in 2013, compared to around 12 yards over the prior two years. Smith’s YAC also decreased (which is unusual, as shorter passes tend to lead to more YAC, making this another bad sign); as a result, his yards per target dropped from 10.8 in 2011 to 8.5 in 2012 to just 6.8 in 2013.  It was a down year in a Hall of Fame caliber career. Smith turns 35 in May; unfortunately, it seems safe to suggest that the best is behind him.

Can Tampa Bay Win the NFC South With the Worst Passing Attack?, August 13, 2013

Just about everyone assumed the Bucs would have the worst starting quarterback in the NFC South. What interested me was the rest of the team. The question I posed was more trivia than analysis: how often does the team with the worst passing attack in the division wind up winning the division?

The answer: Since 1950, only nine teams pulled off that feat, with nearly half of them coming since the league moved to a four-teams-per-division-for-each-division format in 2002. No team pulled off that feat in 2013, although the Panthers ranked 3rd in the NFC South in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. The team that ranked last in the division was, of course, the Bucs.

The Bucs ranked 32nd in NY/A and finished the year 4-12. But remember: Tampa Bay faced the hardest schedule in the league in 2013. Early DVOA estimates project the Bucs for 7.7 wins in 2014, and there are reasons for optimism in Tampa Bay in 2014.

{ 3 comments }

By all accounts, this was an underwhelming quartet of games played on The Best Weekend in Football. Last year, the division round gave us an incredible Russell Wilson comeback where the Seahawks scored three fourth quarter touchdowns before falling short against the Falcons and the Peyton Manning-Joe Flacco-Rahim Moore classic. Seattle won this year but in boring fashion, and Broncos fans undoubtedly prefer this year’s rendition of Neutral-Zone-Infraction to last year’s heartbreak. In 2011, the 9-7 Giants pulled off the rarest of upsets: outclassing the 15-1 Packers and winning a game as huge underdogs while managing to look like the better team in the process. The day before, Alex Smith lead the 49ers in a home upset over the Saints in one of the more exciting playoff games of our generation. In 2009 and 2010, the brash Jets won road games as heavy underdogs in convincing fashion against the Chargers and Patriots. This was the halcyon era of the Mark Sanchez-Rex Ryan Jets, also known as years 3 and 2 Before The Buttfumble. In 2008, the Ravens (over the Titans), Eagles (Giants), and Cardinals (Panthers) all won as road underdogs. The year before, the Giants shocked the Cowboys before that was our Tony Romo-adjusted expectation, and the Chargers won as 11-point underdogs in Indianapolis preventing a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning upset (no such road bump this year).

In some ways, the results this weekend were a good thing. Perhaps we will remember this as the year the division round of the playoffs felt like eating a salad – a bit unsatisfying at the time, but better for us in the long term. No one would complain about seeing more Andrew Luck — actually, maybe some of us would — but getting an AFC Championship Game of Manning and Brady just feels right. We have become so accustomed to seeing fluky teams like the Chargers make runs that we’ve forgotten that it can be very good when the results match our intuition. Back in April I said that the Patriots and Broncos were on a collision course for the AFC Championship Game, although my reasoning wasn’t exactly spot on (“the key to their success is keeping Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Amendola healthy, although the Patriots will be fine as long as two of them are on the field.”)

But it’s not as if I had some special insight: as noted by Will Brinson, the 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots, and Broncos were the four teams with the best preseason odds. No one would complain about seeing more from the Saints and Panthers, but I don’t think many would argue with the idea that the 49ers and Seahawks are the two most talented teams in the league. A few years from now, there won’t be much we remember from the division round. But I have a feeling it set up two conference championship games that will be very memorable. [click to continue…]

{ 9 comments }

Division Preview: San Francisco at Carolina

At least 400 total yards were gained in every game this season. When Nick Foles threw 7 touchdowns against the Raiders, Oakland actually out-gained Philadelphia, and the two teams combined for a season-high 1,102 yards that day. On the other end of the spectrum was San Francisco/Carolina I, when the two teams combined for just 401 yards. That first game was essentially the NFL’s version of LSU/Alabama, and I don’t think the rematch will be very different.

When these two teams take the field on Sunday, the opponent will feel familiar for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is because of the week ten match-up. But these teams are also mirror images of each other. Consider:

Kuechly and Kaepernick are just two of the many stars in this game

Kuechly and Kaepernick are just two of the many stars in this game.

{ 2 comments }

How good are the Panthers?

