Eagles vs. Cowboys: Week 7 Pre-Game Notes

Big game today for reasons so obvious I won’t list them.  The Eagles are favored, though I disagree with that.  To date, the Cowboys have a better resume, though the gap isn’t huge.      Both teams have, in my mind, proven their mediocrity.  Trying to parse mediocre teams is an exercise in futility, so I think the best way to frame the game is as a true toss-up.  There are, however, a few areas I’m particularly interested/concerned in/about.

– Fletcher Cox.  Great game last week.  Was it a fluke? Was he just taking advantage of a poor interior O-Line and a rookie QB?  Is he finally adjusting to his new role?  We don’t know, but today will shed some more light on the subject.  I said preseason, and I maintain today, that Cox is currently the most important “piece” on the team.  The Eagles need him to be a difference-maker, otherwise this defense is going to take a long time to come around.  Keep an eye on him.

– Nick Foles.  Stating the obvious here, but it needs to be said.  The Foles detractors have just one objective card to play, small sample size.  With every game, that becomes less relevant.  Now one more game isn’t going to change too much, but with every good performance, the chances of Foles being as good as his numbers increases.  He had some good “luck” last week, so dial back the expectations a little bit.  But, he’s got plenty of room to “come down” and still have a good game.  In particular, watch the deep throws, which have been his biggest weakness thus far.   Hit hit a couple last week, but one was under-thrown (Cooper).

– Special Teams.  The Eagles’ special teams have not been good (-7.9% DVOA, 29th overall).  The Cowboys’ have been very good (6.5% DVOA, 4th overall).  In what looks to be a close match, that’s a red flag for anyone rooting for the Eagles.  Hopefully Alex Henery is on his game, touchback-wise, but if not, hold your breadth, cause this could get ugly.

– Onside Kick.  Related to the last point, this is a good opportunity to go for a “surprise” onside kick.  Check with Henery pre-game, but if he can’t kick every kickoff out of the end-zone, the risk-reward tradeoff for an onside kick looks pretty attractive.  Given the STs disparity, you have to assume that every Cowboys return has a significant chance  to result in a big play.  Assume that these kicks will give the Cowboys field position at the 35 yard line (that might be conservative…).  Well a failed on-side kick will likely give the Cowboys the ball somewhere between the Eagles 45 and the 50 yard line.

There’s some dispute as to what the success rate of surprise onside kicks is, but AdvancedNFLStats.com says that when the WP of the kicking team is between .4 and .5 (when its early or the game is still close), the rate is close to 60%.

Would you give up 20 yards of field position (remembering how bad the Eagles defense is) in exchange for a 60% chance of regaining possession?  DEFINITELY.

– That covers the areas of focus.  Obviously the DBs will be important, but not much left to say about them.  If the Eagles can hold the Cowboys to less than 30 points, they’ll be in good shape.

Not All Points Are Created Equal: Part 2

Let’s return to last week’s post, found here.

I want to start looking at this in smaller chunks, which will hopefully be a little clearer.  First, some overall major takeaways:

– E = R ((60 – T) / 60) + C, the formula, for reference.

– Large underdogs should be extremely aggressive early in games, when R (relative strength) is at its largest.

Underdogs should attempt to use as much of the clock as possible.  This is more “conventional” and something I didn’t talk about last week, but it’s a logical extension of what I was talking about.  If you have two very mismatched teams, and make them play 100 games, it’s almost certain that the “better” team will win more than it will lose.  The larger the sample, the more likely it is to reflect that actual “relative strength”.  By using up a clock, the underdog is limiting the sample size “# of plays” from which the relative strength advantage can play out.  Using our formula, by bleeding the clock, underdogs are attacking the R value indirectly, using T, instead of going at R itself (scoring points).

– During the game, strategic decisions should incorporate an objective view of how the rest of the game is likely to play out.  For large underdogs, this means they should expect to be outscored, and therefore need to be aggressive in scoring points.

Favorites Strategy

I didn’t discuss how this effects the strategy of the Favorite.  In the most simple reading, it can be assumed that the Favorite should be more “conservative”.  Going back to our Broncos vs. Jaguars example, 3 points is a lot more valuable to Denver than it is to Jacksonville (hence “not all points are equal”).  Therefore, given the same FG opportunity as the one we gave Jacksonville (expected points for FG and going for it are equal, purely a risk/reward play), it should elect the LOW risk option (the FG).

