Eagles – Colts Odds

As some of you know, I write a weekly odds column for Bleeding Green Nation.  I’ll be posting it here as well from here on in.  It’s a fairly rough analysis, so keep in mind that its intended for a slightly different audience.

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My Picks Record to Date:

Line: 0 – 1

Over/Under: 1 – 0

Poll Record (whichever choices got the most votes):

Line: 1 – 0

Over/Under: 1 – 0

This week’s lines:

Eagles +3 (-105)

Colts -3 (-115)

Over 54 (-115)

Under 54 (-105)

Notes:  The line opened at Colts -2.5.  Market is probably reacting to the Eagles injuries and first-half performance against the Jags.  Probably some recency effect here but, given the injury complications, not enough to give a strong signal one way or the other.

Reviewing last week:

The game didn’t play out exactly as we though it would, but it’s hard to be too disappointed with the results.  Yes, the Eagles delivered one of the most ridiculous back-door covers I’ve ever seen, but at least the good guys won.  Above all else, the game did a good job of underlining the main point I made last week: The first couple of weeks are very difficult to analyze.  There is a lot of uncertainty, and until you see a team play a few times against a variety of competition, it’s impossible to get a really good read on its true strength.

Moving forward, note that the Eagles almost hit the over as well, despite scoring 0 points in the first half.  This team can score VERY quickly, so expect to see a lit of high lines this season.  That might provide some opportunities, but it will also lead to some late-game nail-biting for those of you who do wager.

This week:

As shown above, the Eagles face their first test as an underdog this season.  The Colts are favored by 3 points, meaning Vegas sees the teams as relative equals (2-3 points are given for home field).  We already know what the Eagles did last week.  Meanwhile, the Colts lost by a touchdown (31-24) to the Broncos in Denver.  Note, the game wasn’t as close as the final score suggests.  Denver led 24-0 at one point.

Lets look at some data.  One week isn’t a very good sample, so we’re still reaching back to last season for indications of each team’s strengths/weaknesses.

From last season:

Eagles Overall DVOA:  15.2% (8th overall).

Colts Overall DVOA: 3.2% (13th overall).

Eagles Offense: 22.9% (3rd)

Colts Defense: 0.9% (16th)

Eagles Defense: 4.9% (23rd)

Colts Offense: 4.3% (13th)

Special teams were not significantly different.

The numbers above give the Eagles the advantage.  However, these are obviously a bit out of date.  After last week, my concerns about the offense remain.  Yes, the team scored 34 points, but is anyone out there confident?  The good news is that the Colts defense isn’t great.  In fact, the one player that would really worry me, Robert Mathis, won’t play (suspension + Injury).  How big of a loss is that?  Well last season the Colts had 42 sacks.  Mathis had 19.5 of them (46%).  Also, the Colts had a sack rate of 7.04% last season, good for 9th overall.  In their first game, against a very immobile QB (Manning), the team recored just one sack and registered a rate of 2.7%.  For reference, the Jaguars had a sack rate of 10% against the Eagles this past week.  In other words, with the Eagles injury problems on the O-Line, the team is pretty fortunate to be going against the Colts.  Overall, the matchup looks pretty good for the offense.

On the flip side, the Eagles defense and the Colts offense look like a fairly even matchup.  I’m a very big fan of Andrew Luck, and if the Eagles have DB breakdowns like they did last week, he’ll take advantage of them.  However, the cast around him isn’t great.  The Colts’ RB corps shouldn’t scare anyone (Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson).  At WR, Reggie Wayne is still playing at a relatively high level, at least when he’s on the field (he missed 9 games last season).  We’re all familiar with Hakeem Nicks.  The one player that really does scare me is T.Y. Hilton.  In his second year in the league (last season), Hilton had 1000+ receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. He also ran a 4.34 40 when he entered the league, and at 24 years old probably hasn’t lost a step.  As I said last season, with the Eagles issues at Safety, speed scares me a lot more than size.  If Fletcher Cox and Mychael Kendricks play as well as they did last week, though, the Eagles should be able to focus heavily on stopping the passing game.

Lastly, since 2004 there have been 21 home teams that were favored by 3 points in a Monday Night game.  8 of them covered.  That’s not statistically significant, but if we expand the data set, the trend persists.

Post-merger, just 22 of 57 teams that were favored by 3 points at home in a Monday Night game covered the spread. Meanwhile, over the past 10 years, road teams favored on Monday Night by 3 points have covered the spread 14 out of 19 times.

To reiterate: that doesn’t lead us to any conclusions, and if we play with the data enough we can make it say whatever we want.  However, it suggests that MAYBE home field advantage doesn’t mean as much in Monday Night games as it does in Sunday games, at least not when teams are evenly matched.

Coming into this breakdown, I expected to end up picking the Colts.  However, after looking at the data, injuries, recent results, etc., I’m going the other way.  This is a tough game for the Eagles, and I’m not very confident in a win (it’s a tossup), but since it looks like a close matchup and a lot of uncertainty remains, take the points.  With the 3 point line, we also have some protection against a late FG to win for the Colts.

I’m taking the Eagles +3.  The fact that it’s against the crowd makes me feel even better about it.

The over/under is set at 54 points.  That’s really high.  The only other line above 50 this week is Denver-KC (51).  To cover, each team would need to score 27 points.  Last season, the Eagles scored 27 or more points 9 times.  The Colts also hit the mark 9 times.

