Aug 26

TABM 2013 NFL Preview: Five Factors, NFC 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 NFC East.


Dallas Cowboys (8-8, 3rd place in 2012)
Dallas CowboysThe smell of mediocrity continues to linger in Dallas. In 2011, the Cowboys wasted a rare season of splendid play in the first quarter from Tony Romo by blowing an NFL-record five fourth-quarter leads. The Cowboys finished 8-8 after being knocked out of contention with a Week 17 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants. Come 2012, Romo regressed back to old form in the first quarter, struggling to get the offense into winning position. As a result, the Cowboys trailed in 13 of 16 games. Still, Romo kept the team in the playoff hunt by leading five fourth-quarter comebacks. This included such victories in Week 13, 14 and 15. However, overcoming a 14-point deficit in the final four minutes of regulation wasn’t enough in a Week 16 overtime loss. Then, Romo’s three-interception evening plagued Big D in a Week 17 loss at Washington that once again knocked the Cowboys out of postseason contention. What’s next for this franchise?

Down1. Dez Bryant: We talked about this up-and-coming receiver at length in the third-part of our in-depth series. To refresh what we discussed, Bryant (and Eric Decker) joined a list of nine other NFL receivers and two AFL receivers to post a season of 80+ receptions, 1000+ yards and 10+ touchdowns while in one of his first three seasons as a pro (per Pro Football Reference). Of the first 11 receivers, nine regressed in receptions, 10 regressed in yards and nine regressed in touchdowns the following year. Eight receivers regressed in all three categories. Only one receiver improved in all three categories. This suggests that an early burst of unusually good production will lead to some relapse. How significant or long-lasting the relapse will be is up to both the receiver and his offense. By all means, Bryant is living up to his first-round billing, and he’s in a passing-friendly offense. So how will Bryant regress from a 92-1382-12 stat line? Looking at the receptions, you may expect regression due to Tony Romo’s 648 pass attempts last year. Then again, Jason Witten’s 110 receptions (which set an NFL tight end record) looks like the more-likely regression. Looking at the yards, the 15.0-yard per reception average was much higher than the team’s average per reception (11.5 yards). Looking at the touchdowns, 12 seems like a fair total for the number one guy when the quarterback consistently hovers around 30 touchdown passes in a season, but someone can always randomly pluck a few away. None of the three looks like a certainty, but I will gander at least one category will regress. Perhaps even two will do. Regression results: fewer receiving yards and touchdowns

Down2. Fourth-quarter comebacks: There are only so many times a quarterback can go to the comeback well over a multi-year stretch. Thus, Tony Romo can’t be relied upon to get another five fourth-quarter comebacks in 2013. As a team, the Cowboys went 6-5 in games decided in the fourth quarter or overtime. One of those wins was the Week 10 triumph in Philadelphia that saw a Dwayne Harris punt return touchdown become the game-winning score. The other 10 games all featured comeback opportunities for Romo. Honestly, he would’ve done better than 5-5 in those games, if he got some timely help. Key plays in the losses included a missed field goal by Dan Bailey, an overturned touchdown by Dez Bryant (based on digits being out of bounds) and a Saints offensive fumble recovered by them in field goal range in overtime. He wasn’t too far from an 8-2 record. Anywho, a friend of the website highlighted the expected regression last month. The Cowboys are notorious for playing in close games under head coach Jason Garrett, so we don’t expect much regression. Regression results: fewer 4QC/GWD games and fewer 4QC/GWD wins

Up3. Pass-to-run ratio: This stat relates to the factors we’ve already discussed. The fourth-quarter comebacks had to do with the Cowboys ranking 30th in Time Ahead (a stat used in the TABRankings that measures the sum of time each team held a lead throughout the season). Note that this dynamic can intricately tie to a team’s desire to pass the football. If you’re down by just one or two possessions, but the clock is ticking, you will more than likely be tempted to air it out. That happened to the Cowboys. The team’s play-by-play stat sheet shows 694 pass plays and 355 rush plays. Adjust for the quarterback rushing plays that were originally designed for a pass, and then exclude the rush plays that were kneeldowns. In the end, you get a true pass-to-run ratio around 2:1. We think the ratio will get closer to 1:1, as the league passes about 57.5 percent of the time. After the running game was often hung out to dry in 2012, this regression should help the team’s offensive balance. They finished seventh in Pass DVOA and 24th in Rush DVOA last year (per Football Outsiders), so balance will help efficiency. Regression results: better rush DVOA

