(In a dimly lit church basement somewhere in America…)
AARON: Good evening everyone, and welcome to quarterback relationship counseling. Let’s all welcome our new member, Jared.
GROUP: Hi Jared!
JARED: Hi everyone. Well, it all started when I hurt my thumb. I rushed back and played hurt in two playoff games, but my partner Sean didn’t seem all that eager to put me back in the lineup. I hate to say it, but (sobbing) I think he wants to leave me for a young scrambler!
RODGERS: Thank you for sharing. I know that was difficult. Coaches can be fickle that way.
JARED: I don’t want him to take me back just for the sake of my contract.
RODGERS: You are right. That never works out, does it Carson?
CARSON: Maybe it does. I finally did it. I had Doug thrown out of the house!
RODGERS: Wow. Big step. How is that working out for you?
CARSON: I am not sure yet. But I may get into a rebound relationship with Josh McDaniels.
RODGERS: Oooh, I don’t think any of us like the sound of that. There’s give and take in most relationships. Often, both parties are at fault. It’s rare that everything is obviously one-sided…
DESHAUN: Hey everybody. I would like the floor.
RODGERS: I don’t mean to interrupt, Deshaun, but…
DESHAUN: It got so bad that my fans tried to hold a march for me. On Martin Luther King Day. A march. For me. I told them not to, but…
RODGERS: Again, I don’t want things to be derailed…
DESHAUN: I went into Cal’s office to straighten things out last week and he was sitting cross-legged on a pillow with some weirdo, burning incense and chanting “winnerwinnerchickendinnerwinnerwinnerchickendinner…”
RODGERS: Deshaun, I am sorry, this is not the forum for your situation. There’s a crisis intervention team that meets on Wednesdays. Please take care of yourself until then.
JARED: What about me? What can I do? Maybe I should scramble more.
RODGERS: That’s a bad idea. But you should do more to make him want to stay with you. In your case, that might mean becoming a bit more spontaneous and decisive. In Carson’s case, that might also mean being a little less of a Whiny Hiney.
CARSON: I’m not a whiner! Who says I’m a whiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiner? I’ll have them fired!
RODGERS: Listen, buddy: I was in your shoes once. Well, I was a much, much better quarterback, but still: I pouted and wheedled to get my way. But I have learned to meet my new partner halfway, and we are both much happier. Why, here he is now!
LaFLEUR: Hey Aaron, I am here to drop off your lunch and this week’s game plan.
RODGERS: Lunch! Yummy!
LaFLEUR: We’re going to really emphasize run-pass balance this week.
RODGERS: Balance is good. Yes, very good. Pretty good at least.
LaFLEUR: And we don’t want to rely too much on Davante Adams. That would be playing right into their hands.
RODGERS: Yeah, outsmart them, that makes sense, cool cool cool cool cool. Cool cool.
LaFLEUR: We are really going to put everything on Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s shoulders. Lots of deep, high-risk plays. Do it until it works.
LaFLEUR: Is something wrong?
RODGERS: Can. I. Speak. To. You. Alone. For. A. Minute?
(Rodgers and LaFleur step away)
(More muffled screaming)
JARED: I think I hear a replacement counselor coming. I wonder who he could be?
TOM: (bursting through the door). OK, kids, this is how it works. You are BETTER than they are. You MATTER more than they do. If you aren’t happy in a relationship, just walk away from that relationship on your own terms waving your Super Bowl rings in their faces! It’s that easy!
CARSON: Even if it means getting involved with Josh McDaniels?
BRADY: Wait … I thought we were talking about Josh McDaniels.
Buffalo Bills punter Corey Bojorquez averaged 50.8 gross yards per punt this season, tied for the fourth-highest average in NFL history and just the eighth time a punter has averaged 50-plus yards.
