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Comparing NFL teams against perceptions

By Steve Makinen  () 

Last week’s report on Effective Per Play stats in college football prompted “Point Spread Weekly” readers to ask me to put together the same material for the NFL. Well, a number of NFL teams might not be what they seem. And I plan to prove that by illustrating one of the exercises I like to do after a handful of games, which analyzes the play-by-play data against common perception. I believe this is a way you can find overrated and underrated teams to take advantage of in the next couple of weeks.

I’ll show the top five teams whose Effective Yards Per Play statistics don’t match up with their perceived strength. I took my Effective Offensive and Defensive Yards Per Play figures and assigned them an equivalent power rating on the scale I use. I then took these EYPP equivalent ratings and compared them with the combined average of my current power ratings, which are based heavily on betting markets and those of Sonny Moore and the ESPN FPI. The latter is a more mainstream indicator of team strength. This should strengthen my findings and eliminate chances for judgment errors by me or others.

The assumption is that if the Effective Yards Per Play equivalent rating is higher than the average SM/ESPN power rating, that team is playing better than its perceived strength, and vice versa. Does this mean the teams playing better should automatically be play-on teams in the coming weeks or that those playing worse should be faded? Not necessarily, as other factors could affect teams’ perceived ability. For instance, I can think of six factors (adding one from last week) that would have a lesser impact on an oddsmaker’s, analyst’s or fan’s perception of a team’s strength when compared with analyzing records and scores. These include:

— Turnovers. Nothing changes a score or perception of a game more quickly than turnovers. Teams on the positive end of the turnover battle might not be as good as advertised, and vice versa, as in many cases, turnovers can be a matter of fortune.

— Sacks for/against. Sacks can be very influential plays that lead to uncomfortable down-and-distance settings. This naturally leads to atypical play-calling, which can in turn lead to misrepresentations of teams’ tendencies and strengths.

— Third-down success. Very few statistics beat third-down conversions to indicate success or lack thereof. On both sides of the ball, how a team fares on third down directly impacts the scoreboard.

— Strength of schedule. Teams can play well and get beat handily or play poorly and still survive a game, and it’s often simply dependent on the opponent. These results might not harm or help a team’s perceived strength level for those simply looking at scores and records. But they show up in my effective stats.

— Time of possession. How much a team possesses the ball in a game or a season can be overrated. With most teams running pass-happy offenses and calling plays at the line of scrimmage rather than in a huddle, long drives can prove scarce. The ability to hit big plays on offense seems like the preferred result nowadays, whereas long drives used to be paramount. Defenses try to come up with big plays while causing turnovers and forcing teams into long down-and-distance situations.

— Penalties. Penalties and penalty yards can have a huge impact on teams’ yards-per-point statistics. Teams that are penalized a lot make things harder on themselves by creating difficult down-and-distance situations to obtain or defend.

 

Teams with Effective Yards Per Play stats better than their perceived strength, along with their influential statistics (league ranks out of 32).

1. CAROLINA: 3-PR Avg - 22.4, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 31.4, Difference: + 9

Turnover Margin Per Game: + 0.2 (15)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2 (15)/0.8 (31)

Third Down Conv% Off/Def: 44.4% (13)/50.7% (13)

Strength of Schedule: 24.8 (9)

Time of Possession: 32:14 (3)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 56.3 (24)

Analysis: Carolina has won three of its first six games and posted some of the league’s most impressive effective yardage statistics despite being down its best player and most formidable weapon for most of the early part of the season. The Panthers’ Effective Yards Per Play Equivalent Power Rating is 31.4, which is just 0.6 points less than where I have the league’s top rating. First-year coach Matt Rhule’s team has been equally good on both sides of the ball against the league’s ninth-toughest schedule. The Panthers have controlled games well despite not having RB Christian McCaffrey and rank third in the NFL in time of possession. This team has come a long way since last year and is up six points on my overall power ratings from then. These effective stats show the Panthers might be even better than that.