That’s because, as I explained above, at any time T, the favorite can expect to outplay the underdog over the rest of the game, i.e. the R value is advantagous.  As time goes on, this becomes less of a factor (T declining ultimately takes the R half of the equation to 0).

In general, I agree with this.  Large favorites should be content to take whatever points they can get, early in the game.

However, there is a slight wrinkle, one that will appeal to the more aggressive fans.  Let’s go back to our graphic for a moment.  Here is the range of outcomes at the start of the game:Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.28.23 AM

As you can see/remember, if we assume a “random walk” from there, Denver should expect to win a very large percentage of the time.  There is a case to be made for being aggressive, though, and hopefully you can see it.

It goes back to when I explained that you can actually “win” the game before the game is over.  Assume the same EP-Neutral opportunity above, but this time imagine that gaining 7 points is enough to shift the range of outcomes (yellow shade) entirely above the X-Axis.  Would you go for it or kick?  Probably go for it, right?  After all, if you have a chance to “win the game”, with relatively low risk (still have a heavy advantage if you don’t convert), you should do it.

Obviously, I have to note that this is a purely theoretical situation.  During the game, it’s not possible to know EXACTLY where the range of expected outcomes lies.  Therefore, we can’t be sure of where the line between 100% win and 99% win is, even if some of us see that final 1% as extremely valuable.

Still, it implies that there are some situations, even if they are hard to identify, where the Favorite should also be aggressive. In general, though, it should take the lower risk strategic options, because it does NOT want to significantly shift R (outside of the specific scenario I just outlined).

Random Walk

I don’t think I made a big enough point of this model in the post last week.  There are two ways to view the game, ex-ante, and I think one of them is much better than the other.

1) This is the normal model.  Teams start on even ground (Score tied 0 – 0) and we “expect” the course of play to naturally favor one team (the favorite) over the other (the underdog).  During actual play, we project that the difference in skill will gradually manifest itself in the score, and ultimately mean victory for the Favorite.  That’s the usual way of thinking about it.

What I’ve done is to flip that around a bit.

2) Teams start on UNEVEN ground (R value), and from there we expect a random series of events to occur, though they will be within a range of possible outcomes.  This certainly isn’t the “natural” way of thinking about things, but it appeals to me for one very big reason.  Can you guess what that is?

I like it because it forces us to accept and recognize the large role of luck and chance in the outcome of the game.  Future human events are inherently unpredictable, right?  So how do we reconcile that with the first option I outlined above (the normal model)?  Isn’t it explicitly forcing us to predict that which is, by its very nature, unpredictable?

The result of this is that we get ridiculous explanations for unexpected outcomes of games.  For example, take the Giants-Patriots SB (Helmet Catch).  The Patriots were heavy favorites, and yet lost a close game.  Why?

– Is it because Eli Manning is just REALLY clutch?

– Is it because the Patriots “choked”?

– Is it because the Giants have more “heart”?  or “wanted it more”?

Of course not, those are all ridiculous explanations, and yet they’re a natural outgrowth of the way we normally think of games (option 1).

Now let’s look at the “Random Walk / Ex-Ante Relative Strength” model (the name needs work).  Here’s the picture again, just imagine a Patriots logo instead of the Broncos and a Giants logo instead of the Jaguars.

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.28.23 AM

 

Suddenly there’s no explanation needed for the outcome of the game.  Just look at the picture; you can see there’s a section of the yellow shaded area below the X-Axis.  If we assume that at time T=60, all future game events will take a random path through the yellow area, then it’s obvious that SOME of those infinite paths will end up in the area below the X-Axis.  It just so happens that THIS PARTICULAR run was among those.

Now there’s also obviously some unpredictability in deriving a value for R.  It’s very difficult to know just how good each team is and how they match up against each other.  However, I’d argue that all of the necessary information for getting an accurate R value is theoretically knowable.  Compare that the Normal Model.  It requires us to predict future events, which is NOT POSSIBLE, even in theory.

The upshot of the “Random Walk” is that it forces people to confront a lack of “control”.  It basically boils the game down to a lottery.  That sucks some of the fun out of it, but that doesn’t mean its a less accurate model of analysis.

Similar to last time, I’m going to cut this off prematurely for the sake of time and clarity.  Hopefully you’re still with me.

