Atlanta Falcons


I’m trying to get a handle on the new season of play, particularly teams that are playing better than expected and those that are playing worse. In Atlanta, quite a few fans have zoned in on the offense, in particular the right guard and right tackle play, and are subsequently using the inability of Thomas Dimitroff to refurbish the lines as a critique (including the “should we have drafted Julio Jones” trope).

None of my further analysis will answer any of those questions, but they’ll set a baseline we can use.

Atlanta Falcons SRS OSRS DSRS
Year Team W L T SRS OSRS DSRS MOV SOS
2009 ATL 9 7 0 5.03 2.78 2.25 2.38 2.66
2010 ATL 13 3 0 6.09 2.05 4.04 7.88 -1.79
2011 ATL 10 6 0 3.53 3.22 0.30 3.25 0.28
2012 ATL 13 3 0 6.44 3.53 2.91 7.50 -1.06
4 Year Avg Performance
AVG ATL 11 5 0 5.27 2.90 2.37 5.25 0.02
2013 Season through 10/15
2013 ATL 1 4 0 -1.80 1.35 -3.15 -2.40 0.60

 

Though some fall off on offensive is observed, the greater fall off is on defense. Two themes are notable at this time. First, the relative lack of pass rush on Atlanta’s part (though this has been an persistent issue with this club for anyone not named John Abraham). The second issue has to be injuries in the back 7 and the resultant use of rookies at linebacker and in the secondary. In conclusion, the Falcons’ problems have been relatively mild on the offensive side.* The Falcons have to solve their defensive woes first.

* As Julio Jones’s injury was really in the last of the five games above, the effect of his absence is really not a part of the stats so far.

I suspect  to a first approximation almost no one other than Baltimore fans, such as Brian Burke, and this blog really believed that Baltimore had much of a chance(+). Well, I should mention Aaron Freeman of Falc Fans, who was rooting for Baltimore but still felt Denver would win. Looking, his article is no longer on the Falcfans site. Pity..

WP graph of Baltimore versus Denver. I tweeted that this graph was going to resemble a seismic chart of an earthquake. Not my work, just a screen shot off the excellent site Advanced NFL Stats.

WP graph of Baltimore versus Denver. I tweeted that this graph was going to resemble a seismic chart of an earthquake. Not my work, just a screen shot off the excellent site Advanced NFL Stats.

After a double overtime victory by 3 points, it’s awfully tempting to say, “I predicted this”, and if you look at the teams I’ve  favored, to this point* the streak of picks is 6-0. Let me point out though, that you can make a limiting assumption and from that assumption figure out how accurate I should have been. The limiting assumption is to assume the playoff model is 100% accurate** and see how well it predicted play. If the model is 100% accurate, the real results and the predicted results should merge.

I can tell you without adding up anything that only one of my favored picks had more than a 70% chance, and at least two were around 52-53%. So 6 times 70 percent is 4.2, and my model, in a perfect world, should have picked no more than 4 winners and 2 losers. A perfect model in a probabilistic world, where teams rarely have 65% chances to win, much less 100%, should be wrong sometimes. Instead, so far it’s on a 6-0 run. That means that luck is driving my success so far.

Is it possible, as I have argued, that strength of schedule is an under appreciated playoff stat, a playoff “Moneyball” stat, that teams that go through tough times are better than their offense and defensive stats suggest? It’s possible at this point. It’s also without question that I’ve been lucky in both the 2012 playoffs and the 2013 playoffs so far.

Potential Championship Scenarios:

 

Conference Championship Possibilities
Home Team Visiting Team Home Win Pct Est. Point Spread
NE BAL 0.523 0.7
HOU BAL 0.383 -3.5
ATL SF 0.306 -6.1
SF SEA 0.745 7.9

 

