One more thing about Foles

Not a full post today, just a point I had wanted to include yesterday but forgot about.

The lack of excitement/”believers” regarding Foles may be a direct result of his “elite” skill.  as I said yesterday, it’s possible that interception-avoidance is Foles’ “plus” trait.  If that’s true, he’s never going to command a huge following.

Think about it.  The best plays Foles makes are, by definition, the ones you DON’T see, simply because they don’t happen.  As a fan (or anybody), it’s impossible to identify the plays in which a replacement-level QB would have thrown an interception but Foles does not.  Sure, we can talk about it in the abstract, for instance when he takes a sack and we say “it’s better than an INT”.  However, that’s obviously never going to be featured in a highlight reel.

In particular, Foles might be hurt by the way the game is analyzed today.  With the prevalence of All-22 breakdowns, countless people are going through game-tape and identifying everything that happened.  Once again, interceptions NOT thrown is never going to show up on those.  Instead, you’ll get a handful of wide open receivers that Foles missed.  The take-away, naturally, will be about what an “elite” QB WOULD have done, given the same openings.  However, that type of analysis doesn’t account for Foles’ “elite” skill.  Yes, maybe another QB would have made a few more plays.  However, he also may have then turned the ball over, completely negating the additional positive plays.

I’m going to try to dig a bit deeper into both interception rate and sack rate.  Hopefully, I’ll find evidence one way or another indicating the degree of skill involved in each.  Until then though, keep in mind:

IF Foles’ “elite” skill is his ability to NOT throw interceptions, he will never be fully appreciated.  Not only is it not a real “measurable” skill, but it doesn’t show up on replay.  While other QBs may be able to make a lot of positive plays that Foles can’t make, Foles may AVOID a lot of negative plays that those other QBs don’t.

That’s not as easily identifiable and it doesn’t lend itself to highlight reels, but in theory, there’s no reason it can’t be just as significant a skill.

 

Does interception rate persist? Potential red flags for next season

The Eagles had a very successful 2013 season.  Now we need to evaluate it.  After a success, particularly one as resounding as we experienced this year, the most important question to ask is:

Were they lucky or good?

Obviously, if they were very lucky, then success next year is less likely.  Heading into this season, I was one of the few Eagles writers/bloggers to predict anything resembling what actually happened (I had them at 9-7, but I was just 20 points off on the point differential).  Part of the reason I was so bullish was that the Eagles had bad luck last year, especially as it relates to turnovers.

Now, we have to take the same view of things.  Today, I’m going to focus on one particularly important statistic from this season:

Nick Foles has an interception rate of 0.6% this season.  (The single season record is 0.4%)

Aside from the obvious (interceptions are bad), this carries additional weight because if factors into whether or not Foles can be a “franchise” QB.  I personally do not think he’s a great QB (or likely to become one).  However, I do think he’s “good enough”.  The other side of the argument is that he lacks any truly elite skills.  Most apparently, his arm strength isn’t great and he’s slow.  His accuracy seems very good, but it’s much harder to judge that type of attribute than something more measurable like strength.  As a result, while watching him play, it’s much easier to focus on what he CAN’T do or isn’t doing than on what he is doing.  In light of that, allow me to posit the following:

It’s possible that Nick Foles’ “elite” quality is the ability to avoid interceptions without abandoning downfield throws.  It’s possible he just has an excellent internal sense for the risk/reward of each throw.  Or, if you think back to my blitz post (windows v. time), he might just have a very good sense of when a window is large enough for his skill level.

If that’s true, than I don’t see any reason why he can’t be an “elite” QB.  Of course, we don’t know if that’s true and, on balance, it seems unlikely.

Today, let’s take a very preliminary step towards testing it.  As the title suggests, I think the best way to proceed is to see if Interception Rate persists over time.  In other words, how much does a QBs interception rate one season tell us about his rate the following season. If it does persist, then avoiding interceptions is likely a skill and we can feel really good about Nick Foles.  If it does NOT, then we’re in trouble, because Foles’ amazing statistics this year were built primarily upon not throwing interceptions.

