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Gronk can catch, block, and spike. But can he do all that without getting injured?

Gronk can catch, block, and spike. But can he do all that without getting injured?

In the 2011 AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, Bernard Pollard happened to Rob Gronkowski. And the Patriots offense ground to a halt for the rest of the game before being held to just 17 points in the Super Bowl.1 In 2012, it was a freak injury on an extra point and then a reinjury in the divisional playoffs against the Texans. After that, the Patriots offense put up only 14 against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship Game. Last year against the Browns, he took one of those horrible hits that make you cringe and want to keep him away from running seam routes in any regular season game.2 And the Pats put up 16 points against a mediocre and banged-up Broncos defense in the AFC Championship game.3

The Gronkowski injuries provide a tantalizing set of what-ifs. The Patriots have been within two games of a title the last three years. A healthy Gronkowski could have made the difference in any of those years. The Football Outsiders’ Almanac shows that the Pats’ offense was actually pretty good late in the season without Gronk, but they were terrible early in the year―they actually had a negative DVOA without him. Over the last two regular seasons, the Pats have averaged 34 PPG with Gronkowski, but six points fewer in New England’s 14 Gronk-less games.

And as much as I believe in stats, I’m not sure we really need them to tell us that Gronkowski is one of the most important non-quarterbacks in football. If he’s healthy through the playoffs, the Patriots seem likely to be neck-and-neck with the Broncos. With a defense that may be one of the best in football, I’d argue that the Pats should be a little better than the Broncos, even.4 Regardless, the Pats offense has been uniformly excellent with a healthy Gronkowski since 2010. Taking just the games where Gronk played, the Pats have ranked 1st, 3rd, 1st, and 2nd in offensive DVOA over the last four years.

That means one of the most important questions in the NFL in 2014 is whether we’ll see a healthy Gronkowski through the end of the season and into the playoffs. At this point, I think the reflexive answer is to assume that the answer is “no.” It certainly doesn’t feel like he’s going to be healthy. But previous examples of players getting hurt can provide some insight into Gronkowski’s actual chances.

Recovery for Injured Young-and-Excellent Players

In his second year, Gronkowski had an Approximate Value (AV) of 14. He then played only parts of the next two seasons due to injury. Considering players who started their careers since 1970, there have been 34 who had an AV season of at least 13 in their first two years and who then did not start at least 25% of the games in the following two years. This is a reasonable list of young-and-excellent players who then missed significant time in years 3 & 4. Most of these players missed time due to injuries, although some of those cases were a bit debatable.5 Regardless, the conclusions are pretty much the same if we drop some of those cases. [click to continue…]

  1. Yes, a very limited Gronk played in SB XLVI, but he had only two catches and jumped like me when battling Chase Blackburn on Brady’s underthrown fourth quarter pick. []
  2. The link is of Gronk shopping for groceries instead of the hit, because who wants to see that again? []
  3. The only two games all season where the Broncos gave up fewer points were against Houston and Oakland. []
  4. Unless Manning is just much better than Brady, I guess. I’m not seeing that. Denver’s only other big advantage is at receiver. Fine, but a healthy Gronkowski seems to even up a fair bit of that. And then there’s Brandon LaFell’s impending record-breaking season. I’m about to get shouted down. [Chase note: I don't know how much longer I can stomach Andrew writing for Football Perspective.] []
  5. In addition, I omitted two players who were obviously benched for other reasons: Shaun King and Derek Anderson. And Joe Cribbs, who went to the USFL for the fifth year of his pro career. []
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Predictions in Review: AFC East

During the 2013 offseason, I wrote 32 articles under the RPO 2013 tag. In my Predictions in Review series, I review those preview articles with the benefit of hindsight. Previously, I reviewed the AFC West, the NFC West, the AFC South, the NFC South, the AFC North, and the NFC North.  Today, the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills website complains about team’s schedule, June 24, 2013

Last summer, the Buffalo Bills website argued that the NFL schedule makers did Buffalo a big injustice by giving the team six games against teams coming off extra rest.  That was the most in the league: no other team had five such games, and as it turned out, the two other teams that had 4 games against teams with extra rest were the two most disappointing teams in the NFL (Houston and Atlanta). Meanwhile, the Chiefs, 49ers, and Patriots were the only teams in 2013 not to face an opponent coming off extra rest, and all three wound up making the playoffs.

So yeah, the Bills had a legitimate gripe. But what actually happened?

  • The Jets played the Patriots on Thursday night in week two, and then hosted the Bills ten days later in week three. The Jets won, 27-20.
  • The Jets then got to play the Bills in week 11 after New York’s week ten bye. That wasn’t so helpful for Gang Green: the Bills crushed the Jets at home, 37-14.
  • Another division opponent, Miami, got to play Buffalo after the Dolphins’ bye week. But the Bills went into Miami in week 7 and won, 23-21.
  • While the Bills were beating Miami, the Saints enjoyed a bye. In week 8, Buffalo went to New Orleans and was slaughtered, 35-17.
  • In week 12, the Bills were off, but the team’s week 13 opponent, Atlanta, was playing on Thursday night. So Buffalo’s game off the bye came against a team with 10 days rest. In Toronto, the Bills collapsed at the end, ultimately losing in overtime, 34-31.
  • In week 14, the Jaguars played on Thursday night and won their third game in a row; in week 15, Buffalo edged the Jaguars, 27-20.

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Championship Game Preview: New England at Denver

These two men look important

These two men look important.

