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Predictions in Review: AFC North

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

Marvin Lewis, Jim Mora, and the Playoffs, May 30, 2013

In this article, I noted that Marvin Lewis had coached the Bengals for ten seasons without recording a playoff victory.  That was pretty unique: Since 1966, only Jim Mora had coached a team for longer without notching a playoff victory, and he was fired by the New Orleans Saints in his 11th year after a 2-6 start. Well, Lewis now stands alone in the Super Bowl era, as the only coach to fail to record a playoff win in 11 straight seasons and then be brought back for season twelve.

Since I wrote that article, though, I’ve become much more sympathetic to Lewis.  For years, it was easy to take pot shots at his ridiculous use of challenges or his failure to be aggressive when the situation warranted it, but I now think Lewis is one of the better coaches in the league.  He seems to have a knack for connecting with his players, he’s surrounded himself with very good coaches, and you get the sense that he has more on his plate organizationally than the typical head coach.  He’s the de facto GM, unless you consider Mike Brown the real man building the franchise.  And he’s developed one of the most talented rosters in the league, even if Andy Dalton turns into a pumpkin every January.

Of course, that is just cold comfort to Bengals fans who have witnessed the team go 0-11 in the Lewis era when it comes to recording a playoff victory. On the other hand, Cincinnati didn’t win a playoff game in any of the 12 seasons immediately preceding the Lewis hire, either.  But Lewis’ streak is particularly notable for just how rare his tenure has been in today’s environment. [click to continue…]

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New York Times: Post-Week 12, 2013

This week at the New York Times, I analyze the Cardinals, the Steelers, and some record-setting points and yardage numbers.

Bruce Arians is doing it again. A year ago, he helped turn the Indianapolis Colts from the worst team in the N.F.L. in 2011 to a playoff team in 2012. Hired as the team’s offensive coordinator, he was named the Associated Press coach of the year for his work as the interim head coach after Chuck Pagano, who was found to have leukemia, took a leave of absence. The Arizona Cardinals hired Arians as their head coach after firing Ken Whisenhunt, and now Arians is a viable candidate for the same award with a different team.

After Kurt Warner retired in January 2010, Arizona’s passing attack crumbled. From 2010 to 2012, the Cardinals completed just 54.0 percent of all passes, the lowest rate in the league. Also, no team was sacked more often or threw more interceptions than Arizona. Arians was hired to fix an attack that was among the worst in the league, and while the team started slowly — Arizona began the year 1-2, then 3-4 — the Cardinals (7-4) have been red hot over the last month.

Over the last four games, quarterback Carson Palmer has completed 69.0 percent of his passes, averaged 8.9 yards per attempt and thrown 8 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. Over that time, the team is averaging 30.25 points a game and is 4-0. And while Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald remain the stars in the desert, two young players have provided the missing spark to the offense.

You can read the full article here.

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Mike  Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

Mike Wallace dropped Pittsburgh for Miami.

In March, Miami signed deep threat extraordinaire Mike Wallace from Pittsburgh. Also this offseason: general manager Jeff Ireland allowed left tackle Jake Long to leave and sign with the Rams, and the Dolphins have filled his position by moving right tackle Jonathan Martin to the blind side.

Much has been made of Martin’s inability to handle that role. Leading up to the 2012 draft, much was made of how Martin only projected as a right tackle in the pros, even though (or perhaps because of what evaluators saw when) Martin played on the left side at Stanford with Andrew Luck. Miami played Martin on the right side of the line for the first eleven games of the season last year, but switched him to the blind side after Long suffered a season-ending injury. Pro Football Focus graded Martin as a terrible pass blocker in his rookie season, and he was even worse in the five starts he made at left tackle: In those games, he allowed an incredible 17 hurries, two hits, and two sacks.

