Aug 25

TABM 2013 NFL Preview: Five Factors, AFC East

From year to year, the NFL experiences rapid and dynamic changes. As we explained upon the creation of this website, many of these changes have to do with regression to the mean. Because of this regression, a majority of these changes can actually be predicted. With proper research of the NFL stat books and a keen understanding of the game’s context, you can successfully predict the changes.

This is exactly what we did when creating last year’s NFL preview, as six spectacular articles foretold some major change in the NFL from 2011 to 2012. We look to do that again this year. While we already discussed some of the major changes, we want to expand the prognostications to the whole league. Therefore, I’ll spend eight August days discussing five factors of regression in the 2013 season for each team in the NFL. This will help to paint the picture for our season predictions, which will be made at the end of the month.

Today, we look at the AFC East.


Buffalo Bills (6-10, 4th place in 2012)
Buffalo BillsMuch of the big story remains the same in Buffalo. Last year’s 6-10 campaign marks the 13th consecutive season without making the postseason. Worse yet, the franchise now has a losing record in eight consecutive seasons and a fourth-place AFC East finish in five consecutive seasons. The 2012 season went as most recent seasons have gone. Buffalo would show flashes of competitiveness, only to fall out of contention as the season nears an end. All six wins came against teams with a losing record. With the underwhelming finish, Buffalo now has a new head coach and a new starting quarterback. That will create a bunch of uncertainty. Rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel will have plenty to live up to after the remarkable rookie seasons by the likes of Luck, Griffin and Wilson. Meanwhile, new head coach Doug Marrone may be able to exploit opponents with previously unseen strategies from the playbook. Still, we know five changes that will likely happen.

Up1. Run defense: The 2012 Bills run defense had one of the worst seasons in NFL history. They allowed 2333 rushing yards on 470 carries, which results in a 4.95 yards per attempt average. Worst yet, Buffalo’s opponents scored 23 rushing touchdowns. As a result, the team finished dead last in the Defensive Hog Index (per Cold, Hard Football Facts). Furthermore, the 2012 Bills became the 17th team since the AFL-NFL merger to allow 2000+ rushing yards and 20+ rushing touchdowns on 4.8+ yards per attempt. As you can see via the link, that list of teams includes a bunch of losers — and one Super Bowl winner. The 2006 Colts used the second season for significant regression, and the improvements led to a Super Bowl XLI victory. The rest of the teams had to wait until next year, save for the 1975 Chiefs. They repeated the “feat” in 1976. Regression results: better ranking in the DHI

Up2. Red zone defense: With the aforementioned 23 rushing touchdowns allowed, it’s no surprise that Buffalo’s red zone defense also performed terribly. Last year, Buffalo ranked 31st in opponent red zone scoring percentage (per TeamRankings), allowing touchdowns on 69.09 percent of red zone drives. TeamRankings tracked this stat over the past decade, and no franchise allowed a 65+ touchdown percentage in consecutive seasons. We already noted the DHI regression, which addressed the yards allowed. This now provides the support needed to address the touchdowns. We know the run defense will be better. However, with a rookie quarterback, we can fairly assume that the pass defense won’t allow significantly more than the 25 allowed in the air in 2012. The Bills won’t be in shootouts, and they won’t face the pass as often. Regression results: fewer TD allowed

Up3. Points allowed: We linked yet another piece of the football equation, so to say. With fewer touchdowns allowed, the Bills are nearly guaranteed to allow fewer points as well. However, here at TABMathletics, we need some more direct evidence to predict regression. Buffalo’s defense allowed 45+ points four times (48 at New York Jets, 52 v. New England, 45 at San Francisco and 50 v. Seattle). Only eight teams since 1940 did this, putting the 2012 Bills in very rare company. Two of those teams, the 1948 Yanks and 1950 Colts, never played in the NFL again. (Although a new franchise with the Baltimore Colts namesake began play in 1953.) The other six improved their respective scoring defenses. Regression results: improved scoring defense

