The MOST Underrated Teams and Potential Explanations

Yesterday I compared the FO win projections for every team against the O/U lines from online bookmaker Bovada.lv.  I was light on analysis, so today I’ll focus more deeply on a few teams that carry the largest deviations.  After writing the UNDER-rated section, it was apparent that this post needs two parts.  So the OVER-rated teams will have to wait until tomorrow.

Reminder – The Bovada line isn’t meant to be a prediction, but in theory, should function as a measure of what the general (betting) public thinks of each team.  So when the Bovada line is HIGHER than the FO projection, I’m calling that team OVERrated.

First, let’s look at the UNDER-rated teams.  Here they are:

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Above are all of the teams that have a higher FO projection than Bovada O/U.  I’m going to focus on the teams with the largest differential, for obvious reasons.

Carolina

A difference of 2.5 wins is HUGE.  If betting we legal (and if I had data on FO’s predictive accuracy), I’d be very tempted to take the over here, figuring that if the “true” value of the Panthers team is 2.5 wins above its O/U, then the team can suffer some bad luck and still hit the over.  Why the big difference?

The Panthers won 7 games last year, the same number as the current 2013 O/U.  That makes things fairly easy from a projection standpoint.  All we need to do is answer: Why will the team be better this year than last?

The main factor in the FO projections (i think, I don’t now the formula) is the team’s 0-7 record in close games.  Typically, that record in close games (<7 Points) is close to .500.  Just going 2-5 last year in such situations would have given the team 9 wins.  FO is careful to note that this may, however, be the result of terrible coaching (Ron Rivera).

Looking at the team’s statistical performance, the 2012 Panthers offense (Points Scored) was just 2% worse than average.  Meanwhile, the teams was exactly average on defense.  Put together, you’ve got the definition of an average team.

The biggest plus on offense is the assumed development of Cam Newton.  Newton is entering just his 3rd year in the league and has obvious “elite” talent.  While it’s reasonable to expect a player like this to improve, I do wonder how much “upside” is left.  Cam Newton had an 86.2 QB rating last season, already a very strong performance.  Additionally, compare the stat line from the last two years:

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Notice anything?

The lines are close to identical.  It’s possible that Cam Newton’s rookie year was actually a very good representation of his “true” ability.  The biggest difference above is the significant decline in Interception Rate, which is obviously a big step forward (if it’s not a one year anomaly).  However, the overall lack of improvement from year one to year two, combined with the fact that he’s ALREADY very good, tells me people might be overlooking the possibility that Cam is as good as he’s going to get (or at least close to it).  In short, there’s not much higher he can go (and I don’t think he’ll ever challenge for the Brady/Manning/Rodgers level).

Before you ask, his rushing stats also show the same consistency from year one to year two.

On defense, the team returns a very strong DL backed by Luke Kuechly, who had an incredibly strong rookie year.  The team, in the draft, added Star Lotulelei.  Readers who followed my draft projections will know that Star ranked, according to the TPR system, as one of the biggest “steals” in the first round.  If he is as good as those projections suggest, the Carolina defense will be strong (certainly stronger than last year).

The biggest issue is the Secondary, which was/is terrible.  However, since the team managed league-average status last year with a similar group, I don’t see that costing them  more this year.  If anything, the stout front 7 should allow the team to scheme around its issues (a bit).

There aren’t a statistics that immediately jump out to me as “mean-regressors”, so not much adjustment to do there.  The 2012 schedule strength wasn’t out of whack, so no potential there either.

Overall, I’m leaning more towards Bovada here than FO.  All things considered, I’d put the Panthers at 8 wins, which is still higher than the Bovada line.

Washington

The Redskins are the other team that qualifies as significantly underrated, according to our comparison.  FO projects the team to register 10.3 wins, which is 1.8 games higher than the Bovada O/U.  Putting that projection in context, 10.3 wins is the 3rd HIGHEST FO projection (behind New England and Green Bay), tied with Denver and Seattle.

Raise your hands if you had the Redskins as a member of the “SB favorites” group.

Essentially, the FO argument for the Redskins is: RG3 is awesome.  It’s a very valid point.  a healthy RG3 and an average defense may be good enough to get you to 10 wins (it’s easily good enough for playoff contention).  That’s the upside to having a Superstar QB.

Once again, I have to raise a few red flags regarding the FO projection.

- The 2012 Redskins had a TO differential of +17.  Needless to say, that’s unlikely to repeat.  In my database (last ten years) I can find just ONE team that registered a TO differential of +17 and managed to avoid a significant decline the next season, the 2011 Patriots (+17 followed by +25 last year).

- Despite having the league’s top rushing attack, the Redskins lost just 6 fumbles last year, with an overall recovery rate of 67%.  Again, neither measure is likely to be as beneficial this season.

On the plus side for the team (minus if you’re an Eagles fan) is the recovery of Brian Orakpo, who missed most of last season with a pectoral tear.  The defense was -7% last season in points scored, and adding Orakpo is a pretty big addition.  Assuming the Redskins finish 2013 around the 0% mark on defense, the team merely needs to duplicate last season’s offensive performance to finish in the +70 to +80 point differential range.

That puts the team at around the 10 win mark (Pythagorean using a 2.67 exponent).  However, given the TO stats I mentioned above, I think that’s the HIGH end of the potential range.

