Posts by Daniel Apadula

How The East Will Be Won

We're already more than a quarter of the way through the NFL season, and the division races are starting to take shape. Seven of the eight divisions have one or two clear leaders, and a few teams are already facing an uphill battle into the playoffs. 

Then there's the NFC East. Three teams — the Dallas Cowboys,

We’re already more than a quarter of the way through the NFL season, and the division races are starting to take shape. Seven of the eight divisions have one or two clear leaders, and a few teams are already facing an uphill battle into the playoffs. 

Then there’s the NFC East. Three teams — the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins — are tied for second at 2-3, while the New York Giants edge the pack at 3-2. The East was the last division to see a three-win team, and the only division in which three teams share the same record. As such, it is easily the most wide-open division race in the league.

To project which of these apparently evenly-matched teams will emerge with the crown come December, the avid football fan has to know two things: which team has played the best so far (independent of record), and perhaps more importantly, what each schedule looks like down the stretch. If we learned anything from the 2014 NFC South, it’s this: someone has to win.

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Brad Penner–USA TODAY Sports

Beast of the East

With only five games under their belts, none of these teams can be accurately understood simply by looking at the points they’ve scored and the points they’ve given up (in case you were wondering, the Giants have scored the most while the Eagles have surrendered the least). That said, combining the two figures might be helpful. A team’s point differential is revealing in judging overall performance over opponents, and serves as the sole contributor to Pythagorean expectations and Pythagorean wins. 

By this measure, we start to see some separation among the division rivals:

Team PPG For PPG Against Diff. NFL Rank
New York Giants 26.4 21.8 +4.6 10th
Philadelphia Eagles 23.4 20.6 +2.8 12th
Washington Redskins 19.4 20.8 -1.4 16th
Dallas Cowboys 20.2 26.2 -6.0 24th

By virtue of their 39-17 clobbering of the Saints this Sunday, Philly brought itself into the black in this category. Before that, the Giants were the only team in the division with a positive point differential. The Cowboys, meanwhile, suffered mightily at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England crew, as their stretch without Dez Bryant and Tony Romo continues to take its toll. FootballOutsiders’ DVOA, which gauges a team’s performance on a per-play basis compared to the league average and adjusted for opponents, tells a similar story:

Team DVOA DVOA Rank Variance Var. Rank
New York Giants 15.3% 8th 2.1% 5th
Philadelphia Eagles 8.8% 12th 12.6% 20th
Washington Redskins 2.7% 15th 10.9% 19th
Dallas Cowboys -13.8% 19th 8.9% 16th

This table means that New York is both (1) by far the most efficient team in the division, and (2) the most consistent team on a weekly basis in repeating that efficient performance. That variance is a key point: the Eagles’ DVOA is impressive at face value, but that 12.6% figure indicates serious deviations from that average performance. That victory over the Saints showed a team much better than 12th in the league in efficiency, but they were nowhere near as good against Dallas in Week 2, so their DVOA ranking is not as trustworthy as New York’s. As fans of Big Blue know all too well, the Giants’ consistency can seem to disappear in the fourth quarter, but the numbers don’t lie: judging simply from performance against opponents so far, the Giants are in the best shape in the NFC East.

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(Credit: Eric Hartline–USA TODAY Sports)

The Road Ahead

Of course, there’s a lot more to this analysis than the past five games. There are still 11 more to play, each one weighing heavily on the outcome of a race this close. 

DVOA already takes strength of schedule into account, but it’s worthwhile to take a clear look at how forgiving the schedule has been for each of the East teams so far:

Team Opp Win% Rank Opp DVOA Rank
Dallas Cowboys 65% 2nd-hardest 14.1% 4th
Philadelphia Eagles 55% 11th -1.0% 19th
New York Giants 55% 12th -5.6% 23rd
Washington Redskins 50% 18th 0.2% 18th

In other words, encouraging news for the ‘Boys. Their record and their efficiency ratings are less-than-inspiring, but they’ve had a tough season so far with games against the Patriots and Falcons. No other NFC East team has had a schedule even remotely as difficult as the Cowboys’. Assuming the weeks ahead will be nicer to Dallas, the other teams will be wishing they got a bigger lead on them in the past few games.  