I thought it might be interesting to run some tests on left tackles, building off a study that Jason Lisk ran on offensive linemen:

To do this, I looked at all offensive linemen since 1978 who made at least 1 pro bowl and started 80 or more games in their careers, and then found any season in which that player played in fewer than 10 games before age 34, after starting more than that amount the previous year at the same position. I then compared the team performance in things like points, yards per attempt, sack rate, and rushing yards per carry. As it turns out, we don’t have very many cases that allow us to look at this (19 players). If I had reliable game by game data for offensive linemen participation, I could broaden the study, but for now, I can’t tell which games a lineman missed, like I can with a quarterback or running back. My goal in setting this up the way I did was to find pretty good tackles and try to see if there were any differences the following year when they missed a large chunk of the season.

Our 19 offensive tackles averaged 15.1 games the year before the injury, and only 6.3 games played during the injury season. That’s a difference of 8.8 games played, or over half a season.

In his conclusion, Lisk noted that “The likely effect on a per game basis when playing versus when out with an injury was somewhere between 0.7 to 0.8 Net Yards per Attempt dropoff.” Well, what if we run the same study but (1) limit ourselves to left tackles1 and (2) look at the yards-per-reception average of the team’s leading receiver? There are only 12 situations to examine, a sample size far too small to really use, but here are the results:

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  1. I changed the cutoffs to 14 starts in Year N and fewer than 9 starts in Year N+1 []
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Roethlisberger will be without his best targets this year.

Roethlisberger will be without his best targets this year.

While the state of the Steelers’ receiving corps isn’t as shaky as say, that of the New England Patriots, it could certainly be called an area of potential concern for Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense going into 2013. One of the biggest moves on the first day of free agency involved Mike Wallace departing for Miami; meanwhile, Heath Miller’s injury status — while more encouraging than previously thought — will cost him several games, and probably some effectiveness when he does eventually return. All of this comes on the heels of losing stealth HoFer Hines Ward (albeit an older, drastically less effective version) to retirement after the 2011 season.

For Roethlisberger, this downturn in the quality of his receivers is a pretty new phenomenon. In fact, by one measure of career receiving-corps talent (which I’ll explain below), Big Ben has been blessed with the fourth-most gifted receiving group among current starting quarterbacks with more than two years of experience (behind only Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, and Tony Romo). In fact, Roethlisberger’s 16th-ranked receiving corps in 2012 was by far the least talented group of pass catchers he’s ever had to throw to.

How do you begin to measure the quality of a quarterback’s receiving corps, you ask? Well, pretty much any method is going to fraught with circular logic, especially if a quarterback consistently has the same receivers over several years. His successes are theirs, and vice-versa. However, here’s one stab at shedding at least some light on the issue.

For each team since the NFL-AFL merger, I:

  • Gathered all players with at least 1 catch for the team in the season.
  • Computed their True Receiving Yards in that season; I then determined what percentage of the team’s True Receiving Yards was accumulated by which receiver in each year. For example, Hines Ward had 1,029 TRY in 2009, which represented 25.9% of the 3,979 True Receiving Yards accumulated by all Steelers that year
  • Figured out the most TRY they ever had in a season, a number I’m calling each player’s peak TRY; for Ward, his peak TRY is equal to 1,279.
  • Calculated a weighted average (based on the percentage of team TRY gained by each receiver) of the receivers’ peak TRY (weighted by their TRY during the season in question).

(I also threw out all teams that had a receiver who debuted before 1970, since I don’t know what the real peak TRY of any pre-merger receiver was. I should eventually calculate TRY for pre-merger seasons, of course — thank you Chase & Don Maynard.)

As an example, here are the 2009 Steelers, the most talented corps of receivers Roethlisberger has had in his career:
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Season in review: AFC and NFC North

On Monday, I examined the seasons of the teams in the AFC and NFC East. Today I will do the same for the AFC and NFC North, starting in the AFC.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (after weeks 2, 5, and 9)
Minimum wins: 8 (after week 16)
Week 1 comment: Sunday Night was one of the best games I’ve seen from Ben Roethlisberger. An elite team that will be favored to win most weeks, although questions remain about the offensive line, the running backs, and the age of the defense.

