What the LiveBall Sports NFL Projection System Hates about the Jets, Rams, and Falcons
Sometime later this week, hopefully occurring in conjunction with the lifting of the NFL lockout, I am going to release preliminary pre-free agency statistical season projections for the 2011 NFL season. Before that happens, I want to talk about three teams that grade out really poorly by my projections. Some of these outputs are easier to explain than others.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams have the lowest output amongst all NFL teams per my methodology. 25% of the weight from the formula comes from past winning percentage of the prior three years. The Rams won 1, 2, and 7 games over those seasons. Only the Detroit Lions have a worse three year win average. This is only a moderately predictive element, aimed at capturing the performance factors that more current measures (roster ability and schedule strength) may overlook. But it dings the Rams pretty harshly.
And some may argue: rightly so. This could be a breakout team, but breakout candidates are never “good” bets because they have a lot of poor performance in their recent history. To go along with that, Sam Bradford doesn’t have a whole lot to work with. Now, this can absolutely change come free agency, and it likely will. But what “are” the Rams, really? This is a two man offense: Bradford and Steven Jackson. It’s a strong defensive line, lead by Fred Robbins and Chris Long, and now featuring Robert Quinn: the DL is the bellcow of the entire team. But in the back seven, I like one corner: Ron Bartell. The power on the DL is going to make the back seven of the team a lot better, and I think that’s going to lead to a groupthink projection that improved defense + improved offense means the Rams will be NFC West Champs.
That could be true. But improved offense will rely on more than just personal improvement from Sam Bradford and natural regression in the ability of the receivers. It’s going to rely on a full on rebound year from Steven Jackson. Because at the end of the day, St. Louis is a team with just one above average unit, it’s defensive line. That may be good enough in the NFC West if they add other pieces. But until we see the offensive improvement, this team is still just not very good. And I think the LiveBall projection equation captures that fear.
This may be the strongest case. The biggest problem here for the Falcons is a team wide lack of depth, and the fact that their entire offensive line is up for free agency, and I simply didn’t count any teams unrestricted free agents in the roster projection, unless they were given the franchise tag. Now, both Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo will be priorities for the Falcons when free agency hits, and Atlanta is expected to retain both. I ran the numbers again, and Atlanta moves from a middling team into the upper third of the NFC if they resign both, but if you assume that Doug Free also re-ups with the Cowboys, I am not projecting the Falcons to be a playoff team.
Again, the Atlanta Falcons are expected to be major players in free agency, and they may look like one of the most talented rosters at the end of the period, assuming they aren’t already. But I think the Falcons problems are two fold: 1) very few of their biggest contributors are in the prime of their careers, and 2) there is a staggering lack of depth on the offensive line and in the defensive back seven. The latter was most apparent when Aaron Rodgers roasted the secondary in the NFC Divisional Round last year, the former was not apparent because everyone stayed healthy the whole year on the OL. But OT Sam Baker just hasn’t been that good in his three years as a professional, and the line around him may bolt for best offer on the open market. The Falcons do have inexperienced maulers filling out the roster, but none picked above the third round. They could fill, at best, perhaps the LG spot in 2011 internally, though Justin Blalock would appear the least likely to leave via FA offer.
I agree wholeheartedly with the pessimistic Falcons projection, and not just because it figures to improve between now and the season. There’s regression coming from the running backs and non-Roddy White receiving corps, and the offensive line is going to see an increase in injury and pressure allowed regardless of all potential outcomes outside of Sam Baker developing late as a top LT. Even that assumes that the Falcons can re-sign three guys on their OL including two lucrative contracts. The reality of the OL situation could be a lot worse than simply “worse off than last year.”
If Matt Ryan and Roddy White are great players, not just very good, but: “transcendental” NFL franchise players, it’s possible the Falcons can escape this with little to no passing game regression, and who knows, Julio Jones might even begin a nice little career as a niche receiver. If so, they’ll probably win 9+ games again and return to the postseason for the second straight year. But that looks unlikely to me. Realistically, the Falcons have to spend big money on free agents in the prime of their career just to maintain the team’s gains from last year, and they have to do it under a salary cap that will make them fit in three offensive lineman critical to their success, also in their primes.
Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff is very good at his job, but if he flawlessly pulls himself out of this little roster mess he’s created without a downturn in wins, he’s better than anyone ever thought. I am picking against him.
