Home > NFL > Data Dump: Observations about the 2011 Season, Part II

Data Dump: Observations about the 2011 Season, Part II

I wrote up four observations about the 2011 NFL season on Wednesday.  Here are six more:

5) Is Matt Ryan obscuring the overall age/talent issues of the Atlanta Falcons (FO: +14.9%, 8th; ANS: 0.46, 21st; SRS: 6.1, 7th)?

Subjectively, I think the Atlanta Falcons may have the best coaching staff in the entire NFL.  Is Mike Smith the best head coach?  He might be in the top five.  But I think defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is going to be a head man in the NFL sometime soon, and I think offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has long been one of the tougher offensive guys to scheme against.

In the big picture, the Falcons are pretty likely to have a winning record for the fourth straight season.  Will they make the playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time in team history?  The problems are multi-fold: the Falcons were incredibly clutch on offense last year (and not quite as productive in measurements of “skill”, such as yards per play), their defense leaves a lot to be desired beyond John Abraham, who is aging, and there is a team wide problem once you regress for age.

Matt Ryan and Roddy White are in their primes, although White’s receiving average per target (YPT) has actually declined as Matt Ryan has developed.  Michael Jenkins looks like he’s at the end.  The end could be a lot closer than it seems for RB Michael Turner, who was simply never a contributor in the passing game to begin with.  Julio Jones is years away from being an every down contributor, if that’s even his peak level of performance (I have my doubts).  Tony Gonzalez has not shown obvious signs of slowing down, but he’s 35 years old.  The average NFL linebacker is seven and a half years younger that that.  And while this may not qualify as “obvious”, Gonzalez’ yards per catch average was below 10 for the first time in his career in 2010, no doubt hurting Ryan’s numbers.  He will start at TE again this year.

Atlanta is going to have to work quick to save three impending free agents on their OL, the only three above average performers: Harvey Dahl, Tyson Clabo, and Justin Blalock.  But even beyond the contract issues, Matt Ryan simply can’t take the next step in 2011 without improvement from his teammates.  Even looking deeper down the roster, it’s hard to see where the production is going to come from.  Brian Finneran?  Probably not.  Harry Douglas hasn’t developed.  The Falcons gave up on the incredibly promising Jerious Norwood, who was on IR last year and is eligible for free agency.  Is Eric Weems ready for prime time?

The Falcons aren’t going anywhere without improvement in their back seven, and I just can’t see anything but a step back for their offense.  Even if Matt Ryan is the best player in the NFL in 2011, and can replicate his 2010 stats with no contribution from the rushing attack, the Falcons are still going to struggle to put up long drives on offense.  This team has age issues everywhere, and absolutely no elements on the team — beyond pass rushers John Abraham and Jonathon Babineaux — that projects to help Matt Ryan and Roddy White win games this year.  Julio Jones best grow up quickly.

6) The AFC South hasn’t been this weak in years

Last year, the Indianapolis Colts — not a bad team by any stretch (FO: +3.0%, 15th; ANS: 0.57, 9th; SRS: 2.9, 10th) — had to win at least three out of their last four games to make the postseason.  They won all four, winning the division at home in Week 17 in a tough fought game over the Titans, just as the Jaguars finished their collapse into oblivion against the Texans, rendering the Colts’ finish moot.  The Jaguars’ full collapse took until the seasons’ final week in which way they bested both the Titans and the Texans, who imploded much, much earlier.

The statistical systems saw the Texans (FO: +3.7%, 13th; ANS: 0.56, 10th; SRS: -1.8, 22nd) and Titans (FO: +7.7%, 11th; ANS: 0.54, 12th; SRS: 1.0, 14th) both as equals (at least) of the Colts, but these “equals” managed to finish four games back, beyond a margin that can reasonably be considered pure chance.  Jason Babin and Jason Jones were among the most valuable Titans last year, and both players completely mailed it in after week 12.  The Titans had the league’s top defense through a 5-2 start, then dropped to a hard-luck 5-6 behind incompetent offense and merely passable defense, then rebounded offensively under Collins while the defense totally gave up.  Losing your best contributors to indifference is a poor way to go out, Jeff Fisher.  The offensive problems on the Titans begin with the interior line and end with the quarterback.  The defensive problems appear to be about effort and scheme design.

