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Aug 30

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

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Arizona Cardinals (5-11, 4th place in 2012)
Arizona CardinalsThree weeks into the season, it looked like something special might be brewing for the Cardinals. They soundly defeated a 2-0 Eagles team by a 27-6 score. At the time, it looked like the match-up would determine who might be one of the top contenders in the NFC. Instead, it ended up that both teams were among the conference’s worst. Arizona got to 4-0 with an overtime win against Miami, but the team allowed eight sacks. It was the first sign of an offensive free-fall, which caused the Cardinals to lose 11 of their final 12 games. The offense totaled fewer than 20 points in each of those 11 losses, showing a sad state of affairs compared to the offensive-friendly ways of the NFL. The team would eventually hit rock bottom in Week 14 with a 58-0 loss in Seattle. Arizona was outgained 493-154 and lost the turnover battle by an 8-1 margin. Now the team has a new head coach in Bruce Arians, who will try to keep the defense playing well while offensive regression helps out the team.

Up1. Offensive efficiency: The Cardinals staring 4-0 seemed to be nothing more than good timing. The team scored 20-27 points in each game and played good enough defense to win. However, it couldn’t hold enough weight to prevent disaster in the final 12 games. As a result, Arizona finished with a total of only 4.13 yards per play. This average was one of four highlights from our in-depth look at the Cardinals horrific offense earlier in this year’s preview. Just remember that the 2012 Cardinals had the lowest yards per play total since the 2008 Bengals. They are also only the 38th team in the Live Ball Era to average no more than 4.25 yards per offensive play (per Pro Football Reference). Only the 1979-81 Giants, 1992-93 Bengals and 1998-99 Eagles repeated their futility in this era. However, with the offensive explosion of the past decade, it’s become even harder to fare this bad. Only eight teams did this in the past 10 years. Therefore, expect the Cardinals to bounce back. Regression results: more yards per play

Up2. Pass offense: The Cardinals feature earlier in this preview also addressed the massive struggles of the pass offense. Arizona finished dead last with 4.51 Real Passing Yards per Attempt, which was at least 0.76 yards worse than any other team (per Cold, Hard Football Facts). The team also finished last with a 63.10 Offensive Passer Rating. The first factor certainly will meet regression. Only the 2008-09 Bengals and 2004-05 Bears finished with back-to-back seasons of less than 5.00 Real Passing Yards per Attempt since 2004. With more passing yards per attempt, the Cardinals’ passer rating should improve as well. Regression results: more Real Passing Yards per Attempt and better Offensive Passer Rating

Up3. Pass protection: Another big problem with the offense was the pass protection, as mentioned in the Cardinals feature in our preview. Arizona allowed a league-high 58 sacks, which is the most by a team since the 2006 Lions and 2006 Raiders. Overall, the team took a sack of 8.71 percent of its dropbacks. The Cardinals are one of just six teams in the past decade to allow at least 56 sacks in a season (per Pro Football Reference). Again, this total isn’t normal anymore, given the league’s offensive explosion. Arizona’s pass protection won’t have such significant failures as it did in 2012. Regression results: fewer sacks allowed

Up4. Rush offense: The final factor discussed in the Cardinals chapter involved the rush offense. There are three parts to this major failure. First, the running game racked up only 1204 yards for the season. That makes the Cardinals one of 21 teams over the past three decades to rush for no more than 1250 yards (per Pro Football Reference). The 1999-2000 Chargers and 1999-2000 Falcons are the last teams to go back-to-back with those meager rushing totals. Second, the team rushed for at least 100 games in only four games. The 2005-06 Browns are the last to do this in back-to-back seasons. Finally, Arizona rushed for only 3.42 yards per attempt. The Cardinals last did this in consecutive seasons, when it happened in 2005 and 2006. Expect these conditions to regress to help out the rushing attack. Regression results: more rushing yards and more rushing yards per attempt

Down5. Pass defense: The pathetic offensive season hid what was a very good season for the pass defense. It’s strange to see a defense that ranked first in Defensive Passer Rating, at 71.17, lose 11 of 12 at any point in the season. Given the recent offensive success in the NFL, we need to find a threshold that is fitting of the league changes. For this year, we are going to use a 75.0 rating as the threshold to test out the feasibility of regression. Along with the Bears and Seahawks, the Cardinals will be the guinea pig for this year. Regression results: worse Defensive Passer Rating