2013 has been a much more pleasant season for these two

2013 has been a much more pleasant season for these two.

Through 15 weeks, Brian Burke ranks the Broncos, 49ers, Panthers, and Seahawks as the top four teams in the NFL. According to his numbers, Carolina has the #7 offense and the #7 defense.

Football Outsiders is a little less bullish on Carolina, ranking them 13th. On the other hand, the Panthers have won three of their last four games, and Carolina ranks 11th in weighted DVOA, 10th in offense, and 11th in defense (a 31st-place ranking in special teams is not helping matters).

Still, some question whether the Panthers are really a top team, or even an average team. After all, it was only two weeks ago that I wrote that the “2013 Panthers were largest sleeping giant (whatever that means) of the last 20 years.”

Date of the first three paragraphs of this post: December 22, 2012.

Now let’s talk about the 2013 Carolina Panthers. Advanced NFL Stats has them as the 8th best team in the NFL, courtesy of the 13th best offense and 10th best defense. Football Outsiders has Carolina as the 3rd best team in the league, thanks to the #8 offense, the #3 defense, and the 14th best special teams.

But in 2012, Carolina started 2-8, and was just 5-9 after 15 games. This year, the Panthers are 10-4. So why the heck do these teams look so similar? Let’s investigate. [click to continue…]

{ 8 comments }

You probably didn’t know it, but Cam Newton is having a down year, at least statistically.

Year GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A AY/A Y/C Y/G Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A Sk%
2011 16 310 517 60.0 4051 21 4.1 17 3.3 7.8 7.2 13.1 253.2 35 260 6.87 6.24 6.3
2012 16 280 485 57.7 3869 19 3.9 12 2.5 8.0 7.6 13.8 241.8 36 244 6.96 6.65 6.9
2013 11 208 337 61.7 2353 17 5.0 9 2.7 7.0 6.8 11.3 213.9 31 235 5.76 5.58 8.4

Carolina’s defense has been outstanding, of course, so an 8-3 record and a seven-game winning streak have overshadowed any flaws in Newton’s game. The Panthers have held an average lead of 5.05 points per second this year, the third best rate in the league. As a result of that high Game Script, Newton is asked to do less on offense, but that doesn’t explain the declining efficiency numbers. Newton’s taking slightly more sacks and his rushing numbers are down across the board, but the biggest decline comes with respect to yards per completion.
[click to continue…]

{ 19 comments }

New York Times: Post-Week 6, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I look at the hard-to-read Carolina Panthers. Carolina has won six of nine games since I declared them a sleeping giant. On the other hand, the team has a losing record this season and has beaten teams with a combined one victory. In other words, as tends to be the case, you see what you want to see when looking at the Panthers.

We will have to check back in three months for the final answer, but there are signs that the Carolina Panthers, a disappointment at 2-3, could become one of the N.F.L.’s breakout teams.

First, Coach Ron Rivera, quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers will have to overcome a well-earned reputation as a group that cannot beat good teams; that cannot win close games in the fourth quarter; and that is too conservative on fourth down. As a rookie in 2011, Newton dazzled N.F.L. fans, but the Panthers finished 6-10. Carolina was 1-7 against teams that finished with a winning record, and the Panthers won once in nine tries when they had the ball and were trailing by one score in the fourth quarter.

The same issues cropped up last year. Carolina started 3-9, with an 0-7 record in games decided by 7 or fewer points and a 1-5 mark against teams that finished with a winning record. With the season effectively over at the three-quarters mark, the Panthers finished 4-0, ensuring that Rivera would be back for another season.

This season, the Panthers defeated the winless Giants, 38-0, in Week 3 and won in Minnesota against the 1-4 Vikings, 35-10, on Sunday. But the Panthers have blown two fourth-quarter leads. And after a loss to Arizona, Carolina was 5-15 since 2011 in games that were within one score entering the fourth quarter, the worst mark in the league.

But there is reason to be optimistic about the Panthers. Carolina has outscored its opponents by 41 points this season, the most by a 2-3 team since 1921. There has been a strong relationship between points differential and the future performance of 2-3 teams. Of all the 2-3 teams from 1990 to 2012, 11 have outscored opponents by 20 or more points, with an average points differential of 28.5. Over the rest of the season, those 11 teams won 64.9 percent of their games.

You can read the full article here.

{ 1 comment }

The Early Returns On Mike Shula Are Not Good

The Panthers ran a slow offense against Seattle

The Panthers ran a slow offense against Seattle.

