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Aug 29

TABM 2013 NFL Preview: Five Factors, AFC West

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 West.

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Denver Broncos (13-3, 1st place in 2012)
Denver BroncosIn 2011, the Broncos were lucky just to get to 8-8 and win a playoff game. The masses were in awe of the “Tebow Time” that helped the team win one-possession game after one-possession game after one-possession game. To credit Tim Tebow, he has the focus on a triple-option offense that could slow the game down enough to allow the Broncos to beat superior teams. Better yet, Tebow made his best plays in the fourth quarter or overtime, as he totaled six game-winning drives with five fourth-quarter comebacks in his seven wins as a starter. The problem with that, however, came with regression, as the Broncos totaled only 5.82 Pythagorean wins. Those in charge in Denver know the team couldn’t keep win in that style, so the Broncos won the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. After a bit of a slow start, the Broncos won their final 11 games to end the year at a well-earned 13-3. However, the team’s season came to a crashing end with a double-overtime loss to Baltimore in the playoffs.

Down1. Net yards efficiency: Indeed, the Broncos finished with a well-earned 13-3 record. Denver finished in the top five in both scoring offense (second, at 30.06 points per game) and scoring defense (fourth, at 18.06 points per game). This came as a product of true efficiency and dominance by the Broncos. The team led the NFL with 11.57 net yards per drive, which is the best mark since the 2007 Patriots (per Football Outsiders’ drive stats). Even better, Denver led the league in Real Passing Yards per Attempt and Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt, giving a net average of +2.21 yards per attempt (per Cold, Hard Football Facts). Finally, the Broncos averaged 5.84 yards per play on offense (fifth in the NFL) and 4.58 yards allowed per play on defense (second in the NFL). That +1.26 yards per play margin is going to be extremely tough to replicate, as surpassing the ±1.0 yard threshold isn’t normal. To be honest, the Broncos put up a mix of balance and dominance that they can’t maintain. It’s a shame Rahim Moore couldn’t swat away the game-tying pass against Baltimore. Regression results: worse yards differential per drive, play and passing attempt

Down2. Sack differential: Two days ago, as we discussed the regression factors for the Jaguars, we mentioned the link between net yards per drive and sack differential. For the Jaguars, these were two negatives that were bound to regress. For the Broncos, there are two positives that are bound to regress. In 2012, Denver took only 21 sacks while totaling 52 sacks. The 2012 Broncos became the 14th team since 1940 to have 50+ sacks while being sacked no more than 24 times (per Pro Football Reference). Only the 1991-92 Saints did this in back-to-back seasons, and they actually improved in both areas. At most, the 2013 Broncos will improve in only one area. Peyton Manning does an extremely adapt job at avoiding sacks by getting rid of the ball quickly. He’s led the league in sack percentage thrice, but this wasn’t one of those years. In fact, his 3.48 sack percentage is his third-worst in a season since 2003. That leaves only the defense to take a step back. Regression results: fewer sacks

Down3. Offensive Passer Rating: The 2012 Broncos got a huge boost from Peyton Manning, to say the least. Under Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton in 2011, Denver put together an underwhelming 73.45 Offensive Passer Rating, which ranked 26th in the league. With Manning, the team shot up to second with a 105.34 Offensive Passer Rating. With this rating, the Broncos entered elite offensive company. Denver is now one of 33 teams in the Live Ball Era to own an Offensive Passer Rating in the triple digits. This includes five teams from this past season. Of the first 28, each of them regressed the following season. We should note that teams are more often reaching these high numbers, as 15 teams owned a 100+ rating in the past four years. Meanwhile, at least one team has pulled this off each year since 2003. It is possible down the line that teams will need to reach a higher passer rating to guarantee regression. For now, though, we have our necessary threshold. Regression results: worse Offensive Passer Rating