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San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1, 1st place in 2012)
San Francisco 49ersIn our 2012 preview, we painted a picture about the 49ers that was filled with regression. They were supposed to see a regression in record that was heavily based on turnover regression. In 2012, San Francisco experienced that regression in both areas. Still, the 49ers put themselves into the optimal position that we thought they could achieve, reaching Super Bowl XLVII. What we didn’t expect was a mid-season quarterback switch that spurred the postseason run. Alex Smith started the first nine games, and the team put up a solid 6-2-1 record in those games. However, the injury he suffered in the tie against the Rams opened up the door for Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco opted to keep Kaepernick under center for the rest of the year, which ended up being good timing. As the defense struggled down the stretch, Kaepernick made big plays in the air and on the ground en route to the Super Bowl appearance. Unfortunately, the 49ers fell one pass shy of victory in the 34-31 loss to the Ravens.

Down1. Pass offense: Alex Smith actually performed very efficiently under center in 2012, as he put up a 104.09 Offensive Passer Rating. What justified the quarterback switch, though, was the wonderful play by Colin Kaepernick. The first-time starter put up a 98.30 Offensive Passer Rating in the regular season, and then he led the team to 45-31 and 28-24 postseason victories. Alex Smith has two victories for his entire career when the 49ers allow 24+ points. As a result, the team finished with a 101.19 Offensive Passer Rating, which ranked fourth in the league. As we’ve said a few times already, teams with a 100+ passer rating surpass the threshold for regression. Regression results: worse Offensive Passer Rating

Down2. Interceptions: One part that will impact the team’s regression in the pass offense is the turnover game. In 2011, the 49ers threw only five interceptions. In 2012, the 49ers continued to protect the ball very well despite regression, throwing only eight interceptions. Along with the Packers, the 49ers became the first team to throw no more than eight interceptions in back-to-back seasons since the 1990-91 Giants (per Pro Football Reference). No team achieved ever this in three consecutive seasons. Don’t expect it to happen now. Regression results: more interceptions thrown

Up3. Placekicking: The 49ers were fully expected to regress in the kicking department in 2012. That’s because the 2011 team set an NFL record by converting 44 field goals in 52 attempts. In 2012, the 49ers converted 29 of 42 field goal attempts, showing both decline and regression. They finished 31st in field goal percentage, with 69.05 percent. The league average is 83.65 percent. In the offseason, San Francisco signed Phil Dawson. He is set for regression of his own after going 29 of 31 in field goal range last year, good for 93.55 percent. Still, even if Dawson drops his accuracy by 10 percentage points, it will be a good step up for the 49ers. Regression results: better field goal percentage

Down4. Aldon Smith: Earlier in this year’s preview, we discussed the stellar play for three pass rushers who were drafted in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Aldon Smith is the least well-rounded of the three, but he might be the biggest headache on the edge. Smith put together a stellar rookie season with 14.0 sacks, but he still got better in year two. Smith racked up 19.5 sacks to finish with one of the 12 best single seasons since the sack became a stat in 1982 (per Pro Football Reference). Note that only Reggie White (1986-88) and Mark Gastineau (1983-84) totaled 18+ sacks in consecutive seasons. While Smith might be a special talent, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that he’s on the level of those two guys. Regression results: fewer sacks

Down5. Team health: According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the 49ers had the healthiest team in 2012. They led the league with only 16.2 Adjusted Games Lost by the entire team. Some other team lost more games at just one position. Particularly, the 49ers lost only 4.5 games (on an adjusted scale) on defense. Only defensive linemen Justin Smith and Issac Spopaga missed games. As for the offense, the Smith-to-Kaepernick change accounted for most of the “problems.” In actuality, besides Smith, wide receiver Mario Manningham is the only primary starter to miss time. Overall, 17 of 22 starters were able to crack the lineup in all 16 regular season games. That simply isn’t going to happen again. Regression results: more Adjusted Games Lost

