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Aug 29

TABM 2014 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 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 West.

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Arizona Cardinals (10-6, 3rd place in 2013)
Arizona Cardinals
Quietly, the Cardinals put together one of the most improved seasons in 2013. Few expected such an immediate impact from head coach Bruce Arians. However, with the hit or miss nature of Arizona’s regression heading into season, this performance was actually within reasonable expectation. The defense kept its head above water, primarily because the pass defense regression was counteracted by massive improvements from the run defense.  Meanwhile, the offense started to show signs of life with new quarterback Carson Palmer and rookie running back Andre Ellington. This puts the Cardinals in an interesting spot for 2014. With the Seahawks aiming for an elusive repeat and the 49ers heading to a crossroads, is it possible that the Cardinals move up the NFC West ladder? Better yet, could that mean a legitimate playoff run for Arizona? Looking at the regression factors, the results could go either way. Regardless, Arians is giving life to this franchise.

Down1. Rush defense: Arizona biggest sign of improvement came in the form of an 180 with the run defense. After ranking dead last in Adjusted Line Yards in 2012 (per Football Outsiders), the Cardinals led the league in that category last year. Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 cite this as the first time a team went from worst to first dating back as far back as the publication’s metric date goes (to 1995). As a result, the Cardinals improved from allowing 2192 rushing yards to 1351. They also improved from allowing 12 rushing touchdowns to only five. Therefore, expect some elasticity-based regression in 2014, especially because the defensive line won’t be as outstanding. Regression results: more rushing yards and touchdowns allowed

Up2. Pass defense: While the rush defense suddenly became awesome, the pass defense took a step back in 2013. The biggest problem came against opposing tight ends. Arizona allowed touchdowns to Jared Cook (twice), Jimmy Graham (twice), Vernon Davis (thrice), Zach Miller (twice), Kellen Davis, Ryan Griffin, Danny Noble, Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz (twice), Brent Celek and Delanie Walker. That leads to a total of 17 touchdown receptions allowed against tight ends, 12 of which were allowed in Arizona’s six losses. Only one tight end in NFL history (Rob Gronkowski in 2011) reached that touchdown total in a single season. We guarantee regression on this front, which should help the overall numbers. Regression results: fewer pass touchdowns allowed

Up3. Return game: Besides defending tight ends, Arizona’s biggest problem in 2013 was the return game. The Cardinals averaged only 20 yards per kick return and 5.82 yards per punt return, ranking 31st in each respective area. This happened in spite of having Javier Arenas as the kick returner and Patrick Peterson as the punt returner. Arenas set Alabama school records in punt and kick return yardage, while Peterson tallied four punt return touchdowns in 2011. Arizona now signed Ted Ginn to handle return duties, but he won’t be a difference maker unless the returning blocking improves. Regression can only go so far, even with a standout returner like Ginn. Regression results: more kick and punt return yards per attempt

Down4. Andre Ellington: As a rookie, Ellington seriously outperformed starting running back Rashard Mendenhall. Ellington rushed for 652 yards on 118 attempts, averaging 5.53 yards per rush attempt behind a below-average offensive line. With Mendenhall retiring and Ellington moving into a starting role, the Cardinals may be able to improve upon its 3.65 yards per rush attempt average. That’s no guarantee, though, as no factors of regression suggest it. Rather, we see regression from a different perspective. Look at it from Ellington’s point of view. Regression results: fewer Ellington yards per rush attempt

Up5. Turnover battle: For five consecutive season, the Cardinals owned a negative turnover margin. Since the merger, 10 franchises suffered at least six consecutive seasons with a negative turnover margin. Those runs include the 1971-80 49ers, 1980-86 Oilers, 1981-89 Bills, 1983-88 Chargers, 1988-93 Cardinals, 1988-93 Patriots, 1991-96 Rams, 1992-98 Raiders, 2000-05 Cowboys and 2002-07 Browns. Only nine of those 68 teams made the playoffs, so we can safely assume that bad teams were making these streaks. Considering that the Cardinals won 10 games last year and should be considered as a potential playoff-caliber team this year, we have buy the team breaking its negative turnover streak. Arizona was close each of the last two seasons, finishing with a negative-1 turnover margin each season. Regression results: better turnover margin

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San Francisco 49ers (12-4, 2nd place in 2013)
San Francisco 49ersWith the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as head coach, the game immediately changed in San Francisco. Bringing back hopes of reviving the glory days of the 80’s and 90’s, Harbaugh led San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game in each of his first three seasons. Unfortunately, none of those seasons resulted in a Super Bowl championship. Last year saw the season end with a dramatic interception in the end zone in Seattle. A lasting image of Michael Crabtree pushing away Richard Sherman from a “good game” handshake will burn in the minds of the 49ers as 2014 approaches. As the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry hits its peak, the franchise as a whole hits a crossroads. Looking at past teams to make three consecutive conference championship games, the fourth year is usually the one to make or break the team. Considering the rumblings that Harbaugh’s coaching style is starting to sour on the team, could the days be numbered for this core group of players in San Francisco?