My model likes Seattle, which has the second best strength of schedule metric of all the playoff teams, but it absolutely loves San Francisco. It also likes Baltimore,  but not enough to say it has a free run throughout the playoffs. Like many modelers, I’m predicting that Atlanta and Seattle will be a close game.

~~~

+ I should also mention  that Bryan  Broaddus tweeted about a colleague of his who predicted a BAL victory.

* Sunday, January 13, 2013, about 10:00am.

** Such a limiting assumption is similar to assuming the NFL draft is rational; that the customers (NFL teams) have all the information they should, that they understand everything about the product they consume  (draft picks), and that their estimates of draft value thus form a normal distribution around the real value of draft picks, and that irrational exuberance, or trends, or GMs falling in love with players play no role in picking players. This, it turns out, makes model simulations much easier.

Over some five years, the whole of the Matt Ryan – Mike Smith era, Atlanta has had a habit of outperforming its Pythagoreans:

Atlanta outperforming its Pythagoreans
Year WL% Pythag Delta
2008 69 62 7
2009 56 56 0
2010 81 72 9
2011 63 59 4
2012 (to date) 90 71 19

 

But they’ve never outperformed their Pythagoreans as substantially as they have this year. It can’t be blamed on early season New Orleans collapse, as their only loss was inflicted by New Orleans. New Orleans has only hindered this process. Is it turnover that are causing all this? While the 2010 team had a +14 turnover ratio and the 2011 team had a +8 turnover ratio, the 2012 team has only a +5 turnover ratio at this point and the 2008 team had a -3 turnover ratio. No, it’s something else. For now, perhaps noting that this team tends to outperform its Pythagoreans is enough.

Week 11 scoring stats:

Chicago’s biggest weakness was on display this Monday night, as Aldon Smith had a career day. Aaron Schatz (@FO_Schatz) has sent digging into his archives for the biggest DVOA blowouts of all time. The 32-7 demolition of the Bears by the 49ers wasn’t the worst, but it clearly evoked the worst.

The game plan was heavy on traps and wham blocks, and would have warmed the hearts of anyone who ever played NFL Strategy against a blitz heavy opponent.

It does lead to the question of whether Chicago is in the same downward spiral they experienced last year. At this point, however, you would expect Jay Cutler to return and thus slow down the bleeding.

I believed, in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 season, that with Jason Peters at left tackle, the least of Philadelphia’s worries would have been the tackle position. Instead, he was injured in the off season. In September, Philadelphia center Jason Celce went down with a season ending injury. In the New Orleans game, Todd Herremans suffered a season ending injury, and going into the Dallas game, starting guard Danny Watkins had been out with a sprained ankle.

Losing Todd Herremans: deal breaker for the Eagles? (Image from Wikimedia).

So, in week 10, the Eagles had one healthy starting caliber player, and 4 backups playing on the offensive line. This loss of talent was profound, even in comparison with Dallas, which had 1 backup on the line – though Dallas RG Mackenzie Bernadeau has been pretty marginal as a starter. Simplified, losing tackles is much worse than losing a guard and a center. Result? A markedly ineffective Vick, a thoroughbred offense reduced to dog-sled pace.

No wonder announcers were hyping this as the “end of a season” for one of these teams. Most any cold blooded announcer could have figured out what was about to happen. The only question was how best to pitch it so people would actually watch.

Atlanta: I’ve been comparing the 2012 Atlanta Falcons to the 1976 Oakland Raiders, to make the case that Atlanta has a chance. But the 1976 Raiders had made it to three previous Conference Championship games, while the Mike Smith squads have never gone that far. They lack the deep playoff experience of those 1970s Raiders squads.

The fact is, all scoring stats suggest Atlanta has benefited from plenty of luck. I think, because of a better Julio Jones, that this is a better Falcons team than the 2011 team, but the coaching changes in New Orleans markedly benefited this squad. Yes, Atlanta can be beaten.

Week 9 scoring stats:

Week 10 scoring stats:

If we use the median point spread as a measure of how good Atlanta is, and select the teams within 2 points of their value, you end up with a group that includes San Francisco, New England, Minnesota, and the New York Giants. That’s a talented group of teams, but perhaps not as terrifying as Green Bay, Houston, Denver, and Chicago. Pythagoreans point out three elite teams in Houston, Chicago, and San Francisco, while simple rankings prefer the quartet of Houston, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco.

At this point, perhaps the more appropriate past comparison for the Falcons would be the 1973 Oakland Raiders. Atlanta needs to make some noise in the playoffs first.

Should anyone be worried about the Giants mid season slide? No. They always do this. The question is, will they fully recover in time to make a playoff run. That’s not something that will be entirely answered until week 17.

Last year I published a study of the run success of Julius Jones and also Marion Barber, in which for comparison I added, among other good runners, Michael Turner.