The Sample

There are a number of issues with trying to test interception rate persistence, so before we even get close to a result, we need to remember everything here is just informative rather than solid proof (I’ll explain the problems below).

To get a preliminary look, I selected 13 active QBs.  The only prerequisite was that they had to have started for at least a few years.  Of course, this introduces our first source of bias, survivorship.  However, we’re looking at persistence, so that means we need careers that allow us to track over time.  One-two year starters don’t help much (or at all).  Anyway, here are the QBs I included:

Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Stafford, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Matt Schaub, Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck.

Then, I removed any season in which the player did not have at least 100 pass attempts.  For example, Tom Brady had an interception rate of 0 in 2008….because he only threw 11 passes before getting injured.

From there, I matched each player’s season interception rate with their rate the following season, ending up with 111 matched pairs.

The Result

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Hmm….not what Eagles fans wanted to see.  The correlation value is 0.12, so real but relatively weak.  In other words, a good interception rate one season was not very likely to result in a good interception rate the following season.  OR, interception rate is composed of some skill plus a fair amount of luck (that sounds about right).

I mentioned one issue with this analysis above (sample bias), but I want to mention another big one here.  We haven’t accounted for defensive strength.  It’s possible (likely in fact), that good defenses intercept passes at a higher rate than bad defenses.  Some of the variation in QB Interception rate is therefore explained by differences in the year-to-year schedule (which are largely random).

As I said, informative not dispositive.

A few more things

After collecting the data I looked at it from a few other angles, which led to a few interesting takeaways.

– Of the 13 QBs I looked at, the largest single season deviation from their overall average interception rate (NOT career because it’s not weighted) was 2.55%.  That was from Matt Stafford’s rookie year, when his interception rate was 5.3%.  The second highest deviation was 2.23%.  That was from Peyton Manning’s rookie year, when his interception rate was 4.9%

In fact, 4 of the 13 QBs recorded their highest seasonal interception rate in their rookie years.  Moreover, another 4 of them had rookie interception rates than ranked as their second worst season.  So together, 8 of the 13 QBs had either their worst or second worst interception rate their rookie seasons.

That doesn’t really TELL us anything, but it certainly suggests that QBs may improve their ability to avoid interceptions over time (which matches the “conventional wisdom”).  That, of course, would be great for Nick Foles, whose rookie rate was just 1.9%.

– In light of the last point, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the progression of each QB’s seasonal interception rates.  Maybe from one year to the next there is a lot of variation, but over time QBs generally get better (or plateau around their “true” skill).  Here are some individual charts, pay close attention to the X-Axis label changes if you’re comparing:

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Wow…now that looks interesting.  Every one of them has seen a clear downtrend in interception rate from season to season.  Of course…it wouldn’t be a QB breakdown without Eli Manning:

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He really does ruin everything….(and he throws a LOT of interceptions; compare his X-Axis to the others).

– The key to remember, though, is that Nick Foles registered an interception rate of 1.9% in his rookie year and just 0.6% this year.  His career rate is now 1.2%.

That means, even if he is due for some regression, he’s got a lot of room to work with.  He could triple his career rate next season and still be at just 3.8%.  That’s high, but every QB in the sample except Rivers, Brady, and Rodgers, have hit that level at least once in their careers.

Additionally, if Nick Foles can IMPROVE his rate over time, as the QBs I showed above did, then he really will have an identifiable “elite” skill.  That’s probably unrealistic (you just can’t get much better), but remember that an improvement in skill would counteract the regular variance he’d expect to see.

– A lot more data to look at regarding Interception Rate, but for now I’d say the takeaway is this:

Nick Foles is very likely to throw interceptions at a higher rate next season than he did this year.  However, I wouldn’t bank on a massive shift, and given where his career rate is, I STILL expect him to finish the year with a very good interception rate (< 2.5%).