However, last week the Colts “held” Denver to 31 points in Denver.  The Eagles offense is not as good as the Broncos’ offense.  The Eagles put up 34 points, but did so against a Jaguars defense that will probably finish in the bottom third of the league (maybe worse).

Data-wise, over the past 10 years Monday Night Dome games have hit the over just 22 times in 64 games.  Small sample of course, but suggestive.  We don’t know if the roof will be open or closed, but right now the forecast calls for a chance of rain.

What this really comes down to is:  Do you have faith in either team to score 30+ points?  If not, take the under.  After last week’s performance, I’m not banking on the Eagles.  If the Eagles defense really has improved from last season, it should also be tough for the Colts to hit that mark.  In all, I think this game shakes out in the 27-24 range one way or the other.

Hence, take the under.

So, we’re still in rather uncertain territory, but I’m taking the Eagles +3 and the Under.

Eagles – Jaguars: Review

That’s why it’s important to focus on areas for potential regression….

As I said in yesterday’s season projection, two major areas of concern this season are Nick Foles turnover regression and health, particularly along the O-Line.  My guess is, after yesterday, those issues are no longer under any fan’s radar.  To reiterate, my theme for this season is: similar results as last season (at least record-wise), but very mixed feelings.  Yesterday fit that perfectly.  Fortunately, the Eagles were able to pull through, largely on the strength of excellent Special Teams (fairly big surprise) and a strong defensive performance outside of a few early breakdowns.

Now for a few individual factors I’m looking at/thinking about.  As usual, I’m going to try to avoid the “obvious” story lines, you can get that elsewhere, unless they’re really important and I think I have something to add to the discussion.

Blue Chips – Pulling from yesterday, this is the most important aspect of this season.  The Eagles will not become a consistent SB contender without developing a few high-impact players.  Fortunately, things were fairly positive on this front for the team.  Mychal Kendricks looked like one of the best players on the field.  He had 6 tackles, a sack, and a pass defensed.  Fletcher Cox also looked very good (despite having his best play erased by a bogus penalty.)  He also had 6 tackles, plus the spread-beating fumble recovery and TD run.  On the flip side, Foles obviously struggled. More on him in a second.  Boykin looked good when he was on the field…but only played 23 defensive snaps.  That’s less than 1/3 of all defensive plays.  Hopefully one of the beat writers will ferret out the reasoning for Boykin’s lack of PT, but until then we’re left watching to see if it becomes a trend.  Zach Ertz has 3 catches on 5 targets, hitting a couple of big plays on seam routes.  I’d be very surprised if his role in the passing game doesn’t get bigger soon.  Jordan Matthews also had strong debut with 2 catches (4 targets) for 37 yards.  That doesn’t sound like a lot, but remember that rookie WRs very rarely make significant contributions.  If Matthews can grab 2-3 balls each game, he’ll have done really well.

Overall, the game itself was ugly, but the long-term factors I’m paying attention to were mostly good.  I say “mostly” because…

Nick Foles – I’m not going to dwell too much on Foles since every other writer will cover him.  I did, however, want to toss a theory out there.  Foles was pretty clearly gun-shy yesterday.  Lots of double-clutching and hesitation.  There are a lot of potential explanations, but I think it’s likely the whole “turnover avoidance” storyline got to him.  If you had spent all offseason hearing about how great you were at not throwing interceptions, it’s probably natural for you to start trying to avoid them more consciously.  Hopefully this is just a one-week issue.  If he gets too far into his own head, though, things are going to get ugly.

Cody Parkey – That was an excellent performance, far beyond anything I expected.  The 51 yard FG was perfect, even moreso because it was the first real NFL kick of his career.  Just as important, though, were the touchbacks.  Parkey kicked off 7 times.  5 of them were touchbacks (or 72%).  For reference, Alex Henery recorded a touchback on 41.5% of his kicks last season.  It must be noted that conditions yesterday were very good, so we shouldn’t expect Parkey to maintain that touchback rate through the fall/winter.  Still, it’s an area I highlighted for potential improvement for the Eagles, and so far that’s what we’ve seen.

Marcus Smith – Not much to say here, the guy didn’t play.  It’s too early to be concerned, but I’m keeping a close eye on this one.  I realize he’s a “project”, but he dressed for the game and couldn’t get a single snap?  That’s worrisome, especially because the Jaguars, despite the first half, are one of the more benign offenses the Eagles will face all year.   If there was a time to get Smith a few live reps with relatively little risk, yesterday was it.  Maybe the big deficit changed the plans.  Even so, it’s hard to stomach having a healthy first round pick on the sidelines and not being able to find him a single live rep.

Special Teams – I mentioned Parkey, but it’s important to note that the entire unit was fantastic yesterday.  Sproles provided a big spark as a punt returner, averaging 15.5 yards per attempt.  Donnie Jones’ net average was just 33.7 yards, but that’s because he put 5 punts inside the 20 yard line.  There just wasn’t room to kick it farther, and he did a great job of keeping the ball out of the end zone (with some help from the coverage team).  I’ve said before that Special Teams plays a relatively small role when compared to Offense and Defense.  That, however, assumes somewhat normal play from the unit.  A great STs performance can have a much larger impact, as it did yesterday for the Eagles.

Finally, it’s pretty amazing that the Eagles could look so bad for so long and still win a game by 17 points.  The competition probably wasn’t good, but having a 34 point swing during a game almost never happens.  It could be a sign that the Eagles just weren’t ready to play or overlooked the Jaguars.  Hopefully that’s the case.  Even if it’s not, though, watching the Cowboys and Washington play should have reminded everyone that the Eagles don’t need to be anywhere near “great” to win the division.