Michael Turner. Wikimedia image, CC license, courtesy of the Georgia National Guard.

And now, as it turns out, a common conversation piece in Atlanta talk radio is the notion that Michael Turner is washed up, past his prime and should be replaced. At the time this topic emerged, I didn’t have a data set capable of taking a closer look at the issue. But with Brian Burke releasing his 2011 regular season data set, now I do.

So just how well did he do in 2011?


dwm042@dwm042-desktop:~/perl/nfl$ ./run_success.pl M.Turner ATL 2008
run success rate = 39.9
run 40 succ rate = 48.3
run 3d succ rate = 68.8 ( 11 per 16 plays )
run 4d succ rate = 60.0 ( 3 per 5 plays )
short runs rate = 49.1
dwm042@dwm042-desktop:~/perl/nfl$ ./run_success.pl M.Turner ATL 2009
run success rate = 39.2
run 40 succ rate = 53.4
run 3d succ rate = 66.7 ( 2 per 3 plays )
run 4d succ rate = 0.0 ( 0 per 0 plays )
short runs rate = 46.6
dwm042@dwm042-desktop:~/perl/nfl$ ./run_success.pl M.Turner ATL 2010
run success rate = 36.1
run 40 succ rate = 46.7
run 3d succ rate = 66.7 ( 10 per 15 plays )
run 4d succ rate = 100.0 ( 3 per 3 plays )
short runs rate = 47.3
dwm042@dwm042-desktop:~/perl/nfl$ ./run_success.pl M.Turner ATL 2011
run success rate = 37.8
run 40 succ rate = 46.6
run 3d succ rate = 75.0 ( 9 per 12 plays )
run 4d succ rate = 66.7 ( 2 per 3 plays )
short runs rate = 52.0

His run success rate is either better in 2011 than 2010 (my definition) or about the same as 2010 (the Chase Stuart definition). His third down success rate is high. His short runs rate (percentage runs 2 yards or less) is high, but the Falcons also lost a good guard in 2011. The Falcons could use an upgrade at left tackle, and more toughness at guard.

Now to note, when Marion Barber's short runs rate hit 53%, Dallas let him go. I'm not going to suggest there isn't cause for concern. But it's going to take a better tape hound than me to lock down cause and effect here.

The Falcons are a team geared to play close to the vest football and turn their ball control tendencies into wins late in games. If they lack the core runner to set them up for the late winning drive, they seem, as a team, to lose focus. They weren't ready in 2011 to turn into a pure passing offense. If they decide to part ways with Michael, their plan B had better be well thought out. To this analyst, it's not clear that Michael was "finished" in 2011.

I picked up this book after Greg Cosell gave it a big thumbs up on Rob Rang and Doug Farrar‘s radio show for KJR in Seattle, curious what it might actually say about the NFL draft.

Turns out this book is an update and rewrite of his earlier book, Patriot Reign, and for 11 of the chapters of this book, really has almost nothing to do about the draft, other than teasers spiked throughout the work. One interesting comment about the draft ranking system implemented by Belichick goes:

One of the things that made the system different was that it absolutely required a scout to know his college area or region of coverage in addition to each member of the Patriots’ fifth-three man roster. All reports, without exception, were comparative, and were based on what a given prospect could do vs. any current Patriot playing his position.

As a book, it initially has no sense of overarching storyline, content to wander about the narrative landscape the way a 60 year old grandfather would, telling one story in deep depth and then switching abruptly to another. It follows a variety of points of view. They all do not make much sense until you get to the end, where Michael actually starts talking more in depth about the draft in chapter 12. It finally becomes clear that he has three points of view, all intertwined, that of Belichick, that of Thomas Dimitroff, GM of the Atlanta Falcons, and that of Scott Pioli, GM of the Kansas City Chiefs. But to get there, to the three chapters of new material, he has you read about 11 chapters that I suspect were mostly all told in Patriot Reign.

Disturbing is the often myopic point of view of the book. Most notable in this regard is the coverage of Spygate, which can be summarized as (A) It was all Eric Mangini’s fault (B) Everybody does it and (C) People are picking on us needlessly and hurtfully. It’s in these segments where the book descends even from rambling history and becomes a fanboy lament. When you have to complain, in Poor Poor Pitiful Me fashion, about Gregg Easterbrook talking you down – in football terms, a comic, mind you – then you really do need to step out of the narrative a while and reexamine the facts. Tom, of the blog Residual Prolixity, puts it this way:

There are also a couple things Holley doesn’t seem to get, either from a Boston-centric viewpoint or they’re not obvious and nobody actually bothered to explain them to him, with the foremost example in my mind that Spygate (covered only briefly) exacerbated an existing anti-Boston sentiment arising from a belief that the Patriots were willing to push to the edge of the rules and beyond, if they could get away with it, which they could (see increase in illegal contact penalties, 2004, post Colts-Patriots).