That’s good news for Eagles fans.

Postseason Expansion: Good or Bad…or both?

Adjusting to a new schedule hence the lack of posts over the past week.  I think I’ve got a routine down, but will wait for confirmation before announcing a rough schedule.  There’s still a lot to do regarding a review of last season, then we’ll need to look towards the draft and free agency.

First, though, playoff expansion.  Roger Goodell mentioned recently (two weeks ago I believe), that the league is seriously considering adding a wild card spot to both conferences.  That would allow 7 teams to make the playoffs, with the #1 seed in both conferences having the only first round byes.

My initial reaction:  Terrible idea.

However, as is usually the case, a deeper analysis made things a bit more complicated.  So, let’s first talk about why adding a 7th team would be a good idea, then we can look at why it’s a bad idea.

Good Idea

From a business standpoint, two additional playoff games mean the league can sell another TV package.  Brian Solomon (@Brian_Solomon), a Forbes markets reporter, mentioned to me on Twitter that this could be worth around $1 Billion.  Obviously, that’s a relatively big deal.  Beyond that, adding an additional team means the #2 seed gets to host an additional playoff game.  I’m not sure what owners would say publicly about this, but there’s no doubt they love the idea of another playoff game’s gate revenue.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s hard to find fault with an additional playoff spot.  Beyond the initial negative reaction, largely derived from some abstract notion of what the playoffs “should” be or which teams “deserve” to be there, an additional game likely adds to the overall enjoyment level for fans.  Each team has an increased chance of making the playoffs.  Also, the bar for making the playoffs is lowered, meaning late season games will “mean” more for mediocre teams.  That makes those games more entertaining.  Additionally, how many non-Eagles playoff games did you watch?  My guess is a lot.   Presumably you did so because you enjoyed them.  So it’s safe to assume you’ll derive added enjoyment from an addition 2 playoff games, even if the Eagles aren’t involved.

What about quality?  Won’t lowering the bar to the playoffs just result in bad teams getting in?  Maybe, but not as much as you’d think (or I thought before doing the research).  Here’s a table showing which teams would have been added to the playoff field over the past 5 seasons if there had been a 7th spot in each conference:

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There’s definitely some mediocrity in there; I can’t say I’d be excited to see the 2011 Bears in the Playoffs.  However, there are also some legitimately good teams, whose addition clearly adds to the overall quality.  Look at the 2012 Bears or the 2010 Chargers; in either case, it’s hard to argue those teams don’t “belong” or that they somehow compromise the overall quality of the playoff tournament.

It seems that the only real complaints about an added team, from a fan’s perspective, will be from the #2 seed.  That team loses its bye, and as I showed above, has to play another game, perhaps against a very good opponent.  However, as I said above, it’s a home game.  For all of the live attendees, another home game seems like a net benefit.  For fans at home, it’s just another opportunity to watch their favorite team play.  Yes, it hurts their chances of winning the Super Bowl.  However, if the team can’t beat the #7 seed in a home playoff game….

So…pretty clearly, the addition of a 7th team is probably net benefit to all those involved (except maybe the players).  However, we do need to discuss the negatives, some of which are obvious (and minor) and some of which are relatively abstract (and potentially significant).

Bad Idea

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first.

– Injuries.  Any additional game increases the chances that a player will get injured.  This is a major argument against the expansion of the regular season.  However, this change results in just 2 added games.  Again, this negative result seems to be focused on the #2 seed in each conference.  None of the other teams are effected, and the #7 seed will gladly take the risk of injury in exchange for a spot in the playoffs.  This is a legitimate gripe, but doesn’t have anywhere near enough significance to outweigh the benefits.

Now we need to ascend to a higher level of analysis.  As we’ll see, the reason the playoff field will expand is because the benefits are mostly clear and quantifiable ($$$) and the detriments are largely abstract and qualitative.  In such a scenario, a near-term focused business enterprise (as the NFL appears to be) will always choose the $$$.

