June 2009

By now, some of you might be a little tired of my reliance on FootballOutsiders, and my constant proselytizing about the site.  But one of their more interesting tenets concerns teams’ performance on third down, and how teams that are strong on first and second down, but weak on third down, will improve the following year, and vice versa.

From the FO website (in the Football Outsiders basics section, a must read):

“Teams get fewer opportunities on third down, so third-down performance is more volatile – but it’s also a bigger part of a team’s overall performance than first or second down, because the result is usually either very good (four more downs) or very bad (losing the ball to the other team with a punt).  Over time, a team will play as well in those situations as it does in other situations, which will bring the overall offense or defense in line with the offense and defense on first and second down.”

So let’s look at the Giants.  First the offense, which put up a DVOAs of 19.0% on first down, 20.5% on second down, and 37.5% on third and fourth downs.  To put adjectives to those numbers, we were very good on first and second downs, but we were fucking awesome on third down.  This year, it’s more likely that we’ll be merely very good on third down, so expect some regression there.

On defense, we were very good on first down (-17.8%), below average on second down (5.0%), and pretty bad on third and downs (-9.4%).  So we should expect some improvement on defense, even aside from our improvement in personnel.

For us Giant fans, the critical importance of third and fourth down should be fresh in our minds.  In our playoff loss to the Eagles, we went 4 for 16 in these situations, while the Eagles went 7 for 14.

I’m all for “starting up front,” and I know about how much our D-Line wore down towards the end of last year, but it initially seemed strange to me that the Giants spent so much money on two defensive tackles this offseason (Canty, Bernard) when they had three perfectly good ones on the roster (Robbins, Cofield, and Alford).

But then it was revealed that Robbins had microfracture knee surgery this offseason. The 32-year old – whose contract is up at the end of the year – is not guaranteed to be back by training camp, according to the latest reports. A source close to the team – who I ran into at last night’s Mets game – told me definitively that Robbins’ best days are over. You read it here first: Don’t be surprised if Big Fred gets cut.

(Cofield also had a knee operation. While there has been some speculation that it was microfracture surgery, the source told me that it was just a “complex scope,” and that Cofield – who said he was playing on one leg by the end of last year – should be fine for camp.)

Given the news about Robbins, the large contracts we gave Canty ($17 million guaranteed) and Bernard ($5 million guaranteed) make a lot more sense. Right now, Canty will probably replace Robbins as the “three-technique” tackle on first and second down, while moving out to left end on passing situations. Bernard will push Cofield at nose tackle on first and second down, and will probably be part of our pass-rush package on third down and in passing situations. He’s known as a powerful “pocket pusher,” so we can fantasize about him collapsing the pocket up the middle while Osi, Kiwanuka, and Tuck do their respective things.

Let’s take stock of our D-line depth for a moment. This is a non-exhaustive list, but it shows how oozing with talent we are, Big Fred or not: At the three-technique, we have Canty and Alford. At the nose, we have Cofield and Bernard. At ends, we have Osi, Kiwanuka, and Tuck. And then there’s Clint Sintim, the pass-rushing outside linebacker who will see the field on pass situations as well. That’s a pretty sick assemblage, and one that should stay fresh, thereby reducing chance of injury.

One might reasonably ask why we have invested so much in the duo of Bernard and Kiwanuka, who we refused to part with in any package for Braylon Edwards. This might seem like a steep price for two guys who aren’t technically “starters.”

But whether you like the moves or not, Jerry’s rationale comes down to something that defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said recently, that the third down and nickel package will be on the field 50 to 55 percent of the time, which, one can assume, will be the highest-leverage situations.

When looked at this way, saying Bernard and Kiwanuka “are not even starters” misses the point. Even characterizing them as “half-starters” doesn’t quite capture their value. What the G-Men seem to have done here is recognize the unique value of third down passing situations.

And when considering the Giants’ “collapse” last year, third down defense against the pass is a good place to start. Through the Ravens game (Weeks 1-11) our pass defense DVOA on third down was -6.8%. After that, not including the playoff game, it was 33.8%. (Remember, a negative DVOA is good for defense.) Looking at more conventional stats, we went from giving up an average of 4.91 yards per play through Week 11 to 5.66 after that.

The trend was just as ugly overall against the pass, not just on third down. Through Week 11, our defensive DVOA against the pass was -15.7%. From then on, not including the Eagles game, it was 22.1%. Conventional stats tell the same tale: the Giants had 14 interceptions during the first ten games, but two during the last six.

(By the way, credit for all these stats and many of these points, goes to FootballOutsiders.com. I really recommend that people familiarize themselves with their stats – they’re really the only football stats I’ve found that make much sense.)

