Baltimore Ravens: The 2011 season was just a slight variation on the 2008, 2009, and 2010 seasons. The strategies were familiar. Ray Rice rushed 291 times, with 239 of those carries from a two-back formation: the Ravens are one of the last NFL teams for whom you can pencil in 15 I-formation handoffs per game. Rice provided the jabs, Flacco and the receivers the roundhouse wallop. Flacco threw 78 passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air (third in the league), completing 21 for 686 yards. The Ravens also drew five pass interference penalties for 219 yards on 20-plus-yard passes, fringe benefit yardage for a team that constantly challenges man defenders deep down the sidelines. When the receivers were covered, Flacco checked down to Rice: 61 of Rice's 104 targets were classified as "dumpoffs" by our game charters. Run, bomb, run, dumpoff, run, run, bomb. In an era when playbooks are downloaded onto iPads, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron keeps his on an 8-track.
Cincinnati Bengals: While Bengals fans stagger woozily away in search of Dramamine, DVOA paints a different picture, one of a team that has spent the last three seasons walking an efficiency line so straight it would pass a field sobriety test. In 2009, Cincinnati finished 19th in DVOA at -0.1%. In 2010, the Bengals were 19th again, at -3.4%. Last year, when they made a playoff appearance, DVOA still ranked them only 17th overall at 0.1%.
Cleveland Browns: From afar, it sounds promising: a pair of new blue-chippers on offense and a strong defensive talent base moving into year two of a new scheme. So why is our 2012 projection so poor, and why is there so little optimism by the Lake? To begin with, there is the AFC North, a relentless cauldron that makes breaking out of the cycle of suckitude difficult. The Browns have won but three division games in four years. The rest of the slate figures to stiffen as the NFC East and AFC West make up half the Browns' opposition this season. Less tangibly, the Browns seem to be following an outdated model in building the team, at least on offense. In a pass-first, -second, and -third league, Cleveland has turned over its offense to a highly-drafted running back and a rookie quarterback with a closer sell-by date than preferred, two moves that certainly shun modern team-building wisdom.
Pittsburgh Steelers: In 2009 and 2010, according to J.J. Cooper's time-to-sack data, Ben Roethlisberger averaged 3.4 seconds per sack in a league where quarterbacks average 3.1. Furthermore, with Roethlisberger at quarterback, the offensive line gave up 45 "long" sacks (i.e., 3.0 seconds or slower) as opposed to only 22 "short" sacks (i.e., 2.5 seconds or faster). In other words, at least through 2010, Roethlisberger was holding onto the ball longer than the amount of time his offensive line should be expected to block. Three-tenths of a second may not seem like much, but it's an eternity for an offensive lineman trying to keep faster pass rushers at bay. A funny thing happened in 2011, though: Sacks became far less attributable to Roethlisberger. His average sack time decreased to the league norm (3.1), and he only had two more long sacks (18) than short sacks (16). With blame for sacks shifting to the offensive line, and questions surrounding whether or not Roethlisberger could stay healthy enough to finish out the final four years of his contract, Pittsburgh decided that the optimal way to get full value was a modest return to their smash-mouth days of old. It would be a win-win for everyone, including a Pittsburgh fanbase accustomed to lunch pail offense.
Buffalo Bills: Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's numbers, and the offense's numbers as a whole, tailed off drastically in the second half of the season. Buffalo's pass DVOA was positive in every one of their first eight games, and negative in six of the final eight. After the season, it was reported that the downturn coincided with Fitzpatrick cracking two ribs in a win over Washington, and that he played out the season with the unreported injury. Now let's be honest, the effects of "unreported injuries" are often exaggerated. However, if the injury really did slow Fitzpatrick down, then a return to health would make Buffalo a top 10 offense again. The Bills were seventh in offensive DVOA through Week 9 of last year, compared to 24th in Weeks 10-17.
Miami Dolphins: Jeff Ireland is the new Matt Millen. Once you accept that simple fact, everything the Dolphins have done in the past three years makes perfect sense. Analyzed logically, their indecision at quarterback, on-and-off flirtation with gadget offenses, incapability of landing premium free agents, indifference toward upgrading their skill positions, and seeming satisfaction with six or seven wins looks like directionless foolishness. Seen through the Prism of Millen, though, the last three years are the clear product of highly directed foolishness. Ireland may have no idea what he is doing, but no one can question his dedication to doing it. He really thinks that his lurching, reactionary managerial approach is the right way to do business.