(Years of success [?] in the sports journalism game have trained me to write sizzling leads. So with Josh Allen, Tom Brady, [probably] Patrick Mahomes, and Aaron Rodgers squaring off this weekend, naturally I am kicking off the body of the final Walkthrough of the year with Corey Bojorquez. Would you rather read more musings on Brady’s “legacy” or beard-stroking about how wrong everyone was about Allen instead? Thought so.)
Bojorquez’s 50.8 yards per punt is the highest figure since Andy Lee averaged 50.9 yards per punt for the 2011 49ers. Shane Lechler averaged 51.1 yards per punt for the Raiders in 2009 Raiders and tied Bojorquez with 50.8 yards per punt in 2011. Lechler punted 96 and 78 times in his two top-five seasons, while Lee punted 78 times in 2011. Tellingly, Bojorquez punted just 41 times this season, a testament to the quality of the Bills offense and changing NFL tactical norms.
Gross punting rates have gone up in recent years — the NFL averaged 45.6 yards per punt in the 2020 regular season, up from 45.2 in 2015, 43.4 in 2010, and 42.5 in 2005 — in small part because punters are getting better but in large part because teams punt far less often from midfield than they used to, eliminating “coffin corner kicks” which tended to lower the gross average. I will be writing more about this in the New York Times this week, but teams averaged just 3.7 punts per game in 2020, the lowest total in history by a considerable margin and 1.1 fewer punts per game per team than in 2017.
Sammy Baugh still holds the all-time pro football record with a 51.4-yard average on 35 punts for Washington in 1940. I keep meaning to do a historic dive on Baugh’s 1940 season but never get around to it. Punting on early downs was still an occasional strategy in 1940, most players stayed on the field for offense and defense, and safeties still returned punts, so Baugh surely sailed a few kicks over the heads of exhausted and not-quite-suspecting defenses on third-and-long and watched them roll through the dirt.
Baugh (who would now be considered the starting quarterback) also shared punting chores that year with Dick Todd (more of a modern running back), and Todd averaged just 36.3 yards per punt. It’s possible that opponents knew to expect a punt when Todd lined up to take a direct snap but were forced to be ready for anything when Baugh was behind the center. Perhaps Todd only punted on fourth-and-short near midfield; maybe he was a good coffin-corner punter, or forced opponents to fear a “Wildcat” conversion attempt. At any rate, Baugh’s record appeared untouchable for decades. There’s now a good chance that someone such as Bojorquez will break it by booming one or two punts per game on fourth-and-10 from his own 20-yard line and doing little else in a season, with no attempts to pin the opponent inside the 10-yard line gumming up his gross average.
The Bills ranked fourth in the NFL in special teams DVOA during the 2020 regular season. None of the other final four teams ranked in the top half of the league. Bojorquez has gotten the job done, Andre Roberts is a fine returner, rookie Tyler Bass has done well on kickoffs (70.3% touchback rate) and is just as likely to get the big-game yips as any other playoff-inexperienced youngster on the Bills roster. Special teams are the Bills’ biggest advantage over the Chiefs. It probably won’t be enough, but a tiny field position edge certainly won’t hurt, either.
The League Leaders in Leading
The Green Bay Packers held the lead for an average of 38 minutes and 48 seconds per game during the regular season, the highest figure in the league. Here are the top five:
- Packers: 38:48
- Bills: 38:02
- Ravens: 35:51
- Seahawks: 35:17
- Colts: 32:29
The Chiefs finished sixth in the NFL by playing with the lead for 32:14 per game. The Buccaneers, with their knack for slow, slow starts, finished 12th at 28:23. The Jaguars led for just 7:56 per game this season.
Playing with the lead creates a feedback loop: it takes a very good team to play with frequent leads, but playing with frequent leads also makes a team and its players look better statistically. Everything from rushing totals to quarterback efficiency rates must be interpreted through the lens of how often a team is preserving a lead versus how often they are playing catchup. Playing with a lead even amplifies strength-of-schedule distortions: not only is it easier to convert third downs against a terrible defense, but it’s also easier to avoid third downs, which can make it hard to analyze teams with particularly easy (Colts, Ravens, Browns) or difficult (Falcons, Panthers) schedules.