New York Jets
There’s a really important point to be made here, and it’s that when we get beyond the elite of the AFC: the Colts, Pats, Chargers, Ravens, and Steelers, the system sees the AFC’s sixth seed as really freakin wide open. This is perhaps two spots if you happen to think that the Colts’ incredibly mediocre 2010 was a harbringer of late career struggles for Peyton Manning and more specifically, Peyton Manning’s defense. My system sees the Colts as still a really unbeatable team because when you crunch the numbers, no team has won more games in the LAST THREE YEARS than the Indianapolis Colts, who have won 35, averaging just under 12 wins per season. As I mentioned above, there is a lightly weighted component of my system that goes towards recent regular season win average, and no team has been better than Indianapolis* at winning football games.
*To digress from the Jets even further, I think it was Tom Curran on one of the NFL Networks’ top ten shows who tried to sum up the Brady-Manning debate as such (I am paraphrasing): “one player has stats and awards, while the other has wins and titles/playoff wins.” As much of a horrible cliche as that is, it’s not really fair to Brady. He’s got a bunch of wins to go along with his pretty numbers as well. Just…not so much in the playoffs since the knee injury.
So while the AFC South appears to be a wide open division in 2011, my numbers expect the Colts to win 11 games pretty easily, and figure to be able to hold off the Texans once again. That leaves just one spot in the AFC wide open, which is the spot that the Jets held last year.
You see, if Rex Ryan is truly right that this is the year that the Jets are going to the super bowl because they need to get a home playoff game, and this is the year that he’s got Bill Belichick, that he’s going to beat him twice and flip the entire AFC East on his head, then: great, Rex is probably going to beat my projection easily if that’s the case. He’s also got to be the greatest coach ever because the Jets were a 9-7 team under Eric Mangini in 2008, and if you throw out the playoff victories, it’s hard to see where they’re really better under Ryan.
The Jets reached 11 wins last year, but it was a bit of a soft 11 wins. Their team wasn’t really any stronger than when they won 9 games in 2009 after the playoff bound Colts and Bengals rolled over to get the 7-7 Jets into the playoffs. They were a lot better on the offensive side of the ball in 2010, but just not sustainably so. Mark Sanchez kind of sorta did not improve as a second year player. Sure, his value stats went up thanks to a dropped interception rate that Chad Henne could really use, but that’s just the thing: in important predictive statistics that predict themselves, Sanchez stayed put (54.8% completion; 5.1% sack rate; 5.8 NYPA in 2010, following 53.8% completion; 6.7% sack rate; 5.8 NYPA in 2009). He hasn’t been as bad as his detractors allege, and watching him play in the postseason helps us to understand why Mark Sanchez fosters a lot of hope for the future, but I just don’t think you can build an offense around the quarterback any better than the Jets have…and again, Sanchez did not improve in the regular season. There’s no way to frame that as positive.
Here’s why I don’t like my projection on the Jets much: that offensive line is and has been the best in football since 2008, and isn’t due for much regression at all. RT Damien Woody is a free agent and aging. But at worst, you still will have a very darn good offensive line, even if Woody isn’t retained, or worse, if he is retained and cannot play at a high level anymore. On the other hand, Rex Ryan’s defense continues to defy all odds for a unit that absolutely cannot rush the passer without bringing more than can be blocked. I understand, but cannot possibly articulate, how masterful Ryan is at keeping his weaker defensive links away from being exposed for their incompetence.
The Jets are not a team of great depth. They have a dime back named James Ihedigbo, a reserve corner Drew Coleman, reserve safety Eric Smith, an aging Jason Taylor, and a vastly overrated Antonio Cromartie. Rex Ryan had a plan for the performance and contribution level of every last one of them. Heck, freakin Vernon Gholston played in all 16 games last year as a package player, starting two, and wasn’t a liability. Can Rex Ryan manage my baseball team.
The big point re: the Jets is that this remains one of the weaker overall rosters in the AFC. Offensively, they have two above average units: a fantastic OL, and a receiver group that is comprised of players who will soon hit the market and be costly to retain. This team will score points, and Rex Ryan has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that his unit can prevent points. However, just because they have this history (average of 10 wins/year in the last three years), does not mean that they’ll be able to do it again. The Jets defense has a LOT of weak players on it, and if coaching staffs in the NFC East and AFC West (the two divisions the Jets will play this year) come prepared to exploit and go directly at the Jets defense, it may become painfully apparent that the Jets have gotten by on a few key games and a mostly weak schedule the last two years.
Or maybe Rex can do it again with even less talent this year, and this really is a super year for the Jets. I don’t have a good read on their ability to exceed my wildest expectations. Basically, if the Jets have been a nine win team in true talent each of the past three years, the schedule is strict enough this year to make a seven win team out of them. And that splits the AFC Wild Card spot wide open for a team like the Browns, Raiders, Texans, or Dolphins to come flying in and end up playing for the title in January. But first things first, someone has to knock of the m-f’ing Jets. And it’s just been a very long time since that was reality.