New England Patriots: Has a defensive mastermind ever fielded a defense this bad? Not in the last two decades, certainly. The worst performance by any Bill Parcells defense was his first season in New England, when he took over the least talented team in the league. New England's defensive DVOA that year was 5.9%. Tony Dungy came to Indianapolis and fitted his Cover-2 scheme to a Colts team that put the bulk of its resources into the offensive side of the ball. His worst season? The 2006 Super Bowl team, which had a DVOA of 8.5% thanks to an extraordinarily bad run defense that allowed 5.3 yards per carry for the season. Neither Bill Cowher nor Rex Ryan ever fielded a defense with a positive DVOA, while Andy Reid's Eagles teams with Jim Johnson running the defense saw their DVOA dip into the black only once, in the 2003 season when Philadelphia finished at 3.0%. New England's defensive DVOA last year was 13.2%, 30th in the league. This shocking state of affairs raises two questions: 1) How did it come to this? and 2) How quickly can Bill Belichick turn this thing around?
New York Jets: There's a good chance that all of the Jets' talk about their Wildcat package is just coded language, and Tim Tebow will become the starter after Mark Sanchez's first stalled drive. Keeping Tebow in the game and letting him throw wobblers makes more sense than shuttling Sanchez on and off the bench to attempt passes with slightly less wobble. The threat of a Tebow scramble is more likely to keep the defense honest than the threat of Sanchez suddenly figuring out what he is doing. If the Jets persist in trying to develop a Sanchez-Tebow platoon, they risk the worst of all worlds: Tebow running telegraphed options into a prepared defense; an angry, uncomfortable Sanchez shunting into and out of games; and teammates and fans taking sides in what could become an ugly controversy.
Watch Blaine Gabbert's tape last year and you will see a boy playing with men.
Houston Texans: The Texans had arguably the best offensive line in the NFL by the end of the season, but running up against the salary cap forced the departures of right tackle Eric Winston and right guard Mike Brisiel. Winston fell off a bit in 2011, especially in pass protection, but the decision to let him walk in favor of re-signing center Chris Myers was fascinating. Neither Myers nor Winston is an upper-echelon pass protector. Both excel in the run game, but Myers will turn 31 shortly after the season starts, while Winston will turn 29 in November. Perhaps the Texans valued Myers' line calls more highly than Winston's steady play, or perhaps Winston's drop-off was disconcerting to them.
Indianapolis Colts: Their lack of pass defense is really what keeps the rose off the bloom for Indianapolis this year. It doesn't take an incredible amount of wishful thinking to conjure up a best-case scenario where Andrew Luck has a Newton-esque rookie season, the offensive line gels quickly, someone establishes himself at the second wide receiver spot, and the run defense is addressed by some of Chuck Pagano's Baltimore legacy signings. Turning around the trends of their pass defense is almost entirely reliant on rebound seasons from two players over 30 that are changing positions.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Watch Blaine Gabbert's tape last year and you will see a boy playing with men. There were a few minor signs of improvement, and a few nice throws down the stretch, but nothing that would lead you to suggest that he had turned a corner. This is a quarterback that made the vast majority of his throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. This is a quarterback that showed signs of panic even when his pocket was relatively clean—though he did get a bit better at this as the season wore on. What was most galling about watching him was his footwork. He correctly stepped into maybe one of every nine throws, and that absolutely killed his accuracy.
Tennessee Titans: The interior line was the source of most of Tennessee's problems last year. Leroy Harris wasn't constantly terrible, but our game charters noted some fairly magnificent lowlights. "Roos has [John] Abraham blocked. Harris comes off and helps and instead shoves Abraham into Hasselbeck as he's throwing." "Harris clips AND holds [Pat] Sims on the same play. Really impressive." "RIP Leroy Harris. Fat Albert [Haynesworth] drives him 3 yards backwards at the snap."
Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning proved in Indianapolis that he doesn't need a dominant defense to win games, just a steady defense that shows up every week. That's good news, because while Denver's defense wasn't particularly good last year, it's hard to find a defense that was more steady. The 2011 Broncos had the second-lowest game-to-game variance of any defense in the 21 years for which we have DVOA stats, behind only the 2001 Chiefs. That's a credit to head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen (now gone to Oakland) for getting their players to show up and perform every week.
Kansas City Chiefs: If there's one thing Crennel can do to improve this club, it's to keep his team focused and playing at their best week in and week out. Under Todd Haley, while they played very well at times, they also tended to get blown out with annoying regularity. They lost five games by at least three touchdowns last year. Even in their 10-win 2010 campaign, they lost four games by 20 or more points (including the Wild Card game against Baltimore). The Chiefs ranked 11th in Football Outsiders' variance stat in Haley's first year in 2009, but 24th and 29th in 2010 and 2011 (including three games under Crennel last year).
Oakland Raiders: They're coming off their two best seasons in the past nine years. Granted, those seasons were both only 8-8, but after years of four to six wins, that in itself is a great improvement. Those eight wins represented a bit of an overachievement, as the Raiders had 7.5 Estimated Wins and 6.1 Pythagorean Wins. Given the limitations in what they could do this offseason, they're unlikely to be much improved from that, meaning they're a fringe playoff team at best. Both GM Reggie McKenzie's background working for Ted Thompson in Green Bay and his public comments indicate he prefers to build through the draft, probably with the occasional judicious free-agent signing. That's generally the right way to build a consistent winner, but it is also a multi-year process.
San Diego Chargers: Quietly, one of the NFL's most impressive multi-year team records came to an end in 2011. For the first time since 2003, the San Diego Chargers finished with fewer than 10.0 Pythagorean Wins. That streak of seven consecutive such seasons was the second-longest in the NFL since the expansion to a 16-game season in 1978, trailing only San Francisco's Brobdignagian streak of 16 consecutive years. One reason the ending of the streak was so quiet was 2011 didn't feel that much different from 2010, or for that matter 2005 or 2008. In each of those seasons, the Chargers underperformed their Pythagorean record and ended up 8-8 or 9-7.
Chicago Bears: The Bears would have very likely reached the playoffs had quarterback Jay Cutler (whom fired GM Jerry Angelo traded for in 2009) and Matt Forte (whom Angelo drafted in 2008) not gotten hurt late. Cutler's injury was a particularly big blow. In Weeks 1-to-11, when he was healthy, the Bears offensive DVOA was -7.5%, ranked 23rd in the league; in Weeks 12-to-17, with him out, it was -44.9%, dead last. The "with-Cutler" DVOA isn't great, of course, but the "without Cutler" DVOA would be the worst in history if it spanned over an entire season.
Detroit Lions: Detroit used shotgun on 68 percent of offensive plays, the highest rate in NFL history. Shockingly, the Lions were worse in shotgun (4.9% DVOA, 16th) than they were with Matthew Stafford under center (11.0% DVOA, fourth).
Green Bay Packers: Statistically, the Packers defense was lower-echelon in 2011, but the talent they have suggests they're much closer to the top echelon. They're almost like a B-grade version of the Ravens (which is a compliment). But because the Packers offense is so explosive, this defense gets stuck in a lot of shootouts. A team with an inconsistent pass rush is going to take a lot of bullets in a shootout. If the Packers' pass rush were to regain its form, Green Bay would be able to withstand a rash of injuries or unexpected regression from the offense and still remain the best team in the NFC.
Minnesota Vikings: On the surface, GM Rick Spielman is rebuilding the Vikings with a conservative model of running and defense. In today's NFL, however, those conservative values create huge risks. Spielman is trying to win by putting a premium on defense (control the clock, keep the score close and low) but he starts with a defense that is miles away from elite. In Adrian Peterson, the Vikings have hitched their wagon to their most vulnerable horse, but as a violent 27-year-old runner with a history of injuries that date back to his college days, Peterson almost certainly has no more than three good seasons left in him. Perhaps the biggest risk is relying on a ground game when the rest of today's NFL recognizes that most games are won and lost through the air. With a strategy that looks like he's playing it safe, Spielman is actually rolling the dice.
Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys' projected starting line has one former first-rounder, two seventh-rounders, and two undrafted players. This is why the Morris Claiborne trade was a questionable move. The Cowboys gave up a second-round pick, which they could have used to boost their offensive line, to take a cornerback, who will probably play badly in his first season. In all likelihood, that trade makes Dallas a worse team in 2012, even if Claiborne improves them in the long term.