Eagles v. Bucs: Post-Game Thoughts

I was tied up most of the weekend for wedding festivities (not mine), so I didn’t have a chance to post anything about the Bucs, other than my odds column for BGN (which, BTW, I nailed…again).  I’ve got a few things from the Bucs game, but I really want to get back to the strategic discussion I started at the end of last week, so I’ll keep this relatively short.

– Nick Foles…still looks good.  I’ve long been a Foles supporter, though that was more for the rational aspect of the argument than it was a strong case for Foles being a good player.  However, it looks as if the Foles discussion is now about his ability.  Basically:

Foles supporters point to his numbers, which are VERY good, and wonder what all the haters are looking at.

Foles detractors are watching him play, and claiming he fails the “eye test”.  Similarly, they’re wondering what the hell the Foles supporters are watching.

I do understand the detractors.  His arm strength isn’t great, and occasionally his passes get wobbly (especially to the sidelines).  However, the ball seems to get where it needs to go.  That was a very good defense he just tore apart, and I’m not sure what more you could ask for.  He’s got weaknesses, but so does nearly every QB, and I’ll take a “weak” arm over stupidity and inaccuracy every time (in no way does that refer to Vick).

– The Offense had just 1 three-and-out.  That’s a pretty clear illustration of the point I made preseason about a Foles-led offense.  There won’t be as many big plays (though he did hit a couple deep throws this time), but there also won’t be many go-nowhere drives.  Yesterday, the Eagles only went three-and-out once (though the LeSean fumble killed another drive).

– Riley Cooper finally made a “Riley Cooper” play and it was glorious.  The deep TD to Cooper was underthrown.  In these situations, it’s far too common for the WR to run to the spot where the ball is thrown and then wait for it to get there, which turns the pass into a 50/50 jump ball.  Cooper, though, adjusted his speed so that he would arrive at the point of the throw in stride.  As a result, the CB also had to adjust his speed; if he hadn’t he would have run into Cooper and been called for PI.  In essence, Cooper used his size and positioning to box out the CB as they ran.  Given his attributes, we should see this more often from him.

– Zach Ertz was targeted 5 6 times and played 42 offensive snaps.  He only caught 2 of those 5 3 of the 6 targeted balls, but it’s nice to see him finally playing a significant role.  He was a very high draft pick and, given the lack of WR depth, he should be making an impact.  Keep an eye on him as the season progresses to see just how much Chip likes/trusts him.

– Damaris Johnson is allowed to play offense.  It was just 8 snaps, but I’m encouraged nonetheless.  I think he can be a valuable WR out of the slot, and have been surprised by the lack of playing time he’s received over the first stretch of the season.  Similar to Ertz, it looks like Chip might be slowly working up to what we thought his player-usage would be during the pre-season.  Maybe it just took time for these guys to learn the play-book to Chip’s satisfaction.

– The defense still sucks.  They were hurt by poor field position on a few drives, but the defense had issues against what had been one of the worst offenses in the league.  Individual weaknesses aside, Billy Davis is still blitzing way too ineffectively.  I understand that the front 4 has failed to generate pressure, but there’s got to be more reason used when scheming these blitzes.  Rushers are still coming from too far away and or not rushing soon enough.  It’s an attempt to “disguise”, which I castigated Davis for not doing early in the year, but it’s a poor attempt.  He doesn’t have much to work with (talent-wise), but he’s also not doing much with the little he has.

Fortunately the offense is good enough to bail him out of a few games.

That’s all for now, I told you it’d be short.   Tomorrow or Wednesday we’ll start breaking down the last strategy post into pieces and hopefully build on it.

Not All Points Are Created Equal: Theoretical Support for Aggressive Strategy

Note:  This post is very long (1900 words) and involves some abstract strategic theory.  It is by no means a finished product, so I apologize if things aren’t very clear just yet.  Hopefully a few of you will read this and see where I’m going, in which case I’d love your help on explaining it better.  I have more to say about this, but I had to cut myself off somewhere.

Back in July, I wrote a post entitled “Not All Yards Are Created Equal“, which explained how team’s incentives and strategy should shift according to down and distance.  Today, I want to look at another area, with a thesis that will sound similar:

Not All Points Are Created Equal

Basically, points are not a static object; their “value” is not constant.  Of course, a TD is worth 6 points regardless of when you score it, but the VALUE of that TD changes.  The value of points, in essence, is a function of the relative strength of each team, the time remaining in the game, and the current conditions (Score/Field Position) of the game.

