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Aug 27

TABM 2014 NFL Preview: Five Factors, NFC South

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 during last year’s Five Factors feature, when we published the 2013 NFL Preview. The feature had greater than 90 percent success rate, making this feature one of the best in the world at correctly predicting key factors for any given season. Therefore, we will once again spend eight August days discussing five factors of regression for each team in the NFL. This will help to paint the picture for the 2014 NFL season predictions, which will be made at the end of the month after this feature is complete.

Today, we look at the NFC South.

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Atlanta Falcons (4-12, 3rd place in 2013)
Atlanta FalconsWe expected the Falcons to take a step back in 2013. However, little did we expect everything to come crashing down in Atlanta. From 13-3 and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game to 4-12 and a place among the worst in the league, the Falcons may be at the end of their most impressive run in franchise history. The team had five consecutive winning seasons from 2008 to 2012, a first in franchise history after never previously having ANY consecutive winning seasons. Maybe the team can bounce back to get another one. After all, the team is a prime candidate for improvement, due to the regression-based “Minus-7” elasticity. However, if the regression only goes as far as another losing season in Atlanta, it could mean a rebuilding process goes in full swing. Perhaps quarterback Matt Ryan would be the only player who’s safe. That makes 2014 a make-or-break season for head coach Mike Smith and crew.

Up1. Defensive efficiency: Atlanta’s defensive decline best symbolized the franchise’s fall during the 2013 season. The Falcons allowed 6070 yards on 1003 plays, which leads to 6.05 yards allowed per play. This marks a first for the franchise since 2001. Note that no team in the Live Ball Era allowed at least six yards per play in consecutive seasons, besides the historically awful 2008-09 Lions (per Pro Football Reference). One way Atlanta can show this improvement is with its big-play pass defense. The Falcons allowed 17 pass completions of 40+ yards, which tied for the league-worst total. This led to an NFL-high 7.11 net yards allowed per dropback. It might not help much, but regression has its ways. Regression results: fewer yards allowed per play

Up2. Rush offense: Offensively speaking, the team dealt with a major disappointment. Steven Jackson was signed to replace Michael Turner and give the team a bruising attack. However, the 30-year-old showed serious signs of decline and rushed for only 543 yards. Such a decline was honestly expected. However, the team as a whole rushed for only 1247 yards, which ranked last in the NFL. Much of that has to do with the team carrying the ball a league-low 321 times. As we’ll explain later, we figure the “Minus-7” elasticity leads to an improved record for the Falcons. This means more fourth-quarter leads, which means more carries. More carries should mean more rushing yards. It’s a simple line of logic. Regression results: more rushing yards per game

Down3. Matt Ryan: With the awful play from the defense and the rushing attack, the Falcons became incredibly one-dimensional. That hurt quarterback Matt Ryan in more ways than one, but it may have also helped him in on statistical area. Ryan is a career 63.66 percent passer, yet he completed 67.43 percent of his passes in 2013. We think this has to do with the Falcons playing from behind so often and passing the ball so frequently. Ryan’s completion percentage seems to generally improve as he makes more passes. He owns a 59.66 completion percentage in his two seasons with 400-499 pass attempts, a 61.92 completion percentage in his two seasons with 500-599 pass attempts and a 68.01 completion percentage in his two season with 600+ pass attempts. The latter number seems a bit high, so even if Ryan pass more than 600 times in 2014, we think his completion percentage will take a dip. However, it’s likely he doesn’t surpass his 651 pass attempts last year. Regression results: worse completion percentage

Up4. Kicking luck: Since everything else conspired against Atlanta in 2013, why wouldn’t luck? The Falcons actually enjoyed good fortune for years, so it seemed luck played a role as everything came crashing down. Atlanta’s opponents converted 34-of-35 field goal attempts last year, giving the Falcons literally one break in the kicking game all season. This led to a 97.14 field goal percentage for Atlanta’s opponents, which puts the league’s 86.47 field goal percentage to shame. That’s simply bad luck for the Falcons, who could nothing but try to block kicks to stop the pain. Regression results: worse opponents field goal percentage