New York Giants: Sometimes a mediocre-to-good team gets lucky every week for a month. Sometimes a mediocre-to-good team plays a little bit better during a string of games, based simply on natural human variation. Sometimes a team plays its opponents to a standstill for a few weeks in a row, but wins each game close thanks to a fortuitous break here or there. When the team is closer to mediocre, and the string of luck comes in November and December, you end up with the Tebowmania Broncos. When the team is closer to good, and the string of luck comes in January, you end up with that team winning a Super Bowl. The fact that it has been the same team twice in five years could also just be part of that randomness.
Philadelphia Eagles: The problems in the secondary actually lasted longer than the problems with the front seven, which is a bit odd since it was obvious to pretty much anyone who understands football that the Eagles were using Nnamdi Asomugha wrong. The Eagles were so happy about signing one of the best cornerbacks in football that they totally ignored the roster problem they had created for themselves: They now had three cornerbacks who were much better on the outside and only two places to put them. So defensive coordinator Juan Castillo decided to use Asomugha as a "joker" defender who could move all over the field. He played slot corner. He played deep safety. He played strong safety, almost like a dime linebacker. He did crossing moves where he started at corner and then switched with a safety. He blitzed a little bit. None of these are things Nnamdi Asomugha is good at.
Washington Redskins: It's really hard to overstate just how valuable first-round draft picks are in the NFL. Using that classic draft value chart, Washington gave St. Louis more value for the rights to draft Robert Griffin III than the Giants gave San Diego for Eli Manning, or the Falcons gave San Diego for Michael Vick. And those picks are worth even more now than they were in 2001 or 2004 because of the new slot-controlled salaries for first-round picks. There's no way Griffin can live up to the hype without making double-digit Pro Bowls. An essay by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective suggested that for the Redskins to get equivalent value for the picks they gave up, Griffin will need a career as productive as Tom Brady's.
Atlanta Falcons: Marcus Hayes condemned cornerback Asante Samuel as "a fraud, wrapped in a mirage, inside an illusion" in a Philadelphia Daily News article after the trade. That was actually the nicest thing he said in an exit-interview article about a player who earned three Pro Bowl berths in Philly. Samuel's tackling has always been reminiscent of a mother daubing an infant's cheek with a cotton ball, but his performance in coverage has been excellent according to our data. Last year, he led the NFL in adjusted yards allowed per pass with 4.4 yards. He finished fourth in Success Rate, holding his receivers to an incomplete pass, interception, or minimal gain on 66 percent of pass attempts. Samuel finished first in both metrics in 2010. As for the tackling, in 2011 Samuel allowed an average of just 2.2 yards per catch after receptions, fifth best in the NFL, and could actually be seen delivering forceful blows on occasion. Given the choice of dispassionate numbers and a columnist with a grudge preaching to the knockout-hungry base, erring on the side of the stats is always wise. Samuel still performs at or near a Pro Bowl level.