Down1. Ball protection: The 49ers continued a theme under Jim Harbaugh in which they protect the ball very well. San Francisco turned the ball over 18 times in 2013, but only eight happened via interception. This marks the third consecutive season that the 49ers threw eight interceptions or fewer. It’s a first in NFL history since the league adopted a championship game format in 1933 (per Pro Football Reference). The Harbaugh style of play makes this 49ers team a bit of an outlier, but are they truly going to throw so few interceptions again in 2014? We can’t see it, because the feat is unprecedented with a 16-game schedule. Even Aaron Rodgers, the most efficient passer in the game, didn’t achieve the feat in four consecutive seasons. Colin Kaepernick will have a few sloppy games here or there, as he’s shown against elite defenses. Regression results: more interceptions thrown

DownUp2. Receiving distribution: While the 49ers protected the ball well last year, they did so in employing a very conservative offense. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis at times were exclusive targets for Kaepernick, who did a poor job of progressing through his routes and options. Boldin caught 85 passes for 1179 yards and seven touchdowns, while no other wide receiver totaled 20 receptions or even 300 receiving yards. Davis caught 52 passes for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns. He and Boldin accounted 20 of the team’s 21 touchdown receptions (Michael Crabtree had the other). These are stunning anomalies, even for the unique statistical dynamics caused by the Harbaugh offense. With Crabtree healthy for a full season (he missed 11 games in 2013) and Stevie Johnson added to the roster in the offseason, expect a better receiving distribution in 2014. Regression results: at least three receivers with 20 receptions, 300 yards and two touchdowns

Up3. Team health: According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the normally healthy San Francisco defense look quite unhealthy in 2013. The publication’s Adjusted Games Lost metric put the 49ers in the top three defensively each year from 2010-12. Last year, the unit ranked 26th. Overall, the 84.2 Adjusted Games Lost for the team is a far cry from the 16.2 in 2012. Is this simply an outlier, or are once-healthy players starting to break down for good? For this metric’s purpose, the team will be hurt by NaVorro Bowman’s continuing recovery from a major knee injury suffered in last year’s NFC Championship Game. We’ll claim regresson in rank alone, and do so with hesitation. Regression results: better rank in Defensive Adjusted Games Lost

Down4. Run defense: Without the services of NaVorro Bowman indefinitely, it will certainly hurt the San Francisco run defense. Looking at other recent All-Pro inside linebacker who suffered injuries, each team suffered in its run defense. Without Jon Beason, the 2011 Panthers declined from 4.02 rush yards allowed per attempt to 4.98. Without Zach Thomas, the 2007 Dolphins declined from 3.55 to 4.58. Without Ray Lewis, the 2005 Ravens declined from 3.62 to 3.91. San Francisco has enjoyed a stout run defense in each of the last three seasons, and it’s a big reason why the offense can get away with such conservative football. The team holds it own at the second level and in the open field better than any team in the league, and that’s because the team had Bowman and Patrick Willis playing at inside linebacker. Missing even one half of that duo no longer makes the 49ers run defense an exception to regression. Except the 49ers to came back to earth in this area of the game. Regression results: more rush yards allowed per attempt

DownUp5. Postseason success: This factor is more of a question mark than up or down. Simply speaking, only the result will be up or down. The reasoning for the result reveals a mystery. The 49ers reached at least the NFC Championship Game in each of the first three seasons under Jim Harbaugh. Furthermore, each postseason loss came against the eventual Super Bowl winner. This happened 10 times before in postseason history, in which a team lost to the eventual league champion in three consecutive seasons. Of the eight to do this in the Super Bowl era, three reached the Super Bowl the following season (going 2-1). The other five teams missed the playoffs altogether. This isn’t mere coincidence. Either a team culminates its years of frustrations with a championship, or a team runs out of juice with its current core group of players. Both situations are ultimately cases of “regression” on a theoretical level. The former is at the postseason level (re: the team will eventually not face the eventual champion in the playoffs), while the latter is at the regular season level (re: the team will eventually stop winning so much). We’ll tell you what we think happens to the 49ers tomorrow. Regression results: either making a Super Bowl appearance or missing the playoffs altogether