But let’s not just assume: we can use the same metrics to see if things will be getting better or worse for these teams down the road:

Team Opp Win% Rank Opp DVOA Rank
Dallas Cowboys 59% 3rd-hardest 6.5% 5th
Washington Redskins 56% 7th 1.9% 13th
Philadelphia Eagles 52% 11th 6.7% 4th
New York Giants 51% 13th 0.6% 18th

Instant impression: things aren’t getting much better in Texas. Not only do the Cowboys have easily one of the most punishing remaining slates in the NFL — they, unlike their division rivals, still have to play Green Bay and Seattle — they won’t have WR Dez Bryant at least until Week 7 against the Giants or QB Tony Romo at least until Week 11 against the Dolphins. Dallas has been able to keep its head above water for the time being, but if they play like they did against New Orleans or New England (or the Giants in Week 1, frankly), they’ll lose their shot at the division faster than you can say “America’s Team.”

Dallas’ one saving grace is that no team in the division has a particularly easy schedule ahead of them, so it might be hard for their opponents to get a great deal of separation. That beings said, the Giants definitely have the most forgiving future, which means more good news for the team with the most wins banked so far. 

The Eagles are a more interesting case: their opponents’ cumulative record is solid, but their combined DVOA is much better than that. This is largely due to the two unique opponents they have on their schedule — Detroit and Arizona — both of whom have higher DVOAs than their records would suggest.  

Both remaining strength of schedule and previous performance statistics (and current record) agree that New York is squarely in pole position to win the division. This is great news for the Giants faithful, especially with the impending return of Victor Cruz as a potentially legitimate receiving threat across from Odell Beckham Jr. Unfortunately, the Giants’ two losses (Week 1 to Dallas and Week 2 to Atlanta, both games in which they had the lead for most of the fourth quarter) have shown the football-watching public that you can never count their opponents out of the game.

So it seems, after all the analysis and discussion, we find ourselves no wiser than before. Surely, come the postseason, we’ll be telling stories of intrigue and drama of how the East was won.

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The Sophomore Surge Of Derek Carr

For the past decade, the once-fearsome Oakland Raiders have been little more than a punchline. They have been perennial contenders for the first pick in the draft for many years running, and their name is often circled by fans of opposing teams as a bye week.

The struggles of the Silver and Black are due

For the past decade, the once-fearsome Oakland Raiders have been little more than a punchline. They have been perennial contenders for the first pick in the draft for many years running, and their name is often circled by fans of opposing teams as a bye week.

The struggles of the Silver and Black are due in large part to the subpar play of the quarterbacks. In recent history, Oakland has started JaMarcus Russell, Terrelle Pryor, and pre-Fountain-of-Youth Carson Palmer as part of their never-ending quest to resolve the problem under center. Judging from the first five games of 2015, however, it seems the Raiders might have finally found an answer.

At 2-3 and 3rd in the AFC West coming up on a crucial game against the division rival Chargers in San Diego (and playoff odds that hover between 14 percent and 18 percent, depending on where you look), it’s hard to label the team as a whole a smashing success. But there is something to be said for the passing offense. The Raiders have gained the 11th-most yards in the air in the NFL, and boast the 10th most efficient passing attack per DVOA. Those figures mark a vast improvement from the 2014 regular season, in which Oakland ranked 26th and 28th by those measures, respectively. At the helm of this unit is this beast:

(Credit: Matt Marton--USA TODAY Sports)

In 2014, Derek Carr looked like he might just be another mediocrity in a string of disappointments as the Raiders’ signal caller. Out of 33 qualified QBs, he ranked 30th in completion percentage (58.1 percent), 30th in passer rating (76.6), and dead last in yards per attempt (5.46). He also turned in pedestrian performances by advanced stats, placing 37th in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards above Replacement) and 34th in individual DVOA out of 44 qualified passers. 