Tom Brady and the Patriots ran 89 plays in week one. Chip Kelly’s Eagles ran 53 plays in the first half. The Denver hurry-up offense picked up 510 yards, and would have run more than their 68 plays had Peyton Manning stopped throwing touchdowns and prematurely ending drives.

But if it seemed like week one was played at turbo speed, you probably didn’t watch the Seahawks-Panthers game. Carolina finished with a league-low 49 offensive plays. For those who didn’t closely monitor the coordinator situation in Carolina, here’s a bit of background. Rob Chudzinski was the Panthers offensive coordinator the past two seasons. His team’s inconsistent play and poor record drew ire from some fans, but the overall impressive nature of the Carolina offense landed him the top job in Cleveland. With head coach Ron Rivera on the hot seat, he simply promoted quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to offensive coordinator. Here’s what my buddy and Footballguys.com co-writer Jason Wood had to say about the change back in June:

Mike Shula last called plays in the NFL in 1999, his final season coaching under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay. Since then, Shula is better known as the guy who preceded Nick Saban at the University of Alabama and less for his abilities as an NFL offensive difference maker. In spite of his limited recent experience, … it was his relationship with and tutelage of Cam Newton that made him the obvious choice for the OC position.

Schematically, Shula is keeping the foundation of Chudzinski’s offense in place, but in an effort to expedite the pace he has simplified the terminology. By doing so, Cam Newton can get in and out of the huddle far faster and the Panthers can try to dictate tempo in a way that was impossible a season ago. Cam Newton explained in a recent interview, “Twins Right, Key Left, 631 Smash M sounds completely different than Twins Right Tampa…It comes out of your mouth faster. You get in the huddle, it’s the same exact play.”

The early returns on the up-tempo offense are not good — how did the team run just 49 plays against Seattle? Carolina was one of the few teams to have success on the ground in week one — the Panthers rushed for 134 yards on 5.2 yards per carry, placing them in the top six in both metrics. And while Cam Newton didn’t have a great game, he completed 70% of his passes, which usually leads to lots of plays. How does a team that runs well and throws only seven incomplete passes score just 7 points and get limited to 49 plays? As it turns out, Mike Shula bears some of the blame.
[click to continue…]

{ 9 comments }

Emerging From the Shadows

In 2008, the tightest division in college football was the ACC Atlantic. All six teams finished either 5-3 or 4-4. Boston College started 2-3 in conference play, but won the division after winning at Florida State, at Wake Forest, and against Maryland in the last three weeks of the regular season. The Eagles were not a very talented team; this was the year after Matt Ryan left for the draft, and the offense underwhelmed in his absence. As you can probably guess, it was the team’s defense that guided them to the ACC Championship Game:

Boston College did not have good quarterback play, but made up for decreased offensive production with a top-notch defense, whose three shutouts tied U.S.C. for the most in the F.B.S. All told, the 2008 B.C. defense ranked among the best in program history, ranking in the top 10 nationally in total defense (fifth), rush defense (seventh), pass efficiency (seventh), first downs allowed (sixth) and interceptions (first). It carried the team through the travails of an often average offense.

And there was no question who was the star of the 2008 Eagles defense: junior linebacker Mark Herzlich. After such a dominant season, he could have declared for the draft and been a first round pick; instead, Herzlich chose to return for his senior season. Then, tragedy stuck in mid-May: Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a malignant tumor usually discovered in bone or soft tissue. Here was Matt Hinton’s article after hearing the news:

Even for relatively diehard fans, it might have been possible to get through the last couple seasons knowing Mark Herzlich only as “the guy with the crazy facepaint,” but that would be missing the lead: The 6’4″, 240-pound Boston College linebacker was the defensive player of the year in a conference that had six defenders picked in the first two rounds1 of this year’s draft, and might have joined teammate B.J. Raji in the top-10 if he hadn’t decided to come back for his senior season at B.C.

And here was how Paul Myerberg described Herzlich in the summer of 2009:

His accolades are numerous: 2008 A.C.C. defensive player of the year, Butkus Award finalist, first-team all-A.C.C. and third-team all-American; these awards come as a result of his team-leading 110 tackles (13 for loss), 3 sacks, 6 interceptions and 8 pass breakups. As great an all-around linebacker as you’ll find on the F.B.S. level, Herzlich will be sorely missed on the field and in the locker room.

[click to continue…]

  1. The list: Raji, Aaron Curry, Alphonso Smith, Ron Brace, Clint Sintim, and Everette Brown. []
{ 1 comment }

The Steve Smith Post

Smith has excelled despite playing for a ground-based attack

Smith has excelled despite playing for a ground-based attack.