Pittsburgh started off 6-3 and looked like a contender, but tanked in the second half of the season once Roethlisberger went down. Even when Roethlisberger returned, the offense never quite looked right. Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, and Rashard Mendenhall were unexciting plodders, which is an improvement over the 25 carries that went to Baron Batch. No Steeler finished the season with more than two rushing touchdowns. In the passing game, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both failed to match last year’s lofty numbers. The potential was there, but the results were not in Pittsburgh in 2012.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s defense performed well by conventional measures — through week 16 (which is when they were knocked out of the playoff race), they ranked 1st in yards allowed and first downs allowed, and ranked 2nd in net yards per attempt allowed, rushing yards and rushing yards per carry allowed. But the defense wasn’t really up to Steelers standards — through week 16, they ranked 10th in points allowed and, more damningly, had forced more turnovers than just three teams. Pittsburgh allowed 5 4th quarter game-winning drives, which ultimately cost them the playoffs.

Baltimore Ravens

Pre-season Projection: 10 wins
Maximum wins: 11 wins (first after week 3, last after week 13)
Minimum wins: 9 wins (after week 15)
Week 1 comment: Great performance on Monday Night, but I have to imagine missing Terrell Suggs is going to hurt this team. He’s too good to simply expect business as usual in Baltimore, and their schedule (AFC West, NFC East, Houston, New England outside the division) is riddled with traps.

The schedule was riddled with traps, but the Ravens rode some late-game success and excellent special teams to a 9-2 record. At that point, I wrote: I still don’t believe in this team, because they aren’t going to have amazing special teams or amazing 4th and 29 conversions every week.

Joe Flacco had a solid but not great year, while Ray Rice continued to prove effective when given the carries. The big issue for Baltimore was defensively. Through 16 weeks, the Ravens ranked 20th in yards allowed, 18th in NY/A, and 24th in first downs allowed. While the Ravens won the North, 8 games out of Terrell Suggs, 6 games of Ray Lewis, and 6 games of Lardarius Webb simply wasn’t enough to give them the defense Ravens fans were used to seeing.
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Roy Jefferson isn’t well-remembered today, but he was one of the top receivers at the start of the Super Bowl era. Jefferson was a second round pick of both the Steelers and Chargers in 1965, back when the leagues held separate drafts. Jefferson chose to sign with Pittsburgh, and in his second season, he led the NFL with a 24.1 yards per reception average. In 1968, Jefferson led the NFL in receiving yards and scored 11 touchdowns, one behind Paul Warfield for the lead. Jefferson matched his production the next year and was a unanimous first-team All-Pro selection. But for Jefferson, personal glory was the only success he would see in Pittsburgh, as the Steelers went just 7-33-2 from ’67 to ’69.

Jefferson’s 1969 performance was interesting for another reason. He gained 44% of his team’s receiving yards, and since then, only a few other players have reached that mark:

PlayerYearTeamRecYdsTDPerc
Ken Burrough1975HOU531063851%
Steve Smith2005CAR10315631245%
Santana Moss2005WAS841483944%
Paul Warfield1971MIA439961144%
Jimmy Smith1999JAX1161636644%
Roy Jefferson1969PIT671079944%
David Boston2001ARI981598844%
Yancey Thigpen1997PIT791398743%
Isaac Bruce1995STL11917811343%
Steve Smith2008CAR781421643%
Harold Carmichael1978PHI551072843%
Michael Irvin1995DAL11116031043%
Cliff Branch1974OAK6010921343%
Isaac Bruce1996STL841338743%
Lee Evans2006BUF821292842%
Dick Gordon1970CHI7110261342%
Anquan Boldin2003ARI1011377842%
Rod Smith2001DEN11313431142%
Sterling Sharpe1992GNB10814611342%
Michael Irvin1991DAL931523842%

As Steelers fans know, 1969 was a key year in the franchise’s history. It was Chuck Noll’s first season, and his first draft selection was Joe Greene. After finishing with the league’s worst record in 1969, Pittsburgh won the rights to draft Terry Bradshaw. On the field, Jefferson was the best player in Noll’s first season. But that doesn’t mean Noll and Jefferson got along.