Since the NFL’s decision-making is based entirely upon the fact that it is itself a business and operates for the benefit of other businesses (the teams), any argument against playoff expansion has to focus on the business side of things.  We can complain all we want from a fan’s perspective, but unless it affects the bottom line, it doesn’t matter.

So…here are a few points, which by themselves do not pose significant risks.  However, after I list them, I’ll try to tie them together to explain why I’d be more cautions than the NFL in expanding the playoffs.

– Super Bowl quality.  The premier event of the NFL season is the Super Bowl.  Recently, the NFL has benefitted tremendously from the competitiveness of the game.  Viewership is huge and therefore the value of that entity is extremely high.  However, adding a playoff team affects the probability of producing a good game.  This is a long-term concern.  At the moment, the Super Bowl is a huge cultural event, drawing in casual viewers who don’t really care what the involved teams’ records were.  However, I’d argue that the casual viewership is, at its core, built from a foundation of more interested fans.  Those are the one’s most likely to be effected, over the long-term, by a diminution in the general competitiveness of the game.

Look back to the Super Bowls of the mid-late 80’s:

1985 – 49ers 38, Dolphins 16

1986 – Bears 46 – Patriots 10

1987 – Giants 39 – Broncos 20

1988 – Redskins 42 – Broncos 10

1989 – 49ers 20, Bengals 16

1990 – 49ers 55, Broncos 10

That’s what the NFL should be worried about.  Adding mediocre teams may effect the general competitiveness of the games.  Of course, the counterargument is that the overall parity of the league has shifted such that mismatches won’t happen like they did in the past.  That’s a fair point, but it’s not dispositive.  We’re just looking at possible risks.  Again, this is a relatively small risk, and something that would take a while to develop.  One bad Super Bowl isn’t going to change the NFL’s value much.  It would take a string of such games to really result in a decline in general interest, and even then, the resulting value effects are unclear.  However, just because a the probability of a risk is small doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

– Piercing the veil of “the event”.  3 of 4 Wild Card games this year had trouble selling out.  In fact, those games would not have sold all of their tickets had it not been for corporate sponsors willing to take large swaths of seats off the teams’ hands.  Although it’s unlikely that a #2 seed would have as much difficult selling tickets as the teams this year did, it’s indisputable that added games increase the probability of a failure to sell out.

Ok, so what?  Why is this a problem?

Well similar to the SB discussion above, the NFL has built its tremendous popularity by convincing the general public that each game is an “event” that shouldn’t be missed.  The structure of the season (just 16 games, 1 game a week, typically on Sundays) helps as well.  I submit that if the games ceased to sell-out, the foundation of the “event” would begin to erode.  Right now the NFL has a LOT of casual fans; fans who don’t really follow the team but still tune in every Sunday.  Why?  Because it seems culturally important.  It’s the same thing that drives street performers.  If you walk by one on an empty street, you’re unlikely to stop and watch/give money.  However, if you see one surrounded by a large crowd, you’re going to want to see what’s going on, right?  Apply similar logic to the NFL games.

It’s important not because of any intrinsic value but because so many other people think it’s important.  The casual fans don’t want to miss out.  However, if the games can’t even sell all of their tickets, how could it possibly be that important?

Once again, this is a long-term, relatively abstract risk.  One empty seat isn’t going to effect TV viewership.  However, consistent blocks of empty seats might.

Intermission

Just realized that I’ve hit 1500 words and am running out of time, so I’ll provide a temporary wrap up, and we can continue the analysis later.

There is no law that says the NFL has to remain tremendously valuable.  It seems inconceivable that it won’t, but large, seemingly stable businesses do collapse, and it’s likely often not the result of what were obvious defects (if they were obvious they’d have been addressed).  This needs a lot of unpacking, but for now, let’s just say that if I was the NFL, I’d be very careful about reaching for limited, near-term gains ($1 Billion split between every team is not a huge gain compared to overall value) in exchange for taking on long-term, qualitative tail risk.  What I identified above (along with other similar issues) is hard to quantify (think about general product dilution).  However, that’s precisely why you shouldn’t be too cavalier in inviting it.  Individually, the potential negative effects are all likely to be small and to only manifest themselves over the long-term.  But they are also very tough to eliminate/address, and once they take effect, it’s hard to combat.