Down4. C.J. Spiller: Quietly, the third-year running back put together one of the most dynamic and efficient seasons in NFL history. On just 207 carries, Spiller tacked up 1244 yards. This results in a 6.01 yards per attempt average. As we already submitted earlier in this season preview, Spiller is one of just six running backs in NFL history to average at least six yards per attempt (with a minimum of 200 attempts). As mentioned, we feel safe to assume that Adrian Peterson won’t replicate his gross rushing total. However, due to his limited number of rushing attempts last year, we can’t assume a gross decline for Spiller as well. Instead, we can assume that last year’s rushing metrics won’t be replicated. Regression results: decline in rushing DVOA for Spiller

Down5. Punt returns: Besides Spiller, the most dynamic play in Buffalo came from the punt return game. No team topped the team’s 17.1 yards per return average last year. In fact, that punt return average is the best in the NFL (or AFL) since the 1961 Green Bay Packers and 1961 New York Titans. That alone should explain the rarity of what the Bills achieved. Leodis McKelvin was the star of this show, as his 23 returns resulted in 431 yards and two touchdowns. This results in an 18.7 yards per return average. Only he and Billy Grimes averaged more than 18 yards per return with at least 20 returns in a single season. One could argue that McKelvin put together one of the best seasons ever as a punt returner. Regression results: decline in punt return average


Miami Dolphins (7-9, 2nd place in 2012)
Miami DolphinsWith a rookie quarterback under center, the Dolphins were seen by many as a long shot to make the playoffs last year. While Miami didn’t make the playoffs, it wasn’t a complete down-and-out season either. Ryan Tannehill did pretty well for himself at times as a rookie, but it paled in comparison to his fellow rookies under center. In total, Tannehill’s numbers (282-of-484, 3294 yards, 12 TD, 13 INT and 76.07 rating) leave up a lot to question. He could use the season as a positive building block for the future. Then again, the shortcomings of his rookie season could grow and make him a disappointment. On the flip side, the defense played much like a playoff-caliber unit. The team did have troubles creating turnovers (16 takeaways), but still ranked seventh in scoring defense. This puts the team at an interesting crossroads for 2013. Will we see more signs of the offense getting better or the defense getting worse? Or will the units not regress at all?

Up1. Wide receiver scoring production: Perhaps Tannehill’s biggest shortcoming as a rookie was his inability to get to the end zone via his wide receivers. He ranked 30th of 32 qualifying quarterbacks in touchdown rate (per Pro Football Reference). What’s most staggering, though, is the distribution of touchdown passes among targets. Of his 12 touchdown passes, the scoring distribution is as followed: TE Anthony Fasano (four), HB Reggie Bush (two), TE Charles Clay (two), WR Davone Bess (one), WR Brian Hartline (one), FB Jovorskie Lane (one) and WR Marlon Moore (one). Matt Moore added in another touchdown pass to Fasano. In total, that makes only three touchdown receptions for the wide receivers. They totaled 166 receptions, leaving them with a 1.8 touchdown percentage that would put the unit in last place in the league. The offseason addition of Mike Wallace to the wide receiver corps will certainly help out the team to hit up the scoreboard more often. Regression results: more TD for wide receivers

Down2. Red zone defense: While one AFC East team struggled immensely in the red zone, this AFC East team held its own. The Miami defense ranked first in Red Zone DVOA (per Football Outsiders, in their premium content section). The unit also topped the charts in opponent red zone scoring percentage (per TeamRankings). Overall, the team ranked 14th in Defensive DVOA. For those who read this site’s welcome pages, you know that the red zone is an important subset to know. While red zone stats have limited reliability, it has more value than the normal subset. Thus, it will skew the overall stats, which explains why the 14th-ranked play-for-play defense ranked seventh in scoring. Regression results: smaller rank differential (DVOA to scoring defense)