Someone needs to say it. I know, I know, it’s Manning/Brady XV. But someone needs to remind people that Peyton Manning threw 30 more touchdown passes than Tom Brady in 2013. He threw for over 1,000 more yards. He threw one less interception. He was sacked 22 fewer times. And did I mention that he threw 30 more touchdowns? If you’re not into stats, Brian Burke has Manning providing 5.83 extra wins this year, compared to 3.82 for Brady. At some point, the analysis should move beyond “a game between two of the greatest quarterbacks ever” and recognize these things, right?

Let’s cut off the Patriots fans before they can begin typing in Boston accents: the fact that Manning’s 2013 numbers dwarf Brady’s 2013 numbers does not mean Manning’s career >>> Brady’s career. And it doesn’t even mean (although it strongly implies) that Manning was a better quarterback in 2013 than Brady was. There’s no doubt that Denver’s supporting cast, at least on offense, is much better than New England’s. Manning has Brady’s favorite target from last year, Wes Welker, along with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas. Brady has dealt with a very inexperienced set of receivers following massive turnover. The Patriots have had to replace Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Woodhead with Julian Edelman, 12 games worth of Danny Amendola, 8 games of Shane Vereen (although he’ll be around on Sunday), 7 games of Gronkowski (he won’t be around on Sunday), and Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Each quarterback is down a star tackle (Ryan Clady, Sebastian Vollmer) but has an All-Pro caliber guard (Louis Vasquez, Logan Mankins).

But whatever the reason for the discrepancy, one conclusion is inescapable: this is not a meeting of equal passing attacks. On one hand, you have one of the greatest passing offenses ever. On the other, you have an above-average passing offense. And that’s the real story. The Broncos averaged 10 more points per game than New England, while Manning (as representative of the Denver passing attack) averaged 2.75 more adjusted net yards per attempt than Brady (as representative of the Patriots passing attack). [click to continue…]

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Cap Space Versus Production For DEN/NE/SF/SEA

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and Seahawks, and are four of the best organizations in the NFL. Over the last two years, these four teams are the only to win 23 games in the regular season or 26 games if you include the playoffs. In the salary cap era, being an excellent team means managing the salary cap well. And, broadly speaking, managing the cap well means finding good values for cheap and making sure the players you spend a premium on deliver commensurate production.

So is that true for New England, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle? The invaluable Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap has salary cap data for each team in the league, which can answer half the problem. But how do we measure production? I decided to use the ratings from Pro Football Focus, since the website provides a rating of every player on every team (although I excluded special teamers from my analysis today).

One note about PFF data, which comes from Nathan Jahnke, a writer at the website. As he explained to me, PFF’s ratings are not necessarily designed for comparisons across positions. For each position, zero is average, but the magnitude a player’s rating can get to is somewhat dependent on the position they play. For example, PFF has never had a safety over a grade of +30, while five 3-4 DEs hit that mark in 2013. For my purposes today, this is not a big concern — it just means view the graphs with an understand that these are not designed to be the perfect way to compare a player. But in general, I think they work well. (And, of course, don’t think that just because Brandon Mebane has a higher rating than Russell Wilson that it means PFF thinks Mebane is a more valuable player.)

To avoid people using my graphs to scrub data and steal the hard work put in by by Over The Cap and Pro Football Focus in assembling the salary cap data and player grades , I have decided not to label either axis with salary information or player ratings. Just know that the X-axis (that’s the horizontal one) is for salary, and players on the left are cheap and players on the right are expensive. The vertical or Y-axis shows the PFF grades from worst (on the bottom) to best on top). Note: to compare across teams, I have used the exact same dimensions for both axes across all four graphs. [click to continue…]

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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…]

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When it comes Patriots/Colts, it’s easy to want to focus on Tom Brady vs. Andrew Luck. Or to marvel at the sheer number of star players these teams have lost in the last 12 months. If you played college in the state of Florida, you’re probably not going to be playing in this game: T.Y. Hilton is the last star standing with Vince Wilfork, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes, and Reggie Wayne gone. The Patriots also have placed Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly and Adrian Wilson on injured reserve, while Devin McCourty and Alfonzo Dennard are both questionable. Also, of course, Brady is probable with a shoulder.

The Colts just put defensive starters Gregory Toler and Fili Moala on injured reserve, adding to a list that already included Wayne, Ahmad Bradshaw, Vick Ballard, Dwayne Allen, Donald Thomas, Montori Hughes, and Pat AngererLaRon Landry and Darrius Heyward-Bey are both questionable, and the latter’s injury caused the team to sign ex-Patriot Deion Branch.

All the injuries and changing parts make this a pretty tough game to analyze. So I’m not going to, at least not from the usual perspective. Instead, I want to take a 30,000 foot view of the game. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots were the most consistent team in the league this season, while the Colts were the fourth least consistent team. Rivers McCown was kind enough to send me the single-game DVOA grades for both teams this season, and I’ve placed those numbers in the graph below with the Colts in light blue and the Patriots in red. The graph displays each team’s single-game DVOA score for each game this season, depicted from worst (left) to best (right). For Indianapolis, the graph spans the full chart, from the worst game (against St. Louis) to the best (against Denver). As you can see, the portion of the graph occupied by New England is much narrower, stretching from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. [click to continue…]

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Every year at Footballguys.com, I publish an article called Rearview QB, which adjusts quarterback (and defense) fantasy numbers for strength of schedule. I’ve also done the same thing using ANY/A instead of fantasy points, and today I revive that concept for the 2012 season.

Let’s start with the basics. Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt is defined as (Passing Yards + 20 * Passing Touchdowns – 45 * Interceptions – Sack Yards Lost) divided by (Pass Attempts plus Sacks). ANY/A is my favorite explanatory passing statistic — it is very good at telling you the amount of value provided (or not provided) by a passer in a given game, season, or career.