All that said, once you get to Chapter 12, there are three chapters of useful insider stuff on how three teams conduct their draft. The background info on Dimitroff and Pioli are good enough to be useful to fans of the Falcons and Chiefs. Just, the new stuff isn’t substantial enough to be a book on its own – more like a long extended article in the New Yorker or the Washington Post. But, book sales being what they are, the new stuff was tacked onto the old stuff and sold as an entirely new product.

Up to you, whether you should read it. It can be interesting given the limitations of the material. Scaled in the measure of a draft pick, this is day two material.

Way back in 2011 I did a study of factors that were statistically significant in determining playoff wins. There were three: home field advantage, playoff experience, and strength of schedule. And because playoff experience was such an obvious factor in those logistic regression studies, one question I didn’t ask was how far back do you need to go with regard to playoff experience to judge whether a team “has it”. Two years? Three years? Four years? This is important in the case of the New York Giants, because they won a Super Bowl in 2007 and lost in the divisional round in 2008. So, they have deep playoff experience from 4 years ago and also some from 3 years ago. They barely missed the playoffs two years ago and a year ago, were not a playoff factor.

My study however fixed the range of playoff experience at two years, so my formulas are valid for that period. So, to look at the important factors with regard to  these two teams, plus Pythagoreans:

New York Giants: Playoff Exp 3 yrs ago, Home, SOS = 1.96, Pythagorean=49.0%

Atlanta Falcons: Playoff Exp last year, Away, SOS = 0.28, Pythagorean= 58.9%

So, if we calculate odds using Pythagoreans and the 60% HFA that playoff teams have had over the past 10 years, you get that the ATL-NYG game is even. If you instead use my strict formula, and deny the NYG any playoff experience advantage, then the New York Giants would be favored by 53%. If you grant that the NYG have playoff experience, and recalculate these odds, then the probability of the Giants winning rises to 71%, one of the highest in this round of play. This is in part due to home field, but also due to the Giants having played the hardest schedule of any playoff team.

To repudiate another notion, that  the Giants and Dallas are simply two peas in a pod, that you could roll the dice and choose one over  the other, look at the stats of the New York Giants, Dallas, and say, the Atlanta Falcons against teams with a record of 0.500 or more. Against 0.500 or better teams, Dallas was 1-8. It scored 172 points against those teams and gave up 246 points, for a Pythagorean of 0.282. That Pythagorean should have been good for 2.5 wins, which means the team underperformed its own Pythagorean against winning teams.  While a lot  of Dallas fans will point fingers at the defense (Pro Football Reference had Dallas ranked as the 27th best in pass coverage, prior to week 17), overall consistency also needs to be looked at and addressed.

By contrast, the Giants were 6-4 against 500 or better teams, scored 270 points against 256 given up, and had a .535 Pythagorean against good teams. This is a team whose performance improves when facing good teams, and who outscored their Pythagorean against good teams.

The Falcons record against 0.500 teams or more is 3-5.  They scored 156 points against these teams versus giving up 207 points. The team Pythagorean against good  teams is 0.324, which totals to 2.6 victories against better teams over 8 games. They performed roughly as expected.

Update (since I don’t know where else to put it): before the NYG-DAL game, Cool Standings was projecting a 62% chance of a Dallas victory (and thus playoff prospects). That prediction only made sense if Cool Standings were ignoring home field advantage in their analysis. It’s something to think about.

There are three interesting sites doing the dirty job of forecasting playoff probabilities.  The first is Cool Standings, which is using Pythagorean expectations to calculate the odds of successive wins and losses, and thus, the likelihood of a team making it to the playoffs. The second is a page on the Football Outsiders’s site named DVOA Playoff Odds Report, which is using their signature DVOA stat – a “success” stat – to  generate the probability of a team making it to the playoffs. Then there is the site NFL Forecast, which has a page that predicts playoff winners using Brian Burke’s predictive model.

Of the three, Cool Standings is the most reliable in terms of updates. Whose model is actually most accurate is something any individual reader should try and take into consideration. Pythagoreans, in my opinion, are an underrated predictive stat. DVOA will tend to emphasize consistency and has large turnover penalties. BB’s metrics have tended to emphasize explosiveness, and now recently, running consistency, as determined by Brian’s version of the run success stat.

I’ve found these sites to be more reliable than local media (in particular Atlanta sports radio) in analyzing playoff possibilities. For a couple weeks now it’s been clear, for example, that Dallas pretty much has to win its division to have any playoff chances at all, while the Atlanta airwaves have been talking about how Atlanta’s wild card chances run through (among other teams) Dallas. Uh, no they don’t. These sites, my radio friends, are more clued in than you.