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[Note: I’m scheduled to appear on The Bobby Curran Show on ESPN 1420 at just after 12:30 today. If you’re interested, you can listen here.]

Mike Tomlin can't see why going for it on 4th down is so unconventional.

If you weren’t watching the Steelers-Raiders game, you probably didn’t hear about Mike Tomlin’s gutsy call late in the 4th quarter. That’s because it worked.

On 3rd-and-1 with 4:34 remaining in a tie game, Pittsburgh had the ball at their own 29-yard line. The Steelers ran Isaac Redman over the left guard for no gain, leaving them in a precarious position. According to Brian Burke, immediately following Redman’s run, Pittsburgh had just a 34% chance of winning the game. This makes sense, because on average, punts from the 29-yard line end up with the other team gaining possession at their own 33-yard line (net of 38 yards). This conforms with Burke’s win probability model, which states that a team with 1st and 10 at their own 33 with 3:45 remaining has a 66% chance of winning.

That’s just the average, though. What about the specific teams in this case? Pittsburgh has a rookie punter, so we probably shouldn’t assume anything better would happen if they punted. The biggest variable in the Raiders’ favor was the presence of Sebastian Janikowski, an uber kicker who appears capable of connecting from anywhere on the opponent’s side of the field. Since 2010, Janikowski is 12-of-18 from 50-yards or more, including a miss from 65; on average, those 18 kicks were 55-yard attempts. Essentially, if the Raiders got 30 yards after the punt, they would have had a very good chance of winning the game.

Of course, the Steelers defense is generally one of the best in the league, even without Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. The Raiders had scored 3 touchdowns and a field goal on their prior 4 drives, although we shouldn’t let a small sample size persuade us too much. Additionaly, the Steelers would go three-and-out after converting the 4th down, and the Raiders ended up driving down the field and kicking the game-winning field goal, anyway. Again, it’s tempting to consider this when determining the Raiders’ odds of winning following a punt, but that’s the sort of logic I would rally against if the circumstances were different.

My gut tells me the Raiders being at home, having a pretty decent offense, and a super kicker would outweight the fact that generally Pittsburgh has a very good defense. So at a minimum, I’d argue that a Steelers punt gives the Raiders a 66% chance of winning.

If Pittsburgh converted, they’d probably have the ball somewhere between their own 30 and 35-yard lines; ironically, right where the Raiders ended up having the ball. That makes the calculus pretty easy: Pittsburgh would have a 66% chance of winning if they converted. You might argue that their odds would be greater, because of the presence of Ben Roethlisberger and a strong passing attack and considering Oakland’s pass defense is suspect. I’m sure Steelers fans were very confident that they would win the game after converting on 4th-and-1, but taking the conservative approach would say Pittsburgh had “only” a 66-percent chance of winning if they converted.

Now what were the odds of converting? As always, you can trade a larger sample for a more precise one, and determining the appropriate cutoff is tricky. I looked at all plays in the second half or overtime of games where the team had 4th-and-1 on their own side of the field. I also limited this to games where the team was trailing by 3 or fewer, tied, or winning, to make sure that defenses were truly focused. That left 64 examples from ’00 to ’11.

Teams converted 48 of the 64 attempts, or exactly 75% of the time. On average the teams gained 2.8 yards with a median gain of 2 yards. 55 of the 64 times the team ran the ball, with 44 of those being successful (80%). Only 4 of the 9 passes were successful, although the quarterbacks in the misses (Ryan Leaf, Byron Leftwich, Jason Campbell, Gus Frerotte and Alex Smith) leave something to be desired.

If we increase the sample to any 4th-and-1 attempt outside of the opponent’s 30 (so the first 70 yards of the field for the offense), teams converted 67% of the time. Let’s split the difference and give Pittsburgh a 70% chance of converting.