Up5. Overall record: See “The ‘Minus-7′ Win Differential and Its Elasticity” and “The Turnover Impact on the Pythagorean Win Differential” for more details on the regression involved for the Falcons. First, we can look at the team’s decline from a 13-3 record to 4-12. That nine-game drop is topped only by the 1994 Oilers and 2013 Texans in NFL history. Second, we can look at the team’s plus-2.44 Expected Win Differential, which finished well above the ±1.454-win threshold for regression. One other factor will play an important role. Atlanta faced of the easiest schedules of opposing defense in 2012, but one of the hardest in 2013. Atlanta scored 419 points in 2012, against defenses that allowed an average of 393.69 points. Atlanta then scored 353 points in 2013, against defenses that allowed an average of 338.31 points in 2014. The Falcons relative scoring dropped only from 25.31 points to 14.69. With defensive regression at play for at least two NFC South teams (Carolina and New Orleans), we see Atlanta getting an uptick in scoring as a way to improve its record. Regression results: better W-L record and more points scored

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Carolina Panthers (12-4, 1st place in 2013)
Carolina PanthersAfter what seemed to be bubbling on the surface for a few years, the Panthers finally broke out with a playoff-caliber season. Carolina played strong in the second half in each of the previous two season, but only after seriously stumbling out of the gates to start the season. The team also struggled miserably in close games in those seasons. All that seemed to flip around in 2013, which actually started off like another season destined for disappointment. An 0-2 start included a last-second loss in Buffalo. However, the Carolina defense stepped up and the team got the breaks it needed in close games for the rest of the regular season. This led to an NFC South crown and a first-round bye in the postseason, giving young quarterback Cam Newton that much-needed taste of the postseason. The problem now is that regression is set to hit the Panthers hard and heavy in 2014, just as Carolina does some retooling with its roster. Can the Panthers survive the wave of regression?

Down1. Pass rush: See “The League’s Sack Percentage” for more details on the regression involved for the Panthers. Carolina surged in 2013 thanks in large part to its pass rush. The team had the talent in this area for years, but everything finally came together to fit just right. Of the team’s league-high 60 sacks, most of them spread out well around the roster. Greg Hardy (15.0 sacks) and Charles Johnson (11.0) were unsurprising leaders, but many others chipped in. This includes 11 sacks from defensive backs, with 10 of those coming from players who left via free agency. Overall, Carolina’s 9.63 sack percentage dwarfs the league’s 6.66 sack percentage. Expect the gap to begin closing in 2014. Regression results: fewer sacks

Down2. Run defense: The defense stood out the most with its pass rush, but it also had a strong year against the run. Carolina allowed only 1391 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in 2013. This made the 2013 Panthers only the 15th team since 1950 to allow no more than 1400 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns (per Pro Football Reference). Note that only five teams did it in a 16-game season. Also note that the 2013 Panthers had the worst rushing average allowed (3.95 yards per attempt) of the bunch, so we can assume facing a league-low 352 rush attempts on the season truly helped. Carolina finished with the league’s second-best Defensive Rusher Rating (69.79), according to Cold, Hard Football Facts. That number will drop, especially if opponents face more red zone rushing opportunities. Regression results: worse Defensive Rusher Rating

DownUp3. Pass defense: With a great pass rush and stout run defense, the Panthers put the rest together on defense by using a “bend but don’t break” philosophy with its secondary. This manifested with a unique statistical dynamic. On the good side, Carolina’s allowed just 5.50 net yards per dropback en route to the league’s seventh-best yards allowed per play total (4.94). However, the team also allowed opponents to complete 375 of 563 passes, which resulted in a 66.61 completion percentage. The Panthers are just the fifth team since 1940 to allow no more than five yards per play but allow more than a 65 completion percentage (per PFR). The previous four teams are allowed more yards per play the following season, while three teams improved in completion percentage allowed. Only the 2008 Colts allowed a higher completion percentage, but they are a clear exception. That Colts crew embodied the “bend but don’t break” philosophy for many years under Tony Dungy. In this case, we feel convergence will occur in 2014. Regression results: better completion percentage allowed, but more yards allowed per play

Up4. Big-play offense: While the defense held its own through a “bend but don’t break” philosophy in its secondary, the offense simply failed to break through in the passing game. Carolina totaled only 33 pass completions of 20+ yards, which was easily the lowest in the NFL last season. The details in the Panthers chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 hit the issue home even further. Of passes targeted 15 yards or longer from the line of scrimmage, only 21 resulted in a completion or defensive pass interference. This led to a 23.6 success rate and a negative-13.9% DVOA in this subset. The Panthers weren’t oblivious, as they used the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft to draft wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. It’s not a guarantee that Benjamin stands out from day one, but he’ll provide a spark. Regression results: more pass completions of 20+ yards and more net yards per dropback

