Data Dump: Observations about the 2011 NFL Season, Part I
I had no idea what I was going to write about when I got up this morning, and really, as I write this part of this article, I still don’t know where I’m going with this. I am waiting on releasing/publishing any statistically-backed NFL predictions until after the CBA gets done and the free agency period occurs. But I think it’s useful to put out a number of specific thoughts and or statistically backed observations about a number of NFL teams, and just state a couple of facts or educated beliefs. Maybe I can explain something that you haven’t realized, didn’t know, or had already noticed, though perhaps it had just never been put into words before.
I don’t know how useful any of these facts or stats will be to you. Heck, I don’t even know how useful they’ll be to me when I build my prediction equation for 2011. But every one of these notes is NFL related, and based in something substantial. That is all I am promising.
To establish team/offensive/defensive strength, I am using four objective systems: Football Outsiders DVOA ratings, Advanced NFL Stats Generic Win Probability, and the Pro Football Reference Simple Rating System.
1) The Green Bay Packers (FO: +23.4%, 3rd; ANS: 0.75, 3rd; SRS: 10.9, 2nd) are in a rare position to be better in 2011 than in 2010
Based on a lot of recent teams in a similar quandary, the Packers would have typically come up short of making the postseason. Why do I say this? It’s typically because teams that teams that need to win both of their last two games to make the playoffs usually don’t get into the field. This is in part because of the probability that those teams that do win those last two games sometimes miss the playoffs anyway. There are exceptions of course. The 2005 and 2007 Redskins accomplished that feat, as did the 2007 Giants and 2009 Jets. But another two AFC teams that found their-selves in the exact same boat as the Packers in 2010: the Chargers, the Jaguars, and the Raiders; all failed to win in Week 16. You could at least entertain the argument that the Chargers were a better regular season team this year than were the Packers. Recent NFL history is littered with teams like the 2009 Texans and 2009 Steelers who did win a bunch of games at the end of the season and still did not make the postseason.
I am not a believer in the concept of momentum, at least not in the way it is typically applied. Momentum within a football game, perhaps. Between weeks, it’s more of a silly explanation than anything. With that said, the historical record of the wild card teams who have been in must-win situations for a couple of weeks leading up to the playoffs is actually quite good. This isn’t momentum. It’s a selection bias. The teams that did win both of their final two games to make the playoffs were much better than average teams. The 2007 Giants and 2010 Packers both won the super bowl. The Jets of the last two years pulled upsets to get to the AFC Championship in both years. The Redskins were dispatched in Seattle in both of their playoff seasons, but 1) those were really good Seahawk teams, and 2) the Seahawks are undefeated at home in the playoffs (5-0) since 2005, despite having to play the last of those games as one of the worst playoff teams as all time.
The Packers were an unexpected member of the playoff field, but when they got in, they were as good a bet as anyone to win the whole thing. But as a consensus top three team in the regular season, you have to imagine with all the players the Packers will get back from injury, and with the very real improvements that Aaron Rodgers made over the course of the 2010 season, combined with the overall weakness of the NFC North, that the Packers will not face an especially difficult trip to the top of the NFC North in 2011.
This is not a prediction that the Packers will repeat. The odds are stacked against them once they get to the playoffs. But I can’t remember the last Super Bowl Champ whose path back to the title seemed so void of obstacle. Perhaps the 2003 or 2004 Patriots? One of those teams actually DID repeat. The Packers may not be the best team in football, but they are almost certainly the best team in the NFC, and their primary competition appears to be the Saints, Falcons, Giants, and Eagles. The Packers have significantly fewer flaws in their roster than all those teams. They will be one of the deeper teams attempting to repeat in recent memory. If injuries are the foremost cause of a losing season, and that can be more or less thrown out as a reason the Packers could fail in 2011, the risk surrounding the Packers is almost non-existent.
2) The St. Louis Rams (FO: -20.8%, 29th; ANS: 0.27, 30th; SRS: -6.7, 28th) have a good chance to be more than just a good NFC West team
The Rams have been dreadful for years, and really, based on your definition of dreadful, 2010 wasn’t an exception. The Rams showed a lot of promise, but Sam Bradford struggled just as much as any player recently as QB of the Rams, and Steven Jackson dropped off a cliff in 2010. While it may be convenient to blame injury for Jackson’s struggles, age is a more likely culprit. Jackson was one of the most valuable ball carriers in football just a year ago, and played the whole 2009 season with an injured back.
But the Rams defense was at least competitive in 2010, perhaps even a little better than that. Their addition of a natural 4-3 pass rusher in Robert Quinn was incredibly intelligent. Even though Quinn himself hasn’t played football in a year and his entire college resume is based on one season, playing RE in the Rams system will not require a huge learning curve, and the rookie should be a 6 sack/season threat from day one. And if you were to give the Rams the benefit of an above average defense, then the fact that the offense was able to attack the steep NFL learning curve in 2010 gives the whole team a really good shot in 2011. This Rams team will not be hurting for receivers like last year’s team was. And given some additional contribution from Jackson, who is still believed by his peers to be a top player, things set up nicely for the Rams offense to break out and join the defense as a productive unit.
