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Aug 24

TABM 2013 NFL Preview: Five Factors, NFC North

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 North.

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Chicago Bears (10-6, 3rd place in 2012)
Chicago BearsFor a while, it seemed like 2012 could be a super season for Chicago. En route to a 7-1 start, the Bears mixed an elite defense with an offense that put together some strong performances. The wins included: 41-21 over Indianapolis, 34-18 over Dallas, 41-3 over Jacksonville, and 51-20 over Tennessee. At that time, the Week 10 showdown on Sunday Night Football against Houston (who was also 7-1) looked like a potential Super Bowl XLVII preview. However, the offense couldn’t keep going, which led to five loses in six games. In those losses, Chicago scored a combined 57 points. Worse yet, the late-season surge by division foe Minnesota knocked the Bears out of contention around 7:30pm EST on the regular season’s final day. Now, the franchise looks to start anew after firing Lovie Smith and hiring Marc Trestman as head coach. In doing so, the Bears trade off a proven defensive guy for someone who coached like an offensive genius in Canada.

Down1. Big-play defense: One reason why the team had so many high-scoring games early in the season was that the defense and special teams got on the scoreboard often. In those four wins with 34+ points scored, the Bears forced a total of 18 turnovers. Six of those turnovers led to return touchdowns. For the season, Chicago led the NFL with 10 return touchdowns. Most of this came from the defense, as the Bears returned an NFL-record eight interceptions for touchdowns. Since 1940, only one team in pro football (the 1961 Chargers in the AFL) returned more interceptions for touchdowns (per Pro Football Reference). It’s a shame that the Bears wasted an opportunity at the playoffs, because this team had the makings of a crew like the 2002 Buccaneers. Now, the team will be much more pedestrian when it comes to its big-play ability. Regression results: fewer return touchdowns

Down2. Yards per Point Differential: The astute folks who pioneered Cold, Hard Football Facts introduced some key quality stats that put a new perspective on the game. Those creations included Scoreability (yards per point scored) and Bendability (yards per point allowed). Combine the two factors, and you get the 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 2012, Chicago finished third in Scoreability (13.25 YPPS) and third in Bendability (18.23 YPPA) to help the team to outscore its opponents by 98 points, despite being outgained. The strong Yards per Point Differential largely had to do with the team’s +20 turnover margin and +8 return touchdown differential. The 2012 Bears are only the fifth non-playoff team since the merger to have at least a +20 turnover margin (per Pro Football Reference). The first four teams regressed greatly in the turnover department (from least to most recent: -10, -4, +9 and +3). Expect the Bears to follow suit. As a result, also expect the Yards per Point Differential to regress as well. Regression results: worse Yards per Point Differential

Up3. First-quarter offense: Despite all the help the offense got from the 10 return touchdowns, the Bears still finished only 16th in scoring offense. That had much to do with the pathetic performance the team put up in the first quarter. The passing numbers looked just dreadful (56-of-109 for 486 yards, four touchdowns and eight touchdowns to make a 54.80 passer rating), and it certainly got the team on the wrong foot. The Bears finished with a -31.71 relative passer rating in the first quarter! We know this will get significantly better, but note that the Bears finished 11th in scoring offense in the first quarter last year. We don’t think the regression is guaranteed to affect the scoring offense. Instead, the regression will aim to improve the 80.42 Offensive Passer Rating that ranked 23rd in the league in 2012. Regression results: better OPR