That’s slightly below the FO projection (10.3), meaning even if things go well luck-wise for the Redskins, I don’t expect the team to hit that mark (though 10 wins is essentially equal).

Regardless, Washington is likely to the best team in the NFC East, meaning Eagles fans need to pay attention.  However, I’d say 9 wins is much more likely.  Similar to the Carolina projections above, that leaves me in between the Bovada and FO lines.

Naturally, I just realized that we should take the average of the two measures to create a separate projection, so I’ll include that tomorrow, when we take a look at the most OVERRATED teams.

 

Overrated and Underrated Teams: Looking at expected Wins

We’re close enough to the season for win projections to have some validity.  For the most part, rosters are set (the important pieces anyway).  A big injury or two will obviously sway our expectations, but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at expected performance today so that we can gauge the relative importance of any injury from here on in.

I’m going to use two sources for expected wins: Bovada (a proxy for Vegas) and Football Outsiders.  The reason I’ve chosen these two is because their projections are readily available (free on Bovada.lv and included if you buy the FO Almanac), and, in my opinion, represent two different viewpoints.

Basically, Bovada is a proxy for “general sentiment” while FO is a proxy for “analytical projecton”.  The FO viewpoint is straightforward.  Regarding Bovada, remember that gambling lines are directed at the general public.  The idea, for the bookmakers, is to get as close to 50% of the bets to land on either side of the over/under line.  That’s why you see gambling lines move as people place their bets.

Therefore, gambling lines are essentially a reading of the “consensus” opinion of the general public (gambling public at least) for each team.

That’s how I’m getting to over or underrated.  Below are charts for each division in the NFL.  Listed are the teams, their Bovada over/unders, and their FO mean win projections.  Also included is a column showing the difference between the two expected values (FO – Bovada).  In the difference column, RED numbers are “overrated” teams and BLACK numbers are “underrated”.  The absolute value of each numbers tells you the magnitude of the difference.

Today I’m going to break it out by divisions, with minimal comments for each.  Tomorrow I’ll look at the most over and underrated teams and see what the difference is telling us.

Let’s start, naturally, with the Eagles.

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Within the NFC East, the Redskins stand as the most “underrated” team.  FO has them nearly 2 full wins higher than Bovada.  I’m not sure of the full explanation, but we can assume it has A LOT to do with RG3 and the difficult in projecting recovery from an ACL tear.  The Eagles, meanwhile, are technically “underrated”, though we have to acknowledge that Bovada only deals in .5 win increments, so 7.8 is nearly the same as 7.5.  I’ve said before that I currently have the Eagles at 8-9 wins, but I’ve also showed that the team has one of the highest ranges of potential performance for this season (i.e. riskiest).

The Cowboys, perhaps not surprisingly, are significantly overrated.  This may reflect the optimism and size of the Cowboys fan base. A lot of “homer” bets could push the gambling line up.  I don’t have data to confirm that, but my guess is the Cowboys O/U lines are frequently distorted due to that factor (as are a few other popular teams, perhaps even the Eagles).

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Apparently, the entire NFC North is overrated.  Minnesota shows the biggest discrepancy, 2 full wins.  Detroit is a “chic” pick for surprise team this year, but FO isn’t as confident as the public.

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This is perhaps the most interesting division, since FO and Bovada almost could not disagree more.  FO has Carolina as the best team in the division, while Bovada (the public) has them as the worst.  Conversely, the reverse is true with Atlanta.  Clearly, there are some severe distortions at work here.  I’ll get into it more tomorrow, but this is likely the result of the type of seasonal “luck” we’ve talked about in the past.  Atlanta won 13 games last year, and has kept the bulk of its roster intact.  However, the Falcons had one of the easiest schedules in 2012.  The team also fell on the “lucky” side of stats like fumble recovery rate (which is likely to regress).

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There are some big differences here as well, but the overall outlook for the division doesn’t change.  It’s a two-horse race between the 49ers and the Seahawks.  St. Louis, despite getting a lot of press as an “under-the-radar” team will probably struggle to reach mediocrity.

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No big surprises here, outside of the fact that Bovada has Miami at 8 wins.  That seems high to me, and FO agrees.  Buffalo and the Jets are interesting because they both have potential rookie starting QBs.  Typically that means a poor season, but given the terrible QB play each team has had recently, we might actually see a surprise here if either EJ Manuel or Geno Smith is legit.

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Projected by FO to be the tightest division, the AFC North shows no clear favorite.  Pittsburgh is a bit overrated, and might be subject to the same distortion as the Cowboys.  Baltimore, though, despite winning the Super Bowl, comes in as significantly UNDER-rated.

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The AFC South looks like a pretty weak division.  I like Andrew Luck, but the Colts are a prime contender for regression this year.  I think the FO projection for Jacksonville is high.  The rest looks reasonable.  Houston as a 10.5 win team seems aggressive.

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Denver, barring an injury to Manning, is going to be among the best teams in the league.  Still, that’s a tough over to hit (12 wins or better).  I’m more bullish on Kansas City than FO is, and lean towards Bovada here at 7-8 wins.  San Diego is the only team in the league for which the FO and Bovada projections agree completely.