Projecting the Eagles’ 2014 Record

Just minutes to game time, so I’m coming in just under the wire with my full season projection.  For reference, here is last year’s projection.  Let’s first revisit that, then I’ll get to this year.

If you remember, I did a fairly basic expectations matrix using Points Scored and Points Against.  With those values, I used the Pythagorean Win Expectation for each, then took the average of all scenarios, eventually arriving at a projection of 9.1 wins.  Here is the chart from last season:

My base case projection was 421 points scored, 385 points against.  In reality, the Eagles finished with 442 points scored and 382 points against.  That’s an incredibly close result.  I, of course, will almost certainly not be that accurate again this season (regression flag!).  Still, it provides at least some evidence that I know what I’m talking about, so I like highlighting it.

Now, about this year:

First, we need to know the league average.  Remember that we’re using that as a benchmark and using relative performance around that measure to arrive at our Points projections.  Well, in 2013, there was an average of 23.29 points per game scored by each team.  Over 16 games, that equates to 372.65 points per game.  However, we need to adjust for inflation.  Over the past decade, scoring has increased at a fairly steady rate of .2 points per game. Last season actually saw a much larger increase (.6 ppg jump), but without more data we need to stick with the longer term trend.  Adjusting for inflation gets us to 23.49 points per game for each team.  That gets us to an average of 375.84 ppg per team.

So how will the Eagles do?

Upside Case

As I’ve done before, I’m going to focus mainly on Offense and Defense.  Special Teams does play a role, but it’s relatively small and, perhaps more importantly, very hard to predict.

On offense, things are pretty simple from where I sit.  The Eagles upside for this year is their performance from last season.  Some might argue there’s room for improvement, and there definitely is.  However, so many things went right for the Eagles on offense last season, and the team was SO good, that it’s unreasonable to expect them to exceed that level this year.  Additionally, the team lost DeSean, is likely to see a few more injuries this year, and will almost certainly suffer some INT regression.  Therefore, meeting last year’s performance is within reason, but definitely optimistic. Since it’s an upside projection, we can allow for some improvement, but I just don’t see any way to objectively expect much. Last year the team finished +18.6%.  For our upside this year, I’ll round that up to +20%.  It’s somewhat unlikely, but within reason that the Eagles will be very slightly better this year than they were last year on offense.

On defense, our assignment is much less clear.  There are a lot of young players that might grow into much better players this season.  There’s also the fact that this is now year 2 of the 4-3 defense, which should lead to more comfort.  The team added Malcolm Jenkins at Safety.  While he’s not a great player, he should still be an upgrade (potentially large one).  On the flip side, the older players can be expected to regress, but for the Eagles that’s not that big of a factor.  It’s not as if Trent Cole was a star last season.  I’m definitely worried about Demeco Ryans, but moreso regarding the injury risk he presents.  If he or Barwin goes down, the Eagles are in trouble.  For an upside case, though, we can assume they stay healthy.  In light of that, some improvement from last season (-2.5%) is in order.  For an upside assumption, I’ll set the defense at +10%.  That’s definitely bullish, but it is an upside case, and if certain players develop I can absolutely see the Eagles hitting it.

Base Case

My base case on Offense sees the Eagles suffering a little regression.  As I mentioned above, Foles really can’t be as good as he was last season, the loss of DeSean will hurt the PA game, and the offensive line won’t be as stable.  The good news is that Chip Kelly is still the coach and Shady is still the running back.  With those two on board, it really shouldn’t be difficult to field a good offense.  Meeting last year’s performance (+18.6%) , though, is unlikely.  Dialing that in a bit, I’m setting my base case offense at +13%.

On defense, last season is a good benchmark.  The roster hasn’t changed too much, at least at the top.  There’s better depth as well, though obviously still a few holes.  Last year’s team wasn’t particularly lucky, so there’s not much regression to factor in.  All together, modest improvement is our most reasonable expectation.  That puts us just above league average.  For an assumption, I’ll set the base case defense at +2.5% (a relative improvement of 5% over last season).

Downside Case

Now for the messy stuff.  What could go wrong?  Well…a lot.  While we’re not concerned with true tail risk (Foles/Shady getting hurt), we do need to look for negative events/scenarios that are reasonably likely to occur.  On offense, this means Foles regresses more than we’re hoping.  Health regresses past the mean and the team suffers worse than expected.  Jeremy Maclin doesn’t provide anywhere near the impact Jackson did and the young WRs/TEs aren’t quite ready to fill the void.  Those are all very plausible outcomes, but they’re unlikely to all occur.  One or two of them will leave the team worse off, but I still think that puts them above league average.  Worse than that is definitely possible, but that’s too negative for our projection here.  Hence, our downside case on offense will be +5%.  

On defense, things are fairly static, for reasons explained above.  Not much has changed.  There are still a lot of weaknesses though, which means our downside case can’t be too rosy.  There’s no guarantee that players like Cox, Kendricks, Logan, Boykin, etc. will get better.  If they don’t, then a single injury could leave the Eagles worse off on defense than they were last season.  Demeco Ryans is a prime candidate for decline, and depth behind him isn’t good.  If those things happen, we’re not looking at the absolute catastrophe we saw in 2012, but it will still be pretty bad.  Last year the Eagles were 2.5% worse than league average in Points Allowed.  I’m setting the downside this year is -10%.