It’s easy to forget that the Texans offense still features a bunch of players in their primes, but that’s because the team has become a classic underachiever under Gary Kubiak.  It’s not for lack of desire or effort: it’s simply because of poor decision making by the coaches through the week and into game day.  16 games has proven too long a season for Kubiak to not shoot his own team in the foot.  It just so happened that 2010 was the first Texans team that was classically (and non-repeatably) unlucky.  The Texans were screwed hard by the schedule, and will deal with a much easier one in 2011.  They will not be allowed to shake more “professional” teams like the Titans and Colts and Jaguars.  The Texans will be much closer than 6-10 this year.  And it won’t matter.  Because when it comes down to it, they will do something nonsensical at the end of a game to lose to a good opponent in November, and they’ll be chasing in December.

The Colts may not get back to 10 wins.  They have to play the entire NFC South and AFC North.  But despite a bit of early pressure from the Texans and Titans, the Colts can safely plan for the playoffs again this July.

7) The many dues the Detroit Lions (FO: -1.4%, 18th; ANS: 0.43, 22nd; SRS: 1.9, 13th) still have to pay

If you’ve seen the early-season schedule for the Lions, you can absolutely expect this team to be off to a hot start.  And it won’t entirely be a mirage.  And the Lions’ wild card aspirations are legitimate: after all, it’s the NFC we’re talking about.  Anything can happen in the NFC.  And I don’t think the Lions are all that far behind the Bucs in where they are as an organization on the rebound.  This is all very much positive for the Lions and Detroit fans.

But two things are very clear about the Lions.  They built their reputation on the strength of their offense.  It’s an offense designed to come away with touchdowns, not field goals.  And under Shaun Hill, it was able to do so.

But aside from the oft-injured nature of Matthew Stafford’s career, Stafford’s actual on-field play has left plenty to be desired.  First round pick Jahvid Best didn’t flash much of anything as a rookie behind one of the worst, offensive run blocking lines in football.  That line returns in it’s entirety.  It likely won’t be much better for this year’s first round RB, Mikel Leshoure.  There are still no holes for the Lions to run through.  And even if they can get opponents to respect the threat of the run, the Lions passing game is still very much a work in progress.

The ultimate product looks incredibly promising.  But Bryant Johnson, who is likely to make the team out of neccessity, is still one of the worst receivers in football.  The Lions aren’t sure what TE Brandon Pettigrew brings, outside of a dominant blocker.  Calvin Johnson catches much of what is thrown to him, and he’s an advanced route runner, but he doesn’t play the game at quite the speed at which he’s been timed at.

Being talent rich is one thing, and the Lions certainly are that, at least on one side of the ball.  It’s just not apparent that all the right parts are in place.  In some cases (Bryant Johnson) it’s so obviously apparent that other help is needed.  This offense never profiles to be as versatile in creating mismatches as the New England Patriots.  Like most Scott Linehan offenses, the personnel packages are going to define what plays can be called.  And so the Lions, at the peak of their performance, are simply going to have to out-execute the competition.  And 2011 is just too early to be able to do that.  The only reasonable hope this year is that they can continue to move in the right direction.