Down5. Scoring efficiency: Ultimately, despite the offensive big-play issues, the team did a great job scoring efficiently on both sides of the football. Carolina averaged 13.85 yards per point scored, ranking the team ninth in the league. The Panthers also averaged a league-best 20 yards per point allowed. This combined to create a total of plus-6.15 Net Yards per Point Scored (NYPPS). Only the Kansas City Chiefs fared better in this department in 2013. Usually, this point to one of two things. Either the team plays very smart football, or the team benefited from luck and fortune. Considering the 2012 Panthers posted a negative total in NYPPS, it is more likely the latter case in Carolina. Regression results: worse Net Yards per Point Scored

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New Orleans Saints (11-5, 2nd place in 2013)
New Orleans SaintsJudging by expectations and regression factors, the Saints were supposed to enjoy an improved defense in 2013. However, very few expected New Orleans to field one of the best defenses in the league. It was perhaps the best season for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who spent his first season in New Orleans and exercised the demons of his disappointing time in Dallas. With the defense becoming an asset, the Saints were perhaps a more legitimate Super Bowl contender than they were in 2009, when they won Super Bowl XLIV. However, some old habits die hard, and it showed in one long-time Ryan bug-a-boo: blown fourth-quarter leads. Late losses in New England and Carolina cost the Saints a chance at a first-round bye, leading New Orleans to the sixth seed and a divisional-round loss in Seattle. At least New Orleans got its first ever road playoff win. In 2014, can the defense keep up its stellar play under Ryan?

Down1. Scoring defense: The Saints have some elasticity at play here after seeing the massive improvements on defense. New Orleans improved from 454 points allowed to 304. That 150-point improvement is the best since the 2002 Colts, who improved from 486 points allowed to 313 in their first year under head coach Tony Dungy. The 2003 Colts followed up by allowing 336 points. Also of note, the 2008 Ravens (140-point improvement) and 2011 Texans (149-point improvement) came close to the 2013 Saints. Both of those teams suffered from elasticity-based regression (Ravens with a 17-point increase, Texans with a 53-point increase). For New Orleans, its case of elasticity is rooted in true grass roots elasticity as well, shown by an improvement from 6.47 yards allowed per play to 5.19. As a result, the Saints defense won’t take any more steps forward. Regression results: more points allowed

Down2. More defensive elasticity: Speaking of that “true grass roots elasticity,” the Saints have more to worry about than just yards allowed per play. According to Football Outsiders, the 2013 Saints improved from a 14.8% Defense DVOA to negative-5.8% DVOA. New Orleans will be susceptible to a negative rebound here as well. Considering that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan never led a defense that such great efficiency, as he was known for leading mediocre defenses, it could be back to same old story for his defense. Regression results: more yards allowed per play and worse Defense DVOA

Down3. Pass offense: See “The Record-Setting Broncos Offense: What’s Next in 2014?” for more details on the regression involved for the Saints. While the defense made the biggest headlines with its unexpected improvements, the offense quietly had another stellar under head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. New Orleans posted a 104.50 Offensive Passer Rating, which marks well enough the league average of 84.05 last season. In fact, with the plus-20.45 Relative Offensive Passer Rating (ROPR), the 2013 Saints moved into selective company. Maintaining that level of excellence will be hard to repeat, as even the greatest teams couldn’t improve their ROPR at that level. Regression results: worse Relative Offensive Passer Rating

Up4. Return game: In 2013, the Saints were the only team to fail to record a single return touchdown. This led to unimpressive return averages, which were 23 yards per kick return and 6.06 yards per punt return. Because the sample sizes are so low (only 22 kick returns and 32 punt returns), one return touchdown could go a long way. Also, because punt returns are normally short than kick returns, we could see improvement in both areas. Regression results: better kick and punt return averages

