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NFC Beast report: It’s a battle royale in the East

Six weeks in and three teams are slugging it out for first place

Jacksonville Jaguars v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Last week, our NFC Least report was a depressing slog through the division’s ineptitude following a week five that saw all four teams lose. Things look significantly brighter this week as every team every team not named the “New York Giants” not only won, but impressed in doing so.

The result is that while no team has managed to separate itself from the others, fans of three different teams can fervently cling to reasonable thoughts of a 2018 NFC East division title. Here’s how the division stands today:

Two words come to mind: “mediocrity” and “competitive”. The top three teams have very similar top-level resumes at this point. They win some, they lose some. They don’t score a lot of points and don’t give up a lot of points. We’re gonna pretty much ignore the New York Football Giants because they’re pretty much toast. We will, however, point out the Giants have now lost 19 of their last 24 games (.208 win percentage for those keeping track).

You would have to go back to the mid-70’s to find the last time the New York Football Giants sustained this level of incompetence for such an extended period. Frankly, this is simple karma for an organization that won two of the least deserved Super Bowls in the history of Super Bowls, so zero sympathy.

Let’s concentrate instead on the “contenders”. Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington all followed up bad week five performances with good week six performances. Both the Eagles and Cowboys played their best, most complete games of the season in dominating performances where the games were practically over at halftime (combined 48-6 scores after two quarters).

The Redskins, meanwhile, bounced back from a dreadful beating at the hands of Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints to notch a hard-fought win over a pretty good Carolina team.

As a result the three long-term rivals now have almost identical odds of winning the division, according to our good friends over at Football Outsiders:

And things are just starting to get interesting as none of the three competitors have faced each other head-to-head. That changes this Sunday when Dallas travels to Landover, Maryland to face the Washington Redskins; whoever emerges victorious will claim sole possession of first place. These are interesting times, indeed.

The offenses still stink

We documented last week how putrid the division has been with the ball. So, keep in mind that all of the following numbers and rankings we look at come after Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington combined for 97 points in their three games.

Let’s start with basics:

All four teams are below average when it comes to scoring points. In addition, all but the Eagles are below average in yardage gained, and the Eagles are merely league-average. In short, every NFC East team is a below average offensive team. Note the 46-yard differential in yards per game between the Eagles and the Cowboys.

These two charts are interesting:

  • Note how many more plays the Eagles have run than the Cowboys. Philadelphia is getting nine more opportunities per game to make plays than the Cowboys. Thus, even though Dallas and Philadelphia gain exactly the same yards per play the Eagles are generating 46 more yards of offense per game.
  • At the current rate, the Eagles would run 144 more offensive plays than the Cowboys. Considering most NFL teams get around 60 offensive snaps per game, that’s the equivalent of two-plus games. That’s an enormous discrepancy.
  • Note that the division’s (and perhaps the league’s) worst team is the only team that’s even average in yards gained per play. The three “contenders” are all well below average.

The one offensive area where the division (other than the Giants) is doing well is running the ball. The “contenders” all:

  • Run the ball more often than the average NFL team
  • Run for more yards than the average NFL team

Dallas is particularly impressive on the ground, running for nearly 150 yards per game and over five yards per carry. Despite the addition of the scintillating Saquon Barkley, the Giants are below average in rushing attempts and rushing yards.

The Eagles, Redskins and Giants are all around league average in simple pass attempt, pass completion and passing yardage metrics. The Cowboys lag far behind in these metrics, though.

When we look at efficiency metrics, however, things go south pretty quickly. Every NFC East team is below average in both net yards per attempt and touchdown percentage. The only positive is the four teams do avoid interceptions (other than the Cowboys who are near league-average). None of the four are above average at throwing interceptions.

So it’s somewhat surprising to find that three of the four teams enjoy higher than average quarterback passer ratings. The Eagles rank highest, and considering Carson Wentz has played only four of the team’s six games, that number could very well improve. Note how far the Cowboys lag behind the others in the traditional passer rating yet are quite close in QBR (ESPN’s proprietary quarterback performance metric).

QBR awards generous points to quarterbacks who can use their legs to both avoid sacks and make positive plays. One of the Eagles’ biggest weaknesses this year has been an inability to protect the quarterback, while the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott continues to be one of the best QBs in the league at making plays with his legs.

Perhaps the single best image to demonstrate the struggles of the division’s offenses is this one showing each team’s rankings in various metrics:

There is a lot of red and very little green in this table. There’s also a lot of rankings in the 20s, which basically indicates you’re a bottom-third performer. Ugh.

For those who like advanced statistics and insights into key metrics like third down conversions and red zone efficiency:

It’s noteworthy that the three “contenders” all rank in the top half of the league in third-down opportunities. But none rank above average at converting third downs (though to be fair, Philadelphia and Washington are average, as opposed to terrible).

We see some similar trends in the red zone. Philadelphia ranks very high in terms of RZ opportunities (no doubt partly a result of running more plays). Dallas (and New York) doesn’t enjoy many RZ opportunities, by comparison. And none of the teams are particularly good at converting those scoring opportunities. You can see the NY Giants’ woes in stark detail here, ranking 29th in RZ conversions and 22nd in 3rd down conversions.

Add it all together and you get some pretty foul-smelling offensive performances. This is captured in Football Outsider’s DVOA metric, which attempts to measure each team’s overall effectiveness:

DVOA attempts to quantify each team’s performance relative to the league. The simple explanation is a negative number means below average and a positive number means above average.

The fact all four NFC East offenses have negative numbers reveals much. None of the NFC East teams are even average on offense. In fact, the three “contenders” all rank among the bottom 14 of the league with the Giants ranking highest overall (who knew?).

We also see that the teams are significantly better running the ball than passing. But in terms of passing this is a woe-begotten division. Considering the widespread ugliness, it seems reasonable to quote the great Vince Lombardi: “What the hell is going on out there?”

It’s somewhat remarkable that, considering the collective offensive ineptitude, that three of these teams are at or above .500. Of course, offense only tells us half the story. Tomorrow we’ll look at the other side of the ball, where the division largely lives up to its NFC Beast moniker.

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