As I said at the top, I’ll have some more detailed analysis tomorrow, I just didn’t want this post to end up at 2000+ words.  For now, this is a good cheat sheet for anyone trying to get their bearings on the upcoming season.

Random Thoughts

Was unexpectedly without internet at the end of last week, hence no posts.  I’ve got some catching up to do, so here are a bunch of things I wanted to get out, in no particular order.

Riley Cooper

- If the Eagles were going to cut him, they would have done it already, right?

There are two possibilities here: Riley is racist OR Riley was drunk and said something really stupid.  It could also be a combination of both.  Regardless, my reaction to each is:

- For the “SUSPEND HIM!” crowd out there: If Riley is actually racist, being suspended from football isn’t going to make a difference.  I’m certainly no expert, but it seems to me that racism is not the type of thing you just give up cold turkey.  It’s not like Riley was going to find out he was suspended and suddenly DECIDE to change his prejudice.  Similarly, it’s not as if other players in the league who may share similar feelings would see the suspension and suddenly “see the light”.  The suspension pushers seem more like the standard knee-jerk over-reactors we see with every story like this.

- If Riley is actually racist, wouldn’t his teammates already know that? (No claim to originality here, just saying I agree with it.)  In the football team atmosphere, I think it’d be tough to completely hide any strong prejudice for that long.  If his teammates already know it, then this doesn’t seem like an issue as far as its potential to change team dynamics (If anyone already hates him, not going to hate him any more).

- If Riley was drunk and said something stupid (more likely the case, at least greater than 50% of the cause), his punishment seems appropriate.  He has to leave the team, potentially costing him the starting WR spot.  I have no idea how legitimate “treatment” is, but it seems much more likely to address his problem than a larger fine or suspension would.

- By the time the season starts, this event will have faded.  Teammates will come out and say how much they support Riley and he may even retake the second starting WR spot.

- Finally, I actually don’t think this would have played out differently if Maclin had not been injured.  The cynical way of looking at things is to assume Riley is more important now and therefore can’t be cut.  To those making that point, I’d rebut it with a simple counterpoint: he’s Riley Cooper…  It’s not like this is an All-Pro receiver.  If Kelly wanted to make an example of someone, he could hardly have chosen a better player.  Cooper is a big enough name (not just camp-fodder) to make an impression, but likely isn’t good enough to strongly affect the team by his absence.

Training Camp Hype

We’re getting deeper into training camp, and some storylines are emerging.  The QB situation is still unsettled, and will likely remain that way.  However, we do seem to have identified this year’s “training camp stars”.  Eagles fans should know the concept well.  This is not to say that Brandon Boykin and Damaris Johnson won’t translate strong training camps into successful regular seasons, it’s just a reminder that more often than not, previous regular season performance is a better indication of skill than a training camp breakout.

I was high on Damaris before camp started, so I’m very encouraged to hear that he looks good.  Also, Boykin would be an incredibly valuable “surprise”, given the position he plays.  and the Eagles current CB corps uncertainty.  Just try to keep things in perspective though.  Temper your excitement until we see them in the regular season.

On a more hopeful note, I like that we aren’t hearing raves about any of this year’s later-round draft picks.  I was half expecting to get a stream of “Earl Wolff is running with the 1s” type of stories.  Those developments seemed to occur frequently under Andy Reid, and only served to wrongfully inflate fans’ hopes.  I’m keeping an eye out for them, though.  For now, just know that ff we see one, it’s more likely a BAD sign than good.

Special Teams Focus

Readers here will already know this, but the Eagles were AWFUL on special teams last year, which really hurt both the offense and defense.  Chip Kelly is reportedly focusing more on ST than most coaches do, which means he reviewed last season and came to the same conclusions we did.  Normally STs garner less attention because they have a lesser impact on the game.  However, when you are as bad on ST as the Eagles were last year, small improvements can make a BIG difference.

I feel like that’s going to be a theme for this year.  Can the Eagles go from TERRIBLE to just plain bad in areas like STs, turnovers, and the defensive backfield?  If the answer is yes, then this is a playoff contending team.

Hall Of Fame

Quick point about the HOF discussion (left over from McNabb comments).  If I were starting the HOF from scratch, McNabb would NOT be in it.  Then again, neither would Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, or a host of other players widely considered “greats”.  However, I am not starting the HOF from scratch and the bar has already been set.  The reason I compare McNabb to the “worst” players in the HOF is because that’s the bar he has to clear.  Comparing him to Tom Brady (which I saw Colin Cowherd do last week, supposedly dispelling the supporting cast argument) is ridiculous.  That’s not the standard he has to meet, so it’s irrelevant.

Also, to those of you making the “only X players from each era can be HOFers”: I hear you and have some sympathy for the argument, BUT let me address it with an analogy/anecdote everyone here should be familiar with; grading curves.

When I was in college, one of my finance class grades was based 100% on a semester-long simulation where teams of students ran virtual companies in direct competition with each other. The entire class was put on a grading curve, meaning a certain percentage would fail, regardless of their absolute performance.

As you can imagine, this didn’t sit right with me.  During class, I asked the TA to imagine a scenario where every person but one in the class made the “right” decision 100% of the time.  The remaining person made the “right” decision 99% of the time.  As a result of the grading structure, the student with a 99% success rate would fail the class.  Ridiculous, right?