Up4. Interceptions: One huge reason for the team’s constant need to make comebacks was the defense’s inability to create turnovers. The Cowboys created 16 turnovers all season in 2012, and that includes the perfectly average fumble luck (nine recoveries on 18 opportunities). That leaves the team with a meager seven interceptions recorded on the season. They grabbed those interceptions on 511 pass attempts, giving them a 1.37 interception percentage that ranks as the worst since the 2008 Broncos (1.21 percent) and 2008 Lions (0.90 percent). Only 30 teams intercepted eight passes or fewer from 1940 to 2011 (per Pro Football Reference). Three came from the strike-shortened 1982 season. Still, only the 2000-01 Vikings repeated the ineptitude. Dallas made a move to make sure regression happened by hiring Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator. He previously made an NFL living by coordinating takeaway-prone defenses. Regression results: more takeaways and a better turnover margin

Up5. Defensive health: One way the defense can create more turnovers is by staying healthy. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Cowboys ranked 30th in the league with 57.5 Adjusted Games Lost on defense. The defensive losses due to injury include linebacker Bruce Carter (five games missed), strong safety Barry Church (13), defensive tackle Kenyon Coleman (nine), middle linebacker Sean Lee (10), defensive lineman Sean Lissemore (six), nose tackle Jay Ratliff (10) and cornerback Orlando Scandrick (five). Football Outsiders previously talked about the volatile nature of AGL from year-to-year. Here’s an article that shows the changes from 2011 to 2012. The metric is even more volatile on just one side of the football. Thus, we can’t expect the Cowboys to experience the heavy amount of injury impact once again in 2012. Regression results: healthier defense


New York Giants (9-7, 2nd in NFC East)
New York GiantsAfter the Giants pulled out a Super Bowl victory from a 9-7 regular season, it was an unknown if they would build upon their late run. Of the first three 10-6 teams to win the Super Bowl, each earned the top seed in the NFC the following season. However, the sample size is extremely limited, so there’s not much to be confidently suggest a huge boost in the standings. It ends up that the Giants were better in the regular season in 2012 — but not in the standings. New York improved in scoring differential, only to finish 9-7 again. This time, though, the team missed the playoffs. This comes on the heels of yet another second half swoon, in which the Giants had a stretch of five losses in seven games to knock them out of playoff contention. Now, the Giants will look to take a step forward, but the unpredictability of this franchise continues to be present. What can regression tells us to gain a better understanding of their prospects for the 2013 season?

Down1. Yards per Point Differential: The 2011 Giants finished 9-7 despite being outscored. The 2012 Giants finished 9-7 despite outscoring their opponents by 85 points. According to our own adjusted version of Bill James’ Pythagorean-based formula for expected record, the 2012 Giants finished with 10.07 Pythagorean wins. This happened despite being outgained by nearly 28 yards per game. Enter Cold, Hard Football Facts and their creations of Scoreability (yards per point scored) and Bendability (yards per point allowed). Combine the two factors, and you get this very important Yards per Point Differential. (Editor’s Note: Great minds think alike. Not long after this was published, CHFF used this exact dynamic to introduce the Intelligence Index.) This stat can expose key dynamics in subset areas. In this case, New York finished 4th in Scoreability and 6th in Bendability (per CHFF), giving the team a +4.57 yards per point differential. This means the Giants forced teams to travel roughly 32 more yards per touchdown than they traveled. For those thinking that the 10.07 Pythagorean wins mean the Giants were better than their record, understand that the win differential is explained by a subset stat that will regress. Regression results: worse Scoreability and/or Bendability