As those variables change, so to will the actual value of each point.  To make things easier, I’ve put those variables into an equation.  Note that this equation is not meant to be a “rule” or even be of any specific use.  It’s just to allow us to easily visualize what the relative consequences of variable changes will be to the overall result.

Expected Result = Relative Strength (1 – Time Elapsed / 60) + Current Position + Unknowns

OR

E = R ((60 – T) / 60) + C

Here, Expected Result is obviously the end result of the game.  Time Elapsed is similarly self-explanatory.  Current Position is a combination of the score and field position; here it may be helpful to think of AdvancedNFLStats.com’s Live Win Probability and each point during the game.  I’m going to ignore the Unknown factor because….well because its unknown.  We can’t quantify it; it’s just meant to serve as a reminder that a significant part of the outcome will be determined by chance.

Lastly, and most importantly (for my purposes today), is Relative Strength.  This factor accounts for the discrepancy in skill between the two teams.  Naturally, it’s difficult to quantify, which may be why NFL Coaches seems to be ignoring it in their in-game strategy, which brings me to my next major point:

NFL Coaches are ignoring a significant strategic factor in their in-game strategy, namely, Relative Strength.

Let’s look at Relative Strength at a high level, then drill a little deeper for practicality.  Using a timely example, this weeks Broncos vs. Jaguars game, we can easily see the importance of Relative Strength in in-game strategy.  For example, if the score at the end of the 1st quarter is Jax – 3, Denver – 0, who do you think will win?

Still Denver, right?  My guess is you’re also pretty confident about that.  So despite Jacksonville having a lead we still expect them to lose.  Why?  Because the Relative Strength is tilted so heavily in Denver’s favor that we expect them to outperform Jacksonville by a lot more than 3 points over the remaining 3 quarters.

Hopefully now you’re all with me.  Let’s go a little deeper, dipping our toes into Bayesian waters…

Relative Strength

The Relative Strength variable really consists of two components.  The first, and easiest to understand, is the ex-ante positioning of the teams.  For simplicity’s sake, we can use the Spread as a proxy.  There’s probably a better measure (Vegas isn’t trying to predict the outcomes), but, for you efficient market fans, it’s a pretty good representation of what we “know” about the relative strength of the participants before the game starts.

Going back to the Eagles/Broncos game, I believe the value was 11 points, in favor of Denver.  So, at that point, given all the information we knew about both the Broncos and Eagles, we (the market) expected that over 60 minutes of play, the Broncos would outperform the Eagles by 11 points.

Still with me?  Good, because now we get to the crux of the problem.

When the opening kick-off occurs, NFL Coaches seem to completely disregard that part of the R factor.  Instead, their conception of R is immediately replaced by the second component, New Information.  Essentially, NFL Coaches are overweighting the most recent data (what has happened in the game to that point) to the detriment of the other component of R, the ex-ante value.  This has very significant implications for in-game strategy, especially when the teams involved are of different skills levels.

To see why, let’s go back to our Jacksonville – Denver example.  The Spread for this week’s game, as of this writing, is 27 points (a record).  Using that as a proxy for R, we can write the original equation as follows, with a positive result (E) favoring Denver and a negative result favoring Jacksonville:

E = R ((60 – T) / 60) + C

E = 27 ((60-0) / 60) + 0

E = 27

Easy enough.  Now let’s look at our Jacksonville up 3 at the end of the 1Q scenario.

E = R ((60 – T) / 60) + C

E = 27 ((60-15) / 60) – 3

E = 27 ((45 / 60) – 3

E = 20.25 – 3

E = 17.25

Note that, for simplicity’s sake (again), I haven’t accounted for the second component of R, new information.  Doing so, in this situation, will lower R.  Our pre-game data pointed to an R of Denver +27, but we now have another quarter of play to account for.  Since Jacksonville won that quarter, the value of R has to drop.  HOWEVER, the point here is that, as a percentage of the overall sample, 1Q is pretty small, meaning the corresponding shift should be small as well, and definitely not large enough to account for the +17.25 value above.

So…Jacksonville is up 3-0 at the end of 1Q, but we still expect Denver to win by 17.25 points (a little less once we account for the New Information).  In your estimation, is that a “successful” quarter for Jacksonville?  Kind of.  They did significantly lower E (remember it has to go negative for JAX to win).  However, they’re still 17 points behind!