The same idea holds for our HOF discussion.  Forget McNabb for a moment, let’s just talk in generalities.  Suppose that the 10 greatest QBs of All-Time just happened to play during the same 12 year stretch.  Inevitably, some of those QBs would be less successful than others, despite the fact that they are all among the greatest ever.  It’s likely, in fact, that several of those “great” QBs would never win a SB, since there are just 12 years in which to do it.

In this scenario, using the “X # or % of players per era” argument, we’d clearly have several all-time greats left out of the HOF, purely as a result of the fact that they played in an era with OTHER all-time greats.  In essence, that argument is applying a grading curve to each “era”.  Forget that defining an “era” is really difficult to do (McNabb really spanned at least 2).  Applying a curve, we leave ourselves open to the possibility of rewarding/penalizing players based heavily on the time period they were lucky/unlucky enough to play in, rather than on their individual skill and ability.

There’s no right answer here, but I tend to lean very heavily towards the skill/ability side of the equation.  Naturally, each player must be viewed in context with the league in which he played, but I don’t see any issue at all with having 5-6 QBs from the same “era” all making it into the HOF.  To me, that just means is was a “golden age” for QB play, and it should be recognized and celebrated rather than suppressed.

 

 

Jeremy Maclin Reaction – “Meh”

I got side-tracked by the McNabb debate, and therefore have not yet commented on the relatively large injury hit the Eagles took when Maclin went down with a torn ACL.

My reaction?

As far as potential injuries go, this one isn’t that big of a deal (to the team, it’s obviously devastating to Maclin).  Allow me to make a two quick points, then add some detail:

- Maclin is a good receiver, not a great one.

- The Eagles, in particular, are well-positioned to handle a serious injury to the WR corps (as long as it isn’t to D-Jax).

Maclin is a good receiver, not a great one.

This one probably doesn’t need much explanation, I think just about everyone is in agreement here.  However, let’s take a look at Maclin’s contribution, in context with the rest of the league.

For his career (4 seasons), Maclin’s average per season numbers are:

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Take a close look.  He’s only played all 16 games once and has actually averaged closer to 14 games per season.  He averages just over 4 catches a game.  He averages just UNDER 60 yards per game.  4 catches, 60 yards.  Not a stat line that jumps off the page, is it?

His season averages (remarkably consistent from his rookie year) obviously look the same.  65 catches a year for 860 yards are good numbers, but how good?

Well, last season:

- There were 33 receivers who caught more than 64.5 passes.  Maclin, with 69, was among them (though 27 receivers caught more).

- 30 receivers registered more than 860 yards.  Maclin ranked 31st, with 857 (told you he was consistent).

As I said, Maclin is a decent receiver, but he’s far from irreplaceable.  Compared with the rest of the league, he’s nearly the definition (statistically) of an average starting WR (assuming 2 starters per team).

The Eagles, in particular, are well positioned to handle a serious injury to the WR corps.

The biggest point here is that the Eagles, prior to the injury, were likely to be running a lot of 2 WR sets anyway (presumably the result of multi-TE sets).  That means the team does not need to be quite as deep as has been necessary in the past.  Desean Jackson is a key player, because the team needs his speed to help stretch defenses and open up the underneath game (or hit home runs if defenses commit low).

Outside of that, the Eagles WR needs mainly consist of guys who can produce at a league average level.  They don’t need game breakers, just a couple of players who can catch the ball and take advantage of limited defensive attention.  Between Avant, Cooper, maybe Damaris, and the rest of the potentials, I think the team’s covered.

Remember, the Eagles aren’t trying to replace a top-flight guy here.  In fact, it’s not all that difficult to replace a large portion of Maclin’s production.  Let’s say 80%.  That means, based on Maclin’s career averages, 51.6 catches and 690 yards.

Last season, 57 receivers had more than 690 yards receiving.  73 WRs had more than 600 yards receiving.  Not exactly an exclusive club.

Also, 67 players caught more than 51 passes last year.  Again, not that exclusive, not hard to replicate.

In other words, Brandon Gibson-level production from last year gets you 80% of Maclin.

Basically, if this season goes poorly, it will NOT be because the team was missing Maclin.  Comparing to last year, this injury loss isn’t even on the same planet as losing Jason Peters last season.

It sucks for Maclin and gives beat writers a storyline to run with, but isn’t actually that big of a hit for the team.  Want to know how the Eagles will replace Maclin?

- Change the offense to emphasize the RB and TE spots (already being done prior to injury)

- Find a league average WR to take the #2 spot on the field.  Wait, do we still have Jason Avant?  Yes?  Then we’re done.

The Jason Phillips injury, on the other hand….

More McNabb (lets talk about Eras)

Didn’t really mean for this to become a multi-day subject (naive), but given what I’ve seen in the comments and on Twitter, it’s clear my job isn’t finished yet.  To refresh, I posted yesterday about McNabb’s career and why he deserves a lot more credit than he gets.  I made a few player comparisons with other great QBs to show McNabb is not out-of-place in that company.