Facing 4th-and-1, Pittsburgh has a 70% chance of getting a 66% chance of winning the game; that means they have a 46% chance of converting the 4th-and-1 and of then winning the game. This ignores the possibility of Pittsburgh missing the 4th-and-1 and still winning the game, which is clearly non-zero. And remember, if they punt, they have only a 34% chance of winning. Even if we force them to automatically lose if they don’t convert, they still are more likely to win the game by going for it. In fact, they only need to convert half of the time on 4th-and-1 to make it a break-even proposition, and that’s still ignoring the possibility of failing and still winning.

What are the odds of that? With just under 4 minutes left, maybe not as bad as you think. If Oakland has the ball at the Steelers’ 29-yard line, they are extremely unlikely to be able to run out the clock. Pittsburgh called its first timeout before the 4th-down decision, meaning the Steelers still would have had 2 timeouts left if they could not gain one yard. Odds are the Raiders play it pretty conservatively and kick a field goal, and the Steelers have 2 minutes to go to kick a field goal to force overtime (or score a touchdown). That’s hardly a hopeless position in which to be.

Based on past history, Oakland would have had an 82% chance — not 100% — of winning if they had the ball at the Pittsburgh 29-yard line with 3:45 left in the game. Oakland’s odds would be higher because of Janikowski, although that would be counterbalanced by Pittsburgh having one of the best quarterbacks in the league in the two minute drill.

Add it all up, and it becomes a pretty obvious call… unless you’re risk averse. If Pittsburgh punts, they have just a 34% chance of winning, maybe even lower because of Janikowski. If Pittsburgh is successful, they are the team with the 66% chance of winning; if they miss, they still have an 18% chance of winning, based on having a small chance of winning in regulation and a decent chance of still going to overtime based on the amount of time remaining. Note that if there was one minute left, Pittsburgh’s odds of winning drop to just 9% if they don’t convert, but with nearly 4 minutes to go, they would not be out of the game if they failed. Considering a 70% success rate on 4th and 1, and they would have a 52% chance (66% x 70% + 18% x 30%) of winning they game if they went for it. In other words, punting it on 4th and 1 would drop Pittsburgh’s odds of winning from 52% to 34%, making this a significant and obvious decision for Tomlin.

To make punting the better decision, you would really need to skew the odds. If you have the utmost faith in your defense, perhaps you think the Raiders having the ball at their own 33-yard line with 3:45 to go doesn’t make them the favorite to win. If you view that as a coin-flip game — a pretty difficult proposition to believe — Pittsburgh would *still* benefit by going for it, since their win probability was 52%.

It also would have been wise to go for it if they were winning by 1 or 2 points… or even 3 points. A larger lead and it gets a little cloudy, but this is not much different than Bill Belichick’s decision against the Colts a few years ago. At the end of the game, especially in today’s high-octane NFL, you don’t want to be in a close game without the ball.

And as you can see, converting the 4th down was one of the biggest swings in the game. Take a look at Brian Burke’s win probability graph:

I said it was an obvious call unless you’re risk averse. As we all know, NFL coaches think conservatives are very liberal. On the surface this wasn’t a unique situation, but when you try to find comparables, you have to limit yourself. Since 2000, I looked at all situations where a team faced 4th-and-1 on their own side of the field, in a game where they were leading by 8 or less (or were tied), and with between 2 and 6 minutes remaining. There were only 20 situations like that, and 18 times the teams punted. The two other times? One came in week 17 for the Steelers in the game where Jamal Lewis crossed the 2000-yard mark and Pittsburgh was trying to close the curtain on a 6-10 season. A year after “4th and 2“, Bill Belichick went at it again against the Chargers. With exactly 2 minutes to go and the ball at the Patriots 49, New England ran it on 4th and 1. They missed, but went to win after Kris Brown could not connect on a 50-yard field goal.

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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

RkTeamAvg 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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