Over the last decade, Carolina’s Steve Smith has been one of the best receivers in the NFL. He’s also been the most under-appreciated. Let’s stroll down memory lane:

  • As a rookie, Smith was a first-team All-Pro returner but caught only ten passes. In his second year, he caught 54 passes for 872 yards and three touchdowns, and bumped those numbers to 88-1,110-7 in 2003. That season, the Panthers made it to the Super Bowl, with Smith as their number one receiving weapon. He caught 18 passes for 404 yards and 3 touchdowns (including one walk-off touchdown) in four playoff games, a 101 yard/game average that would be a sign of things to come. Smith’s fourth season ended in week one, when a tackle by Packers linebacker Hannibal Navies resulted in a broken leg.
  • In 2005, Smith had one of the greatest receiving seasons in history. He led the NFL in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns: since 1970, Smith, Sterling Sharpe (1992), and Jerry Rice (1990) are the only players to win the receiving triple crown.1 I ranked Smith’s 2005 as the 12th best regular season by a wide receiver since 1932, and then Smith added 335 receiving yards, 38 rushing yards and five total touchdowns (including a punt return) in three playoff games.
  • In 2006, Smith missed two games early in the season, and Jake Delhomme missed three games late. The backup quarterback was Chris Weinke. How bad was Chris Weinke? Two years before the Wildcat faze landed in South Beach, the Panthers had DeAngelo Williams taking direct snaps in this game against the Falcons (Carolina completed four passes) instead of having Weinke behind center. In the 11 Smith/Delhomme games, Smith totaled 73 receptions for 1,043 yards and 8 TDs, and also rushed for sixty-one yards and a score. That’s over 100 yards from scrimmage and nearly a touchdown a game, slightly better numbers than he produced during his scorched-earth 2005 campaign.
  • In 2007, 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde, David Carr, and 23-year-old Matt Moore started 13 games for Carolina after Jake Delhomme suffered a season-ending elbow injury in week three. Smith still caught 87 passes for 1,002 yards and 7 scores (four in the first two weeks before Delhomme was hurt), and rushed for sixty-six yards. Many give Larry Fitzgerald a pass for poor quarterback play, but Smith deserves extra credit for catching 87 passes when Carolina finished 28th in passing yards and 30th in Net Yards per Attempt. Drew Carter (517 receiving yards), Jeff King (406), Keary Colbert (332) were the only other receivers of note for the ’07 Panthers, which meant all eyes were always on Smith. Perhaps a better measure of Smith’s performance that year: he was responsible for 30.5% of all Panthers receptions in 2007, second in the league only to the first edition of Jay Cutler loves Brandon Marshall (31.3%).
  • In 2008, Delhomme was back, although Smith was suspended for the first two games of the season. But his fourteen game stat line was typical Smith: 78 catches, 1,421 yards, and 6 touchdowns. His 101.5 receiving yards per game average was a league and personal best. But wait: the 2008 Panthers finished 32nd in the league in pass attempts that year. Think for a second how crazy it is to lead the league in receiving yards per game on the least-pass happy team in the NFL. The Seahawks (last year’s cellar dweller in pass attempts), even with Russell Wilson, didn’t produce an 800-yard receiver last year. In terms of receiving yards per team pass attempt, Smith’s 2005 season was the best in modern history, with Smith’s 2008 season as the second best. In the 14 games in which Smith played in 2008, the Panthers passed only 352 times, meaning Smith averaged an absurd 4.04 yards per team pass attempt.

Let’s take a step back now. From 2005 to 2008, Smith played in 48 games (including playoffs) with Delhomme as quarterback, the equivalent of three full seasons. He caught 299 passes for 4,686 yards, averaged 101.3 yards per game from scrimmage, and scored 38 touchdowns. In other words, when not playing with quarterbacks so bad that they make Jake Delhomme look like Joe Montana, Smith was producing average numbers that would be career highs for just about every receiver not named Jerry Rice. And he did it on a run-first team.

But in the team’s postseason game against the Cardinals, the clock struck midnight on Jake Delhomme’s career: the Panthers quarterback went 17/34 for 205 yards with five interceptions, and then threw 8 touchdowns against 18 interceptions in 11 starts in 2009. Delhomme ranked 31st in passer rating and ANY/A that season, ahead of only JaMarcus Russell on both counts. Smith’s production suffered — 65-982-7 — but that falls on the quarterback. Smith sat out the meaningless 2009 finale, but in the final four games of the season — with Matt Moore starting — he caught 19 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns.

