If you ever have a chance to read Football Outsiders, their “basics” description is a great summary of how one can judge a good football team. With its great statisticians and analysts, the site reinforces much of what has been discussed here at MHR. And that includes some of TJ’s statistics that he explains so well.
It’s a long read, but the truths in the following subsections stood out to me the most:
You run when you win, not win when you run.
The first article ever written for Football Outsiders was devoted to debunking the myth of "establishing the run." There is no correlation whatsoever between giving your running backs a lot of carries early in the game and winning the game. Just running the ball is not going to help a team score; it has to run successfully.
There are two reasons why nearly every beat writer and television analyst still repeats the tired oldschool mantra that "establishing the run" is the secret to winning football games. The first problem is confusing cause and effect. There are exceptions -- usually involving the Indianapolis Colts without Bob Sanders -- but, in general, winning teams have a lot of carries because their running backs are running out the clock at the end of wins, not because they are running wild early in games.
The second problem is history. Most of the current crop of NFL analysts came of age or actually played the game during the 1970s. They believe that the run-heavy game of that decade is how football is meant to be, and today's pass-first game is an aberration. As we addressed in an essay in Pro Football Prospectus 2007 about the history of NFL stats, it was actually the game of the 1970s that was the aberration. The seventies were far more slanted towards the run than any era since the arrival of Paul Brown, Otto Graham, and the Cleveland Browns in 1946. Optimal strategies from 1974 are not optimal strategies for today's game.
A sister statement to "you have to establish the run" is "team X is 5-1 when running back John Doe runs for at least 100 yards." Unless John Doe is ripping off six-yard gains LaDainian Tomlinson-style, the team isn't winning because of his 100-yard games. He's putting up 100-yard games because his team is winning.
The Establishment Clause, July 2003
The following paragraph may justify McD’s selection of our great secondary (who benefit from the services of Elvis Dumervil):
A great defense against the run is nothing without a good pass defense.
This is a corollary to the absurdity of "establish the run." If you don't believe us, meet our good friends the 2006-2007 Minnesota Vikings. With rare exceptions, teams win or lose with the passing game
Note that "good pass defense" may mean "good pass rush" rather than "good defensive backs."more than the running game -- and by stopping the passing game more than the running game. The reason why teams need a strong run defense in the playoffs is not to shut the run down early, it's to keep the other team from icing the clock if they get a lead. You can't mount a comeback if you can't stop the run.
What caught my attention below, is the reference to teams passing 60% of the time in 3rd and 2 situations. Apparently, since running the ball has a 20% better success rate, it’s quite surprising that teams keep trying nonetheless.
Running on third-and-short is more likely to convert than passing on third-and-short.
On average, passing will always gain more yardage than running, with one very important exception: when a team is just one or two yards away from a new set of downs or the goal line. On third-and-1, a run will convert for a new set of downs 36 percent more often than a pass. Expand that to all third or fourth downs with 1-2 yards to go, and the run is successful 40 percent more often. With these percentages, the possibility of a long gain with a pass is not worth the tradeoff of an incomplete that kills a drive.
This is one reason why teams have to be able to both run and pass. The offense also has to keep some semblance of balance so they can use their play-action fakes, and so the defense doesn't just run their nickel and dime packages all game. Balance also means that teams do need to pass occasionally in short-yardage situations; they just need to do it less than they do now. Teams pass roughly 60 percent of the time on third-and-2 even though runs in that situation convert 20 percent more often than passes. They pass 68 percent of the time on fourth-and-2 even though runs in that situation convert twice as often as passes.
- 'Tis Better to Have Rushed and Lost Than Never to Have Rushed at All, January 2004
- Pro Football Forecast 2004, Buffalo chapter
Pro Football Prospectus 2005, Detroit chapter
If the paragraphs below don’t describe the 2008 Broncos, then I don’t know what does:
Standard team rankings based on total yardage are inherently flawed.
When you open your newspaper on Sunday morning, you'll see that the little agate-type previews of each game list team rankings by total yardage. That is still how the NFL "officially" ranks teams, but these rankings rarely match up with common sense. That is because total team yardage may be the most context-dependent number in football.