2. L.A. CHARGERS: 3-PR Avg - 21.8, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 28.9, Difference: + 7.1

Turnover Margin Per Game: -0.6 (27)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2.2 (17)/1.6 (24)

Third Down Conv% Off/Def: 47.9% (8)/38.8% (8)

Strength of Schedule: 26.3 (2)

Time of Possession: 30:42 (11)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 41 (8)

Analysis: The Chargers were on the short list of teams I projected could be much better than a year ago. The record (1-4) isn’t showing it, but the effective stats and point-spread record (3-1-1 ATS) are. Against the league’s second-toughest schedule, L.A. has lost four games by seven points or fewer. Rookie QB Justin Herbert has been very promising, and if coach Anthony Lynn’s team can flip the turnover script and solve some penalty problems, the Chargers should be more effective closing out games.

3. HOUSTON: 3-PR Avg - 22.2, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 28.8, Difference: + 6.6

Turnover Margin Per Game: -0.5 (25)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 3.2 (29)/2.7 (9)

Third Down Conv% Off/Def: 40.3% (21)/47.0% (21)

Strength of Schedule: 25.8 (3)

Time of Possession: 26:06 (32)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 32.3 (4)

Analysis: Houston’s 1-5 start could be a bit of a mirage, as the Texans have lost three games against teams that have combined for a 15-1 record. Even so, they have averaged 24.3 ppg in their first six outings. In fact, their Effective Offensive Yards Per Play is 6.83, good for the top spot in the NFL. You can see from the stats that Houston has struggled with turnovers, getting sacked, third downs on offense and defense, time of possession and penalties. This team has a lot of potential to win games and cover point spreads with just a little improvement in any of those areas.

4. MINNESOTA: 3-PR Avg - 21.7, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 28.2, Difference: + 6.5

Turnover Margin Per Game: -1.2 (31)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2.3 (19)/2.2 (18)

Third Down Conv% Off/Def: 37.7% (26)/33.8% (26)

Strength of Schedule: 25.4 (4)

Time of Possession: 27:26 (30)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 34.3 (6)

Analysis: One thing the first four teams I’ve outlined have in common is that they’ve played tough schedules yet have proven competitive. Minnesota is 1-5 in the standings but has gone 3-2 ATS. The Vikings’ current Effective YPP Equivalent Power Rating of 28.2 is actually highest in the NFC North, though they are 3.5 games back in the standings. Coach Mike Zimmer’s team has easily been better on offense than defense in the early going, though turnovers and inability to sustain drives have been problems. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has thrown 10 interceptions so far. This team has a lot to clean up but could be dangerous in the second half if it happens.

5. DALLAS: 3-PR Avg - 19.2, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 23.7, Difference: + 4.5

Turnover Margin Per Game: -2 (32)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2.3 (20)/1.8 (19)

Third Down Conv% Off/Def: 45.3% (12)/48.8% (12)

Strength of Schedule: 23 (23)

Time of Possession: 27:37 (29)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 51.7 (18)

Analysis: Dallas’ season has been a nightmare from the beginning. With heaps of expectations placed on the franchise, the Cowboys have done nothing but disappoint, losing all six games against the point spread. They are last in the NFL in turnovers, and to correct that problem they will have to do so with a backup quarterback. First-year coach Mike McCarthy seems to have reinvented the way this team was expected to win, and not in a good way. What used to be a dominant line of scrimmage has fallen to 23rd in the league in rushing attempts and yards per game. With QB Dak Prescott out for the season, it’s hard to see things getting better in 2020.

Teams with Effective Yards Per Play stats worse than their perceived strength, along with their influential statistics (league ranks out of 32).

1. TENNESSEE: 3-PR Avg - 26.8, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 20.2, Difference: -6.6

Turnover Margin Per Game: + 1.2 (2)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 1.2 (4)/1.4 (28)

Third Down Conv% Off/Def: 48.3% (6)/57.8% (6)

Strength of Schedule: 20.8 (28)

Time of Possession: 29:21 (22)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 46.2 (13)

Analysis: Tennessee is undefeated after five games despite outscoring opponents by only 7.2 ppg. Four wins have come by six points or fewer. The Titans have been on the favorable end of turnover luck and in third-down conversions, meaning any fortune change in those areas could result in a downturn. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is off to a nice start, and Derrick Henry is doing his usual damage. But the Titans’ defense is fourth worst in the NFL in Effective Yards Per Play allowed. It’s very hard to envision continued success if that pattern sticks.