So how much of this had to do with our drop-off in pass rush, no doubt a function of our defensive line injuries (Tuck, Robbins, Cofield all banged up)?

Our sack numbers down the stretch were significantly worse than before Week 12.  By no means was our weakened pass rush the only factor in our decline against the pass, but it was definitely a factor.

Through Weeks 1-11, our Adjusted Sack Rate was 8.1%, which would have placed 5th in the league over a full season. After Week 12, it was 6.1 percent, which would have placed around 17th, or roughly middle of the pack. Essentially, we went from a very good pass rush to an average one. All the conventional wisdom about Plaxico notwithstanding, the decline of our pass rush was a big reason we were not the same team by season’s end as we were at the beginning. Credit Jerry for recognizing that and addressing it.

Thank God the Cardinals beat these guys. If not for some late heroics from Warner, Fitzgerald, and Hightower, it’s likely the Eagles would have won the whole thing and seized the upper hand from us only one year removed from The Awesomest Thing Ever.

But as painful as that playoff loss was for us, Philly’s loss the next week had to be worse for them: We still had our ring; they had just blown a late lead and a shot at the Super Bowl, and once again saw their quarterback not get it done in a big spot.

The bad news is that they’ll be back, possibly better than ever. Obviously, we feel like we’ve improved ourselves this offseason, and will be better in than the banged-up, our-of-sorts bunch we were at the end of ’08. But two facts remain:

1) The Eagles were better than us by the end of last year. In fact, their cumulative DVOA of 31.7% ranked 1st overall, a smidgen better than our 29.4%, which ranked 3rd. But their weighted DVOA – which accounts for trends as the season progresses, and doesn’t even include the playoffs – wound up at 30.5%, comfortably better than our 23.8%. I suppose we can take solace in the superiority of our record – 12-5 vs. 11-7-1 — but they can point to beating us in our last two games, in our place.

and 2) They had a tremendous offseason, with the possible caveat of Westbrook’s health (more on that later).

First, let’s do a quick overview of this team’s strength’s and weaknesses, using Football Outsiders’ DVOA stats.

Their offense was pretty good, posting a 9.3% DVOA that ranked 12th in football. Because of Westbrook’s off-year, their passing game (12.2%) was better than their running game (5.4%). (By comparison, our offense was awesome: Our offensive DVOA was 23.7%, which ranked 5th)

The Eagles’ defense was elite: Its DVOA of -20.7 ranked 3rd in the league. It was almost equally good against the pass (-22.1%) as the run (-19.1%). (Our defensive DVOA was -4.8%, which ranked 8th.)

Philly’s defense finished with DVOAs of -3.7% in 2007 and -6.4% in 2006, and because defense is known to be more inconsistent from year to year than offense, will likely see some regression to the mean. But keep in mind that the key players on that defense – Asante Samuel (28), Sheldon Brown (30), Mike Patterson (25), Broderick Bunkley (25), Trent Cole (26), Stewart Bradley (25), Chris Gocong (25), and Akeem Jordan – are all in their prime.

Much media attention will focus on the loss of Brian Dawkins, but the 35-year-old is far from the player he once was, according to Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders, who wrote:

“Dawkins had little left in the tank and won’t be missed, with Quinton Demps competing with new acquisitions Sean Jones and Rashad Baker as the likely replacement.”

But while we’ll expect some regression from their defense, we can also expect an equal amount of improvement from their offense.

As the cliché goes, it will all start up front. Given that the only relative weakness of their team was their rushing attack, it is not surprising that Philly’s offseason moves focused on improving their offensive line: They picked up Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters (2007, 2008), will see the return of Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews (2006, 2007), who will move to right tackle alongside his newly acquired brother, Stacy Andrews (no Pro Bowls, but he’s good).

All three acquisitions represent improvements at their respective spots. Peter will replace Tra Thomas, a longtime stalwart, but one whom the Eagles made no effort to retain this offseason. Stacey Andrews will play right guard, replacing the two backups who replaced brother Shawn, who got injured and missed all but two games last year. Shawn will slide over to replace Jon Runyan, another longtime stalwart who broke down towards the end of the year, necessitating off-season microfracture knee surgery.

Last year, Philly’s O-Line represented a moderate strength: Their Adjusted Sack Rate – a pretty self-explanatory Football Outsiders stat – ranked 6th in the league at 4.3%, no doubt a reflection of McNabb’s rediscovered elusiveness resulting from his return to health and weight loss. But their run blocking, as measured by Adjusted Line Yards, ranked only 16th at 4.20 yards. They particularly struggled in short-yardage situations, a flaw that cost them a game against the Bears and snuffed out a potential comeback against the G-Men in the teams’ first meeting. Their 55% percent success rate in “Power” situations – defined by FO as goalline runs or runs on 3rd or 4th down with two or fewer yards to go — ranked 31st in the league.