It starts with the basic concept that rate stats are generally more valuable than cumulative stats. Yards per carry says more about a running back's quality than total yardage, completion percentage says more than just a quarterback's total number of completions. The same thing is true for teams; in fact, it is even more important because of the way football strategy influences the number of runs and passes in the game plan. Poor teams will give up fewer passing yards
Total yardage rankings are also skewed because some teams play at a faster pace than other teams. New Orleans had nearly 200 more passing yards than Indianapolis in 2006, but were the Saints really a better offense than the Colts? The Saints ran 183 offensive drives, while the Colts had just 148. No other team in the league had fewer than 160 offensive drives. If you gave Peyton Manning another 35 drives, he would probably rack up more than 200 passing yards.
- Pro Football Prospectus 2005, Cleveland chapter
Pro Football Prospectus 2005, New York Jets chapterand more rushing yards because opponents will stop passing once they have a late-game lead and will run out the clock instead. For winning teams, the opposite is true. Did Detroit really have a better passing game than San Diego or New England in 2006, or did the Lions have more passing yards because they went 3-13 and thus threw the ball more than any team except for Green Bay, while the Chargers and Patriots were a combined 26-6 and spent a lot of time killing the clock with the running game?
This could stir a debate. A good running game depends more on the execution of the offensive line, while good pass protection is only as good as the quarterback’s ability to escape from pressure:
Rushing is more dependent on the offensive line than people realize, but pass protection is more dependent on the quarterback himself than people realize.
Some readers complain that this idea contradicts the previous one. Aren't those consistent running backs just the product of good offensive lines? The truth is somewhere in between. There are certainly good running backs, such as Edgerrin James since his move to the Arizona Cardinals, who suffer because their offensive lines cannot create consistent holes. Most boom-and-bust running backs, however, contribute to their own problems by hesitating behind the line whenever the hole is unclear, looking for the home run instead of charging forward for the four-yard gain that keeps the offense moving.
As for pass protection, some quarterbacks have better instincts for the rush than others, and are thus better at getting out of trouble by moving around in the pocket or throwing the ball away. Others will hesitate, hold onto the ball too long, and lose yardage over and over.
Note that "moving around in the pocket" does not necessarily mean "scrambling." In fact, a scrambling quarterback will often take more sacks than a pocket quarterback, because while he's running around trying to make something happen, a defensive lineman will catch up with him.
- Passing: Fun With Sacks, Part II, December 2003
Rushing: Anything written about the Arizona Cardinals during 2006
The Broncos had better take advantage of the “spread offense” now, before the rest of the league adjusts their defenses to it:
Shotgun formations are generally more efficient than formations with the quarterback under center.
In 2007, offenses gained 5.9 yards per play from shotgun, but just 5.1 yards per play with the quarterback under center. In 2006, the difference was even greater, with 6.4 yards per play from shotgun and just under 5.0 yards per play with the quarterback under center. This wide split exists even if you analyze the data to try to weed out biases like teams using shotgun more often on third-and-long, or against prevent defenses in the fourth quarter. Shotgun offense is more efficient if you only look at the first half, on every down, and even if you only look at running back carries rather than passes and scrambles.
Clearly, NFL teams have figured the importance of the shotgun out for themselves. In 2007, for the first time, every single team ran at least eight percent of their plays from shotgun, and the average team used shotgun 27 percent of the time, a huge jump over the 19 percent average of 2006. The 2007 Patriots were the first team in our records to use shotgun on more than half their offensive plays. It is likely that if teams continue to increase their usage of the shotgun, defenses will adapt and the benefit of the formation will become less pronounced.
Pro Football Prospectus 2007, Tampa Bay chapter
In his last 3 or 4 years with the Broncos, Mike Shanahan was attempting to accomplish just what is being said below, in my opinion:
Offense is more consistent from year to year than defense, and offensive performance is easier to project than defensive performance. Special teams is less consistent than either.
Nobody in the NFL understands this concept better than Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian. Both the Super Bowl champion Colts and the four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s were built around the idea that if you put together an offense that can dominate the league year after year, eventually you will luck into a year where good health and a few smart decisions will give you a defense good enough to win a championship. (As the Colts learned in January 2007, you don't even need a year, just four weeks.) Even the New England Patriots, who are led by a defense-first head coach in Bill Belichick, have been more consistent on offense than on defense since they began their run of success in 2001.