So, because R is so heavily tilted against them (Denver is much better), 3 points didn’t help that much…

Now we can start to see the foundation for my original assertion: Not all points are created equal.

Now let’s pretend that Jacksonville had a 4th and 3 at the 20 yard line when it kicked that FG (I haven’t run the EP scenario, pretend its equal, that is, kicking and going for it have the same expected value).  What should the team do?  GO FOR IT!

Over any amount of time, Denver is expected to significantly outplay Jacksonville.  That means that, up 3-0 at the end of 1Q, Jacksonville is still losing!  Let’s pretend for a minute that, after incorporating New Information, R is now equal to +16 (down from +17.25).  Should Jacksonville be confident, knowing they need to outplay Denver by 16 points over the rest of the game?  OF COURSE NOT!

When the Relative Strength of the participant teams is so uneven, the losing team must play AGGRESSIVELY, because at any time during the game, they should expect the other team to outplay them the rest of the way.  Therefore, to win, they need a large enough lead to account for the expected discrepancy.

Let’s visualize it.

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.24.49 AM

That’s an illustration of what we’d expect from two evenly matched teams.  We can argue over the size of the shaded area, but I didn’t put too much though into it, so let’s not dwell on it.

Now, let’s adjust it for the scenario we’ve been talking about.

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.28.23 AM

Given that we’ve already incorporated relative strength (by setting the point at T= 60 to 27) and, theoretically, reflected all potential outcomes with our shaded area, we can project the progress of the game as a “random walk”, albeit one within the boundaries of the shaded area.

As the game progresses, the area will shift from left to right (time) and up/down (as R and C change).  Additionally, the width of the area will narrow, since less time remaining will progressively limit the range of outcomes.  So after the 1Q, it will look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.33.34 AM

Notice that in this illustration, the odds of Jacksonville winning (shaded area below the x-axis) are still very small.  Given our ex-ante positioning, and what I believe is its proper inclusion in the in-game strategy, Jacksonville needs to do something significant if it hopes to have a reasonable chance of winning.  At this point, I need to step back and explain another aspect of the equation:

E = R ((60 – T) / 60) + C

Notice that as the game progresses, T converges to 0.  Logically, this makes complete sense.  With 30 seconds left in the game, the Relative Strength that we discussed above means almost nothing, there’s no time left for either team do much.  Conversely, C becomes more and more important, eventually becoming the only term (remember at the end of the game E = C).

So if we take our starting position, E = 27, and do nothing except run time off the clock, eventually that ex-ante advantage for Denver will disappear.  The point, though, is that we can’t forget it earlier in the game.

In current “conventional wisdom”, it’s almost as though once the game starts, R is forgotten; it shouldn’t be.

Over the course of the game, teams (especially bad ones) can only expect to have a couple of chances to significantly swing the odds (alter C).  To the degree that they are already behind (R), they should be more aggressive in effecting C, particularly because of one point:  You can, practically speaking, lose the game before the clock hits 0.  Using our illustration above, this would occur when the entire shaded area is above or below the x-axis.  So, let’s say the Broncos lead 21 – 0 at the end of the 1st Quarter.  It would look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 1.17.36 PM

In the above illustration, using our equation, Jacksonville has already lost.  Basically, it will be nearly impossible for the Jaguars to outperform the Broncos by more than 21 points over the remaining 3 quarters, by virtue of what we know about their Relative Strength.

The takeaway is obvious.  The Jaguars can’t let it get to that point, hence kicking a FG instead of going for a TD in the red zone is a poor decision.  Again, we’ve accounted for relative strength in the positioning of the shaded area (range of outcomes), from there on in, the progression of the game should be thought of as random.  The Jaguars (and any significant underdog) need to take every opportunity they can to shift the range of outcomes.  They won’t get many chances, and in fact should never EXPECT to get another one.

So possession of the football in the red zone should be viewed as a singular and extremely valuable/important opportunity, once that should one that shouldn’t be wasted on a marginal gain of 3 points.

Going back to the beginning, the “value” of points changes according to the opponent.  3 Points against the Giants are worth far more than 3 points against the Broncos.  Coaches should adjust they’re strategy accordingly, and be much more aggressive when facing great teams.

The downside is that you don’t convert, and the range of outcomes shifts away from you. However, when there’s a significant mismatch, you were likely going to lose anyway.  By playing “conservatively”, i.e. taking the FG, you’re not only delaying the somewhat inevitable, but you’re passing on an important opportunity to make the game competitive.