They particularly struggled on runs to the left side of the line, according to FO stats: On runs off the left end, their ALY was 3.54 (25th); off left tackle, their ALY was 3.20 (30th). Was this Thomas’ fault, and will replacing him with Peters necessarily help? I don’t know, but the point is that there’s a very good chance that the Eagles’ acquisitions have turned this slightly above-average unit into a big-time strength.

This would obviously improve the Eagles running game, which stumbled last year. After posting a 16.1% DVOA in 2007, the running game slipped to 5.4% last year, still above-average, but a far-cry from the levels that the line and Westbrook had established in years past.

His game-breaking screen-pass scamper against Minnesota notwithstanding, last year was Westbrook’s worst as a full-time back: Battling an ankle injury that caused him to miss two games, he averaged 4.0 yards per carry, down from 4.8 in 2007 and 5.1 in 2006, while his personal DVOA tumbled to 6.9 from 19.9 in ’07 and 23.9 in ’06.

He had his knee scoped at the beginning of this off-season, then recently went under the knife for his ankle problems. Though he is expected to be 100 percent by mid-August, Westbrook’s future is an open question. Will he be as good as new after the surgery? Or is Westbrook, who turns 30 in September, officially on the downside?

Either way, it’s hard to expect the Eagles running game not to improve. Even if Westbrook is not fully healthy, he should be no worse than he was last year. And while Correll Buckhalter did yeoman work last year (11.0% DVOA, 4.9 YPC), Eagles fans are excited about second-round draft pick LeSean McCoy, billed as a good short-yardage runner and a good receiving running back.

But make no mistake: As every NFC East fan knows, as Westbrook goes, so go the Eagles. His health will go a long way toward determining Philly’s destiny, as well as ours.

The same statement can apply to Donovan McNabb. McNabb is a divisive athlete: Some people insist he’s a huge bitch, while others rail against those who insist he’s a huge bitch. I happen to think both cases have merits, but let’s focus on some objective stats.

McNabb’s DVOA (15.6%) ranked 12th in the league, but his DYAR, a more cumulative Football Outsiders stat as distinguished from the “rate” stat of DVOA, ranked 7th. Whichever stat you look at, he’s basically a top-third quarterback. And but for two straight horrific games – the Bengals tie (Huh? That’s even possible?) and the Ravens game in which he was benched — he would have had a top five in DVOA. (But if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle, McNabb detractors would reply.)

Even leaving aside the matter of clutchness, McNabb’s health is a perpetually open question. We are, after all, talking about a guy who sustained season-ending injuries in 2005 and 2006, and missed two games in 2007. What are the chances he’ll play a full season?

If he and Westbrook are healthy, however, this could be a dangerous offense, especially because they’ve accumulated some talent at wide receiver.

DeSean Jackson was better than I had realized last year: he had 912 yards on 62 catches and can be expected to do nothing but improve, although his 52% catch rate tempers enthusiasm slightly. Kevin Curtis, a talented deep threat, will return after an injury-marred 2008 in which he played only nine games. He will be pushed by Jeremy Maclin, for whom the Eagles traded up to draft with the 20th pick. Jason Avant, Hank Baskett, and Reggie Brown are all adequate in the best sense of the word, (as distinguished from a throwaway compliment to prove my point that the Eagles have good receivers).

Tight End Brent Celek posted a 21.9% DVOA and a 71% catch percentage, emerging as significantly better than LJ Smith. Celek completes the picture of an offense without any real weaknesses if guys stay healthy.

Looking at the offense as a whole, it seems likely that both the running and passing games should improve. Even if the defense takes a step back, if the offense goes from “pretty good” to “very good,” this team can match its statistical awesomeness of last year. There’s always the small matter of converting a high DVOA into a high win total – something the Eagles have struggled with in recent years – but there’s no way around the fact that the Eagles should be a real contender.

Giants fans:

First, I want to apologize for – or at least explain – the sporadic nature of posts the past couple of years.

Beginning in July of 2007, I was working a super time-consuming job as a reporter for a local newspaper. The job required me to write full-length 10 articles per week, a heavy workload led to my dropping the blog altogether in 2007, and then petering out towards the end of 2008.

But last week, I quit my job, so I should have plenty of time for sharing my obsessiveness about the G-Men with all you fellow die-hards. So get psyched for another season, and stay tuned for more posts!