Playing with frequent leads may have hid deficiencies in the Ravens (and the Seahawks and Colts, to a lesser extent) which were exposed in the postseason. That’s probably not a concern for the remaining teams with MVPs or Hall of Famers at quarterback, though it could still be a distortion which has helped the Bills. The Packers defense, on the other hand, may be getting a statistical boost from game situations. The Packers finished the regular season tied for 13th with 112.8 rushing yards allowed per game and eighth at 7.65 yards per pass attempt. Neither their run defense nor their pass rush looks all that spectacular on game film. DVOA and adjusted sack rate scrub away some of the distortions, ranking the Packers run defense 18th and pass rush 10th. But our game-score adjustments are not as big a factor as our opponent and down-and-distance and field-position adjustments, in part because the correlations are slippery, in part because there is only so much you can do: putting a heavily weighted asterisk on 86% of the Jaguars season only creates a separate set of statistical issues.
The Packers only trailed significantly in a handful of games this year, most notably their 38-10 Week 6 loss to the Buccaneers: the Bucs took a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter, and the Packers spent the rest of the game hitting themselves over the head with a shovel. The Packers have also spent a decade watching playoff losses snowball on them, so it’s easy (and lazy) to combine their reputation with Week 6’s results and joke about how likely it is to happen again. And heaven knows I will be making such easy/lazy jokes elsewhere, because it is and I am.
Here at Walkthrough, let’s remain somewhat rational: the hyper-efficient Packers offense, aggressive pass rush, and non-catastrophic run defense we have gotten used to in the second half of the 2020 season are all, to a degree, creations of their own success. The Packers are almost certainly not as feeble when playing from behind as the Ravens, or as they looked in Week 6. But if they really do struggle when playing from behind, we wouldn’t really know it, because it has been months since we have seen evidence of it.
Did you know that Leonard Fournette had a positive DVOA of 2.0% in the regular season? It’s true! You can look it up right on this here website. Fournette was a non-qualifier for the league lead with just 97 attempts. With three more carries, he would have finished 24th in DVOA, ahead of Adrian Peterson, James Robinson, Kareem Hunt, Ezekiel Elliott, and many others: not great, but hardly a punchline.
You are excused if you thought Fournette finished with a -6,000% DVOA. Analytics Twitter treats Fournette like he ran over our puppy in the driveway. He has been such a RBDM object lesson for so long that when he plays moderately well — Fournette has 36 carries for 156 yards and nine catches for 83 yards and two total touchdowns against two tough defenses so far in the postseason — many of my friends and colleagues go out of their way to praise someone else or make a backhanded comment. Fournette doesn’t catch clutch game-tying touchdown passes against the Saints: he nearly drops clutch game-tying touchdown passes against the Saints!
Ronald Jones has been a better running back than Fournette when healthy this season, finishing 10th in DVOA and sixth in DYAR. Jones also measures as one of the worst backfield receivers in the NFL: 49th in DVOA and DYAR, with five drops on 43 targets per Sports Info Solutions. Fournette has six drops on 47 targets but better DVOA and DYAR (he ranks 39th in both categories) and a much higher catch rate (77% to 66%). It’s perfectly reasonable for Jones and Fournette to share touches, whether Jones is banged up or not.
Bruce Arians has drawn criticism for running too often on first down, particularly in the playoffs. The Bucs ranked 14th in the NFL with 236 first-down rushing attempts but 22nd at 3.9 yards per rush on first downs. They ranked just 21st in first-down passing attempts, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt (16th). As mentioned in the Packers segment, the Bucs were not squatting on all that many leads, which would lead to a higher percentage of early-down rushing attempts. They just finished in the middle of the pack in both tendencies and efficiency on first downs.