Let’s start with some basic information. The league average ANY/A in 2012 was 5.93. Peyton Manning averaged 7.89 ANY/A last year, the highest rate in the league among the 39 passers with at least 75 attempts. Since the Broncos star had 583 pass attempts and 21 sacks in 2012, that means he was producing 1.96 ANY/A over league average on 604 dropbacks. That means Manning is credited with 1,185 Adjusted Net Yards above average, a metric I simply call “VALUE” in the table below. Manning led the league in that category, with Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan rounding out the top five. Remember, the ANY/A and VALUE results aren’t supposed to surprise you, so it makes sense that the best quarterbacks finish near the top in this category every year.
[click to continue…]

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On September 13, 2008, Doug Drinen wrote this post, which I reproduce in full below.

I’m hearing and reading a lot of crazy stuff this week.

So I just want to document my predictions that (a) the Patriots will win at least 11 games this year, (b) the Patriots will clinch the East before week 17, and (c) Matt Cassel will be a top-12 fantasy quarterback from here out.

That is all.

You think I'm going to lose my top 5 receivers next year? Hahaha. Ok

You think I'm going to lose my top 5 receivers next year? Hahaha. Ok.

With the combination arrest/release of Aaron Hernandez stacked upon five surgeries in seven months for Rob Gronkowski and the departure of Wes Welker to Denver, it’s fair to say that many are wondering about the fate of the New England passing game. In addition to those three, Tom Brady is without Brandon Lloyd (free agent) and Danny Woodhead (San Diego), the fourth and fifth leading receivers on the 2012 Patriots. As Jason Lisk pointed out, that puts Brady in historically bad territory when it comes to roster turnover.

So today’s post doubles as a temperature check and a contest entry. Please predict the following for Tom Brady in 2013, based on the assumption that he is responsible for 99.4% of all Patriots pass attempts by quarterbacks for the second year in a row. To the extent he is not, I will pro-rate his numbers for purposes of judging the contest. To enter, simply copy and paste this table below in the comments and fill out each line.

Your name:
Brady’s number of pass attempts:
Brady’s number of passing yards:
Brady’s number of passing touchdowns:
Brady’s number of interceptions:
Brady’s number of sacks:
Brady’s number of sack yards lost:
Commentary:
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13-time Pro Bowler

Will Lewis go out on top?

According to the SRS, this is as lopsided as championship games get. The Patriots are 12.8 points better than average while the Ravens have an SRS of just +2.9; therefore, you’d put New England as 13-point favorites at home (in reality, they are 8-point favorites). I’ve been a Ravens skeptic for a couple of months now, and never thought they were one of the best teams in the league.

In my week 11 power rankings, when Baltimore was 8-2, I wrote: “According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore has the best special teams since 1991 through 10 weeks. Schatz tweeted that Baltimore’s the 16th best team based on just offense and defense.”

A few days later the Ravens defeated the Chargers in the famous 4th-and-29 game, which certainly didn’t change my outlook on Baltimore. Then the Ravens tanked down the stretch, seemingly fulfilling their reputation as an average team. And let’s not forget: had Ben Roethlisberger stayed healthy, it’s possible the Ravens don’t even make the playoffs. Without the 13-10 ugly win over Byron Leftwich and the Steelers, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh would have finished 9-7 with the Steelers holding the tiebreaker. To be fair, the Ravens did not compete in a meaningless week 17 game, but the point is that the Ravens were barely above-average team during the season that got a few breaks along the way.
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Yesterday, I previewed Saturday’s games with um, mixed results (skip the Denver-Baltimore preview and just read the San Francisco-Green Bay breakdown twice). Let’s take another crack at it by examining Sunday’s matchups.

Seattle Seahawks (11-5) (+1) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3), Sunday, 1:00PM ET

An offense where the star eats Skittle is a young one

Did you know Marshawn Lynch eats Skittles?

Once again, Atlanta is tasked with facing a dominant wildcard team. Is this the year Matt Ryan finally silences his critics?

Atlanta is only a one-point favorite, just the seventh time a home team has been given such little respect this late in the season since 2000. Home teams are 3-3 when underdogs or small favorites over that span in the divisional conference championship rounds, although one of those losses came by the Falcons in 2010 against the Packers when Atlanta was a 1.5-point favorite. But let’s focus on these two teams, because the stats might surprise you.

Russell Wilson edges Matt Ryan in Y/A (7.9 to 7.7), AY/A (8.1 to 7.7), and passer rating (100.0 to 99.1), despite having a significantly worse set of receivers. Ryan does have the edge in NY/A (7.0 to 6.8) but the two are deadlocked in ANY/A at 7.0. Both quarterbacks led four 4th quarter comebacks this year, and Wilson led 5 game-winning drives while Ryan led six. Considering one quarterback has Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez, and the other is a 5’10 rookie, I consider this pretty remarkable.
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Season in review: AFC and NFC East

This season, I published power rankings after each week where I stated my updated projected number of wins for each team. The point of those posts was to put in writing my thoughts at that time, so that once the season was over, I could look back and see how I did. Over the next two weeks, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

The picture below graphs my projections for each team for each week of the season. I’ve also added the Vegas futures win totals for each team from the pre-season as the first data point in each graph and the final number of regular season wins for each team as the final data point. My projected win totals for each week N come following the conclusion of week N (i.e., my week 1 power rankings were released after week 1).