Down4. Rush defense: While the passing game led the way for the offense, the rushing game and pass rush spearheaded the defensive assault. We already mentioned the impending regression for the pass rush, so now the rush defense comes under the microscope. The team allowed only 1458 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season, the Broncos are one of just 26 teams in the Live Ball Era to allow no more than 1600 rushing yards or five rushing touchdowns (per Pro Football Reference). As we mentioned with the Texans two days ago, the track record is quite strong in predicting regression against the run for these teams. Regression results: more rushing yards and touchdowns allowed

Down5. Eric Decker: Again, we discuss a factor that we first introduced earlier in this “Five Factors” feature. This time, we can look three days back to see discuss the rare feat Decker and Dez Bryant achieved. In just his third season, Decker caught 85 passes for 1064 yards and 13 touchdowns. He and Bryant became the 12nd and 13th receivers to post a season of 80+ receptions, 1000+ yards and 10+ touchdowns in one of the first three years as a pro (per Pro Football Reference). The track record for regression is very strong in each category. However, given the passing prowess of Peyton Manning, we might be out of bounds to suggest that regression is imminent in all categories. We can certainly predict one piece for regression, though. Manning should be able to give some of Decker’s 13 touchdowns to somebody else. Regression results: fewer touchdown receptions

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Kansas City Chiefs (2-14, 4th place in 2012)
Kansas City ChiefsTo make a long and painful story short, the Chiefs saw nearly everything go wrong for them in a 2-14 season. The offense fell apart despite getting back running back Jamaal Charles from an ACL injury. Charles didn’t seem to lose much of his step or his historic rushing pace. Charles ran for 1509 yards on just 285 carries, averaging 5.29 yards per carry. However, the star couldn’t  prevent the passing game from totaling all of eight touchdown passes and a 63.81 Offensive Passer Rating. Defensively, the passing game also was a complete disaster, allowing 29 touchdowns and recording only seven interceptions. Even the team’s best moment of the season came in light of unspeakable tragedy involving Jovan Belcher. Kansas City defeated Carolina in honor of Belcher and his family. Now, the Chiefs begin their rebuilding with a new head coach in Andy Reid, a new starting quarterback in Alex Smith, and a bunch of regression in their favor.

Up1. Time Ahead: One huge factor that will help the Chiefs to potentially win more games is perhaps the most simplest of reasons. Kansas City can simply take advantage of the regression involving their total time ahead in ball games. Despite earning an overtime win in Week 3 in New Orleans, the Chiefs didn’t hold a lead until the Week 10 Monday Night Football game in Pittsburgh. That meant the team went an entire half season without leading at all! For the season, Kansas City led for a mere 68 minutes and three seconds, meaning the team led for an average of 4:15 per game. This total is much smaller than any other team in the league. Just to compare, the 2011 Buccaneers finished dead last by leading for a total of 148 minutes and 38 seconds, which marks nearly a 120 percent increase from the 2012 Chiefs’ total. It should be as simple this: the 2013 Chiefs will lead more often, which gives them a better chance of winning more than two games. Regression results: better W-L record

Up2. Turnover margin: Turnover margin provides us an equally important, but more concrete stat will impact the team’s chances of winning. In 2012, Kansas City would put one of the most futile seasons in the turnover department. Perhaps it’s fitting at Andy Reid moves over as head coach from Philadelphia, because the two teams shared dubious distinctions in 2012. Like the Eagles, the Chiefs are just one of six teams to lose or finish even in the turnover battle 15 times in one season. In fact, Kansas City’s lone such “victory” came in Week 17 during a 38-3 loss to the Manning-led Broncos. Like the Eagles, the Chiefs finished with a -24 turnover margin. Kansas City had just 13 takeaways, compared to 37 giveaways — which was again just like Eagles. The two teams join the 2004 Rams as the only teams with no more than 16 takeaways and at least 32 giveaways in a single season. Just like the Eagles, we expect this to be drastically different in 2013. Regression results: more takeaways and fewer giveaways