In response to this, several people mentioned that the players I cited (Jim Kelly for example) played in a different era, and therefore it is not fair to compare things like QB Rating.  McNabb’s habit of throwing the ball into the ground was also mentioned.  I’ll address both of those “weaknesses” now.

QB Rating and other stats across Eras

Before I even try to account for this, let me say I remain unconvinced by this argument.  The formula for QB Rating has not changed.  It’s an apples-to-apples comparison.  This argument is most compelling when we talk about advanced statistics.  In baseball, for example, you could argue that previous eras should not be judged with stats like on-base percentage or WAR, because the players in those days did not know what those stats were.  If they did, it’s logical to believe they would have adjusted their individual games to improve.

However, this argument doesn’t hold for many NFL stats.  The importance of throwing many more TDs than INTs is not a new concept.  Similarly, I wasn’t there but I’m pretty sure everyone knew that completing a high percentage of your passes was a good thing.

Regardless, that’s the argument I’m facing (QB Rating inflation, offensive inflation, etc…), so let’s take a shot at it.

First, let’s adjust for league-average play.  I’m going to lean heavily on Pro-Football-Reference.com today.  If you don’t visit that site, you’re missing out.  In fact, if I had just one website to choose for NFL access, it’d be that one.  Anyway, among the valuable stats on there is Rate+.  Basically, this compares each QB’s rating each year to league average.  100 is average, with higher numbers equalling better performance.  So this accounts for changes in the league.  Here are the season breakdowns for 3 different players.  See if you can guess who they are.

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Any ideas?  Obviously one of them is McNabb, but which one?

The point isn’t that any one of these careers is better than the others; the point is that it’s very difficult to discern which is best.  What do you value?  Is it the # of above average seasons?  Is it the highest “peak”?

The three players, in order from left to right, are Jim Kelly, Donovan McNabb, and Troy Aikman.

Notes:

- Kelly had 10 seasons of 100 or better (average or better).  Aikman had 9.  McNabb had 9 (and a 99 and 98).  Keep in mind that the key here is longevity.  Obviously, HOF QBs need to be well above average.  However, being above average for a decade is very difficult to do.

- How about “good” seasons?  Let’s look at seasons in which each player recorded a Rate+ measure of 110 or greater.  Kelly has 5, McNabb has 5, Aikman has 5.

Again, the point is not that McNabb is BETTER than either of these players (though he was, definitely better than Aikman), it’s that they clearly belong in the same category.  The reason I typically don’t use Aikman for comparison is because his SB rings distort the argument (everyone values titles differently).

Also, remember that this is just PASSER RATING.  It does not take into account the 29 TDs that McNabb ran for (or the 3400+ yards).  That’s a huge part of McNabb’s resume that people are overlooking in the QB comparisons.

So that’s QB Rating, adjusted for league changes and different “eras”.  What else can we look at?

Remember Approximate Value?  That’s the PFR statistic that attempts to create an apples-to-apples comparison for every player, regardless of position.  I used it for the draft skill vs. luck series.  It’s far from perfect, but since we’re comparing players of the same position, I’m very comfortable using it.

So here’s our next mystery game.  Guess who?

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Rather than just reveal the names, I’ve put them in a chart (below) so you can see the career progression of each QB.

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I realize that Bradshaw and Aikman both get bonus points for SB wins, but if that’s the point of differentiation, then Kelly is still unexplained and you’re saying McNabb was 4 points away from being a HOFer, a ridiculously fine line to draw.  Overall, using Approximate Value, it’s clear that McNabb, once again, belongs among this group.

The “Worm-Burner” Weakness

The next aspect of the anti-McNabb case I want to address is the point people use to discredit the strongest part of McNabb’s resume.  Donovan McNabb has one of the most impressive TD/INT ratios of all-time (2.0).  He also has one of the lowest interception rates ever (2.2%, 4th overall behind Rodgers, Brady, and Neil O’Donnell).

The man did not throw interceptions.  That’s a very good thing.

However, in response to this, people frequently mention that McNabb played too conservatively.  Many times, he threw the ball into the ground, giving nobody a chance to catch it.  The common refrain is that he didn’t “give his guys a chance”.

Is this a fair critique?

Well let me put this a different way.

Imagine you are McNabb.  Your best receivers each year are: Chad Lewis, James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, Reggie Brown, Kevin Curtis.  No joke, those were the Eagles leading recievers from 2000-2008, with TO excluded.

Now tell me, with those WRs, how comfortable would you be throwing 50/50 balls?  Do you think it’s an admirable decision to let James Thrash fight it out with a DB for the pass? Reggie Brown?

Donovan McNabb had just one full season with an elite WR, 2004.  That year, he completed 64% of his passes, threw for 31 TDs with just 8 interceptions.  He also led his team to the Super Bowl, losing by 3 points to Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Given just one chance, McNabb took full advantage of having an elite WR, putting up historically great numbers and getting to the Super Bowl.  Also note, he played with the same roster in the playoffs as in the regular season.

Compare that to Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills, with Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed.  Or to Troy Aikman’s Cowboys, with Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin (among others).

McNabb put up similar numbers (better if you include the running stats) with a FAR inferior cast around him.  That has to count for something.  His reticence to “force the throw” is completely understandable, and in fact was likely the optimal play the vast majority of the time.  Not sure I can make it any clearer: based upon the standard set by the current HOF QBs, McNabb definitely belongs.  At least the Eagles franchise has recognized that and will retire his number.  Forget all the bullshit (you’d be bitter too) and focus on the numbers, it’s not nearly as “borderline” as people make it.