Down3. Bendability: Besides points allowed, one other stat can be linked to the effectiveness of the red zone defense. Cold, Hard Football Facts calls this stat Bendability. This was created by calculating the yards per point allowed. It is another way to understand the importance and context of subset stats. Miami ranked fifth in Bendability (per Cold, Hard Football Facts), which helps us to understand how the seventh-ranked scoring defense finished 21st in total yards allowed. The drive stats offered up by Football Outsiders paints a similar picture. The Dolphins ranked 19th in yards allowed per drive, but ninth in points allowed per drive. As we expect the Miami red zone defense to play more like the overall defense in 2013, it will follow that the scoring defense will play more like the overall defense. That will affect the team’s Bendability. Regression results: worse ranking in Bendability

Up4. Fumble luck: Very rarely do sports results boil down to luck, but a fumble recovery opportunity provides one of those “lucky” scenarios. Take an oblong-shaped football and drop it straight down. How often will it bounce back to you? How often will it bounce away from you? While not all fumbles are the same, many recoveries can come down the random chance of where the ball bounces. Football Outsiders used this as one of their earliest arguments for understanding the lesser-known facets of the game. They considered fumble recoveries to be “non-predictive events,” which is a fair assessment. Those “non-predictive events” often did not favor the Dolphins defense last year, as they recovered only six of 23 possible fumbles. Considering that the odds of recovering a fumble are “1 in 2,” it seems quite unlikely Miami will only recover 26.09 percent of fumbles on defense again. Increase the fumble opportunities, and the recovery rate converges to 50 percent. Regression results: better fumble recovery percentage

Down5. Kick returns: While we can walk from today’s post being impressed by Leodis McKelvin’s punt returning last year for the Bills, we can express similar impressions for Marcus Thigpen’s kick returning. The rookie totaled 1040 kick return yards and a touchdown on 38 attempts, averaging 27.4 yards per return. When rounding the nearest hundredth, we find out the Dolphins ranked third in kick return average. Only three teams over the past four decades topped the team’s 27.05 yards per return average. Dating back to the formation of team stats in 1941, no franchise topped Miami’s average in consecutive seasons. It looks like the kick return production cannot be maintained for another season. Regression results: decline in kick return average


New England Patriots (12-4, 1st place in 2012)
New England PatriotsFresh off a loss in Super Bowl XLVI, the 2012 Patriots refused the type of step back that most would expect from a Super Bowl loser. New England continued to live up to its standard of excellence by once again reaching the AFC Championship Game. It marked the first time a Super Bowl loser made the conference championship in the following year since the 1993 Bills. That nearly marks a two-decade rift between the two teams. However, the Patriots fell short of the 1993 Bills’ final destination, losing to the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. Regardless of that disappointment, New England looks as strong as ever. The Patriots won at least 12 games in three consecutive seasons. Tom Brady continues to play like an elite quarterback, while the defense is looking to continue to improve to provide much needed balance. Will there be enough regression to end this streak, or will it be another season that New England competes deep into the season?

Down1. Turnover margin: In order to earn a first-round bye in the AFC, the Patriots handled their business wonderfully in the turnover battle. They won the turnover battle 12 times, while losing only once. Overall, New England finished with a +25 turnover margin (41 takeaways, 16 giveaways), which led the NFL. The margin is particularly impressive when you consider where it stands among past greats in NFL history. The Patriots became the 12th team since 1940 to post a turnover margin of +25 or better (per Pro Football Reference). Last year’s preview covered much of the impact of turnover margin regression. We should know how much will be affected for the Patriots. Regression results: fewer takeaways, more giveaways and lower scoring margin