AFC East

New England Patriots

Pre-season Projection: 12 wins
Maximum wins: 13 (after weeks 1 and 14)
Minimum wins: 10 (after weeks 6 and 7)
Week 1 comment: Incredible offensive weapons, an improved defense and a cupcake schedule. Only injuries on the offensive line or to Tom Brady could derail them.

The Patriots started hot with a big win over the Titans, but managed to lose nail-biters to the Cardinals and Ravens the next two weeks. A loss in Seattle — which was an upset, at the time — dropped them to 3-3 and my projected total to just 10 wins. An overtime win over the Jets the following week was unimpressive and didn’t cause me to bump them, but I kept steadily increasing their win total after that.

In the end, it was another monster statistical season for Brady and the Patriots. New England broke a record for offensive first downs and finished with the third most points scored in a season. I was a little bumpy in my New England projections, but they ended up landing right on the Vegas number.

New York Jets
Pre-season Projection: 8.5 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 1 and 2)
Minimum wins: 6 (first after week 8)
Week 1 comment: The additions of Quinton Coples and LaRon Landry were easy to mock, but these two could make the Jets defense a top-three unit. So far, so good. Right tackle Austin Howard exceeded expectations by infinity against Mario Williams, and his play this year will be tied to the Jets success on offense.

The Jets best game of the season came in week 1, which inspired a glimmer of early-season hope. In the end, Coples and Landry had strong seasons, but the loss of Darrelle Revis and the disappointing years by Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, and Aaron Maybin prevented the Jets from having a complete defense. Mark Sanchez regressed, and injuries to Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller, and Stephen Hill didn’t help the offense. Rex Ryan lost control of the team, again, and the Jets struggled against good teams early before disappointing against bad teams late. For the second straight year, the Jets lost their final three games of the season, and it appears like they will fire the offensive coordinator again, too.
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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 15

A double post at the New York Times this week.

Did you know that Alex Smith is seven attempts away from qualifying for eligibility for certain rate-based statistics? If Jim Harbaugh wants to game the system — and this is Harbaugh — he could ptobably that Smith breaks the completion percentage record, set by Drew Brees in 2011.

I also looked at how the playoff field will be very familiar this year:

With two weeks remaining in the N.F.L. regular season, seven teams have clinched a playoff berth and several more can clinch this weekend. Chances are, two weeks from now, the teams in the playoffs will look pretty familiar to N.F.L. fans.

In the A.F.C. in 2011, the Patriots, the Ravens, the Texans and the Broncos won the East, North, South and West Divisions. New England, Houston and Denver have already clinched their divisions in 2012, and even the free-falling Ravens are still the favorites to win the A.F.C. North. That would give the conference four repeat division winners, a first since the league moved to the four-division format in 2002.

Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals were the two wild-card teams. Well, those two teams are currently battling for a wild-card spot, and it would be a surprise if both teams are left out of the playoffs. That would leave one spot in the A.F.C., which is most likely going to go to the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts did not make the playoffs in 2011 — in fact, the team had the worst record in the league — but they did make the playoffs every year from 2002 to 2010.

From 2009 to 2011, half of the conference — the Ravens (6), Jets (6), Patriots (5), Steelers (4), Colts (4), Broncos (2), Texans (2), and Bengals (2) — played in 31 of the A.F.C.’s 33 playoff games, and barring the miraculous (the 6-8 Dolphins are technically still alive), that won’t change this year. The last time a Tom Brady-led team didn’t make the playoffs was in 2002; the last time Peyton Manning’s team missed out on the postseason was in 2001. In the A.F.C., some things never change.

The N.F.C. features only slightly more turnover. Green Bay is going to the playoffs for the fourth straight season while Atlanta will be there for the fourth time in the five-year Matt Ryan/Mike Smith“>Mike Smith era. San Francisco has a good chance of securing a first-round bye for the second year in a row. That leaves just three remaining spots.

Seattle, winner of a playoff game just two years ago, is likely to be back in the postseason as well. The Giants, winners of two of the last five Super Bowls, will make the playoffs if they win their final two games. Chicago and Dallas are no strangers to the playoffs, and one might make it again this year. The real “surprise” teams in the N.F.C. are Minnesota — which did go to the N.F.C. championship game three years ago — and Washington. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were the first two picks in the draft and may power their teams to the playoffs this year. When it comes to the 2012 season, that qualifies as unpredictable.

Your weekly updates on Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson

At this point, it’s getting impossible to write a statistical column without talking about Adrian Peterson“>Adrian Peterson. The Vikings gained just 322 yards against the Rams on Sunday, but Adrian Peterson“>Adrian Peterson ran for 212, accounting for 66 percent of the Minnesota offense. It was the fourth time this season — and in the last two months — that Peterson has rushed for at least 8 yards per carry on 15-plus carries; since 1960, only Barry Sanders (5) and Peterson have accomplished such a feat in a season.

In one of the most incredible stats of this or any year, Peterson has rushed for 1,313 yards in his last eight games, the most by a player in an eight-game stretch since at least 1960. From 1960 to 2011, only four men rushed for 1,200 yards in that span. In 1977, Walter Payton rushed for 1,221 yards over an eight-game stretch; three years later, Earl Campbell rushed for 1,245 yards in half a season. In 2005, Kansas City’s Larry Johnson gained 1,244 rushing yards in the last eight games of the year. Before Peterson, Eric Dickerson held the record for rushing yards in an eight-game stretch; Dickerson rushed for 1,292 yards in the last five games of the ’84 season and the first three games of 1985.

For more on Peterson and Calvin Johnson, along with some interesting week 15 stats, check the full article here.

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Checkdowns: Biggest failed comebacks

Brady joins Marino on the failed comebacks list

Brady joins Marino on the failed comebacks list.