All together, this is what our projections look like:

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 12.22.31 PM

For reference, this is what last year’s looked like:

The comparison is interesting, and really highlights the reasoning behind the projections. Offense is much more certain than last season.  I might be too pessimistic in our downside scenario this year, but I really do see a lot of risks.  I also think Jackson is a bigger loss than most fans realize.  Time will tell if that’s correct.  On defense, things look very similar.  We’re expecting modest improvement across the board, and that is reflected in each one of our assumptions.  Overall the range of outcomes on defense is very close to last year, but the mean expectation has improved.

Using our assumptions, we get the following potential outcomes.  Remember that we’re using Pythagorean Wins here with an exponent of 2.67:

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 12.32.10 PM

There it is.  Your 2014 projections.  The average outcome is 9.3 wins, which I think is still good enough for the division title.  Note that there are a lot of very reasonable scenarios where the Eagles fail to win 9 games.  As I’ve said previously, I think this season is going to  be much less fun than last season, albeit with similar results.  Expectations have shifted, and they’ve shifted too fast in my opinion.  The team is still building and there are still a lot of holes to fill.  I’d love to see a 12 win season where the Eagles run away with the division and make a deep playoff run, but that’s not an objectively reasonable expectation given what we know right now.

One last note: this is by no means a reflection of all potential outcomes (not even close).  What I am really trying to do is provide an outline for the middle of the Eagles expected performance distribution.  That way we can set our expectations and use it to guide our thinking as the season progresses.  In light of this, an 8 win season really isn’t bad, but my guess is many people would be very disappointed by that.  If Foles/Shady go down, 5-6 wins is a possibility.  If the Eagles get lucky, 12-13 wins is doable.  For a base-line expectation though, I’m sticking with what you see above.

With just minutes to spare, my season projection is:

9.3 wins, and a fan base with very mixed feelings.

Go Birds!

 

Season Overview

It’s finally here.  The season starts in less than 48 hours, which means it’s just about the last chance I’ll get to set expectations for the season before we start getting actual data.  I still plan to release a Points For/Points Against “true” win forecast before Sunday at 1 pm, but today I wanted to take a much broader perspective.

Above all else, I wanted to stress the following:

This is just season 2 of what looks to be a 3-4 year roster construction phase.

 Yes, it’d be nice to see the Eagles do really well this season, but I’m much more interested in the long-term development of the team.  With Chip Kelly, it’s possible the Eagles can become a perennial contender.  It’s also possible that he’ll flame out more quickly than anyone expects.  In that sense, there are much more important things to watch for than just the win/loss record this season.

With that, let’s run through a few of the things I’ll be watching closely:

Blue Chips – This might be the most important aspect of this season.  Put simply, the Eagles will not grow into a consistent SB threat unless they develop a few true “star” players.  Moreover, signing star players is a very difficult way to go.  First, you’ve got the winner’s curse, which means you will nearly always overpay in free agency.  Second, free agents don’t always fit nearly as well as you think they will (cough…Nnamdi…cough….puke).  High-level talent is a prerequisite for winning a Super Bowl, and drafting a player and developing him within your system remains the best way to source high-level talent.

So…do the Eagles have any?

Well McCoy obviously fits the bill.  The concern here is whether anyone else will develop quickly enough to overlap with Shady’s “prime”.  As I’ve demonstrated a number of times, top-level NFL talent comes almost exclusively from the 1st and 2nd round of the draft.  Here are the recent Eagles picks from those rounds:

2014: Marcus Smith, Jordan Matthews

2013: Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz

2012: Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks

2011: Danny Watkins, Jaiqwuan Jarrett (oh god)

It doesn’t make much sense to go farther back than that (not that it’d help anyway), since players who’ve been in the league since 2010 are most likely hitting their peak and so should already be stars if they’re that good.  McCoy clearly is.  I guess it’s possible  Jeremy Maclin can become a star, but I’m very skeptical.

From above, we’re really left with six players to depend on.  I was a big believer in Cox, but the transition to a 3-4 defense may have robbed him of his chance at high-impact status. Kendricks flashes star ability, but consistency is a huge problem (as is his tackling).  Johnson – same story (plus he’s suspended).  The other guys are too young to really judge.  Beyond these guys, I it’s worth adding Foles and Boykin to the mix as well.  Similar to the others, each appears to have the ability to be a true impact player, but we’re really far from being able to depend on it.

That’s why this year is so important.  If you could only look for one thing this season, it should be the development of this core group.  If a few of them become stars, the future is very bright.  If not, the Eagles ceiling might be much lower than any of us are hoping for.

Nick Foles

I mentioned him above, but he deserves his own section.  We don’t know how good/bad Nick Foles really is.  Last season was amazing.  It was so good, in fact, that it suggests the odds of Foles being a “fluke” are quite low.  League-average looks to be the floor.  Of course, league-average isn’t going to get anyone excited.  After this season, we’ll have a big enough sample to start making some conclusions regarding Foles’ ability.  In every sense of the phrase, this really is a “make or break year” for Nick.

Specifically, pay close attention to his ability to push the ball downfield.  Last season, Foles benefitted tremendously from the attention Shady drew.  Foles’ Play-Action numbers, in particular, were off the charts.  For the Eagles to be effective, Foles must continue making defenses pay for loading up against McCoy.  This is why losing DeSean Jackson is such a big deal.  If the Eagles can’t take advantage of the attention McCoy draws, things will go downhill very quickly.