Down2. Fumble defense: One specific facet that helped the Patriots to gain such a great turnover margin was their fumble defense. New England’s opponents fumbled 42 times. The Patriots recovered 21 of those fumbles, creating an even 50 percent recovery rate that perfectly fits the mean. We can’t expect the fumble luck to change much, but the recovery chances will certainly diminish. The Patriots are just the seventh team since 1991 (when the NFL started recording defensive fumble stats) to receive at least 40 fumble opportunities in a season. The Patriots need to force a fumble to recover it, so we know what to assume when regression says there will be fewer opportunities. Regression results: fewer takeaways

Down3. Scoring offense: With the expected turnover regression, there will be a trickle-down effect that impacts the team’s offensive success. With the benefit of 41 takeaways, the Patriots led the NFL with 557 points. This marks the third-most points scored in a single season in NFL history, as well as the ninth time since 1978 that a team scored at least 520 points (32.5 points per game). The franchise as a whole made some NFL history by surpassing the 500-point mark for the third consecutive season. It’s only the second time that’s happened, as the 2010-12 Patriots join the 1999-2001 Rams as the only franchises to pull this feat off. New England averaged more than 32 points in each of the three seasons. Now, the team will have a different look on offense. Four of the team’s five top receivers from 2012 are no longer on the roster. Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead combined for 283 receptions for 3194 yards and 18 touchdowns. The fifth receiver of that bunch, Ron Gronkowski, is still recovering from injury. We figure how this story will end. Regression results: fewer points scored (ending the 500-point streak)

Down4. Rushing offense: We can expect some transition in the team’s receiving game, given how much roster turnover there is this offseason. While Tom Brady is an elite quarterback, but even the best will be impacted by massive changes to the receiving corps. However, regression says the running game will also take a step back. Last year, New England totaled 2184 rushing yards with 25 touchdowns. The team became one of 25 to rush for over 2000 yards and 25 touchdowns (per Pro Football Reference), but only once did a franchise do it in back-to-back seasons (2004-05 Chiefs). Regression tells us that the offense will take a step back in at least one area, but it does not guarantee a decline in both. However, we are going use some intuition for our results, citing the rising rate of the passing game and the scoring regression we mentioned earlier. That addresses both areas in the running game. Regression results: fewer touchdowns and rushing yards

Down5. Total plays: One other small factor that could be linked to a downturn in the offense is perhaps the simplest one of all. It will be the impact of how many snaps the Patriots get on offense. New England took 1191 last year, which ranks second all-time in NFL history. We have the list of teams with 1100+ offensive snaps since 1940 (per Pro Football Reference), and you’ll see that it is another Patriots team that tops the list. That team was the 1994 Patriots. You’ll see that the team regressed by only 12 snaps back then, and the 1995 Patriots rank third all-time. Given the turnover regression and roster turnover, we expect a larger step down in pace for this team. It’s obvious that this offense will take a huge step back. Regression results: fewer points scored


New York Jets (6-10, 3rd place in 2012)
New York JetsThis could be a make-or-break season for the Jets. After year four went quite awry for head coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez, an era could come to an end in New York after year five. The 2012 team went 6-10, the worst record during the Ryan-Sanchez era. Sanchez had his worst season since his rookie campaign, as he sported a 66.9 passer rating that ranks 31st of 32 qualifying quarterbacks (per Pro Football Reference). For the signal caller, matters just got a lot worse. Sanchez left last night’s preseason game with a shoulder injury, and it could be a major hindrance to him getting on the field this year. That puts the pressure now on rookie Geno Smith to handle the quarterback duties. Smith’s numbers looked impressive at West Virginia overall, but Nolan Nawrocki famously questioned Smith’s credentials to handle NFL defenses. We’re thinking Smith will perform somewhere between the numbers and Nawrocki’s expectations, which puts this year up in the air.

