The season is fully 25% complete and we can stop judging teams in terms of what we thought they would be and instead judge them by how they’ve performed. We’ll look at the offensive side of the ball today using both standard and advanced statistics.
Points, yards and turnovers
The simplest measures of a team’s offense is the number of points scored, yards gained and turnovers committed. The following shows points for, yards, number of plays and turnovers committed:
All those who had the Los Angeles Rams as the top-scoring team in the NFL raise your hands? Anyone with Houston ranking 4th in points with a rookie quarterback? No, no one? This shows us, yet again, that the NFL is a fickle beast and what happened last year has little to do with what is happening this year. Yes, there’s some constants like the New England offense but most teams success is difficult to maintain from year-to-year, even on one side of the ball. Personnel and coaching staffs change, new talent arrives and former contributors leave. The end result is every year we see surprises such as the Rams at the top of the offensive charts.
A color-coded version of the rankings of each team reveals some interesting observations:
- The LA Rams, NE Patriots and KC Chiefs are clearly the three best offensive teams in the league thus far. Each ranks in the top five of virtually every points / yards / turnovers category. Only the Rams’ 16th rank in turnovers isn’t in the top 5 (which makes the Cowboy’s inability to generate a single turnover Sunday even more depressing).
- The Texans are not an efficient offense, with mediocre yards per play, turnover and points per drive metrics, yet somehow rank 4th in points scored. That usually indicates defensive and special teams points and sure enough Houston has 14 points from fumble and interceptions returns. Without those two scores the Texans would rank 11th, right above our own Dallas Cowboys.
- Speaking of the Cowboys, we see the noteworthy drop in results from 2016 to 2017. Dallas ranked either 4th or 5th in every one of these categories last year but rank no higher than 7th in any one category this year. The good news is even with all the struggles that have been outlined ad nauseum the team is still piling up above average yards and points. The Cowboys have scored at least 17 points every game and have topped 28 points each of the last two weeks. Points per drive is, in my opinion, the best indicator of an offensive unit’s efficiency, and that’s where Dallas ranks highest (7th). The offense isn’t far from again ranking among the league’s elite.
- Don’t look now but the Eagles look to have a much-improved offense from 2016. They are third in yards and top 10 in points and points per drive. Only their mediocre turnover numbers are holding them back from becoming a top-5 unit.
- A full quarter of the league (eight teams) appear to be competing for which offense is the most inept. The Giants 0-4 start can largely been seen through their offensive woes; apparently adding a once-great wideout, a dynamic rookie tight end and new running back and blocking tight end can’t change the fact they still have a bad offensive line and Eli Manning is still the quarterback.
We see the success of Kansas City’s offense has been fueled by a dominant running game behind their rookie sensation Kareem Hunt. Remember, Hunt is the team’s backup running back; a third-round draft pick who was supposed to spell primary starter Spencer Ware who suffered a torn ACL in preseason. (What’s that? A rookie expected to be a backup instead has emerged as a dynamic skill-position starter on one of the best offenses in the league? That sounds familiar.) The Chief’s 6.5 YPA number is unsustainable but the team’s overall running game is very sustainable and should serve them well throughout the season.
The rankings table tells us more:
Note the Chiefs rank first in yards and yards per carry yet 21st in rushing attempts. Andy Reid is a quality coach but sometimes fails to recognize a good thing when he has it. Dallas has a similar profile, ranking 4th in yards per attempt but 22nd in attempts. This is largely due to the 70-yard Alfred Morris run on Sunday. Take those 70 yards on that single attempt away and the Cowboys would rank 20th in rushing yards (instead of 14th) and 16th in yards per attempt (instead of 4th). Yes, if we removed the biggest run from each team’s results they’d all look different, but not many teams would have a single run skew their numbers so much.
The Patriots rank in the bottom third of the league in almost every rushing metric, indicating they are a one-dimensional offense.
Again, note the Eagles, who rank in the top five in most rushing categories. Philadelphia currently boasts the best offensive line and the best running game in the NFC East. The Eagles rushing game has improved each week, from 58 to 107 to to 193 to 214. LeGarrette Blount and Wendell Smallwood make a dynamic combo. Carson Wentz has been the primary beneficiary; after throwing 39 and 46 passes the first two week Wentz has thrown a more manageable 31 each of the last two weeks. Unless your name is Brady or Rodgers throwing 36+ passes is almost never a winning strategy and right now the Eagles have found the balanced formula the Cowboys had in 2014 and 2016.
Following up on that theme let’s look at the teams with the most pass attempts. We see both Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers rank among the top with 155 and 161 pass attempts respectively while the league average is 134. Any other quarterback throwing that many times is unlikely to be successful. As proof, go down to the bottom of the list where we’ll find Eli Manning with the most pass attempts in the league along with mediocre yards per attempt numbers and a bad 6-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio.
I haven’t mentioned the Falcons yet but like the Cowboys they’re finding repeating the offensive success of 2016 a challenge. The team still ranks 6th in points, so it’s not like they’re terrible. But Matt Ryan has struggled relative to his 2016 MVP performance. His yards per attempt has declined a full yard and he’s throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns.
Dak Prescott hasn’t had that exact problem. In fact, his 8-to-3 touchdown to interception ratio is (reasonably) good. But like Ryan, Prescott’s 6.1 yards per attempt is a full yard below his 2016 numbers.