Down4. Brandon Marshall: Quietly, Brandon Marshall continues to put together a Hall of Fame worthy career. He ranks fourth all-time in receptions through seven seasons as a pro (per Pro Football Reference), and he’s one of only eight to average at least 80 receptions per season in that span. Marshall put together his best year in 2012, and an immediate rapport was established with Jay Cutler in his first year in Chicago. (Remember, Cutler and Marshall worked together in Denver, so there was merely rapport to revive.) As a result, Marshall caught a career-high 118 passes for 1508 yards and 11 touchdowns. He put up the 13th season in NFL history with 100+ receptions, 1500+ yards and 10+ touchdowns (per Pro Football Reference). Of the first 12 times, the receiver regressed in receptions 11 times, receiving yards 11 times and touchdowns 10 times. Marshall will regress in at least two of these areas, especially given he had 40.2 percent of the team’s targets, most by a player since at least 1991 (per Football Outsiders Almanac 2013). Marshall’s touchdowns aren’t guaranteed for regression, though, because the Bears should have more than the 32 offensive touchdowns in 2012. Regression results: fewer receptions and receiving yards

Up5. Kick returns: The Bears finished dead last in the NFL with only 19.77 yards per kick return. Given that this team had Devin Hester to handle 24 returns, this comes as a stone-cold shocker in many ways. However, considering that 23 returns went elsewhere among six different players, it follows that kicking around Hester had an effect on the kick return average. More or less, teams sacrificed field position to limit the return yards. Still, given the uptick in the return yard average in the past two years, due to the recent change to the kickoff rules, this average is unusually low. Yesterday, we said that 20-yard average would be our threshold for regression. We’ll apply that notion here, especially if Hester can get more returns. He averaged 25.88 yards per return in 2012, so his game hasn’t diminished much at all. Regression results: more yards per kick return

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Detroit Lions (4-12, 4th place in 2012)
Detroit LionsGiven certain factors of regression, it figured that the Lions took a step back from their 2011 campaign to the playoffs. However, that step back wasn’t expected to be all the way down to the basement of the NFC. Detroit tied the Philadelphia Eagles for the worst record in the conference after finishing 4-12. It came both with great disappointment and great dysfunction. The little things mattered for Detroit in close games, all of which were losses in the second half of the season. Detroit lost five games by just one possession, including three blown fourth-quarter leads. After this shocking embarrassment, head coach Jim Schwartz will need to protect his job by ridding the team of discipline issues and using quarterback Matt Stafford in a more efficient way in 2013. Stafford only posted a 79.84 passer rating, with much of that having to do an NFL-record 727 pass attempts making him predictable under center. Some balance is needed with the upcoming regression.

DownUp1. Calvin Johnson: With the heavy volume of pass attempts by the Lions, which was 740 overall, Johnson received plenty of receiving opportunities. He made the most of it, setting an NFL record with 1964 receiving yards on 122 receptions. Strangely, Johnson only caught five touchdown passes in the process. Two things stand out like a sore thumb when it comes to regression. First, all the conditions were just right for Johnson to pick up an absurd amount of targets. With the team playing from behind on many occasions, and Jim Schwartz totally ignoring the concept of a balanced offense, Johnson totaled 204 targets. Expect Detroit’s offensive plays (1160, fourth all-time) to regress. This in turn will make the pass attempts regress (because we don’t think Schwartz can get anymore ridiculous with the pass-to-run ratio). This in turn will make the targets to Johnson regress. With fewer targets, it means Johnson will see a noticeable dip in his historic production. Second, Johnson’s touchdown total was absurdly low in the context of his target volume. In his career, he caught 54 touchdown passes on 879 targets, which results in a 6.14 touchdown percentage. For 2012 alone, he has a 2.45 touchdown percentage. We’ll see some career-based elasticity exercised by Johnson. Regression results: fewer receptions and yards, but more touchdowns

Up2. Matt Stafford: As we mention the touchdown regression for Johnson, we should note we can too apply this to Stafford. As long as Johnson didn’t have an abnormally low touchdown percentage relative to his teammates, we know that his touchdown percentage was part of a systematic problem. The systematic issue seemed to be case, with extraordinary proof shown in Stafford’s touchdown percentage (2.75 percent). His touchdown percentage from the previous two years was more than double (6.19 percent) than the 2012 total, which says quite a lot. Just like with Johnson, we will appeal to career-based elasticity. Even though Stafford has only four years under his belt, we feel safe to say his touchdown percentage was much lower than normal. We expect 2013 to be a lot more normal for Stafford. Regression results: more touchdown passes and better passer rating