[UPDATE: There was an error earlier in this post. I believe it is fixed now.]

On Sunday Night, the Patriots trailed 31-3 halfway through the third quarter. But that’s when Tom Brady got hot, and New England tied the game with 6:43 left in the 4th quarter. At that moment, many fans probably had visions of the Oilers-Bills playoff game, where Buffalo came back from a 32-point deficit to win.

And while there are a lot of famous comebacks, the failed comeback is much less memorable. But in fact, this was the 4th time a team trailed by 28 points in the game only to tie or take the lead in the 4th quarter… but ultimately lose.

The table below shows all games prior to 2012 where a team trailed by at least 21 points, was trailing entering the 4th quarter, came back to tie or take the lead in the 4th quarter, but then still lost. The table is listed from the perspective of the eventual winner and shows the final points for and points allowed in the game, along with the biggest lead and the largest fourth-quarter deficit the winning team faced despite the large early lead.

Year
Date
Boxscore
Tm
Opp
PF
PA
BgLd
Def
199409/25/1994BoxscoreMINMIA3835280
194409/24/1944BoxscoreGNBCHI4228280
200710/21/2007BoxscoreTENHOU383625-1
200412/12/2004BoxscoreSFOARI3128250
198012/07/1980BoxscoreCINBAL343325-2
198710/25/1987BoxscoreGNBDET343324-2
198101/02/1982BoxscoreSDGMIA413824-7
199609/22/1996BoxscoreNWEJAX2825220
201012/13/2010BoxscoreBALHOU3428210
200910/11/2009BoxscoreARIHOU2821210
200901/10/2010BoxscoreARIGNB5145210
200901/10/2010BoxscoreARIGNB5145210
200809/14/2008BoxscoreGNBDET482521-1
200612/17/2006BoxscoreCHITAM3431210
200410/10/2004BoxscoreMINHOU3428210
200311/30/2003BoxscoreNWEIND3834210
199912/12/1999BoxscoreKANMIN3128210
199812/06/1998BoxscoreSFOCAR3128210
199511/19/1995BoxscoreDENSDG3027210
199309/12/1993BoxscoreNORATL3431210
199301/03/1994BoxscorePHISFO3734210
199111/17/1991BoxscoreNYJNWE2821210
199010/07/1990BoxscoreCINRAM3431210
199010/07/1990BoxscoreCINRAM3431210
198909/10/1989BoxscoreNWENYJ272421-3
198611/20/1986BoxscoreRAISDG3731210
198301/08/1984BoxscoreWASSFO2421210
198011/23/1980BoxscoreNYJHOU3128210
198011/23/1980BoxscoreNYJHOU3128210
197909/09/1979BoxscoreWASDET2724210
197511/30/1975BoxscoreWASMIN313021-6
196011/06/1960BoxscoreBALGNB3824210
194910/23/1949BoxscoreNYGCHI3528210
194511/04/1945BoxscoreWASCRD2421210

Note that this excludes games this game between Green Bay and Pittsburgh from 1951, where the Packers held a 28-point lead and won, but actually trailed entering the 4th quarter.

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Game Scripts, Part III – 2012 results

Last week, I introduced the concept of Game Scripts in Part I and Part II of this series. The short explanation is that a team’s Game Script score is simply the average score during each second of every game. Today, we’re going to look at some data from the 2012 season, although I have not yet included the data from this past weekend (week 13).

Let’s start with a look at the game scripts for each team this season.

Team
G
Script
Patriots118.3
Texans114.8
49ers114.8
Bengals113.9
Bears113.8
Falcons113.6
Chargers113.3
Giants112.8
Buccaneers112.5
Ravens112.3
Redskins112.1
Packers112.1
Seahawks111.7
Steelers111.4
Vikings110.8
Broncos110.5
Saints110.2
Dolphins11-0.1
Colts11-1
Panthers11-1.6
Bills11-1.9
Cardinals11-2
Rams11-2
Browns11-2.1
Lions11-2.2
Cowboys11-3.4
Titans11-4
Jets11-4
Jaguars11-4
Eagles11-5.1
Raiders11-7.4
Chiefs11-7.6

There aren’t too many surprises on there. The Patriots are 8-3 (in this data set) with a record-setting offense; they have had a number of blowout victories and their three losses came by a combined four points. The Texans and 49ers also have impressive Game Script scores, and many would consider those three the three best teams in the league. Cincinnati might be a little surprising up at the top, but the Bengals were 10th in points differential through eleven games and third in points differential in the first half. Remember, the Game Script score is designed to be descriptive, not predictive; it’s not saying that Cincinnati is the 4th best team, it’s simply revealing the fact that the Bengals have, on average, led by 3.9 points in each second of every game they’ve played this year. That’s mostly because Cincinnati has been a great first half team.
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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 12

My article for the New York Times this week takes a look at one interesting statistic for each of the eight division winners.
 

Atlanta Falcons – Record in Close Games
In 2010, Atlanta raced to a 10-2 record on the strength of an improbable 7-1 record in games decided by 7 or fewer points. How a team fares in close games has a heavy impact on a team’s final record, but statisticians agree that such a metric holds little predictive value. The Falcons earned the No. 1 seed in the N.F.C. thanks to their success in close games, but ranked only seventh in the Football Outsiders advanced statistical rankings and 21st in the Advanced NFL Stats efficiency ratings. Atlanta lost badly in its playoff opener, not surprising to those who felt the Falcons’ record was more mirage than reality.