Cody Parkey

This is a relatively minor issue in terms of actual impact, but a huge issue in terms of my sanity.  Remember David Akers?  Wasn’t it nice to never have to worry about the kicker?  Every kicker is going to miss field goals every once in a while, but being nervous for every single kick just isn’t healthy.  I’m glad Henery is gone, it’s time to try someone new.  However, I harbor no illusions that the Eagles have already solved their kicking issues.  The field goals are obvious; you don’t need me to tell you to pay attention to those.  Do look for the distance though.  Henery is not a very strong kicker, and was therefore rarely trusted with a 50+ yard kick.  In a perverse way, this may have actually forced the Eagles to make the correct decision (going for it instead of kicking) more often than they otherwise would.  Or maybe Chip knows the math.  Parkey’s usage will go a long way towards answering that question.

Less obvious are the touchbacks.  Casual fans don’t pay much attention to them, but they’re important, especially with a defense that still has a lot of weaknesses.  If Parkey can kick the ball through the end zone, he’ll already be giving the Eagles a boost.

Chip Kelly

One of the reasons Chip Kelly was such a risky hire was his complete lack of NFL experience.  As with any other position, we should expect a learning curve at Coach, especially for someone with no previous time in the league.  So, beyond watching the actual players for improvement, we should also be watching Chip.  It’s a bit tougher to judge, but things like TO usage, game clock management, 4th down decision-making, etc., are all easily quantified and/or analyzed.  He did some very good things last year, but has plenty of room to improve in each of the areas I mentioned, as well as in others I didn’t.  Unfortunately, projecting a coach to improve isn’t nearly as easy as projecting a player to improve.  As all Eagles fans know, just having experience doesn’t mean you’ll get better at managing the clock (this is, actually, a shocking feature of the NFL and coaching in general).  My hope is that when Chip looks around for areas in which to get an edge over other teams, he’ll include himself.

Health

This ties into the last point above (segue!): the Eagles were a very healthy team last year.  History says that’s mostly luck.  Chip, though, has taken a much greater interest in the nutrition/conditioning side of the game.  Hence, it’s reasonable to believe that the Eagles are more likely to remain healthy (relative to other teams) than pure luck would suggest.  If that’s the case, it’s a very big advantage.  Tremendous parity in the league means one or two injuries really can make the difference between winning a division/making a playoff run and missing the playoffs entirely.

This is especially true for the Eagles.  Depth is much improved over last year, but there are still some glaring holes, at least from my point of view.  In particular, I worry about the LBs and the Ss.  If Ryans or Barwin goes down, for example, how confident are you in Najee Goode or Marcus Smith to fill in?  The answer is not very.  Similarly, many fans are banking on Malcolm Jenkins to make a big impact in the secondary.  Beyond the fact that he’s not as good as his fame would suggest, if he goes down we’re looking at Chris Maragos?  Did you even know he was on the team?  If any of these backups have to play significant time, the hoped-for improvement in the Eagles defense will be much less likely to occur.

Conversely, if the Eagles have another relatively healthy year, then we can start ascribing more credit (slowly) to Chip Kelly’s #sportsscience.

That’s All

Those are the long-term keys to watch this season.  Once things get going, it becomes much harder to take the long-view, which is why I highlight these issues now.  Just remember, the Eagles are not really a SB contender right now.  Granted, even mediocre teams can win (see NY Giants…), but the fact is the Eagles are still very much a developing team, and likely not ready to mount a strong challenge for the Super Bowl.  I’m much more interested in a sustained run of high-performance (like the Andy Reid era) than I am in a 3 year supernova of Chip Kelly madness followed by another restart.

Regression Red Flags

The season is just one week away, and I haven’t been able to do anywhere near as much as I’d like to regarding a season preview.  However, I’ll try to remedy that this week, starting with a lightning-round style rundown of potential areas for regression.  Before I get there though, take a minute to download your copy of the 2014 Eagles Almanac here.  Just $10 for a PDF, and you’ll find a lot of great articles to get you ready for the season.

Now, the important things.

Before last season I spent a lot of time explaining why the Eagles would likely rebound strongly from the 4-12 season.  I projected the team to win 9 games and challenge for the division title when most pundits had them relegated to 5-6 wins.  What did I know that they didn’t?  Regression factors.

It won’t be news to any readers here, but there is a large degree of luck involved in nearly every aspect of the game of football.  A few specific areas, in fact, have a significant impact on the game and are almost entirely random.  That means we can get a lot of information about this year’s expected performance by looking at last year’s statistics and combing for outliers.  For example, the 2012 Eagles recovered just 35% of all fumbles.  Fumble recovery is almost all luck, and we’d expect a team to recover close to 50%.  That means, holding all other factors equal, the Eagles were likely to improve last year because they were very likely to recover a greater percentage of fumbles.  For the 2013 season, the Eagles actually recovered 43.75% of all fumbles.  That’s still less than we’d expect, but it’s a sizable improvement from 2012.

Now that I’ve explained it, let’s take a look at a handful of specific areas for which we’d expect mean-regression.

Pythagorean Expectation

This isn’t really a “mean-regression” candidate, but it’s vital to point out.  Last season the Eagles scored 442 points and allowed 382 points.  That performance would lead us to expect a Win/Loss record of 9.4-6.6 (from Pro-football-reference.com).  The upshot is that the Eagles record was slightly better than they “deserved”.  A difference of .6 wins isn’t big, but the direction is important.  The Eagles weren’t quite as good as their record from last year suggests.