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Seattle Seahawks (13-3, 1st place in 2013)
Seattle Seahawks
After waiting for 37 years, Seattle Seahawks fans finally got to celebrate a Super Bowl championship. And boy, did it ever come from with an exclamation point. After a dominant 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVI, the 2013 Seahawks proved to be one of the greatest teams of all-time. From Russell Wilson’s efficient command of the passing offense to Marshawn Lynch’s bulldozing style to keep pushing the rushing attack to one of the best defense in NFL history, the Seahawks more than proved their worth as Super Bowl champions. Better yet, all of this came with what’s honestly a young team. Wilson only has two seasons under his belt. Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor of the “Legion of Boom” all are entering their respective primes. In all honestly, Seattle has as good of a chance to repeat as any team since the 2004 Patriots. Will the impending defensive regression prevent the repeat, or are the Seahawks ready to defend the throne?

Down1. Defensive efficiency: See “The Super Seahawks Defense: What’s Next in 2014?” for more details on the regression involved for Seattle. Let’s recap everything involved quite quickly. With a 63.39 Defensive Passer Rating, the Seahawks finished with a plus-20.66 relative rating. This was achieved in large part because of a league-high 28 interceptions. The 2001-02 Buccaneers were the last team to total that many interceptions in back-to-back seasons. Also, Seattle limited opponents to only 4.42 yards per play, marking a first in the NFL since the 2009 Jets. Note that the 2003-04 Bills are the last to do this in back-to-back seasons, but the league is now more offensively efficient (5.24 yards per play in 2004, 5.36 in 2013). The 2013 Seahawks were a team for the ages. Expect regression to follow. Regression results: worse Relative Defensive Passer Rating and more yards allowed per play

Up2. Pass protection: While the Seahawks were super in many areas of the game, they somehow were among the worst in the league when it came to pass protection. Seattle allowed a sack in a league-high 9.48 percent of dropbacks. Sure, some of that could be chalked up to Russell Wilson buy extra time on rollouts to attack down the field. However, Wilson did his fare share of avoiding pressure to prevent sacks. Most of this goes on the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, the offensive line collectively scored a negative-25.9 on pass blocking in 2013. The health of Russell Okung and the bounce back play of Max Unger will go some way to help out this offensive line to regress. Regression results: better sack percentage allowed

Up3. Penalties: Compounding with the pass protection issues, the Seahawks also had issues in the penalty department. Once again, credit Russell Wilson for leading the offense to remain a team well-balanced enough to win the Super Bowl. Seattle committed 75 accepted offensive penalties for 609 yards (per NFL Penalty Tracker). The next-worst totals were 63 offensive penalties and 503 offensive penalty yards, respectively. It’s rare to see such an efficient offense struggles so much with penalties. The good news is that little evidence exists to suggests offensive penalties correlate well from one year to the next. We just figure this team is put together well enough to fix this issue. Regression results: fewer offensive penalties for fewer yards

Down4. Punt return coverage: Although not finishing with the best mark in the division, as you’ll see soon, the Seahawks put together one of the best season in NFL history when it comes to punt return coverage. Seattle all of 82 yards on 21 punt returns, good for a 3.90 yards allowed average. That was one of just two averages below five yards in 2013. Furthermore, the Seahawks forced a league-high 30 fair catches from their opponents. Ironically, it was the Rams who led the league in punt return coverage who accounted for 57 of the punt return yards. This prevented the 2013 Seahawks from setting the 16-game season record for fewest punt return yards allowed. We can see how one game can impact the numbers, so expect a game or two in 2014 to lead to punt return coverage regression. Heck, even one return can do the trick. Regression results: more yards allowed per punt return

Down5. Expected Win Differential: See “The Turnover Impact on the Pythagorean Win Differential” for full details on the regression at play for the Seahawks. Scoring wise, the Seahawks played very much like the 13-3 team they were in 2013. However, they were seriously aided by a plus-20 turnover margin. Recall that turnover margin doesn’t correlate well from one year to the next, but the impact of turnover margin in any season generally remains similar. All said, the 2013 Seahawks finished with a negative-1.76 Expected Win Differential, which suggests regression in the standings for 2014. However, because Seattle has such a sound structure for its roster right now, we can’t imagine that regression going very far. Regression results: worse W-L record