Down2. Drive help: The Giants achieved such a great YPPD because of turnovers. That’s why we feel so confident in its regression. Remember, the Giants were outgained, so it’s not like New York made a living by simply being more efficient than their opponents. Instead, the team set itself up on offense better than any other team in 2012. On average, the Giants started their offensive drives 31.40 yards into their own territory (per Football Outsiders’ drive stats). Looking at the year-to-year stats, it seems like the 2011 kickoff rule greatly impacted the average starting line of scrimmage. Half of the league started at the 31-yard line or better in 2007, while only five did between 2011 and 2012. With the recent change considered, we think the Giants are at the point of regression. In return, it will affect the team’s second-best mark (2.41) for points per drive. Regression results: fewer points per drive

Down3. Stevie Brown: One individual star who greatly made his impact on the team’s YPPD and drive help was safety Stevie Brown. A seventh-round pick from Michigan, Brown played his first two years in Oakland and Indianapolis, respectively. In his third season, Brown worked his way into the New York starting lineup with his big-play ability. For the season, Brown intercepted eight passes for a league-high 305 yards. Only three players in NFL history totaled more interception return yards in a single season. That should say enough, as numerous past greats couldn’t put better totals in even their best seasons. Brown simply can’t repeat his production from the 2012 season. Regression results: fewer interceptions and interception yards for Brown

Down4. Sacks allowed: We can’t chalk up all of the team’s success to turnovers. The offense itself did quite a solid job. This includes the offensive line limiting opposing defenses to only 20 sacks. Looking at the list of teams to achieve this over the last three decades, I think we need to take recent trends into account. From 1983-1992, there were 13 teams to achieve this, including seven times from the Dan Marino-led Dolphins. Consider this a testament to Marino’s amazing ability to get of the ball quickly. Nobody did it better, perhaps for Peyton Manning. From 1993-2002, there were 18 teams to achieve this. (Manning and Marino combined for four of those instances.) From 2003-2012, there were 24 teams to achieve this. (Manning accounted for six of those instances.) It seems like teams are doing a better job in pass protection. Younger brother Eli isn’t exceptionally adept at avoiding sacks like the elder Manning, but this is the second time in three years he’s been sacked fewer than 20 times. (Eli took 19 in 2012, while Carr took the team’s 20th sack allowed.) Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 reports that only one sack allowed came in less than 2.5 seconds, and that sack was attributed to running back Andre Brown. The offensive line will regress in that respect, given that you can’t do any better than the perfect mark in the “quick sack” department. Regression results: more sacks allowed

Up5. Three-and-out defense: Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 posted out another interesting fact that cries for regression. The Giants defense forced a three-and-out on only 13.5 percent of drives. According to the publication, only two teams held a worse percentage since 2007. The first team, the 2004 Colts, saw a record-setting season from Peyton Manning. As a result, the team practiced the “bend but don’t break” defense very often. The second, the 2005 Bengals, led the league with 31 interceptions, but they finished 22nd in scoring defense. Both teams improved their scoring defense the following year. It’s not a sample size that suggests a correlation, but the football logic follows that forcing more three-and-outs will lead to more defensive success. This seems to be especially true when New York’s percentage was so low. Regression results: better scoring defense


Philadelphia Eagles (4-12, 4th in NFC East)
Philadelphia EaglesAfter a long stay of success, and a little more recent stay of frustration, the Andy Reid era finally came to an end. The stellar 14-year career in Philly featured a disastrous end. The Eagles finished 4-12 after falling apart during the final three quarters of the season. The nightmare reached its worst point when the team allowed 319 points in its final 10 games, after they fired Juan Castillo as defensive coordinator. Meanwhile, turnovers played a huge role in the offense having major problems. Perhaps the team didn’t even deserve the four wins it got in 2012, as Philadelphia won those games by a combined six points. It’s not very often you see a basement dweller finish with a winning record in games decided by three points or fewer, but the Eagles finished 4-2 in those games. Now the team has a new head coach in Chip Kelly, and he’ll should bring a huge element of surprise with his unique offense. How much help will he get from defensive regression?