Yet things went from bad to worse for Smith. In 2010, Moore and Jimmy Clausen combined to produce some of the worst quarterbacking in NFL history. Carolina finished the season 2-14, with just 2,289 passing yards, and a pitiful 2.9 ANY/A average. As a point of reference, the 2012 Cardinals threw for 3,005 yards and averaged 3.4 ANY/A.2 A 31-year-old Smith had a miserable 46-catch, 554-yard, 2-touchdown season in 14 games, but if any season deserves a pass, it’s that one.

Most thought that after 2010, Smith was washed up. Instead, he experienced a career revival after the team drafted Cam Newton. In 2011, Smith ranked 5th in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,394, even though Carolina team ranked 23rd in pass attempts. The Panthers threw even less frequently last year, but Smith still picked up 1,174 receiving yards at the age of thirty-three (and he ranked 8th in yards per team pass attempt).

Summary

Smith lost prime seasons at age 25 (broken leg), 30 (Delhomme PTSD), and 31 (Clausen/Moore dumpster fire). At age 24, he had a breakout season punctuated by an outstanding postseason. Then, from ages 26 to 29, he was historically excellent whenever he and a halfway respectable quarterback shared the field. At ages 32 and 33, he’s been very productive on run-heavy teams: only Jerry Rice and Don Maynard have gained more receiving yards at those ages than Smith.

Smith, like Jimmy Smith, may never make the Hall of Fame. But for a very long stretch he was one of the best players in the game, and only bad luck prevented him from having a more remarkable career. When Ronde Barber said that Smith — and not Rice, or Randy Moss, or Calvin Johnson — was the toughest receiver he ever faced, I wasn’t surprised. Smith, in a bigger market and with even halfway decent quarterback play (not to mention being hampered by FoxBall), would be a Hall of Fame lock.

There’s still a chance for Smith to wind up in Canton. He’s not washed up just yet, although the clock is certainly ticking on Smith’s chances of getting pregnant. After lining up inside on only 9.5% of all routes last year, new wide receivers coach (and former teammate) Ricky Proehl, is working with Smith as the team plays to use him in the slot more this season. Perhaps Smith has one more dominant season left in him. Carolina wasn’t as bad as its record was last year, so another playoff berth isn’t out of the question, either. One thing I know: I’ll enjoy watching him in 2013, because it’s not often we get a chance to watch an all-time great.

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  1. Pre-merger list: Lance Alworth (1966), Dave Parks (1965), Johnny Morris (1964), Raymond Berry (1959, 1960), Pete Pihos (1953), Elroy Hirsch (1951), Don Hutson (1936, 1941 through 1944), and Ray Flaherty (1932). []
  2. The 2010 Cardinals, who finished 31st in passing yards and 31st in ANY/A, were at 2,921 yards and 3.7 ANY/A. []
{ 32 comments }

I took this Sporcle quiz the other day on receivers to gain 1,000 yards with multiple teams. I did fine, I suppose, naming 22 of the 30 receivers. As I was going through the list, I kept looking at the rows for “Buccaneers, Panthers” and “Panthers, Cowboys” and my brain operated in this way:

Steve Smith never played for the Bucs or Cowboys. Neither did Muhsin Muhammad.”
….
Patrick Jeffers had a big year in 1999, but that was it for his career.”
….
“The Panthers have literally never had anyone resembling a competent wide receiver starting across from Smith in as long as I can remember (other than Muhammad).”
….
Wesley Walls didn’t play for Dallas or Tampa Bay. And I can’t think of a single other Panthers receiver from before 2000.”

“Let me try typing in Smith and Muhammad again.”

After the quiz, I checked the Panthers team page on PFR. The top nine receiving seasons were accomplished by either Smith or Muhammad, but there were in fact two other players to hit the 1,000-yard receiving mark for Carolina. Can you name them? If so, you’re a better man on Panthers wide receiver trivia than me.
[click to continue…]

{ 10 comments }

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.
[click to continue…]

{ 4 comments }

So you're telling me they were 1-15 last year?

An old friend of mine was always mildly irked at the praise thrown at Bill Parcells for turning around moribund franchises. In reality, making a team with a terrible record respectable isn’t all that challenging. Where Parcells added value was in making his good teams great, not in making terrible teams mediocre.