How often do good offenses score?

Were you underwhelmed by the Eagles’ offensive performance against the Saints?  Readers here might not have been, but my guess is a lot of fans were.  This was one of the best offenses all season yet it scored just 3 TDs on 11 drives (and a FG).  You can probably guess where I’m going now:

Context.

What does a good offensive performance really look like?  Let’s look at a few stats to find out.  In the process, I think we’ll find a better perspective with which to judge all teams offensively.

How many points per drive should a good offense average?  Take a guess.  If an offense scores a TD every drive, it’ll average 6-7 points per, depending on the conversation choices.

How about 2.98?  Does that sound reasonable?  Barely less than a FG.  Or 1 TD every 2.3 drives.  Clearly, that’s a pretty good offensive performance.  However, broken down like this, it’s hardly spectacular.  Of course, as you probably suspect by now, that was Denver’s average points per drive this season; Denver also scored more points this year than any team in NFL history. (FootballOutsiders.com)

The MEDIAN this year was 1.91 points per drive.  That’s 1 touchdown every 3.66 drives (with no FGs).  Or, that’s 2 FGs ever 3.14 drives.  Imagine starting a game and having your first 3 drives go thusly: Punt, FG, FG.   Are you satisfied?  Probably not.  However, that’s 2 points per drive, which would place 12th overall this year.

Punt, FG, FG…repeat.   Congratulations, you’re a top 12 scoring offense.

The moral of the story is, offenses don’t score nearly as often as many people think they do.  It’s frustrating to watch a series of punts, and we inevitably start questioning the play-calling in such situations.  However, it’s a lot harder to score than people think.

The Eagles averaged 2.18 points per drive this season, good for 8th highest in the league.

Against New Orleans (the 10th ranked defense by DVOA), the Eagles scored 24 points on 11 drives.  That’s 2.18 points per drive…. In other words, the Eagles offense, on a scoring per drive basis, performed EXACTLY as expected.  In fact, it performed better than expected when you account for the strength of schedule difference between the regular season and the playoffs.

Meanwhile, New Orleans averaged 2.4 points per drive this season, 3rd best in the league.   Against the Eagles, the Saints also had 11 real drives (excluding kneels).  They scored 26 points.  That’s 2.36 points per drive, ALSO roughly in line with their season average.  Given the low ranking of the Eagles defense, it’s also reasonable to say the Saints should have been expected to score MORE.  That’s not really the point of this post, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Forget about this “per drive” crap, what about TDs?

Good question.  How many TDs do you think the average team scores each game?

The Denver Broncos scored 4.4 offensive TDs per game this year (teamrankings.com).   Of course, that was the best offensive performance ever (a huge outlier).  In fact, that measure was roughly 40% better than the second place team…..the Eagles with 3.2 per game.

The MEDIAN team this year scored just 2.4 touchdowns per game.

The average # of offensive drives this year was 186.  That’s 11.62 drives per game.  If we use the median value of 2.4 TDs per game (to keep Denver from skewing), that means, roughly speaking, the average offense this year scored a TD on 20.6% of it’s drives.

1 touchdown every FIVE drives.  That’s average.  

Like I said…perspective….context.  Even the best offense ever, Denver this year, scored TDs on just over 1/3 of its drives.

Remember that the next time somebody complains about the offense’s “inconsistency”.