Now, we’re looking at one of the better quarterbacks in the league. Carr is 8th in the league by DYAR, and 7th by DVOA. The counting stats–yards, completion percentage, and the like–still leave some to be desired, but all rank him in the top half of quarterbacks.

What sparked this improvement? Obviously Carr is more familiar with the league in his second year, but that alone doesn’t account for this big a jump out of the cellar.

Oakland’s first-round draft pick, rookie WR Amari Cooper, has quite a bit to do with his quarterback’s emergence this year. Carr’s calling card while at Fresno State was his powerful arm; he was and is unquestionably the most talented passer in the 2014 class when it comes to making the big throws. The funny thing about making those throws, unfortunately, is that there has to be someone on the other end to catch the ball.

(Credit: Kirby Lee--USA TODAY Sports)

With Cooper in town, Carr has a legitimate deep threat. As a result, his YPA has shot up from 2014’s measly 5.46 to 7.23. Making deeper, riskier throws might come at the cost of completion percentage, but not for Carr: he’s now connecting on 63.6 percent of his throws, up again from 2014. 

He’s also quietly supported by one of the best offensive lines in the league. Last year, the group made huge strides in pass protection; by adjusted sack rate, the Raiders improved from 28th in 2013 to third in 2014. They’ve continued their dominating ways in 2015, ranking behind the Jets, Giants, and Lions as the fourth-most effective pass blocking crew. Behind a strong, cohesive line, it’s much easier for a young QB like Carr to find his footing and make the strong throws he wants to make.

So what does this mean for the future of the Oakland Raiders? For this season, it’s unclear. They don’t have a particularly difficult rest of the year: their remaining opponents combine for a .480 winning percentage and a DVOA of 0.7 percent, both of which account for schedules slightly easier than the average. Catching 5-0 Denver for the division title is a tall order, but a wild card berth is still very much in play, especially if they beat San Diego on Sunday.

Beyond 2015, however, the prognosis is very good. Raider fans have every reason to think that Carr’s sophomore-year improvement is no joke: he’s always been talented, and now he’s giving us a glimpse of what he can do with some structure around him. As long as there’s a tough O-line and at least one solid target like Cooper that will let Carr flip the switch to “rock and roll” occasionally, there’s no reason to think that this version of their QB–the one advanced stats label one of the top-10 passers in the NFL–will go away. 

While their division rivals age around them, Oakland has a young, talented core, championed by their quarterback. Carr is for real; before long, maybe this year, the Raiders–a punchline for so long–might be too.

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They Are Who We Thought They Were

At long last, the NFL season is officially underway, starting Thursday night with a poetic clash of the old and new school of the AFC. The New England Patriots are defending champions, coming off their fourth Super Bowl victory in six tries, all in the 21st century. This recent dominance has been achieved most visibly by ruthlessly efficient

At long last, the NFL season is officially underway, starting Thursday night with a poetic clash of the old and new school of the AFC. The New England Patriots are defending champions, coming off their fourth Super Bowl victory in six tries, all in the 21st century. This recent dominance has been achieved most visibly by ruthlessly efficient but ever-changing offenses, anchored by Tom Brady. Their opponents, the Pittsburgh Steelers, boast a league-leading six Super Bowl titles and some of the most fearsome defenses ever assembled. 

In this year’s opener, the new school won, because both teams proved to be almost exactly as advertised. The Patriots scored early and often with quick and precise passing (especially in the red zone, where they scored four TDs on four trips) while Pittsburgh’s defense was barely an echo of the famed Steel Curtain. 

It’s obviously not quite that cut-and-dry, so let’s take a closer look: with four regular season quarters under each of their belts, what did these two AFC contenders show us?

Mistaken Identity

The defense is quite clearly not the pride of Pittsburgh coming into this season. While that side of the ball lost some veteran presence in the offseason, including Troy Polamalu, the other side appears to be trending upwards even as Ben Roethlisberger ages. Behind some of most spectacular individual performances of 2014 on the part of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Steelers soared to 11-5 with the seventh-most points, second-most yards and second-best offensive DVOA in the league. 