Carolina Panthers: Dear Cam Newton, On behalf of doubters everywhere, we would like to apologize. We thought you were just another spread-option scrambler destined to suffer through a rough rookie year on a last-place team. We assumed we would see a handful of exciting runs, a bomb or two to Steve Smith, and lots of bad reads and scared-squirrel behavior in the pocket. We misjudged you. Badly. We hope you understand why we made the mistakes we made, wrote the things we wrote and projected the numbers we projected. It had nothing to do with race. Well, maybe not quite nothing, because it is impossible to eliminate race from any discussion of a black quarterback. But it had little to do with race. It was about your limited experience, only one year as a starter at the Division I level. It was about the hinky, customized Auburn offense, with all of its option runs and tunnel screens that were essentially handoffs. It was about your evasive interview and press conference style: You sounded scripted and unprepared, mentally and emotionally, for life as an NFL starter. It was the high expectations and the short training camp. We are skeptics, by nature and profession, and we were forced to conclude that you were not ready to perform well, based on all available evidence. We were not just wrong, but totally wrong. You did not just play well. You accomplished the unprecedented. The 2011 Panthers achieved the largest single-season offensive DVOA improvement in history, by a wide margin.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints are going in a bold new direction on defense. Ironically, the paradigm shift was planned and had nothing to do with bounties or suspensions. Gregg Williams lost his job the old-fashioned way long before we heard creepy audiotapes or saw suspicious ledgers. He coordinated a blitz-heavy defense to a mere 33 sacks last year, with the Saints plunging to 28th in the league in defensive DVOA. Two high-profile defensive failures provided bookends to the 2011 season: Williams's defenders did not seem to know where to line up or who to cover in the 42-34 season-opening loss to the Packers, and the final four minutes of the playoff loss to the 49ers constitute a "What Not to Do" primer for late-game strategy.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The offseason talent infusion gives Josh Freeman opportunities while taking away excuses. Freeman's public image took an abrupt about-face in the course of a few months last year. During the lockout, he was portrayed as a fiery organizer of player practice sessions and a star on the rise. By the December of Dismemberment, Freeman was an undedicated goof-off whose hand injuries were too serious to allow him to throw straight but not serious enough to keep him away from the pistol firing range on off days. Freeman's interception totals ballooned and his accuracy dropped, but there were many factors involved: the hand injury, some bad bounce luck, receivers who could not get open, backs who could not catch or block, and a fluky 2010 interception total that set expectations a little high for a young quarterback. (Freeman had eight likely interceptions dropped by defenders in 2010, compared to just two in 2011.) Whether he was a cause or product of the late-season malaise is impossible to determine from tape: It's like trying to determine who is drunk from examining crowd footage at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Freeman still has the talent to be a productive starting quarterback. This year, he has something close to the supporting cast.
Flynn's floor is a league average starter who, with the right supporting cast, could earn a few trips to the Pro Bowl.
Arizona Cardinals: Coach Ken Whisenhunt's offseason comments about the quarterback position make it clear that he's a believer in "quarterback wins" as a viable statistic. John Skelton opened training camp on equal footing with Kevin Kolb, although by our metrics Kolb (-18.5% DVOA, -133 DYAR) was better than Skelton (-27.6% DVOA, -326 DYAR) in 2011's battle of lame and lamer.
St. Louis Rams: The team's ultimate fate will lie in the hands of coach Jeff Fisher's first acquisition in St. Louis, new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Son-of-Marty's primary task will be to turn Bradford into an efficient NFL quarterback, something he hasn't been in his first two seasons. The jury's still out on Schotty Jr. as a quarterback whisperer, though, because the best DVOA ranking for a quarterback playing in his offense was Chad Pennington finishing 13th in 2006. The past five years, his quarterbacks have ranked no higher than 25th.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are this year's poster children for the "plexiglass principle," which states that a team showing dramatic improvement one season tends to decline the following season. Bill James coined the term for major league baseball, but it works just as well for the NFL. San Francisco's total DVOA was 29.8 percentage points better in 2011 than it was in 2010. If you look at the 41 teams between 1992 and 2010 that showed similar improvement from one year to the next (i.e., between 25 and 35 percentage points), you find that they declined an average of 12.1 DVOA percentage points and 2.3 wins the following season.
Seattle Seahawks: What do we really know about a seventh-round pick with just two starts on his NFL resume? The answer may be "more than you think." Matt Flynn's huge performance against Detroit in Week 17 (31-of- 44 for 480 yards and six touchdowns) was good for a 273 DYAR, which makes it one of the 20 best passing performances of the last 20 years. Our own Vince Verhei noted in a January article for ESPN.com that even the worst starting quarterbacks to post a single-game DYAR of 270-plus—Marc Bulger, Randall Cunningham, and Trent Green—made a Pro Bowl. The only one who never made a Pro Bowl, Scott Mitchell, was at least a league average starter for a number of seasons. That puts Flynn's floor at a league average starter who, with the right supporting cast, could perform at a level where he could earn a few trips to the Pro Bowl—in other words, Matt Hasselbeck.
Excerpted from the Football Outsiders almanac, which can be purchased as a PDF or a book. The almanac was written by Aaron Schatz, Andy Benoit, Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, Tom Gower, Matt Hinton, Sean McCormick, Rivers McCown, Brian McIntyre, Mike Tanier, Danny Tuccitto, Vince Verhei, and Robert Weintraub.