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Be NFL playoff contenders without an elite quarterback; analytics whitepaper

Background

In the past ten seasons, the NFL games have shown a significant emphasis has been placed on passing the football. The rules have changed over time to allow this emphasis to be more pronounced. As product of this emphasis, teams typically require an elite level quarterback to be successful. Teams give up draft picks, top money, and “reach” in the draft to find that franchise quarterback. Not all of them succeed. If a team doesn’t have an elite level quart back, can they still be a playoff contender?

Objectives

  • Conduct a deep dive analysis to understand combinations of statistics that may indicate if teams with those combinations have a greater chance to qualify for the playoffs.
  • Understand if any identified combination has a correlation to qualifying for the playoffs.
  • Understand if any identified combination does not require an elite level quarterback to qualify for the playoffs.

Method

Ten NFL seasons from 2007 to 2016 were included in the study. Pass defense ranking, run defense ranking, total defense ranking, passing attempts, passing completions, passing yards, passing yards per game, rushing attempts, rushing yards per carry, rushing yards per game, rushing yards per season, and turnover margin were included in the study. Other supporting metrics include penalties per season, injuries and special teams effectiveness. Metrics were compared in combination. (An emphasis was placed on identifying the least number of combinations equating to the highest percentage of playoff qualifiers. This will identify the least number of pieces to put together when constructing a NFL team.) Those combinations were then compared to teams that qualified for the playoffs in each of the seasons in the study to find which combinations of metrics led to the highest percentage of teams qualifying. The quarterback of each qualifying team was identified and ranked by opinion of elite/not elite. The identified combination(s) were tested against control groups for validity. Additional analysis was done on individual games to add depth. Two case studies were identified.

Results

The combination that yielded the highest percentage of teams qualifying for the playoffs with the least amount of factors was building a passing defense capable of ranking in the Top 3 (by yards allowed) and attempting 425 or more carries on the season. 79% of the teams with this combination qualified for the playoffs during this period and several of those teams did not have an elite level quarterback at the time they qualified for the playoffs. Additionally, the carries did not have to be significantly effective. 60% of the teams that met the above criteria had an average per carry above 4.0, with the range being 3.7 to 5.3.

Conclusions

If an NFL team cannot build around an elite level quarterback, they can still be playoff contenders. Teams that can build a strong pass defense and commit to the running game have a significant chance of qualifying for the playoffs.

The study

A deep dive analysis of the last ten season indicates that 79% of teams with a Top 3 pass defense and had 425 or more carries on the season made the playoffs. Only 18% of teams with a Top 3 pass defense and less than 425 carries on the season made the playoffs, indicating that without the run attempts the pass defense is typically not enough. Some of these teams made the playoffs with Mark Sanchez, Brock Osweiler, Brian Hoyer, Jeff Garcia/Luck McCown, Matt Schaub/TJ Yates and then rookie Joe Flacco, hardly elite names in quarterbacks. Having a Top 3 pass defense and 425 or more carries will be referred to as “the criteria” in the following text.

The analysis indicated that there are no other definitive combinations that garnered as much playoff success except for having a defense that is Top 3 in both the rushing and passing category. With a Top 3 total defense, 83% of the teams made the playoffs, only 4% higher. Building both a dominate run defense and pass defense is more difficult than just building a dominant pass defense alone, yet only yields a slightly higher playoff qualifying percentage.

Combinations of the Top 3 passing defense and other categories, such as passing attempts, completions, passing yards, passing yards per game, rushing defense (outside the Top 3), turnover margin, and others had no significant correlation. The only other correlating metric was rushing yardage. 67% of teams made the playoffs with a Top 3 passing defense and 1600 or more yards rushing. However, this was significantly less than the combination of rushing attempts.

There were four teams in the ten-year span that met the criteria but did not make the playoffs. The 2012 New York Jets, the 2010 San Diego Chargers, the 2010 Oakland Raiders and the 2009 Denver Broncos. The 2010 Chargers had a historically bad special teams unit that cost them wins and also used a then record 74 players due to injuries. The 2012 Jets had the 26th ranked run defense and a turnover margin of -14, meaning nearly every game they lost the turnover battle. The 2010 Raiders had the 29th ranked rush defense, ranked 4th all-time with 148 penalties on the season and although ranked in the Top 3 for pass defense they gave up 29 passing touchdowns to rank 28th in the league. The 2009 Broncos will be discussed later as a case study. For the criteria to get a team into the playoffs, the team cannot be so bad in other areas that it costs them victories, which is the case in the four teams above. In contrast, a team can be average or below average in other areas and still advance to the playoffs. For example, the 2011 Steelers had a minus 13 turnover ratio and the 2013 Saints had the 19th ranked run defense, but still qualified for the playoffs.

To put the criteria into perspective using the first set of control group(s):

Ranking teams by pass defense in the past five seasons that had 425 carries on the season indicates a rapidly decreasing chance of playoff qualification. As the pass defense gets worse, the less likely a team will make the playoffs.