What else you got?

Donovan McNabb; a Defense of an Unappreciated HOFer and the Greatest Eagles QB Ever

Lot’s to talk about, but I’m going to limit today’s post to Donovan McNabb.  Given his “retirement” and the fact that others are running McNabb columns today, I figured the time was right to finally put my thoughts about McNabb into post form.  As I’ve alluded to before, I believe McNabb is the greatest Eagles QB ever AND a Hall of Fame caliber player. 

As usual, I will not be rehashing all the draft-day stuff or the TO event, you can go elsewhere for that.  Here, I’ll just give you what I believe is often missing from McNabb discussions: CONTEXT.  I have much more to say about all the external crap, but I’m already at 1500+ words, so that’ll have to wait.

The Stats

Given all the noise and drama surrounding McNabb’s career with the Eagles, it’s almost understandable that many commentators/fans don’t fully appreciate how good #5 was.  Here are some major statistics, followed by the comparable numbers for other QBs.  Again, just trying to provide objective context.

- Career Record (regular season): 92-49-1, .647 win percentage

P. Manning with the Colts – .688 win percentage

B. Favre with the Packers – .632 win percentage

J. Elway with the Broncos – .641 win percentage

- Passer Rating with the Eagles: 86.5

D. Marino – 86.4

B. Favre with GB – 85.8

J. Kelly – 84.4

T. Aikman – 81.6

- 9 Playoff Wins

P. Manning – 9

J. Kelly – 9

D. Marino – 8

- 2.16 TD/Int Ratio with the Eagles

P. Manning – 2.08

D. Brees – 1.96

J. Montana – 1.71

D. Marino – 1.66

Donovan McNabb’s career with the Eagles was among the best QB/Team runs of ALL-TIME.  Look at the names above and how McNabb with the Eagles compares.  My guess is that, if asked, most fans wouldn’t place #5′s run in this company.  However, it EASILY belongs, and in some cases exceeds the statistical greatness of some legendary players.

So what’s the problem?

I’m guessing most people don’t consider McNabb a HOFer because of the ridiculous concept of his “big-game” performance.  McNabb did not win a Super Bowl.  NFL writers typically cling to this criteria when measuring greatness, despite its obvious outrageousness.  First off, this is not basketball, one man can not win a ring single-handedly.  This should be obvious, but the importance of winning titles is so ingrained in hack-writing that it’s frequently glossed over.

Ascribing such importance to titles is how you get fans seriously arguing that Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman are among the best QBs ever.  It’s a complete joke, yet it will probably lead to a HOF that includes Eli Manning while excluding McNabb (also a complete joke).

However, regardless of how stupid I think it is, playoff performance is an important criteria for evaluating a QBs career.  Let’s look at McNabb’s.

“Big-Game” performance

As I showed above, McNabb has more playoff wins than Dan Marino and just as many as Peyton Manning and Jim Kelly.  Despite that, people cite McNabb’s “clutch” performance as among his biggest weaknesses, pointing to him throwing up in the Super Bowl and his empty ring finger as evidence of his shortcomings.  Once again, though, we need to put his performance in the correct context.

Donovan McNabb lost 7 postseason games.  Lets look at a few of them:

2001 – Eagles (11-5) lose to the Giants (12-4) by a score of 20-10.

This was McNabb’s first playoff lost, in his second playoff game.  The Eagles had defeated  the Bucs the week before.  In this game, McNabb passed for just 181 yards, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.  Not very good numbers (though not terrible either).  How about that context?

- The Eagles rushed just 14 times for just 46 yards.  BTW, McNabb had 17 of those rushing yards.

- The Eagles offensive leaders (other than McNabb) were Charles Johnson, Brian Mitchell, and Torrance Small.

- The Giants went to the Super Bowl that year, losing to the Baltimore Ravens (the historically great defense).

2002 – Eagles (11-5) lost to the Rams (14-2) by a score of 29-24

Donovan McNabb passed for 171 yards, with 1 TD and 1 Int.  He also ran for 26 yards and a TD.  Not great numbers, but again, we need context:

- The Eagles had a lead at halftime.

- Kurt Warner passed for just 212 yards and 1 TD that day, meaning McNabb and Warner had extremely similar statistical games (McNabb had 1 more TD and 1 more Int).

- St. Louis fumbled the ball twice, but recovered both of them.  The Eagles fumbled once, but lost it. (LUCK!!!)

- Putting up 24 points in a playoff game is a pretty good performance.

- The Rams were historically good on offense that year, scoring more than 500 points.  Warner, Faulk, Bruce, Holt, Hakim, etc…(as compared to McNabb, Staley, Buckhalter, Lewis,…)

- The Rams had the best point differential in the league that year and went to the Super Bowl, losing by 3 points to the Patriots, in what would mark Tom Brady’s arrival.