Even with Bell out for this game and the next, this unit figures to be a handful under the direction of OC Todd Haley. 34-year-old DeAngelo Williams gained 127 yards on the ground, which, even accounting for Vince Wilfork’s absence, is a ridiculous total. To the surprise of many who figured Pittsburgh would lean on its star receiver with its star back sidelined, Haley’s initial game plan was highlighted by runs and screen passes. The missed FGs by Josh Scobee loomed large in this game; had the Steelers jumped out to a lead, they might have been able to stick to the plan that had worked so well on the opening two drives.

While we learned about the renewed, somewhat unexpected commitment to the run game, the Steelers defense basically taught us nothing. They’re a young squad, and expectations were not sky high, but it was brutal to watch at times on Thursday. There were times that primary targets like Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski were open by five yards or more, and a quarterback doesn’t have to be as good as Tom Brady to see and exploit that kind of breakdown in coverage.

The front seven performed ably, not giving Brady a lot of time to throw. At the same time, it’s hard to judge their performance against a New England offensive line that started three rookies–plus, Brady didn’t need all that much time anyway to find an open man. I mean, take another look at that picture. Come on.

The Champ is Here

Like I mentioned above, the fans didn’t learn much from this game; both teams came out looking more or less like their preseason predictions. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, the Patriots looked a lot like the team that went 12-4 and won the championship. Partially as a function of the dismal Pittsburgh secondary, but mostly because this is a good football team, the offense hit the ground running, picking up right where they left off from 2014. Brady went 25-of-32, including 19 straight completions, throwing 4 TDs and writing one big “thank-you” note to Judge Richard Berman.

There was a lot of turnover on the defense–they lost Wilfork up front and Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington from the secondary–and there were inklings of a potential issue for New England. Of course, Antonio Brown got his against Malcolm Butler, and it’s concerning that the Patriots were out gained by over 100 yards, and allowed so many of them to a backup RB. 

Roethlisberger also had a lot of time to throw behind an offensive line that was middling last year in pass protection. Thursday was a convincing victory over a fellow AFC title-hopeful, but the Patriots won’t get many games in which the opponent gets within field goal range twice and comes away with zero points.

Standing PAT

The last takeaway from the season opener is not just about the Patriots or the Steelers, but about the kind of league we might see this year. In the 3rd quarter, Pittsburgh successfully converted a 2-point play to go down 21-11. Scobee had missed two field goals earlier in the game, but even so, it’s an odd strategy in last year’s culture. There’s no difference in how many times you have to score going down by ten instead of eleven, and there’s a lot of time left in the game to make it up one way or another. 

But it’s a new NFL. Scobee kicked a 3-pt field goal in the game that was nine yards shorter than an extra point (now a 33-yard attempt), and the offensive line had been both opening up big holes and protecting Roethlisberger very well. More points is better than fewer points, and since the PAT is no longer such a sure thing, it’s very possible we’ll be seeing our fair share of 11-8 games, especially involving teams that are good in the trenches like the Steelers were last night.

Only one game down; there’s so much more to learn. On to the rest of Week 1.

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Jimmy Garoppolo: The Most Interesting QB In The World

Whether or not you agree with the suspension levied against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the wake of "Deflategate," there is at least one story that matters to the NFL fan: how will the team fare without their franchise QB? 

In the first four weeks of the

Whether or not you agree with the suspension levied against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the wake of “Deflategate,” there is at least one story that matters to the NFL fan: how will the team fare without their franchise QB? 

In the first four weeks of the season, the Patriots host the Steelers and Jaguars and go on the road against the Bills and Cowboys. Only division-rival Buffalo has a defense that finished in the top half of the league per pass-DVOA (incidentally, they were top in the NFL) so things could be worse for the defending champs. It is also worth noting that the general sports media seemed eager to drive the final nail into the coffin of the dynasty under Brady and Bill Belichick after the first four weeks last season, only for New England to ensure those journalists ate so many words that they’d never eat again.