Up1. Turnover margin: One of the biggest issues for the Eagles in 2012 came from the -24 turnover margin. Coupled with this margin are some notable signs of historical ineptitude. First, they won the turnover battle only once, while losing the turnover battle 13 times. The 2012 Eagles became one of six teams to finish an equal or negative turnover margin 15 times in one season (per Pro Football Reference). (Also, the 1987 Falcons failed to win the turnover battle 14 times in 15 games, while the 1968 Eagles and 1973 Oilers did so 13 times in 14 games.) Second, Philadelphia failed to create a turnover nine times, which ties an NFL-high (since 1940) with the 2002 Bills (per Pro Football Reference). Both factors will certainly regress in 2013, regardless of the impact from Chip Kelly’s offense. Regression results: better turnover margin, with more takeaways and fewer giveaways

Up2. Pass defense: The problem with takeaways played a notable role in Philadelphia’s defensive problems, but it was far from the only one. The defense struggled all around, especially in the passing game. We looked at this in striking detail last week during our season preview. Just to recap a few major points at hand, the Eagles owned a 99.57 Defensive Passer Rating, which is the 15th-worst total since 1978. They did so in large part to allowing 33 touchdown passes on 485 attempts, which give the defense a deplorable 6.80 touchdown percentage (worst since the 2008 Cardinals). The 2012 Eagles also became the ninth team with at least 30 touchdown passes allowed and no more than 10 interceptions. While we already noted the takeaway regression, we can also used this precedent to anticipate regression in touchdown passes allowed. Each of the first eight team saw that touchdown regression. Considering the regression in those two key elements, we can anticipate with high confidence the impending notable improvements from the pass defense. Regression results: improve Defensive Passer Rating

Up3. Drive help: On the flip side of what the Giants received in drive help, the Eagles were quite generous in providing that help. Philadelphia finished dead last by allowing opponents to start on average at the 31.86-yard line (per Football Outsiders’ drive stats). Recall how we mentioned the impact of the kickoff rule change in 2011. Only two teams between 2011 and 2012 allowed opponents to start at the 31-yard line or worse on average. Meanwhile, seven teams did so in 2010. We’re thinking much like we did with the Giants’ situation. Regression results: fewer points allowed per drive

Up4. Fumbles: We’d be remiss not to address any offensive regression at hand. Turnovers presented the biggest challenge to the offense. The Eagles fumbled 37 times, losing 22 of them. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Eagles became the 45th team since 1990 with 35+ fumbles. The previous teams saw an average regression of 9.6 fumbles (and 6.6 fumbles lost) the following season. Yesterday, we talked about how we weren’t as confident as normal in the Jets’ potential fumble regression. Now, we see the evidence we need to feel confident. Regression results: fewer fumbles lost

Down5. Field goal kicking: On one positive note, kicker Alex Henery helped out the team well with less than ideal opportunities. Henery converted 11-of-12 his field goals from 40-to-49 yards, which puts him among the top five kickers from that range. This should change in 2013, simply because the kicking game numbers are volatile from one year to another. Just think about the changes for Henery from 2011. He attempted only four field goals (making all four) from 40-to-49 yards. Expect the 2013 totals to be somewhere in between, but it will affect Henery’s mass numbers. Regression results: worse field goal percentage


Washington Redskins (10-6, 1st place in 2012)
Washington RedskinsIf one year could tell us anything, it’s that the Washington Redskins made a sound investment in giving up numerous draft picks to get quarterback Robert Griffin III. As a rookie, Griffin led the league in yards per attempt and interception rate. He then helped to lead the team to a seven-game winning streak to end the regular season. The Redskins won the NFC East as a result. However, Griffin injured his knee in a Week 14 overtime win against Baltimore. His missed only one game despite still seeing some after effects of the injury. Sadly, the rookie quarterback further injured his knee in the playoff loss to Seattle. This happened despite Griffin clearly being hampered by the knee problems. It was a valiant effort by Griffin, but the Redskins were reckless by keeping him in the game. Entering year two, that “sound investment” could be in jeopardy, and not just by the prospect of rushing back from injury again. Washington also has regression to face.