Arians probably hands off on first downs a suboptimal percentage of the time, but it’s not some dunderheaded strategy. Also, it’s OK to attribute the 43-year-old quarterback’s 40-touchdown season to someone other than his magical self: Arians and his staff must be doing something right.
Fournette remains a cautionary tale about drafting running backs too early, overvaluing their production, overworking them, and all the other things we harp on here in Mathland. Fournette also has a chance to join LeGarrette Blount, Sony Michel, Antowain Smith, and other jackhammer running backs who have done a lot of dirty work to help Tom Brady win Super Bowls over the last 20 years. He should get a little credit for that. Or, at the very least, he shouldn’t be accused of standing in the way of the Buccaneers’ success.
Letting Them Linger
A Tweet from Chiefs analyst Craig Stout crossed my timeline early in the week. It points out that the Chiefs defense is much better when protecting a narrow lead (or playing from behind) than when the team is cruising with a big lead.
Stout’s figures looked a little over-granulated (he starts counting at the Week 10 bye, for example), so I dipped my own toe in the data. For the entire season, the Chiefs defense allowed 4.11 yards per rush (22nd in the NFL) when leading by eight or fewer points, tied, or trailing. They allowed 4.42 yards per rush (18th) when leading by nine or more points. Opponents rushed 66 times against the Chiefs in this situation, fourth in the league behind the Packers, Bills, and Ravens. (Yep, we saw all of these teams in the Packers segment: when a team spends much of the season protecting a commanding lead, opponents have little choice but to run the ball while down by two scores now and then.)
Chiefs opponents averaged 7.9 yards per pass attempt when facing a nine-plus-point deficit, 13th in the NFL. They allowed just 6.4 yards per attempt when tied, trailing, or protecting a smaller lead: fourth-best in the NFL. The Chiefs defense appears to get stingy when it needs to but gives up a lot of short yardage when it can afford to, which it often can.
To skip to the DVOA chorus: the Chiefs had the worst-ranked defense in the NFL when winning “big” (same criteria used above) but rank 15th when winning “small” and 12th in late-and-close situations. The Chiefs offense ranks just eighth when winning big (remember, these are the Chiefs we are talking about), but third when winning small and first in late-and-close situations.
The optimistic view is that the Chiefs can turn it on when they must, particularly on defense, and that they have everything under control when they let some weaker opponent linger in their rearview mirror. The pessimistic view is that some hard-to-pinpoint deficiency — from their struggles in short-yardage situations to their habit of losing the penalty battle to a simple lack of second-tier talent on defense — prevents them from salting away games before halftime as it appears that they should.
Either way, the Chiefs’ reputation for letting up when they should be pulling away is real. And it’s not something they will be able to get away with in their next two games.
DVOA states that the Buccaneers and Bills are slightly better teams than the Packers and Chiefs.
DVOA also ranks the Buccaneers as the highest variance team in the NFL, which is odd, because the Packers win is the only anomaly I recognize on their schedule. Take Week 6 away and the Buccaneers beat all of their easy opponents and lost to all of their semi-tough opponents, including on Sunday, when injures nerfed Drew Brees and Michael Thomas to the point that the Saints were practically the WFT 2.0.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, had the second-lowest variance in the NFL, which again feels backwards, because they can look like an upgraded version of the 2007 Patriots for three series and then spend the fourth struggling to line up correctly.
When a well-established analytical tool that I have been interpreting for over 15 years contradicts my seat-of-the-pants impressions, there’s a slight chance that my impressions are wrong. If all four teams play to their typical 2020 capacity, I feel the Packers and Chiefs should win handily. But I also think the Packers and Chiefs have a higher probability of beating themselves. Our analytics are telling the exact opposite story, but this is my column, dammit. So Packers and Chiefs it is.
Thanks for reading, everyone! It has been a blast coming back from the past. I may be stopping by from time to time in the offseason, but don’t forget to also check me out at Pro Football Network! And buy my novel! Until next time, stay safe, healthy, and sane.