Offseason thoughts: Riley Cooper and roster construction

The offseason has officially begun (for the Eagles), and that means its time to look at the roster from a higher level.  You can get a basic breakdown from most of the Eagles beats; I’ve just got a few thoughts to add.  The biggest point to make is: Don’t forget about the team’s strength.  Too often, fans focus entirely on team weaknesses and forget that nothing in sports is static.  Remember back to the Andy Reid peak.  Those teams were built upon the strength of the DEFENSE.  Over time, the defensive roster was allowed to atrophy while the focus was on the offense.  Fixing weaknesses is obviously vital, but the first priority, in my opinion, should be ensuring your team’s strength remains a strength.  This year, the team’s success was built upon a great offense.  However, there’s no guarantee that the offense will remain at that level.  Personally, I still think they’re still missing a “weapon” at WR.

Now, a few player notes:

– Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin are both free agents.  I do not expect both of them to be back next year, and wouldn’t be shocked if neither returned.  Cooper seems like a prime candidate to be overpaid elsewhere, and he’s exactly the type of player teams should be very careful not to overpay.  He had a very good year, but how far above replacement-level is he?

He had 47 catches, which ranked 82nd in the league this year.

He had 835 yards, good for 38th in the league.

His best stat was probably the 17.8 yards per reception, tied with Calvin Johnson for 3rd in the league.  However, the following players averaged more than 15 yards per reception: Denarius Moore, Jerome Simpson, Doug Baldwin, Nate Washington, Chris Givens.

The point is NOT that Riley Cooper shouldn’t return.  I think his skill-set is particularly well-suited to Foles’ game (deep jump balls especially).  However, in a salary-cap league, it’s important not to pay decent players like stars.  The fact is the Eagles could probably replace Cooper’s production without too much difficulty.

Maclin is a slightly different story, but I think it comes down to the same analysis.  There will likely be another team willing to pay him more than the Eagles will.

– Remain skeptical of rookie performances.  Don’t discount them entirely, but don’t overreact.  I’m talking mainly about Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff.  Both had nice years, but if you’re penciling them in as starters, you’ve gone too far.  It might help to remember Macho Harris…. I’d still like to see an “impact” NT, and Logan probably isn’t at that level.  If Wolff is starter-material, fantastic, but he might have also benefited from low-bar comparisons.  The record of late round safeties (or any position really) isn’t great, and he’s hasn’t shown enough to leave me confident he’ll beat those odds.  I’m hopeful that both players can be contributors, but neither would stop me from pursuing an upgrade in either FA or the draft (provided BPA of course).

– Best Player Available.  As far as I’m concerned, there are very few positions on the team that I would NOT draft if a player at that position was the best player available at the Eagles pick.  Running back is obvious.  QB…probably (and I’m a big Foles fan!).  Center.  That’s about it.  The Eagles are a very shallow team.  They need to add talent, regardless of where that talent comes from.  Many fans will point to the Safeties and hope for a 1st round pick to address that need.  However, that kind of thinking is how you end up drafting a 27 yr old Guard in the 1st round…

– Plug holes with Free Agency.  Most fans, during free agency, focus on the top players available.  That’s a mistake (for now).  The Eagles are still very much in the “building” phase, and it’s too early to take a shot at a star player in free agency.  If they see someone who’s young and fits the system perfectly, then go for it.  However, given where the team is, it’s more important to add depth where possible (at a reasonable price), and perhaps address STs.  It won’t grab headlines, but it’s important to building a team.  If you’ve added depth and patched holes in Free Agency, it becomes much easier to take the BPA in the draft.  In generally, teams should try to add impact talent in the draft, and plug holes in Free Agency.  Signing star players in free agency (A) forces you to overpay (winner’s curse), and (b) limits flexibility going forwards.  As a result, that approach should only be used by team’s whose rosters are close to set already.  If there is a clearly defined weakness, the risk of FA is lower.  With needs everywhere (the Eagles now), I’d rather maintain flexibility until the roster is further defined.

I’ll leave it there for today.  I’ll have a much more extensive roster breakdown soon, but I wanted to get a few of the more important thoughts out there beforehand.  After such a successful season, it’s hard to remain patient.  However, the Eagles are still a ways from being a legitimate contender.  Missteps in roster-building now can short-circuit the entire process and undo all of the progress the team made this year.