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St. Louis Rams (7-9, 4th place in 2013)
St. Louis Rams
Success continues to elude the Rams franchise over the past decade. The franchise last had a winning record in 2003, when the team lost in double overtime to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Divisional Round. Since then, the offense and/or defense came woefully short of the quality and efficiency needed to contend for a postseason spot (outside of a berth as an 8-8 team in 2004). Last year, neither offense or defense was glaring problem for the team. Instead, the level of competition was just too much for the Rams. Going 1-5 against the stacked NFC West, the Rams were the victims of circumstance. Heading into 2014, bad circumstance stuck the Rams again, as Sam Bradford suffered yet another season-ending ACL injury. Enter Shaun Hill, who will limit St. Louis offense but can provide stability to the offense. If only the Rams had an easier division to face, maybe there would be a serious chance at making a move for the playoffs.

Down1. Pass rush: See “The League’s Sack Percentage” for more details on the regression involved for the Rams. In back-to-back season, the Rams tallied at least 50 sacks. This marks the first time since the 2001-02 Steelers that a team tallied at least 50 sacks in the consecutive seasons. No team achieved it three consecutive seasons since the 1998-2000 Rams. Note that the league’s sack rate was 7.02 percent in 2000 and 6.66 percent in 2013. However, teams are passing more now, so gross sack totals are higher now. Regardless, there’s good reason for why we haven’t seen a three-peat of 50+ sacks in 13 years. For these Rams, it will be extremely hard somebody like Robert Quinn to post another 19.0 sacks. His regression alone can drop the Rams below the 50-sack threshold. Therefore, don’t expect a pass rushing three-peat in St. Louis. Regression results: fewer sacks

Up2. Pass defense: The St. Louis pass rush hide some serious issues in the secondary. No wonder did worse than the Rams in completion percentage allowed (68.14) and yards allowed per pass attempt (8.06). Luckily, St. Louis held its own in allowing only 21 touchdown passes and intercepting 14 passes. The team held an above average mark in touchdown percentage allowed and an average mark in interception percentage. All said, the yards allowed per pass attempt was the most damaging factor to the team’s 94.69 Defensive Passer Rating. Unlike you’re the 2008-09 Lions, allowing 8+ yards per pass attempt isn’t going to happen again. Therefore, the Rams pass defense should improve. Regression results: better Defensive Passer Rating

Down3. Punt return coverage: As we alluding to during the Seahawks discussion, the Rams were the league’s best team when it came to punt return coverage. No team allowed fewer than 79 punt returns yards allowed by St. Louis. More impressively, that happened on 30 returns, meaning that the team allowed only 2.63 yards per punt return. Remember, Seattle was the closest team to St. Louis with 3.90-yard average. Credit needs to go to both the St. Louis coverage team and punt Johnny Hekker. The latter set an NFL record with a 44.23-yard net punt average. There’s nowhere to go but down for the unit, especially because one simple play can led to punt return regression. Regression results: fewer yards allowed per punt return and worse net punt average

Down4. Field goal battle: As valuable as Hekker was for the Rams, placekicker Greg Zuerlein fared almost as well. While “Legatron” is known for his ability to boot long field goals, his accuracy came on display in 2013. Zuerlein converted 26 of 28 field goal attempts. On the flip side, St. Louis’ opponents converted only 18 of 26 field goal attempts. This led to a plus-23.63 field goal percentage differential, which is a pretty absurd total to maintain. Heck, simple luck can prevent that, as opponents can kick better without any change in the Rams’ kick blocking performance. Regression results: worse field goal percentage differential

Up5. Opponents return luck: Despite a 7-9 record, the Rams held a tidy plus-8 turnover margin in 2013. That’s because the team protected the ball fairly well. The Rams threw only 11 interceptions and lost 10 fumbles. However, the team suffered terrible luck when it came to pick-sixes (yes, even worse the Texans). Five of the 11 St. Louis interceptions were returned for touchdowns. This included two defensive linemen and two linebackers. Dan Williams and Osi Umenyiora have a combined two career interceptions, and they got interception return touchdowns against the 2013 Rams. Go figure. Unfortunately, we can only go as far as guaranteeing regression percentage-wise. Regression results: better opponent interception return touchdown percentage

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