All this is to suggest that the Patriots are probably fine. But what if they’re not? Or, perhaps more interestingly, what if they really love what they see? If they start 4-0 or 0-4, the organization will face some challenges and questions they haven’t faced in lo these many fourteen years, when a young 6th-rounder named Tom Brady took the reins from incumbent Drew Bledsoe

At the center of it all is the goon pictured at the beginning of this article: Jimmy Garoppolo.

It is obviously exceedingly rare for the Week 1 starter of the reigning Super Bowl champions to be shrouded in such mystery. He threw all of 27 passes last year, completing 19 of them for 182 yards. He had one touchdown, which he threw in the Week 4 game against the Chiefs that spelled the apparent end for the Patriots as we knew them, to cap off a 6-of-7, 70 yard drive. 

But very little of that impressive stat line occurred in meaningful minutes, of which he’ll play quite a few this year. We can take the rational and reserved approach to his foray into the world of starting under center in the NFL, taking note of his progress in camp and his performances in the preseason–or we can make blind and extreme predictions based on the little information we can gather from this man of mystery.

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(Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

The second option sounds more fun.

James “Jimmy” “Jimbo” “The Grappler” Garoppolo: The College Years

Garoppolo took the vibrant world of Eastern Illinois University football by storm in 2010, passing for 14 TDs and nearly 1,700 yards at a 58.8% clip in only eight games. He remained consistently great throughout his college career, even before he learned how to eat planets in the summer of ’13. His senior year, which earned him top player honors in the FCS, saw him throw an unreal 53 TDs and a ridiculous 5,050 yards with an absurd completion rate of 66%. Those are video game numbers, FCS or not.

The last one is particularly important, because Garoppolo set the school record for pass completions, previously held by…Tony Romo.

Tony Romo. Of the Dallas Cowboys. With the best completion percentage and QBR in the NFL in 2014 (MVP Aaron Rodgers‘ QBR was over six points below Romo’s). These boys out of Eastern Illinois can play. 

And not just at quarterback. No sir. Good ol’ Jimmy’s got some surprises for us there too. During the final two years of his college career, Garoppolo punted the ball nine times for a total of 287 yards. That’s a true story. He can punt too. Combine this with his serious skills at QB and that fresh spiked-in-front hair, and this kid is a triple threat.

To be fair, that punting average is just over 31 yards, which would be worst in the NFL by a wide margin: the worst team in the league by that measure, Tampa Bay, managed 40.4 yards per punt last year. But it doesn’t matter! With that kind of versatility, just the threat of punting is enough to throw a defense into disarray. Turn fourth down plays into punts at the last second, or run the best fake punt play this universe has ever seen! If any coach can do it and avoid illegal formation penalties, it’s Bill Belichick.

Heir to the FCS Master Race

Even after all this hard college punting data and rock-solid comparisons to Romo, you might be thinking to yourself, “if only I had one more mostly coincidental QB comparison for Garoppolo, then I’d have all the information I need to make a judgement about his future in the NFL.” Thankfully, there is one!

It was not too long ago that another FCS quarterback was drafted as highly as Garoppolo was in 2014. He was near the end of the second round, at the 62nd overall pick. In fact, in 2008, an FCS signal-caller went in the first round. The 18th pick, out of Delaware, went to the Baltimore Ravens, who selected…Joe Flacco.

SUPER BOWL CHAMP JOE “JOE COOL” FLACCO. 

So now we have two data points through which we can draw our line of projection for Garoppolo in his four games as the Patriots starter. He’ll either be (a) a terrific and undervalued regular season quarterback, or (b) a guy who won’t win any fantasy games but will, given the right circumstances, win a title. Flawless analysis, if you ask me.

So, the question is not “can Garoppolo be the Brady to Brady’s Bledsoe,” because the answer to that is obviously a resounding “yes.” The real question is how long it will be before the Patriots abandon the past and embrace the future.

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