The rankings show, again, the brilliance of Tom Brady. Playing with the worst defense in the league he’s still able to put up the best passing numbers in the entire league. (Honestly, he’s great and all, but I’m looking forward to when he’s finally not great. But I’ve been waiting five years and it looks like he could keep going forever.)
We see both Jacksonville and Houston aren’t the most efficient passing attacks but they score touchdowns. Prescott and the Cowboys are kind of similar, ranking in the teens in efficiency metrics but 7th in touchdown rate. This is largely from Prescott’s terrific red zone performances the last couple weeks.
We also see Wentz’s numbers are pretty mediocre. I’ve watched a lot of the Eagles this year and I can tell you Wentz looks like a gunslinger; he’ll make an eye-popping play one minute then throw a head-shaking pass right into a defender’s arm the next. He’s elusive in the pocket and will give pass rusher’s fits. He’s been lucky with a number of interceptable balls and has a big fumbling problem. He could get bitten by the turnovers, or, if he improves that area, could become a top-flight quarterback.
We’ll start with Football Outsider’s proprietary DVOA metrics. I’ll admit these numbers, at times, can appeal only to propeller heads. But I like them because because they usually confirm what we, as fans, generally “feel” about teams.
- Kansas City has a dominant running game and a prolific offense this year? Check.
- New England is largely dependent upon the greatness of Tom Brady? Check.
- Pittsburgh has a balanced running / passing attack? Check.
- Green Bay has a top-5 rushing attack and a mediocre passing game. Wait.....what?
The Packers rank 26th in rushing attempts, 28th in rushing yards and 25th in yards per attempt....so I have no idea how they can be the 5th best rushing attack in the NFL. In general, though, I value FO’s DVOA numbers; they provide a data point that is missing from the standard statistics.
Note that Dallas fares significantly worse in DVOA metrics than standard metrics. The team ranks 19th in overall DVOA (compared to 12th in points scored) and 19th in passing DVOA. If you’re a believer in DVOA you’ll believe the problems with the Cowboys offense are largely in the passing game and not the rushing game (which ranks 6th in rushing DVOA). Otherwise you’ll see that most teams standard numbers largely match their advanced DVOA metrics.
Performance per-drive analysis is important because it illustrates how efficient each team is with each drive. There’s only 10-12 drives per game in the NFL so what each team does with each of those drives largely determines how successful they are.
Here we see five teams that pretty much own the top five in every category: the Rams, Patriots, Chiefs, Falcons and Saints rank in the top five of almost every category. As noted earlier, Dallas ranks 7th in points per drive (what I consider to be the single most important statistic to measure an offense). But Dallas ranks a mediocre 13th in yards per drive and “drive success rank”.
“DSR” is Football Outsider’s “drive success rate” measure. It measures how often a series results in a first down or touchdown. This is a pretty good statistic because keeping the chains moving and scoring touchdowns is always the objective on offense.
Note Dallas ranks 7th in points per drive but only 13th in drive success rate. This indicates the Dallas offense has been “boom or bust”; either scoring touchdowns or not really moving the ball at all. Sunday’s game against the Rams reflects this with four first half possessions generating 24 points and then the next four possessions generating only two first downs and 42 yards.
The Los Angeles Rams have a similar pattern, with their points per drive ranking significantly higher than their yards per drive or drive success rate. The LA Chargers flip the script, with solid yards per drive and DSR rankings yet sitting at 20th in points per drive. This would usually indicate turnover problems but the Chargers have only turned the ball over five times (middle of the pack); instead three missed field goals have affected their numbers.
Football Outsider’s also tracks three statistics I call “variables”. One is really important: turnovers. The others are not quite so noteworthy: where the team starts each possession and time of possession.
I’ve sorted this by where each team starts, on average, a possession. The reason is I want to highlight something that has benefited the Cowboys offense in 2017. Dallas ranks third in the NFL, with an average starting position at their own 31 yard line. That indicates the team has benefited from good field position on a number of occasions. This is due to a few turnovers but, more importantly, Chris Jones punting. Jones has repeatedly pinned teams down inside their own 10-15-20 yard line and the offense has benefited by getting good field position after defensive stops.
Compare these results with the Eagles, whose average starting position has been their own 25-yard line. Now, six yards might not seem like much but when you’re getting 10-12 possessions per game those six yards per possession equal 60 to 72 yards per game. Imagine adding 65 yards to the Cowboys’ yardage totals for a game to get a sense of the impact on a single game; it’s the equivalent of at least one turnover.
The point is the Dallas offense, thus far, has benefited from short fields. That is a hard thing to sustain unless the defense suddenly starts generating turnovers. Right now the defense is generating only 0.75 turnovers per game. Further, the team’s inability to cause turnovers dates back to 2015; since then they have only 36 turnovers in 36 games. On the flip side, the Eagles poor ranking in starting position indicates a hidden weakness within the Eagles team. If nothing else, this shows the value Chris Jones brings by constantly trapping teams inside their own 15-20 yard line.
Finally, a note on time of possession. Dallas ranks 22nd in time of possession. If that’s where the team ends up at the end of the season the Cowboys won’t be in the playoffs. The blueprint is to control the ball and the clock and wear teams down with long, ball-control drives. That simply isn’t happening in 2017. Dallas has utilized big plays and short fields to score points this year. That’s not who this team is. If there’s one metric that has to change in order for the Cowboys to win in 2017 it’s this time of possession measure.
Next up: reviewing the NFC East offenses.