 

 

Eagles vs. Saints: The Day After

Unfortunate ending to a really entertaining season, but can’t say it was that surprising.  In fact, the only surprise is in how little blame there is to be placed (as long as you’re not a WIP lunatic).  The fact is, the Eagles played a relatively good game yesterday.  The problem is, so did the Saints.  Clearly both teams were very evenly matched and the Saints just happened to be winning when the music stopped.  Tough break, but don’t overreact.  Picking it apart a bit:

– A lot of people on Alex Henery’s case, which is a little unfair.  I’m certainly not a Henery fan (and think he’ll have to compete for a job next year), but we can’t pretend that a 48 yard kick in 20 degree weather is an easy shot.  For example, look at this chart from an article at AdvancedNFLStats.com from 2012:

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I’m not exactly sure what the data set is, but assuming it’s reasonable, that means the kick was, at best, a roughly 50/50 proposition.  If anything, Chip might deserve a bit more blame for kicking it instead of going for it.

The lack of touchbacks hurt as well, but again, kicking in 20 degrees is difficult, and I’m not sure how many other kickers would have done much better (definitely some, but my guess is not a lot).

– Nick Foles took a bad sack just before the previously mentioned FG attempt.  Again, though, it’s pretty hard to be mad at that.  He’s a young player who made a mistake due to inexperience.  It happens.  He also looked like he missed a few opportunities downfield, but I can’t say that with much confidence without an All-22 review.  Regardless, when you play a low-risk game, you’re going to miss some of those shots.  That’s part of the trade-off for not throwing any interceptions.

– The kick-coverage killed them at the end of the game.  The Eagles were one of the weaker STs units in the league this year.  So not surprise there.  Once again, it’s hard to blame the team.  The roster just isn’t that deep, which we’ve known for a while.  That hurts STs.  Another draft or two should fix that, it just wasn’t possible to do in one offseason.

– Roc Carmichael was victimized on a key 3rd and 12, and had a terrible mistake in punt coverage (when he kicked the ball into the End Zone).  But….it’s ROC CARMICHAEL!   This gets back to team depth.  If the roster was deeper, Carmichael wouldn’t have been on the field, and maybe those plays get made.  CB depth has to be near the top of the list for offseason needs, so I expect that to be remedied as well.

– The offense was very inconsistent, and downright nonexistent early on.  The Saints, though, were the 10th ranked defense by DVOA coming into the game.  They were missing Kenny Vaccaro, but the fact is, that was a good defense.  Putting up 24 points isn’t a great performance, but it’s also not bad.  The Saints allowed more than 24 points just four times this year.  

– Riley Cooper had a bad drop.  No real defense here, other than to say that all WRs drop passes sometimes.  Also, the Eagles still took the lead after that play.  It was a bad mistake, but no team is perfect (the Saints certainly had some similar mistakes as well).

There were other issues as well, but the overall message is: the game unfolded pretty much as we expected.  I’ll soon start going through the season in more detail and we can talk about what improvements should be made (I’ve got some different ideas than most), but for now, you should feel encouraged, despite the loss.  Here:

– Your 2nd year, 6’5″ Quarterback just and one of the greatest seasons (albeit abbreviated) in the history of the league.

– You have perhaps the best coach in the league (outside the untouchables like Belichick, Payton, Harbaugh).

– The rest of the division is a mess, and there’s very little chance that the Eagles don’t open as NFC East favorites next season.

– Nick Foles is 24 years old.  LeSean McCoy is 25.  Zach Ertz is 23.  Brandon Boykin is 23.  Fletcher Cox is 23. Mychal Kendricks is 23. Lane Johnson is 23.  Jason Kelce is 26.

That’s a pretty good “core”.  Add in potential contributors Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff (both 24), and I’m not sure there’s a team better positioned for the next 5-6 years than the Eagles.