Enough rambling…this needs a lot of refinement, but I had to start somewhere.  I know I still need to address assimilating New Information, so don’t think I’m ignoring it.  But I’ve lost 90% of the readers by now anyway, so I feel compelled to give the rest of you a temporary reprieve.

Eagles v. Giants Week 5: Post-Game Notes

A win’s a win, and the Eagles are now 2-0 in the division (and the conference).  There were some bright spots, and of course some sore spots as well (though those are less surprising).  Here are my immediate takeaways:

– The Eagles scored 36 points.  Yes, it was against a bad defense, but it reinforces the point I’ve been trying to make:  “Chip Kelly’s offense” works, and it works very well.  He doesn’t have the talent yet to really let things go, but the results are already there.  If Kelly doesn’t succeed in the NFL, it won’t be because his “college” schemes don’t work.

– Chip did make what I believe was a big strategic error, though it didn’t matter in the end. After scoring a TD in the 4th quarter, the Eagles led by 7 points.  Chip elected to kick the extra point to make it an 8 points game.  I disagree with that call (vehemently).  The Eagles defense clearly can’t be relied on.  Additionally, the Giants had no time-outs.  As far as I’m concerned, Chip needs to take every opportunity to use his offense to make things easier for his defense. Getting 2 points there makes is a 2 score game, again, in the 4th quarter when the Giants have no timeouts.  Missing it still gives you a 7 point lead.

Was Chip really that confident that the defense could defend a 2 pt conversion?

This was exactly the type of high-leverage situation that the 2 pt conversion should be used for.  Low risk (still lead by 7), BIG reward (make the Giants score twice).

It didn’t end up making a difference, but that doesn’t make it the right call.  If you can’t get it right when it doesn’t count, there’s no reason to believe you’ll get it right when it does.  This defense needs help, and being aggressive in those situations is a good way to give it some.

– Nate Allen doesn’t seem to understand even the basics of safety play.  On the first drive, he inexplicably got beat deep two times in a row.  It shouldn’t happen once, but I understand that everyone makes mistakes and occasionally misjudges a WR’s speed.  HOWEVER, for it two happen two plays in a row is inexcusable.

Nate, you’re not that fast, you can’t let WRs get behind you, especially when you’re supposed to be the “help”.  Also, the tackling angles are just terrible.

I dont mean to suggest that everything bad is because of Nate, Earl Wolff certainly had his issues, as did the CBs, but Nate’s were the most glaring and costly.

– Nick Foles can play.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone.  When he does come in, though, the Eagles must throw the ball.  Straight handoffs to McCoy aren’t going to work unless Foles has already established himself as a threat.  Additionally, play-action should be almost mandatory.  It took Chip way to long to call it.  Use the threat of Shady to give Foles space, and he’ll move the offense.  Then, once the defense has been forced to back off, you can give it to Shady.

– This game was a good illustration of the difference between a BAD team and a MEDIOCRE one.  Anyone who thought the Eagles were “bad”, should have been disabused of that notion by the end of today’s game.  Overall, if the Eagles are a “true” 8-9 win team, their current record makes perfect sense.  Lose to the really good teams (KC and Denver), split against other mediocre teams (SD and Washington), and beat the bad teams (Giants).

For me, the surprise so far hasn’t been the Eagles, it’s been the opponents.  The Eagles still look like the team we expected, it’s just a matter of how the rest of the division comes out (I’m hopeful).

– The Eagles pass rush isn’t good enough, and I’m blaming the scheme.  I hate that their playing the 3-4 with players clearly not suited for it.  It’s showing in the results.  Even against the Giants, one of the league’s worst offensive lines, the team struggled to get any pressure without blitzing (until late in the game when Giants were forced to pass).

I guess I just don’t understand the value of “installing” the defense.  This is a multi-year project, but I don’t see why you can’t wait to install the base defense until you have the pieces to make it work.

– No turnovers.  Big part of today’s win.  Everyone took care of the football, save one throw by Vick that should have been picked (deep completion to DeSean).  The team did, however, take 8 penalties for 88 yards.  Some of them were questionable and others flat-out wrong, so I’m not going to blame them for that.   Overall, a much “cleaner” game than we’ve seen recently from the team.  If they can keep that up, it’ll go a long way towards mitigating the poor defense.