Up1. Big play offense: The offense certainly saw some dry spells in 2012. A big part of that had to do with the team’s inability to get the big play. While the struggles of Mark Sanchez was already documented, it wasn’t the only offensive unit to struggle. The running game couldn’t get the wheels turning. The unit rushed for 3.84 yards per attempt, which ranked 23rd in the league. However, the team did even worse when it came to making big plays. The Jets made just five runs of at least 20 yards on a hefty 494 carries. They also had just 40 completed passes of at least 20 yards, meaning the team tied the Arizona Cardinals for the fewest plays of 20+ yards in the NFL. These totals are low enough to expect some sort of regression, especially when New York averaged a measly 4.6 yards per play (31st in the league) in 2012. Regression results: more yards per play

Up2. Receiving depth: The offense will need help from the receiving corps to achieve the aforementioned regression results. Unfortunately, in 2012, New York experienced an inexplicably thin amount of standout play from its receivers. Last year, Jeremy Kerley led the team with 56 receptions and 827 yards. That more or less DOUBLED the production of any other receiver on the roster in 2012. Third-year tight end Jeff Cumberland finished second on the team with just 29 receptions and 359 yards. Note that a whopping 139 receivers caught at least 30 passes last year (per Pro Football Reference). Only one receiver was a New York Jets player. In fact, besides the Jets, only the Bears (with two) had fewer than three receivers on this list. Meanwhile, 114 receivers topped 400 yards (per Pro Football Reference), with only one Jet. The Bears also had only one receiver top the mark, while the Dolphins and Seahawks each had two. Every other team went at least three-deep in the yardage chart. It was a sad, sad state for the Jets receiving corps. Regression results: multiple receivers with 30+ receptions and 400+ yards

Up3. Defensive “clutch” factor: Overall, the Jets defense held down the fort pretty well. The unit ranked sixth in yards per play allowed (5.08), seventh in Defensive Passer Rating (78.21) and ninth in DVOA (-4.2 percent). That would suggest the defense would help the team win some games. However, the defense allowed 375 points and finished 20th in the league. So what’s the deal? Since we mentioned the “clutch” factor, you need to consider the important subset situations on defense. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Jets defense finished 22nd in Red Zone DVOA and 24th in Third Down DVOA. They also finished 25th in Bendability and opponent red zone scoring percentage, respectively. With the subset stats weighing down the Jets, the final picture of the defense looks quite different than it should. However, because subset stats don’t have as sturdy of a sample size as the inclusive set stats, it won’t be a lasting dynamic. Regression results: improved third down and red zone defense

Up4. Fumbles: Let’s getting back to picking on the offense. The Jets didn’t just struggle to get big play. They also struggled to hang on to the football. New York fumbled 32 times, which ranked third in the league. Specifically, Mark Sanchez fumbled 14 times, which ranked second in the league last year and among the top 50 all-time (per Pro Football Reference). Since 2004, 30 teams averaged at least two fumbles per game. Only five involved repeat cases. Therefore, the odds are very good that the Jets will regress in this area. However, we are not as confident as we usually are, considering that repeat cases have happened several times recently. We’d like something that was a bit more of a guarantee. Regression results: fewer fumbles

Down5. Punt returns: We’re going to close out today’s show with a bit of randomality. (OK, so that word doesn’t exist, but we’ll run with it.) This unique piece involves an NFL record set by Jeremy Kerley. He set the record with 36 fair catches. When somebody sets a league record involving a limited situation like punt returns, we’re going to scream “REGRESSION” at the top of our lungs. However, we need to be wary of the implied impact of this regression. We could claim the Jets will have more punt return yardage, but Kerley got about 33 percent of his yardage from an 68-yard punt return touchdown. Then again, we could claim the Jets will have a lower punt return average, but their 10.2-yard average wasn’t much over the league average and won’t regress. Our tiebreaker involves the number of punts against the Jets, with the total of 89 ranking fourth in the league. We’re thinking the Jets will have fewer punt opportunities, but will handle a higher percentage of opportunities. That means the punt return total could break roughly even. We can’t rely on another punt return touchdown, so we’ll predict the latter scenario. Regression results: lower punt return average

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