Moreover, D-Jax is only 27.  So is Connor Barwin.

Lastly, Chip Kelly is only 50 (young in HC years), and just won 10 games in his first year.

Wild Card Weekend: Eagles v. Saints Pre-game Notes

Finally here. I don’t know about you, but it feels like the Dallas game was a LONG time ago. In no particular order, here are some things to think about heading into tonight’s game:

– Brian Burke from AdvancedNFLStats.com has done some research on dome teams playing in cold weather.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but it’s really good news for Eagles fans.

– I tweeted this yesterday, but since 2005, home teams that were 2.5 point favorites have won 50.6% of the time.  Combined with the variance numbers I showed you yesterday in my odds breakdown, that mean tonight really is a “anything can happen” game.  It could be a blow out for either team and it wouldn’t surprise me.

– Jimmy Graham gets a lot of attention, but you should worry more about Darren Sproles.  Graham is going to do damage, there’s almost no way around it.  However, it’s the secondary weapons we have to eliminate.  Sproles tops the list because the Eagles just don’t seem that concerned with RBs out of the backfield.  Also, I feel like I’m the only one harping on Kenny Stills.  He’s a rookie and he didn’t have that many catches this year (32), but he averaged 20 yards per reception and scored 5 TDs.  Anytime Stills is one-on-one with a safety I’ll be holding my breath.

– Lots of comments on my Blitz Theory post, some of them very good, some of them dumb as hell (at BGN, not here).  It needs work, but a lot of people have asked how I would apply it to Drew Brees.  Drew Brees is a great QB, therefore minimizing time becomes vital.  He just won’t miss many windows if he has time to throw, so sitting back in coverage is dangerous.  So don’t be upset if Davis blitzes a fair amount.  HOWEVER, one thing I didn’t discuss was TYPE of blitz.  That’s a whole different analysis.  Against Brees, I’m terrified of the CB and S blitz.  I wouldn’t use them.

The Double-A gap blitz that Davis also likes is very risky, since Brees is smart enough to diagnose it quickly and it leaves a lot of open space for him to hit.  BUT, remember that Brees is pretty short (6’0″…maybe).  That means it’s tougher for him to throw over people. If the blitzers are cognisant of that (get their hands up), the Double-A blitz may not be as bad a call as it seems.  Of course, it should be used sparingly and only when the Eagles NEED a big play.

– Keep an eye on the kickers.  This shapes up to be a close game, and in very cold weather, kicking is more difficult (especially distance).  Alex Henery has been good recently, but I still don’t trust him from beyond 40 yards.  However, the Saints haven’t exactly been consistent in that department either.  They fired their kicker (Garrett Hartley) and signed Shayne Graham in week 16.  Graham doesn’t have a cannon either.   His career long is 53 yards, though he did hit nine 50-51 yard FGs last year for the Texans (his previous season high was 4).

A side effect of both kicking games is that we’re likely to see several 4th down conversion attempts.  I just don’t see either of these guys attempting a 50 yard FG.  As unfortunate as it would be, the game might come down to which team converts (in other words…luck, well mostly).

– I’m going to keep saying it until it happens:  A surprise onside kick would be huge.  With a bad defense (Eagles) going against a very good offense (Saints), field position means relatively little.  In other words, the 25 yards you sacrifice from NOT recovering an onside kick doesn’t mean that much.  I’d gladly trade that for a close to 50/50 chance at stealing a possession.

Note: The Eagles ARE still a bad defense.  A lot of people have been arguing otherwise, but Football Outsiders has them ranked 23rd by DVOA (they finished 26th last year).  The team has been trending significant upwards (ranked 12th after week 9 I believe), but remember all of the key offensive players the Eagles haven’t had to play against due to injury.  Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Demarco Murray, Reggie Bush….

– I’m leaving it there.  You can find all of the normal pre-game analysis elsewhere.  This game has all the ingredients for a true classic, hopefully it lives up to its potential (with an Eagles win of course).