 

Does Strength of Schedule tell us anything?

A couple of days ago, I tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.03.41 AM

Obviously, I meant it to be a sign of hope.  The fact is, the Eagles not only have a relatively “easy” schedule remaining, but have also played an extremely “hard” schedule thus far.  As a result, the Win-Loss record may not be representative of the team’s actual ability.  Today, let’s dig into that a bit.

Here are the SOS ratings from Football Outsiders. We’ll start with the schedule so far.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 9.11.17 AM

 

The “hardest” schedule are on top, and we can see that the Eagles are #2.  So that means there’s nothing to worry about, right?  The Eagles have just had the unlucky misfortune of playing really good teams, and that’s why they’ve looked bad?  Look more closely, and you’ll see the problem with that conclusion (not that it necessarily invalidates it).

More specifically, look at the bottom of the table.  KC…DEN…WAS

By now, it should be obvious what I’m getting at.  This early in the season, it’s very hard to identify the true “cause” of each game result.  For example, the Denver Broncos look awesome, but they’ve also played one of the “easiest” schedules, with games against the Eagles (1 win), Giants (0 wins), Raiders (1 win), Ravens (2 wins).  How much of that is the competition being terrible and how much of it is the Broncos being great?

We don’t know for sure.

That’s a long way of saying that while I firmly believe the Eagles are better than their current record indicates (indeed FO has them as a “true” 1.8 win team right now), it’s also possibly that the Eagles opponents have looked good simply because the Eagles are so bad.  But is there any way to gain confidence in our assessment?  I think so.

We can look at “controllable” or “affirmative” stats.  Namely, these are areas in which the Eagles have more control than their opponents.  If these are bad, it’s an indication that the Eagles really aren’t good.  If they’re not, then it lends more credence to the idea that the Eagles have been victimized by a tough slate of games.

QB play – While the difficulty of the opposing defense obviously effects this area, it’s still largely a “controllable” function.  It may not seem like it, but Michael Vick has played fairly well.  His overall numbers:

55.1% completion (bad); 5 TDs/2 INTs (good); 1.7% INT rate (very good); 93.2 Rating (good); 10.6% Sack rate (bad); 228 Rushing yards (very good), 2 Rushing TDs (good).

Before you come at me with the outlier argument (Redskins game), let me say that, so far, the actual outlier game for Vick has been KC, where he was terrible.  His passer rating was 110+ against both the Redskins and the Chargers, and against the Broncos it was 83.6, which isn’t good, but isn’t terrible either, especially for a team with such a potent rushing attack.

Overall, Vick’s play doesn’t give us any reason to believe this is actually a “bad” team.

Sacks – Again, there is definitely an opposing team effect, but the idea is that it’s MORE dependent on the Eagles than it is on the opposition.  Highly correlated with winning, Sack Differential is among the most important “controllable” stats.  Naturally, you’re Sack Differential will be a lot better if you create a lot of sacks (especially with Vick at QB).

The Eagles are tied for 6th in the league with 14 sacks.

Five of them came against Kansas City, distorting the numbers a bit, but that’s still better than any other team has done against the Chiefs.  Moreover, as I showed earlier this week, the Eagles have consistently out-sacked the other opposition for each team.

I have to note that selling out your coverage to create sacks, as Davis has done a few times, is not ideal and potentially erodes the basic idea behind Sack Differential.  However, I don’t think that effect has been strong enough thus far to complete negate the value of the statistic.

Dropped Passes –  This one’s tough because of the inherent subjectivity of judging when a pass is “dropped”, but it’s also something that’s entirely controllable.  According to the Washington Post, the Eagles have 7 dropped passes thus far.  That’s not good, but it’s also not bad.  Overall, that places the Eagles in a three-way tie for 14th in the league.

However….

the operative statistic, as you probably guessed, is dropped pass RATE, not total.  After all, the Eagles do not throw the ball very often.  The team is currently attempting just 30.8 passes per game (TeamRankings), the 6th lowest rate in the league.

The Eagles have a Drop rate of 5.69%, which places them 9th in the league.  For reference, the Rams have the highest drop rate (8.2%) and the Vikings have the lowest (just 1.6%).  Overall the NFL average is 4.87%.

So the Eagles, in this controllable area, are not good, but again, they’re not terrible either.  When you factor in the subjectivity of grading “drops”, there’s very little here to be overly concerned about.