Fumbles and Fumble Recovery Rates

I covered this a bit in the example above, but this is pretty low-hanging fruit as far as statistics with the potential for mean-regression.  Last season, the Eagles recovered roughly 44% of all fumbles.  They fumbled the ball 1.1 times per game.  Both of those numbers are good news for Eagles fans.  1.1 fumbles per game is close to average, and a 44% recovery rate suggests the Eagles are more likely to be better this year than worse.

However, there is one potential flag.  Opponents fumbled the ball 1.7 times per game when playing the Eagles.  That placed them tied for 1st in the league (with 4 other teams). Now, if you remember this post from last year, you’ll know that there is no significant persistence in forced fumbles from year to year.  Here is the chart:

Therefore, we can’t say that the Eagles were “good” at forcing fumbles last year and will be again this year.   Instead, we can expect that other teams will NOT fumble the ball as often as they did last year.  That’s bad.

However, 1.7 fumbles per game is not an outrageous amount.  So while there will probably be some regression, it won’t be huge and it might also be balanced out with positive regression in the overall recovery rate.

Fumbles verdict:  Neutral

Injuries

I covered this a couple of weeks ago, but it’s important enough to repeat.  According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles were 2nd in the league last year in Adjusted Games Lost (behind Kansas City).  That means they were healthier than every other team, as measured by this statistic.  Here’s the good news:  AGL might persist.  I looked at this stat in last season’s run-up, and found a correlation value of .30.  So, at least within the data I had, a good performance in AGL one year DOES suggest an increased likelihood of a good performance the following year.  Also, we have Chip Kelly’s “sports science” regime to consider.  It’s certainly logical to believe improved nutrition and fitness will lead to fewer injuries.  This is actually a really important aspect of the Eagles season to track.  If Chip Kelly really can keep his team healthy to a greater extent than other teams, it will be a big advantage for the Eagles going forwards.

Overall, we still have to expect some regression.  The Eagles will probably not finish in the top 2 again in AGL.  Still, with the modest persistence in AGL and Chip Kelly’s focus, I don’t expect as much regression as we might otherwise assume.

Injuries verdict: Slight negative

Interceptions

I won’t spend much time on this one, because I cover it in the Almanac and have addressed it previously.  Basically, Nick Foles was so good last year at avoiding interceptions that it’s nearly impossible for him to duplicate that performance.  However, Foles college and rookie stats do suggest an ability to avoid interceptions.  Hence, I expect Foles to throw interceptions at a higher rate, but to still rank among the best in the league in that category.  All other things equal, though, this is a negative regression indicator for the team.

Interceptions verdict: Negative

Field Position

This one is a bit under-the-radar.  Net Starting Field position is a byproduct of both turnovers and special teams, making it largely random from year-to-year.  Here is a persistence chart showing 5 years of data from Football Outsiders (2008-2012):

The correlation value is 0.14.  That’s large enough to note, but shows there’s a very large degree of variance from year-to-year.

Last season, the Eagles Net Field Position was 0.93.  That means the offense, on average, started with the ball nearly one yard farther than the other team’s offense.   0.93 was good for 11th in the league last season.  For reference, the 2012 Eagles had a Net Field position value of -6.67 yards, worse than any team from last season.  Kansas City led the league last year with a value of +9.61 yards (which is ridiculous and will definitely regress).

I’ve already explained why the Eagles will likely be worse in the turnover department this year than last.  Thus, we should expect field position to be a bit worse.  However, we also have to account for special teams.  This is a bit qualitative, but it’s clear the Eagles roster is deeper this year than it was last year.  That should result in a stronger STs unit.  I don’t have much confidence in that “analysis”, though.  It sounds reasonable, but STs performance is very unpredictable.

Of course, there’s another major piece to this puzzle that I still haven’t mentioned….Alex Henery.  More accurately, the absence of Alex Henery.

According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles had the 2nd worst performance on kickoffs last season, and Henery had the lowest gross kickoff value in the league.  I have no idea how well Parkey will play, but at the very least, he has a stronger leg then Henery.  Again, that should result in better kickoff performance.  Last season the Eagles recorded touchbacks on just 40% of their kicks, which ranked 24th in the league.

So where does that leave us?  Well we should expect some negative regression due to worse performance in turnovers.  Conversely, special teams can be expected to improve a little, at least in the areas that most directly effect field position.

Field Position Verdict:  Neutral

Wrapping it up

There are other areas to explore, but these are the primary ones.  I know I haven’t said anything groundbreaking here, and this analysis isn’t nearly as fun as it was last year (when there were a LOT of areas with very large positive regression expectations).  However, this is, in general, very good news for Eagles fans.

It says, basically, that last year was not a fluke.  The Eagles improved greatly from 2012 to 2013, and whenever you see a 6-win jump in one year, you should look carefully for luck-driven performance.  That’s not the case here.  The Eagles didn’t win games last year because of anything unsustainable, with the notable exception of Foles interception rate.

Thus, we shouldn’t expect and significant negative regression.   The fill-side, of course, is that the team isn’t likely to get a natural boost from any luck-driven areas.  That means improvement, if it comes, will have to depend more heavily on the actual skill of the players.

Final note: remember that there’s no guarantee the Eagles will finish where we expect them to in any luck-driven category.  Just because the “natural” recovery rate for fumbles is 50% doesn’t mean the team will hit it.  As explained above, teams can and do deviate significantly from the mean every year.  Just because the Eagles weren’t particularly lucky last year doesn’t mean they won’t be unlucky this year.  It’s just not our expectation.