Down5. Jimmy Graham: In the NFL, the evolving passing game may be best recognized by hybrid receivers like Graham. The Saints receiver plays both as a tight end and a wide out. Graham’s 2013 season was one of the best receiving-wise for a player at his position. He caught 86 passes for 1215 yards and 16 touchdowns. The last of the three stats was most notable, as it fell one shy of a league record among tight ends (Rob Gronkowski scored 17 receiving touchdowns in 2011). This is simply unattainable again for Graham, as only one tight end in history (Vernon Davis) tallied multiple seasons of 12+ receiving touchdowns. We may see Graham keep up his receiving ways, but not in the red zone. Regression results: fewer Graham receiving touchdowns

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12, 4th place in 2013)
Tampa Bay BuccaneersTampa Bay seems to be entering the 2014 season with hopes a refreshing environment. Part of this can be seen with the franchise’s sleek new logo and eye-gouging new uniforms. After the nightmare in 2013, the franchise could really use the turnaround. The team enter a rare state of dysfunction under former head coach Greg Schiano, who did his worst damage in killing the career prospects of former starting quarterback Josh Freeman. With those two gone, the franchise now looks to Lovie Smith and Josh McCown to handle duties at the respective position. Both men are veterans of the game, which could possibility give stability to a rebuilding process. Not all is guaranteed, though. McCown is basically a journeyman quarterback, while Smith’s defensive ways in the Cover-2 may no longer in the NFL’s current style of play. Will the Buccaneers become a more sleek team (like their logo) or becoming an ugly disaster (like their jerseys) in 2014?

Up1. Offensive efficiency: Take a quick glance at the 2013 NFL season. The league averaged 5.36 yards per play, while the Buccaneers averaged 4.52 yards per play. Only the Ravens finished with a worse total on the season. Tampa Bay had further troubles with 232 non-penalty first downs and 5.03 net yards per dropback as well, which ranked last in the NFL in both areas in 2013. The team has nowhere to go but up in 2014. We’re not sure if Tampa can improve all-around, but we think the team will find a way to do so. Regression results: more yards per play, non-penalty first down and net yards per dropback

Down2. Josh McCown: The Buccaneers made a move to get McCown, who was last seen outperforming Jay Cutler in Chicago. Problem is that Tampa Bay picked up a journeyman quarterback who is bound for regression. In 2013 with Chicago, McCown completed 149 of 224 passes for 1829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception. This was good for a 109.02 passer rating. Compared to McCown’s previous 11 seasons, this rating was otherworldly. McCown posted a 71.18 rating in those seasons. Perhaps Marc Trestman’s offense was a perfect fit in Chicago, but that won’t be a help here. Expect regression to hit McCown quite hard, putting him back to his previous level as a journeyman. Regression results: worse McCown passer rating by at least 20 percent

Down3. Return coverage: With the recent rules changing the kickoff from the 20-yard-line to the 25-yard-line, the league average for kick returns shifted. Teams are taking fewer returns in general, but they have generally higher averages. That’s because kick returners are generally doing so from deeper in the end zone. Few teams in the NFL now keep their opponents under a 20-yard kick return average, but Tampa Bay did so in limiting opponents to 18.83 yards per kick return. Expect that regress in the NFL’s current setting for kick returns. Regression results: more yards allowed per kick return

Up4. Kicking luck: When it comes to kicking luck, there will be some elasticity at hand for the Buccaneers. In 2012, Tampa Bay’s opponents successfully converted only 19 of 28 field goal attempts. In 2013, Tampa Bay’s opponents converted 31 of 32. This led to a major increase in opponent field goal percentage, shooting from 67.86 up to 96.88. Due to the highly volatile year-to-year results of field goal percentage, based often to the context of kicking situations and other factors, we can safely assume elasticity will play a role in regression. Regression results: worse opponent field goal percentage

DownUp5. Team health: According to the Buccaners chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, Tampa Bay saw some of the best and worst of injury luck. The publications states that the Buccaneers had 76.6 Adjusted Games Lost on offense and 9.9 Adjusted Game Lost on defense. The former total ranked 31st in the NFL last year, while the latter was best in the league. Tampa’s primary starters on defense missed only six games: one from Mason Foster, two from Mark Barron and three from Dashon Goldson. On the flip side, Doug Martin missed 10 games and Carl Nicks missed 14 on offense — and we could go on. Bottom line, we expect convergence here. Regression results: fewer Adjusted Games Lost on offense, but more on defense

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