2003 – The Eagles (12-4) lose to the Bucs (12-4) by a score of 27-10

This is a VERY important game in the McNabb/Eagles canon.  The team, playing at home,  only put up 10 points.  Clearly a very disappointing game, and the finger was pointed directly at the offense, and obviously, at McNabb.  However, this game, more so than any other, is misunderstood.  McNabb went 26-49 for 243 yards, no TDs, and 1 interception.  He also fumbled twice.  A bad game, no way around it.  HOWEVER, the context:

- The 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs allowed just 196 points and are among the greatest defenses in recent NFL history.  The Bucs were 44% better than league average on defense that year, second only to the previously mentioned Ravens defense for the BEST in the last 12 years (likely longer than that as well).

- The Bucs defense had 5 Pro Bowlers that year and 3 1st-team All-Pros.  The roster included Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, as well as Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly (who had 8 INTs and 21 passes defensed that year).

- Against this defense, McNabb’s “weapons” consisted of Duce Staley, Todd Pinkston, James Thrash, and Antonio Freeman.  For the 2002 season, those were the Eagles leading offensive players.  Brian Westbrook was on the team, but did not yet feature in the offense.

Suddenly McNabb’s 243 yards and no TDs doesn’t look so bad.  The Eagles only chance in this game was for the DEFENSE (+31% that year) to shut down the Bucs offense as completely as the Bucs did to the Eagles.

This did not happen.

The Bucs did score on the 92 yard Int return by Ronde Barber, but neither of McNabb’s fumbles turned into Tampa Bay points.

Blaming McNabb for this loss is ridiculous.

2004 – The Eagles (12-4) lose to the Panthers (11-5) by a score of 14-3. 

This is the bad one.  This loss is the ONLY time during the “Peak” that the Eagles lost to a clearly inferior team.  McNabb passed for just 100 yards and had 3 interceptions and no TDs (obviously).

No real contextual mitigation here.  McNabb played terribly.  His supporting cast sucked (as usual), but that excuse doesn’t go anywhere near as far as would be needed to absolve #5 of his performance. UPDATE: I forgot that McNabb was injured during the 2nd quarter of this game and missed a play.  He remained in the game until midway through the 4th quarter.  Note that all 3 of his interceptions occurred after the injury.  

If you want to denigrate McNabb’s career, this is THE game to point to.  As I’ve shown above, the other losses aren’t nearly as bad as people remember them being.  This one, depending on how much leeway he gets for being injured, may be worse.

2005 – The Super Bowl.  The Eagles (13-3) lose to the Patriots (14-2) by a score of 24-21.

This, along with the previous 2 losses above, form the bulk of the anti-McNabb “evidence”.  McNabb threw up at the end of the game, and didn’t more the offense as quickly as the situation demanded.  That’s true.  However,

- McNabb threw for 357 yards.  He had 3 interceptions, but he also threw for 3 TDs.

- The Eagles rushed for just 45 yards, meaning McNabb was the entire offense.

- The Patriots had a point differential that year of +177, the 11th best measure over the past 10 seasons (out of 320 teams).

- The Patriots allowed just 16.2 points per game that season, the Eagles scored 21 against them.

- In the playoffs that year, Peyton Manning and the Colts put up just 3 points against the Patriots.

- The Patriots may have cheated (Spygate!!!).

Conclusion

After looking at McNabb’s statistics, with the context I provided, it should be clear to any objective observer that #5′s career was remarkable and deserves to be celebrated to a much greater extent that it is.  The “big-game” performances that McNabb takes hits for were not as clear-cut as they seem.  As far as I can tell, there is just one game where McNabb clearly performed far below expectations (Carolina).  Just as evaluating an entire career based on Super Bowl wins is ridiculous, so is ascribing any more meaning to one playoff game versus all the rest.  Remember, I only covered the losses (most of them).  The only ones I excluded were the loss to the Cardinals (the Eagles scored 25 points and lost, again, to the NFC Super Bowl rep) and the 2010 loss to the Cowboys (which was an awful defensive performance and included some Mike Vick).

The man had a Hall Of Fame career, regardless of whether the hack-writers recognize it.   If you had the type of career #5 had and received the same amount of shit for it, you’d be bitter too.  I wish McNabb’s personality was more affable, but everything he’s upset about is 100% justifiable.  He doesn’t get the credit he deserves; not everyone (very few in fact) can be magnanimous enough to ignore that.

Look at the stats, watch the highlights; you’ll see an All-Time Great.  It’s time for everyone to agree on that.

Lastly:

 I’ve used this before, but here is Hall of Famer Jim Kelly compared to Donovan McNabb:

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 1.14.05 PM

Tell me how Kelly is a HOFer and McNabb isn’t?

Eagles Projected Team Performance and the Most Unpredictable Teams

Taking a break from vacation for this post, so I’ll be MIA again until at least Monday.

I previously mentioned that I believed the 2013 Eagles have perhaps the widest potential performance distribution in the entire NFL.  Between the roster turnover, the new coaching regime/scheme, and last year’s injuries and craziness, there are A LOT of uncertainties surrounding this team.  Today, let’s compare my prediction with that of the guys at Football Outsiders.  For those of you who don’t know, the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac has been released, and is well worth the $12.50 price (you can buy it at that link).