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Seattle Seahawks (11-5, 2nd place in 2012)
Seattle SeahawksIf any Seahawks fans were trying to figure out what this franchise would be like under head coach Pete Carroll, they finally got their answer in 2012. The defense continued its momentum from the second half of the season to become one of the best in the league. Meanwhile, the drafting of Russell Wilson in the third round looks like a game-changer. Wilson played with poise all season, but got even better as the season went on. He even did his best against the toughest of opponents. As a result, Seattle won seven of its final eight regular season and made the playoffs. The Seahawks overcame a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Redskins on Wild Card Weekend. Then, they overcame a 27-7 deficit to grab a late lead in Atlanta in the Divisional Round. Unfortunately, the Falcons converted a late field goal to defeat the ‘Hawks. Now, Seattle must play up to expectations, and Russell Wilson must limit the regression he’s facing in 2013. The hopes of winning a Super Bowl rest on these factors.

Down1. Russell Wilson: It took just one year for DangeRuss Wilson to be born as an NFL star. To recall what we discussed about Wilson earlier in the preview, he is due for a good amount of regression. First, his 100.03 passer rating is on the chopping block, particularly because he won’t be able to match his 107.53 passer rating against teams with a winning record. That production against the best simply can’t be retained. Furthermore, he tied the NFL rookie record with 26 touchdown passes. In fact, Wilson was just one eight rookies since the merger to throw 20+ touchdown passes (per Pro Football Reference). This includes Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. What really stands out is the 6.62 touchdown percentage. This is what makes him vulnerable to regression. Regression results: lower passer rating and lower touchdown percentage

Down2. Pass offense: Wilson’s passer rating puts the Seahawks on the fence for surpassing the threshold for regression. Therefore, Golden Tate’s touchdown pass as a wide receiver becomes the clincher. Seattle finished fifth in the league with a 100.58 Offensive Passer Rating. Remember, of the first 28 teams in the Live Ball Era to finish with a 100+ Offensive Passer rating, none improved the following season. We already mentioned Wilson’s regression, which will certainly impact what’s going on here for the whole team. Regression results: lower Offensive Passer Rating

Down3. Pass-to-run ratio: Given the changes in the NFL, it’s not often that a team runs more than it passes. However, that was the case for the Seahawks. They totaled 536 rush plays and 438 pass plays, which means the team ran more than 55 percent of the time. You can’t really blame for Seattle for taking this approach. The handling of Russell Wilson’s rookie season was executed to near perfection, and taking the pressure off with the heavy run presence certainly helped. Meanwhile, the running game enjoyed wild success by averaging 4.81 yards per attempt. The Seahawks join a sizable list of teams in the Live Ball Era to run for 2500+ yards. However, only the 2004-06 Falcons achieved this feat in consecutive seasons over the past three decades. In 2013, expect the pass-to-run ratio get closer to 1:1, causing some regression for the run game. Regression results: fewer rushing yards

Down4. Placekicking: The Seahawks performed well in the kicking game, converting 24 of their 27 field goal attempts. That included kicker Steven Hauschka converting all 23 of his attempts inside 50 yards. That speaks a lot to the great job Hauschka is doing as a kicker, but it’s still an abnormally good percentage. On average, the league converts 87.45 percent of field goals inside 50 yards. Expect Hauschka to kick closer to that percentage inside 50 yards. However, will it affect Seattle’s overall placekicking production? Perhaps not, because Hauschka is due to kick better than 1-of-4 from 50+ yards. That dynamic could simply even out the overall production. Regression results: field goal percentage inside 50 yards

Up5. Pythagorean win differential: Despite sporting a solid 11-5 record, the Seahawks actually finished a worse record than expectated, according to their point differential. Seattle finished with 12.43 Pythaogrean wins, according to our adjusted formula. So how did Seattle record a +1.43 win differential? The 59-0 win certainly helps; the team owns a +0.59 win differential in the other 15 games. However, that doesn’t tell the whole picture. The Seahawks own a 5-5 record in one-possession games, but a perfect 6-0 record in other games. Also, they outscored their opponents 272-111 in the second half of the season, giving them 7.16 Pythagorean wins during that span. One the Seahawks stopped losing close games, they played like a team that could win 14 games. We say they get closer to that record in 2013. Regression results: better W-L record