The recent success of DeMarco Murray has energized the Dallas fan base. Felix Jones is being spoken of as if he’s some kind of leftover (I know, a 5.1 YPC over a career is such a drag), and people are taking Murray’s 6.7 YPA for granted. That wasn’t the thing that got me in the fan circles. It’s that Julius Jones was becoming a whipping boy again, the source of every running back sin there is, and so I wanted to build some tools to help analyze Julius’s career, and at the same time, look at Marion Barber III’s numbers, since these two are historically linked.

We’ll start with this database, and a bit of sql, something to let us find running plays. The sql is:

select down, togo, description from nfl_pbp where season = 2007 and gameid LIKE "%DAL%" and description like "%J.Jones%" and not description LIKE '%pass%' and not description LIKE '%PENALTY on DAL%' and not description like '%kick%' and not description LIKE '%sacked%'

It's not perfect. I'm not picking up plays where a QB is sacked and the RB recovers the ball. A better bit of SQL might help, but that's a place to start. We bury this SQL into a program that then parses the description string for the statement "for X yards", or alternatively, "for no gain", and adds them all up. From this, we could calculate yards per carry, but more importantly, we'll calculate run success and we'll also calculate something I'm going to call a failure rate.

For our purposes, a failure rate is the number of plays that gained 2 yards or less, divided by the total number of running attempts, multiplied by 100. The purpose of the failure rate is to investigate whether Julius, in 2007, became the master of the 1 and 2 yard run. One common fan conception of his style of play in his last year in Dallas is that "he had plenty of long runs but had so many 1 and 2 yards runs as to be useless." I wish to investigate that.

(more…)

Amazon.com, if you guys don’t know, is a  terrific source of penny books, books that third parties sell through Amazon for a penny. I’ve picked up a slew of books that way, and I’m reading quite a few of them. Of them, the most promising is “Education of a Coach” by David Halberstam, but I’m not going to talk about it until I finish some film study of the 1990 Super Bowl. David Halberstam has said some things about that game that absolutely deserve video study, so I’m in the middle of doing that. In  the meantime, I’ll mention a book I picked up for sentimental reasons, my father’s only football book when I was young, the book “Championship Football”, by Dana X. Bible.

Originally copyrighted in 1947, and a fifth printing from 1949, the book is old. The book is musty, and it’s a library copy from a junior high near Texarkana Texas. For all I know, this book was held by H Ross Perot some time in the past.

My first impression was how relevant the material was. Not the bits on strategy, but other things, like plays, like tips on playing, tips on blocking technique, tips on tackling a quarterback higher, so that you pin his arms to his body. Photographs, such as Bobby Lane showing people how to pass the ball, and players in 2, 3, and 4 point stances, are useful. Someone needs to resurrect this book, at least in PDF form, if nothing else.

The late 40s were a period when the T formation was coming into common use, but the older formations, such as the single and double wing, long and short punt formations, were still around. Dana talks knowledgeably about spinning backs, or spinners.

Dr Z: Vick as back 4, Duckett as 3, Dunn as 1, Koslowski as 2.

Spinners? You are a Dr Z fan, aren’t you? Can’t you remember Dr Z, Paul Zimmerman, trying to convince Dan Reeves to use Michael Vick as a single wing tailback, and growing sentimental about spinners?

In my dream, I lined up Vick at the run-pass tailback spot. T.J. Duckett was my spinning fullback. Warrick Dunn was the wingback, and Brian Kozlowski, normally the second tight end, was the blocking back. I just couldn’t shake the vision. Finally I called Dan Reeves, who was the Falcons’ coach at the time. Of all the loony calls he’s ever gotten, this must have ranked right up there. Anyway, I laid it all out for him, ending with Duckett as the old Michigan-style spinning fullback.

“What’s a spinning fullback?” Reeves said, and I realized that I was either real old or just dopier than usual. The idea never got any further, but I still think something like that would light up the sky.

Well, Dana has a whole page (or more) on spinners, and not just spinners, he offers a variety of formations on those pages.

Zone defenses, 1940s style. The 5-4 is what we'd call a 34 today.

Curious about the origins of scouting? Wonder how it was done before Steve Belichick came out with his scouting book? I found it interesting to compare pages between the older and the newer book. Seem familiar?

Scouting tips from Steve's book

Scouting tips from Dana's book.

Of course, strategy in those days was incredibly conservative, as offenses were not really well developed in  those days.This is a strategy chart from Dana’s book.

That chart did more to throw me for a loop than anything else, though when teams would quick kick here and there, I was at least ready for the tactic.

Upshot? Terrific book. It probably needs to be preserved in a PDF version, one that won’t age over time. These library copies won’t be around forever.

Update: Google Books has a scan of this book.

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