Down1. Robert Griffin: We mentioned the regression at hand for Griffin during the very first post of this preview. To highlight the primary factors of regression, Griffin will a step back in yards per attempt (after putting up a league-high 8.14 YPA last year) and interception rate (after putting up a league-high 1.27 percent last year). Furthermore, he will see a drop in passer rating like the other quarterbacks to post a 100+ passer rating in one of their first three seasons. That will couple with the league’s adjustments to the read option that took the league by storm in 2012. Certainly, with many months in the offseason to learn the best way to defend the offense, that element of surprise will be over. Regression results: worse passer rating

Down2. Rushing offense: Griffin also galvanized the rushing offense, as he racked up 815 yards and seven touchdowns on 120 attempts. Better yet, with the read option confusing opposing defenses, the zone-blocking scheme employed by Mike Shanahan became enjoyed more effectiveness than usual. Rookie Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic, rushed for 1613 yards on 335 attempts. He became just the sixth rookie to surpass the 1500-yard rushing mark. In total, the team rushed for a league-high 2709 yards. The Redskins also finished second in touchdowns and yards per attempt. This puts Washington in select company. The team became the eighth since 1940 to rush for 2500+ yards and 20+ touchdowns while averaging at least five yards per carry (per Pro Football Reference). Each of the first seven teams regressed in all three areas. Like we said, teams will have the read option figured out more than they did last year. Regression results: fewer yards, YPA and touchdowns

Down3. Offensive production: You can consider this a case of A + B = C. After all, if the passing game will regress and the running game will regress, then the whole offense will regress. However, we wouldn’t be putting this as one of our five factors if we didn’t have a direct case of precedence to suggest regression for the entire offense. The 2012 Redskins led the league by averaging 6.17 yards per play. They became the 43rd team since the merger to average at least six yards per play (per Pro Football Reference). Of these teams, only one improved the following season (1993 49ers). This provides us a legitimate sample size to claim that the offense will definitely regress in 2013. Regression results: offensive yards per play

Up4. Pass defense: Luckily for Washington, the team isn’t totally doomed. While the offense will take a major step back, the pass defense’s regression will provide a helpful counter. The Redskins allowed 31 passing touchdowns en route to their postseason berth. Only 10 other playoff teams allowed at least 30 passing touchdowns (per Pro Football Reference). Every one of those teams allowed fewer touchdown passes the following year. Now, this could happen in either one of two ways. First, the pass defense improves all around, so the touchdowns dip with it. Second, the defensive problems expressed in the playoff season lead to more losses, so teams don’t need to pass as much. With fewer passes allowed, it follows that the team allows fewer touchdowns. Given that the rest of the defensive numbers are pretty solid against the pass, we can’t support the former case with claims of regression. With the offensive regression at hand, the latter case looks more apparent. Regression results: fewer TD passes allowed

Up5. Top receiver production: While offensive regression is expected all around, there is one area in which the offense will see some improvement. That should come from the top receiver spot. Josh Morgan led the team with 48 receptions. Pierre Garcon led the team with 633 receiving yards. Santana Moss led the team with eight receiving touchdowns. It looks like the first category of three will most likely improve from the #1 receiver, as the Redskins were the only NFL team not to have any receiver catch at least 50 passes. Garcon received a big payday last year, only to get on the field for 10 games in 2012. If he can be healthy in 2013, he’s the favorite to get those #1 receiver numbers. Also, it’s important to note that Redskins only attempted 442 passes in 2012, when the league’s average was 555.9 passes per team. With the regression factors at hand, Washington is nearly guaranteed to throw more passes. This will help the top receiver production. Regression results: a receiver(s) with 50+ receptions

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