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St. Louis Rams (7-8-1, 3rd place in 2012)
St. Louis RamsIn most cases, it wouldn’t be much of a story if a team finished with a 7-8-1 record. However, for a team that went 15-65 in the previous five seasons, this record comes as a huge accomplishment for the Rams. Think about it; the team’s wins from 2012 count as half of the total from 2007-11. Finally, the team may overcome its recent history of ineptitude. St. Louis earned three wins and a tie against playoff teams. The defense played solid for much of the year, limiting opponents to shorter but more accurate passing. The pass rush also performed well. Now, the team must navigate through a suddenly tough NFC West by improving on offense. Can the Rams do this, despite their shortcomings at the skill positions? More importantly, will Sam Bradford improve enough to breed a consistent winning atmosphere in St. Louis? Regression may also play a role on the team’s defensive development, or lack thereof, so the offense will be the main key in 2013.

Down1. Pass rush: The Rams pass rush might be best thing going for the team. They racked up 51 sacks in 2012, led by the 11.5 sacks by Chris Long and 10.5 sacks by Robert Quinn. The 2001-02 Steelers were the last team to total 50+ sacks in back-to-back seasons. This unit didn’t have a surpass from one or two particular pass rushers, but rather the depth of the unit. St. Louis had 14 different players account for at least a half sack in 2012. Don’t expect that to happen again in 2013. If the Rams are to break regression, it will have to come from Long and Quinn. Regression results: fewer sacks

Down2. Team health: For years, the Rams’ massive struggles were often tied into their health issues. Just look the Adjusted Games Lost metric created by Football Outsiders. In 2008, the 2-14 Rams finished with 80.2 AGL. In 2009, a 1-15 Rams team finished with 74.7 AGL, which is not much regression for a team in need. In 2011, the 2-14 Rams finished with 110.1 AGL. On the flipside, the 2010 Rams that went 7-9 finished with 56.8 AGL. As for 2012, the team finished with 36.3 AGL, including only 8.3 on the defensive side. In total, St. Louis put an NFL-low four players on Injured Reserve. Note there will be some elasticity on defense, as team moved from 27th to third. Regression results: more Adjusted Games Lost on defense

Up3. Fumble luck: St. Louis recovered only four fumbles on defense all season. Only the Colts fared worse. However, it can’t be fully chocked up as a shortcoming for the team. The Rams simply faced tough luck. In total, the Rams forced 17 fumbles, which is more than six teams and equal with three others. These lists include five teams that recovered 10+ fumbles. This helps to illustrate the bad luck that hurt the Rams. The St. Louis defense recovered 23.53 percent of fumbles. The average should be close to 50 percent, which is what Football Perspective provided evidence for when looking at 12 years worth of data. Expect the Rams to get closer to that percentage in 2013. Regression results: higher percentage of fumble recoveries on defense

Up4. Return game: Special teams play for the Rams did very little to help out the offense. The team averaged only 21.03 yards per kick return (27th in the NFL) and 6.62 yards per punt return (31st in the NFL). Each of the 30 teams ahead of St. Louis average at least seven yards per return. Enter rookie Tavon Austin, who’s expected to add big-play ability to the offense and return game. Finishing below seven yards per punt return surpasses a reasonable threshold to expect regression. It will get better, even without Austin. However, the kick return average isn’t set for regression. Instead, it will be Austin that will give the necessary boost. Regression results: more yards per punt return and more yards per kick return

Up5. Strength of schedule: According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Rams faced the toughest slate of defenses. Those defenses combined for a league-best -6.0% DVOA. This included playing in an NFC West filled with great defenses, which accounted for six such games. The Rams also played the Jets and the Dolphins in the AFC East, as well as the Bears in the NFC North. Therefore, more than half of the team’s games were against stellar defenses. In 2013, the Rams will face a more offensive-friendly NFC South and AFC South. It may still be a tough schedule for the offense, given the prowess of the NFC West, but it won’t be the league’s toughest again. Regression results: lower average opponent DVOA on offense

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