8. Time is ticking on the Ravens defense (FO DEF: -7.9%, 4th; ANS DEF: 5th; DSRS: 5.5, 3rd), but the Steelers defense (FO DEF: -18.5%, 1st; ANS DEF: 1st; DSRS: 7.7, 1st) is set to dominate beyond the era of Dick Lebeau

Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will return for the 2011 season, and the Ravens will once again be in the running for the super bowl, if not the favorite in the AFC North.  Baltimore is going to overgo some turnover in its secondary.  They are expected to lose S Dawan Landry, CB Josh Wilson, and CB Chris Carr in free agency.  Landry will be replaced internally with the combo of Tom Zbikowksi and Haruki Nakamura.  The Ravens are getting Dominique Foxworth back off of IR to start at CB.  It is their hope that Lardarius Webb, a third year player, can be the other starter.  The loaded Ravens will be fine, of course.  As long as Reed and Lewis are in the lineup, the remarkable, unbelievable consistency of the Ravens defensive unit will remain.  And Lewis and Reed will be in the lineup in 2011.

However, we’re now dealing with those two stars on a year to year basis.  Terrell Suggs is the third star on this defense, and though he’s entering his 8th season, he’s still just 28 years old.  Haloti Ngata may be the most important player in the entire defense (if not the most important defensive player in the NFL).  Ngata is just 27.  On these four foundations, the Ravens can pick and choose the talent that best fits its scheme.  With that said, the 2009 and 2010 drafts (Paul Kruger, Sergio Kindle, and Terrence Cody) look wildly overrated in terms of total return.  27-28 year olds are young by the standards of being a defensive superstar in the NFL, but the younger Ravens (25 and under) don’t offer much hope for superstardom.  Webb has maybe the best chance, but Jameel McClain and Brandon McKinney profile as role players.

Basically, the Ravens defense is dominant, but that era is running out of time to produce a second superbowl.  They had a really great opportunity in 2010, but it fizzled away in a dreadful second half against the Steelers in the AFC Divisional playoffs.  They really need Joe Flacco to move up into the same stratosphere of efficiency that Big Ben Roethlisberger has been playing in the last two years.

The Steelers, meanwhile, don’t offer any obvious reason to believe that 2011 is going to be the crowning year for their franchise.  It is just understood that they will be around.  Lawrence Timmons is just 25 years old.  Lamarr Woodley is 26.  James Harrison is on the wrong side of 30, though he figures to play longer than Ed Reed will.  Same deal for Troy Polamalu, who is 30.  Ryan Clark won’t be around forever, but the Steelers have plenty of time to replace him.  Same for James Farrior.

The immediate concern for the Steelers is on the defensive line, where it’s not clear if they can afford the oft-injured, but incredibly valuable Aaron Smith.  They’re hoping for more out of 2009 first rounder Ziggy Hood.  They now have rookie Cam Heyward in the fold.  And although veteran Brett Keisel is clearly the best player on the unit, nose tackle Casey Hampton is in obvious decline.  There are pieces on that unit, but it’s not obviously clear how the Steelers can best use that personnel in 2011.  And that may hurt them early in the season.  However, when I say “that may hurt them”, consider that the three metrics available have Pittsburgh as the best defense in the league last year.  Regression of some degree was inevitable.  And who knows, they may be better on the other side.

2011 definitely seems like it should be Baltimore’s year.  But if Flacco, Lewis and the Ravens don’t bring home the hardware this year, it’s unclear exactly how many seasons the Baltimore defense has left before the one year where absolutely everything goes wrong.

9) As much went right for Mike Vick’s Eagles (FO: +21.8%, 5th; ANS: 0.62, 7th; SRS: 4.2, 8th) last year as went wrong for Eli Manning’s Giants (FO: +14.6%, 9th; ANS: 0.68, 5th; SRS: 2.1, 12th).  The roles will be completely reversed this season

Symbolically, I can link to a YouTube clip of DeSean Jackson’s Miracle in the Meadowlands II and even though that play featured neither Vick nor Manning, I can rest my case.  Vick was the more valuable player of the two in 2010, but not so much in terms of easily repeatable skills.  It’s Manning who consistently attacks defenses where they are week, racking up the big passing yards and touchdown totals despite a horrifically depleted receiving corps.  To a degree, Manning will always struggle with tipped pass interceptions because when Manning misses, he’s usually high.  But Manning’s league leading 25 interceptions probably obscured the fact that he completed 63% of his passes for the second straight season, and threw for 4,000 yards for the second straight season and exceeded 7.0 net passing yards per attempt for the second straight season.