Up3. Passer Rating Differential: Turnover margin can make a major influence on a team’s Passer Rating Differential, which Kerry Byrne once called the “most important stat in football.” History says that Byrne’s statement is at least very close to the truth. As for 2012, Byrne’s claim was the cold, hard truth for determining the worst team in the NFL. The Chiefs finished 31st in Offensive Passer Rating (63.81) and dead last in Defensive Passer Rating (99.91). That gave the team a pathetic -36.10 Passer Rating Differential that is at least twice as bad as every team with a negative total, save for the Eagles (perhaps you guessed it). Still, Kansas City’s PRD is more than 70 percent than Philadelphia’s PRD. With turnover regression at play, this one too seems like an obvious case of regression. Regression results: better Offensive Passer Rating and better Defensive Passer Rating

Up4. Red zone offense: Besides the huge problems with giveaways, the Chiefs’ offensive woes can largely be attributed to horrible play in the red zone. Kansas City scored a touchdown on only 27.03 percent of its red zone drives, which is by and far the worst in the league (per Team Rankings). In fact, according to Team Rankings, this marks the first time a team was held to a red zone touchdown percentage under 30 percent since the 2006 Raiders. Given the offensive explosion in the NFL over the past decade, this will be a pace that is extremely tough to maintain. It’s not like the Chiefs are trying to do it either. Despite Andy Reid’s track record of shoddy red zone playcalling on offense, he’ll at least get the team to respectability in this department. The improved red zone touchdown percentage should help wonders. Regression results: more touchdowns scored

Up5. Scoring offense: The red zone help leads to this fifth factor of regression. With only 211 points scored, the Chiefs became only the 21st team over the past two decades to score fewer than 220 points on offense (per Pro Football Reference). It should follow that with the improving offensive dynamic in this league, this is becoming rarer. However, there are more teams (11) to do this in the last decade than the previous decade (10). However, note that only the 1999-2000 Browns repeated this failure, and that came with the unofficial “expansion” status for the franchise at that time. The problem for Kansas City came with the passing game, as the 2012 Chiefs became the 16th team in the past two decades to throw for 10 touchdown passes or fewer (per Pro Football Reference). There were no repeat cases in this span. In fact, the 1978-79 Chiefs provided the last repeat case. Andy Reid’s presence and Alex Smith’s stability will help out this matter. Regression results: more points scored by at least 40 percent

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Oakland Raiders (4-12, 3rd place in 2012)
Oakland RaidersIt now marks a decade since the last time the Raiders were last worthy of making the postseason. In fact, the team’s most recent playoff harrah came during a 48-21 disaster in Super Bowl XXXVII. Since then, the team could muster no better than two 8-8 seasons. That came in both 2010 and 2011. However, after the impatient firing of Hue Jackson, the first year of the Dennis Allen ended with a return to the old, pathetic ways of losing. It is understandable to think that Jackson’s firing simply had to with starting anew after the passing of owner Al Davis. However, in the first full year of new owner Mark Davis and GM Reggie McKenzie, there was simply no evidence of shedding the problems that plagued the franchise for 10 years. With 2013 looming, a battle rages at quarterback between Matt Flynn and Terrell Pryor, which only came after getting rid of Carson Palmer (who joined the team midway through the 2011 season). That’s not the sign you want from a franchise that wants to start getting better. Could regression possibly be the remedy to what ails this franchise?

Up1. Defensive Passer Rating: The decline of the passing defense played a huge role in the team’s return to the league’s cellar floor. Oakland finished 30th with a 97.46 Defensive Passer Rating, joining the 2012 Chiefs and Eagles as one of 41 teams in the Live Ball Era to allow a 95+ passer rating. Of the first 38 teams, 35 of them improved the following season. As we once discussed during last year’s preview, those three teams did so in 2008 or later. Perhaps there needs to be a greater Defensive Passer Rating threshold to guarantee regression. For now though, we will trust what has worked over the years while keeping an eye on potential adjustment next year. Regression results: better Defensive Passer Rating