2014 Risk Factors: Injuries

As you all know, we should be thinking about this season in terms of an expected performance distribution.  There are a range of outcomes for the Eagles this season, which varying probabilities for each related to how good/bad the team is.  Today, I want to first talk conceptually about the distribution shape.  Then I’ll move into the main topic: Injuries.

I’m going to assume everyone knows the basics of a Normal Distribution (Bell Curve).  I’ve used it often enough here that it shouldn’t be unknown.  The relevant question is: how do NFL team performance distributions compare?  Using the Normal curve as a baseline allows us to logic our way through certain adjustments, leading us to a better mental model for understanding ex-ante team expectations.

I’m primarily concerned with two dimensions: kurtosis and skew.  Skew is relatively self-evident, and more important for our topic today.  It relates to the symmetry of the distribution and the existence of outliers to either side.  Kurtosis isn’t as well known.  It also relates to the shape of the curve, but concerns the degree of peakedness vs. heavy tails.  In other words, kurtosis tells us how much data is located in the center of the distribution (or, conversely, NOT near the center).  Here’s a visual example:

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 10.51.33 AM

Now, to the good stuff.

What do we think the shapes of NFL performance distributions are?

I don’t have any data (yet), so we’re operating conceptually (as usual).  Let’s start with Kurtosis, because it’s relatively straightforward and not as important for out topic today.  In generally, I think NFL distributions are fairly Platykurtic.  There is a LOT of luck in the NFL.  That means a team’s “true” performance level is less likely to actually manifest than if there was little luck.  That means ANY projection we make is fairly uncertain.  As a result, it’s not enough to just say “expect 9 wins”.  Any projection of value will also include an expected range, or at least some explanation of downside/upside outcomes.

Now let’s look at skew, because that’s the more relevant measure right now.  Perhaps the most important thing to note here is that performance for an NFL team, as I’ve defined it here (Wins), is bounded on both sides.  No matter how bad a team is, it can’t win fewer than 0 games.  No matter how good it is, it can’t win 16 games.  Hence, when we’re looking at expected performance in terms of wins, the potential for outliers is limited.  Taking the next step, that means the distributions almost certainly are skewed for every team, provided we accept one more assumption as true: it is possibly, at least in theory, for a team to achieve every possible outcome (0 – 16 wins), regardless of “true” ability or expectation.  The Seahawks will almost certainly will more than 0 games this year…but it’s possible.  Even if the odds of that outcome are extremely small, if they exist they must be present on the distribution curve.

Similarly, a bad team will almost certainly not win 16 games.  But an extraordinary run of luck (like opposing injuries) could, in theory, produce a very positive outcome, up to and including 16 wins.  Again, the odds are close to zero, but they exist.

Therefore, an expected performance distribution for the Seahawks might look like this, with the X-axis representing 0 – 16 wins as you move from left to right:

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 11.04.10 AM

That curve is negatively skewed, as are the curves for most “good” teams, for reasons I explained above.

Now that we’ve settled that, we need to think about the reasons a good team might end up in the left side of the curve.  Put differently, we know that the Eagles are a relatively “good” team.  While their curve isn’t nearly as skewed as the Seahawks’, I do believe it’s still negatively skewed.  Given that, we can start to think about WHY, beyond the theoretical reasons (bounded range of outcomes), a team’s left tail might exist/be significant.

The most obvious reason is injuries.

Injuries, especially those to star players, present the type of negative events that can result in a team finishing with an outcome towards the left side of the distribution.  Here’s the important part: the Eagles are particularly susceptible this year, hence the team’s left tail is likely a bit larger than usual.  That’s also a big reason why I’m keeping my expectations for the team’s win total in check.  Outliers to the left side or a fat left tail will pull the mean of the distribution down.  So if we’re just talking about average expected wins (there are certainly other ways to look at this), the Eagles “true” level is likely lower than many fans believe.

If Nick Foles goes down….. If LeSean McCoy goes down….. If anyone on the offensive line goes down….

The Eagles are currently heavily dependent on just a few players.  The defensive depth chart improved a bit this offseason, but the offense (largely responsible for the team’s performance las year) is still very brittle.  The problem is, that brittleness was not readily apparent last year, and therefore is likely to be under-appreciated this year.

Last season, the Eagles ranked 2nd overall in Adjusted Games Lost, a measure from Football Outsiders that quantifies the impact of injuries a team suffers over the course of a season.  Here’s how the site describes it:

With Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric, we are able to quantify how much teams were affected by injuries based on two principles: (1) Injuries to starters, injury replacements and important situational reserves matter more than injuries to bench warmers; and (2) Injured players who do take the field are usually playing with reduced ability, which is why Adjusted Games Lost is based not strictly on whether the player is active for the game or not, but instead is based on the player’s listed status that week (IR/PUP, out, doubtful, questionable or probable).

In 2012, the Eagles ranked 18th overall.

Clearly, they were more effected by injuries in 2012 than they were last year.  Similarly, the fact that the Eagles ranked 2nd last year combined with the relatively uncertain (non-persistant) nature of injuries means we should expect some mean-reversion.  Basically, it’s likely the Eagles will be more negatively effected by injuries this year, relative to other teams, than they were last season.

Of course, that itself doesn’t tell us much.  We also need to know it injuries, as measured by AGL, actually affect performance (as measured by Wins).  Well here’s the scatterplot showing AGL and corresponding Wins from 2009-2013.

Screen Shot 2014-08-07 at 11.28.28 AM

As you can see, there’s good news and bad news.  The correlation value is -.185.  If the Eagles revert towards the mean (as I expect them to), they’ll be relatively worse off than last year.  However, the correlation is relatively weak, so the effect might not be catastrophic.