DownUp3. Yard differential: Despite the 4-12 record, the Lions were able to outgain their opponents a notable yardage total. Detroit actually outgained its opponents by 1082 yards. That makes the team one of 21 non-winning teams to outgain their opponents by at least 800 yards (per Pro Football Reference). We already discussed this factor with the Steelers yesterday. Only three of the first 19 teams improved their yard differential. However, we’re going to look at impact of regression quite differently than we did with the Steelers. While the yard differential will likely regress, it will also have a position spin on the team’s Yards per Point Differential. That differential was at a horrific -5.09 yards per point. That too should regress, which can only help the team. Regression results: worse yard differential, but better Yards per Point Differential

Up4. Big-play rushing offense: With the Lions passing so often, it comes as no surprise that the team struggled all year to rack up big plays on ground. Detroit totaled just four runs of 20+ yards all season. Meanwhile, Joique Bell had the only run of 40+ yards (67 yards) for the team. Leading rusher Mikel Leshoure couldn’t muster anything longer than a 16-yard run. Third running back Kevin Smith never got a run higher than 19 yards. In fact, Bell had three runs of 20+ yards, while wide receiver Mike Thomas had the fourth. We expect that the team will improve in this department with the arrival of Reggie Bush. The team will show more of a commitment to the run. Regression results: more rushing yards

Up5. Pythagorean win differential: As we explained yesterday, we are learning the true Pythagorean threshold for regression, so we’re going to investigate each team’s case before determining if regression will come in 2013. For the Lions, their 4-12 record is coupled with 6.47 Pythagorean wins. That gives Detroit a league-high +2.47 Pythagorean win differential. This suggests that the Lions were the biggest underachievers of the year, which can be supported by the team’s 3-9 record in one-possession games. Sure, that win percentage matches the team’s overall win percentage, but a normal record in one-possession games is much closer to the .500 mark. (Thus, a 5-7 record seems more fitting, which would’ve moved the Lions to 6-10 and inside of the Pythagorean threshold.) There, the Lions have nearly-guaranteed regression in store for 2013. Regression results: better W-L record

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Green Bay Packers (11-5, 1st place in 2012)
Green Bay PackersFor the second consecutive season, the Packers were exposed for their glaring imbalance on the field. In 2011, the team had one of the best offensive seasons ever. However, that was beset by the lack of an established run game or a competitive defense. As a result, a 9-7 Giants team that was outscored in the regular season won in Green Bay by 17 points to knock out the Packers one-and-done style in the playoffs. In 2012, the offense regressed for the worse while the defense regressed for the better. However, the running game and defense didn’t improve enough to make the team a strong Super Bowl contender. This led to a Divisional Round loss in San Francisco, one in which 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards. This is honestly still a shock to see, considering that the 2010 team only overcame regular season injuries to win Super Bowl XLV because it showed the balance and toughness of a champion. Can Green Bay find that balance again?

Down1. Offensive Passer Rating: After the 2011 Packers set an NFL record for the best Offensive Passer Rating in a season, we pointed out all the factors for regression in the passing offense during last year’s preview. As expected, regression hit the passing offense. The team dropped from 51 passing touchdowns to 40. The Offensive Passer Rating dropped from 122.58 to 108.28. The team passing yards dropped from 4924 to 4342. Even with the regression, though, the Packers were still in rare air. The 2012 squad was one of only 14 teams with 40+ passing touchdowns since 1940 (per Pro Football Reference). Every previous team regressed the following season. The team also stayed above the 100+ OPR threshold for regression. Including the 2012 Packers and the four other teams with a 100+ OPR this past season, there were 33 teams in the Live Ball Era to rack up a passer rating in the triple digits. Of the first 28 teams, every single one regressed the following season. Expect the Packers to follow suit. They might even drop below triple digits this time around. Regression results: fewer passing touchdowns and lower Offensive Passer Rating