2. ATLANTA: 3-PR Avg - 22.4, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 15.8, Difference: -6.6

Turnover Margin Per Game: + 0.5 (10)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2.2 (16)/1.3 (29)

3rd Down Conv% Off/Def: 43.0% (16)/41.4% (16)

Strength of Schedule: 23.6 (19)

Time of Possession: 30:58 (9)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 47.7 (14)

Analysis: Other than Dallas, Atlanta could be the most confounding team in the NFL, sitting at 1-5 despite scoring 27 ppg. The problem is that my Effective Yards Per Play stats show that the Falcons could actually be much worse. They are barely better than the average NFL team offensively and are ranked dead last in the league defensively. In truth, this team isn’t nearly as explosive as people tend to believe, and it’s a sieve on defense. That is a bad recipe, and bettors need to be careful expecting the Falcons to play as live underdogs, or in the case of this week, favorites. 

3. PITTSBURGH: 3-PR Avg - 28.6, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 22.1, Difference: -6.5

Turnover Margin Per Game: + 1 (4)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 1.6 (10)/4.8 (1)

Third Down Conv% Off/Def: 46.0% (10)/42.7% (10)

Strength of Schedule: 19.8 (31)

Time of Possession: 33:22 (2)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 51 (17)

Analysis: There is something about Pittsburgh’s 5-0 start that I just haven’t been able to rally behind, and perhaps it’s woven into these effective stats. On an effective play-by-play basis, the Steelers are showing a power rating of 22.1, which would be equivalent to a team with a 2-3 record. They’ve been on the good end of turnover luck, they lead the league in sacks and they are No. 2 in time of possession. Will these trends continue when they face tougher opponents, starting this week in Tennessee?

4. MIAMI: 3-PR Avg - 25.4, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 20.5, Difference: -4.9

Turnover Margin Per Game: + 0.3 (12)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 1.7 (11)/2.8 (7)

Third Down Conv% Off/Def: 40.0% (22)/31.3% (22)

Strength of Schedule: 22.3 (25)

Time of Possession: 31:27 (7)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 36.7 (7)

Analysis: The Dolphins will turn to rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa out of the bye week. Naysayers were questioning whether it was the right move for a team sitting at 3-3 and in the playoff hunt. Well, despite scoring 26.7 ppg, my effective stats show that Miami is worse than the average team offensively. In other words, the Dolphins certainly have room to grow. Defensively, they are much worse than the average team despite playing the eighth-easiest schedule so far. In summary, my effective ratings are showing this team isn’t as good as its start indicates, and the potential spark of injecting Tagovailoa could prevent an immediate spiral. Previous analysis I have done has shown that rookie quarterbacks are typically effective in their first three starts, then tend to slide.

5. BALTIMORE: 3-PR Avg - 31.3, Eff YPP Equiv. PR - 27, Difference: -4.3

Turnover Margin Per Game: + 1 (3)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2.5 (22)/3.7 (3)

Third Down Conv% Off/Def: 42.1% (17)/34.7% (17)

Strength of Schedule: 22.6 (24)

Time of Possession: 30:21 (16)

Penalty Yards Per Game: 53.2 (20)

Analysis: Like me, you are probably fairly surprised to see Baltimore on this list of teams that might not be as good as advertised. But the Ravens’ offense is nowhere near the level it was in 2019. In fact, in Effective Yards Per Play, they are averaging just 5.88, compared with 6.26 for last season. Coach John Harbaugh’s team has played a relatively weak schedule, and while benefiting from turnover luck, has struggled on third down. With an uptick in the schedule coming over the next month, facing four AFC playoff hopefuls, things could change in a hurry. I wouldn’t feel comfortable laying a lot of points with the Ravens right now.

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