In other Almanac news, the 2013 Eagles Almanac has been distributed to all Kickstarter backers and will be available for everyone else within the next day or two.  I haven’t gotten through the whole thing yet (91 pages), but it’s fantastic and is a must-read for any real Eagles fan.  Follow @EaglesAlmanac for more information. You can get the PDF now for $10 at EaglesAlmanac.com.

Within the Football Outsiders Almanac, there are projected performance odds for every team in the league.  The group assigns odds of achieving a number of wins within 4 categories; 0-4, 5-7, 8-10, 11+.  So how do the Eagles look?

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 10.20.18 AM

It certainly looks like the Football Outsiders team/formula (I don’t know the methodology they use to determine those odds) agrees with the very wide expectation distribution.  According to FO, the Eagles have a 13% chance of winning 11 or more games, a very significant chance given the 4-win performance last season.

However, the team also has a 10% chance of winning 4 or fewer games.

Overall, the FO projection for the Eagles has a mean of 7.8 wins.  You’ll recall that my current projection is 8-9 wins (more likely 8 than 9, so lets call it 8.3); again, I’m more bullish on this team than most.

I think the odds above are underselling the actual potential for this team to have a “true” value of both 10-11 wins and 4-5 wins.  Remember that luck plays a very significant role in NFL teams’ final records.  So a “true 5-win” team will have a significant chance for finishing with 0-4 wins on account of the potential for bad luck.  Similarly, a true 10 win team will have strong odds for winning 11+ games by virtue of good luck.

I have no idea what the Eagles “true” value is right now, my guess is 8-9 wins.  However, it seems eminently possible for the true value to be both very high (if Chip’s system works as well) and very low (if the defense sucks again, Foles/Vick doesn’t work out, or Chip’s system fails).  If FO agreed with that, then I’d expect to see higher odds for both 0-4 wins and 11+ wins.

How do the Eagles compare?

In a vacuum, those odds don’t mean much.  We need to compare the Eagles with other teams to get a true sense of what FO expects.  Here is a chart showing the projections for the NFC East.

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 10.26.11 AM

Overall, the Redskins are the heavy favorites.  The Giants and Eagles have remarkably similar projections, while the Cowboys lag.  There’s not a lot to disagree with here, but I do not have as high an opinion of the Giants as FO does.  That looks like a 6-7 win team to me, but FO probably knows exponentially more about the Giants than I do, so there’s that.

The Redskins definitely stand as the biggest threat in the division, but I’m skeptical RG3 can repeat his (outrageous) performance from last season.  Still, even if he takes a step back, he’s likely to be among the top QBs in the league, if healthy.  So there’s the target for the Eagles, making Game 1 about as important as any season opener can be.

What about the rest of the league?

In other words, do the Eagles actually have the widest distribution?

One way of looking at it (I’m going to avoid higher level statistical measures here) is to find the teams with the lowest “peak”.  For example, the Eagles “peak” is 42 (% chance for 8-10 wins).  Since all categories must add to 100%, a lower peak means a more even (probably wider) distribution.  Here are the teams with the lowest peak:

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 10.48.07 AM

The difference between Detroit and Philadelphia (by this measure) is relatively small, just 4% difference in “peak” projection.

Another way to do this is to look for teams with the greatest odds of finishing in EITHER extreme (0-4 wins or 11+ wins).  These are the true “boom-or-bust” teams.  Here are the teams that, according to FO, have a 10%+ chance of finishing with both 0-4 wins and 11+ wins:

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 10.56.19 AM

So there they are.  As should be expected, each of these teams is included in the previous table above.  Basically, these are the teams for which FO is MOST uncertain.  The Eagles are here, but do not feature as the MOST uncertain.  However, I do have to disagree with a few of the projections above:

- The Colts were very “lucky” last year, so it’s possible the team regresses greatly.  However, Andrew Luck is very good, and I believe he’ll be much better this year than he was last year.  Overall, I think the odds of the Colts finishing with 4 or fewer wins are basically the same as the odds of Andrew Luck getting injured and playing less than half the season.  I do not think the odds of an injury like that are anywhere near 12%.

- The NY Jets winning 11+ games seems laughable to me.  I know the team won 11 games as recently as 2010, but 11% odds seem very high to me.  That % is likely due to the potential for “good luck” to push the team several wins beyond its true ability, but that would require the Jets “true” win potential to be in the 8-9 range, which also seems at least a full win high to me.

- Atlanta receiving a 12% chance of 0-4 wins also seems strange.  This is almost the mirror image of the Jets above.  The Falcons have won 13, 10, 13, 9, and 11 wins over the past 5 seasons.  The team still has Matt Ryan and Mike Smith.  Barring a big injury to Matt Ryan (very unlikely), how does this team win fewer than 6 games?  Just like with the Jets, we have to account for the potential for luck (bad luck this time).  However, even very bad luck will only account for a few wins, meaning the Falcons would have to be a “true” 7 win team for very bad luck to push them into the 0-4 win category.  FO has them at 7.6 wins, so that’s not far off, but I’d have them in the 8-9 win range.

That leaves the Eagles, San Diego, and Detroit as my “Most Uncertain” teams.  Detroit is a crazy team to follow statistically, and nothing that team does will surprise me (outside of a 16-0 season).  San Diego also seems permanently schizophrenic, so a wide distribution can be expected.

I think one of those teams will finish the season with a very good record (11+ wins)…