Teams ranking 6-10: 69% qualified for the playoffs.

Teams ranking 11-15: 38% qualified for the playoffs.

Teams ranking 16-20: 36% qualified for the playoffs.

In total: 49% qualified for the playoffs.

Playoff Qualification compared by pass defense ranking

To add depth to understanding the importance of this criteria combination, winning percentages were calculated per game by examining the number of carries in each contest of the teams that met the criteria in the past ten seasons. Carries by quarterbacks were removed from the analysis to eliminate scrambles and kneel-downs. This was in an attempt to isolate only designed run plays (that were not penalized). Granted there are designed quarterback runs for teams that employ the read-option, however there are only a few teams that use this type of play. It was more important to understand designed runs that can be used by all teams.

Teams with a Top 3 pass defense that had 20 or more designed runs in a game won 71% of the time. When they had less than 20 designed runs they won only 14% of the time. It is important to understand that the number of designed runs were not just a result of being behind in a game and therefore forced to pass. The scores of many of the contests that had 20 or less designed runs were close or the analyzed team was ahead for much of the game.

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Two more control groups were analyzed to understand the importance of having a Top 3 pass defense and 20 or more designed runs in a game. The first was to compare the percentage of games won from the analysis above (71%) to the overall percentage of games won by all playoff teams for the past five seasons. The analyzed teams had a higher percentage; 71% to 69%. The second control group was a random sample of teams in the past five seasons that had a pass defense ranked between 13 and 18. Each game during those seasons were analyzed by number of designed runs. The group with the Top 3 pass defense again fared better; 71% to 59%. Of those randomly selected teams, Tom Brady, Jameis Winston and Pro-Bowl version Matt Schaub were quarterbacking.

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The combination of possessing a Top 3 passing defense and 425 or more carries on the season is successful at qualifying for the playoffs

The combination of a great pass defense and running the football makes sense intuitively. The NFL has become as passing league and defending that has become more critical. Furthermore, offenses have gotten more explosive. It is essential to limit offenses chances to score. Running the football limits the number of drives per game by a team’s opponent.

Case Study #1-2009 Denver Broncos

In 2009, the Denver Broncos had the #3 pass defense and had 481 rush attempts for the season, but did not qualify for the playoffs. The Broncos started the season with six straight victories. They won only two games after that 6-0 run to finish 8-8 on the season.

The first six games the Broncos had 20 or more designed runs in five of the games and were stout against the run. They had non-penalized rushes of 19, 35, 44, 22, 25, and 28 in those six games.

In the remaining ten games, they had 20 or more designed runs in six of the ten. They lost every game when they had less than 20 or more designed runs. They went 2-4 in the other six games. Although the Broncos continued to have an extremely good pass defense, the team became porous against the run adding to the difficulty in winning games. They also gave up on the run many times in those tens games. They had non-penalized rushes of 18, 14, 21, 17, 39, 42, 28, 24, 17, and 20 in those ten games. Against the Steelers in week 9 the Broncos led the game until 9:09 of the third quarter, but 11 of the 18 runs came in the first half. In week 10, against the Redskins the Broncos led 17 to 14 at halftime. 14 of the 21 runs came in the first half. They played the Chiefs twice and in the first game the Broncos led by only 8 points at half, stuck to the run and easily won the game in a blowout. In comparison, the second game was tied 10-10 at half and tied again in the 3rd quarter, yet the Broncos abandoned the run and lost in a blowout.

The 2009 Broncos had the combination of a Top 3 pass defense and 425 or more carries, but did not make the playoffs because they typically abandoned the run in games during the second half of the season and could not stop the run.

Case Study #2 – Denver Broncos vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, December 20, 2015

The Broncos were leading the Steelers, 27-13 at halftime. They had 13 non-penalized designed runs in the first half, putting them on pace for at least 26 for the game. However, they had only 6 in the second half putting their total at 19 for the game. The Steelers were limited to only five drives in the first half, but in the second half they had nine possessions giving them almost double the chances to score. The Broncos managed only five first downs in the second half and their time of possession was only 11:57.

With all else being equal, if the Broncos ran the ball on every down and managed only two first downs they would have possessed the ball for approximately 18 minutes. This would have also limited the Steelers to six possessions and they would have not tied the game until mid to late fourth quarter. Time would have expired before their seventh possession (the possession they scored their last touchdown), sending the game to overtime. Obviously, this is a hypothetical situation, but it could be argued that if the Broncos did not throw one pass their probability of winning the game was greater. Based on the analysis, if they ran the ball one more time to give them 20 designed runs for the game, their chances of winning the game was greater.

 

Thomas Hall

I have been a diehard Denver Broncos fan since the early 80s and have loved the game of football even longer. In the past three plus decades I have been involved in football one way or another; playing, coaching, writing, analyzing, and just being a fan. Writing about the Broncos on the web has given me an avenue to share my football thoughts that is much more therapeutic than yelling at the radio during a sports talk show. I am an analytics and research manager living in the New England area with my lovely wife and three wonderful children. GO Broncos!

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