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Is Matt Schaub washed up? Is he the next Jake Delhomme? For the first six seasons of his Texans career, Schaub was an above-average quarterback in both Net Yards per Attempt and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. But last year was disastrous in a way that his poor conventional stats fail to completely capture (for example, Schaub threws picks six in four straight games).

But does that mean hope is lost? Schaub turns 33 in June, which means more than you might think. Sure, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady can defy the odds, but 33 is still six years to the right side of the peak age for passers. Perhaps even more damning, Schaub’s steep decline in 2013 was his second in two years; he averaged 7.8 ANY/A in 2011, 6.5 in 2012, and then 4.5 last year; his NY/A averages (7.7, 6.6, 5.7) have followed a similar pattern. The graph below shows Schaub’s Relative NY/A and Relative ANY/A — i.e., his averages compared to league average — for each year of his Texans career:

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Will the read option come to Oakland?

Will the read option come to Oakland?

The 2012 Raiders weren’t very good. Oakland finished last season 4-12, with the third-worst SRS rating (-10.8) in the NFL. And the outlook isn’t any better for 2013, either. Oakland has fifty million dollars of dead cap space; as a result, the players on the current roster cost the team only 67 million salary cap dollars, nearly $30M less than the next-lowest team. According to Pro Football Focus, Oakland’s five best defensive players last season were Lamarr Houston, Desmond Bryant, Philip Wheeler, Richard Seymour, and Rolando McClain. Only Houston returns in 2013, as Bryant is in Cleveland, Wheeler signed with the Dolphins, Seymour remains a free agent, and McClain has gracefully retired.

The team’s top two offensive players in 2012 were left tackle Jared Veldheer and quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer is now in Arizona, while Veldheer is out indefinitely with a torn triceps. Brandon Myers (Giants) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (Colts) are also gone, and they combined for 29 starts last season. The big free agent signings were S Charles Woodson (Green Bay), LB Kevin Burnett (Miami), QB Matt Flynn (Seattle), CB Mike Jenkins (Dallas), CB Tracy Porter (Denver).

As a result, there’s little optimism in Oakland entering the season. The Raiders are one of the favorites to land the first pick in the 2014 draft, so the 2013 season will likely be used to see what building blocks actually exist in Oakland. After Terrelle Pryor outplayed Flynn in the preseason, many now think the Raiders going to start Pryor in week 1 because, well, why not? If that’s the case, we’ll have another example to test out a theory that’s widely-accepted by conventional analysts.
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Season in review: AFC and NFC West

AFC East and NFC East Season in review
AFC North and NFC North Season in review
AFC North and NFC South Season in review

In the case of the AFC West, a picture can say a thousand words.

AFC West

Denver Broncos

Pre-season Projection: 8.5 wins
Maximum wins: 13 (after weeks 10 through 16)
Minimum wins: 9 (after weeks 3, 5 )
Week 1 comment: Watching Peyton Manning work his magic was a thing of beauty on Sunday night. The less John Fox touches this offense, the better, but I think everyone in Denver already knows that.

Once Peyton Manning proved that he was healthy and back, the AFC West race was effectively over. Officially, that happened in the week 6 comeback over the Chargers. That win only made them 3-3, but here is what I wrote then: According to Advanced NFL Stats, Denver is the best team in the league. Their remaining schedule is absurdly easy, so I’m going to perhaps prematurely give them a two-win bump. Their week 15 game in Baltimore may be for a bye, and I now think Denver is the favorite.

Kudos to Brian Burke’s model for correctly identifying how good the Broncos were early in the year. After week 9, I pegged Denver at 12 wins, and wrote: As a matter of principle, projecting a team to finish 7-1 is never advised. But this seems to be a good place to make an exception.

The next week, I bumped them to 13 wins, and never moved off that number. They got a late Christmas present from Manning’s old team, and now the AFC playoffs will have to go through Denver.