This season, Atlanta has raced to a 10-1 record on the strength of an improbable 7-1 record in games decided by 7 or fewer points. Football Outsiders ranks the Falcons 12th, and according to its founder, Aaron Schatz, the Falcons have by far the worst efficiency rating of any of the 18 teams that have started 10-1 since 1991. Advanced NFL Stats is slightly more generous, placing the Falcons fifth, although the gap between the fifth and 12th teams in its rating is miniscule. The takeaway: Don’t get caught up in the Falcons’ record. It will give Atlanta a bye, but no other guarantees come with it.

San Francisco – Top Pass Defense in the N.F.L.

Last season, the 49ers’ reputation for having an elite defense was built on their superb run defense, which ranked first in rushing yards allowed, rushing yards per carry allowed and rushing touchdowns allowed. But the 49ers were not dominant against the pass, ranking ninth in net yards per pass attempt allowed. This season, the San Francisco defense is without weakness.

The 49ers (8-2-1) actually lead the N.F.L. in net yards per pass attempt allowed. In the process, the 49ers lead the N.F.L. in points allowed, and their defense ranks in the top three in both first downs allowed and Pro-Football-Reference’s Expected Points Added statistic. The run defense remains stout, ranking in the top four in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns allowed, but the improvement in the pass defense makes this an even better defense than the 2011 version. As long as San Francisco continues to shut down opposing passers, it won’t matter very much whether Coach Jim Harbaugh picks Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick at quarterback.

Chicago – 11th in Points Scored Without an Offense

As a technical matter, the Bears (8-3) rank 11th in points scored. Just don’t let anyone tell you that in the context of a story about how Chicago’s offense is underrated. The Bears have scored eight non-offensive touchdowns this season — seven on interception returns, one on a blocked punt — and their great defense and special teams consistently set up the offense for success even when those units aren’t scoring touchdowns. Chicago is in the bottom five in Net Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, total yards and sacks allowed. The Bears’ running game benefits from a high number of carries, but ranks below average in both yards per carry and PFR’s Expected Points Added statistic.

The defense is excellent, but a poor offensive line and mediocre wide receiver talent behind Brandon Marshall leave the Bears with one of the worst offenses in the N.F.L. — regardless of how many points they’ve scored. Advanced NFL Stats ranks the Bears’ offense as the second worst in the league.

You can read the full article here.

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NYT Fifth Down: Post-week 10

This week at the New York Times I looked at several interesting statistical developments in both the 2012 season and in week 10.

Even in today’s pass-happy N.F.L., it pays to have one of the best running backs. In one of the bigger surprises of the season, the best of the best is Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.

He’s a four-time Pro Bowler and a two-time first-team All-Pro selection, but few expected a big year out of Peterson. That’s because last year, on Christmas Eve, Peterson tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee against the Redskins. Such a brutal injury often permanently robs a player of his elite ability; the rule of thumb tells us that it’s not until the second full season after the injury that the player regains his old form, if he ever does.

An injury so late in the 2011 season had most people figuring his 2012 season would be a lost year. Instead, Peterson leads the league in rushing with 1,128 yards and is on pace for a remarkable 1,804. Peterson is the first player since 2009 to rush for 1,100 yards in his team’s first 10 games, and he’s showing no signs of slowing. He has rushed for 629 yards in his last four games, including an impressive 171 rushing yards in a victory over the Lions on Sunday.

Peterson is also averaging 5.75 yards per rush the season, the most among players with at least 100 carries. He joins Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Chris Johnson as players with 1,100 or more rushing yards and such a high yards-per-carry average after his team’s first ten games.

Minnesota’s passing game ranks 26th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt and last in the league in yards per completion, a sign of an offense that doesn’t stretch the field through the air. But despite a passing attack that doesn’t scare any defense, thanks to Peterson, Minnesota is 6-4 and a potential playoff team.

The Return of Megatron

For most of the season, N.F.L. fans wondered what was wrong with Calvin Johnson. It wasn’t until the final minutes of Detroit’s loss to the Vikings on Sunday that Matthew Stafford and Johnson connected on a touchdown pass this season (Johnson did catch a touchdown pass from Shaun Hill earlier this year). Well, after a 207-yard game against Minnesota, Johnson is again leading the league in receiving yards. With 974 yards in nine games, Johnson is actually ahead of last year’s pace, when he gained a league-high 1,681 yards. The big difference: in 2011, he caught 16 touchdown passes, but he has only two in 2012.

Continued Dominance in New England

When it comes to the Patriots, mind-boggling offensive numbers are the norm. That means we occasionally ignore just how impressively the New England machine is operating. The Patriots lead the league in points scored, yards gained and first downs. Since 1990, only the 1993 49ers, the 1997 Broncos, the 2001 Rams and the 2007 Patriots have finished first in each metric.

The Patriots are averaging 33.2 points per game, 3.1 points more than the second-place Broncos. At 430.3 yards per game, the Patriots far outpace the rest of the league; Detroit (406.1) is the only other team averaging more than 400 yards per game.

But where New England really stands out is the 259 first downs it has gained. Last year, New Orleans set the N.F.L. record for first downs in a season with 416; the 2011 Patriots also broke the old record (held by the 2003 Kansas City Chiefs) with 399. This year’s team is on pace for an incredible 460 first downs. And the Patriots are on pace to crush the record in a surprising way: New England leads the N.F.L. in rushing first downs with 92, and Stevan Ridley leads all running backs with 54 rushing first downs.

You can read the full article here.