Down2. James Jones: In 2012, Jones was the biggest beneficiary of the team’s inflated passing touchdown total. Jones caught 64 passes for 784 yards, which are both solid amounts in an offense that can spread the football. However, more than 20 percent of those catches resulted in touchdowns. Jones caught a league-high 14 touchdown passes. Jones became the 50th player to catch at least 14 touchdown passes, but he ranks 42nd among those players in receptions and 49th in receiving yards (per Pro Football Reference). Only Jerry Rice (1986-87) and Marvin Harrison (2000-01) surpassed this touchdown total in back-to-back seasons. It seems like the longest of yards for Jones to become the third receiver, especially when the Packers are expected to regress and especially when Jones only got 98 targets to get that excessive total in 2012. Regression results: fewer touchdown receptions

Down3. Big-turnover games: Following suit from our Ravens discussion yesterday, we’re looking at a Packers team that hasn’t experienced a big-turnover game in quite a while. The 2012 Packers committed two turnovers or fewer in all 18 games last season. In fact, the 2011 team also did that in each of its 16 regular season games (only to commit four turnovers in their playoff loss). That means the last two Packers teams make up two of the 14 teams to have 16 regular season games with two or fewer turnovers (per Pro Football Reference). Overall, Green Bay hasn’t committed at least three turnovers in 35 consecutive regular season games. We guarantee that streak will end at some point in 2013. Regression results: at least one game with 3+ turnovers

Up4. Field goal percentage: The Packers did struggle to score in one area. That problem came from the foot of placekicker Mason Crosby. Crosby made only 63.64 percent of his kicks, successfully converting 21 of 33 field goal attempts. No team in the NFL finished with a worse field goal percentage than the Packers. It was well worse than the league average of 83.65 percent. Luckily for Green Bay, this was an abnormal amount of failure from Crosby, so the team stuck with him. Crosby successfully converted 79.39 of his field goals in his first five seasons, so he’s much more reliable than he was in 2012. For Crosby, the problem came with long field goal attempts, as he made only two of nine attempts from 50+ yards. We don’t expect him get another nine attempts from there in 2013, but if he does, he’ll convert more of them. Regression results: better field goal percentage

Up5. Team health: This remains a constant problem for the Packers over the years. For whatever reason, General Manager Ted Thompson does a superb job finding talented players from unexpected places. However, he also finds players who get injured in unexpected frequency. According to Football Almanac 2013, Green Bay suffered only the sixth season (since 1991) with 100+ Adjusted Games Lost. Yet, the team was the only one over the last 11 years to lead the league in AGL and finish with a positive DVOA. Apparently, the team’s 40.1 AGL by the linebackers was more than seven other teams suffered on the entire roster. It’s hard to stop the Kaepernick-led read option when your best guys and next-best guys are on the sideline. The best Green Bay had all year from that unit was A.J. Hawk, and he luckily stayed healthy for 16 starts. Like we said, this seems to be a systematic problem (the team had a whopping 86.3 AGL during the Super Bowl season), but last year’s health problems seemed to jump the shark even in Green Bay. We expect more modest injury concerns in 2013. Regression results: fewer Adjusted Games Lost

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Minnesota Vikings (10-6, 2nd place in 2012)
Minnesota VikingsNot many people had strong expectations for the 2012 Vikings. However, thanks to a masterful performance led by Adrian Peterson, the Vikings surprisingly took the final spot in the NFC playoffs. Coming of an ACL injury from December 2011, Peterson amazed all by rushing for 2097 yards on 348 carries. He reached that total by frequently rushing for big chunks of yards. By all means, he put together one of the five best seasons ever by a running back. Peterson made the world a lot easier for Christian Ponder in the passing game. So did a regressing pass defense, which didn’t look good but didn’t look historically awful either. What’s most impressive about 2012, though, is how Minnesota made its run to the playoffs. The Vikings went through Chicago (10-6), St. Louis (7-8-1), Houston (12-4) and Green Bay (11-5) in the final four games. Sadly, the ride may already be over, according to impending regression.