San Diego Chargers

Pre-season Projection: 9 wins
Maximum wins: 9 (after weeks 1, 2, and 4)
Minimum wins: 6 (after weeks 10 through 13, 16)
Week 1 comment: Unimpressive on Monday Night Football, but the schedule lines up for them to succeed. Philip Rivers is still elite, so expecting them to only go 8-7 the rest of the way is probably more of a knock on them than anything else. A healthy Ryan Mathews back will help.

The Chargers schedule was ridiculously easy, but they lost to the Browns, Saints, and Panthers, and couldn’t beat the Ravens, Bengals, or Bucs. The decline of Philip Rivers from elite quarterback to throw-it-out-of-bounds master is depressing, and it’s easy and probably appropriate to point the blame at the general manager. Going into 2013, San Diego will have a new head coach and GM, and we’ll see if that is what was needed to resurrect Rivers’ career.

It’s not easy to remember, but the Chargers were actually 3-1. At that point, I wrote: An unimpressive 3-1 team with a struggling offensive line. I really wanted to keep them at 8 wins, but their schedule is too easy and Philip Rivers — even in a down year — is good enough to lead them to a .500 record the rest of the way.

But by the time they were 3-4, I had already started with the “I can’t think of anything positive to say about the Chargers right now” comments. I summed up the Chargers season after week 13, when I wrote: This team started 2-0 but hasn’t beaten anyone but the Chiefs since then.

Of course, San Diego being San Diego, the Chargers did finish with 7 wins, but it was another disappointing season for the franchise. It’s hard to think back to September, but Vegas really did project the Chargers to win this division.
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Would you trust this man?

Most criticisms of 4th down calls spring when teams fail to go for it on 4th down and instead punt or kick a field goal. It is much rarer for stat geeks to cry out for a field goal attempt instead of a punt, and for good reason: field goals aren’t that valuable.

One reason for that: a field goal isn’t really worth 3 points; historical data tells us that a field goal is really worth 2.4 points. That’s because the other team gets the ball following a kickoff, on average, at the 26- or 27-yard line, and possession on 1st and 10 there is worth +0.6 points to that team. Therefore, a touchdown is really worth 6.4 points and a field goal worth 2.4 points, making a touchdown 2.67, and not 2.33, times as valuable as a field goal.

(It’s worth noting that, according to Jim Armstrong of Football Oustiders, since the rules changes last year on kickoffs, the average field position following a kickoff was 22.2 last year and 22.0 so far this season. Teams are at +0.4 in that situation, so a touchdown might now be worth 6.6 points and a field goal 2.6 points.)

Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen faced an interesting decision in the first quarter of the game against Atlanta last Sunday. On their second drive of the game, Oakland ran Darren McFadden for 8 yards on 3rd and 16 from the Atlanta 48. Facing 4th and 8 from the 40, Allen chose to punt.

In retrospect, it’s easy to criticize the decision. Shane Lechler’s punt went for a touchback, giving Oakland just 20 additional yards of field position, and after one play, the Falcons were already on the Raiders’ 39-yard line. And, of course, the Raiders lost by 3 in a game where Atlanta’s Matt Bryant nailed a 55-yarder to win the game.

But we can’t look at the outcome when analyzing Allen’s decision. What was the right call? We should probably start by acknowledging that, as a technically matter, the numbers say you should go for it. Considering the fact that the Raiders were an underdog, and that Oakland has (compared to the rest of their team) a pretty good passing game, and Atlanta has (compared to the rest of their team) a weak pass defense, going for it becomes an even more attractive option. But let’s put that to the side for now.

What are the odds of Janikowski hitting from 58 yards away? This season, kickers are 9 of 14 from 55+ yards out, although none have been attempted by Janikowski. Normally I would advise against using such a small sample size, but kickers this year seem to be deadlier than ever from long range. On the other hand, Janikowski is just 4/15 on kickers form 57+ yards over the last five and a half years. Even if you remove the 64, 65 and 66 yard attempts he missed, that’s still just a 33% rate. On the other hand, only two of those came in a dome — two misses in the span of two minutes in a game in New Orleans in 2008. My gut tells me that Janikowski is pretty close to even money in this situation in 2012, but I’m not sure how precise we can get.