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Checkdowns: Patriots Passing Game Struggles

If there was one thing you can count on in New England, it’s that the Patriots passing attack would be more efficient than their opponent’s nearly every week. From 2003 to 2011, New England averaged 6.9 net yards per pass attempt while their defense allowed 6.0 NY/A. But this season, the Patriots passing offense is struggling by New England standards while the pass defense is worse than ever. Take a look:1

Year
Att
Yds
Sk
Opp_Att
Opp_Yds
Opp_Sk
NY/A
NY/A A
Diff
20122431758132191733116.97.5-0.7
20116125084326194703407.97.10.8
20105073847256114136367.26.40.8
20095924436185123355317.36.21.1
20085363569464743219316.16.4-0.2
20075864731215263041477.85.32.5
20065273400295183203446.15.70.4
200556441202852737033376.60.3
200448535882653834004575.81.2
200353734323261832324164.91.1
20026053577315313179345.65.60
20014823089465463497415.96-0.1
20005653181485443522295.26.1-1

Playing the Jets on Sunday is the perfect medicine for a NY/A-imbalance, but what do you make of New England’s struggles this year?

  1. Note that the table below lists team passing yards, which already deducts sack yardage lost []
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New England has had one of the most creative and flexible offenses for the last decade. From 2002 to 2011, the Patriots offense was always good but it was rarely predictable. On paper, the Patriots arguably have their best and deepest set of skill position players in franchise history. But with the addition of Brandon Lloyd to a group that includes Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, many are wondering what the breakdown will be in the passing game in 2012. Let’s not forget that Tom Brady passed for the second most yards in NFL history last year and then the team signed Josh McDaniels’ favorite Brandon Lloyd.

Before speculating on the 2012 season, we need to look at how the Patriots passing game has operated in the past. The chart below shows a breakdown of targets in the New England passing game for each of the past ten years by position:

Some thoughts:

  • Kevin Faulk used to get around 55 targets per season, but New England has essentially fazed the running back out of the passing game. I doubt that is by design, but more a reflection of New England’s failure to find the right replacement at the position. Note that New England signed ex-Florida Gator running back and Olympic silver medalist Jeff Demps last week, although he is unlikely to make an immediate impact.
  • From ’02 to ’05, the Patriots had a pretty consistent offense. Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch, and David Givens each spent time as the main receiver, and in ’02, ’04 and ’05, wide receivers as a group saw 63-64% of the Patriots’ targets. In ’03, Brown had fallen off while Givens and Patten weren’t main cogs in the offense, but otherwise, New England’s offensive philosophy didn’t vary. Then, after the 2005 season, the Patriots traded Deion Branch, who had seen 23% of the team’s targets in that season. The ’06 Patriots responded by throwing more to Ben Watson, which ultimately proved not to be the answer.
  • In 2006, Reche Caldwell led the team in targets, which prompted the Patriots to add Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the following off-season. Whereas the targets for the WR1 and WR2 had been declining from ’04 to ’06, in 2007, Moss and Welker received over 50% of the team’s targets, and the tight ends and running backs became less integral. In 2008, even without Brady, little changed with Matt Cassel running the offense, with the most notable decline being the lack of targets for the fourth, fifth and sixth wide receivers. 2009 resembled 2007, as Brady got the Sam Aikens and Joey Galloways of the world involved. By that time, the Patriots were running a full spread offense, and had almost entirely forgotten about the tight end. But much of that was out of necessity: Ben Watson was in his final year with the team and the Patriots wanted more speed on the field; New England had signed Chris Baker to be the backup tight end, but the long-time Jet had little left in his tank.
  • In that context, perhaps it isn’t surprising that New England added Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 draft. Moss had worn out his welcome, and New England struggled to find a true replacement. The Patriots turned to their young tight ends, along with Danny Woodhead, but still were weak at wide receiver as Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman were not competent as backup wide receivers. In the off-season, the Patriots signed Chad Ochocinco, which turned out to be a disaster. Outside of the WR1 and WR2, the other wide receivers and the running backs averaged 39% of the team’s targets from ’02 to ’10; in 2011, that number dropped to 18%, the first time that group failed to have at least 31% of the team’s targets. In ’03, for example, the backup WRs and the RBs had nearly 50% of the targets, but the talent was there: David Givens, Bethel Johnson, David Patten, Kevin Faulk, Larry Centers and Antowain Smith weren’t stars, but were competent in their roles. Last year, Ochocinco, Edelman and Tiquan Underwood added almost nothing, while only Woodhead was a threat in the passing game among the running backs.

So what can we expect for 2011? BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone, but New England doesn’t seem likely to give Shane Vereen many more targets. I think we can safely conclude that the Patriots won’t be depending on their running backs to gain yards through the air in 2012. But I do think the Patriots want more from their wide receivers, and the signing of Brandon Lloyd should increase the production of both the WR2 and the WR3, which is where Branch will now be. Assuming he isn’t cut, I doubt Branch is fazed out completely — Ochocinco saw only 5% of the Patriots targets last year, but usually New England will target their third wide receiver around 10% of the time. With so many mouths to feed, Welker is likely to see a small decline in attention. If we put Welker at 23%, Lloyd at 19%, Branch at 9% and the other wide receivers at 3%, that would mean Brady would target his receivers on 54% of his passes. Giving the running backs 10% — the same number as last season — would leave 36% for the tight ends. We’ll probably see both Gronkowski and Hernandez each up with 18% of the targets, as Brady hasn’t shown a significant preference for either player.

Assuming strong production per target, it’s certainly possible for Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez to all have monster years in 2011 *and* for Brandon Lloyd to improve on Branch’s numbers and for Branch to improve on Ochocinco’s performance. Of course, all of this assumes — or signals — that Tom Brady is going to have a monster year if things go according to plan. But to expect Brady to improve on last year’s numbers may be asking too much.