Anecdotally, though, I think there’s reason to be concerned, particularly because I don’t like the QB/RB Depth Chart.  An injury to a starter is bad (and shows up in AGL).  However, if the drop-off in talent to the next guy isn’t huge, the effect won’t be significant.  Unfortunately, the Eagles don’t have that luxury at QB.  Moreover, LeSean McCoy is SO good that it’s really impossible to keep the gap between him and the 2nd stringer small.

I should probably note here that I’m not trying to be overly pessimistic here.  However, if we want to create a reasonably accurate performance expectation, we need to look carefully for risk factors.

Injuries are always a major risk factor.  But in the Eagles’ case, I think the risk is atypically large this year.  That doesn’t mean they’ll occur, but it does mean or ex-ante projection needs to account for them.

There’s much more to say around this topic, and I want to present a new version of the Depth Chart Over Time that will make potential injury risk more obvious.  For now though, believe in the Eagles this year, but recognize that the existence of serious downside potential (negatively skewed) results in a mean win expectation that is lower than some might expect (I’ll get a number on it before the season starts).  We can talk about median expectations some other time….

Lowering Expected Variance: Why the Eagles might be “better” but finish the same.

Quick post today.  We’ll start taking a detailed look at the upcoming season soon (hopefully next week), but I wanted to mention a high-level point today.  The over-arching question is: Are the Eagles better this season than they were last season?

I haven’t ventured a complete answer just yet; I still have a lot of stats to go through.  However, I have stated quite explicitly that, from a pure roster perspective, I don’t think the Eagles improved very much (and may actually have gotten worse).  There’s a problem with that statement, though.  It’s incomplete.  Here’s why:

When we talk about a team’s “true” ability level, we’re not really discussing discrete values.  Although many pundits (i.e. anyone/everyone on ESPN) views season projections this way, it’s a very bad method of forecasting.  In reality, ex-ante (before each season), the best we can do is put together an expected performance distribution.  In other words, before the season, we have no idea how many wins each team will produce.  Beyond our inability to fully quantify all the known controllable variables, there’s a HUGE degree of natural uncertainty (luck) in the game.

I touched on this a bit before last season.  In making my projection for the Eagles, I gave a range of outcomes before settling on 9.1 (if I remember correctly) as the average.  I ALSO explained that the Eagles were among the highest VARIANCE teams heading into last season.  Put simply, the team, prior to last season, had perhaps the largest range of expected outcomes.  So while I thought the team “should” win between 9 and 10 games, I also thought it was reasonably possible for them to go 4-12 or 12-4.  Chip Kelly was a big reason for that range; he brought with him a very large degree of uncertainty.  In hindsight, things works out generally as expected (at least on this site) and the Eagles finished with 10 wins.  Note that, given the point differential, the Eagles “true” performance last year was 9.4 wins (via Pythagorean formula).

So why am I telling you this?

Well, if we think about each team’s expected performance as a probabilistic distribution, then there are TWO main ways for the team to actually improve.  Most clearly, a team can increase it’s average win projection.  For instance, it could sign multiple impact starters, or take a great prospect very high in the draft.  Doing so might shift the teams entire distribution to the right, like so:

This is a graphic I used before the playoff game against the Saints.  The X-axis is wins in this example.  The values don’t really matter.  What matters is that the team has moved from left to right.  Clearly, the blue distribution represents a better team.  It’s average performance is much higher.

BUT, there is another way to improve (several actually but we’re focusing on the big ones), at least conceptually.  A team can keep its average win projection the same, but decrease its expected variance.  For example, the Eagles might still be looking at 9.1 wins this year, but the team’s range may have decreased.  That means our certainty increases.

Visually, it might look like this (again borrowing from this post from last season):

Notice the Cardinals; distribution is much narrower than the Eagles’.  Pretend that both have the same average (i.e. move the Eagles to the right so it’s centered on the Cardinals).

That’s better.  To borrow a finance concept, think of the distribution like a stock.  Many analysts/investors use volatility (technically standard deviation, not variance, but for our purposes they’re the same thing) as a proxy for risk.  When looking at an investment, you have to look at both the expected return AND the risk associated with the investment.  Here, you have to look at both the expected average win projection AND the range of potential outcomes.

It’s important to note here that, assuming a symmetrical distribution, narrowing the range ALSO decreases upside while minimizing downside.  Hence, sometimes it is better to have a wide distribution, like when you are a bad team.  However, since there are diminishing returns at the top end of the distribution (a 10 win playoff team isn’t much worse off than an 11 win playoff team), especially where the Eagles look to be headed (good enough to make the playoff but not good enough to challenge for a bye), a smaller range of outcomes is an improvement for the team.

Here’s the important part:

While it’s unclear whether or not the Eagles have shifted their distribution to the right (i.e. expect to win more than 9.4 games this year), it seems very likely that the team has narrowed its range of expected outcomes.

Chip Kelly is no longer huge unknown.  Nick Foles expected performance is undoubtedly higher this year than Michael Vick’s was before last season.  Personnel-wise, the Eagles have made significant improvements below the starters on the depth chart.  Obviously, injuries are a massive source of uncertainty.  Although the Eagles have not added any impact starters (making it tough to increase projected wins), they have made the roster more robust, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

So yes, the Eagles likely are better this year, if only in terms of uncertainty.  Whether the team’s average win projection has improved is a separate issue that I’ll address over the next couple of weeks.