- Turnovers and the Unpredictability of Defense, April 2004
Mentioned in 2005 DVOA Projections, September 2005
A surprising fact when it comes to starting field position is that if starting 5 yards closer to the goal line, a bad offense will score just as well as a good offense:
Field position is fluid.
Every yard line on the field has a value based on how likely a team is to score from that location on the field as opposed to from a yard further back. The change in value from one yard to the next is the same whether the team has the ball or not. The goal of a defense is not just to prevent scoring, but to hold the opposition so that the offense can get the ball back in the best possible field position. A bad offense will score as many points as a good offense if it starts each drive five yards closer to the goal line.
A corollary to this precept: The most underrated aspect of an NFL team's performance is the field position gained or lost on kickoffs and punts. This is part of why Devin Hester has such an impact on the game, even when he isn't returning a kickoff or punt for a touchdown.
- How Many Points is a Turnover Worth?, September 2003
Also, see the book The Hidden Game of Football by Pete Palmer, Bob Carroll, and John Thorn
Those of us concerned about this past year’s 3rd down conversion percentage woes may find some solace in the following, as we look ahead to 2010:
Teams which are strong on first and second down, but weak on third down, will tend to improve the following year. Teams which are weak on first and second down, but strong on third down, will tend to decline the following year.
We discovered this when creating our first team projection system in 2004. It said that the lowly San Diego Chargers would have of the best offenses in the league, which seemed a little ridiculous. But looking closer, our projection system treated the previous year's performance on different downs as different variables, and the 2003 Chargers were actually good on first and second down, but terrible on third.
Teams get fewer opportunities on third down, so third-down performance is more volatile -- but it's also is a bigger part of a team's overall performance than first or second down, because the result is usually either very good (four more downs) or very bad (losing the ball to the other team with a punt). Over time, a team will play as well in those situations as it does in other situations, which will bring the overall offense or defense in line with the offense and defense on first and second down.
This trend is even stronger between seasons. Struggles on third down are a pretty obvious problem, and teams will generally target their off-season moves at improving their third-down performance ... which often leads to an improvement in third-down performance.
- Pro Football Prospectus 2005, San Diego chapter
"Third Down is the Charm for NFL Turnarounds", New York Times, August 2005
The 2010 Denver Broncos need depth in the trenches, like any other team that wants to be a contender:
By and large, a team built on depth is better than a team built on stars and scrubs.
The Redskins went into 2006 with a Super Bowl-quality starting lineup, and finished 5-11 because they had no depth. You cannot concentrate your salaries on a handful of star players because there is no such thing as avoiding injuries in the NFL. Every team will suffer injuries; the only question is how many. The game is too fast and the players too strong to build a team based around the idea that "if we can avoid all injuries this year, we'll win."
Pro Football Prospectus 2008, "The Injury Effect"
Championship teams are generally defined by their ability to dominate inferior opponents, not their ability to win close games.
Football games are often decided by just one or two plays -- a missed field goal, a bouncing fumble, the subjective spot of an official on fourth-and-1. One missed assignment by a cornerback, or one slightly askew pass that bounces off a receiver's hands and into those of a defensive back five yards away and the game could be over. In a blowout, however, one lucky bounce isn't going to change things.
Championship teams beat their good opponents convincingly and destroy the cupcakes on the schedule. Certainly there are exceptions to this rule, including the past two Super Bowl champions. Unless this becomes a trend that lasts four or five years, it is hard to say this rule no longer exists.
Guts and Stomps, December 2005
With more time under the system and our offensive linemen moving toward using one dominant scheme, that should reduce their false start penalties as time goes on:
Teams with more offensive penalties generally lose more games, but there is no correlation between defensive penalties and losses. The penalty that correlates highest with losses is the False Start, and the penalty that teams will have called most consistently from year to year is the False Start.
Pro Football Prospectus 2007, St. Louis chapter
Not a day goes by that I don't at least take a glance at the articles and fanposts at this site. It serves as a great escape from the shallow analysis obtained from the MSM, and challenges my own knowledge on a regular basis. Guru and the crew do an outstanding job of running a quality website, and some of the analytical content above proves it. I think MHR is a place for great debate, sharing knowledge of the game of football, and a learning experience overall. Thanks MHR for all that you provide to Denver Broncos fans, I tip my hat to you.