What category does that put Manning in?  Here are the other NFL passers who hit all three of those qualifications in 2009 and 2010:

  • Philip Rivers

*Aaron Rodgers would have made the list if he had not missed three halves with a concussion in 2010.  Tom Brady missed 4000 yards for the second straight year by about 100 yards.

While a lot of passers are suffering declining NYPA figures, including both Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, Manning is hitting those figures because his completion percentage is consistently higher than it was earlier in his career.  The interceptions will regress, and the New York Giants are likely to have the leagues’ best or second best passing offense in 2011.  It also means that Eli Manning is a top five fantasy quarterback this season, and is a darkhorse candidate for 40 passing TDs.

But what about Vick, who is certain to be on the NFL Top 100 list inside the top 20 (Eli Manning didn’t make the list)?  Well, Vick did pretty well in those categories that Manning excelled at too.  But Vick is not particularly durable (Manning has the second longest active consecutive starts streak in the NFL, just about 6.5 years shy of big brother Peyton), and is going to see his interception rate regress in the other direction.  When that happens, Vick is unlikely to grade out as a top ten quarterback, statistically, however as long as he’s healthy, he should remain in the 6-10 range as a fantasy quarterback.  You can pretty much lock Vick in for another 20 to 25 TD season.  However, 12+ INTs seems like a bare minimum, assuming Vick hits 400 passing attempts this year.  15 INTs are pretty likely.

As fascinating as it may be to watch Ahmad Bradshaw and LeSean McCoy try to out-do each other’s numbers, ultimately, the gap in passing production is going to decide the division decisively in favor of Big Blue.

10) It’s going to be now or never for Norv Turner and the San Diego Chargers (FO: +17.1%, 7th; ANS: 0.81, 1st; SRS: 4.8, 7th)

The San Diego Chargers may be the favorites to win the AFC this year based on having a highly rated offense and a highly rated defense last year.  Despite a dreadful special teams unit that could not be overcome, the Chargers managed to be the same exact team each of the last four years under Norv Turner.  It is highly probable that the Chargers employ the league’s best quarterback.  They do not compete in a particularly difficult division.  They play in a division in which you can start 4-8, get serious, and finish in first place.  The Chargers are a consistently very good team under Norv Turner.  But this is year five.  And the Chargers have never sported a DVOA rating over 20% for a full year.

The concept of standard deviation isn’t going to explain why the Chargers start so terribly every season (that seems to be, objectively, luck-related since the Chargers don’t actually perform worse to begin a season).  But it will explain why, over a sample of four years, the Chargers win almost exactly two thirds of their games, including a .500 record in the playoffs under Turner (3-3).  The Chargers lie a single standard deviation above the average NFL team in the last four years, at least based on DVOA.  The win distribution of the NFL follows the bell curve very closely.  It can be assumed, following these premises, that the expected W-L of the Chargers assuming a league average schedule is about 2/3rds of all games.  Their actual winning percentage under Turner is 64%.

The Chargers have played up to expectation over the last four years based on a very consistent DVOA rating.  This is year five of Turner and year six of Rivers as a starter.  With all the historical advantages that scheme continuity and quarterback dominance gives an NFL organization, this has to be the best season in recent Chargers memory.  They don’t have to win 13 games like they did in 2009, but 11 is a bare minimum and they really need to be the highest rated Chargers team, at least since the 2006 team that went 14-2 under Marty Schottenheimer.  If they are the same team again, the Chargers probably owe it to themselves to turn over their front office and coaching staff while Rivers, et al are still in their primes and can win a championship.


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