In 1992, one year B.P., the New England Patriots were 2-14, in part thanks to a 1-5 record in one-score games. Throw in some regression to the mean and the first pick in every round of the ’93 draft, and going 5-11 in 1993 wasn’t so much of an accomplishment as it was pre-ordained.

In 1996, one year B.P., the Jets went 1-15. New York was a horrific 0-7 in one-score games. Throw in the #1 pick in every round, and they were an attractive target. Parcells did do a masterful job cleaning up the mess left by Rich Kotite, but getting them to 9-7 looked very impressive in large part thanks to the poor fortunes of the team the prior year.

The Big Tuna again went after the low-hanging fruit again when he took over as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations in Miami (it is here my old friend would get particularly annoyed, noting that Parcells found a way to have his cake and eat it too. If the Dolphins succeeded, Parcells would have “done it again.” Had they failed, well, he wasn’t the coach.) He took over a 1-15 team that was bad but not 1-15 bad; they had faced one of the harder schedules in the league and gone 1-6 in close games. Enter Jake Long, Chad Pennington, and the Wildcat, and the Dolphins went 11-5. Parcells did it again!

In any event, that’s just background. The 2013 Panthers are the real topic today — and they are the lowest hanging fruit any potential coach has seen in decades. Consider:

  • The Panthers are currently 3-9, and little is expected of them going forward. They are now just 9-19 in the Cam Newton era.
  • Despite that, Carolina ranks 4th in Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL Stats efficiency ratings. Now maybe they aren’t the 4th best team in the league, but Brian’s system is purely predictive and minimizes events that shape our views but are unlikely to impact future records. I have no doubt that they’re closer to the 4th best team in the league than the 4th worst, which is where they are by record.
  • Football Outsiders ranks Carolina 18th — which, by the way, still means they’re much better than their record — but even that is misleading. Schatz ranks Carolina 32nd in special teams — a unit that Burke ignores — but instead has them 15th in offensive DVOA and 14th in defensive DVOA. That means excluding special teams the Panthers are above average, and special teams performance is notoriously fickle.
  • So why are the Panthers 3-9? Carolina is currently 0-7 in one-score games.

There’s an even simpler way to show how the Panthers are massively underachieving this year. Net yards per attempt isn’t the only stat in the world, but it’s one of the most important indicators of an offense’s effectiveness. Net yards per attempt is just as important on defense; NY/A differential, the difference between how many net yards you gain per offensive attempt and how many you allow per defensive attempt, is a simple shorthand to highlight the best in the league. Here are the results through 13 weeks (i.e., not counting last night’s game):
[click to continue…]

{ 22 comments }

Cam Newton is having an interesting year

I don’t care about any of the nonsense with Cam Newton. Instead, take a look at his 2011 and 2012 stat lines:

                                                                                            
Year   GS  QBrec Cmp Att Cmp%  Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A  AY/A Y/C  Yd/G Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A Sk% Rsh Yds TD  YPC Y/G  C/G
2011   16 6-10-0 310 517 60.0 4051 21 4.1  17  3.3 7.8  7.2 13.1 253.2 35 260  6.9   6.2 6.3 126 706 14  5.6 44.1 7.9
2012    6  1-5-0 101 173 58.4 1387  5 2.9   6  3.5 8.0  7.0 13.7 231.2 15 102  6.8   5.9 8.0  46 273  3  5.9 45.5 7.7

His Y/A is actually higher this year (although his sack rate is a little worse), and his rushing yards per game and yards per carry are both slightly up. Obviously the biggest change is that Newton simply isn’t scoring very much — he’s on pace for just 21 touchdowns after scoring 35 last year. But touchdowns are more volatile than metrics like yards per attempt, and tend to rebound quickly when paired with a strong yards per attempt average. Compared to league average, Newton’s only slightly worse in NY/A and ANY/A than he was last year, and he’s still above-average in both statistics. Statistically, he looks fine.

But the eye test certainly says Newton is struggling. And some stats back that up, too. Newton ranks 25th in Total QBR, although he only ranked 17th in that metric a year ago. Perhaps more importantly, the Carolina offense has plummeted to 29th in points per drive so far in 2012 (while ranking 17th and 19th in drive success rate), after ranking 6th in points per drive (and 6th in yards and 5th in DSR) in 2011. So the offense has been quite a bit worse, and significantly worse when it comes to scoring. That sort of matches what the “eye test” tells me.

But as Aaron Schatz pointed out to me, there are some odd splits going on with Newton. Take a look at how Newton’s performed on pass attempts on 1st downs this year:
[click to continue…]

{ 4 comments }