For fantasy purposes, the bigger question might be about the size of the pie rather than about its breakdown. If New England’s defense is better, the Patriots could certainly end up passing less this year. Brady may be more effective per pass, and could put up lofty touchdown numbers, but without a high number of attempts (aided by a bad defense) it’s unlikely we see Brady set his sights on 5,000 yards again. I think the Patriots offense can handle the addition of Brandon Lloyd, and think it’s clear that Belichick wants to incorporate that vertical threat on the outside into his offense. And let’s not forget, the offensive line is as unsettled as it’s been in years. From a fantasy perspective, though, it will be important not to chase last year’s numbers too much.

If Welker and Gronkowski each lose 10% of their targets, and then the Patriots also throw 5% less frequently, those small slices can add up. Welker with 100 catches is a lot less valuable than Welker with 122 catches. I don’t think any of the stars in New England bust, but if that defense can approach league average levels, all of the Patriots stars may end up failing to live up to their fantasy draft status. I suspect that Brady finds the open receiver and doesn’t lock on any of his targets, leaving Gronkowski, Welker, Lloyd and Hernandez with very similar receiving yards totals. Gronkowski should lead in touchdowns and Welker in receptions, but otherwise good luck predicting which player Brady will lock in on in any given week. One mark that could possibly fall: New England might be the first team to have four 1,000-yard receivers in the same season.

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2011 Age-adjusted team rosters

Measuring team age in the N.F.L. is tricky. Calculating the average age of a 53-man roster is misleading because the age of a team’s starters is much more relevant than the age of a team’s reserves. The average age of a team’s starting lineup isn’t perfect, either. The age of the quarterback and key offensive and defensive players should count for more than the age of a less relevant starter. Ideally, you would want to calculate a team’s average age by placing greater weight on the team’s most relevant players.

That’s not easy to do for the 2012 season, but we can apply one method to last year’s rosters. Using Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value system, it’s simple to calculate the weighted age of every team last season, by weighing each player’s age proportionately to his percentage of contribution (as measured by the Approximate Value system) to his team.

Let’s take a look at the (weighted) average age of each offense last season:

Offense

Rk
Team
Avg Age
1Seattle Seahawks25.7
2Tampa Bay Buccaneers25.7
3Denver Broncos25.9
4Jacksonville Jaguars26.0
5Cleveland Browns26.1
6Pittsburgh Steelers26.2
7Cincinnati Bengals26.3
8San Francisco 49ers26.4
9Green Bay Packers26.4
10Buffalo Bills26.5
11Dallas Cowboys26.6
12Miami Dolphins26.6
13Arizona Cardinals26.7
14Oakland Raiders26.7
15Philadelphia Eagles26.8
16Carolina Panthers26.9
17Chicago Bears26.9
18Minnesota Vikings27.1
19New York Giants27.1
20Baltimore Ravens27.3
21St. Louis Rams27.3
22New York Jets27.3
23Detroit Lions27.4
24Washington Redskins27.4
25Kansas City Chiefs27.6
26New Orleans Saints27.6
27Houston Texans27.7
28San Diego Chargers27.7
29Tennessee Titans27.8
30Atlanta Falcons28.1
31Indianapolis Colts28.4
32New England Patriots28.4

An offense where the star eats Skittle is a young one

It’s not too surprising to see Seattle at the youngest team in the league last year, and they look to have a young offense again in 2012. The Seahawks will get younger at quarterback if either Matt Flynn or Russell Wilson replaces Tarvaris Jackson. At wide receiver, Sidney Rice (26 in 2012), Doug Baldwin (24) and Golden Tate (24) are the projected top three, although the team just added 29-year-old Braylon Edwards. Marshawn Lynch is still just 26, and the Seahawks added Utah State’s Robert Turbin in April’s draft. The offense line, anchored around LT Russell Okung (25) and C Max Unger (26), has all five starters under the age of 30, as are both Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow, Jr..

The Patriots, meanwhile, featured the league’s oldest offense last season. We all know about Tom Brady (34 in 2011) and Wes Welker (30), but Brian Waters (35), Matt Light (34), Logan Mankins (29), and Deion Branch (32) made were older members of the Patriots’ supporting cast. New England has a pair of young tight ends (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez) and young running backs (Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen), but the rest of the offense remains old. Obviously Brady and Welker continue to play at a high level, but the team didn’t wasn’t focused on age when it added wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (32).
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Brandon Lloyd and Josh McDaniels together again

Once Josh McDaniels went to New England, it was a fait accompli that free agent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd would soon become a Patriot, too. After gaining only 2,370 yards in the first seven seasons of his career, Lloyd had a breakout season with the Broncos and McDaniels in 2010, catching 77 passes for a league-leading 1,448 yards and 11 touchdowns. McDaniels was fired following the 2010 season and landed as the offensive coordinator in St. Louis, which appeared to end their relationship.

But once the Broncos struggled to start the season, Denver shipped Lloyd off to St. Louis and reunited him with his former coach. In 11 games, Lloyd had modest production — 51 catches, 683 yards and 5 TDs — but much of that can be attributed to playing in arguably the league’s worst offense. He joins a very crowded New England passing attack, but should have a strong season with the Patriots.

I have a large but incomplete database on coaching staffs in the NFL, stretching back to 1990, and a complete list of head coaches for all of pro football history. I wondered, how many times has an offensive player played for the same offensive coordinator or head coach on three different teams? By my count, I see six examples since 1990:

The rumors are true. I've hired Charlie Garner to join the FFCA.

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