Up2. Rush offense: On the other side of the football, the rushing game was the biggest problem. Perhaps due to the team trailing often, the rushing game totaled only 1420 yards and four touchdowns on 376 attempts. Oakland became just of 10 teams to total no more than 1500 yards or four touchdowns on the ground in a 16-game season (per Pro Football Reference). This involves no repeat cases. In fact, only the 1992-93 Falcons totaled only four rushing touchdowns or fewer in back-to-back 16-game seasons. It is possible that the Raiders continue to play from behind, forcing them to abandon the run. However, the potential addition of Pryor to the starting lineup can give a boost on the ground. Regression results: more rushing yards and touchdowns

Up3. Special teams play: After this, our regression talk will start to get obscure, so this may be our weakest work for any team. However, we seem to still be on to something by talking about the special teams. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Raiders finished 31st in special teams DVOA. This came despite the unit topping the ranks in place kicking DVOA for the second consecutive year. Thus, the unit had to be quite awful in all other areas to fall that low. The return game was particularly terrible, especially with the team’s punt return average (5.1 yards) ranking dead last. As for the coverage units, Oakland ranked 31st in DVOA for both punting and kicking. Finally, the team failed to recover any of its seven onside kick attempts. This shows that a lot of small things had to go very wrong to get to that bad. Regression results: better special teams DVOA

Down4. Big-play passing offense: While Pryor’s presence could boost the running game, that could actually take away from the downfield attack for the passing game. Throughout Al Davis’ football life as an owner, his Raiders offenses focused heavily of stretching the ball down the field. Carson Palmer could do a solid job of doing just that, as proven by the 10 completed passes of 40+ yards last year. That tied for eighth in the league, but doesn’t guarantee regression. So why does this fall on our list? For the first time in this season preview, we’re reading between the lines of preseason reporting. That’s generally a no-no, as speculation meets the unproven. Only rarely does the reading between the lines like this actually work, and we’ll take a shot here. The football equivalent of the dirt sheets are reporting in mass that the Raiders have “accepted” Matt Flynn can’t throw over 25 yards. With Flynn apparently having those troubles with the deep game, and Pryor likely to move some of those 40+ yard plays to the ground, we’re going to make an educated guess here. Regression results: fewer pass completions of 40+ yards

Up5. Subset defense: The Raiders will also see another small piece of regression, this time for the defense. For a unit that ranked 29th in DVOA, it somehow did significantly worse on third down, according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013. In fact, the unit put together fairly below average metrics on first down (2.8% DVOA) and second down (9.2% DVOA). However, it got much worse on third down (36.1% DVOA), as the team ranked 31st in the Football Outsiders metric. Surprisingly, this didn’t manifest in the team’s third-down percentage of defense, as 39.15 percent success for opponents ranked a respectable 20th in the league. Still, the defense also ranked dead last in “late and close” situations for DVOA. It wasn’t very often the Raiders were in those situations (2-4 in one-possession games), but they are still susceptible to regression. Regression results: better defensive DVOA

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San Diego Chargers (7-9, 2nd place in 2012)
San Diego ChargersThe 2012 Chargers season will be known a lot for the “what if” situations. What if the Chargers owned a better record than 2-5 in one-possession games? What if they didn’t blow five halftime leads in their nine losses? What if quarterback Philip Rivers, who had a borderline elite peak from 2008-10, didn’t play so shaky in the clutch? The issues with Rivers likely cut the deepest for Chargers fans, as he’s the offense’s key player since LaDainian Tomlinson left town years ago. Scott Kacsmar used his defense of Tony Romo as a means to point out how awful Rivers has played in late comeback or game-winning attempts in the past three-plus years. Among the lowlights, Rivers has just two wins in his last 21 game-winning drive opportunities. He also committed 16 turnovers in those 19 losses. And that doesn’t even explain everything that went into the 24-point collapse against Denver in Week 6. We’ll have to see how new head coach Mike McCoy tries to right that ship.