But what we *can* do is figure out what the minimum percentage likelihood of success he needs to be at to make kicking the field goal the right call. According to Brian Burke, a missed field goal is worth -1.9 points to the Raiders, since the Falcons would get the ball at midfield, while a punt is worth +0.04 points to the punting team (presumably based on the other team getting the ball at their own 13-yard line).

There breakeven point where you should be indifferent between kicking and punting is therefore 45% (0.45 * 2.4 + 0.55 * -1.9 = +0.04). That seems to make it a pretty neutral decision. Given the fact that the Raiders were a heavy underdog, it’s pretty easy to argue that a 45% chance of 2.4 points (and a 55% chance of -1.9 points) is better than a 100% chance of being in a +0.04 situation. Underdogs need to take aggressive tactics, and this would have been an advisable decision. Of course, the more aggressive strategy with the highest reward would have been to go for it, although the presence of Janikowski does seem to argue in favor of kicking.

This wasn’t a particularly easy decision — or, given the context of the game, a particularly important one. Coaches make far worse decisions every Sunday. I do think in that situation, punting was the worst of the three options available for the Raiders.

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McFadden begs you not to touch him.

Darren McFadden has missed games due to injury in each of his four seasons in the NFL. But he earns the label “injury prone” instead of “bust” thanks to his incredible production the past two years. In 2010 and 2011, McFadden totaled 2,432 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns in 20 games while averaging 5.3 yards per carry and 10.0 yards per reception.

But is the injury prone label fair? From a rearview standpoint, it certainly is. But the label carries with it the perception that he will continue to be injury prone. Is that fair?

From a statistical standpoint, we’re really limited by sample size. In the past two decades, only a handful of young running backs have been as productive as McFadden despite dealing with significant injury issues. Ricky Williams played in 12 and 10 games his first two seasons, and earned the injury prone label before three straight 16-game seasons. Steven Jackson missed games here and there early in his career, and in fact still has just two 16-game seasons in his career. But Jackson is no longer considered injury prone and has also registered three 15-game seasons.

Fred Taylor resided for years at the intersection of talented and injury prone, earning colorful nicknames like ‘Fragile Fred’ and ‘Fraud Taylor.” He played in only 40 games in his first four seasons, but still scored 37 touchdowns, averaged 4.7 yards per carry, and averaged 106 yards from scrimmage per game. He would play in 16 games each of the next two seasons, before missing games due to injury every other season for the rest of his career.

Cadillac Williams played in 14 games in each of his first two seasons, and things only got worse from there. He played in just 10 games the next two seasons, before playing in 16 games in both 2009 and 2010. Julius Jones missed significant time in each of his first two seasons, but then played in 16 games in each of his next two years. On the other hand, Kevin Jones’s career went 15-13-12-13-11 in terms of games played. Robert Smith was a track star on the gridiron and often seemed as tough as one. In his first two seasons as the starter with the Vikings, he wound up being inactive half of the time each year. In 1997 and 1998, he played in 14 games, but Smith would only play one 16-game season in the NFL: his last one.

But back to McFadden. Let’s start with some baseline about what the anti-McFadden would look like. From 1990 to 2010, there were 911 running backs, age 25 or younger, who rushed for at least 1,000 yards and played in 16 games. Only 38 of those 91 running backs (42%) played in 16 games the next season, while the group averaged 13.9 games played in the following year. The median was 15 games played, with 58% of running backs playing in 15 or 16 games.
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  1. This excludes Robert Edwards, Jamal Lewis and Terry Allen, each of whom would suffered a season-ending injury prior to the start of the following season. []
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