Down1. Adrian Peterson: Here’s what you need to know: Peterson finished second all-time with 2097 rushing yards in a single season, coming only eight yards of Eric Dickerson (he’s the Rams’ top gun) in the 1984 season. He did so while averaging 6.03 yards per attempt, making him one of only seven running backs since 1940 with at least 200 carries to average at least six yards per carry (per Pro Football Reference). We talked about all this in detail earlier in the season preview. Note that the Vikings finished second in Time Ahead (total minutes and seconds holding the lead for the season), just behind the Patriots. That helped Peterson to be in position for his epic season. We don’t see any of these factors replicating, so Peterson will have to come a bit back to Earth. Regression results: fewer rushing yards and worse YPA average

Down2. Big-play rushes: Here’s what puts Peterson’s season among the best ever: the Vikings led the league with 33 runs of 20+ yards. The next-best team had 17 such runs, meaning Minnesota nearly doubled the rest of the league in this department. Peterson didn’t have all 33 runs, but instead a majority of those carries. This, he still beat the rest of the league by a landslide. By the way, Minnesota also led the league with eight runs of 40+ yards, and that was all AP. This gives true stock to Peterson’s season, as he didn’t rely on touchdowns of the long-yard variety to inflate his totals (see: Chris Johnson, who had seven touchdown runs of 50+ yards, which accounted for 509 of his 2006 rushing yards). However, that sustained excellence can’t be remotely matched in a normal season, even by Peterson’s lofty standards. Regression results: fewer runs of 20+ yards and worse team YPA average

Up3. Passing offense: The pass-run relationship in the Vikings offense was one we very rarely see anymore in football. The game is becoming increasingly pass-friendly for a variety of reasons, meaning that the run is nothing but a complimentary strategy in many cases. The 2012 Vikings passing offense can be looked at one of two ways. Either it was the unit that was saved by Adrian Peterson’s excellence, or it was the unit that simply got out of the way while Peterson did his thing. No matter what the answer may be, it’s staggering that the team finished with more yards per rushing attempt (5.42) than Real Passing Yards per Attempt (5.34). Even in the days of ground-and-pound offense, the average pass normally has a significantly higher average than the average rush (we’re talking close a two-yard advantage here). We already said Minnesota would regress in the running game, but the same will happen to the passing game. Minnesota’s 5.34 RPYPA ranked 30th last season. Regression results: better RPYPA

Down4. Blair Walsh: Strangely enough, the second-best player on Minnesota last season might’ve been the placekicker. As a rookie, Blair Walsh played lights out in scoring situations. He successfully converted 35 of his 38 field goal attempts, tying an NFL record for most field goals made by a rookie. Most impressively, he nailed all 10 of his field attempts from 50+ yards, which set an all-time NFL record. That’s just insanely awesome — and insanely hard to maintain. It’s impressive enough to hit eight of 10 from that distance, simply if we were to apply the flat percentage of all field goals attempted (and not just those from 50+ yards). Expect Walsh to experience a regressive sophomore year. Regression results: fewer field goals made and lower field goal percentage

Down5. Overall W-L record: In 2012, Minnesota improved from 3-13 to 10-6. That alone puts the team in danger of regression, which we discussed during both this year’s preview and last year’s preview. This involves statistical elasticity, something that doesn’t hold ground in pure regression analysis, but does in a relative manner. Luckily, other evidence supports regression for overall record. The Vikings finished 5-1 in one-possession games. Given how close nature of these games, a 3-3 record in these games (and 8-8 record overall) would’ve been more indicative of the team’s play. It’s comes a no surprise that the Vikings with a -1.18 Pythagorean win differential, which makes record regression possible. We’re going to say that with both elasticity and non-relative regression at play, the Vikings would be very lucky to finish with a winning record in 2013. Regression results: worse W-L record

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