A lot of the breakout is going to be put on the shoulders of the young Bradford. But with the pieces in place and experience in the coaching staff, I feel like the expectation is that the Rams will win the division in a run away. If they do, I like them to challenge the top teams in the NFC, such as the Packers, in the playoffs. Keep in mind: a lot can still go wrong. Sam Bradford taking only a minor step forward instead of a major step means that the Rams are still a bad offense. But with Josh McDaniels dialing up match-ups in the passing game and with the confidence the team has in its offensive line and in Bradford, the over/under on passing yards for the young Bradford is 3,700 this season. And if he plays another 16 games, I like him to get there.
3) The Oakland Raiders (FO: -4.2%, 21st; ANS: 0.43, 23rd; SRS: 0.2, 16th) are due for a significant amount of injury regression…the question is: will it matter?
This one is interesting. The number one reason that the Raiders are unlikely to win another 8 games this year is because they dodged a bullet last year in terms of injuries. They took their lumps on the QB end with Bruce Gradkowski and Jason Campbell both missing time. But outside of Darren McFadden only appearing in 13 games, the Raiders basically enjoyed a clean bill of health last season. The Raiders offense may not be able to survive a long term Darren McFadden injury, or the loss of a top TE like Zach Miller (an impending free agent). The offensive line situation is far from settled.
But on defense, the Raiders seem like they could weather at least an average amount of injuries, and actually enjoy improved output over last season. This goes with or without Nnamdi Asomugha. The secondary is of primary concern to the Raiders this year, because of all the turnover that is expected, as well as the fact that the unit performance was subpar last year. Chances are, that the Raiders could lose Michael Huff, they could lose Nnamdi Asomugha, they could live through an injury or two to Chris Johnson, and this unit could still end up seeing a performance bump thanks to the contributions of the pass rush and an influx of youth and speed.
In a lot of ways, having Asomugha on the team simplified the reads for the QB, as opposing passers simply had less to read about the defense with Asomugha taking the top threat away. Combined with an elite pass rush, an Asomugha-less secondary could be the beneficiary of erratic, mistake prone QB play.
Make no mistake about it, the Raiders will have to make a lot of tough decisions in order to simply be the same team they were in 2010. But behind McFadden, a young receiving corps, and elite defensive line, the core of the Raiders over the next decade is already in place. And I am not sure that injury regression is going to have a significant impact on the Raiders in the standings, especially if the team starts hot. They will, however, have to make more use of the IR list this season. To credit is the Raiders deep rooted, and often maligned, organizational philosophy that allows them to pull the next guy up so long as the stars are healthy. Al Davis gets ripped — here as much as anywhere — for the lean periods in franchise history created by an endless string of players failing to reach their potential, but when those same players can fill roles in a well-defined scheme, such incompetence is a beautiful thing.
4) Could the Patriots (FO: 45.4%, 1st; ANS: 0.75, 4th; SRS: 15.4, 1st) and Jets (FO: 18.3%, 6th; ANS: 0.62, 8th; SRS: 6.5, 4th) be in trouble in the AFC East?
This one is interesting. If I did a division-by-division power rankings, the AFC East would profile well, but not that well. The NFC East and NFC South are both stronger divisions, and that’s just the weaker conference. In the last two years, the Patriots and Jets have proven to be the class of the division, putting up back to back good seasons after faltering late in 2008. Both teams have also benefited from the overall weakness of the Dolphins and Bills.
The Jets may think they are going to the super bowl this year, but as good as they’ve been as an organization since hiring Rex Ryan, they haven’t consistently handled the Miami Dolphins, and may not continue to beat up on the Buffalo Bills. The house of cards that is the New York Jets has been carefully placed on the foundation that is Mark Sanchez. At some point, Sanchez is going to need to get the Jets through the regular season, and be a player who can handle the defenses in the AFC East.
Because of the high-profile coaches in this division, it’s taken for granted that the Jets and Patriots will be atop the division again. And to be fair to this perception, there’s not a whole lot that Tony Sparano and Chan Gailey can do to be considered in the same class as Bill Belichick and Ryan. On an organizational level, the Bills and Dolphins simply don’t consistently move in a positive direction the way the Jets and Patriots proven they will do. But on a talent-based level?
When we talk about defensive talent, the Patriots and the Jets aren’t going to be able to compete with the Dolphins the way that Miami has stockpiled talent on that side of the ball. The Dolphins are locked in one-deep at every position on the field, assuming they can re-sign NT Paul Soliai. They have no weaknesses, from Randy Starks, Soliai, Kendall Langford, Jared Odrick, and Tony McDaniel on the interior, to Cam Wake, Koa Misi, Channing Crowder, and Karlos Dansby at the linebacker level, to Vontae Davis, Yeremiah Bell, and Sean Smith in the secondary. This is a predominantly homegrown group, one is younger than what the Jets have.
The other thing here is the performance of the Buffalo Bills on defense after they trashed their experiment with the 3-4. This is a unit with talent. It didn’t have a clue what it was doing in the first six weeks of 2010, when it was the worst group in football. From that point on, they were very disruptive.
If you add it all up, and you look at the Jets defense, and you look at the Patriots defense against where the standard of their division is, you’re looking at the two defenses in the division that cannot get after the passer. As the statistically-acceptable passers Chad Henne and Ryan Fitzpatrick start to get comfortable within their offenses, it’s going to be problematic that the Pats and Jets need to bring extra players to get to them. This division will not flip entirely upside down in one season, but it’s way more up for grabs than it seems now that the bottom of the division is improving.
I’ll add at least a few more observations later this week.