When you put the above statistics together, I believe it offers support for the “hard schedule” theory as opposed to the “Eagles suck” theory.  That’s not certain, but at this point, the preponderance of the evidence (law school reference!) points in an optimistic direction.

Future Schedule

Now the fun part.  I’m not going to cover this in a lot of detail.  I’ll just show you the numbers, because they’re self-explanatory.  Here are the Football Outsiders “Future Schedule” ratings.

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 10.11.05 AM

All aboard…

 

Eagles vs. Giants Odds: Take the points and run…

Last week, I said to take the Over and the Eagles +11.  The over hit, but the Eagles didn’t cover.  I should have made it more clear, but the Over/Under was clearly the bet in which I had more confidence.  This week, it’s the reverse, I like the spread a lot more than the Over/Under.

For reference, here’s the SBNation odds page.

Note there is some discrepancy between sources.  The spread ranges from Eagles +3 to Eagles +1.  Note the +1 spreads have better payoffs.

Meanwhile, there’s a consensus Over/Under of 53.5 (one site has 53).

Let’s start with the spread.  Should the Eagles even be underdogs?

According to Football Outsiders, no.

They’ve got the Eagles at 26th overall, with a DVOA of -14.9%

The Giants, meanwhile, rank 31st overall, with a DVOA of -48.7%.

While both teams rank poorly, that’s a big difference.  For example, the distance between the Eagles’ and Giants’ DVOA is roughly the same as the difference between the Eagles and the Patriots.  The DVOA stats aren’t meant to be used this way, but it’s illustrative of the fact that, while both teams have looked bad, the Giants have looked much worse.

It should also be noted that the Giants, using FO’s metrics, have played the HARDEST schedule in the league to date. However, the Eagles have played the 2nd hardest.  While this doesn’t do much for our comparison, it’s important in that it indicates both teams might actually be better than they currently seem to be.

Here’s the relevant info:

– The Giants have scored 61 points, and rank 31st in DVOA (FO).

– The Eagles have allowed 138 points, and rank 30th.

– The Eagles have scored 99 points, and rank 5th.

– The Giants have allowed 146 points, and rank 22nd.

From those stats, it’s pretty clear that the bigger advantage lies with the Eagles Offense (5th) against the Giants defense (22nd).  Conversely, the Eagles defense gets a break.  While the Giants have weapons (namely Victor Cruz), they don’t represent anything close to what the team had to deal with last week.

If we look at Special Teams, we get even more support for the Eagles.  While STs have been terrible the past two weeks, and predictably rank very low by DVOA (31st), they have the good fortune of playing against the only team ranked worse.  That’s right, the Giants rank 32nd, negating what could have been a substantial advantage.

We’re not done yet though.

Let’s look at the Sacks numbers.  As I explained last week, Sack Differential is an excellent indicator of team success.

The Eagles are – 4.

The Giants are -10.

Both teams have actually taken the same number of sacks (14), but the Giants have just 4 sacks on defense.  As we’ve all seen, Vick, without pressure, is a much different player than Vick with pressure.  The data thus far suggests we’ll see the good version on Sunday.

All told, I think it’s crazy that the Eagles aren’t slight favorites in this game. I realize the “home premium” accounts for that difference, but in this case I think it’s unwarranted.  In fact, if you’re betting the game, take the alternative line (pick’em) for a better payout.

The Over/Under, on the other hand, is murkier.

The line is 53.5.

Given that two of the worst defenses in league are involved, we should expect a lot of points.  So far, the games these teams have been involved in have averaged 55.5 total points, and just 3 of the 8 games have failed to record more than 53.5.

If you’re taking a side here, I’d go with the over.  The Eagles are primed for a big performance, and it’d surprise me if the team didn’t score 30 (remember they scored 30+ against both the Redskins and the Chargers).

The question is what can we expect from the Giants.  Honestly, I have no idea.  To date the New York offense has been terrible.  However, given the Eagles’ defensive play, I find it hard to believe the Giants won’t move the football.

Therefore, I think the Over is the SLIGHTLY better side, but be cautious with this one.

The risk, as I see it, is for a sloppy, turnover/penalty filled game in which both teams move the ball easily but fail to score TDs consistently.  We’ve already seen the Eagles blow great scoring chances and settle for FGs.  If that happens, I still like the Eagles to cover (and win), but hitting 53.5 is out of the question.  It’s up to you to decide how likely this scenario is to play out.