Up1. Second-half success: At least regression will favor the Chargers when it comes to the blown leads. The five blown second-half leads were as followed: (1) a blown ten-point third-quarter lead during a 31-24 loss in New Orleans, (2) the epic 24-0 halftime lead on MNF against Denver that turned five second-half turnovers and a three-and-out, (3) the 21-17 halftime lead coughed away during a 34-24 loss at Tampa Bay, (4) the blown 13-3 fourth-quarter lead that saw the infamous 4th-and-29 completion to Ray Rice, and (5) the 13-10 halftime lead that ended up in a 20-13 home loss to Cincinnati. Looking at all that, we can say that at least two of those losses never should’ve happened. Remember, before the 2012 Lions set a record-setting string of fourth-quarter futility, the NFL record was five blown fourth-quarter leads (set by the 2011 Cowboys and 2011 Eagles). The Chargers were just one step below that. We’ll see some changes to that dynamic in 2013. Regression results: better record with the halftime lead

Up2. Red zone defense: Regression in this area could be one way to help maintain leads. San Diego finished dead last in the NFL by allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 70 percent of their red zone drives (per Team Rankings). As we already covered with the Bills four days ago, the touchdown percentage is up for regression. In the decade Team Rankings tracked this stat, no team allowed a touchdown in 65+ percent of red zone opportunities in consecutive seasons. Note that the Chargers allowed 28 passing touchdowns and only 10 rushing touchdowns. Thus, it seems like the problems in the red zone seemed to prevent the Chargers having a pretty good defense. We can’t guarantee the red zone regression to have a profound impact, but it will still doing something to help the defense. Regression results: fewer passing touchdowns allowed

Up3. Rushing offense: On the flip side, the offense ranked only 26th in touchdown percentage on red zone opportunities (per Team Rankings). Much of this can explain why the Chargers only totaled four rushing touchdowns all season. The other explanation is that the running game simply wasn’t that good as a whole. The team rushed for only 1461 yards on 411 carries. If you recall from earlier discussion, only 10 teams put up such low numbers in a 16-game season (per Pro Football Reference). Also, only the 1992-93 Falcons failed to total more than four rushing touchdowns in consecutive seasons. In his third season, Ryan Mathews had another tough go at it. And yet, scoring one touchdown on 184 carries seems abnormally low, even for his underwhelming production as a pro. He had 13 touchdowns on 380 carries in his first two seasons. Mathews and the Chargers will enjoy a bounce back campaign on the ground. Regression results: more rushing yards and rushing touchdowns

Down4. Return game: For the sake of this post, we’ll apply this generalized term to punts, kicks, interceptions and fumbles. That’s key to note, because seven of San Diego’s nine return touchdowns came from the defense. San Diego returned five interceptions for touchdowns, which is a figure only the 1967-68 Oilers achieved in consecutive seasons. The Chargers also returned two fumbles for touchdowns. Finally, the special teams got involved with one kick return touchdown and one punt return touchdown. Overall, the nine return touchdowns tied Tennessee for second in the league, trailing only Chicago. That puts up a pretty strong case for regression in 2013. Regression results: fewer return touchdowns (especially from interceptions)

Up5. Pythagorean win differential: With the 2-5 record in one-possession games, it isn’t surprising to see that the Chargers outplayed their record in terms of point differential. In fact, San Diego scored as many points as it allowed, meaning that the Chargers owned an exact +1 Pythagorean win differential. This falls on the threshold line for regression, thus context should play a helpful role to see if regression actually applies. The nine return touchdowns can certainly explain the difference, as the Chargers would finish with 6.70 Pythagorean wins if all return touchdowns were discounted. However, we also must account for the disproportionate red zone touchdown differential. (The offense got a touchdown on 22 of 47 red zone opportunities, while the defense allowed a touchdown on 28 of 40 red zone opportunities.) That seems to at the least even out the touchdown disparity from the returns. Therefore, it seems like the win differential may speak to some legitimate regression. Regression results: better W-L record

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